Served from a wooden barrel, Gordon-Biersch Solidarity Ale was one of 22 cask beers, brewed by Washington, D.C.-area breweries, presented at Cask Night, a festival of cask ale held at brewpub District Chophouse, 9 August 2013.
Well, the beer wasn't exactly from the wood. And, it wasn't exactly cask-conditioned. What was it then, besides delicious? First, some background.
DC Beer Week Solidarity Ale
In July 2013, several Washington, D.C.-area brewers gathered at brewery DC Brau to collaboratively brew a "Solidarity Ale," in style, an English Summer Ale, to be released during the festivities of DC Beer Week 2013.
What, you might ask, is an English Summer Ale? The British themselves might be perplexed by that question, but the Great American Beer Festival has deemed English Summer Ale a beer style and offered these guidelines:
Light straw to golden colored with medium-low to medium bitterness, light to medium-light body, and low to medium residual malt sweetness. Torrefied [sic] and/or malted wheat are often used in quantities of 25% or less. Malt flavor may be biscuit-like. English, American or Noble-type hop character, flavor and aroma are evident, and may or may not be assertive and always well balanced with malt character. [Unclear. Is it balanced or unbalanced?] Mild carbonation traditionally characterizes draft-cask versions. In bottled versions, normal or lively carbon dioxide content is appropriate. The overall impression is refreshing and thirst quenching. Fruity-ester characters are acceptable at low to moderate levels. No butterscotch-like diacetyl or sweet corn-like dimethylsulfide (DMS) should be apparent in aroma or flavor. Chill haze is allowable at cold temperatures.
Alcohol by volume (abv): 3.7%-5.1%
IBUs (a measure of bitterness imparted by hops): 20-35
Color SRM: 4-6
DC Brau's official Solidarity Ale debuted at Cask Night, cask-conditioned.
- Malts: Pale, Maris Otter, Torrified Wheat, Wheat, Carapils, and Honey malt (not honey!)
- Hops: Fuggles, Willamette, Amarillo, and Mosaic
- Yeast: Scottish Ale
- 5% alcohol-by-volume. 25 IBUs.
- The cask was 'dry-hopped' with Zythos and Ahtanum, and primed with brown sugar. 4.7% abv. 25 IBUs.
Gordon-Biersch Solidarity Ale
Several of the collaborating brewers would brew their own versions of Solidarity Ale as well. Scott Lassiter —brewer at the Washington, D.C., downtown location, of national brewpub chain Gordon-Biersch— was one. He brewed his iteration from a simple grist of imported English Maris Otter malt —imparting a graham-cracker maltiness and ruddy hue— and from English Fuggles hops —imparting an earthy spiciness. A simple ingredient list, but not a simple beer: elegant, bright, well-carbonated, with a hint of yeasty, estery fruit (pear), and finishing dry. 5.1% abv and 30 IBUs.
What is cask-conditioned ale?
CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale, a consumer-based cask ale advocacy group based in the U.K.) defines 'real ale' (its term for cask-conditioned ale) as ...
a natural product brewed using traditional ingredients and left to mature in the cask (container) from which it is served [without extraneous gas pressure] through a process called secondary fermentation. It is this process which makes real ale unique amongst beers, and develops the wonderful tastes and aromas which processed beers can never provide.
'Real ale' is fresh, unfiltered, and unpasteurized; the yeast in the cask is still active. The level of carbonation is less gassy than that of draft or bottled beer. The ale is served at what is called 'cellar' temperature, in the low to mid 50 degrees Fahrenheit (never at room temperature!): the beer's flavors, especially those of lower-alcohol cask ales, are more evident at this temperature.
Was Gordon-Biersch's ale cask-conditioned?
Lassiter's brewery is lager-centric. His regular practice, as primary fermentation nears completion, is to close the pressure-release valves of his fermenters. The final carbon dioxide produced by the yeast is trapped in the fermenters and absorbed into the beer. This is a traditional German method called 'gespundet,' meaning bunged or capped, and results in natural, full carbonation.
Lassiter did the same with his Solidarity Ale, but then racked (transferred) a small amount of the unfiltered, finished beer into the vessel pictured above. It's not a wooden barrel but a stainless steel cask, decoratively wrapped by wood.
So, was Gordon-Biersch's Solidarity Ale a 'real ale,' as defined by CAMRA?
No, technically, it was not. It was tank-conditioned and it was transferred into a serving cask. But, was it delicious, with no added frou-frou ingredients, but with that sense of uber-freshness common to cask-conditioned ales, and with a decidedly British-ale flavor? Yes, and, coming as it did from a lager brewery, it was a special ale indeed.
I don't want to give the wrong impression. There were many well-made cask-conditioned ales (and a couple of lagers) at Cask Night. Here are three I'll give special mention to.
- Host District Chophouse's Solidarity Ale: minty and citrusy from hops Amarillo and Mosaic. 5.6% abv.
- Mad Fox Brewing's (Falls Church, Virginia) English Summer Ale, hopped with Citra hops: bright, orange-citrusy-zesty. 5.2% abv. A bronze-medal winner at the 2011 Great American Beer Festival.
- From Oliver Ales (Baltimore, Maryland): Human See, Human Do. A wheat ale, spiced with coriander and bitter orange peel, and only 3.2% alcohol-by-volume, it was a powerhouse of flavor, and quite bright for a wheat beer. In fact, it was one of the brightest (clearest) cask beers of the evening, unfiltered, demonstrating mastery of cask-conditioning technique. A touch of diacetyl (buttery flavor produced by the Ringwoood yeast) was malt-like and not unpleasant or inappropriate.
Towards an American cask ale-style?
There seem to be four major trends gaining traction in American cask ale, and all could be seen (and tasted) at Cask Night.
- One is Cask anything. If it's beer, American brewers put it in a cask.
- Another is the flavored one-off. Many American brewers seem to be producing their cask-ales —not as an expression of the absolute freshest their beer can be— but as opportunities to toss in extraneous ingredients. When done in chef-like moderation, that's not necessarily a bad thing. But it can easily be overdone. I overheard one drinker at Cask Night describing an overly-herbed beer, as he dumped it, as tasting like shampoo.
- 'Un-brightness' is another. Several ales at Cask Night were so cloudy, that it seemed as if the brewers were giving the finger to the tradition of bright British-style cask ales.
- Finally, American cask ales tend to be very high in alcohol, or, at the very least, higher than was common to British cask-conditioned ales in the mid to late 20th century (i.e., 4% abv or less).
- Although somewhat controversial, racked 'real ale' is not uncommon at U.K. beer festivals. Because the ale has been transferred off yeast sediment at the bottom of the original cask, it contains much less live yeast than the original. It also goes against a basic tenet of real ale's definition: that the beer is to be served in the very vessel in which its final fermentation occurred. [But, read the comment below about 'racked' real ales in the U.K.]
- List of casks at Cask Night and a story about the festival: here. Photos here.
- Caveat lector: As a representative for Select Wines, Inc. —a wine and beer wholesaler in northern Virginia— I sell the beers of Oliver Ales, if not Human See, Human Do.
- Pic(k) of the Week: one in a weekly series of personal photos, often posted on Saturdays, and often, but not always, with a good fermentable as a subject. Camera: Olympus Pen E-PL1. Commercial reproduction requires explicit permission, as per Creative Commons.