British Beer: Cask or Keg?
The UK has a rich history of beer and brewing, with many unique styles born on our little island. From stout to Indian Pale Ale (IPA), British ale has evolved over the years and spread around the world. However, beer drinkers across the globe consider traditional British beer - or more precisely real ale - to be a funny old beverage.
Served just below room temperature, with a fairly low abv and very little carbonation - or flat as many would claim! - real ale certainly doesn’t sound appealing on paper. However, when a nice frothy pint is set upon the bar before you, it certainly looks quaffable. Real ale - or cask ale - is the epitome of traditional British beer, but UK beers have evolved somewhat in recent years.
The UK craft beer scene has exploded over the last decade, and the country has seen an influx of curious new breweries. With a huge range of styles and sub-styles, plus influences from across the globe, there has never been such an exciting time to buy beer in the UK. But with craft beer, came the widespread use of kegs, sadly putting some people off before they’d even given the beer a chance.
What’s Wrong with Kegs?
The short answer is nothing. Well-made beer, whether it’s served in a cask or a keg, will always taste good. However, the exact same beer will change slightly depending on the method of dispense. Cask ale is naturally carbonated within the cask it is served in and is considered a live product. On the other hand, kegs are filled under co2 pressure, and are typically considered ‘dead’, though this isn’t always strictly true.
Before craft ale hit the UK, the only beer you’d find in a keg was mass produced, fizzy, bland lager. For many real ale enthusiasts, such beers were to be avoided like the plague! Stripped off yeast and other microscopic proteins found in cask ale, these ‘macro lagers’ were indeed dead beers, with very little flavour compared to the fruity, hoppy real ales.
Keg Vs Cask
Modern craft beer is often made on a small scale, using quality ingredients and an all-natural brewing process. While they may both be served in kegs, there’s a huge difference between macro lager and modern artisan beers and craft lager. UK drinkers were for the most part initially wary of any beer in a keg, but attitudes and tastes are beginning to change.
Indeed, kegged beers are far more stable. While cask ale must be well looked after by the pub and is only good for around 4 or 5 days after tapping, kegged beers can last for weeks, protected by a permanent co2 blanket. If an establishment doesn’t know how to look after its casks, even the best real ales will suffer from a drop in quality.
Even if a pub looks after its real ale very well, some beers just taste better from keg, and vice versa. Styles such as IPA, lager, wheat beer or nitro stout benefit from the additional carbonation kegged beer generally offers. Traditional British beers such as bitter, mild and pale ale are often at their best served the old-fashioned way. There are of course exceptions.
Some of the best beers in the UK can taste superb when served from either keg or cask. As a general rule of thumb, if you’re looking for something traditional, you’ll most likely find it available by cask, whereas more and more modern artisan beers are available mostly on keg. Both methods of dispense have their merits, as well as their cons. The important thing is to give both a chance and see for yourself which works best for you.