Tinkering With Casks

Casks at a beer festival.

In a comment on yesterday’s post reader AP said: ‘I’m surprised that in the current climate there isn’t more experimentation with cask conditioning going on.’ Well, having put AP’s point to Twitter, it turns out there’s quite a bit.

First, we know that the people behind our local in Bristol, the Draper’s Arms, have acquired a brand new wooden cask from the White Rose Cooperage which they are hoping to get filled by local brewers, putting a subtle twist on familiar beers. This is a similar model to the Junction at Castleford, West Yorkshire, which specialises in ‘beer from the wood’, and has its own casks which filled with beer from all sorts of breweries, including some on the Continent, that don’t normally use wooden vessels.

Various people came forward with tales of casks laid down in cellars to age for varying periods of time. Steve at Beer Nouveau recalled his days as a cellarman in Ipswich ageing Adnams Tally-Ho barley wine for up two years and then selling three different ages side-by-side. He also mentioned his habit (c.1998-99) of ageing Greene King Abbot Ale for six months before serving, without advertising it as aged or otherwise special. Hali and Brian, both former team-members at The Grove in Huddersfield, recalled keeping a cask of Bass P2 Imperial Stout in the cellar for 8 years before serving.

Susannah at the Station House micropub in Durham said (slightly edited):

We love experimenting with ageing. Mostly just, as previously noted, cellar till it’s ready. But Taylor’s beers usually get a minimum of a week, ideally two. There’s the Bass we aged for a month and sold as a mystery beer for our birthday last year (winner got a prize)… Currently ageing is a cask of Fortification from Cullercoats Brewery. Brewed in January, I think. Going on sale this week.

Angus from Mad Hatter Brewery recalled his time at the Wapping Brewery:

[We] used to keep a firkin or two back of our Winter ale for the following year as Vintage Winter. As long as you don’t fine on racking and your sanitation is up to scratch (and the cellar has the space) you’re all good… the spices mellowed out and the beer seemed richer.

One other person mentioned that a pub near them, with the agreement of the brewery, adds a bottle of spirits to casks of one particular strong ale. This is, of course, frightfully naughty. (Bet it tastes interesting though.)

But, still, we see what AP is getting at — it would be interesting to go to, say, a Fuller’s pub and find two different ages of ESB on offer, or vintage London Porter alongside fresh.

We’ve often wondered what effects might be achieved by adding the dregs from a bottle of Orval, or even a commercial Brettanomyces culture, into a straight cask ale and leaving it for a few months. This might even make Doom Bar interesting.

There are also plenty of opportunities for bold experiments with dry-hopping in the cask, with the permission and perhaps even guidance of brewers.

And this business of Guinness on hand-pull fascinates us — what’s to stop anyone buying keg beers, decanting them into clean casks, and throwing in some fresh yeast with some priming sugar? Perhaps only the faff of the paperwork and the risk of being told off by the brewery.

It strikes us that this kind of thing could help to convey the complex fascination of cask-conditioning and might add a bit of fun back into something which, at the moment, is largely the preserve of berks like us muttering about ‘subtle magic’ and ‘sessionability’.

15 replies on “Tinkering With Casks”

“what’s to stop anyone buying keg beers, decanting them […] with some priming sugar?” HMRC? You’d need prior approval from them.

Seriously, though — do you think if you *really* wanted to do it, it wouldn’t be possible with a bit of effort? (Don’t think the hand-pump Guinness bloke is doing this — think it’s just cosmetic in that case.)

When I was last in Northern Ireland I had a side by side comparison of (unnitroed) kegged Guinness and cask Guinness from a particular pub. The difference was more than I expected – possibly due to the higher carbonation in the kegged pint masking the subtler flavours with its metallic twang.

It wasn’t otherwise an adventurous pub from a beer point of view so I assume this was an initiative pushed from the brewery.

