Raise a Glass to Casks: Baltimore brewers are bringing the old-style cask ale back to bars

City Paper

Across the pond in the U.K., it’s common to see pub signage proclaiming the availability of “real ale.” As opposed to what, you might wonder? Near beer? Something with artificial hops? What they refer to is the Brit’s traditional brew—naturally carbonated ales served from unpressurized vessels at cellar temperatures (mid-50s F), usually referred to in the states as cask ale. Many discerning beer-heads feel that this old-school “real” approach delivers the best-tasting beer. 

Keg beer (i.e., most draft beer) is often subject to flavor-robbing filtration or pasteurizing (or both) before being artificially carbonated and served at tongue-numbing temps barely above freezing. Cask ale is more organic and less mucked about with. Living yeast create a gentle carbonation within the cask it’s dispensed from, either via hand pump or gravity. 

On this side of the pond, Baltimore is home to the Chesapeake Branch of the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood, the only stateside affiliate of a British group that promotes (and drinks) cask ale. (The name harkens back to the era when casks were wooden; they are largely stainless steel today.) The 150-member group stages an annual cask-ale festival in town, which last year featured some 50 different casks.

“Interest is growing in cask,” says society president Tom “Dino” Ford. “As craft beer expands we are raising awareness that this is the original craft beer, especially with younger people.”

To learn more about local cask ale, I decided to stop by the Halethorpe home of Heavy Seas Brewing. Exuberant sales manager Joe Gold quickly hands me a beer (despite it being 10 a.m.), exclaiming, “Cask beer is the craftiest craft beer there is.” Also on hand this morning is a trio of folks who’ve flown up from Florida just to create custom casks for their beer bar.

Heavy Seas’ Loose Cannon is a good beer on draft, but its cask version—which, along with three other cask beers and a cask mead, is often available at Liam Flynn’s Ale House in Station North—is simply outstanding: The hoppy and citrusy flavors are more pronounced and distinct.

 Heavy Seas has some 1,200 casks, also sometimes referred to as firkins, and its founder Hugh Sisson feels it may well be the largest producer of cask beer in the country. It’s but an educated guess, as cask production is not something any government agency or brewing trade group tracks. Then again, Sisson has been in the beer game since the 1980s, when he turned his family’s eponymous Cross Street bar into the city’s first brewpub. He knows the business.

“I’d love to be able to tell you that this was a brilliant business decision, but cask beer is for us is a labor of love and not something that we do as business driver,” Sisson says. “We do it because we think it’s cool. We like it.” 

Sisson’s foray into casks began a decade or so ago when former brewery employee, Tom Cizauskas, convinced him to buy some used casks that turned up in a Dundalk warehouse. Carting them off was a dirty job, thanks to the festering beer dregs lurking within. “This incredibly foul-smelling, nasty stuff got inside my car and on me,” Sisson recalls. “Not an auspicious start.”

Undeterred, the brewery began playing around with them and finding beer-centric venues willing take on cask. The program really expanded under former brewery employee Steve Marsh, who’s now the manager and chef at Liam Flynn’s.

“It can either be an awesome beer experience, or a hideous beer experience,” Sisson says of cask beer. Here’s the rub: It’s very perishable and can turn flat and foul-tasting in three days or less. Careful cellarmanship and some technological tweaks (Google “cask breather”) can extend the shelf life to 10 days or so. Keg beer, meanwhile, stays drinkable for months, so it’s easy to see why every bar doesn’t embrace casks.

A few days later I’m sitting in Max’s Taphouse enjoying a bona fide British cask ale called Moor So’ Hop. (It’s 11 a.m.—I do it for you, dear reader.) Joining me is Cizauskas, now a self-styled “cask evangelist,” popular beer blogger, and sales rep for a beer and wine wholesaler in northern Virginia.

If macro-beer is Wonder Bread and craft beer is an artisan loaf, then cask beer, he figures, is “fresh bread right out of the oven.” Is cask growing? Yes and no, says the man who once made his boss smell horrible. While Max’s now has five cask offerings, Cizauskas has seen some venues in Washington, D.C. give up on cask after it proved too much work. “But [with] many more people drinking craft beer and so many new breweries, just as a matter of numbers, cask ale will increase,” he allows.

Hopefully, not increasing is the cask abuse some bars engage in. Adding extra hops or other organic flavorings to a cask is one thing, but Gummi bears? Twix bars? Apparently this sort of stuff happens. “That’s not craft,” Cizauskas exclaims, of a candy-bar cask. “That’s crap.” 

“It’s a commitment to do this,” adds Max’s manager, Casey Hard. “If you don’t know how to do it, have someone teach you and be willing to learn. Don’t do it wrong and make it worse for everyone.” 

My last cask call is the Pratt Street Ale House, where British-born brewer Steve Jones says he “never touched a keg” until he came to these shores 15 years ago. It’s a wonder he can make any kind of beer in the cramped, catacomb brew space he shows me beneath the Victorian building. But soon he won’t have to toil here, as brewing operations are moving to a larger space in East Baltimore where output can double.

“Cask is the ultimate statement of beer,” Jones says. “It’s a niche market over here but growing and the new brewery will really let us push our cask beer program.” 

Cheers to that. 

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