What is cask ale? Find out at these 3 Charlotte spots

With the thwack of a mallet and an occasional spray of beer, tapping a cask can be quite a spectacle.

It’s not one we witness often on this side of the pond, but in England it’s standard practice. Rather than using carbon dioxide to force carbonate a beer, many publicans there serve beers that have been naturally carbonated in casks (sometimes referred to as firkins) via a small dose of sugar or yeast. 

This yields a pint that is much less carbonated and also not as cold as those to which most Americans are accustomed, which explains why we don’t see them as often here in the states. That hasn’t stopped many American breweries and bars from continuing the tradition, though, including a few here in Charlotte.

“It’s how it used to be done,” said Kit Burkholder, founder of Trackside Crafts in Pineville. “You get full flavor — it’s not overly cold. It’s just a great way of drinking beer.”

Beer Engine at Trackside Crafts

Behind Trackside Craft’s 24 taps is a tap handle connected to a beer engine, a device used to pull beer directly from a cask. Burkholder’s own passion for cask-conditioned beers comes from an encounter he had many years ago drinking Bell’s Best Brown Ale from a firkin with a friend.

It was an eye-opening experience, and one that he’s now trying to share with others. He takes pride in educating his patrons before pulling them a pint. The reactions have been mostly positive, but Burkholder estimates that around 25 percent of people don’t find the beer cooled or carbonated to their liking.

Growlers Pourhouse Beer Engine

Jeff Tonidandel, the owner of Growlers Pourhouse, sometimes gets the same reaction when pulling pints off of the bar’s rebuilt 1937 Gaskill & Chambers beer engine. But he also has people who come in solely for the cask beers.

“There are groups of people that come in just for that,” said Tonidandel. “I think even new beer drinkers usually find it’s a pretty cool experience. People can really get into the nuances.”

Having the beer engine built into the front of the bar allows Growlers Pourhouse to maintain dedicated space to casks, of which the bar could have as many as three at any given time. The bar frequently has on its “house cask,” a collaboration with Maryland’s Heavy Seas Beer. The brewery, which has the largest cask program in the United States, fills the cask with its pale ale then adds in dry hops and red oak spirals.

Another thing that distinguishes the program at Growlers Pourhouse is that the bar has its own inventory of casks. As a result, they will often send their casks out to breweries near (like NoDa Brewing) or far (like Stone Brewing) for a special treatment that is sent back to them with their regular order of kegs.

Thirsty Nomad Cask

Thirsty Nomad Brewing has a beer engine of its own as well, though founder Brad Ledbetter is quick to note it might not meet the technical definition of a cask ale since the beers are served from kegs with a hand pump without being conditioned in them. But the effect is much the same, he said, with a beer that is warmer and with less carbonation.

Like Burkholder and Tonidandel, Ledbetter notes that many patrons (save for homebrewers or British expats) are unfamiliar with cask ales but have come to really appreciate them. And, perhaps not surprisingly, many of the brewery’s British styles are some of the most well received, including Sweeney, a London porter.

The program at Growlers Pourhouse initially focused on English pale ales, but lately has started to feature everything from imperial brown ales to sours and aged beers. Burkholder, too, likes to focus on British styles — including those from Fortnight Brewing in Cary — but frequently rotates in casks with a more “American” approach. A recent highlight was a cask of Mother Earth Brewing’s Sisters of the Moon IPA that was infused with peaches, mangoes and whole-leaf Citra hops.

On Thursday, March 9, he will tap a cask of Starr Hill Brewery’s Reviver Red IPA with mangoes and habanero peppers, and for St. Patrick’s Day he will tap a keg of Bell’s Special Double Cream Stout.

Want to try a wide variety of cask ales in a single spot? On April 8, Duckworth’s Grill and Taphouse on Park Road will hold its seventh-annual cask festival. Look for more details and a link to tickets on the Charlotte Craft Beer Week site soon.

Photos: Trackside Crafts, Growlers Pourhouse, Thirsty Nomad Brewing

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