Are kegs taking some of the ‘craft’ out of UK craft beer?

Last week, I caught an article by beer writer Pete Brown on the varying quality of cask beer.

In the piece, which was aimed at the pub trade, Mr Brown says he’s mostly stopped drinking cask beer.

The main reasons?

Too often, the beer isn’t ready to drink or has been on sale too long.

Sometimes, this means it’s hazy when it shouldn’t be.

More often, it means the beer lacks flavour and sparkle.

Fault

Who’s to blame when you get a pint of cask beer like this?

The brewery?

Maybe. Sometimes a particular batch of beer – or the beer in general – isn’t up to scratch.

However, one of the features of cask beer is that the brewing process isn’t finished once the beer leaves the brewery because the beer continues fermenting in the cask.

This means the way it’s handled in the pub before it’s served can have a massive impact on the quality of the beer.

Hence why you might enjoy a fine pint of a certain beer in one pub and, say, a lifeless or vinegary or cloudy pint of the same beer in another.

And that’s Mr Brown’s gripe. He says that most publicans don’t know how to look after cask beer, which means that finding a good pint can be a lottery when you visit somewhere new.

Keg beer

This is one of the reasons “craft keg” beer is becoming more popular in the UK.

Not only does keg beer usually leave the brewery ready to drink, but beer in specific types of keg has a longer shelf life than cask.

Put it in keg and breweries don’t have to worry about lax publicans ruining their beer – and their reputations.

You might also like: The ultimate guide to Southampton’s craft beer bars and real ale pubs

Swapping cask for keg

In the last few years, several high-profile breweries have abandoned cask beer altogether.

For instance, international brand BrewDog started phasing out cask beer several years ago – even in its own bars where it should be easier to guarantee the quality of cask beer.

Beavertown, Buxton and Cloudwater have also stopped cask beer production.

This means that the cellarman – the person responsible for storing, nurturing and maturing cask beer while to its best – no longer plays a role in the production of the beer.

And that’s my point.

Cask cellarmanship – storing, stillaging, pegging, venting, tapping and the sensory abilities needed to serve the beer at optimum condition – is a skill – and dare I say, a craft.

It’s ironic then that many of the breweries withdrawing cask are at the forefront – whether they like it or not – of the so-called UK craft beer scene.

By abandoning cask beer they’re effectively mechanising one of the aspects of beer production that differentiates craft beer from beer produced on an industrial scale by the big beer corporations.

After all, almost anyone can change a keg with a little bit of training. But becoming a skilled cellarman can takes years of application – and a passion for serving great beer.

All about the taste

Naturally, the keg-only breweries will argue that they’re not compromising taste and quality by abandoning cask. And who am I to argue?

Especially when many keg beers, like those produced by Southampton’s new brewery Unity, are so damn delicious.

Ultimately, if they can guarantee a great-tasting beer at every establishment that stocks their beer on draught, it’s good for the breweries as well as the people drinking it.

We just need to remember that it’s many little details – like the skills of the pub cellarman in producing great beer – that differentiate craft brewers from the big beer producers.

Take too many of these little details away, and the slope could get slippery.

Over to you

Do you care how your beer is made as long as it tastes good?

Do you think breweries abandoning cask is a good move?

Leave a comment below (no account required) or tweet me.

  • Nigel Watts

    Interesting, I find it you want quality real ale it can take a little effort, here’s what I do. First I use Camra’s Good Beer Guide and whatpub.com, this gives me a good idea of the best pubs in the area I’m visiting. Sometimes there’s no GBG pubs or only one or two so I use Cask Marque alongside whatpub.com. I find whatpub.com invaluable as it’s very up to date so for the Cask Marque pubs that have changed manager/licensee I can avoid these.
    The other point of this is this is the reason Camra was born in the first place because keg was becoming the only “beer” available, most of it was crap, Watneys Red Barrel anyone? As long as Cask doesn’t get replaced by keg again, I’m all for the extra choice this provides.

  • Cheers Nigel. I must say I find Cask Marque rather unreliable these days.

  • Nigel Watts

    Which is why I back it up with whatpub.com