I’m usually not a big “Beer Fest” guy. While the chance to taste rare beers and rub elbows with brewery personnel always sound enticing, in practice the typical Beer Fest experience often doesn’t live up to the hype, for reasons we’ve laid out before. Given the choice, I’ll take a bottle-sharing session and conversation with good friends, or a trip to my favorite pub, over the bustle and stress of the typical festival. However, there was nowhere in the beer-consuming universe I would rather have been on Saturday than Release the Firkins, Pittsburgh’s first cask ale festival that kicked off the city’s second annual beer week.
The beer was uniformly excellent. One strength of the cask festival concept is that even familiar beers become new experiences when served from a firkin in the proper manner. I’ve had Bell’s Two Hearted Ale hundreds of times, perhaps thousands; on Saturday I got to taste as it does essentially straight from the fermenter. Another advantage compared to kegs is that breweries can use the vessels as randalls, dry-hopping or adding other ingredients right in the cask, making each firkin a potential one-off. Sure, you’ve had Founder’s Centennial, but the classic IPA served fresh off a double-dry hop is a different animal altogether. You’ve had Weyerbacher Merry Monks Trippel, but what about “Mojito-style” served on lime and mint? Some of the experimentation worked better than others, but it was all interesting and made every tap worth trying.
For me, unsurprisingly, the hoppy beers were the star of the show. I’ve stated my love for Fat Head’s Head Hunter at length, but as the brewery continues an expansion process, it can be difficult to find at the height of freshness around town. The Simcoe double-dry-hopped version at RtF was a perfect distillation of the complexity of this fruity, piney hop- with just a touch of that distinctive cat pee zest people love or hate. I love it, and along with many others returned multiple times to the busy Fat Head’s tap.
If hops aren’t your thing, there were options to suit every taste. The first cask upon entering the festival hall was New Holland’s Dragon’s Milk, which was extremely popular. I heard multiple festival-goers state they’d “never tried anything like it”. I love to witness craft beer conversions, and the New Holland table was a force for evangelism on Saturday. Other highlights from the darker side of the malty spectrum included Flying Dog’s Pearl Necklace Oyster Stout dry-hopped with CTZ and East End’s Chocolate Covered Cherry Stout. Smoked beer lovers had Fat Head’s Up in Smoke, and Pittsburgh’s own Arsenal brought a Centennial Hopped Cider that was absolutely delicious, and their Picket Bone Dry Cider that served as a nice palate-cleanser to the barrage of flavorful cask ales.
The real star of RtF was Highmark Stadium, Pittsburgh brand-new soccer specific stadium. The event was held in the large social space and veranda running along the visitor’s end of the field. It was basically one big skybox offering stunning views of the city skyline, river, and verdant green pitch.
The intimate size of the event meant basically no lines for anything. There was no VIP tent of prestige brews, just unique options pretty much everywhere you looked. Although very crowded inside, the room flowed naturally and I never had any trouble getting to a beer I wanted to try. Event planners nailed the details we often gripe about during Beer Fests:
- ˃ Tasting glasses- No plastic disposal cups littering the floor, each patron got a commemorative taster to take home.
- ˃ Water- Every station had at least two pitchers of water and a bucket to rinse the tasters. I never saw an empty pitcher or bucket filled past capacity as volunteers and PCBW board members hurried about, filling and dumping as needed.
- ˃ FOOD- Two large food stations offered hummus and other spreads, finger-sized sandwiches, stuff wrapped in bacon, etc. I figured the spread would be gone within the first hour, but the food kept coming until nearly the end, allowing festival-goers to soak up some of the brew- an essential element to proper behavior at a four hour sampling party.
Festival-goers were generally very well-behaved. Although there were a few drunk folks walking around towards the end, I never saw anyone get out of hand. Lines for the restrooms were a little long at times, but civil. Other than a small firkin of East End’s Gratitude Barleywine, most of the other brews topped out in the 7 to 8% range, keeping everyone in good spirits without that hammer-to-the-head effect that several hours of Imperial Stouts and DIPA’s can have on a gathering of beer lovers.
The event was a celebration of Pittsburgh’s maturation as a beer city. Breweries like Penn showed up strong with a fantastic Bourbon Oak Pale Ale. Church Brew Works had one of the more unconventional offerings with their Brett Ambrosia with Lavender. As the event wore on, many of the city’s brewers and Beer Week board members collected on the veranda and drank glass after glass of Helltown ESB, laughing and telling stories of the formative years of Pittsburgh’s beer history.
Serving temperamental cask ale the right way is a time-consuming and messy proposition- like craft beer itself, it’s a labor of love. But cask is truly becoming part of the Steel City’s beer identity thanks to the leadership of Drew and Hart from Piper’s Pub. They took the knowledge accrued in the development of a first-class cask program at the pub and used it to create a signature event for Pittsburgh Beer Week going forward. Release the Firkins was more than the chance to tick a few new beers off your list- it was the culmination of years of work for craft beer lovers in the city, and the start of an exciting new chapter in Pittsburgh beer. It’s no Portland, Denver, or San Francisco. Not yet, anyway. But there are some truly exciting things happening here, with more on the horizon.
As jolly drinkers poured into the street, festival coordinator Hart Johnson, ran around offering non-ironic high fives and “Woo-hoo’s!” for anyone he came across. The enthusiasm was infectious, and the party continued across the city and into the night. If you missed it, I’m confident a tweaked and improved version will take place next year, so keep us in mind. Like so many other cities across the country, Pittsburgh is becoming a destination for real, good beer.