Posted tagged ‘cask-conditioned ale’

Day 573

April 1, 2013

I started the third-last week of the semester by heading back to my summer brewery, where a mere ten days ago some classmates and I brewed up a pale ale for a Sensory class assignment. The beer was giving off a lot of sulphury notes, an indication that the yeast wasn’t quite finished its work yet. However, the class tasting is this Friday, so ready or not, it was time to package the beer. First decision: keg it or cask it?

Kegging involves transferring the beer from fermenter to keg via a filter. Since we hadn’t had time to crash the fermenter (that is, lower the temperature of the fermenter so as to induce the yeast to fall asleep and drift down to the bottom of the fermenter), there would still be a lot of yeast swimming around, which would require a lot of filtration. In addition, I would also have to carbonate the beer. Once in class, we would have to use CO2 or a pump to get it out of the keg.

Casking involves transferring the beer from the fermenter to the cask, adding some sugar, and hammering a shive into the bung hole to seal the entire thing up. Having yeast swimming around is actually a good thing, since they will be able to chow down on the sugar and carbonate the cask all on their own. Once in class, we would simply hammer a tap into the cask, then open the tap.

Hmm. Let’s review.

Kegging: Filter (and filter and filter and filter) and then carbonate. Lots of work. Arrange for CO2 or find a pump to get the beer out of the keg. More work.

Casking: Hammer home a shive to seal it. Easy. Hammer in a tap to unseal it. Dead easy.

Really no contest, was it?

Day 547

March 7, 2013

As you may recall, two weeks is all the time each student’s specialty beer is allowed to loaf around in the fermentor. On the 15th day, the hotel manager politely knocks on the door, hands the beer a bill for 14 nights plus two bottles of water from the mini-bar, and then peremptorily boots the beer out to make room for another student’s specialty beer.

Since I had brewed two weeks ago, my beer was scheduled to be filtered and kegged today. I wasn’t scheduled to be in the Teaching Brewery watching this happen. However, I had commmitted to casking twenty litres of my beer, which requires that the beer be transferred to the cask straight from the fermentor in its unfiltered condition. Since the rest of the beer couldn’t be filtered until I had filled my cask, I drove down to the campus, and at 8:30 a.m., armed with nothing more than my Leatherman multitool and a jalapeno bell pepper, I entered the Teaching Brewery.

After hammering a keystone (a small bung) into the hole in the front of a 20-litre cask and then sanitizing the cask, I added some priming sugar and some Cascade hops. Oh, and the jalapeno bell pepper–because that’s the way I roll. I then transferred 20 litres of my black IPA from the fermentor to the cask.

My task complete, I hammered in the shive (the large bung in the top of the cask) and cast about for some masking tape and a felt-tip pen to mark the cask. While I was doing that, a curious thing happened: the remainder of my beer–about 70 litres–was transferred into kegs, carbonated and refrigerated.

The transfer itself was not the curious thing. No, what I found curious was that not two minutes previous, I had a conversation with the student who would be doing the transfer and confirmed that I wanted the beer to be filtered. Somehow the student got the impression that when I said I wanted the beer filtered, what I really meant is that I didn’t want the beer filtered. Huh.

So when I got back with my masking tape and felt pen, there was my beer in two kegs, sitting there. Unfiltered.

This isn’t a huge tragedy. It’s an opaque black beer, so clarity is not really an issue. On the plus side, none of the aroma, flavour or colour was removed by filtering. On the minus side, once it is bottled, it is probably not going to have a long shelf life, so it’s important to drink it while it is fresh.

I will certainly do my part to help with that.


Day 539

February 28, 2013

Halfway through Reading Week, and the siren song of homework has still not seduced me into opening a book yet. I guess I am just strong-willed that way.

Alas, today more important matters called (again). It was time to transfer my brown ale, “50 Shades of Grain”, from fermenter to cask.

As I did so, I also added five more components to the cask, bringing the total to 50 ingredients. What were the final five? Let’s just say that I used my “mad scientist” laugh more than once during the process.

So, good night, sweet cask: And flights of hop angels sing thee to thy rest!

Tomorrow: homework. Absolutely. No excuses. Oh wait, I’ve got to check on the black IPA at the college brewery…

Day 523

February 12, 2013

No classes today, but no time to snooze! My somnolent black IPA needed to be awakened! The Valentines Day party at the brewery where I worked last summer is this Saturday, and the beer will need a few days in a sealed cask for the yeast to gorge on priming sugar and produce enough CO2 to naturally carbonate the beer. (Of course, if there’s too much priming sugar, the extra pressure will blow the bung out of the cask and send beer far and wide. It’s worrying about these things that keeps brewers awake at night.)

It’s always neat being in the brewery–there’s beer being brewed, and beer being packaged, and people dropping in to say hello, and generally a lot of opportunity for chatting. Although I was there to transfer my beer, at one point I somehow found myself pouring 20-kilo bags of barley into the grain mill.

However, eventually I did do the transfer, and needless to say, I couldn’t just do that without examining it more closely, right?

