The End of Cask beer!
Headline has-been news. Cloudwater denounced cask, just as many new “craft” breweries had done in their wake. Despite being old news, the last ever casks keep popping up…
This post though isn’t about dispense, profits or taking sides, it’s a behind the scenes look at packaging, and whether cask really is worth the effort?
Pride and Heritage
Of all the numerous brewery tours at breweries with a cask range, none have included the work that goes into packaging cask, yet all have ended with freshly pulled pints. Breweries nowadays like to play up on how brewing is more cleaning than fun, but how many cask drinkers appreciate how much work went into preparing and filling the cask before it even left the brewery?
CAMRA have done a great job preserving cask ale, so it is expected that a microbrewery brewing a style similar to a large regional brewer should also present their beer on cask; conditioned and fined. The difference is that for one of these the work involved is much more laborious and not exactly fun.
Charlie Work. aka. Cask Work
So, what’s involved? Most microbreweries or as they probably refer to themselves now; craft breweries, will have their own fleet of casks which will be delivered to pubs. Once the cask is empty it will likely sit outside the pub waiting for collection, and return to the brewery for the real caskwork to begin.
Shives, keystones and labels are removed. Stale beer and dregs are emptied. Exteriors are scrubbed and washed. This is of course all done by hand, unless you’re at a larger regional cask brewery, where a machine will likely assist in all the hard work. The shive and keystone holes are hotspots for bacteria, so given extra attention, with more scrubbing.
Next up the cask is placed on a cask washer and subjected to cycles of rinse, caustic, rinse and steam, if it’s available. It’s then removed for inspection, which if it passes is ready to be filled. Ideally casks would be washed right before filling, but in a micro brewery, it’s more likely that a keystone will be hammered in and a shive loosely fitted, before being palletised, ready for when it’s needed. It’s also likely that quite a few casks won’t pass inspection first time through.
Most cask is fined, which involves setting up trials in advance of filling to calculate the correct Isinglass dose. Some breweries also prime their casks. Small micros will prepare jugs of additions and measure out pours for each cask, which must be administered precisely. Breweries well invested in cask, use a cask filler that gives a metered fill and dosing option.
With the beer in the cask, a shive is hammered in, labels are applied and the now 50+kg firkin cask is stacked three high on a pallet. The brewery’s work is done. All this effort and not a single cask blog on the true joys of cask*.
All of this must be done year round, probably outside in all weather conditions. Put simply, it’s a lot of work, even with automated assistance.
An easier option?
Some breweries choose to use a cask rental service, so can go straight to cask filling. Close Brewery Rentals’ ecask service offers a convenient solution for breweries selling to wholesalers, but with the temperament of cask and the risk of infection, even here it’s recommended to steam sterilise the casks before filling.
Well, adding “fish guts” to beer masks the flavour, right. So, it’s little wonder that hazy beer has become so popular; or was it that preparing finings trials for Isinglass additions, measuring out and pouring exact additions, and relying on adequate cellarmanship for the beer to clear, was just too much to ask for? Either way, some breweries just fill casks directly from tank without any additions, which may end up tapped and pulled the same day.
So, is it worth the effort? I suspect most drinkers would rather be oblivious and drink their pint in peace. Most breweries will continue to serve their customers what they want, considering all this effort a means to an end. For those involved in caskwork, I’d like to think there’s an alternative.
BrewDog, backed by Pete Brown, launched LIVE beer. It’s like cask, but dispensed from a key-keg, which in terms of “work” is even easier than kegging, as key-kegs don’t need cleaning. They are a good to go option, and unsurprisingly it is in the one-trip container that new smaller craft breweries are finding their feet and affording to enter the market. No surprise it is they who are mostly shunning cask?
If cask can be filled in kegs, and primed keg is considered real ale, then there may well be an imminent end to caskwork, with casks being left to the breweries capable of preparing, cleaning and filling without any Charlie Work.