Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The existential cask

Toasting the fest

In the early 1990s, Ed Janiak was a part-timer at the Oxford Brewing Company in Linthicum, Maryland. I met up with Ed this past weekend in Baltimore, Md. at the Chesapeake Real Ale Festival.

He reminded me of how I had trained him to coax good beer from Oxford's creaky old brewhouse.

Oxford had no augur to bring the grain to the mash tun, nor an automated mixer. So, as hot water was sprayed in, brewers would hoist eighteen or so 55 pound bags of crushed barley up onto the platform, and would empty each bag, one by one, into the hopper suspended above the tun. As with any mashing regimen, if there was too much grain the mash would be too thick, forming doughballs, and if too little, the mash would be diluted.

I might tweak the flow a couple of times and occasionally I might climb back up the platform and encourage a good mix with a slow stroke of the long wooden boat oar that doubled as the mash fork.

But then —and this is what Ed reminded me of at the Fest this past weekend— I would climb down the platform, pop a cassette tape (yes, cassette) into the boom box, and begin to groove to acid jazz tunes.

The point I made to Ed was to let the mash be, to allow the mash just to happen, to allow it to be ... an existential mash.

In a way, it's the same with cask ale.

Cask ale (and kellerbier, that is, cask lager) is beer that has not been fussed with. There's no extraneous handling, no filtering. At a brewery, it's put in a cask while still fermenting, straight from the fermenter. And it's served soon thereafter —unlike wine— young and fresh.

Ed and I reminisced over cask ales on a clear crisp October day at the 5th annual Chesapeake Real Ale Festival, at the Wharf Rat Brewpub in downtown Baltimore, Md.

Beer goddess

All the casks were served by simple gravity tap. Those indoors were cooled with ice blankets. Those outdoors, the majority, had been cooled while sitting outside overnight, covered with tarps. There was some worry that the afternoon sun might overheat the casks, but by mid-afternoon long shadows had prevented that.

Which among the 30 or so casks was my favorite?

That's hard to say. There were indeed some I returned to more than others, but most had those bright flavors that identify cask ales as the fresh foodstuffs that they indeed are. [Go here for a listing of the casks.]

At a recent beer dinner, a table mate asked me, out of all beers I may have ever drunk, what was my favorite beer.

I replied, fresh beer, adding that I'm constantly being thrilled by new discoveries and delighted by beers' fresh flavors. But she seemed displeased that I had not limited myself to only one.

If I ever do find the perfect beer —my 'favorite' beer— it will be in good fellowship, amid good conversation ... and odds are that it will be fresh cask ale.

And, it will be existentially good.

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