Have you ever been at a bar and noticed a gooseneck-shaped tube mounted to the counter’s surface, with a wooden tap handle behind it? The bartender grabs a clean pint glass and inserts the nozzle the whole way to the bottom before slowly pulling the tap handle forward and backward until the glass is full and topped with a rich and creamy head.
What you observed was the pouring of a cask ale using a beer engine.
But what is a cask ale?
Typical sizes of these casks are called firkins (holding 10.8 gallons), although there are smaller barrels called pins (5.4 gallons) and larger ones called kilderkins (21.6 gallons).
A cask ale is one that has finished fermentation and has fresh yeast added directly to the barrel before getting sealed up and given time to referment. It’s a living ale, with happy yeasties in there eating sugars and producing those glorious byproducts we all love.
Because of this, it needs time to not only complete the feasting process but also to settle out so the ale is clear for serving. Often, a brewer or cellarmaster will add finings to the cask to assist with this process.
A hand-pumped cask ale should never look cloudy or murky. Seeing an extremely cloudy cask ale is a sign that perhaps the beer wasn’t given sufficient time to finish a secondary fermentation or the cask was agitated too much and not given time to resettle before tapping.
Because a cask ale isn’t force-carbonated with carbon dioxide like other beers ordered on draft, the perceived mouthfeel will be much softer and rounded as opposed to feeling prickly and sharp. Expect a creamy softness, but it shouldn’t taste flat.
The serving temperature of cask ales hits right around 55 degrees. This is by no means a warm beer (that’s what happens when you don’t drink your can of St. Boniface Paideia quickly enough at a summer picnic), but it will be perceived more warmly than draft beers that are commonly served no warmer than 38 degrees in order to keep the carbon dioxide from foaming up the beer as it’s poured.
A warmer and unfiltered beer means you’ll taste it differently than a draft sibling; many subtle nuances appear and blossom in a cask ale.
You won’t find cask ales at every establishment, but one place you’re guaranteed handpumped options is at Bulls Head Public House, a cozy English pub in Lititz.
The pub’s owner, Paul Pendyck, was born in Liverpool, England, and brought some of the things he loved about his hometown when the Bulls Head opened in 2010. One of those things was cask ale.
How do you know that the cask ale you order at Bulls Head Public House will be served correctly? There’s a distinguished accreditation company called Cask Marque that assesses the quality of cask ales through a series of steps.
On a random visit, a Cask Marque inspector determines whether the cask ale is served at the proper temperature, is visually cloudy or full of floating particulates and is still fresh. Cask ale has a shelf life of about three days once it has been tapped.
Bulls Head Public House has Cask Marque certification, so it’s an excellent place to begin your own journey into the world of cask ales.
Pendyck also this year will be celebrating the 20-year anniversary of another business called UK Brewing Supplies, his initial response to there not being many cask ale options for breweries at that time. The supply house offers equipment and know-how for brewers wanting to add cask ales to their lineups. From setting up a cask ale kit in one’s house to preparing for an entire cask ale festival (do check out the one at Bulls Head Public House), UK Brewing Supplies has all the bases covered.
If you haven’t ventured into cask ales, give them a try next time you’re at an establishment that offers this real ale.
Contact Amber DeGrace with comments or questions at email@example.com and find her on Twitter and Instagram at @amberdegrace.