(Image is © Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar/
The fragmented attention of our age, which has only gained tremendous pace with the growth (paradoxically) of the global village, can deceive as to origins and trends. The beer renaissance started in the late 1970’s and one of its hallmarks is “cask” beer: beer served from a barrel in which a slow secondary fermentation continues and dispensed without additional pressure, direct from a thumb-tap or more typically by a hand-pump system (similar to the one still seen in the country which operates with a piston and vacuum system). Beer dispensed in this way was called real ale when coined by CAMRA enthusiasts in the U.K. in the early 1970’s. The term now has a period flavour and is rarely uttered except by the historically minded or superannuated.
Despite the beer revival mentioned, cask ale was slow to take root here, unlike in England where it still has an honoured place in the market albeit reduced from its pre-1970 heyday. The reasons are many: it is difficult to handle and can easily turn sour or become infected; also, it dispenses at less than a chilled temperature, which puts off a lot of people; finally, due (IMO) to a misapprehension here that such unfiltered beer should look cloudy in the glass, the pints often poured rather turbid. Many people don’t like this, for aesthetic or taste reasons. Nonetheless as craft brewing has grown, cask has grown too, and most beer bars of any repute now offer a cask beer or a few of them, at least periodically.
While many beer fans know that cask beer hails from and has been long-honoured in the United Kingdom, and that analogues exist elsewhere in Europe which have been followed here, such as Keller Bier and variations (some entail added pressure, some don’t), few understand that top-fermented beers were commonly dispensed in this way in North America. This was at an earlier stage of our brewing history, from the 1800’s until at its latest the 1930’s.
A frequenter of the famed McSorley’s in New York, if he peers carefully through the people and the dust, will perceive a disused set of hand pumps on the backbar. They are arrayed in a curved housing similar to what you see in this image from Billie’s Bar of New York City from the mid-1930’s. The 30’s hand pumps at Billie were still in use as one can tell from the pitchers beneath them. (Now did those pitchers contain ice water, intended to be placed on tables as customers walked in? This is possible but I don’t think so. Stock, India Pale, Burton and other ales, as well as brown stout and porter, were still being made by some breweries in the New York and Jersey area then; this form of dispense was a natural for such beers. Even if they were water-pumps by then, their existence attests to their original function at an earlier date, pre-Prohibition that is).
If McSorley’s and Billie’s had beer hand pumps, other places had to have them too. It was probably a small handful, but this type of beer service, inherited from English influence in the earlier 1800’s, hung on for a quite a time in America. It’s not new here, and likely the same applies for Canada: the craft beer revival simply brought back an old practice.
As in our day, those pumps probably sometimes spouted clear beer, hazy and yeasty/sludgy. Whether it tasted similar to our countless varieties of “cask” is hard to say though.