It may sound like a technical guide to The Jabberwocky: the glossary of terms for cask-conditioned beer is right up there in the silly-sounding-words department. At this point in an intermediate-to-professional beer drinker’s life, you’ve probably had beer from a cask/firkin/beer engine. Chances are, you first thought it was too warm, too malty, flat. Then you picked up on some of the subtleties that come with fresh, live, real ale, nuances that can be found only in cask-conditioned ale. Or, if you still think it’s flat and warm, try it again, and imagine yourself in a pub (oh right, you already are in a pub) on a rainy evening (it is Oregon after all), in the 1890s (got ya there!). At this point I’m thirsty enough to drive to Oakridge for a pint of Brewer’s Union Local 180’s Real Ale. A pint of ESB or Porter is great after coming down from the mountain (or going up…).
Before pressurized CO2, brewers needed a way to carbonate their beer, so they would seal it up in a wooden cask (a firkin = 9 Imperial gallons, or 10.8 U.S. gallons) before it had finished fermenting; the remainder of fermentation would produce enough CO2 to lightly carbonate the beer to make it brighter, more palatable. Carbonation protects beer from oxidation and infection, increases bitterness perception, and generally makes beer more enjoyable to drink.
Back in the 70s, a consumer advocacy group called the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) wrote the constitution of Real Ale, defining it as
“a natural product brewed using traditional ingredients and left to mature in the cask (container) from which it is served in the pub through a process called secondary fermentation. It is this process which makes real ale unique amongst beers and develops the wonderful tastes and aromas which processed beers can never provide.”
And so we have Real Ale. But don’t be fooled! Some breweries will fake it by taking finished beer, force carbonating it to a low level, and putting it into a firkin, or simply calling it “cask” beer. It may be effective at recreating some aspects of Real Ale, but is disingenuous to consumers and misses the point of recreating a historical method of making beer.
There are two ways to enjoy Real Ale: it can be hooked up to a “beer engine” and pumped into your pint; or it can be poured by gravity from a spigot that is driven by mallet force into the keystone (tap-hole) of a firkin. Regardless of how it is served, Real Ale is alive and very temporary– as beer is poured, oxygen is allowed in through the shive (a vent on top of the firkin). Oxygen exposure will spoil beer over the course of a couple days, so it needs to be drunk!
One of the many awesome aspects of Real Ale is that you can “dose” the firkin with anything you want– hops, coffee, wood, fruit… it’s impossible to do that in most commercial kegs. On July 18th, the Stein is putting on a smorgasbord of wood-aged beers, and one of those will be a firkin of Falling Sky’s Exposure IPA, dosed with (I think) hickory wood and hops. Even sooner than that, on Wednesday (7/3), we’ll have a firkin of Firestone Walker’s Walker’s Reserve Porter tapped at 5pm– if you thought it was good out of the bottle, that creamy chocolate sensation will be elevated by the natural conditioning process, warmer temperature (~55F is proper cellar temp.), and lower carbonation.
Update: I had e-mailed Firestone rep Keenan Delehanty for assurance that the firkin was proper Real Ale. He replied back with a paragraph from brewer Matt Brynildson:
Having spent a good deal of time in the UK observing cask ale production, I can assure you that our casks are racked and conditioned in the same manner as those racked by the great cask ale breweries in England. The only major difference is that our program utilizes no cask finings, therefore the clarity of our beers is sometimes less bright than those you see in the UK. We feel that we can not use finings effectively unless the publican receives the cask and places it into stillage for an reasonable amount of time (24-48 hours) without moving it prior to serving, allowing the finings and precipitate to stay in the bottom of the cask (that’s a mouth full.) Most US publicans are moving the cask around just prior to serving which stirs up the cask contents (finings do not taste very good since they are made from fish guts.) Also, on the subject of priming casks (the addition of sugar or wort to spark a secondary fermentation) this is typically done in breweries that are fermenting in open fermenters and can’t assure that the proper amount of CO2 is present in the beer at the time of racking. Priming cask beer is not as common as some folks would like to think and it’s all about dialing in CO2. The CO2 level that finished cask ale should have is 1.2-1.8 volumes CO2/beer and this is what we get in our normal fermentation cycle. We would only utilize priming sugar if we were unable to deliver the proper CO2 level at the time of racking. Since we produce our beers in closed cylindrical / conical tanks, we typically are able to get all of the CO2 required for the finished cask in tank. We do rack the beer unfiltered with yeast so that any residual activity of the yeast protects the beer while the cask is conditioning.
Hope this helps
Thanks Matt, great info!