Simply put, cask beer is a beer that is brewed and fermented, and then placed into essentially a small keg, where it is then conditioned and naturally carbonated through a secondary fermentation. The beer is transported to its serving location in this vessel and served directly from this vessel without the use of any additional pressure.
That being said, cask beer is delicious. Todd English’s PUB and Public House always have at least one cask beer available at any given moment. There are a couple other places in Las Vegas that also have cask beers available off and on. If you get the chance, try out one of these beers!
Here’s what to expect:
Because the beer is naturally carbonated through fermentation inside the vessel, and because additional carbon dioxide isn’t used to push the beer, it is not as carbonated as typical kegged beer. Depending on how fresh the cask is (once tapped, cask beers are good for about 3 days), will ultimately determine how much carbonation is left in the beer. I’ve had some cask beers that felt like it had nearly the same amount of carbonation as any other beer, and I’ve had other cask beers that were almost flat, with just the slightest amount of carbonation.
Secondly, the beer is served at “cellar temperature.” This is done out of tradition, as cask beers originated prior to refrigeration. Expect the beer to be in the low 50’s (fahrenheit). For point of comparison, draft systems require kegged beer to be in the high 30’s. Truth be told, high 30’s is too cold for beer to be served. However to maintain a balanced draft system, with minimal foaming, this low temperature is required. If you aren’t used to ice cold beer, cask beer may seem uncomfortably warm.
Taking those two points together, cask beer feels thinner and lighter bodied. The natural carbonation isn’t as harsh as forcing carbon dioxide into a beer, so it has a softer texture to it as well. The warmer serving temperature helps to taste more of the beer, but may not make the beer as enjoyable for certain styles.
As far as choosing the best cask beer, here’s what I recommend: A beer with a heavier body and/or a higher alcohol percentage. The primary reason for this, is that the heavier body will feel a bit more natural on cask as opposed to something lighter, which may become too thin and almost watery. I think every time I’ve been to Todd English’s they’ve had Deschutes Black Butte Porter on cask. This is the way that beer was meant to be enjoyed. The light carbonation, and soft head compliment this beer perfectly, making it extremely drinkable. The warmer serving temperatures brings out a lot more the chocolate flavors that are usually hidden when served from a refrigerated keg or bottle.
Beers with higher levels of alcohol will also have a heavier body and benefit in the same ways. On top of that, typically beers with higher levels of alcohol also are best served at warmer temperatures. The first cask beer I had was Coronado Brewing Company’s double IPA, Idiot IPA. Big floral, purfumey aroma coming off of an incredibly drinkable beer. The soft carbonation softened the blow from the hop bitterness in a very pleasing way. A couple of nights ago, I had Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout on cask at Todd English’s. The alcohol was hidden extremely well, with rich coffee and dark chocolate flavors in an easy drinking imperial stout. A far cry from the traditional British cask beers, but it is beers like this that really shows the benefits of cask beers!