last night I was at Davefromtshop's with he (for it is) and Andrew, sampling a rather large amount of ale after Davefromtshop's had closed. During our many rambling conversational detours we happened across that old steamer "cask vs keg". I wondered, in light of recent news and trends of micro and/or craft brewers, if keg was an option for all brewers and how that impacted on me as a beer drinker.
Keg beer - what's in it for the brewers?
To understand this, lets look at who brews it and how it benefits them. Ergo, we need to unhelpfully label loads of disparate brewing types together for reasons of journalistic ease.
Lets look first at one imagined amorphous mass of Brewers. Hyowge ones.
Its easy to assume that, having been the brainchild of them in the 30's initially, but then increasingly leading the market for them in the 60's and 70's, its only big brewers that brew keg. Yet as recently as the 90's when insufferable dross like Caffreys Milm-flow was on the march, almost every size of brewer, especially the regionals, put gas in their beer and put their beer in kegs.
In the UK irrespective of lagers, Guinness and Caffreys and most large Scottish brewers beer comes exclusively or almost entirely in keg form. Its a big share of the market so someone must be doing something right. The major brewers rely on keg heavily and also seem to make immense profits from their products. It follows therefore that keg really does pay its way for them.
Meanwhile the more medium, regional brewers keg revolution has been less stratospheric, but has been a noticeable feature in their pubs. Regionals like Thwaites wanted to sell more beer and recognised that some people like their beer smooth and achingly uniform in presentation. They produced smooth versions of some of their quality cask brands. As with keg Pedigree, even good cask beer brands some people will only drink under a gas blanket (is this a euphemism?).
It appears then that regional brewers recognise they need a mix of keg beers and real ales, to appeal to all tastes across their estates. Granted a few regionals have fallen (mainly to the vile spectre of Greedy King) but overall its arguable they are making profits through offering a "complete range" that includes keg. So keg and regional brewers are friends.
Surely though, highly adventurous, proud, innovative, barrier breaking micro brewers wouldn't entertain the idea? Well, even before developments in keykeg, they already did.
Isle of Mull and Colonsay breweries by necessity did keg or brewery conditioned ales, Colonsay I think from day one, Meantime and Freedom and Mash did keg beers from the start, Moravka unfiltered lager brewed in Taddington was and is a keg product, and there were other small lager producers such as Packhorse in Kent. Nowadays, the micro's keg revolution has become more widespread, so its likely more viable, with big players like Brewdog opening many keg only venues, and Camden, Lovibonds, Thornbridge, Magic Rock and other new breweries having keg versions of their beers available (and this year Camden look to be keg only).
Keg beer - what's in it for the drinkers?
So everyone is doing it, and its likely that everyone makes money from it. So why doesn't every brewery do keg then? If it suits the accountant and many of the customers, why waste time and resources on real ale?
Well, aside from the obvious missed market of thirsty real ale drinkers, the two styles are of course different, affording dissimilar benefits. I have tried to illustrate the benefits and downsides below. In my opinion, the :
Reasons for brewing Keg: are to control quality and consistency, to extend and then predict precise shelf life, to make sure that the beer tastes as the brewer intends everywhere its sold, to market beer for the large majority of people who never drink real ale. Reasons not to: The beer cannot improve once it enters the keg. The beer can still lose condition and quality. Its often cold and fizzy.
Reasons for brewing Cask: are that the beer reaches customers fresh, it is a living thus developing and potentially improving product, it appeals to the burgeoning sector of real ale drinkers, it enables those with cellarmanship skills and brewers with brewing skills to make ordinary beer extraordinary, and extraordinary beer a one off celebration of the brewers art. Reasons not to : the beer can go off more easily, the beer is more susceptible to outside influence i.e temperature or disturbance in transit, the beer will never taste the same in any two venues.
So if you look at the above, the proposition may be - do brewers favour keg to make sure that no matter how good or bad the beer is its always consistent? And therefore, do real ale brewers favour that style to challenge the bland regularity of keg, but in doing so risk producing inconsistent beer?
Well, I think both of those statements are correct, but since the above reasons aren't diametrically opposed and there could be, and indeed is, a cross over of the two sets of brewing ethics, this means the argument for real ale is just as strong as keg. You can follow both routes!
You can use the finest ingredients and brewing expertise to make a premium quality keg beer but not have to worry about consistency, whilst you can also use the technologies of keg production to regularise the production of cask and in doing so achieve quality and consistency. Thus both routes are interchangeable. That way everyone wins.
Basically, each process is benevolent enough that should you, god forbid, choose to ditch cask for keg, you can still take the ethos of cask production and produce that dream beer, that epitome of brewing excellence, and then seal it safe in a tub o' gas.
Which means the only real question is, which one tastes better?
Well, I prefer cask. Although I love Bernard Dark. And I love Brewdog Hardcore IPA in a bottle. And, I like flat Moonshine in a polypin, and draught Bass served by gravity dispense with no head. So really,as a consumer, I have the best of both worlds, and that should be celebrated.