As I may have mentioned before, I live in Birmingham, Alabama. The city has its advantages (cheap real estate, abundant smoked meats), and its disadvantages (pretty much everything else). Until very recently, there were strict restrictions on the types of beer that could be sold in the ‘Ham (nothing over 6%). Thanks to the fine folks at Free the Hops, the laws were changed and a bit of a beer renaissance has taken place. However, there is one part of Birmingham’s beer culture that is still very sorely lacking. I speak, of course, of cask-conditioned ales.
Birmingham, as far as I know, only has one “beer engine” (the manual handpump used to draw cask-conditioned ales). Located in the beer mecca called the J. Clyde’s, this hand-drawn tap is the only place in town you can get what the Brits would call “real ale”. In the days of yore, casks were the ONLY way to store suds. Casked beer was unfiltered and unpasteurized and because it contained active yeasts, it went through a secondary fermentation process in the barrel. Bottling beer has been around for centuries, but since poor folks couldn’t afford to pay for bottles, the only option available to them was to head to their local watering hole and order up a cask-conditioned ale instead. The brew would be cloudy and full of sediment and it was served warm by today’s standards. But it was creamy, mellow, and oh so delicious.
As technology advanced and Louis Pasteur developed his sterilization techniques, cask-conditioned ales almost went the way of the Dodo. Kegs became the norm since they could be sterile filtered and pasteurized. This greatly increased the shelf-life of the beer, allowed it to be shipped almost anywhere and still be fresh, and since no secondary fermentation was occurring, the beer would always have a consistent flavor. Pub owners saw increased profits since their beer wouldn’t spoil as fast and beer drinkers no longer had to worry about sediment or yeast in their brew. It also made a bartender’s job easier. Pressurized kegs required gas to pull the beer out, so carbon dioxide and/or nitrogen lines were added. This paved the way for the modern tap which allowed the bartender to just “flip” a switch and watch the beer pour out. The old beer engine method required a deft hand to pump the beer and since the beer in the lines would spoil quickly, there was always at least a wasted pint at the start of every shift.
The problem, as is often the case when a new technology virtually eliminates an old one, was that the “new” beer lost much of its character. The same debate could be applied to the cheese industry. The US Government banned raw-milk, unpasteurized cheeses because they could contain harmful bacteria and other pathogens. Pasteurized cheeses are less “dangerous” and certainly more consistent, but cheesemongers would argue that raw-milk cheeses have significantly more flavor and are actually more healthful. Thanks to high-end grocery stores and a demand from discerning consumers, unpasteurized cheeses are starting to find their way back into the dairy sections of US markets.
“Real ale” proponents often claim that keg beer is blander than cask-conditioned ales due to the sterilization and pressurization processes. Furthermore…well, I’ll let the experts explain:
“Chilling and the absorbtion of extraneous gas jointly mask the lack of flavour – with carbon dioxide you get an unnaturally fizzy pint; with nitrogen (or mixed gas with a larger nitrogen ratio) you get a pint with an unnaturally smooth and creamy head – either way these beers are always refreshing but usually taste of very little.”
That quote comes from a cask-conditioning proponent’s site and it’s hard to argue. If you pump CO2 into your brew, it might give you a sparkling, effervescent beer, but how can it not affect the overall flavor? And sure, everyone loves the impossibly silky, creamy head on a well-poured Guinness…but the inclusion of nitrogen has to take its toll. That’s not to say keg beer is “bad”…a good beer is a good beer after all. And there’s something to be said for knowing that the Anchor Steam you order in Boston is going to taste as fresh and consistent as the one you order in San Francisco.
Still…we’ve clearly lost something important these days. While the CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) movement kept cask-conditioned brews alive and well in the United Kingdom, the US hasn’t really followed suit. Keg beer has become the norm and since cask ales spoil faster and are more complicated to pour, I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Fortunately, there is some hope on the horizon. Aleheads across the country are beginning to recognize the beauty, complexity, and creamy, dreamy goodness of a hand-drawn, cloudy, kinda warm, casked brew. As demand grows, beer engines are beginning to sprout up. And if there’s one in Birmingham, Alabama…well, there’s probably one near where you live too.
So how about a quick cask tasting note:
I dropped by the J. Clyde’s over the weekend, bellied up to the bar, and asked what condition my cask-condition was in. It turned out to be one of my favorites…the Great Divide Hibernation Ale.
The Hibernation is Great Divide’s winter seasonal. A big, robust, strong Old Ale, the brew is aged for three months before it ever hits the bottles. The cask at J. Clyde’s was conditioned for five months after that, allowing the beer to develop and mellow even further. Normally, the Hibernation has a potent alcohol sting (8.1% ABV) in conjunction with a powerful malt aroma and flavor (lots of caramel, toffee, and some roasted nuts in there). A fairly big hop aftertaste (and the booze of course) leaves a good amount of bitterness on the tongue. It’s a delicious, but challenging beer with a complex nose and lots of flavors competing for attention.
But all of that changes in the cask. The beer poured with a beautiful, dark brown, creamy, frothy texture. The head was loose and undulated like a snowy peak and it never truly dissipated. It was served at cellar temps, so it was still plenty cold, just not as chilly as your normal keg beer. But that slight increase in temperature allowed a host of aromas to waft out at once and I was mesmerized by the dark chocolate, plum, and vanilla notes. The flavor was out of this world…all of the big, bold flavors which I love in the Hibernation had been tamed and melded together beautifully. The beer was pulled together into perfect harmony and each sip was rich, creamy, and better than the last. My imperial pint was drained pretty quickly and I got a second to see if it was as good as the first. It was. This was certainly a 4 Hop beer for me, but good luck finding it. The cask was gone by the end of the night and I’m not sure when the good folks at J. Clydes will be getting another. Until then, I’ll just have to sample whatever else comes flowing out out of my sole, local beer engine.
I can’t overstate the magic that takes place in a cask. As long as the beer is stored properly and the barkeep knows their way around a beer engine, cask-conditioning can make a good beer great and a great beer spectacular. Some drinkers complain that casked beer is warm and flat…and yes, sometimes it is. But that’s the fault of the bartender, not the cask. The Campaign for Real Ale did wonders in the UK and reminded beer drinkers just how much they were missing. Hopefully, a similar revolution can take place in the US. Aleheads of America, unite! There is a cask at hand…and we have work to do, you and I.