Back to 78

This is an interesting thread from Steve Dunkley of Beer Nouveau:

Interesting – and informative (read the whole thread) – but, sadly, wrong.

The interesting part first: yes, moving from wooden to metal casks meant that secondary fermentation happened – or didn’t happen – in different ways. I’m not sure what Steve means by ‘micro-oxidation’, but I’d agree that the natural porosity of wood is likely to lead to (what we’d view as) undesirable loss of condition (i.e. beer going flat), while beer that was in a wooden cask for any length of time would be likely to pick up flavours from the wood itself (and/or from the pitch used to caulk the barrels(?)*). There’s also Brettanomyces, the proverbial English Disease**, which flourishes in the less-than-sterile environment of a repeatedly-used wooden cask*. Most beer – at least in 19th- and 20th-century conditions – was ‘running beer’*, which wouldn’t spend a lot of time in cask, but the difference in a ‘stock’ beer like a porter or Burton* would be quite pronounced.

The question then is whether anyone moaning about ‘kegging’ should either (a) insist on getting their beer from the wood or (b) shut up. I say No, for three reasons. In ascending order of importance:

Whose keg is it anyway?

Take the same, conditioning, beer, put one lot in a steel cask and the other lot inna bag inna box, and wait. Very similar stuff is going to happen to both lots of beer (although the bag inna box may be a bit of a bugger to vent). Slightly different things will happen once you start tapping the two containers, but the main difference will be the lack of oxidation in the beer inna bag inna box. Anyone who objects to every single manifestation of kegging – including unfiltered beer being packaged inna bag inna box and conditioning in very much the same way as beer in cask, but oxidating (if that’s a word) more slowly – is letting their taste in beer be ruled by an objection to the word ‘keg’, which is a bit daft.

That said, you can object to keg because you don’t like beer being filtered, pasteurised and force-carbonated (as, indeed, who does?). Admittedly, this objection doesn’t catch quite a lot of what’s done nowadays under the name of ‘keg’, but it’s still a valid position. Or you can object to the “filtering and serving under gas” part of conventional kegging; or you may not like your beer chilled (which in itself doesn’t have much bearing on whether a beer’s in keg or not*, but does tend to go along with kegging). Or – and this is the nearest I personally come to an ‘anti-keg’ position – you may have no principled objection to beer being filtered and CO2’d (or even chilled), in and of itself, but believe that beer which can be cask-conditioned (and traditionally has been) is probably going to be better if it continues to be.

So, someone who tells you they don’t like “keg” may be saying that they believe (or affect to believe) that putting beer inna bag inna box immediately turns it to bleedin’ Watney’s Red Barrel; or they may be saying that they’ll drink pretty much anything apart from b. W.’s R. B. or its modern equivalent; or they may have one of a number of positions in between, including my own (irrefutably correct) position of drinking interesting beers in keg when they’re on keg, but preferring the same beers on cask*** when they’re available. It follows that some people who moan about kegging are ignorant, obtuse stick-in-the-muds, but not all; I myself, for instance, am open-minded, erudite and thoroughly sophistimacated.

One of its legs is both alike

But let’s say that there are people going around being ignorantly prejudiced against any beer in a keg, up to and including unfiltered beer inna bag inna box. (Incidentally, I have seen “CAMRA Says This Is Real Ale” labels on keg taps, but only twice in the last four years; I guess it’s not much of a selling point. Presumably the CAMRA members don’t believe it and the craft keg drinkers don’t care.) The question then is whether wood to metal is the same kind of change as cask to keg – or rather, whether it’s a change of the same kind and similar magnitude. (“How can you object to us building a housing estate in this National Park? You didn’t mind when it was one house!”)

Steve argues that, as compared with beer from a wooden cask, beer from metal is fizzier and “a much cleaner, almost filtered product”. On the specific issue of losing condition, the difference between wood and metal clearly is the same kind of difference as the difference between metal and beer inna bag inna box. (That said, I doubt that the first difference – between oxidation plus loss of condition via the wood and oxidation alone – is of the same magnitude as the second one – oxidation vs no oxidation – or anywhere near.) I have more problems with “almost filtered”: in terms of active yeast in suspension*, surely a beer’s either filtered or it’s not. Surely it’s a coincidence – at best – if the effect of putting an unfiltered beer in metal seems ‘almost’ the same as that of filtering it; unfiltered beer is still, well, unfiltered. It’s certainly unlikely to be a change of the same magnitude.

