At its most basic, a cask is a vessel for holding beer and dispensing it. But a cask is so much more than that: it’s a medium for brewers to create unique and inventive beers, usually in small batches for specific events.
Edmonton is home to two popular and long-running cask festivals, where local breweries bring beer made for the event. Throughout the year, several beer-friendly establishments host regular cask nights.
Aside from the obvious attraction — beer — cask events are great opportunities for people to gather and appreciate beer that has been created, in many cases, just for them.
“You get together with likeminded people to enjoy something and talk about something that will likely never happen again,” says Andrew Ironmonger of the Alberta Craft Beer Guide, a quarterly magazine that rounds up the breweries around the province.
Cask beer (also known as real ale) represents a throwback to a time before technology and industrial processes transformed most of the beer we drink into a product that’s considered finished when it goes into bottles, cans and kegs. Cask-conditioned beer is a living product that is still undergoing fermentation in the vessel and carbonating naturally. It takes a deft touch to tame those processes without using machinery to filter the beer or regulate carbonation.
While real ale has undergone a revival in the United Kingdom, it’s largely a niche phenomenon in North America, with breweries diverting small portions of beer into casks and tweaking them with additions like fruit, spirits and wood chips.
“It’s a low-risk way for breweries to play and experiment,” says Ironmonger, who regularly promotes local cask nights via the Alberta Craft Beer Guide’s Twitter account (@AbBeerGuide).
This has led to the criticism that too many brewers are taking a “kitchen sink” approach to casks, throwing in all kinds of things that have no business in beer. It’s a not totally unjustified view, but real ale enthusiast and professional brewer Shane Groendahl points out casks are also a way to showcase well-made traditional styles like bitters and brown ales.
“Casks are an exercise in imagination — and skill. It takes a more skilled hand to produce a beer that will pour properly and be what the brewer intended,” says Groendahl, production manager at Blindman Brewing in Lacombe.
Groendahl is also a founding member and current president of Edmonton Beer Geeks Anonymous (EBGA), which organizes two popular cask-centric festivals every year: Freeze Your Cask Off in late winter/early spring and the Real Ale Festival in late summer/early autumn. EBGA also curates a calendar of local beer events on its website that includes cask nights held around town.
Arcadia on 124th Street has been an ardent supporter of Alberta beer since opening four years ago and hosts regular cask nights on Tuesdays. To owner Darren McGeown, cask nights are not only good spotlights for local breweries, they’re a nice way of bringing people together.
“You walk around and there’s beer chatter everywhere. It’s a great community gathering,” he says.