The 17th annual New England Real Ale eXhibition (NERAX) is nearly upon us, bringing cask-conditioned beers and ciders from across the UK and US to five sessions from March 20 to March 23. For $15, fans of real ale will gain access to over 110 curated casks (with 50 to 60 available at each session) under the roof of Somerville American Legion Hall Post 388. Once inside, grab a glass — the $5 deposit is refundable, unless you want a souvenir — and belly up to the cash bar to enjoy cask offerings in quarter ($2), half ($3), and imperial ($6) pint measures in a pub-like atmosphere.

Now, if you're scratching your head and wondering what this cask stuff is all about, don't worry: we asked NERAX festival organizer Mark Bowers to break down some basics.

What's "cask-conditioned ale"? We are now trying to use the term "cask- conditioned beer" to indicate that not just ale can be cask-conditioned. Our definition is that cask-conditioned beer is the malt-based fermented alcoholic beverage that is unfiltered and unpasteurized, and that is naturally conditioned via fermentation. This beer is served from the container in which it was naturally conditioned without additional significant pressure from carbon dioxide and/or nitrogen.

Why do some call it "real ale"? The term "real ale" was created by CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) in the United Kingdom, [which defines it as] "beer brewed from traditional ingredients, matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide." The two definitions are similar. Using the term cask-conditioned beer and its definition readily allows for non-traditional ingredients as well as other beer types, such as lagers and spontaneously fermented beers.

What are the major differences between traditional UK and American cask ale? Traditional UK cask ale is made using ale yeast and predominantly or exclusively UK ingredients — especially the malt and hops. The cask-conditioned ales brewed this way had unique characteristics that distinguished them from, say, continental lagers and the various Belgian beer styles. American cask beer, on the other hand, is now a reflection of what innovative American brewers are doing across the country. Almost any kind of beer is now cask- conditioned. These include super-hoppy IPAs and IIPAs, black IPAs, imperial lagers, etc., brewed with new-world and experimental hops; Belgian-inspired beers like farmhouse beers, saisons, lambics, dubbels, tripels, etc; coffee, chocolate, and chili- pepper porters and stouts; and barrel-aged versions where beer is stored in some type of wooden barrel, typically previously used for storage of another alcoholic beverage.

A secondary but very important difference is that most traditional as well as modern UK cask ale is created or formulated to be a cask ale. However, most American cask beer was first created for the keg and bottle/can trade. Only a very small amount of this beer is then diverted to be cask. Creating a beer from the ground up to be a cask beer means that the brewer can focus on the flavor and aroma profiles that work best in cask form — this in part means what works better with warmer cellar temperatures, lower, softer carbonation, and the complexities that arise from the continual contact of the beer with yeast. Who is NERAX for? If you're interested in exploring an incredible selection of live, unfiltered, unpasteurized ales in an ever-changing state of maturation ranging from traditional to experimental, then you don't want to miss NERAX. Trust us. In our opinion, NERAX is hands-down one of the best cask-beer fests in the US.

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