Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Different Quality - Same Problem






There is much talked these days about the "new wave" of craft brewing and brewers and how keg beer isn't like the bad old days when CAMRA was formed in response to its pervasiveness. This new wave of beers we are assured hasn't got the old faults of the keg of yore, where cheap and nasty ingredients were thrown together and pasteurised to within in inch of their existence and zombie like, brought back to life with copious amounts of CO2 and served cold to disguise their sheer nastiness. "Oh no" we are advised, "it's all different now", with carefully brewed, unpasteurised beer, lovingly dispensed without the previous faults. Well I have news Folks. Not exactly so.

When the keg of the sixties and 70's was served, it was undoubtedly vile, but rarely ice cold. Refrigerated dispense has come a long way since then though and now, it seems that there is little being done to serve these beers other than very cold indeed. CO2 dispense for ale also came very discredited along the way, being replaced by mixed gases and sold as smoothflow.The new wave though is proudly dispensed it seems by CO2. Lots of C02 if my recent experiences have been anything to go by.

On Friday in Glasgow in pissing rain I trekked to the Blackfriars. After a pint of (well kept but indifferent) cask I thought I'd try Brew Dog 5 am Saint. Here's what I tweeted "5 am Saint freezing cold and hugely gassy but the hops are there under a massive carbonic bite". My previous experience of Kipling in the Euston Tap was similar. People argue that CAMRA should move on, but you know, the same old problems exist in a new format. Too cold and too gassy. It is instructive to this writer at least, that the siren calls for more keg come mostly from young bottled beer drinkers who grab chilled exotics from their fridge and from some brewers that push them not as an alternative, but a replacement for the same cask product for reasons best known to themselves. ( I can speculate but that's for another post.) Now that's fine and dandy if you want your beer chilled to around 4C and gassed to three atmospheres, but don't promote it as a fantastic new development. They are there for the same old reasons as brewery conditioned beer (keg) has always been. Longevity and ease of "handling".

Don't get me wrong. Choice is good and I for one am happy to see "decent" British keg beer on a bar as an extension of choice and if it gets young people into pubs. Call it entry level beer for bottled beer drinkers if you like. If people enjoy them and it suits certain (mostly young) drinkers better, well and good and good luck to those that produce them, but please don't try and tell me for example, that keg Jaipur is better than cask . I'll stick to cask wherever possible and promote that. At its best, with all its subtleties and faults, it's just a better way to drink beer.

And one other thing I will continue to bang on about and highlight, is bad beer, bad serving practice, bad service and poor cellarmanship. These more than anything are the enemy of good beer and pubs, not a few fizzy kegs on the bar.

The little quote at the top of this posting is from Brew Dog whose cask beer is actually rather better than their keg.

33 comments:

Baron Orm said...

I just wanted to add that I don't drink my bottled ales straight from the fridge, I like them to have warmed up a bit first to ensure that I can enjoy the aromas and flavours of the beer.

I've not tried any of the 'craft beer' on keg so I'll let you know what I think when I do.

There are a couple of beers that I like ice cold - BrewDog's Old Punk & Hardcore IPA thought.

Would like to do a keg vs cask vs bottle comparison of Jaipur one day...

Rob Derbyshire said...

I agree that it could signal a potential fall into the bad old days, but don't you think that was because the bigger breweries went down that path. And the likes of Fullers, Well & Youngs and Black Sheep have always and will always produce a kegged product?

Hasn't cask ale become so established and excepted that a few exceptional brewers producing kegs won't hurt the market too much?

One major problem that I agree with is too many bad or nonexistant cellarmen. Badly kept or badly brewed cask ale is the enemy of the cask ale lover. I had cask Jaipur last week in my local Spoonies and it was awful. If the same inept staff had a keg of it would my experience have been better? But I had the new version of Punk IPA on both cask and keg side by side at The Grove (Huddersfield) and the cask had a slight upper hand with a bit more aroma.

I believe the main benefit of keg is to increase the life and serving condition of a beer, but it has to be the right style of beer. I've had Fullers London Porter on keg in a Fullers pub in London and its was terrible, freezing cold and fizzy. It was like being served Guinness Smooth or something. But Odell IPA on keg in North Bar is another story. Super fresh and clean and packed with bitter hops.

I'm a homebrewer and I bottle my beers. I can produce a clean looking beer with good carbonation. But I'm going to start kegging half of each brew to drink at home as this will keep it in better condition for longer than a plastic barrel would. I've had a friend's homebrew mild out of a keg and it was spot on.

I'm in favour of good beer in whatever form is comes. Marston Smooth is crap kegged beer, BrewDog Punk is good keg beer. Goose Eye (any of them) is crap cask ale, Marble Pint is great cask ale.

Cooking Lager said...

In the 1930's Watneys Red Barrel was by all accounts a good beer.

More power to the craft keg visionaries! I love the idea to two different group of beer geeks arguing the toss whilst regular discerning drinkers laugh into our pints of Stella.

Tandleman said...

