Casks For Homebrewers

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This summer, I won a pin cask as a raffle prize at the River's Edge Homebrew Festival - yahtzee! Knowing nothing about casks, I did a little research, talked with some cask-experienced friends, and then cask conditioned a beer to serve at our homebrew clubs annual picnic. While I'm no expert, I'd like to share with you both what I've learned and my first homebrewed cask ale experience.
What are Casks?
A cask is a metal container for unpasteurized beer that is naturally carbonated through the use of active yeast inside the cask. It is like bottle conditioning a beer, but in a larger vessel. It's different than a keg, in that it doesn't have posts for CO2 or beer outflow - just two openings, one on top and the other on an end. Those holes get closed by pounding in two plastic parts - the shive on the top and the keystone on the end. The cask is then air tight and as the secondary fermentation happens inside it, the beer naturally carbonates.

Pin Cask with Shive and Keystone
When the beer is carbonated and ready to serve, a spile is driven through the shive on top to allow CO2 out of the cask and air into the cask and a tap is driven into the keystone, and the beer is served by gravity. You'll typically see casks come in two sizes: firkins and pins. A firkin traditionally holds 9 imperial gallons, which translates to 10.8 US gallons. A pin, like mine, is usually half that size.
Real Ale
Cask conditioning comes to us from England and it's there, across the pond, that what they call Real Ale has made a huge comeback in the past few decades. The group mobilizing Real Ale supporters is the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), formed in 1971 and now a force to be reckoned with in the UK. They are not focused on homebrewing but rather pubs - here is a paragraph from their website (http://www.camra.org.uk/en_US/home):
"CAMRA supports well-run pubs as the centres of community life whether in rural or urban areas and believe their continued existence play a critical social role in UK culture. ""CAMRA also supports the pub as the one place in which to consume real ale (also known as cask-conditioned beer, or cask ale) and to try one of over 5,500 different styles now produced across the UK."

My Experience of Professional Cask Conditioned or Real Ales
While CAMRA has helped the growth of pubs serving real ale in the UK, cask conditioned ale served in pubs in the US is more rare. One of the challenges for a bar serving cask conditioned beers is the beer's short shelf life. Because oxygen flows into the cask when the beer is served, and there is no CO2 gas pushing the beer out and forming a protective barrier over the beer, the beer stales very quickly. A bar needs to plan to finish a cask of real ale within a few days.
In bars and pubs, the casks are often stored below the bar, in a cellar, and then served via a beer engine, a hand pump that works on the principle of suction. The beer engine is usually attached to the bar and often has a decorative, ornamental long pull handle.
In Chicago, where I live, I've been to a few bars, such as the Globe Pub, that serve cask conditioned ales and have enjoyed them. I understand in the UK that traditional English ales dominate the Real Ale offerings - relatively light and sessionable with medium-low to low carbonation. In the US, the cask conditioned beers I've enjoyed in pubs have run the gamut stylistically - which isn't surprising given the inventive and creative nature of professional craft brewing here.
In the US, the other way to enjoy professionally brewed cask conditioned beers is at beer festivals. One that I attend, the Great Taste of the Midwest, has an entire tent dedicated to real ale. The casks are arranged on racks, double high, and are served by gravity through a tap that is simply opened and closed by turning it - no beer engines needed.
The real ale tent at the Great Taste is a testament to the creativity and experimental bent of American professional craft brewers. Many spices, fruits, herbs, and other additions are added to beers that range across the styles. And I've enjoyed many of the IPAs served in casks there, because of the brilliant freshness of the hops.
Homebrewing and Casks
Because beer won't stay fresh long in a cask once it is tapped and begins to be served, traditional cask conditioned beer isn't really adaptable to homebrewing unless you will be serving it at a large gathering. For the homebrewer, you need to know that you'll be able to serve five or so gallons at the event. Because of this, I only recall trying a homebrewed cask conditioned ale once, an English-style ESB.

Pin Cask Conditioning
My experience of both homebrewed and professionally brewed cask conditioned ales isn't that they are better than kegged or bottled beers, but rather different. Perhaps the best way to think about it is that it is a category unto itself. It's a way for a homebrewer, serving to a larger crowd, to highlight freshness. It's also well-suited on the homebrew scale to show off specialty ingredients, such as herbs or other flavorings, or aroma hops, which can be thrown into the cask before it is sealed up for the secondary fermentation.
My First Homebrewed Cask Conditioned Ale
After winning the cask as a prize this summer, I decided to brew a cask conditioned ale for the Brewers of South Suburbia's annual picnic. It's always a fun event, a day out in the country on a club member's farm, with lots of good food and handmade beers.
I decided to brew a hop-centric American-style IPA, with lots of hops thrown into the cask to accentuate the aroma as it gets served. Last spring, I experimented with a SMASH featuring Hallertau Blanc, a newly developed German hop with white grape and tropical fruit flavors and aromas. Building on that, I decided that for my inaugural cask conditioned beer, I'd use that hop along with two other newly developed German hops - Mandarina Bavaria and Huell Melon. John at Farmhouse Brewing had them all in stock and I was ready to go!

