Saturday, 11 May 2013

Cask vs. Keg - A Beer Consumers View

This week most beer bloggers have been writing about their experience at London's Brewing. We have some things to say about that too, but first we wanted to finish this post we started writing a while back on the cask versus keg debate...

In the red corner: cask...
...and in the blue corner: keg


We've seen a great many articles on the subject of the cask vs. keg debate recently. We aren't professional brewers, we don't work in the industry, nor are we members of any consumer organisation. So how does the debate look to someone who isn't intimately connected to it?

If you're a fan of beer or 'real ale', it's pretty hard these days to avoid reading or hearing about the conflict that has developed during the UK's 'craft beer' revolution, i.e. the debate over the most appropriate means of dispensing beer. Cask or keg? In order to appreciate this divide, you first need to understand something about the background of the UK beer scene. Some of you will be fully aware of what it took to save British beer but others may not. In the 1970's British beer was at its worst and it needed a saviour.

The UK has a long and glorious history of brewing beer - ales, porters, stouts and a host of more specialised brews - all dispensed from a cask. Lager, a traditional German drink, needs to remain carbonated and chilled so is typically dispensed from a pressurised keg in modern day pubs. Post World War II, the UK population and its tastes had changed. Before long the Big Breweries decided that what the British beer consumer wanted was weak, fizzy lagers, chilled to almost frozen in order to kill any kind of flavour. The Great Briton only wanted the effect of the alcohol in their beer, not the taste. In 2013 the latest Coors Lite advertisement suggests you drink your beer 'Damme Cold' - in other words: tasteless.

Traditional pubs serving ales from a cask might already have been in decline by the time the 70's rolled around but it reached a point where a group of like-minded individuals banded together to form the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) in order to save one of the aspects of our nation that made us Great in the first place. Their efforts in promoting the production and enjoyment of traditional real ales, i.e. cask beer, saved our national beverage and there is little danger of real ale disappearing into the mists of history. Tasteless, fizzy lagers served from kegs are still enjoyed by many in the UK, but thankfully there is usually a real ale alternative in most pubs.

However, a new phenomenon has begun in the UK: the so-called 'craft beer revolution' which has apparently (according this BBC article 'US Craft Beer: How it inspired British brewers') been inspired by a recent similar 'craft beer revolution' across the Atlantic. Now we're not historians, but we're fairly certain that the US has been having a general beer revolution for a while now. Thanks to President Carter repealing the federal home brewing laws in the 1970's and the inspiration of what was happening in the UK thanks to CAMRA, our US cousins began a long, hard slog back from the almost fatal damage to their brewing heritage that occurred during Prohibition. We stand to be corrected by any readers from across the pond, but I'm fairly certain that the US beer revolution, be it 'craft' or otherwise, started more than just a few years ago.

It is also worth noting at this point that in the US 'craft' is a brewing industry definition based on the output of your brewery but has no clearly defined meaning in the UK in relation to beer. However, the US beer scene seems to have picked up a bit more momentum of late and so us Brits have been more exposed to it. Breweries like Stone, Dogfish Head, Victory, Russian River, Bear Republic, Lagunitas and Brooklyn will be familiar to many British beer fans but there are hundreds of other US breweries of various sizes producing lots of awesome beers. Refer back to our previous posts on our US beer adventure last year here, here and here or read our friend Matt's collection of great pieces on his visits to Colorado and Oregon on his blog.

When drinking beer in the US we’ve yet to see any sign of argument over how the beer should be served (cask, keg or bottle). Possibly this is because they've not had the same restrictions on what constitutes the 'correct' way to serve proper beer. As long as the product tastes good, seems to be their mantra. A good piece from veteran beer writer Pete Brown covers this aspect of US beers here. As always, we stand to be corrected, so readers from the US should feel free to weigh in.

So, where are we going with this? Are we about to launch into a massive CAMRA-bashing rant? Are we demanding that all Cask Marque pubs start putting in 'craft' keg fittings? No, we're not. British beer drinkers owe a lot to CAMRA. Without their hard work over the last 30-odd years, our brewing tradition might have withered to the point where our taste buds wouldn't be able to handle the uber-hoppiness of an American IPA from Oregon or a well-blended gueuze from Belgium. We'd be reduced to a nation of lager drinking louts and Guinness drinking old men, with all our well-earned cash going to a handful of mega-breweries.

