A well-run fest, a comfortable venue and one-of-a-kind beers mean it won't be this fest-goer's last.

It was a question posed multiple times on Saturday by friends and acquaintances when I told them it was my first Milwaukee Firkin Fest: “What, really?”

Yes, really.

This year the organizers of the annual beer festival specializing in unique cask beers moved the event up a few weeks, off of the mid-July birthday weekend I usually spend at a cabin up north. Game on.

I came away very impressed with my first Firkin Fest.

Firkin Fest 2019

Cathedral Square Park is a great venue for an event like this, with plenty of room to roam and sip, making the crowd feel modest if not even thin. There were a few tables with chairs or picnic tables – it’s hard to overstate how rare this is at beer festivals – to take a load off between pours, as well as lawn games like bags. Avoiding a common beer festival bugaboo, there were also plenty of portable toilets.

The park’s soaring trees offered shade, though as a cold front came through during the fest it became clear that wouldn’t be needed; the “cooler by the lake” factor (stronger in early June than mid-July) also contributed to my getting a little chilly by the time the fest wound down. 

A well-run fest allows the beer to take center stage, and there were some real gems being poured. Most of the 40 or so breweries and homebrew clubs that were pouring had two or three “regular” beers available plus one or two firkins – the small, naturally fermented kegs that are often infused with extra ingredients like fruit or spices.

But firkins can elevate beers even without any additions. Being naturally carbonated instead of the more typical “forced” fizz of carbon dioxide added to kegs or beer before packaging lends a softer body that’s almost always a more pleasant drinking experience. In England, there’s an entire movement dedicated to this style of serving “real ale.” Shouts to Madison’s Great Dane Pub and Brewery, which took this route, putting its fine Black Earth Porter in its firkin, unadorned.

Firkin Fest 2019

But the vast majority of the casks at Firkin Fest poured forth beers spiked with blueberry, apricot, vanilla, coffee, coconut, lime or even candy. For brewers, these firkins are a chance to experiment and at times create an entirely new flavor and aroma profile from a familiar beer.

Such was the case with One Barrel’s Commuter, a kölsch given a sharp left turn in a new, refreshingly tropical direction with the cask infusions of coconut and lime. Similarly, Lakefront Brewery’s gently tart New Grist Gose, which already contains lime, was punched up with more lime and raspberry – enough of the latter for a lot of fruit flavor but, interestingly, nearly no color.

At their best, the firkins blended the additions seamlessly into their base beers, creating entirely new beers. Other firkins were more like, “Yeah, that’s that IPA I know with a little bit of mango.”

And there was the occasional wild concept that just fell flat. Exhibit A here was 1840 Brewing’s Dank Frootie Glaze, a double oat, double wheat, double-dry-hopped milkshake IPA brewed, fermented and firkined with Frooties – the fruit version of Tootsie Rolls. I don’t know how a beer with so much could end up tasting like so little.  

This year’s winner of the the Big Firkin Award – based on a tally of all fest-goers votes (everyone gets two tickets upon entry to reward their fave firkins – to Indeed Brewing of Minneapolis for its firkin of Mexican Honey Light with hibiscus and lime. (Incidentally, Indeed is planning to open a taproom in Walker’s Point later this summer.)

My two tickets ended up going to breweries that made firkins in my style and flavor palate wheelhouse: 3 Sheeps Brewing with its Fresh Coast pale ale with peach and mango, and Milwaukee Brewing with its unnamed Russian imperial stout with vanilla, cinnamon and coconut. The latter, I was told, will be scaled up and making its way to four-packs later this fall – which means you’ll be able to take a little bit of Firkin Fest home with you.

The most unlikely really good beer of the day was this tasty number from Public Craft Brewing in Kenosha. Photo by Chris Drosner

A beer that I can’t let go unmentioned is Public Craft Brewing’s It’s Not a Tumeric. The beer’s ingredient list – turmeric, black pepper and lemon on a kettle sour base – was as eye-catching as the meme-ready photo of Arnold Schwarzenegger from Kindergarten Cop on the sign to maximize the reference. This beer was shockingly not a firkin – though it did originate as one in the Kenosha brewpub before it was made as a full batch.

And all that stuff worked together perfectly. The bright yellow beer had a spicy aroma, with the turmeric and pepper melding in perfect harmony, and the citrus and relatively mild acidity running the flavor. The spices were assertive but not overwhelming, and overall the beer was super refreshing and something I could definitely drink a whole pint of. It  would be a perfect boat sipper, and hopefully Public Craft will add it to its lineup of canned offerings.

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