Kegged and Conditioned
This weekend, we found ourselves driving through the state capital in search of a nice pint. Salem isn’t a particularly beery city, but the metro area hosts a respectable ten or so taprooms and brewpubs. We went straight for Santiam Brewing on the southside of town. It’s not the fanciest place in town, nor the most famous, but in addition to a dozen beers on tap, Santiam serves not one but four cask conditioned ales.
For the uninitiated, cask conditioning is a beer serving method most often seen in the UK. In a typical American brewery, when beer is packaged in kegs, carbon dioxide is forced into the beer. Carbonated beer is then dispensed on tap with more gas. Cask conditioned beers, or “real” ales, are fermented right in the keg giving it a much lighter carbonation. When it comes time to serve it, a tap can be inserted right into the cask and dispensed like a big gatorade cooler. To keep the yeast working, cask beers are kept at about fifty degrees fahrenheit. It’s this unique conditioning that gives English beer the appearance of being warm and flat.
Santiam has four beer engines which pump the beer from under the bar. The result is a smooth, slightly bubbly beer. Without the extra carbon dioxide, even a light beer feels full bodied. But this is America, and an ordinary bitter with less than four percent alcohol won’t move too fast, so all the Santiam taps were over six percent. But that’s not to say they weren’t tasty.
Spitfire is an amber colored extra special bitter. It’s brewed with traditional Maris Otter malt with a little crystal malt and Belgian candi sugar for color and English Admiral and Fuggle Hops. Despite being on the strong side for a bitter, it’s incredibly drinkable, and even in the afternoon warmth, Spitfire is still cool enough to be refreshing.
The IPA, Stonehenge, is a burnished copper color and full of classic Cascade hop flavor. I could stick to that for an afternoon very happily. The cask conditioning really brings out the grapefruit flavor. It’s not harshly bitter, but it’s far from the fluffy, sweet hazy IPA currently in fashion.
Coal Porter feels like a pint of nitro Guinness but with a deeper flavor. The low carbonation calls for gulping and glugging instead of the usual taproom sniffing and swirling. The toasty flavor goes perfectly with thick cut french fries.
I’m not a great judge of cask beers. I understand there is a certain art to tapping a cask. The beer should be lively and fresh, but not green or underdone, but it should be poured entirely before it gets old and stale. The care of casks is more like that of fermenting homebrew. But I only get to taste a few cask ales a year, so I don’t know the difference between a beer in good condition or bad. But I know I definitely enjoyed drinking the beer at Santiam.