[ENGLISH] God save the cask – The brewery

Once Adrián had given me a thorough tour of the East London Brewery (they are currently increasing the brewery equipment to use keg and cans, besides cask), and after tasting some beers directly from the fermenters, his coworker Scot Nisbet told us what his day to day is like working with cask. Nowadays, a very high percentage of the ELB production is destined to cask, so I was in a very good place to learn a little bit more about the traditional Bitish beer culture.

But, before talking about cask conditioning, I would like to make a note about the elaboration process itself. It is normal to use local ingredients, so British malts and hops are used, and of course, an English profile yeast, with medium attenuation and high flocculation and, depending on the type of yeast, diacetyl producer, which results in the typical British character.

These beers usually have a low carbonation and low alcohol content (this is normal in the UK), but this does not mean they are light or lacking-in-flavour beers. It’s strange to see beers over 5%, and in that case, they are called “strong” (even though they don’t surpass 6-6.5%). Keeping in mind that an English pint contains 57cl / 20 oz. (and it’s taken very seriously in the UK that the glass is filled all the way up to the brim), we can be thankful for this low alcohol content…

Nowadays, new micro-breweries are brewing modern styles in cask too, but not all of them are doing it in the traditional way. They just fill the cask with finished (and even carbonated) beer, but this is not “real ale”, basically because they are not keeping to one of the most important rules, which says that the last days of fermentation have to be done inside the cask.

As I said, one of the most important things is the maturation and the conditioning of the beer inside the cask. Beer is transferred to cask before ending fermentation (by gravity, without using CO2), so it is in the last phase in which CO2 is generated and integrated into the beer. Some breweries add sugar to boost the carbonation, but this is not what ELB does. At this moment is when you can also add some finings to try to clarify the beer, helping yeast to drop to the bottom.

One of the most popular finings is Isinglass, but nowadays breweries are starting to use others like “silica gel”. This is because Isinglass has animal origin, and if you want to label your beer as vegan (currently very popular), you need to use other kinds of finings.

Once fermentation ends, it’s time to pass to the conditioning phase, which is done in the brewery or in the pub (depending on the pub size), where the cellarman (person in charge of casks) takes care of the beer every day. This occurs in cellars at constant temperature (about 10-12 ºC.).

Besides, all these steps are written in a sticker stuck on every cask, such as the best before date, which usually is two or three days after the sale date. The beer sales in London are so fast, that it is not uncommon that a cask is finished on the same day that it is poured.

I was lucky to see this process in the ELB brewery, because the cask conditioned beer is also sold in a bag-in-box system. This is a plastic bag inside a cardboard box, with a small tap at the bottom whereby the beer is poured “by gravity” (this system is usually used in Spain to pour wine or vermouth). But beer needs to be transferred to the bag after all the conditioning phases, just as if it was to be served in the pub.

The main benefit of using bag-in-box system is for pubs, a box saves space and beer can be served for many days, because it is not in contact with oxygen, as occurs with cask. So, if you don’t sell as much beer as you’d like, probably this is better solution to pour great beer during more days without risks.

During my visit to East London Brewing, I was able to see all the conditioning process,  which I will now describe in order:

  • Racked: When the beer is transferred from fermenter to the cask.
  • Vented: Day when the spile is placed. The spile is a small piece made of bamboo, which is placed inside the shive (in the side of cask) with the help of a small hammer. Bamboo is a very porous material, so a certain amount of CO2 can leave, and it also allows oxygen to enter. At this moment, yeast is reactivated, so it’s necessary to wait a little more time before pouring it (depending on the beer, it could be between one and a few days).

Scot Nisbet, placing the spile

  • Tapped: Day when the tap is placed. This doesn’t mean that the beer is on sale this day. Thanks to the tap, the person in charge in the pub can check if the beer is ready or not to be poured.
  • On sale: Day when the beer is ready to be poured and people start to drink it.
  • Best Before Date (BB date = on sale date +2): does what it says on the tin. CAMRA says that the beer has to be served within five days at most.

Soft spile (bamboo)

When the cask is finished, the soft spile (bamboo) is substituted by the hard one (not porous), to protect the cask from bugs and contaminations, as it may be a few days until the cask returns to the brewery. It’s also a good practice to use the hard spile when there is beer inside the cask and you have to wait another day before pouring again, in order to protect it from oxygen (you should change it for the soft spile again to pour the beer).

Another interesting thing is that every brewery has its own colour code for their casks, so it’s easy to know who is the cask owner at a glance. These barrels are reusable (as you can imagine…), and they also have a barcode to track them from the moment they leave the brewery until they return from the pub. When this happens, it’s the moment to clean and sterilize them, leaving them ready to be filled again.

All this process might sound simple, but it is complex and laborious. It is a totally manual process: from carrying the cask in the tray with the perfect inclination, to checking the beer to know when it’s ready to be served, this is not a job for rookies, and this is in fact one of the issues that some pubs are facing nowadays.

The next article will be about pub conditioning and the different ways to pour beer, which is another of the most important moments in the life of a cask.

Note: Spanish versión, clic here.
Note2: God save the cask, intro.

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