“Cask ale is a living product,” says Ted Sobel, who owns Brewers Union Local 180 in Oakridge, Oregon. “I tell people often that they are drinking beer fresh out of the secondary fermentor.”
Cask ale is unfiltered beer that’s been racked into casks, or firkins, sometimes with added unfermented wort or priming sugar. Yeast then continues to ferment and condition the beer in the cask. It’s served at cellar temperature, about 55°F (13°C), which opens up flavors and highlights its creamy texture.
For some brewers, serving beer on cask is a forgotten tradition. For Ted Sobel, it’s a way of life. In the 1990s, Sobel fell in love with the concept of an English public house when he was traveling and brought the idea home with him to Oregon. Brewers Union Local 180 is not a bar or a restaurant, he explains, but rather a public house where people go to enjoy low-ABV beers over long conversations.
“I’ve always been tickled by the fact that the Brits and the Irish have a special word for what goes on in a pub,” Sobel beams. “It’s called craic [pronounced “crack”]. And when I hear somebody say we had ‘good craic,’ that means good banter; that’s the meat of it. They have a word for this thing, and they value it very highly.”
The beers at Brewers Union Local 180 are designed to be served on cask. They’re brewed with English Maris Otter malts and minimal hops. “Cask means I’ve got to brew more subtly,” says Sobel. “At cellar temperature, hops will hurt you because they will create too much resin,” he explains. “I was curious about brewing West Coast IPAs on cask, and I learned you need to cut the hops in half. You’ve got to back off when you’re making cask ale—it’s about balance and subtlety. It’s about drinkability.”
It’s Also About Variety
Heavy Seas in Halethorpe, Maryland, is one of the largest—if not the largest—producers of cask ale in the United States. The brewery has a collection of more than 600 casks, or firkins, including eleven wooden barrels—some oak, some converted wine and whiskey barrels, some toasted wood, and some untoasted. These firkins allow for experimentation with such cask additions as dry hops.
“Cask ale is such a good candidate for dry hopping because you can dry hop the individual cask,” says Heavy Seas Founder Hugh Sisson. Heavy Seas dry hops its Powder Monkey Pale Ale and Loose Cannon IPA on cask, both of which he says show really well in this format.
“[Cask dry hopping] is neither better nor worse than dry hopping in bulk,” Sisson adds. “It just gives you the flexibility to make each cask a bit different. That’s why it is fun!”
Sparking Interest in Cask
Successful cask conditioning, though, is hardly exclusive to hoppy beers. In fact any beer can do well on cask, according to the former head brewer at Denver’s Wynkoop Brewing, Bess Dougherty. “Really any beer can be served on cask,” she says. “At Wynkoop, we tend to do traditional British-style beers more often on our cask lines, but every once in a while we do some experimental beers, too. Because cask beers have only natural carbonation and little to no head pressure, we use beer engines to get the beer to flow through the taps at the bar. The beer engines create enough suction in the line to draw the beer up to the taps. The beer then goes through a sparkler into the glass that knocks the CO2 out of solution and gives a beautiful cascade and creamier head that’s comparable to a nitro beer.”
Since it opened in 1988, Wynkoop Brewing has been known for its cask program. “It started way back in the day with our original Head Brewer Russ Scherer,” says Dougherty, who neither confirms nor denies the brewery’s reputed slogan, Warm and flat is where it’s at. “From what I have been able to gather from long-time regulars and employees, that slogan was something that Russ said often and used in his pre-Internet blog (a.k.a. a little brewery newspaper that listed the beers and had space for Russ to write homebrew recipes or beer stories). No one can produce any actual evidence of the print stuff though.”
Despite Wynkoop’s ambiguous cask lore, it’s well-known that since day one, the brewery has always offered cask ales—two on tap at all times, in fact. “Our old standbys are the London Calling IPA and St. Charles ESB,” says Dougherty. “And over the past nine months or so, we have started making more experimental casks. We have done a few single-hops bitters to try out some new hops we got in. We did a Belgian quad and a brown ale aged on oak. We are trying to spark an interest in cask ales—I think they are something that consumers are a bit hesitant about still, but if we can make exciting styles on cask, maybe we can more easily convert people to cask ale.”
According to Stephen Kirby (pictured above), one of the founders of Hogshead Brewing in Denver, Colorado, conversion of customers happens easily when you serve a 55°F (13°C) cask ale with tiny little bubbles and explain just what cask ale or, in his words, “perfect condition” is. It’s neither warm nor flat, he explains, and once customers can understand these beer qualities were intentional, they’re better able to pick up the nuances that a beer served on cask presents. “You talk to them about it, explain the difference, and when they have a pint they say, ‘Oh, this is a whole new level.’”
As it is for Sobel of Local 180, for Kirby, cask ale is much more than the serving vessel or the flavor profiles of the beers served; cask ale is about creating community. The English roots of this beer-serving method nod to the concept of a public house, where community members go to enjoy not just the beers available but, more importantly, each other’s company. “Hogshead is a place where people can come have a proper pint and meet someone in the neighborhood,” Kirby says. “The idea was to be inviting, to get the people to interact.”
Sobel couldn’t agree more. “We live in an age of unprecedented ability to communicate in so many ways,” he says, “but that’s not necessarily an improvement. My experience is that those who can enjoy the greatest interaction with their fellow man do so face to face. It’s places like this that allow that to happen.”