Ask Mr. Wizard

Bottling and Cask Ale


Alex Kristensen - Fredericia, Denmark asks,

I think that the best beer you can have is real cask ale. But if you only have equipment to bottle your beers, is there anything you can do to make your beers taste a little closer to real cask ale?



wizHere in the States, the origins of homebrew trace to England where homebrewing thrived before its rise to a very popular hobby for many beer enthusiasts. Although people have “homebrewed” for as long as history has recorded beer brewing, the hobby we know as homebrewing in the US really began in the early-to-mid 1970s. As these homebrewers refined their craft and became encouraged by the reception to their beers from friends, some departed the ranks of hobby brewer to small commercial brewer and this is largely how the US craft beer scene was born.

What does any of this have to do with cask conditioning? The answer lies in how English brewing practices were applied at home. Most homebrewers brewed ales for two simple reasons. The first was that ales were a good fit because most of the US climate is too warm to ferment lagers at home without special equipment. And the second reason was this is how the English homebrewers did things and ale yeast was the type of yeast that was supplied with most kits.

These homebrewers also followed the directions in the books and manuals printed at the time and did things like “Burtonized” their brewing liquor (known today by some as adding calcium sulfate to water), tossed Irish moss into the kettle at the end of the boil, added hops to their fermenters towards the end of active fermentation and racked their beer from fermenter to bottle for a secondary fermentation in the bottle. Sounds pretty similar to how much homebrew is still made, but the main difference in my opinion is that today’s brewer probably understands more about the “how” and “why” of the methods. Today’s brewer also has access to a wider array of top-quality ingredients.

If the beer described earlier were simply racked into a cask for conditioning and pulled from the cask with a beer engine, “real ale” would be the result. The thing about real ale that intrigues the brewer in me is the basic simplicity of the method. Clarification, aroma modification, carbonation and flavor maturation all occurs in the cask that is later used to hold the beer during dispense. In a “modern homebrewery” outfitted with fancy gear that mirrors some of the practices used by small craft brewers, these operations are often accomplished using three to four different pieces
of equipment.

My suggestion in pursuit of your goal is really quite simple. Buy an old homebrew book written in the 1970s or early 1980s, try to forget anything you know about brewing technically perfect lager beers, store any special gear you own for beer clarification in the closet, and choose a recipe for a “simple ale” with a starting gravity somewhere around 1.048–1.052 using what seems to be a modest addition of hops.

The focus will be on ingredients; a balanced flavor profile featuring floor-malted ale malt from England (mild ale malt is a great base-malt choice for many styles) and earthy, British hop varieties are the hallmarks of most cask-conditioned beers. Use Irish moss in the kettle to aid with hot break formation and removal, use an ale strain known to produce some esters and to perhaps leave a hint of diacetyl in the finished beer, add a modest amount of dry hops to the fermenter after primary has completed (about 1⁄4 oz. per gallon/2 grams per liter) and use an isinglass preparation to aid in clarification. The last step is to rack the beer to a bottling bucket, add priming sugar and bottle. Since cask conditioned ales tend to be less carbonated than bottled beers, you may want to target a lower carbonation level (2.2 volumes or 4.5 grams/liter of carbon dioxide). In essence, you want to brew a bottled real ale using the ingredients and techniques commonly used by breweries brewing cask ales.