04 February 2011

That's gas

Session logoThe Session rolls round again and once more I am permitted to digress momentarily from my usual straight-laced beer reviews and propound one of my half-baked general theories on beer at large. Reluctant Scooper has picked the topic: nothing more controversial than Cask, Keg, Can or Bottle. Nothing anyone, particularly in the UK, could possibly get heated about, then. With that in mind, allow me to tell you how it is.

Cask beer is still very much a novelty in Dublin, even though I now need to employ the fingers of both my hands to count the pubs where it's readily available. Between these places and the growing festival circuit, there's plenty of opportunity to compare keg, bottled and cask versions of the same beer. (I'm not going to touch the bottle-conditioned vs. force-carbonated-bottle issue as I think it's usually more of a marketing sideshow than a real taste issue). I think, after much deliberation, I've come up with a grand theory of How Cask Beer Is Different From Keg Beer. Here goes:

Cask blends, keg separates. That is, in a keg beer you get each element of the flavour served to you by the carbon dioxide separately: here's some hops, now here's some malt, now here's some yeast esters. With the calmer gas of cask, all of this gets mixed in together and you get a smoother and altogether more holistic experience: your pint is doing one thing. It may be a very impressive balancing act, but it's still just one thing.

The problem with keg is that flaws stand out a mile. They jump out of the glass and have a whole platform to themselves from which they can wreak havoc with your drinking enjoyment. That little bit of oxidation? Those funky off-notes the yeast threw? The watery absence of any proper flavour? There they are, large as life.

Cask will shut them up. But, of course, carbon dioxide doesn't know the difference between a flaw and a subtlety, and cask serve can very easily bury delicate flavour elements, especially in stronger beers. If you want to make the hops shine in a cask beer you need to dry hop it or risk their being shouted down by the malt.

By way of evidence I present three Irish beers I've had the pleasure of in cask and force-carbonated form. Clotworthy Dobbin is the one I usually cite in evidence because the difference is so startling. Bottled and kegged Clotworthy is a work of incredible balance: chocolate raisins from the malt are given a spicy green twist by the American finishing hops. A mouthful goes maltmaltmaltmaltHOPS! On cask, the hops just vanish and you're left with a big heavy, but rather dull and monotonous, MALT.MALT.MALT.

Galway Hooker is less understated with its hops: Saaz and Cascade bounce around in a zingy grassy fizz-driven flavour bomb. Take away the fizz, however, and it's like a balloon from last year's birthday: sad and shrivelled with just flat, sharp vegetable flavours on water. We've not seen cask Hooker for a while now, though the rumour mill has it that a dry-hopped version may be on the way and that should do it the world of good.

Finally the first edition of O'Hara's Leann Folláin. The bottled version had a jarring oaky sort of tang apparently caused by the yeast. It wasn't meant to be there (and, happily, it's absent from the version now on sale) and it really spoiled the party in what should have been a great extra stout. I couldn't believe, when Leann Folláin showed up on cask in the Bull & Castle, that there was no sign of the off flavour: all was happy, stouty, normal chocolate malt and roast barley, and absolutely delicious to boot. The difference between the two was truly amazing. Cask blend effect to the rescue!

So there you have it. Some beers suit cask better than keg, and some the reverse. It just depends on the beer. Brewers generally will have one or other in mind when they assemble the recipe so it's not surprising that a beer brewed for keg is sometimes lacking on cask, and vice versa. In the UK, the cask and keg or bottle versions of supposedly the same beer are often brewed to different recipes, sometimes even in different breweries.

Enough controversy for one post? Nah. I'm just getting warmed up. Can we do black IPA next? Much electronic ink has been spilled in debating the ins and outs of this recent addition to the beer classification firmament. Is it a whole separate thing? Is it just hoppy porter? And are any of the other names more suitable than the oxymoronic "Black India Pale Ale"? I happen to have one in front of me, kindly gifted by Oblivious, but I'm not going to delve into any of the taxonomic issues. It's not like I'm organising a competition.

More relevant to the topic at hand is the dispense method: this is the first craft-beer-in-a-can that has crossed my path. The brewery, 21st Amendment of San Francisco, has pioneered the practice, and breweries all over are following suit. And it's yet another thing that some beer commentators get highly vexed over. Just as there are some who believe -- despite the logical absurdity of the position -- that cask beer in prime condition simply cannot be bettered, there are those who believe that good beer cannot come in cans. Daft absolutist statements are perhaps best treated with a nod, a smile and another pull on your pint. It's better not to engage. So, without any prejudices on style or dispense, how is 21st Amendment Back in Black?

Rather than pure black, it's more of a dark but translucent ruby red in the glass. The aroma is striking: brewery-fresh grapefruit. Not at all boozy despite a considerable 6.8% ABV, no acid harshness: just citric hops in perfect balance. The head is tight and lasting and the texture light. On tasting it's definitely an IPA. Maybe not an especially hoppy one -- the taste doesn't deliver the full-on experience promised by the nose -- but it's gently fruity and very drinkable. As to the dark malts, they add a token dusting of dry roast and chocolate, but nothing that would make anyone call this beer a porter. Drink it with your eyes closed and you'd be hard pressed to tell it's black. An all-round decent US IPA that just happens to be darker than most.

