By Stephen Beaumont
October 18 marks the beginning of the 15th edition of Cask Days, the Toronto festival devoted to cask-conditioned beer which is, in the estimation of most beer-savvy folk, yours truly included, the largest such event held outside of the United Kingdom. And, remarkably, as I type these words just one week ahead of that start day, I’m told that a handful of tickets still remain.
This year’s edition marks a scaling back of sorts for the festival put on by the tireless Morana family of Bar and Birreria Volo fame, with “300+ Casks” on offer over the three days of the event, as compared to the more than 400 presented when I wrote my festival preview for this very publication a mere two years ago. Which is not such a bad thing, in my estimation, since Cask Days past have witnessed perhaps a few too many novelty beers which, while noteworthy for their eccentricity, hardly did justice to the skill and stewardship evident in every pint of well-made and properly presented cask ale.
Yet while fewer beer will be present, the geographical spread of the fest will be much broader than before, with six provinces represented, as compared to four two years ago, as well as eight states, double the number in 2017. Some names are quite familiar – Indie, Dieu du Ciel, both Granites, Four Winds, Allgash and Cascade – while others are relative newcomers – Town, Riverbend, Trans Canada, Garden Path and Yorkshire Square. Meaning that, perhaps more so than in years past, this edition of the festival will offer a satisfying balance of discovery and familiarity.
It’s for the second half of that last point that I suspect people might not have scooped up all the tickets as quickly as they have in the past. Because in the beer-ticking, ‘what do you have that’s new?’ world of today, uniqueness is of primary concern, even to the detriment of experience, and too many familiar names are bound to discourage some from attendance.
Yet, as a beer writing professional with 30 years of experience under my belt, I’m looking forward to Friday’s session perhaps more than I have in some years of Cask Days attendance. Because, rightly or wrongly, I equate a smaller list of breweries with a more carefully considered list of participants, and this seems likely to translate into a higher percentage of ‘hits’ as opposed to ‘misses.’
It also echoes a trend I have a been noticing for a while, from the Italian Villagio della Birra to the Firestone Walker Invitational to the Shelton Brothers Festival I attended in Buffalo the first weekend of October, which is that the ‘open to all’ beer festival format seems to be waning, while the curated, invitational model is on the rise. This, I think, is a good thing, so long as you know and trust the judgement of those sending out the invitations – which I very much do with respect to the Moranas and Cask Days!
For the reality of this day is that, with some 9,000 breweries in North America and thousands more scattered around the globe, there is a good amount of mediocre to questionable to downright bad beer out there. And having someone sift through it all to offer you only la crème de la crème is a service that I think is well worth the money.
For tickets, go to caskdays.com