The colour, I would say, was dark brown rather than black, with a decidedly fruity nose. Although it had received a healthy dose of black pepper, it seems most of the black pepper flavour had perhaps been blown off during fermentation–it had a good mouthfeel, some assertive bitterness, but the pepperiness was around the edges rather than in your face.

Next step: serve it to real customers this Saturday.

Day 306

July 7, 2012

Last night, The Only Cafe, a gritty yet cool bar in Toronto, held a cask night featuring five cask-conditioned beers from the brewery at which I work. This wasn’t especially different from any other cask night, except that for the first time, one of the casks  contained Aztec Mochaccino, a beer I had designed using as inspiration both Cocoa Inferno, a beer brewed by fellow first-year students Jen Nadwodny and Kellye Robertson, and Crazy Ed’s Cave Creek Chili Beer, a now defunct light American lager from Arizona that had few redeeming features other than each bottle contained a hot Serrano chili pepper. Using fresh unfiltered nut brown ale as a base, I had added cocoa nibs, dark-roasted espresso beans and raw jalapeño pepper to the cask and allowed it to mature for a week. My vision was that the the coffee and chocolate notes would compliment the sweet ale, while the jalapeño would add just a bit of warmth without being blisteringly hot. However, not having tried this before, I was unsure about quantities–too much coffee or cocoa would overwhelm the ale, too much jalapeño would make it undrinkable, and too little of all three would not be tasted at all.

A modern stainless steel cask.

Unlike kegged or bottled beer, which you can sample before it leaves the brewery, you really don’t know how your new cask-conditioned ale recipe is going to turn out until the consumer tries it in the bar.

A modern stainless steel cask has two holes–a small hole in the end, where the tap will eventually go, and a large one into which you pour the beer and any other ingredients. The first step in making a cask ale is to hammer a wooden plug into the small hole. You then add the beer and other ingredients through the large hole, then seal up the cask by hammering another wooden plug into the large hole. There is no way to remove those plugs without allowing oxygen into the cask, thereby spoiling the beer.

So once you have added beer to the cask and sealed it, the only way to find out how your new cask-conditioning recipe turned out is to find out which bar bought your cask, go to the bar, watch your cask being tapped, and order a pint.

Which is what I did last night. There is something very satisfactory about discovering your beer is very drinkable. And there is something radically satisfactory about getting compliments on your beer from other bar patrons.

Days 52 & 53

November 1, 2011

Cask Days in Toronto this past weekend was not an official part of the college curriculum, but it was all about beer and it was educational, so I considered it an optional but highly recommended extension of the course.

First up on Saturday were three lectures at bar Volo about cask-conditioned ale. Kudos to Cask Days for offering Niagara College brewmaster students a student rate on lecture tickets.

(Cask-conditioned ale, also known as “real ale”, is simply beer that has fermented right inside the metal or wooden cask from which it will be dispensed; or, as is mainly the case in Canada, is beer that has been moved directly from the fermenting tank to a cask without being filtered, pasteurized or artificially carbonated. Because of the still-active yeast that gets transferred with the beer, a cask of beer is, in a way, a living thing. But I digress.)

Charles MacLean

Charles MacLean

The first lecture, “Brewing Cask Ale”, was delivered by Charles MacLean, “Mr. Cask Ale” of Ontario, and the brewmaster for Wellington County Brewing back in 1985. You could spot the Brewmaster students during Charles’s lecture–they were the ones taking copious notes about temperatures, times, grains, and hops. Charles brought up the interesting fact that northern English drinkers like a bit of head on their cask ale, so the cask is often primed with a bit of fermentable sugar (so that the yeast produces more CO2), and a “sparkler” is added to the tip of the dispensing tap, acting like a tiny garden sprinkler that sprays the beer into the glass to produce more of a head. Apparently in the south of England, most drinkers believe the extra carbonation interferes with the taste of the beer, so the casks aren’t primed and a sparkler is not used to dispense the beer. Charles, being trained in the south of England, does not prime his casks.

MacLean's IPA

MacLean's IPA

An added bonus feature of the lecture was a glass of Charles’s British-style IPA, dry-hopped with Fuggles. I wept with joy at the taste.

Next up were George Millebrandt of C’est What  and Ralph Morana of bar Volo, speaking about “Cellaring and Serving Cask Ales”. Traditionally, the brewer fills up the cask while it is standing on end, then hammers a bung, called a keystone, into the hole in the end of the cask to seal it for transportation. The casks are transported while standing upright, and then are laid on their sides behind bar and allowed to settle. When it is time to tap the cask, a tap is driven through the keystone, and beer can then flow out when the tap is opened. Alternatively, if the beer is being stored in another room, a hose is attached to the tap, and a hand pump at the bar, called a beer engine, pulls the beer out.

George Millbrandt

George Millbrandt

(Off on another tangent: the phrase “draught beer” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “dragan” which means “to pull” or “to drag”; hence “draught horse”, a horse used to pull a wagon. “Draught ale” refers to the fact that it is pulled from the cask by a hand pump . Technically speaking, beer from kegs is not “draught” because it is pushed from its keg by the CO2 that was injected into the keg, not pulled by a hand pump. But I digress.)

