Pete Brown had an interesting piece on Marston's redefining "cask ale".
Basically, it goes like this. "Cask" ale (they're steering clear of calling it "real" for the moment) can be differentiated from keg, not just by the shape of the container, but also by the presence of yeast. By using yeast trapped in beads, rather than freely suspended cells, it's possible to ensure that there's live yeast in the cask, in contact with the beer, but avoid the problems caused when excess suspended yeast causes turbidity (murkiness, haze, that badly kept aquarium effect, whatever).
If "cask" ale is looked after properly (i.e. left alone, somewhere cool) regular yeast will settle to the bottom - where it will stay. But this takes some time and care. Brewers often help things along by adding isinglass (a fish product).
So - a publican in a hurry, or careless, wouldn't have been able so offer their customers the delicious taste of "cask". Also, vegetarians / vegans aren't able to enjoy beer fined with isinglass. So many "cask" beers would have been verboten.1
As we know, many producer's "cask" ales are effectively "bright beer" which has had the yeast content "adjusted" at (or shortly before) dispatch. This makes these products predictable and (relatively) "quick to clear" in the cellar. Immobilised yeast, trapped on beads, is a logical next step.
They call it "Fast Cask".
But is it "real ale"?
Perhaps it's irrational, but for many, it's the continuity of the process from the fermenter to the glass that sets "real ale" apart from just about anything else.
The drinker, the bar staff, the cellarperson all engaged with the same living process that the brewer merely started.
What's wrong with it? For a start the name - "Fast Cask" - it's so very 1980's. Here we are, in a time (we're told) when "slow-food" & "real food" have become practically synonymous with "quality" and some marketing genius has decided that what the product needs is some of that "Fast" stuff.
Also, I bet it works. I bet you can tap the beer straight away and put it on service while rolling the cask around the cellar, kicking it and shouting "I'm a teapot". Beers which don't take that sort of abuse are disadvantaged in the dumbed-down de-skilled cellar culture that Marston's are proposing be the new status quo.2
This is not a contribution to "real ale quality". It's precisely the opposite. It's a way of getting an acceptable product out of the end of a process which can include low quality steps. Now the lazy and clueless can turn out acceptable "Cask". Something that was previously a sign of skill and care is now no such thing.
The product is less sensitive to abuse in order that a defective process can include a higher level of product abuse than was previously tolerable.
Does it taste the same? Maybe. Who cares? We weren't just buying the product. We were buying in to the process, and the (craft) skill and care required in that process. Perhaps it was an illusion. But illusions are valuable.
1. Vegans can enjoy unfined beers. It's still quite difficult to find unfined pale "real ale" (not impossible of course), there are probably more dark beers that are suitable (ours for instance).
2. Here's a tiny "micro-pub" that has four high quality "real ales" (and two ciders) cellared in a cupboard (more or less). This is what you can do with reasonable care and some know-how.
All brewers are concerned about the quality of the water they use to make beer. OK, that's a sixpence fine - of course I should have said liquor, water is for washing. But then I don't have to pretend I'm a bewhiskered Victorian brewer surrounded by polished copper & brass - so I'll call it water if I want.
A brewer of our acquaintance, recently relocated, may have trouble continuing to call one of their beers "award-winning" since different water = different beer (according to some). Another brewer we know (also recently relocated) looks set to haul a trailer loaded with IBCs full of his favourite fellside water down some very wiggly roads. Given the winter we've just had, this looks like a way of limiting brewing to 10 months of the year.
So what is it about this water that makes it so important? What's wrong with the stuff that comes out of the tap?
We were science types at school, so it's no surprise that we have a particular way of looking at the world. It works like this: If there's something we don't want in the water - we'll take it out. If we're short of something - we'll put it in. There isn't anything else in our philosophy. It's not magic.
Incidentally, if you offered a homeopath shandy, would they say "Sorry, I'm driving. I better stick to this absolute alcohol, dilute solutions always get me rotten"?
But back to the water. Chlorine - that's a thing they have in tap water that you don't want in your brewing. Heating, stirring and standing will get rid of that. Or there's that trick with sod. met. if you'd rather. Apart from that - our tap water is really soft i.e. there's not much in it.
So, lovely soft lakeland water - that's what comes out of the tap here. Clean but with a hint of chlorine (which we can remove). If we need to add anything for brewing (e.g. calcium / magnesium salts, or common salt, whatever) we can. This way we can be sure that the water we use is potable (it has to be) and suitable.
Of course one could get a whole bunch of the favourite water and boil it down really hard, ending up with a couple of pints of some brown salty gloop. Take that to the new brewery site. Add a teaspoon to the town supply. That'll do it.
It's the purpose (and ambition) of water to become beer. Anyone who works to help this humble liquid achieve its noble destiny is alright in my book.
This is Jon's personal "blog" - I work at an independent microbrewery (a small-scale, artisanal producer of “real ale” and other beery treats), based in the Furness area in Cumbria (or N. Lancs if you'd rather). Or a "Craft Brewer", if you like. We're known as "Stringers", or "Stringers Beer". I don't just make beer - I also sound-off in half-informed rants on a variety of subjects. Like here.