"Warm and flat" is the judgment of many Americans tasting traditional English ales for the first time. Accustomed to highly fizzy, pale lagers presented in mouth-numbing frosted mugs, they aren't sure what to make of cool, lightly carbonated golden brews on first meeting. But what they are drinking—in a country pub, if they're lucky—is an ale that has been cask-conditioned, one of the oldest methods of tending and dispensing beer.
Cask ale, which for many years has hovered on the edges of American brewing culture, is gaining momentum here at last. The Triangle now offers beer lovers a chance to taste what many consider to be the freshest and most flavorful beer.
Cask ale is not a beer style but a method of fermenting, maturing and serving beer. Fresh, unfiltered beer is put directly into a cask (these days, a metal keg), where, thanks to the presence of live yeast, it continues to ferment and develop. All the carbon dioxide in the beer is produced by the action of the yeast, and no additional CO2 is added to the keg or used to force the beer through the tap, unlike more modern forms of dispensing beer.
The result is a live beer at the peak of freshness, with a soft carbonation in the mouth and bountiful aroma and flavor. And because these beers were traditionally stored in cool pub cellars to mature, and pumped from there as they were served, the preferred temperature is between 50 and 55 degrees—not "warm" but cellar temperature.
Modern beer—filtered, pasteurized to kill the yeast and served from pressurized kegs with the aid of CO2—asks little of the bartender. But serving cask-conditioned ale is an art that depends on the skills of the cellarman. He cares for the casks, figures out when their secondary fermentation is advanced enough, determines how long the beer must sit to "drop bright" (pour completely clear) and judges how much to let the cask breathe to achieve the right level of carbonation.
Once the cask is tapped, allowing oxygen in as the beer is drained, the clock is ticking. The ale will continue to develop new flavors, but it will also begin to deteriorate: It should be consumed within a few days.
It was once necessary to travel to England to taste cask-conditioned ale—and even there, modernization by big breweries put the practice at risk until an organization known as CAMRA (The Campaign for Real Ale) saved it from extinction. But today, you probably have a choice of half a dozen places to try "real ale" right here in the Triangle. The challenge, of course, is that enthusiastic brewers and bar managers may be learning their art by trial and error, and most of their customers do not know good cask ale from bad.
The place to start is at Top of the Hill in Chapel Hill, where brewer John Withey, winner of CAMRA awards for cask ale in his native England, finally has space for cask-conditioned beers at the new second-floor Back Bar. The modern, industrial-style bar—a far cry from those storied country pubs—features two beer engines, the devices that draw the beer from the cask with a pull on a tall handle, pumping the beer through a curved spout into the glass.
"We never had the facility to keep the beer at the right temperature or undisturbed by people kicking it, knocking into it, bashing it with mops," says Withey of the original Top of the Hill bar. "Now we have a custom-built cooler, and it keeps the beer between 50 and 55."
The key to serving cask ale, he cautions, is to take sufficient time to let the beer settle, and to position the cask correctly. "The important thing is racking them [setting them up] level so that the yeast settles before you attempt to draw beer off. We set them up one day and tap them the next."
In the months since it has been open, the Back Bar has served a variety of Withey's beers on cask. The brewer's favorite is an ESB—an extra special bitter—an English ale style. "It's just right, delicious," he says. "The malt comes through, the dry hops, it's so smooth—just exquisite."
Withey has seen cask ale done badly in this country and will not abide beers that are not crystal clear. "I get really cross about it," he says. "The fact that it's cask ale is no excuse for it being cloudy. If I ever got a cloudy cask beer in the U.K., I would not drink it. I'd send it back and no one would question that."
If you decide to try cask ale, look for a subtle, satisfying pint, flavorful enough to savor yet still enough to drink a couple of pints happily. English fans call this "real ale." It's time to try the genuine article.