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The Real Ale Festival

October, 1998

By Bobby Bush

For one all-too-short weekend in October, Chicago was a slice of England. The third annual installment of the Real Ale Festival, actually held in suburban Westmont, brought together a respectable group of beer enthusiasts and notable beer authorities, all in celebration of cask-conditioned ales. Billed, by organizer and beer author Ray Daniels, as the “largest collection of cask ales outside of Britain,” this combination festival and seminar proved to be intense, educational and fun.

What, you neophytes might ask, makes a Real Ale special? In brief, based on centuries-old English tradition these ales are naturally carbonated by yeast activity in the cask or bottle, rather than forced carbonated as most kegged and bottled beers are. The difference is mostly in mouthfeel and taste. Served at cellar temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit, these warmish brews offer a smooth texture that’s immediately noticed. Warmness and smoothness allow an extended flavor profile to caress drinkers’ tongues. Somewhat of an acquired taste, the overall effect is pleasing, enticing, titillating.

Here we were in Chicago with 102 cask-conditioned American ales and 46 bottled conditioned ales. Ten British cask ales were flown over just for the festival. The show began Friday afternoon with a preview tasting hosted by famed English beer author Michael Jackson. Well-traveled and highly respected, Jackson spoke briefly, describing the wave of acceptance that beer is experiencing around the world. “I love Real Ale,” he explained, “but I’m not a beer nazi,” allowing for a wide variety of excellent beers regardless of origin, style or conditioning. From there it was back to the two ounce samples of those tranquil, intriguing ales. The first actual tasting session, four hours in duration, was held immediately following this special event with MJ, who also autographed copies of his just released book, “Ultimate Beer.”

Saturday morning started all-too-early with an 8:30 presentation by Ryan Ashley, brewer and cellarmaster at nearby Mickey Finn’s Brewery in nearby Libertyville. As more of an audience continued to arrive, Dave Sutula, employed most recently by John Harvard’s and author of an upcoming book on English Mild Ales, spoke of ancient English ale styles. In the US just for the festival, Anthony Stanton, sales manager for diminutive Hogs Back Brewery, and John Davidson, brewer for Swale Brewery, provided interesting tales of the beer business in jolly ol’ England, answering many questions from the audience on the nuances of Real Ale versus Dead Ale. Festival host Daniels reviewed the state of the small but growing popularity of cask ales in America. And Michael Jackson, in rare form, discussed the “remarkable” micro renaissance that has been occurring in the US. Remarkable, he insisted, because American beer drinkers grew up without tradition. MJ spoke well past the starting time for the afternoon tasting session. Few left the room until his closing remarks garnered a deserved standing ovation.

Back to the beer hall. American brewers proved to be more adventuresome with their beer styles than most English commercial breweries. Plenty of Porters, Stouts and several Barleywines were found among the more traditional and common English styles, such as Milds, Bitters, Pale Ales and IPAs. In a separate booth, downtown brewpub Goose Island presented three difference versions of their IPA. Comparisons between the cask-conditioned, regularly carbonated and nitro-charged (nitrogen and carbon dioxide) ales led to impromptu discussions among the gathered participants. Bosco’s Brewing, from Nashville and Germantown, TN, held several festival drawings, allowing winners to drive a tap handle into a firkin, as one size of cask is called.

Selected by a blind tasting panel, gold, silver and bronze medals were awarded in nine cask and ten bottle categories. In addition, four Best of Fest ales were chosen in the broad Bitter & Pale Ale, Dark Ales, Strong Ales and Bottle Conditioned categories. (For a list of the winners, see www.mcs.com/~rdan/RAF). Favorably comparable to the CAMRA-sponsored Great British Beer Festival held each August in London, the Real Ale Festival was an enlightening and fun weekend. Real Ale is alive and well in America. Cheers!

This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.

© Bobby Bush

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