Blue Point Brewing Co.
London, England. 1840.
It’s a freezing cold April afternoon. You're balding, and it's raining. Distinguishing your life from a Dickens novel has become increasingly difficult. Everyone is an orphan, a thief, or both, and you work in a factory run by Ebenezer Scrooge. You’re at the end of two 40-hour work weeks completed in one week’s time. Now it’s raining even harder.
You’re thankful for your factory job, as it’s the only thing keeping you out of The Opium War and in London with your family -- though you can hardly tell the difference. You're 31, but look 58, an age you have no hope of reaching, what with dysentery and black lung running as rampantly as they are.
The point is, you need a drink. And while you obviously can't afford to drink wine in the taverns or enjoy a bottled beer at home, you can most certainly slosh into your local pub and grab yourself a fine pot of cask ale.
The publican comes over and asks ye "whatchur drinkin'." You contemplate the Pale Ale and the Stout, but humble yourself with a Dark Mild, as you always do. It is the best of beers, it is the worst of beers. It’s unfiltered, but such is life.
And as if it knows what you’ve been through and what you need, the Mild goes down nice and easy. It doesn’t have the biting carbonation of a draft beer, nor the redundant cold. The publican has to hand pump it through the lines, but it’s nice to sit and watch someone else work for a change.
The alcohol content’s a bit low, so you fancy you can have another before running home with the loaf of bread you bought for your wife and children, 12 in all (with triplets on the way). It’s easier for everyone if you just get your nutrition from the pints.
The differences between cask ale and a pint of beer
Alas, storytime is over! It's not 1840 anymore, and that's probably for the best. Now let us delve into how cask ales differ from the draft pints ubiquitous at bars today.
The beer comes in a cask, not a keg
Cask, when said with the right Highland accent, can almost take on a magical connotation, something on par with a treasure chest or the pot at the end of a rainbow. But in a more practical light, cask just means container. I mean, a beer has to live somewhere. But casks, unlike kegs, have curved and ridged sides. That fact only matters because cask beer is unfiltered, and the curvature allows for sediment to rest below the spout at the bottom of the cask.
credits:"Sam Wagner" align:center
Cask ale is unfiltered
The problem with unfiltered (or unpasteurized) beer is neither taste nor appearance. The trouble is making unpasteurized ale sound sexy....because it's not. Instead of filtering the beer, fining agents made from fish bladder (commonly beluga sturgeon) are used to clarify the beer. This is "real ale." It's not brewed for the princess; it's brewed for the pauper, though it comes out just as clean. And it's not filtered because brewers actually want to keep some of the ingredients floating around in the beer -- especially yeast, which allows it to continue carbonating in the vessel.
Cask conditioned means it carbonates in the cask
After the beer is transferred to the cask, brewers add sugar for the leftover yeast to eat and, well, shit out, producing CO2 and a little more alcohol in what is known as a secondary fermentation. It’s a naturally carbonated beer -- not carbonated under pressurized gas like what you’d get at the bar (CO2 for draft beers and NO2 for nitro beers). The only way to get your beer from cask to glass is to pump it out by hand. But on the bright side, it makes for some beefy bartenders.
credits:"Sam Wagner" width:350 align:right
Cask beer is stored at cellar temperature
Cask beer is served at 54 degrees Fahrenheit (the temperature of a cellar), as opposed to draft beer's 38 degrees or colder. So next to draft beer, cask might seem “warm and flat,” but this is like comparing a photoshopped magazine cover to a natural photo. One might seem more appealing...but is it real?
Why all of these differences matter
Calling cask conditioned beers “real ale” was an ingenious marketing statement by the cask brewers of yesteryear. But if a cask ale is real ale, then what's the rest of it? And what is reality anyway?
If you're sitting down to drink some cask ale, know that you're about to enjoy some very traditional, usually low A.B.V., easy drinking beer. Since it doesn't have the carbonation, low temperature, or alcohol to incept the palate, you'll taste every subtlety it's got to offer -- this naked beer hides nothing from the drinker. It means you'll be blown away by the flavor when it's done right, and when it's not, you'll come face to face with every imperfection. Again, it is the best of beer, it is the worst of beer.
So huzzah to the purveyors of cask beer today: the brave and the skilled who champion this time-tested brew! It's not an easy one to find, but it's one worth seeking out. And to get you started on this quest, we’re giving you a few cask ale breweries to seek out...
Cask ales you should try
It doesn't ship well, and you can't get it in bottles...so yes, you have to physically hunt it down. (How's that for “real?”) My first tip is to go to merry olde England and give it a try, but if you insist on enjoying it in the U.S., there are solid options here as well.
MacLeod Ale Brewing Co.
Van Nuys, CA
Situated in the valley of Southern California (who knows why), Macleod stands a bastion of honest British Ale. True warriors of the cause, they boast six rotating cask taps that range from Dark Milds and Ordinary Bitters to Coffee Porters and my personal favorite, The King’s Taxes, a 60 Shilling Scottish Ale. Equipped with pub fare and dart boards to fit the mood, MacLeod does it right.
credits:"[magnoliapub / Instagram](https://www.instagram.com/p/BTH4rqBBl9v/?hl=en&taken-by=magnoliapub)" width:400 align:right
Magnolia Gastropub & Brewery
San Francisco, CA
Magnolia has been brewing authentic cask beer since the 90s. Birthed of the eccentricity prevalent around Haight and Ashbury area of San Francisco, Magnolia seamlessly pursues tradition and nuance. Stop in for a few sessionable pints and some savory food pairings.
Seneca Lake Brewing Co.
New as can be, Seneca Lake recently opened The Beerocracy a few weeks back. This new tasting room is their time portal to the days of traditional English pubs. With fines for using your cellular devices and cask beer to fit the bill, this is the best bet for anyone hoping to get lost in the rich history of cask ale.
Present Tense Fine Ales
Could there be anything more “craft beer” than resuscitating the styles and techniques of the past? No. Under Present Tense’s umbrella, you’ll find all the favorite and obscure styles of forever ago -- some of which are considered obscure even by other cask breweries. With proper English labels and no tap room, these rogue brewers are truly devoted to the righteous path of cask beer.
Note: Blue Point Brewing Co. is a member of The High End, owned by Anheuser-Busch.