I should preface this piece by saying I have nothing but respect for those that brew beer for a living. Those that actually brew, not those that tour around the world promoting themselves and writing think pieces about the state of beer, or think because they’ve dug out a few mash tuns while getting their name on a collaboration beer that actually know how the world works. No, it’s the hands on, up to your elbows in boiling hot trub kind of people. The, lungs stripped of all sensation by peractic acid, kind of people. The, I’ve got so many caustic soda burns you’d think I’d know when to wear gloves, kind of people.
If a brewery has chosen to not cask beer then fair play, that isn’t where the market is and it is very hard to do and get right.
Likewise those selling it, especially those in the micro pubs and bars popping up around the country, if you can sell cask, even just one line, and keep it well, then fair play to you.
What I would like to do is just walk through why cask beer, from my own experience, is an absolute twat to brew, sell and keep.
Let us start with the cask itself. Metal and plastic are the main varieties. We can leave wood, it is very rare thing, mainly used for ageing, selling beer from in at The Junction pub in Castleford, or to hide impurities while charging a small fortune for it.
The Cask on the Outside
People of all stripes don’t seem to respect the physical nature of a cask. Yes, they are built to last, to cope with being thrown around, rolled around, stacked and dropped but that doesn’t mean that always has to be the way they are treated. Dints and bangs, chips and scratches are part of natural life, especially when things need to be expedited but the state I’ve seen some casks in beggars belief. All casks are the property of someone, you wouldn’t go round beating up things because they could take it on a daily basis (unless it’s a punch bag) because society would view you as some kind of sociopath, so a bit more respect wouldn’t go amiss. Use just once and destroy, the story of Key Keg. So I suppose Cask Beer is the more environmentally friendly one.
The Cask on the Inside
Talking of respect, once a cask is finished, just how hard is it for pubs and other holders of empty casks to simply stopper up the empty holes (shive or keystone). It isn’t difficult, paper towel would be good enough if you don’t want to stretch to corks, bungs and spiles. If you want to learn just how a little thought goes a long way, in this small heatwave the UK is having, try getting millions of welded on fly eggs out of an empty, open cask. And leaves, cigarette butts, litter and other general detritus. Not something you have to do with a Keg.
Sterilising The Cask
Once you’ve cleaned the inside and outside of a cask (metal is easier but more expensive, hence why there are quite a few rental options for them) you sterilise the thing. Sterilising, in my experience can be carried out with chemicals (and then copious amounts of water to remove the chemicals) or steam. This includes the shive and the keystone. Nothing is 100% fool-proof and contamination can occur in even the most sterile of environments, which breweries aren’t. Not something you have to do as laboriously with a Keg.
Selling the Cask
Beer, once placed in a sterilised cask, can have a pretty good shelf life, especially without additives like finings or adjuncts. Key kegs will last longer.
Preparing the Cask
Stillage the beer and let it settle for at least 48 hours before tap and vent/serving. A luxury in a cold room/under bar where space is a premium or turn over is high. Plug in and Play, the Keg Beer story, part 2.
I’ve been to places (and festivals) that serve less than 24 hours before selling, it is called taking the customer for granted.
Serving the Cask
You’ve got about 5 days (maybe longer with the best conditions/cellar skills) to sell this beer now it is open and oxygen is waging war with the beer inside the cask. Do not move it, do not knock it, keep it between 11-14°C (52-57°F). Taste it all the time, check the clarity all the time. Its been 3 weeks and the Key Keg has been on and off its line a few times now, still tastes quite nice.
I’ve been to places (and festivals) that serve blatantly green beer and even ones with easily spotted spoiled characteristics, it is called taking the customer for granted. Then again, if they like the taste and smell of TCP, why question the practice.
Dealing with the Cask
“That doesn’t taste right.”
“That doesn’t look right.”
“The beer isn’t clearing.”
“There isn’t much condition to it.”
One of the best and nicest brewers (and human beings) in Manchester, whose brewery is keg only, once explained to me the decision not to ever do cask (from the outset, not give up a few years in) was that he wished to remove all doubt that once the beer had left the brewery, any in a poor condition could not be levelled as a fault with the brewery.
Granted you can get a duff keg, things can go wrong with them but the trouble with cask is that everything can ultimately end up falling on the brewer. And we are back to point one. Once a beer is out in the wild, a whole number of things can happen to it. Flung around. Dropped. Not kept at the right temperature. Not vented for long enough. Kept on too long. All of this is all out of control of the brewery and yet if the beer is considered to be pants it all falls on the brewery.
Cask beer is too much like hard work for those who actually sell it, it would seem. Perhaps it is a facet of the modern age, a lack of personal responsibility in these interesting times we live. A need for something new, now and as cheap as possible, if not free. Something that requires a bit of effort, a bit more time, a bit more care… meh.
LPs vs CDs
CDs are virtually indestructible, they last forever with minimal looking after. Vinyl needs to be kept upright, dust free and at a suitably ambient temperature.
CD covers are tiny, you can get very little information on them and you can’t see all the intricate detail. An LP cover can be a work of art.
CDs are compressed bits of data, with a Long Player you can experience the full dynamic range.
CDs are now being replaced by the mp3 or the stream. LPs are having a bit of a revival. And you can’t hold and smell and marvel at a byte of music.
Thanks for reading.