What’s Real Ale? We cAsked Expert Steven Marsh

By Andy Sparhawk

All real ale is warm, flat and cloudy, or at least that has been the American sentiment of cask beer in the past. By contrast, one could make a similar dismissal of all American beers as yellow, fizzy and flavorless, right?

Obviously neither of these statements are true. Today craft brewers in the U.S. make more styles and flavors of beer than anywhere else in the world, and are successfully reinventing the idea of American beer. Cask-conditioned beer, too, has been the victim of preconception and stereotype, but many craft brewers are beginning to show beer lovers that cask beer is anything but flat.

With more than 600 casks, Heavy Seas Beer in Baltimore, Md., may be one of the most ardent supporters of cask beer. The brewery even has a resident Captain of Firkins, Steven Marsh, who hand prepares and commands the Heavy Seas’ armada of casks. CraftBeer.com asked him to explain real ale for the beer beginner and elaborate on the cask program at Heavy Seas.

Steven Marsh: Heavy Seas’ Captain of Firkins

Steven Marsh

I am a third generation homebrewer. I’ve been hooked on beer design and culture since before I can even remember. I recall as a little boy, my dad, the biochemist, buying beer kits from Boots Pharmacy on one of our regular trips to visit family in England. He would fill a green trash can in the back corner of our basement with his creations. I remember how clean and careful he was and the beer was pretty good: real ale—unfiltered, primed and bottled in champagne bottles.

[Like homebrewing], gardening is another passion that my father passed to me. Most of my work history has involved fresh produce. I started in the Jessup Produce Market working 12-hour days making sure the fresh veggies were delivered to local Baltimore restaurants. A move from wholesale to retail put me in charge of a large produce, salad and floral section at a local food chain. I am not scared to say I can make one hell of a floral arrangement. This passion for everything fresh, clean and aesthetically pleasing has been incorporated into my homebrewing and casking techniques.

In the early 80s, I was introduced to Mr. Hugh Sisson, founder of Heavy Seas Beer, again through my father. He was a large influence on my developing beerhood. It turned out that for years my father had been bringing fellow researchers from all over the world to Sisson’s brewpub. They would toss back a few pints of the local real ale and discuss beer with the man who really started it all in Maryland for microbreweries.

Seven years ago, I had just graduated from the University of Maryland Baltimore County with a BS in Environmental Science and had been working part-time at Heavy Seas (formally Clipper City Brewery) for over a year. I was still very involved in homebrewing and the real ale concept (unfiltered beer, dry hopped and kraeusened).

With photo help from Tom Cizauskas, I created a protocol for cleaning and filling casks, a “Real Ale Program.” Six years later this program is like a fobbing cask, bringing lots of excitement and experimentation to the Heavy Seas portfolio. Fans are so excited with real ale that Heavy Seas Beer now owns approximately 600 casks—and each one my baby.

Cask Beer – What is it?

Cask ale is draft or bottled beer brewed from traditional ingredients, matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed. I call it live or real ale because the beer has finished primary fermentation but is racked (transferred) unfiltered (there is still live yeast in suspension), and a certain amount of actively fermenting, sugary wort, or kraeusen is added.

To the beer lover, the finished product of cask ale creates a smooth natural carbonation instead of the bite of forced CO2 draft and bottled products. [The Draguht Beer Quality Manual by the Brewers Association notes the result of these beers is a beer with different presentation, flavor, and aroma, wholly unique from the same beer filtered, force carbonated, and dispensed with CO2 or mixed gas top pressure.]

Traditionally cask ale has always been served slightly warmer with little to no carbonation. We have noticed over the past few years, that serving cask beer a little colder and conditioning the cask for the “perfect head” is more appealing for our customers; slight modifications to traditional ways. In 2006 we filled and sold 50 casks. This year we will exceed 1,200.


Taking Care of the ‘Kids’ aka the Heavy Seas Real Ale Program

Heavy Seas owns approximately 600 stainless, 10.8-gallon firkins, 14 5.4-gallon Pins, six wooden casks, (acquired from a cooper in England) and five modified Barrel Mill white oak casks. In the beginning of 2012, I was filling approximately 25 10.8-gallon stainless firkins per week, 100 per month. But in the past three months it has been closer to 150 per month…out the door.

