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Ten weird and wonderful brews at Cask Days, Bar Volo’s annual beer-geek jamboree

(Images: Jennifer Tiffin)

It’s a sign of Toronto’s surging interest in craft beer that the eighth annual Cask Days, which took place this weekend at the Evergreen Brick Works, doubled in size from last year’s already lively festivities at Hart House. Organized by the folks at Bar Volo, the event is North America’s largest beer festival devoted to cask-conditioned ales—this year’s featured over 150 beers from 75 craft breweries—and one of Canada’s premiere beer events. It’s also a big opportunity for brewers to indulge their creative sides for an appreciative audience: the majority of the beers on offer were brewed specifically for the event, many of them collaborations between different breweries. With over 2,700 craft beer lovers crowded across three sessions, there were some long lineups and crowded casks, but let’s face it: this was a room of mostly 30- and 40-something dudes geeking out and genially comparing notes.

For those not yet fully initiated into beer geekdom, cask ales (sometimes dubbed “real ales”) are “conditioned” in their casks as the unfiltered and unpasteurized live yeasts undergo a secondary fermentation. The process creates a gentle, natural carbonation and allows the flavours and character to further develop, resulting in a richer-tasting beer. It’s served through a gravity pour, usually at warmer temperatures than your average draft, and crucially, no nitrogen or carbon dioxide pressure is added. At the festival, the demand for some of these ales—like Amsterdam’Full City Tempest, an imperial stout brewed with coffee, and Bellwoods’ Hellwoods, a Russian imperial stout aged with sour cherries—was so intense that casks were kicked by the middle of the first session before we could try them (a limited number of bottles of the Tempest will hit LCBO shelves later this week, and Hellwoods is currently available, without the cherries, at Bellwoods Brewery). Still, there were more than enough quarter- and half-pints of weird and wonderful beers to go around. Below, 10 notable successes and noble failures from Cask Days 2012:


Indie Alehouse—Double Barrel Pumpkin Abbey
Junction newcomer Indie Alehouse brought its Belgian-style strong ale, brewed with pumpkin and pumpkin pie spices. A roasted malt core gave way to a mild fruitiness, with brown sugar and notes of nutmeg and allspice that didn’t overwhelm the way a lot of lesser pumpkin ales can.


Beau’s All Natural X Elysian—Oiseaux de Nuit
A collaboration between Vankleek Hill’s Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company and Seattle’s Elysian Brewing Company for the latter’s Great Pumpkin Beer Festival, this beer is made in the gruit style, which dates back to the Middle Ages and traditionally blends sweet gale, yarrow and wild rosemary. Beau’s and Elysian added bog myrtle and cumin seed to the pumpkin ale, resulting in a deliciously herbaceous brew that felt like Thanksgiving stuffing in a pint glass.


Great Lakes Brewery X Toronto Brewing—Curried Spiced Pumpkin Ale
Another collaboration, this one had an inviting nose of warming curry spice.  Ginger notes complemented the pumpkin well, but were quickly overwhelmed by a fiery finish that overstayed its welcome a tad.


Le Trou du Diable—La Buteuse
Quebec’s celebrated Le Trou du Diable was the showcase brewery this year, bringing five of its beers; the standout, and one of the best we sampled all weekend, was this Belgian-style triple. Exceptionally well balanced, its sweet caramel malt backbone gave way to subtle tropical fruit and peppery yeast that was rounded out by a warming 10 per cent alcohol.


Granite Brewery—The Chai Wallah Has A Moustache
One of the more eagerly anticipated beers for us, this oatmeal stout had a delicate nose of cinnamon and cardamom, but the flavours were too muted behind the roasted malts and would have been difficult to discern had we not already known they were there. This was an enjoyable enough stout, but one that fell short of our expectations.


Nickelbrook—Discombobulation
Smoked and sour ales can be polarizing styles, but this smoked sour saison was an unexpected highlight. Neither profile particularly dominated the palate, with the light smoke aroma ceding to the traditional Flemish character of oak and mildly sour fruit.


Parallel 49 Brewing Co.—Ugly Sweater
Milk stouts—which are sweetened with lactose—are an underrepresented style in Ontario, so we looked forward to this one from British Columbia’s Parallel 49 Brewing Company. It was light, sweet and smooth, with a hint of dark chocolate, but overall the malt profile fell a little short, and the mouthfeel was thinner than we’d have liked.


Dieu du Ciel!—Péché Mortel
Often regarded as Canada’s best beer, this imperial stout brewed with coffee showcased everything that beer geeks love about cask ales. It poured an opaque black with the thinnest chocolate-brown head; its nose was a complex interplay of espresso, molasses, fig and burned sugar; and the bitterness of the coffee was perfectly balanced with a dark chocolate sweetness that buried its 9.5 per cent alcohol.


F&M—Wurst Idea Ever
This sour ale was brewed with brussels sprouts and smoked meat—yes, brussels sprouts and smoked meat—and tasted pretty much exactly like it sounds. Full credit to F&M for pushing the envelope, but we have to agree with them on this one: wurst idea ever.


Great Lakes Brewery—Stalin’s Choice
Weighing in at a massive 100 IBU (International Bitterness Units) and 10.5 per cent alcohol, this Russian imperial stout was aged in bourbon barrels before being transferred to its cask. Espresso, oak, vanilla and cocoa dominated the nose with notes of dark fruit, caramel and even more coffee and oak on the palate—and then the bitterness hit with just the slightest hint of alcohol burn. This was a challenging beer, and not one we could likely drink more than a half-pint of at a time, but it was adventurous and exceptionally well executed, making it our favourite of the festival.