Q&A: What Was the First Kegged Craft Beer?

‘What was the first kegged “craft”? Freehouses had keg lines – something must have been number one.’ Paul, Edinburgh (@CanIgetaP)

Bailey has recently been reading What Was the First Rock’N’Roll Record? by Jim Dawson and Steve Propes. Rather than declare an answer it puts forward a list of 50 candidates from 1944 to 1956 and explains the claim each has to the title. We’re going to steal that approach.

Watney's Red Barrel (detail from beer mat).

1. Watney’s Red Barrel, London, 1931.
Wait, bear with us! It was the first keg bitter, full stop, and when it first emerged was a well-regarded export quality beer. We’ve tasted a clone of a 1960s version and it was better than some keg red or amber ales currently being put out by larger breweries through their craft sub-brands.

1970s photograph of two men in horn-rimmed glasses inspecting beer.
Tommy Marling takes the temperature of draught Guinness watched by Mr Bill Steggle, licensee of the Cock at Headley near Epsom. SOURCE: Guinness Time.

2. Draught Guinness, 1958.
Please continue to bear with us. In the mid-20th Century draught Guinness was a super-hip beer and apparently very tasty, but hard to find. Technicians at the brewery worked out a way to reliably dispense it from one vessel with a creamy head and it went on to take over the world. It was brewed in both Dublin and London. CAMRA veteran Barrie Pepper is once reported to have said that if all keg beer had been as good as draught Guinness CAMRA would never have got off the ground.

a. German and Belgian beers began to appear more frequently in Britain at the end of the 1970s, usually  bottled, but occasionally on draught. In the mid-1980s Sean Franklin at Rooster’s and Peter Austin at Ringwood considered kegging their beers but neither bit the bullet.

Newquay Steam full range, 1987.

3. Newquay Steam, 1987.
What we would now recognise as a craft sub-brand from a traditional brewery (Devenish) Newquay Steam beers were best-known in their bottled form but were also available kegged. We’ve argued before that there was much about the brand that presaged the coming of craft — read the story and decide for yourself whether it qualifies.

b. At around this time some American imports, such as Anchor Liberty, began to appear in high-end British pubs and bars, served from kegs.

Alastair Hook's editorial.

4. Packhorse lagers, 1990.
Alastair Hook’s first UK brewing job was at a brewpub in Kent where he produced a pilsner, an amber Vienna beer and a Munich-style dark lager. There was lots of lager being brewed in the UK but it did tend to be just ‘lager’. And when indie microbreweries did make lager, they tended to cask-condition it. We reckon the unusual and specific sub-styles, and Hook’s authorial intent, makes this ‘craft lager’. But it might have been from tanks rather than kegs — we haven’t got any specific info at hand — and doesn’t meet Paul’s freehouse criterion. (Brew Britannia, Chapter 11.)

c. In the early 1990s Belgian and German wheat beers became quite the thing appearing on draught in various pubs. They’re a bit passe now but imagine tasting a cold, very foamy beer with coriander in it, or that smells of bananas and bubblegum, when you’re used to flat-and-farty Courage Best.

Freedom Pilsner, a British lager.
Freedom Pilsner, a British lager.

5. Freedom Lager, 1995.
It’s Alastair Hook again, this time in West London. Freedom was another beer best known in its bottled form but could be found on draught (keg) at, for example, The White Horse across the road from the brewery — arguably ground zero for ‘craft’ in the UK. The brewery still exists but in a different location, under different ownership, making different beers. (BB, C11.)

A red-brick city centre building in Manchester.
The site of Mash & Air as it looked in 2014.

6. Mash & Air, 1996.
Guess what? It’s Alastair Hook again. At Oliver Peyton’s super-cool restaurant bar operation in Manchester he was brewing fruit beers, wheat beers and strong, hoppy IPA, all served ‘unreal’. There were five big serving tanks behind the bar but also a kegging facility for ales. So this is probably the first time a British drinker might have been able to get a home-grown, non-cask-conditioned draught pale ale with ‘craft’ credentials. Hook founded Meantime in 1999/2000 along essentially the same lines. (BB, C11.)

d. North Bar opened in Leeds in 1997 — Britain’s first modern craft beer bar. It served various Belgian, German and American beers on draught, most notably Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, supplied to the trade by a Yorkshire-based importer.

7. Adnams Spindrift, 2007.
Spindrift keg font.By this time, Meantime had been in operation for years, but there still weren’t many keg ales that weren’t just crap versions of cask ones. This is an early example in the modern era of a keg beer being pitched as a premium product. Andrew Jefford said in a contemporary article in the Financial Times: ‘I think it could be one of the most significant British beer launches of the new millennium’. We need to do more work on the chronology but we believe Fuller’s also launched several big-font keg beers at around this time — Discovery and Honey Dew. But this probably isn’t what most people have in mind when they hear the phrase ‘craft keg’.

