I ♥ Cask. My Top 5 Beers from Cask Days 2014
It was a last minute decision to attend this year’s Cask Days festival, in Toronto, and my indecision had cost me a ticket to either of the first two sessions. I had been monitoring the Cask Days website for weeks, familiarizing myself with all the different beers that would be available and at which session they would be tapped. The night before heading to Toronto, I had narrowed my wishlist to 70, nervously wondering how many would actually last until Saturday night. Not all of them, unfortunately.
Eventhough I didn’t get to drink the Blood of Cthulhu or indulge in a peanut butter milk stout, I was in awe of the scale and the variety of the occasion. Hosted in a supremely cool venue, Evergreen Brick Works, the rows of casks seemed to run on indefinitely against the graffitied and tree-strewn industrial backdrop. The ambiance was light and lively, with a soundtrack befitting the mood – and the food! The portions were small, but delicious (high-five to whoever came up with the idea of putting a small sausage on an oyster). Add in good company and the opportunity to (finally) meet some familiar faces from twitter in person and you have the makings for a special night.
In the end, I came nowhere close to trying all the beers I would have liked, but of the ones I did have, there were a few that left a real impression on me. Here are my top 5 beers from Cask Days 2014:
5. Lagunitas IPA with Mosaic
As a rule, I like pretty much everything that Lagunitas produces. But heading into the festival, their IPA hadn’t even factored into my top 20. I had reserved my top spots for rare brews and casks with bizarre ingredients, forsaking those with less flair at face value. That said, apart from my first few samples, I didn’t pay much attention to my ‘rankings’ and when put on the spot relied more on instinct than analysis. In one such instance, lacking inspiration, I ordered that Lagunitas – and boy was it good.
After drinking mostly heavy and strongly flavoured beers early in the evening, Lagunitas IPA with Mosaic was a very refreshing change of pace. It had a juiciness to it with bright hop flavours, tropical fruit, in particular mango, and citrus. Earthy notes were also present, kind of like decaying leaves in fall, adding a little complexity. A beautiful balance was struck between the hop and a smooth and slightly bready malt profile. It maintained a nice light carb and really was a pleasure to drink. A fine reminder that simplicity of ingredients does not, in and of itself, mean lack of creativity and how balance is more important than pushing boundaries.
4. Siren x Magic Rock – Brown Ale with Coconut
I was quite looking forward to exploring the offerings from the home of ‘Real Ale’, but found that most of the UK casks, I was able to sample, weren’t overly exciting. Granted I didn’t get to that many of them. The best of the bunch, for me, was Siren Craft Brew‘s collaboration with Magic Rock Brewing; Brown Ale with Coconut.
Chocolate malt and coconut are a match made in heaven; so when you give me a good English Brown Ale and add my favourite drupe to it, chances are I’m going to like it. And as a Brown Ale it was quite nice. It had a great malt backbone; a little biscuity, some caramel, perhaps a touch of honey and that necessary chocolate that rounds is all out. There were some yeast esters present, date and plum, which served to lift and lighten the beer. This also paired quite nicely with the coconut. Regardless of my predisposition to like this beer, I really thought it was fine. My view was vindicated in small part when I had someone who hates coconut attest to its quality.
3. Amsterdam – El Jaguar Barrel Aged Imperial Stout with Chocolate and Chilies (printed as Chocolate and Cherries but I’m not sure)
El Jaguar, which of course is Spanish for “the jaguar”, is a version of Amsterdam’s Double Tempest, bourbon barrel aged and kicked up another notch with the addition of chocolate and chilies. Or at least that’s how it’s billed on Amsterdam’s website; with the festival guide and the cask itself both listing cherries as opposed to chilies. I’m not really sure who to believe, as I didn’t find the beer particularly cherry-y or chili-y. All I know is that it was delicious.
Last year, I was among the many Ottawa beer lovers who had to sit back and watch as our friends in Toronto got to try Double Tempest, while we missed out. But at Cask Days, when the opportunity to taste, not one, but two different interpretations of this elusive brew presented itself, I seized it emphatically. One variation, Full City Double Tempest, had Hawaiian Kona coffee, seemingly aggressively, added to it (then again maybe it was cherries). Rather unsurprisingly, the flavours worked well together. The roast might have been a tad harsher than I would have liked; still I enjoyed it. Good, but que no es El Jaguar.
El Jaguar had an abundantly rich, cacao nib character, supported by a full and slick mouthfeel, which evoked a melting chocolate sensation. That chocolate was contrasted beautifully by barrel-imparted flavours, namely coconut, almond, toffee, charred wood, vanilla, dark fruit and bourbon. It was complex and remarkably balanced, despite being very, very sweet. So much so that in small quantities you’d never know it was 14.5% ABV, save for a slight lingering heat. And as much as it was a treat for my tastebuds, I don’t think that I’d ever want to drink a full pint of it. At least not in one sitting. El Jaguar was bold and decadent, but above all else it was different than anything else that I tried at Cask Days.
2. Modern Times – Fortunate Islands American Wheat with Grapefruit Zest
Modern Times is a San Diego brewery whose beer I had wanted to try for a long time. It’s wasn’t the beer itself that drew me to Modern Times, but rather their awesome branding. As a marketer, sometimes I get a little hung-up on these sorts of things. I remember coming across a photo of their can design while searching for inspiration for a homebrew label and thinking: “those are beautiful”. I felt compelled to learn more about the company and the more I read, the more I liked.
Knowing that they would have two casks at the festival, I began sending threatening messages to friends attending the earlier sessions with hopes of securing myself a glass. When my session finally opened, I made a beeline for the California section and, with my first two tokens, purchased a sample of ‘Fortunate Islands’ – their extra-hoppy American Wheat Ale which had grapefruit zest added. After all the nervous anticipation, I was pleased to learn that the book was as good as the cover. Wonderful flavour – lively tropical hop, in particular mango and orange, mingle with a fresh and juicy grapefruit citrus. They are supported by a nice biscuity malt with some caramel. Although it may have finished the slightest bit thinner than I would have hoped, it remained a highlight for me. Approachable. Sessionable. Flavourful. If you could find it at the LCBO, I’d probably keep a supply year-round.
1. Ballast Point – Victory at Sea Imperial Porter with Cacao Nibs & Ghost Peppers
At a festival where hot pepper beers were almost too commonplace, this one really stood out from the crowd. Whereas with El Jaguar, any chilies that may or may not have been included in the mix didn’t make a statement, the chilies in this beer most certainly did. It was like a punch in the mouth the instant you took a sip. But that initial pain dissipated fairly quickly, revealing the lovely beer beneath. This created a false sense of security. Somehow in those short moments following the first taste, you forget all about the hurt you just endured and jump right back in. If anything, it gets spicier each time you raise the glass to your lips.
Disclaimer; I like spicy food A LOT. And as a rule of thumb, the spicier the better. Though I’m not always a fan of spicy sweets. I can eat a few bites of chili dark chocolate with some enjoyment, for example, but it doesn’t take long before it becomes nauseating. With that in mind, I was somewhat surprised at just how much I like Ballast Point‘s ghost peppery porter.
Tastes like tingles. The pepper attacks immediately, everything else is just a cloudy afterthought. It’s as if the beer is trying to make a statement to you senses; making sure that they’re paying attention for what’s to follow. As the initial hit fades out, in comes the chocolate and roast in all their glory! The roast, all coffee grind and smoke. The cacao nibs, all milky and smooth. And then there’s some vanilla and a hint of berry. Then chocolate and spice. The spice lingers. A thing of beauty.