I want to hear somebody bark

Barm hit the keg a few weeks ago:

I know the beer in question very well in its cask-conditioned form. It’s very good. The keg version was dire.

To cut a long story short, the taste and aroma of an excellent beer was completely destroyed, it made me burp a lot and it was much more expensive than the real version.

…followed, more recently, by Tandleman:

After a pint of (well kept but indifferent) cask I thought I’d try Brew Dog 5 am Saint. Here’s what I tweeted “5 am Saint freezing cold and hugely gassy but the hops are there under a massive carbonic bite”. My previous experience of Kipling in the Euston Tap was similar. People argue that CAMRA should move on, but you know, the same old problems exist in a new format. Too cold and too gassy.

…and me. I had a half of kegged 5 a.m. Saint the other day and, frankly, wasn’t all that impressed – despite thinking the cask version was a gift of the gods. This made me think. On the subject of cask vs keg, I think we all ultimately agree with Reluctant Simon: if the beer tastes good, what does it matter? But are there particular types of beer that are likely to taste better on keg than they do on cask? Pete thinks so, and puts forward an interesting line of argument. Comparing cask and keg versions of a strong American IPA, Pete noted:

The hop aroma was much more prevalent in the keg – not surprising as carbonation helps release such aromas from beer. I was straining to get much from the cask. And then in the mouth, the keg version felt lighter. Obviously more refreshing, but also cleaner and more delicate. By comparison, the cask version felt thick, oily, almost greasy. The flavours were more complex and intense, but muddy somehow, bordering on unpleasant.

This is a beer style that was invented (or rather, adapted in its modern guise) for keg, and it did not suit cask at all. It’s an American beer style. It was never meant for English-style cask.

And that made me realise, conversely, why cask ale is so special. It suits traditional British ale which, for the last hundred years or so, has mainly been at very low ABV, and very balanced. What I’d experienced with a double IPA was a concentration of hop flavour and an intensity of character that had become unpleasantly cloying. Take a 3.8% session ale that’s relatively low in intensity, and filtration and carbonation would make it very bland indeed. But that same concentration of flavour that cask bestows gives it a surprisingly interesting depth and layers of flavour, subtlety and character.

Cask: a blending of flavours giving depth, complexity, subtlety. Keg: clean, separate flavours each coming through separately.

I wonder.

That keg Saint was the eighth BrewDog brew I’ve tried. Here are my thoughts on the lot of them, mostly written at the time; see if you can spot a pattern developing.

5 A.M. Saint (cask)
This is a fantastic beer. Brown and malty, but with hops on either side: the hop aroma is both strong and delicate and the finish is big and dry. No sweetness, but doesn’t tip into sourness either. Sometimes – not very often – I catch myself just looking at a beer in between swallows, as if to say, How do you do that? This was one of those beers.

5 A.M. Saint (keg)
A kind of cold-tea hoppiness at the very front of the mouth, then into a big American IPA malt/marmalade/hop aroma package, ending with an uncompromisingly bitter finish. There’s a lot going on, or rather there are lots of different things going on – it’s a bit like a lower-strength version of Paradox. Interesting rather than really impressive, and let down further by being far too cold and intrusively carbonated (when you can taste the CO2 something’s not right).

How to disappear completely (cask)
Tawny, slightly malty, but very bitter – really very, very bitter. A kind of clove-oil bitterness that hits in the front of your mouth as well as a hoppy finish. Interesting more than enjoyable.

Paradox (bottle)
See previous post. Summary: lots of different extreme flavours jumping out at you, followed by a big hit of alcohol. Almost – but not quite – entirely unlike beer.

Punk IPA (bottle)
Extreme enough to be mildly unpleasant on the first couple of mouthfuls, but ultimately rather unremarkable.

Trashy blonde (cask)
A very good example of its type, where the said type is “pale yellow and very, very hoppy”. The flavours are strong enough for this to be unmistakably a bitter rather than a lager, but they’re almost all hop flavours. A smoky hop aroma, a body that’s fruity without being either sour or sweet, and a big bitter finish. Very nice.

Zeitgeist (cask)
A “black lager”, apparently. I like a nice Dunkel, and this was a very nice beer. Not like anything I’ve ever had out of a cask – somewhere in the region of a rich, sweet old ale crossed with a dark porter. One hell of a region.

Zeitgeist (bottle)
Dark-ish, sweetish, malty…ish, but thin. Forgettable.

The beers seem to fall into three main categories. Three of the cask ales were superb: long, complex, well-balanced flavours, with different and potentially conflicting elements blending in a kind of harmony. The Paradox and the keg Saint were flavour firework displays, with different effects going off one after the other and nothing really binding them together. And the other two bottles were just a bit ordinary – flavour fireworks, but dialled right down. The only one I’ve left out is the oddball How To Disappear Completely, a cask beer which I now think might actually work better on keg; certainly my tasting notes suggest something not a million miles away from Pete’s “intense but muddy”. In a cask ale, turning several different bitterness dials up to eleven just leaves you with a glass of clove soup; on keg, all those different bitter flavours might have had a chance to show off separately.

The really interesting comparison for me is between the keg Saint (which was a flavour firework, had a definite American IPA character, and was perfectly drinkable) and the cask version (which wasn’t, didn’t, and was magnificent). This suggests to me that the ‘clean and multi-faceted’ vs ‘subtle but muddy’ distinction may not be absolute: perhaps some beers work well on keg and work even better, in a slightly different form, as cask ales. (On second thoughts, there’s no ‘perhaps’ about it: 5 a.m. Saint is that beer.) This also suggests to me that, even if it were only a tactical (or mercenary) decision, prioritising keg over cask would be a serious mistake for BrewDog. Pushing keg over cask as a matter of principle seems crazy.

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3 Comments

  1. Posted 19 February, 2011 at 8:11 am | Permalink | Reply

    I finished off the blog article which you quote with this:

    “The little quote (saying keg is the future) at the top of this posting is from Brew Dog whose cask beer is actually rather better than their keg.”

    Seems we are on the same lines here.

  2. Billy
    Posted 24 February, 2011 at 2:18 am | Permalink | Reply

  3. Billy
    Posted 24 February, 2011 at 2:28 am | Permalink | Reply

    I don’t know which one is funnier

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