Hart Johnson, official Piper’s Pub bartender, Piper’s unofficial beer coordinator, and Secretary for Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week 2013, lays out his plans for the city’s first Real Ale Festival: “We’re not rolling the firkins down the hill that day and hoping for the best. Everything will be properly vented and served the way it’s supposed to be.”
The American craft beer scene often resembles The Blob- enveloping and co-opting brewing ingredients, styles, and techniques from all over the world. If it works and tastes good, someone will use it, from New Zealand hops to yeast gathered from a bottle of Rochefort 10. But cask ale served in the British tradition has been relatively slow to catch on at festivals and beer bars in the states. Why? To paraphrase Johnson, it’s a pain in the ass.
Compared to kegs, serving cask ales is a messy and time-consuming proposition. During conditioning, they must be kept be kept at 50-60 degrees and ideally served below 55. They must be handled with care and allowed to sit undisturbed for at least a day to allow the yeast to drop and form a layer of sediment. As any homebrewer knows, carbonating and conditioning in the bottle is an inexact science, and it is the same with cask ales. The level of carbonation in each firkin will vary, and brewers opt to add sufficient amounts of priming sugar to make sure the cask is carbonated enough- after all, over carbonation can be fixed by slowly venting the gas, but there is no cure for a firkin without enough fizz.
Taking into consideration the time, fuss, and planning involved in serving cask beer, why should a proprietor undertake this endeavor at all when you can just hook up some good old fashioned CO2? Simply put, drinking properly served cask ale is a beer experience that can’t be achieved in any other way. In addition to the aesthetic pleasure of consuming beer in a natural, living state, sampling cask offerings at Piper’s of beers I thought I knew well completely changed my perceptions. From heavily-hopped classics like Troeg’s Nugget Nectar to brews I didn’t think I cared for like Bell’s Kalamazoo Stout, the manner in which the flavors meld and the texture softens makes trying a familiar beer on cask an interesting and delicious proposition for the craft beer fan.
Despite the hassle involved, there are signs that cask ale is starting to take hold here in the states. Firkin festivals, and all the bad puns that go with them, are popping up across the country, and more craft bars are adding cask offerings all the time. Recently on the Beer Sessions Radio program, High Sisson of Heavy Seas Brewing discussed the company’s focus on cask ales and hinted at plans to roll out “caskerators” that will allow beer bars to easily store firkins at the proper temperature, keeping them good for up to 10 days.
The Pittsburgh Real Ale Festival, dubbed Release the Firkins, is 2-6 PM on April 20, 2013, at the brand new Highmark Stadium, home of the Pittsburgh Riverhound soccer club. In addition to the stunning views of the river and city, the event will feature over 30 cask ale offerings from local Pittsburgh favorites like East End and Helltown, Pennsylvania stalwarts Troegs and Victory, as well as national/ regional craft players like Lagunitas and Flying Dog. Admission also gets you a commemorative taster, food samples from restaurant Beer Week sponsors, and live music. Tickets are almost gone, so act quickly if you’re a Pennsylvania Alehead. It will be a great time.
Johnson will be transporting the beer to the event locale the night before, venting all the firkins in preparation, and keeping them cool before the event with air conditioning and ice blankets. It does sound like a pain in the ass, but when it comes to cask ale, it’s only worth doing the right way.