Wednesday, 17 September 2014

The Arguments in favour of keg

It is still amazing that there are people out there who believe keg is evil. It is now staggering me, considering the success of many new breweries with their keg offering, that there are people out there still decrying the introduction of Craft Keg, and citing it as a bad thing.

Of course mostly these people are middle aged, or older, stick-in-the-mud killjoys.

I've been looking back at some of my early blog posts. Back when I was really on a roll and trying to make my own mind up about CAMRA, cask beer, keg beer and the best way to package, distribute, dispense beer for the sake of the best drinker's experience.

Way back in 2009 I had a little play with keg beer. The results were encouraging. Since that time we have been honing our skills at putting beer into keg and strongly believe that there is a huge future for beers from small independent breweries to be distributed in this format.

What has never left my mind is the simple fact that around 85%1 of all draught beer sold is keg.

Moreover, having recently done some sales calls around various local hostelries, I notice that there is a significant brand of IPA making its way into the mainstream in a big way, in the more trendy bars and circuit pubs that are much more popular with the younger drinker.

Many people like their beers cold, fizzy and crisp. Is this wrong? Are we wrong to try and tell them otherwise? I think that if people like fizzy chilled beer than they should be provided with it. I'd prefer they drank my cold fizzy beer than rather than someone else's.

So, we must accept that the overall keg market is much bigger than cask, and despite noises to the contrary, this situation is likely to remain the case for a long time to come. Notwithstanding the fact that for many outlets there are significant technical advantages of keg beer, for the small brewer it can also be an important route to market for their products.

But more than that, although there has been some ideas stating cask beer can be trendy by virtue of it being retro, it fails to have any long term real impact to a significant number of younger people. By contrast, I notice that many younger people are looking for more trendy drinks, and this has long included keg beers.

So, with the advantage of solid consistency, without the need for cask expertise in the outlet, staying fresher for longer once a container is breached, and an appeal to youngsters, surely we should stop demonising breweries who decide to push keg.

Getting youngsters to enjoy a broader range of beer has to be a good thing, even if they need keg to convince them of it. Frankly I don't care if they never decide to drink cask. Perhaps they like cold fizzy beer. But I'd like more people to drink my beer and if I have to make it cold and fizzy to get them to do it, then I will.


1Source:The Cask Report 2011-2012 - yes, I know, this is out of date. However, the 2013-2014 doesn't publish the figures, as best I can see. One can only assume this is because up until 2010, the last figures I can find, there was in fact a growth of cask as a proportion of the market. In 2010 cask had a 15.0% share of the total on-trade beer market. This figure was only beaten previously in 1998 when it was 16.1% - there was then a drop down during the Noughties to as low as 12.4%. All very interesting I feel.


Phil said...

with the advantage of solid consistency, without the need for cask expertise in the outlet, staying fresher for longer once a container is breached, and an appeal to youngsters, surely we should stop demonising breweries who decide to push keg

All those are good reasons why a brewer - like yourself - might want to push keg. They've got nothing to do with whether keg is a good thing. Since craft keg started appearing I've had keg versions of good beers from good breweries - including yours! - many times. I can't think of one that's impressed me as much as a good cask beer, or that's matched up to the cask equivalent (where I've been able to have both). Mostly they were just a bit mediocre, and some were crushing disappointments.

I don't think we should 'demonise' keg brewers or anyone else. I do think we should carry on talking about the superiority of good cask over even the best keg - for as long as that's true, of course.

John Clarke said...

And let's not forget that much of the "new" keg isn't keg at all - it's really just a fancy way of serving beer that's pretty much cask in all but name.

Unknown said...

Phil, I strongly disagree. I've had fantastic keg many times. Our Azimuth has lately been just stunning in keg.

Yes, cask beer is good too, but better? No, that's just a myth. If it were better why do most people drink keg?

John, yes, I do agree with you here. The main demon in the keg argument in my mind is the pasteurisation and/or sterile filtration of beer. We do not pasteurise or sterile filter our beers, in cask, bottle or keg.

Matt said...

"If it [cask] were better why do most people drink keg?"

