The Toronto Cask Days beer festival, organized by beer hospitality experts the Morana family, has just completed its 14th-edition in Toronto. We attended two of the four sessions, the opener on Friday and closing session yesterday.
The festival is one of the largest of its kind in the world, held in the atmospheric Brickworks, a long-disused brick manufacturing plant in the Don Valley. It’s the perfect location for such an event. The unenclosed, gracefully aging work places, with antique machinery and kilns fixed in place, mingle perfectly with the lush greenery surrounding.
The event features mostly beers in the cask or real ale style. It’s a method of dispensing beer long-associated with Britain but all beer originally was stored and served in a similar fashion, before refrigeration, filtration, and gas pressure emerged.
All casks are set on “stillages”, or frames, spiled with thin porous pegs to control the carbonation, and tapped by a hand-turned valve, the old-fashioned way. The method precedes even the Victorian handpump system often associated with cask ale.
A small but good selection of regular (pressure-drawn) draft beer was also offered and various bottled exotica, making the selection over 400 beers in total. There were beers from Ontario, Quebec, New York, Maine, Pennsylvania, Oregon, and California.
Add to this a good range of Ontario ciders, a cocktails selection with craft spirits, and even a wine stand, the bibulous or curious could hardly be disappointed.
Virtually every style of beer currently offered in craft brewing world-wide was represented. Of the hundreds of selections, we tasted perhaps 30 as our approach is to sip a little and then discard the contents to try more.
The cost can add up, but it is the only way to get a sense of the range there without getting snookered by the alcohol.
Our favourite beer was a British Columbia Extra Special Bitter from the skillful Driftwood, due to its full, English-styled flavour. The beer actually uses North American hops according to the brewery’s description but they are used in a way that has an English effect. One of the hops is Amarillo, which I’ve said before has an orangey, English stamp to it.
We liked as well a couple of double IPAs from California and a 12% abv Fred barley wine from Hair of the Dog in Oregon. A Barrier IPA from the New York City area, a collaboration with another New York brewery, also impressed with its well-knitted but strong American hop flavours.
I liked too Amsterdam Brewery’s ironically-named Bad Life Decisions IPA, made right here in town of course, and a pumpkin ale with lactose, one of the home-brewing group offered.
The features surrounding the main event – DJs, Arcade machines, food selection, were excellent and all went smoothly. Even the music level seemed perfect for the space and buzz needed. The full attendance was enhanced with travel packages offered, see this description of the amenities from the website.
This year too an information booth was set up, to guide on beer styles, staffed by the knowledgeable Lauren Richard, well-known in the Toronto beer community. A couple of educational seminars were included as well.
Almost all the beers I had were in good condition. Real ale is famously fragile in nature, and shipping such beer across continents is not without risk. None was out-and-out bad. One or two, from California and from New York, had an edge of sourness that seemed atypical but then too as sour beers are prevalent as a style today, few would have noticed.
As for anyone, we stick to what we like, which meant swaths of beers not broached, mainly saisons, flavoured beers, sours, and barrel-aged beers. Still, there was lots to try in the parts we do like: pale ales, IPAs (regular, double, black, etc.), bitter and strong bitter, porter and stout in various strengths, strong ales, Scottish-style beers, brown ales, and various lagers.
If I have one cavil, and it’s not directed to Cask Days since they select what is currently available and popular, it’s that too many of the porters and stouts were flavoured: with coffee, plant extracts, herbs, fruits, cocoa of some kind, you name it. In fact most seemed to be, and/or barrel-aged with its coconut-like aftertaste.
I like these beers unadorned, as the styles originally were. I still found some of course, but none, I might add, that really stood out in the way, say, Fuller’s Imperial Stout does. (We are not fans of the rose petal addition in this beer, like why? But it is barely if at all detectable, a good move by the brewery IMO).
Later this week I’ll look into some North American beer festival history. It’s too easy to think that the early (1980s) Great American Beer Festivals in Denver, CO inaugurated the beer festival on this side of the Atlantic.
In fact, the first national American beer festival was held before the American Civil War.
After that I return to the late Irish writer Charles Duff, and explore his views on 1950s English pubs. This time, in regard to Duff, we take a deeper look, one that examines how such “pub guide/drink tourism” could even be written at the time.
It wasn’t that much earlier that to write publicly of such things was at best viewed as eccentric, at worst as unrespectable.