When cask ale fans lay out their pitch for why you ought to drink it, you’re likely to endure evocative tales of driving English back roads past neat, picturesque farms—or wandering cobbled London side streets through Victorian architecture—before visiting some small, unassuming, consummately cozy pub that’s been doing business since the Norman Conquest, where the narrator then revels in a perfectly sublime pint of bitter or mild.
I’ve got a few of those stories—but those experiences are not what sold me on cask ales.
My aha moment didn’t involve some Staffordshire pub or biscuit-forward dry-hopped bitter. No, I was in the exotic wilds of … Delaware. Rehoboth Beach, to be precise, home of Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats—the brewpub where that brewery got its start in 1995, 10 gallons at a time.
I walked in there one bright morning in late June some years ago and ordered an Aprihop IPA on cask—and then I ordered another, about 10 minutes later. It was the easiest-drinking beer I’d ever had—despite its 50 IBUs and 7 percent ABV—and it was delightfully fresh and bright. When I crashed out for a nap about 40 minutes later, my final thought was, “Wow. I really need to brew some cask-conditioned beer at home.”
Let’s Define Terms
“Cask ale,” “cask-conditioned ale,” and “real ale” are terms often used interchangeably to describe beer that is fermented conventionally and then transferred to a serving vessel—that’s the cask. So far, not so different from a kegged beer, but here’s where they part ways: This transfer should occur before the end of primary fermentation, sometimes with a small dose of priming sugar or kräusen (actively fermenting wort) to help spark the secondary fermentation and natural carbonation.
Whatever the method, the goal is a relatively low level of carbonation in the finished beer. The brewery might add dry hops and/or finings before sealing and delivering the cask to the pub for conditioning. (For more about the equipment and conditioning process, see “Gearhead: American Real Ale: What Condition Cask Condition Is In,” p. 52.) When the cellarperson decides that the beer is ready, the pub serves it either through a spigot via gravity or through a beer engine pulled via handpump into the glass. The result is a cool beer at peak freshness, with soft carbonation and a clear field to express its flavor profile.
So, why isn’t all beer served this way?
Besides the fact that many drinkers have a taste for the coldest beer full of zippy bubbles—often fined, filtered, and pasteurized—cask conditioning is not that easy to do. There is an art to cellarmanship and a learning curve for bar staff. Shelf life is an issue, too; since air enters the cask, it typically needs to be enjoyed within a few days. Finally, cask ale requires investment in some specialized equipment that also must be learned; a conventional keg is a plug-and-play situation, with relatively little effort required beyond maintaining clean lines and a reasonable level of CO2 in the system.
Now that I’ve made it sound like a huge headache, here’s the reality: Not only is cask-conditioned ale a viable option for homebrewers, but many of these concerns can be addressed simply and cheaply.
Let’s assume that investing in your own stock of firkins and stillages and spiles and all that other “real ale” paraphernalia is something you’re not yet willing to do. Instead, let’s talk about options for brewing and serving cask-style ale using equipment you probably already have. At the end of the day, you’ll find that it’s not only something you can try, but this is something you can incorporate regularly into your home beer-service regimen.
Let’s Keep it Simple
My brewing mantra has always been keep it simple. Let’s not overcomplicate what we’re trying to accomplish here: putting a fresh ale in a serving vessel to get as close as possible to traditional cask conditioning and service, while also limiting our liabilities and risks.
Step One, then, is to brew a good beer—more on recipe and style considerations below. Once that’s accomplished, we can move on to our conditioning and service steps. Once the beer is mostly fermented, transfer it to its new vessel (the “cask”), and during this conditioning phase add dry hops, fruit, other special ingredients, or nothing at all. Priming this beer as it goes into this new vessel is an option, but it’s not mandatory. You’ll also want to add finings to clarify the beer as well as you can—more on that below.
After a week or two, when your beer is ready—that is, it’s conditioned: fermented, dropped bright, with carbonation where you want it—it’s time to serve. So, what will you serve it from? The simplest answer—and unless you’re bottles-only, you probably already have this on hand—is a corny keg.
Denny Conn, coauthor (with Drew Beechum) of Simple Homebrewing and Experimental Homebrewing, explains the method succinctly: “Corny keg on its side, serve through the gas connector.”
That’s the gist of it, really: Rather than a purpose-built cask, you can just use your existing kegs in a new way. You can find or build a stillage (a frame that holds your keg at a slight downward angle), or you can just get creative with some blocks, braces, or towels. Just be sure the IN post is at the bottom and the OUT post is on top. You can use a picnic tap to serve the beer, and you simply vent the OUT post—that can be as simple as a beer post connector with a short piece of tubing attached. That’s it.
However, to give yourself the best shot at serving a bright, pretty beer, you’ll want to ensure that you set up your “cask” and leave it alone for at least 24 hours. (This assumes you’re not serving from the same place where you conditioned it, which is ideal but possibly tricky to pull off at home—and even trickier for a party.) Jostling it will kick up sediment that you worked hard to drop out, and that’s no good for appearance or for flavor. Bed that beer down in a nice, cool place—say, 52–57°F (11–14°C)—let it settle a while, and enjoy.
