Photo: Michael Crum
The 20th Century, for the most part, wasn’t a very beer-friendly time in U.S. history. Prohibition, for example, all but destroyed centuries of beer-brewing knowledge in the United States. When we emerged from the beer dark ages, as a people, we were at the mercy of those beer companies that had managed to survive the 13 years in brewing exile. The beer wasn’t bad beer, but it was mass-produced with adjuncts (corn, rice, millet, etc.) and was limited to European-style lagers. Now, having the benefit of a decades-long craft beer boom, we enjoy damn near every style, type and method of the beer brewing process.
One of the older beer techniques that is making its way back to popular culture is the real ale. These beers generally hail from the United Kingdom, and are served in containers called casks. There are many types of casks, but the one that tends to be used the most is called the firkin. The name firkin comes from the Dutch word vierdekijn (meaning fourth), and is basically a quarter of a standard wood or metal beer barrel (roughly 43 gallons). Another thing that separates the firkin from its cask cousins is the method in which it’s tapped. Laid on its side for dispensing, there are two bungs—one for the spout that will be driven into the barrel horizontally via a wooden hammer and a venting spout to help equalize pressure as the beer is poured. This is an entirely gravity-based system—no pressurized gasses or pumps are used to coax the beer from the barrel. Tapping a firkin is generally a ceremonial thing, due to the fact that it’s an often wet and messy event to behold, and is usually quite funny.
What makes the firkin so special, though, isn’t the container or the method with which it’s dispensed—it’s what happens to the beer once it’s placed into the barrel that has people seeking these real ales out. It’s the re-fermentation that takes place with adjuncts (fruit/spices etc.), which go into the barrel. It alters the beer—changing its flavor softens the carbonation and gives the beer a second life. There are a few places around the state that offer firkins on a regular basis, but there’s one place in Salt Lake City that has made a commitment to getting these special beers out to the public with variety and regularity: The Bayou. Owner Mark Alston has been a genuine old-school beer geek in Salt Lake for quite a few years. Opening the Beer Nut Home Brew shop in 1994 and The Bayou in 2002, Alston has always sought to enhance the public’s beer-drinking experience. Alston’s passion for craft beer stretches back to his home-brewing days, always having hand-pumped ales on hand at his home. “I have been a real ale beer fan for a very long time,” Alston says. “Since The Bayou is one of the very few places in SLC doing true traditional cask beer, we decided that it would be fun to do a firkin tapping in the traditional British style. We still do our cask beer on the beer engine every night, but the Firkin Fridays are a fun addition.”
The Bayou’s weekly Firkin Friday night is exciting in that it is the only place that has firkins from eight different breweries (hopefully, with a few more added soon). “We give the the local brewers complete free reign on their firkins and encourage them to go crazy. Some of the experiments have been truly amazing.” The experimentation Alston refers to comes from taking a standard offering from a brewery such as Desert Edge’s Latter Day Stout and enhancing it with something not typically associated with that particular beer—like raspberries—to change the flavor profile (hopefully, in a positive way). Thus, you get a naturally fermented and carbonated beer in a small batch that many consider to be the true, natural state for these types of ales.
“I guess that the main reason is that I love new and interesting beers, and getting the breweries to make one-off beers for us was just too good an opportunity to not take advantage of,” Alston says.
It’s a good education on beer for people that may be stuck in a “beer rut.” Sure, there will be a strong base of beer lovers who will appreciate the unique qualities that firkins present, but Alston is fully aware of the challenge of trying to sell full kegs of highly flavored, less chilled, lower-carbonation beers to the general public. “It’s a hard proposition,” he says. “Firkin Friday is a labor of love for us. If we had a real accountant, they would tell us to quit with the firkins immediately. Well, we don’t, and we love drinking them ourselves, so we are sticking with it.”
The Bayou is located at 645 S. State Street in Salt Lake City, and tappings for Firkin Friday take place at 3 p.m. The firkin offerings are often a mystery until the kegs show up—that day or the night before. Because these are limited, one-of-a-kind batches, the beer flows till it’s gone—so don’t procrastinate.