"Hasn't cask ale become so established and excepted that a few exceptional brewers producing kegs won't hurt the market too much?"

I think that's what I said. There is something to be said about looking at stronger beers differently. It's not that cask doesn't do the job, but the turnover is such that the beer might go off before it sells entirely. That's a separate post too probably.

Cookie. Stella? Isn't that a bit on the dear and posh side for you?

Curmudgeon said...

With declining draught beer volumes, I fear slow turnover is increasingly going to militate against cask beer. We are still some way off craft keg going mainstream, though.

Ghost Drinker said...

I'll try not to sound like I'm kissing too much ass here, but I agree with everything you've said, especially..

"It is instructive to this writer at least, that the siren calls for more keg come mostly from young bottled beer drinkers who grab chilled exotics from their fridge"

I agree because that description fits me and a couple of my colleges perfectly, but it's not all we drink. Now don't think that we force this new 'wave' of beer onto people, or call for more, we just call for better. (actually we do force it) But we recommend the finest that all sides of beer has to offer. I've loved cask and I've loved keg, (still do) from bottles to cans there is something for everyone, and there are great examples in every category. But I do think cask could do a better job with keeping up with all the new flavours and ingredients that are available today, some breweries are doing a great job of it.

Baron Orm said...

Ghost Drinker, do you mean more traditional brewers "could do a better job with keeping up" rather than cask beer in general?

Ghost Drinker said...

Actually Baron I do, thanks for that.

Graeme said...

I wonder whether part of this is a poor handling again. You still need to know how to best keep and present the beer - for cask ale we're talking about temperature, condition, etc..

For kegged beer, again it's temperature but now pressures (the regulators need to be setup correctly to allow the beer to be served, but not so high that you carbonate the beer to sky high levels while it's sitting there).

And keep any of that nitro gas away from it too...and those awful ground bottom glasses...

(From experience of my own kegged homebrew also - setup correctly, quality kegged beer is great)

Dubbel said...

I have to agree. Keg beer is too cold for my tastes, even for the biting strong IPAs with enough hop clout to burst through the chill. I tend to let mine warm up for a few minutes. I have also found the gaseous content to detract from the flavour of the beer but this is something I may get used to the more I am exposed to this style of dipense. For me cask/gravity dispense still wins.

Ed said...

Cask beer still isn't well established everywhere. Lots of places I've been to in Scotland have been like going back in time twenty years.

Tandleman said...

Mudgie - You like to doomsay, but that already happens to some extent. That's why everyone in the industry needs to concentrate on quality.

Tandleman said...

Tell me about that Ed. I've just come back from there. Quality keg is Belhaven Best Smooth.

Peter Brissenden said...

This is still a good beer versus bad beer argument as far as I'm concerned. I love kegged beer just as much as I love cask beer. Beers that are great in casks aren't necessarily great in kegs.

To brew the same beer, put half into casks to condition naturally and half into kegs and fizz it up. Serve the cask at cellar temp and the keg at chiller temp. Of course, they will taste different. But, if you brew beers with kegging in mind you can pack an awful lot of flavour into a kegged beer served cold, with a higher level of carbonation.

Cellarmanship is important with kegged beer too, cleanliness of fittings, pipework, checking chillers and gas pressures are all important factors in ensuring a good pint. No kegged beer should ever have 3vols of CO2 in it!

Good beer in kegs is still in its infancy, I personally (and professionally) hope to see more of it in the future.

Mark said...

It's horses for courses, right? The majority of drinkers find cask ale too 'warm' compared to what they are used to, and conversely some find keg to cold.

Things like temperature and fizz are controllable, however. The temperature is down to the pub; fizz down to the brewer. Just like cask served poorly, the same can apply to keg.

As a young bottled beer drinker who grabs chilled exotics from my fridge, I don't mind keg beers and I like to see more of them around. It doesn't mean I only want to drink them or will call (except tongue-in-cheek, of course) for every beer to be kegged. Some beers though, I think, are just better in keg in the same way that some are better in cask - you wouldn't want a cask version of a German lager in the same way that a kegged, smooth version of a British bitter doesn't work well.

I like keg beers because I think there's crossover potential for new drinkers as well as more choice for existing drinkers. I also like that there are some really good UK lagers and wheat beers being brewed and that's good to see (plus they just work better on keg).

I think you are right with the 'entry level beers' comment for bottled beer drinkers - keg-bottle is often more similar in taste than cask-bottle comparisons. Hopefully though there will be people trying a bottle of decent beer, seeing it on keg and then seeing it on cask and trying them all, opening up with drinking choices more.

But... just look how few breweries are kegging decent beer. It's not mainstream. The only reason it's pertinent is that it's the breweries who get the biggest, most vocal support who are putting it in kegs (BrewDog, Thornbridge) and so that is in many ways amplifying what is only a tiny minority (and in all of the places which sell it they also have a selection of casks...).

T_i_B said...

I'm with you on this Tandleman. I've had a few of the new keg beers and I have to say that the ones I've had have all tasted better on cask without the unessessary cold and fizz.

