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Why Drink Cask Ale? Here's What it is and Where you Can Find it

Tim Russell describes how the cask ale movement is bringing more of the traditional beers—those that were packaged in a way prior to the introduction of modern refrigeration—to the city of Pittsburgh.

It’s smooth. It’s flavorful. It’s warm. It’s alive. It’s real ale.

The Campaign for Real Ale, or CAMRA, defines real ale as “a natural product brewed using traditional ingredients and left to mature in the cask from which it is served in the pub through a process called secondary fermentation.”

In other words, from fermentation vessel to glass, real ale contains living yeast and is never pressurized by a CO2 tank.

CAMRA was created by four Englishmen whom grew tired of fizzy beer with no character and little flavor while they were on holiday in Ireland. Today, the organization is a hundred-thousand members strong and considered the most successful consumer rights group in Europe. One of their main objectives is to campaign for the appreciation of traditional beers, those that were packaged in a way prior to the introduction of modern refrigeration.

All carbonation in real ale comes from the remaining yeast still present late in the fermentation process. This beer is added to a keg or firkin with a dose of priming sugar (or other highly fermentable ingredient) and the living yeast is left to condition and carbonate the beer on its own. This is the secondary fermentation process.

“We are drawing that beer off prior to that beer seeing any refrigeration,” explained Scott Smith, owner of East End Brewing Company. “So we’re getting live beer still finishing up on fermentation before it goes into the cask.”

Head brewer at Church Brew Works, Brant Dubovik, doesn’t do things much differently when Pipe Organ (Church’s regular pale ale) goes on cask at the brewpub.

“We pull it from the fermentation tank into our casks, which we have English casks, dry-hop it, usually with East Kent Goldings, Chinooks, or Simcoe,” explained Dubovik. “We allow it to ferment out, put a spile into the bung, allow it to degas for at least a week, and serve it.”

Cask ale is considered a living product, whereas most other beers have the remaining yeast removed through a filtering process, then are pasteurized and force carbonated, all in an effort to increase shelf life. The heat from the pasteurization is thought to “kill off” an amount of the beer’s flavor and aroma. Higher levels of carbonation can add an unwanted “bite,” also detracting flavor. 

Conditioning isn’t the only guideline for cask ale. The beer is usually served at a temperature range of about 50-55F. Any colder and flavor is masked. Any warmer and the carbonation will dissolve easier, causing the beer to go flat more quickly.

Force-carbonation and pasteurization do have their place in the normal practice of packaging of beer. Both are needed to thwart oxidization and bacteria spoilage. Without these, conditioned beers are susceptible to both, and thus have a much shorter shelf life.

Opinions differ, but a very conservative rule of thumb for how long a conditioned beer will last once tapped is at least a day for every percentage of alcohol-by-volume, but plenty of variables affect this. Your common cask style of English mild lasts only about three to four days after tapping. Hoppy and imperial ales can last much longer due to their anti-microbial qualities. An imperial stout may not even peak until after a week, lasting two or three. The trade-off for hoppy beers is that the flavor and aroma characteristics of these styles fade quickly. Conditioned pale ales and IPAs should be served soon after they’re received. Though, one of the perks of running an IPA on cask is that the diminished hop character reveals some flavors that may otherwise go undetected.

Any conditioned beer beyond its prime will begin to acquire either a sour or, more commonly, a vinegar-like taste from the acids any bacteria inoculation has produced. If you find these flavors in your beer, be sure to send it back and inform your bartender. Either the beer was bad from the get-go, or it’s been on tap for too long.

Cask ale should also be dispensed without the need of external gas pressure, either by gravity feed or drawn from a hand pump or “beer engine”—the term “draught” means to draw in Old English. This lack of external carbon dioxide leaves beer vulnerable to oxidization. Some places may use what’s known as a “breather,” a device that uses carbon dioxide to purge oxygen from a conditioned keg, but at near atmospheric pressure. Even though the beer isn’t being pressurized, this method of extending a beer’s life span isn’t in the spirit of serving cask ale and is frowned upon.

