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.

Newquay Steam full range, 1987.

3. Newquay Steam, 1987.
What we would now recog­nise as a craft sub-brand from a tra­di­tion­al brew­ery (Devenish) Newquay Steam beers were best-known in their bot­tled form but were also avail­able kegged. We’ve argued before that there was much about the brand that pre­saged the com­ing of craft – read the sto­ry and decide for your­self whether it qual­i­fies.

b. At around this time some Amer­i­can imports, such as Anchor Lib­er­ty, began to appear in high-end British pubs and bars, served from kegs.

Alastair Hook's editorial.

4. Pack­horse lagers, 1990.
Alas­tair Hook’s first UK brew­ing job was at a brew­pub in Kent where he pro­duced a pil­sner, an amber Vien­na beer and a Munich-style dark lager. There was lots of lager being brewed in the UK but it did tend to be just ‘lager’. And when indie micro­brew­eries did make lager, they tend­ed to cask-con­di­tion it. We reck­on the unusu­al and spe­cif­ic sub-styles, and Hook’s autho­r­i­al intent, makes this ‘craft lager’. But it might have been from tanks rather than kegs – we haven’t got any spe­cif­ic info at hand – and does­n’t meet Paul’s free­house cri­te­ri­on. (Brew Bri­tan­nia, Chap­ter 11.)

c. In the ear­ly 1990s Bel­gian and Ger­man wheat beers became quite the thing appear­ing on draught in var­i­ous pubs. They’re a bit passe now but imag­ine tast­ing a cold, very foamy beer with corian­der in it, or that smells of bananas and bub­blegum, when you’re used to flat-and-far­ty Courage Best.

Freedom Pilsner, a British lager.
Free­dom Pil­sner, a British lager.

5. Free­dom Lager, 1995.
It’s Alas­tair Hook again, this time in West Lon­don. Free­dom was anoth­er beer best known in its bot­tled form but could be found on draught (keg) at, for exam­ple, The White Horse across the road from the brew­ery – arguably ground zero for ‘craft’ in the UK. The brew­ery still exists but in a dif­fer­ent loca­tion, under dif­fer­ent own­er­ship, mak­ing dif­fer­ent beers. (BB, C11.)

A red-brick city centre building in Manchester.
The site of Mash & Air as it looked in 2014.

6. Mash & Air, 1996.
Guess what? It’s Alas­tair Hook again. At Oliv­er Pey­ton’s super-cool restau­rant bar oper­a­tion in Man­ches­ter he was brew­ing fruit beers, wheat beers and strong, hop­py IPA, all served ‘unre­al’. There were five big serv­ing tanks behind the bar but also a keg­ging facil­i­ty for ales. So this is prob­a­bly the first time a British drinker might have been able to get a home-grown, non-cask-con­di­tioned draught pale ale with ‘craft’ cre­den­tials. Hook found­ed Mean­time in 1999/2000 along essen­tial­ly the same lines. (BB, C11.)

d. North Bar opened in Leeds in 1997 – Britain’s first mod­ern craft beer bar. It served var­i­ous Bel­gian, Ger­man and Amer­i­can beers on draught, most notably Sier­ra Neva­da Pale Ale, sup­plied to the trade by a York­shire-based importer.

7. Adnams Spin­drift, 2007.
Spindrift keg font.By this time, Mean­time had been in oper­a­tion for years, but there still weren’t many keg ales that weren’t just crap ver­sions of cask ones. This is an ear­ly exam­ple in the mod­ern era of a keg beer being pitched as a pre­mi­um prod­uct. Andrew Jef­ford said in a con­tem­po­rary arti­cle in the Finan­cial Times: ‘I think it could be one of the most sig­nif­i­cant British beer launch­es of the new mil­len­ni­um’. We need to do more work on the chronol­o­gy but we believe Fuller’s also launched sev­er­al big-font keg beers at around this time – Dis­cov­ery and Hon­ey Dew. But this prob­a­bly isn’t what most peo­ple have in mind when they hear the phrase ‘craft keg’.

Neon sign: BREWDOG.
Adapt­ed from ‘Brew­dog’ by Matt Brown from Flickr under Cre­ative Com­mons.

8. Brew­Dog Punk IPA, 2010.
While by no means the first, this is per­haps the most influ­en­tial beer on the list – the one that inspired Mag­ic Rock, The Ker­nel and so many oth­ers in the UK craft aris­toc­ra­cy. It began life as a cask beer but Brew­Dog made keg­ging both a polit­i­cal state­ment and a mar­ket­ing gim­mick. (BB, C15.)

