It was only a couple months ago that Brazen Head in Brooklyn had its last cask ale festival. It must be time for another. Can’t have enough of them, after all. The pub’s 20th Tri-annual “Cask Head” Cask Ale Festival starts at noon Friday, February 5, 2010, and continues through the weekend until closing time Sunday, February 7 (technically the wee hours of Monday morning, but don’t expect the casks to hold out that long). Hours are noon to 2 a.m. each day, and Sunday coincides with Super Bowl, which throws in a Happy Hour price of a $1 discount per glass during game time.
Lou Sones, managing partner at the Brazen Head, admits that he is no expert at the beer styles, but he does have a healthy respect for proper service temperature, storage conditions and everything else the product needs to show at its best. “The first year we did this, we decided to surround the casks with ice packs, and that was a disaster,” he says. Over time his concerns for product integrity resulted in a purpose-designed, hand-built cold box that keeps six casks at cellar temperature behind a clear Plexiglas enclosure, with four more casks in front covered with insulated cooling coils. Two more casks are served from the cask beer engines (the pumps) installed at the bar.
Alex Hall, a British expat who has been trained in England as a cellarman, convinced Sones to put on the first cask ale festival, mostly because he missed the fine ales that he used to drink “back home.” Since then, he’s been one of the major promoters of cask-conditioned ales in the northeast, and he has installed hand pumps for serving cask ales at bars all around town and set up numerous cask ale festivals over the years. The three each year at Brazen Head, remain a prime focus of his attentions, and he has collected about 30 cask-conditioned ales which will be put on rotation 12 at a time over the course of the three days. For a guide to the lineup, which admittedly might not always be up-to-the-minute because of the very nature of supply and demand, look to www.gotham-imbiber.com/festival-guide.html.
Cask ale, or “real ale” as the British craft ale fanatics prefer to call it, is more than ale that isn’t artificially carbonated. What makes this type of draft beer so special is how the yeast infuses the beer with gentle carbonation after the initial fermentation, sure, but it’s more than that. The yeast also develops subtle flavors and nuanced aromatics that you can’t get any other way. It’s also unpredictable. So it takes experience and patience to handle the casks, which are essentially stainless steel versions of old-fashioned wooden barrels and not your standard pressurized vessels for the tap lines.
The Brazen Head
228 Atlantic Avenue (between Court St. & Boerum Place); (718) 488-0430
To find out what casks are being put up over the course of the fest, check the list:
Exactly when any particular beer is pouring, who knows? You have to show to find out.