Beer snobs flock to these local spots for 'real' ale
It's the last Monday of the month at North by Northwest Restaurant & Brewery. At first glance, it appears to be just another weeknight happy hour in the bar.
But pay close attention, and you'll notice something's a little off. As 7pm approaches, the crowd gets just a little larger. Some of the patrons seem distracted, maybe a little agitated. They keep glancing toward the bar, where something resembling a small keg or a barrel is mounted, lying on its side. There is anticipation in their eyes.
Finally, NXNW head brewer Ty Phelps appears with a mallet, bangs a type of spigot into the barrel, and the tension is relieved. People start placing orders for something called "the cask."
Welcome to the secret society, the world of cask-conditioned beer – or as the most fervent proponents refer to it, "real" ale. (Not to be confused with Blanco's Real Ale Brewing Co., although it does produce some cask ales.)
Cask-conditioned ale is still something of a rarity here in Austin, but its fan club is growing. A hardcore group of beer geeks hunts for it around town, and it's increasingly easy to find at the best beer bars in town. For me, the last Mondays at NXNW have long been a ritual, and lately, I'm also finding myself at the Draught House Pub's Firkin Fridays on a regular basis. Uncle Billy's Brew & Que offers one up on first Tuesdays, Zax Pints & Plates features casks on special occasions, and the Flying Saucer and the Ginger Man have at least one regularly.
The "real ale" phrase isn't just pure beer snobbery – cask-conditioned ales take beer back to its roots, before the superfizzy, highly carbonated product we know today. "Cask-conditioned" means beer that's unfiltered, unpasteurized, and which reaches its full maturation (including a secondary fermentation) inside a cask – also known as a firkin. The maturation includes a natural carbonation – so when properly served, it is poured directly from the cask with no additional carbon dioxide pressure pumped in.
The result is a smoother, and often more flavorful, drinking experience than what normally comes from a bottle or standard keg. The fizz is lighter, and it is generally served cool, rather than the ice-cold Texas norm, so the taste buds aren't numbed.
"It's naturally carbonated in the keg, so the carbonation tends to be a little bit softer," says Draught House brewer Josh Wilson, describing what makes cask beers special – and worth hunting down. "The head tends to have a tighter bubble to it. It's creamier. Often it's dry-hopped, so for us the most popular casks have been IPAs. It's a live beer that's dosed with yeast – that's what causes the natural carbonation, the yeast in the [cask]. It's usually got a very fresh, soft, full, flavorful, natural taste to it."
Another benefit, due to the single-barrel nature, is that they "provide an opportunity to do a small, one-off, kind of special recipe that we may not be able to do in an entire big tank of beer," says NXNW's Phelps. "So if I want to do something that's just over-the-top hoppy, or perhaps flavored, something like that, it gives me the opportunity to experiment and get some more creative and sometimes extreme styles."
Even the throwback way cask beer is poured is different: Since CO2 tanks aren't forcing the beer out the tap, other methods must be used. If the cask is mounted on the bar, the aforementioned spigot is plugged in, and then good old-fashioned gravity delivers brew into the glass. Alternately, the bars that keep a cask available at all times use a hand pump known as a beer engine to force the beer up and out from their keg rooms.
Be warned: If you've never tried cask ale, it could catch you off guard. The first time I tried one, not knowing what I was getting into, I complained that my beer was flat. But after trying more – especially on a trip to London, where casks are the norm – I acquired a taste for the different mouthfeel and grew to love it.
"It shouldn't be flat," says Brian Peters, head brewer at Uncle Billy's Brew & Que, which features a cask the first Monday of every month. "But it will be about one-half to two-thirds as carbonated" as what you may be used to. Ultimately, you may find that it allows the flavors a fuller expression.
"The final product is just hard to argue with," says Peters. "It's just magical how much better it turns out, most of the time, than the same beer on tap that's been force-carbonated and put into a serving tank."
Where to find cask-brewed ales
Draught House Pub 4112 Medical, 452-6258, www.draughthouse.com
Uncle Billy's Brew & Que 1530 Barton Springs Rd., 476-0100, www.unclebillysaustin.com
Zax Pints & Plates 312 Barton Springs Rd., 481-0100, www.zaxaustin.com
Flying Saucer Draught Emporium 815 W. 47th, 454-7468, www.beerknurd.com
The Ginger Man 301 Lavaca, 473-8801, www.gingermanpub.com
North by Northwest Restaurant & Brewery 10010 Capital of TX Hwy. N., 231-8157, www.nxnwbrew.com