For most of human drinking history, beer was fermented and served from handmade oak barrels called casks. Unlike the clear, chilled and fizzy draft-poured IPAs and pilsners we’re accustomed to today, these cask ales were naturally carbonated, entirely unfiltered and served directly from their barrels at cozy cellar temperatures.
In Britain, where this practice for the most part remains in place, cask ales — which can range from pale ales to stouts — are called “real ales,” as in “your force-carbonated, keg-sitting filtered alcoholic water is fake.”
FirkFest Caskaway, Orange County’s only all-cask beer festival, which returns to the Anaheim Packing District for a fourth year March 11, isn’t as dogmatic as the Brits.
Yes, the beers all follow tradition by being fermented in 5- and 10-gallon cask vessels (called pins and firkins, respectively) and use nothing but gravity to get from there into your glass. But from chocolate banana milk stouts to one-off kumquat IPAs, it’s what goes into the casks along with the beer that sets FirkFest’s offerings apart from anything you’d find in a British pub.
“At no other beer event will you find brewers beet red, covered in sweat and trying to figure out how to unclog a bunch of citrus from the spout of a firkin,” festival founder Greg Nagel says. “It’s a fussy serving technology, but it’s how beer has been served for most of its history.”
And this year, that fussy serving technology will be used for yet another first-ever FirkFest experiment: the country’s first tiki beer festival.
Nagel, a beer writer and the founder of OC Beer Blog who also covers drinks for Orange Coast Magazine, was inspired to merge European cask ales with Southern California’s love of tiki culture after attending a transoceanic cocktail event at 320 Main in Seal Beach last year. While sipping on classic Polynesian-inspired drinks made with smoky Scotch whiskeys (instead of rum), he realized that a tiki-themed beer fest didn’t seem so eccentric.
Previous FirkFests had looser themes like Chili Cook-Off (where restaurants brought chili for judging) and Day at the Park (where company picnic games were played), but FirkFest Caskaway is going full throttle with the island idea, switching up the entire marketing and encouraging breweries to bring beers that evoke the tiki spirit.
“Tropical adjectives, like citrus and mango, are all over the beer flavor wheel, and a good portion of IPAs already have those flavor profiles in them,” Nagel says. “It’s not a far stretch to ask brewers to do tropical beers.”
So far, a majority of the 30 independent breweries from across the Southland that will be in attendance have agreed to play along. Some are keeping it simple and bringing things like pineapple-infused IPAs and coconut-infused porters, while others are adding adjuncts like macadamia nuts and rum-soaked oak chips to make their beers mimic classic tiki cocktails the Zombie and the Navy Grog.
Mikkeller Brewing in San Diego is doing a mango-saturated take on its popular oatmeal coffee stout Beer Geek Breakfast that it’s calling Beer Geek Tiki Land. Costa Mesa’s chef-driven Gunwhale Ales will be taking one of its already unfiltered house beers and adding fennel fronds, pomegranate, vanilla and citrus. And Riip Beer Co. in Huntington Beach is adding a full serving of Hawaiian-style kalua pork (yes, meat!) into a new stout. Head brewer Trevor Walls admits that this might be the weirdest thing the hop-centric brewery’s ever done.
“Since you’re only making 10 gallons at a time, you can really go for it and try something you wouldn’t make on your big system,” Walls says. “At festivals, you always want to show your best, and FirkFest is a festival where you get to be really creative.”
In addition to the fun experimental stuff and the insane-crazy, meat-filled beers, there will also be many “real” ales that pay full homage to the traditional style.
U.K.-focused Macleod Brewing in Van Nuys is bringing six casks. Temecula’s cask-only brewery Inland Wharf will be in attendance too, with several rounds of its finest, as will half-British-owned Firestone Walker, which is bringing a cask of its coveted Unfiltered DBA.
While chatting with Nagel and Walls over a pint of Riip’s award-winning Super Cali IPA a few weeks ago, I heard the two describe cask ales as the beer world’s Polaroid pictures. Like a photograph that can’t be edited, fixed or changed after it’s been taken, cask ales are individual endeavors. Each one is created and sealed at the brewery by the brewer and won’t be tasted until someone hammers in a spout and starts serving — like what happens at FirkFest.
“For every other fest, it’s easy to take a keg of your year-round stuff and send it off,” Walls says. “With FirkFest, the casks are coming directly from the mind and heart of the brewer. There’s more pride, more effort and much more love put into a cask."
FirkFest Caskaway takes place at the Anaheim Packing District from noon to 4 p.m. March 11. Tickets are $55. For more information, visit firkfest.com.
SARAH BENNETT is a freelance journalist covering food, drink, music, culture and more. She is the former food editor at L.A. Weekly and a founding editor of Beer Paper L.A. Follow her on Twitter @thesarahbennett.