Step by Step

Ok, so I tend to ferment my beer fully, then rack it straight into my casks with priming and sometimes finings. If I have time to drop the temp in the fermenter for a couple days to allow yeast to drop out, I find that I don't need finings of any sort. Remember, cask ale is supposed to be CLEAR! If you've served a murky pint, the cellarman was not doing his job properly. All yeasts will drop out eventually whether through time or an appropriate fining agent. I use gelatin at home since it's cheap and available at any grocery store.

So, the first thing is to weigh out the table sugar to use as a primer. 3oz per 5.4 gal pin, or 6oz for a 10.8gal firkin. In this case, I'm filling two pins.

Here's the sugar weighed out, then the boiled/cooled syrup. Each cask will receive 300ml syrup.

Here's two cleaned and sanitized pins ready to go.

First step is to hammer home the keystone into the cleaned and sanitized cask.

Ok, now, you can fill them. Make sure that you have a sanitized hose that reaches all the way to the bottom. You want to fill as quietly as possible to reduce oxygen intake. The hose needs to fill under the beer level at all times.

I've read about filling the cask with co2 to help with oxygen intake while filling. It's certainly a good idea, and one I've employed in the past, but I don't bother anymore. The secondary fermentation in the cask should hopefully take care of the oxygen, and I've found that it does just fine without it. Still, I'm just a guy making beer in his basement, so take my advice with a grain of salt!

Alright, after adding the sugar syrup and finings if you use them fill the casks. Quietly!!

Fill them to just the bottom of the collar on the cask. About 3/4" from top.

And, finally hammer in the shive.

Here you are. Two casks of American Pale Ale ready to condition.

At this point, I give the casks 2 or 3 days at around fermentation temp-mid 60's to get the secondary fermentation in the cask going, then they go into my chest freezer for at least a week. They need that time for the sugar to referment in the cask. This creates carbon dioxide which then absorbs into the beer.

Once the casks have rested for about 10 days or so I can vent. Now, we're getting into the art of Cask Conditioning and the job of the cellarman. The process of venting is to pop a hole in the shive which releases the pressure in the cask. Oftentimes, a violent gush of beer and yeast follows the opening of the cask. The trick here is to balance the high carbonation in the cask to the point where it reaches just above atmospheric pressure. Books say to shoot for 1.2 vol. of co2 or something around there. 1 bar being the same as water or flat beer. After the cask is opened, a soft spile is inserted to allow the gases to slowly escape. When the cellarman deems the cask ready, he may take a sample and insert a hard spile, or possibly put the ale up for sale.

Traditionally, once the cask is put up for sale, it is left open to the atmosphere, and oxygen is pulled in. Purists claim that this is when the ale gets the best. That little bit of oxidation that happens over the course of hours can change the flavor of the beer. However, once opened, or broached, there is a very short window of opportunity to empty the cask. 2-3 days generally! That is not possible at home, so I use a device called a Cask Breather that basically replaces beer as it empties the cask with a light blanket of carbon dioxide. It's not enough to carbonate the beer more. It's just enough to keep it from going off. In fact, once I put the breather on, I notice a very slight, almost undectable, loss of condition until the cask is empty.

Here is a cask venting through the shive and soft spile
I've now switched over to the cask widge device and I'll never go back! This thing is awesome. It allows one to store, vent and tap the cask while on end. The biggest advantage for the homebrewer is that it makes venting so much cleaner! Before all that splooge would end up on the floor of my chest freezer. Now, it is easier to have a container of some sort for the gunk to vent into. Plus, I no longer use hard spiles. When the venting is over, if I'm not ready to put a cask on the pump, I just turn the butterfly valve closed, and that acts like a hard spile. Genius!

The cask widge in venting mode.

See all that gunk coming out? That's yeast, beer and foam that would've ended up on the floor. I've had casks that go quiet like they're done, and you come back a few hrs. later and they went nuts again. This really helps in that regard. Highly recommended!

Cask widge fully assembled and hooked up. The beer line is on the left, and clear line in the center leads to the cask breather.

Cask breather hooked up to c02. All this does is lay a blanket of co2 over the beer. It's not enough to allow any more carbonation,  rather it just keeps the beer from going off in a couple days. The disadvantage to the breather is that it doesn't allow the flavor of the beer to evolve over a day or two as it may with oxygen ingress, but for the homebrewer, it is required unless you're having a party!

After venting, the rest of the cask widge can be assembled, tube dropped in, and the first pint can be pulled.

After 36 hrs. of venting, this ale is still very "lively". It could've vented even longer. This beer is proof to me that the evil sparkler is truly not necessary in any way shape or form. I'll go into my views on sparklers on another page, but lets just say that I don't believe they do a thing for beer quality, and at least at the home level are not required or needed!

Lively ale in the line

First pint

topped up

and settled. Notice how clear the ale is.