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....