Wow… 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.
KeyKeg 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 😉
AUS Hopfen Weisse (Winter 2015/16)
Rich NZ/Aus Hopped Wheat Beer
Dark Lager (Winter 2015/16)
Dark Yet Curiously Light & Hoppy
IPA (Winter 2015/16)
Best Cloudwater IPA Yet
Pig & Porter
Elusive Pig II
Black IPA (Comet dry-hopped)
Pig & Porter
Honey Hill Wit
Calypso – Citra/Centennial/Equinox
Sour Grapefruit IPA
MAC Spreadsheet Ninja
Mosaic/Amarillo/Centennial Dry-Hop Pilsner
Dry Hopped Saison
Small Beer, Big Hops
Message in a Potel
Peach of a Weekend
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.
Keg… in summer… in the UK… it is a fucking pain in the backside. Currently I am having a “summer of fob”. (“Fobbing” is what happens when a beer is too foamy to serve, “foam on beer”, there are several ways fobbing can occur – carb level, temp, flow rate…)
Keg is quickly becoming core to my distribution business. In fact I’m slowly moving to less and less cask volume and considering dropping cask entirely so I can focus more on keg and packaged beers. But there’s a problem with keg – I’m getting higher ullage rates, and an ullage is effectively eliminated sales volume, work done for nothing – and that hurts my small business. It strains relationships with pubs and breweries too. I’m sat here as the middle-man copping the flack from either side.
There are key problems that I believe the UK beer industry MUST solve:
Breweries should not be releasing beers that will gain over 1 vol of CO2 outside of the brewery. Let alone 2 or 3 vols! Surely? Is that reasonable? I’ve handled kegs that are up at 6 vol CO2 (in steel thankfully) and had a KeyKeg at 4 vol CO2 recently. That is on the verge of a KeyKeg’s maximum PSI rating at room temperature. If that 6 vol CO2 beer was in KeyKeg it could very well explode at cellar temperature. If breweries do this it’ll only be a matter of time before a serious injury occurs. That could be in the brewery, could be in distribution, could be in the pub…
Distribution should be keeping kegs cool. This is unpasteurised unfiltered beer folks, it _will_ continue to attenuate somewhat. If you leave your kegs lying around for a week at 20C in summer they’ll probably gain some CO2 and thus result in fobbing. Causing issues at the pub, causing bad vibes, ullaged kegs, and hassles for both distribution and the brewery. I have a 10C coldstore and I’m not happy with that, but many “craft” distributors don’t have a coldstore at all. Hell, too many _breweries_ in the UK don’t. My own goal is to have a 4C-max coldstore for keg and packaged beer products. Some think me a fool… perhaps I am. It certainly isn’t currently a competitive advantage in a market where pubs will do anything to save a fiver.
Pubs need to learn more about keg beer. The BII ABCQ is pretty much a waste of time, someone interested in their job & beer quality will already know _more_. We need a UK-tailored equivalent to Cicerone. Not just that – but pubs need to _not_ buy 2+ months worth of keg stock at once and then leave it in their 12C cellar. See above point: it _will_ attenuate further, the CO2 will increase, you _will_ have more issues with fobby beer. Ideally I’d love to see pubs with keg cellars below 6C… I’m dreamin’ now… Not every beer will have it in it to go far enough to cause problems, but some will. Just do not buy and store kegs for this long unless you can keep them cold. That’s just plain good practice regardless.
I don’t think a pub ought to have to worry about knowing how to vent kegs to reduce CO2 levels – but whilst the above 3 problems remain unsolved the best alternative I can think of is that pubs need to learn how to do this. Yet the current status in the UK is that most don’t even know how to manage within-acceptable-bounds cases with pressure and flow control. The highest level of UK cellar training is the BII ABCQ and, frankly, it is barely even what I would consider sufficient as a “new-joiner briefing” in a serious bar or pub. It’s crap, it’s designed for Wetherspoons and similar bar chains that have standardised products and support contracts.
