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real ale

Is old keg the same as new keg?

Watneys Red Barrel: detail of beer mat c.1968

In the ongoing discussions about whether CAMRA should or should not do more to support quality kegged and bottled British beer, one of the key sticking points is this: what makes the kegged beer of today any better than the bland kegged beer of the 1960s and 70s which provoke the campaign’s founding?

Or, to put that another way, is ‘new keg’ just the same shite as ‘old keg’?

Having read Martyn Cornell’s marvellous Beer: the Story of the Pint recently, we were prompted to contrast the motives of the makers of ‘old keg’ — big conglomerated breweries like Watneys — with those of the new breed of keg brewers.

Old keg: post-World War II, cask ale got weaker and became more temperamental until, to paraphrase Beer, a change of landlord or barmaid could be enough to push punters towards less exciting but more reliable bottled beer. Sales were dropping alarmingly. Kegged beer was the breweries’ response to that — a way of ensuring consistently adequate quality (less vinegar) but at the cost of excellence. The cask versions of their beer at the time were hardly earth-shatteringly brilliant either.

New keg: some smaller brewers, with a focus on flavour and quality, whether you agree with them or not, believe their beer tastes as good if not better without cask or bottle conditioning. (“Too fizzy” and “too cold” are subjective complaints). Others might prefer to cask-condition but, to expand their business, as an expression of beervangelism, or a bit of both, want to get their beer into as many venues as possible, and believe kegging will help them achieve that. Many of these beers are stronger, more intensely flavoured and much more varied than the cask conditioned beers commonly seen in the average pub.

What do you think? Are they the same thing?

17 replies on “Is old keg the same as new keg?”

I don’t believe that the New Keg is the same as the Old Keg, though I never knew the Old as such – didn’t start drinking until 1980, and it was lager I started with.

These new brewers probably don’t even remember the Old Days, so I can’t imagine they are motivated by the past. I’d suggest they’re looking and learning from brewing scenes elsewhere and it looks to me as if, almost overwhelmingly, they are exploring alternative forms of packaging alongside the casking of most of their beer.

None of them seem to be cutting corners on use of high-quality ingredients to brew beers of character, whereas in the Old Days you had vertically-integrated ‘conglomerate’ brewers looking to cut costs while retaining consistency and not necessarily quality. It would be absurd to think that a brewer today would go to all that trouble and expense, then completely filter and pasteurise the bejeezus out of the finished beer.

Technology is having an effect today as well. Keykegs are giving brewers more options, and blurring the lines between keg and cask.

Where does that leave CAMRA? In the matter of simple dispense, on the same ground. Politically, I don’t imagine the Kevin Wing will ever permit a change to their Page One definition of keg, and it’s propaganda as well as a technical definition that helps their cause. Historically, CAMRA’s aims made cask synonymous with quality, which is what I would suggest the New Brewers strive for. But it seems wrong to me that the motives of the brewers would be in question because they are investigating new ways to get their high-quality beers into more pubs and bars. I imagine that thought worries the Campaign more than they would admit.

(“Too fizzy” and “too cold” are subjective complaints)

Just because a complaint is subjective doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a sound basis. I don’t (as a general rule) drink keg. It makes me hugely bloated and that ruins the whole experience for me. I just don’t get all the fuss around the fizz “cleansing” the tongue, or whatever it’s supposed to do. Turn down the gas and I’ll give it a try, just don’t be offended when I’m belching for Britain, or screwing up my face with a serious case of wind later in the evening!

In 1971, cask vs keg was a reasonable approximation to good and bad on the British beer scene, but CAMRA has always been too keen to see things in black and white rather than shades of grey. And the inherent quality of a beer as brewed, and the method of storage and dispense, are two separate issues.

If “new keg” gains a critical mass, which it hasn’t really yet, then it does become a strategic problem for CAMRA if a lot of the people who are most interested in and enthusiastic about beer (and thus CAMRA’s natural constituency) are mostly drinking keg craft beers.

I think that old keg vs new keg is not the debate here. It is mass-produced vs craft-produced, which is the distinction. Kegged John Smiths is as bad as it ever was but high quality kegged beer from Meantime, Brew Dog or Kernal is a delight. Even your old neighbours Brodies have started experimenting with kegs for some of their ales an with great effect (Black IPA!) CAMRA needs to redefine itself or for modern drinkers of quality ale it will fall into
irrelevance.

I am not really sure where I stand on this point, mainly because here in the States it is a non-issue. Most craft breweries keg their beer, though they don’t pasteurise it.

