Saturday, April 2, 2011

Cask-Conditioned Beer: Are We Getting the "Real Beer" Deal & Are Cask Events Here to Stay?

If you are even remotely connected to the Vancouver craft beer community, unless you have been living incommunicado in a cave, you will have noticed the explosion, sometimes quite literally, of cask beer events hosted around the Lower Mainland. There seems to be a cask beer event almost every day, the latest CAMRA Vancouver Newsletter has ten listed over the next week, with some of weekly scheduled events having developed an almost cult-like following. Take Central City's monthly cask event, which takes place 4 PM, the last Saturday of the month, where unless you are there when the cask is tapped, you are not likely to get a chance to sample what is on offer and even if you are there on time, the chances of getting more than a pint are slim due to the event's popularity. The Whip's "Real Ale Sunday's" draws a regular crowd of Vancouver beer scene's insiders and often sells out in 90 minutes or less. St Augustine's "Manichean Monday's" draws people from all over the city who come to have a sleeve or two to help them ease into the work week while the London Pub's "Tap that Cask" event, held Friday's at 5 PM, has become the official kick-off to the weekend for many craft beer enthusiasts. The current situation brings to mind the song "Old MacDonald" with a cask, cask here and a cask, cask there, here a cask, there a cask, everywhere a cask, cask. And if that weren't enough to motivate and excite real beer enthusiasts, the Alibi Room has three casks on offer at all times, with the beers available dependent on what gem Nigel Springthorpe has managed to get his hands on.

Cask beers have been around the city for a few years but only recently have they become so popular and their availability so widespread. The genesis of Vancouver's cask beer events can be traced directly back to the long-gone-but-sorely-missed Dix BBQ and Brew Pub (may you RIP) which can take credit for being ground zero for the current cask beer explosion in this city. According to the CAMRA BC website, Vancouver's first regular cask night kicked off at Dix in July, 2002, with their first monthly "Cask Saturday". Vancouver's first "Caskival", a festival dedicated to cask-conditioned beer, where local brewers vied for the coveted Golden Bung Award, was held at Dix in July 2003. A month later Dix again produced another first when their monthly cask night went weekly in August of 2003 and was held every Thursday until Dix closed in May, 2010. From those humble beginnings, the current cask scene has developed and grown to the point where new cask events seem to be spreading across the Lower Mainland like airborne yeast in a windstorm.
Due to the shear volume of cask events in the city at the moment, it is virtually impossible to attend them all. Some of the more adventurous and I suspect single, cask beer fans have made a kind of sport out of braving as many cask events in a row as they can with the record sitting at nine, I believe. Things have never been better for the real beer enthusiast here in Vancouver and there are no signs that this current trend is going to change.
But is this cask-event frenzy a craze here today, all the rage, only to be gone the way of the Pet Rock tomorrow, or is it here to stay? I thought I'd take a closer look at the whole cask-conditioned beer scene and offer up opinions on the subject from the World According to the VanEast Beer Blog.

What Exactly is a Cask-Conditioned Beer? 
I have been asked the question, "what differentiates a cask-conditioned beer from 'regular' kegged beer?", by many of my friend's and acquaintances and, to tell you the truth, I was not too sure of the exact details. As usual, I did not let that slow me down in giving them an answer, but I had never really put much more thought into the subject of cask-conditioned beer other than to consider whether I wanted to order one, or not, if they were on offer. As I understood it, cask-conditioned beer was fermented, at least in part, in a cask, was not artificially carbonated and was extracted from the cask by a hand-pump/beer engine style tap or gravity-fed and poured from the cask. In the interest of understanding fully what exactly qualifies a beer as a cask- conditioned beer, or real beer, I have done a little research so I can be better informed about what I am drinking and be able to properly give my friends and acquaintances an knowledgeable answer other than just flying by the seat of my pants.

