Last week I talked about the proper way to make cask ale and hinted I would tell you of another way. Warning: Serious Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA) people, please read no further.
On my last trip to the UK I was excited to visit as many cask ale breweries - mostly in the Lake District and up in Scotland - just to see their operations. Boy was I surprised at how they were making their casks! I had in fact been doing our cask program much the same way at Colorado Boy for years and felt like I was cheating, although the product was consistent and excellent. These breweries I visited were essentially doing it the same way we were.
Let’s define Real Ale. First this is a term coined by CAMRA and simply states, “beer brewed from traditional ingredients, matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide”. It is typically also served at cellar temperatures of 50 to 55 degrees F.
The places I visited in the UK were racking beer from a conditioning tank into casks along with finings. The shape of the cask allows the yeast to settle to the bottom of the cask in a way that it is not dispensed, so you get a nice clear pint of beer.
The way we make Real Ale is to simply start the way we make any of our ales, all the way through fermentation, then transfer to our serving tank where we fine the beer. We allow it a couple days in the tank to clear, then rack off the green beer into kegs and let the beer condition in a regular Sankey keg. Because the beer has already been fined, we are not worried about yeast settling to the bottom, although there is still a small amount in the beer to condition it. If there is any additional settling it gets dispensed in the first pint or two that is pulled.
That takes care of the first two conditions - it is brewed with traditional ingredients and matured by a secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed. We do not push the beer with CO2 - which is the third requirement - but rather use a beer engine to pull the beer.
To use a Sankey keg effectively there are three things you need. First, a beer engine with a sparkler attached to the end of the dispensing wand. Next you need a cask breather which will allow a “sip” of CO2 into the keg once a vacuum is created when you pull a pint. It’s just enough CO2 (or beer gas) to to displace the beer you pulled without creating any pressure in the keg. You set your regulator to about 3 or 4 psi. That’s just enough gas to flow to the cask breather without pushing past it to the keg. From the regulator to the cask breather, and from the cask breather to the Sankey tap.
From the beer line going out of the Sankey tap install a check valve, which will keep beer from dripping from your beer engine.
For beer engines, you have a few choices. First the size of the piston, which will either be a quarter or a half pint pull. These are English pints so I’m talking a half pint being ten ounces. I prefer the quarter pint pull because there is less beer sitting in the piston between pulls. To pull a full pint will require four pulls to get your twenty ounces.
There are also beer engines that are called “water jacket”, which means the cylinder has a jacket around it where you can run glycol to regulate the temperature of the beer in the cylinder. These are more expensive but really a nice way to make sure your beers are consistent with temperature.
By four pulls with the sparkler at the bottom of a clean pint glass you can fill your pint. Remove your glass from the wand and watch the typical cascading of the beer as it settles, nice and bright with a thick creamy head at the top. I like to place it in front of the customer as soon as I pull it so they get to watch the show.
I haven’t talked about the fourth condition to cask ale, which is serving at cellar temperature. I live in Colorado, which is not the climate of the UK. It isn’t cold and damp, but typically hot and dry, and a fifty degree beer is not going to go over very well. At Colorado Boy we use a kegerator for our cask ale, and set the temperature to 45. That’s warm enough to bring out all the flavors we are after, but still cold enough to satisfy a customer on a warm day.
To talk a customer into trying cask ale, I tell them if they like nitro beers they will like cask ale, as nitro is just a cheap imitation of cask ale. You may think of a more creative way to explain it.
Another nice benefit to having a cask ale program at your brewery, is it adds more variety to your lineup without much extra work. For example if you brew a brown ale, before you carbonate just rack off a keg or two and designate it as cask. Your customers will get to choose the brown ale served cold at thirty eight and carbonated, or pulled from a beer engine at forty five. The two will be very different.
If you are a brewery in planning and a home brewer, you can certainly set this up using corny kegs. It is a very simple way to make beer and one that you and your pals will enjoy.
When I go out I will always choose cask if that option is available. I hope you will consider it also for your own brewery.