Beer from Stainless:
by Dick Cantwell, Fal Allen,
and Kevin Forhan
Producing Traditional British Cask Beers in America
Republished from BrewingTechniques' November/December 1993.
Although equipment limitations and cultural differences make
exact replication of traditional British cask-conditioning practices
all but impossible in the United States, attention to detail and a
commitment to quality puts top-flight cask beers within the reach
of American brewers. Pike Place brewers tell the story of their quest
for the gentle pint.
Producing authentic versions of traditional beer styles poses a
complex challenge to small American brewers. Equipment limitations,
availability of appropriate raw materials, and lack of awareness on
the parts of both publican and consumer present distinct challenges.
After learning to deal realistically with the boundaries drawn by
these three and spending time experimenting, we feel that we have
achieved a successful balance. The following case study describes
what we at Pike Place Brewery in Seattle have done to try to produce
traditional British cask-conditioned ales.
When Pike Place Brewery was founded in the fall of 1989, its objective
was to brew British-style ales using traditional methods and the finest
ingredients. A floor-malted English two-row barley malt was selected,
a London ale yeast procured, and a mixture of imported English and Northwest-produced
English hops was chosen to balance authenticity and freshness. The brewery
was fortunate in that its parent company, Merchant du Vin (also of Seattle),
provided sufficient British contacts to make it possible to implement
these choices. Also fortunate was the fact that the principal owners,
Charles and Roseanne Finkel, were committed to the traditional British
plan despite the substantially higher cost of raw materials. They had
a small (4-bbl) brewhouse designed and constructed, assembled a conscientious
staff (headed by Jason Parker), and released the brewery's first beer,
a reddish-amber pale ale, in late October 1989.
Practical challenges arose from the start, most of which involved
product delivery systems and consumer expectations. In keeping with
its traditional British objectives, for example, Pike Place Pale Ale
was conditioned at first to a relatively low carbonation level of
1.9-2.0 volumes of carbon dioxide. We received complaints about "flat"
beer, so we raised the level of carbonation to 2.5-2.6 volumes. At
about this time a couple of local ale houses embarked on a plan of
their own and began requesting cask-conditioned beers. We continued
to produce brewery-conditioned beers at the higher level of carbonation
but saw an opportunity in the budding market for cask beers. This
is the story of how, over the following couple of years, we sought
to satisfy this demand and at the same time realize our original objective
of producing traditional ales.
RAW MATERIALS AND EVOLVING METHODS
Raw materials were no small consideration. Whereas other small breweries
use the prevailing blend of high-enzyme, well-modified American and
Canadian two-row barley malts grown and malted primarily for the larger
industrial breweries, Pike Place chose the more expensive and substantially
less consistent floor-malted varieties available from English suppliers.
We believed, and later confirmed, that these inconsistencies would result
in more complex flavor profiles. After experimenting with various English
malts, we settled upon Marris-Otter malt from Crisp Malting (Great Ryburgh,
Norfolk, United Kingdom) for the production of all of the brewery's
beers. Northwest Fuggles were selected for bittering and English Kent
Goldings for finishing, though after a time and considerable experimentation
we chose Northwest Clusters and a mixture of English and British Columbia
Goldings to balance availability, stability, and consistency.
