ALE Spring 1997 No. 287

Back to Basics - Keg and Beyond

By Paul Ainsworth

In the last issue of ALE, the first in our new series on the "basics" addressed the question, "what is real ale?". This article looks at those beers which are not real.

As explained last time, the initial stages of the brewing process are the same for all beers. At the end of fermentation the beer can be run off into casks - real ale or it can be taken away for further "conditioning" to emerge as keg beer. Firstly, the temperature of the ale is lowered to around freezing point, which kills off the yeasts and other living materials. The beer is then filtered to remove this debris, resulting in a product which is bright to the eye but completely dead and sterile. However, just to make sure, some brewers then pasteurise the beer, destroying by heat any last remnants of life. This sad liquid is then pumped into kegs.

The dead must then be made to rise and this is achieved by forcing carbon dioxide into the keg, fizzing the beer up into an ersatz half-life.

Unlike real ale, which is a living product which continues to mature and develop in the cask, keg beer is an entirely one-dimensional product. The carbon dioxide masks any flavour which has survived chilling and filtering. It is cold, fizzy and bland.

At one point in the early seventies however, it looked as though keg beer would eliminate real ale altogether. From the brewers' point of view, it is a much more convenient product. It is entirely consistent, it takes no looking after in the cellar and it does not go "off". The likes of Watneys Red Barrel, Double Diamond, Trophy and Tavern looked set to sweep cask-conditioned beer into the history books. Then along came CAMRA, which is another story......

By the early nineties, sales of "traditional" keg beer were in seemingly terminal decline as customers moved increasingly towards either real ale or to other keg products such as lager or Guinness. But keg beer wasn't finished - enter nitrokeg.

The only difference between these new-style beers and their predecessors is that they use nitrogen gas mixtures rather than carbon dioxide to pump life back into dead ale. The result is beer which is still bland, still cold, but certainly not as fizy as old keg. The ad-mens' euphemism for the nitro effect is "smooth" and some of the beers, e.g. John Smiths Smooth, major directly on this for their image. Other nitros - Caffreys, Kilkenny, Wexford Cream - trade on an entirely spurious Irish theme. There is nothing remotely Irish about the style of these ales, it's just that Ireland is trendy right now, so the image fits

Having tried all these beers, just once, it is hard to see what people see in them. The flavour is non-existent, the price is usually sky-high, the temperature is way too low. The word that sprang to mind on sampling Boddingtons Gold the other week was "dank" - a really quite unpleasant experience.

And yet nitrokegs have been a huge commercial success. Even the smaller regional brewers are jumping on the bandwagon now, producing their own versions of these pseudo ales. It certainly is not CAMRA's job to tell people what they should and shouldn't drink. If they want to sup nitrokeg that is their business. All we would say is, give real ale a chance. It is so much more rewarding a drinking experience. You may have to work a little harder to tune yourself into its more subtle delights, but once you have, you won't regret it.

Next in the Back to Basics series...


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Cambridge & District CAMRA