Before the American craft beer scene had planted its first seeds in Old Blighty, some in Britain proudly maintained the tradition of cask beer. You may be thinking to yourself, that’s the stuff that’s flat, warm and sometimes sour right? Unfortunately, oftentimes you would be correct.
But when the proper conditions are met, cask beer is so much more than the sum of its parts! One could argue that cask beer is the one and only true beer, superior to the false idols of modern times.
Until innovations in the 19th century, all beer would have been what today is considered “cask”. Back then it was just called “beer” or “draught beer”. And all beers were fermented in, stored in, and served from clay or wooden vessels. These beers would have been low-carbonated or still beverages served at cellar temperatures.
Additionally, these draught beers were live products that continued to evolve with a self-contained universe of various microorganisms, not unlike wine. For the vast majority of the time, stretching all the way back to the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians, all beer drinking civilisations have been drinking “cask beer”.
So that’s it. Cask beer has been around since the dawn of civilisation and it always will be.
With that, the article is complete. Jokes, the discussion of cask beer is much more complicated than that!
A Brief History of Cask
The history of beer that has led to our modern brewing state is beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say, brewing techniques and technologies have evolved over thousands of years and at an accelerating pace. Before what was once ubiquitously just “beer” could become known as “cask”, a few of these innovations needed to take place.
The first practice that contributed to cask beer as we know it, is the technique of bottle conditioning. This secondary fermentation of a small amount of sugar while in the bottle allowed for alcoholic beverages to maintain the lovely effervescence enjoyed today. While it’s up for debate, a Benedictine monk named Dom Pérignon is mostly credited with techniques used today.
There are also plenty of alternative historical anecdotes such as the one about Alexander Nowell who in 1568, left a bottled beer by the river bank. You see, back in the 16th century, it was common for the upper classes to get takeaway beers from the pub for various activities such as fishing. Only this time, Alex had left an unopened bottle to continue fermenting for days. Upon discovering it later, “he found no bottle, but a gun, such was the sound at the opening thereof; and this is believed the original of bottled ale in England.”
Whoever discovered refermentation first, we can only say that great minds think alike.
Secondly, Louis Pasteur would make massive breakthroughs in fermentation science with pasteurisation and much more. This included the identification of the lager yeast, S. pastorianus and its rapid dissemination. Why is this important? Well, industrial lager required innovations like refrigeration for a much cooler fermentation than ale, and it also needed to be served colder. That colder serving temperature would pave the way for effervescent keg beers by increasing the solubility of CO2 in the beverage.
To Fine, or Not to Fine
Thirdly, filtration has always been a part of the brewing process. This includes the use of reed straws used by the Egyptians for drinking purposes. Or more recently the use of straw or hay as a filter during lautering for a farmhouse brewer.
However, filtration as a method to produce clear beer with a stable shelf is a relatively recent innovation. This can be as simple as cold filtering or as advanced as pushing the product through a micron filter that can separate compounds out at a molecular resolution.
With cask brewing, the popular alternative to getting bright beer has been via the use of finings. Solutions such as Isinglass (sturgeon swim bladder) are added to the beer during conditioning. These compounds will bind to proteins and yeasts, making them heavy and allowing them to settle at the bottom of the vessel.
According to CAMRA, this type of “filtration” is A-okay, but none of that micron-filter malarky!
Introduction of Keg
Last but not least, like matter and anti-matter, we can't have “cask” without “keg.” Stainless and aluminium vessels started cropping up (see what I did there) around the 1920-30s. It was Pilsner Urquell that first created a vacuum-capable vessel and such was the birth of the keg as we know it today. Alongside pasteurisation, these vessels allowed for a much longer shelf life than bottled and draught beer had ever been able to afford before.
Taking care of traditional draught beer has always been a challenge. As soon as you begin serving the stuff, it starts to oxidize and go stale. This is because as beer is poured out of the barrel, oxygen moves in to equalize the pressure.
When it comes to fresh beer, contact with oxygen is a no-no. Besides creating delicious flavours like paper and cardboard, this oxygen encourages the growth of anaerobic bacterium like acetobacter. This is fantastic if one desires to make malt vinegar!
