I spent two weeks in England and Germany last month. I traveled to London. I traveled to Newcastle. I traveled to Munich. The trip was not as exotic as those locations may sound. I spent a considerable amount of time in offices, train cars, and airplanes. Sightseeing was not a priority. I did have a couple of opportunities for something outside of work: I spent several hours on a Saturday in Northumberland looking at castles. I went on a self-guided walking tour of London to see some of the famous sights. And I had the pleasure of going to a pub in Newcastle on a whim—just to see what it was like—have a pint (or two) of beer and watch football.

I discovered real ale.

Real ale is a living beer. Real ale is draught beer brewed from traditional ingredients; it is matured by secondary fermentation within the same cask from which it is dispensed. It is served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide. Real ale differs from mass-produced beers in that it is not pasteurized, sterilized or filtered. When real ale brewers ship their beer, the beer is actively fermenting. Clarifying, storing and serving the beer can pose considerable challenges to serving real ale.

Not any bar, pub or tavern is necessarily staffed or equipped to handle the process. Several techniques—known collectively as cellarmanship—are used in the handling of casks of real ale. These may include: the use of isinglass finings to settle the yeast to the bottom of the cask; stillaging, or correct placement of a cask into serving position; and proper venting through the use of a softwood shive to achieve the proper level of carbonation. Casks must not be moved for several days before serving or during the serving itself. In bars, beer often must travel quite a distance from the cooler to the tap head. For mass-produced beers, this is typically done with the aid of pressurized gas—carbon dioxide. With real ales, no external CO2 pressure may be applied to drive the beer. Real ales are most commonly delivered through a bar-mounted vacuum hand pump called a “beer engine”. Sometimes real ales are delivered directly from the cask “by gravity”. Very occasionally real ales are delivered through an electric pump.

At this point I suspect you are asking what is so special about all of this. The answer to that question is that all of these factors combine to produce a particular taste unavailable to beers not produced in this manner. The secondary fermentation allows for a complexity of interesting flavors to develop; it produces a beer of far more character and taste than the non-real version. – And the sentimental fool in me appreciates the idea that this method is a lot closer to the methods used by brewers for hundreds of years: before the advent of corporate breweries and mass-production. Real ales are beer-as-craft not beer-as-product.

I learned most of what I have written above from my bartender at The Duke in Newcastle, the gentleman that indulged my naïve questions about the football match we were watching, and the pair of Geordies that adopted me as their mate for the duration of the evening. On a solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and long trip, that evening was a bright and enjoyable way station—to paraphrase another Englishman.

When I returned to Chicago I promised myself that I would find a place to get a real ale. I asked my friends; I asked my neighbors—from Manchester, the two of them—to help me out. We set out on a quest for the real ale.

And on Saturday I found one. – Or rather, Liz found the tavern; I gathered up my band of various hooligans and ne’er-do-wells that are my friends. We went to the Map Room. They have real ale. We had real ale.

It was a Saturday afternoon with a simple goal and an enjoyable result. John, Mick, Wille, Mel, Liz, Patrick, Whirl and I all met there after I sent out an impromptu round of invitations. We drank beer. We talked with the flock of University of Illinois graduates that descended on the tavern. Later we retired to Mick’s house where I proceeded to lose at poker. Again. – But even this defeat did not matter. I had fun. I enjoyed myself. I enjoyed my time with my friends.

That’s the point of a quest, I think. It is not the actual goal, but the traveling towards it and the taking it with you as you move beyond. Succeeding at the quest—that’s just the frothy foam on top.

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