The Firkin Truth About This Year’s Microfestivus

Microfestivus 2013Possibly better known by when they’re served than by what they actually are, “firkins” still generate plenty of interest at craft brewery events, even if some of the folks in attendance might not be sure what’s the big deal is.  Small in stature, looking a little bit like a miniature keg, firkins are often the focus of brewery and craft beer bar events that often kick off the weekend, hence the simple but effective marketing term “Firkin Friday”.  There are also beer festivals which solely feature them, or perhaps more specifically the beer which flows from them.  So what exactly is a firkin?

Structure wise, it does look like a keg, but of course, is much, much smaller.  An actual firkin holds roughly nine gallons of beer, and it’s even smaller relative, the “pin”, holds about half as much.  Often a pin is also called a firkin, but in either case, they are vessels in which beer is allowed to mature a bit, and from which the beer is directly served.  It is around these simple details that the firkin’s importance revolves.  Newly made beer is added to a firkin or pin, a bit of yeast is added, and the beer is allowed to ferment and naturally carbonate inside the vessel.  In order for the yeast to work, the beer is kept somewhat cool but not cold, and is served at such a temperature as well.  Lastly, the beer is also served directly from the firkin, (or occasionally through the use of a manual hand pump mechanism) without the use of pressure from any external carbon dioxide.  The lack of co2 and the slightly warmer serving temperature produced plenty of comments from those new to cask ale, or “real ale” as it is sometimes called, that the beer is being served too warm or that it is “flat”, but this is how beer has been served for thousands of years, and for those who enjoy such beer, is the attraction.  The natural carbonation is often said to give beer a “creamy” mouthfeel, and for beers that are naturally “heavier” in body anyhow – stouts, for example – this seems to enhance the beer and the tasting experience.  With others, such as with an IPA, the effects of being cask conditioned seems to have a softening affect on any taste given to the beer by the hops, which gives a fun counterpoint of reference to compare the non cask version of the same beer to.  Additionally, cask beer is also of course unfiltered, lending a cloudy look to it.  Firkins also give brewers a chance to easily tweak the beer’s flavor a little by occasionally adding special ingredients to the cask, such cocoa nibs, spices, or just about anything under the sun that might work.

While Roanoke’s Microfestivus may not approach the level of some festivals which specifically feature cask conditioned ale, typically one or two firkins make their way to the Star City’s premier beer festival each year.  This year, by design as well as some good chance, it looks like Microfestivus will have at least four cask ales at the event.  Heavy Seas’ Saison, Red Sky At Night, as well as a firkin of Devils Backbone’s Striped Bass Pale Ale, will be on hand.  Two others will feature additionally added ingredients.  The first is a take on Starr Hill’s Dark Starr Stout with Rainier Cherries added to it. 

3 Brothers The Beer Road FirkinThe other holds a special place in my own heart, as Harrisonburg’s Three Brothers Brewery allowed me to stop by a couple weeks ago and add a couple items to a firkin of their new Russian Imperial Stout.  First off, a huge thanks to the guys at Three Brothers and Mr. Aden Short from P.A. Short Distributing, for the chance to help design a firkin – for Microfestivus no less – and potentially ruin some of the brewery’s street credibility going forward.  (If the firkin doesn’t turn out, it’s all on me, fellas.)  My choices for the stout?  Toasted coconut and some toasted almonds.  Here’s hoping it’s halfway drinkable. 

Nonetheless, four or more firkins at Microfestivus will give the truly craft curious a chance to taste out a few beers which have been given a more natural, or at least different treatment than usually found at the pub or bar.  This is, of course, what beer festivals are and should be all about – new beers, new tasting experiences, and possibly new favorites to be found.  As far as my own contribution?  We’ll find out in less than a week.  Cheers, all!


~ by thebeerroad on August 5, 2013.

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