By Nicholas Pashley

A glorious Fall day at Hart House for Bar Volo's Cask Days.

Say what you like about Mozart and Miles Davis, there are few human endeavours that bring more pleasure than a good beer festival. The very idea of a beer festival would have been unthinkable in these parts thirty-odd years ago. Large groups of people standing about sampling local beers and debating the relative merits of, say, O’Keefe Old Vienna and Carling Red Cap is a concept that owes more to Monty Python than reality.

Beer festivals are no longer the rarity they once were, even in strait-laced Canada. Not surprisingly, Montreal has a big annual festival, Mondial de la Bière, held every spring since 1994. It’s a corker, chock-a-block with fine ales, with an emphasis on Quebec’s excellent breweries. Victoria hosts the Great Canadian Beer Festival every September – it sells out in moments – and offers the beer lover brews mostly from across British Columbia and the western American states. The GCBF predates Mondial by a year.

Toronto, by comparison, has Toronto’s Festival of Beer in August. One tries to be enthusiastic, without success, about what has become largely an opportunity for the very large multinational beer factories to dazzle their target market with Bud Girls, comely beach volleyball players, and the like. Will people pay money to be extras in a beer commercial? Apparently so. A much better, if smaller, festival, called Session, has taken place the last two summers as part of Ontario Craft Beer Week in June. (The first occurred on a day of G20 rioting in the streets, so got a bit lost in the mix. “Is this a smoked beer?” “No, I think it’s the burning police car.”)

Most Toronto beer festivals are the work of local publicans. C’est What?, at Front and Church, has been running semi-annual craft beer festivals for many years, earning proprietor George Milbrandt the gratitude of local men and women who actually enjoy the flavour of beer. And this recent September marked the second annual appearance of Toronto Beer Week, a sort of peripatetic beer festival taking place in pubs, bars, and restaurants across the city. (Watch for year three next September 14-22.)

A man named Ralph Morana used to run an Italian restaurant on Yonge Street, a block north of Wellesley. About eight years ago he discovered craft beer. Now, admittedly, we all go a bit bonkers about things from time to time (I just found a terrific German singer named Max Raabe, for instance), but we don’t then set out to change the world. Unless we’re Ralph Morana. Ralph started quietly with a few decent taps and some very good bottled beers, then he discovered cask-conditioned ales. And that’s when he changed the world, or at least the world as it pertains to beer enthusiasts. Caffe Volo slowly became Bar Volo.

Cask-conditioned beer, often known as real ale, is the way English ales have been brewed and served for yonks, to use the proper English term (I’m not sure what a yonk is in metric). The beer is unfiltered and unpasteurized, and undergoes a secondary fermentation in the cask. Its carbonation occurs naturally, so the beer is less fizzy, and it’s generally served at higher temperature than most commercial beer. It is not flat and warm, as North American tourists have traditionally claimed; it’s less fizzy and less cold than we’re used to. It should be served at cellar temperature, and if you’ve ever spent any time in an English cellar you’ll know it’s not warm.

There was almost certainly a time when draught beer in Ontario would have been cask-conditioned, but somewhere between Prohibition and the modernization of the brewing industry it vanished. It almost disappeared in Britain in the 60s and 70s, until the Campaign for Real Ale stepped in. Cask ale has a limited shelf life and needs a little more care, both from the brewery and the pub that serves it, so the big British breweries were happy to put an end to the stuff, regardless of what the public wanted.

There’s nothing obviously English about Ralph Morana’s background, but he took to cask ale with gusto. He flew to London for the Great British Beer Festival to learn more and to purchase equipment (he has since gone back to England to take brewing courses, and now has a nanobrewery in his kitchen), and his bar soon sported a traditional English handpump. Ralph was now in the cask ale business.

Bar Volo held its first Cask Days Festival in October, 2005, but not before Ralph had badgered Ontario’s craft brewers to make him some cask beer, a first-time adventure for many of them. This first event initially announced a whopping 12 casks, a number that eventually swelled to 21, as brewers got into the spirit. The two-day festival sold out, leaving many local beer enthusiasts tired and happy.

