The Hophead: The Man Who Sold New York on Cask Ale

alex and casks The Hophead: The Man Who Sold New York on Cask Ale Welcome to The Hophead, a weekly toast to the intoxicating culture of beer in New York.

Perhaps more than any individual, Alex Hall is responsible for popularizing cask ale in New York City. Cask ale is what the Brits call—quite literally and appropriately—real ale. No pasteurization. No artificial carbonation. Just unadulterated beer post-fermentation, free of preservatives.

Cask ale, tapped from special 10.8-gallon kegs called firkins, has become a regular feature of some of New York’s more popular craft beer hangouts: The Gate, the Blind Tiger, dba in Manhattan and Brooklyn, Rattle N Hum, the East Village Tavern, the Pony, the Brazen Head, where Mr. Hall curated his first New York cask ale festival in the spring of 2003, several others. Your typical hophead, including European nationals, will seek it out, will order it first above all others, and will want to know the evenings that the bar usually taps a firkin, as cask ale is a moodier cousin of regular craft beer. Once tapped, for instance, the firkin has to be drained or the beer inside spoils. No back of the fridge for this.

It has become in just the last few years a cradled choice of New York’s brobo set, an even more exclusive addendum of the craft beer they already prefer. A mere pale ale? Puh-leeze! Try a Locky’s Liquor Locker Liquor (the whacky names are part of the charm).  

Mr. Hall, 41, with a nearly permanent cherubic grin and stringy brown hair framing a face like a raindrop, began selling firkins of cask ale door-to-door in New York three years after his arrival here from Brighton, in the county of Sussex in southern England, in 1999 (first by himself, via online purchases of old firkin equipment recently torn from English pubs, later through a distributorship founded by fellow Englishman ex-pat Paul Pendyck). He now organizes as many as seven cask ale festivals in the city annually—and more beyond—and counts dba Williamsburg, The Gate and the Brazen Head as regular venues. His monster beer guide, The Gotham Imbiber, in early August added a search function through Google Maps for finding cask ale anywhere in the U.S. and Canada. Seriously. Thirsty in Saskatchewan? Alex Hall is your man.

He approaches it all with a cheery entrepreneurial spirit (his guide’s beginning reads in part: “This is a D.I.Y. website: My philosophy is if you want to say something, don’t just sit there–Do It Yourself”), the bloke at the end of the bar who stopped jabbering about what he liked and actually did turn it into a career.

 

IN BRIGHTON, MR. HALL was the cellarman for a well-regarded pub called the Evening Star (and its brewery, Dark Star). The brewpub at that time served all cask ale and, luckily for Mr. Hall, drew its fair share of tourists.

Like on a beautiful June day in 1996.

“A bunch of us went down there, sat at a table,” Felice Wechsler recalled. “I see this guy walking down the road, and I look up and I’m like, ‘That is the cutest boy I’ve ever seen in my life.'” Ms. Wechsler would end up marrying Mr. Hall, and the two would settle in her native New York City. The couple have lived in Greenpoint for nearly four years. She is a lawyer and he remains a firkin salesman and cask ale evangelist.  

That June day in Brighton, Mr. Hall, his wife recalled over pints at dba in Williamsburg, was flogging tickets to dozens of events in Sussex County sponsored that summer by CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, a business booster group somewhere well ahead of the Church of England in the devotional intensity of its members.

Mr. Hall himself had fallen under its sway at age 18, and slaked his budding interest while working on the British railways, taking tickets, calling station stops, what have you. He kept notes, picked up peculiarities in the beer, learned what worked and did not, which breweries produced what. In 1992, the new owners of the Evening Star, one a friend of a friend, hired him; about a year later, the owners put a small brewery in the cellar, and promoted Mr. Hall from bartender to cellarman. He completed his cask ale education there.

The education will likely come full circle soon. Mr. Hall is a minority partner in a new brewery slated to open for business, pending the proper licensing, in Pittsfield, Mass., near Albany, called The Wandering Star Craft Brewery. The name is a small nod to his brewpub in Brighton.

Catch Alex Hall curating the 3rd Williamsburg Cask Ale Festival from Sept. 17-19 at dba Brooklyn. More here (PDF).

tacitelli@observer.com and on Twitter @tacitelli