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Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Cask Underground

So this is the scene. Last night, MacTarnahan's had a release part for Lip Stinger, their peppered saison, which is making a surprising return in 2010. (With exotic beers it's usually one and done, so kudos to Mac's for sticking with it.) But what really interested me was a far less ballyhooed feature of the party--a cask of MacTarnahan's. Very quietly, brewer Vasilios Gletsos has been experimenting with the notion of cask ales, tapping one on special occasions. Mainly, it happens, when I'm not around. Last night was typical; I already had plans and couldn't make the event. (Though I think the ubiquitous Angelo De Ieso, whom I've started to think of as the beer gypsy, did make it--so maybe you'll hear more.) Amazingly, Mac's Mark Carver poured out a growler and dropped it off at the house last night.

The whole thing had a kind of metaphoric quality. Over the past year, I have been spending a lot of time thinking about cask ales. My love of them blinded me to certain realities which have only recently become obvious: even in beer-crazy Portland, real ale commands the devotion of only a tiny group of fans. I have no idea why. To me, nothing draws the flavor of hops out like cask conditioning. I'm always frustrated by the near-freezing temperatures at which pubs have to serve regular draft; a 55-degree cask ale allows flavors and aromas to blossom. Even the "flat" quality is far silkier than the more-carbonated regular drafts. All of this makes me think more people should like cask. But no.

Those of us who do seem more like an underground society--dissidents who must secretly pass along critical data via oblique signal. I imagine developing a code--tap of the left temple with an index finger--and then whispering obscure messages: "The crow caws at Bailey's--Caldera pale." Last night had the feel of subterfuge. Mark and I were communicating via cell phone; he made the drop literally in the dark of night. Carver's last missive: "Delivered." I touch my temple in response, "Da, comrade."

Mac's is, of course, the perfect cask ale. Vasili was right to identify it as such and hatch this scheme. I expected it would be, but you never know--cask is a fickle mistress. Sometimes beers that should billow with flavor fall flat. Others that seem clearly unfit somehow become transmuted to rare elixirs. Mac's though, delivers. I've been drinking beers from the brewery for 20 years, and one consistent feature is that they are highly filtered, very clean beers. So seeing Mac's in its unfiltered, hazy glory was a little shocking (that picture above was taken last night at about ten). It has every bit of the silky texture a cask ale should have, but the hops are the big attraction. It's made solely with Cascades, and they express a lot more character than one is used to. I found a peppery pine note that is usually concealed, and overall they were greener, less citrusy. Mac's is dry-hopped, so the nose is wonderfully fragrant. If this beer were available on cask regularly, it would be one of my go-to tipples.

Sadly, the cask is probably already gone. Vasili is spooked by the idea that they'll start to turn, so he won't leave one on much more than an evening. This is the other problem with real ale--it doesn't last. Most pubs around town rotate their cask beers, so you can never find a one that's on all the time; this is both good and bad, but it does tend to accentuate the whole secret society thing. Last night I tweeted about Mac's--the 21st Century version of a dissident's whisper--and those who saw it had their chance. Now we wait for the next missive. The few, the secretive, lying in wait for a good pint of real ale.


  1. The cask revolution will come...slowly, bit by bit more and more consumers are demanding cask.

    Perhaps it is time for a blog based campaign? The Cask Ale Alliance perhaps?

  2. I guess there aren't many CAMRA members in Portland, although, I do know one living here.

    Considering Portland has mastered everything "Ale" it's a little scary that the "CASK" hasn't become popular many years ago. A throw-back tradition from jolly ol' England that CAMRA has been fighting to preserve for so many years. CASK ales are so off-beat and anti-establishment these days, I'm surprised the Hipsters weren't all over it. ;-}

    Jeff? Why do you think Portland does everything "ALE" so well, but locals have not embraced the CASK?

    BTW, I share a space in your Cask Underground.

  3. Hooray for cask ales!

    I live in NYC, and even here there are very few establishments with cask offerings. When given the opportunity, I always choose the cask (although, in a couple of bars, there are multiple cask lines which makes my decision more difficult). I have found that many people are so used to their beer being icy-cold and fizzy that they are a bit turned off when a pint of warm(er), flat ale is set in front of them.

    I can only hope that this will change, and that cask ales will gain more momentum. But for now, I am enjoying my membership in this Underground.

  4. Mac's Cask was a mainstay at the Pilsner Room for years, back in the early-mid '90s when lots of engines were popping up around town.

  5. I know of probably four firkins coming to Portland at the end of the month. Session beers, no less. I'll say no more at the present moment.

  6. For those unaware, Brewers Union (aka Ted) is sort of the Lech Walensa of this particular underground. Four firkins to arrive in PDX is therefore very good news. Solidarnosc!

    I can see the T-shirts now...

  7. Bravo for MacTarnahan's. But it's silly to say that cask appreciation is a secret underground. Other places in Portland with proper cask setups:

    - Bridgeport (both locations)
    - Deschutes (even Ted approves)
    - Rock Bottom

    By the way, yesterday at Deschutes the 2 casks were Twilight (Firkin Fest standout) and Mirror Pond (Cascade-hopped goodness). Would have been tempting to stay there all day.

  8. Bill, since you're a man who appreciates numbers, I think you've just proved the point. How many taps are there in Portland? How many taps are there even just in good pubs and brewpubs? Now, how many cask taps are there? I don't have the actual numbers, but the proportion has to range between less than 1% to maybe 2%, depending on how you calculate things.

    I believe that qualifies as "tiny."

  9. Perhaps the Cask Underground / Cask Ale Alliance should get out [of Portland] more. Ya'll could meet regularly at 'Brewer Union Local 180'.

  10. I live in Baltimore and have found two places that have cask set ups. One place has just one, and seems to be clipper city cask ale. Max's Taphouse has been having a better selection as of recently. Although typically this place is overrun by idiots and is too crowded to enjoy yourself, the last time I was there they had nugget nectar on cask and had about 3 or 4 others.
    I hope the cask movement catches on.

  11. I know this will make me sounds distinctly geeky, but cask is all good and well, but stillage and proper storage is vital.

  12. I'm not in a position to pull this off (though I'd like to), but do you guys think a "cask-only" or at least "cask-focused" pub could survive in this town? Say 5-10 beer engines and a firkin or two on the bar?

    Given a greater selection I'd like to think it could, but sadly I don't think there's enough choices to keep the tap list rotating and interesting...