Friday, 7 April 2017

Curate's keg

It’s long been the received wisdom that keg beer, while it will never scale the heights that cask can, at least offers consistency. You’re much less likely to get a seriously duff pint. However, that doesn’t mean that the odds are zero, and keg beer, while it will keep longer than cask, is not immune from the constraint of shelf life and the need to keep lines cleaned. Indeed, the recently-published Beer Quality Report showed that keg beers were significantly more likely to be dispensed from dirty lines than cask.

Substandard keg beer is less likely to exhibit the glaring faults that poor cask does, such as being cloudy or vinegary. It will probably be just a bit flat, stale-tasting and possibly slightly hazy when you would expect it to be crystal-clear. This makes it rather more difficult to have the courage of your convictions and return it to the bar. Girl Meets Pint reports here that she received a substandard pint of Charles Wells Dry Hopped Lager – possibly not the pub’s best seller – but, understandably enough, demurred.

As it turns out, the lager was distinctly past its best, and to be honest I really should have taken it back, but I’m afraid to say I didn’t.
Incidentally, that’s a blog well worth following for its superb, detailed observation of everyday pub life.

I have to say I very rarely drink keg beer in pubs, so don’t have much personal experience to draw on. However, a few months ago, I was at a CAMRA Pub of the Month presentation at the Old Cock in Didsbury and thought I would try a half of Camden Hells lager, which was on tap there. It came out as described above – flat, stale-tasting and hazy – and, after about two seconds’ thought, I went back to the bar and asked for it to be changed which, to be fair, was done willingly and the difference in cost between that and the replacement refunded. Serves me right for swerving the cask, some might say. I assume it had been stocked on the instructions of the area manager, but in practice just didn’t sell.

With the growth in craft keg offerings, many of which by definition will be low-turnover, niche products, the risk of getting sub-standard keg beer is only going to increase. A further factor is that craft kegs are likely to be unpasteurised, and may still contain live yeast, so the shelf life will be less and the risk of something going wrong increased. As with cask, drinkers need to grasp the nettle and return what appears to be faulty beer rather than just grimly struggling through it. But, if something is designed to be a murky sour in style, how are you expected to know if it’s off?


  1. Interesting. I cannot think of a time when I have seen a craft keg beer returned at the bar. I think in most US bars they would look at you like you are nuts.

  2. I have returned the occasional pint here in Virginia and received a new pint no questions asked. It helps that most of the places I drink know me quite well and for some daft reason have it in their heads that I know what I am talking about. I wonder sometimes though over here if there isn't some hesitancy because so many people are new to beer that isn't in the Bud/Miller/Coors realm and don't yet trust themselves to know when a beer is bad.

    1. I suspect you're right - a lot of US drinkers are struggling through beer that has gone off because they're not confident to declare it bad and there isn't really a culture of returning below-par beer.

  3. If you are an active part of a campaign for a particular type of old fashioned beer then there is an argument than constructive complaint can improve the customer experience of fellow drinkers and contributes to a possible aim of the campaign to make your old fashioned beer more reliable.

    If you are not a member or supporter of any campaign is it rational to make a fuss over a low value item or just leave it, walk out & not return to the dodgy pub selling sub standard beer? It depends how you wish to enjoy your evening and it is an area you can avoid a conflict at low personal cost.

    It all depends whether you are acting in your own interesting or trying to act in the interest of a wider group or campaign.

    I tend to go ask for my money back as rudely as I can because I happen to enjoy conflict. It makes my evening.

  4. I always return a duff pint, cask or keg. Too expensive not to, and it just might warn the staff to stop serving it.

  5. Pub cleaning their lines regularly can never be guaranteed though as you say its more recognisable with cask when the beer has gone bad or contaminated.

    But a lager held too long is a rare sight especially with the increase in key kegs. Again clean between beers is required of course.

  6. Angles Ales is a microbrewery I set up in Peterborough. I am just off to enjoy a pint of our Goat Tosser best bitter at a local village pub about 4 miles away. Nothing beats drinking your own beer in a friendly pub and watch others enjoying a pint of it too. Fortunately our beers usually sell out in a few days so have no time to go off. Goat Tosser was the first beer to sell out at the Booze on the Ouse beer festival at St Neots in March. I nearly cried! I have pins of our beers in the cold store and they can usually last nearly 3 weeks before starting to turn once tapped.

  7. The Blocked Dwarf9 April 2017 at 07:28

    " I nearly cried!"

    I don't drink alcohol any more and I don't go in pubs since the Smoking Verbot but for some reason your comment rather touched me. Soppy old dwarf that I am, probably because I have brewed enough beer in my time to know how tricky it can be and how much 'loving' it requires. So congrats.

  8. If you drink craft regularly in Manchester, you soon realise that there's a surprising amount of duff pints out there. People are definitely more reluctant to return keg beer, possibly from fear of being made to feel foolish, so pubs continue to get away with it.

  9. If mainstream keg beers can be returned (stilage) due to being flat and off then it will happen to craft as well. I've seen bad barrels of many of the big brands returned as the beer is crap and not coming out as expected.

    The rule of thumb is that everything can go bad. Don't assume it doesn't.

    Keg beer may have a longer shelf life but life after tapping doesn't mean its good till expiry and I think pubs need to learn this. Much like ale goes bad after a few days (depending on usage) so to can keg. Less noticable due to chill factor and hoppiness


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