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Putting the KEG into CAMRA

Slimline 30L KeyKegWow… what a difference a few years makes. I joined CAMRA about 8 years ago – becoming an active member in the North Hertfordshire branch, and eventually branch cellarman for our beer festivals. Despite moving away to Cambridge I have still filled this technical role for the branch over the last few years. I was a software engineer back then, now I run my little beer distribution business – and most of my volume is kegged beer. I’m surprised I didn’t get barred from CAMRA already – spreading the keg love as I do!

But what is really changing is CAMRA – stepping forward into the future. The CAMRA Technical Advisory Group (TAG) passed “KeyKeg” as being “real ale”-compatible some years ago, and in fact I had KeyKegs hooked up to handpumps at the Letchworth Garden City CAMRA beer festival in 2011. Last year support for KeyKeg was further reinforced by a CAMRA AGM motion being passed stating that CAMRA should support KeyKeg as a real ale format. (Much like supporting “real ale in a bottle” for example.)

Coming out of this the Manchester winter beer festival in January may well have been the first CAMRA beer festival to feature a dedicated British kegged beer bar. And KeyKegs have been seen at CAMRA fests here and there since the original TAG decision.

Now in my role supporting North Hertfordshire CAMRA beer festivals combined with my role promoting great beers (that I sell, obviously) I am being allowed to sponsor and run a “real ale in a keg” bar at the inaugural Stevenage Winter Beer & Cider Festival which kicks off this Thursday 4th of February. Easy to get to from Cambridge and London – if you’re into beer, and interested in this historic time in the history of CAMRA you should come along and marvel at there being a KEG bar at a CAMRA beer festival! And, of course, enjoy the awesome beers.

Stevenage Fest AdKeyKeg allows breweries to produce well carbonated, pressure-dispensed beer that falls within the definition of “real ale” when unfiltered, unpasteurised, and “live” – because pressurised CO2 does not need to come into contact with the beer for dispense so it doesn’t suffer from the “extraneous CO2” problem. It isn’t quite so simple however – as filtered beer can be put in KeyKegs too. At the end of the day I judge a beer by how it tastes and don’t worry much about how “real” it is. But within the CAMRA context one must be a little more sensitive to the technicalities. So I have selected beers for the festival that I know to be “live” – and equivalent to the same beers as they would/could be packaged in cask. (There is a grey area around “tank conditioning” in this… but this grey area affects cask as well as keg so we base our judgement on the “live yeast” factor more than anything.) The beers I have selected to showcase KeyKeg are below – featuring mainly styles I think only, or at least best, work with the higher carbonation and cooler serve temperature of keg dispense. What do you think – a good intro to the concept of keg beers for the uninitiated I hope. If it is popular I may have some specials in reserve to sneak on too 😉

Brewery Beer Name ABV Notes
Cloudwater AUS Hopfen Weisse (Winter 2015/16) 6.5% Rich NZ/Aus Hopped Wheat Beer
Cloudwater Dark Lager (Winter 2015/16) 5.5% Dark Yet Curiously Light & Hoppy
Cloudwater IPA (Winter 2015/16) 8.0% Best Cloudwater IPA Yet
Hammerton Islington Lager 4.7% Steam Lager
Pig & Porter Elusive Pig II 5.7% Black IPA (Comet dry-hopped)
Pig & Porter Honey Hill Wit 5.0% Honey Witbier
Siren Calypso – Citra/Centennial/Equinox 4.0% Dry-Hopped Berlinerweisse
Siren Pompelmocello 6.0% Sour Grapefruit IPA
Weird Beard MAC Spreadsheet Ninja 5.5% Mosaic/Amarillo/Centennial Dry-Hop Pilsner
Weird Beard Saison 14 6.0% Dry Hopped Saison
Wild Weather Khareef 2.4% Small Beer, Big Hops
Wild Weather Message in a Potel 7.5% “Oversized Stout”
Wild Weather Peach of a Weekend 5.6% Peachy Hoppy Sour

I was also asked to write some text for the festival guide to explain KeyKeg, so I reproduce that here:

Real Ale in KeyKeg

Keg?! Why is this dirty word seen at a CAMRA beer festival? The history of CAMRA begins with keg – when breweries decided that cask was too expensive and difficult and keg was the future. But if expense is all that matters then a lot of other corners get cut – lower quality ingredients, cheap adjuncts used instead of malt – and the product is then filtered and pasteurised to give it a long shelf-life. This is the horror of insipid kegged beer that was taking over in the 70s and necessitated the founding of CAMRA to campaign for the survival of good beer. The big brewers gave keg a bad rap!

