Wednesday 20 April 2011

Not Chemical Fizz

I've been playing around with keg. I'm a CAMRA member and a micro-brewer, what on earth would I want to do that for?

British style "traditional"1 beer is often best represented in cask. It is as simple as that. I don't think I know a single beer enthusiast who would have an argument with that. Not even my very good friend Jeff Pickthall, who is a confirmed and uninhibited CAMRA basher. I share some of his concerns, but to use the phrase often used, it would be a shame to throw out the baby with the bath-water. CAMRA is not all bad and cask beer is good.

Much contemporary beer is great from cask. There are plenty of modern beers that are fantastic served through hand-pull and I hope that some of mine classify in this group. There are also in my view, a number of beers that are generally better in keg. They are generally the stronger "craft" beers that have, up until recently, been responsible for some beer enthusiasts to drink more at home than in pubs or bars. The progressive craft keg market might well be small, it might well never overtake cask in volume, but it is growing and I'm interested in that as a brewer and a drinker.

The irony is that beer served from cask often contains more processed material than beer that is mass produced. Chemicals, you see, cost money. The main addition that is used in cask beer is Isinglass, which is made from processed fish guts and also contains chemicals like sulphur dioxide and citric acid.

Most brand keg beer by contrast is chill filtered and although I cannot guarantee these substances are not used at all, I know for a fact they are used in significantly lower quantities. Filtering, or separation of solids by centrifuge uses less chemicals and therefore costs less money to make. They are, therefore, not chemical beers at all.

I have been interested in kegging for some time. I've tried some trial kegs and found mixed success. I like the idea of completely unfiltered beer and beer that does not use isinglass. This seems just about impossible to do unless you can afford to leave it in a conditioning tank chilled to -1°C for six weeks.

I've recently racked some Infra Red into 20l kegs and there is a second trial keg of Queboid which is loaded right now into the van for delivery to the Rake Bar. The Infra Red has light filtering and the Queboid just chill conditioning. Both are likely to have haze to some degree, but I hope to acceptable levels.

I am a supporter of the idea of kegging beer over 6%. There is no reason for keg beer to be overly fizzy and indeed, I expect some keg enthusiasts will proclaim my interpretation to be under-carbonated, as the carbonation is likely to be very similar to cask. Of course I have no control over the take up of carbon dioxide in the pub and as most keg set-ups will quickly introduce extra carbonation I expect this might be a problem. In any case, for beers at this strength the sale time makes cask impractical except for high turnover pubs and beer festivals.

With luck we will be rolling out our kegs over the next few weeks. We would love you to try them and let us know what you think, good or bad.


1OK Jeff, just shoot me now.


Alistair Reece said...

I wonder if the entire craft keg/cask thing could have been completely avoided with acceptance of cask breathers?

Unknown said...

Al, cask breathers indeed would help. For me, if cask breathers aren't embraced then we might as well go straight to keg.

Alistair Reece said...

And of course going to keg means we might see some of your beer this side of the Pond one day!

Tandleman said...

I doubt if the cask breather would solve the problem that your strong beers wont shift that quickly by and large. Good luck with it. I know you think about what you do.

Neville Grundy said...

There's nothing to stop anyone using cask breathers; they're quite legal. I know CAMRA doesn't accept them for real ale (a position I agree with completely), but CAMRA has no right of veto. The fact that they are not more widely used must be because people agree with CAMRA's criteria. Logical really, because why would so many people follow a voluntary set of standards they disagree with if they don't have to?

Ed said...

I very rarely drink anything down the pub that's more than 5% ABV so I'm unlikely to ever drink this 'proper real keg', but is there much demand for it? We're struggling to keep up with the cask demand at the moment (sunshine and bank holidays no doubt have a lot to do with it!) so the thought of trying to break into a new segment of the market brings me out in a cold sweat.

Brewers Union Local 180 said...

Keg's easy. There are probably tens of millions of homebrewers doing it over here.

John Clarke said...

