The skinny on real ale

Here Alexander D. Mitchell IV (he goes by the much simpler ADM4 in his e-mails) discusses the benefits of real ale, and where to find it:

One terrific aspect of Baltimore's beer scene is the routine and regular availability of real ale.

No, no one is saying that your Sam Adams is phony.

Real ale, also referred to as "cask ale," is ale (a lager can be done this way, but 99 percent of the time it's an ale) that has undergone a second fermentation in the keg or cask, and thus has natural, yeast-created carbonation, as opposed to forced CO2 carbonation.

It's the way beer was served until modern times, back when beer wasn't mass-produced in massive industrial plants and was instead made and delivered locally.

Instead of gas pressure pushing the beer through a tap, such beers are literally pumped by hand into a glass or, in extreme cases, poured directly from the keg (called a "firkin") into the glass through a gravity tap ...

Is there a difference? You bet there is.

If mass-produced beer is that soft, squishy white bread from the grocery store and craft beers are those whole grain loaves of firm bread, real ale is the fresh-baked bakery bread, still warm from the oven.

Twice, I've been lucky enough to pour for friends or strangers the exact same batch of beer either bottled, draft, and hand-pumped, or draft, hand-pumped, and firkin, without telling the drinkers, and all of them swore they were three different beers.

If you think you can tell the differences between different bottled waters or vodkas, the difference of real ale is likely to be astounding. But it's a labor of love, for both the breweries making it and the retailers selling it. It's labor-intensive, requires special hand pumps and lines or handling, and is thus a lower-profit-margin product. If a bar wanted to make money, they'd just push cocktails instead.

According to this database kept by beer writer Alex Hall, there are approximately 500 venues in all of the U. S. serving cask ale either regularly or at least occasionally. Baltimore and its suburbs have 10  locations on that database -- as many or more than 37 entire states.

Cask ale is on full-time -- or as much as they can manage to keep inventory on hand and ready to go -- at Pratt Street Ale House, Max's Taphouse, Mahaffey's, the Wharf Rat in Fells Point, Bertha's (the last two supplied by Olivers), and Red Brick Station out in White Marsh.

In addition, cask is featured at Metropolitan Coffeehouse in Federal Hill every Thursday evening, and somewhat less predictably at Racers Cafe, Duda's, Grand Cru in Belvedere, and monthly at DuClaw Fells Point and Ellicott Mills Brewing in Ellicott City.

The Pratt Street Ale House recently started a Cask Ale Appreciation Night every Tuesday, with full British pints for $3. (One brewpub missing from the list: The Brewer's Art. Cask ale doesn't tend to go well with the funky Belgian-styled yeasts, nor does the BA have the room in their claustrophobic brewhouse for the additional barrels and equipment.)

Baltimore even has its own real ale appreciation club: the Chesapeake Bay Branch of the Society for Preservation of Beers from the Wood, with well over 200 dues-paying members. They hold monthly "meetings" which are little more than drinking parties dedicated to draining a firkin -- or several -- at the participating venue. Details are here.

(At top, Sun photo by Kim Hairston. Bottom, Richard Clark brews a light ale for a contest the Chesapeake Real Ale Brewers Society (C.R.A.B.S.), a group he is a member of.)

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