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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In Brief: CAMRA and Key Kegs

This report by Tandleman on the Campaign for Real Ale annual general meeting is worth a read.

He argues that, on the whole, ‘backward facing motions were defeated, while progressive motions were passed’. Among those carried was Motion 15:

This Conference instructs the National Executive to investigate a labelling scheme for naturally conditioned Key Keg beer, which would allow customers to identify which beers, at the point of sale, conform with the CAMRA criteria for real ale.

This is significant, as we understand it, because it paves the way for beer in ‘key kegs’ to appear at CAMRA beer festivals, as long as they meets certain technical criteria — that is to say, that they are unfiltered and unpasteurised, contain a certain proportion of live yeast, and are carbonated without the addition of CO2 from an external source. (Key kegs use gas, but the gas doesn’t actually come into contact with the beer.)

This is not a wholehearted embrace of keg beer, overturning 40+ years of principles upon which the Campaign was built. Nor is it ‘CAMRA goes craft’. And we suspect it will take a long time for the results to be evident in the wild, too, with much bureaucracy to negotiate.

But it is important as a gesture, like that simple handshake between Barack Obama and Raúl Castro last December.

The letters page in next month’s What’s Brewing should be fun, though, while those passionate craft beer types who CAMRA has already alienated will probably regard this, sourly, as too little, too late.

UPDATE

Comment below if you like but this is mostly just a pointer to Tandleman’s post where there’s a lively discussion already underway.

1950s Beer Mats

We picked up these among a bundle of 16 for £4.99 inc. delivery on Ebay.

Fordham Flower on Keg vs. Cask

“[A] fair description of a beer keg is a smallish metal cask, from which beer is dispensed by carbon-dioxide pressure, and of which the three essential properties are: an ability to be sterilised, a capability to withstand fairly high pressures, and… a perfect and unalterable measure… The first container casualty has been the traditional wooden cask, which falls down on all three counts.

Sad though this is for those of us who were weaned on ‘beer from the wood,’ the advent of the metal cask, the only major change in centuries for containing draught beer, is not really as revolutionary as some people think. All that has happened is that familiar materials, like stainless steel and aluminium, have been developed and fashioned in known ways for a new purpose.”

Sir Fordham Flower, Chairman of Flower’s Brewery, 1962, explaining the benefits of ‘space age keg’.

Alternate History: XXXX instead of IPA

Imaginary keg font with 1977 Food Standards labelling recommendations.

The UK Government’s 1977 Food Standards Committee Report on Beer is a strange but illuminating document. It records how certain words and phrases relating to beer were being used at a certain point in time and, in its recommendations, most of which were ignored, presents a vision of what might have been.

After representations from CAMRA and others, the Committee agreed that beer needed clearer labelling. Their proposals were that draught beer point-of-sale information (pumpclips) ought to contain:

  • A declaration of the amount of the amount of malted barley used.
  • An indicator of strength based on the ‘XXX’ system, referring to original gravity rather than alcohol percentage in the finished product.
  • Disclosure of carbonation above 1.5 volumes.

Their proposal for the gravity bands and acceptable (but not compulsory) text descriptions was as follows.

  • Up to but not including 1035 — Light — X
  • 1035 up to but not including 1041 — Special, Heavy — XX
  • 1041 up to but not including 1047 — Export, India Pale Ale (IPA) — XXX
  • 1047 up to but not including 1062 — Strong — XXXX
  • 1062 and above — Extra Strong, Barley Wine — XXXXX

In the explanatory notes, they say this of IPA:

“India Pale Ale” (“IPA”) was originally brewed to have sufficient stability for export by sea to India and “export” probably came into use as a modern equivalent. These beers were originally stronger than those brewed for the home market and our impression is that consumers expect them to be rather stronger than ordinary beers. We recommend that the use of these two descriptions should be restricted to beers in the third band (XXX). We realise that there will be some beers which have been called “export” which are stronger than is given by this band. Any limitation of names must create anomalies, which are the more to be regretted if the claim to the name has a reasonable basis in terms of the original meaning of export.

They also suggest banning the use of the words ‘best’ and ‘premium’ on beer packaging. If they’d reported this year, they’d probably have added to that list ‘craft’, ‘crafted’, and so on.

On that basis, a pumpclip for a keg IPA with an original gravity of more than 1047 (that is, stronger than about 4.5% ABV) might have looked something like the one we’ve mocked up in the picture above. Weird, huh?