Sunday, February 07, 2010

The Real Ale Festival, 1996-2003

The topic of this month's The Session: Beer Blogging Friday is Cask-Conditioned Ale. In addition to inviting beer bloggers to contribute, I reached out to non-blogging beer folk (and, yes, they are many).

Ray Daniels sent along this recollection.

In 1996, I led colleagues from the Chicago Beer Society in setting up the Real Ale Festival which we ran seven times through 2003. Each time, it was the largest gathering of cask ales ever assembled in the US--and most likely the largest ever gathered outside Britain. It still holds the record as the largest competition of cask ales ever conducted on this side of the Atlantic. I met Tom Cizauskas during those days and he asked me for some memories from those days. Here are some brief recollections from the festival.

1996: 32 entries in a rag-tag array of “casks”: Sankey kegs, Hoff-Stevens kegs (still pretty common in those days), 5-gallon corny kegs (a rare size in commercial brewing then) and even some really old “Golden Gate” style kegs. We put the American beers up against the imported entries and Fuller’s London Pride won. In addition to the fest, we had London publican Mark Dorber over to judge and talk about the preparation and keeping of cask ale.

l-r: Ray Daniels, organizer, festival director;
Mark Dorber, master cellarman;
Tomme Arthur, brewer; Steve Hamburg, co-organizer, festival cellarmaster.
Photo courtesy of Steve Hamburg.

1997: We mandated use of “firkins” for every entry allowing easier handling and gravity dispense so that we didn’t need scores of beer engines. (Sales of firkins took off as a result.) As I recall, 98 beers in total were served. Judging was done by US brewers in multiple categories. We had a homebrewed real ale competition too! Educational sessions from Alan Pugsley and others took an entire morning covering how to prepare and manage firkins. One woman who attended came and asked for her money back after being there for 10 minutes because she couldn’t find any cask-conditioned Miller Lite.

Real Ale Fest 1997 (01)Judging at the RAF, 1997.

1998: We moved to a convention center in the suburbs and nearly went broke between the costs and horrible weather. But, we had Michael Jackson in to speak and judge and our firkin count was into the mid-100s. We also offered bottle-conditioned beers for the first time. At this point the festival limited the number of cask entries breweries could send as we simply would not have been able to accommodate all the casks otherwise.We took an interval of 16 months between this fest and the next, moving the event from the fall to late winter.

2000-2002: We moved to the recently opened Goose Island brewpub in Wrigleyville where the fest would be held for three years. Here the festival prospered and took on an international reputation. Despite the close quarters we had people coming from all over the country and from several countries outside the US to attend. Signs of the fest still remain on the ceiling in one room where an over-conditioned keg spewed its contents in a geyser more than 15 feet high.

2003: The last year of the Real Ale Festival as such, was held in a vintage warehouse building at an inner city steel mill. Smokers found still-hot steel forms in the parking lot to huddle around for warmth and festival goers had two floors of cask stillaging to explore. We tapped 232 casks that year, including 32 imported from England that were served at their own special bar. It was a glorious year and we looked forward to returning to the same venue for additional years of the fest. Sadly, that was not to be. Due to licensing issues, we were denied further use of that space. We had looked for years for places where we might do the event as it grew, but there simply wasn’t anyplace suitable. Proper presentation of cask ales requires several days of stillaging before serving and we simply couldn’t find a space in Chicago that would surrender their facility for a full week at a price that we could afford on the revenues from a two-day festival.

The remnants of this festival live on in an annual cask ale event put on by the Chicago Beer Society called “Night of the Living Ales.” The event sells out so quickly that non-members rarely have a chance a tickets.

Among his many accomplishments, Ray Daniels is the author of Designing Great Beers, the past director of the Brewers Association Craft Beer Marketing Program, and the creator and director of the beer sommelier school- Cicerone Certification Program.


The Session #36: Cask-Conditioned Beer
The Session: Beer Blogging Friday is a monthly event for the beer blogging community begun by Stan Hieronymus at Appellation Beer, and co-moderated with Jay Brooks at the Brookston Beer Bulletin.
On the first Friday of each month, a predetermined blogger hosts The Session,
chooses a specific, beer-related, topic, invites all bloggers to write on it, and posts a roundup of all the responses received.

More here.

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