Follow beer writer, Troy Burtch, as he explores the wonderful world of craft beer and the pubs that serve it. Great Canadian Beer is a place to come to catch up on beer news, read tasting notes, check out event listings, and for pub previews and reviews.


Monday, April 6, 2009

Cask Ale Front and Centre: Guest Writer Rob Symes

I had one hell of a good time this weekend. I headed to Volo on Friday afternoon immediately after clearing the work off my desk to kick things off, meeting a bunch of friends for numerous pints of cask ale. The hard work by the CASK! group was clearly evident and all the pubs involved did an outstanding job promoting this (hopefully annual) event. I managed to get to four of the six pubs featured and sampled from each other their offerings. I had many drinking buddies along the way, including an Englishman of my age by the name of Rob Symes, who has graciously offered us this post on his Cask Crawl wrap-up. Enjoy!

This weekend saw a new kind of beer festival hit Toronto, as six locations across the city opened their doors and allowed beer lovers to sample cask conditioned ales. For those of you who are unclear what is meant by cask conditioned, let me explain. Cask beer undergoes a secondary fermentation in the barrel, is free of chemicals and preservatives, and is unfiltered and fresh. It can either be served by gravity (a tap in the bottom of the barrel opens to let beer into the glass), or by using a handpump on the bar. People who like cask beer tend to like it a lot, appreciating the freshness and enhanced taste and texture. This weekend’s event was organised in conjunction with Cask! Toronto, a group of cask devotees dedicated to promoting awareness and growth of cask beer in the province of Ontario.

On Friday night I had a chance to check it out for myself. Bar Volo has an outstanding reputation as a fine beer establishment, and in recent years has become a mecca for cask lovers due to its choice selection of local casks, and its annual fall festival in honour of the great elixir. The MacLean’s Country Organic Ale was a good choice to start, full of lemongrass and herbal flavours; it struck me as a great candidate for a summer patio. As a follow-up, C’est What’s Chocolate Hazelnut Ale made a rare appearance on cask, and would appeal to lovers of nutella with its rich milk chocolate base and strident hazelnut bouquet. The clear winner for me was Neustadt’s Texas Tea Stout, a rich creamy beer, full of roasted coffee, chocolate and cream. This beer is truly a remarkable achievement from a brewery who has hit their stride. The grand-daddy of them all (and an appropriate finisher) is Grand River’s Russian Gun Imperial Stout, a high octane beast of a beer that hides its alcohol well, and goes down a little too easily for something so strong. Grand River has become somewhat of a darling in the local beer scene, and their imperial stout should help cement their reputation.

A pub crawl demands at least two bars in an evening, and a number of people headed to the Victory Café, location of the wildly successful winter cask festival held on a frigid day earlier this year. The bar’s very own Compass Starlight (Nickelbrook) proved to be the perfect session ale, full of citrus notes, and balanced by a biscuit background. Along with the Neustadt, this is my favourite beer of the whole event, and I’d heartily recommend a visit to the Victory to try it. The County Durham Signature would also make an excellent choice for an evening’s drinking, mixing citrus with caramel and floral hints. Our final visit of the night took in C’est What, which was still packing in a crowd despite the late hour. For the Toronto cask lover this may well be ground zero – five handpumps dispensing delicious ale, including the very sessionable house brew, Al’s Cask Ale. County Durham’s Hop Head provided a wonderful burst of grapefruit and Grand River’s Curmudgeon IPA benefits nicely from the cask format. We returned the next day to try the Ploughman’s Ale and Black Oak Double Chocolate Cherry Stout with some friends. In keeping with a theme, C’est What also offers its own festivals and cask events, so check out the blog because they are always a great experience.

The festivities carried on throughout Sunday, with a marquis Cask IPA challenge at Volo (which I’m sure you’ll read about once Troy recovers enough to write it up), and the participating bars still pouring the remaining beers. However, the cask conditioned fun does not end with the close of this event. You can grab a pint at a number of fine establishments in the city , including those who took part in this event (The Granite, Volo, The Rhino, Mill Street Brewpub, Victory Café and C’est What?). For a list of other locations in Toronto and the rest of Ontario check out the Cask! Website for further details (hyperlinked:

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