Monday, 23 July 2012

Further science


  following on from my experiment matching cask and Keykeg Kipling, I popped back to the Hallamshire House to try something else - this time the comparison was between the two versions of St Petersburg stout from Thornbridge.

This was an interesting one because I haven't tried St Petersburg for years, in fact my last taste was of a Thornbridge Islay cask reserve about 18 months ago, a stupendously smoky peated malt and lusciously alcoholic brew. Other than that, I have only tried it in cask once, and I bought quite a few of the original bottle conditioned bottles when they were launched. Would this knowledge gap help me to more openly assess the beer?

As per last time it was keg first. The obviously difference is that its served in a different glass, obviously only drinking it once this is hardly evidence of a deliberate serving policy but its interesting that Continental beers come in a different glass in order to enhance the flavour, not to mention as a savvy marketing ploy. I wonder if the branded glass for the Keykeg indicates a preference for that product?

Initial tastes were good, with sweetness at the front being quicly replaced by the roasted malt and slight coffee flavours, but very quickly I noticed that it was astringently hoppy. Even with my limited experience, I didn't recall it being dry or all that bitter. And besides, should that really be a characteristic of an imperial stout? There were quite a few similarities with a black IPA, which seemed strange. There was however a good robust body as you'd expect.

Chcolate, raisins, figs and fruits in alcohol were in there but somewhat restrained in the face of the hops, and the aftertaste reminded me of simcoe, as far as its even possible for me to recognise that! Aroma wise it was difficult to nail however. I was going to need assistance.

I got chatting to a couple in the snug and they offered valliantly to tell me what they thought the aroma was. We all seemed to know what it was, we certainly recognised it, but no comparative description could be found. In the end I picked out two customers in the larger back room at random, and asked them.

Hot off the press are 3 independent descriptions of the aroma of St Petersburg : Burnt Toast; Urinals, Tobacco.

Perhaps my rather odd gambit of "smell my sample" didn't provide the olfactory expertise I sought but I think I'd go with tobacco. Its strange though that the more musty flavours are hidden in the taste of the Keykeg beer.

The cask was also a bit of a revelation, mainly for the wrong reasons. It was a lot less dry which was good, but still bitter, much more so than I remembered. There was pleasing creamy roast malt and an earthy quality which I couldn't quite pick out but it was still too dry and too bitter. Perhaps some St Petersburg devotees could tell me if I have imagined it not having the dry bitterness of cascade or simcoe (or similar) previously?

Overall the beer was too smokey and the drier notes made it unbalanced. So in essence, I wasn't really sold on either of the formats. And what does this insight tell us about the relative merits of cask dispense and Keykeg?

Well, precisely nothing am afraid!

Lastly, I was talking to one of the barstaff, and he told me a few interesting things about Keykegs. Firstly he showed me one, which I now realise is remarkably similar, if not in mechanics, to a polypin (I understand theres a collapsible membrane inside). This also this gave me the opportunity to discover how light it was, which may be a deciding factor.

He also suggested that the brewer at Thornbridge (and this is highly unspecific, since there are about 5 or 6 in the team) didn't like serving beer that had been stored in the cask because it meant the beer was quickly oxidised. I think that the ambiguous nature of the chat probably meant this was not intended to be taken as an actual or full quote but the gist seemed to be that keeping a beer in correct cellar conditions for two weeks and then connecting it up to a handpump is not to the brewers liking because it doesn't taste fresh like it does on Keykeg.

I'll leave you to draw your own conclusions about whether this really stacks up, or indeed if it really is the brewery's outlook. but in terms of identifying that the beer is in peak condition I'd suggest that an injection of gas and a chilled dispense is unlikely to be the best meter of a beer's quality. A better approach is to consider that poor beer does not stand up to being served on gravity, so if you want to see if its well balanced and fresh, take it straight from the barrel. The lack of additional preparation and aids to dispense means its a naked beer, so you see it for what it is.

I think the only real progress in this debate would be if a beer I drink all the time was to appear in Keykeg. Then I could make an accurate assessment. The thing is, I don't want to drink Abbeydale Deception from a font....

Wee Beefy



  1. Thanks Beefy,
    Apologies for taking an age to reply. I have a pub to run.
    Cheers for your review and comments about the beers. It’s been good to get feedback. However, I’m beginning to think that comparison is the wrong idea. It’s been interesting, and comparing the two has taught me more about flavours in beer, and how they can be lifted, killed or transformed by brewing process, dispense method and by cellar management.(Always, always learning!) But, it feels pointless comparing the two as similar to be honest. I have tried Kipling, Jaipur, Chiron, St. Petersburg, Sequoia, Raven and Halcyon on both keg and cask. I loved something about every one.
    Cask and keg are two very different products. The only question worth asking yourself is “Does it satisfy?”

