Why cask ale is different

Ken writes:

In the previous post, I tried to say why I think the UK beer consumers’ organisation CAMRA is right to stay focussed on cask ale. I more or less said that cask ale is special and distinctive and I want to take this post to try to spell out in more detail what makes it unique.

CAMRA’s definition of real ale is

live unpasteurised beer that is served from the vessel it was finished in without CO2 dispense gas. [link]

This definition talks about both the liquid and the way it is dispensed. As far as I know, it is the only craft-beer-concept that makes specific reference to how the beer is dispensed.

  • Unlike the American definition of craft beer, CAMRA’s definition does not specify an upper limit on how big craft breweries can be.
  • Unlike the Italian definition, CAMRA’s definition does not specify that the beer is unfiltered. Real Ale may be filtered and then reseeded with fresh yeast prior to final packaging.
  • Unlike the German Reinheitsgebot, it does not specify the ingredients that may go into beer or the process aids that might be used to clarify it.

Why focus on dispense? Dispense seems like a secondary, incidental consideration.

To understand cask ale you have to understand about the physical consequences of the particular way cask ale is dispensed.

  1. Because casks are not completely gas tight, the evolving CO2 is slowly released while the beer is in the pub cellar, so cask ale does not attain the degree of carbonation other beer does. (this is one way cask ale differs from bottle-conditioned beers, which are often highly carbonated).
  2. Cask ale needs to be kept at cellar temperature because that is the coolest temperatures the yeast in the beer will stay active at. Cask ales are fermented with yeasts that prefer to work at slightly higher temperatures (18-23˚C… kinda like people).
  3. Cask ale is packaged with a limited amount of fermentable material, and once it’s gone it’s gone, which means it will lose carbonation slowly once it’s opened and go flat (even flatter). This limits the shelf-life. No one likes beer that is completely flat.
  4. As the cask is emptied, air is drawn into the cask, which means the flavours can develop over time. Unless the cask is consumed in reasonable time, however, the air can lead to infections or staling.

Now a sceptic might say, “Well, if all that bad stuff happens, why would you want to keep such a poor and unsatisfactory mode of dispense?”

The simple answer is that those consequences of cask dispense create something that is really quite nice. The gentle carbonation and the slightly warmer serving temperature bring flavours out of the beer that you would otherwise miss. The best examples of cask ale have an incredible complexity and character. It doesn’t suit every beer, which is why I think it deserves to be thought of as a style in its own right.

Cask ale is different because the peculiarities of its dispense give it an social-institutional dimension none of the other kinds of craft beer have. It’s still work in progress when it leaves the brewery. The role of the publican/cellarperson is almost as important as the brewer. One of the things working in breweries has taught me is that the costliness of mistakes increases the further through the production process you go. If you do something wrong on the brew day, you may lose the day and the price of the ingredients. If something happens to the batch after it’s fermented out, you’ve lost the brew day and the ingredients, but you also lost all the time it was in the tank as well. If you put the beer into bottles and then mislabel it so it cannot be sold, you’ve lost everything previous and then the cost of the bottles and the labour of bottling. If you have to recall something in trade, you have all the previous losses, plus the reputational damage, plus the cost of compensating others and so on. Because the cellarperson is the last person in the cask ale production chain their good judgment is important because their mistakes would be correspondingly costly (even if only restricted to a cask-sized portion of a batch and even if the publican has already paid the brewery for the liquid). The reputation of the brewery cannot escape unaffected if the cellarperson does a bad job.

Cask Ale is low-tech, not to say primitive. No refrigeration. No industrial dispense gas. It works with nature and accepts the limitations and boundaries imposed by nature. And it calls for experienced judgment in its manufacture and dispense making it craft beer in the best sense of the word.


[Important Caveat: I have been a CAMRA member for several years, but I have no official position in CAMRA and do not speak with any special authority. The above is just my opinion.]




2 thoughts on “Why cask ale is different

    1. kenanddot

      It certainly was useful. Someone had already told me that in Italy craft beer had to be unfiltered and unpasteurised, but I didn’t realise how similar it otherwise was to the US definition. I found the bullet-point comparison very helpful.

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