One of the best parts of a trip to the United Kingdom is enjoying a beer in one of the many old pubs. During the last few times I’ve been to the UK, I’ve become more interested in learning about and sampling cask ales while catching up with friends.
In North America, cask ales don’t get much attention, as many beer enthusiasts prefer various other styles of beer. I’ve come to appreciate cask ales, though, and I hope that more pubs in North America will begin to pay more attention to them.
Let’s take a look at what cask ales are, and why you might be interested in trying one on your next trip to the UK.
What Are Cask Ales?
Cask ales are a style of beer that may not sound too tantalizing at first. They tend to be served warmer than usual, are only very lightly carbonated (tasting almost flat), have lower alcohol percentages, and lack the aromatic hoppy punch that is common in many of today’s craft beers.
Admittedly, when I first started sampling cask ales years ago, it wasn’t exactly love at first sight. Since then, I’ve grown to appreciate the style, and very much look forward to the whole cask ale experience whenever I visit the UK.
During the brewing process, after finishing the final fermentation stage, many styles of beer get pasteurized, which is when they’re heated up to deactivate the yeast and kill off any unwanted bacteria. They may also be filtered, which removes any leftover sediment from the brewing process.
After this, the finished product is put into kegs, and then is served with forced carbonation from a tap.
Cask ales, on the other hand, neither get filtered nor pasteurized, and they don’t get fully carbonated either naturally or by force. Rather, what you’re getting with a cask ale is a “living” beer.
Cask ales can be thought of as beer in its most raw form. After the primary fermentation process, cask ales are racked into a cask, where some yeast is still suspended in the ale.
They’ll continue to undergo maturation in the cask, as the remaining yeast continues to digest sugars, producing alcohol and a subtle carbonation, as well as further altering the flavour profile.
Due to their not being pasteurized, cask ales can be very susceptible to spoilage. If they aren’t stored properly, it’s quite easy for the beer to go off, so you may want to have a friendly chat with the bartender about the freshness of the cask ales available.
If your pint of cask ale tastes at all sour, something bad has happened, and you’re not getting proper, fresh ale. You should notice the tasting notes of the particular style of ale you’re drinking.
Similarly, cask ales have a very short shelf life one the cask has been tapped. If not used up within a few days, the cask ale will no longer remain fresh, and you’ll get a sub-par cask ale experience.
Whereas many styles of beer these days are hop-forward and have higher alcohol percentages, cask ales tend to highlight the malty, bitter characteristics of beer. You’ll still be able to find hoppier or darker cask ales, but in my experience, they’re a bit more difficult to come by.
Furthermore, cask ales can be enjoyed over a longer period of time, as the alcohol percentage is usually only 3–4%.
Even though some cask ales may feel flat, there is usually a very small amount of bubbles due to some natural carbonation in the cask. This produces a nice subtle mouthfeel, which pairs very nicely with some of the malty flavours of traditionally mild or bitter cask ales.
When most people think of a pint of beer, they likely picture a cold, frothy glass with a head of foam.
Typically, cask ales are served at cellar temperature, which is around 10–13 degrees Celsius. Of course, this is colder than room temperature, but much warmer than typical beers.
Indeed, enjoying a cask ale takes you back to a time before modern brewing equipment, refrigeration, and carbonation techniques were available. The style goes back to many centuries ago, but continues on to this day.
What Makes Cask Ales Unique?
For me, having a cask ale is all part of an experience. If you’ve been to a British-style pub before, you’ll likely have found a place that feels more like a cozy living room than a lively, state-of-the-art lounge at a swanky hotel.
Unlike draft beer, which is dispensed from a force-carbonated beer line, cask ales are poured manually from cask engines or handpulls. While they come in different shapes and sizes, the process of getting the ale from the cask into your pint glass is vastly the same.
At the bar, you’ll notice some handles that look different from your ordinary beer tap.
Separate from the handle, you’ll see a swan-neck tap, from which the cask ale is dispensed.
The pump handle is attached to a cylinder and air-tight piston chamber, which is attached to a beer line from the cask. When the bartender pulls on the handle, ale is drawn into the piston chamber and is held in with a one-way valve.
As the bartender continues to pump the handle, beer is expelled from the chamber and is prevented from going back in by another one-way valve. It comes out of the swan-neck tap, into a pint glass or other drinking vessel.
If a bit of a frothy head is desired, a sparkler can be put at the end of the swan-neck tap, resulting in aeration and froth.
It’s a very satisfying process to watch, and the best part is that you’ll get to enjoy the fruits of the bartender’s labour shortly thereafter.
Much like regular beers, cask ales come in different styles. Your trusty bartender should be able to walk you through the differences between the styles available at their pub.
In my experience, the bartender will usually offer a sample of the available cask ales, and then you can choose which one you like best (or at least which you’d like to start with).
After grabbing your pint of cask ale, be sure to head outside to enjoy it on the street, if possible. For me, this also adds to the experience, as it’s great to catch up with friends while standing outside enjoying a pint together.
Cask ales are a unique part of the UK pub culture. While they used to be more popular, you can still easily find cask ales when visiting most pubs in the UK.
Cask ales may not sound as appetizing as a cold pint of hoppy beer at first, but cask ales are their own, unique style of ale. If you have a taste for beers, be sure to give one a try the next time you notice a funny looking handle at a pub.
In North America, you might be able to find cask ales either at British-style pubs, cask ale events, or at your local craft brewery.