A lot of customers have asked if we would ever serve cask ale. Well, now we do! Every week we offer a new cask version of one of our beers. Sometimes it is just a straight cask version, but most of the time we use some cool extra ingredients to make a special version of the beer. So, what exactly is cask beer, and how does it work?
Casks are the traditional English way of serving beer, dating back hundreds of years. They come in a few different sizes, but they share the same features: shaped like a shorter, fatter keg, they have two openings–one to allow for dispensing the beer, and the other to allow air to displace the beer as it is poured.
Taste-wise, the two main differences with cask ale is that it is served at cellar temperature (55 degrees) and has lower carbonation. This combination gives the beer a very fluffy, quaff-able quality that is very complimentary to English styles. If you’ve never had a good cask ale, it is a little bit similar to nitro beer…in fact, nitro beer was created to mimic the profile of a cask beer.
On that note, while good cask ale is fantastic, it takes some skill and knowledge to do it right, and without proper care, it can be pretty terrible. My first experience with cask was at a bar that had no idea what they were doing. The beer was warm and very yeasty. The cask was sitting on the bar, with no means of cooling; 70 degrees is not cellar temperature. The beer was far from brite, the result of agitating the cask before serving.
So, let’s do a brief rundown of the traditional way to package and serve cask beer. First, uncarbonated beer from a fermenter or brite tank is used to fill the cask. Priming sugar is added to naturally carbonate the beer to around 1.2 volumes of CO2. Here is a handy chart for cask carbonation. If you use the chart correctly, the carbonation level should be perfect. The keystone is put in place to seal the cask, which should be left warm for a few days to carbonate. Then, the cask should be moved to cold storage until ready to serve.
The night before serving the cask, it should be tapped and moved to whatever position it will be served from. At Crooked Run, we currently use simple wooden stillage and gravity dispense. This is the easiest and simplest way to serve cask ale. After tapping, we put the keg up on the bar and put an ice blanket and insulating jacket on it. The next day, the beer is ready to serve. This period of rest is important, because it gives the yeast time to settle. Moving the cask around is not a good idea.
We put one pin cask of beer on tap every Saturday, and serve it through to Sunday. You can extend the serving life of cask beer with such extras as a cask widge, caskerator, and/or cask breather, but we currently don’t have the room for these until we get our new draught system. In any cask, I like the simplicity of stillage and gravity dispense, plus we plan to bring some to some festivals. I’ve had a lot of fun doing special cask versions of different beers. So far, I’ve done cherry chocolate and coffee versions of Shadow of Truth, our black tripel, raspberry and vanilla versions of Wishing Well, our Irish stout, and a tangerine version of Lord Logan, our English double IPA. The last one was my favorite!