Monday, 11 January 2016

A solution looking for a problem?

Many members of CAMRA will have been somewhat taken aback to read an article in December’s What’s Brewing about “Real Ale in a Keg”, which is to be trialled at the forthcoming 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 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. Many of the new wave of “craft keg” beers 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, some use a system called “KeyKeg”, which is well explained here by Magic Rock Brewing. Here, 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. A big advantage of this for small breweries is that it uses one-way containers, so all the trouble of reclaiming empty kegs is avoided, although obviously there is a cost penalty.

People 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. Now, CAMRA has always been notorious for pedantic nitpicking over methods of dispense, which I have to say I’ve never been able to get particularly worked up about. It’s not so much the principle, as the mind-blowing black and whiteness of it all. Ideally, it would be better to serve cask beer without a cask breather, but to my mind it’s far preferable to either proper keg or sour cask. A potential problem immediately occurs to me that, as the inner container does not vent to the atmosphere, if a meaningful secondary fermentation does take place, it could lead to a build-up of CO2, thus producing very fizzy beer and possibly stirring up the sediment to dispense cloudy beer. But I’m no expert.

The question occurs, though, as to what problem this system is actually meant to solve. It reminds me of the great Dr Johnson when he said: “Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” So, you can (perhaps) serve real ale from a keg. But I doubt whether that will make any difference to the customer who is already happy to drink craft keg, and the average punter who goes into a pub and looks for handpumps on the bar will just regard it as another keg beer, even if it has a little notice saying “this is actually real ale”. And some may fear that it is, in a sense, relegitimising keg beer and may end up to be the thin end of the wedge.

I’ll give it a try if I come across it, but I can’t really see it becoming a mass-market phenomenon, especially given the extra cost and dubious environmental credentials of disposable containers. And, personally, if I order a keg beer, the least I would expect is that it will be crystal clear, as that surely is one of keg’s key advantages. At the end of the day, it’s hard to see “real ale in a keg” being any more than an exercise in proving a point.


  1. It is possible to vent a keykeg with a spare coupler and short section of pipe, and to condition it properly - I've seen this done by Brass Castle at York Beer Festival two years running. It only works if the pubs can be bothered, though...

  2. If it makes someone happy then it has a point and a purpose.

  3. Cookie is right.

    I'm not sure I've ever seen beers referred to as key keg in a pub, and it sounds like a very dull cask-breather type discussion. Most of the craft places (e.g. Tap, Craft, lots of Falmouth) distinguish cask and keg; cask tends to be subtly better, keg is often a lot stronger. I tend to buy on strength if I'm honest.

  4. I dont believe its intended to be used in a traditional pub setup (though of course they could), or indeed to replace cask. Its application is more towards those where there isnt necessarily the space to have a nice tap room or cask cellar setup, so anything from village halls to sports clubs/venues, restaurants,beer festivals (obviously), and of course either micro pubs or new pubs which increasingly can be setup in old empty shops or small venues where space is a premium, and where historically they might have resorted to either full on keg beer or bottled beer instead.

    So its a way of expanding the potential reach of "real ale" to new people and promoting it as a choice to venues that arent able to support cask, which I dont have a problem with and is infact one of CAMRAs key (pun intended) campaigns.

  5. Well, that's the "East Sheen Tennis Club" argument. But I generally come across it in bars that have plenty of other conventional keg lines and handpumps. And how many customers in a sports club or restaurant will really be bothered whether a keg beer from a small local brewery qualifies as "real" or not?

  6. I may be wrong but as far as I am aware "most" of the new-wave "craft keg" beers are indeed unfiltered, unpasteurised and served from key-kegs. They are surprisingly commonplace.

  7. CAMRA has never had a problem with real ale in polypins, as far as I know; and I can't see how keykegs are much different.

  8. @John - but keykegs had been around for quite some time before people starting saying "hang on, doesn't this stuff actually qualify as real ale?"

    @Anon - in a polypin, there's no pressure applied to the bag holding the beer, so there's room for any CO2 produced by secondary fermentation to keep the bag inflated rather than dissolving in the beer. I'm also not aware of any pubs routinely serving beer from polypins.

  9. I don't know if he does now (haven't been for years) but at the Bree Louise in London there was often ale in polypins served from the back bar

  10. Yes - key-kegs have been around for 5 years or so but as long ago as 2011 CAMRA's Technical Committee said their contents "could" qualify as "real ale". The beers BrewDog planned to bring to the GBBF were key-keg and I think they were a bit put out when they were given the OK to sell them.

    I think it's the "k word" that closed many peoples' minds to them - if they'd been called key-casks instead we'd be in a much better place now.

  11. @various PolyPins are designed to hold racked beer. Any secondary fermentation in one is messy.

    As for differentiating between keg and cask, most pubs do this simply by serving cask through a handpull, and keg through a font. OK, so 'new wave' craft may be served from a keykeg through a pressurised line, but I'd bet the vast majority of punters still think it's keg.


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