Gulp // Cask ale comes to Brussels

On a mild Friday night in early May, Jenlain Delcourt flipped through a stack of records behind the taps at Gist, the Brussels bar he opened with his partner Jody Lecieux in December 2017. He was expecting a busy night and needed the right soundtrack - first Iggy Pop, then David Byrne and 80s-era Rolling Stones. What he didn’t need were the wicker lambic serving baskets on the shelves above his head, or the usual chalices and ribbeke glasses next to them.

 Instead, this Friday night was all about hefty pint glasses and cask ale – more specifically, four lumbering metal casks that Delcourt had propped up at the end of the bar-top, next to a row of four swan neck handpumps. The casks were there for “Gulp All The Casks #3: Friends Edition”, a one-night-only festival of locally brewed cask-conditioned beer and the latest step in Gist’s quixotic mission to bring the British cask al tradition to Brussels.

“Crazy to do cask ale”

“When we opened, everybody told us: ‘You are crazy to do casks – real casks – in Belgium. You’ll never finish the casks in the right time, and people won’t like it,’” Delcourt says, sitting in the bar a couple of days before the event. Never mind like it, many casual beer drinkers in Brussels would have had only the faintest understanding of cask ale (myself included). English brewing has been hugely influential in Belgian beer history and while many beer styles – pale ales and stouts in particular – successfully crossed the Channel, cask conditioning did not.

Cask ale is not a style; it’s simply beer that, after undergoing fermentation at the brewery, is put (“racked”) into metal casks and shipped out to pubs with live yeast still present in the beer. In the pub cellar, it undergoes another round of fermentation in the cask, gently bubbling away until the “cellarman” judges it ready for serving.

 “Smoother, more digestible”

Conditioning and cellar management is a delicate process. Shoddy practices – leaving the beer on for too long, or failing to keep clean lines – can cause the beer to become, or taste, bad. Done well and the result is a lightly carbonated, cellar-temperature beer that “is smoother, more digestible, better than any other beer,” says Delcourt.

Cask ale can be poured directly from the cask or through a beer engine or hand-pump, which delivers beer to glass without external gas or top pressure. These hand-pumps can also be used to serve more orthodox keg beers, and in the absence of casks in Brussels, this was where Delcourt’s experiments with the cask ale tradition began.

Unlike cask ale, hand-pumps do have history in Brussels. A century ago, they were used in the city’s estaminets, and illustrations of them were included in Les memoires de Jef Lambic, the iconic survey of turn of the century drinking in Brussels. A decade ago, Moeder Lambic’s Jean Hummler revived this tradition when he installed hand-pumps in his bars to serve lambic, kriek, and the occasional imperial stout.

Hand-pumped pale ale

It was while working there that Delcourt and others, including Maxime Dumay of No Science, had their first encounters with beer served through a hand-pump. One day an Italian colleague convinced them that there were other beers better suited to this dispense method. “He said it was such a nonsense to put imperial stouts on the hand-pumps,” Delcourt says. “The first time we put a pale ale on, I was like, ‘This is what we want to put on a hand-pump!’”

Hand-pumps and locally produced cask ale were always part of his plans for Gist. But before they could get their hands on real casks to put through their newly-installed hand-pumps, Delcourt cast about for a beer with which he could replicate his Moeder Lambic light bulb moment. He quickly settled on Brasserie de la Senne’s Taras Boulba, a logical choice given the beer is a love letter from de la Senne’s Yvan De Baets to English cask bitter.

Delcourt got on the phone to Molenbeek and informed De Baets of his idea. His response? “I’ve waited ten years for someone to do that with my beer!” When De Baets eventually tried a pint of hand-pumped Taras Boulba, he was thrilled. He could barely recognise his own beer, but loved it all the same and declared that Gist should serve all its future kegs of Taras Boulba like this.

London Porter

A year or so later, it was a collaboration between de la Senne and London brewery Anspach and Hobday that prompted Delcourt to arrange their mini cask festival. “I spoke to Yvan,” Delcourt says, “and said, ‘We’ll do a special festival, and you will have to make a cask. And this cask will be the key to the event. You have to make it, and when you think it might be ready, then that will be the date of the festival.’” De Baets agreed, and what was delivered to Gist in early May was a cask of Anspach Porter (named both for one of the brewery’s co-founders and a 19th century Brussels mayor). 

It’s no coincidence that Anspach and Hobday were involved in de la Senne’s first cask foray. They have close ties to several Brussels breweries and to Gist, having collaborated with Delcourt and Lecieux on a beer to celebrate the bar’s first birthday. When Gist decided they wanted to get local brewers making cask ale, it was Anspach and Hobday that supplied empty casks. And it was on trips to traditional London boozers with Anspach and Hobday’s brewers that Delcourt’s eyes were opened to the possibilities of proper cask ale.  

It was the same for Nacim Menu of L’Ermitage. “They took us to a traditional cask ale pub – The Harp I think – and it was absolutely amazing,” he says. Anspach and Hobday then invited L’Ermitage to put their flagship Lanterne pale ale in a cask for a tap takeover in May 2018. Menu and co. have continued to dabble in cask whenever the opportunity has arisen. It did earlier this year when another London-based brewery, this time Affinity Brew Co., invited L’Ermitage as well as Brussels Beer Project to the cask-only Cask 2019 beer festival.

