Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Rumbling On


The cask versus keg and "what is craft?" debate is still bubbling away. My friend Nick who likes to dabble on Ratebeer, has drawn my attention to some discussion there, which kind of mirrors the various discussions that have taken place within this and other blogs. What is craft? Can cask be craft? Is all "new" keg craft? Is all craft beer good etc.etc. You know the kind of thing.

Following my article in CAMRA's Beer Magazine in which I defended CAMRA's position, I had thought I might get quite a lot of flak, but I haven't, though of course my position on this one has been made clear and few bloggers seem to be CAMRA members. Last night on Twitter I had the opportunity to cross swords with Hardknott Dave about the more specific subject of keg and CO2 and though it was a lot of fun, it generated more heat than light, as these things tend to. It is nonetheless certain though, that the subject of keg and craft causes passions to become inflamed, with keg evangelists every bit as ardent in support of their cause, as CAMRA is in support of cask. In many ways it reflects the early days of CAMRA, where the noise generated was inversely proportional to the numbers actually involved. Given that "craft" keg is even smaller than cask was then in availability terms, this is particularly noticeable. It is that I assume that caused Roger Protz to refer to "noisesome bloggers".

My guess is that this will continue, though I wonder if somewhat uncritical coverage of keg will really further their cause. Is it always served just as the brewer wanted it to be? Is it always unpasteurised? Just as cask can be too warm, is it too cold? To return to my discussion with Hardknott Dave, I suppose my particular contention is that in most cases, keg beer is served way too carbonated. Whatever the brewer wanted from it, anything around 2.8 vols of CO2 would seem typical. That is pretty gassy. I postulated to Dave thus: "fizzy* is keg's Achilles heel, just as poor, flabby, vinegary beer is cask's". We all know and admit that cask can suffer from a myriad of faults. Is keg fault free? Is there really no bad craft keg?

In the end I suppose, sales will tell and the drinker will decide, but in the meantime, any views?

* "Fizzy" is seen as pejorative by some. Substitute "highly carbonated" or "gassy" if you prefer.

33 comments:

John Clarke said...

Wel, if the dull as ditchwater West Unfiltered Lager and the cacky Camden Wheat I had in the Euston Tap yesterday are anything to go by then the keg revolution has a long way to go.

Personally I have reached the stage where I can't be bothered with all of this cask v keg nonsense. The current position is that a tiny number of brewers make a tiny amount of "craft keg" that is sold in a tiny number of bars. No matter how much noise is generated by the bloggerati that position shows little sign of changing much anytime soon.

As you said in Beer - let's not slag this beer off (unless it's pretty grim in itself regardless of dispense - see above)and let those who wish to make it get on with it. If this helps them turn a profit then good luck to them. But, and here's the bottom line - no matter how much heat and smoke comes from the bloggerati and their ilk, CAMRA ain't going to embrace it - and for those who don't like that then they will just have to live with it. I really can't see what part of that some of these people find so difficult to understand.

By the way I find the second front that's opened up whereby it's claimed that a lot of cask ain't cask conditioned a complete red herring (and I suspect quite baseless). We have many beers from many brewers at Stockport Beer Festival and it is quite clear there's a fair old amount of cask conditioning going on. I see no-one really wants to name names as to whose beer isn't cask conditioned - there seems to be quite a lot of "Well mine is but I have heard of others that aren't". Put up or shut up on that one say I.

And that is the last you will hear from me on keg-v-cask for a long time. (Slumps back exhausted)

Tandleman said...

Bet you feel better though. Go and have a beer.

Curmudgeon said...

At present, as John says, craft keg is little more than a low-volume curiosity. If it ever goes mainstream then the terms of the debate change, but there's no evidence of that so far.

I suspect craft brewers might have more potential for wider success with "craft lager".

Velky Al said...

In my experience serving craft beer on keg at the brewery tasting room I do stints in I would posit the following:

that refrigerated kegs are great for lager, and before anyone things that is a denigration of lager take the time to read Fuggled to learn what I think of lager.

that force carbonated beer tastes different to natural, whether cask, spunded or any other form of natural carbonation.

that ale served excessively cold is a waste of time, regardless of style - hence I pour them a few minutes in advance to let it get to a decent temperature.

RedNev said...

"Sales will tell" only when the stuff becomes generally available; I never see it anywhere, so I've concluded that it's still a statistically insignificant part of the beer market.

The number of people involved in the "craft keg" debate on the keg side must be only in the hundreds, whereas CAMRA has 120,000 members, and (according to the cask report) more than 8 million identify themselves as real ale drinkers.

It's not a debate - it's a whinge by the keg proponents who want a piece of CAMRA's action without working for it. Start your own campaign, chaps.

By the way, your defence of CAMRA's position was spot on. It made the point clearly, welcoming the new keg, but correctly stating that the Campaign for Real Ale has no business pushing non-real ale.

Tandleman said...

Thanks Nev.

