The Happy Gnome is St. Paul is one of the Twin Cities’ better beer bars. Every spring for the past couple of years they have sponsored Firkin Fest, a celebration of cask ale. Taking place in a large heated tent in the parking lot, this year’s Firkin Fest featured over sixty-five firkins of cask conditioned beer from local, national and international breweries. A $15 cover (ten if you bought early) got you in the door where drink tickets good for a four-ounce pour were available at a dollar each. The event was extraordinarily well attended, perhaps unexpectedly so, with an estimated two-thousand people coming to sample and socialize under the big top. The local brewers were all on-sight, making it a great opportunity to discuss your favorite brews with their creators and to sample some one-of-a-kind variations on your favorite brewery’s regular line-up. Despite some unfortunate logistical issues and some horrific treatment of casks near the end, the event was overall a success.
My favorite beer at the event, and the one that took the Golden Firkin award, was Chestnut Hill “a la Nutsack” from Lift Bridge Brewery in Stillwater, Minnesota. Chestnut Hill, the nutty, seasonal, brown ale from this two-year-old brewery, is already a great beer, but when served on cask and infused with a pound and a half of crushed hazelnuts it takes brown ale to a whole other level. Two different casks of Harviestoun Ola Dubh, a Scottish Wee Heavy aged in Highland Park whiskey barrels, were among the day’s standouts. The 18-Year was rich and woody with strong chocolate notes and light background hints of whiskey. The 40-Year, a rare treat indeed, was lusciously full-bodied, sweet, and lightly roasty with pronounced but balanced scotch flavors. Crispin Cider brought some very nice limited edition products. My favorite, called Clyde, was made from a blend of heirloom cider apples and aged in chardonnay barrels. It had brilliant fresh apple aromas and flavors with loads of background fruitiness and a nice vinous quality that is a hallmark of Crispin Ciders. I would have preferred it a bit dryer, but it was still a cider that I would gladly drink by the pint.
In England, the spiritual and physical home of real-ale, creating and maintaining cask beer is an art form. Here in the US that art has not reached the same level of sophistication. Thus, some great beers may not be well represented in the cask treatments they receive. There were several examples of this at Firkin Fest. One of my favorite beers is Cane and Ebel from Two Brothers Brewing Company in Illinois. From the bottle or on draft it has a crisp, bright citrus/pine hop character with a solid and slightly sweet malty backbone with subtle rye spice. On cask it was transformed into an amorphous, indistinct and rather uninteresting beer. Truly unfortunate. The same was true of Flashback India Brown Ale from Boulder Beer. Perhaps the most disappointing beer of the day though had nothing to do with the cask. Shadow of the Foerder from New Belgium Brewing was a blend of 1/3 La Folie and 2/3 1554. A blend of my two favorite New Belgium beers, how could it be bad? Sadly, the result was a fairly thin tasting beer that wasn’t quite sour, wasn’t quite roasty, and wasn’t quite working.
The worst parts of Firkin Fest had less to do with beer and more to do with logistics. The event was far better attended this year than in past years, something that is being seen in beer events all over the country. I’m told that the Happy Gnome pre-sold fifteen-hundred tickets and was expecting as many as two-thousand to attend. By mid-afternoon the tent was so packed that moving from one table to the next presented a real challenge. The noise level was such that it was nearly impossible to carry on a conversation or discuss beers with other attendees. I don’t particularly like crowds, so this made the whole experience somewhat less than pleasant. The event was promoted as going until 9:00 PM, however by 6:30 PM all the beer was gone. I give kudos to the Happy Gnome for offering refunds on unusable drink tickets. Other festivals limit the number of tickets sold. I think this option should be considered for future Firkin Fests. And five porta-potties for two-thousand people at a beer festival? Really? The wait to relieve oneself became quite long and given the amounts of alcohol consumed sometimes verged on surly.
As stated earlier, this country has not yet developed a real sophistication in dealing with cask ale. The thing that makes real-ale special is the yeast in the keg that creates natural carbonation and continues gently developing the flavor, aroma, and mouthfeel of the beer. Casks have to be put into place early and allowed to rest before serving in order to avoid pouring goopy, yeasty beer. Toward the end of this celebration of cask beer, as the beer was running out, inexperienced pourers were attempting to wring every last drop from the casks…by tipping them on end, thus pouring goopy, yeasty beers. And to make matters worse, uneducated and by this time wildly drunken patrons were anxiously lining up for this murky swill.
Overall Firkin Fest was a good time and a great opportunity to taste some fine cask beers. The Happy Gnome has already indicated that plans are underway for next year. I think with some better planning to manage the large crowds and better education of some of the non-brewery pourers it could become a great event.