At a Philadelphia bar in 1996, Christopher Leonard first noticed cask-conditioned beer after seeing a bartender slowly pour a pint from an unfamiliar hand-pump. Curiosity soon led to his first glass, an experience that somehow felt familiar and brand new.
“I thought, ‘I wish it were a little colder, but boy, this tastes a lot different than anything else I’ve ever had.’ The malt flavor was right in your face,” said Leonard, now the brewmaster of Heavy Seas Beer in Halethorpe. “I’ve been in love with cask beer ever since.”
Typically referred to as cask beer or cask ale, this form of beer has centuries-old roots in England, and is notable for its lack of filtration, pasteurization and forced carbonation — all processes associated with beer served from kegs. Unlike keg beer, it is served at a noticeably warmer temperature and without the addition of carbon dioxide.
In Baltimore, many breweries release and experiment with the style, and serious beer bars rotate their cask offerings with new flavors. It is by no means a new phenomenon — the process dates back to beer’s origins and life-before-refrigeration — and yet it’s a subculture of craft beer many are still discovering.
To this day, some English pubs still advertise the sale of “real ale.” The characteristics we associate with keg beer — highly carbonated and served ice-cold — can mask a beer’s pure flavors, Leonard said.
“There’s an authenticity to cask beer when it’s done properly,” he said. “It’s the ultimate representation of the brewer’s art and craft.”
A producer of cask beer since the mid-’90s, when it was first Clipper City Brewing Company, Heavy Seas is one of the area’s largest proponents of the style. (Local breweries producing cask beer include Union Craft Brewing and Oliver Brewing Company, among others.)
With approximately 700 of casks in its possession, Heavy Seas believes it has “the largest and most extensive cask program in the country,” according to its website. While Leonard said he’s confident in the claim, he said the evidence is mostly anecdotal.
Still, it doesn’t require hard statistics to realize the brand’s dedication to cask beer. Leonard is a cask-beer enthusiast, and offers many reasons why he believes the style is worth trying. For him, so much of the appeal boils down to flavor.
“It’s a smoother, more well-rounded flavor. The hops and the malt and the yeast character come through on their own. They take center stage,” Leonard said.
A cask beer’s essence comes after the brewing process, when the beer is transferred from the fermenter to a wood or steel cask (also known as a firkin). A fermentable ingredient like sugar or wort is then added, Leonard said. (At Heavy Seas, they use Turbinado sugar.)
The fermentation process begins again as the beer’s active yeast eats the sugar and expels carbon dioxide and alcohol. This natural carbonation process leads to the mellower finish, and the beer — once ready for consumption — is then served from a firkin between 54-57 degrees, Leonard said.
The differences between keg beer and cask beer can take some getting used to, said Jen Oliver, co-owner of the Fells Point bar Wharf Rat, a regular seller of cask beer for decades. (Baltimore bars with regular cask offerings include Max’s Taphouse, Mahaffey’s Pub, Heavy Seas Alehouse and Metropolitan Coffeehouse & Wine Bar, among others.)
Her bar’s regular draft beers are poured between 42-45 degrees, she said, so the warmer temperature often takes customers by surprise.
“The first time you try it you’re going to say, ‘Ugh, it’s flat! It’s warm!’ but that’s the proper temperature,” Oliver said.
Wharf Rat features five firkins, and a pint of cask beer costs $6.50, she said. The cask-beer options are usually from local breweries, but Wharf Rat occasionally has brews from Philadelphia’s Yards Brewing Co. and Georgia’s Terrapin Beer Co., Oliver said.
The cask beers at Wharf Rat and Heavy Seas (both at the brewery and the Alehouse in Little Italy) are dispensed by a hand-pump, which is crucial to proper tasting, in Leonard’s opinion. While carbon dioxide pumps beer through a keg’s line, cask beer uses the force of suction from the hand-pump to pour.
The process aerates the beer, he said, which has a smoothing effect on the finished product.
“You get a cascading effect on the beer, and you get a real nice, thick, tight head that gives you the extra creamy mouth feel,” Leonard said. (This explains why some cask beers I’ve tried have finished like a milkshake.)
While the merits and drawbacks of cask beer are debatable, its mere presence indicates a brand’s dedication to beer for some.
Mike Boa, a beer blogger in Kensington, said seeing cask beer at a bar is usually a relief.
“It’s always a good sign that a place takes its beer seriously,” said Boa, who called cask beer a “nice change of pace” from keg beer. “You don’t find cask beer in every run-of-the-mill pub.”
It’s unlikely cask beer will ever become more than a niche product, but that doesn’t bother Leonard. It’s a passion at Heavy Seas, where they always feature at least two cask beers at a time.
“Admittedly, it’s a very, very small portion of our business from a financial standpoint,” Leonard said. “But to stay rooted in traditional, to be able to show a level of expertise and craftsmanship through that outlet is important to us.”
So if every bar stopped ordering it, Heavy Seas would still soldier on, in the name of “real ale”?
“If it dried up, and we weren’t selling it anywhere else, we’d still be pouring it here at the brewery,” he said.