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Lucy Saunders
4230 N. Oakland #178
Shorewood WI
53211 USA
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A feast of real ale, real food
Centuries-old brewing tradition revived at Chicago festival

It was a festival of real ale - and real cuisine. The Real Ale Feast in Chicago marked the marriage of ale and food in a grand eight-course repast. But the feast also celebrated the return of craft brewing to its centuries-old tradition, nurtured in Britain's best pubs, of naturally carbonated, living, real ale.

"For the last century, there's been a well-documented decline in the flavor of mass-produced beer," says Randy Mosher, the talented designer behind the RAF logo, and one of the members of the Real Ale Festival team with founder Ray Daniels. "No matter how you measure it, industrial beer is weaker in malt, weaker in hops, weaker in extract, and weaker in color and taste."

Real ale is anything but weak. "Sons of malt," boomed Mark Dorber, landlord of the White Horse Inn on Parson's Green in London, who came to Chicago to speak at the dinner, "we champion the cause of real ale."

Brewed and fermented at warmer temperatures, real ale is made with a wide range of malts and hops for a shimmering spectrum of flavors. The ale is left unfiltered and unpasteurized when transferred from tank to cask. Teeming with live yeast cells, real ale continues to ferment in the cask, and thus creates its own delicate carbonation in a secondary fermentation. This process is also known as "cask conditioning."

"Cask ale has a mouth-caressing effervescence from this natural carbonation," says Dorber. It's a level of excellence difficult for many mainstream U.S. bars or brewpubs to attain, as cask ale requires care in tapping and cellaring. In Chicago, Greg Hall (left) and John Hall (right) the brewing dynasty behind Goose Island Brewery, Chicago - photo by Lucy Saundersthe Real Ale Festival is hosted by the Goose Island Brewing Co. in Wrigleyville, whose brewmaster Greg Hall (pictured at right with his father, John Hall) supports the traditions of cask ale, too.

So, as a team of more than 50 volunteers worked through the night to rack, stillage, and ready more than 150 examples of real ale from across the U.S. and U.K., the festival launched its first Feast.

With the help of chefs Mark Facklam and Tim Bucci of the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, and the guidance of Mark Dorber, the Real Ale Feast showed a dazzling array of dishes.

From fresh oysters from British Columbia, paired with the licorice notes of Walkers Reserve Porter, to a tangy Gorgonzola tart matched with Stoddard's ESB, the opening hors d'oeuvres set the stage. To "complement or contrast" were the dual strategies in designing the menu.

"With real ale you get an additional layer of flavor from the yeast, whether it's spicy, fruity, woodsy, peppery or even earthy," explained Mosher. "Depending on your preferences, the contrast or complement will work."

Grilled salmon with a malted tomatillo sauce enriched with Tabernash Weiss ale from Colorado, topped with slivers of fried corn tortillas, had a spicy taste that literally bounced around the back of my tongue. Paired with the Damnation Ale, hot with high alcohol, from Russian River Brewing of California, the combination was breath-taking.

A slightly salty and chewy pastrami made from house-cured duck breast, was presented in a salad of wild greens with roasted Anjou pears and a vinaigrette made with Hansen's Gueuze ale. With each sip of the New Belgium Trippel, a luscious, spicy Belgian ale, the sharpness and acidity of the vinaigrette mellowed.

The elegant Cuvee de Tomme, an award-winning Belgian style ale with four sources of fermentable sugars (malt, rock candy sugar, cherries and pureed raisins), was specially brought in by Solana Beach Brewery of California. It made a formidable match for a venison sausage en croute with a savory sabayon of New Glarus cherry ale and dried cherries.Chef Tim Bucci, Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, Real Ale Feast, photo by Lucy Saunders

Slices of roast veal, topped with a natural jus of ale and fresh thyme, made a stunning presentation with Bosco's Flaming Stone Beer from Memphis, and the Flossmoor Station's Pullman Nut Brown Ale.

In the final round, Dorber and Mosher pushed the principles of pairing to the utmost limit. "The carrot cake, paired with an immensely hoppy 90-Minute IPA from Dogfish Head Brewery of Delaware, was such an epiphany," raved Mosher. "It was one of those combinations that turned out to be a magical contrast." However, Dorber laughed at the odd couple, "Cream cheese frosting and gigantic hops??" But more diners adored the contrast, as the clean plates and empty glasses attested.

Of course, the proof of real ale's appeal is in the drinking. And in this instance, in the eating, too.

(This review appeared in the food section of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on March 13, 2002)

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