Cask-conditioned beers served on a hand-pulled British beer engine are rare in Madison. However, Vintage Brewing Company tries to keep at least two on tap, with a new offering rotating in each week. Those who enjoy cask-conditioned beer, with its low carbonation and slightly warmer serving temperatures, might consider planning a stop soon for Laven(Derby Girl), a special twist on what most hand-pulled beer aficionados consider the traditional ESB.
What is it? Laven(Derby Girl) ESB, a cask-conditioned ale also called Lavender ESB, from Vintage Brewing Company.
Style: The ESB, or Extra Special Bitter, is an amber- to copper-colored ale, with medium to strong hopiness throughout the aroma and flavor. The style commonly features English varieties of hops. It also offers a rich maltiness that balances the overall flavor profile. When cask conditioned, the malt component is more evident amidst the mild carbonation. Some fruity esters can be found in the ESB, similar to hints of apple or orange, but they should not be overwhelming in the flavor profile. ESBs range from 4.8% to 5.8% ABV. Vintage brewmaster Scott Manning adds lavender to give this time-honored traditional cask-conditioned style a unique and distinctive floral quality.
Background: Cask-conditioned ales are beers that continue to ferment in the serving vessel and are served at warmer cellar temperatures. They are usually drawn by a hand-pulled tap, also called a beer engine, rather than being pushed through tap lines with carbon-dioxide.
Laven(Derby Girl) ESB is a special version of the brewpub's standard Derby Girl ESB. This on-tap version is also offered occasionally as a cask-conditioned beer. As the name indicates, Manning adds dried lavender buds directly into the serving keg (firkin). When poured by the hand-pumped beer engine, the floral aroma seems to "blossom" above the glass.
Derby Girl ESB features English malts and Styrian Goldings hops from Slovenia that are known for adding spicy bitterness to both the aroma and flavor. Laven(Derby Girl) ESB has Goldings, but also includes late additions of Fuggles hops that give it a woody-earthy bitterness that blends well with the floral lavender aroma.
Manning uses a mallet to hammer the shive and keystone (stopper components) into the keg. The keg then remains at room temperature for about a week, before it's moved to a cooler area for a second week of fermentation. Once the keg is connected to the beer engine, Manning likes the beer to rest a couple of days before it is served. That allows it to settle and clarify. Cask-conditioned ales at Vintage are served at 45-48 degrees, which is between colder tap beers and warmer cellar temperatures. Manning feels most cask beer drinkers like it somewhere in-between.
Because the beer continues to ferment, its flavors change in subtle ways over the life of the keg. Manning says his cask-conditioned beers usually last about a week to 10 days before he rotates a new firkin to the beer engine. He also says it's important to taste the product daily, something he does every morning.
Manning was introduced to cask-conditioned ales while working in London during the mid-'90s, and during a subsequent brewmaster exchange program when he spent a week at Laven(Derby Girl) ESB sells for $3.50/pint. It finishes at 5.25% ABV. Tasting notes:
Laven(Derby Girl) ESB sells for $3.50/pint. It finishes at 5.25% ABV.
Glassware: Vintage serves this beer in the standard bar pint glass. However, the British pint is better suited for the cask-conditioned ESB, showing off the deep copper of the beer, while the slight curve near the top will hold the head. Given the low carbonation of this cask-conditioned beer, this type of pint glass is even more ideal.
Pairs well with: The ESB, with its hoppy bitterness and the smooth caramel tones of the malty backbone, is a great beer for late-season barbecues. With its lavender nose and firm maltiness, this beer goes well with mildly sweet cheeses like Swiss or modestly assertive Stilton with its earthiness.
Rating: Three Bottle Openers (out of four).
The Verdict: Laven(Derby Girl) ESB is a beer with an assertive sweet smell of lavender that may not necessarily equate to the sweet smell of success at the tap. It is something that beer enthusiasts will want to seek out just to try. However, even for the discerning beer crowd, it takes more than just a sip to appreciate the bouquet of this brew. It grew on me, but it took awhile. Technically this is a wonderful creation, and it shows the brewing talents of Scott Manning, making a beer with a strong nose of lavender without the flavor of flowers. Adding too much lavender buds to the firkin could have been disastrous leaving a beer that tastes like bubblebath. Instead, those sweet floral aromas mingle with the ESB's light hints of sour fruitiness, and still allow its malty underpinnings to come out. It's unique and well worth trying.
However, while I'm impressed with Manning's use of flowers in the brew, his regular cask-conditioned Derby Girl ESB is much better. The beer engine brings out the hoppiness of the Styrian Goldings while the firm caramel maltiness softens everything in the end, without all the floral fanfare. You may have to wait a few weeks before the cask-conditioned Derby Girl reappears, but you can still find the regular Derby Girl ESB on tap.