Many of you have probably heard of cask conditioned ale, otherwise known as “real ale.” It seems that over the past decade (and even longer by some accounts), modern brewing culture has been seriously getting back to its roots. The craft beer industry has begun to brew commercial mead and sour beer using ancient recipes, and many brewers around the world are taking to archaeology to come up with new riffs on very, very old recipes (like Dogfish Head’s Midas Touch, made from a recipe gleaned from beer residue left within urns inside King Midas’ tomb.)
But what about cask conditioned ale in particular makes it so real?
Much like many meads, cask conditioned ale is alive. After primary fermentation, it’s racked off into casks, which leaves most of the yeast behind in the primary vessel, leaving a few remnants to continue their work throughout the secondary fermentation process. Finings and sometimes priming sugars are added to clarify, and dry hops might be added to make the end result a bit more flowery.
Ok, so how does that process make the beer any more real than what’s in the can in your fridge?
First of all, it’s unfiltered and unpasteurized, which makes it much more similar to the beer our ancestors would have drank.
Also, because the cask conditioning process is a bit fussier than normal brewing methods, the final ale isn’t optimal unless you keep the cask temperature controlled and don’t move it much. So ideally, after racking the cask is delivered to the pub, it ages somewhere cool, and is finally delivered to the bar to be hand tapped (or in the case of pubs with handpumps drawing the ale up from the cellar, not moved at all). It doesn’t like to be moved much more than that.
Because it can’t ideally travel far and must be kept in regulated conditions, by necessity it’s fresh, it’s local, and nothing is added to it to create carbonation, which develops naturally through the secondary fermentation process.
Another thing that makes it real is that this is the way beer was made and served in pubs long before metal kegs came along and LONG LONG before metal beer cans were a thing.
What’s it taste like?
The reason we love drinking (well, one of the reasons) is because of the many different flavors that can arise from different processes and conditions, and cask ale is no exception. In fact, many would argue that it’s much more flavorful than other types of ales. It will most likely be less carbonated than other beers, and less acidic. It’s recommended to be served a bit warmer than other beers so the flavors and aromas come through – but not too warm. Ideally it should be served at 54-56 degrees F.
A cask beer shouldn’t be cloudy or flat, despite what you may have heard about British pubs. If your beer is served to you warm and without any carbonation, you may have a pint pulled from a line that wasn’t cleared the night before.
Where can you get it?
Because cask ale requires special handling at all stages of the process from primary fermentation all the way to its final pour, it may be tough finding real ale at a real pub, but the trend is growing, so keep an eye out. Many craft breweries are entering cask conditioned ales into competitions, and many high quality establishments are adding it to their repertoire.
Real ale can be brewed in any container, it’s the live yeast that counts – so many breweries make bottle (rather than cask) conditioned ales. You can sometimes tell it’s a bottle conditioned ale by the sediment at the bottom, which means you shouldn’t shake the bottle or pour every last drop into your glass. Many breweries release seasonal bottle conditioned brews, but others release them as their flagship beers, such as Sierra Nevada’s Pale Ale.
Do you prefer real cask conditioned ale? Who’s your favorite cask or bottle conditioned ale brewer?Tell us in the comments!