CASK BEER THROWDOWN 2017: Halifax Curated fest set to tap into a growing thirst for cask-conditioned ale, September 30th
Back in the fall of 2012 Granite Brewing owner Kevin Keefe was at Cask Days in Toronto when a Toronto Star reporter asked him if a cask beer festival like it would work in Halifax. “There’s no way,” he said. Sure, the popularity of craft beer was growing in Atlantic Canada at the time, but traditional cask-conditioned brews weren’t part of that wave yet.
What a difference five years makes.
This September 30th the Cask Beer Throwdown, hosted by Halifax Curated, returns for its second year at The Olympic Hall Community Centre. About 750 people are expected to attend, there to sample the small-batch cask ales of a dozen breweries from across the province (plus PEI’s Upstreet Craft Brewing). Tickets are $30 or $35, and attendees will get 12 tasting tickets and a 4-ounce tasting glass.
Cask beer, or “real ale,” as it’s also known, is unfiltered and unpasteurized beer that matures in the vessel it’s dispensed from and is served without additional carbon dioxide. Though some beers work better in casks than others, almost any style can be casked. Poured at cellar temperature (around 55 degrees Fahrenheit), they all typically have a smooth, full flavour and little carbonation.
They’re also a traditionally English beer, and while they’re popularity waned in the 80s and 90s there, over the past 10 years they’ve been booming again in pubs across the UK. Their market share has almost doubled in a decade, and by 2020 about 20 per cent of all UK pub beer is expected to come from casks. Signs of that boom started showing in Canada around 2007, particularly in Toronto, and now you can find cask beers regularly across the country at pubs and beer festivals.
In Halifax, Stillwell co-owner Chris Reynolds started seeing a real ale surge in 2014. That August he told CTV Atlantic: “I don’t know what it is about 2014, but people are suddenly demanding and thus [breweries] are producing more cask ales.” His is one of a handful of bars in the province that have invested in cask engines, fridges and taps to ensure consistency and quality. Bars without that equipment will simply set the casks on the counter, tap them and let gravity do the pouring.
So why do people seem to like cask beers so much, particularly recently? One reason may be that as more people try different kinds of beers — which they are — they discover that certain beer styles suit cask beer perfectly, says Big Spruce owner Jeremy White. “That sort of lighter carbonation, the diffused frothy head that’s put on the top of a pint, that’s been run through a beer engine — it can make for a different offering that really works for some beers.” For Big Spruce, that usually means darker and maltier beers.
The element of surprise is also likely a factor in their popularity, says Chain-Yard Urban Cidery’s head cider maker Jay Hildybrant. “You don’t know what the carbonation level is going to be, and it can do something very unique to the product. It might open up some aromatics, it might open up a different dimension on the palate. So that surprise is part of the charm.” (Ciders can be casked, too, by the way, and Chain-Yard and Bulwark will both be at the Cask Beer Throwdown).
We shouldn’t overstate the popularity of cask beers and ciders in the province, however. There aren’t any official stats on local ones, and while it does seem they are more popular now than before 2014, they still make up a very small portion of beer sales. Besides, only a handful of bars in the province have cask engines and taps, including Stillwell, Battery Park and Henry House in Halifax and The Grand Banker in Lunenburg.
“It’s a different style of beer, right?” says Jeff Green, Garrison Brewing’s director of sales. “As North Americans, we’re conditioned to expect a certain carbonation level in beer — somewhere in the 12 to 15 psi range. And regardless of how perfectly conditioned those casks are, you’re going to get a lower carbonation level. So it’s definitely a work in progress, but with events like the Throwdown, they help kind of push the envelope.”
They’ve certainly pushed that envelope in the UK, according to Cask Marque, a UK accreditor that works to uphold the quality of cask beers there. The non-profit’s 2015-16 study reported that 16 per cent of people first tried real ale at a beer festival, suggesting that fests play a huge role in recruiting people to cask beer.
Time will tell if that proves to be the case in Nova Scotia, but for now it’s safe to say that, unlike in 2012, a cask beer festival definitely works in Halifax.
Cask Beer Throwdown 2017
FEATURING: Asado Wood Fired Grill, Big Spruce Brewing, Boxing Rock Brewing, Bulwark Cider, Chain Yard Cider, Garrison Brewing, Good Robot Brewing, Halifax Press, North Brewing, Propeller Brewing, Saltbox Brewing Co., Sober Island Brewing, Sòlas Kombucha, Tatamagouche Brewing and Upstreet Craft Brewing
Saturday, September 30, 5pm – 8 pm
The Olympic Hall Community Centre, 2304 Hunter Street, Halifax