Saturday, February 18, marked Bristol Brewing Company‘s 13th Annual Firkin Rendezvous. A cask ale festival to benefit the Colorado Brewers Guild, 42 Colorado breweries posted up, pouring their specialty beers inside an Oktoberfest-style tent setup. The Rocky Mountain Food Report was there to taste the sweet nectar and spoke to Bristol’s head brewer, Chris Hastings, about the conception of the firkin fest and how it’s garnering participation from breweries all around Colorado.
“Firkin rendezvous started as a tag-along to the Rocky Mountain Microbrewers Symposium,” says Hastings. “Which is at UCCS, the day before. Originally it was planned as something for brewers to do while they were in town. It’s grown a lot since then. There were maybe 10 breweries there those first few years.”
Colorado Springs was representing amongst them with patrons lining up at local booths and repetitive crowd accolades. Here’s a few highlights from our visit.
Nano 108 Brewing Company was our first stop, with a raspberry robust porter. Chocolate covered fruit was a solid start to our beer buffet.
Fossil Craft Beer Company went dark with a Kunda Baltic Porter with cinnamon and vanilla, one of the most popular flavor combinations at the festival.
Paradox Beer Company poured their Cafe Cherished and also offering sample pours of their Blue Bines. Lucky us!
But the firkin fest drew mad love from Ft. Collins, Denver, Durango, and Telluride too.
“I’m excited to be able to taste what they’re doing,” says Hastings, on the Denver breweries making their way down South. “And I love what Odell’s does, they’re always fun.” (Odell Brewing Co. poured their Tree Shaker Imperial Peach IPA with hazelnut and vanilla … we’re big fans too.)
Bristol, meanwhile, has a sour this year on the brewing schedule, slated for the fall. The festival was an opportune time to start playing with the process.
“We made a clementine sour IPA,” says Hastings. “Our lab guy, Chase, comes to work with Cuties for lunch all the time and we joked about making a beer with them. One day we were just talking about what we would do for firkin rendezvous and we’ve always wanted to try a sour. Citrusy is popular right now so we went with that theme.”
“Its the first sour Bristol’s made in a long time,” says Hastings. “It’s kettle soured, so we stole wort from Compass IPA, we add lactobacillus, let it sit for 24 hours until it hits the pH we wanted. That’s what makes a beer sour, is the acidity. We brought it down to four. We didn’t want a super sour, turn your face inside out. We want it there, noticeable, but not dominating, the flavor profile. Depending on the response we get from this firkin, this could be possibly mass produced.”
“Saturday we put Winter Warlock on the bar upstairs too,” says Hastings. “We’re calling it Aztec Warlock, with vanilla, chocolate, cinnamon and pepper. A little zippy. We’ve done that one before and it’s good.”
So for the non-beer nerds reading, what exactly is a firkin and how is it special?
“Technically, firkin refers to a volume,” says Hastings. “A generic word is cask. So when you hear people talk about cask conditioned ale. A cask is a catch all term for the vessel itself. A firkin is roughly 10 gallons.”
“Fermentation happens in the vessel,” says Hastings. “We take fermented beer, fill the firkin, we’ll do what’s called a krausen, so we’re just adding more yeast and sugar to the firkin. Then we bung it up immediately so it’s airtight and it’ll start a secondary fermentation because of all the yeast and sugar in there. The process of making it takes half an hour, but ideally it’ll sit for two weeks.”
“That’s the fun of the firkins,” says Hastings. “You can add anything you want, whether it be more fruit, hops, spice.”
“There’s no way to test what’s happening in there because once you open it, it’s open,” says Hastings.
Some local breweries offer the small, specialty kegs routinely. Red Leg Brewing Co. has a weekly firkin tapping on Saturdays. But you need thirsty customers to make it worthwhile, since it only stays fresh, roughly 24 hours, once the top is popped.
“Another problem with firkins is everything in there ultimately settles,” says Hastings. “So clarity is an issue. Sometimes they’ll plug. So you have to be careful about how you’re adding things.”
“Because there’s so much pressure in there from fermentation we put a spile in the top,” says Hastings. “It’s just a wood shiv, that’s breathable so it slowly lets that pressure out. If you don’t when you try and pour it, it’s going to come out really, really fast.”
“I can make Laughing Lab in my sleep and I enjoy my job but it’s always fun to be able to do something different. That’s the beauty of firkins, if they suck you’re only dumping 10 gallons down the drain instead of 30 barrels. And you see a lot of creativity with what people bring. It’s usually special. No one’s showing up with their flagship in a firkin.”
Some breweries are using the firkins to take some of their beloved beers and infuse them with complimentary flavors.
Great Divide Brewing Co. from Denver, took their cult-gathering, imperial stout Yeti and made it muy caliente. “Sexy Yeti” spiked up with ancho chilies, vanilla and cinnamon.
Elevation Beer Company from Poncha Springs, took their Oil Man (their double black, winter, stout) next level with raw coconut. A RMFR favorite from Saturday.
Cerberus Brewing Co. used their Elysium IPA to fool us into thinking it was summertime, with a creamsicle version, C.R.E.A.M. Hello Clapton. Sayonara Orange Julius, we found something oh so much better.
Firkins allow brewers poetic license to really experiment with unique additions or just slightly tweaking great beers they already have. So will firkins become a staple at our local watering holes?
“Notice we have the hand pump on the bar, that’s for firkins,” says Hastings. “The ultimate goal is to put a cooler downstairs that we keep at cellar temperature. So we’d make the firkin, give it a week and then we’d put it in that cooler. Allow everything to settle, so we wouldn’t have to drag it up the stairs and stir it up. We’d also put a CO2 system on there, not enough to push the beer up to our bar, but as we’re taking beer out, CO2 would go in rather than air which would extend the shelf life.”
Bringing back firkins to Bristol? Let’s do it. #getyourfirkon