Saturday, 22 May 2010

Fast Cask

New technology is a great thing. Anything that helps to make something better has to be good. FastcaskTM is something new from Marston's that might just help the cask market. The fact that the yeast in the cask is held in a gel ball ensures that cloudy beer cannot occur, even if the beer is put on sale as soon as it is delivered or even if the cask gets knocked. I'm pleased that this technology has been embraced by the beer world as a good thing and perhaps shows a grown up attitude to technological developments.

It makes me nervous then to progress in my discussion of this technology. There is a possibility that I might end up convincing some dinosaurs that it is far from a good thing, and that is not my intention. What I endeavour to do is challenge the very definition of cask and its relationship with cask breathers and unfiltered keg. Again.

I will start by suggesting that Fastcask is, in actual fact, something of a smoke and mirrors technology better suited to products that suggest it might be possible to restore hair to my bald patch or cream that might make me look younger. You are already thinking I'm setting out to cause trouble. You are probably right.

I'm going to go off on one of my technical explanations on cask beer, conditioning and the role of yeast and fermentable carbohydrates in this post, so be warned.

Lets start with the definition of "Real Ale" by CAMRA and apparently The Oxford English Dictionary.
"Real ale is a beer brewed from traditional ingredients (malted barley, hops, water and yeast), matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide."
That's nice because that is exactly the type of beer I make. My beer goes into the cask after primary fermentation and stays there for about a week before going out into the trade. I slow the fermentation by chilling the beer while there is still a little bit of sugar remaining and the small amount of yeast present in the beer acts on this to make a little bit of CO2 once the beer is in the cask and so give the beer condition.

Many breweries use conditioning tanks to ensure that the levels of yeast, sugar and CO2 are carefully controlled before the beer goes into the cask. This enables beer to be racked into casks on the day of delivery and so limiting the amount of time the beer spends in the cask. Often tank conditioned beer has very little yeast left in it and precious little in the way of fermentable sugar. It often does have plenty of CO2 and will appear to be like cask conditioned beer. However, very little, if any conditioning has actually occurred in the cask. If it is transferred into cask carefully, so as to prevent fobbing and so loss of condition, it will be ready to serve very soon after it has been delivered to the pub. The beer will possibly not have been fined with isinglass in the tank and so will still contain some yeast and other stuff that might leave residual cloudiness, this has to settle before the beer can be served.

I have to point out that the length of time in the conditioning tank, the yeast cell count and the residual fermentable sugars will depend upon the brewery. SIBA used to define these levels I believe, but I have been unable to find any reference on their site. I'm not actually not sure how much it matters. In high turnover cask beer pubs nearly bright beer can be delivered and served in three days and would be good beer. It would also still be "real ale" as it will still undergo some secondary conditioning in the cask, if very little.

I suspect in Fastcask the beer will be fully isinglass fined in the conditioning tank, the alternative method might be filtering. It will then be transferred to the cask, probably with sufficient condition to be served immediately. The yeast jelly bean is introduced simply so that it can be called cask. In my opinion a single gel ball would serve to provide so little contact of the yeast with the beer, due to it's small surface area, as opposed to yeast in suspension, as to render secondary fermentation insignificant.

There might be a small amount of secondary fermentation occurs which will keep the cask slightly fresher after opening than completely filtered beer, but I suspect it will make little difference.

Fastcask technically might conform to the definition of "real ale" and I'm very happy for it to continue. I don't however see how this is any less of an enemy to "real ale" than cask breathers, especially as with Fastcask beers most of the conditioning will have occurred under "extraneous CO2" in the conditioning tanks. As the beer is designed to be racked into casks, delivered to outlets and possibly served all in one day, it is not matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed.

I have been asked if I think that the lack of yeast in suspension will detract from making FastCask beer a good beer. I doubt it. I've had many very good beers from keg where the beer will have been cleared in conditioning tanks. Stone Ruination and Sierra Nevada Harvest being two very notable examples. They are different to cask, and I've had many good examples of cask beers too, Thornbridge Jaipur for example. I've had some really terrible examples of cask beer and of keg beers.

