Good Beer Hunting

Fervent Few

Fervent Few — Cask & Ye Shall Receive

As discussed on the Fuller’s episode of the GBH podcast recently, cask beer sales are down yet again. And the new wave of craft brewers in the UK are mostly ignoring cask beer in favor of brewing more contemporary styles. Do our UK Fervent Few members feel that cask beer is an art worth preserving, or is it time to let it fade away? In the U.S., real cask ale is a very small amount of the beer we drink. Could it ever make a splash Stateside? Do Americans even want or understand what comes out of the hand pumps we so rarely see? Our community mulls over all these questions this week.


Bob Preece: “Cask is a wonderful thing, and always my first choice when I am somewhere where I trust them to look after it properly. There is a lot of bad cask around, and a lot of bad serving of cask—both drive sales down, especially with lot of great keg and other dispense beers available. The biggest challenge in the UK is that there is a sizeable (and vocal) consumer group who will not go beyond a certain price point and expect that cask will always be the cheapest beer on the bar. This kills some great brewers, as they are not shifting the volume and cannot even break even with the cost of quality ingredients and production, and they have decided not to use this format. The very first Cloudwater beers I drank were cask, and were phenomenal, but they stopped producing as, financially, it didn’t stack up to keep brewing. Given you don’t have the same cask history in the U.S., if the demand is there, you can price in the same way as other dispense methods. When friends from the U.S. come to the UK, the only problem I have is stopping them drinking all of the cask when out. So I suspect you won’t have issues with whether U.S. drinkers want it or not!”

Chris Gartman: “As for UK cultural form, it’s timeless and necessary. CAMRA is an amazing beer club, a rigid machine not without fault, and very supportive of the craft brewers still producing cask. I wonder how much of that 3.8% is due to the craft/indy brands who have moved away. The lowest price point is an appreciable reason why UK brewers lose interest. The fade may continue, but should and will stay for good.

It’s lovely to drink. I go for cask over keg so long as I know the pub takes care. I’m head over heels for Timothy Taylor’s Landlord. I know where to find it and I know I’m not alone. And this is after only three years living among cask culture.

As lovely as it is to drink, it’s challenging to make. Catching crash gravity, even when prepared with forced ferments, is like playing with fire. Cask prep is laborious. QC before release must be careful and disciplined. Margins are low. While margins would be less of an issue for American brewers, the rest remains. It’s just not easy to make well.

Cask cellaring and dispense is as crucial as the production—mistakes on either end lead to a poor pint. It’s a reason to avoid some cask in the UK and probably an issue in enough of the few U.S. breweries and pubs serving cask to be a part of the problem.

There’s a kilderkin-sized hole in the U.S. distributorship, but it’s not just laws that limit abilities. They, with brewers, owe their customers a duty to educate on best cellaring and dispense methods. Bartenders tell wild stories of how expensive a hand pump install was, distribs and brewers are positioned to facilitate affordable/free/leased installs. Laws actually allow brewers to ‘gift’ under a dollar limit to bars—start gifting hand pumps! More solutions exist. All for naught without demand. I’m keen to hear from the U.S. folks about the demand. Some fellow geeks are aware and seek it out, but it’s surely a minority.

John Keeling’s opinion is one to be reckoned with. He also said that if American brewers brewed cask, they’d inspire the world to do the same. To the extent he’s correct about American brewers, I’m very able and will do whatever necessary so he’ll no longer need to say so!”

Brad: “I currently have zero love or interest in cask ale based on my past experiences. But just like anything in beer, I would certainly give it a try and be willing to reshape my view on the subject if there was a bar or brewery which blew me away with their interpretation on the style. But with that said, I think when you look at two of the biggest trends in U.S. beer (1. "to-go" packaging [like] cans, crowlers etc., and 2. Local/smaller breweries) I really think an entirely on-premise trend like cask is going to be to niche/local at best. Also, given the distribution challenges described above, whoever wants to start this trend is really going to have to pick a perfect location consumer- and employee-wise, or it's going to be pretty short-lived.

