By Warren K. Bruhn
Santiam Brewing Co-owner
After a discussion on the pros and cons of investing in casks and beer engines (mechanical pumps) with another co-owner at Santiam Brewing Co., I asked the customer for whom I had just poured a Spitfire Extra Special Bitter what it was that he liked about cask conditioned ales. Turned out that he is a fermentation science student at OSU named Alec Klassen, whose ambition it is to be a professional brewer. He has a passion for traditional English and German beers.
Alec told me that cask-conditioned ales present more character from the malt and yeast. One can sense more fruit character from the esters. Alec feels that 75% of this is due to serving the beer at cellar temperatures (50-55 degrees F) and that beers on cask are as close as one can get to a living product, like fresh bread right out of the oven. It's a better way to serve certain beers, especially dark beers. Casked ales are a nice throwback, requiring more dedication from the brewery, more effort, and more expertise from the server, said Alec.
To my surprise a week later, Santiam Brewery’s treasurer reported that 40% of our sales of imperial pints and half pints since the four beer engines were installed had been cask-conditioned beers! This was a surprise, as we also have 10 normal taps. That afternoon a customer ordered a pint of Bramble On Honey Raspberry Wheat on tap, declining the invitation to try the cask conditioned version on the grounds that she liked her beer colder and with more carbonation (or so she thought... ) After letting her get started on her pint, I brought over a taster of the cask-conditioned version so that she could compare. After she downed the taster, she told me that I was very wicked, and that now she wanted a pint of that cask-conditioned beer!
Ian Croxall, a Santiam owner and a brewer, led the push to get usto produce and serve cask-conditioned beers. Some of the owners would jump in a car in Salem and drive 100 miles to Oakridge to drink at Brewers Union Local 180. Ian had been home brewing since he was a teenager in England, and had served cask ales at his university pub. He talked other co-owners into investing in some pins (4.5 imperial gallon casks, half the size of the better know firkin) and her borrowed a beer engine. We started tapping these pins on Thursday nights, and the first two emptied in 90 minutes and 80 minutes! Apparently there are plenty of people in Salem who will drink cask conditioned beers.
That made the acquisition of four beer engines and a lot of firkins seem viable. Another selling point was that cask beers don't have to spend time in a bright tank, as they age and clarify in the cask while the secondary fermentation takes place. And now Santiam is preparing for a big party called "Rock the Cask Bar" on Saturday, July 6, with some casks promised by other breweries (See related article, this issue).
I've noticed a number of beer engines around the Portland area, several at the Horse Brass, and one or two at various breweries and taprooms. For small taprooms or pubs, two seems to be a pretty good number. Mike, the beer buyer at the Moon & Sixpence, told me that two firkins will usually empty in two days, which means that he doesn't have to have a cask breather to slow oxidation. (That device introduces non-pressurized CO2 and/or nitrogen.) For the pub or taproom, rate of sale matters because cask beers will start to oxidize (flatten and sour) after tapping, and this influences the number of beer engines, the size of casks, and the decision whether or not to use a cask breather. For taprooms considering serving cask beers, I recommend the small book "Cellarmanship" by Patrick O'Neill, published by CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale).
Oregon has seen plenty of trends in beers, including high hop, high alcohol, gluten free, organic, sour, etc. Could the retro cask conditioned beers become the next big thing? At Santiam we seem to be seeing it happen. And I hope that it does, because Ian has gotten me hooked on "real ale," to the extent that beer engines are the first thing that I look for now whenever I enter a pub.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.