Real Ale Festival draws record crowds

Firkin fans flock to Finkl Foundry

Mar 5, 2003 - Chicago's Real Ale Festival set a record for attendance Feb. 27-March 1, as real ale lovers spread out in new quarters at specialty steel makers A. Finkl & Sons.


"Everyone is delighted with the new venue," said festival organizer Ray Daniels. "Operationally it worked very well. The consumers enjoyed the facility both for its roominess and for an attractive appearance that is perfectly suited to traditional real ale."

The new setting is situated in the Jarrow Building nestled in the middle of Finkl's industrial campus on the banks of the Chicago river. The immediate surroundings clang and sear with the production of steel. In recent years, Finkl has improved the warehouse in order to host special events ranging from charity fund raisers to weddings. The result is an attractive brick and wood-beamed structure that is well-suited to the festival's needs.

Consumers from 33 states and at least six different countries attended the festival, sampling more than 220 brands of cask-conditioned beer and 73 different bottle-conditioned entries. The festival drew 3,000 paid attendees on its two main days, surpassing previous attendance at the festival by nearly 20%.

The larger facility made room for additional attractions. A big hit was the return of the "Consumer Cellarman" exhibit last seen at the 1998 festival. Hosted and operated by the Boscos brewpubs from Nashville and Memphis, Tenn., this exhibit gives festival attendees a hands-on opportunity to tap a cask of real ale. "As is always the case, the results can be exciting," said Boscos' Chuck Skypeck. "Beer can spill-or spray-on the novice cellarman and even on those gathered to watch."

With more than 200 American-made casks exhibited in 12 competition categories, the festival offers the largest number of cask ales assembled anywhere outside of Britain. And given the innovation and variety of styles brewed by American brewers, the range of flavors offered challenges or exceeds that of even the largest beer events held in the UK.

The top three cask beers at this year's festival were: Double Barrel Ale from Firestone Walker Brewing Company in Paso Robles, Calif.; India Pelican Ale from Pelican Pub & Brewery in Pacific City, Ore., and Train Wreck of Flavor from Flossmoor Station Brewing Co. located in Flossmoor, Ill. The top bottle-conditioned beer was India Pale Ale from SLO Brewing Co. and brewed at the same brewery at the Firestone Walker beers in Paso Robles, Calif.

"This year presented the festival with many challenges," says Daniels, "but we have succeeded in bringing American real ale to a new level of prominence. We can now see that while real ale will never be served in most bars, it does have a loyal and committed following among beer drinkers and brewers alike. The result is a growing presence for the art of real ale in America."

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