Breweries and beer bars deliver more variety to the guest today than they have in years. While no one can declare the age of New England IPA over, the sheer number of pilsners, hoppy West Coast throwbacks, and traditional styles showing up at the haziest of taprooms tells us that something is afoot. Add the explosive popularity of side-pull taps, perfect for both developing and showcasing the textural possibilities of all manner of lager, and it’s abundantly clear that brewers and guests alike are increasingly interested in flavor nuance and the kind of elevated service that can best express it.
So, it was just a matter of time before classic British beer styles and cask ales would begin to make their comeback. American brewers have been kegging and canning various takes on English bitters and mild ales with growing regularity since before the 2020 lockdown. While the packaged versions of these beers have remained viable throughout the pandemic, it took the relative return to normalcy—and on-premise drinking—to accelerate the interest in serving these low-ABV, dry, and oh-so-drinkable beers the way the beer gods have always intended: from cask. The mild, creamy, and 100 percent natural carbonation coupled with service at cellar temperature gets to the heart of the beer in a singular way. As the pint glass empties, aromas continually evolve while the rich, full-flavored brew spreads gently across the palate, showcasing the intriguing interplay of malt and hops. It’s almost impossible to avoid ordering a second glass.
I’ve been serving and celebrating cask ale for almost 20 years. I’ve watched interest in it wax and wane, and I’ve seen the very nature of American cask ale alter on multiple occasions. Before your taprooms were churning out weekly line-inducing rarities in cans, cask ale was a way for brewpubs, bars, and restaurants to get the guests’ attention—it showed that we were serious about beer and taking care of it.
As brewers’ draft and bottle lineups expanded to answer the call for rotational newness, cask ale consumption declined—as did the quality of the cask beer itself. (Unfiltered, unpasteurized, and naturally carbonated, cask relies wholly on freshness for its charm.) Casks hung on as a way for brewers to spike their beers with one-off ingredients, to instantly create unique variants (often with fully carbonated beer as a base). Yet once small-batch releases of cans and kegs became de rigueur, this approach became obsolete.
A small cadre of brewers and publicans have hung on to it over the years, pushing to properly craft and pour traditional British-style beer from cask. It’s exciting to see so many new breweries and bars now showing interest in this time-honored tradition, but success isn’t guaranteed. At ChurchKey and our other bars, I have found it necessary to overhaul our approach to serving these wonderful beers over the years.
However, the time is certainly right for cask ale—as long as we do cask right this time.
A Plan for Cask Success
Less is more—that’s the first lesson for cask ale in 2022. As brewers and bars consider developing cask programs, it’s better to start small and go from there. The fewer cask options on hand, the more we can focus on moving beer that’s as fresh as possible. It’s better to pour through one cask rather than half of two, with the remainder being dumped because of spoilage. This goes for those looking to tap firkins (10.8 gallons) or—better yet—pins (5.4 gallons) on the bar for special events, as well as for those looking to build a full-time program by setting up a direct-draw beer engine.
Price It to Move
Either way, I’d suggest setting a price that helps to ensure the beer moves swiftly; too often I’ve seen casks served in small pours for hefty prices.
That may seem counterintuitive, since cask beer isn’t necessarily cheap: the labor for filling casks can increase its cost, while cask imports can cost more due to shipping and multitier markups. However, it’s best to consistently serve these beers in larger pours—ideally, the 20-oz British imperial pint—to honor tradition and the sessionable nature of the style. Keeping the price lower (say, between $5–$8 per imperial pint, depending on your local market) also encourages the beer to move more quickly. I’d rather sell through a full firkin at a lower price point and slimmer margin than sell three-quarters of it at a better margin while dumping the final pours. Plus, we can always slightly increase the price of more popular styles to achieve a better blended cost percentage on average.
Give It Time before Tapping
Over the years, I’ve decreased the number of casks on offer at any given location for freshness concerns, but there is an additional benefit: It allows us to better prepare the casks for service.
