Friday, October 25, 2013

The 10th annual Chesapeake Real Ale Festival (and some Baltimore beer history).

Saturday, it's the Chesapeake Real Ale Festival, a stand-out event of Baltimore Beer Week.

10th Chesapeake Real Ale Festival

More about that in a bit, but, first, let's recount some pre-Week Baltimore good-beer history.

Sixty-nine years ago, in 1944, the Ossenberg family opened its neighborhood pub, Racers' Cafe, in Parkville, Maryland, just northeast of the city of Baltimore. In the late 1980s, when the craft beer renaissance had begun to grow in earnest, sons Richard and Gil transformed the pub into a 'craft' beer bar. These days, there may be other and bigger good-beer pubs in Baltimore and Maryland, but Racers' Cafe, was indeed one of the first. Today: thirteen taps, many bottled beers, and a beer and wine-shop on the premises, but, despite its name, Racers' Cafe still has no kitchen.

Fast forward to 1997. That's the year Racers' Cafe first hosted the Real Ale Challenge, the Baltimore area's first-ever cask ale festival, in cooperation with the Chesapeake SPBW.

Chesapeake branch of the SPBW

SPBW is the acronym for the Society for the Preservation of Beer from the Wood, a consumer-based beer-advocacy group, active primarily in the U.K. Here's how it describes itself on its website, which gets to the nub of what cask-conditioned 'real ale' is about:
It all began on the evening of Friday, 6th December, 1963 when seven disgruntled beer drinkers gathered in the Rising Sun in Epsom. Their concern was the growing decline in both quality and palatability of beer. This they felt was due to the increasing use of gas pressure dispense and the introduction of keg beers. They deplored the policies of the big brewers who, by forcing the sale of beer from 'sealed dustbins' were threatening the availability of traditional draught beer. The seven drinkers decided to form a society with the purpose of drawing attention to their plight - and so the SPBW was born.

In 1963 wooden casks were still regarded as being synonymous with traditional draught beer in contrast to the sealed dustbins which contained the processed and artificially carbonated product. For this reason the name seemed ideal. After a few years, realising that metal casks were rapidly replacing wooden ones, the Society decided to relax its principles accordingly. Nowadays only about a dozen breweries use wooden casks at all, and the SPBW is more concerned with the contents than the container, which we accept makes little or no difference to the taste of the beer. However, the original name has been retained for the sake of tradition.

There is only one chapter of the SPBW in the United States. It's the Chesapeake Branch, founded in the mid-1990s, in Baltimore, Maryland.

The Real Ale Challenge would continue for nine more years through 2005. The SPBW was also able to secure English cask ales, and, as local breweries proliferated, so did the local cask ale options. The festival became a victim of its success: the intimate venue was proving too small for the growing crowd of real ale fans. So, in 2004, the Chesapeake SPBW moved its festival elsewhere, choosing the Wharf Rat, a brewpub in downtown Baltimore. Founded in 1994 by Bill Oliver, it was an appropriate choice: an English-style gastro-pub serving cask ale brewed on-site in traditional open-fermenters.

The new festival was called the Chesapeake Real Ale Festival. The Wharf Rat would be sold a few years later and re-christened as the Pratt Street Alehouse, but the annual festival continued there unabated.

There is a common thread stitching together the Real Ale Festival/Real Ale Challenge, the Chesapeake SPBW, and Baltimore Beer Week. All were the creation of Joe Gold, a long-time good-beer maven in the city, and the current sales manager for the city's Heavy Seas Brewing Company. A good legacy: this week, it's the 5th-year observance of Baltimore Beer Week, and this Saturday, 26 October 2013, it's the 10th anniversary celebration of the Chesapeake Real Ale Festival.

SPBW's Joe Gold

Oliver Ales is the house brewery at the Pratt Street AleHouse. Steve Jones, its long-time brewmaster, is the cellarmaster for the Festival. He and assistant brewer J. Derick Davis will have moved all the casks onto stillage, and ensured that all have been properly conditioned.

And, what are those cask ales? 40-plus casks from about 30 breweries: many from Maryland, a few from Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, and a few from outside the Chesapeake watershed, including one from England. But, as Justin Dvorkin —Pratt Street Alehouse proprietor— told me, this is a fungible list. Many expected casks will arrive, but some may not. Many will be in good shape, but some, unfortunately, may not be (the delicate nature of real ale). Some casks may surprise with unexpected appearances.

