On February 14th Garage Bar will be partnering with New Albanian Brewing Company to host a NABC Cask Ale dinner. We asked NABC owner, Roger Baylor, to give us a little information on the increasingly popular style of brew…
Garage Bar: Hi, Roger! Let’s get one thing out of the way - cask ale or cask beer?
Roger Baylor: “Ale” generally will be the more specifically accurate term, but since lager also can be prepared and served this way, “beer” is correct as well.
For those of us who are not familiar with cask ale, can you clue us in as to what it is and what the difference is from the beers we usually see on tap or in bottles?
At the brewery, when beer is finished fermenting, it is still, i.e.,uncarbonated. Fermentation causes carbonation, but it is vented off (exploding fermenters are no one’s idea of fun). For the past century, the custom has been to recarbonate beer by adding the “fizz” back to it with CO2. The older-fashioned way, which has survived intact mostly in the United Kingdom, is to take the finished beer, leave it unfiltered, fill a specially designed keg called a firkin with it, and then add a small dose of malt sugar. Because it is unfiltered, the yeast are roused into action and a very small fermentation takes place – just enough to create a gentle, fully natural carbonation. Because the firkin rests on its side, the sediment settles below the pouring point and the beer is clear.
We haven’t heard much about cask ales until recently. What’s with the wave of new interest in this style?
Part of it is because it’s a natural, traditional way of preparing beer for serving. Also, as people learn more about different origin and histories of beer, they want to know why and how things are done. Modern forced pressure kegging and dispensing came into existence because traditional ways were too slow and required too much knowledge. But pendulums tend to swing back, and now slow, natural ways are being respected again.
How long has NABC been producing this style?
We’ve done occasionally since we began brewing, but until 2009 at our Bank Street Brewhouse location, we didn’t have the back-bar infrastructure to feature cask beers regularly. At BSB, we installed two hand pumps from the start, and so now there is space. Consequently, we’ve been doing more of it recently.
What got you guys interested in it?
Primarily the English brewing heritage and the fact that cask-conditioned “real” ale has survived there.
Are there any beer styles that don’t lend themselves to this method?
For the most part, English ales and American adaptations of English ales play best. While Germans have their own way of natural conditioning which is similar, you don’t see it much outside of Franconia, so the default thinking is that lagers aren’t so suitable for cask, even though they can be for those willing to think outside the box. As for the Belgians, they prefer bottle conditioning, which is the same idea as cask-conditioning, just in a bottle instead of a firkin.
What is the best way to enjoy a cask ale?
Cask beer can be hand-pulled (firkins used to be in the cellar, after all) or dispensed by gravity feed, like a water cooler at a picnic. Cellar temperature is optimum – cool, not cold. Some people who try cask-conditioned beer in the UK say it’s warm and flat, but that’s a misconception. Temperature should be cool, and carbonation gentle. Traditionally, most cask beers were lower in alcohol, so you could have more than one, always a great way to enjoy any beer.
Can you enjoy this style at home or would it have to be from a bar or restaurant?
With the right rig, you could do it at home, although it’d be a fair amount of trouble. Bottle-conditioned beers might be a better option. Certain British ales are imported as bottle conditioned.
Thank you so much for talking with us, Roger. You guys are awesome. We will see you and the rest of the NABC crew on February 14th!