Friday, October 26, 2007

The Power in the Cask

I ran across this article on cask beer this morning and it triggered 2 things in me; a real thirst for a beer and ..ok just one thing.
This was beer the really old-fashioned way. Today most draft beers are injected with carbon dioxide, filtered and often pasteurized, stored in pressurized kegs and served through gas-powered taps.

But the beer I was served was unpasteurized and unfiltered. Like the earliest bubbly brews, it was naturally carbonated, or conditioned, in its cask by yeast transforming sugar into alcohol with a side of fizzy carbon dioxide trapped in the cask. And it was served by muscle power pumping the ale up from its cask into the mug.


The number of casks being pumped is minute, given an American beer market still dominated by big corporate brewers. But throughout the country, growth in the beer market has been almost entirely in the craft brewing segment, and that has been especially true in New York.


Because cask ales are naturally carbonated and best served at cellar temperature — about 55 degrees — they have often been described as warm and flat. But as you get to know them, it can become hard to imagine drinking beer any other way. The softness of the bubbles and the gently cool temperature permit nuances that would otherwise be undetectable.

Cask ale is made the same way as other good beers, until it is left to mature in tanks. Mass-market beer is filtered and pasteurized for a stable shelf life.

Cask beer is treated differently. It goes, naturally, into casks, or firkins, if you want the British word for a container of 9 imperial gallons (around 11 U.S. gallons). Firkins used to be wooden, but now are generally made of metal. A small dose of sugar is added to produce a secondary fermentation, just as Champagne or certain other beers are refermented in bottles. Brewers may also add more hops and a fining material, like isinglass, to help settle the yeast and clarify the beer.

Cask ales must be treated with considerable care. They have to be kept cool and handled gingerly, and when it’s time to tap the kegs, they require an experienced, or at least educated, hand. In fact, the biggest obstacle to a wider distribution of cask beers is a lack of training.


If mass-market kegs are the Wonder bread and Velveeta of the beer world, cask ales are like fresh-baked loaves or artisanal cheeses, with the potential to be glorious but risky all the same. They have a shelf life of two to four days once opened, and if not tapped correctly they can be a big disappointment.

Read the whole thing, Eric Asimov is a great writer, but he mostly writes about wine. It's a great treat on those occasions when he writes on beer. I would really like his job.

Anyway, since I found my first cask beer at the Blind Tiger in Topeka (the one good thing I took away from there was the cask beer and a good joke about my brother being an anal birth) I've always asked about a cask at every brewpub I've been in. It really is a fabulous experience, because it's just so experimental. The brewers don't really know what they're going to get. It's exciting because sometimes they might not be that great, but other times they're just fabulous, kind of like sitting through a couple of comedians at the Laugh Factory in New York and then having Jerry Seinfeld or Chris Rock come on stage just to try some new material out (go buy "Comedian" it's a tremendous movie if you're interested in the craft of stand up). I imagine it's the closest a brewmaster comes to the amateur homebrewer.

When I go to a brewpub, I always have a couple of questions before I order the Brown (you'd like the brown too if you're brother was an anal birth). First, do you have a cask beer today. The 'today' part is important because it forces the bar wench to tell you if they ever have a cask beer, at least if the customer service is up to snuff. Most of the time, they either don't have one that day or they never have them. If they don't have them that day, it's cool, they probably have a good selection of brews. If they never do, it's not necessarily a strike against them, but I start to doubt their brewmaster's creativity. Needless to say, if they do have a cask, that is what I will be ordering.

If they don't have a cask, my next question is "what is your seasonal?". The good thing about the seasonals are that they are usually created by the brewmaster that currently works there. An established place has established recipes and the brewmaster comes in and inherits those recipes and brews them with no touches of his own. But the seasonals come directly from the brewmaster (or at least there is one seasonal that is his own). So the seasonals are usually the most creative and again it can be hit or miss. But, it's the rare beer that is undrinkable and even the bad ones have something interesting (except Sam Adams Cherry Wheat, I'll just drink some NyQuil next time, it tastes better).

In KC, the only place that I'm sure does a cask is the 75th Street Brewery, but, like I said earlier, they do not always have one. Since they've reopened after the fire, they've had one only once when I was in there and it was the Irish Red seasonal (double bonus). So, get your arse out to Waldo and drink a cask beer. If you know of someplace else that has a cask, let us know in comments and we'll meet you there (or if you'd rather we'll let you know when we'll be there so you won't have to see us).


  1. If you sign up for 75th St's emails, they let you know when they are going to crack open a new firkin. :)Sometimes I post them on my blog. I should start doing that more regularly...

  2. Good 'fo Vard. And now I go to sign up for my firkin mail.

  3. 75th is my regular spot, but McCoy's also has a cask ale pretty frequently.

  4. I doubt anyone's going to read this since the original post is 3 years old, but oh well, I'm a new reader to the blog so I might as well add my 2 cents.

    You need to get your booty over to the UK. An assortment of cask ales are at pretty much every pub (and there's a pub on every corner), and they are truly magnificent. The great thing is the local beers there that are available in the states - Bass, Boddington's, Tetley's, etc. - are all available on the cask. True that the nitrogen tap that dispenses Boddingtons and other cream ales is modeled after a cask pour, but it still has a different, more distinctive taste.

    I travel for business quite frequently to other parts of the US and always try to stop in a brewpub in whatever town I happen to be at and ALWAYS ask if they have a cask ale. Unfortunately, 50% of the time the waitress has NO IDEA what I'm talking about, which, if that's the case, 9 out of 10 times the rest of the beer tap is going to be awful. As far as cask ale in KC, 75th Street does a pretty decent job. It's typically their IPA which I'm not too fond of their regular version, and sometimes it's good as a cask and sometimes it's not. I've found their Irish Red and their Brown to be, at times, very good good. I really have yet to find a cask ale anywhere in the US can match the cask I've had in the UK. I'm sure a lot of that has to be situational as well.

    McCoy's cask ales have been OK, but 75th Street's are better from my experience.