Cask Ale was, up until about 30 years ago, a nearly defunct/extinct way of serving beer. The traditional serving style in the quintessential English Pub, cask ale was the preferred method of nearly all beer dispensation before the railroads, refrigeration, and artificial carbonation came on the scene. In the early-mid 1970’s, a grassroots organization in England known as ‘CAMRA’ (CAMpaign for Real Ale) formed over outrage when large breweries started replacing traditional cask ales in English Pubs with more modern draft beers. Claiming that the more modern draft beers were neither as natural nor as satisfying, there was a big push for breweries to reintroduce the option of cask ales in England. From there the phenomenon spread, and has had new life breathed into it by the American Craft Beer industry.
So lets get something straight here, what, precisely do we mean by the term ‘Cask Ale’, and why is it enjoying such a resurgence? Cask Ales are the traditional way of serving beer, this means that the ale (or even lager) is served straight from a barrel or cask (also called a ‘Firkin’ in America) at cellar temperature (between 55-60 degrees F). Cask beers are made just like regular beers, except that in late secondary fermentation (in modern brewing terms typically just before you would crash cool your beer) the beer was packaged into barrels with some yeast still in it along with a little more wort and sealed. The beer would continue to ferment inside the cask yielding a natural carbonation while yeast and other clouding agents settled to the bottom of the cask. Using yeast and a little more sugar to produce a naturally carbonated beverage is what CAMRA refers to as ‘Real Ale’ via the route of ‘cask conditioning’ and is well-known and often used by home brewers in every corner of the globe, especially when bottling.
Cask beers are typically unfiltered, and must be consumed very quickly once opened, but are typically more robust in flavor than their pasteurized or filtered counterparts on draft (this being a result both of a higher serving temperature, as well as a combination of the re-fermentation and lack of filtering). They also typically have less carbonation than do force carbonated brews, which is also the largest complaint of people who try cask ales for the first time. As for its growing popularity in the America’s as well as worldwide, I think people are starting to enjoy cask ales for two main reasons: I think cask ales connect people to a time when brewing was a much smaller, much more localized affair. I also think that the flavors and effervescence of cask ales are enough to keep people coming back for more. For more information on CAMRA, you can visit their website here.