F or a British pub in Santa Rosa and the Englishman who operates it, Sonoma County is a long way from home. However, the cask-conditioned beers at the Toad in the Hole Pub are meant to take drinkers back to the old days when beer was brewed onsite, transferred to barrels and served at cellar temperature—and that, says the Toad's owner Paul Stokeld, is the authentic taste of England.
"When people say English beer tastes warm and flat, that's what a cask-conditioned beer is," Stokeld explains. "It sounds bad, but it's the way they used to do it, and the beer is actually so much better."
Bottled beer is "conditioned" with a small dose of sugar in each bottle before the cap goes on. Secondary fermentation begins, resulting in carbon dioxide production and bubbles. Beer in kegs, meanwhile, is not conditioned at all, but rather pumped with carbon dioxide during each pour, again resulting in bubbles.
Cask-conditioned beer is drawn, without filtering, from the primary fermenter into the cask, which is then transported to beer's final destination—say, a pub. While secondary fermentation proceeds, the cask is opened at room temperature and the beer poured, a process that involves a large hand pump and the movement of air, not CO2, through the system, called a "beer engine." Oxidation begins immediately with the first pour, but most establishments with a loyal beer-loving clientele will empty a cask before the beer goes too far south.
In fact, cask-conditioned beer is considered by many critics to be far superior to other forms. The beer is fuller and richer and thick with aromatic particulates and hop matter.
"It's like being in the brewery and having the beer straight out of the tank," says Tony Magee, president of Lagunitas Brewing Company, whose Maximus double IPA is regularly served from a cask at the Toad in the Hole. "It's beer that's still in its adolescence. All the flavors are softer. The malt is silky and creamy. You don't have all that carbon dioxide, and the beer is much less gassy."
The Toad is now pairing its cask-conditioned ales to a Sunday prix fixe menu of roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and other British staples. The pub features just one beer engine, so the cask-conditioned brews rotate one at a time. Check with the pub to see what North Bay brew is pouring, and savor the flavor of beer from the barrel.
Toad in the Hole Pub, 116 Fifth St., Santa Rosa. Open Monday&–Tuesday at 4pm; Wednesday&–Sunday at 11am. 707.544.TOAD (8623).
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