Dry hops. Dry-hopping in the container
is an excellent, traditional method of adding a pleasing, lively hop
flavor and aroma. In the case of cask beer, where air is introduced
as the beer is dispensed, the character constituent of the hops is
completely different from that of a keg beer, where carbon dioxide
keeps the hops and the beer in a more stable state. Air allows the
contribution of the hops to soften along with other flavors in the
beer. The rate of serving is also a factor. Traditional cask beers
"live" for only a few days after they have been tapped and air admitted
to the cask (see Table I). Higher
gravity beers live longer. Different hop varieties function in specific
ways when used for dry hopping (as they do for bittering and finishing),
some performing quite well and others not so well. Generally speaking,
good finishing hops work well for dry hopping, but close attention
must be paid to the amounts used and the resultant character that
the hops impart to the beer. We usually dry hop with English East
Kent or British Columbia Goldings and find that larger amounts impart
a tinny flavor to the beer over time. We therefore go easy, using
as little as 1/6 oz. in a hop bag per 1/4 barrel of beer when we rack
Air. Enough cannot be said about the importance of air in
the cask, both for its contribution to the dry hops and to the flavor
of the customer's pint. In this technologically conscientious country,
we have been taught that product stability and cleanliness are everything,
especially in brewing. The fact remains, however, that just as air
causes a robust wine to open up and become more accessible to the
palate, air blends with cask beer to complete conditioning and to
soften and generally bring forward flavors that otherwise might be
indiscernible. Our cask ales are best about 24 h after they are tapped
and air has become a part of the beer. It takes confidence to fly
in the face of modern practice and allow one's hard-won beer to be
influenced by oxygen, but the results can be truly wonderful.
Yeast. More than any other factor, the selection of yeast
would prove to determine the character and behavior of a brewery's
beers. It could be argued, in fact, that the performance characteristics
of a brewery's yeast present the greatest challenges to the successful
execution of cask-conditioned ales. Yeast must not only do its initial
job of fermenting the beer well, but must also continue to function
in the cask so that the finished beer can be properly attenuated and
conditioned. It must settle, either on its own or by the addition
of finings, so that the beer is stable, clean tasting, and bright.
In short, it must perform well through all phases of its active life,
and when its job is done get decently out of the way. A brewer must
pay particularly close attention to the specific characteristics of
the yeast when producing cask beers and not make unreasonable theoretical
Pike Place yeast is extremely thermophyllic; it simply will not
function except at relatively warm temperatures -- 66 degrees F (19
degrees C) or above -- which poses special problems in the production
of cask beers. Not only must the temperature of our fermentation vessels
be carefully monitored, but conditioning kegs, once primed, also must
be kept warm. Other yeasts, less sensitive to drops in temperature
(as when settled into cooler cellars, traditionally maintained at
about 55 degrees F [13 degrees C]), would undoubtedly cause fewer
problems, but by knowing our yeast we have come to recognize the necessity
of being sensitive to its nature. Our yeast is also extremely flocculent
and causes our beer to fall bright quite readily. The flocculation
quality is good from the standpoint of clarity of the finished beer
but can be problematic if the yeast has not remained in suspension
long enough to complete the secondary fermentation required of true
cask-conditioned beers. Again, by recognizing the yeast's characteristics,
we found ways to work within its behavior parameters.
Priming. Our first experiments at Pike Place involved priming
finished beer with additional fermentable material. For ease of measurement
and variation, we first used dry malt, but soon afterward we began priming
with unfermented wort, or gyle. Results were unsatisfactory largely
because we didn't yet know our yeast and were acting more in accordance
with theory than with practice. Because of an insufficient number of
yeast cells in the beer at racking, the beer remained sweet and failed
to condition or carbonate properly. The priming material had failed
to ferment. True cask beers take on the bulk of their soft and lively
character from the secondary fermentation in the serving vessel, and
we kept our goal clearly in mind.
Next, we kegged early, four to five points (specific gravity) before
terminal gravity. We reasoned that the beer could condition itself
as fermentation concluded, but a surprising amount of yeast remained
in suspension, and the resultant beer was cloudy, unstable, and inconsistent
from test to test.
Eventually, we went back to priming, but this time by krŠusening
with actively fermenting beer. We avoid having to ask our yeast to
reawaken in the keg and still provide carbonation simply by the continued
fermentation of the priming beer. We have found that for our beer
1 L of active fermenting beer per 1/4 bbl of flat, finished beer does
the job quite nicely. The proper pitching rate for any beer is 1 X
106 cells/mL/ degrees P (that is, for 16 degrees P beer, pitch 16
X 106 cells/mL). The average doubling time is 4-8 h. Our pale ale
at high kraeusen (12-18 h after pitching) has a specific gravity of
approximately 1.040 ( approximately 10 degrees P), yielding approximately
5-10 X 107 cells/mL in the priming beer.
