AMERICAN CASK BEER FESTIVALS:
MY STORY - AND YOUR D.I.Y. GUIDE

In conjunction with a variety of beer bars and the odd brewpub, for several years now I have been putting on cask beer festivals of varying sizes in New York City and beyond. The individual aspects of cask events have successful formulas as commonly employed for festivals in Britain, as conceived by CAMRA.

This article is about how and why, and where the origins lie.
It's about how I do it successfully, and the formulas and etiquette involved.
It's about how you too can do it successfully...

This article is my contribution jointly to:
       

INCEPTION & HISTORY

When I first moved from England to New York in 1999, I found cask-conditioned beer to be scarce. Only a handful of pioneering beer bars sold it, and then it was usually the same few beers from the same few breweries doing the rounds. Unsurprisingly, there were no cask festivals locally back then, although enterprising beer lovers in Boston (CASC) and Chicago (The Chicago Beer Society) had already begun to, using what few casks were already out in the field, bring the magic of the cask festival to the U.S. public once a year.

Cask festivals can come in all sizes, and the early pioneers started on the larger side in hired and dedicated venues. Back in my native U.K., cask festivals are commonplace and vary from annual vast events ( GBBF, Nottingham, Peterborough, etc.) to small, casual ones in pubs (The Crown Inn, The Castle Inn, etc.) where as few as a dozen - but more often two or three times that number - unusual firkins are thrown up on tables or a temporary stillage.

On the premise that I know exactly how to put one together (I co-founded a joint cask ale and music festival in 1996 near Brighton, England, during my time as cellarman at The Evening Star), and hoping to give cask beer some exposure, in late 2002 I suggested to Lou Sones of Brooklyn's Brazen Head that his bar could be the host of a small festival like the ones held in British pubs. He liked the idea, which of course was foreign (literally) to him, and we worked together on putting on our first 'Cask Head' event in the spring of 2003. It was a big success and became a regular event three times a year - as I write this we're preparing for our 20th there.

I believe I can claim that the Brazen Head is therefore the birthplace of the modern small cask festival in America.

WHY I PUT ON FESTIVALS

I'm a selfish person in the regard that I want cask beer to be widespread for my own imbibing pleasure. On the other hand, I know many other people would like to see that happen too. Therefore, once I was established here, I sought to help to create a demand, and nurse the number of outlets to grow from almost none to dozens. It started with buying used beer engines (aka handpumps) on eBay - often not a good idea as many on there are in poor condition - and selling them to bars. Soon after I hooked up with another expat Englishman - Paul Pendyck, who founded U.K. Brewing Supplies in the late 1990s on learning that a British equipment supplier had been travelling all the way to Chicago to service the early cask festivals there because there was nobody closer. His company imports new and used casks and all the equipment necessary for a bar to serve beer the traditional way - and most of the equipment necessary to run a cask festival. In league with Paul, I was now selling cask equipment from his catalogue rather than a shoddy pile of stuff I had bought online which had just been torn out of an English pub. This helped, and putting on cask festivals to showcase the product was a natural progression which ultimately led to two major New York City beer distributors purchasing pins and firkins to launch their own cask programs.

Aside, putting on a cask festival is an exhausting but hugely enjoyable and rewarding experience. Many people haven't experienced 'real ale' before, so such festivals 'spread the love' in a big way. Also as I said, they serve as a showcase for beer in its traditional state before modern dispense, chilling, and extraneous gassing methods took over with the invention of the pressurised keg and gas bottle. The greater number of people who try and like cask-conditioned beer, the greater the demand. This means that an ever increasing number of bar owners will look to serve a cask offering - or sometimes more than one. Then cask will enjoy even more exposure leading to further demand, and the snowball effect will continue...

