Night of the Living Ales

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On Saturday the Chicago Beer Society hosted its annual Day and Night of the Living Ales at Goose Island Wrigleyville. "Living ale" is another way to refer to "real ale" or "cask ale," sometimes called cask-conditioned ale, and every one of the 44 beers at the festival was served from a cask or firkin (though not every one was, strictly speaking, an ale—I tried a couple lagers). The term describes unpasteurized, unfiltered beers casked while the yeast is still alive; the last bit of fermentation occurs in the vessel, providing a gentle natural carbonation, and the addition of "finings" (often isinglass, a collagen made from the dried swim bladders of fish, though there are vegetarian options like alginate and activated carbon) helps draw the spent yeast into a mass at the bottom of the cask so the beer won't appear cloudy. This is as fresh as your adult beverage is going to get, in other words.

Cask ales are traditionally stored and served at cellar temperature—between 52 and 54 degrees—so they can seem oddly tepid if you're used to chilly draft pours. I tend to let anything that isn't a lager warm up in the glass anyway, so cellar temperature hits the spot for me. I tasted 25 of the beers on offer, and I regret nothing!

After the jump, this year's winners and a few personal favorites.

(Apologies for the unspectacular photo—distressingly, the viewfinder in my camera is still fogged up from taking pictures of that snowman last month, and I couldn't see what I was doing.)

At the evening session, the three most popular beers from both sessions—determined by what has to be the least trustworthy or at any rate least sober balloting process possible—are announced about half an hour before last pour.

Third place went to Three Floyds' Zombie Dust (formerly known as Cenotaph), a draft-only single-hop pale ale made with Citra hops from the Yakima Valley in Washington State. I tried this one first—in fact I turned out to have tried all the winners, when all was said and done—but on account of I had company, I wasn't taking notes. Clearly it was good, though! And you can try it yourself: It's on tap at the Three Floyds pub in Munster this weekend, and may very well be available at shmancy beer bars in Chicago as we speak.

The second-place winner was Goose Island's Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout, which I'm sure surprised no one given how reliably beer nerds work themselves into a lather over the Bourbon County special releases. Don't get me wrong, I love this stuff (here's my review of the vanilla version to prove it), but going to a cask-beer festival and voting for a stout that can benefit from years of aging seems a little beside the point.

Goose Island took the gold as well with an oak-aged version of their painfully scarce and truly wonderful Scully, a golden saison brewed using champagne yeast and honey and flavored with white pepper and crushed Michigan strawberries. I accosted Goose Island brewer John Laffler, who was a great sport about it, and he "confirmed" (no journalism actually happens after that much beer, sorry) that Scully is named after Gillian Anderson's character from The X-Files. Laffler also told me that Anderson worked as a server at a Goose Island pub, presumably while attending DePaul, to which I can only say: I want to believe. I've had a famous-person crush on her ever since I heard she had blue hair and a pet iguana in high school.

The organizers of the event also gave a prize, which they referred to as the Golden Tut, to the beer they deemed the best example of what a cask ale should be. That "should" is a question that has occasioned the venting of much beer-curmudgeon grouchiness, and I won't get into it here. Suffice it to say that the honor went to Firestone Walker's Double Jack Double IPA, a most worthy beverage that not at all by coincidence I'll be reviewing (in its bottled form) for an imminent issue of the Reader.

I had a few favorites of my own that apparently didn't win over quite so many people, including Hissyfit, a dry-hopped red tangerine lager from the Rock Bottom in Warrenville—I can't think of another citrus-flavored beer that tastes so cleanly and pleasantly of actual fruit, rather than something odd that happened to fruit. I also would've been happy to drink way more than three ounces of both of Metropolitan's beers—a dry-hopped version of their Flywheel Bright Lager and a ginger-infused version of their finally-getting-bottled Iron Works altbier (formerly I-Beam).

I liked Half Acre's new pale ale, Callow Knife, even though it's a little one-note—the note in question, provided largely by Citra and Falconer hops, is awesomely skunky and delicious. Both of Haymarket's IPAs, Yes Sir Senator! and Mathias Imperial, balance malts and hops expertly. And Arcadia got me in a beer-float mood with their Cocoa Loco Triple Chocolate Stout, brewed with cacao nibs and vanilla beans.

Flossmoor Station gets some kind of points for Ghost of the Iron Horse, which is basically Iron Horse oatmeal stout conditioned on ghost peppers—otherwise known as bhut jolokia peppers, alleged to be the hottest on earth. I won't say this was a pleasant experience—a short pour in my dinky tasting glass was quite enough, thank you—but it takes big, clanking brass balls to brew a beer so spicy it actually makes people sweat. Goose Island likewise took a left turn with Alba Madonna, a bitter infused with white truffles that was responsible for my only "what is this I don't even" moment of the festival. I love you, Goose Island, but as my drinking companion for the evening pointed out, that beer kinda tastes like pork. Which might sound like a good idea! But it is not!

Lastly, I'd be remiss not to mention two old standbys that I often take for granted, both of which were even tastier than usual fresh from the cask: Two Brothers' the Bitter End, here in a special dry-hopped version, and Founders' Red's Rye. They're ubiquitous in Chicago, Bitter End especially, so if you've got the kind of beer problem I do, it's tempting to pass them over in favor of new or limited releases. Note to self: stop doing that.

Congratulations to all the winners, and a special thanks to the Chicago Beer Society for holding D/NotLA so close to the Red Line. Hundreds of happily drunk people and public transit go great together!

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