I wouldn’t say I’m an expert on cask-conditioned ale, but having run a successful real ale off-licence for nearly six years, I’ve looked after, and served, a fair few pints of the stuff. My cellar skills have been further augmented over the years, by looking after cask ales at various beer festivals, and also at parties and other get-togethers. On top of this I was, for many years, an accomplished home-brewer, producing a wide variety of different full-mash beers, and knowing when to rack the beers off to allow a strong secondary fermentation, alongside being able to bring them into peak condition prior to drinking them, is another set of skills I have acquired over the years.
When it comes to keg beer though, I’m something of an amateur, and where “craft keg” is concerned, then I’m a complete novice. My recent crawl along the famous “Bermondsey Beer Mile” brought his latter point home to me in a number of ways; not that I was in any way involved with the brewing or the serving of these beers. However, I was quite heavily involved in the drinking and appreciation of these beers and when, at two of the breweries, my son Matthew was served a glass of a very “milky” looking beer, questions were beginning to form in my mind, along with a number of quite serious doubts.
My understanding of the whole “craft” scene is that the beers are stored in, and served from containers known as “KeyKegs”. I would imagine this type of container is covered by at least one patent, and that the name is trade-marked, although I may be wrong on these points. I saw quite a few “KeyKegs” stacked up in several of the breweries, and at one at least (Brew by Numbers), I saw beer being dispensed from one, alongside a couple of empty ones. (For the record, beer was being stored in a chilled room, behind a makeshift bar at the aforementioned brewery, and I could see what was going on through the partially opened door).
I’m kicking myself for not having taken a few photos of these “KeyKegs”, or having examined them at close quarters, as there was ample opportunity to have done so. Instead I am relying on memory, plus information I’ve been able to glean on-line. The “KeyKegs” I saw at several breweries were probably a similar size to a standard British steel keg, but were made of rigid plastic with a cardboard outer. Not entirely of these materials though, as the main part of the keg, and the part in which the beer is kept, is basically a collapsible plastic liner, contained inside the robust outer skin. I thought the outers were octagonal in shape, but looking at examples on various websites, I see they are twelve-sided; a do-decahedron?
Obviously the plastic and cardboard outer provides strength and keeps the whole thing rigid, whilst the collapsible plastic liner allows the beer to be dispensed without coming into contact wit the air. Rather like a polypin, or a glorified "wine-box" if you like. Now comes the clever bit; the beer within the inner liner not only never comes into contact with the air, but it also is never touched by the propellant gas. Basically the gas pressure is applied between the inside of the rigid outer container wall and the outside of the inner bag which contains the beer. As the latter is flexible, it collapses as the beer is forced out of the bag by the pressure of applied gas. As the gas does not come into contact with the beer, there is no risk of it becoming too gassy, as with a traditional keg. In addition, low-cost compressed air can be used as the propellant, instead of the much more expensive CO2.
All very clever, and ideal for breweries not wishing to invest in large numbers of traditional, but expensive, steel kegs. However, “KeyKegs” are “one-trip” containers, and whilst the manufacturers are keen to extol their green credentials by boasting that all components are recyclable, they still cost money, and this cost has to be passed on to someone. That someone is usually the consumer, and the popularity of “KeyKegs” amongst “craft beer” brewers, may explain the inflated price of the final product at the taps.
I mentioned earlier my concerns about the milky-looking beer my son was served with, and whilst this is not a fault of the “KeyKeg” system per se, brewers using these containers to store and dispense their product need to pay a lot more attention to what they are doing, and what they are trying to achieve. As everyone knows, cask-conditioned beer contains a certain amount of live yeast, which allows the beer to undergo a secondary fermentation in the cask. This gives the beer condition and that all important "sparkle", but it also allows undesirable volatile components to be purged from the beer. Finings are added to the beer prior to it leaving the brewery, and these substances cause the yeast cells in the beer to clump together and fall out of suspension, eventually settling at the bottom of the cask. The resultant beer is clear and well-conditioned, and when looked after correctly can represent the very peak of the brewer’s art.
