Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - April 2016
Keg-conditioned beer may be great, but it’s not the same as cask
A FEW months ago, you may have been surprised to read an article in “Opening Times” about “Real Ale in a Keg”, which was trialled at the recent Manchester Beer & Cider Festival. Surely, some may think, this is the ultimate betrayal – an organisation originally set up to fight keg ending up embracing it. As George Orwell wrote in “Animal Farm”, “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
Of course, it’s nowhere near as simple as that. In recent years, we have seen the rise of so-called “craft keg” beers. Many of these are essentially conventional kegs, where the beer is filtered, and a cylinder of CO2 is connected up to the container to propel it to the tap at the bar. However, a growing number use a system called “KeyKeg”, in which the beer is held in an inner bag within the container, in a similar way to bag-in-box wine, and the dispense gas exerts pressure on this bag to push the beer to the bar, but doesn’t actually come into contact with it.
Maybe it wasn’t the original intention, but it was soon realised that, if the beer in the keykeg was unfiltered, and therefore retained its natural yeast, it could qualify as “real ale”, as it could undergo a secondary fermentation, and avoids all contact with the CO2 used to pressurise the outer container. This is perhaps debatable, as the beer contained in the bag does not vent to the atmosphere, and the part of the container outside the bag is pressurised with CO2 to dispense the beer, although the CO2 does not actually touch it, but it’s certainly a world away from Red Barrel.
There are two reasons often advanced in favour of craft keg beer. The first is the “East Sheen Tennis Club” argument, that keg beers are ideal for venues that have limited and infrequent turnover. The second is that they allow pubs to stock low-volume, specialist beers for longer. But I suspect that the reason most people go for craft keg is that they prefer its essential characteristics – that it is served cooler, and has more carbonation, than real ale. Bringing it within the fold of real ale is unlikely to make much difference to whether people choose to drink it.
Over the years, CAMRA has succeeded in making handpumps an unmistakable symbol of real ale, so if you go in a pub and see a bank of them, you can be confident about what you’re going to get. But if we get “real” craft keg, are we going to have to have little stickers on the taps saying “CAMRA Says this is Real Ale”? There is also the risk that the boundary with conventional filtered and carbonated keg beers such as Shipyard and East Coast IPA will be blurred.
I’ve often argued that CAMRA can be too dogmatic in making a black-and-white distinction between “good” real ale and “bad” everything else. This is not to say it shouldn’t define real ale clearly and put it at the centre of its campaigning, but it should be more willing to recognise merit in beers that do not qualify. This unfiltered, unpasteurised craft keg is certainly something I’d be happy both to drink and encourage others to. But it is confusing and unhelpful to yoke it in with cask-conditioned real ale, as understood by the general drinking public, as it is obviously a distinctly different product.. Rather than arbitrarily extending the definition, wouldn’t it make more sense to accept it as a product category in its own right?