I propose that FastCask beers are unlikely to be outstanding beers, not because they are FastCask but because the companies who make the beers are making beers for broad appeal, and there is nothing wrong with that.


Barm said...

I'm unhappy about FastCask for similar reasons. It appears to have been developed precisely to conform to the letter of CAMRA dogma of what real ale is or isn't, and is exploiting a loophole in the definition.

It deviates from my idea of what real ale is supposed to be about, which is that beer is better the less you muck about with it. In my ideal world beer is brewed, fermented, racked and served in brisk condition by gravity.

The good news is that @edstudentbrewer has done a test with the stuff and he says it's just as good as ordinary cask Pedigree. Then again, I've never been impressed by cask Pedigree anyway. It will be interesting to see the results with other beers.

RedNev said...

I've not made my mind up about this yet, but I'm wondering whether it will just be another fad like Theakstons Cool Cask. You may recall this from around 10 years ago; it was aimed at lager drinkers with tall metal hand pumps designed to look like lager fonts and served colder than conventional cask. I haven't seen it anywhere for a long time.

StringersBeer said...

Crikey Dave, Keep up!

StringersBeer said...

But more to the point, the SIBA reference you were looking for is here (warning: it's a word doc) Relevant extract: Cask Conditioned Beers - should ideally contain between 0.4 and 2.0 million cells per ml when racked to cask.

FWIW, we aim to rack at between 0.75 and 1.5 million cells/ml

HardKnott Dave said...

Sorry Mr Stringers, I've been busy making a grist case and brewing beer, which has rather distracted from reading blogs.

*goes off to read Stringers blog*

The Beer Nut said...

For the record, the OED definition of "real ale" is "a name sometimes applied to draught beer that has been brewed and stored in the traditional way, and which has undergone secondary fermentation of the yeast in the container from which it is disposed."

Tandleman said...

"New technology is a great thing. Anything that helps to make something better has to be good."

This rather makes the assumption that new technology is good which is rather a moot point. The second sentence surely can't be argued with though.

Fast cask is neither here nor there, as far as I can see. Your points about the way these large brewers "tweak" their product to be technically within the accepted definition of cask, while in actuality producing a modified brewery conditioned beer, are well made.

Given that, brightening modified brewery conditioned beer to make its artificial haze disappear more quickly, won't make a jot of difference. I think we are agreed too that it won't improve or even affect the flavour or appeal of beers designed to offend nobody.

Eddie86 said...

I should be able to go and meet the Marston's team that have developed this to find out more, once I've got the Hay festival out the way.

In the past couple of years I've found myself enjoying a wider range of beers, so whereas I was introduced to cask through Woodforde's Wherry and Adnams Broadside, I now like to try something I've never had before. But if in doubt, Pedigree is certainly one of my top 'safe' beers. The idea that you may now be able to enjoy a Pedigree in places that never did cask before is something to be celebrated surely?

I think their marketing is slightly mixed though - I certainly wouldn't tap and serve it, it still needs a little time to take the green edge off.

However, I've recently been informed that Marston's are making smaller casks of Fast Cask to sell in the supermarket, making cask ale on draught something a lot easier to do at home. I believe there's a phrase for this that I heard a lot in Burton but my memory fails me...

I hope to try another Fast Cask shortly, this time with Hobgoblin which is one of my favourite large brews.

When it comes to the taste test, after 24hrs Fast Cask tasted as good as a traditional Pedigree did after a few days conditioning. How much you like Pedigree is another story though!

PS - Just read Stringer's blog on it. REALLY wish I'd shouted 'I'm a teapot' when rolling it around the cellar...

HardKnott Dave said...

Eddie, the attempts by the beer industry to mimic draft beer in the home bothers me. The widget for instance made "cream flow" beers available at home.

Actually, there are many things that are brought into pubs to give them a USP, like J2Os for instance, only to find that they then become available in the supermarkets at a fraction of the cost.