EQUIPMENT NEEDED (FOR GRAVITY DISPENSE)

If you want to do what I do, which is work jointly with a bar owner for a consultancy fee - or (more likely) you are a bar owner with a suitable venue - you'll need the correct equipment to carry out cellarmanship procedures and set it all up. What you will need is as follows: Some sort of temporary stillage such as scaffolding or sturdy tables (empty or full kegs can also be used), adequate cooling (wet towels work surprisingly well if dampened regularly, but not in the height of the summer or in a room that is heated to 80F!), taps, hard and soft spile pegs, a rubber or heavy duty sand-filled plastic or ash wood headed mallet, triangular wooden chocks or purpose-built cradles to support the casks (3 chocks per firkin or pin). A large flat-headed screwdriver is recommended for digging out mouldy bungs, as is anti-bacterial cleaner for the same purpose. Never use bleach. C-Brite should be used for sanitizing taps, rinse well after. They can be kept after in Iodide until required. A dipstick is very useful also for gauging beer levels while the festival is on, physically lifting casks to check weight can easily disturb the yeast sediment so should be avoided. For a dipstick, I use a homebrewers' racking cane with the curved end sawn off - gently dip it to the bottom through the circular opening in the shive where the spile peg goes, put your thumb over the top opening, and gently pull out. The beer level will be apparent, held inside by the vacuum created with your thumb. Keep sanitized when not in use, and rinse very thoroughly between each dip. As temperature is very important, I also recommend checking the casks with a thermometer - especially a hand-held one with a probe or a brewer's 'point-and-shoot' one that reads the temperature inside the cask if you point it at the label.

For cooling, better than wet towels but more expensive to buy are saddles and jackets. The saddle is a metal tube bent to loop around and sit on the top of the cask, through which you should pump cold glycol or ice-cold water. It's better to attach the saddles in parallel, using T-splitters, rather than have them in series - i.e. have the hoses going into the 'in' connections of the saddles together rather than have the cold liquid go in one straight course through one saddle, then into the next, and so forth. With the latter, the last saddle on the end of the series will enjoy far less cooling than the first.

In the absence of a chiller pump unit, you can use an aquarium pump in a bucket of ice-cold water - attach a pipe from the submerged pump to one connection on the saddle, and another pipe from the other connection leading back to the bucket, so the water returns to be recirculated. Use a bucket with a lid to protect the water from air-borne grit, etc., and attach the tail end of the returning water pipe to the underside of the lid. Be aware that the water will need to be rechilled on a regular basis, to do that take the return pipe out of the bucket and let the water flow into something else or down the drain until the water level in the bucket is more than halfway down. Replace the pipe in the bucket and throw in a bunch of ice.

Another way of doing it is to use the jacket over an ice blanket rather than a saddle. These ice blankets are reusable, soak them with cold water and put them in the freezer for a few hours. You'll typically need three ice blankets per cask as they can thaw quite quickly.

One important thing to note with regard to cooling is that there are a few casks in circulation which are made of tough plastic rather than stainless steel or aluminum. Cooling saddles, ice blankets, and wet towels are less efficient on these as the plastic acts as insulation, though if kept cold the beer inside will generally remain cooler longer for that reason. There are such things as 'probe coolers', which work on the same principle as saddles but are inserted into the beer through the shive hole instead of remaing on the outside of the cask. These work well with plastic casks, but must be kept strictly sanitized.

If using wet towels, make sure they are wet at all times. Use more than one per cask, the more the better (at least three) and cover the side and back areas as much as possible. Damp them down every couple of hours, more frequently if the room is warm or if outside in warm weather. Damp them down copiously last thing at night after closing, and first thing in the morning prior to opening. Expect water to drip from the towels onto the floor, have buckets and tubs on hand to catch the worst drips. If there is no dripping, the towels are probably too dry.

Bags of ice, loosely packed, are helpful too but shouldn't be the only form of cooling. Place them next to the belly of the cask (best place), also on top.

THE CASK BEERS THEMSELVES

Choosing beers well involves some thought and maybe some leg work. Areas differ vastly with what's available. Here in New York City, we are spoiled for choice with two major distributors owning hundreds of casks which they send to breweries for filling. Other areas aren't so lucky. For a bar or individual to own their own casks greatly helps getting a good range, especially in an area where breweries and distributors don't have their own. I have a number of my own firkins (many of which are destined for Wandering Star Craft Brewery when it opens) which I've been using to augment the distributors lists and also taking advantage of the opportunity to age certain beers from local breweries. As for the choice of beers, obviously the less common ones will be a crowd puller. Imports from the U.K. always go down well, presuming they are still in good shape. A good mix of syles and a broad range of strengths makes a good festival. At The Brazen Head, where beers are rotated through space limitations, I try to replace a kicked cask with another of the same style or strength wherever possible. I sit down for a good hour before setting up meticulously planning the order of each cask in the rotation.