Whatever the merits of "craft keg", that doesn't stack up as an argument. I can think of lots of reasons: availability in the pubs people drink in, advertising, consistency, image/prejudice as well of course personal taste - as you say, some people prefer cold, fizzy beer.

By the same logic, you could just as easily claim that industrial keg is a superior product to its craft equivalent because millions more people drink it.

Neil, said...

I find this argument "If it [cask] were better why do most people drink keg?" deeply, deeply flawed.

That's like saying, "If Honest Burger/Patty and Bun etc are better than McDonalds, then why is McDonalds more popular?"

Things don't become popular because they're the best, they become popular because they are easily accessible by the largest number of people and it's no different for keg beer.

Neil, said...

Great minds matt!

StringersBeer said...

No-one (except some CAMRA oddballs) is "demonising breweries who decide to push keg". You've just made this issue up.

Yvan said...

Keg really works for some beers better than others. Standard British bitters invariably seem to be worse off if served in keg. The low temperature is the primary issue I suspect. Whilst hoppy pales can work well in keg my experience is that they also deliver more fun and flavour in cask.

Many middling-flavour beers also do not seem to get an advantage from keg. The world of ambers/pales below 5.5% in keg rarely impress me.

But bigger bolder beers than can be quite sickly and cloying in cask - US-style IPAs in particular but also strong ambers and dark beers - these work better in keg for me.

Then look to other styles - cask saison, sour, and hefeweizen are usually disgusting. These beers so rarely work at 12C and cask carbonation levels.

Horses for courses of course... neither format is fundamentally superior. Although if served at cellar temp at appropriate carbonation I expect keg can match cask for those lower strength beers. But nobody is likely to do that in the UK I expect. Cask makes more sense for service of a wide range of traditional British beer - it is simple & functional. On the flipside I doubt much can be practically done to make cask suitable to other styles - I guess you could put it through a chiller, but carbonation is pretty much limited to little-more-than-atmospheric.

Where cask really falls down is in the huge number of pubs that do a bloody awful job of serving beer in this format. Keg is superior here... it is harder for the pub to screw it up. (Still possible, of course.) As far as quality of service of beer goes I suspect Guinness is a better experience in over 50% of cask ale serving pubs. (For me at any rate... I'm getting pickier and picker about beer quality these days. Others seem quite happy drinking severely sub-standard beer just because it is from cask.)

If a brewer wants to send their beer out far and wide with the hope that it will be served at the other end as a "known quantity" at point of sale then keg does appear to have a level of superiority.

Tandleman said...

Dave: One of your least convincing posts I have to say in terms of persuading about the product, but as always, refreshingly honest.

From my point of view I agree with Phil, John and Neil.

Also when you say " I'd prefer they drank my cold fizzy beer than rather than someone else's." At least you admit to the appeal of cold and fizzy and, importantly that it is cold and fizzy. Most keg brewers go apoplectic if you say their beer is cold and fizzy. Crisp though? Carbonic bite I suppose is crisp, but I have never had a craft keg beer yet that didn't benefit from a good swirl round or three to remove much of the excess CO2.

Phil is spot on. Like for like, to my palate, but agreed not to many young drinkers I dare say, the cask version will knock spots off the keg version. If done properly.

I sometimes wonder if the popularity of craft keg in London is as much to do with the appalling state of cask served there, as anything else.

From you, as a brewer though, nowt to argue with. Give the drinkers what they want and what sells. At least your beer is decent stuff. Not all craft keg is.

A great post as much for what it doesn't say, as what it does.

Tandleman said...

Oh. And I agree with Matt too. Sorry Matt. And Jon also.

Tandleman said...

And Yvan. Some styles should never bee cask. Except as an experiment I suppose.

Yvan said...

Jon, The demonising does happen - but it isn't a strong thread within CAMRA as I know it. A few outspoken individuals who do seem to have a disturbing cask-zealotry. Most of us ignore them :) In fact these noisy folk are usually not even active CAMRA - just "I'm a CAMRA member, and..." types. The sort of folk who write to the WB letters page. (Anecdotally I am led to believe that some branches swing more in that direction... and some branch publications I've seen indicate this could be so.)

Funny thing happening to me increasingly often:

Publican: I really want beer from X, keep hearing amazing things about them.

