Beer purists are gravitating toward an unappreciated old-school brewing process—and guests are following their lead.
“There’s nobody that truly likes beer that wouldn’t like cask beer,” says Paul Pendyck, chief operating officer at The Bulls Head Public House, a British-style pub in Lititz, Pennsylvania. “It is beer in its purest form.”
Cask ale is often misdescribed as warm, flat beer—but that is flat wrong. Cask ale is unpasteurized, unfiltered, mildly carbonated, served cool (but not cold), and is hand-pumped from a cask or firkin (a smaller, 10.8-gallon cask). It ferments naturally in the cask, giving it a fresh taste with accentuated flavors. When done correctly, it attracts steady customer base. It also highlights traditional English-style ales, which once dominated the craft beer industry.
The right stuff
“Having the right equipment is important,” says Derek Wells, who co-owns Wild Rover Brewing Company with his son Ricky Wells in Tampa, Florida. Ricky Wells says he uses a sparkler (a plastic spout affixture) for beers like their Czarina, Czarina stout, and Bell Boy porter to help create a creamy head atop the cocoa flavor. He also employs a dispensing system known as a cask widge, which includes a floating filter to prevent air from entering casks. This method extends the short shelf life of the beer and allows Wild Rover to replace regular-sized firkins with kilderkins, doubling the cask volume to 21.6 gallons.
Cool storage and temperature control are essential. “A lot of people are put off because they think it’s just warm beer,” Derek Wells says. But cask ale is only warm relative to keg beer, which is typically served at 38 degrees Fahrenheit. Cask ale is best consumed around 55 degrees.
“When served too cold, a lot of the delicate nuance of flavor is lost,” says Greg Engert, beer director for Neighborhood Restaurant Group in the Washington, D.C., area. He oversees cask ale programs at six locations.
Engert and Wells both buy a lot of equipment from UK Brewing Supplies, which Pendyck owns. When someone calls Pendyck about starting a cask ale, he wants to know it will be cared for. “The first question I ask them is how are you going to keep it cool?” he says.
In Minneapolis, Town Hall Brewery has been serving cask ale since opening in 1997. All its cask engines have water jackets to keep the beer cool. The head brewer and co-owner, Mike Hoops, wants the cask ale to hit the drinking glass at 50 degrees so that the customer is soon drinking it at 54 or 55 degrees, which Hoops calls the sweet spot.
“Cask ale requires you to pay closer attention and give lots of love to the details,” Hoops says. A strong cask program signals to drinkers that a beer, bar, or brewery is serious about the craft.
What to cask
Choosing the right cask beer is about balance, especially between hops and malt, which benefits English-style ales.
At The Bulls Head, Pendyck likes to serve locally brewed St. Boniface Craft Brewing Company’s Wynfrid English Session Ale, a dark mild at 3.2 percent ABV. “It’s extremely flavorful and extremely quaffable,” Pendyck says. He also recommends Ruddles County bitters by Greene King/Morland Brewery as equally sippable.
Less is more with lower ABV, less carbonated beers, which can boost sales. Because cask ale is less gassy and boozy, customers can drink more compared to a heavier IPA. It allows for a session; guests can sit for longer to socialize, eat, and drink “without being on their back,” Pendyck says. He says The Bulls Head’s cask ale outsells its keg beer counterpart.
That being said, Pendyck isn’t opposed to IPAs and stouts in cask. He personally enjoys Oliver Brewing Company’s Bishop’s Breakfast, a dark oatmeal stout brewed in Baltimore, Maryland, where it is served in cask and in nitro. “A lot of the beers are developed on nitro, so they can mimic cask ale but be served in keg,” Pendyck says. “The most famous example is Guinness. People like Guinness for its thick creamy head and malt profile. You get the same thing with a good stout in cask.”
Town Hall Brewery’s Hoops consistently casks the Masala Mama IPA. The process brings out a “malty backbone” while also curbing the sharpness of bittering hops. Town Hall also features guest beers in cask, such as Summit Brewing Company’s Sága IPA and Bell’s Brewery’s Two Hearted Ale. “We’re proud to run cask ales and will continue to do so as long as we’re around,” Hoops says. “It’s an important tradition that shouldn’t be lost.”
At Washington, D.C.’s Churchkey, Engert often taps Harvey Brewery’s Sussex Bitters, which he describes as dry but not too bitter. Engert also brews his own English-style bitters called Essex at Bluejacket, which boasts a rich dark berry note to the yeast. He keeps five casks on tap at both locations. Engert says Shelton Brothers Importers and B. United International have been great at sourcing English ales for cask.
Cask ale is a process, not a style. It demands time, tools, and energy. “It’s a labor of love,” Engert says. “But if you do it well, your audience is going to grow and come back.”