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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Whichever Keg IPA They Have, Please

Keg fonts at a central London pub.

Last Friday in London I went out for a session with one of my oldest friends, someone I’ve known since we were both 11-years-old, and was frankly a bit startled when he ordered a pint of BrewDog Punk IPA.

The thing is, as long as we’ve been going to the pub together (about 20 years) I’ve known him as a Guinness drinker. He’d never touch cask-conditioned beer, AKA ‘real ale’ — his fall-back was always lager.

Now, it turns out he’s ditched Guinness and drinks kegged American-style IPA or, at a push, pale ale. (By the pint, by the way — he’s a big lad, my mate, quite capable of drinking ten pints without seeming much the worse for wear, and he likes that these beers are on the strong side, getting him pissed at about the same rate as a little Hobbit like me drinking bitter.)

It’s only one case, of course, but we reckon it says something about (a) the continuing decline in the status of Guinness as The Alternative Beer Brand; (b) the rise of aromatic hoppy beer as a mainstream product and (c) the increasing availability of kegged PA/IPA in non-specialist pubs.

Whether this is good news probably depends on whether you hate Guinness or BrewDog more.

The Early Days of ‘Craft Keg’

In October 2007, in an article in the Financial Times (13/10, p5), journalist Andrew Jefford considered an exciting new development in British beer: ‘craft keg’.

OK, so he didn’t use that exact phrase, but he did say this:

Spindrift keg font.Anyone who has ever sat and sipped the day away in a craft brewery in the US will have tasted the answer [to poorly kept ale]. Breweries such as Sierra Nevada… produce great ale in keg rather than cask-conditioned format… Keg ales have a tatty reputation in Britain. Why? They have usually been the work of big brewers who have produced timid, bland recipes using cheap ingredients.. The visionary Alastair Hook of the Meantime Brewing Company in London’s Greenwich is the only serious British small brewer to specialise in beers of this sort…

Jefford’s article wasn’t about Meantime, however, but a new beer from the rather conservative and revered Adnams’ of Southwold in Suffolk.

Adnams’ Spindrift hit the market when this blog was about six months old (we don’t recall ever tasting it) and when BrewDog, in operation for less than a year, was still producing ‘real ale’ and bottled beer.

It was trumpeted as a clean-tasting ale for those who preferred lager, with 28 bitterness units, First Gold and Boadicea hops, and pale and wheat malts. It was unpasteurised but sterile-filtered, with 1.8 volumes of CO2 — more than most cask ales, but less than most lagers. Its ABV was 5%, and it sold at £3.50 a pint. (About £4.20 in today’s money.)

Mr Jefford concluded as follows:

I think it could be one of the most significant British beer launches of the new millennium… So bring on the Spindrift. And bring on more competitors, too.

Spindrift did not, in the end, have a huge impact. It almost certainly suffered because, in Jefford’s words, ‘its heretical keg nature means that Spindrift is off the radar for cask-ale fundamentalists’, while the nascent ‘crafterati’ probably found it too timid — more Fuller’s Discovery than Anchor Liberty.

In around 2010 Adnams’ yanked Spindrift from their keg lines and reinvented as a bottled beer in distinctive blue glass, but there are now plenty of ‘posh keg’ beers from all kinds of British breweries, including Adnams’ themselves.

UPDATE: Spindrift is apparently still available on keg but now at 4%.

Cheating by Making Tasty Beer

Watney Fined Bitter beer mat.Last week, everyone got in a proper tizz over an eccentric rant about ‘craft keg’ in the programme for a local beer festival. We thought it an interesting statement of a particular (extreme) point of view, and were especially fascinated by this line:

The only thing that has changed 1974 to 2013 is that cynical Craft brewers, in an attempt to hide the potentially bland characteristics of their beers, have chosen to champion the new breed of super hopped US-style IPAs and or sledgehammer Imperial Stouts among their beer range.

The suggestion seems to be that giving these beers intense flavours and aromas is a con trick designed to dazzle the drinker into overlooking the essential soullessness of the product, ‘blandness’ being misused in this context. (The music is really loud to conceal its potential quietness?)

It brought to our minds the time in the nineteen-seventies when the Big Six began launching or re-launching cask ales, once CAMRA had become a serious nuisance. They were not mainstream products, on the whole — you had to know where to look, and be willing to pay through the nose — and only Ind Coope Draught Burton Ale really seems to have excited anyone. Nonetheless, CAMRA’s National Executive were obliged to welcome them. There was some dissent — arguably the original ‘craft vs. crafty’ debate — but what else could CAMRA do, having built the Campaign around the simple rule that cask=good and keg=bad?

We can’t help but feel that, in some mysterious way, it was an underhand tactic on the part of the brewers. Echoing the writer above, weren’t they, in an attempt to hide the potentially bland characteristics of their beers, and the monopolistic tendencies of their huge companies, choosing to champion the then hot trend for ‘real ale’?

Sometimes, the relationship between commerce and consumer feels less like a battle, with obvious winners and losers, and more like Cold War espionage, where the moves are subtle, and the outcome won’t really be clear for years to come. In a situation like that, those with rigid rules are easily outmanoeuvred.