By Guinness and strong ale

Following on from my last post: I’m still in search of a workable definition of ‘keg’.

Let’s say you’ve kept your beer conditioning at the brewery until it’s more or less ready to go; the yeast is dropping out of the liquid and sticking to the bottom of its own accord. What happens next?

You could pasteurise it; this will kill any remaining yeast and give you flat beer. You could filter it; this will remove any remaining yeast and also give you flat beer. If you do either of these things, you’re going to need to carbonate, and sticking the beer in a sealed container that’s pressurised with CO2 will let you kill two birds with one stone. I can’t see any obvious reason why you would also have to chill it, but that seems to come with the territory.

Alternatively, you could take the view that if it’s dropping bright it’s ready to go, and stick it in a keg without any further ado; the keg is basically just a large bottle, only with some gas in to make it easier to serve. Better still, you could stick it in a key keg, which really is just a large (collapsible) bottle inside a pressurised container. And you could chill it if you wanted to – but again, I can’t see any reason why you would have to.

Unfiltered, unpasteurised, uncarbonated, brewery-conditioned beer isn’t cask, and as such I guess it’s not Real Ale. But the differences between this kind of beer and pasteurised, carbonated keg seem far more significant than the similarities – and the similarities to cask are, potentially at least, more significant than the differences.

Which raises two questions. Firstly, is CAMRA’s definition of ‘keg’ still fit for purpose, or is it a relic of the old battles? Should the line be drawn differently – are today’s ‘smooth’ bitters even made the same way as the Watney’s and Double Diamonds of my youth? Secondly, it baffles me that ‘craft keg’ advocates so often stress how different those beers are from cask real ale, and how similar they are to the old keg offerings – they’re cold! they’re fizzy! they’re expensive! The question is, why do they do this? What’s good about keg 5 a.m. Saint is mostly that it’s 5 a.m. Saint; if it didn’t have the extra carbonation and it was served a bit closer to cellar temperature – key-kegged, for example – it’d be a bit less like keg lager, but it’d be a lot nicer.

Or am I missing something?


  1. Posted 17 June, 2011 at 4:32 am | Permalink | Reply

    I think the only key point missing here is that it’s possible to use closed stainless steel fermenters in order to carbonate beer in the brewery. These beasts (usually cylindro-conical) are perfectly capable of taking a batch of beer and forcing it to pressurise under its own natural CO2 emissions (pace Thornbridge and others). You can then put the beer into final pack (cask, keg or bottle) without any artificial carbonation, and if you have a very low yeast count, the beer will still be fermenting, albeit very slowly. There is some debate as to whether this qualifies as bottle-conditioned beer, as discussed here. There is further debate as to whether or not it matters if it can be called bottle-conditioned beer.

  2. Posted 17 June, 2011 at 9:43 am | Permalink | Reply

    I have been saying for about a year now that if the proponents of unfiltered, unpasteurised keg had any sense, they’d emphasise how much closer to real ale their stuff is than it is to Watneys Red. Instead they pop up and shout “Hey, we do keg now! Isn’t it great? Why is nobody cheering?”

    • Phil
      Posted 17 June, 2011 at 9:04 pm | Permalink | Reply

      What really baffles me is the way they seem intent on actually making the beer as much like keg bitter as possible: assuming kegging has some benefits, surely you could get the benefits without the chilling and the excess carbonation. From BD nothing surprises me any more, but I didn’t think Thornbridge were in the headline-grabbing contrarian game.

      Zak – I’ve just read that blog post, and one of Dave’s about bottle-conditioned beers being filtered and re-seeded, and followed that up by reading about “fast cask”. My brain is now full.

      Question for those who know more than me about this (which is probably most people reading this): with the exception of the collapsing-balloon key keg model, does ‘keg’ necessarily mean ‘top pressure’ & hence ‘extraneous CO2 and/or nitrogen, with a tendency to leach into the beer’?

      • Posted 18 June, 2011 at 11:31 am | Permalink

        Kegs are designed to use gas pressure to force the beer out of the keg and into your your glass. You could theoretically lay one on its side and serve it by gravity, or attach a handpump, assuming the necessary connectors and fittings actually exist to do that. You probably wouldn’t be able to empty it efficiently, and you’d be much better off using a cask.

      • Posted 18 June, 2011 at 11:33 am | Permalink

        The handpump would be reasonably efficient, as it would be similar to the spear extraction method used in many pubs for cask beer.

      • Posted 18 June, 2011 at 11:41 am | Permalink

        Now that I think about it, I believe a fair number of the American brewers doing occasional real ale are putting it in kegs, because those are the vessels they have available. But here, if you were choosing not to use gas pressure, I can’t think of any reason to not just use a cask.

      • Phil
        Posted 18 June, 2011 at 11:45 am | Permalink

        No inherent reason for the gas to be in contact with the beer, though – i.e. a key keg is still a keg?

        It seems to me that kegging as we know it is an ideal solution to the problem of “what shall we do with this beer that tastes revolting because we’ve pasteurised it to make it keep longer?” – in this setup the gas in the keg and the chilling are both working in the brewer’s favour. If it’s not pasteurised or filtered, so the flavour’s undiminished and it’s still got some of its own carbonation, does it need extra gas or chilling?