2 ounces of Mandarina Bavaria hops
For the grain bill, I used a variation of my typical American-style IPA, with 90% pale malt, 5% Munich malt, 3% wheat malt and 2% Crystal 40L malt. The hop schedule for a ten gallon batch was: 2 oz Hallertau Blanc (7.3% aa) in the mash; 1.5 oz Magnum (12%) first wort hop; 2 oz Magnum at twenty minutes; 2 oz Hallertau Blanc and 2 oz Mandarina Bavaria (7.2%) at ten minutes; and 2 oz Mandarina Bavaria and 2 oz Huell Melon (5.2%) at five minutes. This batch was fermented with Wyeast Scottish yeast at 65 degrees. Original gravity was 1.070, final gravity 1.010, 7% ABV, 15 SRM, and 72 IBUs.

10 gallons of IPA pumping through the counterflow chiller
After fermenting for two weeks, it was time to rack into the cask. I sanitized the cask, shive and keystone, and pounded the keystone in, leaving the hole on top open. As in bottle conditioning, I prepared a priming solution (4 ounces of table sugar with two cups of water), boiled, poured into the cask. Next, I racked the beer into the cask then tossed in a mesh bag with 2 ounces of each of the three featured hops. Finally, I pounded in the shive with a rubber mallet, closing the cask. After rolling the cask about a little, I let it sit in place for three weeks.
Serving at the Picnic
About a hundred people attend the picnic and brewers brought 20 kegs of handmade beer, in addition to my cask. I had two concerns with serving the beer at the picnic: 1) how to keep it somewhat cool (because we were outside at a farm) and 2) how to minimize the cloudiness.
The night before the picnic, my son and I drove out to the farm, with the cask, a large metal antique wash bin, bags of ice and blanket. At the farm, we set the bin up near where the cask would be served, put the cask in the bin, covered it with ice and put the blanket over the whole thing.

A gorgeous day for a picnic on a farm!
The next morning, we carefully lifted the cask out of the wash bin and, trying not to shake it up, put it on top of an upturned wooden barrel. We put blocks on both sides of it to hold it steady. Then we drove the spile into the shive on top, releasing some of the CO2 pressure.
Then came the dramatic focal point - tapping the cask! The tap is a black plastic piece that is meant to be pounded into the keystone, breaking the seal and wedging into the cask. The best practice would be to accomplish that with one mighty blow of the rubber mallet. I did not get that done, taking four whacks - but as soon the tap broke the seal, foam started shooting everywhere, until with my fourth whack I got the tap far enough in to seal the opening.

Before tapping the cask

After tapping the cask
Then I covered the top of the keg with two flexible ice blankets I had purchased online, with the blanket on top. I swapped out the ice blankets three times during the picnic and they did a reasonably good job of keeping the cask from being too warm.
To serve the beer, you turn the handle on the tap until it is open and gravity takes over. The beer tasted fresh, was a little cloudy from the sediment being disturbed, and the hop aroma was really nice, with tropical fruit, mango and citrus flavors filling the nose!

