Finding cask ale in the desert

Every time I need a taste of home, I head to Sidetrack. It’s a tiny railway-side brewpub in Downtown Albuquerque. It’s a pretty far cry from my previous rail-station-adjacent haunt The Euston Tap (the toilets are in good nick for a start) but it can be equally tricky to get a table on a Friday evening. The real draw of the place for me is that they serve beer on cask; two from their small selection, all the time. That’s rare around here.

The first time I ever sampled one of their cask offerings, I have to admit I was a little disappointed; it was a stout that drank more like a nitro. But over the weeks and months, I tried a few more and I became more convinced. The brown ale was beautifully velvety, and the cask pumps added a smooth, easy-drinking quality to their bitterest IPA.

In the USA, cask tends to be served at cooler temperatures than back home. Right now, in the heat of the New Mexican early summer, I’m not actually sure that I’d truly want it any other way, but in the winter I’d love them to serve it a little warmer.

Cask is mostly a gimmick here. It will likely always stay that way, especially since the spirit of the experiment is often pushed needlessly too far. There’s an ethos to cask that perhaps isn’t fully understood stateside, at least not west of New England.

For example, I recently heard that another favorite taproom of mine would be starting to serve cask on Fridays. Excitedly heading to the bar, I asked the bartender which of the beers was being served on cask.

‘The mango sour’, she replied.

The thought of it made me feel physically sick. I’ll admit that my palate does struggle with (some) sour and farmhouse styles, so this wouldn’t have been my first pick in any world. But even so, this sounded like a pint destined to taste of stale fruit that had been left out in the sun.

Despite a few questionable executions, I’m still glad that the parts of the USA which share little in common with the birthplaces of cask ale are giving it a try. It means there’s innovation, improvement, and that ongoing possibility of one day wandering into a neighborhood brewpub, seeing a handpull upon the counter, and finding a diamond in the rough. Maybe even at the right temperature, though I shall try not to dream too hard.

Temperature control

Based in the Southwest USA, I am sadly not blessed with a basement, and so temp control is a rather critical and cumbersome task at all times of the year.

All summer long, I used a large freezer unit outside in the garage, with a Baylite pre-wired temp-controller to create a fermentation chamber with a temp range of of 66F to 67.5F. This ensured that fermentation started towards the top of the recommended range for my yeast strains, so yeast got to work quickly and I would typically see bubbles in the airlock within 24 hours.

This winter, I’ll be moving my fermenters indoors, as I don’t have a way of adding heat to the existing unit. I’m apprehensive about not having quite the same level of strict control over the fermenting temp, especially in the first couple of days after the yeast is pitched. Having said this, I did make some great beer back in the UK indoors. My usual strategy is to select a cupboard which is neither too near nor too far from the home’s primary heat source, and far from things which could cause warming or cooling if possible. For example, the kitchen is probably not ideal, as most kitchens heat up considerably when something is in the oven. Close to a window or against an external wall is also not optimal, as much heat will be lost in this area, especially during overnight lows.

I’ve carefully selected a cupboard accordingly. I’m confident that I’ll be able to keep the space in the 60F to 69F range. My plastic fermenters have thermometers on the side, and I have a mini digital thermometer for the space, so I will be able to monitor the difference between the ambient temp in the cupboard and the temp of the beer itself. Temperatures of fermenting beers spike in the first couple of days, as the process creates its own heat. I’ll be keeping an eye on the beer temps and using the old-fashioned cold water bath for the fermenters if I start to see the temp creeping above 73F.