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Cask ale in America, circa 1997

From the archives. Inspired by all the work host Tom Cizauskas did in assembling posts for Session #36: Cask-condtioned ales I went looking for a quote from Graham Tock and ended up deciding to post this article from 1997, written for All About Beer magazine, here. It’s a bit dated but here you go . . .

You want real real ale?

Hop on a plane to London, take the Underground to the Ravenscourt Park stop, get off and walk to the Dove. Stand in back on the pub’s small public side and wait for a regular to order a pint of Fuller’s London Pride. Then have one from the same handpump.

Stop back the next day and have another pint from the same pump. It will likely taste different, perhaps a little more to your liking, perhaps a little less. But different.

What is one of the blessings of real ale is also, by U.S. standards, one of its curses. Little wonder that real ale is difficult-to-impossible to find in a country where brewers of bland mainstream lagers and microbrewers alike worship at the altar of consistency. To appreciate real ale, you have to set that notion aside. “The god of beer . . . is not consistency,” said Mark Dorber, one of real ale’s most eloquent spokespersons.

Some brewers and publicans have figured that out. Others are waiting on consumers, and Steve Hamburg, one of the organizers of the Real Ale Festival in Chicago last fall, isn’t betting how that will turn out. “It’s a tough sell, it’s a lot of work,” he said. “You have to change the taste of the consumer. It will work when the consumer asks for it, not because the brewers want to do it.”

A loyal few have nurtured variations on real ale in the United States for the past dozen years. Now, there seems to be a virtual epidemic of handpumps, but the motivation often remains the love of beer. Wild Goose Brewery in Cambridge, Maryland, recently committed to real ale in a big way, purchasing more than 100 firkins and offering accounts a version of cask-conditioned beer that meets Campaign for Real Ale standards.

Why go to all the trouble? “We get to drink real ale. There you have it,” Wild Goose president Jim Lutz said. “That’s what beer is . . . That’s what will set us apart from the West Coast breweries. When freshness is everything, we’re talking freshness.”

Most American handpumps don’t pour ale as true to CAMRA standards as Wild Goose intends its ale to be. CAMRA defines real ale as “draft (or bottle) beer brewed from traditional ingredients measured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide.”

While claiming to adhere to this definition, American brewers serve a product that has caused confusion about what is “cask-conditioned.” It was two years ago that Chris Lohring of Atlantic Coast Brewing in Boston lamented this situation, which hasn’t improved since. “Unfortunately, I think cask-conditoned is being used as a marketing term,” he said. “One of the things micros pride themselves on is educating people. In this case, they’ve been confusing more than they’ve been educating.”

Graham Tock, who sells Angram Handpumps, offered the British view: “Unfortunately, some of the brewers (in the United States) are saying it’s cask beer because it has a bit of twigs in it and cloudiness.”

Here are some American variations on the cask theme:

– Unfiltered beer served via a handpump. Real ale is “alive” because the yeast hasn’t been filtered out, but there’s considerably more to the fining and conditioning regimen (if you haven’t already read Mark Dorber’s explanation of cellaring cask beer, now would be a good time) than sticking beer that may or may not be done fermenting in a keg or tank and serving it.

– Tank-conditioned beer. Granted, a seven-barrel serving tank is 20 times larger than a firkin (10.8 American gallons), the most commonly used cask in Great Britain. While the beer certainly won’t lay on the yeast like in a firkin, the tank better lends itself to fining and dry hopping than most American kegs. However, to ensure that the beer doesn’t oxidize, brewpubs will protect it with a blanket of nitrogen. Even though nitrogen is non-soluble and isn’t used to push the beer through the beer engine/handpump, CAMRA considers this a no-no.

Done right, as it is at Gritty McDuff’s in Portland, Maine, and Oliver Breweries/The Wharf Rat in Baltimore, tank-conditioned ale is terrific. “It’s what I live for,” Wharf Rat owner Bill Oliver said, indicating how serious he is about real ale. “I’m very glad that people like it, but I’d make it for myself anyway.”

