Beer history

Draught, Keg and Cask

Until the 1950s, there was no real need to define ‘draught beer’: it was the opposite of bottled beer, simple as that. Then keg beer came along (Watney kegged bitter in 1936; Flowers coined the term ‘keg’ in 1955) and suddenly draught beer had a split personality.

For many people, it didn’t matter. As long as they got a ‘pint’, they weren’t fussy about where it came from. Some ‘connoisseurs’, however, knew they didn’t like keg, but weren’t sure exactly needed a new term to describe exactly what it was they did like.

They tried ‘beer from the wood’ (in common since at least the turn of the century), until some smart arses pointed out that most casks were made of metal these days anyway. While the confusion continued, big brewers happily promoted keg beers as good, traditional, draught made the way it always has been, from premium malt and hops, only slightly better.

The Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood decided the answer was to reclaim ‘draught beer’ and lobbied government for several years from the late sixties. It was a con, they argued, to call keg bitter draught. Draught, they said, was, you know, proper draught, the good stuff, from the wood, but not necessarily actually from wood… oh, sod it. They were repeatedly rebuffed by Whitehall.

In 1969, the Monopolies Commission, which had been investigating various industries in the great era of corporate mergers, reported on pubs and brewing (link to PDF). As bureaucrats are often required to do, they spent no little time establishing terminology, and came up with this handy guide:

We use the description ‘draught’ beer to include any beer which is supplied to the retailer in bulk containers and drawn to order in the pub for each customer. All the large brewers and many smaller ones now brew a kind of draught beer which has become known as ‘keg’ beer. Although the word ‘draught’ is sometimes used to distinguish traditional draught from keg beer, for the purposes of this report we call the former ‘cask’ beer. [B&B’s emphasis.]

The report, which was widely read by those with an interest in beer, probably did a great deal to popularise the use of the term ‘cask’ in this way.

The report, if you’ve got the patience, is a fascinating read, especially the opening section which summarises the types of beer commonly available and most popular with drinkers.

UPDATE: worth noting, too, that Frank Baillie’s 1973 The Beer Drinker’s Companion classifies each brewery’s beers as either draught, keg or bottled.

30 replies on “Draught, Keg and Cask”

Before the invention of the term “real ale”, it was often referred to as “traditional draught beer”.

But if keg isn’t draught, because it is forced to the bar by CO2 rather than drawn by a pump, then surely gravity-dispensed beer isn’t either 😉

“Some ‘connoisseurs’, however, knew they didn’t like keg, but weren’t sure exactly what it was they did like.”

I’m not at all sure about this statement. In the trade, as Mudgie says, what we now call real ale or cask was known as traditional beer. Or “trad”. It wasn’t a secret and most drinkers clearly knew that one had gas pumped into it and one didn’t.

There seems to be some idea around that drinkers were all dopes before CAMRA arrived to educate them. Not in the many conversations I’ve had over the years with beer drinkers. They may not have known about the technicalities, but the knew what was what.

Ah. We meant “hadn’t worked out how to describe what it was they did like”. They knew it was ‘from the wood’, or ‘traditional’, or whatever, but it didn’t have a universally accepted description.

The SPBW founders, who were all longstanding cask drinkers and ‘connoisseurs’ (that’s the phrase everyone seemed to use back then) seemed genuinely surprised to discover that casks were being made from metal when they looked into it. They probably would have chosen a different name if they’d known!

This is Michael Hardman: “We started by talking to publicans about the difference between what we liked and disliked and were invited down into cellars to find out that the stuff we favoured was cask beer and the new-fangled gassy liquid was keg beer.”

So we’re not just pulling out of our arses the idea that there were people who were passionate about good beer without understanding the ins and outs of what ‘good beer’ was.

But maybe Hardman is overstating it for comic effect, and maybe we should generalise too much from the experience of a couple of twentysomethings in 1972.

And if the SPBW had been a bit more effective and held out longer, when CAMRA came along, they probably could have won that battle.

I’ve never really liked “cask”, and on reflection I’m surprised that it was floating around as early as 1969. The terms I learned in the 70s and used for a long time afterwards were “keg” and “draught” – as in “they haven’t got any draught, I’ll just have a bottle of something”. At some point the number of brewers using “draught” (or “draft”) to describe keg made the word less useful, so I switched to saying “real beer” in a semi-jokey way, and more recently just “beer” – as in “I had a quick look and they haven’t got any beer, let’s not go in”. “Cask” sounds antiquated in a way “real ale” doesn’t – not a million miles from “beer from the wood”.

Surprised us to see it there, too. Your experience, I bet, is pretty typical of the way a lot of people related to these words at various times.

(Though, on your last point, don’t you end up having to further explain yourself quite often? “Well, yes, they did have Carling and Tetley Smooth, but I mean *proper* beer.”)

It’s usually only my family I’m talking to, and they’re used to it. My son’s even started winding me up (Are you sure they didn’t have any craft beer, Dad?.

I think Hardman is just expressing it in terms that people today will readily understand. In any event even if Hardman was unaware, many others weren’t.

In defence of Hardman, he was relating his experience. Perfectly possible that he knew what he liked but didn’t know why.

You may however be over influenced by the notion that people didn’t know what was what.

It may have been well understood in the trade, and amongst drinkers with trade experience, but I don’t think it was anywhere near as well understood by the general drinking public as it is today (or indeed was by 1980).

Also remember than in the early 70s there was much more of a variety of storage and dispense systems that to some extent clouded the issue or were a kind of halfway house – top pressure, blanket pressure, tank beer, metered electric pumps, freeflow electric pumps etc. Now it is very clearly either real ale or keg. In the late 70s, for example, a substantial proportion of M&B pubs in Birmingham sold real Mild and Brew XI from free-flow electric fonts that were indistinguishable from the ones used for keg.