BUT – keg need not be this way. Many microbreweries today are experimenting with keg – especially for beers more suited to higher carbonation levels and cooler serve temperatures. This new wave of microbrewery kegged beer is unpasteurised and unfiltered, full flavoured live beer – much of it keg-conditioned and produced the same way as cask. There is still a problem however – by CAMRA definition CO2 top-pressure is not compatible with “real ale”. Even cask conditioned beer doesn’t qualify when CO2 aspirators are used – so a standard top-pressure keg certainly cannot.

Which is where the KeyKeg comes in. In a KeyKeg beer is contained within a “bag” inside the keg. And the gas pressure squeezes the bag to push the beer out. The gas can be CO2 – or simply compressed air – but has no contact with the beer inside the bag. We now have a type of kegged beer that meets the CAMRA definition of “real ale” – unpasteurised, unfiltered, live, and unsullied by “extraneous CO2”. Think of it being very much like “real ale in a bottle” – “real ale in a keg”! Approved by the CAMRA Technical Advisory Group (some years ago in fact) & there was a vote in favour of CAMRA supporting this form of real ale at the 2015 AGM – so this is all above board! KeyKegs have already been seen at various CAMRA festivals in the last few years, we had two at the last Letchworth Garden City festival – in that case vented to lower carbonation and served via handpump.

Do not worry about the future of proper cask ale however! Many beers work best in cask – you won’t find many breweries kegging bitters and best bitters for starters. The KeyKeg format suits zesty hop-forward pales, sours, wheats, saisons, lagers, and some stronger beers. However 1-way recyclable KeyKegs add to costs and a 30 litre KeyKeg has similar (if not greater) overheads to fill as a 41 litre cask. Which is one of the factors behind the higher pricing of these kegged beers. Cask ale is quite safe.

 

 

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Beer Academy Beer Industry CAMRA Craft Beer Hasty Ranting Jolly Good Beer Politics

Objective Definition of Craft Beer

Don’t try to define craft beer, that way madness lies… [Added 3/8/15 21:41: Please don’t read this as me insisting there ought to be some sort of an enforced definition… nor that I think I am laying down a One True Definition of Craft… it’s just a thought exercise. I do still think the concept is worth pondering.]

But hey, everyone seems to be defining craft beer again. I decided to give it a ponder, to flog the dead horse per se. Nowt better than a well flogged equine corpse. (I clearly don’t have enough to do… like accounting, inventory, and sales for example.)

The problem is nearly every definition goes into some wishy washy non-measurable territory about “quality” and ethos. This isn’t going to work… after significant thought (5 minutes, but on the back of several-years worth of feedback loop), here’s what I boil it down to from my own personal perspective. This is _my_ best attempt at a definition of “craft beer”, it gels with a lot of others, even BrewDog’s, but brings in stricter ownership rules and discards what I see as unnecessary minutiae & subjectivity.

  1. Brewery is “privately” owned and controlled.
    This is about being in control of creative direction, not being answerable to shareholders and investors. Freedom. Being an exchange listed company _definitely_ rules you out of the “craft beer club” (which, to my pleasure, takes Greene King out of the definition, huzzah!). Collective employee ownership is OK however – that’s about as craft as you can get I reckon. You can buy a brewery and have it still be craft too, so I’m not tying this down to founder-owned. Look at breweries like Moor, for example. [Disclosure: I sell Moor beer. It is awesome.] I’ll allow breweries owned by rich benefactors as well, so long as they have entire ownership of the brewery, so I’m not tying it down to brewer-owned either. If the owner(s) build it up, and sell it to Molson Coors… craft status stripped. Harsh perhaps, the beer probably won’t change in the short run (it will almost certainly change in the long run). But I believe craft is about more than the liquid in the glass.
  2. Investment companies / investors own, collectively, no more than 10%
    I think equity-investment in brewing is fine, see “rich benefactor” above, but a large corporate or institutional investor pretty much says one thing to me: where’s the exit strategy? It isn’t quite universal, perhaps, but it is nearly always the case that investment means travelling a path towards a destination of either sell-out-high or get-listed. Cash-in, cha-ching… that’s not craft. On the other hand, making lots of money by building a mega-successful brewery is perfectly OK. It’s “selling out” that I don’t believe is craft, unless the “sell out” is privately to a private owner in which case there’s room for the operation to remain “craft”.
  3. IMG_20150802_163304Beer clearly states origin and name of origin brewery.
    Origin fudging is not craft. I won’t budge on this one. Being shy about your production is not craft. If you’re embarrassed about how & where your beer is produced: it is not craft. I’ve no problems with cuckoo or contract brewing so long as it is done honestly – Yeastie Boys are an example of honest (and worthwhile) contract brewing. [Disclosure: Yes, I sell their beer. Because I love the beers.]
  4. Beer lists all ingredients.
    At a minimum top level ingredients, including brewing essentials such as yeast – so a list such as: Barley Malt, Flaked Wheat, Hops, Yeast, Blood Oranges, Otters’ Tears. I don’t really understand why this isn’t more normal, in my opinion it ought to be a legal requirement. But failing that – brewers should just naturally choose to do this! If you’re not proud of your ingredients, not ashamed to admit what goes into the beer, than you’re not craft as far as I’m concerned. I’m not saying brewers should give out the recipes to their beers – I am saying every beer should say what is in the bottle. And I want more than most here, as much as is practical. Malt types, hop varieties, yeast strain (and “our house yeast” is fine here). Whether isinglass is used at any stage too. Ideally this should be on the bottle, it can’t practically be presented for keg/cask – and sometimes hops have to change, often recipes evolve, but that’s what websites are for: 8 Wired, Hopwired [Disclosure: Hey, I happen to sell this stuff too.]
  5. Brewery meets a (to be determined) set of basic standards.
    This one needs some work. But, basically, I would lay down a set of minimum standards in addition to the core points above… I don’t think it is good to be too specific, like ruling out use of certain adjuncts, or brewing processes, etc. But there are some basics that are simple to audit. Some rough initial ideas: pays at least living wage (quality of people, I don’t think living wage is perfect but it is a start), invests in cold-storage (quality of beer), deals with wholesalers who invest in cold-storage (self-interest afoot here! But I believe *strongly* in improving supply chain in this direction – and the same applies for exporters and foreign distributors), educates employed brewing staff (owner-brewers excepted perhaps?), does not package beer in clear glass (personal enraged bugbear!) … what else? (All subject to debate…) [I’m, astonishingly, changing my mind on pasteurisation just a little, there are circumstances where I can accept it is not a compromise. Late additions of maple syrup, for example… how’s that for a subject for a “craft debate”?]