Instead the British brewing scene has never been better, with CAMRA not only creating a movement that allowed traditional real ale brewing to survive in the UK, but also helping to build a platform for the explosion of new breweries popping up all over the country. Some of which are producing fantastic beers that highlight the best that we have to offer the world, and of those, a few only starting brewing in the last two to three years. Some examples of our favourite breweries are: Thornbridge, Magic Rock (looking forward to the Un-Human Cannonball), Beavertown, Tiny Rebel, Kernel, Partizan, Dark Star, Wild Beer Co., Bristol Beer Factory, Brewdog and Coniston.

And, oh yeah, you can find some of the above breweries' beers on both keg and cask.

You do find a lot of the great beers from the above breweries on keg. Mainly because they tend to be the bigger, higher ABV beers like Thornbridge Halcyon or Magic Rock Big Top. Despite how delicious these beers are, we suspect that pubs or even specialist beer bars just wouldn't turn over enough of them to even consider trying to manage them on cask. Magic Rock even state that all of the Big Top they brewed was solely for keg. (We can't wait for the next batch of it either)

That said, beers can be great when fresh on cask. We both had the Tiny Rebel Full Nelson fresh from the cask at The Hope beer festival back in February and it was one of the best beers we've ever tasted. We go to the GBBF every year to enjoy lots of different beers, all fresh on cask.

So what are we driving at? Well, from a beer consumer's point of view, the choice of beers that are currently available has never been better. At least in London with its specialist beer bars. We can't really comment on the rest of the UK yet. Perhaps that's a blog post for another day.

Does it really matter whether or not a really good beer is served on cask or keg? Not from where we're sitting. As long as it's properly looked after, served correctly and at an appropriate temperature, then it'll be a great beer, whether it be an ale or a lager. A proper lager, that is, none of that mass-produced crap that you see on insipid beer trees in pubs everywhere.

We're hoping our friends at CAMRA can see that and hopefully take the plunge to support great beer, not just the old traditional styles but the new ones coming through that are making Britain once again a great beer brewing and drinking nation.

Does it really matter how it's dispensed, as long as its good?

So that's all what we've got to say on the matter. It's worth pointing out that this blog post was inspired by the excellent posts about cask versus keg (or craft) on the blogs of Mark Dredge and Tandleman below:

Post-script: We started writing this blog post a few weeks ago and since then the CAMRA AGM took place in Norwich. From what we understand, the seemingly negative motions put forward about 'craft' beer and kegs seem to have been defeated, which shines a glimmer of light for the hope that CAMRA can move towards being more inclusive towards other styles. We're hopeful that they can. After all, we all just want to drink great beer, don't we?


Bioblogist said...

Interesting article. The damn scientist in me was wanting to know whether there was any physical/chemical reason why cask vs keg is appropriate. From what I can gather from your post and the links is that it seems to merely boil down to kegs are smaller so are consumed faster = better for strong drinks in small pubs. A little more digging suggests higher ABV/carbonation favours a keg while a cask can allow "session" beers to develop flavour more.
Other than that there really isn't much in it. I think I'll happily drink whichever form the brewer thinks is best be it cask, keg or bottle (everyone seems to agree on no cans). Even then it could boil down to individual taste. Some people like to add a little water to their whiskey, could the same not be true of an individuals cask/keg/bottle inclination for the same beer?

Unknown said...

Thanks for the mention, really interesting piece this!

Unknown said...

It echoes a conversation that myself and brewing partner had a while back. I think CAMRA has the potential to widen it's membership if it just relaxes a little and tries to calm the bearded cask militants down. It should try and encompass all types of beer including "good" lagers, belgian wheat beers which obviously would have to come from a keg. I do go to and enjoy CAMRA events but their hardcore stance has always put me off joining to be fair.

Good beer is good beer at the end of the day.