Chances are if you’ve been into craft beer for a while, you’ve heard about cask beer at some stage. Especially now that Wetherspoons have opened their first pub in Dublin, everyone is talking about cask beer and how it needs to be “done right”. Even if you’re just getting into craft beer, you’ll see cask engines in every craft beer pub, and sooner or later you will be wondering what the story is with them.
Whatever people’s attitude towards Wetherspoons, most will agree that they do one thing well, and that’s casks. In the UK, beer enthusiasts are quite serious about cask beers and they call them “real ale”. They even have an organisation called “The Campaign for Real Ale” (CAMRA). Wetherspoons are selling cask beers in their pubs all over the UK and they are known for serving good quality “real ales”. Their arrival in Ireland will most likely raise the standard over here, and customers will become more demanding. Even though casks might seem basic compared to kegs, it’s actually a lot harder to do them right. A thorough understanding of the conditioning, “settling”, and serving process is required to make sure your pint of cask beer doesn’t end up tasting like piss. So here’s the lowdown.
What’s a cask anyway?
Casks were the original way of storing beer. The wooden barrels with iron hoops around them that we still see around today were developed by the Celts in the Iron Age. There are only very few Master Coopers left in the world who still make wooden casks by hand. Metal casks are much more common nowadays. There’s a really interesting video in the Guinness Storehouse on the craft of the cooper in the rare aul times. Warning: Extreme diddly-eye factor. But it’s still very good so give it a gander:
How is cask beer made and how is it different to kegs and bottles?
During the brewing process, there is no difference between beer that goes into kegs, bottles, or casks. In fact, beer from the same batch can be put in all 3. The differences only start once the beer is ready to be put into its final containers. (Galway Bay have had a deadly idea and printed the entire brewing process on their new napkins, so you can see it all in the pic below.) Everything’s the same up until where it says “Packaging”. Beer that is put into kegs and bottles at this stage is first pasteurized or filtered or both, and carbonated. Cask beer is just put into a cask. No pasteurising, filtering, carbonation or anything like that. That means that some of the yeast also ends up in the cask and continues to ferment the beer inside the cask. This is called “secondary fermentation” and it’s the most important step that makes the difference. It makes cask beer a “live” beer that still continues to develop its flavour and character in the cask. After that, the cask is brought to the pub, where it is left to “settle” for 1-2 days, so that the yeast can drop to the bottom and the beer is clear when served.
How is cask beer served?
Traditionally, a tap was hammered straight into the cask and the beer was served through that by using nothing but gravity. Today, the most common way of serving cask beer is by hand pump (aka “beer engine” or “cask engine”), through a spout called a "swan-neck". It forces the beer into the glass and agitates it so that a fuller head is created. This process is different to kegs where carbon dioxide is used to get the beer out of the keg and into the glass. Because it isn’t pasteurised, cask beer must be served within a few days. Contrary to the myth that cask beer is served at “room temperature”, it is actually best served at 11-13 degrees. As a craft beer drinker, you’ll know that colder doesn’t mean better anyway.
So the special things about cask beer are:
It’s naturally conditioned and served: No added carbonation or carbon dioxide.
It’s a “live” product: Yeast still continues to work in the cask.
It’s fresh: No pasteurisation means short shelf life so what you are getting is at the most a couple of days old.
It has deep flavour profile and a light, natural carbonation due to secondary fermentation.
Why should I try cask beer?
I think it’s something anyone who’s into craft beer should give a go. It’s kind of a trip back in time, an experience of how beer would have tasted centuries ago before they had all these fancy high-tech methods we have today. Cask beer tastes smoother and creamier than keg beer because the only carbonation comes naturally from the yeast. I would recommend trying a beer on cask that you’ve already had on keg before; you will definitely notice a difference. You might even think it tastes nothing like the keg version, and that can absolutely be the case.
Cask engines can be found in most craft beer pubs around Dublin. Keep an eye on their Twitter feeds to see what they are pouring. The biggest selection of Irish craft beer on cask can usually be found in The Black Sheep, where they have 4 cask engines. Pubs will normally have no problem giving you a taster of the cask beer if you’re not sure. I’d love to know what beers you’ve tried and what you thought. Enjoy!