Boston, MA– Beer festivals tend to be a highly contested experience. On one hand, staunch purists of highly discriminating tastes (“beer nerds” for short) decry the proliferation—numbering well into the hundreds in New England alone—as an invasion of fiercely contested territory by Heineken-loving barbarians. On the other, attendees often complain that there’s little focus on actual beer and more emphasis on gaudy promotions and truly horrible cover bands. One thing which frequently gets lost in the debate is the lack of concentration on style.
The New England Real Ale eXhibition (or NERAX) has been occurring for over 20 years with one singular emphasis: traditionally brewed, cask-conditioned ales. It’s the showcase of the Cask-conditioned Ale Support Campaign, a grassroots organization formed in 1997 to educate the New England region about traditionally brewed ales. And it’s an annual tradition that not enough New Englanders are aware of.
What separates cask-conditioned ale from more popular forms? Well, it’s best defined as an unfiltered and unpasteurized style with minimal carbonation, cask fermented two (or more) times, and served directly from the vessel in which it was aged.
In other words—warm, flat beer.
The above description is a bit of misnomer, however. If you’re expecting the lukewarm cans of Natty Ice you remember drinking the morning after a college party, you’ll be sorely disappointed. There’s a relative diversity in styles for traditional ale, ranging from the expected IPAs and farmhouse saisons to porters, ambers, and barley wine. New entrants to the market occur monthly—New England being just one of the primary hotspots in the U.S.—and all must pass accredited standards to ensure quality. And while the cask-conditioned ale movement is small, its proponents are vocal and maybe too eager to elaborate on its virtues.
"In the United States, cask-conditioned beer was probably absent for 100 years," CASC president Mark Bowers told Boston magazine earlier this week. "We’re trying to keep this traditional, artisanal way of serving beer going. The common thread among us is we perceive cask beer as something special. A lot of us are turned off by cold, fizzy beer. Being cellar temperature rather than ice cold brings out more flavor, and a little bit less carbonation gives it a better mouthfeel."
How did the modern predominance of cold, highly carbonated beer start? One reason is its relatively long shelf life. Since traditional ales are unpasteurized and brewed with minimal yeast, there’s only a limited time to enjoy the complexity of flavors—hardly a cost effective measure for the average bar manager or beer distributor. The other could be the popular misconception of beer as a summer drink: a decades-long misconception fostered by shrewd advertisers who know far too well that skewing towards seasonal offerings increase general demand.
This year’s NERAX will feature over 60 different offerings, with the vast majority from UK-based craft brewers. However, unlike other beer festivals, offerings will be served in quarter, half, or full pint glass servings with an emphasis on the glass; traditional ales do not interact well with plastic cups. And, true to tradition, once an offering is gone? It’s gone.
The New England Real Ale eXhibition will be taking place between April 3rd - 6th at the South Boston Lithuanian Club, located at 368 W. Broadway in South Boston. Tickets range from $6 - $20, plus the additional price of drinks. For more information, please visit http://nerax.org/