In this month’s 101, we will be explaining a term that might not be heard very often, and that’s for a good reason. Unless you live in the UK or one of just a few places in the United States, cask ales will not be on your radar. Let’s break down this month’s 101 and educate you a little on what Cask Ales are all about…
Cask Ales, also referred to as Real Ales, are beers that are, most of the time, unpasteurized and unfiltered beers that use casks instead of kegs. They are served at warmer temperatures and have very little carbonation. Main tasting notes, depending on style, are bread, malt, and yeast. The main difference between Cask Ales and Real Ales is that Real ales are considered to be the most natural form of beer: unfiltered, unpasteurized, in a cask with the active yeast still sitting at the bottom continually acting on the beer until the cask is empty. Cask ales aren’t always like that. Sometimes brewers add an ingredient to the beer, called finings, to activate yeast at the bottom as soon as possible, then transfer the beer into a secondary cask to ensure it won’t be sitting on the active yeast.
History tells us that when beer was brewed hundreds of years ago, it was done in a cask (which by definition means “container”). These casks were made of wood, which gave the beer a very short shelf life. Casks were replaced in the mid-20th century by stainless kegs because steel was easier to clean and gave the beer a longer shelf life. Wooden casks also had a greater chance to contaminate the beer. Today, wooden casks are being replaced by more traditional materials, like steel and plastic. Although they use different materials today, cask ales still have a very short shelf life. When a beer is tapped, it is not sealed like traditional kegs are. Oxygen does enter the cask and the life of the beer is drastically shortened to about 3-5 days, which is why casks are smaller than a typical stainless keg. A full sized stainless keg holds about 15.5 gallons of beer where casks only hold 9 gallons, which is referred to as a “Firkin.”
Another major difference between draft kegs and cask ales is how they are dispensed. Traditional kegs typically use CO2 to dispense the beer into the glass by use of a tap handle. Casks use nature’s greatest scientific wonder: gravity. They also use what they call a hand pump. Breweries essentially use gravity to “pump” the beer into a glass.
Cask ales aren’t typically what we are on the hunt for. Fortunately, we are privileged to have an actual cask ale brewery only a few miles away from us. Although we aren’t huge fans of cask ales (being hop heads), the atmosphere of these breweries are what we love since we are large fans of the traditional English-style pubs. If you are fans of Brown or Red Ales, ESB’s, Porters, or draught Stouts, then we highly recommend looking out for Cask Ale breweries. If you’re a foodie like us as well, Cask Ale breweries are usually known for their pub-style comfort foods: heavy and delicious with loads of flavor.
Who knows what may happen in the future? Americans might get burned out on the constant “next big thing” and start going back to drinking traditional style beers. If that would be the case, Cask Ales might make a comeback. Until then, it will just continue to sit dormant, at least in the U.S., waiting for its moment to strike. Not sure it will be a problem continuing to be the prominent style in the UK; tradition seems to reign supreme over there.
Until next time, let’s raise a pint, cheers, and, of course, Beeresponsible.