People drink at noon plenty of times. But they usually do not drink at noon on weekdays. And they usually do not drink at the speed necessary to consume at least 7 ounces of seven different beers before a bell goes off, signaling that a cask has emptied and with it possibly the opportunity to sample a beer that tastes unlike most they would drink on a day of the year that is not Friday the 13th or at a bar that is not the Grey Lodge Pub.
Yesterday was Friday the 13th, though, and I was at the Grey Lodge Pub. So with perhaps another hundred people, I was drinking several types of beer at a little after noon. We were there for Friday the Firkinteenth, a celebration of the old-school way to enjoy a beer that Grey Lodge owner Mike “Scoats” Scotese holds every Friday the 13th.
It was the third Friday the 13th of the year, so it was a good year for casks (or firkins, whichever you want to call them). Five firkins rest behind the bar next to each other with another two a few feet away. They look like pony kegs, but they are most certainly not pony kegs. Beer lovers know the difference in the appearance and in the taste of the drink inside.
Cask beer is not pasteurized or filtered and is fermented in the cask. It’s not as fizzy or cold as most of the beers we drink. It has to be hand-pumped out of the cask rather than pushed out with carbon dioxide like keg beer. Several hundred years ago, cask was the main way to produce beer. Now it’s more of an art; for many, it’s the best way to make a flavorful, natural beer. Some refer to cask ale as “real” ale.
“It’s fresher beer,” said Felix Vargas, a Grey Lodge regular at the bar Friday. “There’s fuller flavor.”
Friday the Firkinteenth started in 1998, about two years after Scoats opened the Grey Lodge. He got the idea while riding on the El and reading an article that stated there would be three Friday the 13th’s that year (same as there were this year).
“I had firkins on my brain,” Scoats said, “and I figured it would be a good way to introduce cask ale to the Grey Lodge.”
The first Firkinteenth was in February 1998 and about 40 people showed up. No beer was left by the end of the night. Back then, the festivities began at 8 p.m. Scoats started adding an afternoon session to meet increased demand. This Friday’s event featured 13 cask ales from noon to 6 p.m. and another 13 from 6 to close.
Scoats describes the Firkinteenth as “basically just drinking beer and hanging out,” and that’s a pretty accurate way to put it. Philly has its fair share of shit-show drinking events (my co-worker Anna Orso has documented a couple of them). The Firkinteenth is so laid back, I jot in my notebook after drinking three beers that it seems like the cask ale has been infused with a souped-up ingredient that chills you out more than regular beer.
When I walk in, the Killers’ “All These Things That I’ve Done,” and the music gets more eclectic as the afternoon goes on (Green Day’s “Time of Your Life,” Sheryl Crow’s “If It Makes You Happy”). Nobody gets service on their phone. TVs are playing a rerun of a hockey game and a golf tournament.
The only interruptions to the chill atmosphere come when a bell goes off. That’s when a cask has emptied and, according to signs on the wall, also when an angel gets its wings. One lucky person also gets a T-shirt each time a cask is emptied.
The crowd is mostly 30s to 50s, and male. Some people have taken off work for the day. Some have stopped by for a quick drink over their lunch hour. Some are drinking for a little bit with plans to work in the evening. Some people have come from really far away.
Erick Burkhart drove to the Northeast from Jim Thorpe, Pa., to drink with his friends Ted Freese and Jason App. Freese came from Pottstown and App from Allentown. The Firkinteenth is an item on Freese’s bucket list.
Their plan was to stay for the afternoon, “and,” Freese said, “if it carries us into the evening.”
It was probably a good plan. Only one Friday the 13th is happening next year. Yesterday was a time to cherish the good beer as much as possible.