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.”
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
Tasarpalas vents every firkin he sells in the L.A. area the day the beer will be served (once the cask is vented, the beer should be served within 48 hours to prevent spoilage). Improper venting can cause the beer to spew out the bunghole, creating a mess but also disrupting the yeast, which causes the beer to be cloudy if not allowed to fully settle.
Beer engines can cause their own problems. At Naja’s Place in Redondo Beach, where cask-conditioned beers are usually available daily, as well as at the recently opened Verdugo Bar in Glassell Park, where cask beers are normally offered every other week, firkin orders were on hold when this story went to press, pending repairs of each pub’s beer engine.
“It’s a pretty basic pump machine with moving parts, so pull on it too much or quickly and it has a tendency to break,” explains Verdugo co-owner Ryan Sweeney. Beer engines also take up a lot of space. McGovern bought several on a recent trip to England but has installed just one.
Still, when all goes well, the result is a beer lover’s grand cru.
Among the best places to find cask-conditioned ales are brewery tasting rooms, British pubs, and bars with comprehensive beer selections. It’s also worth seeking out restaurant-breweries where casks are frequently on offer and bartenders are well trained. Some, such as Rock Bottom in Long Beach, offer a rotating selection of two casks daily; others, including selected BJ’s Brewery and Karl Strauss locations, offer rotating weekly versions.
The Blue Palms Brew House, a Hollywood craft beer hall opening later this summer, plans to always have a firkin on tap. And McGovern says he’ll be adding a few beer engines at McG’s, his pub in Chatsworth, in the coming weeks. But it’s always a good idea to call ahead to confirm selection and availability. Although cask-conditioned beers are gaining popularity, thanks to committed brewers and retailers, they’re still crazily high maintenance.
To be sure beer lovers get the unique experience they’re looking for, brewers have to keep a tight rein on treatment of their delicate cask-conditioned ales by even their most trusted customers.
“It’s like passing off your baby to the bartender,” says Brynildson. “You’ve got to keep an eye on them.”
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Where the cask ales flow
CASK-CONDITIONED ales, -- unpasteurized, naturally carbonated beers served directly from their firkins (fermenting containers) -- can be difficult to find because of their short shelf life and special handling requirements, including a special hand pump called a beer engine.
The pubs and restaurants below serve local brews tapped from a cask (note special times); expect thick heads of foam, delicate fizz and fresh, yeasty flavor.
Upcoming: Blue Palms Brew House, opening in Hollywood in August, plans to offer daily casks.
Beachwood BBQ, 131 1/2 Main St., Seal Beach, (562) 493-4500, www.beachwoodbbq.com. Rotating selection of a Deans Brothers, Stone Brewing or other cask ale from a Southern California brewery offered daily.
BJ’s Brewery and Restaurants, Oxnard and West Covina locations only, 461 W. Esplanade Drive, Oxnard, (805) 485-1124; 2917 E. Eastland Center Drive, West Covina, (626) 858-0054; www.bjsbrewhouse.com. Weekly cask night Thursdays from 2 p.m. features rotating selection of a BJ’s house or seasonal cask ale such as pumpkin or spicy jalapeno.
Daily Pint, 2310 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 450-7631. Weekly cask night Fridays from 3 p.m. features rotating selection of a Firestone Walker, Stone Brewing, Craftsman or other cask ale from a Southern California brewery. Beginning in August, cask beers will be offered daily.
McG’s Irish Pub, 21356 Devonshire St., Chatsworth, (818) 734-7056, www.mcgspub.com. Weekly cask night Fridays from 3 p.m. features rotating selection of a Firestone Walker, Stone Brewing, Craftsman or other cask ale from a Southern California brewery. Beginning in August, several beers will be offered daily.
Karl Strauss, 901A South Coast Drive, Costa Mesa, (714) 546-2739; 1000 Universal Studios Blvd., Suite M-41, Universal City, (818) 753-2739. Cask nights the first Thursday of each month, from 4 p.m. in Universal City and 5 p.m. in Costa Mesa, feature a selection of a Karl Strauss house or seasonal cask ale such as double IPA or dry-hopped brown ale.
Naja’s Place, 154 International Boardwalk Place, Redondo Beach, (310) 376-9951, www.najasplace.com. Rotating selection of a Firestone Walker, Stone Brewing or other cask ale from a Southern California brewery offered daily (beer engine currently being repaired; call for availability).
Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery, 1 Pine Ave., Long Beach, (562) 308-2255, www.rockbottom.com. Rotating selection of two Rock Bottom house cask ales such as American-style brown or double IPA offered daily.
Verdugo Bar, 3408 Verdugo Road, Glassell Park, (323) 257-3408, verdugobar.com. Cask nights (days vary) twice a month from 8 p.m. feature rotating selection of a Deans Brothers, Green Flash or other cask ale from a Southern California brewery (beer engine currently being repaired; call for availability and schedule).
Ye Olde King’s Head, 116 Santa Monica Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 451-1402, www.yeoldekingshead.com. Monthly cask night the first Friday of the month from October through May features a rotating selection of a Firestone Walker or other cask ale from a Southern California brewery.
-- Jenn Garbee