“I’ll have the cask lager.”
That was not something I expected to say upon my first visit to Bulls Head Public House in Lititz, Pennsylvania. Honestly, until then, I didn’t even know it was something I wanted.
Bulls Head is one of the few places in the United States to properly and consistently serve traditional British-style cask ale. And I love it: Bitter, mild, porter, and even modern pale ale—those are the styles I crave when a bartender is pulling pints from a cask engine.
But a pale lager from Scotland? Not so much.
Disappointed by the absence of my go-to traditional ale styles, I reluctantly ordered a Harviestoun Schiehallion Lager. One sip, however, and it clicked. “This works,” I thought. “This totally makes sense.”
This wouldn’t be news back in Britain, where the beer was named Champion Cask Beer at the Society of Independent Brewers Awards (SIBA) in 2022. Cask lagers have come and gone over the years, but Schiehallion—first brewed for cask service in 1994—has proven enduring, relevant, and praiseworthy.
Why Cask Lager?
In hindsight, my appreciation for this beer shouldn’t be a surprise. I love Franconian lager, which shares some attributes with real ale. Among traditional kellerbier and zwickelbier, natural carbonation in the serving vessel is similar to that of British cask ale.
John McIntosh is one who appreciates that kind of carbonation. He’s the owner and brewer at Acopon Brewing in Dripping Springs, Texas, just west of Austin, and his brewery specializes in British-style ales—many served on cask. However, lagers also regularly appear on the cask menu. “The natural carbonation gives a finer bubble size and softer mouthfeel,” McIntosh says, “and we think that really allows the malt sweetness to be accentuated, as well as showcasing the hop aromatics because they aren’t driven off during the pour process by excessive carbonation.”
At Harviestoun in Scotland, master brewer Amy Cockburn describes that sensation in the context of Schiehallion: “The presence of the yeast creates a softer carbonation and allows for more intense characters to come through from the hops and the yeast itself,” she says. “The grapefruit character created by our yeast is present in the keg and bottle but is more prominent in the cask.”
True to the cask-ale tradition, cask lager isn’t pasteurized and continues to evolve after leaving the brewery. All that is meant by “real ale”—as defined by Britain’s Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA)—also applies to “real lager.” Sure, all beers evolve, but it happens much more quickly for cask ale and lager, and that evolution is part of the plan. It should be incredibly fresh when tapped. From there, it only has a few days before quality begins to sharply degrade—but in that brief window, there is nothing in the beer world quite like it.
Instead of worrying about that inevitable evolution, it’s something that many brewers embrace. “The beauty of the cask conditioning and service is that it’s alive and unwieldy at times,” says Sam Masotto, cofounder and brewer at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s, Bonn Place, another specialist in British-style ales.
As with any beer that goes into a cask, the format offers a unique opportunity for experimentation. However, restraint goes a long way—and some limited dry hopping is in keeping with tradition.
At Good Word in Duluth, Georgia, they have some casks that they tend to use for British-style ales and some German-style stichfässer (spigoted barrels) that they tend to use for lagers. However, they will periodically try something different by putting lager into a cask. It offers the opportunity to experiment with “limited risk,” as founder Todd DiMatteo says. They often do this when they experiment with a modern hop variety that they wouldn’t normally use in a traditional lager.
Conditioning Cask Lager
As with cask ale, the initial brewing process is no different for cask than it is for kegged lager. Fermentation is where things begin to diverge.
One way or another, fermentation should continue (or otherwise resume) in the cask. Various additions of fermentables and/or yeast can do the job, including kräusen, sugar, or a bit of yeast. How you go about fermenting and conditioning the lager up to that point is up to you. For example, you can lager it in tanks before racking to cask—or you can simply lager it in the casks.
At Bonn Place, for example, their preference is to add some unfermented wort to the cask to kick off the secondary fermentation. They then lager the beer in the casks for another three to six weeks.
At von Trapp Brewery in Stowe, Vermont, they’ll lager the beer for at least six weeks, says quality manager Jack Van Paepeghem. “We will then kräusen the cask with a small amount of actively fermenting wort and seal the vessel,” he says. “We let the cask stay at room temp for refermentation and diacetyl reabsorption, and then chill it in our keg cooler until it is ready for shipment [and] service.”
To fill casks at von Trapp, they pull the beer from a larger batch—not as easy as it sounds, especially at their scale. “We naturally carbonate all of our lagers [via spunding], so during fermentation, we capture up to 95 percent of our final target CO2, meaning that the beer is very carbonated before we even start lagering.” Filling an empty five-gallon pin cask with fully carbonated beer from a 6,000-gallon tank presents an interesting technical challenge, with few tools to assist in terms of restriction and counter pressure.
Racking from an open or unsealed (ungespundet) tank is easier, though few brewers in the United States are doing it. At von Trapp, however, the natural carbonation is important to them, as is capturing as much CO2 as they can. “Which means we can’t necessarily afford to have flat beer sitting around for these purposes,” Van Paepeghem says.
Once the casked lager is ready for service, dispense options include a simple gravity cask setup or a beer engine. While a beer engine is nice, that requires more than just purchasing a cask, faucet, and stillage for the bar top (see “Gearhead: American Real Ale,” beerandbrewing.com). The setup is not as expensive as you might think, but it does consume space on your bar for something you may not use all that often.
Even if you have a beer engine, it might not make sense for cask lager, depending on the temperature at which you intend to serve your beer.
At Acopon, for example, they have beer engines, but they prefer to use the bar-top gravity kegs for lager. Their engines are set up for ales, which they serve at a slightly higher temperature than what they want for their cask lagers. So, they simply pull a refrigerated cask from the cooler and set it up on the bar. This has the bonus of creating a little “O’zapft is!” moment when the keg is tapped. Cooling jackets also can be applied as necessary.
When served on the cooler side, cask lager may have a greater chance of attracting newcomers to a format that has historically (and erroneously) been associated with warm beer. Generally, cask lager is best served somewhere between standard keg temperature (~38°F/3°C) and cask ale temperature (~52°F/11°C).
You can serve any style of lager in the cask format, though brewers who do it tend to avoid styles often associated with high carbonation, such as pilsner and schwarzbier. Instead, they look to Czech-style lagers (whether pale, amber, or dark), various bocks, or helles, dunkel, or märzen made in the Franconian kellerbier style.
An additional word of caution comes from Bill Arnott, founder of the cask-centric Machine House Brewery in Seattle: “Crap lager would probably taste extra crap on cask.”
Arnott has been successfully collaborating with his neighbors at Lowercase to brew and serve cask lager—it’s an ideal situation where one brewer excels in cask and the other in lager. They’ve been collaborating on cask lager for five years, including the London Lager that Jeff Alworth (a regular contributor to Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine®) on his Beervana blog named one of his best beers in 2022.
It’s no secret that cask beer has floundered in the United States, and it has its own struggles in its homeland as well. However, with craft lager enjoying a moment these past few years, perhaps there is avenue here to draw interest in both cask service and lager.
At Lowercase in Seattle, owner John Marti notes that introducing customers to cask lager can be challenging, especially considering the generally lukewarm reception to cask ale.
However, “once they understand what we’re doing, they have an even deeper appreciation for the idea of cask lagers,” he says. “We’ve always seen cask lager as a way to help people understand just how gorgeous cask beer can be.”