Harken to the clarion call!
Gather, if ye will, fellow beer geeks and aficionados of all things malty, hoppy and yeasty, to Blue Point Brewing Company’s annual Cask Ales Festival!
One of Long Island’s premier craft beer festivals, the Cask Fest focuses solely on the dispensing of carefully created and curated cask ales.
“What are cask ales?” you may ask.
Why, they are an entirely different animal, my friend.
If craft beer (especially in the American context of things) is a loud, raucous, pyrotechnic-filled display of sense-shattering showmanship, cask ale is a demure, delicate, orchestral symphony. Cask ale (or “real ale”) is made by allowing the yeasty beasts to continue the fermentation process, naturally carbonating the beer and creating subtle, nuanced flavors often missed or masked otherwise.
The result is a drink that is somewhat under-carbonated and served slightly warmer than our Americanized palates are accustomed to. But before you turn your nose up to the drink and proclaim it “warm and flat,” take a deep sniff, a big swig and understand that you are drinking an actual, living thing. Some folks even say that cask ales are better for you due to the vitamin B byproduct created by the yeast.
The movement for real ale seems to have originated in England by CAMRA (CAMpaign for Real Ale) when some blokes decided to defend flavorful, individualistic real beer from mass-produced, watery and flavorless behemoths. Sound familiar? Alex Hall spearheaded the New York movement, providing bars with the vital tutelage needed to care for cask beer. Slowly, inexorably, it took hold.
Fast forward to “now.” It’s the 12th anniversary of Blue Point’s Cask Ales Fest. In 2004, a blizzard blew in, creating a baptism of frost rather than fire. Only the truly dedicated and debauched dared brave the elements.
I made it the second year where jet engine-sized space heaters melted the soles of our shoes and my crew and I (imprudently) loaded up on the cask version of Brooklyn Brewery’s Black Ops Russian Imperial Stout right off the bat. The rest was a happy, hazy blur. The festival has since been moved to the spring, where fairer weather treated the rapidly swelling ranks of Fest-goers with a much kinder hand.
The event is still held in the parking lot / industrial area behind the current River Avenue brew house and tasting room, but everything is… grander than I last remembered. The main tent rivaled a Ringling Brothers big top and sheltered the vast majority of the 55+ breweries that made the show. Yes. Fifty five. (We’ll get back to the significance of this number in a minute.)
Beyond the main tent, an open area with a large stage for the live bands was flanked by a handful of breweries, including host Blue Point. Food options included Blue Point Oysters, Island Empanada of Medford and Patchogue’s own Bobbique, to name a few. These are important as you will need to avail yourself of chow as well as the water stations scattered throughout. Remember what I said before about there being 55+ brewers on hand?
Each brewer had at least two casks (some with three or four). That’s 110 different beers to try. Assuming a 3 oz. sample pour, that’s almost 2 ½ gallons of beer you’ll need to consume in a four-hour period to try them all. Even for the largest, most hulking and seasoned drinkers (and there were quite a few) this is not advised. Your best strategy is to check the brewer list beforehand and, as best you can, hit the tables that interest you the most right away. This can be tricky as you really don’t know where the brewers will be positioned until you arrive. And you have precious little time to do this.
The opening ceremony is a short one: bagpipers, a few words from Blue Point co-founder Mark Burford and cask master Jim Richards hammering a tap into a really big cask are all it takes to unleash the thirsty horde. Before you know it, you are caught in a veritable sea of booze hounds. If you can, find a general, slow flow of people cruising the tables. Tuck into the wake and pull yourself out when you near a beer you want to try. Drink, dive back in, and repeat.
I decided to focus on locals, as there was just way too much out there to get to and, being on the job, in a way, I didn’t want to let out my inner Drinking Hulk and wind up doing something dumb like vomiting on one of the large, burly security guys.
Blue Point’s Prop Fouler IPA was not on cask but on tap in the tasting room. It was billed as a “seaweed IPA” but proved to not be the least bit briny. It was sharp and crisp and seemed more like a slightly hoppy pale ale.
Two great beers came from L.I.B.M.E. (Long Island Beer and Malt Enthusiasts). Though a homebrew club, there’s nothing amateurish about their suds. Bigg Plush IPA was loaded with all the tasty hops I love but also had a noticeable malt presence that balanced the whole thing. The Patriot Pale Ale was bright, clean and also a palate-pleaser.
Spider Bite’s Dazshaagen (a rum, raisin dubbel) and Moustache’s Sailor Mouth with Mango were also great hits for me.
Would that I could have sampled them all but we know this would be a Sisyphean task, albeit a pleasant one.
My advice: gird your loins (and your liver) for next year. If you’re out at a craft beer bar that serves cask, go ahead and have them pull you a pint or two. Get some experience under your belt. Grow your palate a bit. Understand what our buddies Across the Pond keep yammering about.
Then hit the 13th Annual Cask Ales Fest like a champ. See you there!
photos by BJ Gamboa