Get ready, Western Pennsylvania beer fans:
Stuff's about to get real.
Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week kicks off Friday, April 25. The third-annual promotion of better beer strings together 10 days and nights of small and big events. Those include the marquee May 3 Pittsburgh Real Ale Festival at Highmark Stadium at Station Square, at which they will pour a remarkable 65-plus examples of a category of brew that is more rarefied than just "craft beer."
"I love that term 'real ale,' because it implies that we're better," quips Hart Johnson. As he did last year for the first one, he's organizing the second, much bigger Real Ale Fest for Piper's Pub, where he works as bartender and "cellarman."
What he does in that latter rare role can help explain what "real ale" is and why fans like him find it to be so special. Certainly, Craft Beer Week is a perfect time to seek out tastes of it, not only at the Real Ale Fest but also at other events.
As Mr. Johnson can tell you, the term cellarman goes back centuries to when beer was delivered by horse-and-wagon to the cellars of British pubs. The cellarman's job was to care for those small casks, or "firkins," of live -- that is, still fermenting -- beer until it was ready to be tapped and pumped by hand up to the bar and into the glass.
This was long before draft beer was filtered, pasteurized, refrigerated and injected with carbon dioxide to both artificially carbonate and propel it through plastic lines to tap and glass.
"Real" ale's only carbonation is the CO2 gas given off as the living yeast continues consuming the sugar in it. It finishes, or conditions, right in the cask.
Because today's real ales tend to be delivered to him already "cask conditioned," Mr. Johnson no longer has to "prime" them with any kind of sugar to feed the yeast. But just as in the old days, he must assure that the fermentation is right and that yeast and other sediment settle and don't end up in the glass at Piper's.
The United Kingdom-themed pub on the South Side is famous for having up to four real ales on at any given time, thanks to what's now four "beer engines," or hand pumps, built into the bar and a custom cooler in, of course, the cellar.
Last Thursday afternoon, Mr. Hart went down there to prepare a firkin, or 10.8-gallon keg, of Fathead's porter for serving that night. That meant first "venting" it, by driving a "spile" into a wood seal, or bung, on top and letting a hiss of gas escape.
Then, with two more taps with the same rubber mallet, he drove in the tap, which is fitted with a filter to catch sediment.
As he puts it, "No one wants a salad in their beer."
This type of beer he truly babies, in that he settles each firkin or even cuter "pin" (5.4 gallons) of beer into a spring-loaded "cradle," which keeps the cask at just the right angle for drawing off beer but not sediment.
Upstairs, where he pulls the beer engine's handle to pull, via suction, a nice "bright" pint of it, he explains how real ale is different than other draft to drink:
"The biggest difference is lighter carbonation and lower temperature." The beer is chilled only to the mid-40-degree range, not to the high-30s as is modern draft beer, which must be kept colder so it won't quickly lose all its CO2. Real ale is not "warm beer," as some might stereotypically slag it, but it's not served as cold, and for good reason:
That "lets the flavor blossom and become more well-rounded," says Mr. Johnson. He's always up for evangelizing for the stuff, regularly offering customers tastes of the same brew -- one cask-conditioned and one a regular draft -- to compare.
He'll tell you that in addition to having a creamier mouthfeel, the "real" ales tend to taste less bitter, and you can more fully enjoy the aromas and flavors.
Those flavors can subtly change over a firkin's lifespan, which is only a matter of days after it is tapped, since the beer is exposed to air, not protected by a blanket of CO2.
Because the yeast is still doing its thing, firkins of real ale also can surprise by doing things like geysering when tapped.
It's all part of the mystique of a type of beer that, while probably always just a niche in the growing craft-beer segment, is enjoying a resurgence.
"My hope is that it educates people in understated beers," Mr. Johnson says of the May 3 Real Ale Festival, which is subtitled "10.8 Gallon Full Metal Firkin." Pipers had made 70 wooden cradles to hold firkins, which volunteers will pour using gravity. Firkins are coming from all over the place, commissioned just for this event, the night before, and Mr. Hart and his helpers will be up late properly venting and tapping them.
Some that he's most excited about include a double-dry-hopped Sculpin IPA from Ballast Point in San Diego and a Coffee Snow Melt from East End Brewing in Larimer.
Also pouring will be ales from five homebrewers who this past fall won the chance to compete for attendees' votes, with the winner getting the chance to brew a 15-barrel batch at Mount Pleasant's Helltown Brewing.
Admission is $65 for the Real Ale Fest, which runs from 1 to 5 p.m. and includes the brews, food, music and even a game by the pub's Tartan Devils Football Club. Get more information and tickets at http://pghrealale.com.
If you miss that, you still should have several opportunities at other events to drink real ale. If there were a firkin alert, one could be issued for 5 to 11 p.m. on Thursday, May 1, when Piper's hosts a "cask takeover" of four from Helltown.
