Booming Business: At Mad Fox Brewing, Madden says cask ale is a big seller.
Booming Business: At Mad Fox Brewing, Madden says cask ale is a big seller. Credit: Photo by Darrow Montgomery

When you sit down at a bar for a draft beer, where does it come from? To get it in your glass, the bartender pulled a tap handle, allowing the beer to be pushed up through five or 15 feet of rubber tubing from its keg under the bar, steered by the force of a CO2 tank. The keg itself is a giant soda can, filled at the brewery through pressurized tubes from a chilled tank where the beer was “force-carbonated.” That’s probably the second or third such tank that your beer has been siphoned through since it left the fermenter, which was—prior to this entire Rube Goldberg process that put the fizzy liquid in your glass—the moment of its birth.

And that’s for craft beer, which is relatively simple. Order a mass-produced macrobrew, and you add on more preservatives, more processing, more steps.

And in this age of slow food and forbidden preservatives, that’s a lot more logistics than some modern-day customers will want to put up with. Which explains why the latest thing in beer chic—for those who suspect the integrity of even the craftiest of craft beers—is cask ale, which strips away all of those complications once and for all.

Here’s an itinerary of a cask brew’s journey from fermenter to glass: It gets poured gently, by gravity, into a steel cask. The cask gets transported to the bar. And then, once you order, the beer is pulled up from the cask by a hand pump, free from artificial carbonation. There’s a faint prickle of levitation produced naturally by the yeast. Served at a balmy cellar temperature, a silky pint bursts with aromas otherwise bludgeoned by CO2 bubbles. You know the Tropicana label with the straw sticking into an orange? Replace the orange with a brewery, and you’ve got cask ale.

“It’s beer in its purest form,” says Steve Jones, the brewmaster at Oliver Ales in Baltimore. “Unadulterated. Really presented as the brewer intends it to be. Not overly cold, not overly fizzy, full of flavor.”

Of course, I couldn’t just take him at his word. At CommonWealth in Columbia Heights, I sipped a cask-poured pint of his Best Bitter. Or at least I tried to sip, but sitting in their courtyard on a calm, sunny day, it took the better part of my willpower not to drain the glass in one breath. Each gulp brought out new flavors and aromas. First fruit, honey, and peach, then butter, biscuits, and fresh pasta dough. Forced into a regular keg, Oliver Best Bitter is ordinary yellow beer. Allowed to pour on cask, it finds its personality, blossoming into a full range of grainy malts and delicate English hops. And the price—$7 for a pint—is the same.

In the past year, the number of cask lines in and around D.C. jumped from 10 to 21, with ChurchKey in Logan Circle, Mad Fox Brewing Co. in Falls Church, Fire Works American Pizzeria and Bar in Arlington, and Pizzeria Paradiso’s Dupont Circle location all joining the club.

At first glance, Mad Fox looks like a traditional American brewpub: the pristine beer tanks that greet you lead to a long, sleek, wooden bar with matching backbar and tables, wall-to-wall glass, and lots of overhead lighting. But the bar itself is a subtle shrine to cask ale. Six beer engines flank the analog clock in the center, three on each side. Beneath them are six casks, resting behind glass doors at cellar temperature, about 50 degrees. A quick survey down the bar shows that half the customers are drinking the hand-pumped beers.

“I’m amazed at how much cask ale we’re going through here,” says brewmaster Bill Madden, who brewed at Vintage 50 in Leesburg and for Capitol City Brewing Co. before he opened Mad Fox in July. “When I was at Vintage 50, we were going through three casks a week, which I thought was a lot. I’ve more than tripled it here.”

His customers understand it, he says. They like the beer’s lower carbonation and milder temperature, and they seek it out. What they might not know is the historical origin of serving beer on cask, which Madden is eager to elucidate.

“When you explain the story of cask ale and how it came about—I mean, really, it was something that came about from not having refrigeration. The coolest place in the bar was the cellar, and the cellar was about 55 degrees pretty much throughout the year. So the publican put it in the basement, kept it cool down there, and got tired of running up and down the stairs to fill up pitchers. So what they developed was a hand pump, or a displacement pump, so they could pull it up from the basement to the bar, and so they didn’t have to keep running up and down…It’s a very mechanical, Victorian-age piece of equipment to get beer to a bar.”

Whether it’s by coincidence or design, Madden’s restrained, nuanced brewing style is perfect for the cask treatment. In addition to the lower carbonation and elevated temperatures, cask ale is unfiltered and unpasteurized, and thus very perishable. That also means it’s fresh.

At Mad Fox, I start with a cask pour of Madden’s English Summer Ale, a hybrid of golden, biscuity English malt and a zesty, new American hop called Citra. This is the kind of beer casks were made for: light, delicate, floral, and all too easy to drink. You don’t so much swallow the beer as breathe it in.

You can find strong beers on cask, too; ChurchKey regularly stocks BrewDog Paradox, a raucous, boozy imperial stout aged in Scotch barrels. But cask ale is more typically classically mild and fast-drinking, the proletarian beer. Unlike trends such as sour ale and extreme beer, it’s approachable.

“When I started drinking beer, I’d say, ‘make it as cold as possible,’ you know, to kill all the flavor in the beer,” says Brian Koch, a homebrewer from Colorado, where he says it’s harder to find cask ale. His host in D.C. brought him to ChurchKey, where we’re chatting over pints of Oliver’s Ironman pale ale. “But the more you learn to appreciate the malt and the hop flavors, you realize that a warmer temperature brings that all out.”

He drinks it for more than the flavor, though. Today cask ale might be considered an artisanal, even historical way to serve beer, but it used to be the practical norm. In England, before mass-produced Wonder Bread beers were invented, all beer was local. Casks were just the big, unsophisticated barrels you moved it in. Now, at a time when we’re rethinking the industrial processes behind a lot of our foodstuffs—and wondering whether they’ve cost us something in terms of taste—beer aficionados like Koch argue that reviving the cask has some major flavor upsides.

“It’s the tradition,” Koch says. “This is how beer is supposed to be.”

Oliver Ales at Pratt Street Ale House, 206 W. Pratt St., Baltimore, (410) 244-8900 • CommonWealth, 1400 Irving St. NW, (202) 265-1400 • ChurchKey, 1337 14th St. NW, (202) 576-2576 • Mad Fox Brewing Co., 444 W. Broad St., Falls Church, (703) 942-6840 • Fire Works American Pizzeria and Bar, 2350 Clarendon Blvd, Arlington, (703) 527-8700 • Pizzeria Paradiso, 2003 P St. NW, (202) 223-1245