If the gray skies and cold temperatures at this time of year are reminding you more of foggy London than sunny California, embrace your inner beer-loving Brit and order a properly pulled pint of cask ale on your next pub visit.
Long popular in the UK and Ireland, ales drawn from casks enable you to experience more of the traditional flavors and aromas inherent in a natural, living beer. For most of our 6,000 years of documented beer swilling history, we drank brews that were alive with yeast, naturally carbonated, and made to be consumed cool, not cold.
However, much of the beer we drink today, whether kegged, bottled, or canned, is pasteurized and filtered to remove the yeast, and the carbonation comes from forcing carbon dioxide or nitrogen into the brew. This processing makes these beers stable, portable, easy to serve, and consistent but can mask beer’s natural flavor. Cask ales, on the other hand, are unfiltered, unpasteurized, naturally carbonated, and served at cellar temperature (50 to 55 degrees).
Cask beer was served everywhere for centuries, but largely went out of favor in part because, like other living foods, it requires more care than its processed cousins. Large breweries don’t typically package their beer in casks and most bars don’t serve it since there’s always a risk that an inattentive bartender could serve a pint of cask beer that’s gone stale. Also, many beer drinkers don’t ask for cask ales because the brews have a reputation for being warm and flat.
But few great things are convenient, and despite all of the practical obstacles, a group of serious beer aficionados formed the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) back in 1970s to develop guidelines codifying “real” ale as being unpasteurized, unfiltered and naturally carbonated. Before you scoff at these standards as unnecessary and pretentious, imagine an oenophile’s horror if they saw a sommelier filling a flute of Dom from a soda dispenser. Any beverage of quality tastes better if served properly.
David McLean, owner of Magnolia Pub & Brewery, described the attraction of cask ale this way, “Bottom line, there are very few experiences in the beer world that can rival a perfect pint from a cask in perfect condition. It's a sublime drinking experience that I would argue more than holds its own against the high-impact, big, bold beers that tend to dominate beer conversations.”
Though the particular beers served can vary with the season and availability, the following local establishments can pull you a proper, and perhaps even perfect, pint: