When is a keg not a keg? Real ale from key-kegs explained.
Back in April 2015, when delegates at CAMRA’s Members Weekend in Nottingham passed a motion about the labelling of “real ale in a key-keg”, many commentators saw it as a major step in CAMRA modernising and recognising what is popularly known as “craft keg”.
In fact, while the motion was the first to be passed by CAMRA’s highest body to positively recognise the sector, it actually came four years after CAMRA’s Technical Advisory Group first recognised that key-kegs can contain beer meeting CAMRA’s definition of real ale, a decision which followed trials held at The Great British Beer Festival. Even in a hall full of CAMRA activists in Nottingham, it was clear that many were unaware of CAMRA’s position nor what key-kegs are all about.
When CAMRA was established in 1971 it fought against a sweeping trend for what came to be known as “real-ale” being replaced by bland “keg” beers. Forty-four years later the word keg still has massive negative connotations for many CAMRA members with any beers associated with the “k” word being dismissed as “fizz”. However, what those pioneering members were really fighting against wasn’t the physical containers the beer was served from, it was the product in them which was made with low quality ingredients and universally filtered & pasteurised, killing so much of the flavour in the process.
The renaissance of British brewing over the last ten years or so has seen a massive resurgence in “keg” beers but the vast majority of these beers have very little, if anything, in common with the keg beers of the 1970s & 80s. Unlike their predecessors, the modern wave of brewers understand that flavours will be killed by filtering and particularly by pasteurising their beers so they don’t do it. In many cases, the beers which these brewers put in their kegs is the exact same beer they put in their casks – complete with live yeast which will undergo secondary fermentation in the keg. The only thing which stops these beers being real ale is that traditional kegs require the application of compressed gas to propel the beer to the bar.
This is where Key-Kegs come in. Invented in 2006 by a Dutch company as a one-way container (i.e. filled once, used, then disposed of), the key to the system is the “bag in ball” principle with the beer sealed in a flexible synthetic bag held inside a gas tight rigid plastic outer – originally a ball but these days more commonly a tall cylinder. To serve the beer, the space between the bag and the outer ball is filled with pressurised gas, forcing the bag to collapse & pushing the beer out to the bar. Effectively, the Key-Keg is a cask which shrinks as the beer flows.
The gas never comes into contact with the beer so any gas can be used – while many pub cellars use the CO2 which is on hand anyway, compressed air works just as well. Because the gas never touches the beer, it doesn’t make the beer “gassy” the way beer from traditional kegs can be. Importantly for CAMRA, it means that if what went into the bag was real ale – unpasteurised, unfiltered beer containing live yeast - what comes out will still be real ale – beer which has “matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide.”
Key-kegs can’t replace traditional casks, but they have advantages for breweries in certain circumstances. As they are disposable, real ales can be delivered to irregular or far afield venues without the worry of retrieving expensive casks. Secondly, not only does CO2 never come in contact with the beer, neither does oxygen – the enemy which causes real ale to go off if not sold in a few days. In a traditional cask, as the cask empties the space is filled with air which oxidises the beer. In a key-keg, the bag collapses with the beer, keeping oxygen out and meaning beer in key-keg can last longer than traditional cask, allowing real ales to be served in places such as sports and social clubs which wouldn’t normally have the throughput to sell traditional casks in three or four days. They also allow pubs to increase their range by stocking slower selling stronger and speciality styles in key-keg year round alongside their regular cask offerings.
For those that follow debate on facebook & other online discussion forums, there are many hardline CAMRA activists who can’t get beyond the word “keg” in the name “Key-Keg”, associating the word with the \"dead\" beers of the past. The Key-Keg company market their product to cask ale brewers as Key-Cask but the only difference is the printing on the outside wrapper – the container holding the beer is the same.
While real ale can be served from key-kegs, not all key-kegs contain real ale as the format can be used to serve filtered and/or artificially carbonated beers. However, brewers such as Mark Welsby of Manchester’s Runaway Brewery believe passionately in natural conditioning. Mark packages all his draught beers exclusively in Key-Kegs, holding them in the brewery for several weeks to allow them to mature and generate natural CO2 in the container. Mark prefers key-keg over traditional cask because it means his beers retain the carbonation he generates in the brewery – they don’t go flat if not looked after properly in the pub. Although he doesn’t own any casks, all Mark’s draft beers are real ale to CAMRA’s definition.
Which takes us full circle back to Motion 13 at CAMRA’s Members Weekend. Those that were there will remember the passionate speech by brewer Phil Saltonstall, another brewer who ensures all his key-kegs contain naturally conditioned real ale. While Phil’s Brass Castle Brewery (Malton, North Yorkshire) also produce award winning traditional cask beers, he argued successfully that CAMRA needs to support brewers such as himself and Mark Welsby by allowing them to differentiate their real ale in a key keg with CAMRA approved labelling.
While the labelling scheme is yet to be launched, progressive CAMRA festivals are moving ahead and beginning to feature key-kegged real ale alongside traditional cask. London’s Pigs Ear and York Beer Festival were among the pioneers in this field and from 2016 they will be joined by Manchester Beer & Cider Festival which will feature a dedicated “Real Ale From Key-Keg” bar.