In early December, we took a trip to Fitchburg, MA to visit friend of the club Tony Mitchelhill. A UK native, Tony has been in the US for over 17 years working various engineering jobs across the country before settling in Fitchburg 2 years ago. Throughout his travels, he’s brought his passion for brewing classic English style ales with him.
Tony has set up a small yet immaculate bar in his home, complete with four beer engines pumping fresh cask ales brewed and conditioned in the basement. During our visit he poured pints of “Butser Session Bitter” (3.4% ABV) and “Old Oak Dark Mild” (3.3% ABV), told us stories of his brewing experience, and gave us an in-depth explanation of cask ales.
Cask ales (or “real ales”) go through secondary fermentation an are conditioned in casks, without additional carbon dioxide. They are served straight from the cask, typically pumped from the cellar using a beer engine. Since they aren’t force carbonated, cask ales only have their natural carbonation. A “sparkler” can be used to oxygenate the beer, changing the taste and mouthfeel (think nitrogen vs CO2).
While living in Yakima, WA, Tony ran a cask ale operation called “The Beer Shop.” He kept three rotating casks on at all times. Since cask ales are exposed to oxygen once tapped, they can change from day to day. Not sure if it’s good enough to serve? Tony recommends trusting your taste buds; if you wouldn’t drink it, don’t serve it to your customers. Nowadays, Tony keeps up to four beers on cask at home.
Tony got his start homebrewing. He didn’t have a ton of money for gear, so he got a free (though slightly dented) boiling bot from a kitchen job he worked. He bought grain from a local homebrewing shop and secured yeast from Boddington’s Brewery, carrying a bucket full of yeast home on a train. He learned cellarmanship – the art of making and serving cask beer – while working at the Victoria Hotel pub. Later in life, he took two intensive training courses at Brewlab to further hone his brewing skills.
Tony’s basement brewhouse is a testament to his years of brewing and engineering expertise. Reverse osmosis-treated water feeds into kettles with electric heating elements. Wort can be pumped through the insulated mash tun to recirculate and sparge. There’s a propane burner for the boil kettle, which is also is hooked up to a motorized lever for safer handling when full. And before entering the fermenter, the wort is run through a plate chiller for rapid cooling. The ales undergo primary fermentation under the stairs before being transferred to the casks.
Tony was incredibly generous to share his brewing knowledge and his delicious beer with us. We hope to visit again soon!