In Praise of Cask – with a Caveat

by Stephen Beaumont

When they first opened in 1985, the founders of Guelph, Ontario’s Wellington County Brewery figured that if they devoted themselves to the creation of proper, cask-conditioned ales, the world – or at least a good chunk of southern Ontario – would beat a path to their door.
It didn’t happen.
Still, Charles Maclean, Philip Gosling and David Moorsom accomplished something perhaps even more important than immediate commercial success. Astoundingly and, one presumes, unwittingly, more than thirty years ago they laid the groundwork for Ontario to become arguably the most significant cask ale market in the world outside of the United Kingdom.

My thoughts are drawn to this bit of history because Canada is about to indulge in its annual love affair, or perhaps more appropriately yearly dalliance, with cask-conditioning in the form of a pair of events, in my view the two finest and most important beer fests in the country: The Great Canadian Beer Festival in Victoria, British Columbia, which will occur as it always does on the first weekend after Labour Day; and Cask Days, a celebration of cask effected by the Morana family of Bar and Birreria Volo fame, which this year takes place from October 19 to 21.

While the GCBF is a more conventional beer festival for which organizers have always encouraged cask-conditioning, the latter festival is, as its name suggests, purely devoted to cask. If my past experience is any indication, however, both events will feature a wide range of cask-conditioned beers, from more traditional styles such as brown ales and ESBs to somewhat unorthodox ales like chocolate-cherry porters and cask-conditioned ‘sours’ to pure novelty beers, like the notorious Gummi Bear beer of several Cask Days ago.
(To give the GCBF its due, novelty pours are infrequent occurrences there, particularly in comparison with Cask Days, where a handful always seem to appear.)

It has also been my experience that a disproportional amount of attention at these fests seems to always fall upon the unusual or novelty beers, rather than those beer styles that thrive under cask-conditioning, and that has always frustrated and, to be honest, slightly disappointed me. A couple of years back at Cask Days, for example, a large number of the people I spoke with were excited about having available La Porter Baltique from Québec’s Les Trois Mousquetaires, and who could blame them? It is, whether bottled, casked or kegged, an exceptionally good beer, one I personally rated three-and-a-half stars (out of four) in the second edition of my and Tim Webb’s Pocket Beer Guide.

For all of its grace and complexity, however, what La Porter Baltique is not is a beer that is significantly improved on cask. Slightly different, yes, perhaps not quite as good, in fact, but certainly not improved.
Take a well-made best bitter, extra special bitter or northern English-style brown ale and give it the cask-conditioning treatment, on the other hand, and what can emerge is a beer demonstrably better than thet exact same beer in any other form. Hell, you don’t even have to go to Cask Days or the GCBF to prove it, just head to the Granite Brewery in Toronto or the Henry House in Halifax and sample the Granite Best Bitter on tap and on cask – assuming they still pour both versions at both places; it’s been a while since my last visit. Even discounting the dry-hopping of the bitter in Toronto, the cask-conditioning of that beer elevates it from very good to the equal of some of the UK’s finest casks, and makes it in my view another three-and-a-half star Pocket Beer Guide beer.

So when you’re at Cask Days or the GCBF or some other cask-conditioned beer destination this fall, by all means try some of the more unusual or downright bizarre brews on offer, but pay particular attention to those beers crafted in more traditional British styles. Believe me, your palate will be happy you did.

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Short Sips with Stephen Beaumont

A corner dedicated to bringing you insight from industry author and beer connoisseur, Stephen Beaumont.

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