Friday 4 February 2011

The Session #48: Cask, Keg, Bottle or Can...

This month's Session topic is from Reluctant Scooper, one of the finest drinkers and bloggers I know.

Some people guzzle up beer in any form, from any where, served any how.

I’m one of them.

As a drinker I want to try lots of different beers, maybe every single beer, maybe just some of them, it depends on how busy I am at work. I’m still on the exciting bit, the search for the forever-elusive Best Beer In The World, where the promise of the next pint makes me drink fast, with hope, with excitement, with anticipation. New beer (plus the desire to occasionally socialise) is what takes me to the pub, to beer shops, to blogs and websites. I want to drink them or hear about them or read about them. That's why I do this.

Being this kind of drinker all that truly matters to me, when it comes down to the bare-boned-knuckles of the bar brawl, is that it arrives in the glass in a good condition and tastes totally amazing (or at least tastes like I want it to taste in that moment, subjectivity being a powerful thing and all that).

So if it's the stuff in the glass which touches the lips which is the most important thing, then does it matter how it got to that glass?

Of course it doesn't!
Keg beer. Oooh, sexy keg beer, Craft Beer in a Keg. It's the Future! Maybe. I’m excited to see more breweries filling kegs, but then I would be, wouldn’t I, with one longing eye always looking at the US and their beers. The thing is, it works in the US because the beers benefit from that little tickle and push of fizz on the way out and that extra coldness – the big hops, the big bodies of those beers, they get brighter, bolder but lighter and guess what, they are tastier! Put a 4% bitter through it and it won’t work, but a 6% pale ale or a 9% stout... Why am I excited about kegged British beers? Because it’s an extra choice. Because maybe someone who’s never tried ale before will give it a go. Because maybe more British brewers will give lager a go. Because the beers being put inside these kegs are the ones I want to drink.

Bottles! I love bottled beer, you know that. Pubs are scary so I drink at home. I'm also lazy. Or tired. So a bottle on the sofa is easier than a pint on a bar stool. I've had some wonderful, amazing beers in the bottle, beers which could only be so good because they've been in a bottle or because I've poured them out of that bottle at a special moment. Bottles are good. I spend too much money on bottles of beer.

I don't need to start on cans. We all know how I feel about them. GIVE ME GOOD BEER IN CANS! Yippee. THAT’S the future. Maybe.

And cask beer. That great and glorious product that British beer is based around. What a wonderful thing. A perfect pint of cask ale is a dream to drink. Completely unbeatable in the beer world. Full stop. But only if it's well brewed and well kept, they are delicate things those casks of beautiful beer.

So look. I like all beers, right. Most of all I like how they taste when I drink them. But, and here’s where the argument falls over, some beer is shit. I’ve had as many, or more, average or bad pints of real ale than I’ve had great pints of real ale. I’m not just talking about boring beer. I can appreciate it if it doesn’t get my tongue doing backflips of joy as long as it’s fresh and in great condition (I’d rather have a boring beer well kept than an exciting beer poorly kept; who wouldn’t?). The same is true of bottles, with as many poured down my sink as down my throat (a very wise man once said life’s too short to drink bad beer). Some beers are brilliant in the bottle, some should stay locked away forever, never touching glass. I've had less shit beer in kegs and cans, but then fewer are filling these with the beers I want to drink, so the sample is skewed, for now. But then, the majority of kegged and canned beer is not the stuff I want to drink, if that makes a difference (NOTE: The best beers I’ve drunk so far this year have all come from keg!).

This is what’s important to consider: some beers are just better in casks, some are better in kegs, and some need a container like a bottle or a can. NOw consider this: the cask, keg, bottle or can only carries it to the drinker. In an ideal world we’d all drink from the conditioning tank in a brewery. The key is this, and it’s the epicentre of this whole discussion: the beer going into the container has to be great in the first place. Get that bit wrong and you might as well serve it in a recently-emptied crisp packet.

As long as it's good in my glass than that's all that matters to me. I've said it before. I'm almost certain I'll say it again (bemoaning the single-minded REAL ALE ONLY! crowd, or the FILTERING IS THE DEVIL! groups, no doubt). It's the taste what counts; it's how it makes the drinker feel that truly matters the most. Beer is the Best Drink In The World because it's democratic and there's something for everyone. It’s a baited discussion but if a pasteurised beer sold in a can tastes great to you or me, then why are we even having this discussion? As long as you are willing to at least try it and not dismiss it point blank without even considering it as an option, then let’s happily sit here and drink our beers and talk about the weather, women or what we saw on TV last night.

Good beer first (the 'good' being highly subjective and individual, of course), container second. Simple as that.

However, and this is exciting, we’ll soon be able to get Punk IPA in cask, keg, bottle and can. This means, definitively, that we’ll be able to know once and for all, settling all squabbles forever and ever, which is the best. So, and I’ll take this challenge for the team, it’ll be WINNER TAKES ALL. Punk vs Punk vs Punk vs Punk: what’s your money on?


  1. totally agree - the best dispense system is the one that suits the beer the most.

  2. Yep - agreed. Do you know what, we often have beers doubled up, at least in keg, cask and bottle... Sometimes something comes up and despite already stocking in one form you've just got to grab it.

    In my experience it's often the initial effect that is very slightly different, of course keg has that extra dose of CO2, cask has the gentle tongue tingle, bottles tend to have softer bubbles and cans harder.

    Get halfway down your glass and it's all going to be pretty much the same. It's the same beer after all.

    That doesn't stop people expressing preferences, some people won't touch bottles with a bargepole on a night out, I find it somewhat inexplicable...

  3. A great post Mark. I wrote about the launch of Punk in cans on my blog, and whether it is the first true 'craft beer in a can' we've had in the uk. Would love to hear your thoughts on the matter and would very much welcome a comment. You know more about the issue than me!

    (just click my name to go diretc to the post)

  4. In many ways you're right - it doesn't matter how your beer gets to you, only that you like it once you're drinking it. It's still worth being aware, though, that (for example) a non-conditioned bottle - or for that matter a can - is likely to have more (and coarser) bubbles injected into it, which goes on to have a direct impact on the taste. Whether that's an issue or not is a question of whether or not you like your beer that way!

    I think it's a great think that Brewdog are going to make Punk available in all forms, because the opportunities for direct comparisons are few and far between. Of course, although they will all undoubtably taste different we still wont be able to agree which is best!