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.

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Whichever Keg IPA They Have, Please

Keg fonts at a central London pub.

Last Friday in London I went out for a session with one of my oldest friends, someone I’ve known since we were both 11-years-old, and was frankly a bit startled when he ordered a pint of BrewDog Punk IPA.

The thing is, as long as we’ve been going to the pub togeth­er (about 20 years) I’ve known him as a Guin­ness drinker. He’d nev­er touch cask-con­di­tioned beer, AKA ‘real ale’ – his fall-back was always lager.

Now, it turns out he’s ditched Guin­ness and drinks kegged Amer­i­can-style IPA or, at a push, pale ale. (By the pint, by the way – he’s a big lad, my mate, quite capa­ble of drink­ing ten pints with­out seem­ing much the worse for wear, and he likes that these beers are on the strong side, get­ting him pissed at about the same rate as a lit­tle Hob­bit like me drink­ing bit­ter.)

It’s only one case, of course, but we reck­on it says some­thing about (a) the con­tin­u­ing decline in the sta­tus of Guin­ness as The Alter­na­tive Beer Brand; (b) the rise of aro­mat­ic hop­py beer as a main­stream prod­uct and © the increas­ing avail­abil­i­ty of kegged PA/IPA in non-spe­cial­ist pubs.

Whether this is good news prob­a­bly depends on whether you hate Guin­ness or Brew­Dog more.

The Early Days of ‘Craft Keg’

In October 2007, in an article in the Financial Times (13/10, p5), journalist Andrew Jefford considered an exciting new development in British beer: ‘craft keg’.

OK, so he did­n’t use that exact phrase, but he did say this:

Spindrift keg font.Any­one who has ever sat and sipped the day away in a craft brew­ery in the US will have tast­ed the answer [to poor­ly kept ale]. Brew­eries such as Sier­ra Neva­da… pro­duce great ale in keg rather than cask-con­di­tioned for­mat… Keg ales have a tat­ty rep­u­ta­tion in Britain. Why? They have usu­al­ly been the work of big brew­ers who have pro­duced timid, bland recipes using cheap ingre­di­ents.. The vision­ary Alas­tair Hook of the Mean­time Brew­ing Com­pa­ny in Lon­don’s Green­wich is the only seri­ous British small brew­er to spe­cialise in beers of this sort…

Jef­ford’s arti­cle was­n’t about Mean­time, how­ev­er, but a new beer from the rather con­ser­v­a­tive and revered Adnams’ of South­wold in Suf­folk.

Adnams’ Spin­drift hit the mar­ket when this blog was about six months old (we don’t recall ever tast­ing it) and when Brew­Dog, in oper­a­tion for less than a year, was still pro­duc­ing ‘real ale’ and bot­tled beer.

It was trum­pet­ed as a clean-tast­ing ale for those who pre­ferred lager, with 28 bit­ter­ness units, First Gold and Boadicea hops, and pale and wheat malts. It was unpas­teurised but ster­ile-fil­tered, with 1.8 vol­umes of CO2 – more than most cask ales, but less than most lagers. Its ABV was 5%, and it sold at £3.50 a pint. (About £4.20 in today’s mon­ey.)

Mr Jef­ford con­clud­ed as fol­lows:

I think it could be one of the most sig­nif­i­cant British beer launch­es of the new mil­len­ni­um… So bring on the Spin­drift. And bring on more com­peti­tors, too.

Spin­drift did not, in the end, have a huge impact. It almost cer­tain­ly suf­fered because, in Jef­ford’s words, ‘its hereti­cal keg nature means that Spin­drift is off the radar for cask-ale fun­da­men­tal­ists’, while the nascent ‘crafterati’ prob­a­bly found it too timid – more Fuller’s Dis­cov­ery than Anchor Lib­er­ty.

In around 2010 Adnams’ yanked Spin­drift from their keg lines and rein­vent­ed as a bot­tled beer in dis­tinc­tive blue glass, but there are now plen­ty of ‘posh keg’ beers from all kinds of British brew­eries, includ­ing Adnams’ them­selves.

UPDATE: Spin­drift is appar­ent­ly still avail­able on keg but now at 4%.

Cheating by Making Tasty Beer

Watney Fined Bitter beer mat.Last week, every­one got in a prop­er tizz over an eccen­tric rant about ‘craft keg’ in the pro­gramme for a local beer fes­ti­val. We thought it an inter­est­ing state­ment of a par­tic­u­lar (extreme) point of view, and were espe­cial­ly fas­ci­nat­ed by this line:

The only thing that has changed 1974 to 2013 is that cyn­i­cal Craft brew­ers, in an attempt to hide the poten­tial­ly bland char­ac­ter­is­tics of their beers, have cho­sen to cham­pi­on the new breed of super hopped US-style IPAs and or sledge­ham­mer Impe­r­i­al Stouts among their beer range.

The sug­ges­tion seems to be that giv­ing these beers intense flavours and aro­mas is a con trick designed to daz­zle the drinker into over­look­ing the essen­tial soul­less­ness of the prod­uct, ‘bland­ness’ being mis­used in this con­text. (The music is real­ly loud to con­ceal its poten­tial quiet­ness?)

It brought to our minds the time in the nine­teen-sev­en­ties when the Big Six began launch­ing or re-launch­ing cask ales, once CAMRA had become a seri­ous nui­sance. They were not main­stream prod­ucts, on the whole – you had to know where to look, and be will­ing to pay through the nose – and only Ind Coope Draught Bur­ton Ale real­ly seems to have excit­ed any­one. Nonethe­less, CAM­RA’s Nation­al Exec­u­tive were oblig­ed to wel­come them. There was some dis­sent – arguably the orig­i­nal ‘craft vs. crafty’ debate – but what else could CAMRA do, hav­ing built the Cam­paign around the sim­ple rule that cask=good and keg=bad?

We can’t help but feel that, in some mys­te­ri­ous way, it was an under­hand tac­tic on the part of the brew­ers. Echo­ing the writer above, weren’t they, in an attempt to hide the poten­tial­ly bland char­ac­ter­is­tics of their beers, and the monop­o­lis­tic ten­den­cies of their huge com­pa­nies, choos­ing to cham­pi­on the then hot trend for ‘real ale’?

Some­times, the rela­tion­ship between com­merce and con­sumer feels less like a bat­tle, with obvi­ous win­ners and losers, and more like Cold War espi­onage, where the moves are sub­tle, and the out­come won’t real­ly be clear for years to come. In a sit­u­a­tion like that, those with rigid rules are eas­i­ly out­ma­noeu­vred.