Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

Don’t Put Real Ale Out To Pasteur

By William Brand
Tuesday, March 21st, 2006 at 10:05 pm in Uncategorized.

In my column Wednesday morning, I mentioned the Real Ale festival coming to the Triple Rock brewpub, 1920 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley CA. on April 1. This is one of three columns I’m posting about real ale

Oakland Tribune Beer Column, Oct. 20, 2004.

(A brilliant Tribune copy editor wrote that very nifty headline above..)

BY WILLIAM BRAND
Oakland Tribune
In an e-mail, reader, Reinier Nissen, brought up a beery subject I truly love: cask conditioned, real ale. This is a centuries old English manner of aging and serving beer.
It’s becoming more and more popular among American craft brewers, because it produces beer that is softly malty with a solid hoppy whallop.

Reiner said a good place to sample cask-conditioned ale in the Bay Area is Steelhead Brewing Co. at Burlingame Station in Burlingame. The pub has excellent cask ale on tap every day, he said.

A number of Bay Area brewpubs and a few special pubs have cask ale. But I haven’t visited Steelhead in quite a while, so I called Operations Manager Melissa Moore. She said brewer Emil Calouri always keeps two cask-conditioned ales on hand pump.
Bombay Bomber India Pale Ale stays on one pump all the time; a variety of ales are rotated to the other. Currently, Moore said, it’s Half Moon Bay Porter.

I love Bombay Bomber IPA. It was formulated several years ago by Teri Fahrendorf, corporate brewmaster for Steelhead Breweries (Eugene, OR, Burlingame and Irvine, CA. I first met Teri when she was brewing at Triple Rock in Berkeley. Loved her beer then; still keep it high on my “best” list.
. Keeping up Steelhead’s prize-winning tradition, Emil’s First Date Stout won gold earlier this month at the Great American Beer Festival in the imperial stouts category. Steelhead assures me it will be back on handpump in regular rotation.

So what is cask conditioned ale on hand pump? It sounds like stupid beer jargon, but it isn’t.
After an initial fermentation, the beer is moved _ non-pasteurized and unfiltered _ to casks; often fresh hops are added. Until very recently, the casks were wood, but today they’re usually stainless steel or aluminum.

When cask conditioned ale is ready to serve at the pub, the cask is tapped and connected to a beer line.

The beer is drawn to the bar with a “beer engine” _ a hand-operated suction pump. Pull the handle at the bar downward slowly and the pump draws the beer from the cask.

Ordinary keg beer _ outside of brewpubs _ is usually pasteurized. It’s pushed to the tap by carbon dioxide or sometimes a mix of CO2 and nitrogen.
The gas gives the beer its fizz. It looks lively and sparkling in the glass and held by all those sweet young things in high-priced TV commercials. It’s a painless, economical way to serve draught beer.

Real ales are alive; yeast continues to ferment and change in the cask producing carbon dioxide as a byproduct. Pasteurized beers are dead. Nothing lives in the beer; it cannot change, and usually it’s artificially carbonated in the keg or the beer line or both. That doesn’t make it bad _ there are many great keg beers.

But real ale is rather special.

Cask conditioned beer can be difficult to handle. The cask has to be tapped at precisely the time when the beer is ready to drink. It’s easy to get a beer that’s not quite right or past its time.

Cask conditioned beer gets its CO2 naturally as a by-product of the continued fermentation action of the yeast in the cask. A glass of cask conditioned ale is nearly flat.
But the taste _ oh my _ the taste can’t be duplicated. It’s silky smooth, melts away on the tongue in splendid fashion. Malt aromas can be intense. British-style real ales tend to emphasize the malts. Many American brewers increase the hopping.

Either way, it’s great beer. Try a few glasses and you’ll turn away from fizzy, yellow, big-brewer, beer in disgust.
We can thank a group of British ale drinkers for saving this cantankerous, wonderful style. In the early 70s real ale was disappearing in a sea of fizzy keg beer. Over glasses of the best cask ale, they launched the Campaign for Real Ale and saved it for all of us.
According to CAMRA, there are now nearly 300 new real ale brewers in the UK _ all part of a massive real ale revival.

Countless American brewers discovered real ale and today, cask-conditioned ale’s being made all over the U.S. I started this column talking about ale on hand pump at Steelhead at Burlingame station. But no doubt the brewpub in your neighborhood also does a cask regularly.

This postscript: For years as a beer writer, I received a free copy of “What’s Brewing”, the Campaign for Real Ale monthly newspaper. It’s how I learned about real ale in the first place.
After years of lurking, last year, I coughed up and joined CAMRA. I am proudly member number 00018770.

The reason it took me so long was the cost – currently 20 pounds _ about $36 year. But a tour of London pubs last year convinced me that real ale is a treasure worth saving. If you’re interested, go to www.camra.org.uk. Click on the “Join Us” button.

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