There are several ways to pour your favorite homebrew or commercial beer. With the most common being bottle, can, or draft. 

Draft beer can be split into even more options. For example, traditional tapped kegs or nitro taps are the most commonly found in the United States, but in the United Kingdom, it is often served from a cask--either directly from the barrel or in most cases through a hand pump. In the UK this type of beer and serving combination is what is commonly known as ‘Real Ale’. 

There are differences between cask beer and keg beer. This blog will highlight some of those differences, along with how you can brew and serve your own homebrew as cask ale.

If you have ever been lucky enough to visit a pub in England you have likely seen a ‘beer engine’ or ‘hand pump’.  They stand tall on the bar labeled with the beer available at that time. The bar staff will pull back on the pump to use air pressue to fill the glass with the naturally carbonated cask beer. Using this method removes the need to have Carbon Dioxide or Nitrogen push the beers through the lines and into your glass. 

It should be noted at this time that the methods to brew the beer is identical no matter whether it is going to be bottled, kegged or put into a cask. The differences start when the beer is being put into the final vessel (can, bottle, keg or cask). With cask ale, the beer should be kegged approximately two weeks before the beer is ready to be served, with some yeast (like CBC-1) and a small amount of priming sugar placed in the cask to create minimal carbonation. This is very much like bottle conditioning homebrew but with lower levels of carbonation. It is possible that some dry hopping will be also done at this time along with the addition of finings to allow the beer to be ‘bright’.

Once the cask is tapped the beer left inside the cask comes into contact with oxygen, either through the back pull of the hand pump or through the tap on the barrel. The addition of oxygen drastically reduces the life span of the beer. It is reasonable to expect approximately a one week life span on a cask beer (depending on consumption rate, temperature & sanitization of the environment). But this is an important element of Real Ale and cask conditioning. The beer is meant to be fresh! What you serve is much lower in carbonation than bottled, canned or kegged beer because there of the lack of carbon dioxide in the process. A ‘sparkler’ can be used on the hand pump to add more life to the beer, although many people enjoy it in its natural state. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of my goals in brewing was to brew and serve my Dad a pint of my homebrew through a beer engine when he next visited me here in Texas. This time he came in May of this year and so I went to work making sure I was able to do it. I relied heavily on friends and colleagues at Texas Brewing Inc. and I encourage all of you to do the same for any brewing question you may have.

For his visit, I brewed my ‘go to’ English Bitter. It is my version of an English classic called Timothy Taylor's Landlord and is a very simple recipe. I fermented it as I always have done at 62F. I gave it a diacetyl rest and also cold crashed it before getting ready to keg the beer. However, when the beer was ready…my equipment was not. I did not have a cask or ‘pin’ available for my beer so I used a standard keg. I switched the liquid dip tube with the gas dip tube. This meant that the liquid dip tube was on the gas post and the gas dip tube was now on the liquid post. I then cut 2-3 inches off the bottom of the liquid dip tube and turned it 180 degrees. Instead of leading towards the center of the keg, the dip tube was now facing towards the outer wall. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was now ready to rack my beer into the keg. Once that was complete, I added a pack of CBC-1 yeast and approximately 2 oz of priming sugar. I then placed the keg at room temperature for a week to allow the small amount of carbonation needed to take place.

For a more authentic cask beer experience I stored my keg horizontally with the gas post at 12 o’clock and the liquid post at 6 o’clock. Also, the bottom was raised about 4-6 inches higher than the top of the keg. This is how casks are ‘stillaged' in the pub beer cellars. This allows the newly shorted dip-tube to end in the air bubble at the bottom of the keg. The yeast will then settle under the liquid post and beer will pass over the top of the yeast on the way through the gas dip tube. 

After the week in stillage in the house, I recreated the same position of the keg in my serving kegerator. I connected the beer engine to the liquid post and a cask breather to the gas post. The cask breather is connected to the CO2 bottle to keep low pressure (1 atmosphere of CO2) in the keg. This will delay the oxidation process and keep the beer fresher for longer. 

I then installed the beer engine on the counter next to my kegerator & poured beer that is as close to authentic cask beer as possible. I thought that the results were very pleasing for a first attempt. The beer was very good and three or four of us emptied the keg in about a week.

POST SCRIPT

My Dad made me a pair of brackets for my kegerator to be able to store kegs in stillage. They are somewhat rudimentary but do the job perfectly. Be prepared to have a keg of sanitizer available. You will want to pull sanitizer through the lines at the end of each session. This will create some lost beer each session so please be aware of that too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more information on the practices and reasons for cask conditioning, research the Campaign for Real Ale (camra.org.uk). An active organization promoting the continued production and consumption of Real Ale around the UK. 

 

-Nigel