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Get real

You don't have to be a beer snob to enjoy these 'true' brews

By Mark Andel

Some people prefer them natural, a little flat, without anything artificial added to fluff them up. And if they're a little warmer than usual, that's OK too.

We're talking about real ales -- those cool, complex, cask-conditioned natural wonders that perfectly meld the bitter with the sweet, sometimes in the same sip. With nowhere near the effervescence of a mass-market brew, which is usually injected with carbon dioxide, real ale draws a following that appreciates flavor over froth, substance over sparkle.

Alpha King, $5
Once the self-proclaimed "best dive in America," the newly renovated Tuman's not only has a spruced-up interior but an impressive assortment of real ales. The Alpha King is a creamy, hoppy number with a little more natural carbonation than you might expect and a vaguely bitter finish. At an alcohol level around 6 to 7 percent, it's got all the courage of a good India Pale Ale. The perfect entree to go with it? Owner Tommy McGee recommends the chipotle-glazed pork chops ($14).

Adnam's Bitter, $6
This classic British pub-style ale is heavy on hop-and-malt character, but at 3.7-percent alcohol it's less boozy than most other real ales. It's available in the cask at Mac's, a neighborhood pub with some of the tastiest mac 'n' cheese you'll ever have ($8), especially when you add your own ingredients like spinach and mushrooms. Such comfort food goes great with Adnam's, providing a kind of backbone to the complex, lemony melange of this authentic brew.

Bell's Two Hearted Ale, $4
One of the most popular real ales served at the Clark Street Ale House is this Kalamazoo, Mich., offering. It has citrus and pine notes and a sophisticated white fluffy head that has staying power (probably due to the lesser degree of "fake" carbonation and more of the "real" in-cask secondary fermentation). Forget the food with this one--bartender Brian Quaid recommends a nice smooth 12-year-old Macallan single-malt scotch sidecar to cut the bitter finish of this IPA.

Bitter End, $5
This local ale is brewed by Two Brothers in west suburban Warrenville and served up at Brisku's Bistro. The eponymous "bitter end" comes in that last gulp, when you get a minor jolt of bitter green hops that have settled to the bottom of the glass. Prior to that, it's nicely balanced, bracing and fresh as a daisy. In fact, you can actually detect some floral undertones mixed in with the herbs and hops. Stop in on Tuesdays when the hand-formed burgers are two bucks.

Northwind Imperial Stout, $5
As thick and dark as the spent motor oil from your dad's Oldsmobile, and with a syrupy silkiness that could only be found in a cask-conditioned stout, this highly regarded Two Brothers selection can be found at the popular Lakeview watering hole J.T. Collins. It's an opaque, malty and chocolaty full-bodied brew with a thick, khaki-colored head that resembles a mushroom sprouting out of dark soil.

Mark Andel is a metromix special contributor.

Originally published Feb. 25, 2004.