Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Wednesday It's the Real Ale Blogging

A Visit with 60 Cask Conditioned Friends in Carlsbad

There’s lager and there’s ale. There’s ale and then there’s real ale. Those differences are worth having a festival about. Luckily that’s exactly what Pizza Port in Carlsbad does, and why if you live in Santa Barbara you have to drive 200 miles to north San Diego County – the current malty mecca of California craft-brewing with stars like Stone, Port, Alpine, AleSmith, and Green Flash – to taste more than 60 different beers from eight states and seven countries. And then burp in gratitude.

It really only takes 4 things to make beer – water, hops, malt, yeast. Of course it’s what kinds of those things you use, and how much, and matters of heat and time that make beer a science experiment with a really tasty payoff (you hope). Very simply put: Ales are top-fermented (where the yeast sits) at higher temperatures; lagers are bottom fermented at lower. A “real ale,” which might just sound like a marketing term, is actually something specific – an ale that’s unfiltered (there will still be floaty yeasties in it, often making it cloudy, or making its last mouthfuls a bit muddy) and naturally carbonated, therefore not as fizzy as a keg beer. That Duff you’re used to drinking at Moe’s comes out of the tap thanks to added carbon dioxide; real ale is served on cask, via hand pump, generally at room temperature. It’s an entirely different beer drinking experience. Plus the servers really have to pull to pour your tastes, and not just the 99 pound blond, but also the big burly guys, too.

For the purposes of journalism I tasted 19 beers on June 2 (plus some sips from my Amy’s glass, too) and can report real ale is real good. Not all of it, for we still have to deal with that awkward divide between craft ale and brew pub ale, which is something about inspiration versus commercialism and a lot about taste. Plus there’s the danger of hopping out – hops, the bittering, and for those with a taste for beer, bettering agent – is a key ingredient in an India Pale Ale (IPA), and given this festival largely featured double IPAs, well, you can see what tangy road we’re headed down. Speaking of down, double IPAs tend to be even higher in alcohol (8-10%), so sipping and dumping is recommended, especially when someone on his way out of the festival hands you a slew of drink tickets.

While you scan the all-ages crowd skewed about 60/40 male/female (beer is still Y chromosome associated it seems), reading t-shirts for Staggering Moose Ale, or the one that suggests “hold my beer while I kiss your girlfriend,” or the other that says “work is the curse of the drinking class,” you get to taste (and even with a crowd it’s easy to get to the hand pumps) ale after unusual ale. Some are brilliant, like Stone’s smoked porter with vanilla beans. It’s porter on the way to stout, dark and full, yet pitch perfect, with the vanilla kicking in as a warming after taste. Indeed, as we enjoyed it (so much my mother-in-law and designated driver ended up buying the full set of eight entry tickets for $25 to have this one drink) next to us a woman says, “Do you like it? I made it.” Laura Ulrich, one of Stone’s four brewers under a head and lead brewer, unassumingly admits, “There’s lots of cutting up vanilla beans.” Turns out she puts 10 in each cask. The rich, balanced taste is worth the work.

Others aren’t showing as well this Saturday. Four Peaks Brewing in Scottsdale, Ariz. has a Hop Knot IPA that tastes like something sour crawled into the cask and died. (And their beer on site is usually quite good.) Gordon Biersch’s Roggenbier, a rye ale, makes me make such a face that when I offer some to Amy she says, “After you just looked like that?” While a cask beer’s temperature is warmer than keg beer, this tastes almost cooked.

But the majority of beers makes us very happy, and therefore sad we have to pour out to taste more and remain standing. Highlights include Alpine’s Pure Hoppiness, sort of the model of double IPAs, hoppy, but exquisitely in balance; Pizza Port’s Stunna Shade Stout, a “foreign-style stout” on its way to Russian imperial stout yumminess; Rogue’s Brewer, an American strong ale (indeed – 7.9%) with luscious malts up front and a smack of hops to get your attention at the end; and, Harvieston Brewery’s Old Engine Oil Special Reserve, one of the 20 beers served in bottles, still real ales as they are bottle-fermented (capped into glass with living, working yeast), and where else would you drink a beer like this toasty malted one? Plus the people serving the bottled beers are in a garage a bit lower than the cement patio drinkers stand on, so it seems you’re being served by dwarves – after a lot of strong real ale it’s a Hunter S. Thompson moment.

And it’s not a hallucination – Santa Barbara’s own Hollister Brewing has its Hip Hop Double IPA available, full of hop punch and one of the loveliest noses of the day – that bright flower smell good IPAs have. It’s very easy to drink for something 8.6% alcohol. Upon returning to santa Barbara I called Hollister’s brewmaster Eric Rose who says he’s friends with the three organizers and that he always attends Port’s three seasonal beerfests. And while the Camino Real Marketplace location doesn’t yet have cask conditioned ale, Rose says, “It’s just a matter of us getting caught up. We’ll have them on permanently.” Great news for local hopheads.



Blogger Patrick said...

Thanks for the drinking lesson. I'm confirmed in my preference for the bitters. Can't wait to taste the Hollister cask conditioned ale.

10:02 AM  
Anonymous Numfar said...

Nicely done, but one quibble: cask ales aren't served at "room temperature." Rather, they're pumped at cellar temperature, typically around 57 F.

The Mercury serves Fuller's ESB at roughly that temp (as you get it in the UK), and it's quite lovely. Dawn knows beer.

11:23 AM  
Blogger George said...

Numfar you found me out. I live in my parents' basement, so room temperature is cellar temperature.

11:35 AM  
Blogger Smitty said...

As a Certified BJCP judge and homebrewer, I am totally enthused about your article. Well done, George. I'm slapping a quick link over on my place to this article. Great synopsis, and sounds like an amazing event.

11:57 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

I'll second Smitty. That was a great read, and I'm very envious.

I love Stone Smoked Porter, but I've never had a variety with vanilla beans in it . . . at least not that I was aware of.

5:46 AM  

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