Microfestivus 2010 Offers A Chance To Try Cask Ale

At this year’s Microfestivus, chances are looking good that Heavy Seas Brewing (Baltimore, MD) is bringing a cask ale version of their IPA Loose Cannon. Now since I always write here on the blog that the best feature of any beer festival is the chance to try something the beer curious person hasn’t had before, I’m not only hoping that this will happen, but if you’re going to the festival, you’ll put this at the top of your try list. Fine, you say. But you say you’ve had Loose Cannon before. After all, it’s on tap no fewer than three places here in Roanoke, and easily found on store shelves too. So what’s the difference here? What is a cask ale anyhow? Truth be told, when the term “cask ale” is used in the beer world, we’re talking more about a process than an actual product. And while this process is growing somewhat in popularity in larger cities here in this country, most people have likely not had the opportunity to try a beer produced by it.

In the craft beer world, there is a constant and understood commitment to the quality of the beer. It’s a given. It’s at the center of the definition of the craft beer movement itself, and is the primary attraction for most of us who seek out craft beer to begin with. It can show up, for example, in a craft brewer’s use of the best ingredients, and also in the absence of ingredients that would take away from the beer’s overall quality – even if using them meant less expense to the brewer. Consideration is sometimes even given to keeping the brewery’s geographical distribution area limited, knowing that the further the beer goes from its source, the older it gets, and the less fresh it is. But there is one particular corner of the craft beer world which has an even sharper focus on what goes into the beer, or actually, not what goes into the beer, in order to produce a “truer” product. It is the production of cask ale, or what can be called “real ale”, and the definition of and difference between these beers and others – let’s say what you buy in a bottle or get from a keg in your local bar – is actually pretty simple.

To oversimplify, in the production of cask ale, the beer benefits from two things that would normally occur with the production of your usual bottled product. One is that the beer is allowed to continue to ferment within the vessel from which it will be served. This means there is an additional introduction of yeast to the beer, and a secondary fermentation is allowed to occur from within the very cask that will be taken to a bar or restaurant. Another difference is that real ale is never pasteurized, which of course is one of the last steps in the production of most bottled beers. This all means that the beer itself, up to the point it is served, is a living, breathing product that is still maturing in the vessel, still becoming the product that you’ll drink. Again, to oversimplify, freshness is the goal here.

Still another is the way it is served. Your draft beer in your favorite pub or restaurant is of course served from a keg, which means that to push the beer through the tap lines from the keg to the tap, compressed gas is used – usually nitrogen – a method those who produce real ale would say takes away from the flavor due to the introduction of that gas into the beer (that very same gas also adds to the carbonation level of the beer you end up drinking). To serve cask ale, no such gas is used to push the beer out of the vessel.

Some critics of cask ale will say that the beer seems flat or isn’t cold enough. It is true the lack of nitrogen from the tap lines and the fact that carbonation is not added at the brewery means the beer definitely is less bubbly. And the temperature at which cask ale is kept to mature at is not ice cold – after all, we’re talking about a living product here, and cold temps would kill off the yeast working to produce the beer we’re looking for by this method. But those who enjoy cask ale will tell you that cask ale is able to retain the wonderful flavors a beer is meant to have to begin with – and is missing the techniques and ingredients which can detract from it.

With any luck, Heavy Seas will be able to bring their good Loose Cannon in a cask to the festival. If so, make sure to add it to your “To Try” list. Due to the different way cask ale has to be dispensed, the specific temperatures the cask has to remain at while stored at a bar, and the fact that the living ale will not live forever – living beer has less a shelf life than something that’s been pasteurized and bottled – most places cannot, or will not, invest in having a cask ale on premises. It’s somewhat understandable for restaurants and bars which might not sell through the beer quick enough to keep “alive” long enough to enjoy. So take advantage of the opportunity at Microfestivus – a chance to try beer produced with perhaps the freshest production process around.


~ by thebeerroad on August 12, 2010.

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