I’ve been asked to take part in the session (a regular event where someone suggests a topic and bloggers the whole world over all write about it) a few times before now. The fact that I have never taken part has nothing to do with me being Above That Sort Of Thing and everything to do with me simply not having time, or not having anything particularly interesting to say on the chosen topic on the day in question.
I’m taking part this month for two reasons: one, I was specifically asked to do so by Reluctant Scooper this month’s host and one of the most underrated bloggers – nay, writers in any medium – on Planet Beer. Second, because the topic Reluctant – or Simon as his mates call him – has chosen is one I’ve been meaning to blog for some time.
The topic is beer dispense: does it matter? And I want to focus on the debate between cask and keg. Because I think I’ve got it worked out now.
It’s been a bit of an argument, and I waded in deep recently by slagging off people who think that good beer always has to be cask conditioned or, at a push, bottle conditioned. One of the more sensible, but still devout, CAMRA members who commented on that post suggested that these days, one has to accept that there are some quality kegged beers around, but that any beer that’s good on keg would de facto be better if it was on cask.
I disagree, and here’s why.
I’m not a brewer. I welcome corrections, rebuttals or even confirmation of my theory. And this is NOT one of my anti-CAMRA posts – I’m not attacking anyone else’s beliefs or opinions, merely stating my own.
The idea came to me when I was in the Old Toad in Rochester, New York, a couple of months ago. Local brewers Custom Brewcrafters had created an Imperial IPA for the pub’s twentieth anniversary called, appropriately enough, OT20. It was 9% ABV and full of the currently ubiquitous Citra hop. Appropriately for one of the US’s first cask ale pubs, it was available on cask as well as keg, so I had a half of each to compare.
The big differences were, unsurprisingly the temperature and the level of carbonation. The hop aroma was much more prevalent in the keg – not surprising as carbonation helps release such aromas from beer. I was straining to get much from the cask. And then in the mouth, the keg version felt lighter. Obviously more refreshing, but also cleaner and more delicate. By comparison, the cask version felt thick, oily, almost greasy. The flavours were more complex and intense, but muddy somehow, bordering on unpleasant.
This is a beer style that was invented (or rather, adapted in its modern guise) for keg, and it did not suit cask at all. It’s an American beer style. It was never meant for English-style cask.
And that made me realise, conversely, why cask ale is so special. It suits traditional British ale which, for the last hundred years or so, has mainly been at very low ABV, and very balanced. What I’d experienced with a double IPA was a concentration of hop flavour and an intensity of character that had become unpleasantly cloying. Take a 3.8% session ale that’s relatively low in intensity, and filtration and carbonation would make it very bland indeed. But that same concentration of flavour that cask bestows gives it a surprisingly interesting depth and layers of flavour, subtlety and character. That’s what makes session real ales so special and satisfying.
It also explains why some people who only drink session real ales cannot imagine any beer being as good if it were filtered and carbonated.
And it explains why extreme beer hopheads can often find cask a little unfulfilling.
So – if carbonation strips out hoppy depth and turns it into aroma, and cask turns moderate beer in on itself to give it complexity, the best method of dispense becomes a function of recipe and ABV. Neither is intrinsically better than the other.
So if I’m not talking out of my arse, where’s the dividing line?
Thornbridge’s Kipling is 5.2%, and has recently been trialled on keg. I tried it in the Euston Tap and was slightly let down. I immediately had a hankering for the juicy body of the cask version. It’s a hoppy beer, sure, but not extreme. And then, when I tried the side-by-side experiment in the Jolly Butchers with Camden Pale Ale, I much preferred the keg. The carbonation was gentle – you’d have to be a Luddite twat to describe it as ‘fizzy’ – and the citrus hop flavour was very much to the fore, clean and incisive. The cask, again, seemed oleaginous and out of balance. So it’s somewhere around 5%, and somewhere around reasonably full-bodied, and something to do with personal taste.
Doubtless some deniers will say I was on each occasion drinking cask that wasn’t in top condition, but you’re wrong, it was very good – different beers simply suit different methods of dispense.
So now can we all abandon irrelevant dogma, hold hands and live happily ever after in a sunny, harmonious beer world where everyone celebrates the bounteous diversity on offer?
No, thought not…