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