Firkin Fest 2011: A recap
Firkin Fest 2011 took place Saturday at the Happy Gnome in St. Paul. The annual approbation of cask-conditioned ale attracts beer fans from the metro and beyond to sample a wide range of beers served in the traditional English style; naturally carbonated in the cask and gravity poured. The Gnome procured great craft beers from around the country and a couple from overseas. In all, over 80 beers were available for tasting, including a bevy of one-off special creations and interesting infusions. Some logistical changes and more beer made for a better experience than last year with only one (major) flaw.
Michael Agnew Firkin fun at Firkin Fest
One of the great things about Firkin Fest is the experimentation that brewers engage in for the event. Since cask-conditioned beer is re-fermented in bunged firkins instead of force-carbonated in sealed kegs, it offers an opportunity to infuse the beers with hops, wood, and other interesting ingredients. The lineup this year included the expected--and appreciated--selection of dry-hopped beers. Dry-hopping, putting hops into the keg to infuse into the beer, gives beers an extra boost of hop flavor. This year's hop-soaked choices included a new IPA from Lift Bridge, Summit Winter Ale with Sorachi Ace hops, and three from Rush River, among others.
Wood-aging is another twist that Firkin Fest brewers put on their beers. Surly, for instance, brought at least four different beers aged on oak or cherry wood. A dry-hopped and oak-aged version of their double IPA Abrasive was an especially good example.
The winner for most unusual infusion has to go to Psych-Oasis from Tall Grass Brewing of Manhattan, Kansas. Oasis is their strong ESB. Alone it features loads of caramel malt and grassy hops with a sharp, balancing bitterness. To make Psych-Oasis they infused Oasis with candy cap mushrooms. It was a unique taste to say the least; think fenugreek and dirt, but in a good way. It brought me back for seconds.
My favorites of the fest were English or English-style beers; the kind that are meant to be served from a cask. Bitter & Twisted is a great session Bitter from Scotland's Harviestoun Brewery. It was smooth and light with plenty of caramel malt, floral hops, and nice heather-like notes. It's a beer you could drink all day long. Jaipur IPA from Thornbridge in England is a bit stronger and more bitter, but still easy to drink. It is definitely a balanced English IPA instead of the more bracing and hoppy American style. It is tasty from a bottle, but it was perfect in cask-conditioned form. Summit's Gold Sovereign Ale, the sixth in the Unchained Series, was similar. Also an English-style IPA, it is great in a bottle, but even better from a cask.
Minneapolis's own Fulton Beer Company took the people's-choice honors, winning the Golden Firkin with War and Peace, a Peace Coffee-infused version of their Worthy Adversary Russian Imperial Stout. I didn't get around to trying that one, but I'm told it was tasty.
Among the logistical things that the Happy Gnome got right this year were more porta-poties (important at a beer fest), and checking IDs while people waited in line to speed things up once the doors opened. They limited ticket sales and got a bigger tent in an effort to ease the crowding of last year, but unfortunately it wasn't enough. 1600 people in a tent not quite the size of a football field is simply too many. By 3:00 it was impossible to move. Simply getting from table to table became a chore. It was all too much for me. I was out the door by 3:30 to escape the crowd. I wasn't alone.
Overall the Firkin Fest was a success. If the Happy Gnome can find a way to deal with the numbers of people--either reducing ticket sales even more or getting a much bigger tent--it could be a great festival.
A Perfect Pint