Monday, November 12, 2007

What Do You Mean My Beer Isn't Real?

Have you ever heard of "Real Ale" or "Cask Ale?" I was going to write an awesome, poignant and riveting piece. But upon doing my research I found someone who had already done that. Here is a great article by Eric Asimov of the New York Times. Its worth its length. Very informative, plus it lists some of my FAVORITE beer bars in New York City. Go Beer!

The Power in the Cask: Old Ways, New Beer

I was sitting at a noisy bar on a beautiful fall afternoon, watching the bartender work, and she was indeed working.

She pulled down on the tap, then pushed back, pulled down and pushed up, in rhythmic repetition like a farmhand at a well. The ale poured slowly into a mug, at first all foam, then turning translucent before suddenly clarifying into a brilliant suds-topped amber.

I touched the faceted glass, cool, but not cold. A floral-citrus aroma rose up, and as I took my first sip I marveled at how soft and delicate the carbonation was, the bubbles giving the flavors lift and energy without aggression.

This was beer the really old-fashioned way. Today most draft beers are injected with carbon dioxide, filtered and often pasteurized, stored in pressurized kegs and served through gas-powered taps.

But the beer I was served was unpasteurized and unfiltered. Like the earliest bubbly brews, it was naturally carbonated, or conditioned, in its cask by yeast transforming sugar into alcohol with a side of fizzy carbon dioxide trapped in the cask. And it was served by muscle power pumping the ale up from its cask into the mug.

Cask-conditioned ales were standard in British pubs 100 years ago. They nearly disappeared after World War II, replaced with bland, corporate beers. But they have made a huge comeback in Britain in the last 35 years, and are in more and more American bars and restaurants. In the New York area the number of places serving cask ales has shot up since 2005.

"It's been a dramatic increase," said Robert Hodson, the sales manager of the craft beer division for Union Beer Distributors, the metropolitan area's leading distributor of cask ales. "In 2005 we serviced 12 accounts, and in 2007 it's up to 39."

In the last few days, I've had several excellent cask ales, including that wonderful pint, served at the Spotted Pig in the West Village and brewed by Sixpoint Craft Ales in Brooklyn. The bartender described it as a cross between a lager and a Bavarian wheat beer, which made no sense to me, as it tasted mostly like an English bitter. But if it was a mess in terms of genre, it was delicious in the glass.

At the Ginger Man in Midtown, I had a cask-conditioned Best Bitter from Sierra Nevada, beautifully balanced and softly carbonated with great depth and purity. At the Blind Tiger Ale House in Greenwich Village, I had a lively, detailed India pale ale from Brooklyn Brewery. I didn't even get to Brooklyn, which, with bars like Spuyten Duyvil, Barcade, Mugs and the Brazen Head, is cask beer central. The Brazen Head is holding another in a series of cask beer festivals Nov. 2 to 4, with 25 casks.

The number of casks being pumped is minute, given an American beer market still dominated by big corporate brewers. But throughout the country, growth in the beer market has been almost entirely in the craft brewing segment, and that has been especially true in New York.

While the American market for craft brews and specialty imports has risen 13 percent this year, Mr. Hodson said, in New York the rise in 2007 has been much higher, partly because the beer culture in New York has lagged behind that in the rest of the country and is now catching up.

It's the rare bar in New York today that doesn't offer alternatives to the insipid mass-market brews. Craft breweries have brought to American consumers every conceivable European beer genre and more than a few that Europeans never imagined. Now, with cask-conditioned ale, Americans have the opportunity to taste beers of unmatched subtlety and authenticity.

Because cask ales are naturally carbonated and best served at cellar temperature - about 55 degrees - they have often been described as warm and flat. But as you get to know them, it can become hard to imagine drinking beer any other way. The softness of the bubbles and the gently cool temperature permit nuances that would otherwise be undetectable.

Cask ale is made the same way as other good beers, until it is left to mature in tanks. Mass-market beer is filtered and pasteurized for a stable shelf life.

Cask beer is treated differently. It goes, naturally, into casks, or firkins, if you want the British word for a container of 9 imperial gallons (around 11 U.S. gallons.) Firkins used to be wooden, but now are generally made of metal. A small dose of sugar is added to produce a secondary fermentation, just as Champagne or certain other beers are refermented in bottles. Brewers may also add more hops and a fining material, like isinglass, to help settle the yeast and clarify the beer.

