Alex Hall and Andy Benson are rock stars in the cask ale universe. Finding them standing together in a corner of the Gate in Park Slope on Friday evening, April 10, at the bar’s inaugural cask ale festival was akin to bumping into John Lennon and Paul McCartney at a Learning Annex songwriting workshop.
“These are probably, what, 50 years old?” Mr. Benson gestured toward the brass taps that Mr. Hall had installed on a few firkins, special kegs for cask beers.
“I bought them on e-Bay,” Mr. Hall said with a smile.
The firkins had labels like Oakham “Inferno,” an English pale ale “with hints of grapefruit,” and Harviestoun “Ola Dubh Special Reserve 30 … aged in wooden casks that for 30 years held Highland Park Whisky.” (This reporter had a glass of the latter, and you do taste the whisky, as well as the wood of the cask, and some vanilla. It packs a punch.)
Unfiltered and unpasteurized, cask ale, sometimes aptly called “real ale,” matures and naturally carbonates in the firkins without any frou-frou: simply water and the grains, and—boom!—beer. Once tapped, a firkin has to be consumed—or tossed—within a few days. What’s this mean? Cask ale will be the freshest and most distinct beer most people will ever try.
Mr. Hall, 40, a firkin salesman from Brighton, England, and the author of the mammoth The Gotham Imbiber, is among the ale’s foremost evangelists in the city. Mr. Benson, an amateur photographer from southern England who manages the Beers Without Frontiers at the Great British Beer Festival, the country’s largest, was vacationing in New York. Mr. Hall asked him around to the Gate, where he was co-organizing the weekend-long festival.
“Back home, it’s real ale or lager pretty much,” Mr. Benson, 37, said matter-of-factly.
In New York, it’s different, of course. Cask ale, until a few years ago, was a rarity. Mr. Hall’s firkin salesmanship, bar by bar, helped change that. Now, cask ale’s available at dozens of bars in every borough. Though, at the Gate on Friday, tipplers only a few feet from the firkins pounded Budweisers. A man diagonally across from Messrs. Hall and Benson sipped a mass-produced wheat beer with a lemon slice sunken to the bottom. And, on a bar menu behind them, PBR was available.
Throughout the early evening, people approached the table in front of the firkins in ones and twos; there was never really a line of cask ale drinkers. It’s still an acquired taste in New York; but growing.
“People who are into their beer over here do tend to have a bit of a knowledge about it,” Mr. Benson said. “I’ve been coming over now, I don’t know, the better part of 15 years, and things are way better now than they ever were.”