Thursday, 11 November 2010

Compromises

Like any manufacturing process, making beer involves compromises. You want to make the best product you can, but also make it for a price that your customers will pay, and it also needs a reasonable shelf life and a minimal amount of waste.

The price for drinking fresh, unprocessed beer is a compromise, in a way: you have a perishable product which will go flat and sour if you're not careful, and if that happens the beer quality is compromised much more than by any processing.

Good beer
You can pasteurise beer to give it stability. Many people think it doesn't taste as good, but on the other hand it's a lot nicer than an unpasteurised beer that's gone off.

You can filter beer, again to give it stability and to make it nice and clear. But you filter out flavour.

You can use extraneous CO2 to protect beer from the atmosphere. Overdo it and you wreck the beer, making it fizzy and acid, but that's just incompetence.

Bean-counters will tell you none of these damage the beer, or that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Well, maybe. Really flavourful beer can withstand several such compromises and still be good. Some beers don't survive much compromise. Some beers only really work direct from the cask because they're so subtle.

This brings us to the current debate about cask-conditioned beer versus keg.

"Keg" has been a dirty word among British beer drinkers for the last forty years because the accepted definition of it — by drinkers and brewers alike — has been pasteurised, filtered beer, force carbonated and served by CO2 pressure. Much of it wasn't that good to begin with and the number of flavour-compromising processes it goes through doesn't make it any better.



If you now start telling people that keg is the future, don't be surprised if their first reaction is "Ewww."

It's more confusing since the word keg is being used interchangeably even by new-wave brewers for two quite different containers: the keg proper in which CO2 pressure is used; and the KeyKeg in which the beer is contained in a plastic bag and never comes in contact with the gas, rather like a small-scale edition of a Czech tankové beer.

The proponents of "craft keg", if they had any sense, would point out that the stuff is not filtered or pasteurised and is actually a lot closer to real ale than it is to the keg muck that CAMRA was formed to fight against. It's arguably more real than the cynical FastCask nonsense devised by Marston's to comply with the letter of the definition of cask-conditioned beer, while in reality their EPA is crap beer to begin with, and heavily processed – filtered and reseeded with yeast beads.

Good beer
There's nothing theoretically wrong with a bit of extraneous CO2 to protect a slow moving beer or to propel it to the bar. None of it's necessary though. Drink beer while it's fresh and still has condition; that's common sense, like eating your cheese before it goes mouldy (of course there are exceptions, both in the world of beer and the world of cheese). Serving artificially preserved beer is like a restaurant reheating yesterday's soup. You can do it, and it might still be very nice, but the first-rate establishments don't do it.

The less you do to beer the better it is. Brew it, ferment it, rack it, drink it. I love that simplicity. So I drink real ale.

11 comments:

  1. "The less you do to beer the better it is"
    That doesn't make sense. Casking a beer is not "doing less" to it than kegging it. It's doing something different to it. And some beers are the better for it, and some beers aren't.

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  2. Some beer suits a bit of fizz though. Particularly stronger US style IPA's. IMO The carbonation really helps the flavour and cleans the palate. The big 7%+ US IPA's I've had on cask have tasted cloying and (unsurprisingly) flat. I recently bought a corny keg in order to force carbonate a US style pale ale, because I'd tasted it served like that at the brewery and it really improved the beer. Maybe this is just because its what I expect a US IPA should taste like, but I've tasted the beer served both ways and the carbonated version is just much better.

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  3. Hey, for all I care you are welcome to put your beer through a SodaStream if you like. I'm just describing the way I like mine.

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  4. I'm saying it suits some styles of beers, Lagers are another case in point. I take it you only ever drink UK ale then?

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  5. Not at all. Lager is best by gravity too.

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  6. Haha! Yeah right. The-kind-of-lager-that-gets-served-by-gravity is best by gravity, in the same way as the-kind-of-ale-that-gets-served-from-cask is best from cask. But if the brewer has brewed for keg and whacks some into a cask you don't automatically get better beer.

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  7. I agree with mybrewery tap. I learned a lot about cask beers while visiting Glasgow, and I like them a lot more than I used. But I will say that styles like the Double IPA were created with kegging in mind. You can cask it, but it's not going to be the way it was intended necessarily. There's always exceptions, but the gas provides the pop flavor (flavour) in the hops that wouldn't be as prominent otherwise, and it's really a beautiful thing.

    With that said, Barm, I've never even asked you if you've visited the US to taste beer. I would love to host you if you happen to make it out here some day. Just let me know. Hope things are well, and I'm excited to see if the Glasgow Beer Week takes off.

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  8. Whatever you do to a beer you have to do it right! You do as much for a beer as it needs. Note the use of 'for'.

    We treat all of our beers with the greatest of respect and deliver them in the best condition and (even though I don't like keg - heartburn beer) make sure its right - what's the point in going to a pub where the beer isn't drinkable?

    We cask condition all our real ales here at www.BlueBell.uk.eu.org. Some numpty brewers deliver their cask bright and think they know better than a professional publican - they don't get repeat business (the beer dies and we're all upset).

    Beer is wonderful in all it's forms, you do enough to take perfection (the brewed state) beyond it's bounds (secondary fermented then delivered by my southern [uk] beer engines! - tee hee, the sparkler debate continues)!

    Well, we always try to deliver the best we can, keg or cask. I just hate these processed concoctions from chemical plants.

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  9. Just saw the post about pop flavour - it's the CO2 bite [just an effect in the mouth - it's the best that the likes of Carling et al can do, no desirable favour at all when at a drinkable temperature] that drowns out the flavour of an over-chilled drink.
    The CO2 has no real effect warmer than 4 degrees or so, and it blinds the taste buds [so does the temperature].
    It's usually a drink that tastes foul when at a drinkable temperature.

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  10. Steve, no one's talking about Carling here.

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  11. Yeah, definitely not talking about Carling, I'm talking about small little microbrewery with amazing beers. I do think you'll find that a beer that is cask and a beer that is kegged, if both are done well, will have very different flavors even if it's the same recipe. The gas definitely has an effect, and it doesn't blind the taste buds, at the very least it changes the prominence of certain flavors.

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