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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

One of My Periodic Posts in Praise of Cask Ale

A few months back, Laurelwood made the bold decision to scrap a big part of their regular line and offer more one-offs, including a rotating pale ale.  They also added a cask engine.  Unfortunately for me, it seems like some hop titan is always on cask, so I have mostly skipped it.  Yesterday everything came together, however, and they had the current pale ale, a 4.5% charmer weirdly called "Nail Pale," on both keg and cask.  Perfecto! 


If you want to understand the mysteries of packaging chemistry, I recommend conducting the following experiment.  Go to Laurelwood and get a pint of this beer in both forms.  They look the same, except that the sparklered cask pour has a tighter, more mousse-like head.  It might have been a touch cloudier.  But put your nose over the beer and the differences present themselves.  The icy keg pour has little to offer in scent, whereas the cask offers a vivid resinous pine perfume.  Warmth encourages volatile aroma compounds to lift off the beer.

When the beers enter the mouth, the differences get even more obvious.  At 30 BUs, Nail Pale is probably about five too many for a 10 Plato beer.  On cask, it's okay, though.  The architecture of the malt, mildly sweet, bready, and soft, cotton the hop zing.  And the hops, for their part, are full of juicy flavor.  The brewers must have added some salts, because it has a London-like minerality that stiffens the finish.  On keg, all the flavors are present, but it's as if they beer has been pulled taut so that they're in very sharp focus.  The carbonation both diminishes the malt's flavors and soft mouthfeel and sharpens hop bitterness.  On cask the beer teeters on the edge of balance but on keg it falls into hoppy imbalance.  What feels full and lush on cask seems thin on keg. 

Last week we talked a lot about balance and hoppiness.  In my comments, I should probably have admitted that the crime of overhopping is far more common than underhopping--at least on the West Coast.  That gateway misdemeanor leads to certain felonies, like misusing cask engines.  A cask isn't ideal for every beer, and they rarely work with big, hoppy ones.  Cask ale is different, but you have to be willing to appreciate the benefits it offers.  Souping up hops is not among them.  It's only with a beer like Nail Pale that you can begin to see what casks can do for a beer.

11 comments:

Barm said...

I don't agree that hoppy beers don’t work cask-conditioned. What _can_ go badly wrong is if a beer is both strong (to me that’s 6% or over, yes I'm British), sweet (all-malt and/or crystal malt) and heavily late-hopped. The resulting perfumey sweetness can easily get cloying at the temperatures cask is usually served at. But this is a more an issue of temperature.

Erlangernick said...

Bless this Post and all who sail upon her!

Now picture that beer with only 3.7% ABV, *no* crystal malt, and double the hops, and you'd really have Beervana. (I brew my half-IPA thus but Ca. 120 IBU, not because I want to, but because I have to, living in Franconia. Of course, I'd have to living in Portlandia as well!)

Jeff Alworth said...

Barm, that's just the thing: in the US, IPAs are all over 6%. Very often they're pushing eight. I've encountered double IPAs on cask. I hadn't considered the caramel malt question, but it's a good point. Even still, some do work, but it's a crapshoot. And even when they do, I think it's in spite of the cask, not because of it.

Nick, I'm about to bottle a 5% pale brewed with pilsner malt and wheat and iridescent with late and dry hops. I'm getting more sensitive to caramel malts, probably because of places like Franconia and the Czech Republic.

Craig said...

I think my big objection to cask isn't the beer itself, but the lack of understanding on how to serve it correctly (I'm speaking of the U.S. in this case). Cask beers, if done right are phenomenal, if done wrong are really atrocious. So many places are so willing to throw a firkin up on the bar, draped with a bag of ice and a wet towel, and call it a day. Most places don't know how to tap it correctly—let alone tell the difference between the hard and soft spile—and what you end up with is flaccid and luke warm, well... yuck.

KD said...

Jeff, I hope you meant mousse-like head and not "mouse-like head"

Brewers Union Local 180 said...

Come on down, we're running a 3.4, 4.3 and 4.5.

Brew Dude John said...

Hopefully the next trend in the US craft beer scene will be cask beer. It would be nice to see cask offerings to be more commonplace and presented correctly. I agree with Craig - sometimes it's not done right here in the States and it's a darn shame.

Jeff Alworth said...

KD, yes, yes I did. Fixed--thanks.

Pete Dunlop said...

I thought the Nail Pail was mediocre...and not a very good choice for the cask tap. Oh well. The lightest I will go on cask is a red. I think IPAs and pales on cask are a joke. But that's my opinion. Others will differ.

Vasili said...

Thanks for the nice write up Jeff! I am in agreement on the big big beers on cask. My sense from some strong beer enthusiasts on this that having these offerings on cask is like another filter of awesomeness to see these beers through, like barrel aging, randall-ing or the like (which of course don't make the beer inherently better). This is not so, as you point out. It is more about teasing out the subtlety there. Here is my off-the-cuff analogy, cask ale is like striking up a conversation with the shy one at the party rather then giving a megaphone to the loudest person there. That said, I still throw an IPA on now and then, even though it isn't the best use for the engine, since, like in the rest of our line up, we can sell it about five times faster then most others. That said, Porter and Stouts would be my fovorites from cask. What that service does for the malt complexity is divine. Thanks for stopping in. You too Pete.

Anonymous said...

I'm planning to bottle the 5% pale brewed along with pilsner malt and also whole wheat as well as iridescent using past due and dry jumps. Now i'm reading good sensitive to caramel malts, probably because of places such as Franconia along with the Czech Republic.

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