The next day, Ralph vowed he’d never do anything this foolish again, then paused briefly before listing some of the improvements he’d make in a year’s time, not that he’d be crazy enough to do it twice. But do it again he did, and again. Every year Cask Days grew. Every year Ralph battled the provincial authorities to let him bring in Quebec casks or showcase local homebrewers. Occasionally he won, often he lost. Win or lose, he kept pushing the boundaries.

By 2011 Cask Days had outgrown Bar Volo. Tired of closing down his restaurant – which by now had become more a beer mecca than an Italian restaurant – for a weekend and squeezing as many customers as the local bureaucrats allowed (50 indoors, 50 outside on the patio), Ralph took Cask Days to the quadrangle at Hart House for one day only. He also persuaded the Booze Police to let him bring in casks from across Canada, as a test project. And what a project it was. (Note to the authorities: Ralph passed the test. Let him do anything he likes.)

In recent years, Ralph has turned Cask Days into a full week of cask beer, and this year he offered multiple casks of British-style beer (mild, bitter, ESB, porter, stout, barleywine) during the week, with a Friday devoted to six casks from the excellent Fuller’s brewery in London. There were more festivities on Saturday, including three sold-out seminars on making and serving cask ale and the history of cask. Ralph reckoned he tapped 120 casks during his festival. But the best was saved for last.

Sunday, October 30, dawned chilly but sunny: a perfect day for cask beer. Cold enough to simulate the temperature of an English cellar, sunny enough to make us believe it wasn’t really all that cold. (It should be noted that since 2005 Cask Days has been blessed with benign weather, just cool enough to keep the beer in optimum condition, which suggests that Ralph is doing the Lord’s work.) The beautiful Gothic architecture of Hart House provided a fine backdrop for 82 casks from 55 different brewers.

Apart from the new location, Cask Days 2011 was different from its predecessors in two ways. First of all, there was no crap beer. Six and seven years ago the brewers were finding their way with cask, and there were inevitably some disasters, albeit often noble disasters. This time around, no one warned me off duff beers that were murky or vile in flavour. I was frequently steered toward beers that were surprisingly good, beers I might have missed (step forward, Dunham Oak Aged Cranberry Ale from Quebec). Afterwards there were some who expressed disappointment with, say, the Magnotta Nine Mint Chocolate Stout, but not because it was a stupid idea, simply that it hadn’t worked.

What Canada has lacked for far too long (fine, it’s a long list, but I’m trying to concentrate on beer festivals) is a truly national beerfest. The Great Canadian Beer Festival, excellent as it is (and I won’t hear a word against it), doesn’t really live up to its name. The curse of Canada (apart from winter and mosquitoes) is the provincial walls that keep alcohol from crossing borders. Perhaps it’s our insistence on calling our jurisdictional areas ‘provinces’ that makes us so damn provincial. Whatever the case, finding a small, independent brewery from one province on tap in another is pretty much the stuff of fantasy.

I’m sure the LCBO hates getting calls from Ralph Morana. It’s always some new cockamamie scheme he’s thought of to make our lives better, which is apparently not included in the LCBO’s mission statement. How about a cask ale festival featuring beers from six provinces, from Nova Scotia to BC? Not just bottled beers, not just keg beers, but honest-to-god cask ales from many of this country’s finest brewers. (Many of our finest brewers, but not all; that presumably is for next year.)

The craft beer world in Toronto has its share of complainers, usually people too young to remember when our beer scene and our bar scene were an international disgrace. Apart from an occasional lament over the chilly breeze – usually greeted with an insistence that the temperature was designed for the health of the beer, not the punter – the mood at Hart House was cheerful, almost giddy. There was a sense that we were witnessing something no one had ever seen in Canada before. And, better still, we were tasting it. In a mere seven years, Ralph has gone from pestering brewers to make him a cask to offering a dazzling selection of just about every imaginable taste of beer, except the sweet fug of corn syrup characteristic of our industrial brews. Over two sessions, afternoon and evening, surely no one tasted them all and lived. Still, we did what we could. All 1200 of us. Ralph, his sons Tomas and Julian, and the Volo team did us proud.

The best beer festival in Canada ever? Impossible to say without having been to all of them every year. But almost certainly the best ever cask festival in Canada, and the most Canadian beer festival. What will these guys do next?

Nicholas Pashley is the author of Notes on a Beermat and Cheers: An Intemperate History of Beer in Canada. He can be stalked on Twitter @NotesOnABeermat