Swish and flick

Or: why I still don’t get kegging.

I tried BD’s Zeitgeist on keg a while back and was deeply disappointed. On cask, at cellar temp, Zeitgeist was a superb beer – really memorable. In bottle, well, not so much. On keg, even worse – I couldn’t taste the damn thing. All I could tell was that I was drinking something very cold, very fizzy and vaguely in the dark lager area; it was quite pleasant and thirst-quenching, but no more than that. So, halfway down, I swilled it around the glass a bit to knock some of the gas out and let it warm up a degree or two. It was an absolute revelation – the aroma and the flavour burst into life. It still wasn’t as good as the cask, but it was a very nice beer – and it was still cold enough (and carbonated enough) to be pleasantly drinkable. So there you go: I can honestly say that Zeitgeist on keg, once I’d drunk half of it and given the other half a swish, was almost as nice as the cask version, and only about 50% more expensive.

Red Willow Soulless on keg tasted great to begin with, and equally great after the swish-and-flick treatment; degassing it a bit helped a bit, but there was nothing wrong with the flavour and aroma to begin with. I reckon the cask would have been even better, but the cask wasn’t on offer. This was definitely the best ‘craft keg’ I’ve had.

Magic Rock Cannonball was a disappointment, though. The Magic Rock beers I’d had before had been a pretty good match to their pump-clips – beautifully executed and insane(ly hoppy) – so I was hoping for great things from this one. And it was… OK. It wasn’t quite as chilled or as carbonated as the Zeitgeist had been, so 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. Mmm, nice… I think.

I’m old enough to remember when keg bitter ruled the land (just about), and I did once drink bleedin’ Watney’s Red Barrel. (At least, I think it was Red Barrel – somebody else was buying, I wasn’t even 18 at the time. Actually, I don’t think I was 16 at the time.) I’ve never forgotten what it tastes like: it was cold, it was stomach-bloatingly fizzy and it tasted the same all the way through. We had a Sodastream machine at home at the time, and that was what it reminded me of – it was as if somebody had brought out a ‘beer’ flavour and mixed it into chilled soda water. My next half – some months later – was cask bitter, and it did that thing cask beer so consistently does, of presenting different aspects of its flavour in shifting combinations as you work your way down the glass; by the time I got to the bottom I was hooked for life.

Clearly, craft keg isn’t Red Barrel, but equally clearly it’s still cold and fizzy – and too much so for me. But maybe I’m missing something. Certainly that’s the impression I get when I see Rich from Magic Rock explaining (when I asked) why they put Cannonball on keg

As well as intensity of flavour/aroma we’re looking for drinkability, and temperature and carbonation help to make big hoppy beers lighter in mouth feel, they also accentuate hop aroma and clean the pallet of big flavours.

or when the Beer Nut raves about a keg IPA with (among much else) “a big carbonic bite from the incredibly busy fizz, putting yet more of an edge on it”. But it seems to me that the “carbonic bite” of pressurised CO2 has about as much to do with the flavour of the beer as the distinctive flavour of skunking (some people like that, too) – and what Rich is talking about essentially sounds like dialling down the flavour for drinkability. (The first half of that Zeitgeist was very drinkable – positively quaffable, you could knock it back no bother. I don’t know why you’d want to, though, unless you were just drinking it for the sake of the name or to look cool or something. Crazy idea, I know.)

As for the single-flavour “beer essence” effect, that has changed – I suspect it was an effect of pasteurisation, or just of Grotney’s quality control. (Grotney’s! Happy days.) Some keg beers – that Zeitgeist included – have quite big, complex flavours. They’re complex in a particular way, though. Back when I was keeping up tasting notes, I had a third of a (cask) beer from Oakham called Rollercoaster and wrote this:

An initial impression of sourness gives way to a Marble-ish aromatic hop attack, which gives way in turn to malt and caramel, before a big bitter hop finish. (Hence the name, I guess.)

That’s quite an unusual effect in a cask beer, but it seems more common in craft keg – BD’s 5 a.m. Saint on keg did almost exactly that (contrasting with cask Saint, which did the slow-developing flavour-soup thing and did it rather well). You get quite a lot going on, but you get it going on in every mouthful – which, I guess, makes it less essential to drink the beer in decent-sized measures.

So, my experiences of craft keg to date have told me that: it’s sometimes served so cold you can’t taste what you’re drinking; it’s sometimes so fizzy that you can taste the carbonic acid; it’s sometimes got strong and interesting flavours; it’s sometimes got significantly less strong and interesting flavours than cask equivalents or near-equivalents; and the flavours, however good they are, don’t develop in the same way as they do with cask. (Then there’s the price thing, obviously.)

But while they keep turning it out, I guess I’ll keep trying it.

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