PUTTING IT TOGETHER

Here's how it's done. In the Brazen Head, there is limited space so no more that 12 can be served at a time. This is not ideal, it is much better to have everything tapped at once as it will be more of an attraction - and serving casks that have been moved recently is hit-and-miss for quality. With this, prior to the festival I try to ascertain which casks have had finings (a clarifying agent) added to the beer as these must be left for at least several hours for the finings to pass through the beer dragging yeast clumps to the belly of the cask below tap level. Unfined beers are often going to remain hazy or cloudy so can usually be served faster with no worries of having finings mixed up in people's glasses, subject to the beers conditioning (natural carbonation) coming down to the right levels. At The Brazen Head, what I do with the second and third wave of casks is to line them up in the back yard in serving position, so sitting on their bellies with the keystone near the ground, and have them vented a few hours before it is predicted they will be needed. This allows the casks to 'breathe' and for yeast and protein to settle. When required, they are picked up (by two people, one at each end) as carefully as possible and carried level, very slowly and carefully, and placed on the stillage a few feet away. Sometimes the yeast sediment inevitably gets shaken up even with careful movement, or they are still too highly carbonated (or both), but doing it like that generally means around two out of every three will be good for serving immediately.

Some purists may gripe that traditionally they must be stillaged for a day or two without movement, but hey, if most of the time this method provides beer in equally good condition (bearing in mind casks that aren't are held off) I think I'm doing the right thing given the space available.

In locations where space is ample for all casks, it is much better to put them all out tapped from the start. More beer will be sold as there's more choice, and there's no danger of beers not ready if any are put up later on. Don't hold popular beers back for other sessions if they have already been on sale and the casks are partially empty, they should be sold straight off. A CAMRA-run festival in the north of England once tried holding part-full casks back and was bombarded with complaints from people going early to get the popular ones before they went.

On set up, arrange the casks in strict alphabetical order of the brewery (not the beer name). If something is late turning up when the beers are starting to be put on the stillage, leave a gap for it in the appropriate place. Having a jumble of casks arranged in no particular order has proven to be a nightmare for servers who then have to try to remember the exact position of each and every firkin. Ordering alphabetically means they can follow the first letter of each one down the line with ease until they hit the cask being sought.

As for when to do it, I always recommend three days - Friday to Sunday - as this is pretty much the maximum life of a standard cask beer. Single day events run the risk of wasting beer that has at least two more days of shelf life left before beginning to become oxidised. Avoid putting on cask events at times like Thanksgiving, Valentine's Day, and Christmas when people's schedules are disrupted or they may be committed to something else.

Stating the obvious, but actually known to have been neglected at certain past events, is to make sure the bar has enough glassware (and bar staff!) for everyone to be served without any hiccups, bearing in mind very busy, crowded sessions will make collecting and washing of glasses difficult. A hugely disastrous thing to happen is to run out of clean glasses - the whole serving process grinds to a halt and the backlog is very difficult to catch up on. Freshly washed glasses must be given enough time to cool down before being reused, otherwise the beer will be heated up by the still-warm glass for a poor experience.


QUANTITY

Having just the right quantity so there is little or none left at close on the last day is pretty much guess work. Generally, for all three day Friday to Sunday events that I have put on, I've found that about 40% of the total weekend's volume will be sold on the Friday, about 50% on the Saturday, and about 10% on the Sunday. Use a dipstick at the end of each session or before opening the next day to measure what is left. If there is more than 10% left for the Sunday, there will probably be leftovers. Reducing the price for the last few hours helps to shift what's left. If bar has growlers, that will also help to shift the beer if growler fills are made available to the people present. If, however, there is less than 60% left after the Friday session, the festival is likely to run dry. Considerably less will probably mean adding additional casks, if available, to carry the event through to the third day.

