Wednesday, September 12, 2012

C-A-S-K in the U.S.A.

Cask ale in America. Tricky topic, if you're used to understanding cask ale as something like the "real ale" defined by CAMRA. Good luck with that in the States, outside of certain festivals and a very few pubs where casks actually manage to turn over quickly because people are drinking them quickly. That's why God invented cask ale, after all. So people could drink it quickly.

I'm still working it out -- I have this feeling that the answers are all up there in my brain, but the parts are still disassembled -- but in the meantime I share three ideas. Directions of thought. Conversation starters. Theories. Things. Meanwhile I'd like to thank Tom Cizauskas for educating me in July when I was in the D.C. area (Fireworks Pizza and Galaxy Hut that evening, if you're curious). My lack of clarity on this topic is no fault of his.

1. American cask ale is not new. We can see it as trendy, if we want, since beer-specialist bars have been adding more of them lately, or so it seems. But let's call it a comeback. Cask has been part of the American micro/craft beer movement for a good long while. Got that, whippersnappers? Let's keep this in perspective. In Maryland alone: Bertha's Mussels, not what anyone would call a beer bar, has had cask ale since the 1980s. The Wharf Rat, also on Fell's Point, has had a beer engine since the mid-1990s, Cizauskas said. Maryland had Steve Parkes' British Brewing Company starting in 1988, later re-named Oxford. According to Cizauskas, British was Maryland's first micro since Prohibition, and its first beer was the cask-conditioned Oxford Class Amber. Let me re-state that: Maryland's first modern craft beer 24 years ago was a cask ale. I suspect we'd find similar stories elsewhere, especially on the East Coast.

2. Without breathers, there would be much less American cask ale. CAMRA wouldn't approve, so let's call it a practical American compromise. Cask breathers allow a small amount of Co2 to enter the cask, extending its life. Most American beer bars simply can't turn over a cask in a few days, not if they want to keep them around at all times. One example on my summer jaunt: Old Speckled Hen at the Farmers Gastropub in my hometown, Springfield, Missouri. Not my favorite beer, but I love the idea that I can have a pint of cask ale there. Without a breather it wouldn't be possible -- except on those special nights when Mother's brings in a firkin. Folks drink it the same night, naturally, as they do for special cask events at brewpubs and beer bars across the country these days. Special cask events are nice. Reliable, ever-present casks are even nicer.

3. Choices for what to put in those casks is often interesting, often poor. In Missouri and again in the D.C. area, most of the cask options I saw this summer were 6% or stronger. Often they were IPAs or otherwise high in bitterness, missing the extra bubbles that are frankly needed to scrape the resin off the tongue and help make them drinkable. The thinking, if there is any, might be, "Casks are special, the beer in them ought to be special, and special beer ought to be strong and hoppy!" Meanwhile brewers and bars are missing a chance to showcase the beauty and complexity of lighter ales, where cask has its real advantage over keg. Another way to think about it: Cask conditioning can help not-so-special beers taste very special indeed.

Like I say, I'm still working it out. I'd love to hear more thoughts and arguments on American cask ale from absolutely anyone. More than anything, I think, I'm unclear on what all those beer bars out there are actually doing with their casks -- breathers? turning it over faster than I think? key kegs? -- so it would be interesting to hear some examples.

Top photo is from Pratt Street Ale House, home of Olivers Ales, Max's Taphouse in Baltimore. Lower one is from Fireworks Pizza in Arlington, Virginia. Text CORRECTED to say that Wharf Rat has had cask since mid-1990s, not 1980s.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Atlanta Airport to Get First Belgian Beer Café™

It's been a year or so since I ranted about the news that the InBev-run Belgian Beer Café chain wanted to open locations in the United States. Specifically, I targeted a beer list "weighted with saccharine and fakery." It was a gut reaction fueled by the realization that many people would get their first taste of Belgian beer from a global behemoth that profits from efficiency and mediocrity and efficient mediocrity rather than beer of much character.

Sorry, Leffe. Sorry, Hoegaarden and Stella. You have your fans but you are what you are.

A necessary clarification: A-B InBev cannot legally own their own cafés to sell their own beer in the United States. So the firm that works with InBev to design the cafés, Creneau International (and give them credit, many are stunning), has the rights in the United States. It sounds like sleight of hand but I reckon the lawyers have their ducks lined neatly in a row.

