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Cask Days Aims to Bring Cask-Conditioned Beer to the Mainstream

A massive craft-beer festival brings in graffiti and gourmet food, all in a bid to attract a more varied and youthful audience.

Julian Morana pours a glass of cask ale at barVolo.

Cask Days 2012
The Evergreen Brick Works (550 Bayview Avenue)
Saturday, October 27, and Sunday, October 28
Tickets $35 (Includes four beer-sample tokens)

When Julian Morana used to play flip cup with craft ales at house parties, his friends would make fun of him. “I would go to a bar with them,” he says. “I’d ask if they had any stouts on tap, and my friends would be like, ‘What the heck is a stout?’”

That is, until he got them interested in the spectrum of flavours he’d been exposed to through his family business, the Yonge Street alehouse known as barVolo. An Italian restaurant that Morana’s father Ralph turned into a beer mecca, barVolo has been a major force in the development of Toronto’s craft-beer scene. And Julian Morana’s friends have become regulars. “They thank me,” he says. “Now when we go to house parties, it’s Dieu du Ciel! Rosée d’hibiscus on the table.”

For a long time, craft beer was more or less the exclusive domain of older men. Morana and his brother Tomas are trying to change that with the eighth annual Cask Days, a two-day festival that will take place this weekend. It will bring beers from across Canada to the Evergreen Brick Works.

The brothers inherited the festival, which was previously run by their father, earlier this year. They’re setting out not only to expand it, but also to widen its appeal. They want to attract a more mainstream—and younger—audience. They’re going about this by bringing in popular chefs, DJs, and street artists.

But the focus is the still on the beers—about 115 of them from 75 breweries. Many of the brews will be new to Torontonian drinkers, who won’t have encountered them at the LCBO. The beers are all cask conditioned. This means they’re unfiltered, unpasteurized, and made from natural ingredients. They undergo some additional fermentation right in the cask from which they’re served, so they don’t need to be shot up with carbon dioxide to make them bubbly. The result is a beer that’s smooth and fresh, and often has a slightly higher alcohol content than the mass-produced stuff. Cask conditioning also means the beer only has a few days to be consumed after it’s tapped, otherwise it spoils. (Hence the term “cask days.”)

The first Cask Days took place at barVolo in 2005. It featured beers from 13 breweries, the majority of which had never even made a cask-conditioned beer before being invited to participate. At the time, cask ale was off the radar for most bar owners and bar patrons in Toronto. But after travelling to Britain, where the Campaign for Real Ale has been pushing cask for decades, the Moranas decided it was a drink ripe for Torontonian consumption.

Since then, cask ale has taken off. Numerous bars across the city serve it, from the Monk’s Kettle in Etobicoke to the Only Cafe in East York, and many local companies brew it to sell at pubs and for special events. Nicholas Pashley, an author of two books on beer in Canada, has credited Cask Days with getting the trend started. For the Moranas, the festival was partly a way to help create a buzz around their bar, but also to encourage local brewers to start experimenting. “Craft beer at that time was very stale,” says Julian Morana. “Yes, you had these breweries that were doing great things, but they weren’t pushing the boundaries. And Cask Days enabled them to push the boundaries.”

The festival has gradually grown. This year, with the next generation of Moranas in control, it expands in size as well as in scope. With food by eateries like Parkdale’s Grand Electric, the eats are bound to appeal to a hip demographic. Music by several DJs, including former DMC world champion DJ Dopey, is intended to create a fun atmosphere. Visual art by a bevy of illustrators, photographers, and street artists will decorate the walls.

Nowhere is the Moranas’ mainstream ambition more apparent than in the festival’s most surprising participant: Alexander Keith’s, owned by multinational brewing giant Anheuser-Busch InBev. Morana says he was serving at barVolo one night when he discovered some of the company’s executives sitting at one of his tables. After pitching them Cask Days, they agreed to bring a cask to the festival under the Keith’s brand. The move could signify larger companies finally starting to take a real interest in craft beer, or it could, like so many cask creations, be merely a one-off. But Morana doesn’t care. He wants to get Labatt 50 on cask next year. He says, despite all his family has created, it’s still his go-to beer.

Photo by Brendan Ross/Torontoist.

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