Friday, 4 February 2011

The Session #48: Cask, Keg, Can, Bottle: Does dispense matter?

Pork is such a sweet meat. They have a saying in France; "Tout est bon dans le cochon" - everything on a pig is good.

The quality of the meat that comes out at the end is solely down to how the pig is treated. The ultimate expression of cured pork - jamon iberico - comes from the pata negra ("black foot") pigs that run free around the hills of Jabugo in Spain, the centre of jamon production. You can only make the best ham with legs from the pata negra pigs, who are allowed to gorge themselves on acorns that fall naturally from the trees where they spend their lives. These are huge, bristly wild pigs. I've seen them up close, and they are terrifying beasts.

There's something of an irony in this ham's final destination. Despite being acknowledged (well, by omnivores at least) as one of the peaks of gastronomy, most of this ham will end up being hung from the ceiling in a warm, sometimes smoky, bar, and then being taken down, sliced wafer thin, and served on an ordinary white china saucer, to someone who eats it standing up at a bar, with a glass of ordinary beer - Cruzcampo or Estrella Damm, or maybe a glass of fino sherry. It's the ultimate in democratic gastronomy - a gourmet snack for just a few euros. It's impossible not to be impressed by the quality of the meat, and what the curing process has done to it.

You can raise pigs cheaply too. You can rear them in a pen, feed them industrial pelletised garbage, and raise them to be fat and flabby lumps of protein. The meat that comes out at the end of this process is just that - fat, flabby protein, mainly flavourless. As meat, it's filling, but not satisfying, and it doesn't matter how you cook it - barbecue, sous-vide, whatever - it never tastes great. Sure, you can slather it with condiments and seasoning, and it will taste OK, but you're actually enjoying the condiments rather than the meat.

The point is, you can't polish a turd. You can roll it in glitter, but it will still just be a turd underneath. Equally, the way you dispense a beer can make a difference to how it is perceived, but it doesn't change the beer itself. Sure, the gentle zizz of carbonic bite that a kegged beer acquires from dissolved carbon dioxide can make it more lively, more refreshing, and if that appeals to the drinker, then fine. But for the majority of the time, the mode of dispense - cask, bottle, keg, can, sachet, aerosol, pipette - is the medium, not the message.

There are a few caveats. Sometimes the message dictates the medium. Big American IPAs needs to be served cold and carbonated - almost every beer of this style that I've tried on cask has been a cold glass of marmalade soup. And a tiny number of brewers in the UK use their kegged craft beers as a political tool, a way of attempting to overthrow what they perceive as the old order. They are trying to make the medium into the message. That's their prerogative, but for me, it distracts from the message rather than adding to it.

Cask beer is the UK's gift to the beer world, and when done well, it produces something unmatched in terms quality and sensual pleasure - again, it is the liquid equivalent of that little white plate of jamon, a gastronomic delight that anyone can buy for a few quid. But if you focus on the medium rather than the message, then you miss the point. The point is that the focus on cask as a mode of dispense in the UK (the medium) has distracted people from the quality of the beer (the message).

I contend that the proliferation of bland or poorly-made cask beers in the UK today is exactly what CAMRA saw in the 1970s, albeit then the beers were in keg form. People everywhere - not just CAMRA and their members - have become blinded by the medium. If a beer tastes good from a keg, it will probably taste good from a cask or a bottle. If you're drinking a poor beer from a cask (cellaring aside), it will be just as bad from a keg, can or bottle.

Referring to the caveats outlined above, sometimes the message and the medium are, of necessity, tied closely together. But here, moving into the second decade of the 21st century, when there has never been a better time to be interested in quality beer, surely we're not going to lose sight of the message, are we?


  1. Really enjoyed reading this. There was a piece in the Metro last week about Jamon Iberico and the quality of it.

    Also, I couldn't agree more with your sentiments on quality vs. dispense. I've so many friends who infuriate me by saying things like "but you're a real ale drinker not a lager drinker aren't you?" when I order something like Punk IPA from tap. That said, I think your point is that too many 'real ale' drinkers assume that because it's cask, it'll be better. This, as you rightly point out, isn't true anymore. The amount of times i've walked in to a bar and seen dull, flavourless cask on offer and opted for a bottle of Duvel instead I wouldn't care to count.

    Another example is The Faversham in Leeds, who now have Pedigree on cask (I've got an incling it might be 'fast-cask') and Brooklyn Lager on carbonated tap. Is the Pedigree better because it's cask and the Brooklyn inferior because it's keg? I think any serious beer enthusiast should think about the answer.

    On a final note, you've beaten me to the punch! I was literally just writing up some notes for a blog post on keg vs cask vs craft vs real... and essentially how it's not as important as it once was. I might still do it and reference your post if you don't mind. Hopefully you'll have a read of it on my blog when I do.