When measuring with the dipstick, use a copy of the beer menu to write current levels. This is commonly known as the 'dip sheet'. A courtesy to customers is to advise them of casks nearly empty. They will be grateful, and it's likely that more beer will be sold as they probably would have missed some choices otherwise.

PUBLICITY

Print up flyers and posters, and distribute them as widely as possible in the local area and at beer events further afield. Use a brightly coloured paper (yellow or light red) which stands out better than white. I always include a brief explanation of what cask ale is. Good beer stores in the area should be at the top of the list to target. Go back once or twice to replenish flyer stocks. Have a banner made for the front of the building, and at least one for the interior too if there's room.

Take out adverts in the local press and beer publications such as Ale Street News and Brewing News. Submit the event to the calendars of these publications, and the calendars of online resources such as Beer Advocate and Ratebeer. Put the event on Facebook and invite people. Announce the event on the Cask-USA Yahoo Group.

PRESENTATION

Clear, concise, informative printed beer menus should always feature, augmented by clearly written labels to affix on on adjacent to the casks themselves. On the menu, there should be the full beer name including brewery, strength, style, location where it was brewed, price, and tasting notes. Look on the respective brewery websites and on Ratebeer.com for tasting notes and ABV figures, and double check the names are shown correctly on the menu while you're there. In the absence of readily available information, call the brewery.

The cask label should clearly show all the information on the menu minus the notes. Making a poster version of the beer menu and displaying it on the wall is a helpful thing to do, and for larger events it's helpful to make two lists on the wall of what's still pouring and what isn't. Photocopy the menu, double-sided if more than one page, to make enough for all customers to have their own, and to take home if they want to.

PRICING GUIDE

It is good practice to sell festival beers at the going rate for the same beer on regular tap. For a festival in a bar that would be open for business normally, I encourage not charging an entry fee - doing so will keep out people there for other drinks and will also put casual beer drinkers off. For larger spaces where the festival has other attractions such as music, or if the venue has to be hired, or if the festival is to raise money for a charity, a reasonable entry fee can be charged. Pay-as-you-go is by far the best formula as a lump sum up-front charge for unlimited beer turns the event into a drunkfest, as people binge drink to get ahead of their outlay. This also turns off the appeal of attending for sensible drinkers who may have just a few beers on their list to target. Drunk binge drinkers defeat the object of serving a superior product (i.e. cask) as after a while they would have lost all recollection of what they're drinking, and having a load of intoxicated and probably boisterous people on the premises is never a good idea.

Serving sizes at regular U.S. beer festivals (and indeed some cask festivals) which are of the lump sum up-front variety are painfully short, sometimes as little as 2oz. How anyone can think they can appreciate the complexity and flavours of such a thimbleful astonishes me. Furthermore, the smaller the measure means the greater the demand for pours - who wants to spend all their time waiting in line? I recommend 8oz as the smallest measure that should be served, enough to fully appreciate the beer and hopefully maintain speedy service. People waiting with empty glasses are, for the duration, not drinking the stocks of beer that need to be shifted. 2oz pours mean four times the demand for service than 8oz pours and for the same quantity of beer being shifted - or probably less, see the previous sentence. However, it is courteous to offer free small tasters to customers who are unsure about to committing to a full measure of a beer they may or may not like.

The following is a fair pricing guideline for cask beer festivals based on a rounded figure for a standard 16oz pint, showing equivalent prices for other serving sizes. Choose which price band is best for each beer served (you don't want a low gravity beer the same price as a barleywine!). You may want to round up to 50c and dollar figures only, by all means do that - the list below is just to give equivalent prices per serving size.

