East Meets West: How the Ontario Cask Ale Community Created @CaskAleLA

In the summer of 2010 I was between jobs and out of necessity decided to go back into the service industry for a few months. I had slung drinks behind a bar at various times in my twenties and actually really enjoyed it. I always said “If I wasn’t in the tv business, I’d be in the bar business.” But this time I wanted to work in a place that focused on something I love – beer – and in Toronto, at that time, the center of the beer community was Bar Volo. (and it still is).

Volo is a pretty unassuming place, considering the role in plays in the community. Its a tiny corner property on Toronto’s famous Yonge Street and at the time the menu largely featured (very good) italian food, but people really went there for their beer selection. They have an unbelievable cellar though, both on and off menu, and around the time I started work there they had just installed their new nano-brewing system that would become House Ales.

What’s special about House Ales is that the majority of what they do is cask conditioned. Seems like an odd business model, but it makes sense for Volo, as they are the creators of Cask Days. Cask Days is a two day festival in Toronto that’s in its 9th year and in 2013 featured over 124 breweries and 230 casks. And its largely because of Volo / House Ales / Cask Days that I started Cask Ale LA.

You see, beer engines are much more common in Toronto, and every neighborhood seems to have at least one pub with a handpump behind the bar. Thanks to breweries like Wellington, Granite and eventually House Ales, cask beer had a huge following in Toronto long before our brewing industry had reached where it is today. In fact, I would argue that it was because of cask ale that the quality of the brewing industry in Ontario got to its current heights. Brewers like Mike Lackey at Great Lakes really found his stride brewing special one-off casks that would pop up around town. While the main brewery output was still focused around seasonals like Pumpkin Ale and Orange Peel, Lackey was pumping out ‘Lackey’s Caskey’ and pushing towards some of the best IPAs in the area. (Great Lakes’ Karma Citra IPA and Audrey Hopburn are currently some of the best offerings in Toronto).

And at the same time, pre-House Ales’ official launch, Volo was hosting events like Cask Days and the IPA Challenge as almost a challenge to local breweries: “Do something different and come compete against the rest of us.” It wasn’t about the flagship beers – it was about the one-off special editions that were evaluated at their freshest. It not only built up the quality of the beers, but it built a community around it. A community that could participate with the brewers (who were all Volo regulars anyways) and talk about how each version of a cask improved on the last. With a recent expansion, Volo has expanded their beer engines from 2 to 6 (which is the most i’ve seen in my limited  North American travels) and cask days has become the premiere beer event of the year in Ontario. Cask Ales are not just a part of the industry in Ontario – Cask Ales are the foundation.

I moved to Los Angeles in February of last year and couldn’t be happier to be here and to experience Southern California beer culture first hand. As much as Ontario is an up-and-coming beer community, we always look to the west coast as the gold standard. So imagine my surprise as I leaned across numerous bars in LA to find very few hand-pumps pouring the delicious cask-conditioned ale that I was weened on during my formative beer years. Sure, there’s always a few Stone Casks kicking around town if you know where to look, but cask beer is still very much a niche trend in this market. (I’m not complaining about the availability of Stone casks. They are always great and worth the trip to go find)

So with the creation of caskalela, I’m trying follow in the tradition of places like Volo, Great Lakes and Wellington, to do my part in creating awareness and accessibility to a beverage that completely changed my understanding of beer. There’s an amazing emerging industry coming up in Los Angeles, and in a few years I hope that I will be able to walk in numerous bars in every corner of this city and find a handpump waiting for me behind the bar. And until then, LA bars and beer drinkers; lets get a few more beer engines in our pubs.