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It was silly really; driving all the way to Sheffield, spending money on a hotel room, drinking far too much on a weekday night and then getting up far too early to drive back home again and try and get a whole days work in before I can settle down and start to write about it all.

What could I do? I'd missed the BrewDog End of History tasting in The Rake, but London is just too far to go, then they planned to do it all in Sheffield Tap with the added advantage of some Thornbridge beers too. Damn, it seemed that Jaipur would be available on both cask and keg, at the same time, now there is a test I have always wanted to carry out; tasting the same beer on these two forms of dispense.

To be fair, I'd had a busy day and had been snacking on rubbish on the journey over. I was hungry and thirsty, I'd have probably enjoyed a pint of any form of amber liquid had it been chilled enough. I ordered a half of Jaipur and interestingly the barman immediately went to the handpull. I explained that I wanted a half a pint of over-chilled, over fizzed Jaipur and one half of cask, he suddenly remembered that he should have asked which I wanted. I then proceeded to sample each in turn.

It’s the old question; is cask ale really the best and only way to serve craft beer or can keg be as good, or even for some styles better than cask. It is very rare to get the very same beer on gas tap and on handpull in the same establishment. This occasion saw the ideal opportunity to try a great beer in both formats.

Being thirsty the keg version instantly won me over, the slightly increased carbonation, just less than 2 volumes according to Kelly Ryan, and the slightly colder serve temperature combined to quench my deep thirst. I have to say I was impressed by the keg version and the cask was dull and flabby in comparison.
I tweeted that I preferred the keg version, Tandleman tweeted in reply questioning if the cask was in good condition. A very valid point, I believed it was but inevitably it might have lacked maximum condition and may have already been on a couple of days. I found no detectable defects however.

Notwithstanding my thirst and possible mood influence on my declaration of keg being the winner of this less than ideal comparison, it is perhaps useful to have a greater analysis of the real perceptible differences.

Unfortunately I tasted the keg version first, which may have masked appreciation of the cask version. The keg beer had a very enjoyable hop flavour and aroma that was significantly subdued in the handpulled beer. A very plausible explanation for this is loss of hop aroma due to the cask having been vented a few days. The lovely hop experience aided the quelling of my desire for liquid refreshment.

Shortly after purchasing my halves of Jaipur I met with Reluctant Scooper. We had a short discussion about the keg beer. He pointed out that keg beer tends to have reduced malt character. Yes, I’d agree, the colder fizzier Japiur really was thinner and more refreshing. Whether that is good may well be a matter of opinion and even down to the mood and palate variations of the drinker at that time.

It is true that the cask was more malty, silky and velvety. Perhaps on a different occasion I would have found the cask more balanced and less harsh. It would be valid to say that the kegged version unbalances the beer on to the hoppy side to the detriment of the malt profile.

That evening I continued to drink a variety of different beers, some cask, some keg and some bottles, right up to a crazy 55% squirrel encased audacious spirit masquerading as a beer. Some beers were Thornbridge, some were BrewDog and some Stone, if I remember correctly. It was a great night with great beer right from 4% ABV upwards.

After my initial keg verses cask comparison I stopped worrying about the dispense method. I enjoyed every single beer that night and shall return in another posting to say a little bit more about one or two of them.

It seems obvious to me that the discussion about keg verses cask will rage on forever, and so it should. I am a fan of good beer, it is as simple as that. Good beer can be found in cask, and the fact remains that the majority of good beer in the UK is to be found in this format. Despite that it is not true to say that all keg beer is rubbish and there are some very clear benefits to that format of dispense.

There are also some very poor cask beers. Sometimes it’s the fault of the brewery, and we have been guilty of that from time to time. Sometimes it’s the fault of the pub, and when we had our pub we also failed occasionally there too. But cask beer does take a little more care and planning than keg beer. It is easier to get cask beer wrong and I challenge even the best cask brewer or cellar man to honestly tell me they have never made a mistake.

Cask inevitably suffers from the problem that in dispense air is let into the cask. Carbonation is released and with it lovely volatile essential oils, even within the 3 days recommended cask life beer does change flavour profile. Some drinkers like beer that has lost some of its more aggressive flavours. Many drinkers feel that particular beers benefit from some exposure to air, Timothy Taylors is one case in point.

I also feel that some breweries give advice to cellar men that result in much of the condition in the beer being lost before it ever sees the pumps. I shall hopefully return to this at some time, but clearly if beer is lacking carbonation before the first pint is served then the last is going to be well past acceptable. There is also the inevitable problem of licences trying to edge their bets and leave cask beer on sale past acceptable deterioration compounded by the desire by many to provide a good selection.

These limitations of cask are accepted by many of us. It is better to have some poor quality cask than to have no cask at all. When it is in top form it can be superb. Many styles of beer just cannot be bettered in any other form and in particular good traditional styles such as stouts, porters and milds come into their own in this format.

It still remains that there is a growing interest, all be it limited and small scale, to craft keg beer. At the evening in the Sheffield tap there were a number of brewers who are either already experimenting, or are planning to experiment in the future with keg beer. I talked to some of them and came away with some great consensus views.

The key thing about craft keg is that it is not "mass produced, over carbonated, chemical shit". Many of the brewers I spoke to were concerned about issues such as carbonation volumes. Thornbridge for instance currently carbonate at less than 2 volumes, although there seemed to be a little descent on this one from the new Aussie guy, who's name I forget. The point is that the level of carbonation is important. It is possible to make keg beer that is low carbonation and I think Thornbridge got it about right.

Later I talked to James Watt, you know, that crazy Scottish guy who's in charge of Stuff at BrewDog. We were talking about filtration levels and I commented that one bottling company filter beer to 0.5 microns. This is great in some ways as it will filter nearly all bacteria and yeast cells and so ensure long shelf life for bottles. James seemed a little shocked about this, clearly he believes that this level of filtration to beer will knock out much of the good hop flavours in the beer. My experience would bear this out.

I believe that many of the craft breweries who are kegging beer are not sterile chill filtering. The product is still live and very possibly undergoing some secondary fermentation in the keg. Clearly yeast counts will be far less than in the cask versions but the important point is that the product still retains the vibrant flavours and aromas in the beer. Thornbridge have a fancy centrifuge which is supposed to be the dogs whotsits for sorting out clarity whilst carefully controlling the cell count in the beer. I talk about technology in beer production in a previous post, careful appropriate application of such technology will provide some interesting avenues for the future of craft beer.

Some brewers, bar managers and beer geeks are proclaiming that keg is the future of the craft beer market. Some have even gone on to say that cask beer will die out some time soon. I'm not sure I quite agree that strongly. Keg beer, Proper Real Keg if you like, is part of the future. Cask beer will also be part of the future.

I'd like to leave you with a little bit of topical controversy. Sex is good. Great sex with a loving partner is fantastic. In a long-lasting relationship sex can even occur without the inconvenience of using, what I believe can be referred to as, prophylactics. But just consider this; is insisting that good beer can only be served without the aid of any extraneous carbon dioxide just as bad as insisting that sex can only ever take place without the use of a condom?


This blog post is a little delayed. I was in hospital yesterday getting my hernia sorted. The last couple of weeks have been mad as we've been trying to sort out the brewery. I've got to rest a bit now, so hopefully I can get a bit more blogging sorted. I intend to tell you my thoughts on various BrewDog beers I tried at Sheffield last Wednesday.