Hi Dave - not entirely convinced that keg is the way to go for beers above 6% (Old Tom better on keg? - naah!). Rather than strength being a guide I would say that some styles present better with a bit of gas and chill on them - lager-style beers perhaps, and certainly interpretations of German and Belgian/Dutch wheat beers for example.

While I have yet to see any convincing argument that CAMRA should embrace keg (I don't think you are in that camp anyway - and I could go on for far too long as to why those who say we should embrace keg are wrong)) what I do think we need to consider carefully is the way we talk about it. Way back when it was quite easy to dismiss keg as "chemical fizz" because it was all pretty grim (something I think is lost on many of the younger bloggers) but today it's all much more nuanced. Sure, there's still plenty of old rubbish but there is also some very good stuff too (admittedly in comparatively minute quantities and sold in a tiny number of pubs - you are right to doubt that it will ever come anywhere near supplantying cask).

A bit of education on both sides of the argument is needed I think.

Neville Grundy said...

It's a long time since I heard anyone seriously use a phrase like 'chemical fizz'. If you like keg, or want to try brewing beer to be served keg-style, or see it as an approach that suits certain beers, then just go ahead. I'm amazed by people who keep on looking over their shoulders for resistance and condemnation from CAMRA. Yes, there is the occasional misguided, rude person who thinks it acceptable to insult other people's choices in drinks (and that happens both ways), but if he is a CAMRA member, he is clearly unaware that one of CAMRA's fundamental policies is about choice. There is no CAMRA policy to stamp out non-real beers.

This topic would be rather more interesting if it could take place without gratuitous and inaccurate sideswipes at CAMRA every time it is raised. Just do it: you will not bring down the mighty and righteous wrath of CAMRA upon your head - the reality is most CAMRA members couldn't care less.

John Clarke said...

The only person I know of who uses the phrase is Richard English who is a frequent contributor to the CAMRA forums. However I suspect the sentiment is more widely prevalent even if the words are different. At the recent AGM NE member Bob Jones had a bit of a rant about keg being filtered and pasteurised muck etc - well some of it is, but a lot of the newer stuff isn't (in fact most of it isn't keg at all, it's good old fashioned re-racked served via Keykeg ("pseudo keg" perhaps)).

As you rightly say, though, most people in CAMRA couldn't care les sif a brewery wants to produce some beer is keg or pseudo-keg form. What is funny though is how oddly keen some people are to get CAMRA to embrace it, even going so far as to suggest we face extinction if we don't (you may have seen the nonsense on Raising the Bar). This is of course self-serving drivel from brewers who are more interested in their commercial self interest that the long term health of CAMRA, I think (or who of course find this an easy outlet for their innate anti-CAMRA prejudice).

Neil, Eating isn't Cheating said...

fig 1.
Nice beer in keg = good times
Nice beer on cask = good times

fig 2.
Bad beer in keg = bad times
Bad beer on cask = bad times

fig 3.
Kegging beer does not make it bad

fig 4.
Serving beer from cask does not make it good

Now. Any questions?

Unknown said...

Tandleman "I know you think about what you do." - I like would like to think I do. I look at the issues and consider them and form my own opinion. I may be right and I may be wrong, thank you for your good wishes.

Nev, "why would so many people follow a voluntary set of standards they disagree with if they don't have to?" - Perhaps because CAMRA's campaign is very successful at persuading people?

John, I do like your comments and you make some good points I think. I know the guys at Summer Wine Brewery and I think they are good chaps. Yes, they are running a business that seems to be doing well. Has some of that success come from tapping into a group of people that share that synergy perhaps?

I think this continues to be a live debate; the apparent CAMRA vrs keg debate, and a good debate it is. I like good debate, it's why I blog.

Thanks for all the comments.

Black Lamp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Neville Grundy said...

In response, Dave, to your reply to me above, you really do credit CAMRA with an inordinate amount of influence. For every CAMRA member, there are 70 real ale drinkers who aren't members (using figures from the Cask Ale report). Chat to non-member real ale drinkers in any pub and ask them what they know about CAMRA policies, and most won't have a clue. They'll probably know CAMRA is responsible for the fact we still have real ale, but not much more. They drink real ale, not because of anything CAMRA says, but because - and here is the nub - they like it. Nothing to do with persuasion.

