If you purvey the craft beer scene, you’ve seen them laying around…literally. Those mini kegs just tilted on their sides with a couple of blankets and ice packs thrown on top of them. You hear a sound that sounds like a water line break and a crowd cheering right after as if some sadistic people have a beef with the local water works authority. Then a grizzled anti-Thor holds up a wooden hammer proclaiming good times for everyone.
The first time I saw that, I immediately went back into college mode and said ‘Pffft. That’s not how you do it’, until someone explained to me that it was a firkin. I politely nodded my head, even though I thought he was cussing me out. It took several more times witnessing this feat before I broke down and asked a nice brew-master about the horizontal oblonged container and he imparted a few words of wisdom.
What is a ‘firkin’?
To get all definitiony, the word refers to both the vessel or ‘cask’ uses for liquids and it’s unit of measure. It is Dutch for ‘fourth’ referring to a fourth of a keg used for conditioning. In all of these cases, we are referring to beer. The size boils down to about 9.8 gallons. Half of a ‘firkin’ is referred to a ‘pin’, which is about 4.9 gallons. They can be made traditionally out of wood, modernly made of metal, or uber-modernly made of plastic/rubber, although they are not seen as much except in pin size and not generally lauded by the beer society.
Why ‘firkin’ a beer?
Cask beer is usually referred to as ‘Real Ale’, which harks back to how beer was first ‘brewed’ when every beer was conditioned inside a barrel and is usually in two sizes: firkin and pin. It is generally served warmer than other beers (around 50F) and uses gravity to pour or with the use of a hand pump if done commercially without the use of a pressuring system like C02. It is tapped on it’s side generally after a short while to let the sediment hit the bottom. The implementation of a gravity tap by way of brute force (i.e. the hammer) pushes through the pressure to allow the beer to flow out by gravity (through a hole at the top as well tapped after). Done skillfully, this process is a feat to behold. Done poorly results in a beer cannon being shot back at the perpetrator. I’ve seen both and they are equally impressive. Cask beer does not last as long (generally about 2-3 days after first tapping) as there is no pressurizing agent to replace the air once opened.
But you didn’t answer the question of WHY would you ‘firkin’ a beer these days?
In these commercial times, everything is done large scale and with a degree of mass appeal. You will start hemorrhaging money if you cask all of your product. Firkins and pins allow some experimentation for craft brewers with different malts, hops, and additives with little cost and risk. What’s 10 gallons in the name of science? The up side is that if something takes off or works well, it could become a larger scale production item and between home brewing and casks are generally how beer trends get their origin.
So what is a Firkin Festival? What makes for a good firkin? (sorry)
Firkin Festivals are basically everything you just learned. Brewmasters get together and show off creativity on a very small scale. It is most often variations on their staple brews with the addition of everything from hops to adjuncts that they believe work with the beer. You should look for the same qualities that you would expect from any other beer that you taste, but especially look for two things. First, can you distinguish the base beer from it’s additives? Secondly, how did the additions change and better the beer? If you put so much vanilla into a porter or orange peel in an IPA that it’s all you can taste or so much cayenne pepper that you can’t feel your tongue anymore, it’s interesting, but not great. You should be able to get the same qualities out of the original beer and notice how the new flavors interact with that beer.
Last question: Are all firkins at festivals cask ale?
I would like to say the answer is yes, but it almost never is. And it is a touchy question to straight up ask brewmasters (one that I have learned never to directly ask). Some of the firkins are imparted with adjuncts AFTER the brewing process and then conditioned, which technically is not the definition of ‘cask’ and falls into the ‘aged beer’ category and a debate for another day. If you are really interested in finding out and don’t want to be chased out of Dodge, you can ask about their firkin process. You will generally get an answer without seeming condescending. If you have a general interest in their trade, you can learn a lot.
So go off and enjoy firkins. We will follow this article up with our review of DoG Street Pub Firkin Festival this weekend and further break down the firkin process.