Cask ales — those left to mature in firkins — “are unlikely ever to gain more than a sliver of the market,” because making, handling and serving them requires great care, reports Eric Asimov in The New York Times (10/24/07). Unlike most draft beers, firkin beers are not “injected with carbon dioxide, filtered … Pasteurized, stored in pressurized kegs and served through gas-powered taps.” Instead, a firkin beer is unpasteurized, unfiltered, and “naturally carbonated, or conditioned, in its cask by yeast transforming sugar into alcohol with a side of fizzy carbon dioxide trapped in the cask.”
Serving the beer also requires great care, involving a kind of pulling, pumping action, “in a rhythmic repetition like a farmhand at a well.” It’s also served cool but not cold, ideally at about 55F degrees. All of that special care puts firkin beers outside the realm of corporate brewers, although makers include Sierra Nevada, which produces Best Bitter, served at pubs including Ginger Man in Manhattan. Serving the firkin beer also tries the patience of some barkeeps, and in turn tests the good nature of their suppliers. “I’ve literally had to go into places and say, ‘That’s it, you can’t have our beer,” says Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery.
“It’s a very touchy thing,” says Garret, adding: “The galling thing is it doesn’t take that much time.” Some drinkers don’t seem to know what to make of a beer that’s naturally carbonated and served at “cellar temperature,” either. They think it tastes warm and flat. But interest in firkin beer is growing especially in New York. “It’s been a dramatic increase,” says Robert Hodson, a distributor. “In 2005 we serviced 12 accounts, and in 2007 its up to 39.” Brooklyn is “cask beer central,” at pubs such as Spuyten Duyvil, Barcade and Brazen Head, which is holding a cask beer fest November 2-4, featuring 25 casks. ~ Tim Manners, editor