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Monday, April 19, 2010

A Sprawling Post About Cask Ale

The Green Dragon hosted the third annual Firkin Fest over the weekend, and it was the first I was able to attend. A very nice event, and some nice beers, but I have to say, I walked away thinking that I was witnessing one of the very few thin spots in the dense culture of beer that otherwise pervades the Northwest.

Cask conditioning is a process, of course. We seem to do well enough as far as this goes--for as long as I've been drinking beer in Portland, cask ale has been available. It's a traditional process, a fussy one, and arguably a more "natural" one. I could imagine cask ale existing for these reasons alone--traditionalists always like to promote the old ways. (Reinheitsgebot is just silly, but it has its ardent defenders.) If you stop at the process, you're really missing the point. Because, while cask ale does require a different process of packaging and handling to reach your glass, the real reason to drink cask ale is because it tastes different.

Beer that has been cask-conditioned, with its warmer serving temperature and--critically--lower levels of carbonation, will express different flavors than regular draft ale. Carbonation interferes with some of the flavor and aroma compounds, but on cask, these are revealed in what I think of as their naked, raw state. As a consequence, beers that are uninspired on regular draft may reveal levels of depth and complexity when they're served on cask. In particular, smaller beers with nuanced hop and malt complexity really shine.

Now, here comes the problem. Northwest drinkers are rarely looking for smaller beers. If a brewery offers a luscious bitter, redolent of nuts, toast, and pine, alongside an average IPA, people will uniformly go for the IPA. I don't have a huge problem with this, because local preferences are what guide the emergence of local beer culture. (They don't drink oud bruins in Germany not because oud bruins aren't good, but because people like lagers.) C'est la vie.

However! On cask, everything changes. That same bitter--subdued, subtle, and just too staid for hopheads--will be a totally different beer on cask. The hops will sing, the malts will be rich and balanced, and even hopheads would find it satisfying. And interestingly, many huge beers don't fare so well on cask. Often even exceptional big beers seem muddy and average when you switch them to cask. Where cask allows a smaller beer the room to swing its elbows and open up, these bigger beers are already at the maximum flavor--opening these up makes them lose focus and seem muddy and indistinct. (That's not uniformly true. Cask ales are a witchy business, and I think breweries just have to put their beers on cask and see whether they work.)

All of which brings us--at long last!--to the Firkin Fest. Nearly all the beers there were huge and/or hop monsters. I congratulate Hopworks for sending a mild ale, the perfect choice for a cask fest, and also the host Green Dragon, which brewed up a minerally bitter specially for the event. The mild was murky and smelled of swamp (later, I saw Ben Love, who conceded that they may have overdone the finings), but was a lovely beer once it reached the tongue. Full of flavor, nicely balanced, springy hop character. The bitter was sadly heavy on the tannin side. And Deschutes, which has long been great about producing wonderful cask ales, including Bachelor Bitter, sent Twilight, which was delightful. Far more richly flavored than the (also tasty) version you get in the bottle.

But beyond that, there were few beers I could see that had been designed to really pop on cask. I think there were 17 firkins, and I bet there were at least a half dozen IPAs. Lots of breweries, in fact, just sent cask versions of regular beers. Beer Valley, which actually produces a mild ale, sent a blended cask of their imperial pale and imperial stout. (Even Ted Sobel of all-cask Brewers Union brought a strange duck--his Ardennes-yeasted Cascadian dark ale. Fortunately, I got a pint of 5.2% pale at Belmont Station the night before--and it was fantastic.)

I hope next year breweries take the opportunity to brew up a firkin or two of beer specifically for the event and take advantage of the opportunity to brew a beer that will shine on cask. This event could help spark at least a robust niche of cask fiends if the beers expressed their innate cask-i-tude.

It's always important to include caveats, and so here's mine. The best beer I tried at the fest, and it was the best by a long shot, was an IPA. A dry-hopped version of Double Mountain's IRA. Holy crap, was that a fantastic beer. The malts were toasty and honeyed, and the hops ... words fail. What a beer.

So there you go: cask ale is great with smaller beers because it allows the subtle nuances to come out, except when a beer like dry-hopped IRA comes along, and then it's the best. That's my final word.


  1. Jeff - you are a kinder man than me. I actually thought HUB's mild smelled like a Honey Bucket (I overheard another imbiber say it smelled like 'farts') and I do agree that it tasted better than it smelled. However, with a nose that bad and that strong I couldn't give it even a passing grade on taste. Spot on with Double Mountain's dry hopped IRA and I quite enjoyed Beer Valley's blend. Upright's Anniversay Farmhouse with Apricots was also a nice change of pace from all the hop bombs. Overall a good event, but no where near the quality or size of the Real Ale Fest that Ray Daniels used to put on in Chicago. That one hasn't been held in many years though.

