Roll out the barrel…

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The famous red barrel

Watneys Red Barrel was the beer that prompted the formation of real ale movement the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) in 1971 because this fizzy liquid, held in pressured keg containers, was deemed tasteless and a threat to traditional real ale. In the first CAMRA Good Beer Guide, drinkers were infamously advised to “avoid it like the plague”.

The beer became the poster child for all that was bad about keg beer – compared with cask-conditioned real ale whose condition (let’s call it sparkle) was due to natural carbonation and not injected gas.

It has taken almost 50 years before we have now reached a stage where Watneys is making a return via a £400,000 crowdfunding plan, albeit with the company stating it will produce decent beer this time! Since it is questionable what residual value is left in the brand and with the beer likely to be vastly different, I’m left to ponder the value of such a resurrection?

Anyway, the potential return of “Grotneys” is merely an aside to the main event on CAMRA’s near half-century anniversary – the movement’s revolutionary action to allow keg products at its major event, the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF), for the first time.

Having shunned those beers for all those years it has finally succumbed to recognising things aren’t as simple as keg beer bad, cask beer good. Life is so much more nuanced today. We have a situation where the majority of the output from the newer craft brewers is keg. This is mainly because keg is easier to look after through the supply chain – ensuring it has consistency at the point of dispense isn’t difficult – and the brewers can charge a lot more for it than cask beer.

Keg is the liquid younger consumers are downing, leading to the sad decline in cask beer sales, which had fallen 6.8% in volume terms in the year to July 2018, according to the British Beer & Pub Association, with few signs of a turnaround since. In fact, if you look at Fuller’s sale of its brewery to Asahi, it’s the opposite of a turnaround. If cask beer had been flying out the door that deal probably wouldn’t have materialised.

What appears to be a major change of heart by CAMRA isn’t strictly the case. The reality is keg beer has been served at GBBF for a number of years at the international bars, where drinkers have been able to enjoy keg lager imported from the Czech Republic and Germany. Such beers are supposed to be held in pressured containers. Cask versions of these beers would be ridiculous and, in most cases, impossible to produce because of the methods and ingredients involved.

It is therefore rather strange that the US Brewers Association has sent over a consignment of cask versions of American breweries’ keg beer to GBBF for some years. They have been well received by many but I’m not among them as the exercise has merely highlighted how specific styles of beer are better suited or designed for keg while others are at home in cask format.

Against this backdrop, the major debate about beer today surrounds its final condition when it’s served in the boozer – and this is where cask has been losing out. Unless it’s looked after – from brewery to pub cellar to the point of serving – what is in the customer’s glass won’t reflect the product created by the brewer.

In demanding the beer the brewer intended, my own drinking habits have increasingly skewed towards buying keg beer from craft brewers but, in reality, the brews I’ve enjoyed most have invariably been cask. When attending tap takeovers at my local, The Great Northern Railway Tavern in north London, the standout brews have all been cask but produced by renowned companies that predominantly brew keg beer.

Memorable beers have been Siren Craft Brew’s Suspended In Fog, Magic Rock Brewing’s High Wire, Northern Monk’s Eternal, and Cloudwater Brew Co’s Pale Ale. These were the best of these brewers’ selections on tap when served in a pub with top cellar credentials. This goes to show that unlike in the 1970s when keg was the biggest threat to cask, today’s biggest threat to cask is cask.

 

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Beer Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.