Thursday, 24 May 2018

The future’s so bright you gotta drink keg

Twenty years ago, if you were after “interesting” home-grown draught beer in the UK, cask was the only game in town. However, since then there has been a steady growth in “craft keg”, to the extent that in some enthusiast pubs it is now the dominant or even sole dispense method. As Roger Protz reports, Adnams are saying that they expect keg production to overtake cask next year, while Dave Bailey of Hardknott Brewery asserts that the future really is in keg beer.

Now, I took issue with that in the comments. While I certainly have no objection in principle to drinking keg beer, I said “For British-style ales, cask, when done properly, is much preferable. To argue otherwise is to say that CAMRA has basically been barking up the wrong tree for forty-five years.”

However, it can’t be argued that keg, due to its longer shelf-life, provides the opportunity to offer drinkers much more choice of different styles and strengths. As Jonathan Adnams says in the article I linked to above,

There’s a lot of cask beer from micros – some of it not very good. At the same time, fewer people are going to pubs while some publicans are putting in a lot of handpumps to offer choice. The beer is often poor quality and drinkers won’t pay £4 for poor beer. They want reliability. Cask is now a lottery for drinkers.
Cask beer, by its very nature, is essentially a high-volume, quick-turnover product. It was ideally suited to the days when pubs were shifting huge quantities of Mild and Bitter, but is much less at home in a world where customers drink much less anyway while expecting a wider choice. As I’ve said ad nauseam on this blog, far too many pubs offer more cask beers than they have the sales to turn over properly, with the inevitable effect on quality. Even the pubs that do it well often give the impression of operating on the edge of acceptable throughput, especially early in the week. A lot of beer in GBG pubs is, while in no sense bad, not bursting with freshness. So maybe, if the future of draught beer is one of declining volumes and increasing expectations of choice, it is a keg future.

It has to be said that many bloggers who spend most of their time drinking in urban beer specialist pubs exaggerate the market penetration of craft keg. Yes, it’s certainly growing, but so far it hasn’t made much impact in “normal” pubs. Earlier this month, on our trip to Northampton, which by definition majored on beer-focused pubs, while most had one or two craft keg taps, there was only one – the Princess Alexandra – where it was at the centre of the beer offer, with cask as a “round the corner” afterthought.

Last week, I spent a few days in the more rural parts of South Wales, during which I visited ten different pubs. I wasn’t specifically looking for craft keg taps, but in all of them* the bank of handpumps remained the centre of attraction on the bar. There’s still a long way to go before craft keg replaces cask as the leading option for staple quaffing beers. It’s still something of an expensive, specialist product.

However, there are signs that things are changing. For example, the bar in the new The Light cinema in Stockport offers Camden Hells and Pale alongside one Robinson’s cask beer – Light Brigade on a recent visit. And I spotted the sign shown above outside a food-oriented pub in a tourist location in the Peak District. The tectonic plates are clearly shifting.

So maybe it’s time for CAMRA, if it wants to “do what it says on the tin”, to be more assertive in proclaiming that cask beer, when done properly, is better, rather than just weakly conceding the ground and muttering “well, a lot of that modern keg beer isn’t too bad either”. But, if people are served up with flat, warm, stale cask beer, you can’t remotely blame them for choosing keg in preference. Cask has no divine right to a place on the bar.

* There was one that was keg-only, but didn’t have any craft keg either, unless you count Marston’s 61 Deep, which strangely seemed to be the only “bitter” on offer. I went there for food, and actually had some keg Banks’s Mild.

22 comments:

  1. Maybe CAMRA has basically been barking up the wrong tree for forty-five years.

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    1. I've made the point in the past that perhaps in the 1960s the big brewers made a mistake by trying to do everything at once - closing local breweries, getting rid of familiar local brands, dumbing down recipes, and introducing pasteurisation, carbonation, chilling and pressure dispense. Had they changed things more gradually, they might not have provoked the same backlash.

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  2. Dumbing down recipes, now that sounds like a real culprit of bad beer. As technology improves I wonder if cask and keg could converge into something real good? By the way how was the keg Banks Mild?

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    1. The other Mudgie !25 May 2018 at 03:33

      I agree that in the 1960s the big brewers closed local breweries, got rid of familiar local brands, introduced pasteurisation, carbonation, chilling and pressure dispense but I'm not sure about "dumbing down recipes". Beer was weak not only because its purpose was to quench thirst but also because of government policies during two world wars but even the biggest of British brewers didn't replace malted barley with cheaper rice and maize as happened in America. The national keg bitters introduced and heavily promoted by the Big Six ( Worthington E, Double Diamond, Watneys Red, Whitbread Tankard, Courage Tavern, Youngers Tartan ) were all stronger than those brewers ordinary bitters and in changing Red Barrel to Red Watneys actually increased the strength while the reduction in hop rating was apparently from trials suggesting that customers wanted a smoother beer.