When designing a full-time cask program, I suggest making room in your walk-in or under-counter direct-draw cooler for upcoming casks to settle and vent before service. Where we used to have an under-counter direct-draw cooler that could hold three casks for service, we now serve two casks from that cooler; this leaves us a third space to properly settle and vent a new cask before tapping. Without this adjustment, we were too often moving the new cask into place just before service. This left the beer overly foamy and lacking in both clarity and developed flavors from the start.
When shopping for under-counter direct-draw coolers, be sure that the temperature can be adjusted to 50–55°F (10–13°C)—the proper cellar temperature for cask service, though I tend to focus on the cooler end of this range to keep the beer brighter on the palate.
Also make sure the dimensions are right. While length will vary because of offerings, you’ll need at least 18.5 inches (47 cm) in depth and 26 inches (66 cm) in height. If possible, make sure that the door openings equal 16.5 inches (42 cm) or more; some old-school firkins in the trade are just a bit wider than 16 inches (41 cm) and won’t fit into many standard under-counter direct-draw coolers.
More Tools of the Trade
When it comes time to load in those casks and prepare for service, make sure to use a CaskWidge (or similar) system along with a cask breather. Until a few years ago, I tapped casks horizontally on stillage racks and used spiles (small, porous wooden pegs) to vent and assist with beer flow for the duration of the cask. The spiles allow for proper aeration of the beer, which is important for initial flavor development and for carbonation levels. However, they also invite increasing oxidation that spoils the beer after just a few days. A CaskWidge allows us to pour the cask from the upright position; a flexible pipe lowered into the cask draws beer from below the surface; this prevents any surface oxidation from affecting the dispensed beer.
In addition to the tube that draws beer out of the cask, the CaskWidge system includes a tube for air flow. By tapping a new cask 24 hours before we serve it, but not attaching it to the beer engine quite yet for service, we can place a spile in the airflow tube that will allow the beer to vent for proper aeration and carbonation. Once the beer is ready to serve, the widge’s quick disconnect kit allows us to attach the new cask, which is already set and vented, to the beer engine for service.
After a day or two, when the gas activity is tempered, flavors have developed, and the beer level is depleting, we can disconnect the spiled airflow tube and connect a different tube attached to the cask breather spigot. This brings low-pressure CO2 (at 5 psi) to the cask, filling the headspace above the liquid and extending the life of the beer; the CO2 keeps that headspace purged of oxygen yet isn’t enough to re-carbonate the beer.
By using the CaskWidge and cask breather, we have been able to pour consistently delicious cask beer for up to a week rather than just a few days.
When it comes to beer engines, I prefer the quarter-pint model to the half-pint. The former dispenses a quarter-pint’s worth of beer with each pull, rather than a half-pint, so there is less unrefrigerated beer left in the engine before dispense. I also employ sparklers, which are perforated plastic caps that attach to the end of the beer engine’s dispense spouts. The holes in the sparkler aerate and agitate the beer as it’s poured, creating a tight, creamy head that contributes so much to the textural enjoyment of the beer. For casks that show lively carbonation, I use sparklers with 1-millimeter holes; for those that could use a bit of a lift, sparklers with 0.6-millimeter holes are best.
A quick shout-out: For nearly 20 years, our go-to for this sort of gear has been UK Brewing Supplies (ukbrewing.com); owner Paul Pendyck has done as much as anyone for cask ale in the United States.
A Fresh Chance
By properly considering the approach to preparing and serving cask ale, we have the opportunity to convert a new generation of beer drinkers. As interest in classic British beer styles and cask ale grows, it’s imperative that we showcase the very best version of these beers.
If we get this right, budding enthusiasts won’t understand why previous generations derided cask ale for being warm and flat or oxidized and sour. They’ll only know it as a singularly remarkable way to enjoy the flavor nuance of well-made beer: creamy, rich, and smooth, beautifully balanced, and ever-evolving in the glass.