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Curing What Ales You: Beer in Casks and Bottles

DC Beer Week doesn't mess around. Since my last report, duty called another two times, and I had to answer.

First, there was the Rogue Ale and Oyster Fest at The Reef in Adams Morgan on Tuesday night. The event was conceived as a celebration of all things Oregonian, but no one told the oysters. The waters off the Pacific Northwest have been too warm this summer to guarantee a safe catch, I was told, but there were plenty of Blue Point bivalves, shucked in front of an appreciative crowd, to accompany five beers from Rogue Ales in Newport, Ore.

Rogue Somer Orange Honey Ale is a light golden refresher with a sour fruit tang, “the closest thing we have to a beach beer,” said Rogue regional sales manager Chris Lacey. The 22-ounce bottle features Somer Gorder, whom the label identifies as “a life-long Rogue with a non-conformist attitude and an insatiable appetite for adventure and risk." (More informally, she was described to me as “the wife of one of the marketing guys”).

Rogue head brewer John Maier is prolific enough that I suspect we’ll all be portrayed on one of his beer bottles eventually. I tried three other Rogue releases for the first time: Maierfest Lager, a malty, almost bready Oktoberfest-style beer featuring Maier’s bearded visage; Captain Sig’s Northwestern Ale, an “India red ale” with a ruddy copper color and a resiny, almost spruce-like hop flavor; and Rogue Imperial Red, a strong (9 percent alcohol by volume), fruity ale with a mahogany color and an immense malt backbone.

The latter would have overwhelmed most seafood dishes, so The Reef paired it with cocoa-rubbed short ribs and “vanilla-touched” sweet potatoes, one of several small-plate dishes on the restaurant’s special menu.

The next night, Wednesday, I had a chance to taste some cask ale (what British beer enthusiasts call “real ale"): unpasteurized, unfiltered beer that continues its fermentation in the container from which it’s served. For its Drink to Victory Party, the CommonWealth Gastropub in Columbia Heights served two beers from Downingtown, Penn.'s Victory Brewing Co. on cask.

After six vigorous pulls on the English-style handpump, the bartender was unable to draw more than half a glass of the Uncle Teddy’s Bitter. At $8 a pint, a short pour would hardly do, so she pronounced the cask dead and urged me to try the HopDevil (an India pale ale) instead. As a bonus I got to drain the half-pour of bitter for free. (The bar staff is using the larger-size 20-ounce imperial pints, so that’s a generous serving on the house.)

It’s a myth that beer served English style is warm and flat. Cask ale is naturally carbonated from the action of the yeast, yielding a light fizz; there is no forced injection of CO2. It’s served at cellar temperature, in the low 50s. Because the beer isn’t chilled to
within a hair’s breadth of freezing and because there is no onslaught of large bubbles to numb your palate, you can pick up subtle notes of malt, hops and yeast that don’t make it through otherwise. (The Uncle Teddy’s has a creamy texture and light peachy notes.)

CommonWealth is serving half a dozen other Victory beers in non-cask form, including Wild Devil (which undergoes a fermentation with a wild yeast strain) and the just reintroduced Helios, a Belgian-style saison.

I didn't see the brewery reps, although it would have been hard to make contact at the noisy, overflowing bar. “They’re here all the time anyway,” the bartender said with a laugh.

Have you gone to any DC Beer Week events? File your own reports in the comments below.

-- Greg Kitsock

By The Food Section  |  August 20, 2009; 2:00 PM ET
 | Tags: Greg Kitsock, beer  
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