* * *

So, there’s a list to start you off, but which impor­tant can­di­dates have we missed, and what’s their claim?

11 thoughts on “Q&A: What Was the First Kegged Craft Beer?”

  1. I’m puz­zled by your ref­er­ence to Mash & Air as all-keg – & the linked arti­cle does­n’t seem to sup­port it, unless I’m miss­ing some­thing. The one time I went there, I remem­ber the beer as very much straight-from-the-con­di­tion­ing-tank & rough as a bad­ger’s arse – the ‘abbey beer’ I fin­ished the evening with had gobs of yeast in it the size of rice krispies. And I was sick when I got home (although that may have been the pre­vi­ous four pints, and/or the food).

    1. Right, what we’ve got is anoth­er 1997 issue of The Grist which pro­files Mash & Air and which says:

      Mash and Air does not put an empha­sis on the method of dis­pense as being essen­tial to the qual­i­ty of beer. The brew­ery uses air dri­ven dis­place­ment pumps from pres­surised serv­ing tanks oper­at­ing on a CO2 breather sys­tem.’

      So that sounds like what you’re talk­ing about – the ‘five big serv­ing tanks’ we men­tion in the post.

      But there’s also a bit where it says ‘ales can be racked direct­ly into kegs, fil­tered or trans­ferred to mat­u­ra­tion depend­ing on style… Save-alls can be used in the case of “keg-con­di­tioned” beer. The keg­ging and bot­tling sys­tem can also use a ster­ile fil­tra­tion sys­tem if required.’

      But we don’t know if, when or how the keg­ging set up was used.

  2. Well you can add to that chronol­o­gy your bezzie mate Bren­dan Dob­bin. I have a May 1989 price list from West Coast Brew­ing which has a foot­note explain­ing that his four Coast­er brand lagers (and Guilt­less Stout) are also avail­able on keg. I’m pret­ty sure that at least one or two of the lagers were sold on keg at the Kings Arms.

    1. Ah, great – we did won­der but had it in our heads that he did­n’t do keg­ging. He cer­tain­ly does­n’t have much time for the idea that Alas­tair Hook invent­ed the idea of ‘craft lager’. It’s prob­a­bly in the notes from one of the inter­views we did. Bit lazy of us not to have looked it up.

  3. Free­dom Brew­ing: I could be wrong, as mem­o­ry is not a sure guide. Not that I went but a hand­ful of times at most in the lat­ter ’90s/early ’00s but Free­dom at Thomas Neale’s in Covent Gar­den served their very rea­son­able tast­ing lager, and appar­ent­ly (as I don’t recall it) Soho Red brewed on the premis­es in Earl­ham Street; it was fizzy enough, and pre­sumed to be kegged rather than served direct from the tank. They were both sold as draught beers tho’ I don’t recall the Soho Red being avail­able. The rough-hewn inte­ri­or ‘fin­ish’ was pos­si­bly also ‘craft­ed’ – dontcha recoil from more mar­ket­ing speak? Hav­ing been at Greene King’s AGM this last week, I’ve had a bit of a sur­feit of that, and asked for plain Eng­lish and a com­pre­hen­sive glos­sary (prof­it upside – I ask you).


  4. Your note on North Bar seems to sug­gest it was serv­ing SNPA from 1997.

    SNPA was first import­ed to the UK in Autumn 2003, and my very own Micro­bar in Lon­don was the first to sell it on draught. This was the sub­ject of some fond rem­i­nis­cence catch­ing up with Steve Gross­man of SN recent­ly.

    1. We umm-ed and ahh-ed. Some was served under ‘top pres­sure’ and also fil­tered but that did­n’t quite seem like keg to us but now you say it, we should prob­a­bly have gone for it in the spir­it of list­ing all the con­tenders. Will add in an update along with the oth­er sug­ges­tions.

  5. Hmmm, you might want to check with Jeff at Lovi­bonds brew­ery – cer­tain­ly when I start­ed sell­ing his beers I’d nev­er come across what we now call craft keg – I can’t give you a spe­cif­ic date but my guess would be about 2006. (and it caused a hell of a stink with the local cam­ra branch!).

    1. You’re right, sounds like a con­tender. Not huge­ly influ­en­tial, I would­n’t have said, but worth includ­ing.

  6. O’Han­lon’s in Clerken­well Lon­don were doing both a cask and keg ver­sion of their stout in late 1996. A defunct beer mag­a­zine called ‘The Taste!’ had I believe an arti­cle in 1998 about micro brew­eries and keg beer includ­ing advice on how to build a keg­ging line for small scale pro­duc­ers, I believe it fea­tured Iceni Brew­ery who made LAD Lager at the time

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