Why I Like Firkins and Why You Should Too

Suspended firkins
Suspended firkins | Source

The Firkin: What Is It?

Firkins are technically a unit of measure or a type of container, but that's not exactly why I like them. No, it's the liquid goodness that is contained within the firkin that most appeals to me. What liquid goodness would that be? Why, none other than real ale.

Real ale is not the beer that you find at the grocery or liquor store. Such beer, which has been bottled or kegged, has been stripped of its many inherent vitamins, minerals and enzymes. It's also been processed to the point of losing much of its original taste.

By contrast, real ale has not undergone the filtration, pastuerization, canning or carbonization of "regular" beer. Instead, it has been naturally carbonated by its resident yeast. To remain carbonated, the real ale has been left alone following its fermentation and has not been subjected to additional processing. This has resulted in a beer that tastes the way a beer was supposed to taste. Likewise, such a beer is nutritious and satisfying.

Much of real ale, which also goes by the moniker of cask-conditioned ale, is created inside firkins.

How is Firkin Beer Created?

When beer is being made, its base ingredients (water, hops, barley) are added and cooked together to make wort. This wort is transferred into a container and yeast added into it to make beer. After a period of 1 to 2 weeks, the young beer is again transferred into another container and fermented for another 1 to 2 weeks. The transfer is made so that the old yeast can be removed and the new yeast take over the fermentation, helping to raise the alcohol level of the beer. Once this secondary fermentation is complete, the beer is ready to be bottled or kegged. At this point, the beer will be filtered of all its resident yeast, which will effectively make it flat. Some beers are also pastuerized so that they can be stored for long periods of time without spoiling. Once the beer is bottled or kegged, it must be artificially pumped with carbon dioxide (or nitrogen) gas in order to become bubbly again. At this point, it is ready to be shipped out to distributor warehouses and stores.

In some cases, however, brewers will perform the secondary fermentation inside of a firkin, which is a small keg-like container. The firkin is actually one-fourth the size of a regular beer barrel and holds almost 11 gallons (or just under 41 liters). During the secondary fermentation, the yeast will continue to transform the sugars of the initial wort into alcohol. They will also release carbon dioxide, thus slowly carbonating the beer. The firkin will contain this carbonation until it is tapped by the consumer. At this point, the beer is drawn out and enjoyed directly. The beer undergoes no additional processing and, as a result, is called cask-conditioned or real ale.

Why is Firkin-derived Real Ale Better?

Beer, when served in its most natural and unprocessed form, is actually one of nature's best health foods. The beer's resident yeast provide several B vitamins, including vitamins B3 (i.e., niacin), B6, B9 (i.e., folic acid or folate) and B12. There are also significant quantities of pantothenic acid, choline and flavonoids in beer. It's no wonder that beer's nickname is "liquid bread". Furthermore, beer yeast help contribute to the many unique flavors and tastes of beer, such as Porter, Bock, Stout, Belgian, steam, Kolsch, Pilsner, etc.

Unfortunately, the processing and canning methods performed on beer frequently strip its many vitamins and minerals. Pastueurization is especially guilty of this sin, resulting in a beer that is not only devoid of its health benefits but also its original taste; let's face it, cooked beer will never taste the same as fresh beer.

Firkin-contained beer does not undergo this processing. Instead, the firkin-derived beer is beer that has come straight from secondary fermentation, with all its nutrition and taste intact. Because firkin-derived beer is not processed, it also has a short lifespan; most firkins are only good for about 40 hours after they are tapped. Thus, firkins are always in short supply. When a restaurant or bar acquires a firkin, it is with the expectation that much of its contents will need to be consumed in the space of two days; otherwise, the beer goes to waste.

Where Can You Find Firkins?

Firkins can sometimes be found at your local bar, especially if a major beer-drinking event is expected (e.g., Mardi Gras, St. Patrick's Day). In many cases, you will see the firkin, or firkins, suspended above the bar with taps inserted through them. If there is no room at the bar for the firkins, they may be tucked away somewhere and a beer engine inserted into the tap line for distribution of the real ale. The beer engine has a distinctive look, appearing most often as a metal spigot with an attached crank that must be pulled by hand. It takes time to pull beer from the beer engine, and the process often results in the beer having extra head.

When you ask for a cask-conditioned ale, which is the term most often used for firkin-derived beer, don't be surprised if your beer arrives a bit warmer than expected. Cask-conditioned ale is typically served at 55F, which is akin to basement temperature. The reason for this higher temperature has to do with the yeast; if the firkin was refrigerated to 40F or below, its resident yeast would not be able to carbonate the beer effectively. The higher temperature required for cask-conditioned ale also helps explain why it spoils so quickly and must be consumed within 40 hours.

The many firkins of the Milwaukee Firkin Craft Beer Festival
The many firkins of the Milwaukee Firkin Craft Beer Festival | Source

Milwaukee Firkin Craft Beer Festival

What if your local watering holes don't carry firkins or haven't even heard of them? Don't sweat it; there are craft beer festivals that frequently offer or even showcase firkins. One of these festivals is the Milwaukee Firkin Craft Beer Festival, which is set for July 21st of this year. Tickets for the festival go on sale March 19th and sell out amazingly fast, so if you are interested in trying some real ale, don't postpone buying these tickets. Over 20 firkins will be offered at the Milwaukee Firkin Craft Beer Festival.

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