The reason cask beer dramatically turned the tables against keg in the 1970s was not some issue of principle – it was that, quite simply, when well-kept, cask was much better than keg. I remember the old-style keg beers and they were often pretty unpleasant – gassy, burp-provoking, overchilled, lacking subtlety of flavour and often surprisingly reluctant to maintain a head.
For more than three decades, pretty much everything of interest in the British draught beer market was cask. A lot of keg continued to be sold, and indeed it enjoyed a resurgence in the mid-90s in the guise of “smooth”, but in general it was a commodity product appealing to undiscerning customers.
Even now, if you go in a typical pub the alternatives to cask aren’t very inspiring. There will be a smooth bitter, such as John Smith’s, which in my experience are uniformly bland and have an unpleasant soapy feel. Then there’s cooking lager, such as Carling, which might be refreshing on a hot day and to my mind is more drinkable than smooth, but becomes boring once you’re nearing the bottom of the glass. Guinness is not to everyone’s taste and in any case is widely thought to be a shadow of its former self. In fact, your best chance of finding something with a bit of character is likely to be an imported premium lager, but that comes at a price and may be a stronger beer than you actually want to drink.
However, the growth of “craft keg” has started to change the perception that keg beers offer nothing of interest to the discerning beer drinker. At first, it was mainly confined to strong and/or exotic beers and could be regarded as a complement to cask rather than a direct rival but, more recently, there are signs that it is spreading into the field of lower-strength and more quaffable beers.
In the comments to a previous blogpost, Cookie describes how he had a keg Shipyard Pale Ale in a pub where the cask offering didn’t seem very appealing: “I'd drink the shipyard again figuring it wasn't a gamble in a pub that doesn't have a big cask turnover, and f*** all other punters appear to be drinking the cask.”
While a good cask beer is always going to be better than any keg, “craft keg” does address two of cask’s Achilles heels – that it is inconsistent, particularly in lower turnover outlets, and that it is simply served too warm for many people’s tastes. It cannot be denied that there is a large and genuine demand for draught beers served cooler than typical cask temperature.
I’ve described myself how, in hot weather, I’ve occasionally taken the view that a pint of cooking lager might be a better option than a cask beer of the Doom Bar type in a pub where nobody else appeared to be drinking it. Sometimes I’ve had the cask and wished I hadn’t because I ended up with a pint of tepid, hazy glop. If a craft keg ale at a drinkable strength of 4.5% or less was available then that would probably be preferable to the lager, and thus the perception that cask is always the beer to go for starts to be eroded.
Cask still has a huge amount of goodwill and inertia on its side – many of its non-enthusiast drinkers have scarcely come across any craft kegs and still see beer choice in a simplistic “cask good, keg bad” way. But, as craft kegs start to penetrate mainstream pubs, like the one Cookie described, and a new generation of drinkers start to take a more eclectic view of beer choice, things could start to change. Perhaps a sign of a shift in the marketplace would be if a substantial brewery decided to bring out a range of seasonal craft beers – like Hydes’ Beer Studio series – in keg rather than cask form. In a sense Marston’s are already doing that with their Revisionist beers.
And so, it’s entirely possible that, within a few years, much of the on-trade market for interesting, characterful beer will have switched from cask to new-wave keg. I’m not saying it will happen, or that it should happen. But it could happen. And a call from CAMRA to man the barricades against the keg menace would almost certainly fall on deaf ears.