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.

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.

Cheers, Michael Agnew Certified Cicerone A Perfect Pint

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