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Gearhead: American Real Ale - What Condition Cask Condition Is In

Does slow, subtle cask ale still have a place in today’s variety-driven, can-cluttered American scene? Along with a primer on the gear and vocabulary, here’s why this is an endangered tradition this side of the Atlantic—and why it refuses to die.

John M. Verive Jan 8, 2022 - 18 min read

Gearhead: American Real Ale - What Condition Cask Condition Is In Primary Image

Photo: Matt Graves/mgravesphoto.com

Mystique and romance. Gimmicks and stunts. Delicate and sublime. Warm and flat. The perception of cask-conditioned beer is as cloudy as the pints of IPA that have pushed the perennially struggling subculture into an even smaller corner of the beer world.

The outlook for cask beer in America is murkier still. Already relegated to scattered bastions run by a seemingly dying breed of brewers, publicans, and cellarpeople who nurture a fervent ardor for its traditions and distinctive qualities, cask took further blows when the coronavirus pandemic shuttered tasting rooms and pubs around the country.

Is there still a place for these quiet and contemplative beers among the bluster and enthusiasm for all things hoppy and hazy?

To check the pulse of cask ale in America, I first called my friend Andy Black, a brewer and industry consultant best described as a cask-ale firebrand. (For more from Black on cask ale, see “Keeping British Brewing Traditions Intact,” beerandbrewing.com.) He broke down the state of cask ale in the industry for me, and the picture is disheartening. Even its passionate supporters express fatigue and frustration. Beyond trying to explain its allure to customers and fellow brewers who have limited experience with it, they are even more tired of defending it against lame quips about it being “warm and flat.”

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“It isn’t funny anymore,” Black says. Getting those comments from drinkers is one thing, but Black also hears it from brewers—even from a few whose beers go into casks for conditioning. The joke is stale, but it’s a misleading stereotype that’s hard to shake—and all those mediocre pints and poorly conditioned casks out in the wild are not helping.

For cask ale to survive in the modern American beer scene—let alone thrive—Black says that it needs a champion to step up. Cask conditioning needs someone to sing its praises and connect to the wider beer-drinking public—and to push for quality, so that the ale can better make its own beguiling argument.

The Parts and Processes

Steve Hamburg has been proselytizing cask conditioning since he first fell for the real ales of Britain in the 1980s. He organizes the long-running Chicago event Day of the Living Ales, besides being a board member of the Chicago Beer Society and a U.S. pub assessor for Cask Marque, which accredits cask quality primarily in the United Kingdom.

I first met Steve on a drizzly April morning in Chicago’s Goose Island brewpub. I was a couple of hours into the two-day Master Cicerone exam—which I would valiantly fail—and he was my first practical examiner. I learned more about how casks work in those 20 minutes of questioning than in the months of book-learning I did to prepare. It’s all well and good to know what a shive and a spile and a keystone are. It’s another thing entirely to be at the head of a firkin holding a mallet and a tap. “A beer shower is something you get used to,” Hamburg says, with his signature geniality.

Hamburg explains that not much has changed since he carried his first beer engine—that’s what pulls the beer from casks in the cellar and into the drinker’s glass at the bar—back from England. That day I got a remedial lesson in cask anatomy and the conditioning process.

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The cask itself is usually found in one of three sizes: the firkin is most common in the United States, and it holds nine imperial gallons. A kilderkin holds twice as much, while the diminutive pin holds four and a half imperial gallons.

All three sizes share the same anatomy. The cask has two holes in it: One on the head, near the rim, is sealed by the keystone; the second larger one, called the bunghole, is sealed by the shive. The keystone is where you drive in the tap and draw out the beer; the shive, meanwhile, vents excess pressure after conditioning but before serving.

The original purpose of the cask as a serving vessel was to clarify the beer—it is literally a secondary fermentor that travels to the pub and lives in one cool spot until it conditions and its contents are consumed. Traditionally, brewers rack ales into casks just shy of terminal gravity, allowing fermentation to finish in the sealed vessel. That results in natural carbonation; great cask ale has life to it and is not “flat.” It also results in flocculation, as yeast that was suspended in the beer settles down, and drinkers end up with bright beer.

