Cask Ale: Expanding Your Beer Offerings

Authored by Tom Hennessy. Reprinted with permission. Jan/Feb 2014 The New Brewer

Warm and flat is where it’s at.” So said my friend Erik Jefferts back in 1996 when he was head brewer at Phantom Canyon Brewing Co. in Colorado Springs. He was right, of course, but it’s not a great description to introduce the novice to the full flavor and velvety texture of this traditional style of beer. Craft breweries in the U.S. have been tinkering with this style of making and serving ales for quite a while now, but the practice is showing signs of real growth the last few years.

“Cask ale is growing as rapidly as craft beer in the U.S. and maybe even more so,” said Paul Pendyck, owner of UK Brewing Supplies, a U.S. retailer for all things cask. “Thankfully, we are also seeing an improvement in the standard of the pint crossing the bar, but there are still improvements to be made.”

By adding cask ale to your beer menu, you can increase your beer selection without brewing new beers. For example, you could have six beers on tap and six cask versions of the same beers, giving you 12 very different beers for your customers to choose from. Believe me, cask IPA is a different animal than IPA served from a regular tap.

Getting Started

Cask ale, or real ale, is beer that has gone through a secondary fermentation in the vessel from which it is dispensed. The carbonation occurs naturally from the fermentation process. Cask ale is served directly from the spigot under gravity; pumped from a beer engine; or poured directly from the bottle in which it was conditioned. Cask ale is relatively easy to incorporate into your brewing repertoire. Before you begin to make cask ale, however, there are a few tools involved.

The Cask

Typically the cask is a British firkin, a traditional barrel-shaped container that holds about 11 gallons. There is also the British pin, a smaller brother to the firkin that holds about 5 gallons. These are great for reasons I’ll get into later.

The cask can be made out of wood or plastic, but typically is stainless steel. There is a two-inch round opening on the side for the shive, or plug, and a one-inch hole on the end at the rim for the keystone where you tap the beer. Both the shive and the keystone have a thinner-walled centerpiece for knocking the tap through, or in the case of the shive, the spile. This is called the tut.

Spile

A spile is a wooden nail that is driven into the shive. A hard spile is pounded into the tut of the shive to release pressure from the cask and allow it to equalize before serving. Once the opening has been made, the hard spile is replaced with a soft spile, which is similar but more porous, allowing air to get into the cask.

Spigot

This is what you drive into the cask via the keystone, typically with a wooden mallet traditionally made of ash, but a cheap rubber mallet works well too. You can either dispense directly from the spigot via gravity, or use a spigot that is threaded on one end to attach a hose to transfer the beer directly to a beer engine.

Beer Engine

Essentially this is a pump that sits on the bar and directly draws the beer from the cask through a gooseneck spout into the glass. Originally these engines dispensed the beer in the same condition as from a spigot. Most engines now have what is called a sparkler screwed onto the tip of the gooseneck. This acts like a showerhead, aerating the beer as it pours into the glass to create a rich, thick head.

Cask Breather

If you cannot finish a whole firkin or pin within two days, the beer will spoil. A cask breather allows just a sip of CO2 into the cask to replace the volume of the pint just served, thereby keeping the beer from spoiling. This is done in place of letting air into the cask, and is why I mentioned using a pin if you are having an event and believe you will only go through 5 gallons. The pin will make you rest easier knowing you are not going to waste beer if it all doesn’t sell.

Stillage

The cask needs something to sit on and this can be a very simple cradle that holds the firkin absolutely still. During the clearing process, yeast and finings stick to the inside of the keg and even a small amount of movement can cloud the beer. For the serious cask brewer, I recommend using an auto tilt stillage. These are made from metal with heavy-duty springs. As the firkin starts to empty, the back of the stillage tilts up from the lighter weight, allowing the beer to move to the spigot. The movement is so slow that it doesn’t disturb the yeast at the bottom of the firkin, keeping it clear while allowing you to get as much beer as possible out. The key point of the stillage is that your cask stays absolutely still so you can serve clear beer. Pendyck is adamant, “Cask ale should not be cloudy!”

Making Cask Ale

Start by making beer the way you normally would. Cask ale comes about when you are done with your primary fermentation and you move the beer to your cask for a secondary fermentation. At this point you have several options.

I like to save wort from the beer I am going to cask on brew day. As I am transferring wort to the fermenter, I rack about 400 milliliters into an Erlenmeyer flask. I save this in a cooler until I need it.

When the beer is finished and has reached terminal gravity, I pitch a sufficient amount of yeast into the wort I had collected on brew day, and let it get to a high krausen state.

Now I am ready to rack the finished beer from the fermenter to the cask. I add the 400 milliliters of this fermenting wort, plus any hops or anything else I want to add and finish it with finings before I bung the cask.

Next I let the cask sit in the brewhouse for about three days to go through its secondary fermentation, then move it to a cool place to condition out for another seven to 10 days.

