Forget warm and flat: Cask ale production on the upswing in the U.S.

Forget warm and flat: Cask ale production on the upswing in the U.S.

In the United States, it’s either “cask ale” or “cask-conditioned beer.” In the United Kingdom, it’s called  “real ale.” But for Alex Hall, it’s simply “traditional.”

Hall, a British native and longtime New York City resident, has made it his mission to bring “real ale” to the United States. His efforts are paying off—while overseeing the cask program at the popular Brooklyn bar d.b.a. and helping to operate the Wandering Star Brewing Company in Pittsfield, Mass., he’s worked to introduce an accreditation and training scheme for cask ale to be deployed in New York later this month.

Neither pasteurized nor artificially carbonated, cask ale is as traditional as beer comes. Tapped from the 10.8-gallon casks (firkins) in which it undergoes a second fermentation, the brew contains none of the preservatives found in over-the-counter, mass-produced beer.

“Big breweries dumbed it down,” Hall said. “They made their beer artificially carbonated, they made it artificially cold, and they made it artificially crappy.”

Authentic cask ale must be kept at “cellar temperature” -- about 54 degrees Fahrenheit. To the uninitiated, a pint drawn from a cask might seem warm and flat. But to those in the know, the brew is complex and nuanced, with a delicate, natural carbonation.

And while many craft breweries now offer cask options, the style is still something of a rarity in America, where bar owners worry about scaring off customers skeptical of the warmer, flatter concoction.

A good cask program also demands hands-on training and a scrupulous attention to detail that many busy saloon owners might find onerous. In addition to stringent temperature requirements, the firkin has to be drained fast, or the beer will spoil.

Despite these challenges, Hall says over 70 New York bars now serve the stuff regularly.

Soon after he arrived in the city in 1999, Hall went door to door with cask equipment he bought on EBay trying to find interested bar owners.

“I started walking them around to bars because I wanted them to stop selling just these chilled, fizzy beers,” Hall joked.

Eventually Hall met Ray Deter, who opened the first d.b.a. bar in New York’s East Village in 1994. Deter, who passed away in 2011, worked out an arrangement with Hall to have a small, meticulously kept showcase of real ale at his Brooklyn bar.

“You see the same faces and get to know each other,” Hall said of New York’s craft beer scene.

Deter himself was something of a legend among hopheads, having co-hosted the Internet program Beer Sessions Radio and helped with the establishment the Good Beer Seal, an organization that grants seals of approval to New York beer bars.

At d.b.a. Brooklyn, traditional cask ale is pulled from the cellar with a simple pump called a beer engine. This is still the norm in many pubs throughout the UK, where the Cask Marque Trust has been operating a voluntary accreditation scheme since 1997.

Pubs that join the scheme are paid an unannounced visit by an assessor from the Cask Marque Trust twice a year, once in the summer and once in the winter. After the assessor has approved the beer, the pub receives a plaque, a framed certificate, and merchandising material to assure customers of its cask quality.

While over 8,000 British pubs already have achieved the Cask Marque award, the accreditation has only just begun in the United States. Earlier this year, a series of bars in eastern Pennsylvania became the first in the country to join Cask Marque, while New York City is “next in line,” according to Hall. He estimates that Cask Marque will be up and running by the end of July.

“This is what beer was meant to be,” said Hall. “It’s traditional.”