Keg: All Tied Up

Tied Keg Tap

Tied tap

An impromptu #BeeryLongRead inspired by a little Twitter exchange earlier today. It’s a bit of quickly typed up “brain dump” really… little time for finesse with such things these days. I’m very keen to hear any other views on these things. Always learning, ever adapting…

I’ve spent the last year selling good beer to pubs & other drinks sellers – good beer in any format: cask, keg, bottle, can… cask is by far the larger volume market for me. There is a strong “freehouse” scene in the UK, with pubs that like their variety of beer on the cask pumps. And a strong drinker following for enjoying the variety they supply. (Yes, this is a minority of the overall drinking market, but a significant one.)

So – why, when you walk into these amazing freehouses, do you find on the keg taps alongside the cask a very predictable list of ubiquitous multinational-brewed products: Stella, Fosters, Guinness, Carling… here I offer my observations on this. Take note that a) I’m a newbie in the industry and b) I’m in the industry – and fight my own corner.

Anyway, why the lack of variety? Simple: nearly all keg lines in the UK are tied – including those in “free”houses. It’s an interesting situation really… the UK keg beer market is very much like that in New Zealand described here. [I don’t have a survey or stats to quantify any of this – it is merely observation from a year of working with pubs. I’d be very interested in any real data, or just other views on the topic.]

OK – but there’s plenty of complexity under the hood! The basic principle is this:

Beer company (Heineken say) says to pub: we’ll put all the equipment you need to serve these beers into your pub, we’ll look after it for you, you just have to buy the beer from us.

An attractive offer! Single simple delivery of all your keg products, and a whole load of stuff you just don’t have to worry about. The pricing for the “premium” keg brands is also fairly reasonable, and pubs can make a slightly higher GP on them (for the often higher-volume product). So it also subsidises those pesky cask drinkers who go apecrap if their pint costs 10p more than they think it should. (Spirits are actually better still, I’ve been told by many a pub they’d not be in business were it not for cheap vodka & whisky.)

Tied KeyKeg Coupler

Tied beer line…

Until recently there was very little cause to want to do anything else with keg. There simply weren’t diverse keg beer options on the market – you want ultra-premium, you’ve got -say- Hoegaarden and Leffe… so against the rise of cask ale the big brewers and distributors got themselves very solidly embedded into the freehouse market. And it was pretty much good for everyone. (Yes, there were always a few outliers – bars with knowledgeable enthusiast landlords who get hold of special imports and carved their own niche.)

But now things are changing. Small brewers are toying with keg, led perhaps by BrewDog’s bold positioning of switching over to being keg-only. Keg has various technical advantages – which can be discussed another time – and some folk simply prefer the beer the “keg way”. Usually folk inspired by European and American brewing. BrewDog were far from the first of course – Meantime, Camden, Freedom, and others were forging themselves little keg empires of their own already – with a big focus on supplanting mainstream premium lagers.

Speaking of these lager brewers – they had the strategy that was necessary to crack into this keg market. You’re a small brewer wanting to get your beer into keg, problem: how to you get that keg into a bar? All your locals have equipment owned by BigBrewCo and none of the publicans have the 1st clue about handling kegs beyond absolute basics. Put beer in keg… easy… but what next?

Those who successfully got their kegs into bars knew exactly what: put keg lines into pubs, follow the same model that the pub already understands. We start to see Meantime, Camden, Freedom, etc branded fonts showing up everywhere (in London and the South East at any rate). But this just means more tied lines! There’s a bit more diversity than before, but it’s still mostly “just lager”. The established-keg-breweries themselves provide a little diversity – pale ales, red ales, stouts… but all the same brands and little real “fun” to the beer. “Gateway beers”? Cask is still very much supreme for a tasty pint.

BrewDog’s little keg revolution changes this though – loads of little breweries now put their exciting beers into keg. But there’s a problem: the number of pubs with free of tie keg lines and clued up landlords is relatively minuscule. So now you’ve got dozens (hundreds?) of little breweries all vying for a tiny volume of keg throughput. Mostly relying on a small number of “craft” bars to get beer in front of consumers.