Since CAMRA UK seems to be the patron saint of things cask-conditioned, I thought I would snoop around their website to see if I could come up with any information. I was not disappointed. According to CAMRA UK's website:
"Real ale is a beer brewed from traditional ingredients (malted barley, hops water and yeast), matured by secondary fermentation, in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide.
Brewers use ingredients which are fresh and natural, resulting in a drink which tastes natural and full of flavour. It is literally living as it continues to ferment in the cask in your local pub, developing its flavour as it matures, ready to be poured into your glass.
Real ale is also known as ‘cask-conditioned beer’, ‘real cask ale’, 'real beer’ and ‘naturally conditioned beer'."
CAMRA UK, who state on their website that they developed the above written definition in 1970, goes on to explain that both cask-conditioned beers and kegged beers go through the identical primary fermentation process but then part ways when cask-conditioned beer is placed in the cask where it undergoes the "slow secondary fermentation in the vessel (i.e. cask) from which it is served". Cask beers are then served straight from that cask, bypassing the pasteurization and filtration step, which filters out and kills the yeast, that most kegged beers undergo after primary filtration, preventing further fermentation. It is important to note that I stated "most" kegged beers and the reason why will become apparent a little later in this post.

Now I am going to leave the safe confines of the CAMRA UK website and venture out into the wild blue yonder, flying, once again, by the seat of my pants while pontificating about the current cask beer scene here in Vancouver. But if you chose to follow me on my adventure, please remember, these are my personal observations, thoughts and ideas and in no way reflect those opinions held by the owners/operators and employees of the VanEast Beer Blog.

Are We Getting the "Real Beer" Deal at Cask Events Here in Vancouver?

This is a more complicated question than it first appears. While there are some brewers who are actually transferring their beers into the casks, unfiltered, suspended yeasts and all, immediately after primary fermentation,  where they are introducing whatever ingredients they chose to to create their unique brews before sealing the casks up to allow secondary fermentation, I suspect that not all the beers served at our cask beer nights fit CAMRA UK's definition of cask-conditioned beer. Actually, this is  more than a suspicion, it is something I know to be true. What is true is that all the beers served at the cask events are coming from casks with seemingly no "extraneous" CO2, or any other gas, being used to aid in transferring beer from cask to glass. But some of the beers are not being "conditioned" in the "vessel" that they are being served from, which seems to be a key part of the CAMRA UK definition and description of cask-conditioned beers. This is not to say that those who don't follow this method are cheating us and serving substandard beers. I am simply saying that some purists would not consider many of the casks we are served at these cask events to be cask-conditioned.

Have you ever watched the casks be hauled up onto the bar just before they are tapped, or watched the person behind the bar tip up the cask to drain the last drops into your glass as you thirstily awaited and noticed that there is no sediment or cloudiness visible in your perfect pint? Maybe I am a little simple, but this puzzled me at first. If a beer is transferred, unfiltered, into the cask and allowed a secondary fermentation there, should there not be yeast sediment settled on the the bottom of the cask that would be stirred up when the cask is moved which would result in cloudy beer with coodies and ya-ya bits floating about when the cask is jostled about? I know I am not the only one who has thought this because I have had comments directed my way and watched others wince when they saw the casks being tipped and flung about. When I started to write this post, I did some thinking about this - if you were close enough to me you could have smelled the wood burning as I worked through this problem - and suddenly I understood why some of the casks are good to the last drop.

It is my belief that these "clean casks", those without sediment, do actually undergo secondary fermentation and are not filtered in any way, but they are not technically "cask-conditioned". These beers are similar to the "regular" kegged, craft beers we drink, which differs from the definition of "regular" kegged beers CAMRA UK mentioned. The craft breweries do keg their beers, and introduce extraneous CO2, but most, if not all, do not filter or pasteurize their beers after primary fermentation. They are instead transferred from the primary fermentation tank to a secondary fermentation tank, where the beers are allowed to undergo the all-important secondary fermentation.Once the secondary fermentation is complete and the yeasts and particles in the beer have settled to the bottom of the secondary tank, sometimes aided by finings dropped into the fermenter, the beer is transferred to a keg, CO2 is added and the beer is ready to be delivered to your local watering hole, or the beer is transferred to a cask, extra ingredients, if applicable, added and the cask sealed, ready to make its grand entrance at the next cask event gala.
By this method, no actual fermentation is taking place in the cask we have our beer from. This may also explain why some of the cask beers we are being served are so flat, due to the lack of natural carbonation in the cask that would have been produced if the cask had been allowed to actually ferment there. It also explains why these casks do not have any sediment and why the beer remains clear to the last sleeve (or pint if you are lucky) even when tipped, flipped, shaken or turned upside down.

