opinion real ale

We will never taste what you taste

There are some champions of cask ale (quite a few) who truly seem baffled by how people can be at all impressed by kegged or bottled beer. They are no doubt sincere in finding cask ale a superior tasting product in almost every instance.

To that group of people, hearing us and others say that, occasionally, we prefer the kegged or bottled version of a beer, and that we frequently enjoy kegged beers, must seem irritating in the extreme.

In fact, they must feel pretty much how we do when we hear people say they “just can’t taste skunking“.

There’s a fundamental lack of mutual understanding which, unfortunately, could probably only be solved by a temporary swapping of tastebuds.

Note: there are also a large number of cask ale fanatics who are just awkward sods with a fondness for rigid rules and correcting people. That’s not who we’re talking about.

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Is old keg the same as new keg?

Watneys Red Barrel: detail of beer mat c.1968

In the ongoing discussions about whether CAMRA should or should not do more to support quality kegged and bottled British beer, one of the key sticking points is this: what makes the kegged beer of today any better than the bland kegged beer of the 1960s and 70s which provoke the campaign’s founding?

Or, to put that another way, is ‘new keg’ just the same shite as ‘old keg’?

Having read Martyn Cornell’s marvellous Beer: the Story of the Pint recently, we were prompted to contrast the motives of the makers of ‘old keg’ — big conglomerated breweries like Watneys — with those of the new breed of keg brewers.

Old keg: post-World War II, cask ale got weaker and became more temperamental until, to paraphrase Beer, a change of landlord or barmaid could be enough to push punters towards less exciting but more reliable bottled beer. Sales were dropping alarmingly. Kegged beer was the breweries’ response to that — a way of ensuring consistently adequate quality (less vinegar) but at the cost of excellence. The cask versions of their beer at the time were hardly earth-shatteringly brilliant either.

New keg: some smaller brewers, with a focus on flavour and quality, whether you agree with them or not, believe their beer tastes as good if not better without cask or bottle conditioning. (“Too fizzy” and “too cold” are subjective complaints). Others might prefer to cask-condition but, to expand their business, as an expression of beervangelism, or a bit of both, want to get their beer into as many venues as possible, and believe kegging will help them achieve that. Many of these beers are stronger, more intensely flavoured and much more varied than the cask conditioned beers commonly seen in the average pub.

What do you think? Are they the same thing?


People who really know beer…

1968 advert for kegged Courage bitter.

Another advertistement scanned from the 1968 Journal of the XI Hussars. Weird. We thought we did know a bit about beer, but we rarely drink Courage if we can help it, kegged or otherwise. Anyone for a pint of Tavern?

Generalisations about beer culture

Small mercies

The only social situation where you’re less likely to find decent beer than a wedding is a work Christmas do.

In the kinds of hotels, chain restaurants and pubs where these things tend to take place, you thank God for small mercies. For example, when faced with three kegged lagers and smooth flow Marston’s Pedigree, kegged Marston’s Oyster Stout is at least something new. And it wasn’t bad with a big roast dinner, either.

At a Mexican restaurant in Covent Garden, where the waiter was desperate to push a ‘bucket of Corona’, there was Negra Modelo: yes, it’s boring, but there’s a ghost of a malt flavour in there, and it’s not skunked. It’s better than water, and certainly better than cheap tequila.

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Isn't it obvious that cask is better?

This is an interesting and typically passionate post from Brewvana ask why we in Britain need a campaign group to defend and promote cask beer when, to Wilson at least, it’s blindingly obvious how much better it is than keg.

Is the main reason that big breweries (like Whitbread and Watney) had a virtual monopoly and aggressively pushed keg, which was easier for them to package and store? Or did consumers get a taste for it because it was bland but more reliable?

Can the answer be condensed into anything shorter than a small book?