“Craft bars”? To me what it takes to make a pub or bar actually “craft” in ethos is total freedom and no compromise. We see places like the Euston Tap showing up – they know what they want, they don’t want to be tied up, they invest in their own equipment. Ostensibly they’re successful, others follow suite… we’ve now got a small raft of craft venues supporting these breweries. Cambridge 5 years ago probably had zero free-of-tie keg lines, now across 4 venues there are over 30 – and more to come no doubt. But that’s four venues in a city of dozens of cask freehouses. There’s a long way to go.

Coupler Fittings

Simple plastic fittings…

So what needs to happen to keep on growing this free-of-tie “craft” keg beer market? Pubs need to invest… in both equipment and know-how. Both are seriously lacking. I keep coming across pubs that have had free-of-tie keg equipment installed. But with only half the couplers they need, they don’t even know how to change a coupler on the lines, they don’t even have pressure gauges on their gas. They’re heading in the right direction but they need a lot of hand-holding in the short term. That’s what we have to offer – myself as a distributor, breweries to their direct clients. I fully support all keg beer I sell because this is necessary. I drove 80 miles to replace a simple plastic fitting last week – that’s how dire the state of knowledge in the industry is. The tied-keg-line status quo has done a good job of keeping landlords clueless and dependent.

Which raises that point too: the vast majority of publicans really don’t have a clue. After decades of fully supported keg lines the entire keg system is a black box to them. We need to help them skill-up, and really could do with a useful manual of keg system operation. I’ve done my BIIAB ABCQ – and it’s utterly basic, it teaches a reliance on Big Beer – which is of course relevant & correct for most of the current industry. We need something a bit more technical… I believe Cloudwater may be working on something in that direction. For the most part maintenance and operation of keg systems is actually pretty simple stuff, once you’ve got on top of some basic principles.

What’s next? Publicans need to be convinced that it is worth investing in the equipment. Because if I own the equipment in a pub I’ll pretty obviously want only beer I sell going through it – this is just sensible, there’s a cost to be recovered. What I want to do is support pubs in taking ownership of their own equipment, help with installs if needed, and then as part of the service of selling them beer offer full technical support – folk like me and all breweries selling kegged beer need to do the same to make it a viable option for pubs.

We need to get smart and start doing this now. Because the alternative future will be keg lines under the control of medium sized operators. Another recent conversation on Twitter I had was about Adnams. They’re aggressively going after the craft-curious market, sticking their kit in, and creating a craft-monoculture of Adnams/Camden beer across these eastern parts. Now I like Adnams and quite enjoy their Dry Hopped Lager. But this particular practice is pretty damn close to “craftwashing”. We’re getting a growing mid-tier of pseudo-craft-bars with an unchanging range, including craft beers like Bitburger… yes, I really have seen this billed as “craft” in several bars. (Camden and Adnams both deserve a place in a craft lineup… but unchanging lines of either and nowt else isn’t where it should be at.)

From both a personal and a business perspective it is very disheartening to have a good conversation with a pub about getting free of tie keg up and running for them, then to find a fortnight later that rather than that they’ve got the same two beers from Adnams as everyone else. The offer that the likes of Adnams has for these folk is simply too good… the price of stuff like Dry Hopped Lager is good too, as you’d hope. Adnams aren’t “the enemy” per se, they’re very nicely building their own market and if an Adnams tap is replacing a Fosters tap this is a step up. But… y’know… ho hum.

I’ve considered going the whole-hog myself, simply paying to put lines in, tied to myself. But it is so against my own world-view that I’m hesitant… but it is tempting.

There’s a long way to go on this. I’ve done my first full keg install for someone this year, and hope to do more – targeting the micropub sector a bit. I’ve spent a lot of the last 6 months helping folk understand keg, obtain couplers, and handle outlier support cases like “venting” various forms of keg. (Making up for brewery screw-ups, which comes and in hand with the micro/craft sector unfortunately.) It certainly isn’t trivial.

If we all support pubs in this way between us we can build the free-of-tie keg market. Giving publicans and drinkers more options – which is what it is all about in my opinion. It’s what I’m here for anyway.