At the pub, the cellarperson typically sets the cask onto its rack, or stillage, and breaks the seal by pounding a porous wooden peg called a spile into the center of the shive. This vents excess CO2, and the cellerperson monitors how much carbonation remains in the beer over the next two or three days. Once the blow-off slows, and the condition reaches the desired level—there is a sweet spot below 2 volumes of CO2—the porous soft spile is replaced with a hardwood or plastic hard spile to reseal the cask. When it’s time to serve the beer, the hard spile must be removed so that air can enter through the shive, allowing beer to be pulled or poured from the cask. That arrival of oxygen inevitably alters the flavor of the beer, which is part of the appeal—in the short term. However, a cask served in this traditional way has only a few days of life before the beer is too flat and oxidized to be enjoyable.

Traditionalists hold that nothing besides finings and perhaps a charge of dry hops should be added to the cask. Meanwhile, in American craft-beer culture, casks often get doses of additives that would make a pastry-stout brewer blush. Everything from fruit to oak chips to coffee beans to Skittles seem to find their way into American casks. Conditioning shortcuts are common, and I’ve witnessed more than one tapping of casks that were force-carbonated for speed and drama. Tapping a fully carbonated cask may be difficult and messy, but it certainly draws hoots and hollers from a gathered crowd as beer and foam erupt with each mallet blow. You won’t get a proper pint, but you will get a proper good show. It’s very Instagram-able, and wacky additives such as Swedish Fish or malted-milk balls can generate enough hype to tempt even a conservative brewer to host a gimmicky cask tapping.

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“A big shive hole shouldn’t be an invitation to shove weird things in,” Hamburg says. Anything besides beer added to a cask also adds more complexity to the ecosystem inside. Hamburg suggests dialing in your cask-building processes with a simple beer—preferably a British style that co-evolved with cask conditioning—before you start experimenting with the crazy stuff.

Most of the time, stunt casks are all sizzle and no steak. Even if the stout on coffee beans or the kumquat IPA are tasty and popular, they won’t compel the same lasting appreciation and infatuation as successful cask conditioning.

Tradition, Distorted

“Cask beer in the [United States] has become more about the stunts and less about the romance,” says Christopher Leonard, brewmaster at Heavy Seas Beer in Halethorpe, Maryland. Since 2013, Leonard has overseen a thriving cask-beer operation. Heavy Seas even offered a bespoke “build your own cask” program. Beer bars and other buyers would check boxes for preferred beer style, hop additions, and other flavors and additives. It made for memorable cask nights, and it was an effective marketing tool for both the brewery and the bars ordering the custom casks.

Yet, demand is shrinking. “We’re trying to sell some of our 500 firkins now,” Leonard says. He wasn’t sure they would even need 100 casks to support the market. When I asked whether the pandemic caused the drop in demand, he told me it was falling “long before COVID.” Leonard was a cask advocate in the D.C. area, Maryland, and Virginia for years, but now he’s tired. You can hear it in his voice: He’s not defeated, but he’s pragmatic about the allure of cask. It isn’t quick. It doesn’t fit into the on-demand, variety-mad beer culture that’s developed. “It’s beloved,” he says of cask, but the meat of that market is “old men like me who’ve seen our time come and go.”

There’s something else in his voice, though. It’s that same spark of excitement that cask devotees share. It flashes when Leonard describes watching someone try cask ale for the first time and their face when they “get it.” The excitement grows when he talks process and the details that comprise the “lost art” of cask packaging and service. The passion is there—it’s just tempered by economic realities and shifting consumer demand. He says he wishes that someone would take up the torch and light a new fire under brewers and drinkers; he just isn’t sure what that would look like in a post-COVID, TikTok-obsessed world.

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While Leonard sees demand for cask ale wane, there are isolated glimmers here and there. In Seattle, Bill Arnott of Machine House Brewery is building a fan base seemingly from the ground up. More than half of its annual 500 barrels of beer go into casks for conditioning; before the pandemic, nearly all of them did. Session-friendly, low-ABV pub ales dominate the tap list.

Arnott acknowledges that these styles can be tough sells, and yet “bitter only makes sense on a cask. That’s when the magic happens.” His favorite advancement in the art of cask conditioning, and one that is helping the form find new outlets, is the widge.

Turning Cask Ale on its Head

Popularized by U.K. Brewing Supplies, the Cask Widge is a trademarked term for a device known generically as the vertical extractor. Much like Sanke keg couplers, vertical extractors handle both the beer flowing out of the vessel and the gas that enters, relocating the shive vent to the head of the cask. There are a few advantages to this method: A firkin stood up on its end needs less cellar space and, crucially, it will now fit into a kegerator. Suddenly, a pub doesn’t need a temperature-controlled cellar, a separate cold room, or a complex glycol cask-cooling system to serve cask at cellar temperature—that’s the 52–55°F (11–13°C) stipulated by tradition and recommended by cask advocates such as Cask Marque and the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA).

