Beer lovers gathered last night for the first evening of the three-day Williamsburg Cask Ale Festival, coordinated by Alex Hall of The Gotham Imbiber with Ray Deter of d.b.a. It was a chance to taste some obscure beers on cask, including a few bizarre selections and beers from breweries you don't normally see in New York. There were twelve casks on Friday, with 10-oz samples costing $4 to $5 and larger pours also available. There is no entry fee.
What is cask ale, exactly? Essentially, Alex says, it's "beer as it was intended to be, before modern mainstream processing and serving methods took over." Cask beer is unpasteurized and served at cellar temperature—around 54-56 degrees—but not chilled. (Too cold, and you'll miss some of the complex flavors in this unfiltered beer.) Instead of a CO2- or nitrogen- dispensing tap, the beer is poured using only gravity or a hand pump, so any carbonation is the natural result of the yeast continuing to ferment the beer within the cask. All this makes for a smooth, creamy mouthfeel and rich-tasting beer.
What you should try—whether at the event, or elsewhere—and what you can skip, after the jump.
Our sampling got off to a slightly rocky start. We found the BrüRm @ BAR Aberdeen Ale just so-so—the bacony peat flavors were a bit overwhelming, though if you're a fan of earthy beers, you might enjoy it. The Shawnee Vienna Lager was also underwhelming—this reddish beer had a hint of apple flavor, though the taste reminded me a little of Band-aids.
The festival also included a never-before-seen-in-New-York cask of Reindeer Droppings, a winter seasonal pale ale from Ridgeway Brewery in England, and we enjoyed its creamy malt flavors and hints of lemon and hay. Even better and more unusual was the Ten Penny Ale from Olde Burnside in Connecticut. Rich and slightly sweet, this Scottish-style ale was very malty—it reminded us of toffee and caramel corn. This sort of beer is lovely on cask; the mellow carbonation and warm temperature emphasized its butterscotch flavors. We also recommend the Rossdorfer Urbräu from Sauer Rossdorf in Germany, a light yellow, grassy beer with a hint of toasted malt and a barely sweet finish.
The Dogfish Head 75-Minute IPA is available at a few places around the city, but it's worth trying if you haven't had it yet. Only served on cask, it's a blend of the brewery's 60- and 90- Minute IPAS with a little bit of maple syrup. It's well balanced and pleasantly sweet, like broiled grapefruit that finds its way onto the maple syrup on your breakfast plate. We also loved the Sublimely Self Righteous Ale from Stone Brewing Co. With enough malt to balance its considerable piney hops, this rich, dark IPA is both mellow and hoppy. The lack of added carbonation makes it beautifully smooth.
On the darker side, we weren't wild about the Honest Town Capall Dorche Stout or the oaky Bourbon Barrel-Aged Entire from Shawnee Craft Brewing, but we all loved the Chocolate Porter from BrüRm @ BAR. Just smelling this beer was wonderful—the toasty chocolate flavor in the nose was rich enough to bite into. The deep mocha flavors and creamy mouthfeel of this beer reminded some of our tasters of melted chocolate ice cream with a hint of bourbon. If you make it to the fest, be sure to taste this one.
The festival continues Saturday January 9th and Sunday the 10th, from 1pm until late daily. (Though we can't guarantee that the beer will last that long.)