Unfortunately careless handling or poor cellar skills can lead to a pint which is cloudy, flat or both, plus of course, slow turnover will lead to prolonged exposure of the beer to oxygen in the air. This causes oxidation of the beer, making it taste stale and, if this process continues for any length of time, acidification occurs, with that all too familiar vinegar smell and flavour which is indicative of an “off-pint”.
Oxidation is not a problem with “KeyKegs”, but careless handling is, and so is poor formulation or insufficient maturation of the beer in the first place. Now I fully accept that the “craft fraternity” like their beer to be fresh and as natural as possible. This often means the beer is unfiltered and therefore still contains a certain amount of suspended yeast. I don’t have a problem if this suspended yeast is present at sufficient levels to cause a slight haze. I’ve drunk many unfiltered beers over the years, both at home and abroad and have generally enjoyed their fresh taste and slight yeasty background.
What I do have a problem with is beer which contains so much suspended yeast that it looks more like a "banana milk-shake" than a glass of beer, and unfortunately, whether by accident or design, this is what Matthew ended up with in his glass last Saturday afternoon! I didn’t say anything to him, as I didn’t want to cloud his judgement, if you’ll excuse the pun, or to prejudice him against hazy beer in the way that a whole generation of older drinkers has been conditioned to think. A good friend, who is ten years older than me, will often send back a pint which is just slightly hazy; sometimes without even tasting the beer first. This is in the mistaken belief that hazy, or cloudy beer gives people the “sh*ts”, or an unsettled stomach the following morning.
This is an old chestnut and, of course, not true. Matthew certainly suffered no ill-effects from drinking this yeast-laden beer, any more than I have in the past from drinking hazy, unfiltered beers. However, when the beer is as cloudy as described above then should we the customers speak out?
I suspect I would have got short shrift from the busy bar staff last Saturday, by returning Matthew’s “banana milkshake”, although if it had been my beer which was looking like that then I would perhaps have been bolder. Surely beer isn’t supposed to be excessively yeast-laden like that? Now I suspect one of either two things were occurring. My son was either unlucky enough to be served the dregs from the bottom of the “KeyKeg” OR the yeast count of the beer, prior to racking, was way too high.
The answer could also be that a combination of both factors caused the problem, which opens up a whole can of worms regarding the formulation, maturation, storage and dispensing of “craft keg”, to say nothing of the sometimes eccentric or indeed maverick personalities of the people behind some of these outfits.
“KeyKegs” are a good, innovative idea, and I can see why they are really catching on amongst “craft” brewers. They are a God-send for breweries, who are just starting up, as they save having to buy expensive steel kegs, or casks, and as their use increases I’m sure that costs will come down. The fact they allow beer to be stored away from the harmful effects of oxygen in the air, and then enable it to be served without absorbing any of the propellant gas can only help the cause of beer and people’s appreciation of it as the drink of choice.
The problems I have outlined above are not an inherent fault with these containers, but instead are problems of some “craft” brewers making. Great play is made at the moment about drinking the “freshest beer possible”. Unfortunately, fresh often means “immature”; something known in the trade as “green beer”. Green beer can sometimes taste harsh, and it's flavour can also be affected by compounds which would normally disappear as the beer matures.
Racking beer into “KeyKegs” straight from the fermenting vessel is not a good idea. It is an especially bad one if the beer is still heavily-laden with yeast. Whilst I admire the enthusiasm of many of these new wave of brewers, I feel they need to take a few steps back at times, to pause and reflect on exactly what they are doing. With a little more forethought and a little less haste, they could be turning out some absolutely stunning beers, instead of serving up pints of sludge. The choice is therefore yours gentleman (and ladies!).
I’ve rabbited on long enough for now on this perplexing subject, but would be especially interested in hearing other peoples’ thoughts on the matter. I am not knocking innovation or even out and out experimentation in brewing, but I am concerned about being served a glass of beer which contains more yeast than it does malt and hops!