Is that cask-conditioned beer?
I would say no. According to the CAMRA UK definition, no as well.
Is that real, craft beer?
To this question, I say yes.

The craft breweries are brewing using traditional methods and ingredients, sometimes with their own personal twists, are allowing the beer a slow, secondary fermentation and are not filtering or pasteurizing their beers. It is just taking place in a larger tank, not the cask. Many of these types of casks I have tasted have been excellent and equal in taste and quality to those that have obviously fermented in the actual cask (sediment and sludge present at bottom of cask tips me off these are real cask-conditioned beers) and some of the "authentic" cask-conditioned beers I have tried have not been that good. Being a cask-conditioned beer does not automatically qualify a beer as a good beer. And, if done properly, a beer transferred into the cask from the secondary, that is allowed the proper time to acclimatize and blend with the added ingredients, i.e extra hops, fruits, coffee, chocolate, etc, can be a great drinking experience.
On the cynical side, I do suspect though that some of these beers are being transferred into the casks and have the extras added just hours, sometimes minutes before being delivered to the event and this is evident in the final product, which in some cases have been quite disappointing. My experience and my suspicions tell me these cases are few and far between and I really hope that as the demand grows for casks, with the all the different cask events that are being held, that brewers are planning ahead. I do have to say that I did attend one cask event and thought the beer was very unique, tasty and well worth the trip. I later found out that this "cask-conditioned" beer was one of the last-minute specials, but I did not feel cheated due to the quality of the beer I enjoyed. What it did do was give me a great appreciation for how skilled our local brewers are to be able to pull the proverbial rabbit out of the hat at the last minute to provide a "cask" beer to an expecting audience.

I am sure some of you are rolling your eyes and muttering to yourself that I am just splitting hairs, but let me put it to you this way...If, with my next batch of home brew, I allow my beer to go through first a primary fermentation, then transfer it to a secondary carboy where the secondary fermentation takes place and the yeast and sediment settles to the bottom, after which I then transfer said beer to my bottles, unfiltered and without extraneous carbonation, and cap them, should I be able to call these "bottle-conditioned" beers? I think not, as almost all, if not all, of the yeasts, which have settled to the bottom of the secondary have been left behind, therefore no further fermentation is taking place in the bottles. These bottled beers, as good,or bad, as they may be are just Paddy's home brew, not bottle-conditioned beers. I believe the same comparison can be drawn to some of the casks that are being served. It is not a reflection on the quality of the product, it is a reflection about how the beer should be categorized.

In a perfect world, all the casks would be truly cask-conditioned for that authentic is called the Campaign for Real Ale, is it not? Having said that, if the beer is good, I will drink it, cask-conditioned, tank-conditioned or filtered through a dirty sock. I am not a purist when it comes to the beers I drink. If I like them, I drink them and if I don't, no matter what brewery they come from and how highly rated they are, I don't. Like I said before, not all things cask-conditioned are good. But I think if we are drinking beers that are not truly cask-conditioned, the brewers should let us know. I know when I see the words "cask beer", I expect a cask-conditioned brew and for some of the purists, this slight different in process is a very important one and is "the" step that differentiates this style of beers from others.

Are Cask Events Here to Stay or Just a Splash in the Glass?

