Vince Capano is a two time winner of the prestigious Quill and Tankard writing award for humor from the North American Guild of Beer Writers.
Vince's column is now a regular feature of beernexus.com
The Real Deal
It’s easy to get confused in the writing business. We’re trained to take things literally but often times that just doesn’t work. Yesterday my friend John strolled into the Libertine Pub and told me he just was at the Devils hockey game and “the crowd was really unruly” but settled down eventually. “Ah, they went from unruly to ruly,” I said. For some reason he didn’t laugh. Later on his friend Natalie came into the pub after a long day at work and said she felt “so unkempt”. I logically said “you look ‘kempt’ to me.” She just stared ahead. Obviously she and John make a great couple – neither has a sense of humor. To cap things off the bartender came over and told us that she was “very disgruntled” with having to work late. “Cool off and get gruntled” I said. Who would have thought the only three people in the world who wouldn’t laugh were all in the same place at the same time. Their silence convinced me not to ask them about a similar linguistic issue in the beer world - since there is something called “real” ale is there also a “fake” ale?
There actually are fake versions of real ale but that’s a story for another day or for the last few paragraphs if this article runs short. Right now this is all about real ale- a/k/a cask ale - and the only regularly held cask ale festival in New Jersey at Pizza Uno’s in Metuchen.
First of all, it’s hard to find real ale in most NJ bars. Unlike the beer haven Gaslight brewpub in South Orange ( “We feature cask ale every Thursday night!” ) they simply can’t be bothered, don’t have the customer base to support it, or have no idea what it is. Let’s clear that one up first. Cask ale is an unfiltered, unpasteurised beer that still contains live yeast which continues conditioning the beer as it sits in the cask. I have to admit there’s stomach pumping potential in drinking anything that’s alive and unpasteruised but it sounds better when the brewers call the process 'secondary fermentation'. To most drinkers fermentation makes everything okay. That’s especially true in this case since the secondary fermentation creates a gentle, natural CO2 carbonation which allows the beer’s malt and hop flavors to develop, resulting in a richer tasting drink with more character than standard keg beers.
One neat thing about real ale is that by definition it is always served without any extraneous gas (from the beer, not the bartender). Manual labor is used to move the beer to your glass usually by pulling it up from the cellar with a hand pump also known as a 'beer engine'. It’s a strenuous enough task that eventually you just might get strong enough to beat Chuck Norris at arm wrestling, considering of course that's he's actually 135 years old. The second way to move the real ale from cask to glass is the Official Isaac Newton Method - elevate the cask, turn a small spigot at the bottom and let gravity do the rest. That’s the way they do it at Uno’s.
Now before you think “Uno” is some sort of typo, which by the way is hard to do considering it’s only three letters, I'm talking about the restaurant chain. It’s the same Uno Chicago Grill (a/k/a Pizzeria Uno) that always seems to be sending out discount coupons or battling Starbucks to see who can open the most locations. Quietly nestled among the many constellations of Unos there are only two to my knowledge that actually brew their own beer; one is in Chicago and the other in Metuchen, N.J. Metuchen?? No wind, no broad shoulders, and no toddling there. I don’t get it either but that’s their pick and they’re sticking with it.
The Metuchen Uno’s is a typical chain brewpub meaning top corporate bosses mandate a certain amount of not very special beers be made since they personally don’t like beer anyway. I’d be willing to wager that the Uno CEO and cohorts don’t always drink beer but when they do they drink wine. Then one day, between goblets of sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon, they mistakenly sent out a memo allowing their Metuchen brewer a free hand with seasonals (they are uniformly great) and approved a twice, yes twice, a year cask ale fest.
Now before you get carried away and want to plan your vacation around the event be aware that it is a festival with a lower case “f”. They only offer a dozen or so beers but they are all real ales, locally sourced, and fresh. Most are very good too. Okay, you noticed the “most”. Some are not so good. When that happens the brewer blames the distributor for not treating the beer properly, the distributor blames the retailer for not storing it correctly, and the retailer blames the brewer for making bad beer. Everyone comes out a winner, except the drinker of course.
