A Day of Casks

What makes a perfect Saturday afternoon? For me it was being holed up in a fabulous joint with a bunch of beer lovers and brewers sampling from 10 local casks. Oh, and I can’t leave out the great food and the great weather.

This is the second year for General Manager Derrick Smith and the Wooden Nickel’s cask event.  The bar was totally covered with casks sitting there like an invading army taking hostages. All About Beer Magazine graciously contributed cradles, jackets and taps for all ten of the casks.

The Wooden Nickel is a pretty small bar—it can’t seat over 50 inside and has some ample sidewalk seating. Given it’s on the main drag of this quaint Hillsborough, NC, town, this makes for a fantastic setting, especially on a beautiful Saturday afternoon.

The casks easily fell into three groupings.

Some brewers elected to do be dramatic—some subtle—depending on your point of view.  LoneRider Brewing Company added chipotle to their brown ale and Foothills Brewing added chocolate and mint to their porter. Beer wags quickly saw the value of pairing these beers – hot and cool.  Fullsteam looked to Thailand for their inspiration taking their summer basil and adding ginger and lemon grass.

What really got everyone talking was the extent of the impact these ingredients had on the cask beer. To a brewer, these casks recipes went for subtle and were not pronounced.  Granted, if you were a newbie to the creativity of brewers you might be put out but the nature of these beers. I found them all delightfully enjoyable and intriguing. There was a group of us who tried each and then had a lively conversation about the cask beer we sampled.

Another category could be those that added an ingredient that enhanced the innate characteristics of the style. A special treat was the Aviator Brewing Company’s Hot Rod Red, which was infused with pomegranates It was a slightly brash, fruity ale thanks to the pomegranates. Mother Earth Brewing’s Sisters of the Moon, which featured an addition of juniper berries, also caught me off guard. Again, the nose, strong on juniper, seemed tasty yet inexplicably jaw-dropping and caused me to stop mid-tasting until I read the word “juniper” on the chalk board and “got” the flavor.  Simply delightful.  Eric Myers, owner/brewer of the future Mystery Brewing brought a cask of his 90 shilling, Scottish Ale which included a “boatload” of heather tips to bring out the herbal flavors.  It did clock in at a very surprising 3.2% alcohol, a perfect session beer.

The next big collection of casks was the exact opposite—brewers who made classic cask ale. Take the Harvest Time from Big Boss Brewing, a gorgeous beer in its own right, but put it on cask with the softer mouthfeel and floral aroma, and you’ve stepped it up quite a bit. Yet, another twist came from Olde Hickory Brewery who stayed within the classic parameters but took some bold steps with the dry hopping of their Table Rock Pale Ale with El Dorado (hints of watermelon?) and Falconers Flight, and a twist of toasted oak to hint at the pale ale roots. Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery had brought its Amber, dry hopped with Chinook. However there was a technical problem with the cask so samples were sparse.

Thousand regrets, but I overlooked Natty Greene’s Barley Wine. I thought I’d run all the casks but realized, by the time I’d gotten home, that I’d missed this big beer. However, since they have two brewpubs and a distributing brewery, it shouldn’t be too hard to find the basic style, and I’m sure it will show up on cask at one of the breweries.

I imagine Derrick Smith is planning on a No. 3. Put a tickler on your calendar for this next year. If you’re a fan of cask ale, don’t miss the World Cask Ale Festival at the Trotter Building, Durham, NC—a benefit for Durham Central Park. Tickets now on sale by going to durhamcentralpark.org and clicking through the “Meals from the Market.

See you there.