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Here Come the Hand Pumps! (No, Really.)

There are signs that brewers and drinkers are emerging from a relatively monotonous haze phase to re-embrace more choices via lagers, traditional styles—and even cask ales. From Behind the Bar, here is specific advice on adding cask to your bar or taproom.

Greg Engert Apr 21, 2022 - 11 min read

Here Come the Hand Pumps! (No, Really.) Primary Image

Photo: Matt Graves

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.

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Greg Engert is beer director of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, whose bars and restaurants include ChurchKey, Rustico, and the Bluejacket brewery, among others.