Friday, March 11, 2011

Know Your Beer: Cask Ale

Wellington IPA, on cask

Beer: Wellington Cask IPA
Brewery: Wellington Brewery (Guelph, ON)
Type: English IPA; Real Ale
ABV: 5.5%

For many of those who have travelled to the British Isles (sadly, I cannot include myself amongst their number), you may have encountered a strange concoction at the local pub.  After years of drinking your standard draught fare in restaurants and bars, which would have been carbonated using a CO2 line and kept well-chilled in a keg room or other cooling space, the pint you saw in front of you was neither of those things.  The bartender, rather than hold open the tap handle, instead drew the beer from the cask using a slow hand pump or by simply opening a metal spigot.  The beer that flowed forth was probably warm, warmer than you were used to at any rate, and it may have seemed bit flat and murky.  And it was probably like nothing you've ever had before.

This is cask ale, or "real ale," and it is certainly an acquired taste.  Cask ale is defined as beer that contains zero adjuncts or additives, and which matures in the cask it will eventually be served from, without any artificial carbonation.   This is ale from a time before the industrialization of the process, back when carbonation came about naturally from the yeast and the cooling was done in the cellar at only a few degrees below room temperature.  (Some insist that the beer should be served at or around room temperature, but most beer writers - Randy Mosher included - argue that the beer should be served at cellar temperature, which is between 13-15 degrees).  Though undeniably warmer and flatter than most other beers, cask ales are nonetheless a real treat - the higher temperature allows for more of the nutty, fruity, malty flavors to seep through the liquid, while the lack of carbonation makes the brew easy to drink and prevents stomach bloating.  Those whose systems cannot handle artificial preservatives will happily not find any in true cask ale; for those who can still handle preservatives, many claim that preservatives are in fact the greatest contributors to the next day's hangover.  Something to keep in mind!

This is certainly not to say that cask ale is inherently "better" or "more natural" than your regular filtered, artificially carbonated brew (although cask afficionados might claim otherwise), it just happens to be a style that is very dear to many British drinkers' hearts that represents a simpler, ancient way of brewing.  As brewmaster Garret Oliver put it, cask ale is unique because it is "alive," ever changing, different every time.  There's a certain magic to be found in a beer that is produced in the simplest of ways with the most basic ingredients, served as one would have done centuries prior.  Thus, as forces conspired to banish cask ales from the traditional English pub, there was naturally an impassioned reaction from its most devoted fans.  As the story goes, in the early 1970s a group of English ale enthusiasts began to notice a sharp decline in the quality of the traditional pub, as the commericalization and consolidation of the brewing industry had resulted in fewer pubs serving fewer local ales, opting instead to serve similar products across the country.  Traditional cask ales were being almost completely replaced by "big brews" with little character or local flavor.  Alarmed by this trend, these gentlemen founded the organization that would eventually be known as CAMRA - "The Campaign for Real Ale," an advocacy group in support of traditional local ales and ciders, as well as the traditional English pub as being a cornerstone of community living.  Clearly, this organization's aims touched a nerve with many English drinkers who have swelled CAMRA's ranks in the years since its founding.   CAMRA seeks to achieve its objectives through petitioning (to save or promote local brews), lobbying, as well as releasing publications in support of local brewers and the houses that serve them.  The movement to restore cask ale has expanded across the pond, as many breweries have attempted to serve some of their products in cask form.  Many beer bars in the United States and Canada advertise the fact that their establishment has such-and-such number of cask taps available each day.  Beer enthusiasts in Toronto, in particular, have promoted cask beer awareness festivals, with individual bars (like C'est What and BarVolo) offering cask brew weeks and events throughout the year. 

Wellington Brewery, continuing their celebration of 25 years of brewing, has returned to their roots and offered a series of one-off cask ales using local ingredients, including hops and barley grown on or near the brewery itself.  Wellington has long been a passionate supporter of the Real Ale movement, offering their ales with minimal filtering in the traditional English style.  They also have a beer club, the "Realists", which celebrates cask ales throughout the year.  The first two special cask offerings were Oast House Ale and Aliya's Ale - both English style ales using hops which grow over the brewery's main entrance.  For the third offering of the series, Wellington decided to up the stakes a bit and offer a generously-hopped English-style IPA.  I inquired the brewery about the beer, and the response from events coordinator Brad Inerney was this:  "This 5.5% beer presents with a dark amber hue and a strong floral nose.  Once tasted, Wellington IPA coats the mouth with the body of an English Pale Ale and captivates the taste buds with a hoppiness that is intense without being overbearing.  Our offering supplies a sweet citrus sensation up front buoyed by a balanced bittering background that is slow to subside." 

For myself, and members of the newly inaugurated University of Waterloo Scholarly Beer Drinkers' Club, a 40L keg of this beer would prove to be a real treat! 

Poured into a Welly 25th glass straight from the keg out of a metal spigot, as seen in the picture at the start of the post.  The beer was served at around 11C, warm enough to provide a better representation of the style (though some of my beer colleagues from over the pond thought it could have been served even warmer).   The beer is a dark, amber-brown hue, slightly opaque and murky, with a thin head that actually survives for a while despite being a cask ale.

Nose is citrus, caramel, bread, a bit of apple and peach, with some lovely floral hops.

While I certainly enjoyed the first two Welly One Offs, this one really set itself apart. It begins with a great citrussy hop blast (lemon and grapefruit, a bit of earth and tea as well), with a solid malt backing and English hop bitterness, all of which made this an excellent cask ale to introduce to folks at our beer tasting club.  Finished slightly tart. Indeed, very refreshing - I sipped my way through three pints of this with absolute ease.  The hops were a mix of English and what I assume to be American, earthy and tea-like, yet with a strong lemony hit that might have been from the Citra variety. 

Good carbonation for a cask ale, thicker body, great mouthfeel.

This is the kind of offering I expect more of from Wellington - a true English "real" ale that went down incredibly easy that reminded many of us of the Real Ales England is famous for. A low ABV and balanced taste made this a great session ale for the evening. 

Cask ales can be sometimes hard to find, considering how many bars and pubs around the province still insist upon the standard Bud-Keiths-Blue lineup.  The bars that do offer craft ales on tap often will have a cask tap or two, so if you're interested in something a little different, I strongly urge you to give a cask ale a try.  Just remember: it will be flatter and it will be warmer than you are used to.  Don't be fazed by this and I'm sure you will enjoy the depth and complexities of these brews.

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