This script is from the second season of Beer Notes, which you can listen to at beernotes.org.
If you’ve ever been to a pub or a brewery and scratched your head at the “cask ale” on tap, you’re not alone — cask ales are a little bit different from the highly carbonated, cold and filtered keg beers that most modern Americans are used to. Today on Beer Notes, we’re talking about cask ales — what they are, and what makes them different from our traditional keg beers.
Cask ales, also known as cask-conditioned ales and ‘Real Ale,’ a term coined in the ‘70s by Britain’s Campaign for Real Ale, are brewed in the same way that kegged beers are. However, cask beer undergoes a second fermentation once it goes into the cask.
Kegged beers are generally filtered and sterilized before they go into the keg; Cask ales, on the other hand, are dispensed traditionally, pumped out of the cask with a hand pump with no CO2 pushing the beer out of the vessel. This allows oxygen to enter the cask, and since oxygen can quickly alter a beer’s flavor, a cask ale must be consumed within a few days of tapping.
Cask ales are best served around 55°F. This temperature allows all of a cask ale’s flavor nuances, aromas and its unfiltered texture to be thoroughly enjoyed. Most refrigerators are set between 38 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Premium lagers should be served between 42 and 48 and quality ales between 44 and 52 degrees Fahrenheit. That makes cask ales warm by comparison.
Many craft beer aficionados prefer cask ales to kegged. For them, the flavors are more complex. They should be, because the casking method is a time-honored tradition that dates back at least to 424 BC, where the Histories of Herodotus refer to “casks of palm-wood filled with wine” being moved by boat to Babylon.
Whether you’re in a British pub or an American brewery with cask ales on tap, give the ‘real ale’ a try – and don’t be surprised when it’s a little warmer and slightly less carbonated, but possibly more flavorful, than your usual craft draft. For Beer Notes, this is Anne Neely.