Okay, so there’s a lot of stuff I wanted to include in yesterday’s post about Cask Days but didn’t for various reasons. I tried to have that be about the basic who/what/where of the festival and general impressions of the beers, but lots of other ideas came up during the weekend that didn’t fit within the scope of what I was writing. So here is a smorgasbord of random thoughts:
1) Beer Styles on Offer: The beers served at Cask Days are pretty much out of the organizer’s hands (with the exception of some of the House Ales beers). Ontario breweries know the event will be taking place in the same period every year and can plan what beer to showcase. Sometimes they get multiple chances to highlight their brewery (one at the Ontario booth, more if they had a collaboration or pumpkin beer), but most only have a single beer to woo drinkers. When over a hundred beers are available, that one beer had better get people’s attention. Cask Days also adds an extra wrinkle compared to most event because the beers are not served by brewery representatives. No one is there to explain your beer – the name and style must tell attendees everything they need to know.
This partially explains why some of the breweries are trying to out-crazy one another. Adding spices to beer was popular this year (chai, curry, masala, and chipotle, to name a few), which may be attributed to experimentation or cries for attention (probably a mix of both). Everyone was talking about the F&M Wurst Idea Ever, which is great in a way but can also backfire when the beer is a bust (or, in the case of the Wurst Idea Ever, an epic failure).
Unfortunately, the push to get noticed also works against anyone trying to make a traditional cask ale. Notice the lack of English IPAs and milds this year. There were some English IPAs and ESBs, but it is hard for even the best English-style ale to compete against American IPAs and Imperial Stouts (which proved to be very popular this year thanks to great entries from a number of breweries). I’m curious to see if this will become a trend in the next couple of years.
2) The Subjectivity of Beer Tasting: I spent a lot of Saturday talking to people about what beers they liked and what they hated. It was amazing how much people had differing opinions. Sometimes that is to be expected with some of the more adventuresome beers, especially when it comes to the level of spiciness in a chipotle or curry beer. (Not everyone loves some heat to their beer, regardless of how intense.) But the wide ranging opinions on the IPAs, ESBs and experimental beers were quite interesting. While some beers were good or bad by popular consensus, others brought a wide range of opinion.
This shouldn’t surprise me, but it still does in many ways. I always expect popular opinion to generally swing in one direction, but people’s opinions seemed to be all over the place. It might help that Cask Days operates in a sort of vacuum – most beers are new, so people can’t drink a beer with any expectations or preconceived notions of its quality. This differs from a lot of other times, when a collective narrative gets formed about a beer (either through Twitter comments, blog reviews, Ratebeer/Beer Advocate, Bar Towel, etc) and sort of forces most people into the same opinion. (If you disagree, pay attention to comments about the Muskoka Twice As Mad Tom and Great Lakes Imperial Black IPA over the next two weeks.) Perhaps the widely differing reviews over a lot of beers are a result of not having a consensus to gauge our opinions against. The exceptions were the Imperial Stouts from Flying Monkeys, Bellwoods, Amsterdam and Great Lakes – the beer geeks were loving these beers for the most part. (My opinion on the Hellwoods is one exception.)
3) Booth Popularity: An intriguing twist to Cask Days is that it has become the one opportunity to compare beers from across the country. Yes, Ontario has by far the greatest selection, but there are casks from almost every other province. Quebec was particularly well represented once again, especially with the Trou du Diable feature booth. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see people clamoring for Central City, Dieu Du Ciel or any other cask from outside of Ontario, but the local beers seemed to be the most popular.
The Imperial Stouts mentioned above went really quickly, as did the Niagara Oast House Belgian IPA (no surprise as it was the first chance for many to try this brewery). I’m not trying to pit provinces against each other in terms of which was best – Canadians need to support our craft breweries across the country – but just pointing out that people were excited and eager to try what the Ontario craft breweries had to offer. Yes, the placement of the Ontario booths may have helped, but it seems that people are really starting to respect what the more adventurous craft breweries are producing. I tip my hat to all those breweries helping to raise the bar in Ontario.