Cask Ale: At Home, Not Just Abroad
By Ryan Reddinger
There is nothing like sitting in a pub drinking a pint of well-made and tended cask ale, it is a truly magnificent beer experience. Cask ale is the traditional English way of serving ale – but don’t give in to the classic tropes calling it “warm and flat”. Is it warmer than the frigid temperatures most American beer is served at? Yes, but I certainly wouldn’t consider 50-55 degrees to be particularly warm. Does cask ale have a lower carbonation level than the average spritzy American beer? Again yes, and yet it is still carbonated to 1.25-1.5 volumes of CO2. What that leaves you with is a wonderfully flavorful ale that you can drink pint after pint without feeling bloated and gassy from carbonation. In the pub, cask ale is served one of two ways: via gravity or more commonly a beer engine. Gravity pouring is exactly what it sounds like, the tap is hammered into the cask which is set at an angle in a frame called a stillage with the tap at the bottom. The tap is opened, and the ale pours out. A beer engine is a simple manual pump that draws ale into a cylinder and dispenses it as the beer engine is drawn by the publican. Beer engines often come in 1/2- or 1/4-pint volumes, allowing for a publican to draw a pint with two or four pulls of the handle. Now that we have a very brief introduction on what cask ale is, it is time to talk about ways you can enjoy cask ale at home.
Ways to emulate cask conditioned beer at home!
The first and simplest method to emulate a cask conditioned beer at home is to use an empty syringe (the kind that commonly comes in the package with over-the-counter medication) to knock some carbonation out of your beer. This will give you a similar carbonation level and mouthfeel to cask conditioned ale. To do this, vigorously pour your homebrew (or commercial beer of choice) into a glass. I suggest you either use a 16oz glass for a 12oz bottle or pour half the bottle into a 12oz glass as this will get foamy fast. Using the empty syringe draw a small amount of air, submerge the tip into your beer and then draw some beer up. You should have a syringe with beer in the tip and a layer of air on top. Insert the syringe and depress the plunger. This will compress the air in the syringe as it comes out which will force a large amount of carbonation out of the beer for a smooth cask-like mouthfeel. An advantage to this is you can brew and condition your homebrew however you like and mimic cask ale without committing to a whole batch. I highly suggest picking up some of your favorite commercial porter and giving this a try, knocking out a good amount of CO2 really eliminates the harshness and leaves the beer with a rounded flavor.
Syringe method for mimicking cask ale. Draw up a small amount of air, then a small amount of beer. Last, insert syringe into beer and depress plunger.
The next method involves conditioning your homebrew in a cubitainer or similar product. A cubitainer is a food safe plastic bladder designed to hold liquids like water and dispense them from a simple spigot at the bottom. They’re easy to find and come in a variety of sizes from 1 gallon all the way up to 5 or even 10 gallons. The cubitainer will serve as your cask and in practice this doesn’t differ from the “real thing” much at all. Siphon your homebrew into the cubitainer leaving a small amount of headspace and prime with a SMALL amount of priming sugar. Use a calculator to aim for 1.25-1.5 volumes of CO2. As you might imagine, priming in a container like this that isn’t made for much pressure is a risky proposition, so be sure to consistently check your cubitainer to ensure you’re not over carbonating and risking rupture. I suggest allowing these to condition spigot side up so that if the cubitainer begins to bulge too much, you can open the spigot to release some of the built-up CO2. When you’re satisfied that your beer is conditioned, you can gently rotate the container so the spigot is in the bottom position for serving. Rotating the cubitainer will stir up your yeast so allow it to settle for a couple days in the fridge for clarity. One of the nice features of the cubitainer is that as you pour beer, the bag will collapse to fill the dead space, so you won’t introduce air into your container while also not creating a vacuum. A tip to ensure a continuous fast flow is to set a heavy book or similar item on top of the cubitainer to provide top pressure. One great perk is the flexibility in cubitainer sizes. This makes it possible to split your batch up and experiment with different dry hops or other additions. If gravity pouring isn’t your thing, you can either mimic a beer engine with an RV pump or with a genuine beer engine. More on that in the next sections.