At least 24 hours before I serve the cask, I place it horizontally with the shive facing up. This gives the yeast time to settle. On serving day, I tap a hard spile into the tut of the shive to release the pressure at least two hours before I tap the keg. This allows any yeast that might get unsettled from the pressure change in the keg to settle again. After the pressure is fully released, I replace the hard spile just slightly tight to not let any more CO2 escape but so that it is still easy to remove with a pair of pliers.

To tap the cask, I hold a clean and sanitized spigot up to the keystone and hammer the spigot in forcefully (but not too hard so you can’t get it out) and quickly as it may take three or four whacks before beer stops leaking. It is a good idea if someone holds the firkin still while you do this. The first pint poured might be cloudy, then it should be fairly bright with a nice rich head on it.

You could also tap your cask with a spigot threaded on the end you hammer in. The threads attach to a hose barb so that you can directly attach it to your beer engine. To pour a pint using a beer engine, place the glass all the way up the gooseneck so the sparkler touches the bottom of the clean glass, and then pull your pint. This will give you a nice thick and tight head. If you hold the glass below the sparkler, you will get larger, less uniform bubbles, so you want to keep the head of the gooseneck below the surface of the beer. You can control how big the head is by how hard you pull the tap. The result is a pint that cascades beautifully!

To clean your casks, there are a couple of options. First, if you only plan to do a cask every now and then, simply pry off the shive and keystone and with your brewery hose, thoroughly rinse the cask. Next, hammer in a new keystone and fill the cask with a dilution of whatever your brewery uses to clean tanks. I use PBW. Let it soak overnight and rinse out the next day. Before you use it again, repeat the rinse and follow your brewery’s sanitizing protocol.

If you are doing a lot of casks, a simple sink setup with a vertical pipe with a spray ball on the end will work. The sink should have a tri-clamp outlet and inlet. The outlet feeds to the inlet of your pump. The pump outlet feeds to the sink inlet tri-clamp, which in turn feeds to the vertical CIP wand. After the casks have been rinsed, fill the sink with your cleaning solution and then place the cask with the bung hole facing down onto the CIP wand. Run the CIP loop for three minutes, then repeat with the rest of the casks. Follow up with a rinse cycle.

Cask Ale in the U.S.

Ted Sobel, brewer and owner of Brewers Union Local 180 in Oakridge, Ore., has a different approach to cask ale altogether. He simply transfers his beer into the cask when he sees the krausen start to separate from the beer. This means it’s toward the end of fermentation but there is still activity. “I don’t use instruments other than my eyes, nose, and taste. I know my yeast and can tell when the beer is ready to be racked,” said Sobel. This method was confirmed when I contacted a few real ale breweries in the UK and found out they did it the same way, but using hydrometers to determine that point.

Brewers Union Local 180 is one of the few breweries in the U.S. brewing only traditional cask-conditioned ales. Sobel conditions his casks in a refrigerated room at 50° F. When they are done, he moves them to the bar behind glass cabinet doors that are temperature controlled using a simple air conditioner to keep it 50° F. The beer is pumped with a beer engine to the front of the bar through a glycol-chilled trunk line, also set at 50° F. “When I pull a pint and set a thermometer in, it is always 52° F and perfect!”

You don’t have to own a small, cozy pub to get into cask ale. Hugh Sisson, owner of Clipper City Brewing Co. (aka Heavy Seas Beers) in Baltimore, sells cask ale through wholesale. Sisson told me, “I cut my beer drinking teeth in the U.K. in the early 70s on cask ale, even though there wasn’t a lot of it to be found back then. In the 90s when we were expanding our brewery, our salesman kept pestering me to start making cask ale. I relented and bought six firkins. I now have over six hundred.”

Heavy Seas sells casks of real ale to bars that want to have one for a special event, but what Sisson is really excited about is the growth of bars that really care about proper cask management. “Beer-centric bars really understand the level of commitment,” Sisson said. “About 65 percent of our cask accounts now have their own beer engine.”

Heavy Seas also sells what they call a caskerator. Basically it’s a beer cooler set to cellar temperature, with a cask breather and a cask widge that allows a way to dispense cask ale while the cask sits upright using a float head that pulls beer from just below the surface.

There is also a movement in the U.S. for what is called American cask ale. This is cask ale that may be higher gravity, or infused with herbs, fruit, spices, Brett, or just about anything the brewer can come up with. It can also be served colder than cellar temperature. As one brewer told me, “I don’t live in a cold, rainy climate; my customers can’t drink a beer at 52 degrees when it’s over 80 outside.”

This leaves traditionalists grimacing. As Pendyck said, “Everyone can attest that a cask ale is very different from the keg version and that is without adding peppers, chocolate, or any of the myriad of ingredients. The simple task of cask conditioning a beer creates something new. I wish we would see more cask versions of standard beers—the difference can be stunning.”

No doubt about that. There can be nothing more enticing for your customer than pulling a pint right in front of them and placing it while the foam gently cascades down the inside of a true Imperial pint, releasing aromas that can only come from a slightly warmer, flat beer. I think I’ll have one right now.