As popular as it is at the current time, I am not so sure that the cask event movement can continue to grow and remain sustainable with the current number of craft beer drinkers in this city and the rapid expansion of the cask beer events. I do not profess to have attended every cask night, or even to have attended one at every venue, but at the ones I have attended, I see that the bulk of the crowd there drinking from the cask are the familiar faces of those who make up the nucleus of the Vancouver craft beer community. That is not to say that this trend cannot maintain and become a long-term thing here in Vancouver, but unless that community expands, I can't see the continued expansion of this cask beer craze continuing and I think that it will eventually shrink and return to just those establishments where craft beer drinkers traditionally hang out. Already I am seeing overlap in the events, two being held at the same time and wonder if this will thin the cask-beer crowd out. Maybe there are more and more people drinking craft beer at these events than I am aware of and there are enough cask beer lovers and curious customers who will try the cask beer, to sustain all of these events. If not, restaurants and bars will begin to see that numbers are dropping because the cask-beer crowd is being spread too thin and those establishments that are not traditional craft beer drinker hangouts will stop their cask nights and move onto the next fad/craze.
To this point, due in large part to the support from CAMRA Vancouver and the craft beer community, there have been more than enough support for the cask events to produce interest from new establishments, some not traditionally associated with craft beer, to hold their own events to draw new customers in. I have watched St Augustine's, a well-known craft beer hangout and my local watering hole, grow their cask night from a few local, craft beer lovers to a full house, but I did note that two Mondays ago, when I last attended, numbers were down, despite it being a Central City cask and I wonder if this was because the Granville Room held their first Monday cask night, overlapping St Augustine's, that same evening. I do know that many of the regular crew who show up at St Augustine's on Mondays went to the Granville Room to check it out and wonder if this will be a trend, with those living Downtown and on the Westside no longer making the trek to the Drive on Monday nights. I hope not as the St Augie's crew have worked hard to build up and establish their cask event but like I stated earlier, there are only some many craft/cask beer appreciators around at the moment and for them to support all the events, to the point of them being successful, the Campaign for Real Ale could soon turn into the Campaign for Real Alcoholics.

I also fear, as the demand for craft beer grows in this city and beyond, that with the increased demand for cask beers brewers may find that creating these casks is more of a time consumer than it is worth. At the moment, cask beers seem to be the playground for brewers, giving them a chance to deviant from their normal, day-to-day recipes to be creative and explore ideas to create truly unique brews. Some brewers seem very energized and inspired by this freedom and are producing some truly interesting, strange, quality casks, pushing the boundaries in regards to types of beers. If this passion for creating unique, quality casks continues, the quality will remain high which will help draw in more and more people into the cask beer scene which will, in turn, help it maintain and grow. If the quality begins to slip and not enough attention is paid to these casks, interest will shrink and the present craze will fizzle out like a flat cask.
I do hope that this cask beer craze turns into something long-term and permanent here in Vancouver and that the increased availability of cask beer will help introduce more people to craft beer. It will give beer tourists yet another reason to make Vancouver their destination of choice and give the local craft beer drinkers the unique opportunity to drink and enjoy a sleeve of real ale on a very regular basis, at more than just one establishment in the city, instead of having to wait to try samples every few months at a crowded beer festival. Even if cask-conditioned beer is not your thing, if you are a craft beer lover, the development and success of these cask events is a positive as they potentially expose more and more people in Vancouver to craft beer and point out the the bean counters of the hospitality industry that craft beers can be money makers if they are brought into an establishment and promoted.
So whether they are all truly cask-conditioned beers or not, lets hope that this current craze transforms into the norm so we can continue to drink fresh, quality craft beer in our fine city.


  1. When I was in Portland most of the breweries I went to had either one or two daily casks--Justin

  2. Something for us to aim for here in Vancouver Justin. I would love to see a few more restaurants/pubs offer permanet cask taps with rotating beers on offer. At the moment, the only permanent one I can think of is The Alibi Room. I know Howe Sound usually has a cask on tap as well.

  3. I'm one of those who winces at the way barrels of cask conditioned beer are handled in this city. You can't throw a keg up on a counter and tap it two minutes later. A cask conditioned keg needs at least 24-48 hours to settle. the keg should be tapped in one swift hit. don't hook up a hand pump to a keg on a bar, your increasing the chance of contaminating the beer. Nothing is better than a good beer poured straight out of the barrel. Cloudy pints are not something that should be accepted and the brewers are doing themselves a diservice by letting them be brewed this way.