Why Craft Keg might just Save Your Bacon
There has been a lot of huffing and puffing over recent months over what has become known in the trade as ‘craft keg’. For a start there has been an endless and somewhat tiresome debate over its definition. Is it the form of dispense or the style of beer? Can a large brewery produce a ‘craft’ beer? Then it got even more technical, largely, as far as I can see, over whether craft keg can be classified as real beer at all, steaming up the purists to a near rabid frenzy and culminating in CAMRA’s very public bust up with Brewdog brewery.
To real ale’s inner circle this might seem a really big deal. But in my experience (and certainly judging from the early feedback we have received from Perfect Pint) the vast majority of ale drinkers couldn’t care less. What they want is fantastic tasting beer; they want choice and they want quality. Craft keg will not replace cask ale and from what I can see, with the odd notable exception, it has no pretensions to do so. Instead, it can happily co-exist with it, and in many cases actually provide the platform for cask ale to grow.
At Perfect Pint we love our real ale served in the traditional way, after all, that is why we started. But we are also very open-minded about craft keg. We accept that there are some beers that genuinely taste better through the keg. Very strong or very flavourful beers in particular are enhanced through light carbonation allowing the taste to be savoured without cloying. Others are simply more refreshing when dispensed at the cooler temperature keg brings. On the other hand, mild ales and light ABV session bitters especially are clearly superior when delivered via the cask. And for many beers, where a like for like experience can be tried, the cask version can be notably superior to the keg (Thornbridge Jaipur or Magic Rock Dark Arts spring to mind).
The danger is this industry has a history of getting wrapped up in the minutiae and missing the bigger picture. It has come, in many cases, at the expense of alienating the mainstream drinker and, perhaps most crucially, the occasional rather than regular cask ale drinker. This is important since whilst we might all rejoice at the real ale renaissance we are currently witnessing, the facts are that beer drinking overall is still falling and there is substantially less cask ale consumed than twenty years ago. Growth within a falling category is all very well but growth overall is far more preferable, and it is from the occasional and ‘unconverted’ drinker that it will come from.
That brings us back to craft keg. Craft beer venues are proliferating at an impressive pace around most metropolitan areas in the UK. One step inside any of these bars will yield two noteworthy experiences, neither requiring Colombo style powers of observation. First, your wallet will be substantially relieved of its contents when getting your round in. Second, it will be become abundantly clear that craft keg is expanding the addressable market, most particularly amongst younger and female drinkers, a critical but long abandoned demographic of the real ale industry. Surely this has to be a good thing.
More controversially I will say that even for the hardened, traditional cask ale enthusiast, battled scarred by Double Diamond and mortified by John Smith smoothflow, craft keg is an unmistakably a life enhancing development. And here’s why...
Keg is the international dispense of choice. In practical terms it is the only way for the craft beer revolution to spread globally, especially for countries that don’t have the infrastructure, history or climate to serve cask. Craft keg is behind a dramatic expansion of choice. No longer when you travel abroad are you restricted to the insipid cooking lager of the local monopoly or the dreary blandness of the multi-national. My most recent travels have taken me to Columbia, Italy and New Zealand and I have had some fantastic beers in each. And it also works in reverse. Back in Blighty a fine variety of International craft beers are beginning to infiltrate the real estate on the bar. Since they are only served in keg in their country of origin, it makes sense to serve them that way here too. And whilst they might not always be the discerning drinker’s first port of call, they can make can make a cracking reserve, especially if the landlord’s cellar management isn’t the most fastidious or it’s clearly a low volume, tumbleweed venue.
But, think more laterally, and it could save your bacon too. How miserable have you been at those family weddings, with a ‘choice’ of warm Fosters or a soapy Caffreys to go with your processed sweaty cheese sandwich? Now think of all the village hall fetes you have attended, christenings or boring sermons you have sat through and other ‘celebrations’ you have been press-ganged into over the years. Whilst your surreptitious clockwatching skills might emerge considerably enhanced your palate does not; in fact, multiply these traumatic occasions by the insufferable beers you have consumed and it’s a pretty depressing equation.
Whisper it quietly but craft keg is, albeit frustratingly slowly, expanding into these previous no-go venues. Social clubs, nightclubs, casinos and yes, even the village hall. With restaurants and even the some wine bars getting in on the act, taking the girlfriend out and still getting a decent beer no longer have to be mutually exclusive events. Clearly, these are places cask ale has not penetrated and, even if it had, innate suspicion over the cellarmanship skills would almost inevitably dilute your enjoyment anyhow. The practicalities of craft keg over cask for lower volume or less beer specialist venues is compelling and the expansion of outlets it could precipitate must surely be applauded.
Craft keg is not the mass produced mediocrity of pressured beer from years gone by but typically a beverage of genuine flavour and substance. It has International significance, can enhance and grow the market and who knows, it might just bail you out of a tight spot. The real ale world needs to embrace this positive change. Hoards of drinkers certainly are, and so are we. While respectfully mindful of ruffling the feathers of the dedicated cask ale cognoscenti, we say raise a glass to the rise of craft keg, and look out for them being added to the Perfect Pint database soon...