The whole purpose of the American craft brewing revolution was to authenticate once again a beverage that the industrial beer complex had turned into fizzy artifice. Craft beer is beer made real. But that pint of bottled, canned or draft carbonated IPA you’re enjoying or that delectable nitro stout you recently had isn’t Real Ale. Beer dispensed with the aid of added CO2 isn’t so much “fake”—same goes for the equally egregious filtered beer—but CAMRA, the United Kingdom’s Campaign for Real Ale founded in 1973, practically deems it so.
On this side of the pond, we’re content to call the beer CAMRA advocates for “cask ale” when it’s very much alive. Following tradition, firkins (small casks) of cask-conditioned beer are checked daily to evaluate when they’re at the peak of vitality and are never filtered, thereby leaving the life-breathing yeast in place to keep it active. Beer engines draw the beer into waiting glasses. And the naturally carbonated ale is served at cellar temperature, allowing the truest expression of the brewer’s art to be enjoyed without any flavor numbed out through excess chilling. Here are two great cities thoroughly conditioned to deliver peak cask ale experiences.
New York City
To find a taste of Old England in New York, firkin fanatic Alex Hall, who worked as a cellarman in his native United Kingdom, serves as docent to a handful of spots to enjoy some of the best cask-conditioned ales in town. Hall is a partner in Massachusetts-based Wandering Star Brewing and has what he calls a “symbiotic arrangement” with craft beer Mecca dba Brooklyn (113 N. 7th St., Brooklyn). This means that while the Manhattan location (41 1st Ave., New York) has one beer on cask, the newer Brooklyn spot offers three, generally including Wandering Star Mild at Heart, but may include rarely seen treasures like Bear Republic’s Grand Am, an American pale ale from Northern California.
The more Hall uses his program to showcase cellarmanship and turns NYC into a cask destination—it’s about to become the second U.S. market to receive the Cask Marque from the U.K.-based cask accreditation program—the greater the number of pubs seem to add beer engines (devices for pumping beer). There are 70 and counting. Hall next points out two Park Slope neighborhood spots among them. The Brazen Head (228 Atlantic Ave., Brooklyn) has committed to always having a hand-pulled beer. And since it’s New York, order that cask-conditioned beer on a Sunday and partake of the complimentary bagels. And Mission Dolores (249 4th Ave.) offers 20 diverse taps that range from a West Coast IPA to a French bière de garde to a Basque cidra while always having something tasty on cask.
The Brooklyn Brewery (79 N. 11th St., Brooklyn) is fun to visit during happy hour on weekends, but you can find the beer all over town. Hall notes that cask offerings are ubiquitous, and one of the best eateries in town for carnivores, The Spotted Pig (314 W. 11th St., Manhattan) in Greenwich Village, keeps a dedicated hand pump for Brooklyn Spotted Pig Bitter. Of course, for vegetarians and those prone to making inappropriate mouth noises when they eat something delicious, there’s the Burrata with Slow Cooked Squash on Toast.
Rounding out Brooklyn bars, hit Mugs Ale House (125 Bedford Ave.) in Williamsburg, where beers from around the country and the world make their way on tap. A particularly interesting pairing hails from Barrier Brewing in Oceanside, just 25 miles east. While it has Antagonist ESB on draft, a rye IPA called Giant has been served on cask. As long as you’re quaffing British-style ales, see if you can skip the burgers and feast on the shepherd’s pie or Brooklyn Lager battered Atlantic cod for a local twist on fish and chips.
Among Manhattan’s elite beer bars, Hall points to The Ginger Man (11 E. 36th St.), the New York outpost of the family of pubs that began in Houston, which naturally has cottoned to cask ale. While you’ll find some 70 taps, check out the pair of beers on cask. Pennsylvania’s Weyerbacher has a way with IPA, so when something like cask-conditioned Last Chance IPA is available, keep it flowing as you devour the house charcuterie plate.
GastroMarket (315 10th Ave.) bills itself as a cask garden eatery, meaning this gastropub with a killer beer garden pushes its clientele in the direction of real ale. You’ll likely find a variety of styles on such as Colonel Blides English Bitter from New Jersey-based Cricket Hill Brewing and an oatmeal milk stout from another Garden State brewery, River Horse Brewing.
Hall also mentioned that another beer garden, the rooftop brewpub Birreria above Eataly (200 5th Ave.), a mega Italian-flavored supermarket-restaurant-gelateria-etc., has offered “three cask lines right from the start” in 2007. It doesn’t feel anything like a proper British pub, but considering it’s Italian inspired, that’s partly the point. And while Dogfish Head and the Baladin brewery from Italy partnered on the brewery—so naturally you’ll find Dogfish on draft and bottles of Baladin on the menu—the three cask beers, such as Thyme Pale Ale and Chestnut Mild, are infused with Italian culinary elements.
On a final note, whether you give cask beer an American or Italian spin, you can’t go wrong pairing it with proper fish and chips. Hall instantly suggests The Atlantic Chip Shop (129 Atlantic Ave., Brooklyn) in Park Slope as “the place.” Not only will you find a pair of cask lines, sometimes with U.K. imports on, you also can watch rugby on the telly. This chippy’s menu runs long with British dietary staples or lesser-spotted classics like Welsh Rarebit. “As authentic as it can get.”
Pints in NYC are a bit dearer than just about anywhere else in the country ($10 is almost common), and the same is truer for lodging, where all the rooms are tiny. For someplace affordable, check into the East Village Bed and Coffee (110 Avenue C) where rooms start at $125 and take the concept of a public house but replace beer engines with beds.
Brian Yaeger is the author of Red, White, and Brew: An American Beer Odyssey.