Unknown said...


Are there really in excess of 7 million regular cask beer drinkers? Over 10% of the population?

Anyway, drinkers aside. I truly do believe CAMRA have a significant affect on people in the trade. A real great influence.

Yes, I know people like me can do what we want. But we do listen to what CAMRA have to say.

Baron Orm said...

All the discussion of CAMRA & keg aside, I really admire that you are a small brewer who is trying to figure out the best way to market his beers.

Good luck with the keg ventures, please keep us posted on the outcomes & feedback!

John Clarke said...

Neil - kegging beer makes it different. Sometimes that's OK and sometimes it's not, depending on:

1. The beer
2. The level of force carbonation (if present)
3. How it's "kegged" - remember much of the "craft keg" isn't really keg (Brew Dog excepted)

John Clarke said...


As far as I can see Summer Wine are doing well because they have upped their game with their cask beers (I'm guessing 99%-ish of their sales is cask). I also think they are also producing "keg" (and I guess this will be faux keg using Keykeg - i.e. not keg at all really) to make a point as much as anything - although what the point is and who it's aimed at is not entirely clear.

Summer Wine Brewery said...

John - Let's get a few things straight here, we are a predominantly cask ale brewers & that is unlikely to change.

However we are a business nonetheless & we don't introduce expensively implemented product lines 'to make a point' we are simply reacting to demand. As Dave will tell you there are a growing number of city bars ever increasing in number who have expressing interest in British beers in keg format, & as businesses we are simply reacting to the market accordingly. It's an entirely natural progression to tap into a market which is growing & also one that the method of dispense format suits 'certain' beers that we brew.

As for the facts regarding what you call 'faux' keg, beers that are put into KeyKeg are still pre carbonated in a tank with CO2 (not conditioned) prior to filling the container. However, they can even be served using simply compressed air to crush the foil bag within the ball. We do plan to use KeyKeg but also plan to introduce genuine keg lines that will be dispensed with extraneous CO2.

Hope this clears up any speculation on our intentions & actual products.

StringersBeer said...

I like the cling-film! UB plastics would probably sell you some "keg caps" to fit those. Here's an idea - if we all club together we could probably get some printed up with "Not Chemical Fizz", "Craft Keg", "Up yours, CAMRA dinosaurs". Or something.

Neville Grundy said...

Dave - concerning my figure of 70 real ale drinking non-members for every 1 CAMRA member.

The Cask Ale Report 2010 stated that 8.6 million people 'claimed to drink real ale'. I just divided that by CAMRA's membership (123,000)to get the 1:70 ratio.

John Clarke said...

James, I can't see anyone sensibly arguing that you shouldn't produce beers in keg format if there is a demand for them - after all you are in business to make money after all.

I suspect though, that the number of city centre bars wanting UK cratf brewed beers in keg format is still pretty small and likely to remain so. I wonder of there is a bit of over egging the pudding here?

You do of course make the point that you are and will remain primarily a cask ale brewer. With the exception of Brew DogI think that is also the case with the other cask ale brewers also experimenting with keg. Indeed cask seems to be in rude health at the moment. This being so I am interested to know why you think CAMRA could face possible extinction if it doesn't embrace keg?

You have identified a grwoing demand for keg so that seems to be doing OK without CAMRA. On the other side of the coin (again Brew Dog excepted) all of the bars that sell British keg sell (rather more) cask, and we both know there is a huge buzz and inetrest around cask at the moment - which of course is CAMRA's area of interest. I must admit I'm struggling to see how your argument hangs together on this.

By the way - interested in your comments about Keykeg - it seems that are numerous ways this can be used. How do you carbonate in the tank by the way?

Tim said...

Keg rules. 'Almost' guarenteed quality at the point of sale. Why would anyone even risk packaging in cask?