Al. What about CO2 levels? What's your take on that?

Velky Al said...

The thing that I would like to learn more about is how do the craft keg guys carbonate their beer?

I often find that force carbonated craft beer is fizzier and has a spikiness to it which I just don't like. Thankfully the brewpub I go to most often uses the spunding method of natural carbonation, which gives a softer mouthfeel.

Some American craft brewers should really be called makers of beer flavoured soda, their beers being so highly carbonated.

Birkonian said...

I think that some people have been taken in because a few well respected breweries have dabbled in the nu keg. I'll respect anyone's right to drink what they like but I agree with Red Nev that CAMRA has done all the work and the new boys are biting the hand that fed them.

SteveF said...

I'm partial to quite a number of craft keg beers, mainly American ones it has to be said (this may be a quantity thing). Funnily enough, the best British keg beers I've tried have been ones that also exist in cask format - Jaipur for example. Although having said that I enjoyed a couple of the Brewdog IPA is dead series very much.

Other keg only UK beers have been a massive let down. I heard great things about Camden Pale Ale only to try it and find that (IMO) it exemplifies all that is bad about keg, being tasteless and uninspiring. Sadly a couple of Meantime beers have fallen into this category as well. Judging by the response in the blogosphere, I'm in a minority in disliking Camden Pale Ale et al, but there we have it.

Interestingly, with the Camden Brewery, their Inner City Green is one of the best beers I've tried in ages. Judging by what I can gather of your tastes tandleman, you should love it. Their London Porter (or whatever it's called) is also pretty damned good. So evidently it's not a lack of brewing talent that lets them down, as far as I'm concerned, with their Pale Ale. It must be the method of dispense.

Overall, I've become convinced that there is a place for good keg beers in the British beer scene. And that there are indeed a number of examples of fine keg pints out there. I even probably just about (just) veer towards the opinion that you oppose in this month's Beer. That said, a lot of the keg hype is just that, hype. Sound and fury that goes on in the blogosphere and that some of it's more evangelical proponents can at times go a bit too far.

PS, vaguely on the subject, the Brewdog parody account on Twitter is mildly amusing:

http://twitter.com/#!/tWattDog

Erlangernick said...

I've been to England 7 times on holiday now and have to admit that I've never paid attention to the CO2 fonts in pubs, mostly because they're lager, nitro-darks and the occasional Belgo- or Krautbier. I guess I just don't know how much kegged ale (good or bad, "craft" or industrial) is on offer compared to real ale.

The idea that precious little is around compared to real ale is an interesting one to me as a Yank who is (was) used to just the opposite for years and years. And then the fact that the vast, vast majority of "cask-conditioned" ale in the US is simply kegged beer run through a beer engine...I guess I don't really have a point to make. Except that good real ale is better than kegged, at least when talking about the usual beer "styles".

And Real Lager is better than kegged lager, as evidenced by the best German breweries: Roppelt, Griess, Witzgall, Zum Uerige...

Bailey said...

I thought your bit in the CAMRA mag was very balanced and persuasive, for what it's worth.

Curmudgeon said...

"I guess I just don't know how much kegged ale (good or bad, "craft" or industrial) is on offer compared to real ale."

Across the country, keg ale outsells cask by 2 to 1 (see the last Cask Report by Pete Brown). However, I doubt whether "craft keg" amounts to even 0.5% of the volume of real ale.

Incidentally, if Tim Taylors produced a non-nitro keg version of Landlord, would that count as "craft keg"? If not, why not?

Erlangernick said...

Keg ale sells that well? These are the nitro smooths, Guinness, Brew Dog, etc., but -not- lager, right? Guess I just haven't watched. I also don't want to watch.

Speaking of lager, I'm off now to der Tandelmann's favourite Bierkeller to enjoy some Real Lager, since the homebrewing chores are done for the day. I'm going to limit myself to a litre and a half. Or a litre and a "Schnitt", which can be anywhere between 2/3 to 16/17 of a litre, depending on the mood of whomever's pouring, at 77% the price of a litre.

Tandleman said...

Steve - Is Inner City Green a keg beer? One of the problems I see is that nobody is really willing to examine this new keg too closely. Its all very well to have strong beers that you take half an hour over, but where's the supping ale?

RedNev said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
RedNev said...

Curmudgeon: I agree with your point about Landlord, but it could go further. If CAMRA endorsed craft keg, what's to stop Tetley, John Smiths, et al, from marketing non-nitro keg versions of their smooth beers as craft keg? Answer: absolutely nothing.

So, if quality keg does exist (as I'm told, although you can't find it anywhere), that would surely kill it off by seriously muddying the waters, and CAMRA endorsement would make that more likely. If you want craft keg to succeed, you should be demanding CAMRA doesn't embrace it.

SteveF said...

Tandleman, no Inner City Green it's a cask beer. That was my point really (didn't make that clear); these guys are seriously talented brewers as evidenced by their cask beers, but their flagship keg is mighty dull. I'm putting that down to it being keg.

