A Fast Cask

This week Marston’s revealed what could be the next generation of cask ale: the Fast Cask. The hope is that this will revolutionise the quality and availability of cask ale.

Cask ale is very important. As much as I might champion kegged beer or canned beer or drink strong bottled beers, the British craft beer scene revolves around cask ales and there is nothing finer than a frothing, clean pint of real ale. The only thing that will improve the general image of beer in the UK is if the quality of cask ale improves. The trouble with cask is that it’s living and therefore needs looking after. It takes a good cellarman, which is sadly missing from too many pubs, to treat these beers properly and only serve them when they are ready to go. A beer which isn’t properly cellared or is served before it’s ready will taste like the relative equivalent of an undercooked dinner – the flavours might be there but they won’t be right.

Now, I won’t pretend to know the beer science here. I drink the stuff, I know roughly how the ingredients affect how it tastes, but beyond that and my eyes glaze over and I get lost in a world of scientific terms. So, this is my simplified understanding of what this new cask aims to do and why that is good, mainly stolen from what others have written.

The cask has live yeast in the barrel so it is still real ale, but this yeast has undergone a process which means that it does not dissolve and instead it acts as a sponge (to suck in and push out the beer) and still gives an extra fermentation (it works in a bead or pellet form with a permeable coating on the outside). This yeast doesn’t need time to settle, which is the point of the Fast Cask. Think of a bottle of real ale. If you throw it around then all the yeast is disturbed. You then need to leave it standing upright for all the yeast to settle before it is ready to drink. If you drink it with the yeast still floating around then the flavour is changed. Cask beer is the same. The yeast needs to drop and settle before it’s ready to be served.

The benefit of this is that beer can be served quicker. It also means that beer can be stored upright or on its side with no detriment to the pint. You can kick and shift the casks without effecting the beer. It can be delivered to beer festivals and it will be ready to go so it doesn’t need time to sort itself out and it’ll also work for sports events and venues where they might not get a regular turn-around on the beer. The casks are easier to use so hopefully will mean a better, less-changeable pint for the punter. It also removes the need for finings. Overall, it works to fill an area of market which is missing decent quality cask beer while also adding an extra option to publicans who sell cask ale.

There are also negatives. Callermanship is a real skill and a pub with a decent callerman is very important; the art of looking after a beer until it gets to its peak should not be overlooked or undermined. I think this is the kitchen equivalent of using a microwave; some pubs wouldn’t dare but for others it’s essential – a quick and space-saving alternative. I don’t know how long these casks will last for; will they have a short pour-by-date or will they store in the cellar for months? There’s nothing like a cellarman having the choice to store a beer for 1-, 3-, 6-, 12-months before deciding that it’s at its best ready to go. The choice is currently limited to a couple of beers – Marston’s Pedigree and Wychwood’s Hobgoblin – although if successful this would likely increase. Also, is this expensive? The yeast has to go through a process before it’s ready for the Fast Cask. Will it be limited to certain yeasts? How will a brewery make their house yeast usable in a Fast Cask?

I think this is a good step forward for cask real ale and hopefully it’ll help the quality of beers in certain situations – beer festivals, outside events, pubs which don’t (or don’t know how to) serve real ale. It’s a nice addition to beer and I think it should be looked at that way; an extra option, not the next step to which all casks will become. Ultimately, it’ll come down to a taste test – bring a Fast Cask in, tap and vent it and then pour it alongside a well-kept regular cask. If they taste the same then great. Hopefully we’ll get to try it during Cask Ale Week, 29th March to 5th April.

My next questions are: How do you get the fast yeast-thing out and is it re-useable? If this works with yeast, could it also work with hops and could beer be “cask hopped”?!  

7 Comments to “A Fast Cask”

  1. Ed 21 March 2010 at 3:15 am #

    Cask hopping has been around for a very long time, though it’s generally known as dry hopping.

  2. Mark Dredge 21 March 2010 at 3:31 am #

    Ed, indeed, but I’m not talking a tea bag with hops in, what if the same technology could be used for hops and yeast? Not many casks are dry-hopped though, are they?

  3. The Beer Nut 21 March 2010 at 3:52 am #

    Any dry-hopped cask beer I’ve ever come across has had the hops in loose. Here it is happening at BrewWharf in London.

  4. eddie 21 March 2010 at 4:18 am #

    Nevermind the quick settling, that finings may become superfluous to cask ale is revolution enough. I hope it works, I really do.

    As far as using the tech on hops though Mark, consider the size of a hop cone – quite large. You’d have to mash it up first (pellets, already done), then maybe concentrate the flavours (liquid CO2 extract, already done) and before you know it, all beer will taste just like ******** ***** (names changed to protect the guilty).

    But you never know….

  5. Barm 21 March 2010 at 4:47 am #

    Cask ale dropping bright isn’t the issue. It’s turnover. Pubs still aren’t going to buy this stuff if they can’t sell it before it goes off. A complete red herring from Marston’s here.

  6. Mark Dredge 21 March 2010 at 5:32 am #

    TBN, doesn’t that just get a bit messy?! I wonder if the new brewers will be trying anything like that…?

    Eddie, if they can do it with yeast, then maybe with hops?! Who knows. I’m being a precocious hop head :) Removing the need for finings is an important step, though I don’t mind a little fish gut in my pint.

    Rob, I think that’s a side issue. If a pub doesn’t sell cask well then this won’t solve the problem, but if a pub does sell it but struggles with the size of the cellar or does a disservice to the buy by improperly serving it then this will help to improve it. One good cask that sells out is better than three bad ones which don’t sell. Give someone a good pint of real ale and it might tempt them to drink it again, give them a boring brown past-it ale and they’ll still to their lager.

  7. Joe McPhee 21 March 2010 at 6:08 am #

    I don’t see how there can be any defending of this latest round of BS from one of the big brewers. Will it speed things up… sure it will, but so does pasteurizing and kegging. This sounds like a bit of a cheat… there are still yeast in the cask, but there aren’t yeast in the beer. The yeast certainly aren’t going to function the same way in this device as they would distributed through the beer. Never mind the fact that the real problem is turnover… not really fining. It’s important that once these casks are opened they need to sell before they spoil.

    There are huge differences in the yeast profile of a given beer based on things as esoteric as changing the dimensions of the fermenter, so this is going to produce something very different from the original that it is presumably meant to replace. The little bit of yeast that remains suspended in even a well-fined cask beer is an important contribution to the flavour profile of the final product… I don’t see how that can be maintained with this device.

    There are loads of dry-hopped cask ales too, FWIW. Some breweries offer a choice of dry-hopping to the bar that is purchasing it.

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