The eightieth annual Firkin Fest at the Happy Gnome happened last Saturday, April 4th. Okay, it wasn’t really the eightieth, but it has been going on for some time now. I went to my first in 2010 and it was a couple of years old by then.
For those who haven’t been, Firkin Fest is a celebration of “real ale” – that is beers that are naturally re-fermented in the container from which they are served and poured from the keg using gravity instead of being pushed with CO2. The result is a smooth, creamy-textured beer with relatively low carbonation that is served at cellar temperature of around 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Real ale or cask-conditioned beer is the traditional beer service of England.
Firkin Fest has seen its highs and lows over the years; great beers mingled with serious over-crowding and too few porta-potties, exquisitely well done casks of straight-up beer and monstrosities with added extras like Peeps or mushrooms. Cringe-worthy cask abuse has been common as pourers turn the firkins on end in an attempt to squeeze out every last drop and end up pouring glasses of yeasty sludge that drunk festival goers lap up like nectar.
This year saw some changes to Firkin Fest. While in the past the firkins have come from breweries across the country and the globe, this year every brewery represented was Minnesota born and bred. This meant fewer breweries and fewer beers than previous years, but there were also many fewer attendees. I don’t know whether the lower attendance was intentional. Marketing doesn’t seem to have been all that good for the event. I didn’t even get a press release and I get press releases for EVERYTHING from brewery openings in the UK to announcements for the Hay and Forage Expo. Whether it was intentional or not, it was certainly welcome. This event has historically crammed so many people into the small tent that getting from one booth to the next was an unpleasant chore. That was not the case this year and that made me happy.
Firkin Fest has always been a place where brewers see what kinds of craziness they can stuff into a cask. Sometimes these experiments work. Sometimes they just seem ill advised. This year felt to me like there was less experimentation. That’s not to say there weren’t some crazy casks. Wasabi and pickled ginger, anyone? But for the most part infusions were limited to things like coffee in stouts or citrus zest in IPAs. Many of the casks were simply dry hopped. This also made me happy. Sometimes simplicity is best.
There were a few standouts.
My personal best-of-show was Schell’s Starkeller Peach, which will be the next installment of the amazing Berliner weisse series. Tart lactic acid and sweet, sweet peaches were what this beer is all about. Yummy! Jace Marti says it will be bottled in the next couple of weeks for release later this month. I can’t wait to try it with the proper level of carbonation.
Summit also scored high with an El Dorado dry-hopped version of the new Hopvale Organic Ale. In a tent full of heavyweights, this light, refreshing, hoppy brew was a treat. The added hops gave a nice, citrus boost to its already hoppy aroma.
Staying on the hoppy side, Triple Hop Size 7 from Steel Toe was a treat. Size 7 IPA is already the best IPA in the state. Add a healthy dose of dry hops in the cask to boost that heady hop aroma and you have a recipe for hop heaven.
On the other end of the spectrum was Sideburns Chocolate Milk Stout from Lyn Lake Brewery. This already rich and creamy brew was conditioned on chocolate and vanilla that added extra layers of velvety smoothness. The beer’s sweetness was amplified, making it a delicious, drinkable dessert.
If you like cocktails, the go-to beer had to be Cobra Commander from Lift Bridge. Their 12.5% ABV Commander barleywine was casked with citrus zest and Falernum and rum-soaked oak. It truly was like drinking a rum cocktail. And a good one at that.