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Oakes Weekly - Jan. 30, 2003

Learning the Cellarman's Art
Oakes Weekly January 30, 2003      
Written by Oakes

Vancouver, CANADA -

<P>As a card-carrying member of CAMRA, I am a big proponent of real ale. In Ontario, being a real ale lover takes a certain amount of dedication. For instance, there are three places within easy walking distance that serve real ale. Unfortunately, only one of those has a respectable throughput, meaning the quality of the real ales at the other locations (both of which are genuine pubs that have carrying real ale since time immemorial) is a little bit spotty. So as I said, it requires a bit of patience. Not quite as much patience as it must have taken when the Canadian Association for Better Ale and Lager (CABAL) formed back in the early 80's. Back then, there were no micros - finding something that wasn't Molson, Labatt's or Carling required a road trip up north where such delicacies as Superior Lager and Northern Ale could be found. Even finding a Guinness or Bass back then required expert knowledge of Toronto's beerscape.

<P>As CABAL achieved its goals (micros, then brewpubs were legalized with the "help" of CABAL lobbyists), the group slowly became an informal collection of beer lovers with no particular lobby other than to enjoy the fruits of their labours. Today, some CABAL members join with a handful of brewers and writers in town to enjoy the occasional cask ale party. With five micros making real ale in Ontario, there is always plenty of choice, and no party is without at least two firkins.

<P>I actually just got involved with these events last summer, and decided to host one at my spiffy new pad. So that is how I came to arrive home from work on Wednesday to find a firkin of Scotch Irish Session Ale in my living room. Finally, the Firkin Fairy had paid me a visit! It's about damn time, too, since I've been leaving hop cones under my pillow at night for the past eight years.

<P>Then, however, something I wasn't accustomed to - panic. Well, not full blown panic, but a healthy concern. You know how they say that babies don't come with manuals. Well, my fifty pound bundle of joy didn't come with any instructions either, just a toolbox full of wonderful little things whose names had sort of zipped over my head whenever I'd read about them.

<P>Fortunately, one of the CABAL guys had a copy of CAMRA's Cellarmanship guide, and he just happened to be attending a Burns Night at a pub not too far away. Of course, a seemingly innocuous ten minute stroll down Yonge Street is a whole other matter entirely when it's -20C outside. Couldn't I just make it up as I went along? No, I went to get the guide. If you ever keep real ale at your place, I cannot recommend this guide more. Granted, some of the most crucial bits of information are tucked away in the most innocent-looking corners of chapters far removed from the one with the title that looks right, but all you need to know is there as long as you've mastered the art of inference.

<p>The first aspect of cellarmanship is, surprisingly enough, actually having a cellar. I have an apartment. One in which I have no control of the heat, a situation which in some parts of Toronto means very cold winters. But I live in a neighbourhood best described as filthy stinking rich so we get all the heat we can handle. In fact, I lovingly refer to my apartment as Little Jamaica and I am rarely seen wearing more than shorts and a T-shirt at home. The storage lockers are heated too, and besides you can't just go hauling real ale all around the building because you will disturb it. So I had only one choice, and that was to crank open the windows and let the aforementioned -20C meet Little Jamaica head on. The result - perfect cellar temperature! Yes, I dodged a bit of a bullet there.

<P>The next task was stillaging. This is the art of putting the firkin up on blocks. Not being from the country, I have no history of putting cars on blocks in my front yard to draw upon, so I had to follow the guide, which showed two drawings entitled 'Right' and 'Wrong'. They looked exactly the same. After a few doubletakes and careful examinations, I came to the realization that I had followed the 'Wrong' diagram and was lucky not to have a firkin rolling around my living room.

<P>Stillaging now done, I had to wait a day for it to settle. The next night came and with it new tasks - venting and spiling. The spile fits into the bung at the top of the cask. You first have pierce the cask, which according to the book required one of any number of tools, none of which were in the toolbox. I deduced that the screwdriver was meant for that task, since there are few screws on a firkin of real ale. This section of the book was peppered with quaint phrases like "geyser" and "hops on the ceiling". I covered the screwdriver with a towel and gave it a good whack with the big mallet. It was fine. No geyser. I put in a soft spile, which is porous and allows the beer to "breathe". It blew out CO2 in the form of beer foam out of the spile for the next few hours, taking with it at least 5cl of precious beer.

<P>The soft spiles need to be checked a couple times a day because they can become blocked with yeast, and because if there is no activity when the spile is removed you need to put in a hard spile to allow carbonation to build up. The first soft spile was coated in yeast, the second was not, and there was no activity, so the night before my party I put in the hard spile.

<P>The next afternoon, it was time to tap. You can actually do that at any number of stages along the way, but I was in no hurry, as I knew the temptation would be irresistible for any self-respecting CAMRA member. So I broke out the mallet (by now my new favourite toy) and whacked the tap into the keystone at the front of the cask. I was stylin'. Time to draw off the first half and check for clarity. I was getting downright giddy at this point. I turned the tap - nothing. I twisted it around and around, just like the book told me to, and nothing. Nary a drop of golden elixir fell into my glass. Now I panicked for real. I took the nozzle off just to make sure there wasn't a problem with the dispensation system. Being that the dispensation system was gravity, I guess I shouldn't have been too surprised that it was working fine. But that's what the bucket is for and a quickly got the nozzle back on. So the problem was the nozzle itself, but I didn't have any other nozzles lying around so how was I going to get the beer into the glasses of all my thirsty guests. I didn't think they were attending a firkin party merely to be in the presence of one, so I had to figure out how I was going to get the beer from the cask to the glass.

<P>I called the brewer. Perhaps he could offer some advice as it was his equipment. "Perry," I said, "I've been turning that nozzle around and around and nothing's coming out."

<P>"Did you flip it down?" he inquired.

<P>"Flip it down?" I asked. That wasn't in the book.

<P>"It flips. Like a coffee dispenser."

<P>I went over, and sure enough, the only problematic piece of equipment was the one between my ears. It was all good. I thanked the brewer and got on to the task of quality control. The beer was bright, more or less, with a great hop aroma. The flavour started with some fine balance, getting drier as it went along. A great little pint of bitter. Hats off to the cellarmaster!



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