Judging Beers by Sam Fitz – Vol. 9 – Cask Beer

Sam Fitz is a Certified Cicerone® and the Beer Director at Meridian Pint and Smoke & Barrel.

Cask Beer: The Perfect Fit for PoP’s 5-Year

Beer, like most products these days, has been drastically transformed, for better or worse, by modern innovation. The way in which it is now made, stored, and served is markedly different from a century ago. This evolution has changed the very nature of beer. Super-cold and effervescent are appropriate descriptors for the overwhelming majority of brews you’re likely to encounter today, including craft beer, but these would be wholly inappropriate for most of the beers offered just one century ago. Draft systems were nonexistent then and the pub specialty the world over was cask beer, naturally carbonated and served close to room temperature. It may not seem like a big deal, but the transition from casks to kegs transformed beer into something related but distinctively new. It’s kind of like dinosaurs and birds.

Cask beer is brewed and primarily fermented like any other beer. During fermentation, yeast converts sugars into carbonation, which is eventually allowed to escape, and alcohol, which is obviously retained. Draft beer is then filled into kegs and force-carbonated with compressed gas. Before this was possible, brewers had to utilize yeast’s naturally ability to make bubbles. Casks, created from wood or metal, are filled with flat beer that is pitched with a second dosing of yeast and sealed. As the cask “conditions”, the yeast consumes residual sugars and carbonates the vessel. For serving, a faucet is hammered into the cask, and it is either gravity poured or hooked up to a beer engine that pulls the brew out of the cask with pressure applied by a hand pump.

Forced carbonation in draft beer produces small bubbles that are uniform in size and have a particular propensity to lift lingering flavors off your tongue and cleanse your palate. The effect is refreshing, bubbly, and very useful in pairing with fatty foods. Lower temperatures help any liquid to retain its carbonation, so it’s no surprise that draft beer is usually sold very cold to maximize its refreshing capabilities.

Continues after the jump.

Natural carbonation from yeast in a cask results in a very complex head. Bubbles of all different sizes struggle amongst themselves to reach the nose, and the resulting froth resembles soap bubbles more than a tasty beverage. The varied and predominantly larger bubbles in cask beer may not be as refreshing or cutting as their smaller counterparts in a draft, but they do have a big advantage: the volatiles, aromatics present in any brew that desperately want to escape and invade your senses, are more easily propelled out of the beer and into your nose. Warmer temperatures induce increased movement in any molecule, including volatile aromatics, so it makes sense that cask beer is usually served at room temperature to intensify the aroma.

In 1973, after the world had predominantly moved from cask to draft beer, a small group of consumers in England lamented the change from soft, aromatic cask brews to sharp, cutting, cold draft beer. The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) was formed around a definition of “real ale”: “beer brewed from traditional ingredients, matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide.” Real ale is a better term for this type of beer, as a cask is simply the container from which it is usually poured. Bottle-conditioned beer also fits the description and is considered real ale as well.

CAMRA fought hard to keep the dinosaur, real ale, alive in England. Although the battle has been arduous, much progress has been made. Though not as prevalent as it once was, you can still find good pints of cask beer throughout England, and even American brewers have become involved in the campaign. Traditional English beer styles like mild, bitter, and pale ale are best represented as real ale, as their delicate flavors and aromas (bready, nutty, grassy, earthy, fruity, etc.) are not masked by sharp carbonation. Rather, they are drawn out with warmer temperatures and natural carbonation. As brewers continue to experiment, more aggressive styles have evolved and are now being racked into casks.

American IPAs, with their huge citrus and pine flavors, are an aroma bomb on cask, but with less carbonation hop bitterness is reduced and the result is a very different beer–one which is much more approachable and palate-expanding with less bite. An imperial stout, high in alcohol and dark, roasty flavors, doesn’t taste like much when served close to freezing. Put it in a firkin (the most common cask size used today, 10.8 gallons) and serve it at 55 degrees and the depth of malt flavors will astound you. Even seasonal specialties, like the pumpkin beers that recently invaded the city, can be quite interesting as real ale.

Draft beer is usually kegged “bright”, meaning it has been fully conditioned and the majority of suspended particles have fallen out. Casks have an active fermentation within them and finings are added to naturally induce suspended particles to settle at the bottom. Even so, cask beer is perfectly acceptable with a little cloudiness to it. Accordingly, brewers can include extra ingredients, “dry-additions”, directly into the cask, allowing creativity to run rampant. Elderberries, juniper, peppercorns, mango and oak chips are among many accompaniments I’ve seen recently.

The most common dry-additions are hops, and when employed the process is called “dry-hopping”. Hops are usually added during the boil where bitterness is extracted and intensified by the heat. Volatile aromatics responsible for the lovely flavors on a beer’s nose evaporate and are lost. Dry-hopping extracts copious aromas from the hops without imparting much of any bitterness as the boil was completed long before. The effect on a beer is very enjoyable and surprising to many that fear the hop flower. An American IPA on cask will naturally seem less bitter and more aromatic than the same beer on draft due to the reduced carbonation, warmer temperature, and composition of the head. Dry-hopping only enhances this and is incorporated in some sinfully aromatic yet soft beers.

