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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Tuesday, 16 March 2010

EXCLUSIVE: Marston’s redefines Cask Ale

Full Disclosure: I was paid a consultancy fee by Marston’s to help them look at how to talk about this. That was three months ago and I haven’t been privy to developments since. Despite my previous involvement I have not been paid to write this post – I’m writing it because I believe in the product. But I’m flagging it because I do have an on/off strategic relationship with Marston’s and you should know that before reading this piece.



Marston’s are today announcing the launch of a new initiative called Fast Cask, which the brewer believes will revolutionise the availability and quality of cask ale.

Without going into too much technical detail, Fast Cask is still cask ale because it has live yeast working in the barrel, conditioning the beer. But that yeast has been put through an innovative process that makes it form beads which do not dissolve into the beer. These beads act like sponges, drawing beer through them to create the secondary fermentation.

What this means is that Fast Cask ale casks can stand a lot rougher treatment than a standard ale cask. They don’t need time to settle, which means they can be delivered to festivals and events that don’t normally have cellaring facilities. If a tapped cask is knocked, moved or even upended, the beer inside will still be clear. When not in use, a cask can be stored on its end, making it much more practical in small, cramped cellars.

The process means the beer no longer requires finings, so cask ale becomes acceptable to vegans.

Casks must still be tapped and vented to allow them to breathe.

Doubtless some ale aficionados will reject this as somehow being not ‘real’ ale because it’s not ‘traditional’.

The conversation I had with Marston’s was about taking a longer term historical view of the development of real ale. People who say traditional cask conditioned real ale as we know it today is ‘beer as it’s always been brewed’ are wrong. Traditional ‘running ales’ have only been around since the late nineteenth century, and were themselves one result of the scientific analysis of the behaviour and properties of yeast – an analysis which was decried by many at the time because it wasn’t ‘traditional’. If that process bore fruit a hundred years ago, it’s difficult to argue why we somehow should stop researching yeast now.

If people would simply rather have traditional cask ale that’s fine – Marston’s have no plans to phase it out, and will be offering Fast Cask alongside traditional cask.

We often talk about how cask ale is a living, breathing thing. Well living, breathing things evolve and grow and develop. Fast Cask is simply the next stage in cask ale’s evolution.

Hopefully it will be accepted as such rather than decried in a rerun of the whole cask breathers debate. Because like cask breathers, it makes no difference whatsoever to the quality or character of the beer. It’s still living, breathing real ale.

And it’s a move that helps spread the appreciation of that ale to people and places it can’t currently reach. Anyone who thinks that’s a bad thing really needs to have a word with themselves.

If you want to try it out, look out for Pedigree and Hobgoblin during Cask Ale Week (29th March to 5th April).

So what do you think? Is this good? Bad? Significant or not? Do you want to taste the beer first and then decide, or have you already made up your mind?

57 comments:

Bods said...

All sounds very interesting, and I'd agree, could be revolutionary.

Although I suspect the only way to please some people will be blind tastings comparing both side by side :)

Michael Ironside said...

I think this is extremely significant and it all sounds very technical and interesting. If this means that there is the likelihood of getting good quality cask ale in places that would never have thought of it before then Im all for it.

You cant really argue with innovation and although Im not one of the old traditional 'real ale' must be the way it is kind of guys, I totally welcome this. Well done!

Eddie86 said...

From what I'd been told, the idea of it was to get cask ale into places that wouldn't normally do it - for example rugby clubs only open at weekends wouldn't need to rack a beer on Wednesday, they could do it all Saturday morning.

If it spreads good quality real ale, then I'm all for it, although I doubt I'd use it at the pub. Having just re-read that, I can't honestly say why I wouldn't though.

One to watch

Baron Orm said...

Sounds like a great idea to me, and should hopefully get pubs ordering 'real' ale again!

Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

couldn’t give a monkeys though there’s not much in the Marston’s stable that I particularly enjoy apart from Brakspear, Old Empire and Snecklifter — you’re right about the whole traditional thing, there’s always someone somewhere with a glass of muck stuck on that old time immemorial riff.

The Beer Nut said...

I'd have thought any complaints about this being a step in the wrong direction could be settled with a simple blind tasting.

