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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Volo-nteering at Cask Days: By Rob Symes - Guest Writer

While I was busy tasting the beers during session 1 of Volo's Cask Days, friend and frequent guest writer, Rob Symes, was busy behind the Toronto station pouring samples for the excited crowd, and it appeared throughout the session that he was having a grand-old time. Today he shares his views with us all (except for the part about the ribbing he was getting from some of the regulars). Ladies and gentlemen, Rob Symes...

As readers of this fine blog know, this past weekend was a big one for Toronto beer lovers, as Bar Volo hosted its 5th Cask Days festival. I’ve been going to Volo for a good while now, and feel lucky to have such a good bar within striking distance of home, so I figured I’d show some gratitude for all the good beers I’ve supped and volunteer to work at this year’s Cask Days. I turned up forty minutes prior to the first session on a wet and windy day in Toronto. Fortunately for the line that soon began to gather, the rains had abated, and like some kind of divine thumbs up the clouds were slowly clearing away.

The first thing you should know about planning an event is that however much groundwork and preparation you do, there is almost always a crunch period at the end as life starts to mix curve balls and changeups into what had been a steady diet of fastballs. The casks aren’t labelled yet, some have only just arrived, there’s a fountain of IPA at the bar and the doors are scheduled to open in thirty minutes. It’s a testament to the quality of the Volo team that the opening is only delayed by a few minutes. This is a side of the weekend that most punters don’t see – its hard, hectic work that places a lot of pressure on the people who want the event to go as smoothly and enjoyable as possible.

I start off manning the Toronto station, which proves to be a popular one as most of the regulars are eager to try Ralph’s mild. I’ll find out later that it’s an excellent interpretation of the style, and perfect to start the evening off with because it only weighs in at 3.8%. A note to all you folks who drank the IPAs or barleywines and then went for the mild – you’re doing it all wrong. It’s the beer equivalent of drinking your OJ after brushing your teeth. Milds are delicate beers and if the palate acclimatises itself to higher intensity beers off the bat, you’ll miss out on the complexity and subtlety they can offer. The other quick sellers from the GTA were St. AndrĂ©’s Freshly Squeezed Barley Juice (a misnomer – I later found it was all about juicy hops), and Durham’s Black Eye (something of a black IPA if you’re happy with that oxymoron).

The second shift began at 9pm with my move to the Ontario East and North-West station, which had a number of interesting offerings. Church-Key’s Islay Scotch Ale proved to be very popular amongst the scotch lovers I talked to, and the novelty factor of Hockley Valley’s Peanut Butter and Jelly had a huge cross-over appeal. As with session one, the crowd is enthusiastic about the selection, and I’m repeatedly told that this is the best cask days yet, which bodes well for the continuing improvement of the Ontario beer scene. I’ve had some damn awful casks since moving here from the UK six years ago, but I can honestly say that after ploughing through a good number over the weekend, that the quality was high across the board, and that these beers would fare well at any of the CAMRA fests I’ve worked at.

A little less than ten hours after I started working (and a full seventeen since I left for my day job) the customers begin to trickle out. To be honest, the end of the day’s pouring is a relaxed affair, especially compared to the crazed rush of the first session. There’s no rapid serving, no line-ups of people after the bell has already been rang and no one complaining that they have left over drink tickets. It’s been a good evening and every one seems to be leaving in good spirits (Halloween pun intended). It may be the end of many people’s night, but the work isn’t done yet. The cleanup takes a full hour and involves lugging casks outside to ensure they don’t spoil. It’s a long day for me, but it’s an even longer weekend for the staff, who will be pulling the same gig on Saturday and Sunday.

So what did I take away from this experience? Firstly, the amount of work and effort I thought went into this event was even greater than I imagined. As a volunteer I just turned up, poured a few beers and helped with clean up, but the regular staff do an amazing amount of work, and they’re a credit to Ralph. Secondly, the man himself has a tireless dedication to the success of not only this event, but of the beer scene in Ontario. Buy him a drink, support the events Volo hosts and remember that the bar serves good beer year round, and not just during Cask Days. Finally, the community we have here is diverse, but strong. I had the opportunity to speak to a lot of people while I poured and I was struck by what a good bunch y’all are. Hopefully we can spread the word, convert a few people to the cause and push through some real change in this province.

If anyone is interested, these were my top 5 beers of the weekend (please note, these are Rob's top picks):
1) Benelux Amato Texas reserve Brown - a guest beer from Montreal.
2) Fuller’s IPA - a spot on English IPA and a rare cask outing.
3) County Durham Black Eye - show me another brewer who does cask this well.
4) F&M Nightmare on Ale Street - a complex spiced stout.
5) Beau’s Nightmärzen - hearty lager with a nice hint of vanilla from barrel aging.

**Stay tuned for my thoughts on the entire week of cask!

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