Photo: JOEL VEAK
"Keg beer is dead."
Mark Bowers of the New England Real Ale Exhibition is speaking literally here about the natural quality of beers we regularly drink out of kegs. But for his group and others like it, the statement could also serve as a rallying cry. He's relating something said by his compatriot Colin Valentine, national chairman of the Campaign for Real Ale. "The only way of getting some life into keg beer is by putting the equivalent of 5,000 volts up its ass in the form of CO2."
The alternative, real ale, or cask-conditioned ale, is very much alive. "Keg beer is usually re-carbonated and then kegged," says Max Toste of Deep Ellum (477 Cambridge Street, Allston, 617.787.2337). "In cask-conditioned ales, the beer carbonates itself. It's beer that still has live yeast in it. The beer is alive, living and breathing."
That's been the traditional method for serving ale in the United Kingdom for centuries, but here it's a slow-building trend that's gained a foothold in Boston bars in recent years.
"It's all-natural beer," says Suzanne Schalow of Cambridge Common (1667 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, 617.547.1228). "It's born in the same vessel that it's poured out of, and it doesn't come into contact with any unnatural gases, CO2 or nitrogen or anything like that."
The first time these ales reach air is when the cask is vented, breathing from four to eight hours. "Once you tap into it and let it hit air, it can be a little frustrated or upset, as we call it, because it's its first time seeing the world basically," Schalow says.
The way these ales are made and served can make for a vastly different drinking experience for many American beer drinkers. Some people are confused by the lower carbonation, explains Toste. "And it's served at cellar temperature (50-55 degrees), which is not warm. It's not room temperature, which is a major misconception."
But these changes are for the better, advocates say. Most tap systems around the city are running at about 42 degrees. With cask-conditioned ale, the "warmer temperature allows the flavors and the aroma to really stand out," says Schalow. "You can really pick out a lot in a cask ale. For someone who's not used to drinking a cask ale, their palate is going to be livened and woken up because there's so much flavor there."
"It's kind of like a good wine, wines that have been aged and matured and not filtered and such," says Bowers, whose group holds two real-ale festivals in Massachusetts every year. "They take on characteristics and complexity that you don't get when you pump it into a keg, bottle it up, filter, pasteurize it. It's got a more complex taste, a softer mouth feel, too, which interacts with the taste because the carbonation is less than what you get in a lot of beer. It feels more integrated with the beer. It's like a Champagne that's fermented in the bottle. The bubbles are tighter and smaller."
One reason for drinkers' reluctance to embrace task ales may be the number of bars serving them improperly, Toste says. "You don't just throw it underneath the bar, tap it, and there you go. There's a process to it." The beer needs to be left to settle and then vent for the right amount of time before service. "The idea is the beer is properly carbonated, and it's nice and clear, not cloudy," Toste says.
Bowers points to Cambridge Common, Deep Ellum, Redbones (55 Chester Street, Somerville, 617.628.2200), and Lord Hobo (92 Hampshire Street, Cambridge, 617.250.8454) as bars that do a good job. The recently opened Stoddard's Fine Food & Ale (48 Temple Place, Boston, 617.426.0048) and Russell House Tavern (14 JFK Street, Cambridge, 617.500.3055) also have cask ales on tap.
All of them generally turn the casks over every couple of days. Since they don't have any preservatives, the brews don't last much longer than that. "The last thing you want is a bad cask beer," says Bowers. "It turns people off, and it's hard to get them to go back. It's critical that the bar that serves the beer gets it right. Because the product is live, it has a chance to go bad."
Think of it like the difference between fresh strawberries and frozen ones. As Bowers puts it, "The fresh ones don't have the shelf life of the frozen ones, but they taste a hell of a lot better."