Saturday, 6 February 2016

It’s real ale, Jim, but not as we know it

Probably the most controversial issue in CAMRA for a long time is the question of whether some “KeyKeg” beers can be classified as “real ale”. I wrote about this here, which included this admirably clear description of what a KeyKeg is.

So I thought I would do a poll on people’s attitudes to this. The results show a fairly even split between “Yes” and “No, but it’s still worth promoting” with a lesser number going for “Keg is Keg”. Overall, 59% thought that keybeg beers should not be recognised as real ale. It should be pointed out that on the blog I added the following caveat “For the avoidance of doubt, I'm referring to KeyKeg beers that are unpasteurised, unfiltered and not injected with additional CO2.” The comment by “Dickthebeer” is worth reproducing:

Good CAMRA members know the definition of real ale and know that dispenses are not always all they seem, but CAMRA has defined Real Ale very closely. A beer not meeting that definition, for brewing, storage and dispense, by definition is NOT real ale. The majority of French and Belgian ales, though clearly top-fermented, naturally conditioned etc. do not meet the definition but are fine beers. Find an honest term for what could become an international variant of the real ale that is peculiar to the UK, and one we should be proud of.
A KeyKeg
CAMRA has always been prone to having passionate debates about the minutiae of dispense methods – the Scottish air pressure system and the cask breather being two good examples. This can be classed as another in the same vein. But it is important to remember that the conditioning, storage and dispense of beer is something that fundamentally underlies CAMRA, so claims of “ignore dispense, good beer is good beer” ring hollow.

At the recent Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, there was a dedicated “craft keg” bar, and I tried a couple. It wasn’t a big scientific survey, but both were quite nice. But it must be said that they obviously came across as keg in terms of temperature and carbonation, and very different from real ale as usually understood.

There are two arguments 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 beers for longer. But I get the impression 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 may assuage some CAMRA consciences, but it’s unlikely to make much difference to whether people choose to drink it. Being a touch cynical, I wonder whether the real motivation is making it acceptable to serve keg beers at CAMRA-run beer festivals rather than improving the lot of drinkers in the pub.

When CAMRA was founded, getting on for half of the real ale sold in Britain was dispensed through electric pumps, which may have led to its founders underestimating the amount of real ale there actually was out there. While electric pumps have their advantages, one thing they don’t do is to give a clear indication of the type of beer that comes out of them. Over the years, pub operators have steadily replaced electric pumps with handpumps for this very reason, and electric dispense has now pretty much entirely died out. The once-common practice of serving keg beer through handpumps has also been largely eliminated, so if you go in a pub and see a bank of handpumps you can be confident about what you’re going to get. But if we get “real” craft keg, are we going to get little stickers on the taps saying “CAMRA Says this is Real Ale”? Will we have pubs included in the Good Beer Guide purely on the strength of their craft keg offering? 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.

One of the recurring themes of this blog has been that CAMRA is 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 far more willing to recognise merit in beers that do not qualify. Most members to some extent enjoy non-real beers, so why should the organisation officially ignore this?

I make no claim to be an expert on cellarmanship, but I would say it is questionable whether keykeg beers really fit the definition of real ale anyway. As pointed out in a letter in February’s What’s Brewing from veteran activist Peter Judge, 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. Of course it’s vastly better than Red Barrel, and something I’d be happy both to drink and promote. But, to my mind, it isn’t “real ale” as understood by the general drinking public. Rather than arbitrarily extending the definition to encompass something you happen to like, wouldn’t it make more sense to accept that some beers that aren’t technically “real” can actually be very good?

And I can foresee some lively debate at CAMRA’s forthcoming National Conference in Liverpool at the beginning of April.


  1. I've already seen a 'CAMRA says' label on a keg tap, at that well-known hipster hangout the Harewood Arms, Broadbottom. (Siren Soundwave, and very nice it was too.)

    I don't think venting is fundamental to the definition of RA - what makes it 'real' is the presence of the yeast, which will carry on working to some extent even when the beer's in a pressurised (but gas-tight) container. Being under pressure does mean that the beer will keep its original condition for longer, but that's a bit different from taking on extraneous CO2.

  2. Interesting to quote this from the Magic Rock website linked above:

    "Please note that we do all we can to fully ferment our beers and package them without yeast and with specific C02 levels to suit the style and they should never need de-gassing."

    If there is a secondary fermentation without venting it may well make the beer excessively gassy.

  3. The misunderstanding CAMRA have about keykegs continues to baffle me. In at least nine out of ten cases, brewers who use them are not motivated at all by any concern about artificial carbonation, CAMRA etc. It's simply that these one way kegs are convenient and avoid the need to invest in expensive metal kegs.

    As a publican I have regularly heard brewery owners and sales reps trumpet the fact they are now using traditional metal kegs as a great step forward from the necessary evil that is the key keg.

    Nobody in the trade likes them. They're a stupidly expensive, inefficient way to deliver draught beer. Ideally they should only be used in export.

  4. The answer is neither relevant nor interesting. As long as CAMRA obsess about pointless questions like this they will never be relevent, and their pointless, fractious, real ale twattery will continue to give beer a bad image.

  5. If venting is important then how is bottle conditioned beer real ale?

  6. The secondary fermentation is surely the important thing - which a lot of keykeg beers undergo - plus it is possible to vent a keykeg with a spare coupler. What's more concerning for me is the number of breweries churning out essentially bright beer, with no sediment in the cask at all, and calling it 'real ale'. This beer stands no chance whatsoever of conditioning properly and is going to get beer a far worse name IMO.

  7. @Colin - I tend to regard bottle-conditioned beer as a category in its own right rather than simply a bottled equivalent of cask-conditioned beer. It's a distinctly different product.

