Days 52 & 53

Cask Days in Toronto this past weekend was not an official part of the college curriculum, but it was all about beer and it was educational, so I considered it an optional but highly recommended extension of the course.

First up on Saturday were three lectures at bar Volo about cask-conditioned ale. Kudos to Cask Days for offering Niagara College brewmaster students a student rate on lecture tickets.

(Cask-conditioned ale, also known as “real ale”, is simply beer that has fermented right inside the metal or wooden cask from which it will be dispensed; or, as is mainly the case in Canada, is beer that has been moved directly from the fermenting tank to a cask without being filtered, pasteurized or artificially carbonated. Because of the still-active yeast that gets transferred with the beer, a cask of beer is, in a way, a living thing. But I digress.)

Charles MacLean

Charles MacLean

The first lecture, “Brewing Cask Ale”, was delivered by Charles MacLean, “Mr. Cask Ale” of Ontario, and the brewmaster for Wellington County Brewing back in 1985. You could spot the Brewmaster students during Charles’s lecture–they were the ones taking copious notes about temperatures, times, grains, and hops. Charles brought up the interesting fact that northern English drinkers like a bit of head on their cask ale, so the cask is often primed with a bit of fermentable sugar (so that the yeast produces more CO2), and a “sparkler” is added to the tip of the dispensing tap, acting like a tiny garden sprinkler that sprays the beer into the glass to produce more of a head. Apparently in the south of England, most drinkers believe the extra carbonation interferes with the taste of the beer, so the casks aren’t primed and a sparkler is not used to dispense the beer. Charles, being trained in the south of England, does not prime his casks.

MacLean's IPA

MacLean's IPA

An added bonus feature of the lecture was a glass of Charles’s British-style IPA, dry-hopped with Fuggles. I wept with joy at the taste.

Next up were George Millebrandt of C’est What  and Ralph Morana of bar Volo, speaking about “Cellaring and Serving Cask Ales”. Traditionally, the brewer fills up the cask while it is standing on end, then hammers a bung, called a keystone, into the hole in the end of the cask to seal it for transportation. The casks are transported while standing upright, and then are laid on their sides behind bar and allowed to settle. When it is time to tap the cask, a tap is driven through the keystone, and beer can then flow out when the tap is opened. Alternatively, if the beer is being stored in another room, a hose is attached to the tap, and a hand pump at the bar, called a beer engine, pulls the beer out.

George Millbrandt

George Millbrandt

(Off on another tangent: the phrase “draught beer” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word “dragan” which means “to pull” or “to drag”; hence “draught horse”, a horse used to pull a wagon. “Draught ale” refers to the fact that it is pulled from the cask by a hand pump . Technically speaking, beer from kegs is not “draught” because it is pushed from its keg by the CO2 that was injected into the keg, not pulled by a hand pump. But I digress.)

However, neither George and Ralph lay the casks on their sides. Instead, they leave them standing on end, although they employ different methods to get the beer out.

George (C’est What?) uses a long metal tube that is hammered through the keystone, and then slid down into the cask until it is almost at the bottom.  A hose from the hand pump is attached to the projecting end of the metal tube, and the cask is ready to be served.  However, the end of the metal tube is drawing beer from near the bottom of the cask, so yeast and hop sediment from the bottom of the cask can be pulled up along with the beer.

Ralph (bar Volo) uses a new device called a “Cask Widge“. This plastic device is also hammered through the keystone while the cask is still upright, but then a slim flexible plastic tube is slid through the Cask Widge and down into the beer. The plastic tube has floats at the end and mesh-covered holes just below that. When slid into the beer, the floaty-end of the tube curves up and bobs at the surface, with the mesh opening just below the surface. This way, the clearest beer at the surface is always drawn. When you start drawing sludgy beer, you know the level of beer has fallen into the sludge zone and the cask is finished. There was a lot of interest in the Cask Widge at the end of the lecture, and a lot of questions asked about it as a sample was passed around.