Cask ales must be treated with considerable care. They have to be kept cool and handled gingerly, and when it’s time to tap the kegs, they require an experienced, or at least educated, hand. In fact, the biggest obstacle to a wider distribution of cask beers is a lack of training.

"I have to take people from start to finish about what to do and what not to do," said Alex Hall, a beer consultant who has been proselytizing for cask-conditioned ales since he came to New York from Brighton, England, eight years ago.

If mass-market kegs are the Wonder bread and Velveeta of the beer world, cask ales are like fresh-baked loaves or artisanal cheeses, with the potential to be glorious but risky all the same. They have a shelf life of two to four days once opened, and if not tapped correctly they can be a big disappointment.

"I've literally had to go into places and say, 'That's it, you can't have our beer,'" said Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster for Brooklyn Brewery, which produces 9 to 14 casks of ale a week. "It's a very touchy thing, because there are people who've read about cask beer and want to serve it, but they don't really understand what it takes and they're not willing to make the commitment. The galling thing is it doesn't take that much time."

So why take the risk and bother? "To some extent England inspired me to become a brewer," Mr. Oliver said. "When done properly, it's some of the nicest beer we can make."

To a certain extent all beer was cask beer in the pre-industrial age. But today cask ale, with its low carbonation and bright clarity, is largely a British tradition.

Belgian beers took quickly to bottling, which is why many great Belgian brews are bottle-conditioned rather than cask-conditioned. The German tradition focused largely on lagers, with their more powerful carbonation and yeasts that dropped naturally to the bottom of the brewing vessel, rather than the British top-fermenting ale yeasts.

And it has been a British grass-roots organization, Campaign for Real Ale, which has led the resurgence of cask-conditioned ales there since the 1970s.

In the United States, cask ales are unlikely ever to gain more than a sliver of the market. In Britain, cask-ale production is automated at certain breweries. But no American brewery is set up like that; it’s all done by hand.

"Ordinarily we can fill 85 kegs in two and a half hours," Mr. Oliver said. "For cask, we have a guy with a hammer, a cask and a couple of flasks. You can see why it's a labor of love."

New favorite word: Firkin.

Also, Garrett Oliver...if you ever read my blog, I want to meet you and have a few session ales so I can tap your brain!


  1. Hi Christina,

    I came across your blog on Google. I love what you're doing! I convert women to beer at every opportunity and mostly meet with success. There's a beer for everyone, it's just a matter of discovering it.

    We had the good fortune of Garrett Oliver visiting us in Vancouver in August 1997. He hosted a brewmaster's dinner at a local restaurant. The following day, he tapped a firkin of his heavily-hopped Blast! IPA at a CAMRA-friendly restaurant and offered some Brooklyn 1 (which is now available in stores here) for tasting. Three local brewers also each provided a cask of Real Ale.

    Needless to say, Garrett created quite a sensation, especially with regards to food pairing. Since then, there have been a number of beer dinners at various restaurants and brewpubs around town. However, the ultimate beer dinner is coming up on January 13. Called The Feast of Five Firkins, it's a five-course dinner with each course paired to a different cask ale provided by five different local brewers. The main course is a spit-roasted pig. The dessert is paired with a rare circa 10-year-old black current lambic and is served with ice cream made from the lambic.

    If you ever find yourself in Vancouver, be sure to hook up with us as the best local contact for Real Ale. Good times to visit are around August and December/January when we host a summer and winter caskival (mini cask ale festival) with two dozen different beers.


    Rick Green
    Secretary & Webmaster
    Campaign for Real Ale Vancouver
    Campaigning for Real Ale, Pubs, and Drinkers' Rights
    Tel: 604.879.5548

  2. Thirteen of the country’s finest craft brewers will gather at the Matinecock Masonic Historical Society in Oyster Bay on August 22, 2009 from 1:00—5:00pm to showcase their finest cask beer. Festival attendees will be able to try samples of the cask beer from the local, award winning breweries like Blue Point Brewing Company and Black Forest Brew Haus, plus breweries hailing from California, Pennsylvania, New York State, and Massachusetts. The event will be held at the Matinecock Masonic Historical Society located at 14 W. Main Street in Oyster Bay, NY.