But unless you are hoping to douse your fish n’ chips with a pint, it is quite undesirable. Publicans need to be adept in the art of cellaring to make sure every patron is served a proper pint and not something that’s like kissing your grandma. The good news is that in addition to the much longer shelf life, keg beers were essentially idiot-proof!
These early kegs also marked the beginning of other brewing techniques like force carbonation. Because these vessels could hold other-worldly pressures when compared with their wooden counterparts, the gloves were off. Breweries now had a more rapid and consistent way to condition beers. By using pressure they could force carbon dioxide into the finished beer with ease.
Watneys first introduced a pasteurised and force-carbonated product to the UK in 1936 with its aptly named Red Barrel. It would take a lot of convincing of the public until the 1950s. Soon after, these easy to serve and store beers were increasingly growing in popularity throughout the UK, Europe and the rest of the world.
In the UK, ale had maintained its distinction from the much newer and sexy lagers of Europe. In fact even today, many will equivocate the term beer with ale, but lager is only lager. It was due to a preference for traditional draught over lager and flat-tasting keg “ales” like Watney’s Red that led many rebellious beer drinkers to become concerned about the state of British beer.
In 1971, a group of free-thinkers (at the time) founded the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) to protect their beloved beers and the venues that served them. CAMRA was founded with 5 main goals but one is the most relevant to our conversation: “To secure the long-term future of real ale, real cider and real perry by increasing their quality, availability and popularity.”
At the time of CAMRA’s creation, traditional cask beers were becoming far and few between. The newish and bland keg products were taking over the market. Love them or hate them, the consumer organisation has been directly responsible for creating dialogue and action that led to a revitalisation in British micro-brewing.
Over the years, CAMRA’s definition of what is considered cask or real ale has evolved with the times, albeit with much dragging of feet. Today, it defines real ale as live beer which “ when first put into its final container contains at least 0.1 million cells of live yeast per millilitre, plus enough fermentable sugar to produce a measurable reduction in its gravity while in that container, whatever it may be. “
You can read and find more technical information about temperatures, finings, and the optimal CO2 levels here. While we applaud the efforts of CAMRA, we believe the terms of what is cask beer and what is not to truly lie within the eye of the beholder and not within a single organisation with rather narrow demographics.
However, the need to distinguish between real ale and cask beer would be resurrected once again. Only this time, it was not due to the influence of European brewers. Instead, a stir in British beer would be caused by our cousins across the pond. When Russophile David Cameron met with Barack Obama for a beer summit regarding the England-US World Cup draw in 2010, it was a sign of things to come.
Cameron brought a “local” brew of Hobgoblin from his constituency of Witney. He would be exchanging it with Barack for a bottle of his once locally brewed Goose Island 312. This Chicago-brewed hefeweizen was merely a tip of the American iceberg as Obama instructed David, “in America we drink our beer cold”.
In some irony, the bottle of beer that Cameron brought, would not have even been considered real ale. Like most traditionally brewed bottled ales, Hobgoblin was filtered and force carbonated. Many of these bottles can be just as bland as the keg ales CAMRA set out to destroy in the first place!
A Revival of Cask
Like CAMRA (but not a perfect comparison), the enemy of modern feminists and worker’s rights movements, BrewDog must be given credit where credit is due. The Scottish brewers began around 2007 and were soon perfecting the mimicry of popular and well-established American breweries like Stone Brewing in Escondido, California. For better or worse, these young brewdogs were soon a force to be reckoned with.
While they had the branding and marketing messages down like a 3D printer, it’s debatable whether their beers were close copies of the real thing. Regardless, boosted by quality breweries like The Kernel, and Magic Rock, they helped lead the way for several waves of American Craft beer to reach our shores.
This was partially due to Brew Dog’s strategy to open a fleet of bars starting with Camden Town as the first location outside of Scotland. Shortly after, craft beer bars and pubs were popping up everywhere across the country.
Soon, a public debate would be held in pubs and virtual spaces about “craft” or “keg” vs “cask” or “real-ale”. Luckily for us, many budding young microbreweries saw an opportunity to combine tradition with innovation. They must have thought, “Why can’t we take inspiration from what the Americans are doing and then make it ours?”
