The Mystery of Cask, the Consistency of Keg
February 4, 2011

Pivovar Matuska's prog-rock looking logo

What’s all the fuss about method of dispense, anyway? The fabulous Reluctant Scooper hosts this month’s session.   I won’t even start in about bottle conditioning, and yet…maybe I will.

Some drinkers have formed whole identities around their preferred method and embrace it as a political stance.  There is a political history here, a David-and-Goliath story of mega-brewers versus traditional, craft methods, but somehow it has taken on an essentialist dichotomy in some discussions to the point of absurdity.  For beer drinkers outside of the UK, the urgency of this debate may seem remote and exotic.  It did to me, at least, before I became slowly enamored of cask ale.

After my recent trip back to the US I longed for the gentle, complex mystery in the best cask ale, as the cold fizz of the keg was masking flavors in the beer I was drinking, which was all very strong and hopped.  I let it rest in the glass for a very long time just to taste what was really going on. At least with keg you’ll always know what you are getting.

But the heartache of the immigrant is constant– when you are in one place you think you love the other more.  And so it is with ale.

That is, until you find a place like Pivni, in York, that has fantastic cask and keg in an ever-changing array from around the world.  On my last visit they had Thornbridge Raven on cask, a black IPA with a mysteriously peppery, minty, herbal hop character which I’m sure would have been masked by keg dispense, but who knows!

When I metioned to the landlord there that Black IPAs were my favourite he told me about a new beer he had just put on keg, from Matuska, a Czech microbrewery.   He gave me a taste– there was a blast of Amarillo hops right at the end of a really stand-up, well rounded Czech malt backbone, with other mysterious hops dancing hand in hand along the way. I had a half and was completely won over.

Another reason to love Pivni is they care about beer.  Not only will this wonderful guy behind the bar wax lyrical about new and exciting ways to clean pipes, when he realizes you are really into a beer he will go upstairs and print you out a profile from the brewery!

Where I thought this beer a kind of super-hopped dark lager, (thanks, keg for tricking me!) it is actually a top-fermented ale.  The notes from the brewery go on to say that to call a beer “black” is not part of the Czech brewing tradition, but calling it “dark rocket” wouldn’t really cut it, “so black rocket it is.”

The profile goes on to list all the stats: the malts (“Primary Rocket Fuel”) and the hops (“Secondary Rocket Fuel”), kind of yeast as well as fermentation time.  That’s all valuable information for a budding home brewer like myself who is learning what methods and ingredients make different flavors.

I love many kegged American, German and Czech beers too much to disparage the keg, for without it, how could I try Black Rocket, or when I’m really homesick, tuck into some Sierra Nevada?  Sierra Nevada Pale Ale  is a beer I disliked in its “real” bottle-conditioned form but I now find, in all its imported keggy zest, quite wonderful, and am content to be in the majority of beer drinkers who simply, aren’t that fussed about how it got into the glass.

Life Through a Sparkler
January 18, 2011

House of Trembling Madness Illustration by Rebecca Wright

I’ve lived in Yorkshire now for nearly two months, living in three different cottages and one hotel room.  My nomad ways are over (for a time) and I find myself in a little cottage (“Moonlight Cottage” it’s called on the door, in that affectionate way the British have of naming their houses) in a little village a few miles outside of York.

It’s the kind of place where people win prizes for floral arrangements and making elderberry wine.

Though I may not win any awards, I have begun a little private brewery in the Moonlight Cottage– the first batch is bubbling in the fermenter as I write, an American Pale Ale brewed on the Cold Moon from partial extract, steeped with Crystal malt and Northern Brewer bittering hops and lots of Cascade for aroma.  I’ll be dry hopping this batch with more Cascade or Amarillo hops– I have yet to decide.

In the two months of Northern living I’ve drunk many a beer from a sparkler, which is a particularly Northern way of serving cask ale.  It is a method of delivery that produces a denser head and a mouth-feel that is creamier, at least initially.  I like it, or maybe I just like the beer up here that seems to echo the laid back understatement and love of place– predominant Northern qualities, if I can generalize.

I’ve had some cracking pints, which must be fuel for a future post.  The House of Trembling Madness, a medieval drinking hall specialising in Belgian beers, has become my new York local.  Oh how I love it’s cozy strangeness.  But there are no handpulls– no cask ale.  Mr. Malting made the mistake of asking the guy behind the bar if they had any “real ale” on, and he returned with a perfectly straight face, “What do you mean by real?” Which just made me like the place more.  And in the Shambles there is Pivni, which always sets my heart racing as I peer in at the taps.  It was there I tried BrewDog’s There is No Santa, the standout Christmas beer (and I tried quite a few this year)– with its velvety-nugmeg-dark-comfort– unforgettable!

The other unforgettable pint was of the omnipresent Black Sheep Bitter.  Yes, it’s everywhere here, and I was loathe to try it as the pints I’d had in London were just not that great, but I found myself snowed in in the village of Hutton-le-Hole on the moors during the beginnings of the brutal winter snows.  The Crown pub had been closed due to the snowy roads but somehow on this night the landlord made it in, and this was the beer they had.  There were just a few of us there but he’d stoked a roaring fire and if that wasn’t the most beautiful pint of bitter I’d ever had, I’d be lying.  And I had two more, something I almost never do.  I commented that the beer was so much better than the Black Sheep I’d had in London and someone called out, “It don’t travel well!”

On that night, tucked up near the fire, all the moors coated in fondant and sparkling in the moonlight, I thought, “and why should it?”

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