Now, as with traditional cask ale, this method is going to introduce oxygen, and quickly—when you pour the beer, air enters through the vent to displace it. If you’re not hosting a party where your guests could empty that cask in a few hours, you might want to consider getting your hands on a cask breather: This is a small device that connects to your CO2 tank and gently applies carbon dioxide rather than ambient air to replace beer as it’s poured. Plenty of professional brewers and publicans vouch for the cask breather’s ability to extend the life of your ales; you may have to pony up roughly $75 to $100 for a decent one.
A cheaper option—available to many a homebrewer with more kegs than sense—is to split the batch among several kegs and treat them as elaborate one-gallon-ish growlers. I’ve also heard of folks who keep refillable mini-kegs or polypins on hand for this purpose.
If you don’t have that kind of equipment, you might consider one of the following potentially heretical alternatives.
There’s nothing stopping you from also serving your cask-style beers—hear me out, now—upright. Rather than tipping and pouring by gravity, follow all the same steps for conditioning, but serve the beer under (reduced) headspace pressure with the usual IN/OUT connections. You’ll have more sediment than usual, so you’ll need to employ one of two options to get clear beer out of that keg. First, you can do some minor surgery and shorten up the dip tube on your liquid post—say, two inches cut off the bottom. Another alternative comes recommended by Malcolm Frazer, head brewer at Pittsburgh’s Hop Farm Brewing (but “mostly still a homebrewer at heart,” he says) who recommends a cask widge or widget.
These widges or floats are flexible, floatable dip tubes that draw beer far from the muck at the bottom of the keg, so you can safely ignore it entirely. Fittings of this type are affordable and pretty user-friendly. They also let you dry hop and fine your beer with abandon, with no fear of clogging up your service line.
Both of these upright methods have two significant advantages. First, there is virtually no risk of oxidation, since they’re under light CO2 pressure. Second, you can use your normal draft dispensing equipment (whatever that might be).
That’s the big picture on dispense. Now, let’s zoom in on some details—namely, fining, hopping, temperature, and carbonation.
Good cask-style beer is bright—that is, it should be clear. Whatever your normal fining process is, hit it hard here. Filtering goes against the cask ethos, but you can do a lot with fining agents such as gelatin and isinglass. Adding them to your serving vessel will help clarify your beer, and so will choosing a good high-flocculation yeast. (Many British strains grew out of this tradition and are ideal for it.) Whatever your methods, though, clarity is a primary goal—this is no place for haze-bros. Meanwhile, dry hopping is traditional and fully acceptable in cask ales, and this can be a fantastic opportunity to showcase interesting hops. A word of caution, though: Whereas you want to go heavy on finings, use an inversely light hand on dry hops. Without a bunch of CO2 in solution, your ingredient flavors will stand out. As a result, you’ll need less hops than you think. Whatever your usual dry-hopping regimen, cut it in half to start and adjust from there.
Temperature and carbonation are physically related, and both matter here. Again, traditional cask-style beer is generally served in the low- to mid-50s°F (11–14°C). If you’re lucky to have a cool cellar or wonky kegerator that hits those temperatures, good for you. Removing the “cask” from the fridge a short while before serving is another low-tech option. A surer bet is to connect your fridge or kegerator to a temperature controller. In any case, be mindful of the relationship between temperature and pressure: As beer temperature changes, so does the level of dissolved CO2 under the same pressure.
Here’s some advice from Tomme Arthur of Lost Abbey Brewing in San Marcos, California: When it comes to carbonation, aim high at first: “You can over-prime and always knock down the excess CO2 to get the right mouthfeel. If you undershoot, it can be harder.”
So: Keep it simple, mind the details, and you’ll be in great shape.
Now, Let’s Brew a Cask-Friendly Beer
There is no such thing as a list of “approved” cask-style beer styles. Options abound.
Some styles are more intuitively suitable than others, of course. “Classic British styles are the best beers for cask service,” says Jamil Zainasheff of Heretic Brewing in Fairfield, California. “They’ve been developed over time to truly make the most of cask conditioning and service.”
Fresh hops, bready malts, highly flocculant yeasts, and beers that can actually benefit from a touch of diacetyl and low carbonation—yes, British styles across the spectrum are right up our cask alley. Zainasheff also urges us to put in the work: “For the homebrewer, don’t try to take shortcuts,” he says. “Use the right [British] yeasts, malts, hops. Cask condition and serve at the correct temperature. It is worth the effort.”
At Lost Abbey, Arthur echoes that sentiment, especially when it comes to malt: “I have always found imported English malts provide a depth that American two-row and domestic crystal malts come up short on.” Tradition is a path to success in these beers.
It’s not the only path, though. Any style that doesn’t lean expressly on high levels of carbonation—saison and Berliner weisse come to mind—is a good candidate for cask service. As I mentioned at the outset, even bitter and hop-forward beers can be outstanding on cask and bring flavors that can get lost in a lot of carbonic acid. Likewise, spiced and herbed beers can be cask-friendly. Nor do they need to be low-ABV: I once watched my wife camp out for two hours next to a cask of heavily honeyed imperial stout (attempt this at your own risk). At the end of the day, cask ale (or cask lager, for that matter) is a flexible approach that can create new and diverse flavor opportunities for brewers large and small.
Which reminds me: There was this one time I was tooling around on a countryside tour of the Midlands, when we spotted this old pub with a thatch roof …