Have you heard that the beer in England is warm and flat? It's not a wild accusation, especially coming from American tourists accustomed to beer being ice cold and tingling with carbonation.
The reason for the stereotype? Real cask ale. You see, in jolly old England, cellar temperature (50-55°F) beer made in casks is the traditional way ale was delivered. With the dawn of pasteurization and refrigeration, however, that changed. Brewers began using stainless steel kegs that were carbonated and refrigerated, thus our penchant for chilly brews. But thanks to Britain's Campaign for Real Ale and enthusiastic brewers right here in Charleston, a return to cask ale has begun and it's worth trying.
One place to get a sip is Kudu Coffee. Watching Kudu's Jason Bell pull the arm of the cask engine and dispense "real ale" into a glass, one may be mesmerized by the cascading waves of CO2. The bubbles, tiny tight ones, create waves of foam that settle on the top of the beer creating a creamy head brimming with aroma and subtle complexity. Leaving a gorgeous lace on the side of the glass, the beer races to the bottom. And you'll be able to finish that glass of beer faster than you think because unlike super chilled beer that holds onto bubbles leading to that much maligned bloated feeling, cask beer produces a smoother and easier to drink pint that avoids that altogether.
For thousands of years beer was served this way — directly from a wooden vessel, and quickly. That beer was unfiltered, unpasteurized, and naturally carbonated. Today brewer Michael Davis uses the same technique at COAST Brewing Co. Before sealing up a cask, he adds priming sugar to actively ferment the beer. By doing so, the beer finishes fermentation and becomes bubbly. Sometimes local or seasonal fruits, which contain their own sugar, are added for this purpose.
Ryan Coker, brewer at Revelry, gives his cask ales about three weeks to condition before sending them out to a local establishment to be tapped and served. For the Brits, hops and fining-agents are the only accepted additions to the cask besides the beer itself. But U.S. craft brewers have added the virtual kitchen sink to the world of cask beer. Every imaginable spice, fruit, vegetable, and sometimes snack foods have found their way in.
"We've done our Follicle Brown with Cool Ranch Doritos before and it was actually really good," says Chris Brown of Holy City Brewing. In small doses the novelty can be enjoyable. However, culturally this seems to be the starting point. Moving back to casks that are dry-hopped, for aroma and not bitterness, seems to be the evolving trend of the maturing beer community in the U.S. Coker frames this as a movement away from novelty and towards appreciation of the freshest, most wholesome beer served in a very traditional manor.
When a bar contacts a brewery for cask fulfillment, their first question is likely "What's fresh in the fermenter?" After that the conversation will turn to what will go into and how it will be conditioned or re-fermented. Gravitating more towards tradition, Kudu's Bell sticks to simple additions. "Recently we are just asking the brewers to condition the beer with whatever hop variety they have as long as it would obviously enhance the flavor of the cask," says Bell.
Cask Beer does not travel well.
This is one of the big reasons that the perfectly pulled pint you had on vacation in the U.K. is not available in the States. Being able to enjoy a fresh, well-conditioned pint means being close to the source. Local bars and restaurants can really benefit by sparking up a good relationship with a brewery. According to Bell, "Those relationships I built have been the ones I've fallen back on to help put a fairly dynamic real-ale program together." For the establishment, one of the most useful developments for serving and properly caring for this beer is the Caskwidge Float. "The Caskwidge has taken serving to a more realistic place," says Davis. Instead of having to serve the cask in one night, a widge allows servers to close a valve and therefore extend the shelf life of the beer to around a week. Kudu, Closed For Business, and House of Brews all employ this device.
Day Drinking: Cask ales as session beers
You've probably seen the word "session" thrown around a good bit these days in the beer world. My definition: Something 4.5% ABV or lower with a flavor that brings you back without overwhelming you. In other words you should be thinking about the second pint halfway through the first. If the beer is really good and the cask is spot on, you should be thinking about the third. Mantra-wise that seems to fit the Charleston lifestyle. Flavorful, drinkable, and an alcohol strength that doesn't couch the conversation. In the UK sitting in for a "session" and consuming 10-12 Imperial pints (20-oz.) is not unheard of. The fellas at Kudu tell me that their fastest selling cask was a dry-hopped English Summer Ale (4% abv.) from Revelry Brewing. Crisp, drinkable, and at a strength that didn't leave guests wondering about the drive home. Still, it's best to keep an eye on the strength of the beer when enjoying cask ale, they go down with ease.
What should you look for in a bar that is serving cask beer?
Hopefully an updated menu, be it hand-held or on display, that proudly has a separate section for cask-conditioned beer. The Cask Engine is also something to keep an eye out for. Engines are the large handled old-fashioned pump devices attached to the bar top. It's a positively Victorian technology. Pulling the handle down activates a pump that would have originally drawn the beer up from the cellar. Through the swan neck (it'll make sense when you see it) the beer is forced through a sparkler that creates the waves of cascading CO2 and forms that thick and creamy head. This is precisely what Guinness was attempting when they released Guinness Draught in the 1960s.