CASK-CONDITIONED BEER ('REAL ALE')

TECHNICAL SET UP AND GUIDE
(TRADITIONAL STILLAGE AND BEER ENGINE)

This page might look daunting at first sight for someone unused to keeping cask ale, but most of it is just common sense which is easily picked up and remembered.
So, read on and discover the joys of real ale...

Equipment needed: Stillage space, mallet, spile pegs, clean tap, clean cloth or paper towels, antibacterial spray (NOT bleach), chocks, a clean glass. And most importantly a fresh cask of beer (and the ability to keep it cool, about 54F). Plus sanitiser/beer line cleaner if cleaning of taps or lines is needed (should be done every 7-10 days minimum). Also a good pair of gloves and some spare taps, shives, and keystones are handy.

INITIAL CASK MANAGEMENT

Follow the >>>arrowed>>> step numbers depending on the circumstances...

1. If freshly-delivered and not cool, leave the cask to cool down to around 54F. [>>>2]

2. When cool, roll the cask around a couple of times to redistribute the finings. [>>>3]

3. Place on the stillage at the intended place for serving, the shive pointing upwards. [>>>4]

4. Look at the shive and keystone for soiling.
[HEAVY SOIL >>>5, LIGHT OR NO SOIL >>>6]

5. Thoroughly clean the areas round the tut and the keystone. If you have spare shives and keystones, it may be preferable to change the soiled fittings for new ones (note: not recommended for beginners). Make sure there are no traces of cleaner left on the fittings. [>>>7]

6. Thoroughly wipe the area round the tut and also the keystone. [>>>7]

7. Gently drive the tut through the shive using a hard spile and mallet. See photo, above right... Look for any beer escaping.
[NONE/LITTLE >>>8, LOTS OF GUSHING >>>9]

8. Wedge the spile in the hole so it is air-tight (but not so hard that it is jammed fast). [>>>10]

9. Put a soft spile in the hole and leave the cask to breathe for the time being. [>>>16]

10. Drive a tap through the keystone until it holds in place on its own. See photo, below right... [>>>11]

11. Loosen the hard spile, take a small sample from the tap. Look for the amount of natural condition present.
[LITTLE CONDITION >>>12, LOTS OF CONDITION/EXCESSIVE FOBBING >>>13]

12. Replace the hard spile tight in the shive, tilt the cask to serving position, and then leave the cask for the time being. [>>>14]

13. Remove the hard spile completely and insert a soft spile, then leave the cask for the time being. [>>>15]

SUBSEQUENT CASK MANAGEMENT LATER ON

14. Loosen the hard spile. [>>>15]

15. Take a small sample from the tap. Look for the amount of natural condition present. [LITTLE/PERFECT CONDITION >>>17, LOTS OF CONDITION/EXCESSIVE FOBBING >>>18]

16. Loosen the soft spile and look for beer escaping [NONE/LITTLE >>>10, LOTS OF GUSHING >>>9]

17. Insert a hard spile tight in the shive, tilt to serving position if not done already, and then leave the cask for the time being. [>>>20]

18. Leave the soft spile inserted, then leave the cask for the time being. [>>>19]

19. Repeat step 15 at regular intervals until the conditioning of the beer is at optimum levels and step 17 is reached. [>>>20]

WHEN A CASK IS READY TO BE ATTACHED TO A BEER ENGINE

20. Check clarity if fined and also taste for depth of flavour. Take a small sample from the tap after loosening the hard spile.
[CLEAR >>>22, CLOUDY/HAZY (FINED U.K. BEER) >>>21, CLOUDY/HAZY (UNFINED) >>>22]

21. Beer has not dropped bright properly, replace the hard spile tightly and leave it more time to clear. [>>>20]

22. Attach tap to the nut and tail of the clean beer line. Tip: Using a hop filter as a washer can help to prevent small leaks in the connection. Screw up tight but not overtight, then open the tap. Look for leaks. Attach a cask breather if you use one. Pull the beer through the beer engine until it is freely flowing. Doublecheck the clarity in the glass, affix an appropriate pumpclip to the handle, and start dispensing real ale once it has been judged in good condition. [>>>ENJOY!]

IMPORTANT: AT THE END OF A SESSION/OVERNIGHT, REPLACE THE HARD SPILE TIGHTLY IN THE SHIVE UNLESS USING A CASK BREATHER OR RACE SPILE. LOOSEN THE SPILE AGAIN BEFORE THE CASK IS REINSTATED TO USE.

OTHER NOTES
Sanitise taps, beer lines, etc. every 7 days or so, never longer than 10 days. I use C-Brite powder. Never use bleach. To sanitise a beer line, disconnect it from the cask and pull off any beer inside. Wear protective gloves if at all possible. Put the tail of the line in a bucket of fresh water, pull some through via the beer engine into another bucket. Make a sanitising solution in the first bucket according to manufacturer's instruction (never more than stated or for too long). Pull some of the solution through very carefully to avoid splashes, leave most of the solution in the bucket. Wait 5 or 10 minutes, pull some more through (about 6-8 pulls). Wait another 5 or 10 minutes, repeat for however long the instructions say to soak the line for. After that time, pull the rest of it through carefully, rinse the first bucket copiously with clean water and fill with same. Pull all the water through carefully to flush the line. Repeat with another bucket full as necessary if any trace of sanitiser may be left. Rinse the second bucket well. Reconnect the line to the tapped cask and pull through beer.