Sadly necessary disclaimers, because everyone always seems to think that anything I say is all-or-nothing or black-and-white:

  • I am NOT saying that all bars and pubs need to be “craft beer” bars/pubs. This is very very far from what I believe.
  • I do NOT think that Fosters/Stella/etc need to be eradicated from the face of the Earth. Folk like drinking these beers, they’re the largest part of the beer industry, they’re not going anywhere and they have their place.
  • I LIKE ADNAMS – my favourite regional brewer by far, and by securing lines in pubs what they’re doing is simply good business and an attractive deal for publicans. If I were them I’d do the same, and they’re actually a bit “loose” with their tie – to my benefit!
  • I don’t claim that keg is superior to cask, I’d not claim the reverse either – they’re different and I believe both have their place.
  • I simply want more diversity in a small number of pubs and bars, and I see their lack of access to free of tie lines as an obstacle to my desired level of diversity. (And yes, I have a business interest in this obviously.)
  • Another topic: microbrewery keg pricing… a sticky issue and a definite barrier for publicans.
  • And the simple fact is that fancy keg beers are a harder sell for the publican. It takes a bit more work than shifting a pint of Stella. It’s definitely not for everyone… yet look to the “craft beer bars” and observe their apparent success. Why not give it a try?

Route to Market

OK, I’ve got a general whinge to get off my chest. It’s about sales and route to market and the seeming immaturity (infancy?) of the wider British craft/microbrewing market. Take it with a grain of salt if you will – what would I know? I’ve only been in the market for 9 months. But as in everything I do my natural tendency to analyse & optimise is insuppressible. However, as any fellow computer scientist knows, obvious optimisations often aren’t as useful as they seem. So perhaps I’m barking up the wrong tree… I don’t feel particularly well qualified to be talking about these things… but I will anyway… I lie awake at night with all this sort of crap running through my head and I need to purge it somehow.

 

Small operators like myself are not simply shopfronts for beer. We’re very much unlike online retail for example, who have a wide customer base across the UK. To sell your beer we do a lot of legwork going out forming relationships with pubs, promoting beer at both a time and financial cost to ourselves. So if we’re doing all this hard work on behalf of a brewery and that brewery then go and sells to someone competing on the same turf it costs us – to small operators like myself it can be a huge blow to morale to boot. Bypassing the distributor and selling direct is very similar… we’ve got your beer into there, they’ve liked it, and after that effort of promotion and logistics (and financial risk) on our parts we’re cut out of the picture. Thanks folks!

I understand why bigger pubs may do this. If they get the same price from the brewer as the distributor then it cuts maybe 20p per pint from their costs, which could be as much as 60p to the consumer after being amplified by pub GPs. The onus here is somewhat on the brewery – the cost to them of effectively outsourcing sales to the distributor ought to be a sufficient discount on the beer to make it not worth a pub ordering direct. Across distribution for regions UK-wide (6 distributors, say?) the brewery is definitely saving themselves the salary of at least one full-time sales body. This secures the distributors’ route to the big customers, which in turn makes it possible for them to keep stock to shift to the wider market of smaller customers.

I’d like to see distribution valued higher by small breweries… of course I would say that though, I’m a distributor. So rather than just put that out there, here’s a couple of reasons this is good for you – the brewer:

  1. Marketing: You get an actual representative – someone keen on and loyal to your “brand”. If the distributor has the security of exclusivity then they can safely invest more in growing their business around your beers. No exclusivity contracts are needed, just a good set of ground rules laid down to define the relationship.
  2. Sales: You have a reliable go-to contact in a region that you can direct people to for your beer. If you have a willy-nilly bunch of distributors out there who can you point a potential new outlet to? All of them? Do you think pubs really want to chase your beer with 3 different contacts? Will those 3 distributors see buying a pallet of your beer as too risky in case one of the other 2 does as well?

Sure – we may start out as a relatively small account and also shifting a pallet to the chap next door may be quite tempting to a brewery keen on growth. But think long-term. Be committed in your relationship with one of them – to buy their loyalty and then ride with them as they achieve sales growth with your beer.

Further to that I’ll add why I think *I* am the guy you should go to. I care passionately about good beer, I’m no mere sales channel. I am versed in cellarmanship, beer care, and have a lot of beer knowledge. I work hard to ensure your beers go to the right venues and are served in good form. At our end everything is received and kept in temperature regulated storage until delivery – this is expensive in rent and electricity (as you as a brewer probably know).