I have _NEVER_ come across a keg I cannot get pouring. That 60 PSI steel keg I mentioned worked just fine after some venting, and the beer was actually pretty awesome. KeyKegs are even easier to vent.
Now… how do we fix this? <troll>Pasteurise all the keg beer?</troll>
(I have views on the lack of refrigeration in UK beer retail too… that’s one for another time though.)
OK – so… I’ve been asked about four times by different brewers about what I think of the various sorts of kegs UK breweries are using. Each time my thoughts are expanded and now I have nearly 2000 2500 words worth of blather about kegs. I don’t have time to clean it up much… but I’ve been left with an unexpected gap in a day so… here is is, in pretty raw “brain dump” form.
Here’s my thoughts on a few of the keg types I find amongst the menagerie in my coldstore. Note that my own views are from the handling end – I’m a distributor not a brewer. I’m used to dealing with all these from receipt from brewery through to dispense of beer – helping pubs get beer serving, and serving beer myself at events
With respect to costs I suggest brewing folk talk to other brewing folk as, like I said, I am not a brewer so any vague cost info below is 2nd hand!
First, an aside on conditioning. Some folk simply fill their kegs the same as they fill their casks with final conditioning occurring due to continued fermentation in the keg. This is often a source of pain… venting a cask is usual, venting a keg is something UK pubs no nowt about. So unless you’re accurate with your conditioning in the keg then you’re going to have problems with returned beer. I’m finding more breweries are shifting to getting final condition nailed in CT before filling to keg. Then again folk like Moor seem to keg condition consistently and reliably. YMMV… I’d say it is a subject you’re best off talking about with breweries who use different methods of keg filling/conditioning.
Conditioning in kegs also means you want (IMO) to instruct pubs to let their kegs settle for 48 hours before connecting. (A lot will ignore this unfortunately.) Whereas racking relatively-bright to keg causes less “London Murky” hassle. [KeyKeg is a bit of an exception as it draws beer from the top and not via a spear, so you’ll have brighter beer sooner.]
I know a few folk who rack brightish into keg and then force-carb in keg… but this looks like a right pain. Time consuming and thus unscalable. Get yourself a CT!
Brewery Steel Kegs
Your very own steel kegs… Easy to handle. Robust. Expensive up front. And as much of a pain to track down and repatriate as your own casks. But breweries are used to handing cask tracking so just the same really. You also obviously need specialist keg cleaning equipment. Although I know at least one brewery de-spears their kegs for cleaning… and so far doesn’t seem to have killed anyone.
Most breweries with their own kegs have them in 30l with Sankey connectors. But I’ve seen a handful about who use A-type connectors, and some 50l kegs – 50l size is great for house lagers, etc… beers that sell in volume.
Summer Wine Brewery are an example of a brewery with a good population of their own kegs. SWB use 50l kegs for the 4.1% Pacer too. Another example is Outstanding brewery in Bury who have 50l A-type kegs – and focus on “house lagers” & Guinness-alternative stout markets – i.e. good quality indy replacements to mainstream “macro” lagers and Guinness.
With respect to keg size think about the market you’re targeting. The “rotational craft beer” market seems to be mainly about 30l keg sizes.
From an environmental PoV I side mainly with reusable steel kegs when it comes to selling beer to the UK market. I don’t trust the effectiveness of the recycling chain to be a great fan of any of the plastic kegs on “eco” grounds (EcoKeg do take reuse/recycle very seriously mind you!). The UK just isn’t big enough for the weight/transport issues to be a major concern. (But by all means use 1-way kegs for export…)
Close Brewery Rentals e-kegs – same as your own, but perhaps a better way to start out for some. I don’t know what the single-fill cost of an eKeg is but I am told it is “about half” that of what most are paying for KeyKegs. (Some breweries list eKeg vs KeyKeg pricing and charge less for beer in eKeg – some just average it out.)
