What is Cask Ale?
Cask-conditioned ale—or cask ale—is unfiltered beer that is carbonated, sealed, fermented, and stored inside a cask with a distinctive barrel shape. Because it is not filtered, cask ale remains in contact with yeast and is exposed to its metabolic activity until the moment the ale is dispensed.
How is Cask Ale Different from Keg Beer?
Unlike cask ale, keg beer is filtered. It is also more heavily carbonated with carbon dioxide, so it is much fizzier than cask ale. While nitrogen and carbon dioxide pressure are used in the fermentation process of keg beer, only yeast is used in the natural secondary fermentation of cask ale. Cask ale is also served at a slightly warmer temperature than keg beer, which is usually kept very cold or even frosty.
How Popular is Cask Ale?
This type of ale accounts for just 1% of the total amount of beer produced by craft breweries in the United States. That minuscule percentage doesn’t seem very promising, but cask ale is definitely on the rise in the U.S. even if it can’t yet be considered popular among American beer consumers.
In fact, the cask ale industry has experienced rapid exponential growth throughout the past few years. In the five-year span between 2010 and 2015, cask ale sales in the U.S. increased by more than 350%. At one time, cask ale was not produced in the U.S. and was only available in Europe—especially Britain. While it has been produced in the United States by small, independent breweries since the 1990s, it has taken quite a bit of time to expand itself from its starting point as a tiny niche in the craft brewery industry.
Cask ale is an acquired taste for many American beer lovers. Most people who are used to drinking beer in the United States assume that beer is supposed to be cold and very fizzy. The warm temperature and gentle, barely-there carbonation of cask beer is surprising and unsettling for many U.S. consumers. However, there is enough interest in this unfamiliar ale to support the recent exponential growth of the cask ale industry in the United States.
Why do People Drink Cask Ale?
The unique flavors of cask ale, such as the award winning, Charlie Roger. are appealing to many beer lovers. With keg beer, the flavor of the beer is set in stone once the brewing process is over. The flavor of cask ale, however, continues to develop until it is dispensed because the metabolic processes of active yeast continue to alter its flavor after it is sealed and stored. This continuous development paired with the warm temperature and gentle carbonation of cask ale creates a deep, complex flavor that many people believe allows them to better appreciate the ale as they drink it.
Cask ale is a process of brewing beer; it is not a specific style of beer. Virtually any beer can be a cask ale if it is brewed and dispensed correctly. Many beer drinkers enjoy trying familiar beers as cask ales in order to experience the flavor of their favorite beers in a new way. The most common brews to be successfully processed as cask ales are dry hoppy ales.
Is Cask Ale Worth It?
There is no doubt that cask ale is much more trouble than keg beer to make, store, and dispense. Keg beer is forced out of its keg with carbon dioxide, usually through an automatic lever mechanism. Cask ale, on the other hand, must be gently released from its cask with a hand pump in order to avoid disturbing its gentle carbonation. Not only does this process require more time and effort than forcing beer out of a keg, it also allows air to enter the cask. Once the beer inside the cask is exposed to oxygen, it must be consumed within a few days before it goes flat and spoils.
Cask ale requires patience, skill, and experience to brew successfully. The challenge of storing and dispensing authentic cask ale is a major reason why cask ale is still fairly obscure in the United States. However, many American craft beer connoisseurs still consider the unique, deep flavor of cask ale to be worth the comparative challenge of brewing it.
Where to Find Cask Ale
Even though the popularity of cask ale is rising nationwide, it is not sold at every American craft brewery and can be difficult to find.
Southern California’s Inland Wharf Brewing Company’s award-winning beers include a selection of cask ales that are kept at optimal temperature in the cellar, processed through a sparkler, and served with a hand-operated hydraulic pump. The traditional, carbon dioxide-free brewing process used to brew Inland Wharf beers creates authentic cask ales with creamy, complex flavor and natural carbonation.