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.

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The Campaign for Unreal Ale: Deleted Scene

Our first piece for All About Beer magazine, ‘The Campaign for Unreal Ale‘, went live this week.

We wanted to focus on a particular moment and challenged ourselves, as with the recent piece on Covent Garden ’75 in BEER, to use only the words of those involved.

Of course, there’s a bit of a con there: the faux-oral-history format implies the absence of an author when, in fact, we’ve selected quotes from much longer transcripts, based on questions we asked, in order to tell a particular story in 1000 words.

By way of additional context, here’s a bit from Alastair Hook we didn’t use:

[My criticism of CAMRA in The Grist] didn’t necessarily chime with the heart-chords of SIBA members who were mostly cask ale brewers. In fact, it wound them up.

The late Michael Jackson told me, ‘Only ever talk good things of beer’, and that’s what I try to do, so, for all their ills, CAMRA have spent decades promoting good beer. (I’m just not sure they know what it is.)

I don’t have a problem with CAMRA – I don’t think about it. It’s irrelevant. What was strange was when I gave a talk at the Great British Beer Festival but my own beer, from Meantime, got stopped at the door by some jobsworth who wouldn’t have it on the premises because it wasn’t real ale. Isn’t that weird? Absurd.

It’s no wonder that people are sometimes confused about Mr Hook’s stance on CAMRA: even though it can sound extreme — ‘the idea that oxygen improves beer is just absurd’ — it’s actually rather complex and, dare we say it, emotional.

We’ve illustrated this post with pictures of Hook and Haydon scanned from 1990s copies of The Grist, the copyright holders of which All About Beer weren’t able to track down. If that’s you, and you’d like us to add a credit or remove the image from this post, let us know.

Embracing Keg, Rejecting CAMRA, 1995

In 1995, a handful of Brits were beginning to get excited about American beer and, at the same time, rather irritated by the Campaign for Real Ale.

The Grist began life as, to all intents and purposes, the magazine of SIBA, in 1983, under the editorship of Elisabeth Baker. In that incarnation, it focused largely on offering technical advice to small brewers, and pre-Beer Orders policy propaganda.

By 1995, however, its ties to that organisation had been all but severed, and it was being edited by Alastair Hook, now best known as the founder of Meantime, but then head brewer at Freedom in West London. Under his control, and, later, that of his friend Peter Haydon, The Grist became more concerned with personalities and the passionate advocacy of ‘great beer’.

The Grist, November/December 1995.The November/December 1995 edition (No. 67) gives us a glimpse into a time when more than one influential voice was beginning to evangelise about the quality of American beer and the benefits of ‘brewery conditioning’, while also criticising the Campaign for Real Ale’s dogmatism. From Hook’s editorial:

[Most American microbrewery] beer is brewery conditioned. It might be bottled or kegged, but always cold matured and filtered. The American micros know that without a consistent product there is no business… For hundreds of UK micros who fight to survive in a fiercely competitive market, producing beer that by its very nature is difficult to handle, the role of CAMRA is critical. It strikes me that unless CAMRA’s nonsensical opposition to the cask breather and blanket opposition to brewery-conditioned beers is reversed, the microbrewing industry will suffer chronically. The irony is that the micros are, after all, the greatest agent for the change and choice that CAMRA claim to desire.

Elsewhere in the same issue, Mark Dorber, then manager of the White Horse, also in West London, gave an account of the Great American Beer Festival XIV:

A tradition unencumbered by the ideological baggage of our ‘real ale’ movement appreciates quality in terms of flavour and absence of faults, as it should… Vibrant flavours stood out in many of the beers judged and sampled. (Alas, much of the UK brewing industry, by contrast, seems reluctant to offend any portion of the beer market with its bland {aka ‘balanced’} beers.)

A third article by Keith Laric (a pseudonym?) in the same issue lays into CAMRA’s ‘Cask Breather Hypocrisy’: “Perhaps we need to be less insular, and to look at the best European and American traditions as well.”

Just to make sure the point was absolutely hammered home, Hook also gave over two-and-a-half pages to a piece on his own brewery venture, written by Peter Haydon, who said:

The American microbrewers were not able to produce cask conditioned beers when their revolution started. They produced keg beers of startling quality and sophistication that really deserve a different appellation. If a keg beer is produced by a brewer who wants to produce good, exciting beer, then there is no reason why such a beer cannot be produced… Keg beer is only bad when it is produced by accountants, or when it is masquerading as something else.

OK, we get the message!

Though the term ‘craft beer’ does not appear once in any of the articles — Hook uses the term (brace yourselves) “gourmet beer” — this particular issue of The Grist suggests that the idea of a ‘third way’ that was neither ‘industrial fizz’ nor ‘real ale’ was fully formed by the middle of the 90s.