However, neither George and Ralph lay the casks on their sides. Instead, they leave them standing on end, although they employ different methods to get the beer out.

George (C’est What?) uses a long metal tube that is hammered through the keystone, and then slid down into the cask until it is almost at the bottom.  A hose from the hand pump is attached to the projecting end of the metal tube, and the cask is ready to be served.  However, the end of the metal tube is drawing beer from near the bottom of the cask, so yeast and hop sediment from the bottom of the cask can be pulled up along with the beer.

Ralph (bar Volo) uses a new device called a “Cask Widge“. This plastic device is also hammered through the keystone while the cask is still upright, but then a slim flexible plastic tube is slid through the Cask Widge and down into the beer. The plastic tube has floats at the end and mesh-covered holes just below that. When slid into the beer, the floaty-end of the tube curves up and bobs at the surface, with the mesh opening just below the surface. This way, the clearest beer at the surface is always drawn. When you start drawing sludgy beer, you know the level of beer has fallen into the sludge zone and the cask is finished. There was a lot of interest in the Cask Widge at the end of the lecture, and a lot of questions asked about it as a sample was passed around.

George trained in the north of England, and Ralph in the south, so there was a lot of “open and frank discussion” between them about the merit or heresy of using a sparkler, priming casks, and having a head on a glass of cask ale. While we were listening, we were sampling an English mild that Ralph and George has collaborated on. Yum!

Finally, Nick Pashley and Robert Hughey spoke about the history of cask ale in Ontario. Well, that was what they were supposed to talk about. Nick, being a highly entertaining raconteur, took us on a history of cask ale and Nick Pashley. Robert Hughey got us back on topic by recounting the recent history of cask ale in Ontario, starting with Charles MacLean and Wellington County back in 1985.

There's Gold in Them There Casks Ale

There's Gold in Them There Casks Golden Ale

This lecture was accompanied by a golden ale created by Ralph Morana and Nick Pashley. Hopped with Galaxy and then dry-hopped with Galaxy, this was so citrusy, I thought at first that they had added grapefruit juice to the beer. Another beer to cry over, the moreso when it was announced that the cask was empty.

After the lectures, it was time for a bit of a social, organized by CASK!, the organization trying to raise awareness of cask ale in Toronto.  However, I could only stay for a pint, I had a GO train to catch, and lecture notes to study for Kevin Somerville’s midterm exam on Monday morning (at 8:30 a.m.).


On Sunday morning, it was back on the GO train at an unseasonably early hour in order to be at the Brewer’s Breakfast at bar Volo. I met a number of brewers and beer writers, Niagara students and teachers, and also some beer enthusiasts I meet regularly at other beer events. Breakfast was delicious–Scotch eggs, sausage, bacon, fresh bread (including bread baked with dried hops–wow, that will wake you up in the morning)–and to finish, a pint of baltic porter and a toast to the success of Cask Days.

Then we all walked over to Hart House on the U of T campus. Although not a brewer, I entered a side gate with the brewers, thus unknowingly by-passing the long line-up of ordinary attendees at the main gate. From there, it was an afternoon of sampling some of the best of the best while talking to fellow students, college staff, friends, brewers and random strangers. Cold viruses probably had a field day, since we were all sampling from each other’s glasses as certain casks were highly recommended while others were given the so-so rating. With over 80 casks there, representing over 50 brewers, there was no way to sample everything, but I tasted enough to establish some favourites:

  • Oak-aged Cranberry (Brasserie Dunham, Quebec) — This was my first, and remained my favourite. Imagine biting raw cranberries, with their mouth-sucking tartness. Then add in a sour-milk sourness. It felt like someone had punched me in the mouth. So refreshing! And such a pretty shade of pink, with a beautiful whitest white frothy head.
  • Oak-Aged Baltic Porter (Les Trois Mousquetaires, Quebec) — An incredibly complex strong beer (9.2%), with its notes of chocolate, dark toast, and treacle, all mixed in with sourness, vanilla, bourbon and tannins from the oak. Wow.
  • Blueberry Ale (Pumphouse Brewery, New Brunswick) — Blueberries, start to finish. Not cloyingly sweet, just a  refreshing summer ale.
  • Zeitgeist Weissenbock (Flying Monkeys, Barrie) — A fellow first-year student, Sebastian MacIntosh, works at Flying Monkeys, and brewed this up a few weeks ago, although he didn’t know it would be featured at Cask Days. Going by the taste of this dark toasty sweet brew, Sebastian has a bright future ahead of him, and I obviously need to peek over his shoulder during Kevin’s exam.

There were more, but you get the idea. Good times, good times.

I also served Niagara College beers in our booth for a while, and met several people interested in taking the Brewmaster course. It was good to be able to give them a first-hand account of what the course was like.

Eventually though, all good things must end. As much as I wanted to come back for the evening session, and then the after-party at bar Volo, Kevin’s mid-term exam tomorrow morning was ever-present (sort of like a case of athlete’s foot–perhaps not uppermost in your mind, but certainly never far from it either.) So it was one last sample and then back to the books.

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