What if Oskar Blues made a beer with papaya? What if Green Man served its IPA with a few extra ounces of Simcoe? And what if French Broad shoved Krispy Kreme donuts in its Anvil Porter?
Now what if I told you there’s no “what if.” All of the beers above have recently been on tap in or around Asheville. And it’s all thanks to a thing called a firkin.
According to the Oxford Companion to Beer, “A firkin is a cask used by British brewers for delivery of cask-conditioned beer to the pub. A firkin holds a quarter of a barrel [10.8 US gallons] and was originally coopered from wooden staves bound with iron hoops, but is now more commonly made of stainless steel or aluminum. Like all proper casks, it has a hole in one of the curved sides, to which a wooden or plastic bung (“shive”) is fitted when the cask is filled.”
In other words, a firkin is a 10-gallon container in which beer is stored — and then from which beer is served. And it’s often stainless steel. In other words, it’s similar to a keg.
So why is a firkin special?
A firkin is different from a keg because it is home to “real ale.” Without going into a lengthy description from the Campaign for Real Ale, the important thing to know is that the beer inside is “living.” Unlike kegged beer, which is often filtered and stripped of yeast before being carbonated with forced gas, beer inside a firkin is full of living yeast. After primary fermentation, the beer is dosed with additional sugar — or sometimes krausen, younger beer with residual sugar that’s still undergoing fermentation. As the yeast converts sugar to alcohol, the CO2 created as part of the process is trapped in the firkin and carbonates the beer.
It’s true the carbonation is often lower than kegged beer, but it shouldn’t be flat. “When it’s done well and poured properly, it’s a unique experience. The carbonation can blend well with the beer for a creamy mouth feel,” said Green Man brewer Tyler Downey. “It’s also the ultimate ode to a traditional English-style ale.”
And there are other ways the beer is different than the same beer from a keg or bottle. Noah Tuttle, head brewer at the Oskar Blues Brevard facility, put it this way: “Yeast has tons of flavor and gives off so many different flavor compounds, it affects the character of the beer a lot. And being unfiltered affects it, too. Even if you don’t add any other ingredients [to a firkin], the beer itself is noticeably different than the same beer [in a can].”
Firkins gone Asheville
But this is Asheville, so of course our brewers are going to drop all sorts of other ingredients in the top of their firkins. “Casks give us the opportunity to play with different flavors and combinations we wouldn’t normally have the ability to create,” said Abby Dickinson of Wicked Weed. “A couple weeks ago we did our Smoked Maple Porter with country ham and honey in the cask. The ham was baked to the point that all the fat was rendered out, and imparted a slight saltiness and sweetness to the end of the beer. It was quite good! We’ve also double dry-hopped our Tyranny Red, and we plan on doing a cask in the near future where we add fruit to our Empress Honeydew Trippel.”
Alex Chambers of French Broad Brewery had no trouble thinking of some cask favorites at its tasting room. “Our IPA dry hopped with Mosaic hops and the [Anvil] Porter with chocolate, rosewater and vanilla … and of course the Krispy Kreme Porter.” He added that future casks might include “oak-aged barleywine and a spiced version of Wee Heavier.”
Asheville Brewing recently kicked off Firkin Fridays, alternating between their locations. In addition to the kombucha Belgian Strong, its also served Ninja Porter with blueberries, according to brewer Brian Bacuzzi. At LAB, brewer Jonathan Chasner is also excited about experimenting with fruit when he taps his initial casks in April. “We want to welcome spring with a fruity beer … we’re looking forward to doing that by serving our Wheat in a firkin with apricot and honey.”
As a British-inspired brewery, Green Man has perhaps the most well-established cask program in town. House beers are routinely charged with a round of dry hops or aged on wood in a firkin. “We’ve been playing around a lot with single-hop, dry-hop casks,” said Downey, who’s been running the Green Man cask program for about a year and a half. “We just had an Amarillo IPA cask, we’ve done a couple of our beers with Simcoe … we’ve also used some wood.” For example, “We’ve put smoked hickory chips and walnuts in our brown ale, and we’ll have a Jameson [whiskey]-soaked oak cask of our stout pouring for our bottle release party on March 17.”
In fact, Green Man has had trouble keeping up with demand for its cask ale with just one beer engine (a traditional hand pump used for serving cask ale). In the near future, its going to add a second. “We’re hoping that once we have two beer engines, we can really do more adventurous stuff,” said Downey. “French Broad Chocolate Lounge is roasting different cocoa nibs at different temperatures for different times. We’re taking some of those nibs and seeing how they affect the character of a beer. We hope to do more experiments like that.”
A Firkin Festival
Last but not least, should you want a taste of more firkins in one place, look no further than The Best Firkin Beer Festival on April 27. Just like last year, this festival will be held in the meadow at Highland Brewing. The cost is $40 for general admission, and considering the beers will all be one-off firkins or barrel-aged beers, it’s a fair deal. VIPs can get an hour head start for a $65 ticket and designated drivers can get a $15 ticket. Find out more at the Asheville Brews Cruise website for now: http://www.ashevillebrewscruise.com/.