  2. A comment I would seek opinion on is this: "Every brewer I speak to, speaks both of ingredients, but also of the yeast... and say that the yeast and its style makes up at least half the flavor profile. Yet, in reviews I never hear mention of the yeast variety."

    Am I off base? Is this a missing link? Does it matter?

  3. I had two problems with the fest...none of the beers were beers that benefit from being served on cask. And none of the beers were real ales. What a waste, really. I agree it all goes back to small beers, and people don't seem to want small beers.

    That being said, I'm w/Scott. My faves were the Double Mtn. IRA and Upright's apricot anniversary beer.

  4. Sorry about using too much isinglass to fine the beer (never going to do that again).

    Come give it another try, this Thursday the 22nd (Earth Day), when we release it at the pub... fining free.

  5. I had my eight tickets and ended up spending two on the Double Mountain. Man was that good. But I was looking forward to a host of small beers and was disappointed. But you never know, Ninkasi's super bomb Tricerahops on cask is a marvel (and a lot better than Believer which was at the fest).

    I think HUBs was nice after it got passed the sniffer. Ben, you are on, would love to taste the isinglass free version I think it will be a perfect cask beer.

    Okay Jeff, so how about organizing the first annual Portland Small Beer Fest!

  6. Motto: "Small is Beautiful"

    My little inside economics joke...

  7. @Niki: I know that at least three of the casks contained real ale, as I brought them up myself. For one thing, that's all we do here, and I know that Block 15 and Eugene City are duplicating the process as I passed it on to them.

    I had toyed with the idea of bringing up a session beer this year. Last year they let me bring two, and I had a 4.6% stout and a 3.5% bitter, but the Belgian Cascadian Dark Rye was one of those rare one-offs that I though would be fun to bring up to Portland for those that didn't make it to the KLCC Microbrew Festival in February. (And it does benefit from being on cask - we tried it both ways).

  8. Thanks for explaining the assets of cask conditioning. Sounds like casking really brings out the subtle nuances of standard ales and really doesn't benefit big or over hopped abominations. Maybe someone should have explained the assets of cask conditioning to these brewers?

  9. I finally got around to writing up Firkin Fest on It's Pub Night.

    Yeah, that Twilight was good stuff; I also liked the Green Dragon bitter. Wonder why Rock Bottom and Full Sail weren't there. They had two of my faves last year.

  10. Thanks for doing a round up on the fest. Despite a lot of people's complaints, I felt it was nicely done9sure a few tweeks could be made). and @Niki, you can make it at least 4 real ales(I'm certain there were more). Oakshire's was pulled directly off the fermenter, some priming sugar, finings and a little bag of whole leaf hops were placed in the cask prior to bunging and conditioning. Unless you have a different definition of "real ale"?? My other concern is the concern for too many ipas. That might be the first I've heard that sentence in Oregon! I think an IPA is a great beer to put in a cask. Sure, the subtlties of a British Mild are outstanding, but the different flavors and aromas that come from a beer served on cask vs. force carbonated are different and fun to compare. one last note, I think a lot of brewers, Oakshire included, would love to brew a batch just for this fest, but without doing regular cask beer, not owning a firkin (I borrowed from Rogue to make it happen), and getting the heads up about a month to a month and a half prior to the event makes it hard to free a tank from the production schedule for a beer that will fill 35 casks when complete. I think using a beer that IS in regular production is a neat compare/contrast to what comes out on cask. That's why I go right for the real ale at Horsebarss, to see how it compares to a beer I've already had that is force carbed. anyway, my two cents. I'll be back next year, I hope you will too! (and I hope I get another choco bacon bar!)

  11. Harry J Sanger, III5:46 PM, April 20, 2010

    Nice post Jeff. I did not make it to this year's festival but I left last year with a similar impression. Cask beer is not a strength of NW (esp. Portland) brewers. Ted needs to come up here more often and whip us into shape! We need to see some improvement as cask offers unique perspectives into our favorite beverage. While there are establishments in town offering hand pulls and "cask" beer, sometimes these are nothing more than under-carbonated kegs. I feel it is important for Oregon to raise our real ale IQ.

  12. Settle down there, gentlemen! OK, OK, I get it!

    But I'll have to be frank when I say that it wasn't easy to tell that they were real ales. And now that I think about it, it all comes back to style. Many packed a hop wallop that, to me at least, seemed unsuitable for being served on cask.

    And I will definitely be driving out to Brewer's Union soon!