Brewmasters can be meticulous when researching the history of beer recipes, ingredient selection and even serving methods. Such attention to detail is taken to the extreme when it comes to the traditions associated with cask-conditioned ales. These are beers that undergo final fermentation in the keg (cask) they are served from, and are dispensed under their own natural carbonation - unfiltered, hazy or cloudy, unpasteurized and at cellar temperatures.
Brewpubs and taverns serious about offering cask-conditioned ales on tap most often have a hand-pull tap (also called a beer engine) that draws the beer directly from the cask without additions of carbon dioxide or nitrogen gas. Some brewers may even serve them by pouring directly from the cask itself, relying on gravity and tilting the small cask (a firkin) to pour directly into your glass.
They resist conventional trends like the idea that beer must be served very cold, crystal clear and so fizzy that it's sharp on the tongue. Cask-conditioned beers are often served slightly warmer than most draught beers, usually around 45 degrees to as high as the 50s. Regular tap beers get dispensed at around 40 degrees or lower.
There are only a handful of local brewpubs serving cask-conditioned ales. Vintage Brewing Company and the Great Dane Pub & Brewery Co. are two in Madison. The Grumpy Troll in Mount Horeb serves cask-conditioned ale occasionally.
Scott Manning of Vintage has two British-made hand-pull taps that he uses for his cask-conditioned ales. Manning spent time working in various London pubs in the mid-1990s, learning about cask-conditioned beer. He has a few tips to getting a good pour from the beer engine: "You have to move the glass down as the beer rises, keeping the gooseneck and its sparkler [the end of the tap] out of the beer, to allow the head of the beer to develop." One Vintage server describes a process of three long, slow, smooth pulls for achieving the desired effect.
Vintage Brewing Company put two fresh beers on their beer engines this week: an IPA dry-hopped with Centennial Hops, and Derby Girl ESB, aged with lavender buds.
Manning's cask-conditioned ales come in small, 11-gallon firkins that are sealed by hand with a wooden mallet. Once in the firkin, the ale sets and ferments for at least two weeks before it's served.
Cask-conditioned beers come in a range of styles, but Manning says he is especially fond of the English traditional cask ale called Extra Special Bitter (ESB). He says a good cask beer starts with a firm, malty background and hearty hop bitterness that accentuates the full-palate effect of hand-pulled cask beer.
Cask-conditioned beers are often soft in texture and flavor. For first-timers they may seem "flat." Sometimes it takes a few sessions to appreciate them.
Cask-conditioned beers can also spoil more quickly than other beers on tap. Once tapped, the keg has about 10 days before it becomes sour, or stale flavors emerge. Manning samples all his cask beer every morning. Consequently, cask beer offerings at Vintage commonly change from week to week.
At Madison's Great Dane Pub downtown, cask-conditioned beers are served in two ways. The Great Dane has a beer engine system, similar to the one Vintage uses. However, at its downtown location, the Great Dane keeps up to four kegs directly behind the bar that dispense beer directly from a small valve by gravity. "It's definitely a lot more work; it's labor intensive," says head brewer Eric Brusewitz.
When it's time for a new keg, Brusewitz rolls it from the basement up to the main floor, then uses ropes and pulleys to hoist it into its rack location on a five-foot shelf in clear view of patrons. The Great Dane commonly offers its Black Watch Scotch Ale from these kegs, while Wooden Ships ESB is kept on the beer engine. All three Madison-area Great Dane locations have hand-pulled beer engines; however, only the downtown location serves cask-conditioned beers.
Brusewitz notes that when you see a hand-pull tap, it's always good to ask questions of the waitstaff. Beer engines accentuate different flavors and textures, so bar managers may use them for a variety of beers, not necessarily just cask-conditioned.
In England, beer aficionados who don't want to see traditional cask-conditioning lost have formed the CAMRA, or the Campaign for Real Ale. In the U.S., craft beer enthusiasts in several cities including Chicago host periodic "Real Ale" festivals.