The recently concluded Great British Beer Festival, held in London, is a yearly celebration of cask ale in the UK, and a competition for the best 'real ales' in that nation.
The festival runs a side-program called Bières Sans Frontières (literally, beers without borders). One of its presentations is an exposition and competition of cask ales (and lagers) from the US.
With over 100 cask beers from 18 different states, plus one from DC-based Capitol City, the Blackwell/W2 bar at GBBF has one of the largest ions of US real ale [and 'real' lager] in the world.
And it's proving a big draw, according to deputy bar manager Jim Laws. "Some people go for the strength, but a lot are going for the hops," he said, noting that while the US is famed for its big hoppy IPAs - and it is International IPA Day today, after all - there are plenty of porters, stouts and others on tap too.
Bryan Betts, GBBF blogger
But in the end, there can be only one, and it appears that British beer judges have caught the American 'craft beer' big hop flu. The 2011 winner of the Michael Jackson American Cask Ale competition at the GABBF 2011 was Palate Wrecker Double IPA from the Green Flash Brewing Company in San Diego, California.
Dave Sanders the manager of the [US cask]bar and the head brewer at Kirkstall Brewery in Leeds, UK commented:
'Palate Wrecker can truly be described as an awesome beer. A huge depth of flavour and bursting with fresh hops. The technique used to brew this particular beer appears to be quite revolutionary.'
The Green Flash Brewing Company was formed in 2002 by former pub owners Mike and Lisa Hinkley and in 2003 renowned brewmaster Chuck Silva joined the team. With Chuck on board they started to brew premium style beers with a modern twist on traditional styles. Their cutting edge beers don't fit traditional guidelines and have generated a great interest in the US and beyond.
The judging went on over the week of the festival involving brewers, CAMRA bar managers, bar staff, publicans and beer experts.
Second place was awarded to Sierra Nevada's Torpedo Extra IPA and third place to Brewers Union 180 Wotcha (a la Chinook) Best Bitter.
GBBF Press Release
Here's the list of 18 (!) casks shipped from breweries in the tri-state mid-Atlantic area of Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, and poured at the US Cask Bar. The breweries provided the descriptions, although spelling indicates some British editing.
- Baltimore-Washington Beer Works (Baltimore, Maryland)
[listed as The Raven]
Raven Special Lager (5.6% ABV)
An amber German style lager, brewed in honour of Baltimore's literary genius, Edgar Allan Poe.
- Brewer's Alley (Frederick, Maryland)
[Tom Flores, brewer]
Oatmeal Stout (6.7% ABV)
Rich and luscious flavour, complex beer with lots of caramel and roasted malt notes.
- Capitol City Brewing Company (Washington, D.C., Virginia)
[Mike McCarthy, brewer]
Pale Rider Ale (6.5% ABV)
American style Pale Ale. Aggressively hopped with Galena and Centennial hops and dry hopped with Centennial. Light malt backbone supports hop flavour and aroma.
- Devils Backbone (Roseland, Virginia)
[Jason Oliver, brewer]
Barclay's London Dark Lager (5.6% ABV)
Collaborative brew with beer historian Ronald Pattinson re-creating a rare London 1930 Barclay Perkins dark lager using a copy of the original brew log. Deep ruby brown in colour with rich malty notes. A recreation of an early English lager before they became pale and bland.
- DuClaw Brewing Company (Bel Air, Maryland, etc.)
[Jim Wagner, brewer]
Double Dry Hopped Venom Pale Ale (5.6% ABV)
A moderately bitter, but heavy flavour and aroma hopped American-Style Pale Ale.
- Flying Dog Brewery (Frederick, Maryland)
Snake Dog IPA (7.1% ABV)
[Matt Brophy, director of brewing operations]
An assertive American IPA bittered with Warrior and featuring Columbus hops in flavour and aroma. This cask is dry hopped with Amarillo enhancing the tropical fruit and citrus aromas of these varieties.
- Franklin's Restaurant, Brewery & General Store (Hyattsville, Maryland)
[Mike Roy, brewer]
Brewmaster Flash and the Furious Five Hops (8% ABV)
IPA with Amarillo, Cascade, Centennial, Chinook and Columbus
- Heavy Seas Brewing Company (Baltimore, Maryland)
[The brewery is listed under its 'other' name: Clipper City.]
[Stephen Marsh, cellarmaster; Ernesto Igot, brewmaster]
- Big DIPA Double IPA (10% ABV) Triple hopped during the brewing process with 5 pounds of hops per barrel. Very well balanced with an earthy hop aroma and strong malt backbone. This cask has been dry-hopped with Simcoe, Amarillo, Centennial and Palisade.
