KeyKeg, KeyCask, and what is “Real Ale” anyway?


Key Cask © KeyKegWhat is “KeyCask“? Last year I had it from the manufacturer that “KegKeg”[1] and “KeyCask” are the same thing, the assumption on my part being that the latter is merely a re-branding to make it less contentious amongst cask ale drinkers. To quote KeyKeg’s tweeted response to me:

KeyKeg = KeyCask. KeyKeg is perfectly suited for Real Ale. CAMRA acknowledged this. KeyKegs for Ale will be branded as KeyCasks.” (20th Aug 2012)

On the other hand a CAMRA internal post on the matter states:

In KeyCask the bladder is made from a semi-permeable material to allow reaction of the beer with oxygen.” (23rd May 2012 — CAMRA login required I’m afraid.)

In essence there is some confusion on the subject — and several Twitter conversations I have had over the last few months imply I’m not the only one who is uncertain. The only relevant information I can find on the KeyKeg website states “Special laminated inner bag for Ale” — does “special” mean “oxygen permeable”? Meanwhile the KeyKeg online shop lists just KeyKeg as an option for purchase, but perhaps the elusive KeyCask is only available wholesale?

I have no clear confirmation one way or the other on this one. I have sent the KeyKeg folk an email asking if they can provide any further information on the subject.

Update 2013-02-28

Now here we have it, lifted straight from a Lightweight Containers newsletter:

The KeyCask has now become a full-fledged member of the KeyKeg family. Several English and German ale brewers have opted to fill their ales in KeyCasks. With the exception of the name and the instructions on the packaging, the KeyCask is still identical to the KeyKeg – for now.

However, the Lightweight Containers R&D department is continually testing new types of inner bags for the KeyCask. If a different type of inner bag may turn out to perform even better for particular ales, it will be installed instead. For the time being, ale brewers are completely satisfied with KeyCasks. They keep the ales fresher for much longer, which suddenly means that ales can be exported.

Read on for the original KeyKeg/KeyCask oxygen WTF-confusion… but really there is no need, as it was just that: confusion. KeyKeg = KeyCask (“for now”) and for the life of me I can’t imagine why this shouldn’t be the case. If, for example, beer racked off “bright” to a poly can be served at a festival as “real ale” (it can) then KeyKeg is certainly no different. Better yet you do have the option of conditioning in KeyKeg, I spoke to Batemans brewery folk at Craft Beer Rising last weekend and they said they had been experimenting with this with definite success. I don’t think KeyKeg is always the ideal solution — but it seems like a good option for pubs with lower turnover or pubs that’d like to put something a bit stronger on that may not sell fast enough to make a 9g cask a good idea. There’s also factors of reduced transport weight and no need for container return. Anyway, more on that another time… perhaps.

However the debate doesn’t stop there — exactly why must the bladder be “semi-permeable” in the first place, why does this matter?

The CAMRA internal post on the subject has a short comment thread attached that asks some pertinent questions:

“Could do with a bit more detail here. For example: the difference between a keykeg and a keycask how to prevent one being passed off as the other what are the venting difficulties? Is there a technical report I can see?” — Peter Alexander (23rd May 2012)

From the perspective of a CAMRA volunteer running beer festivals this is a somewhat important question. Regardless of my personal views on cask/keg I want to work within the rules when running a CAMRA festival. If there is a real difference and CAMRA really only approves of one of them then us festival buyers/organisers need to know how to tell which is which. However Hardknott brewer David Bailey then asks:

“Not sure why semi-permeable bags are needed. Why do we want beer to come into contact with oxygen? Oxygen makes beer go off, not improve it. What is the problem with beer that is conditioned in the container from which it is dispensed and dispensed without any contact with extranious gas?” — David Bailey (24rd May 2012)

This was my initial reaction on hearing about the whole semi-permeable/oxygen issue. I don’t remember seeing a CAMRA definition for “real ale” that says it needs to come into contact with oxygen. The primary online CAMRA definition of “real ale” makes no mention of oxygen — then again it is pretty useless in any technical sense. All we can really garner from this definition is that secondary fermentation in cask/bottle/final-container-of-your-choice is the important part — making it “living” beer.[2]

