Real cask ale: it denotes quality, craftsmanship, and small-batch brewing. Traditionally, beer served out of the cask meant that the beer was unpasteurized, naturally carbonated, and perhaps dry-hopped with loose leaf hops. The move from wooden casks to stainless steel firkins and pins ensured that a minimum of contamination was taking place, as wood can never be sanitized.
A few months ago, I ordered an Empyrean Scottish Ale pin with heather tips, served over the brewery’s beer engine. This wonderful beer was creamy, malty, and very complex. The creamy mouth-feel created by the beer engine was unlike anything I had ever tried. I was informed that several bars in Lincoln, Nebraska had beer engines. This antiquated serving style was gaining a foothold in the American craft beer scene, although maybe just a tiny toe foothold.
Once my own firkins arrived from Stout Tanks Kettles, I took a step away from artificially carbonated keg beer. I’ve noticed a bit of a backlash from those who prefer a carbonic bite and a cold, refreshing pint. What we lost in effervescence and chill, we gained in complexity and creaminess. Obviously, some beer styles will be more happy in a firkin than others. British and Scottish ales are a perfect fit, as are most American styles. Belgians and lagers seem to benefit more from the extra carbonation that is developed in the bottle, so generally these styles are not common in casks.
Devotees will remember that we have been brewing a few Belgians lately. The wonderful aromas of clove and bubblegum add a great complexity to the cask. Furthermore, Belgium is a country and not a style, once being referred to as the “Disney Land of Beers” by Charlie Papazian. When one says Belgian, pictures of silent monks laboring away in their Trappist brewery come to mind. Beer nerds would probably think of the Lambic region, beers spontaneously fermented with Brettonomyces Lambicus (tart cherry pie) and Bruxellensis (sweaty horse blanket), in addition to other strains of wild yeast and bacteria.
New Belgium’s 1554 was supposedly inspired by a German Schwarzbier made at a tiny Flemish brewery. Numerous examples of pale ales, lagers, and other supposedly “non-Belgian” beers are being brewed all over the country. Thus, the firkining of a Belgian ale did not seem so blasphemous. Hmm… Blasphemous Belgian Beer…
A firkin consists of two openings: a smaller hole on the front, and a large keystone hole on the top. Cleaning and sanitation are much easier than filling kegs, as one does not need to remove the keg spear to visually inspect the keg. Furthermore, the larger opening allows one to actually see everything without special tools, a nice added benefit.
After sanitation, the small bung is hammered in, sealing the bottom of the cask. Beer is gravity fed into the cask from our conical, mixed with a priming sugar solution (dextrose). My previous method of filling kegs with a high-flow pump was causing oxidation in the final product. The slow flow of gravity prevents this from happening. After topping off the cask with fresh cone hops, fruit extracts, or other fun flavors, the keystone bung is hammered into the top of the cask.
In my opinion, beer served from the cask is just better. The beer is a living product, one that changes over time as oxygen is introduced into the cask. Their are rumors of British beer drinkers who only drink from the cask a day after it was tapped. Is this because certain flavors are only volatilized during contact with oxygen? I wish I could answer that question, but honestly, I’m not sure if this is what is happening. What I do know is that a cask’s flavor changes over time, and it has been a very pleasant change in our limited experience.