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Beer history

Why exactly #1: keg beer in the UK

Watney's Keg advertisement from 1962.

Brewers were keen to push keg bitter and do away with cask-conditioned beer… but why?

In the late nineteen-forties, they had noted (a) falling sales of beer across the board; but (b) a rise in sales of bottled beer. ‘Draught beer’ (cask-conditioned ale) was often poorly kept and had certainly become rather weak in the wake of two world wars.

They had no desire to rebuild or refit every pub cellar, or to retrain every publican; bottling was expensive and inefficient. Kegs and ‘top pressure’ tank beer seemed the obvious solution. In an article in the Financial Times (FT) on 8 August, 1962, Sir Fordham Flower (!), Chairman of Flowers, listed as the ‘essential qualities’ of keg beer:

  • an ability to be sterilised
  • a capability to withstand fairly high pressures
  • a perfect and unalterable measure.

Other advantages became clear as keg’s market share grew. As an analyst in the FT pointed out on 8 September 1965, keg beer’s ‘consistent qualities’ made it ‘a good candidate for national TV advertising… Charrington United, for example, devoted all its recent TV advertising to its keg brand, and the pattern is not exceptional’. As the idea of ‘national beer brands’ arose, cask-conditioning became less and less convenient for brewers.

Finally, brewers seem very genuinely to believe, presumably based on market research, that there was strong demand for colder, more highly carbonated beer among a core market they otherwise feared losing: the young. They wanted a new generation to get into the habit of drinking beer rather than Coca Cola, rum’n’Coke, cider or wine, and so tailored their product to ‘immature tastebuds’ (that 1965 FT reporter again).

So… what if brewers had reacted to early nineteen-sixties consumer protests and added stronger, more characterful, less cold-and-fizzy keg beers to their ranges? Might they have headed off the revolt and succeeded in doing away with cask-conditioned beer altogether? Perhaps those who love cask ale should be grateful the big brewers were so penny-pinching, obstinate and arrogant.

There’s nothing new being said here, of course, but it’s useful for us (and maybe for some others) to have a quick summary of this in once place. More of these posts to follow. Next: why were they so excited about lager? Let us know if you have any questions you want us to look into!

8 replies on “Why exactly #1: keg beer in the UK”

Technically, the keg is a very good solution to some of the well-known problems of cask-conditioned beer. I imagine it also lends itself better to rationalising of large-scale production and automation.

More of a mystery to me is exactly why the brewers insisted on making the stuff so damn fizzy. I think you are probably right that they would have been able to head off protest if they hadn’t been so hardline on that.

Searching for evidence (bet Martyn can point us to something) but we reckon it’s to do with (a) the massive popularity of Coca Cola et al and (b) an attempt to make it more like lager, which their market research also showed was popular mostly with ‘the young’.

Young people are brought up on cold fizzy drinks, its only logical that if you’re trying to compete for their custom agaisnt other cold fizzy drinks like cider and spirit+mixer, you also make your drink cold and fizzy to appeal to their tastes.

There’s no great mystery here, the vast majority of the public like their drinks cold and fizzy and have done for decades, and that includes their taste in beer.

Nice concise article. I have a question: In today’s craft beer market, why exactly is the keg version of a beer often considerably more expensive than cask?

The cold-and-fizzy thing looks to be part of the move by consumers away from seeing beer as “restorative” (decline of heavy industry etc) and towards seeing it as “refreshing” instead. Cold-and-fizzy seen as more refreshing than “warm” (OK, cellar-cool) and “flat”. Don’t believe the “young people are brought up on cold fizzy drinks” line – change to keg (and lager) happening in 1960s/70s to drinkers who had grown up in houses without fridges

Sir Fordham Flower got his name because his ancestor Edward Flower had married into the Fordham family, brewers in Hertfordshire. Two oddities here – the Ruddles were also related to the Fordhams by marriage, and the Fordham brewery in Ashwell, Herts was taken over by Greens, the Luton brewery that then acquired Flowers and changed its name to that of its acquisition, because Flowers was a better brand.

I don’t think there’s much doubt that there was a genuine demand for beer considerably colder than was the norm in Britain in the 1950s. The advent of affordable refrigeration for the first time made this possible.

Don’t forget that, in the days before cellar cooling, although some pubs had naturally cool cellars, a lot didn’t and there was an awful lot of pretty tepid beer about.

Another point is that initially a lot of brewers (including large swathes of the Big Six) switched over not to full-on keg, but to top-pressure cask, which in a sense is the worst of both worlds. You would often go in a pub and find the “premium keg” such as Red Barrel alongside ordinary mild and bitter on top-pressure.

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