Wednesday, September 28, 2005

On cask ale and how to enjoy more of it, more often.

Three years ago, our friend Steve Crull constructed a gleaming wooden cabinet, to which was affixed a reconditioned beer engine made available to us by the eminent B. United beer importing company, and just like that, we went into the business of serving cask-conditioned ale.

But only occasionally.

Conditioning ale in the cask and pouring it by using a hand pump are quintessentially (and traditional) English ways of doing things, with the basic idea being to take a slightly unfinished and still living product and to artfully prepare it for serving at the best time, with light carbonation achieved naturally.

As with most art forms, opinions vary widely as to the most “authentic” way of achieving cask ale’s potential. Remembering that in the historical context, cask conditioning evolved as a response to local logistics, drinker preferences and prevailing social and environmental conditions in the British Isles, it should suffice to say that from the beginning, our choices in this particular yeast culture war have been dictated by unique circumstance.

B. United was among the first importers to devise an effective way to ship the ordinarily fragile and lower-gravity cask ales from the U.K. to the states, by necessity confining most of the transport to cold weather months. Later, local breweries, including our own, began to experiment with casks of the house ales, perhaps not with the exact methodology of the classic British brewers, but with considerably better odds in terms of freshness.

Assuming the cask ales we’ve chosen were fit and ready for serving, and having no means of maintaining the optimal cellar temperature, we’ve chosen to keep our casks slightly chilled with an improvised jacket of freezer gel ice packs, and this has proven to be workable.

Almost always we’ve tapped the casks on Fridays, and tried to vend all the beer in just one night, the reason for this haste being that when you serve a cask in the purist’s preferred fashion – there’s a hole in the top of the keg, and a line to the handle leading from a tap at the bottom – you’re pumping air from the room into the firkin with each pull, guaranteeing that within a short period of time, the ale will flatten.

Real ale’s true believers say that this process of oxidization is in fact a good thing, and that with tasting experience, drinkers will learn to appreciate the differences in flavor as the ale pours over a period of days. Personally, I don’t doubt it at all, wishing only that I had more time to inhabit British pubs and learn these valuable lessons.

Professionally, given that there are few things in life that can be known with absolute certainty, and one of these things is that New Albany is not located in Great Britain, I simply note that given the expense of importing casks and the necessity of lowering the profit margin so as to offer cask ale at a reasonable price, such deterioration of quality – noble or otherwise – and the predictable wastage in its wake, both make it difficult to justify pouring diminished beer, and have proven quite frustrating at times.

Accordingly, I have reached a momentous decision.

We are purchasing a cask breather.

A cask breather plugs the spile hole at the top of the firkin with a nipple that is connected to a CO2 tank. When the handle is pulled, the headspace within the firkin is filled not with air from the room, but with short bursts of CO2, which aren’t sufficient to “push” the beer as with normal draft systems, but merely fill the vacated area and maintain a seal against oxidization.

When visiting the British Isles, I’ll still seek out those pubs that serve cask ale the traditional way, in places where a number of factors conspire to make it the right thing to do.

At home, when soliciting and purchasing casks for the enjoyment of our clientele, I’ll do what is necessary to offer these fine ales in the best condition possible. On occasion, we’ll continue to throw a pin (i.e., 5-gallons) on top of the counter and pour cask ale by gravity alone, in the way it was done before hand pumps were invented.

But beginning with the firkins coming this way for Lupulin Land 2005, there’ll be a way to extend the life span of the cask ales we offer, and to broaden the range of options for our patrons.

1 comment:

edward parish said...

A shame you could not have a CAMRA Sponsored Firkin Fest with fresh ale. That, would be truly EU.