- Loose Cannon Hop 3 IPA (7.3% ABV) Triple-hopped American IPA: hopped in the kettle, in the hopback, dry-hopped in conditioning tank and finally dry-hopped in the cask. Well balanced with a rich hop flavour, citrus aroma and smooth finish. [Loose Cannon was awarded runner-up in the 2010 competition.]
- Plank 1 English Style Olde Ale (8% ABV) This English Style Olde Ale is matured on thermally modified Poplar wood. The cask has been additionally dry hopped with Northern Brewer and Fuggle hops. The base beer used in Plank I is special in and of itself, utilizing 8 types of specialty grains.
- Legend Brewing Company (Richmond, Virginia)
[John Wampler, brewmaster; Mike Killelea, cellarman]
Golden IPA (7% ABV)
This strong ale sports a rich gold colour, an aroma of sweet malt and clean hops, and an earthy, fruity flavour.
- Mad Fox Brewing Company (Falls Church, Virginia)
[Bill Madden, owner/brewmaster]
Wee Heavy Ale (8.6% ABV)
A Strong Scotch Ale. This very full-bodied, dark rich brew with a deep sweet malt character possess hints of toffee, plums and currants. Lightly hopped with the English hop varietal, First Gold. This is a big beer with plenty of malt sweetness.
- Oliver Breweries (Baltimore, Maryland)
[Steve Jones, brewer]
Strongman Pale Ale (Single Hop Sorachi Ace) (8.3% ABV)
A bold, assertive pale ale, generously hopped with Sorachi Ace but with a firm malt backbone for balance. Dry hopped in cask with Sorachi Ace.
- Starr Hill Brewery (Crozet, Virginia)
[Mark Thompson, owner/brewmaster]
Double Platinum (8.5% ABV)
Imperial India Pale Ale.
- Stillwater Artisanal Ales (Baltimore, Maryland)
[Brian Strumke, owner/brewer]
Cellar Door (6.6% ABV)
Starting with a base of German wheat & pale malts this crisp slightly hazy foundation was then accented with a blend of Sterling & Citra hops providing a intricate blend of herbal grass & tangerine citrus flavours and aroma.
- Sweetwater Tavern (Centreville, Virginia, etc.)
[Nick Funnell, brewmaster]
Great American Restaurants Pale Ale (5.4% ABV)
A copper coloured ESB-style beer. Rich rounded malt flavour balanced with a combined English and American hop character.
- Vintage 50 Restaurant and Brew Lounge (Leesburg, Virginia)
[Dean Lake, brewer]
Revolution Porter (7.6% ABV)
Robust Porter using English base and crystal malts, and Bavarian chocolate malt. Hopped with English Goldings.
- White Marsh/Red Brick Station (White Marsh, Maryland)
(Michael McDonald, brewer)
Altbier (4.8% ABV)
Modelled after traditional Dusseldorf Alt biers. The beer has a clean malt aroma and flavour with a hint of hops in the finish.
At its core, cask-conditioned ale is beer at its freshest. Beers traveling from the States to the UK would be about a month old: travel to a collection depot, to port, across the Atlantic, through customs, to another depot, and on to the festival. To forestall deleterious effects, many of the the US brewers relied upon stronger beers: higher hopping rates and greater alcohol levels.
Here's what the assistant manager for the American Cask Bar at the festival had to say:
So how have the US cask beers measured up to the exacting standards of CAMRA's volunteer cellar staff? Overall they have done extremely well, it seems. "One or two gave a few problems," Jim said. "But considering they've had a heck of a journey that's only to be expected."
For what its worth, on-line voters (really more an instant indication of preference) gave three stars, out of five possible, to Mad Fox, DuClaw, Devils Backbone, and Heavy Seas, and two stars to Brewer's Alley. The overall winner of the competition, Green Flash, received no stars. Of course, now that I've mentioned this, the results could quickly change.
- The term "real ale" was coined in the 1970s by the Campaign for Real Ale. Known by the acronym, CAMRA, it's the UK consumer beer organization which organizes the Great British Beer Festival: "Real ale is a beer brewed from traditional ingredients (malted barley, hops water and yeast), matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide."
- There was a bit of controversy this year over CAMRA's insistence on cask-conditioned beers vs. kegged beers. Read here and the response here.
- Caveat lector: As a representative for Select Wines, Inc. —a wine and beer wholesaler in northern Virgina— I sell the ales of Oliver Breweries and Heavy Seas.