Some breweries understand all this. Unsurprisingly if you knew which they were you’d be looking at a list of some of the most sought-after craft brewers in the UK. These guys value their route to market and through that relationship build a better sales channel. At times I resent it because I really want to be able to get beers from some of these guys to my customers but I cannot because they’re tied up with other folk in the region. But I respect this too… these guys are doing unto their distributors and I would have my suppliers do unto me.

Also, I’m a very small operator currently, only just starting out. So I can see why you’d want to sell to someone more established – the term “ability to execute” comes to mind. My small size makes my “ability to execute” low – thus I come with my own risks. (Who wants to do a Gartner Magic Quadrant for UK beer distribution?) Then again because I’m small I’ve got more personally invested, and more riding on making those breweries I work with successful for me. I’m also too small to deal with *all* the breweries I want to of course. So by all means if I can’t shift your beer look elsewhere. No worries at all with that. (I wish I could do all the breweries I actually have access to… but it is impractical at my scale unless I just want to be exist only in the crowded “guest ales” market.)

Anyway, please – take note – distribution is your sales channel to the wider UK market. Foster good relationships with your distributors, let them flourish with your brand – your trust in them will be returned by their willingness to invest in representing your brewery as best they can.

 

This is a bit of a wild thought-exercise on my part. And perhaps I just haven’t a clue. This is a most definite possibility. But something strikes me as broken about the way things work currently. I started doing this as the only one in my region focusing on what I consider the “craft sector”. Within three months 2 other distributors had shown up, both started by folk signed up to my mailing list. Both approaching many of the same breweries. Which makes no sense – why sell the same stuff? There’s loads to choose from out there! I should be flattered perhaps, I’ve clearly chosen the best… but that is a small consolation for ending up in some daft & unviable “price war”. Don’t get me wrong – competition is a fine thing, and part of how any market works. But forging stable business relationships is part of how markets work too. It’s just common sense, no?

I cannot of course separate the thought process from my own involvement so like any such a thing is it a POINT OF VIEW. And points of view are subject to bias and quite often not well grounded in fact. At the same time I have thousands of my savings invested in a business with which it thus is strongly in my interests to ponder the viability of and act to strengthen said viability as best I can. Personally I wish we could all, as much as possible, work together to grow our overall market… it’s such a tiny tiny slice of the beer pie as it is. But perhaps that’s just foolish… if there isn’t enough pie someone’s gotta starve.

I’ve made plenty of mistakes of my own in the last 9 months. Too many to list. A major one is not saying “no” often enough – so simple, but so hard. In 2015 I hope to find focus…

I may have simply got into a bung market! C’est la vie.

BIIAB Level 2 Award in Beer and Cellar Quality (Cask and Keg)

My BIIAB ABCQ certificate & note

My BIIAB ABCQ certificate & note

The BIIAB ABCQ is the UK’s only professional qualification for cellarfolk as far as I know. It covers keg as well as cask, with the idea of ensuring good handling from the point the beer leaves the dray to the point it is being drunk by a customer. [Click here for the BIIAB page on the qualification, which is pretty limited in information or click here for the much more informative Cask Marque page via which I booked my own course.]

The ABCQ is a “hands on” approach to keeping & serving beer, as opposed to the Beer Academy’s Advanced Course which is more oriented around the drinking the beer in the glass end of things, communicating about beer, and details of beer production and style. The ABCQ has some overlap but is mostly style/taste-agnostic – less interested in the beer itself beyond basic factors of quality. Beer is beer – you can have this beer in keg, cask, and “packaged” (bottle/can) varieties – the ABCQ is all about getting that beer from container to glass in good form.

I did the ABCQ course and exam on Monday November 11th at a cost of £115.80 (inc-VAT). It was a fun day out – and I came away with another certificate to add to my collection. Well, it arrived a couple of weeks later but I was pretty confident I’d “passed”. When the results arrived I found I’d managed 100% in the 30 question multi-choice exam, but I’d not say that is any great feat & I imagine 100% scores are common. (I also come at this from a position of having a decent base of knowledge and practice in the subject matter.) [Para added as update on 28/12/2014.]

"Testing" beer in the Fuller's training cellar.

“Testing” beer in the Fuller’s training cellar.

