THE CASK WHISPERER
Blog by Nigel Walsh
More Favorite Things – Lagers
I was really hoping to write up a report on the annual Guy Fawkes Night Bonfire event at Seneca Lake Brewery this week, but once again my trusty(?) jalopy failed me… or did I fail it?
I should have been happy that it managed to pass its inspection with flying colors, but on returning it to the street for parking, it flashed an intermittent warning light again, something about stability and the need to see the Saab dealer.
Oh yes, the Saab dealer, remember those?
The only Saab dealers these days are providing sophisticated fighting aircraft to dubious states around the world, not ABS and/or steering sensors to poor punters in NYC.
So, it sits on the street, only trusted to run short errands at this time.
Without an exciting destination cask trip to report about, I am going to milk the “my favorite beers” thing for another week, this time looking at lagers.
The qualification rules will be a little looser than with the bitters, in fact the earlier ones will not even be cask beers, just memorable lagers invoking again a time and a place…
Early 1970s, Medway Valley, Kent, Home
In the first decade BC (before cask), the young Cask Whisperer was more often referred to as the Rum and Black Whisperer or occasionally as the Cider Whisperer, the Guiness Whisperer, and the G&T Whisperer; at that time, I had not really developed my taste for beer, the draft bitter that was available was swill, and most of my friends would not be seen dead in a Shepherd Neame or Fremlins house, making cask beer a rare exception.
So, what to do when hanging out with lager-drinking friends?
Drink Rum and Black!
But you can only do that for a couple without totally losing the plot and possibly your lunch as well… might as well join them in a lager or two.
The typical lagers back then were pretty uninspiring unless you actually liked the taste of fizzy onion water, so most drinking sessions ended up quietly as we moved on to playing darts, or cribbage or euchre, with just the occasional glance at and sip of the rapidly warming beer.
When I did manage to drag anyone into a Sheps pub, the outlook was almost always brighter, for all of us.
I would get my pints of cask bitter or half and half, and my mates would get to drink some halfway decent lager.
Shepherd Neame has always brewed other brands under license and their primary “European” lager was (and still is, I believe) Hurlimann, originally from Zurich but brewed for the youth of the Medway Towns in nearby Faversham.
Nothing spectacular but a definite step above the other whizzy yellow contenders.
A little more exotic, and mostly served in bottles at some Sheps establishments was Oranjeboom from Rotterdam via Faversham again; another favorite of my friends but usually overlooked by me as I stuck to the cask.
But every now and then, through the Hurlimann connection I would guess, we would stumble over a bottle of Samichlaus, and that was a totally different story.
Who needs Rum and Black when you can get all of the giggles that you need from a single bottle of beer that you could share, and usually did, with two other kids.
It was the lager equivalent of the barley wine, and we usually treated it with the same respect, but it was always the last beer of the night, whether intended or not.
Mid 1970s, Edinburgh and Lerwick, University
I was fortunate to attend college in what is still one of my favorite cities in the world, Edinburgh.
It was there that the whispering grew louder in my ear, turning me into a total real ale nutter.
I finally abandoned my love of sweet drinks, except for the unfortunate incident with the Rum and Cokes, which we will not talk about any further.
I had a large handful of cask outlets that I would visit, in those rare study breaks of course, serving wonderful 70/- and 80/- ales from the likes of McEwans, Youngers, Maclays, and Lorimers.
You would think that I would never have to bother with a lesser beer such as a lager, and I wouldn’t if it hadn’t been for my pesky friends.
So, I did end up drinking quite a bit of lager for the three years that I lived north of the border, but what a lager!
I am referring to, of course, the lager that is not just a beer for the Scots, but a religion – the mighty Tennants!
Pale yellow, gassy, non-descript, mostly harmless, yet curiously approachable, whether served on draught or in cans… it was all the same.
I drank a lot of it in Edinburgh, and I drank it exclusively in Lerwick where I worked in a fish factory for three months during what was the hottest summer on record in the UK at the time; no Cask Whisperer there, I was known as the Gut Man (best job that I ever had).
