The fellow on the next bar stool asked about the beer business, and the conversation moved to fresh beer and about a recent cask ale event.
I don't think beer is about freshness, the fellow said. I have some Dogfish Pangea that I have been aging for three years. It's awesome.
Do you drink it everyday, I asked.
It's too strong.
What do you drink otherwise?
Well, I don't like lagers. So, when I want more than one beer, I drink Amstel Light.
Hmmm. Do you know that Amstel is a lager?
Despite recent sales growth, cask ale remains a niche product in the US. Possibly this is due to the set-up of bars and pubs in the US. Cask ale competes with the convenience of draft systems and with the sheer numbers of drafts offered.
Possibly this is due to the current surge of interest in aged and vatted beers. Vatted and aged beers, often of elevated alcohol levels, were common in the 18th and 19th century. [See Amber, Gold, & Black by Martyn Cornell.] As long as the impression is given that cask-conditioning is reserved for strong beers, the beauty of fresh beer may remain a niche secret. If beer can be aged, some might think, why bother with fresh cask beer?
That would be a shame.
I'm using the term 'vatted' to refer to beers aged in barrels (often bourbon barrels), sometimes inoculated with wild yeasts or other micro-flora. 'Aged' refers to the universe of beers of keeping: both vatted and bottled.
This is not a knock against aged and vatted beers, but more of a plea to breweries and pubs to continue to produce and serve cask ale, especially 3.5-5.5% alcohol beers, that is session-strength (that is, not knock-you-under-the-table alcoholic strength). Okay, maybe up to 6%.
I do appreciate the efforts, and the financial risks of cellaring beer. These methods can produce stunning results. I waxed rhapsodic a few years back upon encountering a wooden cask of J.W. Lees, an English barleywine. As with the Pangea/Amstel drinker above, I'll choose them not as a steady diet, but as a spice, a change, an accent.
Below is a photo of former bourbon barrels now holding aging porter and oatmeal stout at Rock Bottom Brewery in Arlington, Va.
I stopped in at the brewpub recently and had a good talk with Brewer Chris Rafferty. In addition to his darker beers which can be complimented by the barrel's infusion of bourbon flavors, Chris will be aging his golden Tripel in a three-times used cask, releasing the beer in late spring 2009. He hopes to get less 'dark bourbon' character and more spice into this beer.
Chris manages to do both casks and barrels. He offers cask-conditioned ale everyday except Wednesdays, and the barrel-aged beers when ready.
Rock Bottom is presenting a beer and cheese (and chocolate) fondue dinner this coming Monday, 15 December. None of Chris' barrel-aging beers will be served that evening, but the final beer of the evening —Cask Conditioned Tripel Kriek— will be served naturally conditioned, from a cask.
Holiday Brew Dinner
Rock Bottom Arlington, Va.
Monday, December 15th at 6:30pm
$45 per person or $80 per couple (including tax and gratuity)
Featuring a four-course, gourmet fondue dinner.
Three courses are paired with house brews.
and one with a guest beer.
For more information/reservations,
go to www.rockbottomarlington.com
or call (703) 516-7688.
Cheddar Fondue • Swiss Fondue
Pretzel Bites • French Bread • Granny Smith Apples • Bartlett Pears
Paired with Fallen Angel Tripel - Belgian Style Golden Ale
Fresh field greens and arugula mixed with Gorgonzola cheese,
sun dried cranberries, candied walnuts, red grapes, and celery.
Tossed with champagne vinaigrette.
Paired with Lemongrass White Ale
Spicy Monterrey Jack Fondue • Gorgonzola Fondue
Herb Crusted Pork Medallions • Tenderloin Tips
• Chicken Bites • Broccoli and Cauliflower crudites
Paired with Guest Beer:
Flying Fish Abby Dubbel - Belgian Style Brown Ale
Semi-Sweet Chocolate Fondue with Grand Marnier
Strawberries • Bananas with Peanut Butter • Pound Cake
Paired with Cask Conditioned Tripel Kriek