The Real Deal on Real Ale
We don't usually talk about articles in other newspapers, but the New York Times had an excellent story about real ale in its Food section Wednesday, and we've had a number of readers write in to ask where they can try real ale in the D.C. area. And with Baltimore's annual Chesapeake Real Ale Festival taking place this weekend, it's a good time to talk about traditional beer.
Real ale is the kind of beer most often found in pubs across the United Kingdom. It's served at about 55 degrees and without added carbon dioxide, hence the jokes about English beer being "warm and flat." But real ale, also known as cask-conditioned ale, is an incredible drink. Unpasteurized and unfiltered, there is live yeast in the beer when it is sent to bars, and it undergoes a secondary fermentation in its barrel, which is known as a firkin.
Most bars that pour real ale do it as in a British pub, with a beer engine. This method uses a handpump to draw the beer through the lines, mixing it with air for some natural carbonation and a creamy texture. Some places, like R.F.D. or the Reef's countertop firkins, use gravity to dispense the beer -- they open a spout on the keg and let beer flow into the glass naturally. This is just another way of serving -- it's the way it's done at most British beer festivals, for example.
The big warning about cask ale is that, because it's a living, breathing beer, it can go bad quickly. Most casks have a shelf life of a few days before they start to taste off. If you think something's wrong with your pint, don't be afraid to tell the bartender.
Here's our list of bars and restaurants who serve cask-conditioned ale. My three favorites would be Birreria Paradiso, Rustico and Vintage 50, but aficionados really need to make a trip to the Wharf Rat in Baltimore, which produces the best English-style ales on the East Coast.
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