“The most boring 3% real ale”

Sam Fleet, a brewer at Brussels Beer Project’s taproom, needed no convincing about sending beer to the festival. Fleet is English, with formative drinking years steeped in cask ale.  “I grew up on Wye Valley Butty Bach,” he says. “The most boring, 3% real ale you could ever drink, but I love it and I still love it.” For Cask 2019, he and his colleagues hewed closer to Brussels Beer Project’s iconoclastic self-image with beers that won them a commendation from the festival’s tasting panel. “We picked two beers we knew would stand out at the festival,” Fleet says – an imperial Baltic porter brewed with lager yeast, and a yuzu saison. “They weren’t the first styles that sprung to mind for Fleet when they first got the invitation. “I wanted to make a Brussels Beer Project mild, which would have been hilarious!” he says.

Others were more reticent about getting involved with casks. Maxime Dumay’s first cask experience confirmed his worst prejudices about English beer. “I was in Liverpool, at a music festival,” he says. “There was a bar with 50 casks. The beer was flat, warm, poorly conditioned English bitter by the pint. I ended up on Strongbow, because I just couldn’t drink it any more.” To sway him, Delcourt repeated his Taras Boulba trick and, newly convinced of cask’s merits Dumay filled his first casks with several of No Science’s beers for Gist and Moeder Lambic.

Balance and subtlety

In Delcourt’s view, the city’s brewers are attracted to cask ale because it suits the styles they like to drink: “When I speak with brewers, every brewer, they all love bitter pale ale in cask, porter in casks.” The tradition also speaks to a local, ascetic brewing philosophy that prizes simplicity and drinkability. Sam Fleet lionises the “balance and subtlety” of good cask ale. For Maxime Dumay, it’s the light carbonation of cask ale compared to more effervescent and heavy Belgian beer that buoys its popularity. “Cask gives a certain lightness…It’s more sessionable,” he says.

Cask ale is also another way for local brewers to explore and innovate, beyond simply brewing new styles. There’s little downside. The brewers don’t have to massively adapt their brewing processes and the volume of beer is small – enough to fill a 20- or 40-litre cask. Because the beers are brewed to order by Gist, brewers can manage conditioning themselves, safe in the knowledge that when the beer is eventually handed over and tapped, because of demand it won’t last beyond a couple of days, a week at most.

Both impulses – love of traditional styles, and experimenting with the effects of conditioning – were on display at “Gulp All the Casks”. Some brewers sent new recipes including the de la Senne/Anspach and Hobday Anspach Porter, which was rich, chocolate smooth, roasty, and dangerously sessionable at 6.1% ABV. Others tested existing recipes to see what difference putting their beer in a cask would make. No Science’s Noisy Pale Ale poured opaque and thickly hazy, so light on the tongue that it almost evaporated in the mouth, leaving behind only the faintest bitter contrails. Then there were the foreign interlopers, Dutch brewery De Kromme Haring sending a griset (sic), and French brewery Cambier a thick, dense and smooth like liqueur.

The art of good cellarmanship

Out of very little, Delcourt and Lecieux have cobbled together a cask ale cargo cult – hand-pumps, casks, and local beer to fill them. But like every cargo cult, the interpretation diverges from the original. While Delcourt has followed closely the guidance in his lived-in, dog-eared copy of Cellarmanship: The Definitive Guide to Storing, Serving and Caring for Cask Ale, this is Brussels, not the Home Counties. Some accommodation for local tastes was inevitable.

“We try to follow the rules, but we don’t follow all the rules,” he says with a grin. Gist’s casks are kept in the same cold room as the bar’s kegs; the resulting beer is cooler than it might otherwise be served in England. Lightly carbonated ale, in a country that prides itself on its effervescent beers, is one thing. Lightly carbonated warm beer is something else altogether. “Even if we love cask ale, it’s hard to drink a cask ale at a cellar temperature,” he says. On top of that, the beers served at the festival were served with a solid three fingers of white foam, because some Belgian traditions are sacrosanct. “One step at a time,” says Delcourt.

It’s an approach that’s working for Gist; customers can’t get enough cask ale: “Everybody was wrong.” At the event that Friday, it was still odd to see beer rituals more at home in Birmingham than Brussels. The rhythmic and furious yanking of the hand-pumps. Chrome swan neck taps dipped into beer as it flows into a glass. Dumpy metal casks crowding the bar top.  

Cask Ale is Coming

By the end of the night, most of the casks are empty. But the cask evangelising will continue. Delcourt is excited about the next set of breweries that want to fill a cask for them. “I discussed with Verzet, and I just said we’ve got cask if you want at some point, it’s up to you,” he says. “And they were like ‘Yeah, let’s do this!’ And De Ranke called us to say, if you want us to make cask for you, we can. And I was like, ‘Fuck, De Ranke. In a cask. Cool!’”

Then there’s the next stage in Delcourt’s master plan. “If this bar continues to work, we have one goal in the next years to come,” he says. “We want to open another bar, one dedicated 100% to cask. I see no problem having a real cask ale pub in Brussels.”