By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
There are worse things than being an art critic. Until 5 p.m. or so, I get to prowl the museums. In the evening, there are openings at which to ogle current art and the hipsters who make it.
Which leaves a crucial couple of hours to hunt for an aesthetic experience that's much harder to find: a taste of the beer known as cask ale. Served "live," without pasteurization or carbonation, it offers way more for the senses and brain to work on than any of its cousins merely served on tap. As far as I'm concerned, cask ale is to standard draft what raw-milk cheddar is to Kraft Singles, or an Andy Warhol to a Thomas Kinkade.
In Washington, the cask experience has been almost nonexistent. For many years, the Brickskeller in Dupont Circle was almost the only place to go for cask, and it couldn't always be counted on. Even quite recently, you'd be lucky to find five casks going simultaneously across the entire District, with a few more spread throughout the suburbs.
A few weeks ago, the District's numbers pretty much doubled. The new ChurchKey bar in Logan Circle promises that at any given time, its five hand-pumped "beer engines" will be dipping into a changing roster of five casks.
Greg Engert is the beer director at ChurchKey. Without wanting to insult the 50 carbonated beers he serves on draft and the 500 more he stocks in bottle, Engert insists that nothing can match "the drinkability and the aromatic complexity" of cask-conditioned beer. "It totally unleashes the flavor," says Engert, who is slight and blond, with a scruffy student beard. Wearing jeans and an untucked dress shirt, he could pass for an art-school senior but turns out to be 30 years old and close to professorial in his analysis of beer.
He explains that cask ale is beer that goes straight from the brewer's tanks into a small cask (usually a 10-gallon steel firkin), where it often gets an extra handful of whole hops and never suffers pasteurization or artificial carbonation. Its mellow fizz comes from a second fermentation that happens in the cask, where the beer sits at a cool 52 degrees or so for several weeks. (This is "cask conditioning," Engert says.) Once it's ready for consumption, the beer is served at that same cellar temperature, pumped by hand directly from the cask it came of age in.
Engert says that with a standard American draft -- "38 degrees and bubbly as soda" -- the chill and sparkle can almost numb your tongue. That may be part of the point for some industrial brewers, which profit most by making beer that can be gulped by drinkers who don't much want to taste it. Cask conditioning, by comparison, preserves lots of complex flavor compounds that are killed in mass-produced beers. It also adds new ones, through its secondary fermentation and last-minute hopping, then leaves the tongue unstunned to taste them.
Engert proves the elegance of cask by running a taste test on one of this country's classic beers, an India pale ale from Avery Brewing in Colorado. First he serves it as a standard carbonated draft, pressurized with gas that pumps it through a line kept at a chilly 48 degrees (which is still a good bit warmer than most other bars' keg temperatures). It is very nice: an intriguing hint of pineapple when you smell it, then a lovely balance of light fruitiness and hoppy bitterness as you drink.
Next, Engert serves the same beer hand-pumped from a cask that's about four degrees warmer still. This version is mind-bending: The pineapple is still there in the background, but now there's also a crowded foreground. Your nose is teased by complex floral notes, along with grapefruit, bergamot and a hint of pine, all a product of that extra "dry hopping" that has gone on in the cask. (Hops put in earlier, while beer is being brewed, lose most of their aroma, so their bitterness takes over.) Your mouth, meanwhile, can hardly tally the flavors it finds: sweet Ovaltine malt and a touch of lightly smoked bacon and maybe some Old World elderflower cordial, along with a mouth-filling bitterness that lends a bit of beer-guy punch.
Go back to that draft version you found "very nice" a few minutes earlier, and it seems almost odorless, with so much distracting sparkle you think you've popped a tab of Alka-Seltzer. You can already feel the bloat you'll get after a few pints, whereas ungassy cask ale leaves your stomach in peace. (It's so easy-drinking, however, that you'd better think about your head the morning after.)
I can't imagine drinking draft when there's cask to be had. My first addictive taste of cask-conditioned ale was during a summer spent in London in the 1970s. It was the traditional British drink, but it was facing extinction. You needed a special list to find pubs that still had it. Now "real ale," as the British call it, has come back from the brink, with many downtown pubs serving four or five kinds. The revival came about because of the Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA), one of history's most successful consumer movements.
"I'd have to be decidedly desperate to drink an American pint of Bud Light," says Iain Loe, CAMRA's manager of research and information, speaking on the phone from Saint Albans, outside London. He points out that he'd rarely have to face such desperation: Something like 25,000 pubs serve real ale to 60 million Brits. Whereas, he says, there are maybe 500 outlets for it in the United States, to serve 300 million people spread across 50 states.
In the past 20 years, Loe says, American craft brewers have started to produce some of the world's greatest and most innovative beers. What they haven't done is set up the complex infrastructure needed to keep that beer "real."
Loe explains that cask ale leaves brewers and barkeeps a "fairly narrow window" for storing and serving their beer -- a few weeks in the cask, then three or four days at most once it is broached -- compared with the months of life they can hope for from a sterilized and carbonated keg. Any delay or misstep along the way, and you risk infected beer that means junking the whole cask, or serving clients beer that tastes of soap or even vinegar and turning them off cask ale forever.
"Unless you know what you're doing, it's better to do it the way they do it in the United States," he says.
Yes, storage and rotation can be a challenge, says Chris Rafferty, brewmaster for the Rock Bottom Brewery in Ballston, which often has a firkin going. (The Bethesda branch does, too, although made to its own brewmaster's recipe.) But even with all that under control, in this country a British-style bar that served only cask ale "would be a tough sale to the public." Rafferty loves cask and insists it is "a very easy thing to introduce people to." But it's still a specialized taste that can't come close to supporting his operation.
Most of the time, even the pickiest American aesthetes don't have much choice but to settle for cold and fizzy draft. Even specialized beer bars have trouble getting anything else from their brewers. "Cask is not really a matter of what I ask for; it's what I can get . . . . I just say: 'Give me your best. Or give me your worst; whatever you have,' " explains Greg Jasgur, standing by the bar at the newly enlarged Pizzeria Paradiso in Dupont Circle, where he's in charge of beer. For several years now he has tried to keep one firkin going in the restaurant's Georgetown branch, and he recently inaugurated a hand pump in Dupont.
Like Engert, Jasgur is forced to buy his own empty casks, which he ships to any brewer that will fill them with fresh beer. American breweries still sell almost all of their draft in carbonated kegs, and very few want the bother or expense of stocking firkins. Jasgur has been known to drive a truck from Munster, Ind., just to bring home casks from the world-famous Three Floyds brewery.
As if to prove Jasgur's labors worthwhile, in walks Jian Wong, a 28-year-old who lives in Logan Circle and says he is a convert to cask. He orders a pint of it (a high-alcohol Hibernation Ale, from Great Divide Brewing in Denver) and explains that within days of ChurchKey's opening he'd tried all five cask ales on offer, and he now prefers it to standard draft: "With my recent experience, I can say that cask ale is great."
If only he could be cloned.Related