Cask ale has never really been a thing in South Africa. I’m not sure it has any reputation at all, but if it does, it’s probably not a particularly positive one, sadly. But as our beer culture grows, cask ale is gradually beginning to trickle into our pint mugs. Here are a few things you need to know:
1. It’s not warm
As a Brit living in South Africa (OK fine, a Pom), I used to get riled up trying to explain to people that we don’t drink our beer warm. Cask ales should be consumed not at room temperature, nor “warm”, but at cellar temperature – the recommended range is 10-14 degrees Celsius. As a comparison, the suggested serving temperature for red wine is 15-18 degrees Celsius. So if I’m drinking warm beer, your wine is practically piping hot.
We drink pretty much all beer too cold in South Africa. When you chill something too much, you lose a great deal of the flavour and aroma, so take a look at this list of recommended temps and if you don’t have a dedicated beer fridge, try taking your beers out of the fridge 10 or 20 minutes before you plan to drink them. Of course, this doesn’t go for all styles or indeed all brands: remember, the warmer they are, the more you’ll taste…
2. It’s not flat
OK, so cask ales are less carbonated than many beers, but that does not mean that they’re flat. Naturally carbonated in much the same way that a bottle conditioned beer is, cask ales have a subtle, refined bubble that allows you to drink plenty of it. Cask is the ultimate session beer – less filling and in the UK at least, pretty low in alcohol. Unlike kegged beer, which is served with the help of a canister of CO2, cask ale relies either on gravity or a “beer engine” – the awesome hand-pulled device you no doubt associate with British pubs. The beer engine is essentially a pump, with the bartender manually drawing the beer from the cask, through the lines and into your glass.
3. It’s alive
As I said, cask ales are naturally carbonated. The unfiltered beer still contains some yeast. Once the beer is in the cask, a small amount of sugar is added and the two work together to create CO2 in the beer. Cask ales are of course, constantly changing and are best consumed within a day or two once the cask has been tapped. Knowing when to serve the beer takes practice, knowledge and plenty of care and love…
4. It’s an art
This historical way of carbonating, storing and serving beer is not easy to perfect. It takes a brewer who knows what they’re doing and most importantly of all, a publican (or bar owner) who understands cellarmanship. The cask needs to be allowed time to settle and time to condition. It must be vented at the right time, tapped timeously and of course, kept in the perfect conditions. When properly cared for, the lower carbonation and slightly elevated temperature work together to make for a richer, fuller-flavoured beer.
5. It will be celebrated at a festival this weekend
As I said, cask ale is yet to catch on in South Africa, but that is not to say you can’t taste it anywhere. Scavenger Brewery in KZN dabbles in cask ales, while the team at Afro Caribbean Brewing Co./Dissident Beer have hosted a number of cask evenings. The latest brewery to embrace cask is Shackleton Brewing Company, a recently launched microbrewery that is behind In the Shadow of Giants, South Africa’s first (I think) cask ale festival. It’s happening this Saturday , April 14th, in Newlands. The giants in question are of course SAB and AB InBev, whose Newlands Brewery overlooks the Springbok Pub – home to Shackleton and site of the festival.
You’ll be able to sample cask ales from Shackleton, Afro Caribbean, Dissident, Atlantic Storm, Metal Lane, Devil’s Peak, Swifty’s and Fuller’s and for some of the breweries it will be the first time they’ve cask-conditioned their brews. Taste cask versions alongside their more familiar kegged cousins, witness the proper way to pour using a beer engine, see a cask being tapped, ask the brewers the difference between a spile and a shive, and of course, do all the other stuff you usually do at a beer fest (unless that involves hanging out with your kids – it’s strictly over 18s only). Tickets are R80 in advance from WebTickets or R100 on the door, with the first 100 people through the door getting a branded beer mug.
Want to know more about cask ale? I enjoyed this article on Beer & Brewing Magazine.