Finding cask ale in the desert

Every time I need a taste of home, I head to Sidetrack. It’s a tiny railway-side brewpub in Downtown Albuquerque. It’s a pretty far cry from my previous rail-station-adjacent haunt The Euston Tap (the toilets are in good nick for a start) but it can be equally tricky to get a table on a Friday evening. The real draw of the place for me is that they serve beer on cask; two from their small selection, all the time. That’s rare around here.

The first time I ever sampled one of their cask offerings, I have to admit I was a little disappointed; it was a stout that drank more like a nitro. But over the weeks and months, I tried a few more and I became more convinced. The brown ale was beautifully velvety, and the cask pumps added a smooth, easy-drinking quality to their bitterest IPA.

In the USA, cask tends to be served at cooler temperatures than back home. Right now, in the heat of the New Mexican early summer, I’m not actually sure that I’d truly want it any other way, but in the winter I’d love them to serve it a little warmer.

Cask is mostly a gimmick here. It will likely always stay that way, especially since the spirit of the experiment is often pushed needlessly too far. There’s an ethos to cask that perhaps isn’t fully understood stateside, at least not west of New England.

For example, I recently heard that another favorite taproom of mine would be starting to serve cask on Fridays. Excitedly heading to the bar, I asked the bartender which of the beers was being served on cask.

‘The mango sour’, she replied.

The thought of it made me feel physically sick. I’ll admit that my palate does struggle with (some) sour and farmhouse styles, so this wouldn’t have been my first pick in any world. But even so, this sounded like a pint destined to taste of stale fruit that had been left out in the sun.

Despite a few questionable executions, I’m still glad that the parts of the USA which share little in common with the birthplaces of cask ale are giving it a try. It means there’s innovation, improvement, and that ongoing possibility of one day wandering into a neighborhood brewpub, seeing a handpull upon the counter, and finding a diamond in the rough. Maybe even at the right temperature, though I shall try not to dream too hard.

Beer naming trends – how far is too far?

The last decade or so has seen increased stylistic explosions in the brewing industry. They say that variety is the spice of life – but is there any substance behind the labels for these newly minted brew categories?

Some of these creations clearly pay homage to traditional brewing styles of countries like Germany and Belgium, whilst adding a modern, hipster-pleasing twist. Other concepts seem so harebrained that they appear to be borne out of an ill-advised brainstorm session in a hotbox.

Here’s my take on three craft brews that the barman would have given you a very funny look for ordering 20 years ago.

1. Black IPA

Once you get past the annoying contradictory name (and I humbly suggest that we all unite in refusing to do so, and adopt ‘Cascadian Dark Ale’ instead), this style isn’t all that bad an idea. It’s a beer ideal for the chilly winter nights, when you want something rich, smooth and dark, with a touch of the bitter bite that one is used to finding in a stout, combined with the late hop additions of your more refreshing summer beer choices for that full-flavoured finish.

Beers were cropping up on shelves and taps under this name as early as 2009, but seemed to reach a new peak of popularity around the 2016 mark. The thing is, it’s not new; many records suggest that beer fitting this description has been around for well over a century. Whilst traditional British darker ale styles have gone easy on hop flavour, German Schwarzbier has long allowed malts and hops to express themselves in unison as part of a dark beer. So perhaps this dark and hoppy craft offering could be said to be a top-fermented take on this German classic?

So I’m all for the revival, but why the name? Why did ‘Black IPA’ take off in popularity precisely how and when it did? Simple; it’s a gimmick. Black IPA rides on the coat tails of the IPA-centric craft beer revolution of the last couple of decades, and could be easily marketed to plaid-clad youngsters who know their Stone from their Sierra Nevada, but wouldn’t know a plum porter or breakfast stout if it smacked them in the face. Cynical? Perhaps.

2. Double IPA (DIPA)

I have a confession: the fuzziness of the definition of a DIPA annoys the hell out of me.

