Cask Beer

Tapping the keg to start Oktoberfest... finally, the joyous union between drinking beer and hitting stuff with a hammer!

I have to admit that one of my favorite trends in beer-snobbery is the rise of cask ales. It’s an English tradition… been going on in pubs for hundreds of years. A giant cask of bier is ceremoniously tapped at the commencement of Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany. It’s the way beer has been served since forever… and it’s finally reemerging in brew pubs right here in the good ole U.S.of A. Beer lovers rejoice.

There’s something about drinking a cask beer… it’s served at cellar temps (around 50°F… not warm “room” temperature, so get that misconception out of your head), so the flavors and aromas of the beer are a lot more pronounced since they’re not maksed by the cold temperatures of draught beer. The carbonation level is a little lower, as well, so that flavor isn’t overshadowed by the carbonic bite associated with more highly-carbonated beer. Since the cask isn’t airtight, the beer has a slightly oxidized, earthier taste, which I find enjoyable. And, one of the greatest things about cask beer is its freshness… since the beer starts to lose carbonation after the shive is popped open, the beer will quickly go flat… meaning the turover on a cask of beer is usually less than two or three days. Fresh. It all adds up to amazing flavor… yes, beer is SUPPOSED to have flavor. And, it’s something a little out of the ordinary… and there’s something cool about drinking beer the way people have been drinking beer for hundreds of years.

Let’s take a look at the setup of a cask system…

Learning the parts of a cask setup are easy... you just need to know the lingo.

Understanding the lingo of cask beer:

Firkin – the cask/barrel… historically made of wood, but are now usually stainless steel.

Bung – the plastic or wood stoppers used to plug the bung holes of the firkin

Shive Bung – The bung that vents the firkin as the beer is drawn out

Spile – the wooden peg pounded through the shive bung that allows excess CO2 to vent, and air to flow in as the beer is drawn out of the firkin.

Keystone Bung – bung through which the tap is pounded so you can pour out the beer.

Tap – the spout/spigot that is pounded through the keystone and allows the beer to drain out of the firkin.

One the tap is pounded through the keystone, the beer can be directly served from firkin… just open the tap valve and fill your glass. But, since most pubs keep the beer in the cellars, a hand-powered pump is used to draw the beer from the cellar to the bar. This little device is called Beer Engine. It’s invention piratically revolutionized the beer industry… no longer did bars have to be built around the firkins in cellars … no longer did beer wenches and bar keeps get rock hard calves from running up and down the stairs to the cellar to fetch a pint of beer. It was the first “draught” system.

The cask beer system...

This "engine" powers drinking. Awesome.

Like I said, cask beer is awesome. It’s something very nostalgic, which I like. It lets you connect to the ancient roots of beer drinking… to a time when beer was consumed not because you were chasing tail in a bar, or downing $2 pints of Bud Light because of the funny commercials. Beer is something social. It’s meant to be drank slowly… enjoyed… savored. Remember, people used to drink beer as an alternative to unhealthy water… not because beer tasted like water.  So the next time you’re at the bar, don’t order something that comes from an insanely large brewery more concerned with maximizing profit margins than making good beer.  Even if you love craft beer, don’t scoff at that beer engine sitting on the the bar or stare at it, bewildered. Don’t think some weirdly-warm beer is going to come out if if you dare drink from it. Know that good beer is going to come out that thing, and enjoy.

BrewingTV episode featuring cask beers from Summit Brewing Company.

An important UPDATE

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  1. UPDATE: Cask Beer « Chunky Brewing…

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