It’s an odd word; firkin. But, in many craft beer circles, it is also a hallowed word. The word firkin refers to an old English unit of volume. The strange name is comes from the Middle Dutch word vierdekijn, which means fourth, or one quarter of a full-size barrel. When you are referring to a cask that holds beer or ale a firkin is equal to nine imperial gallons, 72 pints, or a quarter of a barrel.
So, what’s so special about a firkin? These smaller casks have become a proving ground – a playground of sorts – for the American craft brewer. Firkins have become synonymous with specialty; cask-conditioned ales sometimes called “real ale.” Often, but not always, a firkin is created of an established beer brewed by a craft brewery with additional flavors added to it. These flavors can range from fruits, nuts, or berries to herbs, spices, and liquors. A firkin, then, is a place for a brewer to experiment with new flavor combinations.
But, that’s not all there is to firkins. Cask-conditioned ale is beer that is naturally carbonated, since the beer is put in the sealed cask before fermentation is complete (this is sometimes referred to a secondary fermentation). The gas produced by the fermentation is then absorbed in the beer; the continued fermentation produces a gentle, natural carbonation. The resulting beer is flatter than the beer most of us are used to, but what it lacks in carbonation, it gains in flavor characteristics.
Firkin beer, unlike regular kegged beer, is not pasteurized and therefore is much less stable product. Again, this is not a bad thing. It means that the beer is always fresh and that the pasteurization process has not killed the yeast. The fact that firkin beers still have active yeast in them means that the beer continues to evolve, causing interesting and complex flavors to develop.
What should you expect when you taste your first firkin beer? First, you should notice that the beer, depending on its style, has a deeper than normal color to it. This comes from the cask and the aging process it may have been through, particularly if the firkin is a wooden cask. Next you should smell deep, rich hops and malt notes. The lower level of CO2 brings out natural aromas that higher carbonation masks. Firkin beers are also best served a cellar temperature, which is between 54 and 56 degrees. To many American palates this will seem warm, but to truly appreciate the flavors of a firkin, the beer is best served cool, never cold. The beer will present itself a rather flat on your tongue, but you should notice subtleties of flavor you may never have noticed before. Again, the lower carbonation allows you to experience more of the beer and less of the carbonation. Depending on how the firkin was brewed you may find the beer fruity, or piney. But, what you should really notice is the smooth and mellow flavors of the hops and malt. A well made firkin should be cool and refreshing as well as packed with pleasant flavors.
As a style, firkins are unlikely to catch on in a big way. But, as a delightful diversion they are highly sought-after by beer aficionados who are savvy to the pleasures they can provide.
If you are going to the Jacksonville Craft and Import Beer Festival tonight at the Jacksonville Memorial Arena ($45 for VIP admission at 6:000 PM and $30 for general admission at 7:00PM), be sure to stop by the Firkin Farm. Craft brewers such as Intuition Ale Works, Brooklyn Brewery, and Rogue will be presenting firkins for your tasting and enjoyment.
Until next time,
Long Live the Brewers!