SCENE: rural 19th Century England. You stride into a country pub after an invigorating day of grouse hunting, slap your hand on the ancient wooden bar and say, “Landlord, a pint of your finest ale, if you please.”
Oh, pardon me, I was just reading some Sherlock Holmes, which got me daydreaming about tweed, the dark wood interior of the local public house, and of course, beer. Happily, you can live out almost all of this fantasy today. There are many fine country pubs to be found in England that have not changed much since the 19th Century (or earlier). The person behind the bar is still called the landlord or occasionally the landlady. However, until fairly recently, your chances of being served the same kind of beer as you would have been two hundred years ago, were slim to none.
The pint of ale Mr. Holmes quaffed while squeezing the Landlord for facts concerning his latest investigation, would have been pumped up by hand, from a cask or firkin in the pub’s cellar and served at a temperature around 54 degrees F. Its frothy head was the result of gentle, naturally occurring carbonation created by the living yeast that were still in the cask. It would have had a complex aroma, soft mouth feel, and rich, multi-layered flavor. Beer in those days was more like wine, continuously evolving until the moment it was served.
Let’s compare that to the way beer is served in a bar today — a method which began in the mid-1930s and became ubiquitous by the 1950s. The beer is still pumped up from the cellar, however, it’s stored in a keg instead of a cask and the pump
is electric is powered by gases like carbon dioxide and nitrogen, which also carbonates the beer. Before being put in the keg at the brewery, the beer is likely filtered to remove the yeast, and/or pasteurized, which kills any remaining yeast and sterilizes the beer extending its shelf life. Removal or killing of the yeast freezes the flavor development of the beer at that moment, it will no longer evolve. Pasteurization (which is basically cooking the beer) changes the flavor drastically, removing some of the more complex flavors and imparting a burnt sugar taste. There is also no natural carbonation in this beer; you need yeast for that. The brewery provides artificial carbonation by pressurizing the keg with carbon dioxide or a mixture of nitrogen and carbon dioxide and further carbonation is also added by the tap system itself. The beer is also served very cold, which is partially accounted for by modern — in particular, American — tastes, but it also hides the fact that these beers don’t really have much flavor compared to their cask cousins from long ago. When something is ice cold, you can’t really taste it.
Do not despair, gentle reader, it is still possible to taste the past. To find out how, I sat down — over some beers, of course — with Alex Hall, “Cask Ale Consultant,” and Mary Izett, certified Beer Judge, and friend. Hall works for U.K Brewing Supplies, an importer of casks and other equipment necessary for bars to serve cask beers and Izett judges homebrew competitions in the tri-state area and writes for Ale Street News.
Cask beer is what Mr. Holmes was drinking back there in the 19th Century and is defined by Hall and Izett as, “unfiltered, unpasteurized beer brewed from only traditional ingredients, matured and naturally carbonated by a secondary fermentation in the container from which it is manually dispensed, i.e., served without the use of nitrogen or extraneous carbon dioxide. It is ideally served at cellar temperature (54F), cool, but not chilled.” Hall describes cask beer as tasting, “funky, more complex, less bubbly, and richer; it has tiny bubbles vs. the big nasty, angry bubbles in keg beer.” Over the last 30 years or so a movement has grown, beginning with the Campaign for Real Ale in England, advocating the return of cask beer. In the last decade, with the help of people like Mr. Hall, it has reached American shores.
When asked why brewers would tamper with a perfectly good product and destroy some of its best attributes in the process, Hall replied that, “keg beer stays fresher longer, and it’s a lot easier to handle than casks.” Once a cask is tapped it must be finished within about 48 hours or it will go off, whereas kegs last 45-60 days. Hall also said that by using kegs brewers prevent losses due to the return of “bad” casks that were actually just mishandled by incompetent barmen. “With casks the barman must be skilled, knowing how to vent them, and allow them to settle. Some cask beers require “fining” [the addition of natural clarifying agents] after they arrive from the brewery. The pub landlord used to be trained in this, but those skills have been lost. With kegs, it’s child’s play, when it’s empty, just plug in another one, anyone can do it.”
Lucky for us New Yorkers, Hall has been evangelizing about cask beer since he arrived here from the UK in 1999. When asked about the best way to try out this delectable beverage he recommended attending a cask ale festival. “It’s the best way to try out many beers. Festivals are very big in the UK,” he said, ” they vary from vast annual events, to small, casual ones in pubs where as few as a dozen — but more often two or three times that number — unusual firkins are thrown up on tables or on temporary [racks].” He organized the first cask ale festival in New York City in 2003 at the Brazen Head in Brooklyn. It was so popular, the bar now holds them three times a year. The next one is this coming weekend. It runs from Friday, February 5 through Sunday, February 7 from 12PM until late each day. Over 30 casks will be available over the course of the festival, with 12 being open at any given time. No cover or minimum.
If you can’t make it to the Brazen Head this weekend, Hall also maintains a website called The Gotham Imbiber where you can download a PDF listing over 50 bars in New York City that have at least one cask beer available at all times. Outside of New York, ask at your favorite craft beer bar about cask beer, the beer geeks will know if there is any around. If you’re lucky enough to travel to the UK, get hold of the Good Beer Guide, to find the best pubs to visit.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I believe I hear Dr. Watson calling.