I honestly think the best way for this to be successful in the U.S. would be to create a space like the Trillium winter garden, Three's Brewing, etc, where food and the communal gathering of friends can be the focus. And the incorporation of the beer can almost be secondary.”

Quinn Thompson: “ I've never been to the UK and have had limited experience with cask beer when offered at a few of my local breweries in their taproom. The biggest problem is that I'm an uneducated consumer (regarding casks) and have no idea if what I'm having is well-executed or not.

The lack of any cask culture or history in the U.S. is undoubtedly the biggest challenge to getting people on board. I'm not sure what the answer is to changing that, or if it's even worth trying to change. Perhaps it's best kept as unique to the UK culture?”

William Weber: “On my visits to the UK, I drink almost exclusively real ale, and I definitely believe there's room in the U.S. beer culture and market for cask ale to carve out a niche for itself. As neighborhood brewery taprooms have proliferated and become hubs for various community activities, there should be ample opportunities for interested brewers to diversify their on-premise offerings with casks. I know I'd be excited to see more session and British-style ales on offer, and it would also be fun to see how American craft styles would present in the format. I feel like cask NE IPA could work beautifully, with the style's soft mouthfeel harmonizing naturally with cask conditioning.”

Nate Wannlund: “Cask is a great way to deliver beer! Unfortunately, it is not something that is widely seen. We have one brewery here in Denver that does it, and does it well, however, they are seeing declining visits to the taprooms, and there are only a couple beer bars in town that are set up to receive their product. The challenge in my mind with cask ales is shedding the tradition a little and becoming more creative with it. Cask ale is great to drink from time to time, but it lacks the flavor diversity you find at more innovative breweries. If a brewery started to experiment with different flavor profiles, it could lead to some interesting taproom experiences.”

Ross O’Neill: “I would love to have more cask beer in America, but I think there would have to be a lot more education about the method to both the consumer and, more importantly, to the producers. I recall when I immigrated here from Ireland 20+ years ago as a yoot, the refrain I kept hearing when I didn't want to drink the over-carbonated macro Lagers here was that all we drank back home was warm, flat beer. I didn't understand where that was coming from, it was only years later that I realized they were referring to cask beer in England. 

We didn't have tied houses in Ireland—all the pubs were family-owned and weren't tied to any particular brewery. (Although, you either served Guinness or Murphy's Stout, never both.) So we didn't have any cask beer. We were just getting lumped in with the Brits—which is not what you want to do with an Irishman! 

My brother lived in London for years, so whenever I visited, we'd go out for a session, hitting multiple pubs and downing copious pints of Bitter off the hand pull. Nowadays, if I'm in a bar or brewery and I see they have a cask or firkin on, I'll almost always try it. I love the nuance you can get from a ‘real’ ale, therein lies the problem with casks in the U.S. Yanks are not known for their appreciation of nuance. If it's not extreme, why bother? If you find yourself in Chicago the first weekend of March, try to get tickets to the Day/Night of the Living Ales. It’s a cask ale festival put on by the Chicago Beer Society—about 50+ casks stacked up from mostly Chicago-area breweries, a lot of real quality offerings, some bad, as to be expected, but a great event. Also, the cask ale tent at Great Taste of The Midwest is a must-do. It's the first place we hit every year.”

Neal Buck: “Here's a bunch of largely unconnected thoughts about cask beer:

