I had a bit of a revelation the other night, as I sat with a third of Magic Rock Cannonball (keg, of course). I suddenly thought: if you were Stuart Ross (or any other forward-thinking contemporary brewer) and someone suggested going down the ‘craft keg’ route… why wouldn’t you? Lots of people seem to like the stuff, and there are enough outlets that stock it, so no problem about shifting it. Then there are the positive advantages: the stability and consistency of keg would mean that you wouldn’t have to worry about the odd dud barrel, or about losing re-orders to incompetent cellaring (letting the beer spoil or putting it on too soon). As Dave Bailey recently commented, kegs are easier to export than casks, for much the same reasons.
Then there’s the price issue. In the cask world it’s rare to sell anything over £4 a pint, and it would be a brave brewer who insisted on £4+ prices: if competition from other brewers didn’t get you, you’d be sunk by all the ale-drinkers who think they know the right price for a pint and dislike being ripped off. Now, I am one of those ale-drinkers – I do think I know the right price for a pint, I do suspect rip-offs at every turn and I have to grit my teeth to pay anything over £4 a pint for anything. From my perspective, that combination of free-market competition among producers and penny-pinching drinkers is basically a good thing; if I was asked why I’d say something like “it keeps brewers honest”. In any case, it keeps my pint relatively cheap, and that’s a good thing in itself. (I’ve drunk some Stella in my time, but I’ve never been reassured by expense.)
But, of course, in the craft keg
bubbleworld those factors don’t obtain – there’s no bog-standard pint of wallop pulling keg prices down, and no great mass of drinkers who think it’s their birthright that beer should be both good and cheap. From my point of view, this just shows what’s wrong with the craft keg world. In particular, the idea of beer drinkers being happy to pay high prices seems all wrong: it’s like workers taking pride in accepting a pay cut. From the brewer’s point of view, though… blimey. Say you did all the sums and came out with an estimated retail price of (say) £5/pint – that would be OK! You wouldn’t need to go back and work out how to do the same thing a bit cheaper! And if the bar wanted to be a bit cheeky and stick another 50p on, that would be OK too – nobody would even notice!
In short, I realised (as I drank the Cannonball) that going keg has the potential to get rid of a lot of quality worries, removing possible obstacles to repeat orders, while also gaining both the brewer and the retailer a significantly higher margin. It’s a whole new world! Why wouldn’t you do it?
I understand the thinking, but I think it misses out one crucial factor. The answer to the question, I honestly believe, is “because any given beer is better from a cask than a keg (or bottle, or can)”. But those like-for-like comparisons aren’t easy to make (I’ve never seen Cannonball on cask, for instance). And sometimes, maybe, a keg beer is the one to go for.
Here are some thoughts on recent encounters with keg, thinking about when – and why – it does and doesn’t work.
The “Yeah But, No But”: Cannonball
I described Magic Rock Cannonball once before as a big disappointment:
I could taste something – just not all that much. I tried the swilling technique halfway down the glass, but it wasn’t a success. The beer didn’t so much outgas as deflate – and, since it hadn’t been ultra-cold to start with, I was left holding half a glass of warm-ish, flattish beer. Swilling didn’t do much to enhance the flavour, either, although it did liberate a blast of hop aroma in my direction – a particularly pungent, dead-leaves, old-books sort of aroma.