The festival is small since it’s hard for to convince brewers to supply a single pin (4.5 gallons) or firkin (9-imperial gallons) even to another member of the brewing brotherhood; those that do usually insist that Uno supply the cask and then pick it up. In the early days of the event Jeff from the local distributor worked with Mike the Uno brewer to contract for the real ales. Not only did they have to personally visit breweries in the NY-NJ-PA area to drop off their own casks they had to return to pick them up when filled. Fortunately neither Jeff nor Mike were ever stopped by a police officer on their trek back to Metuchen. I mean unless they were dressed as Snow White on the way home to the dwarfs it would be a tad hard to explain just what seven small barrels of beer are doing in the back seat.
At the first Uno Cask Fest I attended there were fourteen total beers neatly lined up on a three tier rack placed in front of the pub’s brewing equipment. Pint glasses were stacked on a table next to the casks. First pour began at noon and lasted until 8PM or earlier if the beer ran out. Needless to say I was there at 11:59 AM. Their buy as you go process was simple – you purchased a ticket from the bartender and then took it to the casks where you traded it in for a glass with the beer of your choice. Ah, but it wasn’t as simple as it seemed, not if you wanted to drink all 14 beers and still be able to lie on the floor without holding on. However there was an easy solution to the problem - only drink half pints.
When I asked the keg pourer for a half pint he looked confused. He said that would be a major change in policy so sent me to the head brewer for a decision. The brewer politely sent me to the assistant manager who directed me to the manager. I knew I had the right guy since he wore a button that read “the beer stops here”. I gave him by best argument: “it only takes one drink to get me drunk, the trouble is I can’t remember if it’s the 13th or 14th. To make counting easier how about half pint servings?” He gave me a serious nod of agreement but then said there weren't any half pint glasses available. It didn’t take longer than 15 or 20 minutes for him to think of a solution – “we’ll only fill the pint glasses half way!”
Half way soon became two-thirds which morphed into three-quarters as the day went on. The process was aided by the fact that the pourer also seemed to be on a mission to sample each and every one of the beers. As I watched him pour I could only wonder why my 8th grade teacher Miss Brady never thought of doing this when she taught the class fractions. Oh, in case you’re wondering if you ordered the half pint they only took half your ticket. Solomon, the manager, had lived up to his name.
On a subsequent visit to Uno’s I asked the bartender the exact date of the next cask fest and he not only dutifully told me he also volunteered his opinion on how the fest could be improved. First he said it should start at 3 or 4 PM and not noon. “….noon is too early”. “Ah, but the beer was great and sold out by 4 PM so what’s the difference when it starts?” I replied. Undeterred, he responded with “and we should bring a band in at night.” “Ah, but the beer was great and sold out by 4 PM so why do you need a band?” Unswayed and unresponsive he went on, “and we need a younger crowd.” “Ah, but the beer was great and sold out by 4 PM because the crowd was mainly people who loved cask ales.” He moved away mumbling something like “old beer nut”. Something tells me he just might fit in with the management Oenophiles in Chicago.
Uno’s most recent fest featured 10 casks from New Jersey each proving that Garden State beer is alive (get it, cask ale has live yeast - oh well….) and kicking. For me, Uno’s Milk Stout with Kung Pao Peppers vied with Climax Double IPA for best in the program. The worst, one was, well, let’s just say it was from a central NJ brewery and the brewer was actually there in person. And not only was he there, he made a point of standing near his cask to ask people what they thought of it. I took up a position behind and to his left and waited for the fireworks to begin. Ah, but beer people are kind, sensitive folks. One drinker said with great sincerity, “this tastes like it was made with the sparkling waters of the Hudson River”, one said with sensitivity “this should be sold in the detergent aisle”, and another opined serenely, “if they ever bottle this stuff there should be a picture on label is of a guy throwing up.” Yes, we beer folks may be kind and caring but we’re also honest. The brewer gravely nodded and discreetly waited until the nay sayers were out of ear shot before mumbling “m….. f…. a….….s” placing particular emphasis on the “…..”.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that one of the cask ales wasn’t up to par. It’s easy to ruin such a delicate thing as real ale. Maybe the beer was just too old (cask ales have a short shelf life), maybe the cask itself was shaken and jostled before serving, or maybe the cask wasn’t cleaned and sanitized properly. It is however most important to remember that if you come across one that is not good there are reasons for it and one of them is absoutely not because the beer is real ale.
Real ale has flavor and texture. That’s what that cask is all about. It proudly stands in contrast to soulless, fizzy, kegged beers you can find any day, any where.
In a world of overrated pleasures and under rated treasures I’m glad there is real ale.