Apparently, Home Draft, or what ever it is called, will be priced at a level that narrows the gap between the off trade and the on trade. I was told that this is the strategy by a Molson Coors Communicating type person, and very good she is too. We shall wait and see if Home Draft does remain a premium product or if it will end up being shifted at tight margins and in huge volumes.

I may have a blog post on the subject in the future.

ChrisM said...

One of my local licensees (tied to Punch) is going to get some EPA (on the current finest cask rotation) and put it through its paces in much the same way as Ed did. I'm interested in trying it, but I'm not sure I'll be convinced.

As for Home Draft, the best solution is as follows: 1) organise a small gathering of beer drinking friends, 2) purchase 10 or 20 litre polypin from local microbrewer, 3) drink and enjoy!

StringersBeer said...

Dave, I know you've been busy - moving house and setting up a brewery all at the same time is quite enough to be thinking about. I know. Been there.

As I see it, taste comparisons of NuCask v. Real Ale are largely irrelevant. New! Improved! Cask is going to taste pretty much the same as the old stuff did. Perhaps not as good as the best, but more often than not, at least average. There's no reason why it shouldn't. It's only science after all.

That's really not the issue. By de-skilling the cellar in this way, giving good "Cask" is no longer the signifier of care and quality that it was. Speed-i-Ale attacks those careful, quality-minded publicans who gave us the best (or at least better than average).

"Home Draft" looks like a naked attack on the pub USP - which the industry needs like - I dunno - cut-price supermarket booze.

But this is how the Suits work, they see the market going one way and rush to chase their customers That's not innovation, but it's likely to be profitable. At least until things change again, when they go hareing off in another direction. Sigh.

Barm said...

De-skilling the cellar? How much skill does it take to remember not to kick the casks?

Here's an interesting story in thePublican: suggesting that Marstons' game in the medium term is to put mini-fastcasks in the supermarket trade and revolutionise drinking at home. In the fridge fastcask would have more obvious benefits than in a well run pub cellar.

StringersBeer said...

Barm, as you must know, there's more to running a cellar than remembering "not to kick the casks", although it has to be said that this seems to be beyond some people. I'm not saying that it's rocket science, and I'm not saying that SuperBeer will reduce publicans to mindless automata slaving for the brewers.

If you like beer and aren't bothered much about "real ale" pubs, then EZ-Ale, and for that matter "Home Draft" may be good things. Contrariwise, probably not.

Anyway, this is old news, I said my stuff before, and I shouldn't really clutter up Dave's blog any more.

HardKnott Dave said...

Barm and Stringers, I'm quite happy for you to continue the discussion here it you wish, you're both very welcome.

Barm said...

Of course there's more to running a cellar than not kicking the casks, but that's the only "problem" that fastcask actually solves. It doesn't address any of the cellar tasks that need real skill (which is why it will fail).

StringersBeer said...

Oh go on then.
Barm, you're quite right. Part of the problem though, is that those without the skill, or the space, or the experience, are going to be encouraged to have a go at "RapidAle". That's what the product is for, after all.

Turning out a fair pint is then less the indicator of a quality establishment that it was. And the RA pub's USP is undermined. But then you're probably right when you say it will fail, if the pint in the glass turns out to be less than fair.

Anyway, if the combination of Hubris, Deception and Avarice that this "product" embodies doesn't mark out to you - on the face of it - as a work of Satan, I'm not going to convince you, or anyone.

StringersBeer said...

P.S. When they launched Home Draft (sic) in the states (last year? How's that going?) They said the premium over a slab of beer was going to be something like 15%.

I wouldn't expect the premium to be much higher here. Why would it? If they can make a premium work at all. Heineken price their similarly named but smaller (and therefore completely different "DraughtKeg" along the same lines as the rest of their range dont't they?

Peter O'Connor said...

A very late occasion to wade into this, but I read this post belatedly the other day, and it got me thinking...

could this be feasible?