Growing pains were to be expected at this year’s edition of the Cask Days festival. The event was making a big jump in size, from two sessions at Hart House to three at the Brick Works. Hart House and barVolo, where the festival was held for the first six years, were easy to access by public transit, had all the necessary amenities already built in (kitchens, washrooms) and had experience getting large groups of people in for ticketed beer events. (Yes, the Brick Works was home to the Brewer’s Backyard, but that was not ticketed.) As always, the weather is an uncontrollable unknown and proved to be bothersome this year. Some hiccups were expected and would be tolerated for those who have attended the festival religiously for years.
The part that worried me the most was getting back and forth from the Brick Works, but the shuttle buses were frequent and there was never a logjam of people waiting for one. I used them for all three sessions and had no problems. The Brick Works itself was a great venue for the festival – the kilns were a beautiful backdrop and provided a poetic undertone to a festival that is all about helping to promote and preserve a traditional method of serving beer. Though the rain was steady during the two afternoon sessions, most of the casks (and attendees) were covered from the weather. (Two stations were covered by tarps and involved a sprint through the rain to reach them.) Food vendors were spread out in pockets and a small but well curated art selection hung on a wall behind the Ontario casks. Casks filled with water were placed liberally through the venue and staff were diligently refilling them and taking away the rinse buckets. One small quibble was the washrooms – not a whole lot inside the Brick Works and only two port-a-potties added inside, which were tucked out of site. I understand why more weren’t added – presumably for aesthetic reasons, because those things are damn ugly, though maybe it wasn’t allowed – but hopefully some sort of fix can be figured out for next year.
The big problem, as everyone probably knows by now, is that the casks started running out sooner than expected. They stopped serving some during the first session and then over half ran dry during the evening. A number of new casks were brought in for the last session and ticket holders were offered $10 back or an extra four beer tokens, but obviously some people were still upset. I can’t really comment on the fairness of the scenario (in the interest of open blogging, it should be stated that I was given access to all sessions as I now write for the Cask Days blog), but it was obviously an unfortunate situation. That being said, there were still roughly sixty casks available for the last session, which is still an incredible number and more than any one person could try in an afternoon. Some good finds were still available (the Parallel 49 Gyparillo Red IPA was a great English style IPA and the House Ales Raving Ghouls Double IPA was a delicious new addition) and there was definitely more of a relaxed atmosphere from the really busy Saturday sessions.
Okay, so it’s probably time we talked about the beers. (You’re probably saying, “Finally! It’s only taken 500 words!”) Obviously I tried a sampling of the 100+ on offer. I took some recommendations, fell on a couple of grenades and generally drank what I wanted when I wanted to. There were a couple of big hits, lots of good beers and a couple of duds. Here is a random selection of mental notes:
- Le Trou du Diable Mactavish in Memoriam: Great big citrus hop aroma, but the finish was a little too empty.
- Half Pints Smoktoberfest: Not a huge smoked malt component, but enough to make it a delectably chewy beer on a cool evening. Didn’t think a Rauchbier would hold up well on cask, but it did.
- F&M Wurst Idea Ever: This is the grenade I was talking about. Smelled like sewage. Tried to taste it without smelling the beer, but that proved to be impossible. I love brussel sprouts and the fact that this beer is doing them further injustice makes me hate it even more.
- Great Lakes X Toronto Brewing Curried Spiced Pumpkin Ale: A good idea in theory, but the curry was just too strong (and spicy). Just had a taste of my wife’s, but kept smelling the curry in her glass through the next sample. (And yes, that was even after a rinse.)
- Central City Red Racer ESB: Not a sexy or new option, but a tasty ESB with a large dose of West Coast hops.
- Bellwoods Hellwoods w/Cherries: This was a popular recommendation, but I may have been the one person that wasn’t a huge fan. Just too sweet for me.
- Alexander Keith’s #217: Tried a sip of someone’s sample. My joke was, “Oh, that’s what Keith’s tastes like before it is watered down.” Kudos to them for sending a cask into a no-win situation.
- Les Vergers De La Colline Rouge Dolgo Cider: The exact opposite of the Hellwoods was this sour cider from Quebec. It tasted like a super sour kriek, but was still distinctly a cider. Face puckeringly good.
- Amsterdam Full City Tempest: One of the other big recommendations that I got during the first session. My opinion going into the day was that the unadulterated Tempest was best (I’ve had barrel aged versions and one with cocoa nibs), but this beer made me retract that statement. Not that it’s necessarily better, but I think the perfect complement to the flavours has been found in coffee beans. It was by far my favourite of the weekend – great body, wonderful smell and a taste that leaves you speechless and grinning like an idiot.
I could go on like this for some time, but those are just a selection of thoughts and highlights from a wonderful two days of drinking cask beers. The food was all amazing and a definite step up from the normal beer festival choices. It is easy to picture the food becoming a big draw, especially for people that are only marginally into beer or don’t know about cask beers. Though it might not have been as noticeable during the first and third sessions due to a higher amount of industry presence, the Saturday evening was definitely filled with a lot of people newer to the world of cask and craft beer. (Overheard beside me at one point: “What do you think a Double IPA is?”) If you think that at least 3,000 people went through the festival, a good portion of those may not have experienced a cask beer before.
Cask Days is a great beer festival, no doubt the best in Ontario, but the amazing part is how rapidly it has moved from barVolo to Hart House to the Brick Works. A few people may complain that it was more intimate at Volo, but the fact is that Cask Days is now at a point where it can reach a lot of new beer drinkers in one swoop. Now thousands of beer drinkers are exposed to cask beer in a single weekend, which can only help grow the movement. Even with the wet weather it was a great weekend and I really hope that Cask Days returns to the Brick Works next year, because the space is phenomenal. Thanks to the Morana’s, the staff, volunteers and everyone else involved for a great weekend!