        I really want to hear someone in the ‘craft’ camp raving about how key keg does away with all the disadvantages of kegging, instead of trying to make out that all the disadvantages of kegging are actually advantages.

    • Phil
      Posted 17 June, 2011 at 9:05 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Reading it back, that was a bit ungenerous – I *don’t* think Thornbridge are in the headline-grabbing contrarian game.

  3. Posted 18 June, 2011 at 5:58 pm | Permalink | Reply

    “No inherent reason for the gas to be in contact with the beer, though – i.e. a key keg is still a keg”

    That’s a surprisingly grey area. Because the beer doesn’t come into contact with the extraneous CO2 (indeed, with a keykeg pressurised air can be used), it theoretically conforms to CamRA’s definition of real ale, as CAMRA’s Marc Holmes points out here. So it’s a keg, but dispensing real ale.

    • Posted 18 June, 2011 at 10:22 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Stone me – key keg is (or can be) real ale! Group hug!

      In that comment, Marc does also say that BD’s key-kegged beer will have to contain enough yeast for secondary fermentation to occur; I wonder how much of a restriction that is in practice. I mean, if there’s any yeast in there presumably *some* secondary fermentation will take place.

      So what’s the crack on refrigeration – is there a good reason why beer that’s pushed out of a keg by gas pressure, instead of being drawn out with a pump, should be really really cold?

      • Posted 21 June, 2011 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

        If it isn’t cold you will get much more re-absorption of C02 into the beer and thus lots of foam, not beer on dispense. That’s just for a start.

      • Posted 21 June, 2011 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

        So there’s a balance between temperature and gas pressure; presumably there’s an optimum point where there’s just enough gas pressure to serve the beer but not so much that the beer gets over-carbonated. And the more refrigeration, the less the brewery has to worry about the pressure being just right – particularly if punters get used to beer being really fizzy.

        What about keeping – does brewery-conditioned beer go off, and if so would chilling stop this happening?

        (I’m trying to think myself into the mindset of The Man Who Invented Keg here. What are the good reasons for going keg, and are they good reasons for the over-chilled, over-carbonated keg experience as we know it?)

  4. Posted 22 June, 2011 at 7:00 am | Permalink | Reply

    It does go off. Staling in keg beer is a problem due to oxygen transfer at the brewery. Brewers try and minimise this of course, but the smaller the brewery in terms of skill and kit, the more chance of it there is. That’s when our old friend pasteurisation comes in too. That can give off flavours, but again the reasons are complex. Chilling, like chilling milk delays it, that’s all.

    Like cask, you have to have turnover too. And you have to muck about with turning gas off at night and wastage from the first pints. God knows why they bother since refrigeration has eliminated a lot of the old cask problems.

    • Posted 22 June, 2011 at 11:07 pm | Permalink | Reply

      Don’t follow the last bit – do you mean it’s easier to keep casks at cellar temp. than it used to be?

      I’m just wondering how big a difference key kegs make, or could make. Like Barm, I see brewery-conditioned beer as a much, much lesser evil than keg as we know it (hereafter Evil Keg). I mean, I drink brewery-conditoned beer (I don’t check the bottles I buy to see that they’re bottle-conditioned, and when I see one that is I’m not always keen – BCA from small breweries is a bit of a lottery).

      Put it this way: if I went back in time 50 years, to before the invention of Evil Keg, and showed Mr Watney and Mr Allied how they could dispense brewery-conditioned beer from key kegs, would Evil Keg (filtering, pasteurisation, chilling, lots of CO2) have been invented? How about if I went back 5 years and gave the same demonstration to Mr Brew and Mr Dog – does the very Evil Keg-like approach they’ve adopted give them anything that key kegs wouldn’t, other than the value they plainly derive from winding up CAMRA?

      • Posted 29 June, 2011 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

        Indeed. Cellar cooling is, or at least can be, state of the art. And keg beer is brewery conditioned beer, though brewery conditioning means different things to different people.

        That makes your last point moot. Mostly.

      • Phil
        Posted 29 June, 2011 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I didn’t mean to imply that keg isn’t brewery-conditioned – bad phrasing.

        My point here is basically that I’m still prepared to get all shirty and aerated over keg, but not just because it’s brewery-conditioned; if you put b.-c. beer in a key keg (no contact with CO2, no death-by-refrigeration) I’m not sure how much I’d care about it not being ‘real’.

        Views on what BD (and Thornbridge for that matter) think they’re gaining by going keg would still be welcome (as would suggestions for drinking in various Northern towns – see above).

      • Posted 29 June, 2011 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

        What they gain by putting it in keg is what brewers have always gained by putting beer in keg – the ability to sell it to pubs that can’t handle real ale or can’t be bothered handling real ale.

      • Phil
        Posted 29 June, 2011 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

        They’re not doing a very good job of it, then – I’ve only ever seen BD keg in the PSBH and the Euston Tap. I think there must be more to it than that, and I suspect the words ‘cr*ft b**r’ may be involved…

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