The cask cleaning process is time consuming. I hand soak all the casks for 10 minutes. Basically each gets a thorough cleaning, which includes an 80°C (176°F) water with caustic cleaner soak, a thorough rinse with clean water and finally each is sterilized with very hot water for 20 minutes before filling. I know this sounds redundant but I have not had a bad cask- filling out of approximately 3,000 casks in six years.

Most of the time is spent cleaning and preparing to fill. I can prepare 8-10 casks per hour: cleaned, filled and primed. And I am also involved in all the processes of caring for all my children (I often refer to my casks as my children) until they are ready to be transported to their new home.


Basically a secondary fermentation, conditioning is difficult both in the winter and summer. It is either too hot or too cold in the warehouse. In the winter, I store the casks up high on racks in the brewery, utilizing heat from the brewing process. I also add more kraeusen in the winter and roll them around before shipping. In the summer less kraeusen and less time to prime, anywhere from 7-10 days under normal circumstances. A priming temperature of 65° – 75°F is ideal. After the added yeast and sugar have been given the time to naturally carbonate the beer, I usually move the cask to cold storage.

Many brewers add additions to their cask beers in the form of fruit, chocolate or spices. I mostly stick with hop additions and usually hops used in the brewing of that specific style. I want the beer to have a flavor profile that is close to the draft and bottle, but is perceptibly different, unfiltered and still alive.

I see cask conditioned ale as a tool that helps to promote our brand. Over the past four years I have developed an ongoing relationship with five local hop farmers. This year Heavy Seas purchased over 200 pounds of local Maryland-grown Cascade, which we process and package here at the brewery. These hops will be used exclusively to dry hop our casks of Loose Cannon, Winter Storm, Powder Monkey Pale Ale and other Heavy Seas favorites.

No finings! I do not add dead stuff to live beer.

Serving Cask Beer

As cask beer is still alive, it should be consumed as fresh as possible. We have designed what we refer to as caskerator, here at the brewery. This portable device is basically a kegerator that has a beer engine mounted on top with a cask widge dispensing system. The Cask Widge is an upright dispense system that has a flexible pipe with a floating filter attached that draws the beer from near the top of the cask.

We have modified this system to work in tandem with a cask breather, which allows about 2 PSI of C02 to replace the surrounding air that would normally be introduced by the hand pump action. With this system, we keep the beer at an optimal temperature, undisturbed and fresh for up to 10 days. We suggest this option to accounts who want to serve cask ale but are concerned with potential profit loss from not being able to sell 10.8 gallons within 24 hours.

Despite the lack of preservatives that make cask beer more perishable than force carbonated offerings, I have been surprised at the stability and longevity of our cask ales. The higher ABV beers can last years if you are diligent with your cleaning protocol and storage. I recommend drinking hoppy beers and lighter styles within a month of racking. It usually takes at least one to two months before oxidation impacts hop additions and the second fermentation in the cask potentially uses up any oxygen introduced during filling. I was recently able to serve our 10 percent ABV Below Decks Barleywine from 2010—that was incredible!

I have also had great success with our wood cask program. Some of our wooden cooperage have aged beer for more than six months and have been refilled over 20 times. Our goal at Heavy Seas is to have the customer drink the beer as fresh as possible. I have discovered in the past couple of years that fewer people are looking for the traditional lower ABV session cask, instead they want a higher alcohol beer. These higher ABV beers mature well in a cask, offering nuances that you would not normally have a chance to taste in a lower alcohol, shorter shelf life beer.

Seek it out

Everyone should have the opportunity to try cask-conditioned ale. It is our obligation, as distributors, brewers and fans of real ale, to educate the retailer and to generate enthusiasm amongst craft beer drinkers for this purest form of beer. This should include information about how to serve a firkin professionally, with all the pomp and circumstance each one deserves.

Creating and producing real ale is just a part of the attraction for me. It is also being part of something grand, and believing in yourself and the product. Meeting great people, while drinking a cask-conditioned Loose Cannon that has been dry hopped with local Cascade hops: that clinches the deal.

Andy Sparhawk, the Brewers Association's craft beer program coordinator, is a Certified Cicerone® and BJCP Beer Judge. He lives in Arvada, Colorado where he is a homebrewer and avid craft beer enthusiast. On occasion, Andy is inspired to write on his experiences with craft beer, and if they are not too ridiculous, you might see the results here on CraftBeer.com.

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