Me: Ah, yes, they're fantastic - you know they only package beer in keg though, right?

Publican: ... oh, why's that then?

To which my only real answer is "because they want to"... if you want their beer you'll have to use keg. It gets people thinking at any rate.

Anonymous said...

Don't agree with everything Tandleman says. However, he is spot on with his 'London drinkers' comment. Well said - and it's only the odd comment I disagree with. :-)

Anonymous said...

Sorry, eyes are chronic. Pressed wrong button! Would never be anonymous! (Real Ale Up North) Briggsy. :-)

Unknown said...

People buy fast food burgers over handmade burgers generally because of the price. They buy crap bread over artisan bread because of the price. Keg beer is almost always more expensive than cask.

Matt said...

Yes, which is why I didn't list price as a reason. I stand by the others.

Unknown said...

Some of the comments here are conflating the issue of cask vrs keg with the issue of micro-brewed beer vrs bland beer brewed by major corporations.

There is an under-tone of cask is almost always better in this thread. I disagree very much on that point.

I'm not saying keg is better, far from it. But it is just wrong to say cask is better. Just wrong.

And Jon, you may not believe there is a demonisation, but I've been attacked many times for promoting keg beer. Not officially, of course, and yes they might be by misinformed natters, but they are very much still around and having an influence.

Curmudgeon said...

The point that there is a genuine demand for beer that is colder and fizzier than cask is one that the diehard cask enthusiasts often fail to acknowledge. Until the 1960s, refrigeration in pubs wasn't a realistic proposition, so the option wasn't available. The fact that everyone drank cask in the 1950s doesn't mean that they were all happy with it.

Unknown said...

Thanks Mudgie, I'm glad someone gets what I'm saying.

Ed said...

I think cask beer is better. I find keg beer too cold and fizzy.

Unknown said...

Ed, I respect that point of view. You like cask beer better, this is OK. I like both cask and keg equally, although I must admit there are certain places I always choose keg.

Cooking Lager said...

Well done Dave for going with the cold and fizzy.

It can hide a multitude of sins. Any chance of debasing the product whilst masking it as super chilled to flog it cheaper?

@craftbeermonkey said...

I've gotta say I've always been a been a big fan of cask and have enjoyed a good real ale many Times but I've come across some really poor cask efforts. By the same token I've had some truly exceptional keg and some very poor efforts. Meantime probably first made me realise you can have good keg beer.
Since then I've been a fan of keg, now I've always been a advocate of the keeping real ale on bars but I believe that dispense & storage is secondary to taste. Craft keg will surely bring people to cask ale & given the choice of both on a good bar. I think most people will make up their own minds or like me enjoy cask and keg as my mood takes me. I continue to both celabrate & embrace the difference & do not think I have the right to tell a brewer how their product should be presented to the public. Good keg ale is better than a bland cask ale which is what is offered in a great many pubs/bars throughout the country.

Anonymous said...

The reason craft beer whether cask or keg has caught on in London is there are enough people who are willing to pay the exorbitant prices.Its the price not the taste that will dictate how far it will grow. john

Phil said...

Yes, cask beer is good too, but better? No, that's just a myth.

All I can say is that I keep trying them - comparing like for like with the cask version where I can - and they keep disappointing me. Keg Jaipur's a nice drink; on cask it's a monster. Keg 5 a.m. Saint is good, but on cask it was amazing. I could go on...

It's as if I've tossed a coin 20 times and got tails 18 times, and when I say the coin's weighted you tell me it isn't (although I'm entitled to my opinion). Maybe 1000 coin-tosses would even the score - or even deliver more heads than tails - but I can only speak from my own experience. And it is experience, not just opinion.

py said...

All of which is your subjective opinion, Phil.

You prefer Jaipur on cask, others may prefer it on keg.

There is no "better". You keep saying that cask is better, but the only evidence you have for that is that you prefer it. Which is not the same thing at all.

Phil said...

But if I can't say it's not good, equally Dave can't say it is. Personal experience is the only thing on which any of us can ground a statement that beer type X is better than beer type Y. Either I can say X is better (with the caveat that I'm talking on the basis of long experience rather than one random sample which might have been off, etc) or nobody can say anything's better than anything else.