I've been meaning to write about this year's London Brewers Showcase at Vinopolis for a couple of weeks now, but other things kept intervening - most notably the Twickenham Beer Festival.... (Congratulation, by the way, to Hammerpot for winning Beer of the Festival for its truly excellent Bottle Wreck Porter.)
The first thing you noticed at Vinopolis was just how many breweries London now has. It may even be up to 20. Most are members of the London Brewers Alliance, but the main LBA website is woefully in need of updating as it is missing a bunch of them: East London Brewing, By The Horns, London Brewing (=The Bull brewpub), London Fields Brewery, and my local Botanist Brewery, to name but five. (There is a decent-ish list in this article though.)
The second thing that caught my attention though was just how many were using plastic casks. These have been around for a a few years, but I wasn't aware of them being very successful. Their advantages are low weight and low cost, plus of course they don't get nicked and melted down by metal-thieving scumbags, but they had a reputation for being more fragile and likely to split.
"Plastic casks are a lot more reliable now - all the recent London start-ups are going for them," said Alex Bull of By the Horns.
Fullers head brewer Derek Prentice agreed, but added that bigger brewers will most likely stay with metal for now - if only because if he tried running plastics down an automated filling line, their light weight would probably have them bouncing off and careening around the hall...
One other reason why they work for the smaller brewers could be that their beers are not so widely distributed - even if a cask leaves the brewpub, in many cases it stays within that company's small pub estate. That means less heaving casks in and out of lorries and dropping them on pavements.
Other problems remain though, most notably that the other bits and bobs involved - the shive and keystone - were originally designed for use on metal casks, not plastic, and of course how the materials bind together will vary. This was demonstrated at Twickenham where we lost one plastic cask due to the keystone blowing out overnight and another was withdrawn by the brewer because the shive was no longer airtight. So, more work still needed, eh?