Keeping British Brewing Traditions Intact

It’s one thing to have a cask program. It’s another thing to make sure you have the equipment to do it right. Yorkshire Square Brewery peddles ale thanks to it’s impressive cellaring and serving system.

John M. Verive Jul 25, 2018 - 9 min read

Keeping  British Brewing  Traditions Intact Primary Image

Photo by John Verive

Andy Black, the head brewer at Yorkshire Square Brewery in Torrance, California, has built a reputation in the Los Angeles beer community as a custodian of British brewing traditions, and from the brewery’s name (a “Yorkshire square” is a novel stone fermentation vessel once popular in northern England) to the hand-pulled proper pints of real ale served at the bar, Yorkshire Square Brewery (YSB) shades British styles and sensibilities with American craft-brewing ingenuity.

The keystone of YSB’s identity is the oft-misunderstood cask. Every aspect of Black’s brewing is in service to the cask program, and the brewery is just the second pub in California to earn a Cask Marque accreditation—a badge of honor indicating the attention to detail at YSB.

“We stand for the preservation of tradition, but I don’t consider us a traditional brewery,” Black says.

The ales at YSB nod to tradition, but they are not beholden to it. “We’re not brewing historical styles exclusively,” explains Black, adding, “We’re even using American hops!”

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But the brewery’s intention to replicate the British-pub drinking experience under the sunny Southern California skies is unique among the independent breweries thriving in L.A.’s South Bay region. It could be an uphill fight for the year-old brewery, but YSB has found a niche, and the tasting room—complete with hearth, darts, and a row of long-handled beer engines behind the bar—is a popular destination. Faced with an abundance of other breweries nearby, YSB offers English styles as counterprograming to a surfeit of American IPAs and newer craft trends.

“We stick out like a sore thumb in Torrance,” Black says, “but we’re making beer for people who love to drink beer.”

A Taste of Home

YSB was founded by British expat Gary Croft and his two sons. The idea was to bring the flavors and comforts of English beer closer to home, and the brewery offers a range of approachable and congenial styles with session-friendly alcohol content and served on cask.

The brewery’s fleet of stainless-steel casks is mostly made up of firkins (the most common cask size: about 16 inches in diameter and holding a quarter of an English barrel—about 10 gallons), with a few smaller pins (half the size of firkins) mixed in.

Both sizes are a stout barrel shape with a reinforced center (to allow for easy rolling). Unlike a traditional beer keg’s single opening, a cask has two: the keyhole in the head of the cask (where the tap is inserted with the hardy blow of a mallet) and the bunghole in the center of the belly (which serves as a vent to prevent vacuum lock).

Filling the casks with fresh beer is straightforward—especially because Black doesn’t usually add priming sugar to his casks. A clean cask gets a keystone—a two-piece plug that fills the keyhole—and a rinse with sanitizer before the brewers add it to the “weave”—an interlocking pattern of casks set belly-to-head to prevent unwanted rolling. The empties are then usually purged with CO2 before a dose of fining agent is added (Black uses the silica-based BioFine Clear), and then they’re ready for the beer.

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The casks are filled with beer that has fully fermented, completed a diacetyl rest, and been cold crashed for about 48 hours to reduce the yeast load as much as possible. A plastic plug called a shive is tapped into the bunghole to seal the cask, and with the packaging complete, the filled casks are rolled around the brewery to distribute the finings. A few days in the pub’s “cellar”—a fairly standard refrigerated coldbox that’s set up with two temperature zones—and the casks will be ready to tap and serve.

Some Modern Conveniences

Not all the beer at YSB is cask-conditioned. About 10 percent of the production is force carbonated and packaged in kegs for service in the tasting room and for distribution, and just a handful of casks leave the brewery for special events or for accounts that Black has personally vetted. The kegged beer is kept in the cooler side of the cold box while the casks are conditioned and served at about 52°F (11°C)—not as cold as draft beer, but certainly not warm or room temperature.

The cool serving temperature allows for the subtleties of ester profiles, complex malt bills, and dry-hopping charges to sing on the palate, though Black says it sometimes takes his “red-wine spiel” (“you don’t put pinot [noir] in the refrigerator!”) for drinkers new to cask beer to understand why.

The CO2 purge when filling casks isn’t industry-standard procedure, but Black’s processes are tuned to the specifics of YSB’s “cellar” and dispense methods. He says that after comparisons, they like the flavor of the purged casks better—especially with hops-forward beers such as their dry-hopped American brown ale. But Black can harness the transformative effects of oxidation when a style calls for it, and some brews don’t get a CO2 purge so that more “cellar character” can develop. The taproom favorite, Early Doors Pub Ale, features this subtle oxidative character, which Black says rounds out and integrates the flavors in a style-appropriate way.

Cask Interaction

Traditionally, real ale is exposed to ambient air when a cask is tapped; the spigot is pounded into the keystone and a semipermeable wooden peg replaces the shive in the bunghole. This allows pressure to equalize and results in oxygen subtly interacting with the ale through the lifespan of the tapped cask. At YSB, the tapped casks are connected to a “cask breather” which provides CO2 at atmospheric pressure to fill headspace in the cask as beer is poured.

While casks are typically tapped while laying on their sides in a rack called a stillage, YSB employs the Flexible Ale Extractor produced by Harry Mason Ltd.—an English manufacturer of cask supplies and equipment. The Flexible Ale Extractor allows casks to be set on end and adds a flexible dipstick through the keystone to which the pub’s beer lines are attached. At the other end of those lines are the beer engines: those hand pumps that are synonymous with British beer.

Each pull of the engine’s handle draws the ale from the cask, through the gently chilled trunk lines, out through the pump’s gooseneck faucet, and into a freshly rinsed nonic pint glass. After a few tugs on the handle, the publican sets the full pint on the bar, and a creamy head foams up as the cloudy cascade of bubbles disperses.

It’s a touch theatrical and markedly slower than the rush of cold beer that flows from an open draft faucet. This more sedate pace of service, the use of iconographs instead of numerical ABV designations, and the comparatively esoteric styles on offer are all important parts of the YSB environment. The idea is to drive interaction between the drinkers and those behind the bar. The beer speaks for itself, but it doesn’t hurt to have a guide to help understand the accents.

For Black, the focus on cask service isn’t about looking backward or returning to old traditions; it’s a way to portray beer in a manner that’s both contrary to the popular trends and uniquely expressive.

“We offer a different narrative,” Black says, “but it’s been easier to attract a new market because English beer is inherently approachable.”

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