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.