Fining. Because of the highly flocculent nature of our yeast
and the necessarily rough treatment of beer in transport from the
brewery to the serving establishment, our cask beers fare better without
the use of finings. Because other yeasts could undoubtedly be helped
along by finings, a few words must be said.
Traditional British practice is for beer to be fined in the cellar
after delivery, but today -- and especially in this country -- it
is necessary for the brewer to undertake such treatment. A number
of products are available: gelatin, seaweed-derived tablets, isinglass,
and other chemical clarifying agents. Most of our experiments used
isinglass (we fine our regular keg beers -- all unfiltered -- with
isinglass). We have settled on the use of Cryofine (A. Gusmer Incorporated,
Cranford, New Jersey, USA). It is easy to mix and introduce, it is
cost-effective, and the source company has been extremely helpful
with our questions. We have also had good results with the seaweed-based
Clarigene tablets (manufactured in the United Kingdom; available through
various sources in the United States). In all cases, we added finings
when priming and dry hopping.
With less-flocculent yeasts, finings carry the advantage of not
only bonding with and causing yeast and haze particles to fall out,
they also keep the settled material reasonably stable. With our cask
beers, however, we noticed no improvement by their use and in fact
found that our beer became cloudier and less stable.
It should be mentioned that finings have an odd tendency to stratify
in the cask, and from time to time a thin layer may be encountered
when pouring. Also, finings are also not heat stable and will fall
apart if the temperature of the beer rises above 74 degrees F (23.5
In the British Isles, cellaring is an art requiring careful training
and years of experience; in America, its practical function is generally
limited to dispensing. Brewery personnel or distributors deliver kegs,
and bartenders hook them up and pour them. Although today an increasing
number of publicans are showing themselves willing and able to properly
maintain cask beer, awareness and proper care cannot be assumed. It
is therefore almost entirely up to the brewer to cellar and condition
cask beers so that they can be delivered ready to dispense.
At Pike Place, we keep our cask beer warm and stationary after priming
and dry hopping. We monitor the level of carbonation and vent our
kegs as necessary. Just before delivery, we draw off the sediment
that has fallen in the natural course of conditioning. This method
of tap venting, a subject of some debate in British circles (see the
CAMRA publication Cellarmanship, in "Further Reading," below), provides
a traditional yet practical solution to one of the problems posed
by the limitations of American hardware. Best of all would be to package
and maintain the beer in British containers using British methods,
but availability of materials and practical issues of brewery management
and beer distribution make such a level of dedication impractical
(see "Stillage," below).
DISPENSING SYSTEMS AND KEG SELECTION
Dispensing systems. The dispensing method can drastically affect
the condition of the beer in the customer's glass. At Pike Place, we
use Golden Gate and Hoff-Stevens kegs and British casks. Of the American
kegs, Golden Gate are the simplest and most versatile, because beer
can be poured from a beer engine or simply by gravity, either on their
sides or sitting upright. Hoff-Stevens kegs, with their long product
tube and short gas tube, cannot be poured by gravity, but do quite well
on a beer engine. Beer engines can be modified with sparklers and other
serving devices to agitate the beer and introduce air on the way to
the glass. Gravity dispensing is less forgiving, but carries the advantage
of ease and economy. A quarter-barrel, served by gravity feed and set
up on the bar, also makes for a compelling visual presence.
Some publicans choose to refrigerate tapped casks overnight and
top them with carbon dioxide to prolong freshness. This practice has
caused some debate in Britain, and a purist might frown on the introduction
of any carbon dioxide to cask beer (as with a "cask breather"). Obvious
problems with agitation arise when casks are moved, but if the bulk
of the sediment is drawn off before moving the cask the practice can
be manageable. Home brewers can easily modify 3- and 5-gal Cornelius
kegs for cask beer by angling them topside-down, dispensing through
the gas "in" tube, and admitting air through the long "out" tube.
