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Beer, only better

Cask ales can be high maintenance -- but, wow, are they worth it! And now, more SoCal spots are catching on.

June 25, 2008|Jenn Garbee | Special to The Times

IT'S EIGHT minutes past the tapping hour on a recent Friday night, and the crowd gathered at the Daily Pint in Santa Monica is restless.

"Have we been teased? I don't even see a firkin," says a fiftysomething guy sporting a beer festival T-shirt, a member of the Culver City-based home brew club Pacific Gravity.

Members had been tipped off by rival Woodland Hills brew club the Maltose Falcons about the chance to buy a pint from tonight's firkin, the traditional container (historically wood but now most often metal) for unpasteurized cask-conditioned beer. And they're tired of waiting for a taste of one of these rarely available aromatic brews known for distinctly fresh yeasty flavors.

In Britain, "real ales," as cask-conditioned unpasteurized beers are called there, are a point of local pride and were even the focus of a preservation movement initiated in the 1970s by the Campaign for Real Ale, a British advocacy group with more than 80,000 members today. There, aficionados in search of cask beer's telltale thick head of foam and delicate fizz can find a selection at pubs that make a point of keeping the tradition alive.

Recently, cask beers -- mostly from Southern California craft brewers -- have become more widely available here. They don't travel well due to their short shelf life and require special handling by the pub or bar, but beer lovers say they're worth seeking out for their flavor complexity and refreshing, light carbonation.

Small breweries such as Deans Brothers in Upland, AleSmith in San Diego and Green Flash in Vista distribute firkins near their home bases. And several larger producers, particularly those with British-style ales, including Sierra Nevada in Chico, Firestone Walker in Paso Robles, and Stone Brewing in Escondido, have recently extended their geographic reach in this category, so their cask-conditioned ales are showing up in Los Angeles, Orange and Ventura counties. But it's still a rare treat -- and often a special occasion such as this Friday Cask Night at the Daily Pint -- when a firkin is tapped.

Cask-conditioned beers are temperamental. Rich with live yeast, they require careful attention, not only during the brewing process but also in storage and serving. Cellar temperature (about 55 degrees) is ideal; any warmer and the beer will spoil more quickly; much cooler and it can kill the yeast. It's also the ideal temperature at which to taste complex layers of flavor.

"Cask ales have this blossoming aroma and a very full but also somewhat softer palate than pasteurized beers," explains Matthew Brynildson, brew master at Firestone Walker in Paso Robles. "The natural carbonation from the yeast actually gives you a less carbonated, smoother beer with a fluffy head."

Twice fermented

What differentiates cask-conditioning from the pasteurized beers that dominate today's market is the method of fermentation. All beer was naturally carbonated in the centuries before pasteurization was developed. In this traditional method, live yeast cultures are left in the beer from start to finish, so the beer undergoes a secondary fermentation inside the storage vessel. As the sugars turn to alcohol, natural carbon dioxide is produced and lends a soft, delicate fizz and a host of complex flavors and aromas. With pasteurized beer, the yeast is typically killed after the initial fermentation and external carbon dioxide is pumped into the keg.

At the pub or bar, when a firkin is tapped, cask-conditioned ale must be manually pulled through the lines using a hand pump, a process that also oxygenates the beer. Draft beer is pushed through the draft lines by external carbon dioxide.

Most AleSmith beers are bottle-conditioned, a process similar to cask-conditioning. But the brewery also produces a few casks for a handful of San Diego-area pubs.

"A 10.8-gallon cask behaves differently than the small quantities we condition in bottles," head brewer Peter Zien says. "The flavors just seem to jump out more. And it gives you a second opportunity to dry hop [adding additional hops before aging] after the first fermentation, so you can really control the final product."

In Santa Monica, two hours after the first firkin has been tapped, Daily Pint owner Philip McGovern pumps the last few pints of a Stone IPA. The foamy head takes so long to subside that he busies himself with several draft beer orders in the interim. Add to that patient service the time involved in hand-pumping the beer engine (the hydraulic pump that pushes the beer from the firkin to the glass) and you have a high-maintenance drink that requires brawn and, perhaps, a healthy dose of hops-induced obsessiveness.

"Hey, Phil, you got a bigger mallet?" asks Jim Tasarpalas, Firestone Walker's Los Angeles sales manager, flipping the firkin on its side to reveal the bunghole. Before it can be tapped and hooked up to the beer engine, the carbon dioxide pressure in the cask must be released by hammering a balsa wood spigot into the hole.

Venting the firkin

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