This post is a change from the usual fare.
I have a confession: I am a massive beer geek, and a homebrewer. As such, the latter helps me deal with a fact that affects the former: that Ontario, and to a greater degree Kitchener-Waterloo, are backwards when it comes to quality craft-brewed suds. We've seen some good progress in the fight for good beer in Ontario, but KW took a major step backwards when the Castle on King closed in 2008.
I am a big fan of something called Cask Ale (also known as "real ale" in certain parts of the world, notably those where CAMRA holds sway). Actually, it's not so much a style of beer so much as an aspect of its production and serving. Cask ales undergo secondary fermentation in, and are served directly from, the casks that give them their name. These containers, once made of wood but now usually stainless steel or plastic, are not force-carbonated like normal beer kegs. Instead the beer naturally carbonates by the action of live yeast. They are usually served by hand-pump ("beer engine") or gravity feed (directly from the cask).
To the neophyte, cask beer tastes warmer and flatter than refrigerated, force-carbonated, filtered beer. However, the reason why Erin and I seek out cask ale is that it is unequaled in flavour. If you care about how your beer tastes, you owe it to yourself to seek out cask ale and try it. And don't be put off when the waitron snaps its gum at you and drawls, "D'ya know it's warm and flat, right?"
Down the highway, Toronto is becoming a hotbed for cask ale, with a growing number of establishments that will have a cask of something available at least part of the time. Personal favourites like the legendary Bar Volo and C'est What have led the way-- I highly recommend either if you find yourself downtown on Yonge or Front.
Closer to home, the Woolwich Arrow in Guelph usually has two or three different casks at any time, and Gambrinus in London has popped onto my radar. But Waterloo Region is home to no cask-serving establishment that I know of. As previously mentioned, the late lamented Castle would often serve cask, but we have been without Harold's cask ale stewardship for over three years now.
But, this past weekend, cask ale made a Waterloo appearance. One day only, the Perimeter Institute Black Hole Bistro hosted Bask in the Cask, a ticketed event which featured casked product from Grand River Brewing (Curmudgeon IPA), Muskoka Brewing (Double Chocolate & Cranberry Stout), the ever-improving Flying Monkeys (Netherworlds Cascadian dark IPA) and Stonehammer (Coffee Stout, and a Maple Red Ale.) Of the offerings, the Curmudgeon and the Maple Red were standouts, but every beer was interesting. And the event was well attended, with over 100 people willing to pay $25 for 4 8oz samples.
Unfortunately, even as I asked around, none of the brewers could tell me about establishments willing to carry cask.
And there's a reason, unfortunately. Casks' shelf-life may be in the order of a couple of months, but once tapped they need to be consumed within a few short days... and that's with the bartender taking certain end-of-day precautions to keep the beer from spoiling. That's because the cask isn't sealed... air is drawn into the cask as beer is drawn out, and oxygen (as well as airborne microbes) are death to beer.
In fact, that's a part of casks' charm. Their character does evolve over the lifetime of the cask, as the beer is a living, changing entity. But as a bartender, you need to be able to serve it out fast enough, and you need to know how to handle it. And these are not trivial things.
Still, change is afoot. Oncask may not have an active website, but they are actively promoting beer served "on cask in Ontario" (get it?) They have a very active account on twitter (@oncask) and encourage you to follow the hashtag #oncask to get the latest on who is serving what.
On the local front, I'm pretty sure we could see a number of places be willing to experiment with casks, if enough people start asking them about it. I plan on leaning hard on Beertown when they open up-- one does not call oneself a "beer town" without also being a justifiable prime beer spot, unless one wishes to invite criticism and mockery.
But I suspect that one of the local craft-beer-friendly watering holes (Kickoff? Borealis? Lancaster Smokehouse?) are going to clue in to the fact that they could create a unique draw for a small, but growing, number of beer drinkers by offering up the occasional cask. And when they do, Oncask will be there to help them get their message out.
And I will be first in line.