Sunday, 10 June 2012

The Trouble with Cask in the States

Over the past five months, cask ale has earned a very large and important region in my heart. I would love nothing more than to see the method of dispense exported en masse to the States but, unfortunately, I do not see that happening for quite some time. The lack of demand (although that could change rapidly) and the difficulty and unwillingness on the part of publicans to properly keep cask ale will likely cause cask ale to remain a novelty in the American craft brewing scene.

Cask ale requires a great deal of effort on the part of publicans to maintain and serve correctly. This is something I touched on briefly in one of my earliest posts about The Harp in Covent Garden.
The vast majority of ale drinkers in the UK do not even appreciate the importance of proper cellaring. When speaking to them, all but the most beer savvy of them would attribute bad condition and off flavors to the brewer. While it is at times the fault of the brewer, my experience has been that it is far more often a result of the publicans failing to properly keep their cellar.

So why is it so much more onerous to keep a cellar full of cask than keg? Firstly, beer dispensed from a keg is almost fully devoid of oxygen. Carbon dioxide is forced into the keg during filling and is also used as the pressure mechanism to dispense the beer through the line. Cask ale, on the other hand, uses suction or gravity for dispense. Beer flows out one end and ambient air flows in the other. The oxygen will eventually stale the beer and there is also the danger of infection via exposure to whatever micro-organisms happen to be in the air. Practically, what this means is that the shelf life of cask is vastly shorter than keg. A cask will only last several days after venting, while keg can sometimes last several weeks. Pubs with low turnover will find it nearly impossible to make money off cask because the spoilage can be high if it is not consumed quickly.

Second, cask ale is alive. What I mean by this is that cask ale contains live yeast that is constantly changing the condition of the beer. The brewers put the beer in the cask, but it is up to the publican to manage the secondary fermentation. Cask ale, therefore, is not a passive enterprise in the way that keg beer is. In order for a cask ale to be served properly, it needs to be stilled, vented and checked for proper clarity and condition. This all isn't very hard in theory, but it still takes somebody knowledgeable  and willing to do the job suitably well.

Here is a spread of four of my ales that were on tap at The Bull in Highgate. It would be wonderful to see cask ale occupy such a prominent place in pubs across the States. 
What this all boils down to is that cask is much more difficult and expensive to keep. In my opinion, there simply is not enough demand to give publicans the impetus to invest in cask ale. Sure there are breweries that cask their beers, but what little is casked is generally served at the brewery or at pubs operated or closely affiliated with the breweries themselves. And sure there are pubs in the States that specialize in serving cask ale (and serve it very well), but those are few and far between. Cask ale is a tradition in the UK and that is why it exists. American craft brewing simply does not have the tradition, but it does possess an extraordinary exploratory streak. This may bode well in the future, but I still do not believe cask will gain a real foothold for quite some time. Even with some demand, publicans will not invest in cask and people will not drink cask because the quality is likely to be low on account of poor celaring. I hope I am wrong, whatever the case may be.

Friday, 8 June 2012

Mashing Enzymes Part 2: Enzyme Action

Finally, here is the second post on mashing enzymes. There will be at least one more post on this topic, but most likely it will be two because it's getting pretty long. If you haven't already, I suggest you read Mashing Enzymes Part 1: Starches as it gives an introduction to the starches that enzymes break down in the mash. Also, forgive me for not adding any diagrams because it would have made everything much easier to understand. My computer is having issues and I will post the diagrams as soon as I can.

Enzyme Action

As I mentioned in the first post, it is the job of the mashing enzymes to break down both amylose and amylopectin into fermentable sugars and non-fermentable dextrins. It is the balance between the fermentable and non-fermentable components of wort that is of most concern to brewers because, obviously, this determines the level of residual sugars that will be left in the finished product.

I would like to start first with the action of beta-amylase. Beta-amylase is an exo-enzyme, meaning it attacks the starch molecules from the ends of the chains of glucose residues. It exclusively hydrolizes every second glucose molecule in the chain starting from the non-reducing end leaving the dissacharide maltose. With amylose, this means that almost the entire starch molecule can be broken down into maltose with only beta-amylase action. With amylopectin it is a bit more tricky. Beta-amylase will still hydrolize the branches of the amylopectin molecule in the exact same way as with amylose, except, beta-amylase cannot hydrolize the glucose residues closest to the branch points. In a theoretical mash with only beta-amylase, what we would end up with is a wort containing maltose as virtually the only fermentable sugar, with very large dextrins of what is left over of the amylopectin molecules.

Luckily, there is also alpha-amylase. Alpha-amylase is an endo-enzyme, meaning it cleaves the starch molecules (both in amylose and amylopectin) from the inside of the glucose chains instead of from the outside. This opens up new non-reducing ends from which beta-amylase can continue hydrolizing maltose sugars. Acting in concert with beta-amylase, there is a much more complex array of fermentable sugars and dextrins that are created. It is important to remember that even though alpha-amylase opens up new non-reducing ends for beta-amylase, beta-amylase still cannot hydrolize the glucose links close to the branch points on the amylopectin molecules. Therefore, even if there is full action of both beta-amylase and alpha-amylase, you will still have larger glucose linked molecules in the wort. Some of these would still be fermentable, such as the trisaccharide maltotriose, but most would not. In addition, in both amylose and amylopectin molecules, when alpha-amylase cleaves the starch it can leave odd numbers of glucose residues. Remember that beta-amylase can reduce those glucose residues in pairs of two (generally leaving a maltotriose molecule when it gets to the end of the chain) but occasionally it releases a singular glucose molecule. So even in a theoretical scenario, there is a wide range of sugar molecules produced in a wort from unfermentable dextrins to smaller fermentable sugars.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Goodbye to London

To be honest, I've had an extremely hard time figuring out what to write about my time in London. After all, my experiences there turned out to be the most significant period of my life. I don't mean to be melodramatic, but it is true. Unlike most of my posts, I will actually keep this one short and (hopefully) sweet because it is an emotional one to write.

My decision to move to London came with a sobering realization. Throughout most of my life, there was a plan. I was supposed to get good grades in school and get a good job at an accounting firm. I got to the end of that road, realized it was not what I wanted to do with my life, and was left asking myself "now what?" I figured that I was going to do anything, it had to be something that I actually cared about; not done purely for money or security. That led me to make the boldest and most important decision of my life; to jump ship to London and pursue what I am truly passionate

I arrived in London apprehensive. How could it be different with such a dramatic change in my life? I had no concept of how the people would be, or even if I could convince them of the enthusiasm I had for beer. Shortly after my arrival at Sambrook's; however, I realized how openminded and inviting the London brewing community is. What's more, everyone seemed to be receptive to my boarderline manic fervor when it came to any topic related to beer. Without the people, I would not have had the overwhelmingly positive experience I had.

I would especially like to thank the whole team at Sambrook's and Dan Fox from The Bull. Without you guys I might still be an accountant.

One quick addendum is in order. I apologize for not posting any content lately as I was traveling with little time to devote to writing. I am back now in full force and will post regularly.