Monday, March 3, 2014

Killer casks at the Day of the Living Ales

Posted By on 03.03.14 at 02:00 PM

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On Saturday the Chicago Beer Society hosted its annual Day and Night of the Living Ales at Goose Island Wrigleyville, and for the first time since 2011, I was there.

I might as well quote from that old review, since the definition of "living ale" (another way to refer to "real ale" or "cask ale") hasn't changed in the past three years. "The term describes unpasteurized, unfiltered beers casked while the yeast is still alive," I wrote. "The last bit of fermentation occurs in the vessel, providing a gentle natural carbonation, and the addition of 'finings' (often isinglass, a collagen made from the dried swim bladders of fish, though there are vegetarian options like alginate and activated carbon) helps draw the spent yeast into a mass at the bottom of the cask so the beer won't appear cloudy. This is as fresh as your adult beverage is going to get, in other words."

Metropolitans Flywheel Bright Lager, whose zwickel version won the Cellarmens Award in 2013
  • Metropolitan's Flywheel Bright Lager, whose zwickel version won the Cellarmen's Award in 2013
CBS members get first crack at the 250 spots for each session, but the general public can buy tickets too—something to remember next year, for those of you who've never been. This time I attended as a guest of Metropolitan Brewing, so bear that in mind if you're inclined to assume that media people are all corrupt hacks who do nothing but trade favors. I got to know the Metropolitan crew because I fell in love with their beers, rather than the other way around, but folks are gonna think what they want to think.

Several more casks were shelved outdoors, in one of the body cavities of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
  • Several more casks were shelved outdoors, in one of the body cavities of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
Cask ales are traditionally stored and served at cellar temperature—between 52 and 54 degrees—so they can seem oddly tepid if you're used to chilly draft pours. The Day and Night of the Living Ales, traditionally held in early March, uses the garage at Goose Island Wrigleyville, and at that time of year it's usually pretty easy to keep the room at about 50 degrees (though it tends to heat up a bit further once it's packed with large, beer-drinking mammals). About a dozen of the 51 casks at the festival were in a tent outside, and during the daytime session, when the space heater in there still worked, it was slightly warmer than the garage—but not so warm that any coats came off.

Do you want to know who won? I won't tease. Let's start there.

Every year guests at the Day and Night of the Living Ales vote for their favorites, and the organizers give a Cellarmen's Award (nicknamed the Golden Tut, after the stopper that's pushed through the top of a cask when it's vented) to the beer that best exemplifies what "real ale" is supposed to be. It's a necessarily conservative, even orthodox award, and acts as something of a counterbalance to the popularity contest of the general ballot. It's intended to reward excellence in the unsexy aspects of real ale—among them cask handling, conditioning, and clarity (when appropriate to the beer style). "Conditioning" refers to the time the beer spends in the cask, and it's often used as shorthand for the quality and feel of the natural carbonation that results.

This year the festival had two voting categories for the first time: one for beers at 6 percent alcohol or below, one for beers above 6 percent. The organizers hoped to encourage brewers to bring more sessionable stuff, rather than the monster stouts that have tended to dominate the popular results (and incapacitate the attendees).

In the 6-percent-and-below category, Off Color Brewing won with Jasminesome, a gose casked with green tea, white tea, and jasmine. The runner-up was the Boxcar Porter with coffee from Tighthead Brewing in Mundelein.

Among the stronger beers, the Goose Island pubs took first place with Pineapple Brettanomite, a sour wheat ale conditioned with pineapples. Off Color, clearly a crowd favorite, came in second with Violets, a Belgian beer aged in gin barrels with lemon and its namesake flower.

And the Golden Tut? It went to Half Acre's English brown ale the Hammer, the Bullet, and the Vise.

Longtime CBS member Steve Hamburg, who's something of a board member emeritus, connected me with this information on Sunday evening, when it was still hard to find online. Thanks, Steve!

Souvenir glasses await the evening session.
  • Souvenir glasses await the evening session.
Of the five winning beers, I tried only three—they were announced during the night session, long after I'd left, so I couldn't hustle back to the ones I'd missed before last call.

