The Cask Ale Challenge
The Science Behind the Beer
BY ROB LIGHTNER
Every beer we drink causes millions of tiny deaths. Rarely do we give thanks to the yeast whose tireless efforts give us so much pleasure, but we can at least see them off in style if we choose. Downing a cask ale—unpasteurized, naturally carbonated and still containing living organisms—gives a yeast colony the Viking funeral it so richly deserves.It’s been hard to find cask ale over the past few generations, but it’s making a steady comeback. Dozens of local breweries and bars offer cask ales, though more often than not, drinkers need to do their homework and arrive at the right time on the right evening to ensure access to this specialty drink. A few, like Queen Anne’s Hilltop Ale House and Fremont’s Brouwer’s Cafe, offer cask ales continuously. It’s worth the effort for those of us who love beer with strong, unique personalities.
Whatever happened to cask ale (called “real ale” by some not-quite-militant beer-loving Brits) and its centuries-old methods? Progress! Three techniques pioneered in the late 19th century made beer production considerably easier to standardize, paving the way for modern mega-breweries with the capacity to ship identical products worldwide. First, pasteurization flash-heats the beer and kills all the yeast and other microorganisms, ensuring easier storage and shipment while stopping the fermentation process dead in its tracks. Then, filtration removes the dead yeast and all other sediment, but also strips out the natural carbonation that happens as part of the fermentation process. So, the modern process wraps up with force-carbonation, which powers up each batch of beer to standard levels of fizz and makes keg pours considerably more consistent.
All of that science ensured that a drinker enjoying a Schlitz or Watney’s Red Barrel in one bar was having the same experience as every other drinker in every other bar. Brewing, once a local industry by necessity, became standardized, and immensely profitable for those who could afford to operate on an equally immense scale. The profits had to come from somewhere, so thousands of small breweries which had thrived catering to small regions closed during the middle decades of the 20th century, unable to compete with such efficiencies of scale. Many beer drinkers felt that their experience had been compromised to benefit brewers and, to a lesser extent, bar owners.
The dim flickering of a renaissance in brewing began in the U.K. in 1971 with the foundation of the not-quite-militant Campaign for Real Ale, which lobbied hard for a return to more traditional brewing, storage and pouring methods. Eleven years later, Bert Grant was inspired by this liquid revolution to open Yakima Brewing and Malting Co., one of the first modern microbreweries in the United States, deep in the heart of hops country. Before long, microbrews had popped up all over the Pacific Northwest and nationwide. Many small breweries still rely on pasteurization and filtration for most of their beers—they need to make a living, too—but quite a few produce at least some cask ales during the year.
Matt McClung, the brewer-alchemist behind Seattle’s Schooner Exact Brewing, enjoys the challenge. “Brewing cask ale is a lot harder, and a lot more can go wrong. You have to watch the process much more closely, but the results are worth the effort.” We’re drinking ale down the road from Schooner Exact’s very new space in South Park, which should have a spacious tasting room open in early March. He lays out the cask ale brewing process at length, and it sounds intimidating to non-alchemists. He often brews two separate batches, force-carbonates and kegs some for non-cask storage and eventual consumption, and then combines and casks the rest for secondary fermentation. The multi-step process is time-consuming and demands constant attention. The yeast thrives, adding alcohol and carbonation to the brew naturally as it ages for at least a week.
The aging process can go on for much longer, though, and his eagerness to show off the results seems matched by his anxiety over what he’ll find in the cask. He says he’s aging a secret entry for this year’s Washington Cask Beer Festival. How secret? It doesn’t take him long to spill: He’s been aging something special since last March, when Schooner Exact partnered with Trade Route Brewing to create a batch of “Herbert’s Legendary Cask Festival Ale” (which is brewed each year in memory of Bert Grant). Matt reserved some of his batch to age in a bourbon barrel for entry this year, and as he searches his storage space for the right barrel (they moved in just a few weeks ago and the space is comically jumbled for the time being), he seems plainly worried that the ale might have aged poorly—or just not quite developed to his standards. His concerns turn out to be wildly misplaced—”Barrel-Aged Herbert’s ’09” is strong, smoky, friendly and extremely evocative of bourbon, like a rascally uncle whose visits are welcome and memorable. He’s relieved, thoughtful and rightfully proud. The yeast has been good to him.
Visit Schooner Exact online at www.schoonerexact.com or in person in Seattle at 3901 1st Avenue South.
Rob Lightner thanks the yeast for their hard work and sacrifice. His work can be found in Fantagraphics’ Beasts collections and on the Slog (slog.thestranger.com) as half of the Stranger Testing Department.