    One thing I must correct you on is when you say “I'd suggest that an injection of gas and a chilled dispense is unlikely to be the best meter of a beer's quality.” A beer in a Keykeg has ‘retained’ its natural carbonation gained from fermentation. A cask beer has to be ‘vented’ to release some of this dissolved co2, creating the characteristic ‘cask-conditioned mouthfeel and body we know and love. So, a brewer leaves his cask product to a cellarman, where all manner of factors come into play. (We’ve all had awful pints from breweries that are 99.9% of the time, consistently brilliant). I for one would question the cellar before the brewer.
    If, on the other hand, I tried a kegged beer that I didn’t like, I would probably not bother again because the beer was kegged when the brewer deemed it to be ready. And there’s not a huge amount that anyone can do to a beer once kegged (except storing at the wrong temperature). In essence there is no added or ‘injected’ co2 in keykeg beer at all.

    I’ve never used a Polypin but after a quick glance on Google I think it’s a ‘bag in box’ kind of thing? Like a box of wine ie. Gravity is needed.
    Am i correct? Simply, A Keykeg is a bag of beer inside a high-pressure, plastic bubble. Gas is pushed into the bubble which in turn squeezes the bag. This pushes the beer to the font. When all the beer is gone you are left with a bubble full of CO2 with an empty bag inside. This means CO2 never touches the beer and it is protected from oxygen.
    It is true that cask beer can oxidise while on the bar. Oxidisation is the arch enemy of the brewer and beer lover alike. Destroying flavour and freshness. This is why the last few pints from a cask are more likely to be flat and flavourless.

    I would like to say that although I don’t know what was said over the bar, and as you can imagine we can’t speak for the brewers, the following is more or less the view of all the Thornbridge brewers.
    “Our keg beers - all unfiltered and unpasteurised - highlight the diversity in styles of beer there are. We take great pride and enjoyment in making these and relish in the challenge to match some of the world's best beers.”
    (You should read what they say about cask)

    This pretty much sums up my personal view on the emergence of British craft keg beer. We as a nation are renowned for enjoying food styles and flavours from every corner of the world,
    Why not beer?
    Obviously, we do import some of the greatest brews of most styles of beer, from all over. But having a fresh, British-brewed, American style pale or German style Weisse can be far better than a beer that has taken months to get here, when brewed well.

    “The thing is, I don't want to drink Abbeydale Deception from a font....” haha is this because you’re scared you might like it.

    1. Tom, thanks for this, I appreciate you taking the time to respond and clarifying the Co2 issue which alas it seems I got a bit wrong.

      I am interested in your idea of comparison not being the right idea. I think the aim of the "test" (ahem, not scientific as I noted) for me was to see what I liked and disliked about both methods of dispense. I recognise that whilst there is cross over between cask and Keykeg markets and of course brewers who do both, Keykeg isn't trying to be cask, and vice cersa, so I accept that they aren't meant to be similar, but you have to use something to measure the two experiences, hence price, taste and aroma.

      I'm glad you explaiuned the carbonatoin element because that's what confused me but I still think some part of the dspense must make the beer cool by some method or other - Keykeg is colder! And you surely get less of a feel for a beer when its chilled?

      Re fresh British brewed Euro or U.S styles, that's an interesting one, not something I had really considered - I have read plenty about bottled imported beers being skunked, so maybe there's some benefit there.

      And BTW yeah, a polypin is a simpler version of keykeg as per my mechanics caveat, and re enkoying the Deception, I found myself really enoying a KK Halcyon at Dada on Saturday so I'm not worried I'd not enjoy it - just that in my opinion it would do nothing to enhance its flavour.

      Finally, whilst excepting some of the positives provided, I am still unsure why Keykeg would be the best choice dispense for more traditional bitters and less astringently flavoured beers. The emergence of Keykeg beers (not mentioning the c word here) is good for choice but a brilliantly brewed beer can be kept and then dispensed at a level of quality surpassing the point at which its (key) kegged, a prime and pertinent example being an absolutely fantastic pint of cask Jaipur that I had about 5 years ago, which is still a benchmark now.

    2. Enjoying, not enkoying or enoying, and also, accepting, not excepting. Very sloppy of me.

    3. "I am still unsure why Keykeg would be the best choice dispense for more traditional bitters and less astringently flavoured beers." <<< Your absolutely right! It wouldn't!
      Some beers work in keg some beers just don't. Like Weisse beer isn't a cask beer.

      A lot like beer is music. I've always loved anything new and inventive. but I've never stopped listening to the tunes that made an impression. It's about being excited by new things.

  2. One more thing....(slightly off topic)
    Which is more 'real' keykeg or a Fastcask?

    1. Aaah, the "real" debate, a worm within a can of misunderstandings. Luckily, I know almost nothing about Fastcask so can't comment. But Keykeg is more expensive so....

  3. keykeg is more expensive due to it being disposable and there are other factors...covering the cost of extra equipment and processing eg. centrifuge. Not to mention longer and colder conditioning periods. But they are essential for any brewer who wants to get keg beer out there and try new things without risking thousands of pounds investing in kegging equipment, lots of metal kegs and extra logistical costs.