  2. I was amused to see a CAMRA representative on the news last night in a report about the olympics being sponsored by heineken rather than a british brand. The CAMRA rep couldn't help himself and proposed that cask condition ale should be available at the olympic venues. This just made his argument a bit silly.

    Surely where it is not practical to properly look after cask ales then keg has to be embraced by CAMRA as not only viable but better option.

  3. - samhill. I think this is where Marstons would argue 'Fast cask' is appropriate. it keeps them beardies happy!

    I'd argue it's where good keg beer should be used rather than Pedigree or the atrocious marstons EPA. yuk

  4. Great piece, Zak. Love the medium vs the message analogy. It's all about the message in the first place and if that isn't right then what's the point? Some things are better in certain formats - some films need to be seen at the cinema, others fare better at home, while things like podcasts work best on a iphone, seemingly painful on the eyes on a large monitor. But what joins all of them? What they say or do is the important thing and what makes us remember it.

    Imagine if CAMRA's campaign was just about improving quality. Imagine if they gave stars to breweries who consistently produce well made beer, or something like that. That's got to be more important than whether we get a full pint or a few mls less.

  5. Great blog. I agree with it on the whole, I'd expand on your point about US IPA's being better on keg to say I think very hoppy beers over 5% are usually better with some carbonation IMO. The C02 helps lift the aroma and clean the pallet I think. Traditionally drinkers in the UK want something different out of their beer, they want sessionability, low abv's with lots of flavour, you can only do this really well with cask ale I think, which is why the UK is so good at it.

  6. Cuts through to the real issue with dazzling clarity Zak, your message is loud & clear, good beer will out! Irrelevant of dispense mode.
    Great piece!

  7. It is usually Tand that defends CAMRA, but I'll give it a go. CAMRA is what it is, a campaign for a certain style of beer, cask conditioned. It is fair to criticise it when it becomes a campaign against anything else but you cannot really have a go for it being something it is not and has never been. Why not set up a campaign for craft beer? It only takes 3 men in a pub and 40 years.

  8. 'You can roll it in glitter, but it will still just be a turd underneath'

    ...that's my youngest's fifth birthday party taken care of

  9. I contend that the proliferation of bland or poorly-made cask beers in the UK today is exactly what CAMRA saw in the 1970s, albeit then the beers were in keg form.

    I contend that you don't remember what beer was like in the 70s. I've had Doom Bar and Pedigree and Black Sheep Bitter and Abbot Ale and Greene King IPA; none of them would be my first choice, but I'd be quite happy to drink any of them all evening. I've had Watney's keg bitter (I think I was just too late for bleeding Watney's Red Barrel). It tasted as if someone had taken a fairly bland bitter, let it stand till it went flat, then carbonated it and chilled it until it was almost impossible to taste anything (when it started to warm up it was even worse). It was vile - and in lots of places that's all there was.

    If I could go into any pub in the country and find a bland, boring cask ale on the bar, CAMRA would have won. If you want to campaign for interesting and well-made beers to be available (with a variety of dispenses) to all beer enthusiasts, fair enough, but I don't think CAMRA should be saddled with it - and I don't think we should underestimate how much of a step forward is represented by those bland, boring, mass-produced cask beers.

  10. Well said. i totally agree that you cant get the most out of some beers on cask- some are winners, some losers.

  11. Twiss up in Madrid anyone? I'm carrying round a sense memory of jamon iberico with a glass of fino for the rest of the day now.

    Oh yeah, and what you said about the beer thing.

  12. Can't agree with with your suggestion that a good beer will still taste good from keg. I wouldn't normally touch the stuff but eating in a sports bar/restaurant recently the only beer available other than the tasteless mass produced lager shite was a keg version of one of our local beers. On draught it can be very good, in keg it was appalling, sharp and metallic with very little flavour. I moved to Guinness as the least offensive alternative as there weren't even any decent bottled beer options. I asked the owner why he didn't stock a few bottles of a decent beer ( a neighbouring restaurant stocks sam smiths in bottle for the beer drinkers) and all he could come up with was what would he do with it if it didn't sell? Clueless! The same bar was under different management last year and they stocked Meantime in bottle - excellent stuff and we went back there regularly to eat. I'm not going to be there very often under this management.

  13. Neil - the Brooklyn keg vs. Pedigree cask is a fine example of the dilemma that the modern drinker might face - I'd have to think for a bit about which I'd go for.

    Sam - that's a fair observation, but Heineken sponsoring the 2012 Olympics is just the last in a long line of howlers - wasn't Carlsberg the beer of the European Cup when it was in the UK? It would nice to have seen a British brand sponsor it, for sure (it will be just minutes until Kristy pops up to point out that Thomas Carling was a Yorkshireman), but money talks, and more money talks louder.

