We use the term “cask beer” as a general descriptor for any of the beers we serve either from one of our two beer engines or by gravity from a firkin or pin sitting atop the bar. There are two distinct types of cask beer here at the Civil Life. I talked to our brewer and cellarman Brandon Stern about how these beers are different.
What we call “real ale” is served from standard kegs (generally quarter and sixth barrel kegs, about seven and a half and five gallons respectively). These beers have completed their fermentation cycles and have been cold crashed in their fermenters. There is no added CO2, just the natural CO2 collected in the fermenter during fermentation.
The beers we serve from firkins (10.8 gallon vessels) and pins (5.4 gallon vessels) go through a more involved process. First Brandon carefully sanitizes a firkin and then purges it with CO2 to remove any atmospheric air, which could cause the beer to stale quickly. He then racks the still actively fermenting beer from the fermenter into the firkin. He makes any additions (hops for dry hopping for example) before hammering the shive and keystone into place.
The now sealed firkin sits at ambient temperature for about a week so that fermentation may complete. Brandon takes a gravity reading beforehand, so he has an idea what to expect in terms of time as well as final conditioning. Whether dry-hopped or not, these beers are cold crashed for seven to ten days. During this period, the beer absorbs any CO2 that was produced during the fermentation cycle, giving the beer some nice natural carbonation. The final degree of carbonation does vary, though. “A lot of it is yeast dependent,” says Brandon, adding that the rye pale ale tends to be especially lively.
A lot of the fun of doing these beers is making additions that will create a more complex flavor profile. “It all comes down to experimentation.” Sometimes Brandon finishes beers with French or American oak spirals, which can impart some lovely vanilla, spice, and even coconut notes. He also likes to select hop varieties that will work particularly well with each beer. “I like to see how the aromatic highlights of certain hops complement those beers.”
After a week or so in the cold room, these beers are ready. We don’t add any fining agent to the beers to help clarify them, so Brandon likes to get them in place with plenty of time before service, at least two hours, but sometimes overnight. This allows any yeast or hop particles to settle out of suspension, yielding nice clarity. After venting the cask to relieve excess pressure, Brandon hammers in the tap valve. Now for the most important step: Brandon samples the beer and accesses its quality. Truth be told, we all volunteer to help with this step.
Most days we serve some type of cask beer, usually our “real ale.” On Fridays and Saturdays, we sometimes pour from pins and firkins of the beers Brandon has specially prepared. We have some excellent examples of his art coming over the next several weeks. Here’s what to expect:
The Civil Blog has returned. It is predominantly authored by Civil Life Barman, Dr. Patrick Hurley, who can be found tending to our bar patrons on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He is also responsible for tending to our draft lines, which is recognized as one of our most important tasks. Special guest writers will appear from time to time. We hope reading this blog will give you much insight about the Civil Life and most importantly help you understand a bit more about all of us that work here and the beers we put our hearts into.