George trained in the north of England, and Ralph in the south, so there was a lot of “open and frank discussion” between them about the merit or heresy of using a sparkler, priming casks, and having a head on a glass of cask ale. While we were listening, we were sampling an English mild that Ralph and George has collaborated on. Yum!

Finally, Nick Pashley and Robert Hughey spoke about the history of cask ale in Ontario. Well, that was what they were supposed to talk about. Nick, being a highly entertaining raconteur, took us on a history of cask ale and Nick Pashley. Robert Hughey got us back on topic by recounting the recent history of cask ale in Ontario, starting with Charles MacLean and Wellington County back in 1985.

There's Gold in Them There Casks Ale

There's Gold in Them There Casks Golden Ale

This lecture was accompanied by a golden ale created by Ralph Morana and Nick Pashley. Hopped with Galaxy and then dry-hopped with Galaxy, this was so citrusy, I thought at first that they had added grapefruit juice to the beer. Another beer to cry over, the moreso when it was announced that the cask was empty.

After the lectures, it was time for a bit of a social, organized by CASK!, the organization trying to raise awareness of cask ale in Toronto.  However, I could only stay for a pint, I had a GO train to catch, and lecture notes to study for Kevin Somerville’s midterm exam on Monday morning (at 8:30 a.m.).


On Sunday morning, it was back on the GO train at an unseasonably early hour in order to be at the Brewer’s Breakfast at bar Volo. I met a number of brewers and beer writers, Niagara students and teachers, and also some beer enthusiasts I meet regularly at other beer events. Breakfast was delicious–Scotch eggs, sausage, bacon, fresh bread (including bread baked with dried hops–wow, that will wake you up in the morning)–and to finish, a pint of baltic porter and a toast to the success of Cask Days.

Then we all walked over to Hart House on the U of T campus. Although not a brewer, I entered a side gate with the brewers, thus unknowingly by-passing the long line-up of ordinary attendees at the main gate. From there, it was an afternoon of sampling some of the best of the best while talking to fellow students, college staff, friends, brewers and random strangers. Cold viruses probably had a field day, since we were all sampling from each other’s glasses as certain casks were highly recommended while others were given the so-so rating. With over 80 casks there, representing over 50 brewers, there was no way to sample everything, but I tasted enough to establish some favourites:

  • Oak-aged Cranberry (Brasserie Dunham, Quebec) — This was my first, and remained my favourite. Imagine biting raw cranberries, with their mouth-sucking tartness. Then add in a sour-milk sourness. It felt like someone had punched me in the mouth. So refreshing! And such a pretty shade of pink, with a beautiful whitest white frothy head.
  • Oak-Aged Baltic Porter (Les Trois Mousquetaires, Quebec) — An incredibly complex strong beer (9.2%), with its notes of chocolate, dark toast, and treacle, all mixed in with sourness, vanilla, bourbon and tannins from the oak. Wow.
  • Blueberry Ale (Pumphouse Brewery, New Brunswick) — Blueberries, start to finish. Not cloyingly sweet, just a  refreshing summer ale.
  • Zeitgeist Weissenbock (Flying Monkeys, Barrie) — A fellow first-year student, Sebastian MacIntosh, works at Flying Monkeys, and brewed this up a few weeks ago, although he didn’t know it would be featured at Cask Days. Going by the taste of this dark toasty sweet brew, Sebastian has a bright future ahead of him, and I obviously need to peek over his shoulder during Kevin’s exam.

There were more, but you get the idea. Good times, good times.

I also served Niagara College beers in our booth for a while, and met several people interested in taking the Brewmaster course. It was good to be able to give them a first-hand account of what the course was like.

Eventually though, all good things must end. As much as I wanted to come back for the evening session, and then the after-party at bar Volo, Kevin’s mid-term exam tomorrow morning was ever-present (sort of like a case of athlete’s foot–perhaps not uppermost in your mind, but certainly never far from it either.) So it was one last sample and then back to the books.

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