  14. Mark - it's just not within CAMRA's remit to do that, although I agree that a generic Campaign for Good Beer is a good idea - isn't that what blogging is all about?

    mBt, James - indeed, as Pete points out

    Cookie - I'm very careful not to single CAMRA out for anything in this post, and have said before that it's clearly not within CAMRA's remit to do anything about this.

  15. Phil - you're quite right that I don't remember what beer was like in the 1970s, so that's an assumption on my part. And as I say to Cookie above, I don't think CAMRA should be saddled with the task of a Campaign for Good Beer either. On another tack, I think that Molson Coors acquiring Sharps is a great step forward to your dream of ordinary brown beer available everywhere - do you feel, as Tandleman does (as do I and others, for that matter), that this is a positive move?

    Jay, Pete - thanks for that

    Nediom - that's a fair point, but not quite what I was talking about - if the beer tasted bad from keg, than it was a faulty keg, or hadn't been looked after properly. I'm not sure any brewer would use a mode of dispense that was inherently flawed. I had some shocking Sierra Nevada Pale Ale from keg in Leeds a few months ago, as stale and cardboardy as any beer that I've ever tasted. It turned out to be a handling/cellaring problem rather than anything wrong with the mode of dispense.

  16. I think that Molson Coors acquiring Sharps is a great step forward to your dream of ordinary brown beer available everywhere

    I totally agree. (It doesn't sound like much of a dream, I grant you, but it would be a hell of an improvement on ordinary brown beer not available everywhere.)

  17. I have always found that "you can't polish a turd" is a maxim worthy of carrying at the forefront of ones mind.
    Whether this be brewing, cooking, human resource management or organizational development.
    Without the fundamentals being of a suitable quality, nothing you do will ever improve the situation.
    Your point re: CAMRA is well made too, they have a mandate and they undertake it pretty well. Others should rise to the challenge of promoting good beer, however it is served. Your blog, and others like it, do a good job and I expect it will be via the internet and social media that progress will be made.

  18. Cracking post, almost ready to restart life as a pig rearer. In my daydream Penelope Cruz (think Volver) was my wife and the jamon was hanging from the ceiling of my backstreet bar in a tiny village in the hills...

    Excellent tackling of the subject. There are people blinded by the medium, not that that particular medium doesn't need a bit of championing (and certainly has needed so to survive).

  19. Hi Zak, regarding the olympics, it IS a great shame that there isn't a British sponsor. And the interview should have been with fullers or similar.
    It was amusing that the CAMRA rep changed the argument from being about having a British beer sponsor to having real ale sponsor.

    Another question that wasn't even raised was should we have an alcohol sponsor of the games at all. It seems at odds with the message of the games. But that is a very different topic.

  20. Brilliant post Zak, love it! I don't think I could agree with you more; I know I couldn't articulate the points as well as you have.

    "Big American IPAs needs to be served cold and carbonated - almost every beer of this style that I've tried on cask has been a cold glass of marmalade soup."

    Hello GBBF BSF! Pretty much every American IPA I had this year suffered in that way.

    I like to think of the cask/keg debate in the same way as the sparkler debate. The brewer starts with a beer idea (a message as you call it) and that message ends when the drinker puts his or her lips to the glass. Everything in between is a critical factor in bringing that idea to life; tools which the brewer can use to make the beer they want to make. If they want a sweet beer they can increase the mash temp, if they want a full bodied creamy beer they can use adjuncts and ask for it to be served through a sparkler, if they want a light beer with lots of carbonation they can use a yeast that attenuates well, keg it and ask for it to be served cold etc etc.

    Dispense method should be thought of as a means to an end, just like the ingredients and processes used in the brewery.

  21. Phil - it's a fair point, and illustrates nicely that although we may talk about real ale being 'saved' it still isn't as ubiquituous as many would like it to be.

    Mark S - I think the worry is that people who read beer blogs have already got the message - it needs to somehow break out of the ghetto and into the mainstream

    Mark RAR - you could feed the pigs on spent grain and hops

    Sam - Beer is good after exercise

    Mark BBB - quite, it's not a political argument, just a practical one.

  22. I think this is a discussion a lot of people have a word to say on. I wrote on my blog about the launch of Punk IPA in cans, and whether it is the first true 'craft beer' in a can.

    I mention a post you did ages ago about badger and how they were going to launch their beer in cans, Tanglefoot in particular. They decribe Tanglefoot as 'craft beer'. So does that constitute craft beer in a can? My thinking is no... but have a look at my post if you get a minute, i'd love to know your thoughts on the matter. (my name is a direct link to the article)


  23. Thanks for the post. The Session round-up is now live:


Sorry about the word verification - the blog was getting spammed to bits.