The vulnerabilities of cask ale require minor upkeep. Before the day’s first glass is served, the pint or so of beer that sat in the lines at room temperature overnight must be thrown out. Flavor should also be checked at least daily to ensure the beer isn’t beginning to spoil.

Most beer engines use a long curved spout known as a swan-neck, designed to force the beer into a glass as a means of agitating it, further releasing flavor and aroma. Some engines implement the use of a sparkler, which is a cap at the tip of the spout that aerates the beer, creating the larger head desirable in certain beer styles.

A lone swan-neck mounted behind a bar-level tap handle is the telltale sign that cask beer is available. These beer engines can be found around the ‘Burgh at places like Smokin’ Joe’s, The Map Room, House of a 1000 Beers, Rivertowne Pourhouse, Rock Bottom, and North Country Brewing, just to name a few.

Fat Head’s Saloon has been dispensing from their beer engine for over 13 years.

“When we first put the hand pump in, most folks were afraid to try the beer in that state, mainly because it’s served a bit warmer than the regular draft,” stated Glen Benigni, owner of Fat Head’s. “We used to have to educate people and push them a little to try it. Now people are more educated and palates have changed. They aren't afraid to experiment a little.”

Fat Head’s has also become known for their occasional “Firkin Friday,” where a conditioned firkin of a special small batch beer is placed at the bar and dispensed the old-fashioned way, by using a mallet to tap in the spigot and serve the beer via gravity feed. This was normally done every couple of months, but is being done more frequently with the number of craft brewers more willing to offer cask-conditioned beers.

Believe it or not, the bars of Pittsburgh aren’t the only place you can find a beer engine.

Brookline native Scott Thompson came across a used piece on eBay, which became the perfect compliment to the homebrew dispensing draft towers that make up his basement bar. Scott does cheat a little. He admits to using a breather on his five-gallon kegs. Consider this justifiable when there are only a few people to assist in emptying a keg before the beer starts to go bad. Thompson said of his setup, “If I hook up five gallons, I can drink it in two to three weeks before it starts going bad.”

There’s a location where the quick turnover of cask beer leaves little fear of potential spoilage. The open door of the walk-in cooler suggests the street address of a Squirrel Hill home, but this door resides in a South Side cellar, just beneath Piper’s Pub. “It’s a little leaky, but that’s on purpose, because it does build up with CO2,” said Drew Topping as he stood in front of the open cooler, near a rack of firkins – some degassing, some tapped with tubing running into the ceiling towards the bar, some full of bigger beers patiently waiting their turn.

The owner of Piper’s Pub takes cask beer so seriously that the traditional setup he invested in is so unique that it likely rivals that of any outside the UK, something his expatriate customer base is apt to vouch for.

“We refrigerated the lines from the basement to the spouts, about fifteen feet away from the cask room, by building a homemade heat exchanger and using a scavenged glycol pump to keep the beer at about fifty-three degrees all the way up,” detailed Topping. “Every firkin is on an auto-tilt stillage, which gently brings it up as it starts to empty on springs, so that none of the ullage (airspace) is disturbed. They stay clear and drop ‘brite’ the whole way through.”

With enough engines to run three firkins at any given time, you’ll always find some tasty cask ale at Piper’s. But with popularity growing, more and more places have cask ale available. Whether it’s a regular offering from a beer engine or the occasional firkin being poured from the bar, cask ale is becoming readily accessible around Pittsburgh.

If you’ve never had cask beer because either you didn’t know about it or were too afraid to try it, hopefully this was enough to educate you on the qualities. And if you have had it, you already know how flavorful and aromatic it can be. So find a friend who hasn’t and introduce them to some real beer.

Check out www.pubnetwork.com for more information on cask ale around Pittsburgh.

— by Tim Russell, publisher of Craft Pittsburgh, a quarterly magazine about the local craft beer industry, where this story originally published. 

Follow @CraftPittsburgh on Twitter and pick up (free) copies of the magazine at  and beer distributors along McKnight Road.

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