Warm and flat is where it's at

Forget nitro. Make the real thing baby!

“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 Brewery in Colorado Springs. He was right of course but not a great description to introduce the novice to the full flavor and velvety texture of this traditional style of beer. 

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 twelve very different beers for your customers to choose from. Believe me, your cask IPA is a different animal than your IPA served from a regular tap.

            Cask ale, or real ale, is beer that has gone through a secondary fermentation in the vessel that it is dispensed from. The carbonation is only what occurs naturally from the fermentation process. It is served either directly from the spigot under gravity, or pumped from a beer engine, or poured directly from the bottle in which it was bottle conditioned from.  

            If you have ever thought of adding a cask or two to your beer line up, I thought it would be good to take a fresh look at this old style and show how you can incorporate it into your brewing repertoire. Before you begin to make cask ale however, there are a few tools you will want. 

The Cask. Typically the cask is a British Firkin, which is a traditional barrel shaped container that holds about eleven gallons. There is also the British Pin, a smaller brother to the firkin that holds about five gallons. These are great for reasons I’ll get into later.

            The cask can be made out of wood, or plastic, but typically they are 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 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.

The 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 it is from a spigot. Most engines now have what is called a sparkler screwed on to the tip of the swan-neck. This acts like a showerhead aerating the beer as it pours into the glass. This causes a rich thick head on the beer. 

Cask Breather. If you cannot sell 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. That is why I mentioned using a pin if you are having an event and believe you would only go though five gallons. The pin will make you rest easier knowing you are not going to waste beer if it all doesn’t sell and you are allowing air into the cask. 

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 an 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. Paul Pendyck is adamant, “Cask ale should not be cloudy!”

Making Cask Ale

            You 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 ml’s of it into an Erlenmeyer flask. I save this in a cooler until I need it. Here is an older video I made on the process making some cask ale.

            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 ml’s 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 brew house for about three days to go through its secondary fermentation, then move the cask to a cool place to condition out for another seven to ten days.

            At least twenty-four hours before I serve the cask I place it horizontal 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 anymore CO2 escape but still easy to remove with a pair of pliers. 

            To tap the cask I hold a clean and sanitized spigot up to the key stone 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. Pour off your first pint that may be cloudy, then it should be fairly bright with a nice rich head on it. 

            You could also tap your cask with a spigot that is 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 out. 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 over night and rinse out the next day. Before you use it again, repeat the rinse and follow your breweries sanitizing protocol.

            If you are doing a lot of casks, a simple sink set up 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 verticle 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. 

There is 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, bret beers, or just about anything the brewer can come up with. They 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° when it’s over 80 outisde.”

            This leaves traditionalists grimacing. As Paul 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 the aromas that can only come from a slightly warmer, flat beer. I think I’ll have one right now. 

Parts of this article I lifted from an article I wrote in the New Brewer some years back. Next week I will show you a cask method I discovered on a trip to the U.K. that is even easier for any brewery to copy, and what we do at Colorado Boy. It will save you from a possible mess. I leave you with a funny video on cask fails.

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