The annual Happy Gnome Firkin Fest happened last Saturday. Firkin Fest is the Twin Cities’ biggest celebration of cask-conditioned beer, boasting some 80 casks from local, national, and international brewers. For fans of “real-ale” it’s quite the fete.
It’s also one of the Twin Cities’ most troubled beer fests. Starting about three years ago when “craft” beer really started to pop, the logistics of Firkin Fest got away from the organizers. Too many people crammed the tent. Too few porta-poties left people peeing on the trees. Long lines kept people standing in the cold and beer ran out with hours left to go. In short, it was a fat mess. 2012 was the first year in a lot of years that the Happy Gnome got it right. Then General Manager and lead organizer Catherine Pflueger left. I had concerns for this year. Experience with big events suggests that new organizers don’t necessarily heed past lessons learned.
Turns out my worries were for the most part unfounded. The tent did get tight as the fest wore on, but it wasn’t the all-out sardine squeeze of past years. The line to get people in seemed to move briskly – at least the tent filled up quickly once the doors opened. I never waited in any line at all to use the outdoor facilities. The food was tasty. I ate immediately upon arrival, so I don’t know how the food lines developed later. By the time I left just before 5 pm, the firkins were beginning to run dry, but no one was in danger of going thirsty. The one complaint I had was that I couldn’t find a trash can anywhere in the joint. I carried around an empty cheese-curd thingy until a brewer finally took it from me and put it on the ground under the counter. It was an oversight, but not one to ruin the fest.
Casks have a big hole that kegs do not. You can stuff a lot of stuff into a big hole, and that’s what brewers tend to do at Firkin Fest. The results can be really tasty; O’dell’s orange IPA comes to mind – a personal favorite from both this year and last. But often times they’re not. Does that already hopped-up IPA really need extra dry hops? And alcohol-soaked Peeps? (Although by the brewer’s own admission the marshmallow chicks didn’t really taste like anything.)
My other pet peeve about the beer at Firkin Fest is the number of Belgian styles represented. Some styles just don’t belong in casks. High carbonation is an important part of the profile of most Belgian brews. It adds zip to the mouthfeel that helps lighten the body. Cask ale is by definition low carb (that’s bubbles, not starches). It leaves saisons and tripels tasting flat and flabby. And yet, there were saisons in abundance, each one getting a less-than-spectacular representation. The only one that worked was Surly’s Saison Brett. I think the barnyard funk of the Brettanomyces added a leathery bite that somewhat made up for the lack of fizz.
But there were some real standouts at Firkin Fest. My favorite was Bell’s Kalamazoo Stout. No tricks. No hops. No smirkins of this, that, and the other thing. Just Kalamazoo Stout in a cask. It’s a great beer to start with. It’s a style that’s absolutely appropriate for a firkin. It was fantastic. I went back several times and drank way more than my share.
I was pleasantly surprised by Crispin Cider’s Not You’re Mama’s Apple Pie cask. They started with The Saint, their cider fermented with Abbey yeast. They dosed it with additional sugars and then fermented it again with a different strain of Belgian yeast. To that they added apple pie spices. It really tasted like apple pie. Yummy!
Lift Bridge Brewery won the coveted Golden Firkin for the second year in a row with Manhattan Project. This was a fully-stuffed beer that I enjoyed. They added bourbon-soaked oak chips and maraschino cherries to a single-barrel aged version of Silhouette Imperial Stout for a kind of beer-based Manhattan cocktail. It was delicious.
Also worthy of mention was J.W. Lee’s Harvest Ale, always a favorite of mine. Schell’s Imperial Grain Belt was interesting, but like regular Premium was too sweet for me. And cask-conditioned lager is another fun experiment, but probably not a recipe for great beer. There were others, but travels prevented me from writing this any sooner and I left my program at home. My memory is failing me. Must have killed a few too many brain cells at the fest.
All in all it was a good fest. I can’t believe I didn’t take any pictures. What was I thinking?