The World’s Most “Hand-Crafted” Beer is Cask Ale


A week ago, Pete Brown made a nearly comprehensive case for British beer. He pointed out the historical influence of British beer, which was so profound it led to pale lager; tendrils of influence sparked beers like Rodenbach and Duvel (and Guinness, which he did not explicitly cite). And of course, the British tradition was the inspiration for the American brewers who would eventually knead and shape it into the hop-driven beers for which they are now famous—and which, in a bittersweet irony, are now being imitated (“aped,” to use Pete’s word) in the UK. The article was a lament of sorts—that despite all this history and the current excitement around new brewery openings there, the “British” is getting lost in the beer. 

I say “nearly” because there’s one point I routinely mention in speeches that too often goes unnoticed. Where the British tradition still survives is cask ale (usually but not entirely in the form of bitter), and it is the most “crafted” beer style made anywhere. If we ever wanted to exalt a beer type that requires the most hands fussing over it, a beer resistant to making at large scale, one that can’t really be put in a bottle, one that is as likely to wilt from environmental conditions as freshly-plucked lettuce, it is cask ale. When you’re served a pint at the right temperature, poured properly, that is perfectly fresh and well-handled, it’s a marvel of coordination. There’s a reason Americans picked the bones of British brewing while leaving its cask soul behind: it’s just too hard to make.  


Making Cask Ale 

Let’s revisit why Americans steered clear of cask. Most of the breweries making it at the dawn of American craft brewing had comically obsolete brewhouses. They were made before the turn of the 20th century and allowed for only single-infusion mashing. The kits themselves were like old Volkwagen vans—they require brewers who knew their quirks, who could do the equivalent of popping the clutch to get them going. (Look it up, my young friends.) They used characterful malts, made of British barley varieties, often malted by men with rakes in drafty cellars. (Seriously.)

What followed formed the blueprint for American brewing, starting with the use of post-kettle hopping in the hop back. (Americans call this “whirlpool hopping,” but the technique is the same—to infuse wort with hops on the way to the fermenter.) The American tradition was developed with neutral yeasts and tall, sealed fermenters that inhibited ester production. British brewers commonly used very weird old yeasts, sometimes pure strains, sometimes blended strains, and sometimes strains with odd bits of non-saccharomyces yeast that added a particularly unusual flavor. English fermenters are square, which creates little pockets for yeast to behave non-homogeneously. Square fermenters have low pressure, which aids in ester production, and often times they’re open, which supercharges ester growth. (The hazy IPA phenomenon arose as Americans rediscovered the potential of English yeasts to add juicy fruit flavors to their beer.)

The phantasmagoria of yeast bubbling away in an open fermenter.

British brewers were also the ones who taught Americans how to dry-hop their beer. And, as an extra added bonus, many dry hop their casks as well. We haven’t even gotten to the cask bit yet, but because freshness and immediacy is the hallmark of this style, brewers could easily float a sachet of Goldings in a cask without worry of what they would do to the beer in a month.

Cellaring and Serving Cask Ale

All of that is lovely and evocative, and much of it is still practiced in that green and pleasant land. But it’s not as hands-on as turbid or decoction mashing. (Though Fuller’s gets special credit for using parti-gyle mashing, now at least a century out of date.) Where cask ale becomes truly artisanal is in the following stages. Once it has mostly fermented out, the ales are transferred to casks. Traditionally these would have been wooden, but most are steel now. The beer is packaged with a fining agent, traditionally a fish’s swim bladder—or isinglass. Mainly made of collagen, a positively-charged polymer, it efficiently settles out the yeast. (Because it’s sourced from an animal and vegans have raised a ruckus, other finings are now used.) A cask may also have that sachet of hops.

From there, casks are sent off to pub, where a cellar-person tends to them. This is an extremely important job, and the reason so many pints are served sour or stale or cloudy is because it was done badly. In the cellar, the beer will continue to ferment, creating more yeast cells and gently carbonating the beer. “Natural” carbonation is often derided by keg-draft fans because the levels of fizz are lower, but they’re also different. Natural carbonation is more tightly knitted into the matrix of the liquid, and the effect on the palate is one of greater silkiness and less prickiness.

When a cask is ready to serve, which is to say fully carbonated and settled, the cellar-person begins a truly bespoke method of tapping. Effectively, what happens is the cask is vented to allow air in as the beer goes out—the idea being that anything that disturbs the natural order inside the cask (even a layer of staling-inhibiting CO2) will lessen the drinker’s experience. (Completists may Google “shive” or “spile” or “kilderkin” to learn the whole process.)

The final step is serving the pint. Like everything else involved in a pint of cask ale, it’s a manual process. The publican pulls a handpump, the current variety of which was invented more than 200 years ago, to produce the desired type of pour. Publicans can either create pints with tiny heads or use a device called a “sparkler” that froths the beer as it exits the tap. Methods of pouring are the subject of intense debate and strong opinion. (I am firmly in the anti-sparkler camp.)

A few breweries, like Sam Smith’s, do still have a few wooden casks kicking around. I didn’t even get into the whole cooper thing, which is another potential layer of craftiness almost lost in the 21st century.

The Cræft (Craft) of Cask

There are other styles of beer, like lambic, which take longer and are more harrowing to make. But even lambic requires less of the human hand. Most of the heavy lifting and nearly everything characteristic about lambic happens from the moment the wort enters the coolship onward. It’s a biological process more than one of handcraft. Cask ales, by contrast, require human intervention at every step along the way and, when that intervention fails, so does the beer. Being able to place a perfectly-fresh, wonderfully-made pint of cask ale in front of a pubgoer is like trying to balance a cue ball on a basketball.

In the UK, cask ale is a beleaguered product. It is considered old and fusty, and because it is so hard to do well, many people consider it an inferior product. (When it is flat and sour, the flavors all collapsed and muddy, cask ale is a sad thing indeed.) The reason I’ve been such a fanatic supporter over the years is precisely because it is so hard. It is a crazy beer that shouldn’t exist. There’s a reason Americans took one look at that and said no thanks. There are many places for it to go south, from the brewhouse to the brewery cellar to the pub cellar to the pint glass. It takes many people to deliver that perfect pint, and that means many people who can screw it up. It is inefficient as hell.

And bizarrely, in the UK, it’s also expected to be cheap, which means breweries are supposed to go through all this and sell a pint at a discount. No wonder new craft breweries eschew this crazy product, too. They may be called craft breweries, but that’s way too much craft for way too little money. They also say no thanks.

Pete didn’t say it, but I will: cask ale is not just the most important symbol of British brewing, it’s also one of the hardest to make beers, the craftiest beers, and, when it’s made and served properly, the best beers on the planet. Nearly everyone seems to hold cask in contempt, even while they fall in love with Bavarian kellerbier (a poor man’s cask beer) and hazy IPA and rustic saison. If I were English, I’d be swanning around bragging about making the best and most difficult beer. The problem is, that’s not a very British thing to do, is it? Well, take my word for it as a braggy American, it is the hardest to make, and the most hand-crafted.