A cask beer revival has been taking place in the U.K. for several decades now. And if the turnout at this year’s Cask Days is any indication, it’s becoming more popular on this side of the pond too.
More than 4,500 people flocked to North America’s largest cask beer festival at Toronto’s Evergreen Brick Works last weekend. Crowds caroused against a backdrop of live djs and food stalls representing some of the city’s hippest restaurants, like Bar Isabel and Parts & Labour.
Chilly fall temperatures and rain did little to thwart the party. After all, “beer sweaters” were within easy reach in the open-air venue. The two-day event’s main attraction, of course, was the about 230 different beers available from breweries in B.C., Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and P.E.I.
Also on offer were about 50 casks from the U.K., where cask beer – or “real ale” as its referred to – has been resurrected by the consumer advocacy group CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale). The beer was transported transatlantically, a tricky feat given casks don’t travel well.
Navigating the logistics of getting the casks into Ontario is a credit to the event’s organizers, the Morana family of barVolo. As well as an ocean to cross, the LCBO was a likely obstacle to bringing beer from out of province and country.
Cask Days is remarkable in that it’s an opportunity to taste otherwise inaccessible beer under one roof. This year’s event featured casks from about 125 different breweries.
So what is cask beer? In brief, it’s beer that matures in a cask, a barrel-like container originally crafted from wood but now made of steel. Unlike most draught and bottled beers, which are often force-carbonated, cask beer carbonates naturally and has living yeasts eating away at it. The beer is low in carbonation and served unfiltered and unpasteurized from the cask at a warmer temperature.
For breweries, putting their beer in a cask is a bit like a product rebrand. Take the same beer, put it into a different package, and call it “real ale.”
Those who love it herald it as beer in its ultimate form. Because it has a limited shelf life, it’s served fresh. Because it’s an artisanal product, it’s flavoursome and full of character. Because it’s traditionally fermented, it has old-world charm.
Others, however, argue that while certain beer styles, like English-style bitters, pale ales and porters, do better in casks, saisons or American-style IPAs, for example, benefit from higher carbonation. Quality is also up for debate. Because cask beer is a living product that oxidizes as its served, not every pint is the same.
What’s certain, however, is that while cask-conditioned beer is by no means new – it’s been around for centuries – its resurgence in North America is novel, and gaining mass appeal.