Instead, attach a beer engine to the top of a kegerator equipped with a temperature controller, a Cask Widge, and a cask breather, and you’ve got a “caskerator” that can serve hand-pumped pints at the perfect temperature from a cask with at least a week’s worth of salable life. The cask breather is also critical to this setup, as it allows a controlled amount of CO2 to displace the beer, limiting oxidation and giving the ale a longer life. (Notably, CAMRA long opposed cask breathers but officially lifted that opposition in 2018.)

In the Seattle area, Arnott has helped local pubs acquire and set up their own caskerators. To him, each installation is a sweeter victory than landing a permanent tap handle. He’s more comfortable knowing that the cask ales can be served and maintained properly, and he knows that each pint sold may just be someone’s love at first taste.

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It’s a slow but rewarding process for Arnott, and the brewery now has 15 to 20 outside accounts that serve their casks. “Mild was impossible to sell eight years ago, but we’ve chipped away at it,” he says. He credits the well-established beer culture in the Pacific Northwest, and the comparatively high beer IQ of its drinkers, for the success of his niche product. “What we offer people is pretty weird, but we’ve changed the scene, and people respect cask,” he says.

In Colorado, with its developed and thriving beer culture, cask has enough fans to support niche players such as Denver’s Hogshead Brewery. Started as a drinking-club that met in a basement, Hogshead developed into a working brewery with a thriving cask program; about half its beer is cask-conditioned. There are seven gooseneck beer engines in the tasting room. The dedicated cask-conditioning space is a temperature-controlled shed in the brewery’s parking lot. They keep the cold room at a standard 42°F (6°C) for keg beer, but a clever partition system keeps tapped casks and those ready for service at 52°F (11°C).

That’s on the cooler end of the range that cask advocates recommend. That makes for easier dispensing as well as a more pleasing pint for American palates (and the generally warmer American climate). That’s one way that cask evangelists are combating that tired “warm and flat” perception. As Hogshead, general manager David Liechty says, “by the time you’re a couple sips into the pint, it’s perfect.”

Hogshead always offers cask ale in its tasting room, and it sends casks to select accounts around Denver. The brewery also hosts an annual CaskFest event featuring local breweries, and it rents out a caskerator for events. Liechty handles the delivery and setup himself, driving the system to wedding venues or customers’ houses two days in advance. It’s the first step in what he calls the “educational component” of selling cask beer.

“People always want me to drop it off the day-of,” he says. “They don’t understand that the beer needs to settle before it will pour well.” His explanations and the hands-on experience with the caskerator—plus a weekend’s fling with a firkin full of bitter or porter—help cement what’s special about the cask ale in customer’s mind. Not bad for about $250.

Never the Next Thing

American beer culture is based on adapting revered styles from around the world to American ingredients, processes, and palates, while creative brewers have developed new styles, a new generation of hazy IPA drinkers, and countless other new traditions and customs. So, how does cask-conditioned ale fit into this 21st century picture?

Nobody I spoke to was sure, but sentiments varied from hopeful to grim. Even Hamburg, a tireless booster for the form, was guarded in his predictions of the future: “There will always be some diehards in the industry who open and operate outposts for cask ale, but the pandemic—and the possibility of future outbreaks and closures of on-premise drinking establishments—definitely tempers any expectations for even modest growth in the cask sector.”

Why, then, does anyone bother? Why not just tell the cask-curious to head across the pond and get it from the source?

This attraction is irrational, like love, and I think the romance is more compelling than many realize. When you ask the people making or serving cask ale why they go through the trouble, you get a lot of biographical stories. There are the British expats and their relatives. Tales of weddings or coworkers from old jobs are common. So are accounts of eye-opening discoveries made abroad. Stories unspool of formative nights out when coming of age in the local pub, or of the promise of a new opportunity in a far-off city. This passion for cask ale is fully entwined with the memories of the enthralled. It’s an infatuation that’s infectious, and one thing that’s even better than the memories of that love at first sip—and the Proustian pursuit in every pint thereafter—is helping someone new to fall in love.

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