Neon sign: BREWDOG.
Adapted from ‘Brewdog’ by Matt Brown from Flickr under Creative Commons.

8. BrewDog Punk IPA, 2010.
While by no means the first, this is perhaps the most influential beer on the list — the one that inspired Magic Rock, The Kernel and so many others in the UK craft aristocracy. It began life as a cask beer but BrewDog made kegging both a political statement and a marketing gimmick. (BB, C15.)

* * *

So, there’s a list to start you off, but which important candidates have we missed, and what’s their claim?

11 thoughts on “Q&A: What Was the First Kegged Craft Beer?”

  1. I’m puzzled by your reference to Mash & Air as all-keg – & the linked article doesn’t seem to support it, unless I’m missing something. The one time I went there, I remember the beer as very much straight-from-the-conditioning-tank & rough as a badger’s arse – the ‘abbey beer’ I finished the evening with had gobs of yeast in it the size of rice krispies. And I was sick when I got home (although that may have been the previous four pints, and/or the food).

    1. Right, what we’ve got is another 1997 issue of The Grist which profiles Mash & Air and which says:

      ‘Mash and Air does not put an emphasis on the method of dispense as being essential to the quality of beer. The brewery uses air driven displacement pumps from pressurised serving tanks operating on a CO2 breather system.’

      So that sounds like what you’re talking about — the ‘five big serving tanks’ we mention in the post.

      But there’s also a bit where it says ‘ales can be racked directly into kegs, filtered or transferred to maturation depending on style… Save-alls can be used in the case of “keg-conditioned” beer. The kegging and bottling system can also use a sterile filtration system if required.’

      But we don’t know if, when or how the kegging set up was used.

  2. Well you can add to that chronology your bezzie mate Brendan Dobbin. I have a May 1989 price list from West Coast Brewing which has a footnote explaining that his four Coaster brand lagers (and Guiltless Stout) are also available on keg. I’m pretty sure that at least one or two of the lagers were sold on keg at the Kings Arms.

    1. Ah, great — we did wonder but had it in our heads that he didn’t do kegging. He certainly doesn’t have much time for the idea that Alastair Hook invented the idea of ‘craft lager’. It’s probably in the notes from one of the interviews we did. Bit lazy of us not to have looked it up.

  3. Freedom Brewing: I could be wrong, as memory is not a sure guide. Not that I went but a handful of times at most in the latter ’90s/early ’00s but Freedom at Thomas Neale’s in Covent Garden served their very reasonable tasting lager, and apparently (as I don’t recall it) Soho Red brewed on the premises in Earlham Street; it was fizzy enough, and presumed to be kegged rather than served direct from the tank. They were both sold as draught beers tho’ I don’t recall the Soho Red being available. The rough-hewn interior ‘finish’ was possibly also ‘crafted’ – dontcha recoil from more marketing speak? Having been at Greene King’s AGM this last week, I’ve had a bit of a surfeit of that, and asked for plain English and a comprehensive glossary (profit upside – I ask you).

    http://www.shadyoldlady.com/location.php?loc=592
    http://www.morningadvertiser.co.uk/Drinks/Beer/Freedom-brewer-is-on-verge-of-closure

  4. Your note on North Bar seems to suggest it was serving SNPA from 1997.

    SNPA was first imported to the UK in Autumn 2003, and my very own Microbar in London was the first to sell it on draught. This was the subject of some fond reminiscence catching up with Steve Grossman of SN recently.

    1. We umm-ed and ahh-ed. Some was served under ‘top pressure’ and also filtered but that didn’t quite seem like keg to us but now you say it, we should probably have gone for it in the spirit of listing all the contenders. Will add in an update along with the other suggestions.

  5. Hmmm, you might want to check with Jeff at Lovibonds brewery – certainly when I started selling his beers I’d never come across what we now call craft keg – I can’t give you a specific date but my guess would be about 2006. (and it caused a hell of a stink with the local camra branch!).

    1. You’re right, sounds like a contender. Not hugely influential, I wouldn’t have said, but worth including.

  6. O’Hanlon’s in Clerkenwell London were doing both a cask and keg version of their stout in late 1996. A defunct beer magazine called ‘The Taste!’ had I believe an article in 1998 about micro breweries and keg beer including advice on how to build a kegging line for small scale producers, I believe it featured Iceni Brewery who made LAD Lager at the time

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