As defined by the UK-based group, Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), “real ale” is “Beer brewed from traditional ingredients, matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide.” Cask ale is not filtered or pasteurized – it’s alive. Priming sugar is added to the beer to create secondary fermentation, then the live yeast in the ale eats the sugar and creates natural carbonation. It’s kept at a cellar temperature of 55 degrees and served straight from the cask, or through a hand pump.
“Cask ale is more like fresh strawberries. It tastes great when they’re good, but they have a very short shelf life so you have to eat them quickly. Whereas keg beer is more like frozen strawberries, they keep almost forever and they taste kind of like strawberries, but they’re not quite as good as fresh ones,” said Mark Bowers, this year’s NERAX organizer.
He went on to describe the life span of cask ale: the first day is good, the second day is great, the third day is not as good, and the fourth day, it starts falling off. It’s that evolution and freshness that makes drinking cask a dynamic beer experience that creates many cask-converts.
This year’s fests features about 100 casks from 80 breweries, roughly half of them American and half British, with plenty of out of the ordinary casks: a couple of lagers from Jack’s Abby in Framingham, a few ciders and mead from around New England, a Berliner Weisse from White Birch Brewing in New Hampshire, and a Helles lager from Haverhill Brewery. Then there are the English beers that rarely make it over, like very low alcohol hoppy beers from the UK (Jarl from Fyne Ales and Island Hopping).
“Traditionally it’s always been an ale. We’re trying to follow up on that.”
What about a lambic, a Belgian Saison—cask condition it. Barrel aged, a lager, a barley wine—cask condition it,” said Bowers.
They also added an additional session this year, Day of the Living Nanos, featuring pins (smaller casks) from new nanobreweries: Backlash Beer, Bunker Brewing, Cody Brewing, Night Shift Brewing, and Prodigal Brewing.
A lot else has changed in the 16 years since NERAX has started.
“We see a lot more brewers interested in having cask at the festival. Early on there weren’t many American brewers doing it and they’d never heard of us, it was like ‘why deal with these people, what are they doing’ and such.”
Now almost all breweries in New England, and many more across the country, know about NERAX and want their beer on cask there.
Bowers said that a few years ago they did an informal survey of brewers, asking them whether they preferred their beer in cask or keg, and were none too surprised to hear the results.
“We asked them ‘If you could have your beer any way you wanted it, at its peak form, would it be in keg or in cask?’ And we have yet to find one to say keg’s better. They say, ‘Yea, in a perfect world, it’s better on cask.’”
CASK ALE GLOSSARY:
Half of the fun of cask ale is learning the kooky words that make up the vocabulary!
Beer engine: Used for pumping beer if the cask is in cellar
Bunghole: Yep, that’s a real word. The hole through which the cask is filled
Firkin: A 9-gallon cask, and the most common size. Other cask sizes include the pin (4.5 gallons), the kilderkin (18 gallons) and the enormous hogshead (54 gallons)
Sparkler: Device at the end of a swan neck that contains several small holes through which cask ale is produced, making a tight, creamy head
[NERAX. Wed 4.11.12- Sat 4.14.12. Somerville American Legion Hall Post 388. 163 Glen St., Somerville. Times vary/21+/$15 admission; pay as you consume. Day of the Living Nanos. Thu 4.12.12. 1pm-4pm/21+/$30; includes price of beer. @NERAX. nerax.org]