My simple summary of this 1-day course, aka TL;DR, is: every pub should have at least one person who has done it. In an ideal case you should not be allowed in the cellar without having first done this course (“cellar license”?). It is a good and worthwhile thing to do. There are folk out there with a higher level of knowledge and experience already who simply don’t need it… but they’re probably few and far between and I suspect some who think they’re “it” in the cellar are not as “it” as they think.[1] (Even if just a case of “going through the motions” – much like farm kids who’ve been competently driving since they were 8 still needing a license to drive on public roads. Usually they’ll be practically competent – they may have a good grasp of the rules of the road too, but the license ensures they cover the rules as well at the practice.)

The ABCQ provides template methodologies that I agree will almost always work in “the usual case”, and identify what to do (or who to call) in several outlier cases. A motivated staff member who has done this ‘award’ and paid attention should always be able to serve beer in good form. If you can get hold of a copy of the “Profit Through Quality” handbook (see right) that goes with the course (which can be found online, after you lie about your age) then you can review all the material the course covers.

I also think that the cost of £115.80 makes it particularly accessible and I think it would be a useful “feather in your cap” if you’re keen on a career behind the bar and in the cellar (even if just to get you through uni for a few years, say). Along with train travel it cost me less than £200 in the end – including an evening out in London having some beers. If you’re lucky you’ll live closer to one of the several training locations – if luckier still you can talk your employer into paying it for you! It is worth their while, worth yours, and good for the industry all-round. [Para added as update on 28/12/2014.]

There are some ‘howevers‘, however. My more lengthy take on it continues below, because I do have some criticisms that are probably more justifications for creating an “advanced” type course that needs some more time and goes a bit further.

The ABCQ glosses over some details that I think need more explaining to give staff a enough of an understanding of beer to get it right all the time. The training stops short of providing enough knowledge for staff to solve issues, work with modern beer diversity, and understand keg beer. In essence it is a fantastic base-level that should work perfectly for someone working in a huge pub-chain[2]. Which, as on the day, is presumably where most of the demand for the ABCQ comes from. It definitely provides a good basis for folk who’re new to the industry to start out from.

The ABCQ is only a day long – it probably does the best it can with the time available. What it needs is another day (or two) to go deeper with…

  1. More detail on cask ale. “Secondary”/”conditioning” are glossed over somewhat, presumably in the name of brevity (it is only 1 day after all). So a technique is given that will almost always work but doesn’t adequately justify itself or allow for some of the common quirks of cask ale. I guess this is where cask becomes an on-the-job acquired “art” rather than a science – but it is an art with some basic technical foundations that can be taught.
  2. More (any!) real detail on keg dispense. In the world of the ABCQ all you need to know about keg beer is how to attach/detach coupler, clean lines, ensure coolers are topped up (advanced material). What gas you use and what pressure you use is a matter for “Technical Services” (you need to know not to get your gas mixed up though). This, of course, very much fits the UK world where nearly every keg tap in nearly every pub is a tied line.
  3. Variety in storage of ‘packaged’ beer (cans/bottles). They’re something kept in a fridge. When in the specialist beer world you need to be more careful in my opinion. I just confused matters (took them off track) when I suggested you need to serve bottled beer at an appropriate temperature. (If I had a pub I’d want at least 2 fridges set at different temperatures, as well as a decent bottle-store in the cellar. Yes, OK, I am a beer nerd. I’d also want adjustable inline coolers for keg!)

I think all the above is necessary to fully mesh the beer quality expectations set up by the Beer Academy Advanced Course with the serve quality standards taught by the ABCQ.

Defining 'Keg Beer'

Defining ‘Keg Beer’

Point 2 is the one I have more issues with right at the moment. Microbrewery keg beer is becoming “big”(er), many big distributors are picking it up now. I increasingly see kegs that actually specify their target vol CO2. (Not uncommon in the international “craft scene” I gather?) Here we’re heading into Certified Cicerone territory. One thing you definitely do not see in doing the ABCQ is a pressure/temperature/volCO2 table. In fact touching the pressure gauge is a big no-no. Yes, used incorrectly they can create very dangerous situations, which is why I think a bit more should be taught about them, ASAP – especially with the increased prevalence of KeyKeg. (Brewer tells staff to up the pressure, keg line has no gauge… what next? This has happened to me twice in the last 6 months in places where a brewery or cellar services company has fitted “craft beer lines”.)