With tank-conditioned beer going into cask near-bright for speedy pub sale being not uncommon I wonder if any of these definitions hold up in practice. Can you tell if a cask breather is being used, or if the cask ale you’re drinking was tank-conditioned and racked off near bright? What if it was tank-conditioned with injected CO² — does cylinder CO² taste different to that farted out by yeast? No. Pubs are excluded from the Good Beer Guide if they’re known to use cask breathers — even though others who do use them are often in there. (How many CAMRA branches ask their GBG pubs to confirm they never use breathers — how do they ever know for certain?) If pubs start using KeyCask then things get murkier still because even fewer branches are going to understand these newfangled devices or whether they’re being used correctly within the definition of “real ale”.

What we need if we’re to pursue “real ale” realistically are guidelines that normal people can read and understand. Ignore the container, ignore everything up until the point that you have a drinking receptacle full of beer in your hand, and from there beer in your mouth. People who like traditional beer can then rate it on their perception of carbonation level, temperature, flavour and overall quality — which is JUST AS IT IS CURRENTLY DONE in practice. But then the waters get muddied by all these borderline technicalities that have little to do with the quality of the beer.

The “definition” of “real ale” we have is inadequate, and unmeasurable in any case. It is little better than “craft beer”. What is “real ale”: “I knows it when I sees it!” — no, you just think you do.

[1] For the unaware, what KeyKeg/Cask is is essentially a “bag inside a ball“, the foiled bag contains the beer and the polycarbonate ball holds everything together under pressure. This all comes in a neat cardboard enclosure to hold it upright. You need a KeyKeg coupler to connect this up to a dispense system — as with any other keg. Typically you get beer out of the keg by introducing gas (CO² or pressurised air) between the ball and the bag, thus squeezing the beer out of the bag. Alternatively you could suck beer out of the bag with a straw if you’re desperate — or a proper hand-pump will do the trick too. Leave the air inlet on the coupler open, and the beer engine will happily pump beer out of the bag. I’ve successfully hooked beer engines up to KeyKegs at a beer festival, it works pretty well.

[2] The published “What is Real Ale” page leaves a lot to be desired. Not only is its definition of “real ale” of little technical value it makes other brash inaccurate statements, which you could call “lies” I guess: “Brewery-conditioned, or keg, beer has a longer shelf life as it is not a living product.” That’s a mean & misleading thing to be telling the general drinking public. Firstly I know of “brewery conditioned” beer that goes into cask as a “living product” so this term is not a synonym for “keg”. Secondly I know of “keg” beer that is unfiltered and unpasteurised and tastes incredibly good. Beer does not exist in a black and white world of “cask” and “keg”, as much as CAMRA policy continues to espouse the idea that it does. And “Why isn’t all beer real?” — seriously? *goesforapintofunrealbeer*. Sometimes I’m vaguely ashamed to be a CAMRA member, let alone an active one.

10 thoughts on “KeyKeg, KeyCask, and what is “Real Ale” anyway?

  1. Despite the assurance that “Real Ale” has a definition, I don’t think it holds up to scrutiny. I’ve tried to make this point many times.

    I don’t know if KeyKeg and KeyCask are one and the same thing. I don’t care and I don’t think it matters.

    If CAMRA really think beer is ever made better by allowing in oxygen then they are just plain daft.

    I think the KeyKeg technology, once you get over the fact it has the dirty “k” in the name, could genuinely improve hand-pulled beer.

  2. I still don’t understand how you can condition beer in one of these things and then dispense it without the movement of the bag disturbing the sediment.

    • I think the key to conditioning in them is to fill bright & minimally re-seed. So there isn’t a huge amount of sediment. Would be best to drop an email to Dave at Hardknott or maybe Eddie Gadd with that question I think. Chaps at Batemans I spoke to said they’d been experimenting with conditioning in keykegs too.