[$0.3125 per oz at $5/16oz]
$2.50 = 8oz
$3.13 = 10oz (round up to $3.25)
$4.38 = 14oz (round up to $4.50)
$5.00 = 16oz
$6.25 = 20oz

[$0.375 per oz at $6/16oz]
$3.00 = 8oz
$3.75 = 10oz
$5.25 = 14oz
$6.00 = 16oz
$7.50 = 20oz

[$0.4375 per oz at $7/16oz]
$3.50 = 8oz
$4.38 = 10oz (round up to $4.50)
$6.13 = 14oz (round up to $6.25)
$7.00 = 16oz
$8.75 = 20oz

[$0.50 per oz at $8/16oz]
$4.00 = 8oz
$5.00 = 10oz
$7.00 = 14oz
$8.00 = 16oz
$10.00 = 20oz

[$0.5625 per oz at $9/16oz]
$4.50 = 8oz
$5.63 = 10oz (round up to $5.75)
$7.88 = 14oz (round up to $8.00)
$9.00 = 16oz
$11.25 = 20oz

TOKENS OR CASH?

The use of beer tokens, purchased on entry, is a widely used practise at cask festivals. The advantages this gives is speed of service, and that cash handling is limited to the person or people selling tokens. Handling cash at a festival stillage slows service, and may require multiple cash registers.

There are slightly different ways of doing it. Having a ticket-per-drink system is the simplest, but has the big disadvantage that all beers have to be the same price. Consequently, many people will hit the strongest beers and largely ignore the session ales. The other way is better as it involves a sliding price scale. Issuing tokens that have a set denomination of, say, 50 cents works well (25c increments will be needed if following the price guidelines above and not rounding up $_.25c and $_.75c prices). People will generally buy twenty or more dollars worth at the start, then buy more as they need to. The two slightly different methods of implementing this system are the tear-off tokens and the cross-out tokens. Both are equally good. With the former, use raffle tickets, or similar, which come in a roll and can be counted and torn off. With the latter, a sheet of paper is made up with a number of squares - each square representing the chosen amount of a single token. I find that making each sheet worth $20, by however many boxes it takes to reach that figure, is optimum. Serving staff need to be equipped with marker pens, and on each serving the number of squares relevant to the value of the beer is crossed off.

A customer wishing to purchase an odd amount of tokens which is less than the face value of the full sheet should receive a sheet with the relative number of squares that haven't been paid for crossed off by the token seller. To prevent marker pens being mislayed or rolling onto the floor, a good thing to do is to tie or tape a length of string to the pen, with the other end tied or taped to the counter. It is a good idea to affix a small sticker to the token sheets on sale to validate them - this will prevent the unlikely possibility of fraud with illegitimate photocopies. For setups where there is no table or counter between the customers and the casks themselves, the tear-off token system is the best option. Refunds should always be given on unused tokens.

FESTIVAL TRADITIONS AND EMERGING CULTURE

The cask festival community in the U.K. has adopted some traditions through the years, some useful, some jovial. Such traditions don't have to be restricted to those shores.

Representative of useful traditions, beer festival staff generally affix some light colored tape or a sticker on their glass, and write their name on it. This greatly helps being reunited with your drink, and not somebody else's, after moving up and down the stillage to serve customers. Representative of more light-hearted antics would be the wearing of a silly hat, or dressing up in fancy dress. Cask festivals are fun, and such jovial touches go along with and help to create the fun atmosphere.

Mirroring Britain's pub culture, shouts of "last orders please" and, ten minutes later, "time at the bar!" - sometimes with the ring of a bell - are always heard on winding up a session at British festivals, and would be equally as appropriate here.

CONCLUSION

Basically, looking to the other side of the Atlantic, cask ale was an endangered species 40 or so years ago - and the concept of cask festivals - and craft beer itself (as opposed to regional breweries that brew cask) - had not been thought of. CAMRA, now boasting over 100,000 members in a country of about 45 million people of legal drinking age, invented the concept of cask festivals as we know them in the 1970s. Now there are cask festivals every week, and sometimes it's possible to visit more than one over the course of a weekend without too much travelling.

There is a whole new and thriving beer festival culture over there which has intertwined itself with their long-established pub culture. Look carefully and it's likely you'll see some of the same people attending, and sometimes working at, different cask festivals across the country.

Turning to the craft beer revolution here in America, and the Phoenix-like rise of cask-conditioned beer, it would seem natural progression for cask festivals to become much more widespread here. I hope this page helps to do just that.

-   Alex Hall, Brooklyn, New York, February 2010.

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Photos of my recent cask festivals can be found on my Flickr site.









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