There is beer that evokes fallen leaves in water. At least, I remember thinking so once, drinking a beer whose name I can no longer recall with a friend who I recall often. It was between him and me that a discourse of unabashed lyricism around drinks and drinking took shape. No longer a matter of a few autonomous adjectives, the experience of imbibing now took a narrative form that could describe flavor in terms of change, texture, and context. This way of talking about drinks, un-self-conscious and a little psychedelic, voiced something truer and more poetic about the things we consume and propped up our work in the often unpoetic industry of food and beverage.
This is to say that taste can be subtle and exciting and worth, I think, a lot of words. When an experience compels this type of analysis, we know we are in the aura of the subtle, singular, and/or profound; it is the thing we struggle to describe, it seems, which is most deserving of our prolonged thought and attention. Furthermore, these subtle experiences tend to lack superlative attributes; in the absence of the ‘hoppiest,’ the ‘oakyiest,’ or the ‘rarest,’ even we are allowed a deeper, more thoughtful, interaction. Whatever apparently motley group of beverages thus constituted is, in terms of acquired and elevated tastes, a powerful one.
One regular member of this group is beer made in the old English style. The best examples of these are subject to oxidative aging in oak barrels and are best enjoyed from a hand pulled cask or, more commonly, naturally conditioned in bottle—either way having significantly less carbonation than beer as we presently know it. This lack of carbonation, combined with very low levels of alcohol and service at room temperature, give the beer a profoundly textural, silken character. These beers, fermented and aged in (and often served directly out of) small oak barrels are known loosely as ‘cask ales.’
And so, cask ale is the yin of beer – the other to the cold, brash, bubbly thing we typically think about when we talk suds. Aging in barrels means the beer is a non-sterile, living medium in which microflora, together with the barrel action of micro-oxidation, round and integrate flavors – a long process of bending fruity esters towards their savory best-selves. To borrow an anthropomorphic term from French winemaking, this stage is the beer’s élevage, or maturation through adolescence, in which the scattered energies of youth eventually yield to wisdom and a unified sense of self. From Lambic to Cognac to Burgundy, this aging action defines the world’s most renowned beer, wine, and spirits. And while titans of industry will always seek ways of controlling, simulating, and expediting the aging process, it ultimately remains a faithful surrender to circumstance.
In these terms, we can draw out, with a certain necessary unabashedness, what the real character of cask ale is. The beer’s aroma is of brush meandering down a backwoods creek somewhere geographically far but nostalgically immediate. Or maybe it’s just leaves, listlessly bouncing about some undiscovered, overgrown pond or pool somewhere off a Midwestern interstate in November. Dried leaves evoke delicacy and desiccation, as well as the tasting notes of hay, dried flowers, fallow grass. These are lifting sensations that belong neither to the cerebral and pointed aspects of minerals nor the ripe, living energy of fruit—they are flavors which point towards things once living now dead; the between space in the typical categorization of fruit vs. mineral which wine tasters know so well.
If the leaves and brush are the aroma part of the story, the pond water is the tasting and textural element. It has to do with a subtle type of refreshing; a freshness that is cold and clear but not ripping or rocky or white capped, one that is more ruminative than splashy. It is about locating something hidden and soft and fresh which doesn’t rely on the citric aspect of hops or fruit adjuncts, or on forced carbonation and acidifying yeasts. It is the presence of something impeccably clean buried beneath algal overgrowth and small verdant plants. This is refreshing the same way meditation is refreshing, or a quiet sunrise in winter.
And finally to draw out the last part of story – why is the pond or creek hidden? Because, I think, you stumble across it rather than seeking it out. These beers, when great, resist the categorical language of marketers and tend to surprise in their subtlety.We are rarely directed towards cask ales because they don’t garner a lot of the #hype which tends to attach itself to easier targets – bitterest, oldest, sourest, most alcoholic.
The easiest way to objectify stubbornly subjective experiences is to line one up next to another and name them good, better, best. The trouble with this type of evaluation is that it tends to dictate expectation rather than elucidating experience itself. Fransisco Flores, the owner of The Littlest Pub, contrasts this type of expectation-oriented drinking culture with the experience of drinking cask ale which, he says, is complex and “all about the finish.” In this way drinking a cask conditioned ale engages one in the dynamic experience of taste as it changes and lingers and morphs over time. If expectation, then, is on one side of a spectrum, it seems that something like ‘pondering’ is on the other; rather than seeking out the maximum amount of something we think we like, we sit down with something unknown and put our energy into thinking about it in real time. I suppose my bias is evident here, but only because, in my experience, the memorable has always been complex enough to warrant investigation.
