We've recently invested in some proper stainless kegs. We've been putting beer into KeyKeg for some time and we have a few plastic kegs too. Most of our kegged beer has been exported to Italy where it has been well received. Today we are sending a further 48 KeyKegs.
As we've been gaining experience putting un-filtered craft beer into keg we've found there to be some issues. Un-filtered means the beer will contain some live yeast. This can sometimes, if there are some fermentables left, result in over-conditioning of the beer. This is especially true if the beer is allowed to warm up1 during transportation.
Cask of course can, and should be vented prior to being served. Any over-condition is allowed to be released until the carbonation is at an equilibrium with cellar temperature and atmospheric pressure. This means that fresh cask beer should have a minimum carbonation of about 1.1vols upon serving. Effectively this is an advantage of cask beer for micro-brewers as the exact carbonation level is determined by how the cellarman treats the beer rather than precise process at the brewery. Every good cask cellarman knows there will be some variability in the carbonation dependant on many factors including the timeline activities between racking in the brewery and the point of being tapped and vented.
I've talked before about how to reduce the pressure2 in KeyKegs - it works. I even managed to do it on-the-fly in Turin last year for various British brewers' beers to help get them served on the bar at Salone Del Gusto. My thumb acted as the release valve. It was a risky process. And yes, I did end up getting a beer shower.
We have improved significantly in our skills at getting carbonation right since we started putting beer into keg. From that respect the beer will be no better, or worse, in the stainless kegs than the beer we are now sending out in large quantities in KeyKeg. However, as is the case with most craft brewers who are exploring keg the early editions have been in KeyKeg and less well executed versions than the beer we now send out.
When we first started brewing all our beer went into plastic casks. It worked for us because way back then, in late 2005, we only sold it through the pub we then owned. Any problems we could manage and anyway, as the beer went straight from racking into the pub cellar there were rarely any issues. However, when we started selling a lot more to various outlets we found that the beer was less tolerant to variability especially in hot weather.
Again, we've improved. A lot. We rarely send out beer out in plastic cask, or plastic kegs. Mainly because in trade they just don't stand the knocks. Longterm, plastic just isn't a sensible investment. However, for startups it makes sense and as a result many new brewers use plastic. Low investment costs equals reduced risk. The result is that less experienced brewers, who have yet to perfect their processes, may have a greater degree of variability.
I've noticed a wide range of snobbery towards containers. There is of course the ongoing question of exactly what CAMRA should accept. I've noticed some distributors now refusing to accept KeyKeg because of a high rate of return of over-conditioned KeyKegs. The same distributors will accept stainless kegs. I've heard publicans snoot at plastic casks because the beer tends to be more variable. Either it is under-conditioned and flat or it has a much bigger tendency to blow keystones and shives.
I'd argue that none of this is the fault of the container, although I don't doubt that the correlation is real.
Our beer is getting better and better and better all the time. Over the next few months we will be putting out much more keg beer into the UK and it will mostly be in stainless kegs. It'll be very good indeed, trust me. It's not getting better because we are putting beer into stainless, we are putting it into stainless because we are better and way more confident in what we are doing.
Of course, I could now start to talk about bottles versus cans.........
If you are in Leeds next week you might find kegged Azimuth and/or Duality in North Bar. We're also sending keg Azimuth to BeerX in Sheffield. I believe there are also places in Newcastle that might have our keg either now or in the very near future. These include The Free Trade Inn, Bacchus and Lady Grey's.
1Beer will always keep better, irrespective of whether it is filtered, live or even pasteurised, if kept cool from the point it is packaged to the point it is served.
2Although I accept that beer ought to be as good as it can be for the establishment to handle, I do wonder why some don't at least make the effort to gas off kegs from those brewers who are experimenting. I'd love to still have my own bar so that I could iron out all the troubles within my own control. However, we do make mistakes and sometimes places get beer that fobs due to over condition. If it's not right then clearly a refund is in order, but it would be nice to still get the beer on the bar and showcased, especially if we've made the effort to ship it a long way.