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Cask hopping in Washington

By Greg Kitsock
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

For most English lovers of cask ale, the preferred styles are bitters and milds, both relatively low-alcohol libations that are often termed "session beers" because you can spend an evening sipping on pints of them without worrying about a pounding headache and dry heaves the next morning.

The cask beers that Washington Post art critic Blake Gopnik and I tried locally were stronger. Sometimes much stronger. Partly that's a matter of American tastes; partly that's because higher alcohol levels help preserve the delicate product longer.

At CommonWealth Gastropub in Columbia Heights, we found two selections from Victory Brewing Co. in Downingtown, Pa. HopDevil (6.7 percent alcohol by volume) is an India pale ale with a delicate fruitiness: an orangey character that somehow reminded me of the Bayer aspirin I took for fevers as a child. Storm King Stout is a deep ebony color with a massive flavor of roasted coffee that masks the 9.1 percent alcohol. Wisely, we limited ourselves to a half-pint of each.

Almost as potent was the Ola Dubh we sampled at the new ChurchKey in Logan Circle. This beer consists of Old Engine Oil, a stout from the Harviestoun Brewery in Scotland, aged for 18 months in a barrel that previously held Highland Park Scotch. It is immensely complex, with notes of roasted coffee, anise, smoke, tannin and fruit. "It's insanely expensive for me to buy," laughed our host, beer director Greg Engert.

And risky. Cask ale is a delicate product, and an ocean voyage might not do it much good. If the cask is mishandled or gets delayed at customs, the yeast can die, imparting a harsh sulfur flavor, and the beer will turn to vinegar.

Timothy Schliftman, sales rep for Legends imports in Baltimore, notes that the trip to the United States takes two to three weeks, while cask ale remains fresh for five weeks at most. Warm weather can shorten that life span. "During the summertime, you won't see European cask ales as much," he adds.

It strikes me that the best locale to enjoy cask ale might be a brew pub, where the beer is made on site and travels only a few feet from firkin to glass.

The current cask offering at the Rock Bottom Brewery in Ballston is its mainstay Blue Line Pale Ale, which measures a more reasonable 5.5 percent alcohol. Brewer Chris Rafferty has enhanced the character by suspending a sack of hops in the cask; it gives the beer a fruit-cocktail flavor, full of fresh grapefruit and pineapple.

At the Rock Bottom in Bethesda, head brewer Geoff Lively is tapping his November seasonal, Velvet IPA. For the cask version, he uses two devices that the traditionalists in Britain's Campaign for Real Ale would frown on.

A cask breather replaces the oxygen that accumulates in the cask with much less reactive carbon dioxide. Purists argue that this violates the definition of cask ale as a beer to which no extraneous gas has been added. But Lively notes that it extends the shelf life of this unpasteurized product from four days to nine or 10.

A sparkler roils the beer as it flows through the tap line, causing more of the CO2 to bubble out and producing a thick, clingy head similar to that of the Guinness nitro pour. The creamy foam atop Lively's Velvet IPA guarantees that no one will send it back for being flat. But it does smother the flavor a bit; the herbal, leafy hop character of the beer is more evident in the standard draft version.

However, the cask IPA, served warmer than the draft beer, brings out the rich, cookielike character of the malt, enhanced by the addition of toasted oats, a nontraditional ingredient in India pale ales.

Cask ale is unfiltered, leading to the misconception that it's all right if it is cloudy and turbid. If your pint arrives looking like a milk shake, send it back; a clumsy deliveryman might have dropped the firkin or shaken the contents. Stirring up the yeast won't improve the flavor. Rock Bottom's Velvet IPA is a mellow copper color, only slightly hazy. Lively clarifies the beer with gelatin. The particles ("it looks like granular sugar, much like Jell-O") attach themselves to bits of yeast and protein in the beer, eventually sinking to the bottom. The gelatin is then removed without adding or subtracting any flavor from the beer.

American craft brewers will experiment with cask versions of almost any beer style. As of this writing, Pizzeria Paradiso in Georgetown (202-337-1245, http://www.eatyourpizza.com) was serving an imperial pumpkin ale via hand pump. But not all beers work well in cask form. At the Pizzeria Paradiso in Dupont Circle (202-223-1245), we sampled Hibernation Ale, a strong, ruby-hued ale from Great Divide Brewing in Denver, with a port wine flavor that's marred somewhat by notes of raw alcohol. The beer, which is also available in bottles, would benefit from a year of cellaring.

But you don't want to keep a cask that long.

Beer columnist Greg Kitsock can be reached at food@washpost.com.

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