In the week leading up to Cask Days it became apparent that a lot of people (friends, co-workers, family) had no idea what cask-conditioned beer was or that it even existed. Anytime someone asked about my plans for the weekend the discussion inevitably turned into a long explanation of cask beer and why it was so special. Just in case there are still any newbs out there on the interwebs, let’s go over what exactly cask beer is before I talk about my first Cask Days experience. For starters, cask ale (also known as real ale) differs from most commercial beers in that it is unfiltered (leading to delicious yeast floaties and the occasional hop appearing in your glass) and unpasteurized (but in no way unhealthy when properly stored and served). Cask-conditioned beers have no added carbonation, leading it to be improperly labeled as “flat” beer – there is carbonation, but in a much smaller level compared to most beers. Cask beers are usually served at cellar temperatures, giving rise to the other big myth that it is “warm” beer. The reason Cask Days happens near the end of October is that the cool temperature outside keeps them at the perfect temperature and helps prevent them from spoiling over the course of the weekend. The final requirement is the yeast that was previously mentioned, letting the beer undergo a secondary fermentation in the cask and creating a live ale (perfect for Hallowe’en and drunk people yelling, “It’s alive!”). And now you’re all caught up.
This year Cask Days was actually a series of events spread out over the month of October and throughout the province, everything leading up to the main event this weekend. Over forty casks were available, both inside of Bar Volo and spilling out onto the patio. Almost every craft brewer in Ontario had a cask present, plus a number of guest casks from Quebec brewers (Dieu du Ciel!, Let Trois Mousquetaires, Benelux, Hopfenstark) and a line of Volo house collaborations. The event was split up between eight sessions, most of which were for four hours. Cask Days glasses ($5) were mandatory, in part because they had a line denoting quarter- ($2), half- ($4) and full-pints ($8). With so many casks to sample, most people stick to quarter pints to sample as much as possible and then end a session with a larger amount of their favourite beer. The regulated session times and availability of different pint sizes makes Cask Days a sampling festival rather than a drunk fest, where the aim is to try and enjoy a wide selection of beers without feeling the ravages of alcohol. Of course a lot of people got tickets for back-to-back sessions, but who are we to judge. Even I sampled a little too much this weekend, but it was all for the sake or journalism.
Soph and I got tickets for the Brewers Brunch on Saturday morning, which started with a lovely feast of bacon, potatoes, mini-frittatas, croissants, cheese and Scotch eggs(!). I was wary of the eggs at first (easy to understand when you’re looking at a hard-boiled egg that is covered with ground meat, coated with bread crumbs and then deep-friend – at 10am, no less), but they were absolutely delicious. My expectation was something greasy and heavy, which they were not. The large breakfast was a great way to fortify the stomach before an afternoon of drinking (sorry, sampling). Saturday was also the birthday of Ralph Morana, owner of Volo and mastermind of Cask Days, adding a celebratory note to the weekend. Lots of brewers were also on hand (hence Brewers Brunch), giving a great opportunity to talk to them about the casks they brought and what made them special. It could also make for an afternoon of awkward drinking, one that you spend pretending to like their beer when all you want to do is pour the rest out and wash your mouth with soap. But luckily that never happened.
An amazing aspect of the Cask Days festival is that the overall level of quality of the beer is really high. Aside from a few duds from the usual suspects (you know who you are), most beers were top-notch. Asking people what beers they liked became rather tedious as they started to list off almost every beer they drank. It was common to get a response of, “Normally I’d love this beer, but today it’s only the eighth or ninth best I’ve had.” Even better was the fact that most were one-offs or special casks made specifically for the event, meaning that you were trying a beer that was really special.
A dirty secret of mine was that this was my first Cask Days, caused by a combination of not living in Toronto or being a poor student. To be honest, Cask Days is not a cheap festival. Most tickets were $15, which only gets you in the door. Then you’ve got to buy your glass and tickets, which brings the cost of one session the approximate price of other beer events in the city. But the large number of casks means you need to do at least two sessions to try everything, meaning buying everything but the glass again. The weekend is arguably the biggest beer event in Toronto for craft beer junkies but I couldn’t appreciate why or justify the cost until I had seen it for myself. Cask Days is definitely worth what you spend, not just for the great beers but also because it brings together so many like-minded beer people.
I would be remiss to end the post before talking about some of the memorable beers that I sampled over the weekend. The most creative beers were the Volo/St. Andre parti-gyle collaborations. The parti-gyle brewing technique is when a stronger beer is made, then the same grains are reused to make a smaller table beer. The Jobs 2.1 was the small beer, a tea-like English bitter filled with an herbal punch. The Wozniak 2.0 was a very sessionable strong ale, full of a fruity pear beginning and spicy, dry finish. The link between the two was noticeable, but they did not taste like two versions of the same beer. The Wozniak definitely went down as one of my favourite beers of the fest. The beer that attracted the most comments during Cask Days was the F & M Stonehammer Beta Red (pictured), a beet beer with a distinct rose hue. In a sea of dark ales, this beer really stood out. A nice candied nose, but not the tastiest of drinks (though also not the worst beat beer I’ve had). The Dieu du Ciel! Péché Mortel on cask reignited my love affair with the otherworldly imperial coffee stout from Quebec. The Great Lakes Tenish Anyone? Triple IPA was another big conversation piece, which happens when an Ontario brewer makes a beer that is 10% ABV and 100+ IBU. Lots of people loved it, but it just seemed okay to me – put it beside a well made American IIPA and the Tenish would seem too resiny. I will give Great Lakes credit for having the gusto to make the beer (a very expensive beer, according to someone from the brewery) and doing a fine job of it.
Two flavour twists (Hockley Coconut Cream Pie and Cameron’s Double Jack and Coke) were both pretty close to what their names promised, minus the cream pie of the former. The Black Oak Nutcracker Porter was in fine form, cascading nicely in the glass and making me wish for Christmas day. A nice respite to the oomph of porters and stouts was the Cheshire Valley Mild, another fine English ale from Paul Dickey. All of the other Volo collaborations I had were quite The biggest disappointment was the Les Trois Mousquetaires Dry Hopped Porter Baltique 2010. Lots of people were raving about it on Friday, but by Saturday morning it was too sweet for me. This is usually a phenomenal beer, but this is the nature of cask ales – one day they’re great, the next day it is a completely different beer.
It is hard to sum of Cask Days without excessive use of hyperbole, because it really exceeded my expectations. Ralph, Tomas and everyone else in the Volo family put on a great week and deserve all the praise they get for being so influential in the Toronto beer world. But remember that cask beer needs to be supported all-year round, so head to Volo and try some real ale.