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    2. It is the accepted "CAMRA narrative" that recipes were dumbed down, although I am too young to know at first hand how much truth there was in this. Maybe it was more a case of local beers being replaced by ones that were perceived as blander.

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    3. Half a Tartan and some change for the lights on the snooker table, please." Even as a sixth-former, back in 1974, I knew that Tartan was pretty poor compared to Boddingtons, say. But all was well with the world and I still had my dreams.

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  3. Why the worry anyway guys? Keg has been the main form of beer since its introduction. Cask has always been niche. Always will be. Enjoy it for what it is. Do what you've always done. Seek it out and write books about the places where you think its good. You guys like bus rides, so what if seeking it out means bus rides of adventure to obscure satellite towns ?

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  4. Professor Pie-Tin25 May 2018 at 12:06

    Of course it can go the other way with taps.
    www.madpub.us/?madpubus63Taps
    This is my local when I get the rare chance to spend some time at my gaff in Florida and I've worked my way up and down the line over the years and I tell you they're all mostly excessively-hopped IPAs that all taste exactly the bleedin' same.
    However it is nice to have the choice and they all come cold and fresh.
    But what I really like about the bar is that this place is next door.
    www.cubanparadise.com
    And the bar is happy for you to sit there smoking a great hand-rolled stogie purchased at a very reasonable price.
    A couple of hours sinking pints,puffing away and watching sweating morbidly-obese Yanks waddle past tut-tutting at the unhealthy smoking is my idea of heaven.

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    1. Perfect description of American IPAs. As I prepare to fly to England and enjoy those wonderful cask ales, I admit that a recurring nightmare of mine is drinking an IPA in Florida! Hard to get back to sleep after that.

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    2. Professor Pie-Tin25 May 2018 at 15:42

      I didn't mean to imply that all Americans are morbidly obese but,by jove,there does seem to be an awful lot of them in Florida.
      One particular Jabba The Hut wobbled up to me last time I was sat at the bar ( it's open-ended looking out onto the sidewalk and road ) pulling on a large Churchill cigar and asked if smoking was allowed inside the bar.
      When I replied in the affirmative he grimaced and said " that's a shame,I'd like a drink but smoking is really unhealthy " and then hauled his 350lbs off in the direction of a smoke-free bar.

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  5. I agree about the penetration of craft keg. On Tyneside it's limited to a smallish number of specialist city centre and urban high volume bars that also sell a lot of 'craft' cask (OK, grapefruit murk). But, if you count what I call fake craft keg like Marston's Shipyard Pale Ale and GK East Coast IPA, it's all over the place.

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    1. Don't be knocking Marston's Shipyard Pale Ale. Reliable pint of bitter that one. As a hint of craft to it but not enough to ruin it. Better than a cask gamble in most mainstream pubs where the solitary handpump has dust on it.

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    2. The other Mudgie !25 May 2018 at 15:30

      Twice recently I've had handpumped Shipyard Melonhead and realised a melon flavoured cask beer can be one of the best fruit beers I've ever had.

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    3. I'm not knocking it Cookie, but Craft it ain't. Maybe on a par with Sam Smiths Sov which is decent enough.

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    4. But who says what "craft" is anyway? Shipyard may not be Punk, but it's certainly new wave keg.

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    5. I'm not getting into that can of worms!

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    6. I'd say "craft" has become a market segment denoting anything that is vaguely modern and innovative, but isn't cask. Shipyard may be "macro craft", but in UK market terms it is still craft.

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  6. Tap count isn't a reliable guide to sales - I know even CAMRA-friendly pubs where cask only accounts for ~40% of beer sold.

    Also I think a lot of the keg ale converts are actually coming from premium lager rather than cask - the price point is much more similar. But the people expecting to pay <£3 for a pint of good cask are subject to other forces, not least the draw of off trade prices.

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  7. But how much of the 60% is mainstream kegs (including lager) as opposed to craft keg?

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  8. I'm now at the stage where if I don't know the pub and/or think the handpumps to cask customers ratio is dodgy then I'll go on keg. This is strangely reminiscent of the earlier keg revolution which in part was brought about by dodgy cask practices and an inconsistent cask product.
    I'm afraid I'm more in agreement with Pete Brown than Boak and Bailey on the cask quality issue particularly outside the big cities.

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    1. I bet them soft lads that go about trying to tick off all the CAMRA pubs in the CAMRA book would love to do that but can't 'cos of their own rules. The rest of can, though. Apply logic that is, and swerve the gamble when the odds are out of favour.

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  9. We are being asked more and more often to supply our real ales in pins rather than the firkin. Turns over faster and means the pubs can have a wider range. Good idea. Thank goodness we have a lot of pins!

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