Saturday afternoon saw the return of Firkin Fest to the Happy Gnome in St. Paul. This was the fourth year for this annual celebration of cask-conditioned beer. Unseasonably cold weather didn’t discourage beer-lovers from turning out. There were at least a billion people there (okay, not really). It was damned cold for us non-VIP-ticket-holding schlubs who arrived early to be near the front of the line. After nearly an hour waiting, my toes had gone numb. It took a while to stop shivering despite the heated tent. A big barleywine was definitely in order.
Last year I took the Happy Gnome to task for a load of logistical issues that marred the fest. This year some changes were made that fixed many of the problems. The line was handled much better this year, as staff worked their way along it early checking IDs and giving out wristbands. This really sped things up once the doors opened. Despite huge numbers of people swilling large amounts of beer, the wait at the port-a-poties was nominal. In fact, a female friend of mine said that she never encountered a wait. Well done!
The only blot on an otherwise fantastic fest was the crowd. The organizers took a step in the right direction this year by limiting the number of tickets sold and increasing the size of the tent. The number of people was still way too high. By mid-fest one really couldn’t move. I started choosing which beer to taste next based on what booth was closest instead of what I really wanted to try. Getting from one side of the tent to the other was just too daunting a task.
Think about it. At Winterfest the MN Craft Brewers Guild has three floors of the History Center. They sell 700 tickets. Autumn Brew Review and The St. Paul Summer Beer Festival both take place in large parking lots. They sell around
1500 3000 tickets. The Happy Gnome sold 1600 tickets for Firkin Fest; a festival that took place in a tent not quite the size of a football field. It was simply too many people for the space. I got into the tent at 1:00. By 3:00 I could no longer stand it. I was out the door by 3:30, despite the fact that there were still a number of beers I would like to have sampled. I know that I was not alone. As I was making the decision to leave a number of friends were doing the same, and for the same reason.
I’m sure that the Happy Gnome calculated the number of tickets they had to sell in order to turn a profit. In future years, however, they really need to either further restrict the number of attendees (I would say by half) or double the size of the tent to take up the whole parking lot. As it is, it’s really unpleasant. For about the same amount of money I’d rather drink five pints of cask ale in the relative calm of the Town Hall Brewery.
There was more beer (always a good thing). While last year’s fest featured 65 casks, this year’s was projected to include more than 80. I don’t know the final tally, but there was a lot of beer. Another plus – I didn’t witness any gross mis-handling of firkins this year, at least during the time that I was there. Last year was a cask-lover’s nightmare of firkins turned on end to get the last sludge-filled drops. It may have happened at the end, but I didn’t see it.
Fulton Beer Company took the Golden Firkin award this year with their War and Peace, a Peace Coffee infused version of the Worthy Adversary Imperial Stout. Along with their Beer Dabbler win last summer, this should give some of the haters out there pause. In the industry it isn’t about whether a gaggle of nattering beer-nerds think a beer is the best example of such-and-such a style. It’s about whether or not people want to drink it. Given Fulton’s upward sales curve and recent People’s Choice recognitions, clearly they do. I didn’t try War and Peace this year, but I’m told it was good.
My picks for best-of-the-fest this year went to British and British-style beers. Bitter & Twisted from Harviestoun Brewery and “Jaipur” IPA from Thornbridge Hall both went down well and brought me back for seconds. Bitter & Twisted was a nice session bitter with a floral “heather-like” character that really set it off for me. Jaipur was a great English IPA with a bigger, grainy-sweet malt backbone and balanced hopping. It was surprisingly light-colored, which made the big flavor even more surprisingly pleasant. Sticking closer to home, Summit’s Gold Sovereign Ale was every bit as good on cask as I had expected it to be.
In addition to these, I really enjoyed Rush River’s Lyndale Brown with pomegranate and green tea. It was like nutty, chocolate green tea with a strong hazelnut finish. Crispin’s Desert Noir cider was also a favorite. Stronger and sweeter than I expected, it was strong, yet fruity and refreshing with nice notes of agave. I like that Crispin keeps trying new things with cider.
The award for most unusual beer has to go to Psych-Oasis from Tall Grass. What happens when you infuse an Extra ESB with candy cap mushrooms? You get something that tastes like fenugreek and dirt, but in a good way. This was another one that brought me back for more. I liked it. Although I wouldn’t probably want to drink a pint of it.
All in all Firkin Fest was a good event this year. Fix the crowding problem next year and it will be a great event.