The bleachers and the field were quiet at Chicago's Wrigley Field the first weekend of March but the crowds were buzzing a block away at Goose Island Wrigleyville Brewpub. The fifth Real Ale Festival saw a record turnout of both beers and attendees. More than 2,400 people visited public tasting sessions spread across Friday and Saturday. For North American beer fans, the opportunity to sample 163 cask-conditioned beers is unrivaled anywhere on the continent. In technical terms, "real ale" originates in Britain, where the label refers to draught or bottled beers that mature and self-carbonate in the vessel from which they are served. Cask-conditioned beers are poured by gravity or hand-pulled "beer engines" directly from a traditional serving vessel. For the Real Ale Festival, breweries submitted all their draught beers in traditional "firkins". These were poured throughout the ground floor, with the front room featuring firkins equipped with cooling jackets and the back room relying on the unheated garage-like atmosphere to provide the proper serving temperature. Large menu boards featured red dots to indicate whether that beer was poured from a beer engine. Small Union Jack graphics indicated the British beers. The weather this year cooperated and most beers were offered at an optimum "cellar" temperature. Rinse buckets and water were easily available, and the well-trained servers were quick to spot when a rinse was needed prior to a fresh pour. Downstairs, beers were organized by a dozen major styles: Bitter, Scottish Ale, Mild/Brown Ale, Pale Ale, India Pale Ale, Barleywine, American Brown Ale/ Porter, Stout, Belgian, German, and Specialty/Experimental. Upstairs, the 60+ bottle-conditioned beers were first poured into pitchers. Customers would identify their choice by number, after reading the menu walls listing beer name, brewery, and style.
The tasting areas all were marked as non-smoking and the crowd, about 70% male, was very respectful of this. When one patron with a lit and smelly cigar walked into the upstairs bottle-conditioned area to grab a sample there was a chorus of polite reminders of the no smoking policy as the customer beat a hasty retreat. The mild winter weather probably brought out a lot of last minute locals and the inner space for the event was extremely crowded for the all sessions. Extra restrooms were set up outside and helped mitigate the lines inside. No "spill-over" area outside was available for drinkers to escape the elbow-to-elbow crowds. In fact, one of Chicago's finest was seen in his patrol car parked outside of the event. It was not possible to determine if he was there to "serve" or to "protect" however.
Practically all the beers were outstanding, even those that travelled from Britain via "slow boat", a testament to the cellarmanship of those like Steve Hamburg and volunteers from the Chicago Beer Society. The winners of the National Real Ale Competition Awards are shown below. Some standouts during the festival included the following: the very smooth Midtown Brown from Boscos Brewing; the creamy and dry Russian River Porter from Russian River Brewing; the hoppy yet malty 60 Minute IPA from Dogfish Head; the big, rich, and warming Imperial Stout from Moylan's; the slightly sulfury and aromatically complex Gale's Prize Old Ale from Britain, and the malty and warming bottle-conditioned Old Scoutter's Barley Wine from Bear Republic.
With the revenue-to-expenses balance now looking healthy, expect to see Ray Daniels and the volunteers from the Chicago Beer Society host an equally impressive event in 2002. In the meantime, watch for smaller scale events gaining a local following at locations on the West and East coasts of the U.S.
Reviewed by Tom Ciccateri - March