Melissa Cole said...

Bloody hell, this sounds incredible, thanks for the news Pete

Chris Routledge said...

It's great to see technology moving things along. Good point about the C19th. In the 1880s Moritz's Laboratory Club made scientific brewing the 'tradition' we enjoy today.

DJ said...

The proof is in the pudding but this does sound like it could be exciting development that would only be good for the quality of beer in pubs. It does sound like a progression rather than an alternative that sacrifices quality. Would the technology be made available to other brewers or will it just be Marstons baby?

Chunk said...

Looks like an interesting innovation that should be embraced, not discarded simply because it isn't how things have been done in the past.

Whilst it will help places that can't allow traditional casks to settle ... am I right in thinking that it won't prevent beer going stale any less quickly? In the way that maybe a key keg does (although obviously without the yeast conditioning).

Chunk.

Tyson said...

Definitely interesting and I'd like a look at the technical specs. I don't think there will be necessarily as much opposition as you might think. CAMRA may have officially painted itself into a corner with cask breathers, but that's routinely ignored at grass roots level, as the majority of its memebers, like the public, aren't fussed.

The proof will indeed be in the pudding and what the cost will be to other brewers. What one needs to do is try a beer you know from a FastCask. Will the Pedigree and Hobgoblin be identified as coming from FastCask? Or will it stay secret to keep you guessing?

Mark, Real-Ale-Reviews.com said...

Does fast cask have implications on longevity Pete? One problem is getting cask ales into some pubs and particularity hotels because it simply won't sell enough in a reasonable time period.

Matt@HopZine said...

It's a good idea. I mean I'm not a traditionalist so I'm not overly fussed on how it's produced/shipped/bottled or whatever.

I think the most important thing is beer being delivered to the consumer in a form that the brewer can say "that's how I want it to taste".

Basically anything that keeps the beer in a consistent condition when it reaches the consumer is all ok by me!

Zak said...

It's an interesting development, but maybe it stops a bit short of actually redefining cask ale?

And unless I'm missing something, it only addresses one of the aspects of what can go wrong with cask ale - isn't cellaring beer to peak condition an art?

StringersBeer said...

woo hoo. immobilised yeast. no-one has ever heard of that before. So now they can chuck some of this stuff into their "output stream" and imply that it's "real ale". My arse.

Thomas said...

Surely this will affect the taste of the beer?

StringersBeer said...

Oh by the way - has US Patent 5070019 just expired or something?

David said...

I would be interested to know more detail like do they have to muck around with the beer to filter out the yeast that was used for the main fermentation. But as others have said, the proof of the pudding ...

Séan Billings said...

I am curious about the process that clumps yeast like this. Is there anywhere I can get a more detailed technical explanation? I am curious, for instance, if yeast processed this way is used in the fermentor too, or if it is just used in the cask, like German Weissbier brewers using a bottling strain. If it is a different strain, then the primary yeast would have to be removed by filtering or centrifuging the beer before racking it to cask. Or am I wrong?

Anonymous said...

Looks like from this quote in the Morning Advertiser that they are seeking their own patent:

Marston’s will seek a patent for the yeast “beads” used in the process, but will consider sharing the technology with other brewers

If they get the patent granted other brewers wanting to use this specific technology will have to take a license from them. Suppose the number taking it up will depend on the impact it makes on the trade and the cost of the license.

Cooking Lager said...

What about the taste? Is it noticeably different?

Pete Brown said...

No different Cookie - still pongy.

Stringers - care to expand with some actual arguments as to why you think it's not real ale, over and above 'they're big so I don't like them?' they've given quite a bit of detail on the process. If you want to say their brewers are wrong it would be interesting to hear why.

Pivní Filosof said...

As long as drinkers don't notice any difference (for better or worse) when drinking a pint with this sort of conditioning this is pretty much a non-issue for the average Nigel.

StringersBeer said...

I'd love to see that patent application. I bet there's shedloads of prior art. Or are they just going to claim "plus, you can put it in beer, also!".
What a crock. I'll shut up now.

Séan Billings said...

