I’ve gotta admit: I had no idea what a firkin was until I moved to Milwaukee and stumbled across a crowd of people gathered under the old-growth trees of Cathedral Square Park last July, laughing and sipping beer from pint glasses emblazoned with the words “Firkin Fest.”
After a little Googling, I learned that a firkin is a small wooden vessel, a quarter of the size of a barrel, and that beers and ciders brewed in firkins aren’t pasteurized or carbonated using any sort of outside equipment. This means that their mild fizziness comes from the yeast living inside the casks they’re aged in, and that the resulting brews are typically smoother and creamier than what you’d find on most liquor store shelves.
I love a good cream ale. So when our staff beer expert and executive editor extraordinaire Chris Drosner – who’s out of town this weekend – asked me if I’d cover Firkin Fest this year, I immediately agreed.
More than 40 breweries had set up tents along the perimeter of Cathedral Square Park for the 2018 iteration of the festival, and most of them were serving two or three different sample pours. So I wasn’t able to try nearly all of the beers, but I did take notes on a few of my favorites.1
1840 Brewing Company, Haus Weiss with Watermelon and Basil, 5.5% ABV. This was a great summer-y sipper. Slightly tart, with a fresh – but not overpowering – fruity finish. 1840 specializes in barrel-aged beers, and it was clear that the brew master had a handle on how to coax clean, complex flavors from a firkin.2
Miller Valley Brewing, George Dickel Tickel, 9.6% ABV. Miller doesn’t have a great reputation amongst craft beer aficionados. But this bourbon-barrel-aged maple milk stout delivered big flavors and bigger smiles. Smooth, hearty and perfectly suited to cask-conditioning, this was one of my favorite beers of the day.3
Epic Brewing Company, Escape to Colorado IPA (with Sour Patch Kids), 6.2% ABV. I love sour candy. And I love beer. So when I saw that Utah-based Epic had combined the two, I was intrigued. And this nicely balanced beer didn’t disappoint, hitting sweet, sour and slightly bitter notes all at once.4
3 Sheeps Brewing Company, Fresh Coast with Pineapple Plus Orange, 4.8% ABV. Many of the brewers at the festival added fruit or herbs to their signature beers – taking advantage of the fact that they didn’t have to worry about creating something that’d be shelf-stable for months. And this citrusy-y spin on 3 Sheep’s popular pale ale was a winner. The fresh pineapple and oranges cut through the bitterness of the hops nicely.5
Central Waters Brewery, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, 8% ABV. Sweet but not excessively so, this scotch ale with brown sugar and cinnamon was surprisingly, subtly complex.
When I finally waddled away from the park, with a full belly and fuzzy head (don’t worry – I took a cab home), I was definitely a firkin fan, and I’m already looking forward to attending the fest again in 2019.