Tuesday, 21 September 2010

The Ghost of Beer Past, Present and Future

It was silly really; driving all the way to Sheffield, spending money on a hotel room, drinking far too much on a weekday night and then getting up far too early to drive back home again and try and get a whole days work in before I can settle down and start to write about it all.

What could I do? I'd missed the BrewDog End of History tasting in The Rake, but London is just too far to go, then they planned to do it all in Sheffield Tap with the added advantage of some Thornbridge beers too. Damn, it seemed that Jaipur would be available on both cask and keg, at the same time, now there is a test I have always wanted to carry out; tasting the same beer on these two forms of dispense.

To be fair, I'd had a busy day and had been snacking on rubbish on the journey over. I was hungry and thirsty, I'd have probably enjoyed a pint of any form of amber liquid had it been chilled enough. I ordered a half of Jaipur and interestingly the barman immediately went to the handpull. I explained that I wanted a half a pint of over-chilled, over fizzed Jaipur and one half of cask, he suddenly remembered that he should have asked which I wanted. I then proceeded to sample each in turn.

It’s the old question; is cask ale really the best and only way to serve craft beer or can keg be as good, or even for some styles better than cask. It is very rare to get the very same beer on gas tap and on handpull in the same establishment. This occasion saw the ideal opportunity to try a great beer in both formats.

Being thirsty the keg version instantly won me over, the slightly increased carbonation, just less than 2 volumes according to Kelly Ryan, and the slightly colder serve temperature combined to quench my deep thirst. I have to say I was impressed by the keg version and the cask was dull and flabby in comparison.

I tweeted that I preferred the keg version, Tandleman tweeted in reply questioning if the cask was in good condition. A very valid point, I believed it was but inevitably it might have lacked maximum condition and may have already been on a couple of days. I found no detectable defects however.

Notwithstanding my thirst and possible mood influence on my declaration of keg being the winner of this less than ideal comparison, it is perhaps useful to have a greater analysis of the real perceptible differences.

Unfortunately I tasted the keg version first, which may have masked appreciation of the cask version. The keg beer had a very enjoyable hop flavour and aroma that was significantly subdued in the handpulled beer. A very plausible explanation for this is loss of hop aroma due to the cask having been vented a few days. The lovely hop experience aided the quelling of my desire for liquid refreshment.

Shortly after purchasing my halves of Jaipur I met with Reluctant Scooper. We had a short discussion about the keg beer. He pointed out that keg beer tends to have reduced malt character. Yes, I’d agree, the colder fizzier Japiur really was thinner and more refreshing. Whether that is good may well be a matter of opinion and even down to the mood and palate variations of the drinker at that time.

It is true that the cask was more malty, silky and velvety. Perhaps on a different occasion I would have found the cask more balanced and less harsh. It would be valid to say that the kegged version unbalances the beer on to the hoppy side to the detriment of the malt profile.

That evening I continued to drink a variety of different beers, some cask, some keg and some bottles, right up to a crazy 55% squirrel encased audacious spirit masquerading as a beer. Some beers were Thornbridge, some were BrewDog and some Stone, if I remember correctly. It was a great night with great beer right from 4% ABV upwards.

After my initial keg verses cask comparison I stopped worrying about the dispense method. I enjoyed every single beer that night and shall return in another posting to say a little bit more about one or two of them.

It seems obvious to me that the discussion about keg verses cask will rage on forever, and so it should. I am a fan of good beer, it is as simple as that. Good beer can be found in cask, and the fact remains that the majority of good beer in the UK is to be found in this format. Despite that it is not true to say that all keg beer is rubbish and there are some very clear benefits to that format of dispense.

There are also some very poor cask beers. Sometimes it’s the fault of the brewery, and we have been guilty of that from time to time. Sometimes it’s the fault of the pub, and when we had our pub we also failed occasionally there too. But cask beer does take a little more care and planning than keg beer. It is easier to get cask beer wrong and I challenge even the best cask brewer or cellar man to honestly tell me they have never made a mistake.

Cask inevitably suffers from the problem that in dispense air is let into the cask. Carbonation is released and with it lovely volatile essential oils, even within the 3 days recommended cask life beer does change flavour profile. Some drinkers like beer that has lost some of its more aggressive flavours. Many drinkers feel that particular beers benefit from some exposure to air, Timothy Taylors is one case in point.

I also feel that some breweries give advice to cellar men that result in much of the condition in the beer being lost before it ever sees the pumps. I shall hopefully return to this at some time, but clearly if beer is lacking carbonation before the first pint is served then the last is going to be well past acceptable. There is also the inevitable problem of licences trying to edge their bets and leave cask beer on sale past acceptable deterioration compounded by the desire by many to provide a good selection.

These limitations of cask are accepted by many of us. It is better to have some poor quality cask than to have no cask at all. When it is in top form it can be superb. Many styles of beer just cannot be bettered in any other form and in particular good traditional styles such as stouts, porters and milds come into their own in this format.

