Alive and Well in America
Huge seller or not, cask ale is alive and well in this country, thank you. It’s no longer necessary to travel to Great Britain to experience it. Since the 1990s, pioneering brewers and bar owners, often spurred on by a perceptive and passionate homebrewing community, have made it a reality here.
Real ale festivals are major annual affairs in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and San Diego, while “Firkin Fridays” and other promotions have become commonplace most everywhere else. And what brewpub or beer bar doesn’t have at least one beer engine these days? Jeez, the Brewers United for Real Potables, a homebrew club in the Washington, DC, area, can easily get 20 of them at their annual club real ale competition!
The Chicago festival has been literally bursting at the seams, both in attendance and the number of beers on offer. It’s now the third largest festival of its kind and the biggest outside of the United Kingdom. Who’d have guessed it?
Even ardent proponents of cask ale in America still see tremendous obstacles in establishing it as anything more than a niche in the beer industry. One need only look to ongoing problems in Britain, where real ale has been part of the social fabric for centuries, to realize that the logistical, economic, and educational hurdles here are enormous.
“In a perfect world, I would serve all of our beers exclusively cask conditioned,” Greg Hall, brew master of the Goose Island Beer Co. in Chicago, told me recently. “It’s the best way to appreciate our beers. The problem is, it’s just not feasible financially or logistically to do much more than we do now.” Goose Island does better than most, regularly serving cask ale at its two brewpubs and occasionally at selected local bars. But the offsite locations haven’t moved enough volume to make them part of a regular cask distribution circuit.
Marc Rubenstein, brewer and owner of Middle Ages Brewing in Syracuse, NY, shares this same combination of passion and healthy skepticism. At one time he was the largest cask-conditioned volume brewer in America. In 1996, Middle Ages supplied contract beers for the Highlander Brewery of New York City, a brewpub-in-waiting that aimed to serve exclusively cask ales. “We were processing over 100 casks per month,” Rubenstein said. “If you love cask beer as much as Mary (wife and co-owner) and I do, it was unbelievably satisfying!” By all accounts, their beers were excellent, even award winning, but only months after Highlander’s opening, the pub went kaput.
Middle Ages got the Highlander brands and added most of them to their portfolio, but now their cask production is decidedly more modest. They distribute to six regular accounts. “Cask beer is really for people who care a lot,” says Marc, “so I send it only to pubs that can handle it properly. We used to ship more, but I got too many complaints. If the beer is off, we’re the ones who look bad.”
Consequently, Rubenstein personally supervises the cellaring at his two closest accounts. On the other hand, two British-themed pubs in Rochester, The Old Toad and Rose and Crown, can handle the beers independently because they are operated by experienced English ex-patriots with extensive cellaring training.