“I can’t go back to hops,” said Eric, cellar master at the above mentioned, cask ale specializing, Tucson nano-brewer, “I think I overdid it…” I suspect this is true for a lot of us. The other day, with no options and a thirst for beer, I could manage a mouthful of West Coast style IPA only by not breathing through my nose, eventually conceding defeat and opting for the only other available beverage, which happened to be a craft soda made with ‘drinking vinegar.’ Fine. For those of us exhausted by hops and all their intense preservative, unctuous, embalming character, cask ale emerges as the necessary antidote – alive, viscous, and soft.
The Littlest Pub barrel-ages their beer using the Solera method, in which casks are stacked in a pyramid and small portions of beer are racked down from top to bottom as they age, mixing young and old beer each time. Francisco first learned of this method from a rum distillery near his hometown in Guatemala, which made rums aged for 20 plus years in huge, ancient Soleras. As he investigated this method of aging he found historical precedent for Solera-aged beers in both Belgium and England. He was enchanted with an anecdote in which casks of ale were said to be brewed at the birth of an aristocratic child and left to age in barrel until her or his 18th birthday – what would it take to create a beer that could withstand the rigors of aging for decades in a barrel? Contrary to popular thought, he found, it is the micro-oxidative action of barrel aging, and not so much hops, that allow this incredible life span. Microflora take up residence in the barrel and create a living micro-environment which protects the beer from spoilage while slowly morphing and interacting with it over time. Essentially, instead of sterilizing a beer the brewer opts to give it an immune system. When younger beer is added to the cask, these microorganisms are provided with fresh nutrients. The result, an exercise in patience and faith in nature, is a profoundly complex substance that cannot, inherently, be reproduced.
Francisco often emphasizes the parenting role of the cellar master Eric, ‘The Berserker,’ who tastes the casks daily to determine when and how to blend the beers. You can guide the process but you can’t define it; neglect will cause spoilage just as micromanagement will repress the native spirit of the beer. “Nothing,” notes Francisco, “is as difficult as simplicity.”
Cask ales can live their entire life, from fermentation to consumption, in an oak barrel, being ‘pulled’ out of the cask at room temperature by an archaic mechanism called a beer engine once it is ready to be served. In this paradigm—low alcohol, low carbonation, room temperature–everything is laid bare; on the one hand, the complexities are more pronounced; on the other hand, there is nothing to mask the imperfections of flaws. The stakes here are higher. The raison d’être, for cask ale, is to create a beer of nuance and depth which can be experienced as such – a simple foundation matured via careful, long-term oak aging expressed in the absence of carbonation or refrigeration. This is the beer married to lyricism, to waxing poetic after the subtle and savory. If we’re to continue with the metaphoric implication of the French term élevage, it makes sense that a beer which ‘grows up’ would demand this more narrative accounting – a description which allows for a history and a sense of being. Most profoundly and consequently for us consumers with modern appetites, this approach reverses our typical relationship with what we desire – rather than expecting something to conform to our tastes, and judging it as such, we agree to conform to whatever the singular thing in front of us is.
Serving out of cask is a difficult proposition – aside from the special equipment involved, cask ale, bereft the sterilizing action of carbonation pressure and refrigeration, is only good for a few days once the barrel is breached (rather than the many months a pasteurized beer can remain ‘fresh’ in a pressurized keg). This short shelf life means there has to be a lot of immediate demand lest the beer lingers and spoils. Thus we tend to see cask ales only at the real diehard beer bars in town, such as Tap and Bottle, which always has a hand pulled ale available. Tap and Bottle refrigerates the beer lightly to keep it fresh longer and thus makes the offering more feasible and widely available. In the past month, they have featured cask ales from a handful of local breweries, including Littlest Pub, Iron John’s, and Dragoon.
Those looking for imported, bottled, options should start with the Old Ales and traditional English Bitters at Plaza Liquors. Finally, although Littlest Pub was initially hesitant to grant me an interview as they’re still laying down stock and slowly building inventory, if you catch them while their doors are open they can’t seem to resist talking and tasting…