In all cases, experimentation will show the way to the elusive gentle
Keg selection. Though they are suitable for the production
of cask beer, American kegs have limitations. It is therefore desirable
if at all possible to use traditional containers. British firkins,
which contain approximately 10.5 U.S. gal (9 Imperial gal), are easy
to transport and work with and are occasionally available for sale.
Pike Place obtained its kegs from a Canadian brewery, which, incidentally,
somewhat overestimated its market's commitment to cask ales. The other
size most commonly used in Britain is the kilderkin, which is about
twice the size of a firkin (approximately 21 U.S. gal).
One logistical problem is that British cask types and sizes are
not universally approved for sale in all of the United States. Washington
state law recently permitted the use of firkins, and we are hopeful
that they will be more widely used in the future.
Traditional casks are manufactured with only a bung hole on the
side and a keystone hole on one end. These holes are fitted with wooden
plugs configured to allow the cask to be vented from the top and a
tap fitted on the end. Once the cask has been placed and allowed to
settle, a tool is driven into the soft center of the bung (see Figure
2), which is on top, allowing excess gas and usually some beer to
escape. The hole is immediately fitted with a porous peg, or spile,
which allows gas to continue to escape until the atmospheric pressure
and the cask's internal pressure equilibrate. Once the cask has ceased
releasing gas (usually a day or so after venting), a hard, nonporous
spile is inserted, and the cask may be tapped.
Tools used in cask cellaring and dispensing. Top: German wooden tap.
Middle, left to right: wooden bung, keystone, venting tap (used during
service in place of a hard spile because it has a valve that can be
opened), hard spile. Bottom: British brass tap.
Taps are made of wood, plastic, brass, and stainless steel and are
hammered through the keystone (Figure 2), providing a sealed fit.
When tapping, care must be taken to prevent the keystone from cracking
or breaking. If the keystone is damaged, the whole assembly may have
to be replaced -- without agitating the beer. From this point on,
whenever beer is poured, air must be admitted to replace the lost
It is the responsibility of the server or cellarmaster to loosen
or remove the peg as beer is dispensed to ensure that a steady stream
is available and that the interior pressure remains reasonably constant
-- sudden pressure changes (as when the flow slows to a trickle and
the peg is suddenly loosened) can stir up finings and yeast sediment.
Usually this involves simply removing the peg for the duration of
All this may be too much to ask of the busy publican. The Golden
Gate keg offers a somewhat more manageable alternative -- the gas
valve enables venting without the use of spiles. Nevertheless, there
is much to be said for the balance between air, beer, and condition
attainable by the slightest extra effort associated with traditional
casks. Beer engines make it possible for the cask not to be disturbed
in the course of its serving life, and mild refrigeration can provide
ideal cellar temperatures (approximately 55 degrees F [13 degrees
C]). Gravity service is somewhat trickier, because the ambient temperature
of most taverns is well in excess of cellar temperature. Beer served
too warm will go flat and "turn" more quickly. Excellent results can
still be achieved by gravity feed, provided the beer is served rapidly
The increasing use of beer engines, in fact, is one indication of
a growing awareness of traditional serving methods and respectful
treatment of hand-crafted beers. The home and craft brewing renaissance
has placed many more choices within the grasp of the discerning consumer,
and the responsibility of the publican has expanded well beyond the
hook-it-up-and-pour philosophy so prevalent in post-war America. In
addition to simply offering wide selections of locally made beers
unheard of a dozen years ago, some publicans also offer their beers
at different serving temperatures to make the best of widely varying
styles and conditioning methods. Many have proven themselves willing
to beat the bushes in the quest not only for new and interesting beers,
but for serving equipment and, possibly most important, the knowledge
derived from developing informed relationships with local brewers.
