Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine - - Front Page - By Dave Car­pen­ter


What is a firkin? What is real ale? And, for the love of all things good and holy, what on earth is ul­lage? Dis­cover the an­swers to th­ese ques­tions and more as we ex­plore the nat­u­rally car­bon­ated world of cask-con­di­tioned ale.


easy to please. It is the most ex­tra­or­di­nary thing. They ac­tu­ally like their plea­sures small.” —Bill Bryson in Notes from a Small Is­land

Whether served di­rectly from the cask or via an el­e­gant swan-necked beer en­gine, a bril­liantly clear pint of sparkling cask-con­di­tioned beer is one of the sim­plest, most com­fort­ing plea­sures an ale afi­cionado will ever know. When treated with care and rev­er­ence, so-called real ale eas­ily ranks among the world’s finest ex­pres­sions of malt, hops, wa­ter, and yeast. Mistreated cask ale, how­ever, sim­ply re­in­forces the mis­con­cep­tion that Bri­tish beer is warm and flat.


The United King­dom’s Cam­paign for Real Ale (CAMRA) of­fers as con­cise a def­i­ni­tion of cask-con­di­tioned—or “real”—ale as one could hope for:

Real ale is a beer brewed from tra­di­tional in­gre­di­ents (malted bar­ley, hops, wa­ter and yeast), ma­tured by sec­ondary fer­men­ta­tion in the con­tainer from which it is dis­pensed, and served with­out the use of ex­tra­ne­ous car­bon diox­ide. Real ale is also known as “cask-con­di­tioned beer,” “real cask ale,” “real beer,” and “nat­u­rally con­di­tioned beer.”

If you brew and bot­tle con­di­tion your beer, you’re al­ready drink­ing real ale. That yeast sed­i­ment at the bot­tom of the bot­tle is liv­ing proof. The term “cask con­di­tioned,” how­ever, is re­served for draft beer dis­pensed from a cask, of­ten man­i­fest as a firkin.

In North Amer­i­can craft-beer cul­ture, a firkin usu­ally means a stain­less-steel cask of beer that is served at room tem­per­a­ture and grav­ity dis­pensed. How­ever, the word it­self doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily im­ply ei­ther of th­ese. A firkin is sim­ply a unit of mea­sure­ment de­rived from the Mid­dle English fer­d­kyn, it­self from the Mid­dle Dutch veerdelk­ijn, roughly mean­ing “a cute lit­tle quar­ter” of some­thing. A cute lit­tle quar­ter of what? In the case of beer, a cute lit­tle quar­ter of a bar­rel. To­day, a firkin is uni­ver­sally un­der­stood to mean 9 im­pe­rial gal­lons, which is 10.8 U.S. gal­lons, or 40.91 liters.

There’s noth­ing that says that serv­ing a firkin of beer has to mean grav­ity dis­pense, room tem­per­a­ture, dry hops, vanilla beans, ba­nana peels, or any of the other trap­pings that have come to be im­plic­itly as­so­ci­ated with the term on the western side of the At­lantic. In fact, some­times you’ll run across an Amer­i­can brew­ery that ad­ver­tises “firkin beer” dis­pensed from a pin, which is ac­tu­ally half a firkin (4.5 im­pe­rial gal­lons, 5.4 U.S. gal­lons, 20.5 liters). For our pur­poses, we can as­sume that a firkin refers to a stain­less-steel cask with a vol­ume of 9 im­pe­rial gal­lons.

The Cask

To re­fer to a ves­sel as a cask im­plies a cer­tain woodsy, ro­man­tic rus­tic­ity, but most casks to­day are made from high-qual­ity stain­less steel, not wooden staves. Your typ­i­cal cask has a more rounded, cur­va­ceous, bar­rel-shaped sil­hou­ette than the stan­dard Sankey keg. Two holes in the cask per­mit ac­cess. The bung hole, which is lo­cated along the cir­cum­fer­ence at the cask’s fat­test point, is the ori­fice into which fresh beer is racked be­fore be­ing sealed with a shive, a stop­per made of wood or plas­tic. One of the two flat ends (heads) of the cask also fea­tures an open­ing that is sealed with a smaller stop­per known as a key­stone.

Fresh beer is racked into the cask along with a small amount of prim­ing sugar, which is what the yeast cells in the un­fil­tered beer feed upon to cre­ate the car­bon diox­ide that will car­bon­ate the beer dur­ing con­di­tion­ing. In some cases, dry hops are added to fur­ther en­hance the aroma of the fin­ished ale. The shive and key­stone are placed at the brew­ery be­fore the cask is de­liv­ered to its des­ti­na­tion pub.

Once at the pub, the cask is stil­laged (stored hor­i­zon­tally in a slightly in­clined

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