Back in April, on baseball's Opening Day in Washington, D.C., I bemoaned the limited choices for good beer at Nationals Park. A reader took me to task, writing:
Nats Park is a baseball stadium and not a bar. You can get many great local beers at many pubs in the district. The beers that are available at the park are beers that appeal to the mass consumers and that is what sells. It is not cheap to own a baseball team and they have a right to sell products that will generate revenue. You are going to sell a lot more of a domestic light beer at a baseball game than a IPA or Porter. I think the selection is fine and the food options are great as well.
Well, check this out, Mr. (or Ms.) Anonymous!
Just 45 miles north of Nationals Park sits Oriole Park at Camden Yards —home to the Orioles in Baltimore, Maryland. Not only does Camden Yards offer a greater number of concession stands serving good beers, bottled and draft, than does Nationals Park, it also serves ... cask-conditioned ale.
Cask ale is naturally carbonated, unfiltered, beer that is served in a small cask in which the secondary fermentation occurs (that is, the carbonating fermentation). Think of a cask almost as a mini-fermenter, sent out from a brewery. Thus, when a cask is tapped, it's truly fresh beer. It's a specialist product, requiring much more care to handle than bottles or kegs.
For nearly every Friday home game this season, Flying Dog Brewing of Frederick, Maryland, has tapped and served two casks at Camden Yards —one at the Roof Deck, a bar and pavilion overlooking centerfield, and the other at Section 23 in the main level concourse.
On Friday, 7 September, I was invited to tap a cask of Flying Dog's —ahem— Pearl Necklace Oyster Stout. Two firkins (10.8 gallon casks) had been transported to the ballpark several days earlier and allowed to rest, kept cool, on their bellies. Then, on Friday morning, J.R. Woolsey —the brewery's Sales Specialist in Maryland, and the point man at the ballpark— vented the casks on the stillages on which they would be tapped (a process known as bringing the casks into condition).
My part in this caper was easy —other than navigating the traffic of the D.C. Beltway/I-95 north corridor. I arrived at Camden Yards at 3:30, and was met by J.R. and the rest of the crew from Flying Dog.
We had a quick beer at Dempsey's, a brewpub on the grounds of the ballpark. Then, it was on to the centerfield Roof Deck just opened for 2012. In fact, the entire ballpark has had a facelift and was looking mighty spiffy.
Cask-conditioned ale is traditionally served less cold than bottled or draft beer. The fresh flavors, and subtleties of the secondary fermentation, are better revealed and appreciated at what's known as 'cellar' temperature: 54 °F degrees or so. But that Friday was a very hot day, and standard cooling methods wouldn't work to keep the beer cool. So, the crew draped a bag of ice over the firkin.
At 4 pm, I swung a mallet, pounding a tap into a wooden keystone, and the stout flowed, pouring jet black, with a cafe-au-lait head. It was 5.5% alcohol-by-volume, and 35 IBUs (bittering units) from Perle hops.
Here's the kicker. Pearl Necklace Oyster Stout was indeed brewed with actual whole Virginia Rappahannock oysters, added to the mash and boil. Brewer Kohr told me that the oysters' shells added alkalinity to the mash, somewhat countering the elevated acidity of the dark and roasted malts.
Those oysters didn't become beer in vain, however. A portion of proceeds from sales of the beer is donated to the Oyster Recovery Fund.
How did the beer taste? Roasty like espresso, dark chocolatey (like unsweetened baker's chocolate), with a hint of sweetness at the finish. That this was not a hyped-up-high-alcohol beer was refreshing on a hot day. And, was that saltiness I tasted on the finish? ... Or was that the power of suggestion?
The ballparks' concessionaire, hospitality company Delaware North, might have been a bit squeamish about the beer's name. At the ballpark, the beer was simply called Oyster Stout. But they are to be commended for their craft beer program (not withstanding any financial considerations) and —to my mind— a benighted proffer of cask ale at a ballpark. Commendation must also go to Flying Dog Brewery for initially suggesting the project, and then steadfastly following through. (Nationals Park: are you paying attention?).
The beer that afternoon was good; the game, not so much. The Orioles lost to the New York Yankees, 4-3.
But, the team has done well, and, three weeks later, with only 6 games to play in the season, it's but one game behind the New York Yankees in the race for the American League East Division pennant. One of those games is tonight vs. the Boston Red Sox. It's at 7:05, and it's at home, and that means there will be cask ale from Flying Dog. It's the last home game of the season; it's the last cask ale at the ballpark until next season.
Flying Dog's Single Hop Imperial IPA is brewed and fermented with Nelson Sauvin, a New Zealand hop with a pronounced character not unlike that of that nation's Sauvingon Blanc wine. Two firkins of the beer were infused —directly inside the casks— with more of those Nelson Sauvins. The firkins are there now at Camden Yards, waiting to be tapped: 4 pm on the Roofdeck Bar, and 4:30 pm at the Section 23 Flying Dog concession stand. The beer will be sold tonight until the casks' contents are drained. And, did I mention that Single Hop Imperial IPA is a 'mere' 10% alcohol-by-volume?
To paraphrase the late great Orioles sportscaster, Chuck Thompson, and to recognize the challenging logistics needed to serve cask ale at a ballpark:
- More photos from the 7 September tapping: here.
- Earlier press notices of cask ale at Camden Yards:
- The only other baseball park —that I know of— serving cask ale is AT&T Park, home to the Giants, in San Francisco, California.
- Learn more about cask ale: CaskAleUSA.
- Although the idea of a brewpub (a restaurant that brews its own beer on the premises) in a ballpark is splendid, I was less than impressed with the quality of beer at Dempsey's. To be fair, I tried only one beer —the IPA— and I didn't try the food. Since the pub will remain open year-round, maybe I'll visit again after the baseball season has concluded.
- Contrast all this with the less stellar state of beer at Nationals Park, 45 mles to the south: here.