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.

Is the CAMRA discount killing cask ale?

From my first foray into drinking real ale, I always had a soft spot for CAMRA. Sure, their meet-ups of beardy straight white middle-aged men could do with a bit of diversity, but they always seemed a friendly enough, if decidedly ‘uncool’ bunch.

Over time, sneers in CAMRA’s direction became more common, and inspired in me a somewhat protective knee-jerk response. It seemed to start around the time that the first BrewDog pubs displayed signs reading ‘No CAMRAs’ upon the walls of their hip joints; no doubt tongue-in-cheek, but with an underlying acidic aftertaste. There was a school yard bully vibe about it that struck me as unpleasant. And of course, we all know that what starts as a series of playful jibes at the bespectacled dorky kid eventually amounts to something much bigger.

My CAMRA card was last in the front of my wallet around the same time that I last carried a student card. Like all cash-strapped youngsters, I was a bargain hunter when it came to going out and having a good time, and I took my real ale habit the most seriously of all. It brought me fresh joy each time I found myself receiving 20p off a pint, and I admit that at the time I never thought too deeply about exactly who was discounting me – was it CAMRA themselves, the pubs, the suppliers, or the breweries?

For a while I imagined that it might be the pubs. The Bree Louise in Euston sent a drinking buddy of mine into shock upon demanding about £5.50 for a pint of Guinness several years ago. This seemed so steep given their usual prices that I couldn’t help wondering if this was some sort of ‘bad taste tax’. People who want to drink Guinness when there’s three stouts and two porters on the ale pumps will drink Guinness no matter what it costs. Could it be that the pricing up of the beers which enjoy an absurdly loyal and almost cult-like following was helping to keep the indie selections cheaper for the rest of us?

But on closer inspection, it’s easy to see that the CAMRA discounts are not doing wonders for everyone – especially the breweries. Ben Duckworth, Director and Co-Founder of Affinity Brew Co spoke to me about how breweries can often suffer due to the discounts offered to CAMRA card holders. In turn, the pubs want to pay less for the casks in order to preserve their profit margins. This echoed the sentiment from Matthew Curtis’ recent ‘Cask Confidential’ article for Ferment Magazine; cask is often the “lowest common denominator… treated without the care and attention that a premium product both requires and deserves.”

Ben highlighted the two main threats to cask ale today – pricing and presentation.
“For too long, people have only been willing to spend under £4 for a warm pint of flat ale. Which is probably all it’s been worth!”
Ben explained that this led to an effective ‘race to the bottom’, with pubs looking to pay as little as possible. He said he has heard of casks going for as low as £40 each.
“That’s £1 a litre, and is an absolute insult.”

As we talked, I felt dismayed and a little embarrassed to have celebrated the low cost of cask over keg throughout my student days and early twenties. But then I immediately saw the problem; as craft keg offerings have been getting better and better, cask quality has plateaued and demand has stagnated. It’s tough to feel ok about paying an extra quid for something that isn’t constantly upping its game. Looked at this way, the demise of cask under discounts seems like a sad self-fulfilling prophecy. Everyone loves value for money, but could it be that the CAMRA discount could eventually help to kill off the great quality cask ale that it has worked so hard to promote?

This Catch-22 definitely demands a new approach. Ben told me that Affinity’s Cask 2019 festival aims at exactly that.
“We thought, let’s get some of the best breweries in the country, some of whom don’t normally put their beers into cask, to put their beers into cask. We encase all the casks in a cooled container, and serve them on gravity.”
The festival will be offering beers at £5 a pint (halves are also available) and will feature beers from breweries such as Beavertown and Pressure Drop.

Ben’s dedication to reviving the demand for cask gives me hope, and it definitely sounds like it’s time to snap out of my nostalgia. As such, I promise that I will try my very best not to be appalled and whinge about the good ol’ days the next time a pint of cask costs me a fiver. And maybe at the Cask 2019 event, I’ll finally get to see what Smog Rocket tastes like on cask. Now there’s something to look forward to.

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.

A weekend in Beer City USA

Fall is a great time for visiting the Midwest. With the humid summer over, a gentle cool breeze whips through the air. My day out exploring the beer scene of Grand Rapids started with clouded skies, but luckily these cleared by lunchtime, and the bright sun took the chill off – just as well given that I didn’t have a warm jacket.

Grand Rapids is the second largest city in the state of Michigan. The metro area seemed sprawling but the downtown area felt quite small and walkable. So what made Grand Rapids earn the title Beer City USA?

Arguably, it all started with Founders in 1997. In the last couple of decades, Founders has become one of the best known breweries in the country, and their tasty beers have reached further shores; Byron burger restaurants in the UK have been serving up bottles of the crowd-pleasing All Day IPA for several years now. The Founders taproom was majestic. A lengthy beer list, speedy service and a killer food menu, all with a great view of the shiny brewery through floor to ceiling windows.

Recent years have seen aggressive expansion of the brewing scene in GR. The city was first recognised as ‘Beer City’ when it had fewer than 20 breweries, and as of now the city’s Ale Trail boasts 80+ breweries. So, it’s easy to see how 40,000 beer tourists flock here every year.

We finished the afternoon in town at Grand Rapids Beer Company. Sat at the counter, I enjoyed a lovely Hefeweizen. Then it was time to head home to sample some rich bottled stouts. My favorite was The Poet from New Holland Brewing; beautiful creamy mouthfeel and rich roasted flavours. Richer still was the slightly higher ABV Dragon’s Milk, which is aged in oak barrels for 120 days.

Any lover of great beer of all varieties would enjoy a weekend in Grand Rapids. And, although it’s not quite a GR brew, I highly recommend getting hold of the Two Hearted Ale, brewed at Bells in Kalamazoo, MI. It’s one of the cleanest and most well-rounded IPAs I’ve ever had.