Through Cask-Conditioning, Andy Jones Brews A Subtler Version Of A Great IPA.

November 4, 2015. Bay View, Milwaukee.

The American Craft beer movement isn’t known for subtlety. Plenty of brewers make soft, complex, balanced beers, and plenty of people love drinking them, but American Craft Brewers (and drinkers), love beer that defies what’s been done before.

And I’m fine with that. Explore. Innovate. Push the boundaries of acceptable taste. I love learning to appreciate and understand new beers as much as anybody, but I also think subtlety is underrated. That’s why I loved Good City Brewing’s Cask-Conditioned Risk IPA.

Though IPAs are not known for understated flavors, Good City’s head brewer, Andy Jones, cask-conditioned this firkin of Risk IPA, a process which added a layer of delicate flavors to his already excellent beer.

As I sipped a snifter and chatted with Rob at the Sugar Maple, my many of my tasting notes compared Andy’s beer to Grand Marnier: there was a mellow orange flavor to it, and though the beer finished with a bracingly bitter minerality, it was almost creamy and soft.

Thankfully, Andy agreed to drop by and help explain just what was going on with this beer. Every so often, he explained, he likes to set a aside a barrel, often called a firkin, of beer and to cask-condition, a traditional English process of kegging beer that Andy likes because of the “depth of flavor” it adds to the beer.

While nearly all commercially available draught beer in the US is force carbonated and kegged, brewers who cask-condition their beer add fresh yeast and priming sugar directly to the keg. These beers, often referred to as “real ale” or “live beer”, are typically dry hopped, though Andy used orange peel in place of dry-hops. After carbonating, the beer is treated with isinglass, which causes any live yeast and hop matter to settle to the bottom of the firkin, a process called “dropping  bright.”

Traditionally, a cellarman or bar owner releases excess carbon dioxide from cask-conditioned beers. This process produces a more lightly-carbonated beer, which increases the perception of the beer’s body, and introduces oxygen to the beer, which results in some oxidative flavors.

As you might expect, this process creates the potential for flat, papery beer, which is why The Sugar Maple stopped serving cask-conditioned beers — except for Andy’s. Managing cask-conditioning is an art in itself. The amount of yeast added to the firkin or barrel, the amount of hops or spices added, the temperature the firkin is stored at, even the angle at which the firkin is kept, can all impact the flavor of the finished beer.

In fact, caring for cask-conditioned beers is so time consuming that it was traditionally not done by brewers, but by a cellarman, someone trained in the art. Done right, cask-conditioning produces all the flavors I was so struck by when tasting Andy’s beer: the softness of it, a creaminess, and some notes of sherry so delicate you could be forgiven for missing them.

These cask-conditioned flavors entwined with the orange peel that Andy steeped in the barrel to build a richer, more layered version of Risk IPA, effectively resulting in a subtly complex version of an IPA.

Cask-conditioning beer requires the kind of loving attention only a true craftsman could provide, but yields results well worth the extra effort and time. To my knowledge, Good City is the only brewery in the city that cask-conditions any beer, a practice they will continue, releasing a single barrel of cask-conditioned beer on the first Friday of every month.

I, for one, am excited to see what Andy’s brewing up for his December release. Hopefully I’ll see you there.

Cheers

— Nathan