Monday, April 29, 2013

Faux Cask and Belgian Brew Day

Over the weekend, I stopped by one of my local boozers for a quick pint and not long after I had finished my first beer did I noticed twenty or so cask stands along the back corner of the bar. Asking the bartender what they were going to use them for, I was informed that there would be a real ale festival starting within an hour or so. Lucky me! Not long after that, a steady stream of festival organizers began hauling in (already tapped) casks from a beer truck and readying them for service. While I've come to terms with the fact that what we Americans call "cask ale" bears little resemblance to the stuff served in the UK, it is still difficult to not make comparisons between the two and not feel somewhat let down by the differences.

While the majority of the beer at this festival tasted nice enough, perfectly acceptable for what is expected of craft beer these days - that is big flavors, high alcohol, and lots of hops - the overall festival was mostly a disappointment in my eyes. First, the only real similarity between UK style cask ale and what was served over the weekend is that they are both served from a firkin. And whereas most (good) cask ale in the UK is conditioned and served bright, much of the stuff I sampled was either muddy with suspended yeast or tasted like the cask was not given enough time to condition. Most annoying of all, however, is that instead of serving flavorful session style beers that make for an enjoyable afternoon of drinking, the vast majority of beers were highly alcoholic, dry hopped IPA's and other gimmicky brews that contained everything from c-hops, spices, and chocolate. Of the twenty or so beers available, there were only a few that were under 5.0% abv, with the average strength closer to 7-8%. Even the local pseudo-British inspired brewery (Middle Ages) followed the pack, producing two 8+% beers for the event. Not a single British style brown ale, bitter, mild, or porter.

In the end, this cask festival had few similarities to those I've attended in the UK and while the overall flavor of the beers served was nice for what they were, I don't see why they didn't just serve the beers from a keg. If you're not going to take the time to condition and serve a cask ale properly, why bother with a cask at all? Furthermore, I understand that many American brewers see cask ale as a means of infusing their beer with hops and other flavorings - basically using it like a "Randal" or "Hop Rocket" - but that doesn't mean each and every beer served on cask must be flavored as such. I would like to see cask ale become popular here in the States, but we really have a long ways to go before we can start to approach the quality and refinement of many cask ales produced in the UK. First thing to change, lower the ABV!

Cask ale rantings aside, the beer I am brewing today is a leftover recipe for a Belgian amber ale, or BPA, using an old pack of yeast and some ingredients I had laying around. Admittedly, I have never brewed a Belgian amber ale before and I can't say it is a style that particularly interests me. At first, I had planned to brew another patersbier, but my kegerator is currently full of pale beers and I really need to change things up. Amber ale it is. The recipe I am using is a mix of pale and pilsner malt, with some cara-munich II, aromatic, and special b. Hopping is Tettnanger with Czech Saaz, and the yeast is Wyeast 3538 Leuven Pale Ale. As I had originally bought this yeast back in October, I was just going to throw it out and brew something else, but amazingly the pack swelled right up. I made a large starter and the yeast took right off. I've been told this yeast produces lightly fruity and peppery/spicy beers and does well in both malty and hoppy styles. So long as I end up with something malty and easy to drink, I'll be happy.

Belgian Amber : Belgian Pale Ale

Recipe Specifics: 
Batch Size (Gal): 4.0
Total Grain (Lbs): 8.10
Anticipated OG: 1.050
Anticipated FG: 1.008-10
Anticipated SRM: 12
Anticipated IBU: 25
Efficiency: 70%
Boil Time: 90 Minutes

86.4% - 7.00 lbs. Pale and Pils Malt (50/50)
6.2% - 0.50 lbs. Cara-Munich II
4.3% - 0.35 lbs. Aromatic Malt
3.1% - 0.25 lbs. Special B

0.75 oz. Tettnanger @ 60 min for 20 IBU
0.50 oz. Saaz @ 20 min for 5 IBU
1.00 oz. Saaz @ flameout

Yeast: Wyeast 3538 Leuven Pale Ale
Brewed on 29 April


  1. Completely agree about your cask ale rant... Our local has 2 "cask ales" on which usually means a 74* black ipa at 8% abv and something else with spices stuffed in it.

    One of our local breweries has been using it to let anyone and everyone "design" a pin... I think it's being used as a complete gimmick and marketing tactic. Craft beer is descending further into craft beeredness, where its more bourbon barrell triple IPA. I thought at some point, and still would like to see it just become what other countries call it.... Beer.

    1. And the bartender at my local wonders why I won't pay $3.00 for a pint of their chocolate-coffee porter on cask, but will glady pay twice that for a little 4.2% bitter. Good beer doesn't need gimmicks.

  2. Agree about the cask ales. Have gotten used to my own brews of 4-5% English inspired ales. Someone at a party we had gave me a six pack from Green Flash brewery which i was just sitting down to sample when i read your post. Supposedly a great west coast IPA sort of place and have been looking forward to sampling. Started out OK but its really far too bitter and at 9.5% just plain undrinkable in my mind after a few sips. Will probably end up giving it away, shame as i'm sure it was expensive. Oh for a simple beer with great ingredients where you can actually tasted the malt and hops without being battered around the head by them. Luckily I have one of your recipes in my keg so back to that from now on.

  3. Nice rant. I had essentially the same reaction after a "real ale" festival a couple of years ago.

  4. Same thing here in Rome, people entering in pubs and asking sometimes the hoppyest beer, sometimes the strongest one. Italian craft brewers and home brewers are producing thousands IPA and Black IPA and Double IPA and Imperial IPA and belgian IPA and other hop bombs and "hop squashes", and imperial stouts imperial coffee stout, imperial chocolate stout, imperial hop-petrol stout and is really difficult to find a single good 4% beers which is not a weiss beer (you know, "for women").

    1. "Imperial Hop-Petrol Stout" - Funny you should mention that, I am pretty sure I had one of those last week at my local. Nothing like a pint of chocolaty diesel fuel... yum.

      And I can't forget to mention the "burning electrical chord" and "bandaid-y" sour beers they had on tap.


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