    Fastcask is lost on me also. Just testing the water ;) It worries me more that no-one seems to know anything about it!

    1. Fast Cask is a Marstons trademark. Traditionally with cask ale the yeast is held is suspension for a couple of days until it works it's way to the bottom of the cask and hopefully stays there unless you shake the barrel. With fast cask the old-skool yeast is replaced by fast-sinking yeast gel/pellets that mean that the beer drops bright pretty much instantly. And because they are heavy you can twat the barrel and your beer will still be bright. Because the yeast is present - but just in a different form - the beer still undergoes secondary fermentation. Here's a link to Roger Protz's page on it from a couple of years ago. and I'm sure there is some stuff on Marstons about it too if you can be bothered. As to the whole mechanics of it I don't really have a clue but I guess the whole thing may end up in a debate along the lines of dry vs fresh vs liquid yeast. Quite techie and of no importance to the average consumer. My view: If you believe most beer faults are due to bad cellar management: "I for one would question the cellar before the brewer." Then it's got to be a good thing surely? I'm sure Marston's wouldn't have rolled it out if they thought it affected the quality of the product. In fact this would remove the "So, a brewer leaves his cask product to a cellarman, where all manner of factors come into play." factor.

  4. Cheers Jeff.

    I have way more questions than answers. And i have not yet had a chance to try a faskcask beer. Are they still selling the range in the original way?

    Faskcask looks like a good solution for pop-up bars, transport ie. trains or boats and pubs with little cellar space. Although, the upright, CaskWidge system solves this problem. Fastcask does definitely solve problems. But raises plenty of questions that seem hard to get answered.
    Do these gel beads share the same strain of yeast as the beer used originally?
    How is the beer clarified? is it pasteurised?
    Do only Marsdons use this because it is trademarked? or could another brewery take on the technology? if so, why haven't any others done so?
    Too many questions!!! It's for me to read more on this and find out i guess.

    Of course a majority of faults/off flavours sometimes found in beer are due to poor brewing process. (however, one beers fault is another beers main character) Gladly, this is becoming harder to find. It is also getting harder to find a pub that can't look after cask beer.
    I would think that more often than not, a 'bad' pint comes from poor cleanliness of lines, cellar and glassware or just poor training and knowledge. Maybe I mean it's just more likely to be the case.

    In some ways, yes, taking the responsibility off the publican will ensure much more consistency for the drinker. This can only be a good thing. But, could this technique breed laziness? Am I just being silly now?

    I'm 100% sure Marstons wouldn't compromise the quality of their products. But it does almost feel like they are willing to compromise the tradition that surrounds Real Ale. A tradition that seems, to many, more important than beer itself.

    1. Firstly, it seems the idea of keykeg is that with cask ale its too unpredictable to allow the knowledge of publicans to define the quality of the beer, hence "If, on the other hand, I tried a kegged beer that I didn’t like, I would probably not bother again because the beer was kegged when the brewer deemed it to be ready.". So any suggestion of publican laziness seems incongrous, if one assumes KK is the epitome, rather than another characteristic of, beer dispense.

      Also, Fastcask one assumes is not chilled, so irrespective of concerns about the type of yeast used it is at least standing on the taste of the ingredients alone, free of extra (albeit natural, I payed attention see!) carbonation and unnecessary chilling at font source. I still can't see why a brewer would rely on chilling to avouch the excellence of his beer - why not serve it at room temp?

      More broadly speaking though, surely the consumer favours beer that tastes good and is affordable - is beer affordable in the minute percentage of pubs where Keykeg is on sale? Well, no, its being sold at a premium, perhaps to pay for an ideal, and whilst not wishing to denigrate Fastcask, that's a small distraction in a market rightly dominated by "trad" cask.

      I don't know if Fastcask is more expensive but I do know KK is, and since any number of respondents would tell you they have had ales served in both formats that they like, it seems the needs of the customer can be addressed by providing value, an element not yet explored in the debate. As Jeff rightly points out, the intricasies that define this argument aren't up there for most drinkers - but I bet price is..

      Finally, maybe limit KK production to stronger, mainly one off and export beers only, and have some faith in cellar craft, rather than worry that oxidisation will be the ruin of us all. The largest majority of UK cask brewers apprear quite happy with cask as a medium. Beer oxidised after 3 days? Could be the brewer is making more than the consumer cares to drink. Make it based on idenrified customer interest rather than forcing it into the market and it sells before that happns. Simples.

    2. Totally agree with most of your above points Tom. End of day Fast cask is just a thing developed for/and by Marstons for their products and as they own the trademark (and I guess the patent for the technology) I would have thought only they will be using it. It only stops beer being cloudy but not being poor. And identifying faults and correcting them and taking pride in the cellar is what helps to separate good and bad pubs.
      On the Keykeg side - I've only tried a couple of products dispensed in this way and thought they tasted really good. I can see it suiting the American craft beer style really well and so can understand why Thornbridge is an early adopter of this technology.