Monday, 15 August 2016

If it quacks like a duck

There has been a lot of talk recently about some “KeyKeg” beers qualifying as real ale. Essentially, these are vessels 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. If the beer in the keykeg is unfiltered, and therefore retains its natural yeast, it might qualify as “real ale”, as it could undergo a secondary fermentation, and avoid all contact with the CO2 used to pressurise the outer container.

I’m not at all convinced, though. The first objection is a technical one, that 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. There is a distinct risk that, if the beer does actually enjoy a secondary fermentation, it will become over-gassy, especially as there is no means of removing excess pressure.

But the second objection is more deep-seated. In the early 1970s, CAMRA was formed to defend the traditional British beer that was seen as being under threat. The definition of “real ale” followed the creation of the organisation, not the other way round. It has always been problematical when it has been applied too strictly, for example in the exclusion of the Hull Brewery beers stored in ceramic cellar jars, and the refusal to accept cask breathers. Real Ale is a cultural concept, not just a technical definition.

It may be that these keg-conditioned beers qualify as “real ale” under a pedantic, nit-picking interpretation of the rules, although, as said above, in my view they don’t because of the venting issue. But, even if they do, they’re still keg, not real ale. If something looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, the odds are that it’s a duck. And these beers are keg beers.

As you know, I’m no narrow-minded cask-only zealot - I don’t even mind the occasional pint of Carling! I’d be happy to try them and to encourage others to do so. But it is confusing and unhelpful to yoke them in with cask-conditioned real ale, as understood by the general drinking public, as they are obviously a distinctly different product. Rather than arbitrarily extending the definition of real ale, wouldn’t it make more sense to accept keg-conditioned beers as a product category in their own right?

It has been claimed in some quarters that CAMRA has now officially accepted these keg-conditioned beers as “real ale”, but I don’t see that things have gone anywhere near that far. What has been done is to give CAMRA-run beer festivals sanction to serve keg-conditioned keykeg beers if they so choose. I think the Technical Committee has still to make a definitive pronouncement, let alone the CAMRA AGM. And, frankly, I just can’t see the latter happening.

If you want a campaign for quality keg beer, or indeed for All Good Beer, start your own, don’t try to subvert an existing campaign for something entirely different. It all rather reminds me of Labour Party entryism…

28 comments:

  1. Nice topical reference.

    I agree with that. I'll happily try/drink anything, but the keykeg beers I've drunk have all been noticeably cooler and slightly fizzier than cask (stronger too).

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  2. Are they really conditioned in the bag though? I thought they weren't, that they were just like normal keg beer, it was just the idea of the brewery being able to set the carbonation level.

    But I'm pretty ignorant. And based on my experinces with KeyKeg to date, I'll be likely to stay ignorant.

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  3. You seem to argue for another type of real ale. Given your views on bottle conditioned beers, are you really sure about that?

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  4. Quite a few things wrong with this:

    1. Key-kegs can be vented
    2. Many do condition in the bag (eg Runaway beers and the new Brewdog Live)
    3. CAMRA's Technical Committee has unambiguously said that key-kegs can be an acceptable vehicle for the dispense of real ale. This was made clear at CAMRA AGM in Nottingham. No-one objected.
    4. Your opinion of course (as opposed to fact) but but can't see how saying something that accords with the CAMRA definition of real ale is therefore real ale is a pedantic or nit-picking interpretation of the rules.
    5. Real ale is, for better or worse, clearly a technical definition. The "cultural concept" thing sounds like something you've just dreamt up to justify your argument.
    6. Worth mentioning that given that amount of tank conditioning that goes on in breweries these days there's often very little secondary action in many "real ales" - on the other hand the keg-conditioned beers really do undergo a secondary fermentation in the vessel from which they are dispensed. Arguable then more "real" than a lot of what you would regard as "real ale".

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    1. You may recall that I advanced exactly the same argument, albeit slightly less trenchantly, in the pages of your august publication last April.

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    2. however less trenchantly those views may have been argued last April, John is still quite correct that Key-kegs can be vented that was one of the discussion points confirmed at the CAMRA AGM in Nottingham on the key keg motion debate, and the national executive also confirmed during that debate on that motion,that the technical committee had ruled key-kegs were acceptable dispense and had been for some while, which is why the York branch who had proposed the motion had already used them at least once at their beer festival.

      fwiw Key-keg are the same things as Key-cask, its just the keg name stuck which is why people always believe it causes CAMRA more fraughtness than it actually does.

      and the difference in Manchester was I believe they had a whole bar dedicated to key keg,whereas York had only trialled a few from Brass Castle, whether people picked up that distinction or not I dont know.

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    3. Hi Mudgie - just thought I'd drop back into this one to see how it was going. Yes of course you wrote something similar for Opening Times. OT is of course a broad church which lets its contributors write things I don't agree with and which on occasion are quite incorrect (such as here).

      Stono - yes it's clearly the k-word that's caused all the problems. If these things had been called key-casks (which is another name for them anyway) and the beer itself called "key-cask" I suspect we wouldn't behaving these arguments.

      Interesting to note that Mudgie hasn't yet addressed the issue that key-kegs *can* be vented - this kind of knocks away one of the main planks of the argument in the original post. Mind you, he's not one to readily admit he's wrong....

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    4. I'd be interested to know exactly how they are vented - clearly it's not just a case of putting a soft spile in the spile hole. And, in practice, how often does this actually take place?

