Beer Guy: Cask and firkin / the cask ale trail

One second a full pint was in my hand. The next second the glass was empty. So went my introduction to cask beer.

by Peter Bailey

On a trip to New York City in the early 2000s I wandered into The Ginger Man — one of the best beer bars in the world according to beer writer Michael Jackson. Named after the novel by J.P. Donleavy and located between the Morgan Library and the Main Branch of the New York Public Library, The Ginger Man fit both my book dork and beer geek personas.

I found a small space at the long bar next to the tall tap handles for cask ale in this  busy place with a crush of afterwork people in expensive suits. I ordered up a pint of pale ale. It was a revelation: very lightly carbonated, almost flat, cool not cold, gently bitter and extremely drinkable. I was a cask ale convert.

Cask beer or cask-conditioned beer is the traditional British pint, unfiltered and unpasteurized ale — generally English bitter — which is conditioned in the cask (also called a firkin) from which it will be served. Residual yeast retained in the beer enables a secondary fermentation to occur within the cask. The beer is alive and maturing when the cask is at the pub, relying on the skills of a cellarman or publican to complete the brewing process and serve the beer properly. The beer is drawn from the cask by a hand pump known as a beer engine or simply by gravity. It is served at cellar temperature to best reveal the subtle fruity and malty flavours and aromas.

Cask beer is slow beer: it must be handled with care and attention, and its delicate nature means it doesn’t travel well, so it is usually local. Without added carbonation, pasteurization or adjuncts, once the cask is tapped the beer must be consumed within a few days, so it is usually fresh.

The attributes that make cask-conditioned ale special also make it more expensive for brewers. After World War Two, British brewers phased out cask beer in favour of filtered, carbonated kegs which were cheaper and easier to use. But some British beer drinkers were unhappy with the changes and fought back, forming the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) in 1971. CAMRA’s aim is to promote and protect traditional beers, specifically cask-conditioned real ale.

With over 100,000 members in the UK and over 200 local branches, CAMRA is one of the most successful consumer-based organizations in the world. More importantly, CAMRA brought cask ale back from the brink and has helped millions appreciate quality beer, the brewers who make it and the pubs that serve it.

On this side of the pond, craft brewers have been more interested in reinventing tradition than preserving it. But there has been a growing interest in cask beer in recent years. In Calgary, a CAMRA chapter was founded a couple years ago, and Dandy Ales brews in the English tradition, with their living beers all naturally conditioned in bottles, kegs, and casks.

Locally, beer writer Jason Foster organized Edmonton’s first cask night at the Sugarbowl in 2010. Foster notes that there has been slow but steady progress towards cask’s acceptance with regular cask nights around town.

A real success has been cask events staged by Edmonton Beer Geeks Anonymous, led by its founder Shane Groendahl. Launched in 2011 with six breweries, EBGA’s Real Ale Festival has grown each year. The 2017 Festival (on September 9) welcomes casks from 32 breweries, mostly Albertan, and 450 cask ale fans. Groendahl told me that brewers enjoy the opportunity to experiment, trying different hops, spices and fruit, as well as the chance to showcase their beers for beer fans who love being able to try special beers that are one-offs, unique each time they’re made.

Groendahl has tried some unusual beers over the years of the festival, but says his favourites are “straight-up cask-finished beer, no crazy dry hops, no spice, no fruit — just pure beer. Those are the ones that shine for me.” Reminds me of that subtle but spectacular cask ale years ago in NYC. You never forget your first cask.

From north to south, you can follow the cask beer trail in Edmonton, visiting some fine pubs that offer cask beer on a regular basis. Here’s a six-pack of favourites.

#YEG Cask Ale Trail 

Arcadia Bar, Westmount

Darren McGeown first opened Arcadia next door to the public library in St. Albert but moved into Westmount on 124th Street in 2014. McGeown likes to zig where others zag; it’s a vegan food menu and it’s all and only Alberta craft beer. Just six taps, but there’s always something new and interesting available (recently from Annex Ale to Zero Issue). They tap a cask twice a month, Mondays at 7pm.

Beer Revolution, Oliver

Beer Revolution is Brewster’s craft beer bar venture, opened in 2013. Food is pizzas baked in a brick oven plus gourmet sausages. There are 24 craft beer on tap, and they all rotate so there is always something new to try. They are open to new breweries and have hosted many tap takeovers (where a single brewery takes over a number of taps). They tap a cask weekly, Fridays at 5pm.

Craft Beer Market, Downtown

Go big or go home. Starting with the first location in Calgary’s Beltline in 2011, Craft has opened large beer barns across Canada, including Edmonton in 2013. Great rooftop patio. Over 100 beer taps, plus a dozen rotating. They have a dedicated beer engine at the bar, with a cask tapped Tuesdays at 4pm. Watch for their Caskapalooza fundraiser, with casks from 20 Alberta breweries.

The Underground, Downtown

Around the block from Craft, The Underground was Edmonton’s first big craft beer bar in 2012. Aptly named, the Underground is a level below Jasper Avenue and has the feel of a rumpus room from back in the day (What’s a rumpus room? Ask a boomer.) With over 70 beer taps, regular tap takeovers and new beer debuts, the Underground is no slouch in the beer department.

The Next Act and Accent Lounge, Strathcona

Neighbours across 104th Street, just off Whyte Ave, The Next Act and Accent Lounge are two sides of one coin. Accent Lounge is more old world, slightly more formal and European, including its beer selection which includes Euro classics like Pilsner Urquell. Next Act is more new world, more casual and North American, with its 12 beer taps almost all Alberta. Both hold periodic cask nights.

Situation Brewing, Strathcona

A first for Alberta is Situation Brewing’s daily cask offering – every day at 5pm. As Situation is a brewpub the cask doesn’t have to travel too far! The cask complements Situation’s other fine brews, including the Iconic Milk Stout and the Page Turner IPA. Refined pub fare like the lamb burger or four varieties of mussels plus big windows and chic industrial decor make every visit a charm.

On average, Peter Bailey is about 60 per cent book dork and 40 per cent beer geek. He’s @Libarbarian on Twitter and Instagram