Cask vs. Real Ale: A Lesson

Have you ever heard the terms “real ale,” “cask beer” or “cask-conditioned” and thought to yourself, “What in the world is that?” You are not alone, friend. Many people have never heard these terms and are confused about their meanings. That is ok! Sometimes the world of craft beer can be intimidating and confusing. You don’t want to ask a question for fear of looking stupid. Well we are here to help you navigate these unknown waters or maybe just give you a refresher. After this, you will have some fun new beer knowledge and be broadening your beer horizons. Let’s delve in, shall we?

The term “cask”  literally means “container.” Cask has been used to describe various vessels for storage and shipping goods for quite some time. Stone and wooden casks have been mentioned as early as 424 B.C. in ancient Babylon. They were merely the name given to storage and serving vessels for beer, as well as wine and a variety of other products. Nowadays, the term cask is associated more with beer and wine. The ale or beer firkin is a quarter of an keg or beer barrel or half a kilderkin. This unit is much smaller than the wine firkin. Casks in this size (themselves called firkins) are the most common container for real ale, and are what we use here at Draught Works for our Real Ale.

real ale

Keg, left, and firkin, right.

The beer or ale firkin was redefined in Britain in 1824 to be 9 imperial gallons, which translates to 10.8 U.S. gallons. This system of measurement was developed in Britain, thus the names and difference.

Here at Draught Works, and in most other places which serve real ale, a beer engine is used to pour the beer, as opposed to the regular CO2 keg system. A beer engine is a device used for pumping beer in a more traditional way, without the use of carbon dioxide to carbonate the beer. This creates a softer form of carbonation.  A swan neck is the tap from which the beer comes out on a beer engine. It is a curved spout with a “sparkler” on the end. A sparkler is a nozzle with small holes like a shower head that aerates the beer as it enters the glass, giving it a frothier head. Sometimes, real ale is served directly from the cask. This method is known as gravity dispense. Our wooden beer engine is located on the left hand side when facing the bar. Look for it next time you are in!

beer engine

beer engine

Now that we have the container and serving equipment down, let’s move on to the actual beer.

Real ale is the name coined by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) in 1973 for a type of beer defined as “beer brewed from traditional ingredients, matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide.” The heart of the definition is the maturation requirements. If the beer is unfiltered, unpasteurised and still active on the yeast, it is a real ale; it is irrelevant whether the container is a cask or a bottle.

Here is a very detailed description of real ale, by CAMRA. They do such a swell job of breaking it down, we decided to just include theirs instead of writing our own: “Real ale is a natural product brewed using traditional ingredients and left to mature in the cask (container) from which it is served in the pub through a process called secondary fermentation. It is this process which makes real ale unique amongst beers and develops the wonderful tastes and aromas which processed beers can never provide. Real ale is a natural, living product. By its nature this means it has a limited shelf life and needs to be looked after with care in the pub cellar and kept at a certain temperature to enable it to mature and bring out its full flavors for the drinker to enjoy. Brewery-conditioned, or keg, beer has a longer shelf life as it is not a living product. Basically, after the beer has finished fermentation in the brewery and has been conditioned, it is chilled and filtered to remove all the yeast and then it is pasteurised to make it sterile. This is then put in a sealed container, called a keg, ready to be sent to the pub. The problem is that removing the yeast and ‘killing off’ the product through pasteurization also removes a great deal of the taste and aroma associated with real ale. Because there is no secondary fermentation occurring in the container (i.e keg) in which is held, there is no natural carbonation of the beer so gas either carbon dioxide or a mixture of carbon dioxide and nitrogen has to be added to “fizz up” the beer. This creates an unnaturally fizzy beer rather than the gentle carbonation produced by the slow secondary fermentation in a cask of real ale.”

Real Ale is traditionally served in Imperial Pint Glasses, sometimes called a “nonic.” It is a 20 ounce glass as opposed to the usual 16 ounce glass which features a bulge near the top, accommodating the larger head on the beer that comes with a real ale. That is what we serve our Real Ale in here at Draught Works, so you can always spot it.

cask vs. real ale

Draught Works features a new Real Ale every Wednesday! Check out our events calendar and our beer list for upcoming Real Ales! We have some creative and tasty ones planned for the next few weeks. Its a fun way to broaden your beer horizons and kick back while doing it.

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