The Kung Fu is strong with Washington State's microbreweries, and the talented, imaginative local brewers were in top form at the 2010 Seattle Cask Beer Festival, held at the Seattle Fisher Pavillion on March 27. Produced by the Washington Beer Commission, an organization devoted to promoting local brewers in the state, Cask Fest is an annual celebration of a method of beermaking that is rarely practiced, but one that yields truly unique results.
What is Cask Beer?
Cask-conditioned beer, cask ales, real ale—they are the aliases of what could be called a true microbrew. A cask beer is one that is served directly from the vessel from where it underwent its full fermentation process, unfiltered and untouched prior to its first pour. This may not seem that unique, but consider the beer you drink from a bottle or a glass poured via a beer on tap—that brewski did not develop its flavor solely within that bottle or keg. Typical beermaking methods have the wort, or as-yet unfermented beer, placed into a primary fermentation container where the yeast begins to do its magic, and then this liquid is moved into a secondary fermentation vessel for the last portion of the aging. By keeping a beer in its original fermentation container, the yeast interacts with the botanicals in the recipe in an isolated environment, giving it a chance to develop unique flavors in an uninterrupted process. The final, unfiltered beer has a degree of freshness and flavor that tends to be more in line with the brewer's original intent.
Consider cask beer the Holy Grail of beer nerds. As a result of this purist method of beermaking, the final beer is not overly fizzy like typical beers. Since the carbon dioxide levels in the isolated cask environment will be lower, the flavors tend to be a bit more intense, and the brew packs a punch, as the alcohol content tends to be considerably higher than average.
The Many Flavors of Cask Beer
The cask conditioning process inspired several local beermakers to really play with their recipes, coming up with some truly unique combinations for Cask Fest. There were cheeky beers like Seattle's own Elliot Bay Brewing Company's Tabasco Stout, where their cacao-steeped beer blend was aged in a Tabasco barrel, leaving tasters literally sweating after every pour. There were also brewers like Kennewick's Ice Harbor Brewing Company, whose IPA sat in a bourbon barrel for six months, and Issaquah Brewhouse's winter spiced beer, Oak Aged 2009 Frosty Frog, aged for three months in Jack Daniels barrels. Having the beer sit in barrels where another product was made, be it spicy or smoky, imparts a truly unique flavor. The smokiness of the bourbon barrels is especially present in beers lucky enough to be saturated with its rich, dark sweetness.
Even for the beers not aged in the previous lives and tastes of oak barrels, the richness of flavors in the different ales included whole vanilla beans, cocoa nibs, orange peels, whole cherries, as well as spices like cinnamon, allspice, thyme, and pepper. The range of ingredients spread out across the different libations makes it clear that making beer yields an impressive depth of flavor and creativity, like any other culinary art.
Fashion at the Fest
The only thing more unique than the beers could arguably be the festival-goers themselves. Along with a chance to show off beermakers' quirky sense of humor, Seattle beer festivals are a chance to see where this idiosyncratic sensibility comes from. You'll find hop-embroidered shirts, arcane beer humor t-shirts, and kilts abound. With the exception of the Scottish Highland Games, beer festivals will guarantee a high turnout of men in kilts.
The innovative spirit continues with the proliferation of the almighty pretzel necklace. An accessory of carbohydrate excess, these homemade leis of salty snacks adorn a good percentage of the crowd, with people om-nom-nomming away in between sample pours.
Cask Fest also gave the chance to pick crowd favorites. The top-voted brewers included Seattle's Fremont Brewing Company for first place, and Redmond's Black Raven Brewing Company at a close second. It was no surprise that these breweries would receive top honors as their tables had the longest wait times.
Even without winning the popular vote, all the Washington brewers came away winners, having the chance to show off their unique beers and sharing a method of brewing that would most likely become lost in the macro-industry of commercial beermaking. The popular votes are simply fun asides to what the real goal behind events like these: celebrating and supporting the local community behind craft beers.