I haven't changed my mind about that sample beer list. It is patently weak next to the better-curated Belgian beer lists around the world, in bars or restaurants where people know what they are doing. I see a few reliable gems greatly outnumbered by dull cack of sugar and spice. I grant that a beer list can be like a Rorschach test and we will not all see the same picture. But when I apply my perspective, as far as it goes, that is what gets spat out. I stand by it.

On the other hand...

Well, I'm a practical man. I travel a lot. And just as I'm more inclined to drink a Hoegaarden in Costa Rica than in Belgium, due to complex algorithms of relative quality and availability, well...

Airports. Against all odds they remain beer wastelands, generally speaking. Yet they are those places in the middle of those sorts of days when we most often think, "Fuck, man. I need a beer."

And they are where the first U.S. Belgian Beer Cafés are going.

The very first one will be in Atlanta, scheduled to open in two weeks. The second will open in Newark.

I fly through Atlanta sometimes. Like most airports, it is shit for beer. Best you can find there, last I checked, is a Sweetwater IPA in one of those closed-up bars where they quarantine the smokers. Not an entirely pleasant experience.

But the announcement says this: The beer list in that Atlanta bar will include, among some other stuff, Chimay Blue on draft and Saison Dupont in bottles.

Well, like I say, I'm a practical man. I know where I'm headed next time I'm passing through ATL. I'll probably be plucking down $14 or some absurd price for a certain farmhouse ale archetype.

After the airports, there are plans to open locations in New York City and Philadelphia. And just a wild guess but I'm guessing they won't be right next door to Gramercy Tavern or the Monk's Café.

And a final thought: I am not anti-corporate. I am anti-mediocrity.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

In Heaven There Is No Football, Either.

I was just writing something up on the Kunstemaecker in Steenkerke, West Flanders. That beer café's slogan is "In de Hemel is geen bier." In Heaven there is no beer, just like that old polka song. (That's why we drink it here.) That got me to wondering about the song itself.

There is a version of that song in the language of most if not all major beer countries, plus a few more. Maybe you knew that. I didn't.

Here is something else I didn't know, and since I'm currently about as wound up as I could be for the start of (American) football season, I'll share it: The song, like so many other pleasant and beery things, is deeply embedded in the traditions of American college sports.

Thank you, Wikipedia, which as always we do not take as gospel but use relentlessly anyway:

Students at the University of North Dakota sing the song after every Fighting Sioux goal during hockey games at the Ralph Engelstad Arena.

The song is frequently played by the Yale Precision Marching Band with the added verse: "At Harvard there is no ale (No ale?!) / That's why we go to Yale / And when our livers fail / We'll still be glad we went to Yale"

The University of Nebraska Cornhusker Marching Band sings this song after being dismissed at the end of every home game.

The song is played frequently at home hockey games at the University of Minnesota-Duluth (UMD), University of Minnesota, and University of Wisconsin by the schools' bands.

This song has been adopted by the University of Iowa as their victory song, to be played by the band after Iowa Hawkeyes wins. Some know it as the Hawkeye Victory Polka.

It is an unofficial school song of Michigan Technological University, as played by the Huskies Pep Band. Along with the original lyrics, the students sing 4 original verses whenever the song is played.

The song is a performed at all home games at the University of Wyoming[1], where it is known as the 'beer song'. The fans chant for the song to be played, until the band leader relents. This cycle may happen multiple times during a sporting event.

The song In Heaven There Is No Beer is played at every football and basketball game at Fort Hays State University, Kansas.

The song is also performed after every NDSU Bison football and basketball victory by the North Dakota State University Gold Star Marching Band and Bison Pep Band.

In Heaven There is No Beer is played after every football and basketball game at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.

The University of Idaho's Vandal Marching Band performs this song after every sporting event they play at, regardless of whether the Vandals win or lose. The band's Sousaphone Section also performs it at various tailgate partys before home football games.

The Ohio Northern University Marching Band during the fourth quarter of every home football game, while the pep band often plays it at the end of men's and women's basketball games.

The song is performed monophonically at football games and various homecoming events by the pep band of Wartburg College in Waverly, IA.

The song is often played at home UNH Hockey games by the Beast of the East Band.

The song is often played by the West Virginia University Tuba Corps.