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A Brave New Beer


No matter how wild and crazy, smart and poor or rich and stupid your kids are, the true test of good genetics is how much like you they turn out to be as they get old. The same is true for how we drink our local beer.

Conceived by a few elitists in Boulder and elsewhere who yearned for a true brew brewed with righteous ingredients, head-banging flavor and epic character, the rebellious New World child of Old World traditions and ingredients is, in its middle age, looking embarrassingly familiar.

Content to piddle along with the bitters and märzenbiers of their great grandparents, the Europeans held hard and true to their traditional brews and their method for drawing and drinking them. Just as we did with craft-brewed beer in the ’90s, we are catching on to how the good stuff is best enjoyed: from a room temperature glass pulled from a cellar temperature, cask-conditioned firkin.

On the eve of Walnut Brewery’s 20th birthday, I was enjoying one of their fresh, bright and lusciously effervescent, hand-pulled, cask-conditioned pints of bitter. It was true. It was righteous. It was American. It was cask-conditioned.

Quality beer and discerning palettes have won the day—and left our Old World elders in the dust—when cask-conditioned ales can be found rocking out of an increasing number of beer engines at tap rooms and brew pubs in and around the Front Range. The evidence is clear.

The Walnut Brewery blows through a nine-gallon firkin of its cask-conditioned brew every two or three days, on average.

“On a Friday or Saturday, it might last a day,” says 10-year brewer, now manager of Rock Bottom’s Boulder ale house, Brion Boyer. Up the Diagonal at Oskar Blues’ Tasty Weasel Tap Room in Longmont, if you’re not in the house to catch the deflowering of the week’s sacrificial firkin on Fridays at 5, you’re outta luck. By Saturday, she’s gone.

Born in the main batch, beer for cask-conditioned ales, when done right, is diverted to a firkin—a 72-pint keg-like container—and left to ferment without being filtered or pasteurized or jacked up with additional nitrogen or carbon dioxide. The live yeast that remains does the job of carbonating the beer. It’s allowed to brighten and become clear naturally or—with the help of finings that pull the suspended yeast and other floating detritus to the bottom. And then it is usually dispensed via a hand-pull beer engine or siphon at cellar temperatures (50-57 degree Fahrenheit for ales; about 10 degrees cooler for lagers).

Once pulled into a pint glass, cask-conditioned ale will settle kind of like Guinness on nitrogen after the pour. The flavor, however, is sublime. Bittering hops lose their intensity; flavor and aroma hops step up to the palette and the nose goes off. The malt gets silky smooth as the alcoholic esters pull those sweet smells up and out and the whole orchestration of flavors becomes exquisite. If you’re savoring (not gulping) your beer, this is the way to drink it.

Like the searing riffs of Jeff Beck or the middle-finger lyrics of Johnny Cash, cask-conditioned ales aren’t for everyone. It’s an acquired taste, to be certain, and not everyone will acquire it. Even the beer friendly need more than a sip to get used to it. A Wing Commander of mine thinks that a pulled beer (with its subtle carbonation) “lacks the proper punch” and is “flaccid. Lifeless. Day-old. Withered.” He says it’s “like being a Klingon at a Star Wars convention; just a little off, but not without its proper place.”

I side with those who have been enjoying more than two decades of good beer in Boulder and say, certainly, he is wrong.

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