Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series on cask beers in the Albuquerque area, all in advance of the Cask Festival at Il Vicino on Saturday. The idea is to explain what cask beers are and how different brewers approach this sub-genre of craft brewing. Click here for our story on Turtle Mountain’s approach to cask, click here for Nexus’ views on the subject, and click here for Marble’s take.
With coffee cup in hand and a tired smile on his face, the ever-hard-working Jeff Erway met up with E-Rock and I, Stoutmeister, at La Cumbre on Wednesday afternoon. Jeff had been up brewing since 6 a.m., so if you ever wonder about the labor of love that goes into La Cumbre’s excellent beers, wonder no more. The last time I saw 6 a.m. I was probably still awake from the night before.
So while Jeff stuck with the coffee, E-Rock and I snagged pints of the Malpais Stout on cask. La Cumbre keeps one or two beers on cask at all times and has been pouring cask beers since it opened. Jeff had plenty to say on the subject of casks, because nothing gives a brewer a second wind quite like talking about beer. Either that, or he had some really strong coffee in that mug.
Stoutmeister: What is the La Cumbre approach to cask beers?
Jeff: We are anything but CAMERA certified. CAMERA, for those who don’t know, the Campaign for Real Ale. It started back in 1972, I believe. It really started to basically bring more to traditional cask-conditioning in England because all the young people were drinking golden lagers. But what it became was more of a consumer advocacy group that insisted on only the most traditional methods.
Basically a beer that is CAMERA certified, a cask-conditioned beer that’s CAMERA certified, has been carbonated without the use of any priming sugars. It absolutely has to have isinglass in it. For those of you who don’t know, isinglass is an extraction from the swim bladder of a tropical sturgeon and it smells like it.
It absolutely can never have any extraneous carbon dioxide put on the cask. It means that as the firkin empties the head space is replaced with oxygen. There’s absolutely zero pressure (and) there’s no way for carbon dioxide to stay in solution. On top of that, as the cask empties within literally hours a trained palate would be able to detect that it is oxidizing. Within a day just about anybody would notice the difference and after about three days it is completely unserveable. Nobody would want to drink it.
So unfortunately for the British that are trying to maintain this, it is really almost impossible to keep any selection on tap. So what we do at La Cumbre and what most places do in this country that are trying to serve cask-conditioned ale at all times is we keep a light Co2 blanket on top of the cask. The Malpais Stout was tapped three days ago. There’s still a head, there’s still carbon dioxide in the beer, and it doesn’t have any real carboard-y, band-aid-y, suflur-y kind of compounds as soon as you allow oxygen in the cask. We also do prime it with sugar, which is something that every brewer I know in this country does. They add sugar. Instead of using isinglass to clear the beer, we use the same priming agent that we use for our draft beers.
Stoutmeister: Just in terms of the reaction of your customers, do the casks sell well at this point or does it depend on the style?
Jeff: It depends on what’s on (cask) and it depends on the season. They obviously sell a lot better in winter time than in the summer. We don’t even attempt to keep much cask-conditioned beer around during the summertime. We know what’s going to happen.
As far as the reaction, we have probably ten customers that come in several times a week and that’s all they drink is cask-conditioned beer. We also have probably 30 regular customers that come in several times a week and they’ll have a couple pints every week. So they’ll go through it. The quickest a cask will blow out here is if we tap a cask of Double IPA on a Friday night it’s going to be gone that night. The stout usually sells out in three or four days. More obscure beer styles will take a week. It’s just a fact of serving casks in this country, every once in a while you’re going to throw away some beer, which sucks. It’s better to throw it away than serve it when it’s not in good condition.
Stoutmeister: Everybody approaches promoting their casks a little bit differently. Nexus just puts stuff on cask every day. Il Vicino’s always done Wednesdays and Saturdays. Marble does just Fridays —
Jeff: And Marble, because they only do it on Fridays, they’ll blow through at least one if not two casks on Friday nights.
Stoutmeister: Do you think it’s becoming a popular style or is there a lot of growth room left?
Jeff: The beer geek in me wants to say that yeah, there’s a lot of growth left. I’m just not sure at this point. We’ll keep serving as long as people keep drinking. It’s the kind of thing that can get people excited, especially when you do specialty ones. Even when I was still at Chama River for Marble’s Septemberfest I tried to do a special cask. It went well. It seemed like a good idea. Getting barley wine on cask is fun.
E-Rock: What special casks are you working on right now?
Jeff: We’ve got a cask back there aging that’s our barrel-aged Russian imperial stout and then we threw in a pound of coffee. That’s the kind of stuff you can’t do on draft. It’s just too expensive. Second of all, it’s too niche. If you do it every once in a while, it starts out with people being excited about it. That stuff’s kind of fun.