Basically the ABCQ isn’t “craft ready” (no surprise of course) and if you want to be able to seriously treat keg “right” in your bar I’d suggest you poach staff from BrewDog who’ve done the Certified Cicerone. (Or get existing staff on-track to do it themselves, there are occasional UK exams now.) I think that for the UK beer world there needs to be an A(dvanced)ABCQ that is an extra day or two of instruction and goes into some of the finer details.

Draught Beer Quality Manual

Draught Beer Quality Manual

Alternatively we (the “craft beer industry”) could take what Cicerone have and adapt it to create out own British Cicerone (differently named I guess, since Cicerone is TMed!) My own studies of the Draught Beer Quality Manual [pdf] show it to be not quite right for general UK use. The main factors it does not cover that are standard in the UK are: 1) inline chillers, 2) keeping kegs at 12C (DBQM temp tables go to 5.5C max), 3) use of flow-restrictors rather than lots of 3/16 line to battle fobbing (increase “line resistance”).

DBQM Temp/Pressure/volCO2 chart

DBQM Temp/volCO2/PSI chart

Immense cask-washer line at Fuller's Brewery

Immense cask-washer line at Fuller’s Brewery

My intention isn’t to knock the ABCQ, I *did* learn things as a result of doing it. I’m no expert, I’m a novice trying to work my way towards becoming a technical expert. (Ask me again in a decade perhaps.) I won’t itemise all the new little facts I picked up – the area that was mostly new to me was on ‘beer clean’ glassware and correct glasswashing methods and chemicals. The quick tour of Fuller’s brewery was a nice bonus. There was also very good quality beer available on tap, naturally as part of the course was hands-on keg and cask handling to connect up and pull through for dispense. (The Firecracker in cask and the Frontier “craft lager” in keg – both beers I enjoyed on the day.) I’ve done exams before after drinking beer, but the ABCQ exam was the first one I’ve ever done *whilst* sipping a pint.

The next UK qualification I’d like to do is the “Technical Certificate in Cellar Service Installation and Maintenance” – but that’s nearly  £1k of spend so I don’t know if it’ll happen any time soon. It will cover some of the gas and equipment handling and may bridge some of the technical-end gap between the Certified Cicerone and the ABCQ perhaps. It will be total overkill for cellar staff, but I build keg dispense setups for myself so it will be relevant to me.

Perhaps I’ll have an opportunity to do the Certified Cicerone first? Quite keen to do it, but a bit daunted by having to remember a bunch of BJCP style guide gumph.

[1] In “the field” I’ve found one chap who was instructed by the previous “expert” cellar person to peg casks that are being used with vertical extractors. That may be one of the most ridiculous example I’ve got, but it goes to show the crazy stuff I find going on in cellars. Issues of cleanliness are my primary personal concern. Folk not properly cleaning cask taps, re-using manky hard spiles, not cleaning keystones & shives, etc… the ABCQ teaches students to give everything a proper scrub & clean at least. I go one step further by preference and have a spray-bottle of a sanitiser handy too. This seems especially important to me under their ideal guidelines of: vent-and-tap-immediately & serve-when-ready. If there are nasties on the shive, spile, keystone, or tap this method gives all the more time for them to wreak havoc in your tasty beer.

[2] The BIIAB ABCQ course and material are brought to you by the following… (Masrton’s?!) which makes one ponder the motivations of the course and it’s “good tied pubs/lines” nature versus being perhaps not quite comprehensive enough to be so useful to the free trade. (Clenaware Systems market ‘Renovate‘ which is specifically pushed as a glassware silver bullet in the course… my cynic alarm is properly flashing now.)

Brought to you by...

Brought to you by…

A further attack…

This is a short attack on this post: Should CAMRA embrace craft beer on keg?

I got angry about the word “natural” and wrote this earlier today: What is this “natural” you speak of? A long-winded rant about “natural” when used in the cask-v-keg debate.

But there is more in the “Editor’s comment” I feel compelled to comment on.

[Cask] “is a natural drink that tastes full flavoured as the brewer intended.”

Oh, c’mon. You’re saying that brewers putting beer into anything other than cask are creating beer in some way _not_ as the brewer intended? That they’re somehow compromising perhaps?

Brewers I know putting beer into keg do it for exactly the OPPOSITE reason. To better ensure the beer reaches the consumer with the form/flavour the brewer intends the beer to be drunk in. Without some dodgy cellar work making their beer flat, stale, warm, etc.

