Cask-conditioned and good for what ales you

When they close the book on the 20th century, society will look to intellectuals such as myself to contemplate the greatest achievements of the period. There can be no doubt that the top three are:

  1. The ATM.
  2. Microwave popcorn.
  3. ESPN SportsCenter.

Naturally, some special-interest revisionists will dispute this list. I imagine women, for instance, would cast a few votes for the Wonder Bra.

And beer drinkers will protest that, surely, the craft-brew revolution or at least flip-top beer cans deserve some recognition for advancing our culture.

But in fact, the century’s greatest achievement, beerwise, occurred sometime before the 1900s. I refer to cask-conditioned ale.

Thankfully, it has made a huge comeback in the last decade of this century. And the good news is that this old-style brew, also called real ale, is in plentiful supply in our town.

Last week, the local breweratti turned out in force at Samuel Adams Brewhouse to celebrate our good fortune at Real Ale Rendezvous ’98. Beer Philadelphia publisher Jim Anderson rounded up 11 cask-conditioned brews for one of the best tastings Joe Sixpack’s ever guzzled.

Between sips, I learned that cask-conditioned ale first gained popularity in Britain around 1850, but drinkers have been savoring something like real ale since sugar first met yeast. Not to bore you with the details of the cask-conditioning process, but that’s where the beauty is. It goes like this:

Step 1. Make beer.

Step 2. Place beer in keg (or bottle).

Step 3. Add more yeast or fermentable sugar (malt, dextrose, etc.) and seal.

Step 4. Handle keg/bottle carefully.

What you get is a living, breathing animal of an brew. After kegging, the beer goes through a secondary fermentation that conditions the beer, producing natural carbon dioxide.

The process is a huge hassle for brewers and bartenders. The happy keg tends to froth about, emitting disgusting effluent. In a century when pushing bottle after bottle down the throats of consumers became the prime motivation for brewers, it’s no wonder the stuff nearly became extinct. These days, most brewers make their beer, inject a dose of CO2 gas and cap it.

Credit for saving cask-conditioned ale goes to a group of committed beer drinkers in Britain, called the Campaign for Real Ale. They’ve spent 20 years lobbying to prevent brewery takeovers and promoting new breweries that produce real ale.

Their efforts have landed on this side of the Atlantic, where craft brewers are eagerly experimenting with cask-conditioned versions of their brews. At the Real Ale Rendezvous, I sampled excellent casks from local micros, including Dogfish Head Raisin d’Etre, Flying Fish ESB, Barley Creek Super Hop, Stoudt’s Pilsener, Victory HopDevil, Yards ESB, Samuel Adams Brew House Infamous Pale Ale, Independence Uncle E$B and Dock Street Brewery & Restaurant Porter. They held their own against Three Floyds Alpha King from Hammond, Ind., and Scotland’s Fraoch Heather Ale, whose 4,000-year-old recipe uses heather flowers for flavoring instead of hops.

The taste difference between real ale and everything else is obvious to even novices.

The artificial carbonation in mass-produced beer tends to give a crisper feel in the mouth. Think of a 12-ounce can of Bud.

Real ale is softer, but – contrary to popular myth – it is not flat. At its best, it nails your senses with a powerful, flowery hop aroma, tempered with a rich malt taste. Think of a fresh-baked seeded loaf of Amoroso’s.

Locally, Yards, Flying Fish and Poor Henry’s are producing bottle-conditioned ales.

To taste it on tap, you’ve gotta hunt around. Dawson Street Pub (100 Dawson St., Manayunk) occasionally wrassles a keg called a firkin onto the bar and drains it by gravity. Up in the Northeast, they celebrate Firkin Friday at the Grey Lodge (6235 Frankford Ave.) on the second Friday.

Bridgid’s (24th and Aspen streets, Fairmount) has re-introduced its ceiling tap, draining cask-conditioned brews by gravity from the second floor.

Otherwise, look for bars that supplement their regular CO2 taps with beer engines. Strong-armed bartenders use these oldtime contraptions to draw beer by pumping air into the cask. Here’s a partial list (compiled with Anderson’s help); if I’m missing any, give me a yell.

Brownie’s Irish Pub, 46 S. 2nd St., Old City; Sugar Mom’s, 225 Church St., Old City; The Khyber, 54 S. 2nd St., Old City; Copa, Too! 263 S. 15th St., Center City; Dock Street Brewery, 2 Logan Square, Center City; Samuel Adams Brew House, 1516 Samson St., Center City; Dawson Street Pub, 100 Dawson St., Manayunk; Manayunk Brewing Co.; 4120 Main St., Manayunk; London Grill; 23rd Street and Fairmount Avenue, Fairmount; P.J. McMenamin’s, 7170 Germantown Ave., Mount Airy.

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