BARLEY MOWAT: On “Cask Ales” And Why We Should Celebrate The Hell Out Of Them

by Chuck Hallett | You’ve probably heard the term “Cask Ale” before. Maybe you’ve seen it on a poster or perhaps you’ve noticed my rants on Twitter about how casks are awesome and everything else sucks (relative to casks, that is). But what are cask ales, exactly, and why should you care?

Cask Ales are beers that are served from the same tiny vessel in which the beer was conditioned (matured). Big whoop, right? What difference does it make if you’re drinking the beer from the cask or from the bottle you bought at the store? Beer is beer, no?

Well, that’s the trick. Beer isn’t always beer. In fact, in the early 1970′s, English pub-goers became so offended at the lack of cask ales in England that they created a new name for casked ales and a new movement to demand more of it: The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). Fast forward to today and we now have three branches of the same movement, all demanding Real Ale in BC.

What’s all the fuss about? The trick is the second you take beer off of the yeast or, even worse, filter the yeast out completely, it changes. Yeast contributes more than just carbonation, alcohol and awesomeness to beer — it makes up a significant portion of the flavour as well. Leave the yeast in and you have a different ale: a Real Ale.

Additionally, most beer is like milk, in that it’s better as fresh as possible. Since the beer inside a cask is still technically being brewed, having a pint from the nozzle is about as fresh as you can get. It’s akin to stalking a cow down in the field, and taking a pull straight from the udder. Mmm…that’s actually kind of creepy.

The other thing that makes casks interesting is that they give brewers the ability to screw around with their beers. Want to add some orange into your citrusy IPA to see what happens? Well, good luck convincing the brewery owners to do a major release of a recipe you came up with while pulling deep on a bong on your back deck. A 35 litre cask, though, is small enough to screw around with. If you screw up, and the cask explodes — spraying pineapple chunks all over the brewery — no one’s too pissed off at you (side note: this is totally a thing that actually happened).

That’s the true appeal of casks for me: they’re unique. The beer you’re having from a cask is different from any other beer you’ve ever had before. Maybe it’s hoppier. Maybe it has some fruit in it (or tea), or maybe it’s been brewed using completely novel ingredients because…hey, why not? Brewing beer is all about experimentation, and casks are the purest expression of the discipline.

Homework: Go drink some casks! Casks used to be a rarity in Vancouver, but now you can find a pub around town with a cask on virtually every night of the week. Additionally, there are cask festivals every now and then around town, including this very weekend (update: now sold out). On every night, the Alibi Room has three casks, and The Irish Heather has one. Cask nights abound, so go ahead and make a week of it…

Monday: St Augustine’s
Tuesday: The Railway Club
Wednesday: No takers…yet
Thursday: Yaletown Brewing Company, Sunset Grill
Friday: London Pub, Big Ridge Brewing
Saturday: Central City Brewpub
Sunday: The Whip

Since the casks change constantly, there’s often not a whole lot of warning about what beer will be on display any given day. You can watch the Vancouver chapter of CAMRA’s Twitter account (@CAMRA_YVR) for updates on casks and more general beer news, or just search for the hashtag #CaskAlert.

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Chuck Hallett lives and works in downtown Vancouver. His passionate obsession with craft beer borders on insanity. When not attempting to single-handedly financially support the local brewing industry through personal consumption, he spouts off on his award-winning beer-themed blog: BarleyMowat.com. If you’re in a good beer bar reading this, odds are he’s sitting next to you. Be polite and say hi.

  • http://www.barleymowat.com Chuck

    Sadly, since writing this the CAMRA Spring Sessional Cask Fest has sold out. If you’d still like to get your cask fest on, check out the The Riverboat Throw Down during Vancouver Craft Beer Week.

    http://www.eventbrite.ca/event/6384509239/es2005/?rank=11