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Traditional cask-conditioned beer back in favor

Emma Janzen
Head Brewer Nate Seale taps a firkin for an event. Seale says beers best suited for cask-conditioning have roots in English styles.

As the craft beer movement continues to grow, many brewing enthusiasts are celebrating a resurgence of interest in a traditional process of creating beer known as cask-conditioning.

The method of cask-conditioning might be seen as a novelty to those unacquainted with its history, yet it was once the standard and only way beer was created. It fell out of favor in the States some time ago but remains widely practiced throughout Britain.

The process begins with an oddly named vessel called a firkin, which is a small barrel or keg. Beer matured in a firkin is also referred to as Real Ale or Cask Ale, because it’s unfiltered and unpasteurized, and instead of artificial carbonation from added C02, the liquid is naturally carbonated in the vessel from which it is served.

Just a few years ago cask tappings were a major event within the beer community, but now almost every bar with a craft program will have one or two brews offered “on cask,” and the mainstream fanbase continues to grow.

Erik Ogershok, head brewer at Real Ale Brewing Company, confirms that firkins are re-emerging as a point of interest in the local scene. “Real Ale has been producing cask ale for upwards of eight years,” he says. “The demand is definitely going up. We just bought 100 additional firkins. We now have 200 firkins, and we’re not even a major player in the U.S.”

Nate Seale, Head Brewer at (512) Brewing Company agrees: “There’s definitely a resurgence going on right now. It’s a combination of people re-appreciating the tradition and the craft in doing it, but also people are recognizing there’s a whole lot of potential for experimentation with firkins, too.”

What makes cask ales appealing to craft beer fans isn’t necessarily the opportunity to geek out on vintage production methods, but the fact that the procedure alters the flavor and drinking experience. Ogershok likes to cask-condition beer for several reasons, including the taste when it’s carbonated naturally instead of artificially. Because the barrels can’t hold high levels of C02, the beer comes out less carbonated, so it’s more mellow, making it easier to drink. “It should also be warmer, which is good. Your tongue is not numb from freezing temperatures, and you can taste the ingredients, spicing or hops,” Ogershok said.

Seale and Ogershok both agree that beers best suited to firkins are those with roots in English styles. “Anything from the pale ale family or U.K. based. American ale styles work well, and in Belgium they do Lambic in firkins,” Ogershok said. “We also do tons of IPAs in casks.” They should also be consumed as quickly as possible, because deterioration begins as soon as the cask is tapped. Ogershok says depending on the beer, when day three hits, the fresh luster starts fading. (External forces can be used to modify the beer inside the cask; this includes what brewers call a “breather,” which blankets the liquid in a coat of C02 to keep it fresh longer, a controversial method among many cask traditionalists.)

Firkins are also popular with breweries because they are best for experimenting with new variations of a beer. At (512), Seale says they rarely brew up a batch of beer specifically to put in a cask, but rather siphon off small portions of bigger batches to test the addition of new flavors. They constantly have an array of vodka-based tinctures in the office — fruit and spice essences macerating in vodka — to put into firkins of the mainstay Pecan Porter, to see which ones work and which ones don’t. “You’re not committing a whole lot of beer — if you want to add a particular ingredients of flavor to a single firkin, you’re not going to mess up a whole batch by adding chocolate or coffee or something,” he says. “You can take that out there and see if it works in front of an actual audience and get people’s feedback, and if it doesn’t work out, then there’s very little harm done. And if it does work out, there’s a lot of potential for that in the future.”

Ogershok agrees that firkins are a great tool for experimentation, but also says it’s important to remember the tradition of cask ales. He says when people are throwing an assortment of ingredients into a cask to see what happens, that’s not exactly staying true to form. “We want it to be normal and commonplace, not this boutique thing,” he says. “These things developed in brewing cultures much older than ours, and I love the fact that we have a lot of culture and history of brewing to draw upon, but sometimes there are traditions for a reason, and we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time.”

He recommends cask conditioning be largely reserved for beers that have a proven history of maturing well in that format, because “a firkin is not always the best medium to craft a beer to its optimal flavor.”

Cask ales around town