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Friday, 4 February 2011

The Session: Keg versus Cask

I've been asked to take part in the session (a regular event where someone suggests a topic and bloggers the whole world over all write about it) a few times before now.  The fact that I have never taken part has nothing to do with me being Above That Sort Of Thing and everything to do with me simply not having time, or not having anything particularly interesting to say on the chosen topic on the day in question.

I'm taking part this month for two reasons: one, I was specifically asked to do so by Reluctant Scooper this month's host and one of the most underrated bloggers - nay, writers in any medium - on Planet Beer.  Second, because the topic Reluctant - or Simon as his mates call him - has chosen is one I've been meaning to blog for some time.

The topic is beer dispense: does it matter?  And I want to focus on the debate between cask and keg.  Because I think I've got it worked out now.

It's been a bit of an argument, and I waded in deep recently by slagging off people who think that good beer always has to be cask conditioned or, at a push, bottle conditioned.  One of the more sensible, but still devout, CAMRA members who commented on that post suggested that these days, one has to accept that there are some quality kegged beers around, but that any beer that's good on keg would de facto be better if it was on cask.

I disagree, and here's why.

I’m not a brewer.  I welcome corrections, rebuttals or even confirmation of my theory.  And this is NOT one of my anti-CAMRA posts – I’m not attacking anyone else’s beliefs or opinions, merely stating my own.

The idea came to me when I was in the Old Toad in Rochester, New York, a couple of months ago.  Local brewers Custom Brewcrafters had created an Imperial IPA for the pub's twentieth anniversary called, appropriately enough, OT20.  It was 9% ABV and full of the currently ubiquitous Citra hop.  Appropriately for one of the US's first cask ale pubs, it was available on cask as well as keg, so I had a half of each to compare.

The big differences were, unsurprisingly the temperature and the level of carbonation.  The hop aroma was much more prevalent in the keg - not surprising as carbonation helps release such aromas from beer. I was straining to get much from the cask.  And then in the mouth, the keg version felt lighter.  Obviously more refreshing, but also cleaner and more delicate.  By comparison, the cask version felt thick, oily, almost greasy.  The flavours were more complex and intense, but muddy somehow, bordering on unpleasant.  

This is a beer style that was invented (or rather, adapted in its modern guise) for keg, and it did not suit cask at all.  It's an American beer style.  It was never meant for English-style cask.

And that made me realise, conversely, why cask ale is so special.  It suits traditional British ale which, for the last hundred years or so, has mainly been at very low ABV, and very balanced.  What I'd experienced with a double IPA was a concentration of hop flavour and an intensity of character that had become unpleasantly cloying.  Take a 3.8% session ale that's relatively low in intensity, and filtration and carbonation would make it very bland indeed.  But that same concentration of flavour that cask bestows gives it a surprisingly interesting depth and layers of flavour, subtlety and character.  That's what makes session real ales so special and satisfying.

It also explains why some people who only drink session real ales cannot imagine any beer being as good if it were filtered and carbonated.

And it explains why extreme beer hopheads can often find cask a little unfulfilling.

So - if carbonation strips out hoppy depth and turns it into aroma, and cask turns moderate beer in on itself to give it complexity, the best method of dispense becomes a function of recipe and ABV.  Neither is intrinsically better than the other.

I was then able to admit to myself that, much as I adore Thornbridge Jaipur in any form, I've always seceretly harboured a preference for it in bottle over cask.  And why Elderfower-flavoured Badger Golden Champion is delightful in bottle but a dud on cask.  And why some people prefer Fuller's London Porter on keg.

So if I'm not talking out of my arse, where's the dividing line?  

Thornbridge's Kipling is 5.2%, and has recently been trialled on keg.  I tried it in the Euston Tap and was slightly let down.  I immediately had a hankering for the juicy body of the cask version.  It's a hoppy beer, sure, but not extreme.  And then, when I tried the side-by-side experiment in the Jolly Butchers with Camden Pale Ale, I much preferred the keg.  The carbonation was gentle - you'd have to be a Luddite twat to describe it as 'fizzy' - and the citrus hop flavour was very much to the fore, clean and incisive.  The cask, again, seemed oleaginous and out of balance.  So it's somewhere around 5%, and somewhere around reasonably full-bodied, and something to do with personal taste.

Doubtless some deniers will say I was on each occasion drinking cask that wasn't in top condition, but you're wrong, it was very good - different beers simply suit different methods of dispense.

So now can we all abandon irrelevant dogma, hold hands and live happily ever after in a sunny, harmonious beer world where everyone celebrates the bounteous diversity on offer?

No, thought not... 


Cooking Lager said...

Only if you've washed your hands.

The Beer Nut said...

"the best method of dispense becomes a function of recipe"
Great line!

Pete Brown said...

I have a hangover, BN, one worthy of Withnail himself. The mere act of thinking brings tears to the eyes.

I think I meant 'depends on', rather than 'is a function of'

SteveF said...

My personal preference is for cask, though there are many keg based beers that I really like. When in the Tap, I tend to drink 1/3 keg or bottle, 2/3 cask.

I haven't noticed a drop off in enjoyment of cask when along the plus 5%, full bodied lines that you suggest. However, I've never actually done a side by side comparison of keg and cask, so I would be interested to see if I can notice anything that corresponds to this. This calls for extensive experimentation!

Neil, said...

I think you may be right, infact I'm almost certain you are.

But do you think CAMRA will task you with the Cask report next year after this!?

I'm only thinking of your bank account!

Pete Brown said...

That's a really important point of clarification, SteveF - I'm not for one second saying cask beers over 5% are rubbish - I often enjoy them.

But we rarely do any kind of side by side taste comparisons in our normal daily lives, and when you do the results can be interesting.

For example, line up small samples of mainstream lager brands next to each other and the myth that you can't tell them apart soon evaporates...

The Beer Nut said...

"function of" definitely sounds better, like it has all science in.

dave said...

Once again a great write up Pete. Very interesting, and wish I could do more keg and cask comparisons.

SteveF said...

One of the good things about the Tap is the ability to sample from both keg and cask (and bottle). Even if you're not doing a direct comparision of a particular beer, there's room for getting feel of keg vs cask.

I was there last Sunday for their inaugral Sunday afternoon tasting event. Theme was Modern IPAs (the chap Tim read a bit from your book) and was a thoroughly enjoyable few hours. The first beer we had was Marble Lagonda and came pretty close to winning the day, before the final drink - a bottle of Southern Tier Unearthly Oak Aged. Was absolutely incredible, quite possibly the best beer I've ever tasted.

Joe Stange said...

Hi Pete, I had similar thoughts when trying several hop-forward beers on cask at GBBF a couple years ago. I think "a function of recipe" is a nice way to put it. But I'd emphasize hop character even more than ABV. Carbonation has its advantages, and one of them is its ability to scrub hop resin off our tongues so we can enjoy another gulp of juicy hop flavor without getting fed up too quickly. Cask ales that are hopped like kegged American IPAs cannot overcome that problem. A third of a pint is too much, then you're hunting for saltines and club soda if you want to taste anything the rest of the day.

SteveF said...

Basically, I really like beer! And all this chat is making me thirsty, so I'm off the the Southampton Arms. They've got various Marble beers on at the moment and I'm told some of Hardknott Dave's ales have been delivered so I fancy seeing if they're available at the moment.

Mark N said...

Homebrewers may be at an advantage here as we have the ability to divide a batch of beer between different dispensing methods. It's astonishing how the same beer can be so different, depending upon the method. I think you've summed it up perfectly.

Ghost Drinker said...

Pete, I'm still relativly new to the blogging world. you said "a regular event where someone suggests a topic and bloggers the whole world over all write about it" I was just interested in who choses the person to pose a question? Is there a vote, or does the last person to pose a question pick the next person? (and in that case who was first?)

stephanos_lemon said...

Keg beer is dead, cask flavours develop and for that reason there's always the slight element of risk which can add to a more exciting drinking experience. Plus British people enjoy a good complaining session. If all ale was served on keg we wouldn't have a method of differentiating between good pubs and naff ones. Although some people would of course say beer quality shouldn't be the main indicator. If all ales were available in keg form the majority of pubs would choose to stock kegs because they're easier to look after.

Birkonian said...

I've drunk some American keg beers recently and enjoyed them. BUT I suspect that I would soon fall out of love with them if I had to drink keg all the time no matter how well brewed. Good cask beer is forever.

Flagon of Ale said...

This is a refreshingly level-headed and reasoned comment on the debate. Couldn't agree more.

John Clarke said...

Umm, perhaps I have misunderstood what Thornbridge do with their "keg" but as far as I can see what this really is, is "cask" beer racked bright from the conditioning tank. It's then sealed into a plastic bag and the gas pressure is then exerted onto the bag (and not directly on to the beer) which forces it to the bar. That might account for the "gentle carbonation" you found so appealing - it was naturally generated by the beer itself rather than applied from elsewhere.