When casks are totally empty, take down from the stillage and pull out the tap for cleaning. It is courteous to plug the open keystone with a bung or anything to prevent insects breeding inside. Use an old spile to seal the shive. Return the empty to where it came from.

Cleanliness is vitally important in beer cellars and cooling boxes. Mop up any spillages and splashes as soon as they appear. Take precautions against insects, especially fruit flies, mosquitoes, etc. which are attracted by beer cellars and propagate rapidly. Also take precautions against mould and fungus. Keep spare taps and spile pegs away from where they can get dirty. Respect sanitiser and beer line cleaner, it is highly dangerous - keep in a secure place and never in an unmarked container. Keep the floor clean and tidy without unnecessary obstacles.

Tilt casks gently while full by raising the rear and inserting a chock in order to minimise wastage. If unable to tilt before use, tilt as soon as possible while there is plenty of beer left. It is very unwise to tilt a cask which is largely empty as you risk making the beer cloudy and yeasty. Make sure tilted casks are stable and chocked at the sides.

Always use older casks first, unless they are barleywines etc. put aside for deliberate aging.

Never leave full casks out in extreme temperature conditions for any longer than is necessary.

Casks stored too cold may have clarity issues, known as a 'chill haze'.



A traditional clamp-on single beer engine in use at The Brazen Head, Brooklyn, New York City.


Also in New York City is this gravity-dispense cask festival set up at David Copperfield's where the bar top is converted to a temporary beer cellar with air cooling behind.


Lines of firkins of cask-conditioned ales on gravity dispense at Glastonwick 2007.
They were cooled with saddles attached to a remote cooler and insulated with cask jackets.


TROUBLESHOOTING

BEER IS FLAT AND/OR TASTES OF WET CARDBOARD
End of the cask.
Poor cellarmanship with venting procedures.
Cask was not air-tight around the shive or keystone.
Beer is oxidised/been on too long.
Beer is or was stored too cold.

BEER IS FLAT IN APPEARANCE BUT TASTES FINE
Too slow a pumping action.
Glass is tainted with traces of detergent.
It is a wheat beer that has had lemon added, which kills the head.
It is an aged beer where the yeast has become largely inactive.
Beer is or was stored too cold.

BEER FOBS BADLY ON DISPENSE
Poor cellarmanship - insufficient venting/conditioning.
Beer line is dirty with yeast build-up.
Beer line or connection is letting in air.
The level of the beer in the cask is below the top of the tap, so the beer engine sucks in air.
Beer line is constricted or has a blockage.
Beer engine is being pumped too hastily.
A hard spile has been left tight in the shive.
There is a sparkler on the nozzle that is too tight or blocked.
The beer is too warm.

BEER IS CLOUDY WHEN IT SHOULD BE CLEAR
Beer is oxidised/been on too long.
Beer line and/or tap is dirty with yeast build-up.
Cask has been disturbed.
End of the cask.
Cask has been moved too many times.
Beer is infected.
Beer is under- or over-fined.
Beer is unfined in error.
Cask has been kept or transported in excess heat resulting in 'tired finings'.
Cask has been kept too cold resulting in a 'chill haze'.
Beer has been excessively dry-hopped.
Cask has been over-tilted.
Finings are defective or old.
The cask was the last to be filled from the fermenter so has too much yeast.
Yeast has been settling on the tap. Cure - Draw some beer off.
Yeast in the beer is layering or it has a 'fluffy bottom'.

BEER IS CLOUDY FROM THE PUMP BUT WAS PREVIOUSLY CLEAR FROM THE CASK
Beer line is dirty with yeast build-up.
Cask has been disturbed.
End of the cask.
Yeast in the beer is layering or it has a 'fluffy bottom'.

BEER TASTES OR HAS HINTS OF VINEGAR
Beer is oxidised/been on too long.

BEER HAS OFF-TASTES (NOT VINEGAR)
Beer is infected or stale.
Beer line hasn't been cleaned from another cask.
Beer line hasn't been rinsed properly after sanitising.

NO BEER FLOWS WHEN THE HANDLE IS PUMPED (VACUUM FELT)
Tap is in the off position.
Hard spile peg is wedged in tightly.
Beer line is kinked or blocked.

NO BEER FLOWS WHEN THE HANDLE IS PUMPED (NO VACUUM FELT)
Cask is empty.
Beer engine is defective.
Beer line is letting in air.
The tap has come out of the cask or is not connected to the line.

A SOFT-SPILED CASK DOESN'T SEEM TO BE CONDITIONING
Tut still in place.
Shive hole blocked by dry hops and/or yeast.
Pores of soft spile blocked by dry hops and/or yeast.

INABILITY TO DRIVE A TAP THROUGH A WOODEN KEYSTONE
Keystone is defective, not drilled through properly.

INABILITY TO TURN TAP ON
Tap components have been screwed together too tightly. Cure - Loosen tap parts gently.
Sticky or damaged tap. Cure - Insert a tight hard spile in the shive and then replace with a clean one.

LEAKING TAP
Tap is damaged. Cure - as above.
Tap components are not tight enough.
Tap has been dismantled and reassembled using parts from another tap which may not be compatible.
There's a poor seal between the tap and nut-and-tail. Cure - insert a washer or hop filter.
The lip of the tap is cracked or chipped.
The thread of the tap and/or nut is worn.

[GLOSSARY OF TERMS]


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© Alex Hall, 2007.