The meteorologists at the Washington Post had predicted a mostly sunny day for Saturday, 3 November, and Mad Fox Brewing Company's lead brewer, Charlie Buettner, was concerned about keeping the seventeen casks from fourteen area breweries cool. He would be serving them outside, for the Falls Church, Virginia, brewpub's first-ever Cask Ale Festival.
The morning of the festival, Buettner rubbed his hands together to keep them warm. There wouldn't be a problem. The forecast was wrong. The day had turned out cloudy, blustery, and cold.
That was 'cask ale weather,' and cask ale fans would not be deterred. Beginning with the initial pour at 11 am, a steady stream of attendees entered the courtyard in front of Mad Fox. The pub's inside dining room would eventually be filled to capacity. By 4 pm (and the festival would continue another hour), nearly all of the casks had been drained. And, the clouds finally did dissipate.
How were the beers?
While fourteen were tasty, one ale stank, literally: it smelled of rotten eggs. Another seemed a tad sour, even though the posted brewery description made no mention of that quality. A third was downright murky, although (not looking at it) it tasted okay.
But, for me, there were five casks that exemplified 'real ale' merit. My criteria were freshness of flavor, cask raison d'etre (Would the beer taste better NOT in cask, but as draft or in bottle?), balance and elegance, and visual clarity, although the first three outweigh the last. I also gave special merit to beers of session strength that tasted bigger than they were, or as the beer writer Michael Jackson put it, were "more-ish."
In no particular order, my choices were:
- From Mad Fox: Mason's Dark Mild. What's not to admire about a beer, at 3.3% alcohol that's abundant with dark malt flavor? And quite bright.
- From Port City (of Alexandria, Virginia): Monumental IPA. A bronze-medal winner at the Great American Beer Festival (in non-cask form), and showing earthy hop character here. Well-balanced.
- From Oliver Ales (of Baltimore, Maryland): Ironman Pale Ale (mistakenly identified at the fest as Strongman, the brewery's barleywine). Bright, showing fresh earthy hops and malt balance.
- From Heavy Seas (of Baltimore, Maryland): Winter Storm Imperial ESB. An amalgam of US and British beer styles. A caramel-malty, earthy-hoppy, dry-finishing concoction. Dry-hopped (meaning infused directly in the cask) with Maryland-grown Cascade hops.
- From Capitol City Brewing (of Arlington, Virginia): Capitol City IPA. An abundant aroma of pine and citrus. A toasted malt flavor. A healthy slug of hoppy bitterness on the finish.
A festival run by brewers brings out the brewers. It's fun for them; fun for the customers; it's good for business. As Michael Scott of the television program The Office would say: "It's a win-win-win scenario."
The volunteers pouring the casks were knowledgeable about beer and about cask ale. That's not always the case at beer festivals. And, that 20-ounce festival glass, actually made of glass, and big enough to get one's nose into it before drinking, to catch a good whiff of ale goodness?
Cribbing again from television: "Brilliant!"
- More photos from the festival: here.
- More festival details (including the full list of cask ales): here.
- What is cask-conditioned 'real ale'? Read more at Cask Ale USA.
- Caveat lector: As a representative for Select Wines, Inc. —a wine and beer wholesaler in northern Virginia— I sell the beers of Heavy Seas and Olivers.