A firkin may sound like something from Middle Earth, but rest assured, it's a real thing. Just as real as the beer that comes inside it. Cask-conditioned "real ale" is making a big comeback these days, and I, for one, am in full support.
"Real ale" is so called because it hearkens back to the way beer used to be brewed and served before the days of excessive filtration, pasteurization, and force-carbonation. It is beer taken straight from the fermenter and stored in a cask or "firkin." Some extra yeasts may be added and the resulting beer is lightly carbonated and fully-flavored.
Since this beer is still very much alive, its flavor and character changes in the weeks after it goes into the cask. This makes for a singularly unique experience for beer drinkers.
England has long been at the forefront of the cask ale renaissance, though some might call it a revolution against the infiltration of weak beers from big-name brewers. Their Campaign for Real Beer has been going since 1971 and can be credited with keeping real ale alive and kicking over the past several decades.
Real beers have finally gained momentum here in the U.S. Special beer festivals celebrating real ales have led to firkins popping up in bars all over the country. Unlike barrel-aged beers that have to be specially selected for aging, any beer in a brewery's line-up can potentially be cask-conditioned as a real ale. Breweries like Smuttynose Brewing Co. and Avery Brewing are getting on board.
You won't find cask-conditioned beers in bottles; you need to get out to the bars for this. Keep your eyes peeled and when you find a bar with a firkin on tap, don't hesitate.
Ever tried a real ale? How do you think it compares to our regular beers?