  1. I absolutely love cask beer. I regularly pester my favorite local brewery (which has had casks before) about making more cask beer. Actually, that reminds me, I'm a little overdue for another round of pestering.
  2. I'm an uneducated cask consumer. I've really enjoyed many of the examples I've tried, but I haven't had enough to know what to look for in a cask beer. In my limited experience, I've found that I really enjoy malty beers on cask, and I don't much care for hoppy beers on cask. I find the cask deadens the hops. At the Wicked Weed first anniversary party, they tapped a new cask every hour on the hour from 4:00-9:00 p.m.—I was a big fan of the cask Saisons.
  3. There's a brewery in NC called Fortnight that seems to specialize in cask beer. Again, I don't have a lot of experience with the style, so I cannot really remark on how well they're doing it. Plus, it's been a couple years since I visited there, but I remember them having maybe seven cask beers on when I visited.
  4. It seems like, for most American brewers that dip a toe into cask beer, it's for adding adjuncts in small batches, not for appreciating cask in and of itself. I definitely don't have a problem with this approach. I love that Heavy Seas has its firkin program. And my favorite brewery, Tired Hands, does a cask beer most weeks that is some kind of adjuncted or extra-hopped version of a beer they're already serving on tap. (However, I've never gotten to try any of the cask beers there, unfortunately.) Anyway, I don't see a lot of cask for cask’s sake in America.”

Matthew Dick: “I hate cask.” 

Manny Gumina: “I love cask ale. When traveling in Europe during my study abroad semester in college, I always opted for whatever was on cask. As a history nerd, the idea of drinking something traditional was fun and different. When I came back to the U.S. and visited breweries and beer bars, cask was always the first thing I looked for. Unfortunately, I really have to search to find it where I live.”

Mark Twig: “A good cask ale is so, so different from most cask ales available. It’s alive, energetic, and quite special.”

Nate Wannlund: “I love cask ale. It is a go-to whenever I am in the UK. I will actually hunt down pubs with a good selection of local casks. But, I admit, I love me some cask cider. That will usually be the lead pint when I belly up to the bar.”

James Hernandez: “In the U.S. I would say I have not had properly conditioned cask ale more than once. It’s usually someone that popping a firkin open in a bar that's gravity-fed. It’s usually not the best representation of what the brewer intended, but it’s still a pretty cool experience, I must admit. I would like to see this style of serving beer continue because there is def an art to being a great cellar man. I don’t know that it can stand on its own in a brewery in the U.S. that isn’t a very small local place.”

Rob Scott: “I began drinking beer in the UK in the late ‘70s, when cask offered taste and authenticity to oppose the bland and fizzy pop on most pub taps. In the following decades, cask became widespread, but a complacency also set in. I’ve too often left a dead pint unfinished. The growth of quality alternative keg beers was welcome, it’s shaken up the market, but cask has taken a hit. However, I can now choose cask when the venue gets it right and it’s great to see experimentation, with some breweries choosing to play with styles that are definitely enhanced in this format. For me, cask will continue to be relevant, but now I have alternatives. By comparison, bottles have long been the choice for quality, and beer in a can just tasted of the container. Look how that’s changed, with desire for fresh product and improved technology to enable it, but I still brought home my Cantillon in a bottle. It’s a great time to be a beer drinker.”

Ross Hughes: “There are some fundamental drinking culture differences that need to be bridged before cask becomes a truly viable option for U.S. brewers. One of the components of good quality cask is freshness and serving the beer at its peak. A lot of breweries Stateside seem to be using it for special occasions or one-offs for a festival which makes sense because the beer will generally be consumed within the same day. But if you compare the U.S. to UK drinking cultures, the U.S. has a couple of characteristics which don't make regular cask service seem as plausible.

Sessionabilty: The average beer strength is much (and almost expected to be) higher in the U.S. In general, I don't think low-ABV beers are avoided, I just think general consumer choices seem to lean toward 6%-7%, which limits the numbers of beer consumed in a session and, thus, turnover.

Consumer choice and promiscuity: The American consumer is well-acquainted with choices. [Bars with] 30+ taps handles are easily found, people jump around from beer to beer, brand to brand, buying flights, again, all this leads to a lack of turnover, which is detrimental to cask freshness.

Cask right now [in the U.S.] is more of a muse, an experimental vessel for U.S. brewers, and I don't see that changing in the near future.”

Will we see more cask ales in the U.S.? Can real cask ales grow in sales in the UK? This might be an important year for the style. Join the Fervent Few and let us know the next time you take a seat at your favorite bar or taproom and order a cask ale.

Hosted by Jim Plachy