When it comes to wine in my household, call us elitist, myopic, inflexible (note to friends: okay, you can stop there). Why go perky Australian or Willamette when there’s La Belle France? Our holy trinity: Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Rhône. And beer? Sacrebleu! Swill for the babe-and-bubba set.
Well, I have been humbled. This column is penance, a paean to the noble and venerable craft of cask-conditioned beer. Granted, we’re not talking your frosty six-pack, but handcrafted, doubly fermented, unprocessed ales. If that’s still elitist, the irony is that cask beers traditionally were brewed for the pub-centric English masses.
Kegs came along in the 1950s as a means to keep beer from going stale (casks allow air penetration). But where cask beer is naturally fermented in the barrel and hand-pumped out, keg beer is held in tanks where it is artificially carbonated and filtered before being transferred to kegs and dispensed with forced-gas pressure. By the 1970s, with England’s cask-ale heritage in, well, the casket, traditionalists rallied for Real Ale. The original process was revived and is slowly trickling its way across the pond.
Scott Vaccaro is a fervent adherent. In 2006, after a cask-ale internship in England, he opened the Captain Lawrence Brewing Company in Pleasantville (99 Castleton St, 914-741-BEER), where he makes a cask version of each of his six signature beers, supplying Lazy Boy Saloon (154 Mamaroneck Ave, White Plains 914,761-0272) and the annual Blue Hill at Stone Barns (630 Bedford Rd, Pocantico Hills 914-366-9600) beer-and-sausage dinner. “Cask beers are part of the back-to-basics movement,” he says. “There’s a lot more flavor derived from traditional practices than the fast-paced ways of today.” The natural yeast carbonation of cask beers, he notes, makes for a softer, smoother brew, and the slow fermentation process affords complex flavors and aromas.
And then there’s that stickler: temperature. “In this country, mass-produced beer is drunk icy cold, which numbs flavor,” he says. (Do I detect a marketing ploy?) “At fifty degrees, cask beer isn’t warm; it’s refreshing, and its nuanced qualities can come out.” Yes, Vaccaro concedes, offering it is labor-intensive for a pub, requiring lengthy settling time, venting of excess gas, and temperature maintenance. And cask beer has to sell, since it degrades quickly. If Vaccaro has his way, though, that won’t be an issue. “People are now appreciating full-flavor beers,” he says. “Enough of the water.”
I’ll raise a Riedel, er, a stein, to that.