It still remains that there is a growing interest, all be it limited and small scale, to craft keg beer. At the evening in the Sheffield tap there were a number of brewers who are either already experimenting, or are planning to experiment in the future with keg beer. I talked to some of them and came away with some great consensus views.

The key thing about craft keg is that it is not "mass produced, over carbonated, chemical shit". Many of the brewers I spoke to were concerned about issues such as carbonation volumes. Thornbridge for instance currently carbonate at less than 2 volumes, although there seemed to be a little descent on this one from the new Aussie guy, who's name I forget. The point is that the level of carbonation is important. It is possible to make keg beer that is low carbonation and I think Thornbridge got it about right.

Later I talked to James Watt, you know, that crazy Scottish guy who's in charge of Stuff at BrewDog. We were talking about filtration levels and I commented that one bottling company filter beer to 0.5 microns. This is great in some ways as it will filter nearly all bacteria and yeast cells and so ensure long shelf life for bottles. James seemed a little shocked about this, clearly he believes that this level of filtration to beer will knock out much of the good hop flavours in the beer. My experience would bear this out.

I believe that many of the craft breweries who are kegging beer are not sterile chill filtering. The product is still live and very possibly undergoing some secondary fermentation in the keg. Clearly yeast counts will be far less than in the cask versions but the important point is that the product still retains the vibrant flavours and aromas in the beer. Thornbridge have a fancy centrifuge which is supposed to be the dogs whotsits for sorting out clarity whilst carefully controlling the cell count in the beer. I talk about technology in beer production in a previous post, careful appropriate application of such technology will provide some interesting avenues for the future of craft beer.

Some brewers, bar managers and beer geeks are proclaiming that keg is the future of the craft beer market. Some have even gone on to say that cask beer will die out some time soon. I'm not sure I quite agree that strongly. Keg beer, Proper Real Keg if you like, is part of the future. Cask beer will also be part of the future.

I'd like to leave you with a little bit of topical controversy. Sex is good. Great sex with a loving partner is fantastic. In a long-lasting relationship sex can even occur without the inconvenience of using, what I believe can be referred to as, prophylactics. But just consider this; is insisting that good beer can only be served without the aid of any extraneous carbon dioxide just as bad as insisting that sex can only ever take place without the use of a condom?


This blog post is a little delayed. I was in hospital yesterday getting my hernia sorted. The last couple of weeks have been mad as we've been trying to sort out the brewery. I've got to rest a bit now, so hopefully I can get a bit more blogging sorted. I intend to tell you my thoughts on various BrewDog beers I tried at Sheffield last Wednesday.


Cooking Lager said...

Loving the sex metaphor.

Would a can of Foster's be a dirty regretable drunken fumble at 2am with a orange tanned fat lass outside a kebab shop?

And will you get thrown out of the beardie club for necking keg bitter?

Alistair Reece said...

It is interesting that over here the roles of cask and keg are reversed, and cask is the one which I prefer simply because the keg can be too fizzy. A third way which I have been learning about lately is a German technique called "spunding" where once the beer is within 1 degree plato of finishing fermentation, the airlock is closed and the CO2 created thereafter carbonates the beer.

Ed said...

Some beers are better on keg - wheat beers for starters. And I don't know about Jaipur but whenever I've had Brewdog beer on cask they've been poor compared to the bottled version. I can't see keg session beers ever competing with (well kept) cask session beers though, no matter how proper and real they are.

Yeastie Boys said...

Good debate.
Great beer is great beer, whether it comes from keg, cask or bottle. Whether it is brewed at home, by your local brewery or by an industrial giant. Whether it is served in a wine glass, a boston, a schooner or an imperial pint.

Without mentioning any organisation names, there are a group of people in the UK that run the risk of turning UK drinking culture into an environment similar to the the movie Brazil. Thornbridge and Brewdog are the Harry Tuttles of the beer scene. They may not save everyone but they'll keep up the fight.

We package every batch ofbeer we make for keg and handpump and, besides the low gravity beers which are always better on 'pump, I find that I'm completely torn between a preference for either form of dispense. One day the engine wins, the next day the tap wins. And it may have just been the company that I preferred on any of those given days. Beer and conversation matching... now there's a thought!

Slainte mhath

ChrisM said...

The other thing to consider is that much 'Proper Real Keg' is served under the pressure of compressed air rather than C02, which means that the shelf life of a vented keg isn't much longer than a vented cask, and is almost as 'real'. I'm definitely a fan of both forms of dispense - nothing quite beats cask in peak condition - but a nice chilled (not too cold) hoppy keg beer really hits the spot. And it's not just Brewdog, Thornbridge and Meantime that are pioneering with British craft keg - Phoenix and Outstanding have produced some fantastic keg beers recently. And then there's all that stuff from across the pond...

ChrisM said...