Drinking a fresh draft from a clean line is a pleasant luxury but, just because technology and innovation went into making this a reality, it doesn’t mean that cask beer is of any lesser value. Drinking real ale is a connection to the past and the way beer once was and I, for one, am thrilled that we are still afforded the opportunity.

Usually my pieces end with, you guessed it, a beer review. But today is the five-year anniversary of our champion-of-the-local, The Prince of Petworth. The neighborhoods he covers have changed quickly, from one thing to something else that is similar but distinctly different. Helping us make sense of our community evolutions is PoP. To honor The Prince, The Pint teamed-up with our local brewery, DC Brau, to showcase some brews that represent the old and the new. Four casks of The Public Ale will be pouring in the traditional way, but the Brau boys added good old American ingenuity, packing them full of Sorachi, Amarillo, Cascade and New Zealand Rakau hops. Mangos even made their way into two of the casks. So, instead of reading another beer review, come celebrate 5 years of The Beautiful Life with the Prince of Petworth and a cask at The Pint, and write your own.

34 Comment

  • God I want a beer.

  • claire

    Fascinating stuff! I definitely find that I prefer beer that has been bottle or cask carbonated, as well as beer that is served at more of a cellar temperature rather than ice cold. Hope to try out some of the DC Brau casks tonight!

  • Can’t wait for the mango!

  • Nice review full of good information. I do get the impression, however, that the author’s opinion is tilted toward cask beers being better than draft beers overall. I would disagree. This is mostly a matter of personal opinion.

    It also seems that the author uses the authenticity and handcrafted angle to condition (pun intended) consumers to think that cask beers are worthy of a premium price due to the painstaking process and quality ingredients used to create the brews. Note that you can get a bottle conditioned Trippel from New Belgium Brewery in a 22 ounce bomber for about $4.50 from several booze shops in the area. A great bottle conditioned beer that reflects a sane price point. Try it next time you’re hitting the local bar ready to shell out $11.00 for an exclusive cask brew.

      • I’m from Seattle originally. It always amazes me when I go back there and the standard price for a pint of microbrew is $3.50. No kidding.

        • yes, it’s expensive here.

          go to baltimore sometime. just down the road, far cheaper than dc.

          • Nice. Not only do you acknowledge the price gouging, you actively choose to ignore it. This is all artificially inflated and has nothing to do with supply and demand.

          • wtf? how do i choose to ignore it AND yet also mention it?

      • Thanks Claire. I read that City Paper article a week or so ago, and the author identifies the existing culture of high beer prices as the primary factor the high cost of new craft brews. The local economy is what perpetuates this culture.

        Visit San Francisco or Boulder and order a craft beer. The same is being targeted: white, affluent, 30’s to 40’s males. Almost always, the beers will be 2 or 3 dollars cheaper than what you’ll get in DC. Many will be from local brewers who do all sorts of unique and exciting things (sound familiar, DC Brau?).

      • This article makes me sad. I realized this last Xmas when I was out visiting the family and saw to my suprise a sixer of a Flying Dog product that actually was priced lower than it is here. Just a shame that I can get a beer brewed 30 miles from here cheaper over 1500 miles away.

        • Absolutely right. I’ve gotten Victory products cheaper in San Diego than anywhere in DC. My theory about why people here accept high prices is that people in DC often equate high prices with quality. If you sell a beer for $8, people will want it more as mark of their perceived affluence than for its intrinsic value. Obviously, rents are high here as well, but that fact cannot explain some of the most ludicrous prices by itself.

      • i saw a dc brau for 8 dollars at Bar Pilar. 8 dollars!
        screw that.

    • All four casks are $5 pints all night…

      • Sam,

        That is a great promotion for DC. In any other city in America (except NYC) that would be the price on any occasion.

        Looking forward to trying a pint or three.

    • I think there is an important distinction to be made on cask beers vs. bottle conditioned beers.

      Cask beers allow the brewer to experiment with ingredients in small quantities that would otherwise be impossible in a large-production batch.

      In the case of DC Brau, they put together a firkin of The Corruption with chicory, wormwood, and elderberry. Tonight’s offering includes The Public conditioned with mango and Rakau hops.

      This would be impossible to produce in bottles for a one-off experiment.

      • Rob,

        Good point, but the general process to producing a drinkable and enjoyable beer is roughly the same be it bottle or cask conditioned. There were a few (probably several) unsuccessful previous tries with different ratios of the ingredients, and then once the ratios worked, the entire process was recreated from scratch.

        The DC Brau guys didn’t just fill up a firkin, throw some more stuff in there, cross their fingers and hope for the best.

