THE CASK WHISPERER
Blog by Nigel Walsh
In Search of the Lost Cask
It has been nearly five years since I moved back to NYC after spending the best part of a decade living and working in DC, and as a cask beer enthusiast, it was with some regret to be leaving the thriving DC beer scene and specifically, its cask beer scene, but I was consoled somewhat by the knowledge that there were several, if not numerous, cask outlets scattered throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn.
During my final couple of years down south, I made sure to conduct cask drinking expeditions into both boroughs whenever I made my twice-monthly weekend trips back home, and had built up an inventory of known (to me, anyway) pubs that served beer the way that the gods had intended. I had also compiled a short list of crawls that would allow me to sample the wares of several places in one outing, with or without the aid of public transportation.
I had my online tools; BeerMenus to check for local casks, the Brew York Calendar for local events, Untappd to catch any activity not listed on BeerMenus, and when desperate, the individual web sites of my favorite places.
It wasn’t perfect, but it worked well enough that I could usually find somewhere that I could hang out with a cask or two on most weekends, and with minimal effort. It continued to work well after I initially moved back.
Although I was now living back in NYC full-time, I was also still working full-time, limiting my outings to weekends and the occasional mid-week neighborhood pint.
I had one place locally on the Upper East Side of Manhattan where I could reliably find a cask or two, and three other local venues that would normally have a cask on between them: all within twenty minutes’ walk, with one right across the street from my home. There were also four pubs on the Upper West Side that I could stroll between with a little more effort on my part. Three more in East Midtown, four in the West, four more in the middle, two each in the East and West Village, and one all the way downtown. Spoiled for choice, although the quality was very variable, and each pub had its eccentricities.
There was one pub that insisted on serving all of its beers in a frosty mug, even the cask beers, and then there was the delicious 2013 Sierra Nevada Narwhal barrel-aged imperial stout, an awesome 10.2% monster of a beer, served in a 20-oz imperial pint mug. I still have no idea how I got home from midtown after that one.
That was then, but now only four of those places still have active beer engines. Only two of those places push the fact that they have active beer engines.
Can we blame it all on Covid? Well, not really.
The extended shutdown did sadly kill off the venerable Ginger Man, but all the rest of those places are still in existence, just without the cask program. I am sure that for many of those places, Covid just changed the math.
Cask has always been a niche in a niche in the U.S. and has always required a real commitment on the part of the business owners to implement and promote successfully. It also requires that the bar staff and cellar staff are adequately trained to look after the beer, to ensure that the product meets the consumers’ expectations. Many places post-Covid just have other more important things to concern themselves with than this niche.
So, is all doom and gloom for the cask beer lovers in NYC? Hell no!
We have a new player in town with the Grand Delancey, a ‘proper’ beer bar in the DC mold in which the cask engines are a small but integral part of the whole experience.
We have stirrings within the NYC brewing community, with enthusiastic owners at Fifth Hammer and Wild East both running single but constantly active handpumps alongside their other taps in their taphouses, and Strong Rope about to make it a trifecta ‘any day now’. Equally important is that these folks are also actively running and attending cask events in NYC and even upstate New York, and delivering casks to the remaining pubs that do still sell them.
Last but not least, we have the renewed commitment to cask at Jones Wood Foundry: Constantly running and turning over two cask engines at the bar; engaging with the local New York brewers and brewery owners; and actively promoting the product on social media and their web site.
We may not have the breadth of cask options that we had four to five years ago, but the depth, the quality is good, and NYC is starting to build a strong foundation.
I am hopeful.
Incidentally, I recently had to take a day trip back to DC, and the cask scene there post-Covid is very depressing, way worse than NYC. If it wasn’t for the owners of the Delancey there would be no cask scene there at all.