I'm on the record as a fan of Off Color, but these wins surprised me—in both cases the adjuncts imparted such aggressive flavors that the end products barely tasted like beer. Violets was more or less indistinguishable from a subtly botanical lemon radler, with two big exceptions—its plush, creamy texture and the lovely whiff of flowers that came forward as it warmed. Jasminesome smelled, according to practically everybody I talked to, like hair conditioner or some sort of frou-frou beauty bar—it was hugely, improbably perfumy. The taste added a gentle astringency, presumably from the tea, that reminded me of cedar or persimmon—a great complement to its ludicrous detonation of jasmine blossoms. It's not that I didn't like Jasminesome—I'm a sucker for over-the-top weirdness. I'm just saying that you if you let it go flat, heated it up a bit, and poured three ounces of it into a tiny Chinese teacup, nobody would realize it was a beer.

Hush, youll wake the beer.
  • Hush, you'll wake the beer.
Pineapple Brettanomite, the third of the three winners I tried, managed to be the most conventional—which says a lot about the others. Mellow yet bright, it had a gentle, rounded sourness, and beautifully balanced the pineapple against the wheat. If you forced me to choose three favorites from the entire afternoon—not that tough, I guess, since I sampled just 20 beers, hoping to have a Saturday night rather than a headache and a nap—this would be one of them.

Also in the top three? Metropolitan's Cherry Generator, a choice that won't surprise anybody who's read my review of the civilian version of this splendid doppelbock. The cherries underlined its lush, slightly fruity malts and added a subtle tartness, and nothing of the original beer was lost—it was like regular Generator through a cherry-colored lens.

After that, the competition gets a lot tighter. Solemn Oath brought a delicious Belgian-style red ale called Less Than Three With Tea, which was richly floral and pleasantly spicy, balancing caramel and fragrant osmanthus against black pepper and cardamom. I finally got to try Forbidden Root's namesake beer (aged in Hungarian oak, a relatively new tweak to the recipe), and it was frankly astonishing, its 27 botanicals adding up to something startlingly like root beer or sarsaparilla, except without the overbearing carbonation and ruinous sweetness.

Rock Bottom made a good showing too. The Chicago pub added orange zest and black pepper to a Belgian-style gran cru and called it, inexplicably, "Nifty Galifty"; it reminded me pleasantly of one of those holiday-season smell-good grenades that people make by Pinheading an orange with cloves. The Warrenville location contributed Allons-y, a frothy, frosty French-style saison infused with fresh ginger, lemongrass, and mint; I didn't happen to write down anything coherent about that one, but I remember digging it.

Three Floyds brought my favorite pale ale of the day, Space Station Middle Finger, and Revolution's Red Skull took extremely well to the cask treatment. Saugatuck's two beers—the Mandarina IPA and a barrel-aged version of their Neapolitan stout—deserve special mention for their beautiful conditioning, which gave them fine, silky, generous heads.

If you think "cask beer" means "flat, warm, and funny tasting," what you've had is some seriously fucked-up cask beer—a cask is a lot easier to mishandle than a keg. Keep trying. When experts are involved, this is a damn fine way to do your drinking.

Why so many pictures of casks, Philip? Well, casks are great at holding still for long exposures. Thanks for asking.
  • "Why so many pictures of casks, Philip?" Well, casks are great at holding still for long exposures. Thanks for asking.
The Day and Night of the Living Ales uses a dripping-blood Halloween-style font for its logo, encouraging all and sundry to make the Night of the Living Dead connection. So I'll sign off with a couple songs of that name. The Misfits first released "Night of the Living Dead" on a seven-inch EP in 1979, and this is the version from the 1982 full-length Walk Among Us.

And no, I will not entertain any discussion as to whether the Misfits are metal. I think as grown-ups we're all aware that metal, like punk, is also a way of being.

Anyhow. Toronto thrashers Infernäl Mäjesty are definitely metal in both senses of the word. Their "Night of the Living Dead" (an entirely unrelated song) appears on the 1987 full-length None Shall Defy.

Philip Montoro writes about beer and metal, singly or in combination, every Monday.

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