Warm, Flat and Boring
The Truth About Cask Ale
July 22, 2004
Written by SilkTork
Prior to the D-Day landings, thousands of American servicemen came over to Britain to train and prepare for the assault on occupied France. Naturally there were some cultural exchanges: the Americans gave us chocolate, nylons, chewing gum and Lucky Strikes - we gave them fish & chips, rainy weather and beer served from the cask. The servicemen felt they had the raw end of the deal, and went home complaining about the warm, flat beer.
Myths and legends have developed since then about Britain’s peculiar method of drinking beer. Even though there are a few places in the United States that do serve cask ale, these are rare, and cask ale remains almost uniquely a British experience. Everywhere else in the world the beer is either served from a bottle or under pressure from a chilled keg.
So why do the British have this odd method of drinking beer? When did we start doing it, and why? Are the casks all made of wood? How are the casks different to kegs? Is cask ale stronger than other beers? Does it have a greater aroma? And is the beer really warm and flat?
Added to these basic questions are the ones that more advanced beer drinkers ask: what is bright beer? what is real ale? what is green beer? what is a cask breather? how is a cask ale prepared in the pub cellar? what is a sparkler? how does a beer pump work? and how can I tell the difference between a cask and a keg beer?
Well, let’s start with the history of cask beer:
The History of Cask Beer
The term cask merely refers, of course, to the container in which the beer is stored. It comes from the Spanish cáscara which means tree bark, in the sense that the bark surrounds and holds the tree in the way that a cask surrounds and holds the beer. The History of Herodotus, written in 424BC, refers to “casks of palm-wood filled with wine” being moved by boat to Babylon, though clay vessels would also have been used. Stout wooden barrels held together with an iron hoop was really something the north European Celts developed during the Iron Age for storing all manner of goods. But whether the “cask” was made of clay, palm-wood or oak, whether it was a barrel, a pot or a storage jar, all had one thing in common - they all contained unfiltered, unpasteurised beer. Put simply, cask ale is the original method of storing and serving beer - the history of cask ale goes right back to the origins of beer itself. Over the centuries other methods have been developed for preserving and storing beer. But due to Britain’s cool climate and the perverse nature of the British people not to fix something that isn’t broken, we still use the ancient method of storing and serving beer.
That is not to say that this traditional serving method hasn’t come under threat. Bottled beers were commonplace by the 1600s for the well off who didn’t wish to drink in public inns, or who wanted to take a beer with them when fishing. Such as the famous story of Alexander Nowell, the Dean of St. Paul’s, who, in 1568, left his bottled beer by the river bank, and upon returning a few days later discovered the bottle opened with a bang and that the contents were very tasty. But while the middle and upper classes could indulge themselves with such expensive luxuries, the ordinary folk continued to drink their beer served direct from the cask. The famous ale that was shipped to India was delivered in casks, and only transferred to the bottle for the civilian middle classes - the troops drank their beer the same way they drank it back home - from flagons filled direct from the cask.
But as beer developed and became paler and lower in alcohol, so it became more difficult to keep it fresh tasting in the cask, especially in countries with warmer climates. By the late 1800s commercial refrigeration and Louis Pasteur’s flash heating method of sterilisation prolonged the life of beer. Thankfully, in Britain’s cooler climate these methods did not catch on. At least, not immediately.
Of course not all beer in mainland Europe is pasteurised - there are plenty of examples of unfiltered, unpasteurised beers, but these will commonly be served from a chilled container under pressure - a keg.
The keg was introduced in Britain in the 1950s as a means for breweries to keep the beer from going stale. Unlike a cask which allows air in, the keg is a sealed container. In order to get the beer out of the keg and into a customer’s glass, it needs to be forced out with gas pressure. By the early 1970s most beer in Britain was keg beer - filtered, pasteurised and artificially carbonated. The last remaining natural beers in the world were about to disappear forever. Well, that might be an exaggeration - rare examples of natural beers can still be found in the farmhouse beers of Northern Europe and the maize beers of South America for example. But in essence the last great stronghold of natural beer was about to be wiped out. And that’s when CAMRA stepped in to save what they came to term “Real Ale”.
Real Ale and Bright Beer
CAMRA’s official definition of Real Ale is, “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.” It’s an awkward definition that, like Germany’s
Reinheitsgebot, can be quite restrictive. However, the term “traditional ingredients” is designed, like the Reinheitsgebot, to prevent artificial preservatives or cheap adjuncts or chemicals from being used in the making or storing of the beer. So even if the American Budweiser was served straight from a cask, it would not be considered real because of the rice and other strange ingredients.