I still have an occasional pint at Jones Wood when I am in the mood, it is a guilty pleasure.
Early 1980s, New York City, Work
And so, we come to the States, and the most extensive selection of draught and canned lagers imaginable: Budweiser, Miller, Michelob, Reingold, Schmidt, Schlitz and Blatz, all sounding like the lineup of a baseball team and all looking and tasting pretty much the same.
I found myself drinking a lot of Michelob Dark back then because, well because it was dark; it still tasted much like the others but with a bit of a caramel aftertaste.
And then there were the imports, Heineken and Becks, different (a little more hop bitterness) but the same.
These would have been consumed at after-work get togethers in the city or back home in Connecticut where most of my colleagues and I lived at the time, but only if the Guiness was off.
Between NYC and Westport though, we joyfully downed oil can after oil can of Fosters Lager in the legendary 6:07 bar car on Metro North.
I had developed the stomach for Fosters in London when hanging out with friends who were Australian expats, so was quite able to keep up with the rolling party on the train most nights.
1990-2000s, New York City, Work
With the first coming of the micro-breweries in NYC in the 90s and the arrival of the craft beer bars shortly afterwards, there was much to keep me interested (but no cask yet) without looking towards lagers, with the exception of locally-brewed Kolsch and Altbiers… well, they are technically lagered, or at least cold-conditioned.
And then football arrived in NYC, my accent returned, and much Stella and/or Carlsberg was consumed on an almost weekly basis at the legendary Nevada Smiths; the atmosphere very much like that on the stands at a game back home, even down to the selection of beers and the plastic drinkware.
And by the time it closed for good, the footy and accompanying lagers could be found all over the city, so poor Nevada’s was not missed as much as it should have been.
With the second, extended craft brewery explosion and expansion, we are all spoiled for choice right now; even us folks who like to narrow our focus to the smaller world of living beverages.
It is late, and I am feeling a little nerdy, so instead of coming up with some flowery language to describe the varied lager styles that I have enjoyed on cask (beer engine or gravity pour) over the last twelve years, I will just pull some stuff out of my informal master living beer database and present it in tabular form.
There is a lot to see here – 23 beers, 23 different lager styles, all on cask.
These are the good times. Well, at least for us cask lager drinkers.
Pripps Carnegie Stark Porter
Carlsberg Sverige AB
Czech Amber Lager
Mustang Sally Brewing Company
Strong Rope Brewery
European Pale Lager
Fox Farm Brewery
Hofstettner G’Frorens Eisbock
Little House Brewing Company
Kellerbier – Helles
District of Columbia
Budweiser High Gravity
New Park Brewing
Polotmavy (Czech Garnet Pilsner)
District of Columbia
Pre-prohibition American Lager
Aecht Schlenkerla – Fastenbier
Brauerei Heller-Trum / Schlenkerla
Schilling Beer Company
Ungespundet Keller Beer
Cerveza Nacional de la Capital
District of Columbia
The future looks bright for a cask lager fan in the Northeast, with several well-respected lager breweries submitting cask lagers to events from New Hampshire down to Pennsylvania and possibly beyond.
My personal (immediate) future looks a little more iffy; I have another potential road trip to Delaware looming this weekend, and I am still toying with the idea of driving, as the public transportation options are limited and complicated; one train + two buses + something else for ten miles… or maybe not…
Anybody want to buy a 20-year-old Saab?
Scorecard w/e 11/14/23
In the past week, The Cask Whisperer has enjoyed the following casks:
- Old Glenham Weavers Pale Ale @ Jones Wood Foundry
- Old Glenham XXXX Dark Mild @ Jones Wood Foundry
Upcoming Cask Festivals
11/18/2023: Analog-a-Go-Go at Dogfish Head
4/10/2024 – 4/13/2024 (5 sessions): 25th Annual New England Real Ale Exhibition (NERAX)