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Beer Sat Jan 19 2013

Cask Ale: First Impressions

Being a cask ale virgin, I wasn't sure what to expect from Thursday's Cask Night at Smallbar. All I knew was that cask ale was a very old, traditional method of making beer, which is why it is referred to as "real ale." For me, that meant an association with medieval England and bearded men in dark, cave-like taverns.

So naturally, I half expected to walk into a scene from the Canterbury Tales, complete with corrupt clergy, vernerial diseases, and drunken knife fights. While none of these were immediately obvious when I arrived, I took the number of bearded men as a sign that at least I was in the right place.


The bar was taken over by six mini casks from Half Acre, Goose Island, Oskar Blues, Jolly Pumpkin, Solemn Oath, and Three Floyds. I lined up tasting portions of all six ales and prepared to see what could bring so many beer nerds out on a cold night.

I took a sip of the first one and thought, "well that's disappointing, mine is flat." How embarrassing for the brewer! I moved on to the second only to discover that it was flat too, and a little warm. What was going on?

I was about ready to give the bartender a piece of my mind when I noticed that the rest of the beer connoisseurs around me were happily sipping their pints. One of the brewers was kind enough to fill me in:


Cask ale is made by transferring the brew to a cask before it is carbonated. Extra yeast and sugars are added to the cask to encourage secondary fermentation, which is why it tastes delicately effervescent (or if you're me, flat). According to this brewer, it is easier to taste the true flavors of the malt when a beer doesn't have the added hops and is not served too cold.

I went back to tasting and did notice that these were more flavorful than regular beers. I was pleasantly surprised to find that all the floral and herbal notes I liked in Daisy cutter were amplified in the cask version. Other beers, though, did not fare as well. A few seemed like strange cousins of very good beers that I knew and liked, and according to my notes, one "tastes like diluted chicken stock."

But it didn't really matter. According to one brewer, casking a brew before you've had a chance to tweak the flavors is kind of a shot in the dark. And since most of the breweries only made one cask especially for Cask Night, it felt more like a group science project than a public event. But not surprisingly, this friendly crowd of beer lovers was only too happy to rub shoulders with Chicago brewers and consume their experiments.

Next up at Smallbar: Sour Night on February 22.


Photo credits to Joshua Longbrake


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