The heart of the definition is the “matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed”. If the beer is unfiltered, unpasteurised and still active on the yeast, it is a real beer - the container can be a cask, a bottle or a tin can, it doesn’t matter. If the yeast is still alive and still conditioning the beer, it is “real”. All cask ales have finings added which drag the yeast to the bottom - when the finings have cleared the beer it is said to have “dropped bright” and the beer will look clear rather than cloudy. But if a beer has been filtered, or has been cleared of yeast by using finings, and then transferred to another container, this is “bright” or re-racked beer. Bright beer is essentially unpasteurised beer which has been cleared of yeast and placed in a different container. It no longer sits on the yeast. As such, strictly speaking, it is not real ale because it cannot continue to ferment in the container in which it now finds itself.
The main restrictive element in the definition, and the one that causes conflict with pub landlords and American style brew pubs is the last phrase - “served without extraneous carbon dioxide”.
A Question of Fizz
Now, it’s each to their own - some people like to put sugar in their coffee, a lemon with their weiss, and fizz in their ale. Some people like Morris Dancing, towing caravans to Cornwall and collecting out of date postage stamps - the world is a big place, and there’s room for the nutters and terminally insane. In Britain we like our ale naturally conditioned - no extraneous fizz for us, thank you very much. The queue for the gassy stuff is over there, next to the nice men in white coats who are coming to take you away.
You see, for us, it’s not a question of why do we like our beer to be served naturally conditioned or “flat”, as it has been for thousands of years, but why do other people like to have gas injected into theirs. It’s a mystery to me as large as why some people wear Hawaiian shirts and checkered shorts, or other people pierce their lips and eyebrows and insert little bits of metal. Fizzy beer is strange. It’s simply not natural. It alters the mouthfeel and intrudes on the flavour.
Of course with pasteurised beers, gas has to be added, otherwise all you’d be drinking is stale beer. All pasteurised beer has gas added to it. You wouldn’t drink it otherwise - it’s a lifeless product. Of course, if the majority of beer you drink is pasteurised or bottled, then you have come to expect beer to be gassy. Bottle conditioned beer tends to produce higher levels of carbonation than cask ale. One of the landlord’s jobs is to tap the cask and let the excess gas escape. In Britain we don’t want to drink the gas, we want to drink the beer.
However, and here we come onto the controversial “cask breather” issue, once a cask has been tapped, the beer starts to come into contact with oxygen - and a beer in contact with oxygen has a limited life. The stronger the beer the longer it will survive, but for most British ales with an abv in the low 4% region, three days is typical. If the pub doesn’t have a high turnover, or if a beer is not popular, such as dark milds, three days will not be enough to sell all the beer in the cask. A cask breather allows a small amount of co2 to replace the oxygen in the cask. Not enough co2 to put any pressure on the beer so that the co2 enters the beer or pushes it up to the bar - that’s “top pressure” -, but just enough “blanket pressure” to keep the beer fresh tasting for longer. Just long enough in fact for the landlord to sell all the beer in the cask and make a small profit.
But that cask breather qualifies as “extraneous carbon dioxide”, so CAMRA don’t like it. CAMRA don’t like it to such an extent that pub landlords will remove and hide their cask breathers when CAMRA members inspect their cellar otherwise they might get blacklisted. But on the days when they are not visiting the cellar, the cask breather will be on, and the CAMRA people will be drinking the beer without any complaints.
Essentially the landlord’s job is to ensure that the beer he serves is in good condition - not stale, not fizzy and not green. And he should be trusted to know what he’s doing. If the beer tastes great, then he’s doing a good job, and that’s what matters.
So What Does the Landlord Do to Prepare Cask Ale for Drinking
Cask ale is brewed in the same manner as keg beer. The same brew run could be used to make cask, keg and bottled beer. The difference is what happens after the primary fermentation is finished and the beer has been left to condition. While pasteurised keg and bottled beers are then subjected to filtering and flash heating, the beer for the cask is simply placed in the cask in its natural state. Finings, such as isinglass (the swim bladder of fish) or Irish Moss (a seaweed), are placed in the cask to drag down the yeast and clear the beer. Extra hops and sugar may also be added. The cask is sealed and sent off to the pub. In this state it is like a bottle conditioned beer, and like bottle conditioned beers the beer will continue to develop for a certain period of time. And like bottle conditioned beers the actual length of time the beer can survive will depend on the nature of the beer itself - strong, dark beers can last for months, light, delicate beers need to be tapped and sold quickly.
