Saturday, November 22, 2008

Cask Ale

Consumers are quite familiar with the common serving methods for beer, both mass-produced and craft. Beer may be served either from a large keg via a tap in the wall or it may be put into smaller containers, either colored glass bottles or aluminum cans. But most consumers in the United States are woefully unaware of a third, unique style of service that gives rise to a world of different treatments: cask ale.

A cask is nothing more than a small traditional wooden storage vessel, still used today for aging whiskey and other spirits. Taking its name from the historical container, cask ales are more accurately described as cask-conditioned ales and very often as real ales, as their methods are steeped in tradition long eschewed by modern commercial breweries. The beers are fermented and then packaged into the cask (although the process can use modern metal kegs as well), at which time a small dose of yeast is added before it is sealed.

The resulting beer is a naturally fermented, unpasteurized ale that has striking differences to the same brand available in bottles, cans or kegs. Cask ale is actually “unfinished” beer, as the late dose of yeast provides a natural and ongoing late fermentation and the lack of pasteurization means the ale is still “alive.” Yes, with cask ale you will most likely be drinking what few living yeast cells are left, depending on the age of the cask—and this is just fine.

What should you expect from a cask serving? First, the beer is not propelled through the lines using gas pressure on the keg, as most taps are served (a blend of carbon dioxide and nitrogen aptly named beer gas). The beer must be laboriously hand-pumped using what is known as a beer engine, a simple mechanical piston with a thick handle used to draw the beer from the cask that is the historical and traditional method that beers have been served.

Other differences arise from the nature of the late fermentation of the product. The beer is generally served at “cellar temperature,” or a temperature slightly cooler than ambient and closer to that found in underground cellars used for aging. The beer is also left unfiltered, so a glass of cask ale may be cloudy and turbid. Keep in mind that nothing is wrong with this style of service; a cool (neither warm nor ice-cold) and hazy pint of beer is normal for cask ales.

What you taste is something fuller, richer, softer and more subtle than the same product poured from a wall tap. The beer is naturally carbonated by the remaining yeast instead of force-carbonated by gas pressure, so the mouthfeel is generally softer and less effervescent. Because it is unfiltered and unpasteurized, different delicate flavors are present that are tied to the yeast and other compounds usually removed by sterile filters and heat.

The tradeoff with a dramatic rise in the quality of flavor in cask service is a great reduction in shelf-life. In this sense, cask ale has much in common with freshly baked bread or fruits and vegetables. Pasteurization is a preservative measure, and the lifetime of a cask of beer is generally listed in terms of days or a couple of weeks. Left in the cask too long, the beer can sour through the continued action of the live yeast and other microorganisms.

Tragically, cask ale is a rare species as its short shelf-life and unfamiliar qualities are frowned upon by mass consumers and profit-driven retailers. Long enjoyed as the standard product in the United Kingdom, organizations such as the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) work hard to keep cask ale alive and popular. If you see such a device in the States, enjoy it for the rarity it is here.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Support Your Local Brewery

It is a mantra that resonates throughout the craft beer community. It is part sage advice, part current trend, part modern marketing. It originates from both components of formal microeconomics theory and home-grown wisdom. It is the counsel you receive from commercial brewers, home brewers and just about all beer-centric websites: Support your local brewery.

Fresh beer is better beer. Beer is a perishable product. It shares a lot of characteristics with farm vegetables or bakery bread, especially in the fact that (generally) age does not work to its benefit. Aside from a few exceptions of styles that may benefit from judicious aging, most beer simply gets old after it has fermented to completion. Protected from infectious agents, oxygen in the lines and the storage systems will continue to react with the beer, developing stale or papery flavors in the overall profile as chemical components simply degrade.

That said, the easiest way to avoid problems due to age is to buy beer from local brewers. Especially with brands that cross state lines, beers can sit in distributors’ warehouses for weeks if not months awaiting sales approval, tax certification or simply retail orders to arrive. Local beers avoid most of these problems as they arrive after dozens of miles from the brewery instead of thousands.

The local economy is important. Contrary to what is projected on the evening news, most of the United States’ economy consists of local businesses, not national corporations. Most businesses in this country are classified as "small businesses;" the vast majority (97.5%) have fewer than 20 employees. Local employers contribute to the local economy through property and corporate taxes, through employing of local personnel or subcontractors and through local charity events, recycling and gifting programs.

Every local community in this nation is a heartbeat. That heartbeat is a reflection of the health of the local economy, and the sum total of those local economies is the health of the national economy at large. But for the vast majority of us, those who own a home or employ others or have children in public or private schools, the well-being of the local economy is paramount.

What better way to encourage the health of the local economy than to purchase local products? The money and profits are returned to local businesses, not shipped to faceless, out-of-state bank accounts. Local sales benefit yourself and your neighbors with continued employment, consistent variety and quality of products, and a perception of strength on the national economic stage.

The green argument. Shipping foodstuffs, especially liquids, is terribly inefficient from a fuel/weight perspective. National breweries have cut their distribution networks down by constructing matching breweries in multiple states but craft breweries rarely (if ever) have that option. Distributors earn their living by transporting by truck cans, bottles and kegs of local beer to the far reaches of the continental United States, or further.

Trucks generate pollution, not to mention wear-and-tear on roadways and other transit systems. The longer they must travel, the more pollution they create. If you at all are concerned about your carbon footprint, or in any way interested in reducing personal waste and consumption, purchase local beer. Beer that travels tens of miles from local suppliers instead of across the country or across an ocean is—by default—the greener choice.

If you don’t like it, tell them. This is by no means a blind love-fest and forgiving endorsement for all local craft brewers. You should not drink local beer simply because it is local. The marketplace is competitive, and a brewery’s product should satisfy your personal preferences and tastes. However, do not be hesitant to provide feedback to a local brewer—especially negative, if delivered constructively. All brewers are interested in correcting what is wrong, and small local craft brewers can be much more personally responsive than a distant national corporation.