“gas is added on dispense to create artificial carbonation.”

a) Fundamental misunderstanding of keg! CO2 is used to *maintain* carbonation, not add to it. The purpose isn’t to add “fizz” to the beer but to maintain the carbonation at the level the brewer intends it to be at.

b) Total ignorance of the currently very common “KeyKeg” – which contains container and/or brewery conditioned beer that CANNOT be carbonated by the CO2 used to push it out of container. At the keg bar I was helping out on at IMBC last weekend nearly all the kegs were of this sort.

Yes, CO2 used to provide top-pressure to push beer out of keg can carbonate that beer above the level it came at. But this would imply that the pub is using too much pressure or an inappropriate gas mix. This is not using keg as intended. (There is a case where an _under_ carbonated keg can be carbed up using the CO2 pressure though. Correcting an error at the brewing end. If only it was possible to do this with casks sometimes!)

Upsides?

In general the Editor’s comment isn’t that bad… there’s a failure to understand “keg” and it is propaganda-tastic in using the word “natural“.

It does show progress is being made! There is no mention of filtration or pasteurisation at least – the word “dead” does not come up. All in all the comment is clearly well-ahead of some CAMRA-folk standpoints and well ahead of where we were at only a couple of years ago. Hurrah!

OK, that’s enough frustrated angry blogging from me today… I’ve gotta go and try selling more keg beer ;) [I do sell a significant amount more cask than keg and love good beers regardless of the container the brewer may have chosen to use.]

What is this “natural” you speak of?

I’ve long been meaning to do a detailed write-up about beer packaging, so I have one place to point people to who’re somehow confused and have odd ideas about about “keg”. A poor and quite misunderstood three-letter-word is “keg”, and to be honest “cask” is pretty misunderstood too. I don’t have time to write that post… but I can address one aspect of the the pro-cask FUD that comes up frequently. The use of the word “natural” with respect to beer. To cut a long story short: it is pure propaganda.

What is “natural beer”? I think I can pick off a few obvious items that may make some people think beer has lost its “naturalness”:

  • Pasteurised – a process of heating the beer to ensure it is sterile – i.e. the yeast, and any other organisms that may change the beer are killed. Heating will of course change the beer in other ways as well, some volatiles (hop flavours for example) will break down. Pasteurisation is great for stability but perhaps less great for flavour. Stability? Well, perhaps not… live yeast has a known protective quality. It will sit in your beer and “mop up” some excess O2 thus reducing oxidation. (And no seal is perfect, so as well as helping with any O2 left in the beer after filling this helps with the small O2 leakage through capped bottles and probably even cans.)
  • Sterile Filtered – a different approach to achieve the same end. Rather than killing yeasts/etc it filters them out of the solution. But such a fine filter will also remove some large molecules that contribute to flavour. As for the beer now being “dead” – this has the same impact as described above. (If one of these two have to be used then I’ll prefer filtration… there is another approach: centrifuge. Thornbridge and BrewDog use this… and their bottled products are pretty fantastic.)
  • Contains “chemicals” – contentious. The obvious truth is that all beer is made from chemicals! What I guess we have to read into this in context is the addition of extra substances not normally used for brewing. What are these though? Near all breweries add chemicals to treat their water, malts come with the required enzymes for starch conversion, adjuncts like sugars/wheat/etc are perfectly acceptable for certain styles. So “chemicals” is really a pretty confused area and probably best considered bunkum. Some breweries may use added enzymes to speed up mash/fermentation processes I believe. I know a couple of good breweries adding an extra enzyme to de-glutenise beers without altering their flavour (a great thing for coeliacs!) I think that, like the word “natural”, the word “chemicals” is an all-too-easy-to-reach-for emotive word thrown around blindly in the whole cask/keg debate. (Were sulphites perhaps once used to stabilise beer?) (Where do finings in cask ale fit in here – isinglass and the various adjuncts used alongside it?)
  • “Extraneous CO2″ – what’s this then? In CAMRA terms it is use, in any way, of CO2 not created by the action of yeast in the beer. This is also a contentious issue. As there is argument even within CAMRA about the appropriateness of CO2 in the cellar. The big question is around aspirators (aka “cask breathers”) which let just enough CO2 into cask to protect the beer from air contact. And air, really, is the worst thing for beer. No good brewer wants you to be drinking oxidised, stale, beer. I go further and wonder what is so bad about CO2 full-stop. But I guess we hit a personal preference issue regarding fizziness here and I’ll leave it at that.

