Wednesday, September 12, 2012

C-A-S-K in the U.S.A.

Cask ale in America. Tricky topic, if you're used to understanding cask ale as something like the "real ale" defined by CAMRA. Good luck with that in the States, outside of certain festivals and a very few pubs where casks actually manage to turn over quickly because people are drinking them quickly. That's why God invented cask ale, after all. So people could drink it quickly.

I'm still working it out -- I have this feeling that the answers are all up there in my brain, but the parts are still disassembled -- but in the meantime I share three ideas. Directions of thought. Conversation starters. Theories. Things. Meanwhile I'd like to thank Tom Cizauskas for educating me in July when I was in the D.C. area (Fireworks Pizza and Galaxy Hut that evening, if you're curious). My lack of clarity on this topic is no fault of his.

1. American cask ale is not new. We can see it as trendy, if we want, since beer-specialist bars have been adding more of them lately, or so it seems. But let's call it a comeback. Cask has been part of the American micro/craft beer movement for a good long while. Got that, whippersnappers? Let's keep this in perspective. In Maryland alone: Bertha's Mussels, not what anyone would call a beer bar, has had cask ale since the 1980s. The Wharf Rat, also on Fell's Point, has had a beer engine since the mid-1990s, Cizauskas said. Maryland had Steve Parkes' British Brewing Company starting in 1988, later re-named Oxford. According to Cizauskas, British was Maryland's first micro since Prohibition, and its first beer was the cask-conditioned Oxford Class Amber. Let me re-state that: Maryland's first modern craft beer 24 years ago was a cask ale. I suspect we'd find similar stories elsewhere, especially on the East Coast.

2. Without breathers, there would be much less American cask ale. CAMRA wouldn't approve, so let's call it a practical American compromise. Cask breathers allow a small amount of Co2 to enter the cask, extending its life. Most American beer bars simply can't turn over a cask in a few days, not if they want to keep them around at all times. One example on my summer jaunt: Old Speckled Hen at the Farmers Gastropub in my hometown, Springfield, Missouri. Not my favorite beer, but I love the idea that I can have a pint of cask ale there. Without a breather it wouldn't be possible -- except on those special nights when Mother's brings in a firkin. Folks drink it the same night, naturally, as they do for special cask events at brewpubs and beer bars across the country these days. Special cask events are nice. Reliable, ever-present casks are even nicer.

3. Choices for what to put in those casks is often interesting, often poor. In Missouri and again in the D.C. area, most of the cask options I saw this summer were 6% or stronger. Often they were IPAs or otherwise high in bitterness, missing the extra bubbles that are frankly needed to scrape the resin off the tongue and help make them drinkable. The thinking, if there is any, might be, "Casks are special, the beer in them ought to be special, and special beer ought to be strong and hoppy!" Meanwhile brewers and bars are missing a chance to showcase the beauty and complexity of lighter ales, where cask has its real advantage over keg. Another way to think about it: Cask conditioning can help not-so-special beers taste very special indeed.

Like I say, I'm still working it out. I'd love to hear more thoughts and arguments on American cask ale from absolutely anyone. More than anything, I think, I'm unclear on what all those beer bars out there are actually doing with their casks -- breathers? turning it over faster than I think? key kegs? -- so it would be interesting to hear some examples.

Top photo is from Pratt Street Ale House, home of Olivers Ales, Max's Taphouse in Baltimore. Lower one is from Fireworks Pizza in Arlington, Virginia. Text CORRECTED to say that Wharf Rat has had cask since mid-1990s, not 1980s.


  1. Has some cask at McNeil’s in Brattleboro couple of years ago, didn’t enjoy it, felt flabby and almost deconstructive in the way the hops and the malt were working against each other; the other beers there are superb but I went away thinking why bother?

  2. We're sort-of in the same boat here, with the growth of cask being a side effect of the overall craft beer explosion. Your statement that "Cask conditioning can help not-so-special beers taste very special indeed" rings very true indeed.

  3. And ... there we were:

  4. Adrian, as to "Why bother?" -- I think that's a question a lot of these places ought to ask themselves. There is a sentiment that the highest expression of the modern beer specialist bar ought to have at least one cask option. For better or worse, this is often among 30-100 keg taps. With that kind of lineup, I imagine it helps turnover if the beer is one that attracts attention. Beers that attract attention are not always a good fit for cask (there are exceptions).

  5. Beer engines started disappearing in Oregon back in the mid-late 90's. Lots of McMenamins pubs used to have them, but started ditching them because keeping the beer proved more difficult and people apprently just didn't care for it much.

    I'd like to know how many beers served through beer engines in the US are actually cask-conditioned, as opposed to simply keg beer run through a beer engine. People used to say it was precious little of the former, mostly the latter. But I've been out of the US for 8 years now.

  6. Thanks for the heads up on The Wharf Rat, absolutely loved the place! The best bitter was superb, and as I mention in my post about my weekend in Baltimore, my mate and I managed to kick the cask and we are convinced we drank a good half of it!