I find it odd that (probably) filtered beer, primed with yeast that has gone through a process of some sort, can be considered "real" when unfiltered beer may not be, simply because it is served from a cask with a cask breather attached or worse, a keg with co2 top pressure. It just shows the hoops brewers are forced to go through simply because of a definition of "real ale".

If it tastes the same, I would have no problem with it, but then I have no problem with decent beer from a keg.

StringersBeer said...

Pete Brown.
Among the things that stick in my craw:

Marston's hubris - "redefines Cask Ale" indeed.

It's a technological fix for cultural issue - "misplaced belief that real ale is difficult to look after and serve".

It's not their idea... earlier patents / prior art etc.

It wasn't broken. Reasonable levels of care in the cellar already manage the risks of "casks being knocked" for goodness sake.

Creates expectations of reduced skill / care required which may disadvantage producers of traditional products.

I suspect that this has more to do with allowing a portion of their filtered, stabilised, effectively dead, product stream to be diverted from the keg-fillers to this pseudo-cask, where new life can be injected into it, frankenstein-like, than a concern for quality of real ale per se.

But hey, what do I know?

Do I get a fee for that?
p.s. you still owe me something for the dentist chair proof :-)

Pete Brown said...

SB, I'm still not clear as to why you think it's a bad thing though - and I am genuinely interested because I want to make sure I've got the best understanding of it I can.

To answer some of the most common questions so far as well as I can:

There have been blind taste tests in about 70 pubs and no one so far can taste the difference versus traditional cask

They have applied for a patent. But the intention is that other brewers will definitely have access to it before too long.

Yeast is extracted after primary fermentation, and this secondary yeast is then added. But I'm told this already happens more often than you might think with traditional cask ales.

CAMRA have so far given the scheme its support.

It's still real ale - so it still needs to be tapped and stillaged, and still has a relatively short shelf life. But apart from the increased portability the yeast in this form is more consistent so there's less chance of getting an excessively lively barrel.

Anything more technical than that and you'll have to ask the brewer!

Pete Brown said...

SB - posted my last one at the same time you did so hadn't seen yours.

Cask ale not being available in 46% of UK pubs seems like a problem that needs fixed to me, and while this doesn't solve the only problem, it solves a problem for many venues, as many (unpaid) posters have highlighted here.

And I'm just not going to get into conspiracy theories about brewers passing off keg beer as cask - mainly because I have no facts at my disposal about it.

Re the fee jibe - I was honest that I've been paid to discuss this with them - just as honest that this post is unpaid and genuinely represents what I think.

Re Dentist's Chair, remind me again (if you like) towards the end of May with your postal address and I'll send you a set of the new paperbacks of my books - no copies of H&G left until the paperbacks come out!

StringersBeer said...

The "fee jibe" was no jibe at all. You've made your position admirably clear. Knowing what punters (like me) think is part of what you do. Good on you.

Dentist chair thing? Leave it. The points you made about media panics and misrepresentation stand up perfectly well, in spite of some light-hearted picking at minor points by the likes of us .

Keep up good work.

p.s. Got your books already.

Laurent Mousson said...

Hmmm, promising, interesting approach in tackling practical issues that do hamper wider distribution of cask ale... but indeed the acid test will happen with the finish product in the glass. If its successful technically speaking, establishing it on the market will be another story. If Marstons, who, I assume, will have patented it cling on too tightly to their exclusive rights on it, I'm not sure they're large enough to reach the critical mass on the market...

Séan Billings said...

Pete; I don’t actually have a problem with this at all. If the beer tastes good, I’m all for it. I’m just amused by how much trouble you have to go to, to keep the “real ale” name, if you make even a minor change to your process.

This system would make it easier and quicker to get a cask ready for serving, but does nothing to extend the shelf life of the casks once vented. I am led to believe (correct me if I’m wrong) that the possibility of having to throw out beer is what prevents a lot of publicans from going the cask rout, but extending the shelf life of a cask would require a cask breather, which makes the cask not “real”.

Filtration does remove some flavour elements, dulling hop aroma for instance, but apparently that is OK and you can still call your beer real ale. Personally, I think that if the beer is brewed with filtration in mind, so what? I drink filtered beer an enjoy it. I also enjoy unfiltered beer, which has those flavours still intact, served on co2 pressure from a keg. One is “real” the other isn’t, simply because of where the co2 comes from.

