The Cask Master

Make text smaller Make text larger

Several times a week, at the Brazen Head bar on Atlantic Avenue, near the razor wire?covered Brooklyn House of Detention, a British expat named Alex Hall battles beer bubbles. To this Englishman, creamy heads, frosty glasses and nose-tingling effervescence signify not a tasty pint: They're rallying points that have consumed 20 years, brought him a wife, a job and sent him across the Atlantic Ocean to Park Slope, where he has launched a reverse British revolution: the battle for cask ale.

Cask-conditioned draught beer (aka "real ale"), unlike regular brew, is unfiltered and unpasteurized: It retains alcohol-giving yeast. Like wine, real ales "live" and evolve, resulting in fresher, livelier beer. Placed inside special metal kegs called firkins, casks develop a gentle, natural fizz. And while normal kegs are plug and chug, firkins must be vented prior to tapping. No carbon dioxide is introduced, so the cask is poured with an air-driven, elbow grease-powered hand pump. In New York City, just 14 bars serve cask on draft. That's 14 out of more than 4,000. Yet this year alone, three bars (Barcade, Stout and Hop Devil Grill) began hand-pulling cask. A small drop, yes, but not to one very determined Englishman on a mission to alter the way we imbibe.

On a weekend in early spring, I meet Alex Hall at the Brazen Head. Just under six feet tall with shoulder-length, stringy brown hair, off-kilter orthodontics, three days' scruff and a T-shirt touting PULLING POWER, he's so British I want to shower him with fish and chips.

"We'll have two pints of Williams Red," he tells the bartender. A young blonde hands us several lukewarm pints. They look as flat and lively as Kansas.

Hall grabs his Williams Red-a Scottish beer sort of like Killian's Red's refined brother-and swirls it. Bubbles move sluggishly, like a rush-hour 4 train. "See that," Hall says, a smile curling around crooked teeth, "that's the yeast working." We swallow. The warmth (casks are served at 55 degrees-12 degrees warmer than draft beer) and fizzlessness are disarming, but I am won over by silk-soft mouth-feel and nuanced flavor, attributes that vanish when beers are iced and carbonated. Hall nods:

"Not too fresh, not too old, not too warm, not too cold; that's my perfect beer."

If any man on this planet can gauge a perfect beer, it's Hall. In the 80s and early 90s, he worked for British Rail, traveling England's countryside and sampling each town's real ale. Hall grew so proficient that he "stopped counting somewhere around 3,000 pints." By 1992, Hall hopped off the rail and became a cellarman at the Evening Star, Brighton's famed brewpub.

A year later, he founded The Independent Imbiber. For 53 issues, about 1,300 subscribers embraced the Imbiber's editorial policy, which was less balanced than Fox News: cask and microbrew, good; big brewer, very bad. How bad? Let's put it this way: Alex Hall is not an angry man. He's sweet-natured, happy to buy near-strangers a round. But mention mega-brewers Molson Coors, Anheuser-Busch, InBev (Bass, Beck's and Spaten), Heineken and SABMiller-Hall's shit list-and invectives fill the air.

They're all full of "propaganda marketing bullshit," Hall says, knuckles whitening around his pint. He drains his beer, red as his face. "Big brewers are trying to push cask ale out of its existence."

What else is new? Pre-Prohibition, estimates suggest there were 3,000 breweries in America. By the 70s, fewer than 50 U.S. brewing concerns remained. To bolster bottom lines, the Anheuser cartel and their aluminum-can ilk focused on carbonated beer. It could be mass-produced to ensure uniform quality. Like McDonald's, a Budweiser tastes as bland in Dubuque as Brooklyn.

So why is cask ale-and Alex Hall-in Brooklyn? For the time being, let's leave him-and his pint of cask-at the Brazen Head and revisit Brighton, England, circa summer 1996. Hall, late for work, stormed into the Evening Star and did a double-take: Who was that? Why, Felice Wechsler, an American lawyer and beer enthusiast. His heart fluttered.

A voluble woman with a big smile framed by bright-red lips, Wechsler is as passionate about beer as Hall. She's often found enjoying a real ale at the Brazen Head or a microbrew at Park Slope's the Gate. Time permitting, they travel to cask festivals. Heck, she even draws the "Beerman and Firkin" cartoons for Hall's latest brew pub.

So it's little surprise that, by September 1999, he was a Park Slope resident. Two years later, the couple married. Love? Check. Cask ale? The revolution kicked into second gear. He started with Lou Sones, co-owner of the Brazen Head, where we're on round two of Williams Red. When Hall first sipped at the Brazen Head, only one engine was operable, leaving one firkin untapped. Soon enough, Hall got the second engine running. Then he started offering advice at better-beer emporiums like David Copperfield's and Ginger Man.

His quandary: "Nine out of 10 people drink rubbish," Hall says. To illuminate Bud-lovers, he launched the Gotham Imbiber, a good-beer zine (on its fourteenth issue). He bought beer engines off eBay ("I always have at least three on hand") and began renting and selling them (recently to the Hop Devil Grill). "He became Mr. Cask Ale in New York City," says the Brazen Head's Sones.

When you first meet Hall you think, Okay, a shy guy. He's soft-spoken, verging on awkward, on subjects such as the weather. Yet when conversation shifts to real ale, he's as unstoppable as one of his old British rail trains. "I just talk about what I love," Hall says, a little bashfully.

Since 1995, Hall has run a three-day cask-and-music festival in Glastonwick, England. The event draws real-ale lovers from around the world, including Hall, who heads back to helm the festival. Why not, he thought, establish a gala in my adopted hometown? The Brazen Head bit. Sones hired Hall as his "cask consultant," the first time in America his knowledge netted a paycheck ("And I had to force him to take money," Sones says). They spent months tracking down obscure brew for the first "Cask Head" Cask-Ale Festival. Beer aficionados flocked, making a mockery of the bar's 85-person capacity.

"It really put us-the bar and Alex-on the map," Sones says.

So the duo organized another festival. And another. And another. This drew a line to early May's fest, the twosome's sixth, which saw drinkers careening onto the sidewalk like euphoric pinballs, having sampled more than a dozen casks served from Sones' handmade, $5000 refrigeration system that simultaneously dispenses 10 taps. When the suds cleared, nary a drop remained.

Though Hall would like cask to conquer the American market, it won't happen tomorrow. Or the next day. Like switching from gas to electric cars, integrating cask ale into American culture requires a paradigm shift. The technology is there, yes, but it's a Sisyphean struggle to reeducate consumers with pleasure centers hard-wired to the cold, crisp taste of the Rockies.

Yet Hall could care less about stats. Bar by bar, drinker by drinker, he is making progress he can see-and taste. Fourteen bars this year. Perhaps 20 by next year. "I just want to make sure they're drinking good beer," he says. By now, we've drained our second round. I gather my things, preparing to enter the bright spring afternoon. I turn to Hall and ask if he'd like to tag along.

He looks at me. Then his empty. Then to the cask pump. "I think," he says, nodding toward the bartender, "I'm going to stick around for another pint."

Make text smaller Make text larger




Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Neighborhood Newsletters