Cask Days 658

State Of The Firkin


Anaheim’s Firkfest was the first of two cask-only festivals in 2014. Photo by John Holzer

In the last twelve months, the Los Angeles beer community has come a long way with cask-conditioned ales. We’ve seen two cask ale festivals (Firkfest and Figueroa Mountain’s Real Ale Invitational), the opening of a cask-focused taproom with Macleod Ale, and multiple breweries around town holding regular cask events. Back in November, turned one year old and while I’m both excited and proud of the growth we have seen since we began, I thought I should share some thoughts on how this community needs to grow in 2015.

Conditioning Comes First, Experimentation Comes Second

While many real ale purists are vehemently against experimental additions into their casks, I’m not one to argue against innovation. While gummy bears and hostess snack cakes are certainly not reinheitsgebot-approved, its this experimental spirit that has defined the modern craft beer movement. But it becomes a problem when these special cask additions get in the way of properly carbonating and clearing the beer..

No one wants a pint of flat beer, but its not uncommon to receive exactly that in establishments around Los Angeles. It becomes increasingly difficult to explain how cask beer isn’t flat to people and then turn around and get a glass of tepid ale. The true appeal of real ale is that its still a living thing, and when the pint is poured there should still be a vibrant life in the beer that you can both see and taste.

But that taste shouldn’t be altered because your barkeep has poured you a glass of yeast. Proper conditioning not only ensures a life in the beer, but also that the yeast properly drops out, leaving it mostly clear. Personally I’m totally fine with a bit of cloudiness in my cask, but it certainly should never be murky.

What it comes down to is that I want a good beer first, and an interesting, weird, experimental beer second and breweries need to make sure their casks are coming out properly conditioned rather than what crazy concoctions will attract people to their events.

Proper Cellar Management

While much of this article refers to things that breweries themselves control, once those casks are packed up on delivery trucks, brewers cannot guarantee that their cask ales will be served properly and that’s a big concern for local breweries.

LABW6 - Cask Event

Many of these concerns were addressed at Tom Carroll’s cask event during LA Beer Week. Photo courtesy of Yasmin Alishav

The standardization of keg draft systems has created a very straightforward workflow for bars, and while that certainly has its perks, it has also allowed many bars and restaurants to run efficiently without the knowledge required to properly manage a cask cellar. Luckily, proper cellar management for cask ale isn’t difficult, it just takes a little bit more time and effort. It means that a firkin can’t just be dropped onto a bar and tapped minutes before service, it requires a day of settling to allow the yeast to drop out. It also needs a properly trained staff who can vent excess gas so that when the vessel is tapped, half the firkin doesn’t end up on the bar floor. While those explosive tappings are certainly an exciting bit of theater, they are not doing the beer any favors.

The next step in Los Angeles becoming a real-ale-loving community is for more bars and restaurants to properly maintain and serve casks and to do so they need a trained staff – luckily, the literal handbook on it (Cellarmanship by Patrick O’Neill) is easily attainable and can be read in an afternoon – or even better, breweries like Macleod Ale would be more than happy to provide some instruction for your bar staff.

Macleod Stillage

The cellar-temperature cold room at Macleod Ales. Photo courtesy of Macleod.

Beer Engines and Breathers Mean Less Waste

One of the biggest arguments against cask ale is that it has to move quickly or else you end up with a lot of waste. The reality is that cask ale (and profits) can be conserved with a bit of investment in the proper equipment – most importantly a beer engine attached to a temperature controlled chamber.

Cask ale should be cellar temperature, not room temperature and certainly not the temperature of a Los Angeles bar. Nothing frustrates me more than glancing over a bar to find a handpull tap hooked up to a cask that has been sitting on the floor all afternoon. While the cost of an additional fridge may be prohibitive, it will definitely help keep the beer fresh and lead to less waste. Sure, some may argue that refrigeration is not in the tradition of real ale but I would argue that a bit-too-cold pint is always preferable than one that’s overly warm.

Investment into cask breathers also helps prevent waste and keep beer fresh for longer periods of time. A cask breather, for the unaware, is a device that blankets a layer of CO2 inside the cask as it empties rather than allowing oxygen in. Its not enough to effect the beer’s carbonation or taste but it helps prevent oxidation and spoilage. Macleod Ale in Van Nuys has done testing with their breather system and its allowed them to get 3 weeks out of a cask without spoilage – a length of time agreeable for almost any bar.

By refrigerating and setting up cask breathers, bars should be able to keep casks on consistently without worrying about spoilage and lost costs. Of course it requires a bit of an initial investment, but its something that will pay off down the line.

Watching the Los Angeles craft beer community grow over the last year has been exciting to watch and I’m incredibly proud of the role that CaskAleLA has played in making cask-conditioned ales part of that. Its a serving style that consumers are now actively searching for and has the potential to be a cornerstone of our growing community, but only with a strict focus on conditioning, cellaring and serving it properly. With care put into those areas, I can see an LA in years to come that is known country-wide for cask conditioned ales that both honor the tradition but also subvert it with that west coast experimental spirit.