Having said all of that I agree there are some beer style better served on "keg" than "cask" - British interpretations of Belgian and German wheat beer style are some that spring to mind.

Gavin said...

I decided to do my own experiment and went to the All Bar One in town to try Fuller's London Pride on keg. It looked quite good in the glass, there were no rising bubbles, although the carbonation did move different in the glass. When tilting the glass the bubbles rose more quickly to the head than in the cask version. There was a definite Co2 whiff about the beer and the carbonation drove the hop notes into the nose more aggressively, it was certainly refreshing and not at all bad, prickly on the tongue but a lot of burps, you'd have to be bought up as a lager drinker to drink it all night but it was certainly refreshing. I felt some of the flavours were a little dulled by the Co2 bite. The flavours were all there but the carbonation seemed to clear the tongue to quickly. It seemed to lose condition more quickly than the cask, becoming quite dull toward the end as the co2 wore off. It was as if Co2 had shoved most of it's flavour up my nose in the first few minutes and then had run out of any to give me.

Next I walked to the Old Joint Stock for a cask London Pride. Looked similar in the glass but the bubbles seemed to have more finesse and rose more slowly into the head when agitated, although the difference in appearance wasn't as great as between some casks and kegs. The noticeable difference was a less pronounced hop aroma but the aroma was fresher and more natural, it built up more slowly, there was no Co2 whiff, I preferred it not being shoved up my nose. The cask was well conditioned with plenty of carbonation that prickled the end of the tongue but it didn't mask any flavours. The flavours seemed deeper and fuller and less in a hurry, I definitely preferred the cask but the keg was not an abomination but then I have never thought keg was, I just prefer cask. You may be right Pete, it's more English. Not sure about the strength thing though. I later had a couple halves of Thomas Sykes Old 10% and divine. Easy drinking like an LB port, fruit cordial and melted wine gums.

Pleasantly surprised by the keg though. Not bad when kept well and not over gassed. If you like beer that seems more in a hurry it may well suite but I'll opt for a Cotswold sunset and an easy going pint of Donnington BB.

Travel Bugs said...

+1 for it depends on style. Coming from the West Coast of the US and being a bit of a hop head, if you served a typical 7-10% west coast style IPA with 150+ IBUs on cask it would probably taste like dirty socks, if not because of the conditioning then the introduction of oxygen when pumped. These beers are simply not brewed with cask in mind.

Once you know what flavors the cask will impart, as you said the best method of dispense is simply part of the recipe. Great post.

Andrew Krone said...

Good article. I would think that the historical aspect of casks is the biggest draw. Yes, beers in casks tend to be unfiltered or have that yeast "slurry" BUT monks and brewers just didn't have Stainless Steel tanks a hundred years ago.

I think a large reason we're drawn to the cask because it's old and looks cool.

Anonymous said...

oleaginous - splendid word.

ZakAvery said...

Andrew Krone "I think a large reason we're drawn to the cask because it's old and looks cool."

No, we're drawn to cask because it's really great way of the getting the best out of some styles of beer

Stuart Ross said...

Pete, 10/10
Zak, 10/10

Stuart Ross said...

I just opened a bottle of Kipling and it the best I've ever tasted this beer, love the carbonation, it was stored cool and had 15 min in the fridge before drinking.

TaleOfAle said...

You hit the nail on the head there Pete. I myself have seen just how different beer can be depending on if it's kegged, bottled or Cask conditioned.

Some beer is just not suited to Cask.
Some beer however is much better on cask.

Simon Johnson said...

Thanks for the post. The Session round-up is now live:

Jeremy said...

I think the very things that cask advocates love about it(variability, delicacy etc. ) are often its downfall as well. As a North American touring England recently I found it interesting how few pubs were serving casks that were in excellent shape. Many were in good shape, but more were "adequate" or sub-par.

When the right beer, is served at the right time and in good shape cask can be delightful but ultimately I care more if it tastes good than the format it came in!

Interestingly, In Ontario we are starting to see a number of breweries serving cask beer not just because of some cache, but because it is convenient packaging for experimenting with new smaller batch brews.

How To Keg said...

I have to admit, i have never really thought about it before. I am new to brewing and always just use a corny keg and force carbonate. But I love hops and if a cask can increase this flavor, then I am going to have to try it in time. Thanks for the heads up

How To Keg said...

I have to admit, i have never really thought about it before. I am new to brewing and always just use a corny keg and force carbonate. But I love hops and if a cask can increase this flavor, then I am going to have to try it in time. Thanks for the heads up