One hasn’t really tasted craft beer until they’ve tasted cask conditioned or “real ale,” unpasteurized, unfiltered beer that comes out of a firkin.
Normally beer is fermented and passed through a filter permanently stopping fermentation and removing the yeast and others proteins that can cause cloudy beer. It is then pumped into kegs, force carbonated and delivered to a pub, hooked up to the tap system, and served to the customer.
Cask conditioned ale is put through an entirely different process that allows it to remain a living product with yeast that is still active or in suspension from the time it is made to the time it is drunk. After the beer’s initial fermentation, this beer, unfiltered and unpasteurized is dosed with a bit more sugar, and pumped into smaller stainless steel or wooden casks, called firkins where the yeast begins a secondary fermentation process consuming the new sugars, excreting co2 and carbonating the beer in its container.
Unlike modern kegging systems these firkins are simple uncomplicated barrels with no internal plumbing or valves. The firkin simply has two holes, a bung to which a faucet will be attached for pouring and shive where the beer is pumped in and later will act as a regulator allowing air to pass into the keg during serving.
Before industrial processes were applied to beer, this was how all beer was packaged and served. Brewers would simply pour their beer into barrels, deliver the barrels to publicans who would place the beer in their cellars, let the yeast finish its job and when the publican deemed the beer ready he’d roll the barrel onto the bar, hammer in a faucet, loosen the bung and letting gravity do the work, he’d pour his customer’s pints.
Today the gravity faucets used to pour cask-conditioned beer have largely given way to a hand pump called a “beer engine.” The hand pump literally pulls the beer from the firkin into the glass, agitating the naturally carbonated, unfiltered beer as it comes out to create what I would describe as a whipped, cloudy and denser beer that is smooth and has a much fuller body and feel than a normally kegged beer.
What’s more, these beers are traditionally served at cellar temps (50-55º F) opening up the beer’s complex aromas and full flavors. This way, hops become more pronounced and the bready, biscuity, sweet flavors of the malt are more evident. The still live yeast and other particulates give the beer a yeasty bite add even deeper layers of complexity offering up flavors that go missing in cold and filtered beers.
Because it’s a live product cask-conditioned ale allows little in the way of consistency of flavor from pint to pint or firkin to firkin. Nor does the beer have the consistent effervescent carbonation that many beer drinkers expect from modern beers which have been subject to the brewing processes that lead to a consistent product. Real ale is fragile and doesn’t travel well, it has a relatively short shelf life, and is best served fresh; the longer it sits or the more it’s subject to the jostling of shipment the more oxygen the beer is subjected to and the higher the risk of it developing off flavors.
The brewer thus takes a lot of risk introducing the beer to the things they usually try to avoid, and those who do offer their beer in firkins will do so only in limited runs (usually adding interesting adjuncts, spices or dry hopping the beer in experimental ways) making a firkin of beer a rare treat and one that all beer drinkers should seek out.
Craft brewers, however, serve the needs of the local community and their commitment to and engagement in the local community means they can afford to provide the neighborhood pub or their tasting room customers with a firkin or two of real ale. In this case smaller is better and craft brewers are better able to serve such a fragile product to a local market. As such some craft beer geeks have become quite accustomed to cask-conditioned ale and make pilgrimages to bars that serve it.
If you’d like join the club, Greg Nagel, beer writer at OCBeerBlog.com has organized Firkfest (firkfest.com), the first all cask ale beer festival in Orange County. On March 22 at Farmers Park in the Anaheim’s Packing District (400 S. Anaheim Blvd), the festival will feature more than 30 Southern California breweries who will each bring a firkin or two of their wares. For $50 (proceeds go to Inspire Artistic Minds) guests of the festival will be treated to unlimited 4oz. pours of these delicious cask-conditioned ales.
The festival is generating a lot of buzz, according to Nagal, who said, “With Firkfest, I have breweries nagging me...It’s weird to have a brewery wait-list.”
Nagel said he organized Firkfest because he wanted to bring a fresh approach to beer festivals, one that “focus on unique nuances of modern craft beer.” He added that he hoped Firkfest would be the first of many festivals in Orange County that highlight the region’s growing craft beer culture.
If you can’t make it to Firkfest there is always your local craft beer pub. Beachwood BBQ on the Promenade downtown always has at least one beer on cask as does Congregation Ale House. If you’re willing to travel to the South Bay, Smog City and Monkish often offer their beers straight from the cask, and The Bruery in Orange County celebrates what the call “First Firkin Friday,” on the first Friday of every month, where they feature one or two of their beers on cask often adding fresh fruit or other exotic ingredients to the cask.