At the Wharf Rat, customers can taste SW1 (served with CO2 from an American keg) and Best Bitter (tank-conditioned) side by side and compare the difference that serving style makes on two beers brewed from the same recipe.

– Brewery-conditioned beer. Oliver Breweries also distributes beer that pubs serve via handpump. This beer is conditioned at the brewery, then racked bright into kegs. “We get it just right and then send it off to them,” Oliver said, holding his thumb and forefinger microns apart to indicate what a precise moment in time this is. Mike Hale of Hales Ales in Seattle has been reracking ales this way for more than a dozen years. “It’s not technically cask beer, but it was the best way I could figure out how to do it,” said Hale, who trained in England. “I’m pretty happy with what is served, and if a CAMRA member were here, I think he’d pronounce it quite satisfactory if he didn’t know the mechanisms we go through.”

– Keg-conditioned beer. Some breweries call beer conditioned in kegs and pushed with CO2 keg-conditioned because the yeast remains in the keg. Then they call beer conditioned in a keg “cask beer” when it is drawn through a handpump. Though it is easy to cut the tube in a Hoff-Stevens keg so that the yeast remains in the keg until it is served, the final product is considerably different than ale from a firkin, which works so well because it is so basic. “You put beer in, you can get beer out,” Dorber said. “It’s pretty simple.”

– Cask-conditioned beer. Brewer Chris Swersey of Mickey Finn’s in Libertyville, Illinois, will testify to the difference between kegs and casks. Mickey Finn’s first tried Hoff-Stevens kegs, then Sanke kegs, and neither he nor assistant Ryan Ashley were happy with the results. The brewpub made the plunge, acquiring 20 firkins. “The beer has poured perfect from the first one,” Swersey said.

Mickey Finn’s has an advantage over many new brewpubs — it is located in an old saloon with a large basement. Conventional wisdom holds that it is easier for a brewpub to serve real ale, because that way brewers have more control over how the beer is conditioned and served. “When it leaves our gate, only 60 percent of the job is done,” explained Bill King of King & Barnes, a Sussex, England, brewery. However, most brewpubs were designed to serve beer directly from tanks, and there’s no room for cellaring.

At Mickey Finn’s, beer is conditioned for at least two weeks before it is moved to stillage and allowed to settle and condition for up to another week. “It’s worked great,” Swersey said. The brewers cask-condition any of the British-style ales they brew, and real ale has proven so popular the pub goes through a firkin in three days or less, thus there are no concerns about the beer oxidizing.

– Keg beer on handpump. Some British-style pubs will hook up popular kegged imports to a beer engine and serve them that way. Now California-based Beer Enhancement Systems has introduced the Fizz Buster™, which de-pressurizes these CO2 kegs to give them the look and some of the mouthfeel of real ale, particularly when served through a swan neck. B.E. Systems has sold about two dozen systems in the last six months, Michael Owens said, and is talking to a major British brewer about a major purchase. “We get no complaints about the (lower) carbonation,” Owens said. “They have no idea why they can drink more beer or why they like it, but they do.” Granted, the beer is less gassy than keg beer, but it is dead beer nonetheless.

So how does a consumer find out exactly what is coming out of that handpump? Ask questions, of course. If the server or bartender claims it’s real ale or cask-conditioned, ask more questions. Find out if the bar or brewpub is serving from American kegs or firkins (throw the word “firkin” around a bit; that should get their attention). Ask if you can see where they cellar the beer. You may even get a tour.

While many American bars have cellars, don’t expect to see real ale ever be more than a niche within a niche. “We don’t expect that it will even come up to 2 percent of our overall volume,” Wild Goose’s Lutz said. But of course, there wasn’t a handpump in Manhattan dispensing flavorful beer as recently as mid-1994, and you certainly wouldn’t have expected to find a rack of firkins in Santa Fe, NM, but Wolf Canyon Brewing Co. has them now.

We’ve come a long way. But we’re still a long way from the Dove.

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