The following is a part of a guest series authored by Lauren Gutshall on discovering new wines and beers.
You’re probably been hearing a lot about “firkins” lately. Every week some local beer joint is offering up firkins of IPA with simcoe hops or porter with vanilla beans. But what makes firkins so special?
A firkin is a unit of measurement for volume – equal to 40.9 liters or 9 imperial gallons or a quarter of a barrel – and is the most common cask size for cask-conditioned beer. It is also the name of the cask itself at this size.
A cask-conditioned beer is unfiltered and unpasteurized. It undergoes a secondary fermentation in the cask and is served (often straight out of the cask) without additional nitrogen or carbon dioxide pressure. The secondary fermentation provides a natural carbonation for the ale. Cask-conditioned beer has a short shelf-life and must be consumed within a short amount of time from when the cask is tapped.
Cask-conditioned beer is served at cellar temperature (50-55 degrees), slightly cool but not cold, which opens up the beer and enhances the flavors. The beer is cooler than room temperature and less carbonated than draft beer; it is more like a traditional English pub ale than what we are accustomed to in the U.S.
Cask conditioning was extremely common in Britain before mass-produced beers became the norm. In the early 1970s, the Campaign for Real Ale was formed to advocate for moving away from mass-produced, lower quality beers and returning to cask-conditioned ales, or Real Ale.
Today, cask-conditioned ales are regaining popularity in both Great Britain and the United States. They are typically served one of two ways. The first is by beer engine or handpump, where the beer is manually pulled into a glass with long, slow pumps.
The second is directly out of the cask. Firkins are laid on their side and tapped so that gravity pushes the beer out. A wooden mallet is used to drive a wooden peg through a special cork to create a vent in the top of the cask and through the plug on the front to tap the firkin.
While most handpumps are used for traditional cask-conditioned beer, many brewers are using firkins to create enhanced beers. Often firkins have a base beer with extra ingredients like dry hops or spices added. These special firkins are becoming increasingly popular at breweries and pubs in the Harrisburg region.
- Troegs does a full moon firkin event every time there is a full moon, regardless of the day of the week.
- Appalachian Brewing Co. in Camp Hill serves specialty beers on cask. The main location in Harrisburg celebrates Firkin Friday every third Friday of the month.
- Both Otto’s Pub & Brewery in State College and Arooga’s Downtown host Firkin Fridays (Arooga’s also features two handpumps in its 60 tap lineup).
- Selins Grove Brewing Co., just a 40 min drive, features beers on handpump.
- And Heavy Seas in Baltimore offers cask ales year-round. They use either their Loose Cannon IPA or Powder Monkey Pale Ale as the base and then add various kinds of hops.
Cask-conditioned ales may sound a little off-putting to some American beer drinkers who are used to super-cold beer with lots of carbonation, but they are more than a novelty. Cask-conditioned beers have a long and rich history; they are full of flavor and delicious. Next time you are at a pub that has a firkin, try it; you won’t be disappointed.