It would take more than six inches of fresh snow and bone-chilling winds to keep away the crowds from the 2002 Real Ale Festival in Chicago. Public events began on Thursday evening as Goose Island Wrigleyville hosted an opening reception that included public voting for the best homebrewed Real Ales. The flavors were non-stop as a half-dozen firkins provided cask Real Ale to accompany tasty snacks that appeared in waves in front of a room packed with firkins of fresh, cellar temperature ales. The Bear Republic Racer 5 I.P.A. went so well with the English Stilton cheese from Neals Yard Dairy (England) that both disappeared in short order.
Facing a lion's entrance by March, the crowds were both determined and dense throughout the Friday evening and two Saturday sessions, but most beers remained continuously available up until the National Cask Ale Competition winners were announced. The Robert the Bruce from Three Floyds Brewing took Gold for British-Style Beers. Flossmore Station's Imperial Eclipse Stout earned the Gold in the Other Beer Styles category, and Pizza Port Carlsbad swept the American-Style Beers category with their Wipeout IPA, Special Pale Ale, and Bombshell Barleywine. The upstairs lounge saw a surge in requests for the bottle-conditioned Stuft Pizza 1701: Tricentennial Barleywine as word of its Gold Medal spread. The attention to quality by the cellarmaster and volunteer stewards, along with the impressive choice of beers sent from across the country, meant very few brews ever saw a rinse bucket. Expect 2003 to best this year's record of 184 American and British cask beers, and 66 bottle-conditioned beers as organizers seek a venue larger than that possible at Goose Island Wrigleyville. With nearly two dozen styles to taste in their naturally carbonated form, you're guaranteed to find some impressive and memorable beers. The Real Ale Festival is the largest collection of cask-conditioned ales outside of Britain and remains a world-class event to emulate, as fans of cask ales seek a similar experience in their home states. A full list of the competition winners can be found at www.realalefestival.com
Reviewed by Tom Ciccateri - March