The landlord will store the casks according to his knowledge of the beer. The delicate beers will be the ones he needs to tap first. The stronger beers will need longer to settle and mature. Some pubs have been known to keep very strong beers in a sealed cask for up to a year to allow them to fully develop.
When the landlord feels the beer has settled, and he is ready to serve it, he will knock a soft spile into a bung hole on the side of the cask. The major difference in appearance between a keg and a cask is that bung hole. A keg does not have a bung hole on the side. The majority of casks these days are metal, and at first glance look just like kegs. Even though there are still some wooden casks around, these are rare - in fact there are more plastic kegs around than wooden ones. Plastic casks are increasing in popularity because they are cheaper to buy and lighter to carry, though they don’t last as long.
The soft spile in the bung hole allows gas to vent off. This can be seen by the bubbles foaming around the spile. The landlord will periodically check the bubbles by wiping the spile clean and then watching to see how fast the bubbles reform. There still has to be some life in the beer otherwise it really will taste flat, but too much life and the beer will taste hard or fizzy. When the beer is judged to be ready, the landlord will replace the soft spile with a hard one (which doesn’t allow air in or gas out) and let the beer settle for 24 hours. He will also knock a tap into the end of the cask. This might simply be a tap if the cask is stored behind the bar. The beer will then be served simply under gravity pressure: turn on the tap, and the beer comes out. But if the cask is in the cellar, the beer needs to travel via tubes, or beer lines, up to the bar area.
Serving the Perfect Pint
A “beer engine” or handpump is used to siphon the beer upstairs. The beer engine is a half-pint (sometimes a 1/4 pint), airtight piston chamber - pulling down on the handle raises the piston which drags up a half pint of beer. When a cask is first tapped into the beer engine, or after the lines have been washed through, the pump needs to be pulled several times to clear the lines of air or water. The line will continue to hold beer, which will tend to go stale overnight, so the first beer pulled through will be bad beer, and this will be simply thrown away. Most pubs will pull through at least a pint of beer on each beer engine before they open, while others will wait for the first order of beer on that pump before pulling through. Chances are that if the beer you order is not a popular one you may end up with a stale pint, while the next person to order it will get a fresh one!
Experienced barstaff will serve a pint with two long, smooth, slow pulls of the pump handle, plus a short third just to make sure the glass is full. If the person behind the bar is pumping away with short jerks as though they were resting their hand on the head of someone performing fellatio, then the chances are that you’re either in a Wetherspoon pub or being served by a young student doing part-time work in the evening. The beer will be slightly more agitated than it should be, some flavour will have gone into the head, but no real harm has been done.
If you peek over the bar at the spout from which the beer emerges you may notice a small flip tap and a short spout - this is good, the beer will come out naturally. If you notice the spout is quite long with a hairpin curve - this is not so good, this is a swan-neck which is designed to force the beer into the glass, agitating it so that a head is created which takes away some flavour. Combine a swan-neck spout and a jerking pump action and your beer is really being agitated. The effect is the same as getting a bottle of beer and shaking the bottle vigorously before pouring.
In some pubs in the north of England, a small device or cap is fitted to the end of the spout rather like a sprinkler at the end of a hose pipe. Like the sprinkler at the end of a hose, this can be twisted to regulate the flow of the beer. When the sparkler is tight, the beer is severely agitated resulting in a large head but a significant lose of flavour and mouthfeel. Drinkers in the North prefer their beer this way - it is softer and creamier with less bitterness. Drinkers in the South prefer their beer with a touch more bitterness, and a slightly harder mouthfeel. If you loosen the cap on a bottle of beer so that the beer sprays out into your glass you can imitate the effect of a sparkler.
A word of warning - some pubs will disguise a keg beer by having some form of imitation pump handle on the bar. If the barstaff have merely turned on a tap, or are just resting their hand on a very small handle with no pump action, then this is a keg beer - apart from some pubs in the North which use electric pumps on cask ale. If in doubt - ask.
How to Tell the Difference Between Keg and Cask
To be fair, despite all my rantings against keg beers, they have got better over the years. Keg beers are not always vile - often they are quite drinkable. Certainly a keg beer can be better tasting than a cask beer in poor condition. Also, and this may seem strange considering all the fuss us Brits make over the preservation of cask beer, it is quite common for someone who is unfamiliar with cask ale not to be able to taste the difference between cask and keg beer.
