Friday, March 21, 2014

What’s so great about cask beer anyway?

caskbeer4Cask beer (aka “real ale”) differs from kegged beer in a number of ways – the biggest factor being that it’s not forced-carbonated like a keg, but naturally carbonated from yeast added to the firkin itself. Beer from the cask has a calmer, smoother mouthfeel and tends to be served noticeably warmer than kegged beer. This is basically how all beer was served before the invention of forced carbonation and kegging. It’s traditional and tends to be appreciated for its legacy. In fact, that’s what the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) is all about.

It’s quite rare to see cask beer in American bars and restaurants because so few breweries even make it available. Even classy beer bars might have one or two casks available at any given time. But it begs the question: is real ale rare because so few people are interested in it, or are so few people interested in it because it’s rare?

caskbeer1I think the answer, at least here in America, is due to the former. I’ve been a serious craft beer enthusiast for at least five years now. As I got more into the craft beer scene and started to learn more about the industry, the one thing that I never really picked up on was the appeal of cask beer. Quite frankly, I don’t get it, and I don’t know too many people who do. Seriously, what’s so great about it?

It’s flat

If all you’re used to is kegged and bottled/canned beer, then you will likely find real ale to be flat. In actuality it’s lightly carbonated, but nowhere near as effervescent as kegged beer. “It’s flat” tends to be the first impression of people who’ve never had cask beer before. Though, I still find myself having this reaction all these years later.

There’s a certain je na sai quoi factor to carbonation. As a homebrewer, I’ve had the same brew flat and carbonated side-by-side and it’s amazing how much better-tasting the carbonated version is. Flat, or beer as lightly carbonated as real ale, just tends to taste watery and mild no matter the recipe. Why pay a premium for this?
It’s warm
Like most craft beer drinkers, I prefer my beer not to be ice cold but rather “cellar” temperature (40-50 degrees). A good beer bar will refrigerate their kegs at slightly higher temperatures than, say, Applebee’s (or similar venues that serve mostly macro lagers). However, craft beer establishments that regularly offer real ale serve it at noticeably warmer temperatures. This is for the yeast’s benefit, as it won’t carbonate properly if it’s too cold.

Additionally, the firkin itself might be part of a special event where it sits on the bar at room temperature with bags of ice on top (you’ll see this a lot at beer festivals, too).

The warm temperature combined with the calm mouthfeel can make the beer cloying. And if it’s a hoppy beer like an IPA, the bitterness can linger – leaving a starchy or syrupy aftertaste. That just isn’t my idea of a pleasant drinking experience.

It’s a gamble

Because cask beer is naturally-carbonated by yeast, there’s no guarantee of consistency. Yeast are finicky creatures and are easily affected by extreme temperature and poor handling procedures. Kegged beer is also susceptible to damage from improper handling, but it’s much more resilient than cask. There’s no yeast in kegs, so there’s no chance of it becoming infected and going sour (and not the good kind of sour).

Real ale also has a much shorter shelf life than kegged beer. A good bar will know when to stop serving cask, but some places will make a cask available for sale until it runs dry. If it’s not a popular brew, it can sit and will eventually go flat and/or sour. So it just sucks if you’re a customer who unknowingly orders a beer from an expired cask.

Only certain styles are benefited by cask

When I see an American IPA on cask I tend to aoid it, but if I see an authentic British style, like a bitter, ESB, or English-style pale ale, I will give it a try. Beers like Old Speckled Hen, Wells Bombardier or Fuller’s London Pride actually taste better on cask than keg. The problem is, getting these beers on cask in the United States is rare even for real ale.

So when I see cask beer available, it tends to be certain styles that aren’t benefited by being on cask. There’s no reason to have a 10% ABV strong ale, or double IPA or imperial stout on cask. It’s certainly interesting to see these types of beers done as real ale, but if they’re not actually benefited by the format, then what’s the point of having it? I’d prefer the consistency of the keg, please.

Bars keep using casks as Randalls

Whenever there’s a special beer event at a bar or restaurant or even at a beer festival, you’ll often see Beer X advertised as “cask-conditioned with X ingredients!” (i.e. chocolate, coffee beans, peppers, herbs, hops, etc). This completely undermines the purpose of the cask. For all my complaints about the format, I will admit there are certain subtleties to real ale you can’t get anywhere else. However, those nuances all go out the window when the additives become the star of the show and turn the firkin into a glorified “Randall” (a device containing ingredients through which kegged beer is poured for additional flavor[s] not necessarily intended by the brewery).

If I wanted a beer poured through a Randall, I would order a beer poured through a Randall. Cask beer with added ingredients tends to taste either extremely messy or extremely simplistic. Either the beer and the additives clash, or the additive is the only thing you can taste. Once in a while they will harmonize, but that seems to be the exception rather than the rule in my experience.

What does the future hold for cask beer in America?

As the craft beer scene continues to grow I’m sure you’ll see real ale grow as well. However, I don’t think cask beer will increase in popularity and availability at the same rate as craft beer. I can’t imagine it will ever become nearly as “mainstream” as craft beer has become. If the “Randalization” of cask continues, it’s quite possible that in 5-10 years that’s all firkins will be used for. That, or cask beer will just garner the reputation as being for hipsters, snobs, weirdos, old farts, and anyone else not part of the mainstream culture.

But that’s just my guess – what’s yours?


  1. I first learned to appreciate craft beer while in England - and it was all real ale. I still prefer my beer warm and flat :) Cask beers have a better mouthfeel to me and the subtleties of the flavors are more obvious - so if there is a cask available I will almost always have that.

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