In Ralph Morana’s ever expanding quest to take over the beer world, Cask Days 2011 has to be seen as a massive success. That being said, it wasn’t without gambles. Any time you move a beer festival to an outdoor location, you face a number of variables that are beyond your control. The truth is that it all came together perfectly this year.
One of the things I use to gauge the success of a cask festival is how the English ex-pats think of it. These are people, after all, who get back across the pond periodically to enjoy real ale festivals that are generally much larger than those we have in Canada. This year Cask Days actually managed to put blissful looks on their faces, and I talked to three or four ex-pats who lauded the thing as being a “proper festival.”
There were a number of things that helped to pull this off. The first is the setting. Hart House lends an air of sophistication to a beer festival. People tend to behave themselves when you put them in a massive university courtyard in a way that they wouldn’t necessarily do in other places. Perhaps it was the imposing nature of the structure or the nearly surreal carillon ringing from the bell tower that had this calming effect. At least during the first session, no one got out of hand.
One of the key ingredients in this success was the massive variety of beer on offer. There were 82 separate casks, which is amazing when you consider the genesis of the event. When I started going to Cask Days four years ago, there might have been something like 40, and they would all have been from Ontario. The fact that this event has expanded to include BC, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and England is no small feat. Think about the amount of organization that it must take to get that many brewers on the phone, let alone to get them to ship casks of their beer out to coincide with the last week in October. Astounding.
The other thing that worked to everyone’s benefit was the fact that it was cold. It was, for me anyway, just about the right temperature to be serving cask ale at. I know that some folks seem to like it at eight or nine degrees Celsius, but I prefer it at around six, chill haze be damned. It’s going to warm up in your hands anyway, so I feel like having the flavours open up in front of you is a good thing.
People dressed up for the weather, in windbreakers and parkas and a surprising number of cowboy hats. Many people fought to find a place on the north side of the quad so that they could stand in the sun and warm up. This is just enough adversity to create a shared experience. It’s not so much adversity that it becomes the focal point of the day. It would be hard, for example to properly enjoy cask ale in a lifeboat after listening to the band play Nearer My God To Thee while this ship goes down. It would, however, create a sense of community, at least until the cannibalism set in.
The branding on all of the material involved with the festival was excellent, and most of the credit for this goes to Tomas Morana, who has become something of a savant in terms of graphic design. At some point before the festival, he took the time to design tokens with the event logo on them. These are so vastly an improvement on having paper tickets in your pocket that I don’t know where to begin. In the old days, they used to issue strips of paper with little dotted lines on them so you knew where to tear the tickets. Try finding a single ticket in one of your many pockets after you’ve sampled 14 quarter pints of beer. The tokens are a stroke of genius.
Perhaps most impressive was the fact that I didn’t end up drain pouring a single beer. In previous years there have always been one or two beers that I tried that I couldn’t get through despite the fact that the sample might have been five ounces. The leap in quality is tremendous. The brewers are now taking this seriously, and by trial and error over the course of the last seven years most of them have learned how to properly cask beers.
Somehow, both the Central City Red Racer Citra Pale Ale and the Storm Fresh Hop IPA survived the voyage from BC and were excellent. One would have thought that the Trois Mousquetaires Barrel Aged Baltic Porter would have stolen the show in the Quebec tent, but Dunham’s Oak Aged Cranberry Ale was magnificent; tart, with that hint of wood that aids the mouthfeel. I suspect that it may have been bolstered by a touch of wild yeast. All I know is that Dunham clearly bears watching.
Niagara College put forth a good effort, and our booth was manned by Gord Slater, who is pictured here in a very dapper hat which was provided by Don Cherry’s Burlington Glamour line of couture (there is the distinct possibility I will be expelled for this joke). The Bultersberg Barley Wine was very good and I feel as though the other beers benefitted from dry hopping. Niagara students Austin Roach and Andrew Bartle collaborated with Volo’s House Ales to create Gold Dust, which was a solid attempt at an American style Porter.
Ontario actually measured up to the other provinces. Mike Lackey from Great Lakes created a 100% Brett IPA which I imagine will take the best name prize: Fangboner. Yes, it’s a silly name. Try saying it aloud in a high pitched voice, or singing it to the tune of goldfinger. It also created an awkward situation when you were being served by one of the girls manning the booth. “Excuse me young lady, could I trouble you for a Fangboner? What’s that? No, just a quarter pint Fangboner. This is the Fangboner? Great. Here’s your token. Fangboner.”
Cameron’s continues to do interesting things. Apparently their There Is No Dana, Only Zuur Sour is the result of months of barrel aging. It was tasty. The only legitimate criticism I have for it is that the beer is that it didn’t really peak at any point on the palate; one flavour all the way through. Good beer, though and it gets high marks on the Venkman Quotient.
Best of all though was Sawdust City’s I Swear, Sugarpants, It Was Your Idea. I didn’t think much of Sawdust City’s first offering. I think the ingredient from every province thing they did with Great Weiss North was gimmicky and a little busy on the palate. I don’t think anyone knew enough of the ingredients to be able to pick them out. This, on the other hand, was marvelous. It’s a brown ale with coffee malt and lactose brewed with a sort of garam masala chai steep that was added as a flavour addition at the end of the boil. It tasted like a chai latte. I don’t actually like chai, and this was excellent. More than that, it was exciting. I don’t know exactly how he pulled it off and made the flavours work together, but he did.
This was the best Cask Days event ever. Make no mistake, it will probably be even better next year. I have only two regrets:
1) We trampled the Hart House quad’s lawn pretty badly. Some landscaper is going to be pissed.
2) Instead of sampling more beers, at some point I decided to use four tokens to buy a pint of Dieu Du Ciel Aphrodisiaque on cask.
Actually, that second one probably isn’t a regret.