Jeff Rosenmeier said...

Total bullshit Pete, it's not new, it's called bright beer and been around for donkeys and is used by a majority of 'real ale' brewers. This is totally fine by me, though it is technically not 'real ale', as it contravenes CAMRA EPD policy 3.1.

You can't have secondary fermentation without the generation of yeast and yeast, given Stokes Law need time to settle. Sure you can use a more flocculant yeast, but it still needs to settle. If you can roll one of these off the truck into the cellar, tap and pull a clear pint...there hasn't been a true secondary fermentation in that cask and it is simply bright beer. No funny vegan friendly yeast beads or other voodoo involved.

People, please don't let the techno mumbo jumbo fool you into thinking this is innovation.

Pete Brown said...

Sorry Sean - miscommunication - the SB in my posts was Stringers Beer, not you!

Tandleman said...

I'm not really sure I fully understand this, but it is interesting. As long as it is conditioning beer to full maturity in the cask, seems good.

But we'll see.

Justin Roberts said...

Are these beads not the same or similar to the alginate beads used to immobilize yeast and make disgorgement in Champagne/Traditional Sparkling wine easier after the 2nd fermentation?

Jeff Rosenmeier said...

I think I understand this a little better now and maybe have called bullshit too soon, sorry.

For you techies, here is a paper on this technique, which isn't new.

http://e-jst.teiath.gr/eng/nerantzis.pdf

So, the beads are left in the cask and just happen to drop like a stone cause they are bigger than yeast (Stokes Law)???

Bods said...

It makes me think of the types of yeast used on bottle conditioned ales. You can get these yeasts which do their job but stick to the bottom of the bottle so when you pour, the yeast doesn't come out.

Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

Just one other thing that occurred to me — if 46% of pubs cannot sell cask beer is that because of space or the lack of a cooling cellar (which I thought was the issue in many cases). This then leads to the issue of serving temperature. If the beer isn’t the right temperature it won’t matter if the yeast is like a sponge or sitting on the bottom like a U-boat waiting for its target. I’m not decrying the invention (far from it), but I wonder if some lazy landlords will forget about the right temperature if this is seen as a new wonderkid? Maybe see if Cask Marque can work with Marston’s to remind licensees about temperature?

Ed said...

I don't really see the point of this. Seems totally unnecessary and will presumably add to the cost.

Sid Boggle said...

Same as ATJ, really - I wouldn't be looking it out, since I don't really go for much of what they brew.

Still, it'll be interesting to see how the debate clarifies and whether other brewers step up. Do you think it'll lead to separate pumpclips for 'traditionally' casked beers and this stuff?

Paul Bailey said...

Seems a good idea in principle. My only concern would be does sufficient secondary fermentation take place in a "Fast Ale" cask? This point seems to be missed in the rush to get the cask delivered, tapped and spiled, and then put on saleas quickly as possible.

The correct brewery term for "real ale" is "cask conditioned ale", and that term implies that a degree of conditioning (secondary fermentation) takes place in the cask before the cask is broached and the beer served. Cut out this vital step and, whilst you may well have "bright beer", you will have a beer lacking in condition and tasting immature. ("Green is the term commonly used).

Sorry to be a stick in the mud, but the jury's still out on this one so far as I'm concerned!

Stono said...

on the basis extra functionality never comes for free :) what are the cost implications of this process, will a fastcask barrel cost more to produce, so cost more to the pubs/bars that serve it, and so consequently cost the consumer more ?

crownbrewerstu said...

i thought the last thing a pub would struggle with was settling the beer. i think most of the pubs that say they can't do cask beer, don't have the cellar equipment (or can't afford to buy it), don't have the knowledge to look after or market cask beer or don't think they will sell enough to get though a cask in 3-4 days. so i think its mostly a shelf life issue, cask breather could sort this.
what about serving the beer with a spear or float which enables the pub to serve from an up right cask this is very common even in the best pub in the country which has a very small cellar (10 hand pumps)

kmudrick said...

As a vegan, this excites me *greatly* - since most brewers, even over here in America, still use finings for their cask conditioned beer.

Curmudgeon said...