I agree Mudgie, but at a basic level people knew what they liked and what they didn’t. They either liked their beer cold and fizzy or they didn’t.

Your points about dispense and fonts as well as bright beer (blanket pressure, tank beer are more or less the same) are good ones. It was a while before the handpump became the abiding symbol of cask beer, but when I drank in a Greenalls pub in Liverpool when I first moved there, it had electric sliders. I knew nothing about those or for that matter, cask beer. It was the customers there that put me right. They knew what was what and it was they that advised me what pubs to go in and what not on the basis of what was traditional and what was not. They certainly knew their stuff.

It was they that piqued my interest in real beer. I remember too, particularly in Bass houses, but some Tetley ones too, you had to ask if it was trad or not.

I’m not saying anyone should stop using it – just saying that in my ears “cask” has an antiquated ring to it. I wish “draught” still consistently meant “drawn up, usually but not necessarily by a handpump”, but that ship’s well and truly sailed; looks like we’re stuck with “cask”.

Tandleman – if Phil hadn’t already replied in measured terms, we might have deleted your comment — not something we feel all that comfortable doing.

You can shout bollocks at us, but we’d rather you didn’t do it to other commenters — that’s about as near as we’ve got to ‘house rules’. (See managing comments here.)

Pre-emptively, should add that we’re not on a horse, high or otherwise — just trying to keep things civil round our gaff.

On a completely technical note, how rude is “bollocks”? It’s one of the few words that have not migrated to this part of the empire and while I know the anatomical image it evokes and know it’s in the title of the Sex Pistols album, have no idea where it really sits in the sliding scale of rudenesses. Short test => is it worse or weaker than calling someone a bastard?

Do you know about the court case over Never Mind the Bollocks? If I remember the story rightly, John Mortimer won it by proving it isn’t a swear word at all, but an old English word meaning ‘nonsense’.

It’s not that rude. I’d say it in front of my Mum.

Definitely weaker than ‘bastard’. It’s almost a separate class of word – too rude (and aggressive) for polite company, but not quite a swearword. “That’s bloody ridiculous” would raise the temperature and/or kill the conversation far more effectively than “that’s bollocks”.

I did think Tandleman could have expressed himself better, though.

“Real ale” does sound horribly antiquated if you take the two words separately (“landlord, kindly furnish me with a pint of ale, and I insist on the ale that is real”). “Ale” meaning beer is almost entirely extinct in the language – apart from “real ale”, the only example I can think of is “steak and ale pie”. But I think most people don’t think of “real ale” as a form of “ale”. “Brown ale” is a type of drink, so is “ginger ale” and so is “real ale”.

One for the CAMRA Counterfactuals drawer – how would the history of the organisation have been different if they’d gone for CAMREB, the CAMpaign for REal Beer? I think it might have made the organisation look more aggressive & hence less appealing to (most) potential members, not to mention making relations with the big brewers even worse. “Got any real ale?” sounds geeky; “Got any real beer?” sounds confrontational.

Not following you, I’m afraid. EDIT: oh, you mean that cask sounds less antiquated than real ale? Gotcha.

To my mind, “cask” comes across as a bit affected and technical – actual people in the pub tend to call it “real ale”. I’ve consciously reverted to using the term “real ale” in articles for publication.

I’m just loving this series of postings and the comments they provoke — well done! I’m not sure I agree with Phil on “real ale” being the only case left in English where ale=beer. I’m pretty sure it was quite intentionally coined to exclude lager — fermented with what were then referred to as “bottom fermenting” yeast strains — which in those days in the UK was universally a pasteurised and artificially carbonated industrial product. One of the many inconsistencies thrown up by the persistence of what appeared to be clear and obvious polarities back in the 1960s is that the “real ales” listed in the Good Beer Guide today include a number of cask conditioned “lagers” (and although I suspect quite a few of these are brewed with ale yeasts and not properly lagered, there are exceptions).

I’ve always assumed the term ‘cask’ was popularised by those in the industry who recognised the importance of a distinct category but thought ‘real ale’ carried too much CAMRA baggage. It does have the validity of a technical distinction as it refers to the vessel — a cask has two distinct openings so it can be vented to air as well as tapped and is also waisted to help manage the sediment, whereas a keg has a single opening and is intended to be pressurised.

I don’t think we’ll get anywhere by speculating how much technical knowledge about different forms of conditioning and dispense the average ordinary drinker had at any particular point in time, as the evidence is just so scarce. What is evident is that beer propogandists and journalists haven’t always known what they’re talking about, and often still don’t. The average drinker in my experience is more likely to think in terms of what they like, and perhaps of rather vague ideas about things like provenance, naturalness, heritage etc.

I think Des is retro-fitting concepts to the 1970s here. I don’t believe it was intentionally coined to exclude lager at all. The definition of ale as any top-fermenting beer is an American development of the 1990s.

To put it another way, In 1970s British English, “beer” excluded lager just as much as “ale” does. You still see supermarket aisles divided into “beer” and “lager” sections in the UK.

Agree with everything that Barm says here.
Also, The large brewers had been throwing a lot of resources at trying to launch national lager brands or quite some time, without much success, and I think that CAMRA was much more anti keg in the early days than anti lager. Lager sales were, I think, quite a low percentage of overall beer sales when CAMRA first started up, and it has always been my impression (could be wrong) that the rapid increase in lager sales from the mid-70’s caught CAMRA a bit by surprise.

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