On cask-conditioned ale

Totnes UK

This article about cask-conditioned ale was written for Food and Dining Magazine and published in 2009, after returning from a journey to England. The photo above is from my trip to the UK in 2013. On September 13, NABC Bank Street Brewhouse will host Cask Festival, the opening event of Louisville Craft Beer Week — Roger

At the Dolphin Inn, a delightfully unrefurbished Plymouth harbor pub located a few yards from the very spot where the Mayflower left England for America, thirsty visitors queue to drink draft Bass Pale Ale served in a rigorously traditional and characteristically English manner.

The firkin, a keg of unique and purpose-built design, lies slightly tilted on its side in a cradle at room temperature. A wooden peg (spile) faces skyward, filling a hole that had been punched at tapping. A faucet, tapped into place with a rubber mallet, protrudes horizontally from the firkin. The onrushing ale is borne on a gravity trail, pouring from the opened faucet into a waiting pint glass, cool but not cold, with minimal yet sufficient natural carbonation.

Perhaps the only nod to modernity is the use of stainless steel, rather than wood, to fabricate the firkin. Otherwise, it is likely that Plymouth’s publicans were filling tankards in like fashion almost four hundred years ago as the Pilgrims prepared for their voyage to the New World by loading their own barrels of ale onto the Mayflower.

The Dolphin decants its Bass in this simple, old-fashioned way, unpasteurized, and without the forced-pressure C02 system to which the world has grown accustomed, because the ale itself is naturally carbonated, or cask-conditioned, in the firkin by means of a secondary fermentation.

Although comparatively few English pubs follow the venerable example of the Dolphin’s gravity-pour method, many of them continue to vend one or more cask-conditioned ales with the help of a beer engine, colloquially referred to as a hand pump, or a hand-pull. Their firkins are stored in the coolness of the cellar, where they are tended and prepped for serving. When ready, the ale is pumped by the barman into eager pint glasses.

“Cask-conditioned” ale also is referred to as “real” ale, and those ales conceived, brewed, packaged and served in this natural manner are the indigenous, tasty, beery glories of the British Isles.

Disturbingly, real ale almost became extinct during the 1970’s, primarily because both then and now, conditioning ale in a firkin and serving properly at a pub is thoroughly old-school — time consuming, labor intensive and absent the sexiness of mass-market commoditization, the dictates of which demand industrially produced, cost-effective “dead” ales and lagers in conventional kegs, bottles and cans.

Thanks in large measure to the advocacy of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), one the modern era’s most principled and effective consumer lobby groups, real ale’s decline has been reversed even though many older brands and breweries have disappeared. A vibrant new generation of smaller brewers committed to cask-conditioning has stepped forward to keep tradition intact, enabling us to consider “living” ale as a symbol of pre- and post-industrial life. It’s the way beer was done for thousands of years, and now, in the new millennium, real ale once again tells the story of slow food, green living and an appreciation of natural virtues in food and drink.

Historically, the stylistic range of England’s brewing output is relatively narrow: Mild, Bitter, IPA, Stout, Porter, Old Ale and Barley Wine still suffice to summarize most of what you’d expect to see at the pub, although these days there are Golden Ales and the occasional seasonal Wheat appearing in summertime. Apart from the rarer Old Ales and Barley Wines, the alcoholic strength of English ale tends to be lower than one might expect, perhaps averaging around 4% abv.

Indeed, the English on-premise brewing ethos checks in at reasonable session strengths. In practice, probably 75% of the cask-conditioned ale pouring at any given time in England is Bitter, which is subdivided into designations that again pertain primarily to alcoholic strength: Ordinary, Best, Extra Special and the like. Alcoholic strength and rates of taxation are intertwined; consequently, expect to pay steadily more for a pint of ale as it escalates in alcoholic content.