Throughout the 10 days, look for "real ale" and regular versions of one of the 11-plus "collaboration brews" made just for Craft Beer Week by teams of not just brewers (Helltown worked with All Saints Brewing to make a dunkelweizen dubbed Dark Angel), but also others.
For instance, Bloomfield's Caliente Pizza & Draft House, which regularly does "Firkin Friday," conspired with Lawrenceville's Church Brew Works to cook up a double Belgian IPA that they named The Hop Confession. They'll tap a firkin of it at Caliente for its Friday, April 25, PCBW Kick-off Party from 6 p.m. to closing. They'll be serving several other collaboration brews on draft, as well.
Interestingly, says co-owner Nick Bogacz, the Caliente crew are at the Church tonight, where they'll guest-chef their pizza to be served with Hop Confession.
That's the let-good-beer-lift-all-boats, fun philosophy of Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week, which is promoted by the non-profit Pittsburgh Craft Beer Alliance, a coalition of brewers, distributors, bar owners and others.
There's something for everyone who's interested in beer, whether cask-conditioned or not, with events ranging from charity fundraisers such as East End Brewing's annual Pedal Pale Ale Keg Ride (April 26) and the Furnace Bash at Carrie Furnace in Rankin (May 3) to beer dinners (and lunches and breakfasts) to runs and boat cruises (including the April 25 long-sold-out Beer Barge) to more mundane "tap takeovers" and tastings.
Check out the daily events lineups in the calendar at pittsburghcraftbeerweek.com.
Meanwhile, in the spirit of the collaboration beers, I wanted to make this a collaboration beer story and so invited others who cover Pittsburgh beer to preview an event of interest to them:
Jeff Bearer is host of Craft Beer Radio, which he describes as the longest-running beer podcast: craftbeerradio.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Practically every night, Caliente Pizza & Draft House in Bloomfield has tap-takeovers with breweries that are not normal fixtures around town. For me one stands out: At 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 29, the place is tapping five beers from The Bruery in Orange County, Calif.
Since the brewery opened in 2008, I've been privileged to have had many Bruery beers -- from flagships such as Saison Rue, seasonals such as Autumn Maple to extreme beers such as Black Tuesday. It's one of the most highly regarded breweries in the country and this is a rare chance for Pittsburghers to try its beers right in our own backyard.
Hal B. Klein
Hal B. Klein is the drinks columnist for Pittsburgh City Paper (pghcitypaper.com) and a regular contributor to the PG. Contact him at email@example.com.
On Wednesday, April 30, I'm going to drink beer for breakfast.
When Hart Johnson, Piper's Pub bartender and PCBW events organizer, announced "The Quintessential Beer and Breakfast Pairing" at Piper's, I thought it was a rather strange idea. Actually, so did he. "It started as a joke on Twitter. Next thing you know I have beer reps texting me," he told me.
The breakfast of beer and cereal is on for 8 to 11 a.m. that Wednesday. For $5, you get all the cereal you can eat. Mr. Johnson says he expects to have about two dozen brands of cereal on hand and likely at least as many types of beer (the final beer list is still being worked out).
Beer is not included in the $5 admission price, though guests will have their choice of cow, soy, almond and rice milks (he expects someone will swap milk for beer). There will be suggested beer pairings including Peanut Butter Crunch with Rivertowne Barrel-Aged Coffee Stout, Apple Jacks with Arsenal Picket Bone Dry Cider, and Cheerios with the All Saints/Helltown collaboration Dark Angel dunkelweizen, but attendees also will be free to mix and match. Personally, I'm hoping to find the perfect match for my childhood favorite, Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
Mike Pound is digital editor for the Beaver County Times, where he posts his biweekly "The Beer Guy" video series (timesonline.com/beerguy). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I want to meet Margot.
We've sort of been introduced before, when I visited Hop Farm Brewing in Lawrenceville last month. She wasn't quite ready for prime time at that point, but by the middle of Beer Week, she'll be happy to meet you.
As happy as a sour blonde can be, anyway.
I won't skip a chance to taste any of the 11 collaboration beers. But this one is different. Hop Farm owner and brewer Matt Gouwens was approached by Brian Keil, who runs film-and-beer-pairings website boxofficebrewreview.com, to make a special beer to pair with "The Royal Tenenbaums." Their choice? An imperial Berliner weisse -- or, in the words of Mr. Gouwens, "a sour blonde ale" -- named for Gwyneth Paltrow's sour character in the 2001 film.
When I visited Hop Farm last month, Margot was aging, but a taste of an early run revealed something special: citrusy and sour, fitting the traditionally lighter profile of a Berliner weisse but also masking what would be an alcohol-by-volume of about 7.5 percent. Some of it will be available on draft, but Mr. Gouwens also has made 500 numbered, wax-dipped bottles.
From 6:30 to 9 p.m. on May 1, Margot will be introduced to the public at the brewery, at 5601 Butler St., along with a screening of "The Royal Tenenbaums," giving us the chance to take home a sour blonde.
Bob Batz Jr.: email@example.com and 412-263-1930 and on Twitter @bobbatzjr.