    However, if you don't get it right, the lack of venting can be a problem and result in "gushers".

  8. What seems to have been missed is that they also produce another product called KeyCask that can be dispensed with a pump and which would seem to deal with the dispense objections. If it allows a club or restaurant to stock a real ale or a pub to put on a beer with limited demand, maybe a mild, then that is surely a good thing.

  9. This is one of those debates, like sparklers which are entertaining for people like me to watch for all the wrong reasons. It is CAMRA talking to itself about something only a few odd ball people care about.

    It happens. Meanwhile the rest of us just go on drinking whatever we liked to begin with.

    Maybe it's because CAMRA has nothing to say to a wider public anymore.

    CAMRA was always at its most relevant when it was talking to drinkers about the merits of the pong.

  10. @py - so what was wrong with Red Barrel, apart from the fact that some people didn't like it? Likewise keg GK IPA?

  11. @ChrisM - the problem is that secondary fermentation within the bag of a keykeg is hard to control, and could result in extremely fizzy beer and churning up the sediment. Hence why Magic Rock - one of the most highly-regarded new-wave brewers - say they do their best to avoid it.

    Vigorous secondary fermentation in a cask just vents to the atmosphere, whereas in a keykeg it leads to a build-up of CO2.

  12. That's an excellent post, agree particularly with the line

    "I get the impression 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"

    I have no interest at all in the debate. On occasion, e.g. in the Taps or Smithfield, I'll go for a stronger beer (say 7%) and forego temperature and a few pence, as most stronger beers don't come in cask.

  13. I always thought that this issue wouldn't go away and as I said on my recent FB post about the same letter in What's Brewing, I believe it's wrong to try and shoehorn this under the existing real ale definition. Aside from all the technical issues, it's simply not helpful for the consumer to try and say it's such-an-such a style of drink. Real ale is (mainly) flat and warm (relatively) whereas key keg beers are carbonated and colder.

    So let's forgot about arguing over semantics and simply decide whether there are now some good beers that are worth supporting for the benefits of the brewing industry and the consumer.

  14. I sort of get the point. Yes keykeg is a different product to cask and should still be regarded as such.

    But I think the general consumer is actually smart enough to understand that. I really can't see there being any danger of keykeg being passed off as cask. Quite the opposite really - the places that stock it want to make a big deal out of it being different, especially when they are expecting people to pay a premium.

  15. @Rob N - yes, that very much sums up my position on the subject. Is it good? Yes. Is it worth recommending? Yes. Is it real ale? No, not as usually understood.

    @Rob - the issue is more one of blurring the distinction with "conventional" filtered are carbonated keg. Like Punk IPA. And for how many punters will it really make a difference if they see a "CAMRA says this is real keg" sticker?

  16. "@py - so what was wrong with Red Barrel, apart from the fact that some people didn't like it? "

    Well, nothing, ultimately. If people had liked it, then there would have been no need for CAMRA.

    But the fact of the matter was that a significant proportion of people didn't like it, and preferred the way the old cask ales tasted.

    They mistakenly thought that the reason these beers tasted good was because of the specific way they were dispensed, but we now know that that was an illusion - blind taste tests reveal that brewery conditioned and cask conditioned ales are indistinguishable, as are beers dispensed with and without a cask breather.

  17. Mudgie, not sure what your point is. Is it a slippery slope concern of CAMRA being linked to any sort of keg product thereby potentially undermining cask? If so then I don't see that as a problem. The market is educated enough.

    Or is it that people will order punk thinking it is 'real keg'? To which I would say 'so what'.

    The problem CAMRA have is to be seen as being left behind. The beard and sandals brigade who can't keep up with awesomeness of the craft beer revolution etc etc. So they give a little bit of leeway to show they're still with it and still relevant in this brave new world.

  18. Ha Ha, I love the conceit that it matters to anyone beyond the type of person who only necks CAMRA approved grog and wants CAMRA to approve of all the grog they want to neck.

    It's them stick in the muds that what to stop you necking it by, erm, not approving of it.

  19. Bit late picking this up.

    It's all very well quoting Magic Rock as being specifically against keg-conditioning, but you could equally quote Weird Beard and Moor who are just as well regarded and specifically in favour of it. Magic Rock have their opinions on maintaining brewery defined carbonation levels, whereas Moor are happy for their kegs to be vented & served on handpump.

    It is no more difficult to control the secondary fermentation in a key-keg than it is in a traditional cask - it's down to the brewers art to get the yeast and fermentables levels right - plenty of cask brewers still get this wrong. If a key-keg has too much condition then, as highlighted, it can be vented using a spare connector just as an over conditioned cask is vented by leaving it on soft spile before serving. The difference compared to a cask is that the key-keg will then retain that carbonation level where a cask will get flatter and flatter the longer it is on.

    Yes, their is a point that people who predominately drink keg probably do so because they like it colder and more carbonated. Of they may just find it more reliable after too much dodgy over-vented or oxidised cask. Or some people may drink either cask or keg depending on the brewery / beer they find on the bar.

    Where the debate gets messy is the "extraneous CO2" part of the "official" real ale definition. This causes key-kegs (and Eco-fass etc) to be split off as a separate subset from top-pressure kegs.
    The real discussion (if it's worth having) should be over keg-conditioning vs brewery conditioning (and carbonation), filtering and pasteurisation which is much more important than what keg form it's sold in.
    The only aspect where key-keg comes in over top pressure keg is that it (largely) avoids poor cellar set up changing the characteristics of a beer.

    Is the latter debate worth having? Well some keg brewers believe in keg conditioning as giving a better flavour. Some argue and promote brewery conditioning for consistency. And some argue that for even better consistency, you should pasteurise as well. So here we are again - back in 1965....


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