Friday, February 05, 2010

Still crazy about cask ale after all these years

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).

The following is an essay from Steve Hamburg, one of the foremost cask cellarmen in the United States.

Chicago was once home to America’s premier cask ale event, The Real Ale Festival, now sadly fading into history. Starting from humble beginnings in October 1996, RAF gradually grew to become one of the most anticipated festivals on the calendar of any serious beer geek. As a co-founder and head cellarman of that event, I have a unique perspective on cask ale in America and its growth in popularity.

Hard to believe, but the first Real Ale Festival featured just 32 beers, and over half of them were served from Golden Gate, Sanke, and Hoff Stevens kegs. Only 4 of the 16 American breweries managed to provide actual casks (Bridgeport, Middle Ages, Highlander, Shipyard)! But surely the highlight of the event was the shipment of firkins flown in from England: Marston's Pedigree, Oyster Stout, and Owd Roger; Young's Special Bitter and Fuller's ESB.

We would never have been able to get any of those English beers without the incredible assistance of Mark Dorber, then the famed landlord of the White Horse on Parsons Green in London and a widely recognized expert on real ale. English brewers initially balked when Ray Daniels and I approached them about getting beers, but when we mentioned that Mark would be arranging the critical equipment and directing the cellaring, they yielded. The USA was a cask ale desert, and no self-respecting English brewer was going to trust a Yank to look after his beers.

We must have done something right, because we never had a problem getting beers after that. The Fuller’s brewery proudly displayed their Best of Show medal in their Hock Cellar and the CAMRA newsletter What’s Brewing said "It looks like a CAMRA beer festival, it tastes like a CAMRA beer festival..."

Beginning in 1997 we required that all beers submitted for the festival come in actual firkins to facilitate uniform handling and serving of every entry. Despite this new requirement, our second festival drew three times as many entries as the first and established this event as the largest gathering of cask-conditioned ales anywhere outside of Britain (only the Great British Beer Festival and the Peterborough Beer Festival offered more at the time). At our last RAF in 2003 we served 220 casks of real ale from 21 states and the District of Columbia, including 16 beers from 6 UK breweries.

Life as a cellarman was always entertaining in those early years. Certain breweries (which shall remain un-named) were renowned for priming their beers so vigorously that soft spiling often risked the loss of an eye and inevitably included a beer shower. That’s when I learned to always wear glasses when spiling. I also learned to keep a box of towels handy, as the fountain that shot forth from the soft spile could splatter the cross beams on a 12-foot ceiling and spray everything within a 15-foot radius.

Luckily only a handful of beers were this dangerous, as beers this lively were almost impossible to serve properly once the festival was underway. RAF always had a professional judging, which meant we always aimed to get all of the beers properly conditioned and bright when judging began. Unfortunately, some beers were still “working” in the cask when judge samples were poured.

After a while, most breweries worked out their kinks and managed to ship us beers that were well-conditioned but not explosive. It became more boring, perhaps, but better for all concerned, on both sides of the bar.

One of my required activities that always drew a crowd was the quality walk-through, where beers were sampled and assessed grades in condition, clarity, and overall quality. The system I used was borrowed (stolen) from Mark Dorber and proved extremely helpful in anticipating problems and providing suitable feedback to judges and consumers.

The process is actually quite quick: you pour off the first pint, then draw a sample and visually assess condition and clarity; take a short sniff to check for off aromas; sample a sip for off flavors; and yes, usually you spit it out. This always seemed to piss off other volunteers, who looked at spitting as something you did at a wine tasting. But the fact is, you simply can’t drink every beer at a festival (by 2003, these duties were split between 3 of us, but that still meant we would each check ~70 beers!). Eventually I learned to plan these walkthroughs when fewer people were around, as too many volunteers wanted to “help” out with the tasting.

Of course, when you’re working in a pub environment with a maximum of 5-6 casks on, taste away!

Sadly, RAF faded away after years of various venue issues. Most of the original equipment we used - the cooling jackets, glycol chillers, handpumps, taps – were sold off. But the success we achieved over 7 years was still impressive. We know that we never wavered when it came to the quality and presentation of the beers. I was especially proud when Mark Dorber came back in 2002 and said we were really doing things right. And we’re still doing a nice real ale event in Chicago – it’s just smaller (around 40 or so casks), but the beer quality is still something we’re proud of.

Slowly, surely, real ale has been catching on in America. At the very least, brewers have better access to casks, cellaring supplies, taps, and handpumps (Paul Pendyck’s UK Brewing Supplies has been a great resource). But to my mind, too many brewpubs and beer bars still lack the cellaring training and experience or worse, the desire to serve cask ale at its most elegant best. Many breweries continue to struggle to find the right balance of yeast and/or primings in the cask. A lot of places didn’t bother with finings at all, or even if they did, they didn’t give them a chance to work their magic.

l-r: Ray Daniels, organizer; Mark Dorber; Tomme Arthur, brewer; Steve Hamburg.

The most common problem I see today is that beers haven’t been given enough time to develop conditioning and drop bright in the cask. I understand the need to turn over beer quickly in a bar or brewpub, but come on – what’s your rush? Let the beer finish. As I often heard Mark Dorber say, “cask-conditioning is a marathon, not a sprint.” Most beers, even the most intensely dry-hopped “tea-bagged” IPA can be served bright if given enough time. If you’re not allowing proper time for conditioning and brightness, why bother with cask-conditioning at all?

The job of the cellarman is to use his/her tools and experience to bring out the greatest beauty of every beer on offer. If you’re willing to drink unfinished cloudy pints, you don’t need a cellarman at all – just throw the cask on the bar, tap it, and be done with it. But whatever it is, it’s beer from a cask, not cask-conditioned beer.

Unfortunately, too many American beer drinkers have only been exposed to a more false representation of real ale, where the “show” takes precedence over the beauty and elegance of the beer in the glass. Casks are rolled and sloshed around right before tapping, as if they were the stainless steel (or plastic) equivalent of a bottle of Bavarian hefeweizen. Patrons are too often told that real ale is “supposed to be cloudy” because it’s unfiltered. Sometimes beer that’s been overspiled and flat is pumped through a tight sparkler to give it the head it should have had without such “special treatment.” We can all do without this sort of thing.

Cask ale done right is a remarkable drink. Let’s not settle for style over substance. 

Steve Hamburg is an award-winning homebrewer, an author of articles on brewing, and a long-time member of the renowned Chicago Beer Society. As he has written above, he had been the Cellarmaster for the former US Real Ale Festival. Now, he is an organizer of another annual real ale event, Day & Night of the Living Ales (now in its 6th year), scheduled this year for March 6 at Goose Island Wrigleyville.


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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