More and more, consumers and publicans are expressing interest in
Stillage. Stillage, or the spot in which the cask remains
from the time of delivery until the time its contents have been emptied,
is a seemingly small subject but one that requires mentioning. The
desirability of the cask remaining stationary throughout its conditioning
and serving dictates that space be designated, or some kind of rack
or trestle constructed, in which it will be held, properly tipped
and out of the way of other brewery or tavern activity. Our cask beers
require 5-10 days' conditioning before it falls bright and the sediment
is drawn off, during which time the casks remain undisturbed on a
system of shelves. We built trestles that do double duty as serving
stands for our traditional British containers (Figure 1).
British firkin atop a handmade trestle. White decorative artwork over
bright red background reflects traditional British style.
This article chronicles our efforts over the past few years, in our brewery
and with our materials, in developing the cask version of our pale ale.
Although it can be somewhat inconsistent in the marketplace, at its best
it is an excellent example of what a fairly high-gravity (by British standards)
cask-conditioned ale should be. Other beers, and other breweries, will
no doubt demand different treatment.
Some small breweries produce beers they call "cask-conditioned," often
kegging unfiltered (or lightly filtered) versions of their regular beers
under otherwise normal packaging conditions. These brewers no doubt
believe that given the nature of their yeast and equipment and the time
constraints placed on breweries operating at or beyond their capacities,
methods such as these yield cask beers of authentic condition and flavor.
Although each situation requires its own solution, we believe strongly
that beer is not truly cask-conditioned unless it has undergone a secondary
fermentation in the keg or cask. The character of beer produced by traditional
practice is entirely different from that simply packaged with a nod
to the east. Even though all our beers are unfiltered, we find a distinct
difference between our brewery-conditioned and our cask-conditioned
ales. We hope that others will take the trouble to see what their regular
beers can be when allowed to live in the cask.
"Beer from the wood," or the dispensing of artfully conditioned ales
from wooden casks, is a phenomenon at which American brewers must simply
stand in awe. For us it remains all but unattainable. Even in England,
only a few breweries (for example Theakston's and Samuel Smith's) have
not converted entirely to stainless steel for the packaging and conditioning
of their cask beers. Wooden cask maintenance is an involved and ongoing
process that is practically possible for only the extremely dedicated
home brewer. When not in use, for example, casks must be stored filled
with a fresh sterilizing solution, and even then, over time, the wood
is subject to deterioration. On even a small commercial level the labor
demanded to do a proper job (involving, among other things, the full-time
service of a skilled cooper) is prohibitive.
We can be thankful that through the efforts of CAMRA and the determination
of a few breweries in the British Isles, such anachronisms as real ale
served from wooden casks have not been allowed to die out completely
(see "Ale's Well in England,"BrewingTechniques 1 (3), September/October,
24-29 ). It may not be something within the practical reach of
Americans, but it is something to which we can aspire.
In the meantime, there are effective and wonderful things we can do
to make our beers more interesting, even if we are restricted to using
modern materials like stainless steel. Begin by letting some air into
CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale), Cellarmanship (Campaign for Real Ale Ltd.
St. Albans, Hertfordshire, England, 1981).
Foster, Terry, Pale Ale (Brewers Publications, Boulder, Colorado,
Line, Dave, The Big Book of Brewing (Amateur Winemaker Publications/Argus
Books Ltd., Hernel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, England, 1985).
Reed, Rande, "English Ales: The Tradition of Brewing, Handling, and
Serving," zymurgy 8 (4) (1985 Special Grain Brewing Issue).
CASKS AND OTHER EQUIPMENT
Alumase: Container Dispense Division
Northants NN15 5JP
Tel. 011 44 536 722 121
(British-style casks in quantity; ask for Steve Hert)
Park Road, Dunkinfield
Cheshire SK16 5LP
Tel. 011 44 61 330 3677
Fax 011 44 60 343 2345
Rankin Bros. & Sons 139-143 Bernardsay St.(Fittings, taps, and other hardware)
London SE1 3UR
Tel. 011 44 71 407 0074
Sav-a-Barrel 4511 S. Ave.(Reconditioned stainless steel kegs)
Toledo, OH 43615, USA
Link to contacts for more info:
Pike Place brewers and authors (left to right)
Dick Cantwell, Fal Allen, and Kevin Forhan.
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