I think those four items are key to what is behind ideas about “unnatural” beer. The first two are ones I personally think are not really in the interests of good beer… and in fact in my book use of either of them is a line crossed. From what I’d consider a “craft” product to one that quite simply isn’t. Does it make beer “unnatural” … sure, I’ll buy into that a bit. It certainly makes it less than it was and, sure, one could say it makes the beer “dead”.

The whole chemicals thing is just puzzling to me. I’d like to know what these evil chemicals are… but I’ve yet to come across them in the brewing world. And as I said – without chemicals you cannot have beer. (Nor life, nor anything really…)

Now, CO2… the point of this post is to show that your ideas of “natural beer” wade into a big grey area in the world of modern brewing. We do have another point often brought up about what makes “cask ale” natural… that is cask conditioning. “Naturally conditioned beer”… i.e. carbonated by the action of yeast in the beer, not force-carbonated by addition of external CO2. So a natural beer is one that is conditioned in the container it is served from and that involves none of the items in the above list (assuming by “chemicals” we’re talking some odd crazy substances used to somehow adulterate the brewing process).

I bring to your attention the humble KeyKeg. An interesting little keg-type device in which beer is contained within a bladder from which it is extracted using pressure (air will do, but often CO2 is used). The important thing to know about KeyKegs is that many breweries who use them put exactly the same beer into them as they put into casks. Live, good, natural, beer. It conditions in the container it is served from. It does not come into contact with extraneous CO2. The only difference between this beer from keg versus cask is that the keg version will probably be served at a cooler temperature and with more (natural) CO2 remaining in solution.

This beer, from KeyKeg, is a fully “natural” product by any wild definition I can think of.

Moving on from KeyKegs… breweries filling conventional kegs usually do so from a conditioning tank where the beer has been “naturally” carbonated. Again. Live, good, natural, beer. Some even let the beer condition in these kegs (Moor, for example). The only point where the “naturalness” may come into question is when CO2 top-pressure is used to expel beer from keg. And frankly… that’s just a bit of an odd viewpoint to have, in my purely personal opinion. CO2 is CO2. The “extraneous CO2″ does not necessarily add “fizz” to the beer – if used appropriately it just maintains the CO2 level the beer is designed to have. That carbonation level has been chosen by by the brewer – it is as the brewer intends it to be. They’ve, naturally, brewed a beer to be served fizzier. You may not like that… but it is still live, natural, beer.

Next step is to swing across to the grey area of “cask conditioning”. Those “conditioning tanks” I mentioned before are used by many breweries to pre-condition beer prior to filling both cask and keg. So again – in all of the above keg scenarios identical beer is being put into cask. The difference is that the keg version has its natural CO2 level preserved by using CO2 top-pressure, and the cask has its CO2 level reduced via venting.

So sure – there are differences… but unless letting “naturally” created CO2 escape from beer to make it flatter is an essential part of being “natural” (really? really!?) then I think you can drop the silly cask-is-natural keg-is-unnatural approach.

(And I’m really really not saying you have to like cooler fizzier beer… I’m just staying stop claiming it isn’t “natural”. This is needlessly emotive FUD that does nothing for good beer except add confusion. If you want to play at politics (aka lying) then go join a political party… what the beer world needs is facts, not bullshit.)

Chemicals, sub-note: is there a finings Elephant in the room anyone? There’s the (emotive) “fish guts” isinglass finings, and alongside these many breweries use various finings adjuncts like silica-gel. There is an argument that these “drop out” of the beer and you don’t drink them. But there’s always going to be some trace of these “chemicals” left in suspension. Justin of Moor Beer also likes to use the word “natural” – in his case to refer to beer that has not been mucked with by adding finings (regardless of what container type the beer happens to be in). I have somewhat more respect for this usage of “natural”, but do prefer simply “unfined”… isinglass is, after-all, simply made from fish and fish are pretty natural.

[I’ve put up an additional post regarding some other iffy statements in the CAMRA article.]