Real Ale Festival 1998

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 Summer sunshine and 80 degree heat embraced beer connoisseurs migrating to Chicago this fall for the first day of the Real Ale Festival 1998. Activities began at 3:30 PM Friday, October 16th at the Inland Meeting Center in the suburb of Westmont. Tasters roamed freely, enjoying an unlimited number of two-ounce samples poured into miniature "dimple" glasses straight from the firkins. Michael Jackson greeted the attentive crowd and described the influence CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) has had on the world wide demand for Real Ale. Novices learned that the term "real ale" today is defined as "a name for a draught (or bottled) beer brewed from traditional ingredients, matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which is dispensed and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide." When that container is a "cask" then the term "cask-conditioned" applies. This year's festival included for the first time bottle-conditioned beers. Together, over 100 entries from 62 breweries entered the National Cask Ale Competition and were available for tasting by eager attendees. This number was up from last year's 43 entries and represents, according to event organizer Ray Daniels, "the incredible growth in the last two years as supplies are appearing to fill a need." Daniels points to the growing number of events focusing on real ale around the U.S., including the New England Ale Expo hosted by Redfish in Boston and the Real Ale Tasting at the Pizza Port north of San Diego.

 By 6 PM the "free ride" was over and further samples required one of the 20 tickets received with the $20 paid admission to the first four hour tasting session. Along with the great beers diversions such as pub games, Morris dancing and food all vied for the audience's attention. Last call came all too soon in this relaxed setting that lacked tasting lines, second-hand smoke and beer police. The carpeted floor even eliminated the potential for jeering in response to dropped glasses. 8:30 AM Saturday drew the serious publicans to the Cask Ale Seminars. Practitioners shared their knowledge of producing cask ale in America and real ale in England. Ray Daniels chronicled the rise of commercial cask-conditioned beer in the U.S., while Michael Jackson led a guided tour of contemporary British beer styles. The session was informative and entertaining, a perfect lead-in to "Tasting Session #2". From 1 to 5 PM tasting continued via another set of 20 tickets. At mid-afternoon the winners of the competition were announced and the crowd briefly gravitated toward those beers. For the aficionados who needed still more tasting time, a third session ran from 7 to 11 PM.

 The event showcased numerous Southern standouts. From Blue Grass Brewing of Louisville, Kentucky, the Bearded Pat's Barleywine took a Gold with its complex aroma and flavor, great body and alcoholic finish. In the American-style Pale and Amber Ale category their American Pale Ale took a Bronze while the crisp and clean Pale Ale from Blue Star Brewing in San Antonio, Texas took the Silver. Another Texan, Saint Arnold's of Houston walked away with the Gold among Strong Ales for their Christmas Ale. Against other bottle-conditioned entries of Scottish Ale the Silver went to Atlanta's John Harvard's, one of 12 John Harvard's participating, for their peaty Buckhead Scots Ale. Snaring the Gold was Boscos, of Nashville, Tennessee, for their smooth Isle of Skye, with its hint of chocolate and mellow alcoholic finish. The Seven Grain Stout from the John Harvard's in Roswell, Georgia brought home the Bronze in the bottled Porter & Stout category.

 The experience of the organizers, the Chicago Beer Society (CBS), was evident throughout this event. Large signs displayed alphabetically the available beers. Colored dots indicated beer dispensed via a beer engine, otherwise gravity alone coaxed the live beer from the standard metal firkin out a plastic tap handle. The well-designed cooling jackets kept the beer at cellar temperature prior to and all throughout the event. The CBS makes this system available to other festival organizers in an effort to promote successful real ale events elsewhere. Dump buckets and fresh water were abundant across the 100 by 75 foot hall. The layout consisted of rows and columns of firkins along one wall with British entries grouped in one corner. Vendor exhibits spanned another wall with a stage at the center. An educational exhibit featured a comparison tasting of Goose Island IPA served from cask, CO2 keg and nitro keg. The bottle-conditioned beers were huddled in another corner where they were poured into pitchers and ordered by their assigned number. A small food concession accepted tasting tickets for light pub fare and soft drinks. The merchandise booth offered festival "beerware" and copies of Michael Jackson's latest books. One exhibit drawing periodic attention was the Consumer Cellerman. Here, once an hour, a lucky drawing winner would get to tap a live firkin. The free shuttles to and from the conference hotel were a great service and heavily in demand as the Saturday rains moved in. Next year maybe the Wyndhan Garden Hotel can be persuaded to actually offer craft beer at their bar. As the sign says, "A firkin great beer festival."


Reviewed by Tom Ciccateri - October, 1998

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