The biggest drawback of eKeg is, I suspect, that you can _ONLY_ shift them to registered distributors such as myself. If you want to sell keg direct to customers you then have a problem. (I see plenty of abuse of the eKeg/Cask situation… which just drives up the cost for everyone so makes little sense. Don’t do it. [And I willreport any significant seeming abuse, as per the spirit of my contract with Close Brewery Rentals. Albeit I gather a handful of breweries have some special arrangements with CBR on this front.])
Some breweries who use eKegs: Buxton, Five Points, Hardknott – worth noting that these three entirely, or almost entirely, shift their keg volume through distributors. Five Points & Hardknott also have a population of their own kegs for direct distribution.
I have never had any technical issues with steel kegs with respect to coupler connections, leakage, breakage, or handling. (I have had the odd over-conditioned one, but this isn’t the keg’s fault.) Fifty litre kegs are a hassle to handle, but not too bad, and no trouble compared to kils (which I currently handle an increasing number of).
[I would be happier if Close Brewery Rentals didn’t call them “Craft EKegs” however. Grrrrrr…]
Available in different coupler types, but best to use Sankey as that’s what everyone else uses. The EcoKeg is a 30l top-pressure keg that works effectively the same as steel kegs. The Sankey connector is sturdy and I’ve never had any trouble using them. Breweries can buy these pressurised and ready to be filed as per a normal keg. Alternatively you can buy them with the top loosely screwed on so you can unscrew and rack beer in exactly as you do for cask.
As an added bonus the robust outer on an EcoKeg is opaque to light – and the inner bladder uses an O2 scavenging plastic.
They’re also part-reusable… under the name ReKeg. The inner bladder with connector can be removed and replaced with a new one.
The kegs can be (and are) collected by EcoKeg to be “ReKegged” at their facility in South Wales. Or EcoKeg can tool up your brewery to do the “ReKegging” yourselves. This way you can just have the bladders shipped to you and reuse your kegs.
I’ve no real handle on the costs of EcoKeg – especially with the ReKegging in mind, and TCO if you’re doing your own ReKegging. Speak to a brewer about this, or EcoKeg themselves.
The most well known user of EcoKeg I know is Moor – who also take advantage of how easy it is to condition in EcoKeg. Moor keg is consistent and reliable so in my mind prove both EcoKeg and keg conditioning can be a good thing.
As a distributor I’d be happy to see more EcoKeg about. I also collect EcoKeg empties which can be palletised for collection by EcoKeg. (No cost to me except storage space.)
EcoKegs have the disadvantage of being the size of a 50l keg despite being only 30l. But a storage advantage that they stack – which is nice. But they’re not as space-efficient as KeyKegs.
KeyKeg is possibly the most widely used “craft beer” keg packaging – and this is probably why it is possibly also the most discussed, and ranted about. The old cardboard-outer spherical KeyKegs attract a lot of dislike. They melt when wet, degrade rapidly with being moved about, and have a habit of dropping their balls. Unfortunately British weather tends to the damp side and sadly British cellar too… this doesn’t help.
However for the most parts the complaints are about the handling and the outer part of the packaging and this has now been fixed. The new “slimline” KeyKeg is, in my opinion, quite awesome. Easy to handle. Seems to be robust. Stacks beautifully too. Takes up less space in my coldstore than EcoKegs, and even steel kegs in a way. (More vertical, more stackable.)
The next complaint most often heard is that you need a special coupler for them. But folk like myself and breweries who use them tend to stock these. I sell them to customers at near-cost, which is about £38 ex-VAT. Brewfitt stocks them at reasonable prices now too.
One note is that pubs using KeyKegs really need regulators with gauges on as the usual 1st-stop to solving fobbing problems with them is to turn up the pressure. (Max rating on a KK is 51psi, mostly they work find at about 20 at cellar temperature, but I tend to run them at 30psi by default.)
