Gut Instinct: Cask at Hand

art19382nar One wintry, eyeballs -freezing morning, icicles clinging to trees, my bespectacled pal Aaron and I climb aboard the Long Island Railroad and choo-choo east, our goal gloriously intoxicating: to glug several of the nearly 10,000 pints sloshing inside the world’s largest cask. “We should eat first,” Aaron says, distributing several chewy, Terrace Bagels everythings.

“You know, to delay the drunkenness.” “Killjoy,” I sigh, gnawing carbohydrates. Then again, Aaron’s a brainiac medical researcher searching for an AIDS cure. “We’ve found it,” he kids, “but I’d be out of a job if I revealed it.” Certainly, these are rough times to find employment. But the darkening economic climate makes a perfect excuse for getting soused. And what better way to drown America’s sorrows than visiting Patchogue, Long Island, home to Blue Point Brewing Company’s annual Cask Ale Festival.

You ask, what’s cask? Essentially, it’s unfiltered, unpasteurized beer. Store it in metal or wooden kegs called firkins, and the hooch develops gentle, natural carbonation. Cask (or real) ale is more flavorful, more aromatic than the average CO 2 -injected brew.These low-fizz tipples are tastiest at 55 degrees—about 15 degrees warmer than Rocky Mountain refreshment.

“Let’s get some whiskey,”Aaron says when we reach frigid Patchogue. “But it’s only 11:30 a.m.,” I reply, an unlikely voice of reason.

“It’s noon somewhere,” he says, selling me on scientific rationale.We saunter down Main Street, a hardscrabble stretch of Laundromats, pawnshops and Mexican eateries. “Bingo,” Aaron says, pointing to a shopworn strip mall: Jimmy (350 East Main St.,Patchogue,Long Island), no modifier required.

We crack the curtained door and enter a sunlight-deprived realm. On the dusty TVs, sinewy horses gallop, determining the sullen customers’ daily fortunes. The yellowed lair stinks of stale smoke. The sole sound is a gaunt Bud drinker’s asthmatic wheezing.

“Whaddya want?” the bartender asks, as pleasant as a crop-wielding dominatrix. “Whiskey,” I order. He pours two paltry jolts of Jack Daniel’s, barely enough to intoxicate a toddler. “Twelve dollars.”

Twelve dollars? We swallow the belly burn and quickly exit the costly mistake. Nobody mumbles good-bye. With whiskey warmth blooming, we head to a happier land: The Blue Point Brewery, where a sold-out throng of 900 beer aficionados buzzes beneath pitched tents. Aaron and I wiggle toward Captain Lawrence. In my opinion, this Pleasantville, New York, concern crafts the Empire State’s loveliest liquids.

“What’ll it be, guys?” wonders lumberjackbearded brewer Scott Vaccaro. I select the Captain’s Reserve Imperial IPA, a psychotically hoppy sobriety-smasher that smells like weed. Greedily, I drink two glasses, leaving Aaron to the smooth, campfire-y Smoked Porter.

From there, we test the marvelous Belgian Black mash-up from Lake Grove, New York’s John Harvard’s Brew House. The rich, roasty stout is fermented with abbey yeast, resulting in a silky, slightly sweet treat that leaves us thirsting for Brooklyn Brewery’s burly Black Ops.The Russian imperial stout is aged four months in bourbon barrels, then it’s re-fermented with champagne yeast. I receive an oily pour, crowned with a cocoa cap. Bourbon tickles my sniffer, while my taste buds wrestle with chocolate, coffee and a subtle vanilla current.

I pass Aaron my glass. He drinks slowly, deeply, like he’s taking liquid communion. “That,” he says reverentially, “was awesome.” Also awesome? Chelsea Brewing Company’s Black Hole XXX Stout, an onyx, milk-shake-thick delight buttressed by bittersweet chocolate. But not all beers are divine.The men from Brewer’s East End Revival (B.E.E.R.) represent with home-brewed home runs including Steve Calandra’s creamy, balanced Belly-Up IPA.Then there’s the crew’s schwarzbier, a German black lager dubbed Obamanation.

“I brewed it in honor of our president,” the beer maker says. Um, yeah. Befitting No. 44, I’m hopeful for a great black lager.Yet it’s too thin, lacking in taste on multiple levels. I pour out the remainder then follow the THIS WAY TO THE WORLD’S LARGEST CASK ALE sign, pointing me down a gravel path. “Behold the world’s largest cask ale!” intones a Mohawked giant with a salt-and-pepper goatee, gesturing toward a towering silver cylinder filled with Rastafar Rye Ale. I’m drawn to the monstrosity—right as a tawny cat crosses my path. It rubs my legs like a shameless prostitute.

“Be careful,” warns a thin woman in a puffy coat,“that cat will attack.” Not even feral kitties can squelch my quest. “Are you trembling?” the beer pourer asks, grasping my smudged goblet.

“I’m trembling.” “And here,” he says, in a booming Charlton Heston tone, “is your glass of the world’s largest cask ale.” It’s penny-colored, warm and calm as a late-spring lake.The Rastafar is spicy, hearty and surprisingly velvety, a cask ale for repeat stomach rendezvous. Color me impressed.

“What’d you think of the Rastafar?” the beer pourer asks. “I think,” I say, pausing to drain my chalice, “it’s time I help you make that the world’s emptiest cask.”