You’re a fine one (just like me)

But let’s put all this logic-chopping aside. Steve’s right about the effect on beer of keeping it in wood, as compared to the effect of keeping it in metal; let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the effect of kegging is just “more of the same”, another step down the same road. Beer in the wood, ‘woody’, Bretty and flat; beer in metal, clean, consistent and sparkling; keg beer, more clean, consistent and sparkling. Does this leave keg objectors without a leg to stand on, unless they go the whole hog and enrol in the SPBW?

I don’t believe so. It’s a common tactic, when you’re pushing a conservationist line of some sort, to reduce a complex history**** to a black-and-white choice: to claim that the thing you’re trying to protect or preserve is utterly unspoilt and pristine, and that the development you’re resisting would ruin it forever. It’s a common tactic, and it’s almost always poorly-founded: very few things in the world are unspoilt and pristine. Beer and pubs certainly aren’t, and to all intents and purposes never have been. Even if you were to take the view that we should go back to a time nobody alive now remembers – before the First World War, when Lloyd George ruined everything – you’d be effectively disregarding several hundred years of history, during which a lot of things changed (even in brewing).

So it’s certainly not the case that everything was great before kegging came on the scene, or that nothing had changed up to then. However, the fact that nothing (in the world of beer) is pristine and unchanged doesn’t mean that there’s nothing worth preserving – or that there are no changes worth resisting. This becomes clearer if we assume, not only that “wood to metal” and “metal to keg” are the same kind of change, but that they’re both bad changes. If you assume that going to metal casks made the beer worse, and that going to keg makes it worse again, Steve’s argument becomes “why are you objecting to something that’s deteriorated twice when you accept something that’s deteriorated once?”. It’s a good argument for beer from the wood, but as an argument for kegging it lacks something – it’s a bit like saying “how can you say I’d be better off not being neck-deep in water, when you’re knee-deep yourself?”

In short, Steve’s argument only really works if you assume that going from wood to metal wasn’t a bad thing, and that going from metal casks to kegging wasn’t a bad thing – but if you already believe both of these, you don’t need the argument.

(Interesting stuff about beer from the wood, though. Me, I’m a child of the 70s, so it’s unfiltered beer from a metal cask for me, for preference – but, as ever, there’s plenty of good stuff that doesn’t fit that description.)

*All corrections welcome. I’m very hazy (ironically) on the history and even more hazy on the technicalities of brewing & keeping beer.
**Brett has never been referred to as the English Disease, AFAIK, but I’m hoping it’ll catch on.
***In my experience, Blackjack Devilfish Saison and Marble Earl Grey IPA are, in fact, better on keg. Everything else where I’ve had a chance to compare, the cask wins.
****All histories are complex.

Advertisements

2 Comments

  1. pubcurmudgeon
    Posted 20 January, 2019 at 6:16 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Yes, the group of people who actually give a toss whether a craft keg beer qualifies as real ale is a very tiny subset of the total population of beer drinkers.

  2. Posted 20 January, 2019 at 6:46 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Phil, just a few points.

    Beer historical studies has shown pretty clearly, I have documented it and others too, that wood cask plant in Britain before the adoption of metal casks typically used timbers from areas of Eastern Europe. Memel wood was a trade term, or Crown Memel (now in Lithuania). American oak, which most brewers who use wood use today to my understanding, sometimes in the form of an ex-bourbon (or ex-rum, etc.), imparted a certain taste they didn’t like, even in running beers. Only Guinness didn’t mind the bourbon wood, but English brewers much preferred the ancestral Memel wood or (originally) English oak. I am not saying it could not have imparted some tannic taste to the wood, but the taste was different, more neutral from what I’ve read, than American oak with its “Chardonnay” tang.

    Certainly the effects of metal on beer have to be different from any kind of wood, you gave some of the reasons. At the same time, English brewers did not wish to use any form of American oak in the old days…

    There are so many other variables too: in the 1800s most malt was kilned with coke or anthracite. Direct fired kilns… Not today. So there too some difference must exist to today in the malt palate.

    I can see arguments on both sides here, CAMRA’s and Steve’s. It’s just a question of where you want to draw the line. There are no absolutes.

    Gary

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: