Steve Hamburg, Cellarman of Chicago Beer Society’s Day of the Living Ales

Last Call by | Mar 2016 | Issue #110
Photos by Shanya Polowczak

What started with a taste of real ale on a 1987 trip to Europe drew Steve Hamburg back to the UK over 40 times, and led him to co-found Chicago’s Real Ale Festival in 1996. By its final year in 2003, it was the largest celebration of cask-conditioned ale outside Great Britain. His research helped shape guidelines for the British Bitter style in the US, where he still campaigns for the rise of real ale. This month, RAF’s spinoff, Day of the Living Ales, celebrates its 12th anniversary, with Hamburg at the helm as cellarman.

What’s the status of real ale in America today?
Over 20 years ago, I called cask ale “a niche of a niche of niche.” I think that’s still basically true. For all of the passion for it in the industry, real ale’s growth in this country has been modest, at best. Sadly, many of the old misconceptions still persist. And too many brewers just view cask ale as a chance to experiment with weird ingredients—there’s that big bunghole, after all! We’ll know that cask is well integrated in the US beer scene when we see fewer one-offs and more regular real ale versions of a brewery’s flagship beers.

What challenges does cask-conditioned ale face in the American market?
The biggest challenge is educating consumers. But beyond that, too many brewers still don’t understand cask conditioning, and almost nobody understands how to cellar and serve cask beer properly. … Too often, I’ve seen a cask of yeasty beer hoisted onto a bar and tapped without any thought of maturation, developing condition or clarity. Who wants to drink unfinished beer? I certainly don’t, and let’s not try to convince consumers that it’s OK.

What do you love about real ale?
The words that always come to mind—certainly for most of the classic British beer styles served via cask dispense—are subtlety, elegance and sociability.

What are some basics the cask-curious beer geek should know in order to be an educated consumer?
First of all, cask-conditioned beer leaves the brewery unfinished, with yeast still working in the cask as the beer completes its secondary fermentation in the pub cellar. Consequently, a designated person at the pub then has to carefully nurture the beer before it is served, venting the cask to release excess gas and allow the beer to achieve its optimal carbonation, and giving the beer ample time for flavor development and to drop bright and clear. …

Secondly, throw out your assumptions that real ale can be “warm, flat and cloudy.” Cask-conditioned beer should be cool, clear—as style dictates—and carbonated, albeit not quite as frothy and gassy as your usual pint. If you have any trepidation, ask for a sample before buying a standard serving. If it’s warm, flat, cloudy or all three, don’t immediately accept the explanation that it’s “supposed to be that way.”

What role do you see real ale playing in the future?
As much as I love it, I think it will continue to be just a niche of a niche of a niche. But as long as it’s served with great skill and care, that’s good enough for me. Quality, not quantity!