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.
Read the rest of this entry »