Friday, 22 February 2013

Container Snobbery

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.

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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.

8 comments:

Draught Beer Online said...

As ever, another well-written piece Dave

Cooking Lager said...

Yeh I'd say it's interesting but question the use of the term "snobbery"

Are containers a veblen good?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veblen_good

I mean there is craft beer snobbery, though not all that buy and drink it are snobs. For some it is a Veblen good, for others not.

Do the casks, kegs etc fall into Veblen goods?

Dave Bailey said...

Cookie, I don't think that snobbery has to be price related.

To me, snobbery is where someone dislikes something in particular just because it doesn't fit with what they believe is good. Where they reject something because it is beneath them.

In many cases the rejection is irrational.

You may have a different definition of snobbery. I respect that.

Paul Bailey said...

I remember the advent of plastic casks, during my time in the trade. I wasn't at all keen on them for several reasons, but principly they were difficult to stillage. Chocks tended to slip, because of the inherently shiny nature of the plastic.

Also, as a chemist, I wondered was the plastic they were formed from as inert and stable as the manufacturers would have us believe? Plastics, by their very nature, contain plasticisers in varying degrees - some of which are not particularly good for one's health. These additives can slowly leach out, especially in the presence of organic compounds, such as alcohol. The same concerns also apply to the resins, used to bond the three sections of the cask together.

The other main concern, that of durability, is much more tangible. Having witnessed certain teams of draymen in action I am amazed that stainless steel casks survive the rough handling they are subjected to. Plastic wouldn't last more than a couple of trips in the hands of some of the drayman I've come across.

StringersBeer said...

Plastic's fine, stainless is more of an asset. Excellent if you can access capital, or want to rent.
But yes, there's a lot of FUD spread about plastic. As here.

Cooking Lager said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cooking Lager said...

I respect your opinion too, Dave and would reiterate that this blog topic is interesting. If only because it provides a glimpse of the supply chain that customers by and large do not see. I think what you are describing is prejudice rather than snobbery. There are many forms of prejudice; snobbery is one of them and one of many. The type of prejudice you are describing appears to be either rational or irrational. If plastic casks have a self-selecting user base of inexperienced micros then a landlord may well express a rational prejudice against them if he notices they are more difficult to dispense. Whether that is due to the cask or the experience of those putting the beer in is not overly relevant to the man taking the beer out if he notices the correlation between plastic and difficulty. His prejudice is rational.

As for the prejudices of CAMRA, we all know those are many and varied but I think it worth seeing them from the outside rather than as a member. They are really more a campaign for tradition than good beer. They see themselves as a campaign for good beer as that suits there campaigning target of more people drinking the traditional stuff they like. That doesn’t mean you have to view them as a campaign for good beer. Once you accept they are not, their prejudice is no longer irrational. It is a rational prejudice against a technology at odds with the traditional technology they prefer. CAMRA are as influential as you want them to be. I think the path you and others are charting shows there is a market out there for specialist beer, different from the mainstream, which does not conform to CAMRA definitions. It is bound to worry those complacent in the view that CAMRA will continue to influence the British drinker to the degree it previously has.

Tandleman said...

"It is bound to worry those complacent in the view that CAMRA will continue to influence the British drinker to the degree it previously has."

This in its context makes sense. It worries a small minority.

Maybe less influence and more choice isn't such a bad trade off?