Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

A Whale of A Firkin Fest, It Was

By William Brand
Tuesday, March 21st, 2006 at 10:01 pm in Uncategorized.

This is a column that ran in 2004 about the Firkin Real Ale Fest at Triple Rock Brewery in Berkeley, CA. The next fest will be April 1, 2006. For info check this link.

By William Brand

BERKELEY _ Hundreds of beer enthusiasts from around the Bay Area spent part of Saturday here in Berkeley sampling a kind of beer that was ancient when Shakespeare haunted the pubs of Stratford on Avon.

It’s called real ale and this day it was served from quaintly named, 14-gallon English containers, called “firkins.”

The occasion was the first annual Firkin Fest at the Triple Rock Brewery and Restaurant on Shattuck Ave. Twenty-eight brewers from as far away as Bend, OR, Chico and Monterey contributed specially made real ale firkins for event.

Triple Rock manager Bob DeMoisey said the event was a charity. The $14 admission was expected to raise a few thousand dollars for the Alisa Ann Ruch Burn Foundation.

So what’s the difference between real ale and the regular American stuff, most usually found in cans?

“Well _ you can’t see through this,” said Beth Hayden, of San Rafael, holding up a half-pint of Coast Range Porter.

The beer was an almost opaque brown, without the slightest trace of the usual beery fizz, but with a decisive aroma of roast barley.

“I first tried real ale in England and I’m fascinated with the stuff,” said Lance Alexander, of Alameda.

Triple Rock brewer Christian Kazakoff _ who conceived the idea of a firkin fest _ said he loves real ale. “It’s the old way of brewing and dispensing beer,” he said.

It’s made without chemicals or additives: barley malt, hops and water only. Then, after brewing it’s place directly into containers called “casks” for fermenting.

Finally, a bit of extra yeast is added to the cask, so a second fermentation continues _ even as it’s being served.

It was the only way beer was served in English pubs until refrigeration, creation of beer lines pushing beer with carbon-dioxide and light-tasting lagers came along.

The style was about to disappear in the 1970s. But a group of Londoners got mad; formed the Campaign for Real Ale and brought the style back from the dustbin.

Today, some of England’s finest beers, such as Bass Ale and Fuller’s Extra Special Bitter are served in casks as real ale in their home turf.

Saving real ale was a great move, enthusiasts in Berkleley said Saturday.

“It’s softer tasting and because it’s served at 53-57 degrees, the flavors and aromas come out a little more,” Kazakoff said.

“It’s easier to drink, not as biting as a regular beer, he said.

Tom Dalldorf, who publishes the San Leandro-based Celebrator Beer News, a bible for beer-o-files, sang praises for real ale.

“This is a kind of beer that shows the passion of the brewer’s art,” he said. “It’s difficult to make and that’s why we’re seeing less of it in England.”

But it’s outstanding stuff, he added.

While the English have to fight for real ale _ it’s becoming increasingly popular in America. A real ale fest held annually in Chicago until this year _ drew more than a hundred entries.

“They canceled their festival, so I decided we’d hold it here,” Kazakoff said.

After all, Triple Rock is historic in its own right. It was the fifth brewpub in America to open since Prohibition, opening in 1985, behind Yakima Malting and Brewing in Yakima, WA, Mendocino Brewing, Hopland, Buffalo Bill’s, Hayward and Manhattan in New York City.

Triple Rock’s Kazakoff chose firkins, because of the unusual name and because the small containers are just right for a batch of real ale.

In English pubs and in American brewpubs, real ales are usually served with a device called a hand pump, which draws beer into the tap by suction. Most American beers are pushed to the tap by C02 or nitrogen, a process that adds gassy bubbles to the beer.

No gas here.

There was a wildly different profusion of beers: Drake’s IPA from Drake Brewing of San Leandro, Tripel from Bison of Berkeley; Park Chalet Amber from Beach Chalet, San Francisco; Cindercone from Deschutes, of Bend, OR.

Gary Larsen, a retired Berkeley police officer, walked out of Triple Rock with a smile. He rated the Bison Tripel and Santa Rosa’s Porter as tops.

“The trouble is, I had nine half-pints,” Larsen said. “It’s so smooth and easy to drinking. I’m glad I can walk home,” he said.

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