CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It's been well over a month since I posted a blog entry proclaiming that Charleston took yet another bold step forward in its journey to become a better "beer city" when Pies & Pints Pizzeria, in downtown Charleston, had tapped and served the first cask-conditioned ale in this city in many years -- if ever.
Since then, Pies & Pints has tapped two additional casks and, according to Pie's Beer Czar Ryan Heastings, there is more to come.
The folks at Pies & Pints, and especially Ryan, have a close relationship with Bridge Brew Works of Fayetteville. Ryan has collaborated and guest-brewed some of his recipes on the 10-barrel brewing system, and the resulting beers are sold under the Bridge brewing label. Bridge Brew's Ken Linch and Nathan Herrold are always trying different things, and who better to experiment with on cask-conditioned ales than Ryan and the good folks at Pies & Pints?
Cask-conditioned ale is beer in its most natural state. The majority of beer for sale in bottles, cans and kegs is filtered to remove any remaining yeast cells, and then carbon dioxide is forced into the beer to give the beer its bubbly effervescence. The exceptions are the many of the specialty beers from around the world, typically in corked bottles.
The specific type of cask beer tradition we are talking about here hails from British tradition, where nonfiltered ale is put into the cask. It is conditioned (allowing the residual yeast to carbonate the beer), then it is tapped and served from the same cask. The beer is either dispensed by gravity or by use of a beer engine (hand pump).
In the case of Pies & Pints, they are serving the beer by gravity straight from the cask to your glass. Casks are often called firkins, designating a 9-gallon capacity, and these days are made of stainless steel, not the wooden barrels of yesteryear.
Cask-conditioned (or "real ale," according to the Brits) is carbonated to a lower level than most commercial beers and is less gassy. It tends to be cloudier because it's not filtered, which also preserves the very delicate bready malt and yeast flavors that can be stripped during filtration.
Real ale also carries the incorrect stigma of being served warm. It is best served at cellar temperature, which is around 50 to 55 degrees. The beer expresses its flavor much better in that temperature range.
Pies & Pints plans to feature cask tappings on specific Saturdays and sell the beer until it's gone. Ryan says the best way to find out when the next cask will be tapped is to "like" Pies & Pints on Facebook or look for announcements posted at the restaurant.
For more on the craft of beer, see Rich Ireland's "Beers to You" blog at thegazz.com.