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Cellaring Cask Ale

The Rake cellarman Tom Cadden’s Guide to Cellaring
Features September 24, 2009      
Written by DonMagi

bantervile, ENGLAND -


Cellaring cask ale is something I’ve been doing for many years now and it’s possibly one of the most rewarding parts of my career in the pub trade. There’s no specific art to cellaring cask ale, it’s just something you get a feel for and begin to understand it over the course of time. However there are some basic rules that no one has ever told me, but it’s what I teach my staff and anyone else who’s interested. These rules won’t always work and as I’ve said every cask will be slightly different, but generally they’ll give you the results that will make the customer smile and that’s what makes it so rewarding.

First thing to note is I’ve always used stillage racks for my ale, meaning gravity, when the casks are lying on their side. There are two other types of dispense which are spears (cask upright, spear goes in bung) and the float system (a very new technique which is basically just the same as spear, but it’s a rubber tube with a float so that the beer you get is always from the top of the cask and goes down with the beer level). I’m only going to refer to the stillage system, as I believe it to be the best system and it’s what I know best. However you can take note from what I write and use it in the different systems.

Ok so you go down into the cellar as a beer needs racked onto the stillage. This is the first time you’ve done it and you have no idea what to put on. So first you need to think, what beers do I currently have on and more importantly what beers will be on by the time this beer goes on? You want to keep it varied, a good line up of different styles and strengths are always desired. It really is an epic fail when you go into a pub and find 5 cask stouts on in the middle of summer for example. Secondly dates, general rule is whatever is closest to use by date first. This is a tricky one, as sometimes it won’t match with the styles you want to have on so you have to skip a few things. What’s more is most dates on casks are just a safe date to keep the brewer less liable if the beers off, also IPAs and other beers should be had fresh where as barley wines will cellar for up to 10yrs in the right circumstances (we’re got Thomas Hardy’s casks going back a few years now). So use your judgment and as I’ve said it’s something you’ll begin to understand over the course of time. Note that when you rack a beer the bung (the hole you dispense the beer from) should be directly at the bottom as if it’s to the side at all you’ll lose your yield of ale.

So you’ve racked the cask, now it needs time to settle. 24hrs I recommend is the minimum time you should leave a cask before putting it on, any more is excellent. In the cask is what’s called finings, generally isinglass (which is the shredded, freeze dried, powdered swim bladder of sturgeon) but can be other things now which are suitable for vegetarians. Basically the yeast sticks to them and they fall to the bottom, clearing the beer. I’ve said 24hrs is the minimum recommended time to allow to settle, some casks may take up to 72 some only 3-4.

Next thing to do is vent the beer. You need to think about when this beer will go on. Ideally I’d recommend venting the beer 24hrs before you think it will be going on sale. It can be difficult to judge as you never really know how much beer you’re going to sell, but you get a feel for how much you sell on certain days and what beers you have on already and that kind of thing. To vent a beer you need a mallet (rubber ideally), both hard and soft spiles, and some room to jump away from the cask if it explodes on you! Hit the hard spile into the shive, the hole on the top of the cask in the middle where it’s just a thin layer of wood or plastic. You are just wanting to vent the beer here so don’t smack the spile right in or you’ll have a hell of a trouble getting it out again. I personally like to tap it very gently until it’s just beginning to hiss as the excess gas comes out, this way you’ll be able to tell if the cask is going to explode on you and cover you in beer, as if beer comes out rather than gas you can prepare for the worst. Once you’ve hit the hole right through on the shive, replace hard spile with soft spile just at hand tightness, no need to hammer it. The soft spile allows the beer to get rid of any excess CO2 but at a rate so that you don’t over vent the beer. After 24hrs if the beer is not on yet get a tap and hammer it into the bung, try and do it in as little hits as possible, as too many hits can unsettle the beer again, then replace the soft spile with hard spile to stop it from venting.

Tapping the beer. This is another tricky thing that’s probably taken me the longest time to figure out as it’s the most variable thing I’ve come across. Some breweries use casks with wooden bungs these are the biggest pain in the ass ever. It normally takes about 5-10 good hits from the mallet to get through one and by this time you’ve normally unsettled the beer somewhat and have to leave it for another 12hrs or so. Also the casks like to blow about a gallon of beer out of the shive and cover the cellar in beer. Most breweries, however, use a rubber bung which you can hit the tap through in one hit. Most of the time that’s it fine and you can just go and sell the beer straight away, however there are times with certain breweries that it will go mad and explode all over the cellar. So general rule, if the beer was lively when you vented it, it’ll probably be lively when you tap it also. So take this all into consideration when you’re thinking about when you should tap the cask. If in doubt if you’ve given it enough time to settle, go get a glass and pull off two samples. The first one almost always has a few little floaters in it and the second one will give you a more accurate indication of whether or not the beer has cleared, you should also taste the beer just to make sure it’s not infected and to make sure you’re happy with it. Remember to put a soft spile in the beer when selling it, or else you’ll create a vacuum in the cask and it won’t come out.

Well that’s it really. From here on you should just have to connect the cask to the line and pull it through or if you’re at a festival or whatnot just pour it gravity. Enjoy your journey!

Chin chin!



tdtm82 says:

Great read. How about pics of the cellar too? Thanks for the article.

142 months ago
Nightfall says:

Great read Tom ! Thanks !

143 months ago
yngwie says:

Nice Tom! Really!!

144 months ago
xnoxhatex says:

Very interesting, thanks for the info Tom!

144 months ago
Christian says:

Thanks for a really great article. I'm sure that the art of the cellarmaster is one that remains a mystery to most of us, whether beer gods, beer geeks home brewers or which ever capacity. And one of the most important non-brewing arts, of course.

144 months ago
CampbellWilson says:

Steps out of retirement... Great article, Tom. Have you noticed that you've been labelled an 'English beer enthusiast' on the Ratebeer home page (scroll down a bit)? Cheers!

144 months ago
cgarvieuk says:

"It really is an epic fail when you go into a pub and find 5 cask stouts on in the middle of summer for example. " Oh no thats much more than an EPIC win. If only i could walk into a pub any time of year to find 5 cask stouts on ... but i agree in principle :-)

144 months ago

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