In doing so, I found a lot of people don’t actually know there’s a big difference between cask-conditioned and regular beer… and that they should go out of their way to experience it.
Ever been to a quality bar and seen an odd, old-timey looking beer tap, perhaps with a wooden handle and a curved spout, separated from the regular bank of taps? What you’re looking at is most likely a hand pump dispenser for pouring cask ale. You may have seen the term ‘Cask’ listed up on the board with the other draft beer, but didn’t really know what it meant, other than a cask is some kind of keg that holds beer. Well, time for a bit of beer education.
Beer is created in a tank that takes advantage of the wonders of fermentation. Most mass-produced beer then gets the yeast filtered out and gets pasteurized before being sent out into the world in bottles, cans and kegs. Cask ale goes straight from the tank into a cask: a smaller, usually rounded version of a keg, yeast and all, for a second fermentation and conditioning cycle. What you get from a cask has been dubbed ‘Real Ale’ by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) organization in England, because it is pure beer – still in its natural, living state, with no additives or preservatives, and no carbon dioxide added. You know, old school.
Back to those odd looking taps. The hand pump, or “beer engine,” is the traditional way of dispensing cask beer, unless the cask itself is sitting on the bar with a spigot on it. Unlike most draft beer in bars, which use carbon dioxide or nitrogen to force beer up through the lines to the tap, cask beer is pumped strictly by air pressure (or gravity, as per the aforementioned cask-on-bar situation).
A deft bartender will take two pumps to fill a pint of cask ale from the beer engine. Believe it or not there are actually fake hand pumps out there that are made to fool people into thinking (and paying) for cask ale, when in reality it is just a regular tap in disguise, dispensing plain ol’ keg beer. So look for the actual pumping action to be able to spot an impostor.
Cask ale is different from regular beer in a lot of other ways than just being unfiltered and unpasteurized. First off, a lot of casks you may encounter in better bars are rare beers that you probably won’t come across ever again. It is common for breweries to make up unique one-off casks for festivals or events, or bring a cask version of a popular brand of their beer to a tasting. It will be a more flavorful, less carbonated, possibly more alcoholic version of the beer you are used to drinking, and will be served at cellar temperature of around 55 degrees Fahrenheit to allow the full range of tastes to come out. (Beer served too cold loses its range of flavors.)
Casks are also a special treat because they don’t last as long as a regular keg. Once it is tapped and oxygen starts getting at it, it technically starts slowly spoiling and will only last a few days at best. Your cask pint will also cost a little more than a regular pint, due to its premium quality and rarity.
So next time you’re out at a bar that’s seriously serious about beer, ask if they have anything on cask. You’ll not only score cred points with the hot bartender, you’ll look like a more sophisticated beer drinker and expand your alcoholic horizons.
Want more info? Hit one of these links:
Alex is the NY king of Cask Beer and will tell you all about it and where to find it in NY.
List of places to find Cask Ale in the USA
The Cask Ale glossary
Check out their Education section to learn more about Cask Ale and Craft Beer