An Introduction to Cask Ale

If you’re new to the microbrew culture, you’re probably realizing that’s it’s difficult to keep track of all the different styles of beer America’s microbreweries are putting out. What’s the difference between a Pale Ale and an India Pale Ale? A porter and a stout?  A dubbel and a tripel? Indeed, even for the veteran microbrew consumer, there’s always something to learn. Today we’re going to introduce you to an entirely different kind of beer: cask ale, or “real ale,” as some call it.

While a white ale and a stout are about as different as two beers can be, they still have a lot in common. Like virtually all beer consumed in the United States, these beers are filtered after fermentation is complete in order to remove sediment. Then, they’re pasteurized in order to extend the lifespan of the beer on store shelves or in the local watering hole. Next, they have additional carbonation added to them to appeal to the modern palate. Finally, they’re bottled (or canned) and shipped off for consumption.

But beer wasn’t always produced like this – indeed, only since the second half of the 20th century has “modern” beer production taken hold. Fortunately, beer purists have taken it upon themselves to preserve traditional ales. Cask ale can be hard to find, in part because it’s a risky offering for pubs to have available. Pubs have to sell it quickly, as it won’t keep nearly as long as a keg of Bud Light, and they have to commit to selling an entire keg, as cask ale is always served directly from the vessel in which it was conditioned (fermented). That said, it’s well worth the effort to find an opportunity to try cask ale.

Cask ale, unlike most beer you’ve likely ever had, isn’t filtered, pasteurized, artificially carbonated, or bottled. This means that it has a freshness unlike any beer you’ll find at the local convenience store. Also, it’s got a very different character – because it’s only naturally carbonated, cask ale tends to have a smoother, creamier “mouthfeel” than modern beer. While there’s a good chance you won’t find a cask ale in the first place you look, if you ask around, you’ll likely be able to find some, whether at a local brewery or at a pub specializing in craft beer.

In some ways, cask ale is simply a “traditional” mirror of many of the beers you know well. Cask ale can come in many styles; it’s not a “style” of beer in and of itself; it’s simply a method of producing beer, regardless of the style of the particular ale in question. If you’re a microbrew veteran, cask ale is a great next step in your exploration of beer. If you’re brand new to microbrews, cask ale will be a fun and very different experience for you. We recommend that you make the effort to track some down!

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