Sticking To Our Guns! (Or why we don’t generally do cask bitter)
FIRST PUBLISHED FEBRUARY 2017 - and still relevant :)
The sun was setting on another whimsical Guernsey summer. The sea was getting cooler, the damp was starting to creep up the walls, and we were preparing for another long season on a small island. It would be many months before we’d be able to frolic in the waves and eat picnics with fond friends on the beach.
Whilst this island lifestyle was attractive, Gulen and I were fast realising that this wasn’t how we wanted to live the rest of our lives. We’d had a taste of adventure whilst travelling, where we’d also sampled some of the best beers and wines of the New World. Neither of us was content, and in those long cold months a dream was born:
To build a craft brewery showcasing bold-flavoured beers. To experiment with new ingredients. To produce strong premium beers, inspired by extinct British styles, as well as other modern styles available elsewhere in the world, and to utilise varied homebrewing techniques not often used commercially by most microbreweries.
Of course, whilst we planned back in the winter of 2012, we realised the craft beer revolution had already started. New breweries – also inspired by the American market – were burgeoning in London and other cultural metropolises.
Looking back to my native County Durham though, it was quickly apparent that the craft beer revolution hadn’t really happened up there yet. We decided to fill the gap.
England is full of microbreweries (some estimates say two or three open weekly); many of them great, but the majority focus on one style of beer – the English Bitter and all its many hats (Premium Bitter, Best Bitter, Extra Bitter, Strong Ale, Golden Ale, English Pale Ale etc), served exclusively on cask, at cellar temperature, through a handpull. Now don’t get me wrong, cask bitter is a beautiful thing, but it’s not hard to make something that’s passable. It requires the most basic of ingredients, the least interesting of hops, the most rudimentary knowledge of brewing, and often very little in the way of scientific control.
Many of these microbreweries churn out a different version of English Bitter weekly with a new name, with such subtle nuances between them that they are almost the same to everyone but the brewer. Many don’t even experiment with mash temperature, fermentation temperature, yeast cultures, or dryhopping. This is absolutely fine. It’s their thing, and their customers enjoy it. It works for them.
Here at Steam Machine we don’t want to be about subtle nuances. When we create a new beer, we want you to know you are drinking a new beer. To this aim we look at the hundreds of styles of beer from all over the world, from historic brewing traditions in Britain, Belgium, and Germany, to modern approaches and styles in the USA. Inspiration can come from anywhere, which is why our core range and Brew Room specials include nods to the past like Lapsang Souchong-infused Smoked Porter 7.2% and San Franciscan Steam 5.2%, to mega-hopped modern beers like our Double IPA 9.6%, to continental beers like our decoction-mashed Dunkel Weiss 4.7% and Saison Blonde 7%, and our experimental wild sour beers such as Mango Wild 5.8%, Gooseberry Tart 5.4%, and Table Ale 3.8%.
So why don’t we (generally) do cask? Well there’re a number of reasons. As soon as beer is in a cask it starts to degrade. Once a cask has been tapped by a landlord and put on the bar it starts to degrade even quicker. If you’ve ever had an off pint of cask bitter you’ll know what I mean. Day one it’s at its best, any time after and most of the hop character has been released into the cellar, to be replaced by Oxygen in the air which is the enemy of beer, and creates generally unpleasant flavour compounds. This oxidation can be part of the beer style – such as English Bitter – but in most styles of beer this is seen as a fault. We use modern KeyKegs which can keep beer fresh for many months at a time, even once they’ve been opened, which means that the beer arriving at the bar is as we intended it to be.
The biggest reason we don’t do cask is because we simply don’t make English Bitter! Just as no beer connoisseur would ever willingly drink English Bitter from a keg (John Smith’s anyone?! :S), so too must they accept that styles of beer that don’t fall under the English Bitter family tree should not really be served on cask either. A sour beer warm and flat would be disgusting compared to a sour beer cold and sparkling, so too would an Imperial IPA, designed to have a CO2 bitter prickle to balance the large malt bill, and to lift those beautiful hop aromas into your nasal receptors.
By insisting from the very start that our beers are in specialist KeyKegs, we are very aware that we alienated ourselves from ninety odd percent of drinking establishments, but to be honest, we’d far rather be about quality of product and location, rather than quantity. Inconsistencies, cheap ingredients, slapdash techniques… these aren’t the qualities we want to promote at Steam Machine. We have had critics march into our brewery demanding that we should do something around 4%, golden in colour, with a slight hint of citrus hop, and served on cask. If that’s what they are after there’s a plethora of breweries to cater for their wishes.
Some of the larger super-duper well-moneyed craft breweries are now heading down this same path. Cloudwater of Manchester recently decided to ditch cask altogether, causing some controversy amongst a certain vintage style of beer drinker (although we’d like to add that our Manchester favourite’s Runaway have always been KeyKeg, much like us).
We must have been doing something right over the past two years; at the time of writing we are ranked on Untappd as the 25th top brewery in England, and the highest rated in the North East (only one other makes it onto the list: Almasty Newcastle, who we think are great). We have grown into our second premises, increased production by silly numbers, and now welcome hundreds of people to Steam Machine each weekend to sample our vision of craft beer.
Sticking to our guns, we will continue to experiment with bold flavours, and yes that includes looking at some unique versions of sessionable beers, but generally speaking, they won’t be available in cask any time soon.