Make it theirs they did. Soon breweries like Dark Star, Oakham Ales, Moor Beer Company, Buxton Brewing, Hawkshead, Fyne Ales, and many more were using these New World hops to create cask versions of popular craft beer styles. As they say, the rest is history.
Cask Beer Management for Licensees
Contrary to popular belief, caring for and serving cask beer is not black and white. How each publican manages their cask beers will depend on taste and practicality.
With that being said, there are several best practices.
- All casks need to be given plenty of time to settle after any movement before you can even think about serving them. This applies to delivery and when they are placed on a stillage (if you use them) and can often take 24-48 hours.
- After a proper settlement time, vent any beers deemed over-carbonated with what are known as soft spiles. Otherwise, use a hard spile to prevent oxygen ingress while conditioning.
- If you are satisfied with the apparent state of carbonation, go ahead and tap the cask. Taste and test for carbonation once again.
- Secondly, taste for “green flavours” like acetaldehyde (green apple) or sulphur (eggs). These flavours can go away if enough time is given for conditioning. In this case, hard spile and try again periodically throughout the week.
- When the beer is ready to serve, use a loosely placed soft spile or porous alternative and begin serving!
- Regularly taste the beer and pay attention to customer feedback. When it’s not right anymore, take it off. Never serve a bad pint as it damages both your and the brewery’s reputations.
Tough to Make a Profit
For the second and third-wave craft brewers in the UK, dealing with the economics of cask has always been a struggle. One of the biggest shocks to the system came in 2017 when Cloudwater’s Paul Jones announced the brewery would be phasing out cask beer as they just couldn’t compete with demanded price points of £3-4 per pint.
Many breweries would join them including Buxton Brewing. Even smaller and startup breweries like Left Handed Giant (LHG) of Bristol were finding themselves dealing with the same issue of economies of scale and consumer expectations. To paraphrase Managing Director Jack Granger, not only is cask expected to be sold cheaper, it may not be suited to every product.
Cask production was already tenuous before 2020 turned life upside down. Pandemic-induced lockdowns have ensured uncertainty and disruption for the pubs, bars and other venues depended on to buy and serve cask beer. Of course, this has threatened the existence of these pubs as much or more than the brewers themselves.
A recent report on the state of beer found that the pandemic had already brought on the closures of more than 2000 breweries and pubs. The study recommended that the government consider targeted Covid debt forgiveness and halving beer duty to help brewers recover.
In response, a new government budget was agreed upon for 2022 that would allow for a lower tax on draught beer and cider. But as Roger Protz wrote in regards to the CAMRA study, this simply isn’t good enough.
The new tax relief only applies to containers of 40 litres or more. I wonder who that relief is targeted at, definitely not the big breweries amirite? CAMRA found that nearly half of licensees would be negatively affected by this, but ironically failed to mention the effects on the brewers themselves.
The good news is that the aforementioned breweries like Cloudwater and LHG have been able to successfully return to cask production despite all of the challenges involved. This includes bringing back old favourites on cask like pales ales and IPAs, but also a revival of oft-forgotten styles like dark milds. Whether craft breweries will always save a place for cask beer is inevitably up to us, the drinker.
Drink More Cask
Here at SiWC, we know British cask beer is truly one of the unique treasures of our tiny island. We don’t have current plans to start making cask beer, but that doesn’t mean we don’t love drinking it! However, in regards to Sheepie-related cask beers, you never know what experiments we are to–so watch this space!
As drinkers, we have the power to dictate what happens with how we use our wallets. Sure, we may be used to the £3 and £4 pints of yesteryear, but one thing is clear, costs of living are only going up. Sure, the affordable pints from the big boys like Sharps or medium-sized outfits like Timothy Taylor’s will always hit the spot. But cask beer can be so much more.
Innovating upon existing knowledge is what humans do and cask beer is no exception. To experience the progress of this British tradition, we must be willing to spend more on a well-brewed pint of cask beer that includes more expensive ingredients. Otherwise, we will likely see our beloved, peculiar, warm, flat, and sometimes sour beverages go the way of the dodo.