The Cask Underground

So this is the scene. Last night, MacTarnahan's had a release part for Lip Stinger, their peppered saison, which is making a surprising return in 2010. (With exotic beers it's usually one and done, so kudos to Mac's for sticking with it.) But what really interested me was a far less ballyhooed feature of the party--a cask of MacTarnahan's. Very quietly, brewer Vasilios Gletsos has been experimenting with the notion of cask ales, tapping one on special occasions. Mainly, it happens, when I'm not around. Last night was typical; I already had plans and couldn't make the event. (Though I think the ubiquitous Angelo De Ieso, whom I've started to think of as the beer gypsy, did make it--so maybe you'll hear more.) Amazingly, Mac's Mark Carver poured out a growler and dropped it off at the house last night.

The whole thing had a kind of metaphoric quality. Over the past year, I have been spending a lot of time thinking about cask ales. My love of them blinded me to certain realities which have only recently become obvious: even in beer-crazy Portland, real ale commands the devotion of only a tiny group of fans. I have no idea why. To me, nothing draws the flavor of hops out like cask conditioning. I'm always frustrated by the near-freezing temperatures at which pubs have to serve regular draft; a 55-degree cask ale allows flavors and aromas to blossom. Even the "flat" quality is far silkier than the more-carbonated regular drafts. All of this makes me think more people should like cask. But no.

Those of us who do seem more like an underground society--dissidents who must secretly pass along critical data via oblique signal. I imagine developing a code--tap of the left temple with an index finger--and then whispering obscure messages: "The crow caws at Bailey's--Caldera pale." Last night had the feel of subterfuge. Mark and I were communicating via cell phone; he made the drop literally in the dark of night. Carver's last missive: "Delivered." I touch my temple in response, "Da, comrade."

Mac's is, of course, the perfect cask ale. Vasili was right to identify it as such and hatch this scheme. I expected it would be, but you never know--cask is a fickle mistress. Sometimes beers that should billow with flavor fall flat. Others that seem clearly unfit somehow become transmuted to rare elixirs. Mac's though, delivers. I've been drinking beers from the brewery for 20 years, and one consistent feature is that they are highly filtered, very clean beers. So seeing Mac's in its unfiltered, hazy glory was a little shocking (that picture above was taken last night at about ten). It has every bit of the silky texture a cask ale should have, but the hops are the big attraction. It's made solely with Cascades, and they express a lot more character than one is used to. I found a peppery pine note that is usually concealed, and overall they were greener, less citrusy. Mac's is dry-hopped, so the nose is wonderfully fragrant. If this beer were available on cask regularly, it would be one of my go-to tipples.

Sadly, the cask is probably already gone. Vasili is spooked by the idea that they'll start to turn, so he won't leave one on much more than an evening. This is the other problem with real ale--it doesn't last. Most pubs around town rotate their cask beers, so you can never find a one that's on all the time; this is both good and bad, but it does tend to accentuate the whole secret society thing. Last night I tweeted about Mac's--the 21st Century version of a dissident's whisper--and those who saw it had their chance. Now we wait for the next missive. The few, the secretive, lying in wait for a good pint of real ale.