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Beer: Wooden you like a pint?

ChurchKey beer director Greg Engert pulls beer from the casks. (James M. Thresher for The Washington Post)

The Society for the Preservation of Beers From the Wood (SPBW) seems to be  fighting a lost cause. When the organization was formed at the Rising Sun pub in Epsom, England, in 1963, wooden beer barrels were still common. Today, almost all kegs are fashioned from aluminum or stainless steel. In another generation, we might be drawing beer from plastic.

Despite the anachronistic name, the group continues in its original purpose: championing traditional English cask ale. This is beer served unfiltered and unpasteurized, still fermenting and without the addition of any extraneous carbon dioxide. The SPBW shares this aim with the much better known Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), founded  in 1971. The chief difference is that CAMRA is highly political, militating on behalf of small independent breweries and Britain’s endangered pubs. SPBW is primarily a social organization, with individual chapters sponsoring most of the activities.

Among those chapters is the Chesapeake Bay Branch, the group’s sole toehold in America, whose 140 members (a “rough and dirty” estimate from club president Rick Bloemke) live between Baltimore and Vienna. 

On Saturday, July 24, the local branch held its annual Washington pub crawl, convening at high noon at ChurchKey in Logan Circle. About 30 members and friends filtered in, sweaty and parched after disembarking at the Shaw-Howard University station eight blocks away. 

“Its so hot I’d be happy to have my cask ale served in a frosted mug,” groused Alexander D. Mitchell IV.

He was joking ... all cask ale enthusiasts know that beer is properly served at cellar temperature, in the low to mid-50s. 

Most interesting among the day’s selections was Oliver’s Bishop’s Breakfast from the Pratt Street Ale House in Baltimore. Churchkey’s beer director, Greg Engert, described the beer as an oatmeal stout with muslin bags filled with coffee suspended in the cask. Low in alcohol (only 4.4 percent by volume) and with a caffeine kick, it was an ideal pick-me-up on such a miserably humid afternoon.

Carl Choquette of Riverdale, Md., a 10-year veteran of SPBW, blamed the oppressive weather for limiting the turnout. When SPBW members show up in force, they can commandeer an entire establishment. “We had one of our meetings at Max’s in Baltimore. Three people came in, college frat boy types, not knowing what they’d walked into. They ordered Bud Light. The whole bar burst into laughter.”

Next I ordered a cask version of Doggie Style Classic Pale Ale from the Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick. It’s got some interesting lemon and pineapple notes that you won’t experience in the gassier kegged and bottled versions. But it arrived turbid, like a milk shake. “It tastes all right, but in the UK you expect your beer to drop bright,” said SPBW member Graham Green, originally from Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, England. Green (no relation to the author, who spelled his name with an “e” at the end) adds that in America, where cask ale is still a novelty, cloudy beer is “quite common.”

I bailed out at the second stop, the District ChopHouse in Chinatown, after enjoying a pint of their bourbon stout. However, the day’s itinerary would take members to Capitol City Brewing Co. on Capitol Hill,  the Big Hunt and Birreria Paradiso in Dupont Circle, and wind up sometime around 7 p.m. in Columbia Heights, where pub crawlers would visit CommonWealth gastropub and the recently opened Meridian Pint. There were no hard-and-fast arrival and departure times; members joined the crawl and left as they wished.

The Chesapeake Bay chapter of SPBW was founded in 1997 by Joe Gold, Mid-Atlantic sales manager for the Victory Brewing Co. in Downingtown, Pa.  “At the time I was working for Bill Oliver at the Wharf Rat [his brewpub later became the Pratt Street Ale House], and we were just about the only real ale players in the marketplace,” Gold recalls. “One day he and I were talking about how to promote the cask ales we were making at the Wharf Rat, and the idea for an SPBW Chapter in the Chesapeake area was born. I contacted the SPBW folks in England and formulated a charter for our group.”

“It seems like we are on the uptick,” said Dominic Cantalupo of the growing interest here in cask ale. A past president of the local SPBW chapter, he notes that  the next big event for the group will be the seventh annual Chesapeake Real Ale Festival, to take place at the Pratt Street Ale House on Oct. 16. “Last year we had 40 casks and about 600 people,” he boasts. The group stockpiles firkins and hand pumps to make sure the beer is served correctly. They set up the casks the day before, and babysit them overnight.  

In the meantime, the SPBW holds monthly meetings, the next set for Aug. 12 at Grand Cru in Baltimore at 7 p.m. Annual dues are $10. You can join on the group's web site, of course. Or just show up at the meeting, plunk down your change and grab a cold -- er, make that a cool -- one.

-- Greg Kitsock

By The Food Section  |  August 2, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Beer  | Tags: Greg Kitsock, beer  
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No, I wasn't joking about the frosted glass. It was THAT freakin' hot. The crabs were crawling out of the Bay already steamed.

Posted by: LNER4472 | August 3, 2010 9:36 AM | Report abuse

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