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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

cask ale at Brewer's Alley

Brewer's Alley in Frederick Maryland recently won gold medals at the Maryland Governors Cup for its Brewer’s Alley Pilsner and Brewer’s Alley Hefeweizen.

See if you can't get Executive Brewer Tom Flores to give you the tour of his cask cellar. The brewpub has one of the better set-ups for cask ale service in our area. The real ales have been top-notch when I've stopped in, even though I haven't had the good fortune to visit recently.

In the photo to the right, note the cask cooler, kept at near 50*F. Inside it, the firkin on the right has been soft spiled, and sits almost ready for service. The firkin on the left rests on a spring-loaded trestle that slowly tilts the cask as its contents are emptied.

Keep in mind that casks are often served open to air through the shive. The beer is very fresh when first tapped. But 24-48 hours later, it will have lost its carbonation and potentially have begun to spoil or stale. So observe in the photo how Tom has inserted a nipple for CO2 into the top shive; only enough inert gas to rest as a blanket on top of the beer is allowed to flow in, with nil pressure pickup. This allows for a maintained level of freshness over much more than a 24 hour period.

These pictures were taken in 2004. Here's one of me helping to prime some casks that day. Note the cool brewer's uniform I'm wearing!

Going way back, here's a review of a firkin of Brewer's Alley I.P.A., which brewer Jen Tonkin brought to Sisson's Brewpub as a guest cask in June 2001:

Brewers Alley I.P.A.

Tapped Monday, 25 June, 2001.

At the 2001 US Real Ale Festival, Brewer's Alley of Frederick, MD, received a silver medal in the English Bitter category, for its Owen's Ale, and, yet more impressively, the bronze medal for best of show.

An observation which should not be remarkable, but unfortunately is in today's craft beer world, would be that Brewers Alley's brewer is a brewster, that is, a female brewer.

Jen Tonkin (and executive brewer Tom Flores) graciously agreed to produce a cask for our Firkin Monday program. And what a beer Brewers Alley I.P.A. was! One loyal Sisson's customer was overheard whispering, "This may be the best I.P.A. I have ever tasted." - soto voce maybe out of deference to Sisson's own Gunga Din I.P.A., which was on draft that day.

I.P.A. is shorthand for India Pale Ale, a style of ale originally brewed in Britain in the 1800s. Breweries of the time found that to ensure the stability of beers shipped to the troops stationed in the British Raj of India, preservatives had to be employed. The wonderful preservatives of those days were elevated levels of alcohol and prodigious amounts of hops.

Ms. Tonkin brewed her cask with American malt and hopped it creatively to a delicious result, sprinkling it with a melange of Liberty (often a spicy lager hop), Willamette (a more pungent cousin to the classic British ale hop Fuggles) and Fuggles (soft, floral, slightly woody) itself. But after fermentation, Ms. Tonkin didn't stop there. She dry-hopped the cask, adding fresh hop blossoms directly into the finished beer. Dry-hopping imparts the pungent, fresh vegetal character of the hop used. In this case, she used Challenger hops, a descendant of the German intensely-flavored Northern Brewer (which gives US Anchor Steam its distinctive pine-tree aroma) but which is gentler than its ancestor.

Though intensely flavored from all of this hopping, Brewers Alley I.P.A. had sufficient malt presence to bring all flavor components into relative balance. Its lower than expected alcohol level (for an I.P.A.), of 5.5% only added to its quaffability factor.

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