I have no problem with this in principle, but I think the reason that 46% of British pubs (surely more) don't sell cask ale is not in general because of lack of cellar space and handling difficulties but lack of throughput. I don't see that this will extend the shelf life of cask beer once tapped. Is it a solution to a largely non-existent problem?

Alex Hall said...

Sounds good in theory though I'm sceptical. A blind tasting needs to be done before further comment.

One thing not addressed yet, what strain(s) of yeast can be "beaded" successfully in this way. Just Marston's for some reason? Or any good flocculating ale yeast?

Tandleman said...

Stu - while spears can be used for good or bad, they are usually used by the lazy who want to serve the beer too soon. As the beer drops bright you move the spear down a bit. Green beer is often served as a result.

Not saying it can't be used well, but often it isn't.

Geoff said...

Sounds like a good way for Marstons to give themselves more market power while small brewers without sterile filtration equipment will be squeezed out.

Why don't Marstons spend their R&D budget on making their beer not taste like crap instead of gimmicks like this? Settled yeast is only one part of cellarmanship. This only solves one very small part of the problem.

chrispost said...

Alex Hall raises what I think is a good point, especially given the uniqueness of the yeast strain used in the Burton Union (which, I understand, is ideally suited to and indeed was developed for the flocculation characteristics of the Marston's yeast). I would hate to see Marstons jettison any more of the unique character of Pedigree, and in particular the Union system. I've been saddened to see the gradual dumbing down of the Pedigree "crest" to remove the knotted rope, symbolizing the Burton Union, and the 'Strong" "mild" "Pale" on the barrels. As an active conspiracy theorist, I've always thought this presaged an eventual abandonment of this unique, historic part of our brewing heritage. So I share some of SB's concerns. On the other hand I like to think that Marston's continues to have some respect for the traditions behind their product. Would love to hear more. On a related topic - I heard from a craft beer distributor rep here in the US that Marston's is planning to rebadge some Wychwood beer and sell that over here as "Pedigree". Haven't ever been able to corroborate this dreadful rumor in any way. Is it possible that this rumor could be the distorted bastard child of the story we're discussing?

crownbrewerstu said...

Tandleman, cutting down on settling time doesn't mean cutting down on conditioning time.
yes there are pubs that will take a cask delivery and try to serve it the same day, but that cask might have taken 1/2/3 weeks to get from the brewery to the pub (if it went through a wholesaler) beer delivered by the brewery might have been racked to cask and stored in the brewery's cold store for a week or more before delivery. yes there are exceptions some brewery's will be racking the morning its delivered but i believe most are racking batches that can take a week or two leave the brewery.
finally spears aren't just the lazy persons tool they are cheaper to set up in the first place and as i said if space is a problem they help by allowing the pub to take delivery and not have to worry about changing empty barrels for full on there racking/tilters and then wait for that freash cask to settle, the cask is already in the right position, settled.

StringersBeer said...

I wouldn't normally "me too" like this but I'm right behind crownbrewerstu on this. While we've all heard of breweries who leave maturation to the pub cellar, I know that many brewers nowadays send out beer that (apart from clearing) is ready to drink. .It's been matured either in tanks or in cask (Like we do) at the brewery. We've got customers who'll hang on to beer for weeks before selling it, and others who'll put it on the same day (if it'll clear that fast). As you'd expect, this makes for a real difference in the final effect.

Anonymous said...

http://brewingreality.blogspot.com/2010/03/immobilised-yeast.html

Barm said...

46% of pubs don't sell cask ale because they can't be bothered and can't imagine their customers wanting anything other than what they already sell. That's the real reason and technical innovation is not going to change that.

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dspu said...

'fraid Fast Cask aint suitable for vegans...isinglass is used to filter the beer before it goes into the fast cask.

Anonymous said...

I actually run a pub using Fastcask when necessary. Marvellous idea for putting a beer on fresh after delivery when you have been caught out by unexpected demand. I have found no taste difference and have had none reported to me. We try to serve cask as intended and I appreciate some people may think it's the lazy way but in these hard times for pubs any system which means you can satisfy demand with no deterioration in quality can't be bad??

Anonymous said...

cask ale can be so damn variable, if this helps limit that, we're onto a winner