The concept of a DIPA is that the malt and hops are each scaled up to leave the bill and balance more or less unchanged, but to create a stronger, more punch-packing beer. All sounds great, right? But here’s the thing – one brewer’s IPA, is another’s DIPA, is another’s TIPA… and so on. Somehow, I find it a little discomforting that there appears to be no particular floor or ceiling which a DIPA must satisfy.

True, they tend to be higher ABV. But I have had DIPAs at 7% and IPAs at 7.5%. I’ve had West-Coast style IPAs with such a fierce hop flavour that they resembled medicine more closely than beer, and then I’ve braced for the DIPA from the same brewery, and been pleasantly surprised by a well-rounded, lengthy and full-flavoured finish.

Maybe it’s my issue – I’m just too keen to put beers in boxes, and sometimes it just doesn’t work that way. But mostly I think it’s just that I’m a little tired of West-Coast style IPAs. The hop explosion has its place, but the innovation on the New England side is much more interesting to me right now; the creamier mouthfeel just makes the hops sing.

3. White Stout

I’ve saved the most ludicrous until last.

I visited an incredibly trendy craft beer bar in Berlin earlier this year which boasted this style on tap, and I felt immediately confused. So what the fuck is it?

White Stout is a golden coloured ale which exhibits some rich chocolate and vanilla notes that one would usually expect to find in a darker beer. It might also have a thick and creamy mouthfeel that is characteristic of stouts.

Call me a purist, but I really struggle to get my head around this one. As a homebrewer, ‘stout’ conjures to mind selections of grain varieties that only a magician could extract a pale colour from. I love making pales with creamy mouthfeels, and flaked oats and wheat are my go-to grain additions to create this, yet I have never dreamed of labeling any such concoction a ‘white stout’ rather than a ‘white ale’.

So once again, I’m all for this beer style in principle, but it’s misnamed. Or perhaps there are already enough new style names, and this experiment does not actually need a name at all. If it has lactose, it’s a milkshake IPA or milkshake pale. Or if it has specialty toasted malts, what’s wrong with just calling it a Toasted Pale Ale?

 

I hope that in years to come, the innovation in the brewing industry continues apace – but maybe we could ease off on the new names for every single experiment. Our conversations with publicans will be more honest and straightforward for it.

Beer tasting at Goose Island Brewhouse

On my recent visit to Chicago, I couldn’t pass up the chance to visit the taproom for Goose Island brewery. Goose Island IPA was one of the first US craft beers I tasted some years back, but I’d never tried many of their other offerings.

The taproom offered excellent views of mash tuns and fermenters, and had an industrial vibe whilst also feeling like a real bar. This was right up my street; I really like it when breweries lean in to the function of their space, and go the extra mile to show off the shiny production facilities to drinkers in an aesthetically pleasing way.

The menu was extensive. My husband opted for the barrel-aged beer flight, and I chose a mix-and-match selection of some slightly lower ABV beers, so we both got to taste eight different beers.

Everything was good, and more importantly, nothing was boring or awful. The were some standouts, including the IPA Now, which was pleasantly heavy on the pine, and the Sofie Saison, which had the perfect balance between citrus and peppery aromas and flavors. The smoked Helles beer packed a punch, and I made a mental note to pair something like this with spare ribs in the future.

I’m not big on meaty scotch ales myself, but my husband thought that the Copper Project was about the best in this category he’s had recently. The biggest surprise was the Brasserie Blanc, a beer fermented with Napa Valley Muscat grapes, and aged in a wine barrel. My last foray into a white wine cask beer was rather unpleasant, so I was somewhat apprehensive. But it was great – crisp and fruity, yet still with a hint of oak. Something that would appeal to cider fans and highly adventurous beer drinkers alike.

Overall, a lovely time stepping out of my beer drinking comfort zone, and the perfect end to a city break. I’m already looking forward to my next visit to Chicago – please feel free to leave a comment if you know of any other breweries that I should check out next time!

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