“One other person mentioned that a pub near them, with the agreement of the brewery, adds a bottle of spirits to casks of one particular strong ale. This is, of course, frightfully naughty. (Bet it tastes interesting though.)”
If that involves Kraken Rum & a certain Barley Wine, that’s one of my regular pubs. Interesting it certainly is.

Not so naughty I believe. AIUI, if a pub is mixing duty-paid spirits with duty-paid beer then that’s regarded as making a cocktail so that’s no different to mixing a mojito on the bar. If a brewery mixes in spirits before the duty point, then that needs a distilling licence.

It’s an interesting area, I assumed that news of the Junction hadn’t made it down the M5 but it’s at least regionally famous as one of those benchmark pubs that is genuinely doing something different. But breweries seem to be playing quite a bit with wood ageing – both the US-influenced ones trying to emulate the success of the eg bourbon-barrel stouts that dominate the upper reaches of the rating websites and trad ones explicitly as a nod to The Good Old Days of British brewing – I’d regard them as two different categories myself. I’ve said before that 2018 will be the year of people being a bit disappointed by barrel-aged beers, as every brewery seems to be starting a barrel-ageing programme and it takes skill to do it right. I can think of a couple of recent examples where good breweries have taken good beer and ruined it by putting it in wood. They’ll work it out, but I rather resent paying for beta testing. The one area where they seem to get it consistently right is the far north of Scotland, I guess it helps having direct contact with whisky makers who are experts in how barrels behave.

At Redemption we do add hops into our casks for special events along with mango, lime zest, ginger, rum soaked raisins; the list goes on.

It’s a bit of fun but can be an annoyance to clean.

Seriously though, there’s a misunderstanding here. Pubs are retail, that’s what you’d hope they’d be good at. The producer has a whole different set of responsibilities. Brewers have to jump though all kinds of regulatory hoops intended to make sure that the consumer is getting a safe, duty paid, accurately described product. It’s a big part of our job. And what about *authorship*? Who made these tinkered beers? Who gets the credit? Who gets the blame?

Pubs are more than just retailers though, they can play a huge part in making sure a particular pint gives a good experience. I’m sure we all know pubs that keep their beer so well that we’d rather go there for a great pint of a so-so beer than go to the pub next door for an indifferent pint of Landlord or Harveys Best. This is all part of the art of cellaring – the very nature of cask-conditioning means that a given pint is a joint effort between brewery and publican.

Going vaguely back on topic – October is a good time to see what a bit of extra cellar time can do, as pubs often get caught with extra stock depending on when the weather turns. I’ve also know a pub that decided one batch of BiB cider was a bit green so put the rest to one side and forgot about it for a bit, it had definitely gone just the other side when they put it on 6-8 months later.

“And what about *authorship*? Who made these tinkered beers? Who gets the credit? Who gets the blame?”

It’d be interesting to know how the Junction at Castleford handles this. We’d certainly want anything that’s been tinkered with clearly labelled as such.

Having said that, isn’t credit-blame a general issue for cask ale anyway? And the very gentlest kind of tinkering mentioned above — keeping a cask a bit longer than usual — probably isn’t noticed or declared most of the time.

The problem for non-managed houses in keeping say Bass in the cellar for six months is the cost of the stock. Particularly if it’s an old fashioned pub selling several kils per week.

My local will certainly keep back the odd barrel for a couple of months when it’s obvious it’s one that will improve with time. Surely that’s the barmans job to work out when something is in perfect condition before serving. I’ve also had beers put in wood cask and aged by the brewery as a one off (more effort than its worth, unlikely outside of special events like pubs birthday.) from the wood from brewery with only single figures of wood casks not rare if you pick your pub right (try looking for the pub the headbrewer drinks in :-)). Actual tinkering by the pub? Can’t see it being worth the effort for most places (though a bit of dry hops to liven up a standard house bitter must be tempting).

I’ve certainly heard of pubs dry-hopping casks, and you can now get little inline hop-rocket things for hopping (or adding other things) at the point of dispense, although I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in the wild.

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