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  • Writer's pictureCalgary Brewery Tour Guy

WHAT IS CASK ALE? Without Wood, There Would Be No Beer. The History of Wood in Brewing.

Updated: Mar 25

Have you ever scrolled through social media and come across a brewery's post featuring a picture of a small wooden keg, announcing a cask ale release event? If so, did you drop everything and head straight there, or did you scroll past, thinking that beer served from a small oak vessel didn’t quite appeal to you? After all, it's not Oktoberfest anymore, so what's with all the little wooden kegs?

As it turns out, cask ales are more than just brew served from a wooden vessel. They offer a unique and flavorful ex’beer’ience and play a significant role in the evolution and history of beer.

rows of Wood barrels for making beer

Evidence shows that when ‘beer’ was first brewed over 9,000 years ago, it was stored in clay pots. Then, around 300 BC, wooden barrels, developed by the Celts, became the chosen vessel for production and storage. For the next 2300 years, until Louis Pasteur's discovery around 1854 that alcohol was produced by yeast, brewers throughout millennia simply believed that if the beer they made was drinkable and did the job, it must have been due to either the quality of the barrel they were using or their chosen ingredients found whilst foraging. As it turns out, it was both. Their trial and error of using different materials, mixtures and random ingredients such as berries, fruits and plants would often lead to some very bad beer that made people sick, but sometimes, if everything was just right, it was perfect beer. 

As their experimentation with beer and its impact on people's health continued, brewers began to discover crucial factors of brewing, such as temperature control. If the weather was too warm, stored beer would spoil, but if the keg was kept in a cooler environment like a cave or cellar, the beer remained good. When that happened, they would simply repeat the recipe and techniques using the same lucky barrel that gave them such good beer the last time.

What wasn't known back then was the pivotal role that wood played in the brewing process. Wood, as it turns out, contains yeast. In fact, yeast can be found everywhere. It is in the air we breathe, on our skin, on fruit, on plants, and notably, within the wood itself—the material used in making barrels that brewers utilized thousands of years ago. This microscopic fungus thrives on consuming sugar, and as it does, it produces carbon dioxide (CO2, also known as 'beer gas') and ethanol.

pouring beer from a barrel

It's somewhat serendipitous that the use of wood by our ancestors led to the development of drinkable beer as we know it today. Beer stored in wooden barrels was naturally carbonated by the yeast found within the wood itself, as well as in its ingredients. Furthermore, this process resulted in the production of alcohol, a byproduct of the yeast's metabolic activity. Thus, the combination of wood and other ingredients that unknowingly contained yeast inadvertently contributed to the creation of beer with both carbonation and alcohol content, shaping the beverage into what it is today.

Indeed, once early brewers found a way to consistently produce drinkable beer, the natural inclination was to share it with friends and family. In communities where brewing was a household activity, the individual who brewed the best beer would often become a popular host, with visitors flocking to their house or farm for a drink. This informal socializing around beer laid the foundation for alehouses, which later evolved into taverns and pubs.

When beer was stored in wooden barrels, it had to be consumed relatively quickly before it spoiled. This necessity led to the development of smaller barrels, known as casks. By transferring the contents of a larger barrel into several smaller vessels, brewers could prolong the shelf life of the beer. This practice allowed for the beer to be opened and consumed in smaller batches, ensuring that it remained fresh for longer periods. As a result, casks became a practical solution for both storage and serving, contributing to the longevity of beer and the growth of communal drinking establishments.

a beer engine pouring beer
The Beer Engine- photo credit the Establishment Brewing Company in Calgary

In the UK, where beer drinking is considered a birthright, traditional beer storage involved keeping barrels and casks in the cellar of the pub to maintain a cool temperature and protect the beer from heat. Since the beer was unfiltered, it still contained yeast and would continue to ferment while in storage, naturally carbonating the beer. However, this also meant that bartenders had to descend into the cellar to fetch glasses of beer.

In 1787, Joseph Bramah invented the "Beer Engine," a simple hand pump and piston system that allowed bartenders to draw beer directly from the cellar, hence the term "up from downstairs." For centuries, this method of serving beer prevailed until it was nearly killed off by the invention and widespread use of metal kegs in the 1930s.

As beer evolved into a large commercial industry, a handful of breweries in the UK began to consolidate power by acquiring a significant number of pubs and taverns where they would sell only their own beer, effectively monopolizing the market and pushing many small brewers to the sidelines. Moreover, the widespread adoption of refrigeration further marginalized traditional methods of serving beer, including the use of beer engines for cask ales.

However, in 1971, four friends from England decided that the rich brewing traditions of the past should not be forgotten. They formed CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, with the aim of preserving and promoting traditional brewing methods. The term 'Real Ale,' which they coined, was meant to represent beers that were stored in cellars and fermented naturally in casks, as had been done for centuries in the UK.

beer barrels in a cellar

CAMRA's advocacy helped revive interest in cask-conditioned ales and sparked a renaissance in traditional brewing practices. Their efforts played a significant role in preserving the diversity and authenticity of British beer culture, ensuring that real ale remained a cherished part of the country's brewing heritage.

Nowadays, thanks to the resurgence led by CAMRA, cask ale, or real ale, is defined as a traditional style of beer that is typically unfiltered and unpasteurized. While brewing processes often involve modern metal breweries, the beer is then transferred into wooden vessels, where additional yeast and sugars may be added in a process known as 'secondary fermentation'. This secondary fermentation allows for natural carbonation to occur, creating a gentle fizz rather than the intense carbonation found in modern styles of beer.

Because cask ale is not refrigerated, and is served at slightly warmer temperatures compared to other beers, this allows for more nuanced flavors to emerge. Real ale is highly regarded by beer enthusiasts for its rarity, history, complex flavors, delicate carbonation, and the unique drinking experience it offers. Traditional styles of cask ale include bitter, mild, and stout, although many craft breweries experiment with various styles and flavors within the cask ale tradition and nothing is really off limits.

Real Ale and the beer engine, which has not changed much in design since 1797 can regularly be found at Calgary breweries Bottlescrew Bills and the Establishment. Be sure to ask about visiting these great venues for some real Ale on a Calgary Brewery Tour.


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Mar 25
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Cool. Thanks.

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