Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

A Cask Beer Primer for Firkin Fest

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

Summit brewer Damian McConn (above) wants to open your eyes to the life of beer, living beer, also known as real ale.

“Once you show people what cask beer has to offer they really appreciate it,” he says.  There’s a sweet spot when the flavors and aromas come together as the beer matures in the cask. On the other hand, beer that goes into a bottle or keg “is as good as it’s going to get.”

The key difference between kegged or bottled beer and cask-conditioned ale is live yeast. The beer goes into a cask before fermentation is complete, McConn explains, so there’s still some residual sugar in the beer left to ferment. Then, with the addition of fresh yeast, the beer undergoes a secondary fermentation in the cask, giving the beer “flavor and quality that keg beer can’t attain.”

Kegged and bottled beers will degrade over time due to the effects of light, heat, and oxidation, but the live yeast in the cask protects the beer. In addition, McConn says the flavors are softer and rounder in traditional UK porters and stouts.

The addition of hops to the cask, a process called dry hopping, also add subtle flavors and aromas, McConn says, bringing out chocolate notes, for example, in the Summit Great Northern Porter and the Oatmeal Stout.

McConn got his start producing traditional English cask ales 11 years ago at  Park Royal Guinness Brewery in London. For the last seven years he’s been brewing at Summit, where cask ale is his favorite style and method of production, even though kegging and bottling are much easier processes. Casks account for less than one tenth of one percent of Summit’s total yearly production.The origin of cask ale, McConn says, is unique to the British Isles and still relatively new to the United States, where many beer drinkers are under the misperception that cask beer should be warm, flat, and hazy.

“That not true at all,” McConn says. “It should be polished bright. Education is one of the biggest things we have to work with.”

That education isn’t limited to beer drinkers, many of whom still believe the old stereotype of warm British beer.

Beer distributors and bars also need to get up to speed with the proper handling of cask beer. Once a cask gets to a bar, the beer needs to settle. Special equipment is also required to serve cask beer.

There have been instances of bartenders tilting a cask, McConn says, to get every last drop out of a cask. By doing, bar patrons just get a cloudy glass of yeasty sludge rather than a drinkable beer.

“It’s a challenge and a work in progress,” McConn says. “It’s quite an art form when it comes to venting and tapping.”

Katie Cannon / Heavy Table
Katie Cannon / Heavy Table

One local venue leading the way in serving cask beer is St. Paul’s The Happy Gnome. This weekend The Gnome will be serving cask beers from about 30 breweries at the third annual Firkin Fest.

A firkin is an 11-gallon stainless steel cask.

In addition to several firkins from Summit, Gnome general manager Catherine Pflueger says you’ll also be able to find firkins from other local breweries such as Lift Bridge, Flat Earth, Rush River, Fulton, Lake Superior, and Brau Brothers. Other breweries include Rogue, Great Divide, Bell’s, Avery, Victory, and Founders. [Download a full list in PDF format]

With the growing appreciation for craft beer, Pflueger says beer drinkers are also learning to appreciate cask beers. “The flavors that come out are once in a lifetime. It’s always unique.”

Summit will present three casks this weekend:  Extra Pale Ale dry hopped with Chinook hops, Oatmeal Stout dry hopped with traditional English East Kent Goldings hops, and Winter Ale dry hopped with citrusy Pacific North West Ahtanum hops, McConn says, “to see how the citrus pairs with the black malt.”

In addition to beers, Pflueger says look for cask ciders by Crispin, including an heirloom cider aged in a chardonnay barrel.

Tickets to enter Firkin Fest are $10 online and $15 dollars at the door.  Unlike other beer festivals, you need to purchase tasting tickets. Tickets for each four-ounce sample are $1. “That’s a pretty good deal,” Pflueger notes. “It works out to $4 for a pint.”

Firkin Fest runs from 1-9 pm Saturday at The Happy Gnome.

If you miss Firkin Fest, you’ve still got options. In addition to The Happy Gnome, other locations that feature Summit cask beer include The Muddy Pig, Grumpy’s, Bryant Lake Bowl, and Ngon Vietnamese Bistro.


  1. Steve Fletty

    It’s in the linked PDF. The initial beer list we had didn’t have Surly’s range yet, and you can’t just assume until you get confirmation.

  2. jf

    Just to clarify, bottle conditioned beer has the same live yeast properties as cask conditioned beer. To exclude bottling as completely different is inaccurate. Although, Summit beer is not bottle conditioned and thus completely different.

    Firkin Fest is a nice event. Also, Great Waters has good cask beer available every day.

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