      I suspect that in the general case the best method is to tank-condition, and fill the KeyKey with coarse filtered beer. Is it real ale of not then? There could be much debate about this no doubt … if we go on the technicality of yeast-count to judge whether it is “live” or not then it depends on the filtration details.

      On this note, I’ve had casks at beer festivals where we’ve been able to get pretty much every last drop of beer out bright anyway. Presumably these are filled using similar methods as would be right for KeyKeg (either pre-conditioned, or minimal re-seeding with a highly flocculant yeast?)

  3. Hi there
    I seriously think CAMRA are loosing the plot with real ale, cask conditioned ale should be racked into casks directly from the fermenter, any other way is brewery conditioned bright beer.
    Phil Ellis

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  6. I personally ONLY like traditional cask conditioned real ale as I know and understand it. With Fast Cask you get consistent product- first pint tastes same as last pint 8 days later. To me that is not the same as traditional cask conditioned real ale, where the first pint tastes different to a pint pulled three days later, obviously some cask conditioning has taken place! With Keycask no one will ever convince me this is Real Ale the first pint tastes the same as a pint served 3 MONTHS later! I had landlords tell me they have gone longer than 3 MONTHS with Batemans. CAMRA NEEDS TO GET A GRIP and make a proper stand on these issues. I know some landlords will not order Fast Cask simply because they can not get any information and suspect something has been added to the product. The same landlords would never consider ordering Keycask, how can you keep an Ale live for 3 Months? The important overriding factor for me is it a LIVE PRODUCT eg REAL ALE or is it DEAD KEG!

    • I think there’s a few disconnects here.


      REAL ALE != CASK


      KEYKEG != CASK


      KEG != “DEAD”

      From the CAMRA standpoint “real ale” is best described as “live” unfiltered & unpasteurised beer with the ability to continue to ferment/develop in package (be that cask, bottle, or keg). For example “real ale in a bottle” is real ale, but definitely not cask ale.

      A “real ale” in KeyKeg is not the same critter as a real ale in cask. They’re both live, unfiltered, unpasteurised products – but the end dispense is different. They can keep longer because one of the worst things for finished beer is oxygen & exposure to air. The oxygen rapidly oxidises the beer and makes it taste muted and cardboardy, air contains bacteria which infect the beer usually souring it, and being kept at atmospheric pressure means the carbonation in the beer equalises with atmospheric and goes flat. So a KeyKeg can prevent all these things – they’re great in their way. But keeping on on more than a week isn’t a grand idea, let alone weeks… if a landlord can keep a beer in a 30l KK on for weeks then they’re probably not much interested in cleaning their lines as they’d have lost loads of beer to line cleaning otherwise.

      Fast Cask is another, unrealted, critter entirely. And ought not make a beer last longer, unless an aspirator is used (and this works for normal cask ale too.) FastCask is entirely about beer dropping bright faster.

  7. To me (a real ale festival organizer but not a professional brewer), “living” ale in KeyKegs sounds similar to bottle-conditioned ale. So it can totally be “real” according to CAMRA definitions.

    My major concern, however, is that being in a sealed container (just like in a bottle), real ale in a KeyKeg can never achieve the same level of active secondary fermentation as the beer in casks can. Hence the taste and condition of your pint will differ (somewhat nagatively) from the proper cask version of the same beer (as long as it’s properly looked after in the pub cellar of course).
    I normally find bottle-conditioned ales inferior to their cask versions, apparently for the same reason.

    However, it’d be interesting to find out more about secondary fermentation in KeyKegs experiments that are apparently going on with some success at breweries like Batemans etc.

    • One idea that comes to mind is actually “openning” a KeyKeg valve in the pub prior to serving in order to kick-start the secondary fermentation process (similarly to how you spile a cask). This is of course subject to previously filling the KeyKeg with the beer identical to what is filled into casks at the brewery. After the beer reaches perfect condition, the valve is sealed again (by connecting the KeyKeg coupler) and no extra oxigen/air enters the KeyKeg from that point on, ensuring a slightly longer shelf life.
      This will allow for the conditioning of the ale to take place in the pub in the container, as opposed to brewery-conditioning.

What do you think?