Food & Drink

Tacoma Craft Beer Festival: Raise your glass

Mike Runion of 7 Seas Brewing in Gig Harbor taps a cask. Beer from 7 Seas will be featured at the beer festival. (TRAVIS GUTERSON/Courtesy of The Swiss)
Mike Runion of 7 Seas Brewing in Gig Harbor taps a cask. Beer from 7 Seas will be featured at the beer festival. (TRAVIS GUTERSON/Courtesy of The Swiss)

TGIFF: Thank God it's Firkin Friday.

What’s that? Yes, that’s actually “firkin,” as in a barrel of ale. Firkin Friday is the focus for day one of the second annual Tacoma Craft Beer Festival, a showcase for 50 small, traditional brewers that runs today and Saturday at the Foss Waterway Seaport.

Today, local beer lovers will be able to tap into an old-school tradition that’s all the rage again, with 10 firkins ready to be tapped at 6 p.m. A firkin is an old English unit of volume that’s equal to 10.8 gallons. But in general, the term is used to describe a sealed cask used for making unique, naturally carbonated batches of beer.

Tapping a firkin involves using a mallet to hammer an aeration hole in the top and a tap in the front.

It’s a ritual observed the second Monday of each month during Tacoma Tap Night, a cask ale celebration held at the Red Hot, the Parkway Tavern, Engine House No. 9, Meconi’s Tacoma Pub & Eatery, Doyle’s Public House, and The Swiss Tavern.

“Whenever we tap ’em here, it’ll be quiet, and then you tap it and everybody screams,” said Red Hot co-owner Chris Miller, who founded the Tacoma Craft Beer Festival with partners Roxanne Wolfe and Bennett Thurmon.

“For the real beer geeks – which is me included these days – firkins are just kind of rare,” Thurmon said. “It’s a really high-quality beer. You know, it’s the difference between buying the $30 bottle of wine and the $5 bottle of wine.”

Cask ales are served at a warmer temperature than other beers, which some say allows more flavor to come out. But the process of making the beer also accounts for the difference in taste. Firkin ales are carbonated not by CO2, like the keg beer served at most bars, but by active yeasts that continue to break down sugars inside the barrel.

“That cask of beer is almost like its own individual, small, fermenting beer vessel,” Miller explained. “When you tap a cask on Monday, that beer is really fresh and young, and if you come in a few days later, it’s gonna taste different because more of the sugar has been converted.”

He added, “Some people like ’em right when they’re tapped, and there’s some people who like to wait. Some people are into each thing.”

Harmon Brewery co-owner Pat Nagle has noticed an uptick in demand for cask beers among a particular demographic. “It’s probably the same folks that like organic foods and get behind the green movement,” he said. “It’s conscientious young folks, usually 25 to 40ish, age wise.”

His brewery will bring a firkin of its Black Tartan IPA to the Tacoma Craft Beer Festival. “It’s going to taste like an IPA, but it’s gonna be dark in color and probably have a little bit more of a roasty flavor than your typical IPA,” he said.

Mike Runion of 7 Seas Brewing in Gig Harbor just recently started experimenting with cask beer brewing. “It’s extremely traditional, and you can play around and do some things you wouldn’t normally do,” he said.

7 Seas will bring a cask of modified Harvest Ale to the festival today. But last week, the brewery unveiled its first firkin experiment at The Swiss: a batch of modified Port Royal Export Style Stout aged with 21/2 pounds of blackberries picked from Runion’s backyard.

“We had no idea how that blackberry beer tasted until we tapped it,” Runion said. “There’s no sampling or knowing what’s going to happen. It’s that total mystery of what’s happened in the keg going through that second fermentation and any secondary ingredients you’ve added.”

About 2,000 beer lovers turned out for last year’s event, which in its first year was voted the third favorite beer festival by readers of WashingtonBeerBlog.com, right behind the Washington Cask Beer Festival in Seattle and the Washington Brewers Festival in Kenmore.

“For a first event, they really hit a homerun. We have to imagine that things will get better as the event matures,” wrote Kendall Jones of Washington Beer Blog.

“The beers appealed to a wide range of craft beer drinkers, with accessible bears for the craft beer newbies as well as more interesting, creative beers for the hardcore craft beer geeks.”

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