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Cask Days 2013

Two years ago I went to my very first beer festival at Hart House, part of the University of Toronto campus. It featured, if I recall correctly, somewhere around 50 casks, mostly from Ontario, and the reception was impressive with several hundred people showing up. This was the first time the festival had expanded from the patio of barVolo, where they started it all in 2005 and things were looking promising.

Fast forward to last weekend and Cask Days 2013 boasted 4,500 attendees and 230 casks from 124 different breweries from all over the country with a highlight of the UK as well. All spread out over 2 days and three sessions at the MASSIVE and beautiful Evergreen Brickworks.

I think I have whiplash from how fast things have developed and grown in only two years.

The Morana family have really done amazingly in bringing forth events that continue to welcome new members in to the world of craft beer while still making the beer geek’s cynical heart beat a little faster with anticipation. This event was huge, amazing and was filled with some incredible larger representation from other provinces, which highlighted the evergrowing popularity of beer.

The 230 casks allowed for more diversity than ever this year, featuring an eclectic selection of mild and strong of all different styles. There were Sours, English Browns, ESBs, Chocolate Stouts, and even Ciders all at the ready. It should be noted that this year’s glass design was certainley unique in that it was well…a mason jar. It no doubt appealed to younger festival goers and brought on a bit of nostalgia for the older folks who drank out of mason jars before it became so popular in the Williamsburg Era we currently live in. It served as a lovely sample glass and very unique souvenir that stands out among the many festival glasses one gets. I for one am looking forward to getting a lid for it and doing some beer-based pickling!

Moranas, you’ve done it again. That was truly an unforgettable festival experience.

And now on to my selected highlights:

Arran Dark Brown Ale – Isle of Arran Brewery – United Kingdom – This…this really took me to my happy place. Whenever I try a Brown Ale I expect a certain flavour. Rich, mild, warming, slight fruit taste with a dry finish at the end. This beer had it all and was a wonderful experience. I could honestly have had that all day and be perfectly content.

Storm Imperial Flanders Red – Storm Brewing – British Columbia – This ended up being the talk of Session 1. A bit on the acidic side, but wonderful tart notes and a sweet finish with a beautiful, complex aroma,

Grand River Beetified Bohemian Beet Beer – Grand River Brewing – Ontario – A unique beer that I really enjoyed and was a surprise coming from Grand River, who normally make some pretty standard beers. Of course the colour was a nice, deep red, but the aroma was nice and earthy and the taste was a whole whack of beets with a nice hoppy finish that made it a comfortable treat.

Jaffa Cake Brown Ale – Hockley Brewing – Ontario – While I do hesitate to put it in the highlights, as it was pretty watered down and light on flavour, I have to give points for originality and actually getting down the taste of a delicious Jaffa Cake. I would have liked to have tasted more though, instead of a whisp of Jaffa Cake and a quick exit.

Proper Job Export IPA – St. Austell Brewery– United Kingdom – Really glad I tried this one. A simple, but warm and inviting IPA that hugged me like an old relative I hadn’t seen in a while. Slight notes of caramel malts with hints of citrus and pine.

El Jaguar Imperial Stout with Chocolate & Chilies – Amsterdam Brewery – Ontario – While an absolute beast at 14% ABV, it had lots of amazing chocolate flavours along with a really nice, ever so slight heat at the back with the chilies that crept up on you after a sip. Definitely a good winter warmer.

And that was only a few of a much larger list.

An incredible event that just seems to get better each year. I already can’t wait to see what next year will be like.

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Cask Days 2012

Have to say, that was one enjoyable Cask Days.

Some quirks were expected, as the festival moved from the smaller Hart House to the bigger and better Evergreen Brick Works and added on an extra third session. The biggest problem was that nearly half of the 100 or so casks went empty at the third and final session, but the festival made up for it by bringing in new casks and offering $10 in cash or beer tokens to people attending.

I wasn’t around for that one, though. I went to the first session which went as smoothly as possible. The Brick Works offered amazing shelter from the rain, the delicious food was ready to go (the cured meat plate was my saviour), all the beers advertised were available (though some went quicker than others because of word of mouth) and I ended up having a lot of fun by trying new and weird beers, talking to brewers and other beer writers (some of which I’ve previously only spoken with on twitter) and chatting with strangers by comparing notes, making suggestions and in one case singing along with them to Wu-Tang’s C.R.E.A.M. Definitely a different experience from my time last year and I think, tiny tweaks to be made aside, BarVolo, the organizers of Cask Days, have matched the festival with the expectations and growing popularity of craft beer.

And now on to some of the highlight beers from the 25 or so that I sampled…

FAVOURITES:

Flying Monkeys Mark Henry Sexual Chocolate Triple Take Down Stout – Yes, that’s what they called it. This was quite a dangerous drink, as it tasted like the best chocolate milk I’ve ever had and at about 12% ABV…damn. Amazing.

R&B Brewing Cucumber & Mint American IPA – An incredibly refreshing IPA that I hope becomes available in the summer. The Cucumber offered a really nice crispness to the drink while the mint, though subtle, added a nice bite. And of course the hoppiness brought it all together.

Amsterdam Brewing Full City Tempest – Imperial Russian Stout with coffee. “Have you tried the Tempest yet? Do it now.” was pretty much all I heard for my first ten minutes at Cask Days from the brewers I ran in to and I’m glad I took their advice. Went down very smoothly and the coffee was a powerful and amazing presence.

