Keg or Cask?
Which do you prefer? It’s a bit like asking whether you like salt and sauce on your chips or if you prefer salt and vinegar.
Each has its strong advocates.
And there’s plenty of people who are not entirely sure of the difference between cask and keg beer and if one is supposed to be the ‘real thing’ while the other isn’t quite authentic.
Cask beer was considered to be the connoisseur’s choice in the UK, but over the years it became less popular with publicans, as it has a shorter shelf life than kegged beer and it went into decline.
In 1971, CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) was set up specifically to promote the drinking of ‘real ale’ – traditional, draught, cask beer - as opposed to the industrially-produced and highly carbonated beer produced by the big brewers at that time.
However, the decline of cask continued.
SIBA (who represent over 800 independent craft breweries) suggest that quality was perhaps one of the factors behind the decline in cask beer. Due to the rise of kegged beer, fewer publicans had experience of conditioning cask ales correctly and if cask beer isn’t looked after – with care and patience in the cellar - it’s easy to serve a ‘bad’ pint.
Now however, thanks to the efforts of groups such as CAMRA and with some of the UK’s leading craft breweries producing cask beers, it’s enjoying a bit of a revival among younger beer drinkers.
So what really are the differences?
- Is a ‘living’ product; it contains live yeast which continues to condition the beer, fermenting in the cask until it is served. Carbon dioxide is released naturally to create gentle bubbles in the beer (it should never be flat)
- Needs to be drunk fresh – within 3 or 4 days of opening the cask
- Is generally served cool, at 11-13°C
- Is pulled up from the cask, via a handpull, (that’s where the expression, ‘pulling a pint’ comes from)
- Generally comes in a 9-gallon, barrel-shaped ‘Firkin’ though also sometimes in bottles (‘bottle conditioned’ beer)
- Is generally best suited to beers that require a lower carbonation level, like traditional pale ales, bitters, Scotch ales and stouts. beers are usually ales.
- Generally best suited to beer styles that require higher levels of carbonation, like traditional, continental styles such as Czech pilsners or German wheat beers
- Is also suited to heavily-hopped beers and those with higher levels of alcohol
- Is generally served colder than cask beer, between 2-8°C
- Is brought up from the keg through a keg line, usually using gas, and into the glass through a beer ‘font’ or tap
- Generally comes in 30 or 50-litre, steel kegs
Actually cask and keg beer is brewed in the same way.
The main difference is that cask beer goes through a secondary fermentation after it’s been put into the cask. Living yeast is still present in the beer, and will react with sugars in solution to undergo a secondary fermentation inside the cask, creating the C02 needed to 'condition' the beer and give it its natural carbonation.
Cask-conditioned beer also requires special handling and storing.
Pubs need to take a lot more care with cask beer and the temperature of their cellar is important as the beer must be stored at 10-12 degrees C, to ensure it’s naturally carbonated (‘lively’) and tastes great.
As cask beer is open to oxygen during its dispense, it can be infected by airborne bacteria which will sour and acidify the beer. A beer with a higher ABV and higher hopping rates have some added protection as they are both natural preservatives.
That’s why cask beer must be poured within a few days of opening; if cask beer isn’t kept well, it won’t taste right.
Meanwhile keg beer is generally filtered or pasteurised to sterilise it, then carbonated before it’s put into the keg. Kegged beer requires a less intensive care regime; because it’s ready to drink when it goes into the keg, it just needs to be chilled before serving. Kegged beer also has a longer ‘shelf life’ because it’s been pasteurised or filtered and is dispensed with sterile CO2, and that’s one of the key reasons why – for many years at least – cask beer fell out of favour with publicans.
The majority of pubs are restricted as to what beer they can serve in keg because of ‘ties’ to breweries or commercial arrangements where particular breweries supply a keg line and branded tap. Meanwhile they’re often free to choose which cask beers (‘specials’) they put on and you’ll often see these chalked up, on a blackboard.
So to sum up, both keg and cask beer have their advocates and we would never say one is better than the other – we serve both, side by side in our taproom.
And when we’re open again, you’ll have to come in and try a pint each of our Lawless IPA or Session Ale in keg and cask and see if you can spot the difference and decide if you have a preference.
Meanwhile, if you’re yearning for a draught beer during lockdown - either keg or cask - we can help.
With our Taproom and pubs likely to be closed for some considerable time to come, comfort yourself with one of our lovely, 5-litre mini casks now available for UK wide delivery, or for local, contactless collection from our yard.
We will also be releasing our Craft Lager in 5-litre mini kegs in the coming weeks; keep an eye on social media.
There is also currently a 20% discount on cans and bottles of our beers via our online shop for UK wide delivery or local, contactless pick up at brewery.