Inverting cubitainer with spout on top allows you to vent excess carbon dioxide. Allow yeast to settle after turning cubitainer for serving.
An easy and cheap way to mimic a beer engine is a simple RV water pump that can be easily found online or in a specialty shop. They’re much more cost effective and operate with a similar mechanic - the pump draws water or in this case beer each time the handle is pulled. The difference is that the RV pump doesn’t hold beer in a cylinder, rather draws it straight from the container. My experience is that it requires several more pulls of the handle to fill a pint glass. You can fit additional tubing with a threaded barb on the end to emulate the swan neck spout of a beer engine or fix a sparkler to the end. There are a few different options for using the RV pump for cask ale. First and one of the easiest options is to mount the RV pump into the top of a food safe container. Attach tubing to the inlet of the pump and pour your beer into the container, easy as that. This will allow you to draw either homebrew or commercial beer through your pump which will give you a very good approximation of the mouthfeel and serving of cask ale. Like the syringe method above, it allows you to mimic the cask ale experience without committing a full batch. Second, if you go the cubitainer route, you can connect the inlet of the pump directly to the spigot and you’re ready to go. Alternatively, and slightly more complex, if you already keg your homebrew, you can use the RV pump on your keg as well. Prime (or force carbonate) your keg to 1.25-1.5 volumes of CO2. Connect the inlet of your RV pump with tubing to a QD and connect to the liquid post. To avoid creating a vacuum as you draw beer, you can connect your gas at 1-2psi while serving but always disconnect in between sessions so you don’t force beer through your pump. If you’re worried about using CO2, you can leave an open QD on your gas in. This will allow air in which will lead to oxidation and eventual staling of the beer, so you need to consume quickly. If you’re lucky enough to have a beer engine in your home brewery, you can substitute the RV pump mentioned above for your beer engine following the same steps to achieve the same desired results.
An RV pump mounted to a food safe container.
Finally, you can go the authentic route and condition and serve your beer from a stainless-steel cask. The two most common sizes of casks that you will encounter are pins and firkins. A pin cask holds a little under 5.5 gallons and a firkin just under 11 gallons. You can often find used or brand-new pins or firkins for sale on the internet at a relatively affordable price. The anatomy of a cask is very simple: it is a squat barrel shape with a small opening on the top for the keystone and a larger hole in the side for filling and venting which is sealed with a bung. When your beer is ready to be racked into a cask, hammer a keystone into the tap hole with a rubber mallet. Add priming sugar to 1.25-1.5 volumes and any other finings or dry hops to the cask through the bung hole and siphon your beer on top. Leaving a small amount of headspace, hammer the bung in place with a rubber mallet. I suggest “taking your cask for a walk” by rolling it back and forth across the room to ensure any additives are properly distributed. Allow the beer to carbonate and condition for at least two weeks, and the cask is ready for tapping. The cask is laid at an angle on a frame called a stillage. Commonly before tapping, the cask is vented with a small wooden peg called a spile. This releases excess CO2 leaving you with the desired carbonation level. Next, tap the cask by hammering a tap in with a rubber mallet. If you’re going the gravity pour method, you’re ready to start enjoying your cask ale. If you go the beer engine route, simply attach tubing to the inlet of your beer engine and to the outlet of the tap.
I’ve barely scratched the surface and as you can see, there are many methods that range from simple to complex to mimic or experience cask ale at home. If you’re interested in trying cask ale at home and looking for a place to start any British style of ale from an ordinary bitter or mild to an English IPA will excel in this format. Nothing beats sitting down with a pint of cask conditioned bitter after a long day of work, and I’m sure that if you give cask ale a try, you will be hooked. Happy brewing!
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