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What’s in a cask?

Posted September 3, 2014 | 10:28 am, by Mirella

DISCLAIMER: I thought I’d take a moment to state that I am not writing on behalf of Cask! but, rather, to express some concerns that are my own, but first a little background… There are two parallel cask-conditioned ale scenes going on in Ontario right now:

  • One of these scenes features traditional cask-conditioned ales, like the ones that we champion with Cask!; the kind of beer that CAMRA refer to as ‘Real Ales’.
  • The other features beers finished (or simply packaged) in a cask, with the addition of a spice or flavouring ingredient -anything from hops to berries to pepper or curry, even gummy bears, tobacco and hot dogs have been used. The list of potential ingredients goes on… For the purposes of this post, I’ll refer to this second category of beers as experimental casks.

We’ve had traditional cask-conditioned ale in Ontario since the early days of our craft beer movement in the eighties, in large part thanks to the initiative of Wellington Brewery, one of our earliest craft breweries (est. 1985.) I remember, when I first started drinking in bars and pubs, you could get traditional cask-conditioned ale in a wide range of establishments. It was so easy to come by in Toronto that, for about 3 years, I drank exclusively cask-conditioned ale. The lower carbonation level and fuller flavour really appealed to me. I still remember the day that I decided to branch out into regular craft beer and what an adjustment it was to get used to the effervescence and sharp flavours from the carbonation.

I’m not sure exactly when Ontario brewers started producing experimental casks; they were certainly already around in 2007, when I founded Beerology. At the time, they were mostly available at festivals, such as Cask Days, C’est What?’s Festival of Craft Breweries and, for a few years, they had a large presence at The Toronto Festival of Beer with Great Lakes Brewery’s CASKapalooza. At that time, craft beer wasn’t as widely embraced and the average consumer wasn’t as open and experimental; I remember many stories from brewers who had tried to release a more daring beer style (like, for example, a West-Coast style IPA – gasp!) and found they weren’t able to sell through a whole batch. At that time experimental casks were a way for these brewers to produce fun and unusual beers on a very small scale and, therefore, with minimal risk.

I remember first coming across these experimental casks and how fun it was to sample through them. I also think it would be fair to say that the presence of these experimental casks at various festivals introduced a lot of people the idea that a wide range of different flavours can be found in beerr. Then, somewhere along the line, experimental casks took over and customers started expecting cask-conditioned ale to be wacky.

I recall two incidents in particular that made me aware of the shift:

  1. In 2010, I was at an event where cask-conditioned ale was featured and, as I sampled through a range of casks, it occurred to me that every single beer I’d sampled – many of them brewed in a German or Belgian style – would have tasted better on draught. When I approached a brewer and asked about his decision to put those specific beers on cask, he explained that people were looking for new and different beers on cask and, having used all of the fruits and spices he could think of, he thought they’d venture into different styles. He agreed with me, though, that the beer in question tasted better on draught.
  2. In 2012, I was at another event where cask-conditioned ale was featured and came across a stout that was exceptionally good. When other festival attendees asked me which beer I’d enjoyed so far and I pointed out the stout and every single guest that I spoke to replied that the idea of just putting a stout stout on cask was boring and they weren’t interested in trying it when there were so many more unusual things to sample – including a beer that everyone agreed didn’t taste good but “had to try” because it was so wacky.


UK CaskI have nothing against evolution and growth but I’m not sure that cask going from ‘a vessel from which to serve a fresher, more flavourful version of beer styles that benefit from this kind of treatment’ to ‘a container for strange and unusual ingredients in beer’ is growth. Don’t get me wrong, experimental casks can be tons of fun and some are quite tasty, but when they are weird just for the sake of being weird or in a cask, just for the sake of being in a cask, I find it unsettling.

It bothers me because cask-conditioned ale is delicious and should taste better than a draught version of the same beer and I find it a little disconcerting that many beer drinkers in Ontario have come to equate casks with experimentation and aren’t at all intrigued when they come across a  traditional cask-conditioned ale.

It will be interesting to see where this all goes, but let me say this: cask – traditional cask- is a thing of beauty. If you haven’t had it yet, you should absolutely give it a try…

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