The old-fashioned Jug & Bottle facilities, that were a feature of many late Victorian and Edwardian pubs, were just that. A separate section where customers could turn up to buy either draught ale – to take away in their own container (usually a jug), or if they has slightly more money to spend, bottled beer – rather like a modern day off-license.
Bottled beer was in its infancy back then and sold at prices considerably in excess of its draught counterpart, but if you were well-heeled, and fancied a beer with a little more sparkle, and one that kept well, this form of beer was definitely the one for you.
For the purpose of this article, I want to stick with draught beer, and cask ale in particular, as referenced at the start of the post. So, returning to the ubiquitous jug for a moment, let’s dismiss this container as a sensible option, unless the beer is going to be drunk immediately. The open nature of the jug, with its wide mouth and lack of closure, means any beer kept within it will rapidly lose condition, and end up flat, dull and lifeless, so we need to search for something more suitable.
Two-pint flagons, with an internal screw top, were a common sight; even as late as the 1970’s when I first started drinking. Whitbread Pale Ale was often sold in flagons, as was the same brewery’s Forest Brown Ale. Beers from other brewers were also available, but the two Whitbread examples are the ones that stick in my memory.
Enter the Carry Keg – reusable and durable containers, made of PVC, and available in either 4- or 8-pint sizes (2.4 & 4.5 litre). Modeled to look like old fashioned stoneware containers, with a conical neck and handy “finger-loop” handle, these vessels have been around since the 1980’s, and possibly earlier. Their main drawback is the screw-on “pressure cap” they are sealed with; a cap that is designed to release excess CO2 that might build up inside.
This feature is superfluous, as far as I am concerned, as the last thing needed is a closure that allows the beer to go flat and seeing as they are used almost exclusively for beer that is drawn off “bright” from the cask, very little secondary fermentation takes place and virtually no additional CO2 generated.
And yet, Carry Kegs have been in use for over 40 years, so surely the manufacturers must be doing something right? Brewers, such as Harvey’s make full use of these containers, and back in the day when I worked in Lewes, I was a regular visitor to the Harvey’s Shop for my twice-weekly takeaway order of Best Bitter, or whatever seasonal beer was on sale at the time.A few year later, when my wife and I ran the "Cask & Glass" in Tonbridge – a specialist “real ale off-license,” we also offered cask beer for takeaway, dispensed into these reusable Carry Kegs. They were obviously popular, and as trade built up, we were getting through four firkins (9-gallon casks) a week. All the time though, I couldn’t help thinking that these containers weren’t ideal for cask ale, unless it was to be drunk more or less immediately.
Much of the beer was for immediate consumption but given what I saw as the limitations of the Carry Keg I trialed the use of plastic milk containers, available in either 2- or 4-pint sizes. These were better, as there was no superfluous vent cap, but being made out of polythene, there was still a tendency for the gas to escape – leading to beer that was sometimes flat or lacking in life.
US fl oz (1 US Quart) or, for those who are really thirsty, 128 US fl oz (1 US Gallon).
Despite all these positive attributes, for some reason Growlers have never really caught on the UK, with most breweries and pubs that offer takeaway cask, sticking to the aforementioned and, in my view, far inferior Carry Kegs. It might just boil down to cost, but you get what you pay for, and a splashing out on a robust and gas-tight, stainless steel Growler, to me, makes perfect sense.
They are available in a few places, including Fuggles who operate a couple of popular and successful beer cafés, in both Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells. Alternatively, you can order direct from Craft Beer Growlers. If this wretched lockdown continues for much longer, a decent growler would definitely be a wise investment.
Instead of buying ready-dispensed cask ale, you could instead, always go for your own bulk container, so you can draw off your one beer, as and when you feel the demand. Four and a half gallon (36 pints) polypins are known to many beer enthusiasts, and providing you purchase one containing “live” beer, the contents should last for a few weeks. If you don’t want to be stuck with such a large amount of the same beer, then why not opt for a mini pin, which holds around 18 pints.
The ultimate containers for draught beer, including brewery-conditioned (i.e., non-real) beer, is the humble 5 litre mini keg. I have had several of these over the years, and the beer always keeps well in them. They have an integral, pull-out tap close to the base, plus a “release valve” at the top. The valve needs to be opened in order to dispense the beer, but then closed in order to maintain its condition.Cask beer will last up to a week in these containers, but with just over eight and a half pints of beer inside, most drinkers will knock that back in just a few days. I first encountered mini kegs on a trip to Bamberg, in northern Bavaria. As I was journeying by coach, I was able to bring one of them back with me and seeing as I was in Bamberg, my beer of choice just had to be the city’s most famous Rauchbier – Aecht Schlenkerla Märzen.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning the ceramic-stoppered, swing-top, “Grolsch” type bottles. They aren’t ideal for taking to the pub for a top-up, as they only hold around 500ml, but as they are easy to refill and seal, it’s sometimes worth filling them with beer racked off from the remains of a mini keg, and then leaving them to condition for a couple of weeks.
I did this with the couple of pints of Porter left from my recent Larkin’s mini cask. I will crack one open over Christmas and see what the beer is like. In the end making sure that the cask ale you are drinking at home, is every bit as good as what you’d expect in a pub, takes a blend of common sense and a little ingenuity. If you’ve got these qualities right, then the proof of your actions should show itself in the beer you are drinking. Cheers, Prost, à votre santé, Na zdravi, etc.