Breweries who chose to use KeyKeg include much of the cream of the UK “craft beer” crop: the likes of Beavertown, Magic Rock, Thornbridge…
And I believe they choose them on the basis of beer quality. With KeyKeg the brewery gets the beer exactly how they want it and then packages it in a format that makes it harder for someone else to bugger it up. No CO2 top-pressure means no probs with the pub messing with the carb, or being cheap and using air top-pressure to dispense beer (it does happen). In fact KeyKeg makes dispensing with compressed air a perfectly reasonable thing to do. KeyKeg also reduces risk of contamination of the beer. I’ve seen CO2 lines in pubs that don’t look like they’ve been replaced for over a decade. I’ve seen some that seem have had beer backed up the lines even (and presumably never cleaned/replaced). Not to mention the sad state of coupler cleanliness I’ve spotted in places too. Line-cleaning via your coupler is great – but is not where coupler maintenance ends!
The new SlimLine KeyKegs are easy to break down to toss in the recycling too. Just how recycling-friendly they are I do not currently know however.
I don’t like these. I’ve had more trouble with them than any other form of keg.
Technically they’re the same as a steel keg, or an EcoKeg… top-pressure with spear. Folk can and do condition in them.
My problem with them is they’re not robust. I picked one up the other day and the whole top handle part fell off, and then it started leaking.
Another one that arrived recently was leaking from the connector.
I’ve had endless problems with the coupler seating on Sankey type ones – finding no way to get the coupler connected without having a leaky seal and thus losing (a little) beer over time and making a mess.
From another PoV I know brewers who will not use them simply because they do not trust putting their beer into anything they can see through. No matter how brown it is.
The brown plastic is another matter – apparently the recycling chain pretty much isn’t interested in this stuff and its recycle value is low to zero.
One plus of Dolium: they stack. They use about as much storage space as KeyKeg but aren’t quite as stable/sturdy when stacked.
Apparently they are cheap. They definitely seem it.
Just don’t. Really. NO!
Only reason I’ve had less trouble with them than Doliums is that nobody uses them any more. Last time I used a PETainer the spear actually fell out internally and I had to prop the keg up upside-down in order to dispense beer from it. Every PETainer I have used (about 4) has given me trouble of some sort. Their Sankey connectors seem to be even worse than Dolium.
A note on Sankey
For what it is worth I actually really dislike Sankey connectors. And doubly dislike breweries who ship Sankey type kegs without caps on the connectors! (Too many do this! They’re cheap… BUY. SOME. FFS.) I’ve had some that don’t even seem to have been post-fill sanitised by the brewery. The sankey connector is a grime-trap and a pain to clean. By comparison sanitizing an A or G type coupler in the cellar is trivial and quick.
But Sankey seems to be the defacto “craft keg” standard… so on those grounds perhaps the best choice for your kegs if you’re not going the KeyKeg route.
There are other kegs out there…
Not often seen, I’ve had some foreign beers in various forms of 1-way keg I can’t recall the names of. There are also EcoFass kegs that are a bit like KeyKegs (beer-in-bag) and a new entrant to the UK market is Emmerald. I expect we shall see more takes on the 1-way & plastic keg over the coming years.
In conclusion, the TL;DR:
The answer is not so simple. I’m happy to work with steel kegs, KeyKegs, and EcoKegs… they each have different properties and advantages. It is up to the individual brewer/brewery to determine what works best for them from the options available. I like the sheer robustness and handling of steel kegs, I like that EcoKegs are light as well as robust and highly reusable, I like the technology of KeyKegs as well as their compact and stackable form-factor.
I do not accept PETainers from breweries, and I think I’m resolved now to no longer buy beer that is packaged in Dolium. After one broke, dropped on my foot, and then leaked everywhere the other day I’m doubly unhappy with the things. (I was wearing steel-cap shoes thankfully!)