I trust The Beer Nut’s reviews, and what he said about this one recently made me think I’d been missing something – quite a lot, in fact:
an exceedingly dry beer, the massive hop flavour being centred on a flinty mineral quality. The high alcohol is very apparent but that hop complexity balances it beautifully. A low level of residual sugar means the end product is still very drinkable and surprisingly thirst quenching. Limes and damp cut grass make for a beautiful final flourish
So I had to give it another try, and the other weekend I duly handed over my £2 (for a third). And it was… quite nice. I’d certainly agree with ‘drinkable’; it slipped down very nicely. I didn’t get ‘massive’ hops, though – compared to Magic Rock Curious (which is roughly half the strength) the hops were dialled right back. It’s certainly hoppy, it’s just not “being smacked in the mouth with a hopsack” hoppy. I couldn’t say I noticed the 7.4% alcohol, either. A few days later I had a third of Red Willow Ageless DIPA (7.2%), which was on cask in another Font bar – and, I think, had been sitting around in the cask for a while; it was a bit lacking in condition and warmer than I would have liked. Despite those disadvantages, it was a massive beer – a big, uncompromisingly smoky hop attack, broadening out as I went down the glass into an extravagant flowering of citrus flavours on a dense alcoholic background. Perhaps not the nicest beer to drink – even a bit offputting on first sip – but a great beer all the same. (It was also going for £3.60 a pint, which – once you’ve taken off the CAMRA discount – works out at 90p for a third. I felt slightly guilty paying so little.) The Cannonball didn’t really develop in the same way, perhaps unsurprisingly for a keg beer: it was the same all the way through, like Blackpool rock. So you got your citrus-y aroma and your smokey bitterness, and you got a bit of alcohol (not much), all in a very drinkable, well-put-together package. It just wasn’t terribly impressive, or overpowering, or memorable; nice, but not great.
The “Think Of It As A Very Large Bottle”: Electrik/Blackjack LFO
That ‘developing’ thing – where ‘halfway down the glass’ actually tastes different from the first mouthful, and the last mouthful tastes different again; I’ve never known a keg beer do it. But it’s not really something bottled beers do, either, and there is some great bottled beer out there. This is what went through my mind when I tasted the Electrik bar’s fourth collaborative brew, which is a keg lager named LFO (in response to some recent sad news). Fittingly, LFO is an absolute monster – very dry, very bitter, very hoppy on top of all that, and then all of the same again. It reminded me of nothing so much as my first taste of Jever Pilsener: it’s a great big beer that just keeps on coming at you. And if it doesn’t unfurl new flavour dimensions halfway down the glass, well, too bad – the Jever wouldn’t have done that either. (And it was on at £4/pint, which squeaks into the affordable bracket.)
The “Think Of It As A Very Small Bottle”: Mikkeller/Siren White Stout
For obvious reasons, really strong beers are a rarity in cask; they don’t tend to go, and if they don’t go they tend to go off. I think the strongest beer I’ve had from a cask was 8.5%: it’s a tie between Coniston No 9 barley wine (at a beer festival) and Robinson’s Old Tom. Old Tom is unusual in being widely available in Robbies’ pubs, and the brewery deserves a lot of credit for not abandoning it but building it up as a cask beer. It’s generally in pins to minimise spoilage, though – and I’m sadly familiar with the warmish, flattish, slightly metallic taste of old Old Tom!
So if somebody brews a beer at 12% – stronger than many wines – the chances are you’re only ever going to see it in a small, expensive bottle; what’s more, the chances are you never will physically see that bottle, and that if you do you’ll think the price is just a bit too silly. Kegging to the rescue: someone who might baulk at paying (say) £3.50 for a 250 ml bottle may well be amenable to paying £2.80 for a third of a pint (even though that equates to £3.66 for 250 ml). At least, I was.
Why Mikkeller and the ever-impressive Siren have called this beer a white stout I’ve no idea, given that all the information this really conveys is that it’s (a) strong and (b) not black. What it is, as far as I could see, is a barley wine. What it is, to be more precise, is a very, very good barley wine – a rich, dense, marmaladey fruitiness, smooth without being syrupy, heavy without (amazingly) any overt alcoholic heat. A stonkingly good beer, quite honestly, and one which I would probably never have had if I’d only seen it in bottles.
You don’t want beer squirted out of a tin! a stranger in a pub said to a friend of mine, unprompted, some time in the early 70s. By and large I’d agree with that; by and large, I don’t want beer squirted out of a tin. But, like CAMRA, I’m pro-cask rather than anti-keg; and I’m increasingly finding that there are times when the list of the best – or most interesting – things on the bar includes some beers on keg. Keg vs cask, I still think the keg is likely to be second best. ‘Cold and fizzy’ I can live with; what I’m thinking of here is more a ‘light, drinkable, rough edges shaved off’ sort of thing, not to mention the absence of the ‘developing in the glass’ thing. But if what you’re getting is something you can’t get on cask – something you would only previously have found in bottles – some of the objections become a bit academic.
(I still wish it wasn’t so expensive, though.)
Play us out, Mark: