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.
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