PS - Dave, I rather enjoyed Infra Red at York Beer Festival - but can't help feel it would be better kegged!

StringersBeer said...

I don't know very much about keg beer, so please correct me if I'm being stupid, but doesn't the level of carbonation depend on the pressure used in dispense (and the gas mix of course) rather than anything the brewer does?

Unknown said...

Cookie, if I were thirsty enough I'd drink a can of Fosters. Like wise, if it had been a while.....

Al, I believe Thornbridge are close to spunding with their bottling process.

Ed, BrewDog beers are generally better on keg than cask I'd suggest, it's the style of beer in my view. I agree though, cask is likely to stick around for a very long time and even if craft keg does become more popular, there will always, quite rightly, be an affection for cask.

Yeasty Boys, it needs no more than "Great beer is great beer"

ChrisM, I've heard of a keg system that uses a bag in keg so that the gas used never comes into contact with the beer - I'm going to look at that further.

I agree, Infra Red works very well in keg, I'm putting some into a keg today as it happens.

StringersBeer, you can't kid me, you know a lot about a lot of things. You are of course quite correct, mostly anyway. The pressure and temperature in the keg in the cellar will change the carbonation over time, it will take a few days, but the volumes of CO2 will increase if the applied pressure at dispense is higher than the brewer intended.

Carbonation will remain stable however until connected to the cellar gas, and if served within a few days little change will occur. But all brewers who venture into keg should be concerned about slow moving beer gaining or loosing the intended carbonation levels in trade. Good cellar technicians are the key, and detailed product dispense criteria issued by the brewer.

Tandleman said...

Dave said "Carbonation will remain stable however until connected to the cellar gas, and if served within a few days little change will occur. But all brewers who venture into keg should be concerned about slow moving beer gaining or loosing the intended carbonation levels in trade. Good cellar technicians are the key, and detailed product dispense criteria issued by the brewer."

Just like cask really and probably more likely to suffer excess CO2 as the "cellar technicians" won't bother their arse changing the gas pressure or mix as long as the head fits the keg.

Seems to me that while there are always ways of improving things in the brewery, that all beer is at the mercy of the pub. Therein lies a problem which is why I'm always banging on about quality, temperature and condition. That will apply to specially treated keg as much as to cask. For the generality of beer, optimum conditions are a will o' the wisp. Change that and you are in business.

Oh and your cask of Jaipur sounds a though it was "tired".

PS CO2 at pressure is very soluble in beer. It won't take days to perceptibly change. So in essence kegging, no matter how well done is problematic too.

Unknown said...

Tandleman, I agree cellar technicians are a big problem for all forms of dispense. Some fail to understand that cask needs correct temperature control right to the handpull. "It's only trad beer" is a phrase I've heard, as if it should be warm and flat.

You are absolutely correct that many will not be bothered to reset the gas pressure for keg or even be bothered to check the brewers specifications. I know, I've seen it.

As for the Jaipur being tired, you might be right, but just consider; if Thornbridge Tap can't shift Jaipur fast enough for it to be in tip top condition all the time then who can?

I think it is inevitable that cask will deteriorate from the minute the cask is vented, there is nothing we can do about that and that variation is an acceptable flaw with cask beer.

What I have noticed with cask is the variation in opinion as to the correct amount of venting before serving. It's a subject I want to come back to in a future post, and is related to the "spunding" method. I believe many cask beers are vented far too much before they are served, resulting in them being flat before they ever see the pumps.

If you have a perfect cellar set-up the consistency of keg will always be reliable. How we achieve that perfect cellar set-up is a problem. I think there is a future in keg craft beer, not as a replacement for cask, but as an addition to an expanding and exciting beer world.

Tandleman said...

"I believe many cask beers are vented far too much before they are served, resulting in them being flat before they ever see the pumps."

A-bloody-men to that. So many pubs leave the beer completely fucked - and there is no other word for it - before it has even hit the customer's glass.

Not wishing to steal your thunder, but I have a post on the subject which was written on 21/08 after I'd been to the Jolly Butcher - so I'll post it.

Brewers Union Local 180 said...

Whew. Well, I have a truckload of comments. I'll just have to call you while you're in the tub or starting a mash or something and sort it out.

Tandleman said...

For info: My post referred to above needs more work on reflection.

Tyson said...

"but just consider; if Thornbridge Tap can't shift Jaipur fast enough for it to be in tip top condition all the time then who can?"

That's assuming that brewery taps (1) sell the most beer (2) keep it the best. Not necessarily true in my experience.

For example: Jaipur is better tested where it's a welcome guest and so flies out. My local Spoons had it as beer of the week and sold out of all 5 firkins in 3 days.

Unknown said...

Tyson, you might be right of course, but I've only ever been in Sheffield Tap when it's busy. I'm told this is because it is always busy. I don't know for sure but I think they sell an equivalent amount of Japiur as your Wetherspoons example.