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22-05-2010, 15:20
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New technology is a great thing. Anything that helps to make something better has to be good. Fastcask (http://www.fastcask.com/)TM (http://www.fastcask.com/) 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.

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