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Cask Days By The Numbers

It’s fairly easy to take an annual event like Cask Days for granted, but since this is the eighth anniversary, I thought I’d show you something pretty neat about the development of the festival. It’s mostly interesting because it mirrors the development of the Ontario beer scene almost directly.

2005:

Cask Days starts up. Initial online buzz suggests that there will be 12 casks. This rapidly expands to 21 as brewers realize that they can get in on the action. All of the beers are from Ontario, which is not surprising. Looking at the list, the most adventurous offerings are Scotch Irish Sgt Major and barrel aged versions of Black Oak Nut Brown and Granite Peculiar. There was also a Trafalgar Abbey Ale.

It was pretty representative of what was happening in Ontario at the time. This is to say that while there were some solid offerings from F&M and Wellington and a number of the usual suspects, no one was really breaking any ground, except for the fact that there were a lot of casks in one place. That was novel.

Timeframe: 2 days, 1 session each day

2006:

This is where things start to happen. Those shocking new upstarts from Beau’s are in attendance. It’s the first year that homebrewers are involved in the form of Biergotter. It’s also the first time that Dieu Du Ciel is available on cask in Ontario.

In terms of Ontario breweries, it gets slightly more interesting. George Eagleson made a Pear Ginger Oatmeal Stout I wish I had gotten to try (George makes some great stuff when he gets weird.) The event features an Imperial IPA from Scotch Irish and a couple of Imperial Stouts.

While it is getting more interesting, there are still only 25 casks. Clearly, it hasn’t quite caught on yet in the public imagination. You’d still be happy with the lineup today if it were at any other pub.

Timeframe:  1 day, split into 2 sessions

2007:

The year mirrors 2005 more closely than 2006. For the first time, a beer from another country is served in the form of Fuller’s ESB. There are 29 casks, but this is partially because there are now more breweries. Grand River makes its debut (worth mentioning because Mill Race Mild is a great cask beer). A solid event, but no one is crushing the ball.

Timeframe: 2 days, split into 4 sessions

2008:

Bigger than the previous year by half, we’re back into adventurous territory. Church Key has a Purple Loosestrife Mead, which hits like a hammer and a Tobacco Road version of their Holy Smoke that I remember swilling in some quantity. There are a number of breweries participating for the first time, including Amsterdam, Barley Days and others. Great Lakes is starting to produce a number of casks. Fuller’s remains a constant. 44 casks.

Timeframe: 3 days, split into 5 sessions

2009:

This is the first year that the branding takes on its now iconic look, which is due to the design expertise of Tomas Morana (seriously, go back and look at the event materials over the last five years and tell me the guy hasn’t developed a unique style.) No longer content with merely having some casks on a patio on the weekend, Cask Days stretches to a week. While the main event still takes place Friday-Sunday, there is a pregame event throughout the week with 22 casks and a Thursday night recap of the first IPA Challenge. This brings the total number of casks to 72.

The selection has grown to the point that it now has to be separated on the patio into Ontario regions. While there are many highlights from Ontario, the key feature is the addition of casks from Benelux, Dieu Du Ciel and Hopfenstark (with Fred in attendance, looking a bit swashbuckler-y.)

Timeframe: Oct 26-Nov 2

2010:

No longer content with a single week, Cask Days expands to a month long moveable feast which roams from Vankleek Hill to Cambridge. The pre-event features 19 casks in the English style. The Thursday features the two previous winners of the IPA challenge. The main event features 53 casks.

High on their success as a nanobrewery, Volo has 8 beers (this was before the House Ales branding) all of which are more interesting than anything offered in 2005. In addition, there are now five participating Quebec breweries. The highlight is Mike Lackey’s Triple IPA, which I seem to remember being called Tennish Anyone. My friend Vanessa threatens him with violence if he doesn’t brew it again.

Timeframe: Oct 1- Nov 1

2011:

No longer content with the space available at Bar Volo, Cask Days relocates to Hart House, which is a much larger venue, capable of holding something like 500 people. More breweries than ever before take part as a result of the increased space.

The pre-event lineup during the week has 19 casks and six Fuller’s beers are featured on the Friday night. The country is represented from coast to coast, making this the first truly national beer festival. Quebec ‘s section has expanded to include almost as many beers as the entirety of 2005’s entire festival. Fuller’s has a booth of their own, as does Niagara College.

The total number of beers available exceeds 100

2012:

No longer content with the space available at Hart House, Cask Days relocates to The Brickworks, which is a much larger venue, capable of holding a small army.

The pre-event lineup is legitimately the size of the 2005 version of cask days. Half Pints has its own event on Thursday night (Humulus Ludicrous, people. Go get it.) The main event features 110 casks from across the country including three gluten free options. There is an entire section for Pumpkin beers. There is an entire section for Collaboration beers. Authors will be signing books. There will be DJs. At this point, it’s a face-painting booth away from graduating from beer fest to carnival

Total number of casks is 132

Look at this graph:

Clearly, we should all be very, very afraid.

Cask Days has average growth of about a third (1.32011) since it started in 2005. This means, if I am extrapolating correctly, that by the year 2017 Cask Days will last the entire season of autumn, feature 544 casks including some from upstart brewers in Venezuela, and will take place in the newly annexed borough of Morana Downs (formerly East York).

I, for one, welcome our new Cask beer overlords. If you haven’t bought a ticket for this year’s event yet, you should. You want to stay on Ralph’s good side.

Cask Days @ Hart House

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.

The bells! The bells!

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.

Should have sent a poet.

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.

George Eagleson: Urban Cowboy

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.

Local Hat Enthusiast Greg Earp

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.

I wasn't going to include this picture, but I did because of tokenism.

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.

Gordo thought he got out of frame. Gordo was wrong.

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.”

"Hey, what can we call this beer? It needs to be wholesome enough to play in Peoria....I've got it. 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.

Don't open the tap all the way. Important safety tip, Egon.

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.

Looking at this picture, I'm seriously considering taking bets on whether Sam Corbeil owns a waterbed and attends key parties.

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.