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Food & Drink

What's Brewing? 3 spots to sip cask-conditioned beer

| Tuesday, July 17, 2018, 11:48 a.m.
An ale that’s bound for casks ferments in steel tanks just like any other beer. But rather than being filtered at this stage, it’s transferred from the larger vessel into smaller wooden or steel casks.
An ale that’s bound for casks ferments in steel tanks just like any other beer. But rather than being filtered at this stage, it’s transferred from the larger vessel into smaller wooden or steel casks.

With the extraordinary growth of craft beer in the United States, consumers are now learning more about what they’re drinking. Still, there are many misconceptions and grey areas surrounding some of the various styles and types of beer.

Cask-conditioned beer is an example of one uncertain area for many drinkers. For centuries the British have enjoyed cask ale and still refer to it as “real ale”. Traditionally it’s served from a wooden barrel between 52-57 degrees Fahrenheit and hand pumped into a pint glass. Establishments without a hand pump tap system will occasionally tap a wooden or steel firkin on the bar. Firkins are typically consumed quicker since they’re not being stored at the appropriate temperatures needed to keep the yeast alive.

Americans who regularly imbibe in this peculiar beverage are a niche within a niche. Although frequent comments from consumers who don’t understand cask-conditioned beer include, “there are things floating in my beer,” “the beer tastes flat”, “the beer is warm” and “the hand pump used to pour the beer into a pint glass is an English gimmick.” Let me provide additional information to each of those comments. With a little luck, maybe you’ll ask for a pint of whatever’s in the cask next time.

It’s alive

An ale that’s bound for casks ferments in steel tanks just like any other beer. But rather than being filtered at this stage, it’s transferred from the larger vessel into smaller wooden or steel casks. From this point, additional yeast is added to create a secondary fermentation process. Clarifying agents are also used in the cask to give the beer a cleaner look, although once poured, you will see some proteins floating in the beer. After all, it’s alive, unfiltered, and unlike most other beer at this point.

It’s not flat

Cask ale might appear to taste “flat” at first but that’s only because it’s carbonated naturally. This fermentation process produces less effervescence than what most of us are used to experiencing in other beers. However, the lack of carbonation also means less of that prickly acidic bite we’ve come to expect from most of the beer we consume. The subtle and naturally carbonated beer produces a softer, more gentle taste in our mouth.

It’s not warm

Cask beer is served at cool, cellar-like temperatures ranging between 52-57 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature, our palettes can taste more of the ingredients the brewer used to create the beer than if it had been served cold. This rule applies to most craft beer. You’ll always taste a little more if the beer is not frosty.

It’s not a gimmick

Injecting outside pressure of nitrous oxide or carbon dioxide into a cask beer would be defeating the entire purpose of serving something that should have less of a bite in our mouths. Therefore when pouring a cask beer, a hand pump is used to create the vacuum needed to get the already naturally carbonated beer from the cask into the pint glass.

Remember, because cask-conditioned ales are essentially alive, the taste can and will change as it rests in the cask. Cask-conditioned ales aren’t available everywhere although there are a couple of great spots in our area for you to try them.

Piper’s Pub on East Carson Street in Pittsburgh is about as special as it gets and most if not all craft beer aficionados would agree. They always have hand pumped cask beer on tap and the attention to detail is unprecedented.

Carson Street Deli and Craft Beer Bar , also on East Carson,has cask-conditioned ales as well. This week they have Fat Gary, an English brown ale, and Big Hop, which is an American IPA. Both brews are from East End Brewing Co.

Leaning Cask Brewing Co. in Springdale specifically brews in traditional English methods with a modern American influence on style. This week they have Melon Mastiff on tap. A New England IPA excessively hopped with Huelle Melon.

Mark Brewer is a Tribune-Review contributing writer and the author and illustrator of “Brewology, An Illustrated Dictionary for Beer Lovers.”

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