And, this I like. Once you get in, you enjoy. There's no need to buy additional tickets for beers.

Jones & Dvorkin
Jones (l); Dvorkin (r)
  • Host Oliver Breweries -
    • Sheer Greed (oak-barrel aged)
    • Fast and Loose (hoppy session ale, hopped with Liberty and Citra, brewed in collaboration with Evolution Brewing)
    • 3 Lions (strong brown ale, aged with French aak)
    • Channel Crossing #6 (Englo-Belgian BarleyWine, brewed in collaboration with Stillwater Ales)
    • Solo Album - "Steve" (Strong English Brown)
    • Solo Album - "Derek" (Wheat Heavy)
    • Solo Album - "Jordan" (salted caramel brown ale)

  • The 'other' Maryland breweries
    • Barley and Hops Grill & Microbrewery - Cornucopia Harvest Ale (with vanilla extract and light-toasted oak)

    • Brewers Alley - Blend of Oatmeal Stout and Oh My Gourd! Pumpkin Ale

    • Brewers Art - Proletary Ale (with coffee)

    • Burley Oak Brewing Co. - Aboriginal Gangster (with Motueka and Citra Hops, and pineapple and coconut)
    • - Superfun Stout (with toasted marshmallows, cocoa nibs, and cinnamon

    • DuClaw - Barrel-aged Bad Moon Porter
    • - X7

    • Eastern Shore Brewing - (TBD)

    • Evolution - Lot 3
    • - Lot 6

    • Freys Brewing Co. - Backwood Brigade
    • - Milkhouse Stout

    • Flying Dog - The Fear (with cranberry & vanilla beans, and primed with Belgian candy sugar)
    • - Gonzo Imperial Porter (with vanilla)

    • Full Tilt - (TBA)

    • Heavy Seas Brewing - Winter Storm Category 5 Ale (Imperial ESB)

    • Milkhouse Brewery at Stillpoint Farm - (TBD)

    • Monacacy - Riot Rye (with Citra, Centennial, Sorachi Ace, and Nugget hops, and oak chips)

    • Pub Dog - GM Saison (with French Oak and Simcoe)
    • - Scratch and Sniff

    • The Raven Brewery - Tell Tale IPA (dry-hopped with Simcoe)

    • Stillwater - Hoppy Black Ale (collaboration with Brewers Art)

    • Union Craft Brewing - Black Market (hoppy black ale: collaboration between Union Craft, Flying Dog, Stillwater, and Brewers Art)
    • Union Craft Brewing - Double Duckpin

  • From Virginia
    • Blue Mountain - Lights Out Holiday Ale
    • - Barrel-aged Mandolin

  • From elsewhere in the Chesapeake watershed
    • Old Dominion Brewing (Delaware) - Morning Glory Espresso Stout (dry-hopped with Cascade)

    • Sly Fox (Pennsylvania) - Chester County Bitter

    • Weyerbacher (Pennsylvania) - (TBD)

    • Yards Brewing Co. (Pennsylvania) - Porter
    • - IPA

  • From England
    • Thornbridge Brewing - Raven Black IPA (dry-hopped with Cascade)

  • From everywhere else
    • Boulder Beer Co. (Colorado) - Shake Chocolate Porter
    • - Never Summer (Winter Ale)

    • Lagunitas (California) - IPA
    • - New Dogtown Pale

    • New Belgium Brewing (Colorado) - Ranger IPA
    • - 1554

    • Oskar Blues (Colorado) - Dales Pale Ale (with mangos and habaneros)
    • - Old Chub (with vanilla beans)

    • Stone Brewing (California) - Ruination IPA (with orange peel and vanilla beans)
Capacity crowd at Pratt Street Alehouse (02)

  • UPDATE: Photos from the festival: here.
  • Pratt Street Alehouse is located at 206 W. Pratt Street, directly across from the Baltimore Convention Center, near to the Inner Harbor, in Baltimore, Maryland. Follow on Facebook at prattstreetalehouse and on Twitter @PrattStAleHouse.
  • In the interest of historical accuracy, I should point out that while Joe Gold did organize the Real Ale Challenge, and was involved in helping move it to the Wharf Rat/Pratt Street, it was one of his successors as president of the Chesapeake SPBW, Dominic Cantalupo, who was the organizing force behind the Chesapeake Real Ale Fest.

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