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The Long Haul (American Cask Beer In England, Part 1)

A cask of 3 Lions Ale bound for England

You may recall from an earlier post that, for the first time, I have sent a firkin of Oliver Ale to the Great British Beer Festival. Here’s the story so far….

The Great British Beer Festival, held at London’s Earls Court between August 3rd and 7th is without doubt England’s largest beer festival and will be serving over 700 Real Ales, Ciders and beers from around the world. This year 82 firkins were shipped to the festival from the U.S., up from 54 in 2009, a reflection of the increasing importance of American craft beer in the world marketplace. It’s been a long time since I’ve had the opportunity to attend the GBBF (I last visited in 2000) and the last time I had beer at the festival was when I poured my Blonde Ale for my former employer, The Firkin Brewery in 1999. It was with great interest therefore that I read last year of the efforts of the folks at “Soft Spile”, responsible for the task of shipping American casks to England. I contacted Mike at Soft Spile to express my interest in sending a firkin to GBBF and in early April Mike started to contact breweries to invite their participation. Local co-ordination was provided by Mike Roy at Franklin’s Brewery. Soft Spile began shipping empty firkins to participating breweries in May. Regional consolidation points were organised from which casks were shipped to New England, the local one being the Heavy Seas brewery at which filled firkins were required to be in place by June 18th. I decided to send a cask of 3 Lions Ale aged with American White Oak largely because I thought that, being relatively high in alcohol, it would be best suited to the long  journey! 3 Lions Ale, gyle # 3289 was brewed on June 3rd and a firkin filled on June 12th (oak being placed directly in the cask). The cask was  sent over to the folks at Heavy Seas and from there was shipped with the other local firkins to New England for forwarding to the UK by the 3rd week of June. Unfortunately, over carbonation of some casks led to failure of keystones / shives which resulted in the shipment being refused at port and the shipping deadline (first week of July) being missed. This is not totally unexpected of course. Remember, cask conditioned ales contain living yeast and are subject to further fermentation (a vital part of producing a well conditioned beer). In a situation such as this, where the casks may be subject to prolonged agitation and excessive temperatures, casks with high yeast counts and/or high amounts of residual fermentable material may undergo an unusually active secondary fermentation, causing high volumes of CO2 to be present in the beer, and this may lead to the internal pressure of the cask causing beer to leak from the shive or keystone or, in the worst case scenario, for the shive or keystone to be blown out of the cask! A quick clean-up response from the folks at Soft Spile saved the day and a rescheduled shipment was loaded on July 17th and the shipment arrived and cleared customs in Liverpool on July 27th. From there the beer was bound for London and the expert hands of the bar managers of CAMRA. The American Beer will be showcased in the Bieres Sans Frontieres which is comprised of 3 bars, the German & Czech Bar, the Belgian & Dutch Bar and the USA & Rest Of The World Bar (sponsored by Sierra Nevada). I’ll post an update following the festival’s conclusion.

read more about the GBBF at and for an English take on the American craft beer at this year’s festival see