The Champagne of Beer

Cask beer is popping up more and more around town, a random pull amongst the taps at many brewpubs. But what makes cask-conditioned beer so special? Standard keg beers require external CO2 sources, but a cask-conditioned beer gets natural carbonation by adding unfermented beer (or wort) to fermented beer in the cask. The live yeast in the unfermented beer not only supplies the fuel to produce carbonation but also continues to condition the beer in the cask, helping develop the flavor. In this way, cask-conditioned brew truly is the champagne of beer. Most regular keg beer goes through sterile filtration or pasteurization, killing the yeast to prevent further development or spoilage. The Washington Cask Beer Festival, which took place a couple of weekends ago at Seattle Center, presents a unique tasting lineup. Cask-conditioned versions of Northwest brewery staples and one-of-a-kind offerings vie for the hearts and guts of attendees. The IPAs were especially popular, but I go for less hoppy things in cask because I'm a sucker for nuance, and I don't like the way hops yell at me. Highlights from the collection: The Slapshot Stout, a dry Irish stout from the Ram in University Village, delivered one of the most decadent taste experiences. The aromas and flavors reminded me of fine dark chocolate, and when I mentioned this to brewer Beaux Bowman, he smiled and told me he makes a mean chocolate cake with the spent grains from this beer. The cask version of Hair of the Dog's Adam beer was honeyed and caramel-rich, like someone spilled mead in the ale, without the full attack of spice some old-world ales throw at you. Cask beer has a milder carbonation that may seem a little flat at first, but this feature really serves the paler ales. The Clear Creek Pale Ale from Silver City Brewing in Silverdale was the most balanced beer on offer. Brewmaster Don Spencer's pale flitted between fruity and savory with lemon and soft hops. Heads Up Brewing Co., also in Silverdale, makes beer for wine drinkers, whether they mean to or not. They got me with their Imperial Rye, with its whiff of sour pumpernickel and almost-berrylike acidity that creeped into lambic territory. Their licorice IPA, brewed with fennel and anise seed, was subtle in the vein of caramelized fennel. It could convert many a sommelier. While Boundary Bay's double dry-hopped IPA won first place among voters for the afternoon session, my crown for Miss Spring Cask goes to Snoqualmie Falls Brewing Co. Simile alert: Their Copperhead Pale Ale reeked of sweetgrass and May, tasting like the breeze running through a spring meadow. Cask beers are like rare fruits, and limited availability is part of their beauty and charm. But they're not just for wonks. Beveridge Place in West Seattle, Elysian on Capitol Hill, and most likely the pub near you all rotate in a surprise cask on a regular basis.

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