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Night of the Living Ales

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Jeff Bean

hophead, fisherman, and Nebraska-native

One of the best things about Chicago the quantity and quality of its festivals.  And its beer festivals are no exception.  Matt and I, along with a few other friends, attended our first Night of the Living Ales this past Saturday evening.  The event featured over 40 cask ales from around the region.  Cask ales are also known as "living" or "real" ales because they are unpasteurized and unfiltered, and are packaged without added CO2 (like a keg) and continue to change in the cask.  As a result, cask ales have a very different characteristics than those served from a keg or bottle.   The mouthfeel is extremely silky, and carbonation is limited.  Certain styles, like English Style Bitters and Milds are traditionally served this way. 
The event was held at Goose Island Wrigleyville, and the beers were almost exclusively from Chicagoland breweries.   The pours are small, and samples are limited only by time and your tolerance.  Many of the beers were very intense, and it didn't take long before I had difficulty tasting the complexities of the various beers.  There were lots of quesadillas, pizza, soft pretzels, and aged cheese to help absorb the booze and cleanse the palate.  Even so, after several double IPAs and a sour ale, my palate was feeling fatigued and I had some difficulty tasting the complexities of the individual beers.  Eventually, I just gave up and went back to second tastings of my favorites.  Click here to see the approximate menu.

Ticketholders were asked to vote for the "2010 Champion Real Ale."  The winners were:

1. Flossmoor Station's Bourbon McElroy Imperial Stout
2. Goose Island's Oaky Rose Flemish Brown Ale
3. Surly Brewing Darkness Imperial Stout

The winners were by no means unamnimous, and everyone seemed to have favorites of their own.  I preferred Flossmoor Station's English Style IPA, Three Floyd's Admiral Lord Nelson Strong Bitter, and Surly's Teabag Furious, while Matt thought that Surly's Cynic Saison was the most outstanding beer of the night.  The Admiral Lord Nelson won the "Golden Tut Award" which is awarded by the organizers to the beer that "best exemplifies the overall cask ale experience."

The event's only shortcoming was (and a complaint that I heard voiced by many other guests) that the fact that it was far too crowded.  There were 250 ticketholders, but the modest space at the rear of Goose Island would have been far more comfortable with half as many people.  One of the volunteers explained that the cramped quarters are a necessary evil: cask ales must sit absolutely still at cool temperatures for about week prior to the event.  The cool room at the back of Goose Island is one of the few venues that can satisfy this requirement.  Luckily, the crowd seemed to die down after the first hour, as some people left and others went to sit out in the food room.

This fantastic and unique event is held by the Chicago Beer Society every year in March.  The tickets sell-out quickly, so keep an eye out next January.  A big thanks to all the volunteers who gave a lot of hard work and an entire Saturday to make it happen!

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