When I moved to Thornbridge, I hadn’t really had any real experience of producing cask beer. I came from a brewing background of mainly Germanic styles, which were filtered, carbonated and packaged in keg or bottle format. I naively thought that producing cask beer would be a doddle compared with the challenges of filtration, or the trials and tribulations of running a bottling line day in day out. One has to remember that at Thornbridge, we produce many beers in both casks and bottle format. It quickly became apparent to me that I needed a different approach for producing the same beer in cask and keg. After a few months, I thought it was best to minimise the hard lessons I would learn from experience and I decided to visit masters of the art – John Keeling and Derek Prentice at Fullers.
Without wanting to get too technical in this blog, the main things I found were key to making the best cask beer were:
– There is an optimum amount of yeast required to help the matrix form for beer to drop bright in the cask with the finings and the yeast count need to be as homogenous as possible throughout the beer. The approach to filtered beer is get the yeast count as low as possible prior to hitting the filter, if there is too low a yeast count in the cask it can result in beer which doesn’t drop bright.
– With bottle or keg beer, I always like to have a fair bit of residual gravity which works well with the carbonation. However if you have too much residual extract with cask beer, it can taste ‘fat’ and chewy in the mouth and it loses it drinkability. For example, we brew Jaipur in bottle with 0.5 plato more residual extract than cask. It’s a bit of a pain, adjusting the mash temp for every brew, but definitely worth it.
– The yeast we use for bottled beer is WLP 001 (supposedly the Sierra Nevada strain), which works great and produces a kind of ‘blank slate’ for the hops to shine. However, this yeast doesn’t suit cask beer in my opinion and results in beer with less character. Investing in a traditional Yorkshire cask strain definitely gives a greater depth of flavour to our cask beers. Again, it’s another inconvenience, managing yet another yeast strain in the brewery, but something that we’re well used to now.
– Another well known cask brewer once told me that 90% of cask producers ferment their beer out completely, as this means it’s much easier for the pub manager to handle in the cellar. However, I feel that fermentable residual extract is absolutely vital to producing the best possible cask beer. You only need to look at the reputation Timothy Taylor’s have for quality and the stories of our lively their casks can be to realise this.
Cask beer, to me, is a quintessentially British phenomenon and something we should be really proud of as a brewing nation. I’m disheartened to read that some of the new ‘craft’ brewers on the block have decided to either drop cask beer from their range, or even decided to not produce it in the first place. Believe me, my life would be a lot easier if we were only producing keg and bottle, but I feel by not producing cask beer it would be disrespectful to our roots and initial success as a brewery. Last Christmas, a friend asked me what beers I had enjoyed over Chirstmas and he was surprised to hear I had spent a good few days enjoying several pints of Timmy Taylor’s Landlord from cask, in the local village pub, next to an open fire. I said to him ‘my friend, this is a good a drinking experience as you will ever get!’. I know, as do all of my brewers, that cask beer when brewed and cellared well, is simply unbeatable and the drinkability is untouchable.
A significant figure in US brewing wrote this to me in a e-mail recently:
‘In the US, the UK isn’t “sexy” right now – it’s not perceived as loud, young, local, new and different enough. No one talks about the GBBF here at all – it’s all about Copenhagen, etc. The best you can do, really, is to be the best version of yourself’.
I know what a difficult market the US is to crack, particularly when you’re up against the literally thousands of different IPAs now produced in the USA. Cask beer seems to attract a premium over there, which is the opposite of here in the UK. Despite this, I can’t remember a single story of anyone really enjoying cask beer in the States. Wouldn’t we better trying export cask to the US? Now getting it over there and tasting fresh is another story….