The famous warm temperature of cask beer in the summer months doesn’t apply all that often these days with temperature control units in pub cellars and the beer lines running through coolers. In fact, some pubs will run the cask ale lines through the lager chiller in order to get the beer below the maximum temperature required by Cask Marque, so a cask ale may end up as cold as a keg lager. This is obviously not a good thing because ale requires a cool rather than a cold temperature to reveal all its flavours However, in a well run pub the cask ale will be served at the appropriate temperature - cool, but not chilled.
The aroma of cask ale is fresher and more wholesome than keg beer. But the aroma of cask ale does not have the stored up impact of bottled beers - this is beer which has already been exposed to the air for a couple of days, so there is not going to be a big impact when it is simply transferred to your glass. Typically the aroma will be released when it has warmed up slightly, and that will probably be when you are near the bottom of the glass. There will be no cardboard or metallic notes in the aroma as there will be with keg beer. And no prickly oxygen tent aroma that comes with the extra co2 used to give keg beer its “life”. All you will smell is natural, fresh beer - and the difference is like sniffing artificial fruit flavourings compared to sniffing the fresh fruit. The artificial flavourings will be pleasant and intense, while the fresh fruit will be very delicate, sometimes slipping away. Aroma, it has to be admitted, is not one of the high points of cask ale - but if you prefer, as I do, scents that are delicate, exquisite, fresh and natural, then you will enjoy the bouquet of cask ale.
The flavour of cask ale is similar to the aroma in that it is delicate and fresh, but unlike many bottled beers the flavour of cask ale is more noticeable than the aroma. I have often been struck by the intense aroma of bottled beers, only to be let down badly when it comes to drinking them. The opposite is true of cask ale - the aroma is often very slight, even non-existent at first, but the flavour makes up for that. Obviously the intensity of flavour depends on the beer style - a session bitter is not going to slap your taste buds in the way that a golden ale or imperial stout will - but a cask ale in good condition will have the flavours defined rather than muddled. Co2 bubbles in themselves have little flavour, so a mass of those bursting against your tongue will prevent the beer itself from making contact. With cask ale there is little carbonation, so more of the flavour compounds will be in contact with your taste buds. You should be able to clearly note the fruity sweetness up front, the balance in the middle and the bitterness in the finish. The flavour profile of a cask ale is much more noticeable than a keg or bottled beer. Bottle conditioned beers will also have this noticeable flavour profile, but they need to be prepared and conditioned in advance - that is the bottle needs to be opened and allowed to settle for a few hours. With cask ales the conditioning has been done for you (and hopefully done by someone who knows what they are doing!).
The most important aspect of cask ale is the mouthfeel. It should not be fizzy. If your beer is fizzy then it’s either a keg beer or it’s a cask ale that’s been put on too soon. There will be a natural life in the beer - a life that is invigorating and inviting to drink. In fact, there is no drink more inviting and satisfying than a cask ale in good condition. If you are used to carbonated drinks - keg beer, bottled beer, sparkling water, cola, etc - the mouthfeel of a cask ale may seem a little strange - even flat or boring - at first. There are some people who don’t even notice the mouthfeel. If they are just drinking the beer without paying attention - maybe they are chatting away, or maybe they are trying to catch the aroma or flavour of this cask ale they have heard so much about - the mouthfeel will pass them by. And they will have missed one of the wonders of the brewing world.
The refreshing, wholesome, natural, fresh and satisfying nature of the mouthfeel of a cask ale is like the difference between fresh coffee and instant coffee. There are some people who just don’t notice it. Yes, everyone gets the fresh coffee aroma, but not everyone pays attention to how the coffee feels and tastes in the mouth. A fresh coffee enthusiast notes the acidity and the life of a freshly ground coffee bean - the little buzz, the delicate sparkle, the contrast between the dry, roasty parts and the sweet, fruity acid. The lifeless bitterness of an instant coffee is nasty to a fresh coffee enthusiast - and the same is true of a cask ale enthusiast. Once your palate has adjusted to cask ale all other forms of beer are like instant coffee. The difference is subtle, but it’s like having sex without a condom, watching a film in the cinema, being in the audience at a concert, swimming in a real mountain pool, or driving a car with real power - once you’ve done these things it’s difficult to get excited about the substitutes. Sure, a video at home is nice, a family car is more practical, and the local pool is convenient, but these things simply don’t rock. Cask ale rocks.
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So even if the American Budweiser was served straight from a cask, it would not be considered real because of the rice and other strange ingredients.
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