Let’s get one thing straight right away: Cask-conditioned ale fans are a hardy bunch. What else would explain the gaggle of devoted beer tasters huddled under tents and umbrellas in a steady, 55-degree drizzle on a Saturday afternoon in Falls Church?
Indeed, toasts and cheers abounded at the Mad Fox Cask Ale Festival, one of the region’s largest celebrations of cask-conditioned ale. Though the weather was hardly picture-perfect – the balmy, overcast morning gave way to rain and chill by noon – the tasting-glass-toting patrons circling the casks didn’t seem to mind a bit. And why would they? With dozens of cask ales to try from breweries ranging from right across Market Square (Mad Fox) to across the river (DC Brau, Atlas, 3 Stars) to across the state (Starr Hill) to … well, Idaho (Laughing Dog), the cask-ale community was well-represented indeed.
Cask-conditioned ales are a vibrant subset of the craft-beer scene. Unfiltered and unpasteurized, cask ales are considered to be an exercise in traditional brewing practices both in terms of fermentation and serving style. And time is short: Since the brewing process is so fresh and unpreserved, these beers have a limited shelf life, so drink up.
The Cask Ale Festival lineup had something for everyone, from lighter ales to down-and-dirty stouts. And the breweries brought their A-games to the table, offering creative spins on old standbys. Vienna’s Caboose Brewing brought two riffs on their Casey Jones Pale Ale – one dubbed “Key Lime Pie” and another called “Pecan Pie.” The flavors on each were as advertised, though not obnoxiously so.
“The pecan pie’s a lot less sticky than you’d expect it to be,” one of the servers mused, and she’s precisely right. The flavors lingered, but didn’t overstay their welcome, resting comfortably atop the pale ale itself with each sip.
Mad Fox’s Crazy Ivan Russian Imperial Stout – which placed second for the Michael Jackson Award at this year’s Great British Beer Festival – was one of the gems of the day, providing tasters with a cacophony of tastes all at once. The beer was allowed to naturally sour in the cask, which is a bit of a surprise to the taste buds at first, but it’s complemented nicely by an accompanying smooth, roasted, oaky flavor that encourages another sip (or three).