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    5. I'd also be interested in how these things are vented in the cask beer sense. All the references in the manufacturer's literature seem to be about venting the pressure from the outer container before disposal.

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  5. KeyKeg is a development of keg beer that some view as approaching real ale. It isn't. The clue is in the name.

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    1. No, the clue isn't in the name. These things are also sold as key-casks which blows that one out of the water.

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    2. But the "key-casks" are exactly the same vessels externally as keykegs.

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    3. They might well be 'sold' as keycasks, but they're identical in every way to KeyKegs, so it really all is in the name. Either way, it remains a development of the keg method of production, distribution and dispense.

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  6. Agree ! Keg is keg and has nothing to do with Real Ale. Drink the real thing which fine breweries such as Timothy Taylor, Sam Smiths, and Wadworth produce.

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  7. The more important issue for KeyKeg is the wholesale price. As the kegs are throwaway ( our local tip wasn't sure whether they could be recycled ) there is a price premium over cask of about £15 per 20 litres/ 35 pints at wholesale.

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  8. ElectricPis and Lucretius1: allow me to introduce KeyRealAle! I think that one big change should address your concenrs.

    On the OP, it depends whether you think of CAMRA as primarily a Campaign For Real Ale - in which case it has to include anything that meets the definition of RA - or as a Campaign For Preserving The Conditions Within Which Real Ale Was Available When CAMRA Was Founded. I'm not entirely taking the p. - I think CAMRA has a big element of the second kind of campaign and should continue to do so - but I do think that RA is a thing with a definition, and some KK beer meets it.

    (Do you know anything about Track btw, JC (if you're there)? Had a KK DIPA of theirs the other night which was rather good, and surprised me with its lack of excessive chill & carbonation.)

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    1. Hi Phil - I drop in and out when time allows. Was at Track on Friday night for a presentation. Had Sonoma on cask and this IPA/DIPA (was about 6.5%) om key-keg and this too was less gassy and chilled than some - and enjoyed by almost all who had it (which was most of us). Same goes for the Carbon Smith beers when he had his last open day - much less gassy and chilled. Which kind of goes to show that key-keg doesn't have to be "cold and fizzy".

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  9. I definitely think CAMRA should adopt the "cultural concept, not just a technical definition" line. It's never really seemed fair that traddies miss out on the fun of the "how can we define 'craft'" argument, now they can have their own version.

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  10. I guess I agree with the blog in that shoehorning key keg into real ale I think it just confusing for the consumer and I'm surprised it's even been perused considering much of CAMRA policy and potential policy is about clear labelling. The difference is that I don't think the CAMRA world would end if we embraced it in addition to real ale.

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  11. I get the impression that the main motivation behind this initiative was to provide a means for CAMRA beer festivals to sell British keg beers. CAMRA hasn't yet got to grips with how to deal with it in terms of WhatPub and the Good Beer Guide.

    And the question has to be asked whether, realistically, anyone is going to choose RealKeg over KegKeg simply because it enjoys a bit of keg-conditioning. While it may technically qualify as real ale, it still has the essential characteristics of keg in being colder and fizzier than cask beer.

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    1. As far as I am aware there was no real "plan" behind the technical committee ruling - I think your projecting here to fit your argument. They simply looked at the beer and its method of dispense and answered the question "is this real ale"?

      You are of course quite right about the GBG and WhatPub - would perhaps only be an issue if a pub or bar only selling keg and key-keg was seriously being considered for the GBG. Early days yet I think.

      And key-keg conditioned beers don't have to be cold and fizzy at all - although in reality they usually are (still not tried the new BrewDog LIVE as I believe this has a much lower carbonation level).

      Right - that's me done for a few hours. Work and things to do. Might drop back in later to see if there's been any more thrashing around.

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    2. I asked what I thought was either a very naive or a very obvious question on my blog five years ago - if there's (the right kind of) yeast in the beer & if it's not coming into contact with CO2, in what sense is it not RA? I guess a lot of people were starting, or had already started, to ask the same question (e.g. Tandleman in comments on that post!).

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    3. @Phil, yes, but it "presents" as keg.

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  12. I don't understand all these technical arguments but I know what I like. :-)

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  13. My thoughts entirely David. I don't care how CAMRA or Wetherspoons or anyone else define anything, only how it tastes. And that varies more by point of dispense (pub) than by brewer in my experience. I had fizzy cask in a duff Spoons recently. Would have put the average punter off cask.

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  14. How many times...

    Yes, beer in a keykeg *can* qualify as real ale. This does not mean that all beer from a keykeg *is* real ale. Yet every time, those on both sides of the argument get up in arms...

    The CO2 that forces the beer out of the bag is scarely relevant - it's whether CO2 is deliberately injected into the beer at the brewery or not that really matters. Some keykeg beer is force-carbed, some isn't. That's the real distinction, and the one that CAMRA need to make it clear.

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  15. You can almost see this as someone playing a practical joke on CAMRA.

    "What is it that CAMRA most hates?"

    "Keg beer."

    "Oh, so let's produce something that has all the characteristics of keg beer, but still manages to sneak within CAMRA's definition of real ale. That'll blow their minds."

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    1. I'd say that it's the exact opposite - there are beers out there today that have the characteristics of cask beer, but are viewed with suspicion because one of the names for the container uses the k-word.

      Keg used to be a byword for filtered, pasteurised, force-carbed poor quality beer. Nowadays this is just one end of a sliding scale. Unfiltered, unpasteurised, naturally carbonated good quality beer in a keykeg is far closer to what we understand to be 'real ale'.

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