At their finest, balance is the watchword for all English real ales, especially those quaffable Bitters, and cask-conditioning is more than a way of drinking. It’s a way of thinking. Flavors are subtle and even simplistic, yet unmistakably rendered. The malt character is rich and sweetish, with a touch of fruitiness. The classic English hop varieties are elegant, packing less of a bitter punch than their American cousins. The overall package is thirst quenching or contemplative, depending on one’s mood.

From start to finish, real ale requires effort and thought, especially for the publican charged with its care. Whether dispensed by gravity feed or hand pump, the clock begins ticking when the firkin’s seals are breached. Oxygen, the prime enemy of freshness, enters the firkin to occupy the head space as its volume is depleted. The carbonation recedes with time, and the ale becomes entirely flat. Oxidization produces unpleasantness, and the ale goes “off.”

There are two ways to avoid this outcome.

One is to drain the vessel promptly, with it being widely held that once tapped, a firkin has three days before deterioration makes the contents undrinkable. For a pub doing a good trade, this certainly is achievable.

But if the firkins turn over too slowly, or if the publican desires a degree of certainty to assist in what can be a coin toss, there is another way: A gadget called a cask breather, which is a nipple inserted into the spile hole and attached to a tank of CO2. As the ale is pumped out, small bursts of CO2 are drawn inside the firkin – not enough to push the liquid as in conventional kegs, but merely to occupy the head space and keep the liquid fresh.

CAMRA opposes cask breathers on traditionalist grounds. However, if the firkins can’t be turned over with predictable speed, it makes more sense to use a breather.

Cask-conditioned ales and the English pub are synonymous, and most readers of this publication are American, prompting the obvious question: How can one experience the joys of real ale in the States?

Some genuine English-brewed, cask-conditioned ales make their way to the United States in firkins, primarily through the good offices of the B. United International importing house’s cask ale program. I’ve sold firkins from B. United for many years and have had few problems, although there are two potential drawbacks.

First, by tradition, most English cask-conditioned ale is low gravity and low alcohol, which renders it fragile for shipping long distances. Consequently, B. United’s cask ale program is seasonal, with firkins sent stateside only during cold weather months.

Second, transport costs translate into steep prices, and while this may be the norm for all imports, it simply doesn’t always make sense to sell a pint of 3.7% ale, however wonderful, at twice the price of other drafts. Remember also that the more slowly a firkin moves, the greater chance of spoilage, and the greater need for a cask breather.

To experience the characteristics of English-brewed, cask-conditioned ale, it follows that the most dependable introductory option is to shop for English-brewed, bottle-conditioned ale, often from the same breweries. It’s the same concept in single-serving size. As with the firkins, a bit of finishing sugar goes into the bottles, and a mild secondary fermentation provides the necessary carbonation.

When scanning store shelves or beer menus, know that familiar brewery names include Fuller’s (specifically, its 1845 brand), O’Hanlon’s, Cropton, Coniston, and Young’s. Generally, English these ales are exported in 16.9 oz bottles, and will bear “bottle-conditioned” in plain sight on the label.

Nowadays in America, the freshest and best real ale emulates the English tradition, in that it is local or regional in origin, and hasn’t traveled very far before tapping. Look to the ranks of America’s burgeoning craft brewers, and find out whether the nearest brewery offers cask-conditioned ale. An increasing number of brewpubs have a beer engine and are eager to promote real ale and to educate the drinking public about its virtues, and more microbreweries than ever before are supplying real ale to pubs and restaurants that have hand-pull capability.

In the metro Louisville area, cask-conditioned ale sometimes can be found at these brewpubs: Bluegrass Brewing Company (St. Matthews only), Cumberland Brews, and New Albanian Brewing Company (both locations). Not all of these establishments are able to keep real ale flowing at all times, so before dropping in, don’t forget to phone to see what’s on the hand-pull.

My final bit of advice to those who find themselves smitten with real ale: Save your nickels, dimes and frequent flier miles. The best cask-conditioned ale is local, and in England. Buy CAMRA’s annual “Good Beer Guide,” pack light, and head into the countryside from Heathrow or Gatwick. Order a pint of Bitter and a Ploughman’s Plate … and slow down.

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