In terms of flavour though, I recently had in a single night Sierra Nevada Torpedo on keg, sparkled cask and bottle. Cask was infinitely superior to the other options, followed by bottle then keg. While you won’t hear me banging on that keg is “better for some beer styles”, you will hear me say that I think cask just tastes better regardless.

When it comes to stronger beers though, I can see the point of kegs – the strong stuff that seems to be de rigeur with craft breweries would not sell as quickly as the regular session beers, so casking them is pointless as they would spoil.

I fell though that the whole debate would vanish in a moment if CAMRA had a more positive view of cask breathers.

I think you guys are missing one of the big differences with the new wave of keg beers…….COST!

In my experience it costs at least 50p extra for the same beer on key-keg then it does with cask. This is a major sticking point with many people, myself included as I don’t think it’s worth all that extra money just to have my Jaipur cold & fizzy.

Unless the cost comes down key-keg is at high risk of remaining a niche product out of reach of the normal pub-goer

What about the classic styles? Lagers, wheat beers, and so on. Neither old nor new keg. German-style beers served in the way they are in Germany. A US-style IPA is served on keg in the same way in the UK as it would in the US.

I don’t think the two are analogous. They both reflect the industry at their respective times. Keg isn’t what it used to be – one was a revolt against beer going bad (a process to make beer easier and safer) whereas the other is about pushing beer in different, forward directions of flavour.

I think most of it has been said by Ed, by Velky Al and by T.I.B. it is too cold, too gassy, too expensive and usually disappointing.

It has a place where it replicates an import’s home conditions or where a beer is so strong it might go off but it just doesn’t compare favourably most times to cask.

Is it the same as old keg? No. It has better ingredients but suffers from the same old bloating cold and gassy issues and now it costs more.

If I had to sum it up in one word, disappointing would be that word.

Thanks for comments, folks.

So, the conclusion is that, whether you like kegged beer or not, it’s a bit much to say “new keg = old keg”?

Two further thoughts:

1. as we’ve said before, our experience is that, especially for weaker beers, cask-conditioning usually brings out the best but

2. we can think of several occasions where the beer of the night has been a kegged one, drunk alongside good cask ales (specific example: Magic Rock Human Cannonball).

3. We also sometimes want something more carbonated than most cask ales (not necessarily fizzy; don’t mind burping occasionally if required; and find it a pleasant sensation) and we *frequently* want something colder.

Ed — don’t mind subjectivity per se, just object to “too X” or “too Y”, when I think what people mean is “too X or Y for my tastes”. I know you could say that the last bit is a given but I think “too fizzy” implies that there’s a recognised threshold above which a beer is too fizzy to enjoy unless you’re some kind of idiot.

Lots of people like cold fizzy drinks. I know I do.

I do remember old keg, although I was lucky enough to start on real ale, at a time (mid-70s) when it was quite easy to avoid. What struck me even then was that the flavour didn’t develop in the same way that the flavour of cask beer does: it tasted the same all the way through, as if it was a soft drink made to imitate the flavour of beer. (And it was obtrusively fizzy rather than having natural condition, & it was chilled to beggary so that you could knock it back without noticing how dull it was. Hier steh’ ich, sorry.)

New keg isn’t like that, but (in my experience) it still doesn’t develop: it’s more often like a firework going off in your mouth, BAM aroma! BAM bitter herbs! BAM tropical fruit! BAM bitter finish! Which can be fun, but I’ve never found it to be better than the alternative. (Cask 5am Saint was one of the nicest beers I’ve ever had; keg Saint was just… BAM BAM BAM.) Plus it’s invariably overpriced*, and it’s obtrusively fizzy and chilled to beggary – not because the technology requires it, as far as I can see, but because that makes it more like old keg and that winds up the cask bores.

*Seen last night at the Bar in Chorlton: keg Punk IPA, £3.55; keg Hops Kill Nazis, £5.90. In three words, No Way.

I think the keg v cask argument is tunneling the discussion, the argument should be that do we accept good craft beer and real ale as just “good beer” and bad beer from both equally as “bad beer”, if they come from a brewery that is recognised for the quality of its beer. All beer is subjective, you could have 5 people and 5 beers and each would prefer a different one. Personally I like my beers with a good element of hoppiness, so the new keg beers suit my preferences. But I get this from both Keg and Cask sourced beers. I agree for a gentler drink cask will always win, but sometimes you want “BAM” to quote another poster and sometimes something more relaxing

Don’t get me wrong, I like big hoppy beers – just not big hoppy keg beers (at least, I’ve never yet had one I liked). It’s not the strength of the flavour, it’s the way it arrives (if that makes sense).

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