I won’t bore you with a long history lesson but historically speaking, all beer used to be real ale. Beer was always directly drawn from wooden barrels in public houses. It wasn’t until the 1800’s and the industrial revolution when brewing practices changed, new beer styles were introduced and forced carbonation via CO2 in kegs become the new norm. Cask ale, after this, became a bit of a legend. Luckily cask ales are becoming more and more popular throughout the world, including the US. With the help of the American craft beer movement, real ale has gained proper respect in America. Many beer bars now offer cask ale on a regular basis via beer engines or weekly firkin tapping events.
This is when things get interesting though. The vessel can be filled with anything along with the beer. Imperial stout going in? Okay, let’s put some cocoa nibs, coffee beans and vanilla bean inside with it. IPA? Let’s put some grapefruit peel inside with it, or maybe some fresh hops. Witbier? Orange peel and coriander. You get the picture. The idea behind doing this is to enhance and carry the flavors of the beer all while having some fun via experimentation. It’s a big craze right now in the US and it seems to have helped with getting more people aware of cask ale. However, this hasn’t gone without blow back from purists.
Purists of cask ale feel that the ale should be unadulterated. Like I stated above, purists are amazed by the nuances of flavors and aromas from traditional cask ale. Another issue with these popular firkin tappings is that the ale is usually all drunk within one night because of its popularity. Many people love to see what happens to the ale two to three days after tapping, just to see how it has ‘aged.’ Oxygen (one of beer’s arch enemies) comes into contact with the ale so it does not last long, but the aromas and flavors can change and many love to witness that day-to-day change.
Stuart a.k.a x.Alesmith of the Zymurology blog is one of these purists. When asked why he likes cask ale, he responded:
I enjoy real cask ale because it is a very specific style of beer that has as much to do with how the beer is treated after it leaves the brewery as it does the brewing of said beer. Great cask beer should be brilliantly clear, slightly effervescent and never flat with a good foamy head. Flavor development in real cask beer lends itself to subtle styles like bitters and pale ales, although I have had great casks of porter and stouts at the GBBF. Beers with huge flavor profiles are not nearly as good in many instances because the heavy flavors dominate and overshadow what makes cask special.
His thoughts on additional ingredients in the vessel containing cask ale:
I object to the use of the term cask when referring to what many in the US do and call “cask”. I have no objection whatsoever in adding all kinds of things to a stainless serving vessel and using it as a long term randall of sorts, which is what most “cask” in the US is, I just wish they could think of another term such as “kegging experiment” to describe it. If brewers wish to add fruit, vegetables or umbilical chords to their 10% imperial stouts then so be it, and sure I might taste it to see how it turned out. However, having seen the promised land my paradigm is skewed as I know what real cask beer tastes like and how much work and effort backed by hundreds of years of tradition is involved when making true “cask”. I also object to a common practice I have seen with some brewers calling anything that looks like a cask a “firkin” (which is a size designation) when they are using smaller “pins” – I guess this is just another instance of using wrong terminology. Anyway, in conclusion when I see “casks” popping up all over town I quietly repeat to myself “cask, cask everywhere but not a drop to drink”.
Some, however, enjoy the idea of adding additional ingredients as long as it doesn’t detract from the core beer. I asked a couple of other beer fans around town what their thoughts were on this subject and here’s what they had to say.
Adan De La Torre of Cask Austin (@caskaustin) on why he likes cask ale:
I once read that cask ale is the pinnacle of a brewers art, and that’s what i think everytime I drink a cask ale. Sure draft beer is good, its great! But when a beer naturally conditions inside of a firkin instead of being forced into a keg with Co2, it brings out so much more in the beer. It has a softer mouthfeel so you can taste alot of more because your tongue isn’t being bombarded with cold fizzy bubbles. The temperature is warmer (usually) so more flavors come out from the malt and hops instead of being numbed by a crazy cold cooler and/or glycol system.
Adan also likes the idea of additional ingredients with the cask ale.
I love when brewers put additional ingredients into casks. It’s something that they can’t necessarily experiment with in an entire batch without potentially ruining 30BBL’s of beer.. this way if it doesn’t go well they’re only out 10 gallons. If it went really well, then some one lucky bar out there just got something super special that only a handful of people got to try.
Now sometimes it can go too far. Sure some mango in an IPA sounds stupid and over the top, but its not! It’s awesome, and sometimes you can barely even taste it, just a hint. What I don’t like is when someone tries to put a wheat beer in a firkins and add hibuscus to it. What you have then is pink beer flavored tea coming out of some weird metal barrel. Dry hopping and adding fruits that will accent the flavor of the beer is one of my favorite things, but some people can do it very wrong while others nail it almost every time.
Chris Troutman of Austin Beer Guide also likes the idea of additional ingredients.
Although not classically created casks, per say, they do give brewers a chance to flex their creative muscle and take some of their traditional brands into new and interesting directions. Sure, they can often end up over the top (anyone remember Mad Beetz?) and even undrinkable, but that’s part of the fun. A good cask/firkin/pin event should have an element of surprise to it- especially if it’s a new experiment. Some could argue that it’s not fair to use paying customers as lab rats like this, but I think for the most part, people know what they’re getting into. It’s a fun trend, and the more often brewers do them and folks come out to drink them, the better they’ll be.
What do I think? I think there is a time and place for traditional and nontraditional casks. As I stated above, every person should experience the subtlety and greatness that is traditional cask ale. Its subtleties and creamy body is what dreams are made of. However, I also love what American brewers are doing, especially when adding fresh hops with pales or IPAs. For me, additional ingredients are like finishing sauces on a plate of food. The goal is to enhance and lift up the flavors, not to overpower. The whole American craft beer revolution has taken off because of breaking traditions and experimentation, and this is just another example of that.
What are your thoughts on this? Do you agree or disagree with the idea of adding additional ingredients with the cask ale?
Places in Austin with cask ale:
Black Star Co-op
Banger’s Sausage House and Beer Garden
The Chicago House
Recommendation: Jester King Commerical Suicide (if you can find it). You can buy bottles of this at stores, and this is a traditional English mild ale which has been naturally re-fermented in the bottle, meaning the bottle contains real ale.