Tap into the first Virginia Cask Fest

A very special thing happened this Saturday in Richmond: the Commonwealth’s first ever Cask Fest took place…and beer nerds rejoiced.

A very special thing happened this Saturday in Richmond: the Commonwealth’s first ever Cask Fest took place…and beer nerds rejoiced.

Cask ale is beer made the old school way. The kind of beer Clint Eastwood drinks during halftime. Sometimes referred to as real ales, they are brewed normally but finish their fermentation inside the container from which they are served. In this case that container is known as a cask, and it has a small hole in the top, that allows the brewer to pour in the beer, which then gets sealed. Once it is ready to be served, the hole is opened to allow oxygen in and add the pressure that lets the beer flow from the tap. This is an important difference between most keg beers. Since no artificial carbonation is added (think of the many lines of CO2 that run behind the bar at your favorite pub), the beer is fizzy and delicious all on its own.

Most beers today are pasteurized and filtered prior to being bottled/kegged, and in order to prevent excessive foaming during that process, all the carbonation is removed. Afterwards, carbonation gets added back in using a carbonating stone which gives the brewer much greater control over the process and the final product. Cask ale fermentation is much more unpredictable. They seal it in the cask and let it set a few weeks until opening, not really knowing how it will turn out. Since these real ales are not filtered, all the yeast, hops, and other delicious additives remain in the beer. Therefore it is important that the casks not be moved prior to serving so the sediment can collect on the bottom and the beer stays clear.

When cask ales are served, they are not chilled to the extent that most beers are served today, instead they are served a bit below room temperature, approximately 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit. This is the optimal temperature for the aroma and flavors to present themselves in a beer. When a beer is chilled down closer to freezing it suppresses more of these qualities–think of this when your “mountains turn blue.”

So why are there not more cask ales around? Besides the unpredictability of making cask ale, there is also the issue of spoilage. Once a cask ale is opened it has to be finished quickly, usually within three days, or it will go bad. The same oxygen that allows the beer to pour also breaks the beer down and causes it to taste like cardboard. This means cask ales have become pretty rare in America.1

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The Cask Fest

Eleven different Virginia breweries contributed casks of ale to the inaugural Virginia Cask Fest. It was well attended and drew every beer nerd in the Richmond area to Capital Ale House Downtown’s Biergarden–one of my favorite places to have a pint. This wasn’t the Chili Cook-off or Shamrock the Block, the people that went to this festival were there to try rare and unusual beers you cannot find at most bars. One of the things that struck me when talking to the different brewers was their passion for their work, as well as the collegial nature of the brewing industry in Virginia today.

The Cask Fest benefited the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild. The Chairman and founder Mike Killelea, brewer at Legend, spoke to me at length about the Guild. Since 2010 it has been working to improve brewing in Virginia by lobbying for legislative changes, organizing events for member breweries, and advocating for Virginia craft breweries. Mike has modeled the organization after the Virginia Wineries Association, and funds raised at the event will be put towards redesigning the Guild’s website and recovering costs associated with recent legislative work in getting SB 604 passed (which allows breweries to sell pints to customers without requiring them to serve food).

The Cask Fest organizers hope the fest will continue to grow in years to come and feature more mid-Atlantic breweries.

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The Beers

The Fest featured thirteen different cask ales, seven of which were India Pale Ales (IPA); I love IPAs, so I was happy to see it. However by the end of the day I had my fill of hops (don’t worry friends, I am ready for more today). This helped the non-IPA beers like Scotch ales, coffee infused beers, and wheat beers to stand out from the crowd.

Legend Brewing Company – Golden IPA

This cask ale was a variation of their Golden IPA that is sold throughout Richmond, but when it was put into the cask extra hops were added (known as dry-hopping) along with French Oak chips. I didn’t know this, but Legend actually taps a cask of real ale every Friday night in their bar! I recommend checking it out, because Mike clearly has a passion for brewing real ale, and you will not be disappointed.

Hardywood Park – Bourbon Cru

With 11% alcohol by volume, this was the booziest ale of all those present. It was brewed using Belgian yeast that gave it a smooth taste (considering the high ABV) and was aged in bourbon barrels from A. Smith Bowman’s Distillery in Fredericksburg. The Belgian yeast used in this beer is a slow acting strain that changes the flavors of the beer over time so they recommend buying a bottle to age in your collection for a while. Of course that means you will also need to buy one to drink today, but who doesn’t want double beer? Check out Hardywood next weekend for a release party featuring a similar Bourbon Barrel aged beer as part of their Reserve Series which will soon be available around town.

Devil’s Backbone – Wit Bier

Devil’s Backbone brought two wheat beers with them to the Fest: Wit Bier and White Stag. Their Wit Bier was brewed with orange peels, coriander, and another super-secret ingredient. This one won my vote for Favorite Beer at the Fest. By being served cask ale style, this beer ended up with a sparkling effervescence like champagne and a spicy finish. Keep an eye out for a collaboration beer from Devil’s Backbone, Wild Wolf, and Blue Mountain Brewery in the next few weeks: a honey pear wit bier that might make its way to a Richmond Capital Alehouse.

Williamsburg AleWerks – Choca-Latte

The Choca-Latte seemed to be the crowd favorite from the informal polling I conducted on the floor. This beer drank like a boozed-up cup of black coffee: incredibly smooth and easy going down. Unlike most coffee beers that taste like alcohol with hints of coffee, this was like coffee with hints of alcohol and was infused with vanilla bean and Dutch chocolate.

O’Connor Brewing Company – Great Dismal Black IPA

The Great Dismal Black IPA was probably the most extreme beer at the festival. You could immediately pick up the scent of a shot of espresso, and the taste had a heavy coffee flavor but at the same time the bitterness of an IPA. It was also a very murky beer, reminding me of the actual Great Dismal Swamp (in a good way).

Lost Rhino Brewing Company – Face Plant IPA

Lost Rhino was new to me. The brewery opened recently in Ashburn and was started by brewers from Old Dominion Brewing Company. This variation of Face Plant IPA was dry-hopped with HBC 432, an experimental hop variety from the Hop Breeding Company. I assume this is a weaponized version of standard hops designed to cause beer lovers to swoon after a single whiff. Word is that Lost Rhino is working on getting into the Richmond beer market, so keep an eye out for their beers.

Drink fresh, Richmond!

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  1. This is not the case in the UK thanks to the efforts of a group called the Campaign for Real Ale CAMRA. CAMRA was formed in March 1971 by British gents disappointed by the low quality of beer available in the UK beer market which, at the time, was dominated by only a handful of companies. They fought back to keep cask ales around as the beer market changed, and now the UK enjoys a wide variety of different real ales. 
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