Americans have a particular palate. While knee-deep in a craft beer revolution, the number one selling beer in America is still a macro-produced light beer. That’s right. A fizzy, yellow brew tops our best-selling beer charts.
But buried deep in the craft beer culture is a sub-culture of beer lovers that are starting to step out of the shadows. They are the cask-conditioned ale (or ‘Real Ale’) drinkers. Proudly, I am one of them.
What is a ‘Real Ale’?
Traditionally, Real Ales are cask-conditioned ales that are made exclusively with traditional ingredients (malt, yeast, water, hops) then are allowed a second fermentation cycle to allow for natural carbonation. A priming agent may be introduced to the beer. A priming agent is an additional sugar source so the yeast can eat some more sugar to produce an increased amount of natural carbon dioxide. This means that additional gas (carbon dioxide and nitrogen) are not introduced to the beer. The beer is stored in a cask and pulled through a hand pump – or a ‘beer engine’ – or the cask is tapped at the keystone with cask tap and gravity takes over and poured into an English Pint Glass or German Stein.
The agitation that is introduced produces a creamy froth. Occasionally additional ingredients such as coffee beans, special spices, or dry hopping techniques are used to give the beer new dimension and depth. As Charlie Billingsley, Brewer and Real Ale fan, puts it, “The cask itself gives the opportunity for dry hopping and the occasional spice for a unique beer drinking experience.”
Charlie goes on to say, “The challenge of producing a proper pint of cask conditioned beer has always fascinated me. It’s not easy to get the carbonation right, which happens naturally in the cask. Therefore, the term cask conditioned ale. Once the cask is ready to be tapped, a skilled cellarman (not gender specific) needs to fine the cask and put it on stillage with enough time for the beer to clarify.”
A ‘Real Ale’ is the most fundamental, real, raw form of enjoying a brew that we, as consumers, can enjoy.
With such a gift comes great responsibility. This beer is meant to be consumed fresh and stored at cellar temperature. (This being 40º-55º F.) Fresh also means that there aren’t any added preservatives to keep it fresher longer. It also means, if not stored properly and consumed within about 72 hours of tapping, the beer starts to oxidize and go bad.
“When the pint is presented to the beer drinking guest it will have a cascading effect offering a nice dense head on the beer and looking bright as if it was filtered.” -Charlie Billingsley
What makes a ‘Real Ale’ so special?
Cask-conditioned, or ‘Real Ales’, are special because of what happens when high levels of carbonation and temperatures are stripped away from shocking then muting our taste buds. What you experience is the truest, most delicate, awesome flavors of a beer that you have never experienced before. It’s like tasting your favorite beer again for the first time only with super sensory powers – malts are maltier; the hops are hoppier; the peaks are higher, and the valleys are lower. Each minute essence of the beer is expanded exponentially in a cask-conditioned beer.
Squashing the myth
Real Ales are seen more predominantly in English pubs however the trend is alive and well in America despite the myth that cask-conditioned ales are “warm and flat”. A well-handled cask-conditioned ale poured properly through a well-maintained engine will present at a comfortable temperature for your palate to experience each flavor nuance. The creamy feel of the natural carbonation may not bounce over your tongue like a carbonated brew but instead will roll across your tongue to allow each papilla to become enveloped in its flavor.
At Four Peaks Brewery and Four Peaks Grill & Tap, a new variety of cask-conditioned ales are released weekly. Each Wednesday, the original Four Peaks in Tempe releases two varieties and each Thursday, Four Peaks Grill & Tap pulls one variety from their engine. We share our newest cask-conditioned creations on Facebook, Twitter, and our website.