For the fifth year, the New England Real Ale Exhibition (NERAX) brought together producers and lovers of cask-conditioned, living ale. The festival was once again held in the friendly, confined surroundings of the George Dilboy VFW Hall in Somerville, Mass., on May 1-5.
Attendance at this year's NERAX outpaced all previous years, as was apparent to all who participated. In the cramped venue, lines sometimes grew long and crowd navigation required the adept balancing of sampling glasses. The festival's size is not a new problem for NERAX organizers, who have considered and rejected thoughts of expanding the festival's locale.
"Sure, we'd love to have more space," says organizer Jon Tuttle. "We'd love to have a staff lounge where we could go and drink a pint." But with a shrug of his shoulders and a roll of his eyes, Tuttle rejects the idea of expansion. NERAX organizers simply prefer the small, personal feel of the current location.
On Friday afternoon, the festival hosted a session for the trade, attended by a diverse group of Northeast brewers and journalists. Dr. Keith Thomas, professor of microbiology at the University of Sunderland and director of Brewlab, presented the keynote address as gatherers sipped a variety of well-prepared real ales. Dr. Thomas began by inquiring as to the status and success of real ale in the United States. After learning that real ale is a difficult product to sell to local publicans, Dr. Thomas conceded that real ale's situation is similar in Britain. Despite the discouraging initial discussion, the brewers and the speaker were in no mood to cry in their pints.
Dr. Thomas continued with a lively presentation on his work with yeast propagation and the re-creation of ancient brews. His archaeological endeavors have included the re-creation of a beer from a bottle retrieved from a shipwreck in the English Channel. After chemically analyzing the beer and repitching yeast from the bottle, Dr. Thomas and his team re-created a tasty old porter recipe.
During the public sessions, attendees enjoyed a solid range of domestic and foreign real ales. The foreign standouts included the classic Fullers ESB, the fruity Pictish Brewers Gold and the spicy Fraoch Heather Ale.
From the Northeast, attendees enjoyed the Best Bitter from real ale stalwart Gritty McDuff's Brewing Company, Shipyard's Old Thumper and the surprisingly smoky People's Pint Porter. Though this year's selection tended more toward traditional real ale styles such as pale, bitter and mild than selections in recent years, the overwhelming festival favorite was a massive, unconventional brew. Not that favorite status came easily for Heavyweight Brewing Company's Perkuno's Hammer. Driven to the event by a pair of loyal, adoring fans of the New Jersey brewery, the immensely flavorful Baltic porter was originally mislabeled as Imperial Porter from Victory Brewing Company. While this sign left some fans to ponder whether Victory had suddenly expanded its product line, festival organizers quickly corrected the problem.
In any case, I heard no one complain about the signage or anything else. The quality of the offerings kept most attendees busy considering their pints rather than sweating the details.