On the strength issue, I think Pete Brown argued for a general dividing line somewhere around 6%, with cask being better below and keg better above (and obviously there will be exceptions either way). I think there may be some merit in this argument, though I'm not entirely sure.

Velky Al said...

I am not convinced by the 6% split thing - one of the best pints of cask ale I have had in a long time was Lagunitas' Brown Shugga, which is 9.9%!

SteveF said...

Oh yeah, there will be plenty of exceptions to the rule. I can think of plenty of excellent +6% cask ales. But it's an interesting attempt at producing some sort of dividing line (assuming one exists at all). I think I may have to drink more to determine how reliable it is.

Tandleman said...

I think the problem with very strong cask ale is that it might well lose condition before it sells.

StringersBeer said...

easily remedied by use of cask breather

Tandleman said...

At what point would you add the breather as a matter of interest? Not actually against it myself in such circumstances, provided everything else has been tried.

StringersBeer said...

It's possible we don't mean the same thing by the term. I was thinking of something like this.

Tandleman said...

I think we do, but I usually use a white mouse. I mean at what point in the dispense process would you apply the breather. Before serving, after soft pegging etc.

StringersBeer said...

I'm not a publican, and it's many years since I did any cellar work. That said, I can't see any good reason why we couldn't connect a breather / demand valve /aspirator as soon as the cask is ready for service. i.e. after venting properly. Except of course, that CAMRA wouldn't like it, I suppose.

I very much like the Race spile - we often use one on our QC pins and they go a week easy. I bet starting with a race spile, followed by a breather, would allow us to keep a beer sound for weeks.

Of course, there are some remarkably warm, filthy cellars run by complete f-wits. From which beer is dragged by leaky pumps through miles of filthy line. Only fast-moving beer stands any chance in such places.

StringersBeer said...

Or keg. Keg would probably work.

Tandleman said...

Maybe kegging it spoils it already?

StringersBeer said...

Nah, I can't see how, as long as it's not over-gassed or over-fitered.

Tandleman said...

But there's the problem. Anyway if you caveat with "as long as it's not" then you are a hostage to fortune unless you control the "as long as it's not".

StringersBeer said...

Yes indeed. Bad keg would be a bad thing. Whereas bad Cask ale is... oh hang on.

Des de Moor said...

Tandleman: thanks for your continued reasoned and intelligent commentary on this issue though I'm more of a 'Webbist' on this matter, as you will have gathered from my letter in the corresponding issue of What's Brewing to your BEER piece. I also appreciate your plea for no keg bashing -- although there are a few influential people in CAMRA who are far less tolerant on this as I'm sure you're aware.

I think some of the debate hinges on what we mean by words like 'embrace', 'support', 'campaign for', 'promote'. I doubt anyone is suggesting CAMRA actively 'campaigns' for British craft keg beer, but then I can't quite see there's any need for a massive campaign for cask at the moment as there was a few decades back, and most of CAMRA's campaigning these days seems to be around licensing and pubs.

But there's surely something to be said for 'embracing' non-cask craft beers including non-bottle conditioned ones, for example by considering stocking them at beer festivals, featuring them in publications and so on. In fact quite a bit of this goes on already in CAMRA, but always with one eye over the shoulder.

Then there's the bizarre and irrational double standard of admitting non-British non-cask beers but demanding all British brewers stick to a particular conditioning technique.

Above all I think it would serve all of us to get away from this fixation on technicalities of conditioning and service and focus instead on what makes a beer good, distinctive, well-made with love and care. I suspect in the end that's what matters to the vast majority of ordinary, "sleeping" members who have swelled CAMRA's ranks over the past few years, rather than whether or not their beer's got yeast in it.

Cask, if it's made and served properly, is almost by definition craft beer, given the skill and care required. It's a unique product and we should have faith in it. So long as there is appreciation of good beer, cask will flourish.

As to Camden Town, the cask version of the pale ale I find just as uninteresting as the keg, but then often a brewery's best selling brands are the ones connoisseurs find the most boring. Both the cask Bitter and the keg Hells Lager are however quite impressive.

Curmudgeon said...

"In fact quite a bit of this goes on already in CAMRA, but always with one eye over the shoulder."

Indeed, and attitudes are likely to slowly change from the grass roots up. I've seen local newsletters make positive references to the presence of "craft keg".

Tandleman said...

Hi Des - Thanks for commenting. Not much to disagree with at all really, though my exposure to Camden Town's beer has been minimal.

Mind you, I think there may be nits to pick in this statement "Above all I think it would serve all of us to get away from this fixation on technicalities of conditioning and service and focus instead on what makes a beer good, distinctive, well-made with love and care."

It is precisely these technicalities that can make good beer bad and bad beer worse. I think too CAMRA's members, sleeping or otherwise are fairly keen on the old cask. Just not exclusively so in most cases.