Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Hey Presto... it's cask!

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.


Ed said...

And don't forget the increase in alienation this will bring.

StringersBeer said...

Well, it's certainly alienating. but then there's an awful lot of that about nowadays. It's an example of "product fetishism" ,when in reality, it's the process that's important. I suppose that this is the equivalent of Marx's "commodity fetishism".

Asimov (ha!) once wrote "Finished products are for decadent minds." It's particularly true in this instance. A live product is never finished. There is no such thing as the finished product - we're seeing the reification of "Cask" seeking to deny the reality of the process of "Real".

Beerfan said...

I have read with great interest all of your the views on this site and others and, for the sake of clarity, would just like to point out, as I understand it;

1) Fast cask is not intended to be a replacement for conventional cask ale, nor will it ever be the case that this is imposed on Marston's customers. All of Marstons 18 permanent cask ales will continue to be available in conventional form, as will the 50 or so seasonal beers.

2) Commentators have clearly pointed out that there are many reasons why a publican is unable to stock cask beer. Fast cask has been developed to resolve some of those.

3) Tapping, venting, stock control, pipe cleaning and high levels of hygiene are still required. Fast cask does not dumb dowm these elements of cellarmanship for cask beer.

4) The 3 day turn round still applies.

Fast cask will enable publicans who, for whatever reason, have been unable to stock cask beer to at least consider giving our National drink a fair crack of the whip

StringersBeer said...

Does anyone else suspect that "beerfan" might be a sock-puppet for Marstons? I suppose I should be flattered.

it would probably have looked more realistic if you'd used an account that had been registered longer than about a minute ago. What do you think?

Lestah said...

Threre's another side of the Fast Cask story, from the other side of the Atlantic. In the US there is no history of keeping and serving real cask ales, and this new device makes it much easier for bars or individuals to serve cask beers that approximate real ales. There is a lot of interest in cask ales- at the Great Taste of the Midwest annual beer fest we serve around 45 different Midwest-brewed cask ales in a tent. I see this a very positive development allowing the spread of a great UK tradition.

StringersBeer said...

Pardon me Lestah, but that's BS.
If you've figured out how to "cellar" 45 RAs to serve in your tent - then you'll know that it's not brain surgery. It just takes 2-3 days, some cooling and some know-how.

Incidentally, I read that Marstons are now reduced to pushing this "great new idea" as enabling RA in trains and boats and planes. Woo.

HardKnott Dave said...


The three day turnaround thing is a complete misnomer put about by bigger regional brewers who make poor beer.

A well made real ale, in a hygienic and well cooled cellar, hard pegged when not being served will last in excess of a week. For this to happen it needs a little bit of residual fermentables and yeast that has good contact with the beer, not in silly jelly balls.

Most tank conditioned beers, that just happen to have been transferred into a cask, like those made by Marston's, do not have much in the way of the requisite yeast and fermentables.

But then the regional brewers require a fast turn around of their beer for economic reasons.

StringerBeer, sorry I missed this first time around, quality stuff.

Eddie86 said...

A little late to the party, but I enjoyed the post. Is it fair to say that real ale drinkers are drinking the process? If it tastes the same, with the same level of condition as a traditional cask, then what's the problem?

And yet, I'm sticking to the traditional form of Pedigree at the pub. I feel like I'm cheating by using fast cask. And because I'm the only one who would know, I'm only cheating myself.

Time for a beer...

StringersBeer said...

Eddie86, when you give your customers a cracking pint of lovely "Real Ale", you've demonstrating your care and skill - and your investment in cellar space, stock levels, etc.
These are things that go to set a great RA establishment apart from one that hasn't chosen to go down this path.
An innovation like Fast Cask, requires less of that stuff - that's why it's being sold, but it follows that the quality of the pint in the glass requires (and demonstrates) less commitment from the publican. Otherwise, what's the point?

Equally, something like (what we might call) "EasyCask" (I bet Mr. Ryan owns that) would be an ideal product for the home market, destroying a USP for the pub. If such a thing were to be marketed...

It doesn't matter if it tastes as good. It's not a product thing. It's an attack on the process.