Since 2009, one Milwaukee beer festival has been doing things a little differently than the rest. Milwaukee Firkin Beer Fest has plenty of standard brews to sample, but it also has dozens of cask-conditioned ales for discerning beer palates.

Before you head to the festival in just over a week, learn a thing or two about what to expect.

What’s a firkin?

Technically a firkin is a small cask or barrel, but what’s important is what’s inside. The vessel holds unpasteurized beer that has been naturally carbonated. It’s fresh, non-processed beer.

What do these “natural” beers taste like?

Beers out of firkins generally don’t have nearly as much carbonation as standard brews. But this isn’t a bad thing. That smoothness can result in bigger, more complex flavor.

“Supposedly you can detect and enjoy multiple flavors more exactly with the excess carbonation agitating the palate,” explains certified beer judge and resident expert Tom “Grynder” Ciula.

What types of beers are brewed in firkins?

Technically, all sorts of different styles. But Ciula doesn’t recommend every one.

“Firkins are generally used only for ales,” he says. “We learn from the English that lighter malty styles are a favorable choice for firkins, but any beer that benefits from a creamier texture makes for a interesting glass. I’m not a fan of big hoppy beers or sours from the firkins. Those styles need a tingle on your tongue or you’re left with a harsh aftertaste.”

Note: I agree with our friend Grynder, but I did have a Bell’s Hopslam Imperial IPA on firkin a few years ago that was delicious. It may have been the honey in the recipe that helped balance the flavor.

How many firkins are available at the fest?

More than 50 are expected to be at the festival, along with more than 150 other brews. Consider mixing cask-conditioned beers with regular ones, and don’t overdo it on the firkins. As with most beer festivals, rinse our tongue (and hydrate) with frequent water breaks in between tastings.

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“Carbonation is a necessary sensory scrubber,” adds Ciula. “So going around and trying nothing but firkin beers can deaden your palate quickly.”

When and where is the fest?

Milwaukee Firkin Beer Fest
Saturday, July 21; 3 to 7:30 p.m.
Cathedral Square Park (520 E. Wells St.)
Tickets start at $50