Gimme a Firkin Beer
Surfing the Chicago Real Ale Fest
Ray Daniels is the Chicago visionary responsible for the Chicago Real Ale Festival, held March 24-25 this year at Chicago’s Goose Island Brewery, Wrigleyville, across from the famous Wrigley Stadium.
Anyone in his right mind would have known that real ale, i.e., cask-conditioned ale, is all but done for on this planet.
CAMRA (CAmpaign for Real Ale), a British consumer group organized in 1971 to preserve and help revive this archaic style of beer service and preparation, defines real ale as “a name for draft (or bottled) beer, brewed from traditional ingredients, matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide.” What that means is that the beer is simply drawn from its container, but the result is quite different from the ordinary fizzy keg beer we all hold so dear.
It is not really too clear just what the dominant flavor factors are that effect changes in the taste of cask beer versus keg beer. Of course, cask beer is “alive” with active working yeast, and therefore changing constantly from that fact alone, but other forces are at work, too. Cask beer is not filtered⎯another huge difference.
Moreover, such beer is, of necessity, served at a warmer temperature than that to which most Americans are accustomed. If the beer is to be maintained in proper condition, i.e., not flat or too gassy, the cellar temperature must be maintained somewhere near 55 to 57 degrees Fahrenheit (13 to 14 degrees Celsius). We are used to drinking our beer at much colder temperatures. The warmer cask beer releases a multitude of flavor elements that are normally blocked from perception.
Finally, there is an absence of the prickly, acidic carbon dioxide rush as one drinks the beer, resulting in a softer, gentler beverage.
Chicago’s Best Effort
Daniels and his fellow beer lovers from the Chicago Beer Institute produced their fourth, and most successful, effort yet. Some 87 commercial brewers entered no fewer than 147 different cask beers, including 11 from Mother England, plus 55 bottle-conditioned entries. A homebrew real ale competition added another 18 participants. Attendance was 1,600, the highest yet. The volunteer workhorses of this, and most beer festivals, are homebrewers⎯in this case, members of the Chicago Beer Society.
The beers were organized and judged in 10 categories, with gold, silver and bronze medals awarded in each. My “surfing” was necessarily random. For various reasons, specific beers were not all that easy to track down, even if one knew where to look. The beers were in three rooms: the dining room had the largest offering, while the garage housed the most interesting beers (specialty categories, etc.). Bottle-conditioned beers were upstairs.
I started in the garage, a good choice. Specialty beers are often the most interesting, if not always the best, and this proved to be the case in Chicago. All of the beers were served from firkins (a firkin is 1/4 of a British standard 36 Imperial gallon “barrel” (9 UK gallons, 10.8 US gallons, 40.9 liters). These firkins are not the wood containers one might expect, but are the current standard stainless steel UK “casks.” Temperature control is by way of stainless steel coils circulating chilled glycol underneath black jackets clipped to the top each firkin. The beer is drawn from a tap hammered into the keystone, a plug in the front of the cask.
It is rare, in this country at least, to find Belgian-style beers on cask, but there it was: BJ’s Millennium Gran Cru, right at the top of the list. Since I had already tried the beer in its regular format, I wanted to see what the cask version was like. I’m glad I did, because the Woodland Hills (CA) brewery does extraordinary work. This (no exception) was fruity, spicy, aromatic and complex, with an elegant Belgian character note.
Close by, Flossmoor Station (IL) offered a true elixir with a 1096 original gravity Old Conundrum Barley Wine, a gold medal winner, aged in a whiskey barrel, and well worth a trip to that suburb of Chicago.
Fourteen brews constituted the specialty category, and I lingered overly long before proceeding to more orthodox offerings. Among the 11 Brits were several of my favorites, including Young’s Old Nick, and Fullers London Pride.
In the dining room I found the Strong Bitter/IPA department, and I almost didn’t escape. Some standouts included host Goose Island IPA, a gold medal winner, very well balanced and delightfully hoppy in the manner of our Pacific Northwest IPAs; and Michigan’s Bonfire Bistro’s Burning Brand Bitter, a silver medalist, also hopped to the max. Among the mild ales, I found a favorite in Larry Bell’s (from Kalamazoo, MI) bronze medalist Best Brown Ale, a beer so good, so smooth and mellow, so come-hitherish, that I am salivating even as I write about it.
Upstairs, I explored some of the bottle-conditioned ales. I truly enjoyed Pennsylvania’s Church Brew Works 2000 Belgian Trippel and John Harvard’s Cambridge Milk Stout, both classic examples of bottle-conditioned ales at their best.
Back in the garage, more marvels were waiting. Mickey Finn’s Libertyville, IL, Wee Heavy was very well done and worth lingering over, which I did. While there, they announced the best of group awards, and I rushed back to the dining room to sample a fine Oregon beer. Normally, I avoid Oregon beer in places like Chicago, but who can resist Rogue brewer John Meier’s Shakespeare Stout, which won a gold in both the porter and stout categories. Where I live, we don’t get it on cask very often. That Shakespeare was worth a trip to Chicago, too.
Speaking of gold, Houston’s Saint Arnold Christmas Ale offered an interesting twist on old ales, and the Flatlander’s 80-shilling Ale (Lincolnshire, IL) was smooth and well balanced with interesting hints of smoke on the tail, gold for sure, and in the Scottish ale category.
So many wonderful brews were there that singling out any for special notice is far more difficult than it sounds. Nevertheless, I must note one more beer, not a medal winner this one, though I don’t know why. It won gold at the GABF last year. That was brewer Vinnie Cilurzo’s California Russian River ESB, quietly subdued but matchless in its almost perfect balance.
Maybe cask ale is in trouble in the homeland, but it’s going great guns here. Cask beer has more than just a toehold in this country; it has captured the beachhead. Daniels told me that there are now 2,000 or so firkins in the United States. Sadly, modest success here comes at a time when cask beer is losing popularity among young people in England. There, many of the younger drinkers prefer near beers like American Budweiser.
Look for cask beer coming soon to a pub near you.
Next year’s Chicago Real Ale Festival will be held early in March 2001. Go for it. Chicago is a great city to visit, and there’s good public transport in addition to good beer.
Fred Eckhardt lives, writes and drinks beer in Portland, OR. He is the author of The Essentials of Beer Style and Saké (USA).