Cask with flexible ice blankets and an insulating blanket over it
To my surprise, the picnic goers drained the cask. I had a number of folks tell me how much they enjoyed the beer - I think an IPA was a good choice for the cask, because the cask process accentuates the fresh hoppiness of the style.
So, despite spraying myself with hoppy-goodness during the tapping, our first use of the cask exceeded my expectations! For homebrewers, I think a pin cask is a specialty piece of equipment, but an interesting addition for when you are brewing for a large gathering, like a party, wedding, picnic, festival or family reunion. Your beer will never taste fresher!
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Thank you for this great article. I've always wondered if I should get a cask for gatherings like this, and I think you may have just persuaded me!
Great article!
Dumb question - why would you use priming sugar if it's supposed to be carbonated "naturally"? All cask ales I've had have had very slight carbonation and I would imagine it would be much more if there was priming sugar added.
@dierythmus Everything I read and the folks I talked to said that brewers prime cask conditioned ales. The carbonation in the beer goes away quickly once the beer is tapped, it was notably less carbonated at the end of the day than when I first tapped it.
Some brewers prime, some rack into the pin/firkin when they are still a couple points above FG. Also there's a number of us on HBT who use polypins for cask ale. If you search some British homebrew forums you can find more. I use 1 gal polypins to get around the requirement to kill 5 gallons in 2 nights. Cheers, Q
Very cool! I love when I find cask beer locally. Dragoon Brewing, here in Tucson, frequently does a single hop IPA in cask. It's always a different hop. The Nelson cask was delicious!
I think you can solve the 48hr limitation with a cask breather. It allows you to hook up co2 to the top port but keep the cask at 1 atmosphere of pressure so you don't force carbonate at all. Of course, you still need to keep it cool/cold in a place where you can get beer out of it. :)
Nice article Pappers - clearly written, informative and enyoyable. That picture of you post-tapping makes me laugh. I'm sure I'd have done the same thing. I've had casked english beers and I remember thinking how much better they would have been carbonated fully. However, your casked IPA is a much better idea. I'd like to try a casked IPA someday.
How long did you roll the cask? Summit Brewing here does some and the brewer said they literally take them for a walk around the brewery.
Note to self...wear an apron next time! ;) Very informative article with the kind of information/description I for one wanted to learn. I'm sure we're all curious about them, so thanks for a great article! I'd like to try my favorite ESB recipe in one of those someday...
@DylanTO The cask breather/CO2 apparatis does address the issue of beer staling and going flat, but the folks at CAMRA are very opposed to them - will not credential pubs that use them.
@Pappers_, Why does the tap get hammered while the cask is laying down? I mean, why not set the cask upright, hammer the tap DOWN into the keystone, then put it back on its side. Seems a much more natural way to hammer anything, and the beer wouldn't spray out.
@passedpawn Because the cask is full of sediment which you want to settle at the bottom. Best practice is to set the key where it will be served for a couple of days before tapping it. I was only able to do that for about 16 hours.
There's a CAMRA book on "Cellarmanship" (by the same name) I've almost finished that will teach you everything you need to know about dealing with casks. It's designed with the commercial pub owner/cellarperson in mind, and not for homebrewers and as a result has nothing about the actual brewing part. But it's made me completely redesign my future system.
@dierythmus When the beer goes in the cask, it's like any other homebrew you'd make before it's bottled. The yeast have consumed the fermentable sugars, and the beer is flat because most of the CO2 that was produced has escaped through your airlock. When it's time to bottle, priming sugar is added. The yeast consume the sugar and produce the CO2 that carbonates the beer. The amount of carbonation depends on the amount of priming sugar that you add. This is considered "natural", as opposed to kegging your beer and force-carbonating it with bottled CO2. Think of a cask as one big giant bottle that carbonates while it's sealed, then once it's opened the CO2 gradually escapes and the beer becomes flat. Hopefully that answered your question.
Thank you for the write-up! It really is interesting, and I appreciate the comments on the type of beer you were wearing.
I wish I could have been there!
A key advantage of a polypin is that it doesn't need to let air in as you drink it. You can drink beer conditioned in a polypin for several weeks without a problem.
Thanks for the article - just wanted to note we have a pretty solid cask beer festival coming up this weekend in Toronto called Cask Days. First time I'll be going, but apparently there are 369 different cask beers from all over the continent.
Thanks for the article, fun to read about your experiences. I recently got given a couple of casks but they are firkins (I.e 9 imperial gallons) so I only really have cause to use them maybe once a year at a big summer barbecue. I've contemplated making cushion tops for them and turning them into stools for the garden.
When I worked in a cask pub here in England we would stillage the casks on the day of dray and vent with a soft peg the same day, swapping out for a hard peg after a day our two (depends how lively the beer was). I'd tap it 1-2 days before we expected to serve it and then we had 3 days from first pull to sell it(no more than 5 from tapping). We used to sell two to three kilderkins (18 gallon casks) of Boddingtons on a busy weekend (back in the days when Boddys was still made in Manchester) as well as having between four and six guest ale firkins on.
If the cask is kept at around 11-12c and you replace the hard peg at the end of each day it will easily last 72 hours rather than 48.
The key to bright fresh beer is getting your cellar process right and having people that know how to keep beer on the payroll! None of this is required with kegged beer, which is partly why CAMRA are so in favour of keeping cask traditions alive.
Very interesting, informative article. Thank-you for sharing. I now know the difference between a "Firkin" and a "Pin." Cheers!