Black Oak Call of Brewty Black Chipotle Schwarzbier – This…I really enjoyed it. This was the first beer I had that cleared my sinuses, burned away anything hanging around in my throat and warmed me up for the rest of the day. I went back to the cask for seconds. To give an idea of how much chipotle was in it, I’m pulling this from Alan Brown, the brewer of this beer’s, web site:

I brought a small container of perhaps 125 mL of pulverized smoked chipotle, courtesy of Chef Michael Olson of Niagara College. The question was, how much chipotle to add to 40 litres of schwarzbier? The assistant brewmaster looked at the container of chipotle, then at me, then at the container.

“Add it all,” he suggested.

“All?” I gulped.

“Sure.”

So I added it all.

Amazing. Hope to see something like that again very soon.

THE NOT-SO-FAVOURITES:

Microbrasserie Charlevoix “Chicory” Strong Porter – Just missed the mark for me. The chicory flavours was pretty minimal and the whole thing tasted rather thin.

Parallel 49 Ugly Sweater Milk Stout – A bit too thin for me (I like my stouts as thick as sludge) and WAY too sweet.

F&M Wurst Idea Ever – Sour Ale brewed with Brussel Sprouts and Smoked Meat. I know it sounds weird, but I thought the use of those two ingredients was fun. But as much as I hate sounding like a judge for Iron Chef, I felt that the beer didn’t celebrate the two ingredients, especially the brussel sprouts, well. In the end it smelled horribly and left a really bad taste in my mouth. I ended up dumping it.

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What a Night: Cask Days 2011

I’m still recovering from the lovely night that was Cask Days, the beer event with over 50 beers from around the country to sample. It was also my first ever large scale beer event.

It was a LOT of fun and showed that the event, which originally started in the patio of Toronto’s Bar Volo, can attract plenty of folks.  People dressed up (two guys even dressed up as hop flowers!), some decent music was playing and the beers were just…WOW.  Before I go in to my pros and cons I have to name off two of my favorite beers from the night.  Amsterdam’s “Wee Heavy with Heather Tips” (sweet and comfortable) and Black Oak’s “Black Betty” Dark IPA (the aroma alone is worth getting this beer, but all in all a phenomonal drink).

So I’m going to do two things here.  First I’ll be going through some notable pros and cons of my experience at the event and then I’m going to go more general and give off some tips I learned at this event and will remember for other events.

PROS:

– Talking with the man from Niagara College’s recently formed brewing school (only brewing school in Canada), finding out the beer they make is VERY tasty and learning that they’d be up for me to pop by for a visit at some point!

– Getting a special pint glass and having that be what’s used for samples

– Learning about the Pink Boots Society, a group of females in the brewing industry who are setting out to encourage other females to join in on the fun.

– Bacon beer by Du de Ciel.  Never thought I’d get to try something like that. Bacon beer!  Jeez!  Was quite smoky and actually tasted like bacon.  And to later be told by more than one person that a better one exists in my area…wow.

– Talking with other people.  Making suggestions, discussing what we’re drinking and what got us in to craft beer…that was definitely a lot of fun.

– Being inside Hart House and feeling like I was at Hogwarts.

– The names! One of the things I love about one-off beers is the really fun names.  My favorite one was “There is No Dana, Only Zuur Sour Ale”.  As a Ghostbusters fan it made me cry with joy.

CONS:

– Music got WAY too loud.  It became difficult to talk to people over it.

– Hart House, while a great place for the event, just didn’t have the lights for it.  I would have liked there to have been lights in the sitting areas.

– Hipsters were everywhere, but that’s hardly anyone’s fault.

– Not enough representation from other provinces.  Ontario covered half the area, Quebec got a small table and the other provinces combined got one table.  While there was a lot of amazing stuff from the Ontario breweries, and I understand that Ontario laws are silly so they couldn’t get many out-of-province beers, I just would have liked to have seen more brews from other provinces.

– Accidentally sitting on broken glass in the bathroom.  Ouch.

– Walking through the maze that is the University of Toronto campus.

These cons are small at best and aren’t really the fault of the organizers.  And at the end of the day I’m there for the beer and it was fantabulous.  I’ll definitely be attending future events.

And that’s pretty much what my experience was.  And now THE TIPS.  Lessons learned from my first large scale beer event.

1. You don’t need to drink all the beers.  Cask Days had over 50 beers available, so it was pretty easy to feel overwhelmed and the excitement of it all made me feel like a kid in a candy store.  Next time, I’ll have a lot less and be content with that.

2. Eat something.  With all that alcohol around, you’ll need something to eat and the chances that those events will be serving food is really good.  Even if it’s something small, just make sure you’re having something to soak all that booze up (I had a veggie burger which hit the spot).

3. Bring a friend.  While I had a great time there and ended up chatting with some people, I really can’t shake the feeling that the event would have been better for me if I brought along a beer-loving friend.

4. Be safe.  In the good chance that things get a bit hairy and you’re not as sober as you’d like to be, make sure that you have a way of getting home that doesn’t involve a lot of falling down.  Do constant checks of your things to see if you still have them.

So pretty basic tips, I’ll grant you, but that’s why they’re so effective.

So in summary, I had a lot of fun and am really looking forward to going to more beer events!

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