        But like you mentioned, this allows brewers to push the boundaries and profitably produce beers that may not be enjoyed by the general population. Not sure, again, that would justify a premium.

        • “Not sure, again, that would justify a premium.”

          $5 for a pint of beer, especially a one-off cask ale, isn’t really that much of a premium. In fact, it’s at least a dollar less than standard for pretty much the entire area. Look at Rustico (Alexandria)’s draft & cask menu.

          “There were a few (probably several) unsuccessful previous tries with different ratios of the ingredients, and then once the ratios worked, the entire process was recreated from scratch.”

          So it seems like you acknowledge the artisanal alchemy that goes into producing a limited-release one-off beer, but you have trouble finding the extra dollar or two for it?

          *everything* in DC is more expensive. From a loaf of bread to a gourmet hamburger. Hell, it’s hard to not find drinkable martinis for less than $12. Between city sales taxes and overhead for a bar or restaurant, it’s easy to see why.

          Besides, there are different costs of living associated with different places. Let’s take the GSA perdiem rates for example:

          DC $183 vs. Baltimore $145 vs. say… Michighan, which is between $77-90.

          The cost of living and doing business in the Washington DC area is simply higher.

          Comparing the price of craft beer in DC to the price of craft beer in Michigan (for example) really is apples and oranges.

          • I agree, the $5 pints all night is a great promotional price in DC. Walk in when it’s not happy hour or the beer and/or the beer is not featured, and it will be $8 minimum. Rustico is a rare exception to pricing and could even be considered outside of DC proper, similar to Baltimore.

            A one-off brew has costs associated with creating it, but the investment is siginficantly lower, as you mentioned, than a larger batch for bottle conditioned or draft beers. The marketing of these beers is authentic and exclusive, and as you put it, “artisinal alchemy”. Let’s cut the marketing buzzwords and call it what it is, a beer.

            Note that I did not use the mid-West as a comparison city. San Francisco is about as expensive as it gets.

            PoP posted about a new Mexican tapas place opening in Georgetown, and one poster called the high prices on small plates a “poser (sic) tax”. The same could be said for high prices on craft beers.

            It would be nice if people would just acknowledge we’re being gouged for this stuff.

          • @Denizen of Tenallytown – we’re just going to have to agree to disagree.

            You’re not being gouged for beer or anything else. At least not at the level of the people who produce or sell the products we’re talking about.

            There are higher costs of living in Washington DC, and you’re going to pay more for the nicer things in life here.

            If you don’t want to pay $1900-$2800 a month for a 1 bedroom apartment, $40 for a cab ride, $12 for a plate of tapas, or $8 for a beer, then… well… I don’t know where you’re going to live, but it’s not going to be DC.

            You have to pay to play… or you can stay home.

            That’s just the way it is.

            BTW – if you buy a growler fill @ DC Brau, that’s $10/64 oz or $2.50 a pint.

          • Rob,

            Thanks for the info on the growler fill. I’ll have to check it out.

            Captcha: DRAW

    • Wow, so a 22oz bottle of beer costs less at a beer shop than it does at a bar? Your local bartender must just love seeing you walk in.

      • You miss my point. It’s not uncommon to see 750 ml (25 oz) bottles of craft beer over $10 each at a beer store. New Belgium comes strolling into the DC market and drops off a bottle conditioned microbrew (four in fact) at a price under $5 a bottle.

        How? Are they 100% more efficient due to economies of scale? They have transportation costs from Colorado so it’s not because they are local. Distributors are involved. Are they taking a loss on each bottle sold?

        Or is it because that in Colorado, the beer sells at a profit for $4.50 a bottle and they can do the same in DC? Nah, that would mean we’ve been getting ripped off all along.

  • Want to know more about naturally (not forced) carbonated beer?

    Ask a home brewer.

    • claire

      Yes indeed – though I do know quite a few homebrewers who keg and force carbonate their beer. In my personal experience brewing, it can sometimes be pretty difficult to get exactly the right carbonation when bottle carbonating which makes me appreciate it all the more when it’s perfectly done in craft beers.

  • SPBW.org

    The Baltimore chapter of the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood. Lots of good cask ale activities going on up there.

  • I’m not a big beer drinker, but really like nitrogen infused beer. I’ve found some at Meridian Pint, but that’s the only place in this area I’ve been able to get it. Does anyone know of other places that carry it?

    • Guinness is supposed to be pressurized with NO2 instead of CO2. Any place serving a proper pint of Guinness will have an NO2 system and might be a good place to check.

  • Nice information here, as usual. Possible minor quibble:

    “Casks, created from wood or metal, are filled with flat beer that is pitched with a second dosing of yeast and sealed. As the cask “conditions”, the yeast consumes residual sugars and carbonates the vessel.”

    An extra dose of sugar is what really sparks the conditioning process. Almost all of the yeast-accessible sugars are gone at this stage. A brewer may or may not add more yeast to the cask, but if they didn’t add more sugar, nothing much would happen.

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