What, nothing about about size? Production volume? Etc… I think the US has shown that measuring craft by brewery size doesn’t work very well.

It may not quite be perfect… but it is “craft” as I see it, as much as I can pin it down within my own mind. Plenty of breweries I think are a bit crap fit within the definition, but defining craft beer can’t be about what I do and don’t like and it needs to be objective if it is to work at all. I use the word and if I’m to continue to use the word I ought to be able to outline what I mean when I use it… that’s one of the points of this post.

I’ve an ulterior motive in all this of course. Because I think, if done right, this can be used as a mechanism to drive change and improve quality in the UK beer industry. A proper craft beer representative body can pick up where SIBA fails to deliver, and bridge the gap to where the Beer Academy doesn’t quite seem to have the grunt to execute.

If there is to be a wider crystallisation of a concept of craft then mere definition is not enough… it needs an organisation behind it to work. Sometimes there are grey areas and a committee, perhaps, needs to make a ruling. For a definition to work lines do need to be drawn. And the organisation doing this needs to really stand up for the ethos behind craft beer… creativity and independence, and striving for quality. (We can’t make quality part of the definition, but an organisation can support and encourage it.)

This should be a membership based organisation like SIBA, where all breweries that meet the definition can join for a fairly low fee. (ÂŁ250?) [But you don’t have to be a member to _be_ a craft brewer!] Major decisions are made on an open democratic basis – we have the technology to achieve this quite simply. The purpose of the organisation is to manage the membership, manage the definition, promote the concept of craft beer, and – importantly – make an attempt at defining best practice. Work to improve and modernise the world of great beer in the UK, which will be of benefit to everyone in the chain from farmer to drinker.

In the UK we’ve a lot to do to improve the pint of beer that ends up in the glass. SIBA isn’t doing it (but it does help), the Beer Academy isn’t doing it (but it does help), CAMRA isn’t doing it (and may actually have become a barrier to good quality).

Finally – “craft beer” should try hard not to look down on “not craft beer”. We’ll all have our own personal prejudices which we won’t give up (*cough*GreenKing*cough*). But we have to accept that some multinationals do make a high quality product, and sometimes it even happens to be rather tasty.

This has been a craft community broadcast brought to you by the vested-interest department… and I may very well change my mind tomorrow. Or after I’ve had a beer.


P.S. In all of this I think it is well worth being aware that craft is not necessarily equal to “good”, and non-craft is definitely not equal to “bad”. Good and bad are subjective and undefinable, there is debate even around identifiable brewing/beer flaws. Craft is not equal to “better” – but it will _usually_ be more interesting than the alternative thanks to the creativity and flexibility of the style of operation I think my above points encompass. Cases in point are to look at Greene King’s efforts at “craft”, and Marston’s “Revisionist” beers… which for the most part I don’t think are _bad_ beers, but they’re clearly contained and restrained beers… yet are the most “adventurous” beers breweries of this scale and shareholder-value maximising sensibilities will produce. (You can still brew really dull beer within the points of my attempt at a definition above, of course.)