Friday, February 05, 2010

It's Alive: "Learn how to 'read' the beer."

The topic of this month's The Session: Beer Blogging Friday is Cask-Conditioned Ale. In addition to inviting beer bloggers to contribute, I reached out to non-blogging beer folk (and, yes, they are many).

This personal reminiscence is from Ken Krucenski.

The cask of ale lay on its side on the top of the bar at Sean Bolans Irish Pub. It seemed to dare me to swing the mallet. Begging me to let the delicious contents of its cylindrical walls out. I held the venting spile in my hand, positioned to breach the top bung on the cask. Soon all would be begging me for the first pint. I was on top of the beer world!!

The 3lb wooden mallet was very light as it danced in my hand. I raised my arm and pointed it towards the heavens in preparation for its next mission. .It quickly made its earthly descent toward it target, perfectly aligned, then “whack” the spile penetrated the bung perfectly and the “hiss” of gas escaping slowly told me all was well. Cask ale for sale!

That was the way it played out in my head, but the truth is not quite as elegant.

The first time I prepared to serve a firkin of ale at my pub in South Baltimore [Sean Bolan's Historic Irish Pub], I had no idea of what I was doing. I thought I would just follow the few bits of advice that were given to me from some of my more experienced “beer” friends.

Use a venting spile and hit it hard they told me. What the hell was a venting spile? When the ale settles down a little, use a soft spile. What the hell was a soft spile? When the ale is ready, use the hard spile. What the hell was a hard spile, and why isn’t the ale ready when it comes out of the cask?

These were all questions for which the answers could not be taught over a pint. They would need to be learned organically through trial, error, and experience, and I had just started to be taught.

My education began on a Thursday morning around 1 am. I would serve my first firkin later that day at 7pm as I would every Thursday for the next five years.

When I swung the mallet towards the spile, I glanced it, and it did not fully penetrate the cask. The result was a geyser of beer that spewed all over the ceiling and pub. For the next several minutes I tried in vain to control the flow and waste of beer. I finally was able to get my hands on the bag of supplies I had and pull out a spile and shove it into the hole in the bung whence the beer was still flowing. For the next 3 hours I watched in amazement as beer pushed its way through the soft spile and formed a living foam that dripped over the entire bar. The beer never stopped hissing, never stopped foaming. Nobody told me that the beer was alive. Fortunately no one witnessed my lame attempt at preparing a cask to be served.

I would eventually learn how to “read” the beer. Just as parent learns to interpret the cries of a child, I learned how to interpret the signs of my beer. I could breach the cask and tell within an hour when the beer would fully be ready to be served, how long it would keep and what type of spigot to use just by watching the foam. Much of the knowledge came from asking the brewers and distributors about the characteristics of the beer and applying this knowledge nightly to all beers. I also learned a lot by drinking as much of the beer as I could. Nothing like first hand experience. (Breaching the keystone has its own stories to be told at a later time.)

The gang at Sean Bolan's
Ken Krucenski(r) at Sean Bolan's.

The lesson here is that cask ale is a living thing that needs be understood in addition to being enjoyed. The next time you drink a pint of cask ale, know that a brewer labored hard to make it, know that your cellarman spent time preparing it for you, not only for profit's sake, but also for the ale's sake.

Not all beer is alive, but seek out those that are, and try them, try them all! If you don’t know what a spile is, look it up on the internet, and if you go to my old Pub, now called Mugsy’s, you can still see the beer stains on the ceiling.

Find the only corner of the bar top, and look up.

Ken Krucenski was the owner of Sean Bolan's Historic Irish Pub in the Federal Hill district of Baltimore, Maryland. Only open from March of 2000 until October of 2006, it developed a good beer reputation much greater than its intimate size. It was renowned for its beer breakfasts.


The Session #36: Cask-Conditioned Beer
The Session: Beer Blogging Friday is a monthly event for the beer blogging community begun by Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer, and co-moderated with Jay Brooks at the Brookston Beer Bulletin.
On the first Friday of each month, a predetermined blogger hosts The Session,
chooses a specific, beer-related, topic, invites all bloggers to write on it, and posts a roundup of all the responses received.

More here.

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