I just don’t think you’ll ever see breweries that only serve cask-conditioned beer. I just don’t see that happening. I don’t think the market’s wide enough for it. Even in its home country it’s very difficult to find high quality, cask-conditioned beer. I’ve been to England twice now and there are pubs that serve six to seven beers on cask. From a beer judge’s standpoint, six out of those seven beers were absolutely horrendous in the summertime because they’re sitting at 70 degrees, they’re sufury, and flat. Because of CAMERA, the public inn has to make money from the cask, but also wants to put the CAMERA sign in the window, but when you use CAMERA’s traditional methods you can’t make any money.
Stoutmeister: What do you think of the Cask Festival? A lot of the guys who just started doing cask feel like they’re educating people. They talked a lot about getting people past the temperature and lighter carbonation.
Jeff: I think temperature is a lot easier sell than the condition of the low level of Co2. I think it’s pretty easy if you give a stout drinker a stout on cask. You’re like ‘come on, try it.’ It’s pretty compelling especially when the cask is in really good condition. I can’t imagine a stout drinker trying that and saying it’s not what they want to drink. Though I will say in England, Guinness’ top seller is Guinness Extra Cold. I think the temperature thing is an easier sell than the level of Co2.
As far as the festival goes, I’ve organized three of these things. The first year we did it at Marble 300 people showed up. It was crazy, it was packed, wall-to-wall. It was great, it sold really well. The next year we had it at Marble I think 100 people showed up. Then we did it here and I think 125 people showed up, which is respectable. But at the end of the day we threw away a lot of beer. I think if we all had pins instead of firkins, it’d be a little better.
E-Rock: Do you guys use polypins?
Jeff: We just have firkins, we don’t use pins. But, it’ll be interesting to see (Saturday). Il Vicino has a unique clientele. We all have unique clienteles. Obviously Marble is doing an exceptional job of exposing young beer drinkers to good, quality craft beer. Even on a Friday night in here you don’t see more than 10 or 15 people under the age of 25. Whereas down at Marble you don’t see more than 10 or 15 people over the age of 30. Il Vicino is even a little older clientele and in general they’re a little more open to cask, maybe. I know Il Vicino does really well on cask nights. Maybe they can get a lot of people out.
They’ve got a lot of casks. They’ve got some interesting ones. We’re sending the first in our new IPA series, Project Dank. That should be really great, but we’ll see. People get really excited about the hopped-up stuff on cask. Personally I don’t like hops on cask. You give me a three-and-a-half-percent mild on cask it’s usually a recipe for success.
Stoutmeister: That’s interesting, because it seems like each brewer has a different perspective on what goes good in a cask. Mark at Turtle Mountain loves milds and bitters on cask. Manuel at Nexus likes a good stout on cask …
Jeff: So do I, yeah.
Stoutmeister: Then Josh at Marble, he prefers IPAs on cask.
Jeff: I don’t. The reason I don’t prefer IPAs on cask is that carbonation brings aromatics out of beer. The more carbonated a beer is the more the hops are going to jump out of the glass. Also, the carbonic acid interplays with the bitterness to enhance bitterness. In addition to that, cask-conditioned beer, because it’s going through a secondary fermentation inside the cask, will inherently have some fermentation compounds that can only be had inside the cask. Namely diacetyl and sulfur. Diacetyl being that butterscotch characteristic, sulfur being anywhere from a light whiff of sulfur springs to being downright eggy or even just garbage-y. That was honestly the biggest fault I saw in England during the month of June. Half the beers just reeked of sulfur. They actually call it the Burton Snatch there. You can get that in a dark beer, the butterscotch can actually be kind of pleasant. It can enhance the mouthfeel. But to me an IPA it just hides all the things that are great about an IPA. But IPAs are what sold last year. Go figure.
E-Rock: At this time of year how often do you have a new cask-conditioned ale on tap?
Jeff: We try to have two on as often as we can. We’re considering trying to do it through the summer. I’m not sure if I’m going to. It’s going to require some capital investment to do it during the summer because we’d basically need another big refrigerator. We’re talking like $2000, $2500. Let me be clear, we don’t make any money selling cask-conditioned beers. Between the beer we throw away and the investment in time, material, the investment in cleaning chemicals, I bet we barely break even on cask-conditioning. We do it because we know there’s people that really, really love it. We want to be the place for beer. When people want a good beer and a steak they think Chama River. When people want good beer and a pizza … they think Il Vicino. When people just think they want good beer, they think of us … hopefully.
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Once again, a big thanks to Jeff for taking time out of his busy day to talk with us. I always feel like my beer IQ went up 10-20 points after every conversation we have.
We look forward to trying Project Dank IPA and Red Red Rye on cask at the Cask Festival this Saturday. Tickets are still available online and at Il Vicino Canteen, so grab yours while you can.
The cask series will wrap up after we talk to the Il Vicino staff. Then comes the fun part, where we spend an afternoon drinking cask beer. Join us if you can!