Beer: a fine obsession


Over at the New York Times website, Eric Asimov writes about his latest obsession, beer. Or, more specifically, cask-conditioned beer:

For American consumers who are reared on fizzy sodas and beers produced in the German lager tradition, in which the level of carbonation is naturally much higher, the diminished carbonation can be a little befuddling. Because the texture of the cask ale bubbles is significantly softer, people may jump to the conclusion that the beer is flat.

Untrue! What you have is a prickle of bubbles rather than an aggressive machine-gun stream, and it does take some getting used to. But the payoff is a texture that lifts and enhances subtleties. These beers are not about power but about nuance, with the zestiness coming from their clear, pure flavors.

To really taste all those subtleties, cask ales need to be served at cellar temperature, around 50 or 55 degrees, cool but not cold. This gives rise to the other stereotype of beers like this, that they are served warm. That, too, is wrong. It’s true only relative to the icy cold temperatures at which mass-market brews are served, which mask their flaws and insipid nature. Serving temperatures for beer are very much like those for white wines – the higher the quality of the beer or wine the less cold it ought to be.

I admit that, for all I love about beer, I’ve never made a point of learning about it, so instead of prodding Asimov by wondering why he’s only now getting around to the cask-conditioned brews, I get to take comfort that perhaps, someday, Americans really will start to understand the difference, and put aside their Budweiser, MGD, and the like, and start drinking real beer.

I suppose it’s something to look into, but the murmur coming my way is that if you go to Germany and order a Budweiser, you might be able to find the iconic American label, but the product will be different. German purity laws forbid calling something like what we in the states know as Budweiser “beer”. There’s a reason Budweiser has such nasty after-effects.

I just think it’s strange that Americans insist their beer be repugnant.

There was a time, several years back, when I popped into the neighborhood pub for a beer–literally two door down the street–and was taken aback by the hulking wooden contraption behind the bar. After eyeing the board, and then the unmarked tap handle on the dark-stained wooden box, I asked the bartender what was up with the thing.

“We’re not advertising that one on the board,” he advised me. “It’s Jubel Ale, cask conditioned.”

I said nothing. My jaw hurt from slapping against the bar so hard. With a gentle smile, the bartender ran his towel out to tend to my drooling mess. “A pint, then?” he asked. And I stood in utter disbelief until he put the beautiful pint in front of me. Deschutes Brewery’s winter line is perhaps my favorite beer on the planet, and here I held a casked Jubel Ale. I had only joked about getting the stuff like this. Really, I had not thought it possible.

Now, admittedly, this isn’t the best kind of beer for baseball season, and I can only imagine it would be hell trying to put down a few of these at a NASCAR event, but that is where I must be willing to compromise. There are many fine beers better suited to baseball season. And I just don’t care about high-speed left turns. I do not, in this sense, feel deprived.

Though Asimov is only now becoming obsessed with cask beers, he is still well-positioned to teach me something about the basics:

When the casks are filled, a light dose of sugar is added to restart the fermentation in the same way that Champagne or bottle-conditioned beers are refermented in bottles. This refermentation produces a byproduct of carbon dioxide, which carbonates the beer. Brewers generally add a fining material as well, like isinglas, which helps to settle the yeast cells to the bottom of the cask and clarify the ale. While haziness is typical of hefeweizen and certain bottle-conditioned beers, cask ales ought to be clear.

By the way, isinglas comes from the air bladders of fishes like sturgeon, cod and hake, and it’s interesting to speculate on how brewers and winemakers discovered its clarifying properties. Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster for the Brooklyn Brewery, suggests that air bladders were once used as containers for ale and wine, and when people noticed that the hazy liquids held within were coming out crystal clear they figured out something in the bladder was acting to clarify them. Makes sense to me.

Cheers. Drink well, drink safely. Make sure to make it home.