But would you know it didn't come from a bottle? No. It tastes much fresher than a lot of American hoppy beer we get, but then it was imported by Oblivious directly. From the drinker's perspective I see absolutely no downside to quality beer being packaged in cans.

As with any method of dispense: if it tastes good, do it.


  1. You've articulated very well something I think many of us think, essentially that cask has a 'rounded' flavour as opposed to bottle or keg. Sometimes it works sometimes it doesn't.

    One great example for me was Marstons Old Empire. In the bottle it tasted to me like a fairly hoppy, medium-high ABV Pilsner. Pretty nice but ultimately average when compared to any of the great IPA's available (not even including some of the 'ass-kicking' american ones). However when I tried it on keg the malty body came through and worked alongside the bitter hoppy, herbal notes to create a fantastic cask IPA. It was fantastic. Not as in your face hoppy as Jaipur or Punk, but with a wonderful rounded flavour similar to something like White Shield from bottle.

    The manner of dispense isn't important to me, it's the taste and quality that counts. However if the dispense helps with the flavour, then thats a different matter altogether.

  2. Glad you like it, would love to see more of it over here. There standard IPA is very good too.

    Its a great showcase for can beer

  3. 'Tis indeed. Though so is my old lawnmower buddy Rodenbach.

    Thanks again!

  4. You need two hands? Mulligans, Bull & Castle, Messrs, Porterhouse Central and Parliament Street. Am I missing somewhere?

  5. Against the Grain. Bloody good pint of Helvick Gold. The landlord's name is Andy.

  6. Didn't know they did cask. As you know, I don't stray far south of the Liffey very often.

  7. "if it tastes good, do it"- a new motto?

    I never thought about the cask masking flaws. great point

  8. All well said. I have my own dogma about canned beer, but that's a different story.

    As a note, if it matters, Oskar Blues Brewing in Colorado have been canning longer than 21st Amendment, and the latter don't can their own beer. It's contract brewed and canned by Cold Spring (who mostly produce soda and energy drinks) right here in Minnesota. Again, not that it matters, but it's rare that any beer news takes place so near to me. Cheers

  9. Anonymous1:43 pm

    Another smashing post, really capturing precisely observations I've struggled to pin down. That Back in Black sounds really good. Actually I've been dreaming of brewing a beer like that, grapefruity and black in color but "light" in malt character. I might give it a go with my next brewing experiment!

  10. Thanks Impy!

    What drives me more than anything to make IPA are the 19th century descriptions of the best ones as perfectly clear and pale and sparkling. The idea of making one deliberately dark and murky seems a retrograde step.

  11. Timothy Taylor Landlord is a beer that shows Cask V Bottle very well. It is ok from a bottle but superb on cask.

    Brilliant read.

    I did not have the Black IPA when I was at the brewery last Summer. In fact I don't think I have ever had a black IPA. Must rectify that.

  12. But Landlord is a different recipe -- 4.1% ABV vs. 4.3 on draught. I don't think you can include beers that are brewed differently for different dispense methods in a fair comparison of the methods themselves.

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  14. This was an engaging read, more involved than most blog posts and I like that. Definitely an interesting take on cask vs. keg beer as well. Its good to hear the micro-brew scene is alive and well in Ireland, when lived over there I mostly remember Guinness and Budweiser, but I guess that was 10 years ago...

  15. I quick recent lunchtime session reminded why I like cask beer so much: because of the low carbonation, I can knock it back like water.

    Even my beloved St. Bernardus Abt I have to fiddle around removing most of the CO2 before I can really enjoy it.

  16. KeeganAles9:30 am

    Great read, and fair to all sides.

    However, on this point:
    "The brewery, 21st Amendment of San Francisco, has pioneered the practice..."
    Oskar Blues in Colorado was actually the first to can craft - exclusively, in fact - starting in 2002.
    I'll see if I can dig a Dale's Pale Ale out of the cellar for ya.

  17. Do you have to be actually numerically first to be a pioneer? I've always taken it to include anyone who was among the first to do something, especially something unusual or unfashionable.

  18. KeeganAles10:07 am

    Hey mister, I ain't lookin' for trouble...

    And I think 21st Amendment were probably the first Cali brewery to can. Just pointing out that a bunch of other breweries (Maui, Caldera, Surly, etc.) got there first.

  19. Yeah, I did know there were others.

    Now that I think of it, this probably has more to do with 21st Amendment being the first one whose cans I saw in real life: on the shelves of The Cracked Kettle a couple of years back.

  20. KeeganAles10:19 am

    The breweries in outdoorsy states (Colorado, Oregon) talk about taking cans hiking, fishing, hunting, etc. but where they've really made a difference for an expat like me is packing in suitcases to fly with.

    Where before it was maybe four glass bombers before going over your weight limit, cans means fitting two 6-packs now!