Going to a big beer festival can be both stressful and overwhelming. You only have so much time and, if you are going to a good festival, the beer selection should offer you more options than you could possibly drink. With over 300 beers available (have you seen this list?), Cask Days certainly falls into this category. But because I’m the person organizing the California brewery feature, I have the unique opportunity to have tasted the majority of these beers before, so here’s an attempt to steer you to certain beers you may not have tried on your own – I promise you won’t regret it.
Here’s 5 California beers you absolutely won’t want to miss at Cask Days 2014:
1) Macleod Ale Brewing Co. – The Session Gap (Ordinary Bitter)
English ales might not be the most sought-after for craft beer fans these days (since when did a mild fall into the ‘whale’ category), but Cask Days is a festival that’s celebrating real ale and there are few styles that show off cask-conditioning as well as a good english-style bitter. I was surprised at how much I missed having a classic bitter on cask since moving to the hop-obsessed west coast and I’m clearly not the only one who appreciates it. This beer from Macleod was named ‘the best bitter in the United States’ by Jamil Zainasheff on The Brewing Network, which should in itself convince you to throw down a few tokens for this beer.
2) Pizza Port Solana Beach – Fresh Hopped InHOPsicated w/ Fresh Mosaic
Along with Russian River, Pizza Port is one of those breweries that helped define this west coast style, and I cannot wait to try this double IPA from the original (or at least, the most important) brewpub/pizzeria. Even more exciting is that they added fresh Mosaic hops to this one and who doesn’t love mosaic? This is without a doubt one of the best new hops of the last 5 years, and an extra shot of these delicious nuggets in a Pizza Port DIPA is something to stop and take notice of.
3) Monkish Brewing Co. – Brown Habit w/ Thai Basil & Sriracha (Brown Farmhouse)
Monkish will be a ‘whale’ brewery in the next 12 months, I promise you that, and one of my favorite casks that Monkish does is their Shaolin Kick – a belgian double brewed with peppercorns and casked with basil and sriracha. Their head brewer, Henry Nguyen, is on a mission to find the best beer for these flavor combinations and we’ve been given the chance to try their new brown farmhouse ale, done vietnamese-style. The thai basil creates a nice herbal character and the sriracha gives it just enough kick to keep your attention. These are both additions that could easily overtake a beer, but the folks at Monkish have carefully dialed it in after a year of experimentation. There are few breweries doing belgian-inspired beers on the west coast as well as Monkish, so make sure you give this one a shot to break up the hop-monotony.
4) Noble Aleworks – Cinnamon Roast Crunch (Milk Stout)
When I asked Noble to be part of Cask Days this year, their head brewer Evan Price let me choose basically any beer in their lineup to bring up to Toronto. I immediately suggested their ‘Naughty Sauce’, a golden milk stout brewed with coffee that is one of the most popular beers in Southern California right now. Its a beautiful beer that perfectly blends that sweet lactose with roasted malts and just the right amount of coffee, and Evan decided to one-up my choice by giving us a version of Naughty Sauce with cinnamon, which creates a stout reminiscent of your favorite childhood cereal. This is a beer that, once people catch wind of it at the festival, is going to go quick.
5) Sierra Nevada – Northern Hemisphere Harvest Ale (Fresh Hop Ale)
Sierra Nevada is one of those breweries that is easy to take for granted in the U.S. They are literally everywhere yet there’s a few special releases each year that fly off shelves like they are the hot new beer – and their Harvest Ale is certainly one of those. Northern Hemisphere is special this year as it features Equinox hops – the recently-named new release from the hop breeders that brought you citra, simcoe and mosaic (thats some pedigree). Equinox is a fantastic hop, bringing notes of tropical citrus, wood and green bell pepper to the flavor and aroma profile of a beer. The fact that Sierra Nevada isn’t widely distributed in Ontario already is a crime (look for that to change), but the opportunity to have a fresh cask of a fresh hop beer from this craft legend is just something that’s impossible to pass up.
As with any beer festival, I always say the most important thing is to go outside your comfort zone and make sure you are trying beers that you aren’t going to get anywhere else. While some of these California breweries will undoubtedly show up on LCBO shelves eventually, the small breweries may never hit Canadian soil again, so don’t hesitate to taste something you’ve never even heard of.