Better then the old kegs, but still not as good as cask ale.

Cooking Lager said...

But isn't ice cold fizzy pong the best stepping stone away from pongy ale and towards bona fide ice cold fizzy lout?

I suspect if you are used to warm pongy ale, your first pint of lout will be quite difficult to appreciate. A stepping stone between the two that allows pongy ale drinkers to enjoy an ice cold fizzy pong and allow them to gain a gradual appreciation for the real deal.

All pongy ale drinkers scared of a pint of lout can get used to this as training beer.

Tandleman said...

Mark - They may well find cask too warm in the South, but less so in the North I suspect, though I see your general point. It is of course horses for courses - everything is in the end but "new keg2 has been portrayed as a faultless beast. It certainly isn't.

As for Thornbridge, I wouldn't be surprised to see less and less of their keg, not more and more.

Cookie - You have correctly identified a use for keg pong. Well done that man.

RedNev said...

"There is much talked these days about the "new wave" of craft brewing and brewers and how keg beer isn't like the bad old days when CAMRA was formed in response to its pervasiveness."

Perhaps, but only on beer blogs, not out there in the pubs ~ well, I've never heard such talk, and I usually go to pubs 4-5 times a week. The only keg ales I regularly see are things like smoothflows from John Smiths or Tetley, which suggests to me that CAMRA still has a job to do.

If the term "craft keg" becomes widely used by people, not just bloggers, John Smiths, Tetley and the other smoothies would begin using it for their products, which would immediately make the phrase quite meaningless.

Gavin said...

I've always been surprised when people say that keg London Porter is better than cask, it's not, but it's a decent pint. Had it the other day though and it was a mess. It was too cold, it was far to gassy to the point that it hurt my tongue, the head retention was poor, the body was poor the flavour was dulled into submission. It was a miserable flavour that took me back. At least if it was a stale pint of cask it would have been easy to take back.

Ghost Drinker said...

Had a pint of Odell's IPA on Keg today - awesome.
Also had a pint of Ossett Excelsior today - also awesome! Nuff said.

Coxy said...

In the sarf where I live Thornbridge and brew Dog have about the best beers around other than maybe Dark Star, I had a sip of my friends kipling at the Tap and said he should complain as its too cold and tasteless , I didn't realise it was keg! point is it was useless,these two brewers seem to be expanding quickly and im worried about their long term plans, I say we campaign againt now while they are not too big to not care, lets avoid their beers at any cost,they are obviously chasing the dollar the same way the larger brewers like greene King are. and if they want cask beer to be colder just lower the temperature of your cellars. I would like to see CAMRA act now and not sit back and watch from a distance, politely disagreeing.
Ps whoever wrote that about keg , you are a Wanker, This is Britain , bugger off to Portland or someone els to have your" Craft Beers"

Tandleman said...

Umm. BrewDog said that Coxy.

Ghost Drinker said...

lol - Someone likes there brown/flavour-less and uninteresting beers! you go dude!

Coxy said...

what person or is there a Mr Brew Dog, who lives in a keg kennel in Aberdeenshire

Birkonian said...

I think that there is tendency to 'Big Up' Nu Keg so as not to be seen as old-fashioned. In private people may not rate it as much as they pronounce. I also not that most of the keg sampling takes place in conjunction with cask drinking. I'd like to hear comments after a whole session on gassy keg beer.
There is one area where I think keg wins and that is temperature. I've never understood why cask shouldn't be chilled. I know I'm in the minority but I prefer my supping beers to be cool; only if it is rocket-fuel strength do I prefer it room temperature. A younger generation won't tolerate warm beer and you don't normally get that with keg.
Finally, I agree with Ed that the real ale war was never won in many towns.

Baron Orm said...

"only if it is rocket-fuel strength do I prefer it room temperature" - this is when I prefer them colder so that they don't get sickly or over powering, I love Hardcore IPA straight from the fridge.

Curmudgeon said...

In my view cask ale is fine if served at a natural cellar temperature of about 12°C. Unfortunately, all too often it isn't, and even if the cellar is cool it may have been warming up in the pipes for ages.

John Clarke said...

And let's not forget that Thornbridge "keg" isn't really keg at all.

Tandleman said...

Mudgie - Indeed that can happen. We need to speak out when it does. I do. Warm beer, even in London, is less of a problem than hitherto tho.

There is no excuse for accepting poor beer and even less for not speaking out when it happens. In this case, softly softly means no monkey and being taken for a mug.

Standards will never be improved by reticence, though politeness is absolutely essential.

Anonymous said...

@Curmudgeon

"With declining draught beer volumes, I fear slow turnover is increasingly going to militate against cask beer. We are still some way off craft keg going mainstream, though."

The problem with that analysis is that cask ale is the one sector of the on-sales market that is *not* declining.

Monsieur Lupe said...

Coxy = ignorant

coxy said...

probably was a bit rude but just a bit of passion and its easy to let rip so easily and quickly on blogs without thinking!