Why beer styles only work with a certain dispensing method

In the sacred history of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), there are many stories and legends.

One of the most surprising is that when the four journalists who founded CAMRA were trying to decide what they were campaigning for, they didn’t even know what keg beer was. They knew some of the beer at the bar was good and much of it was awful. Lager – soon to become the sworn enemy of good beer – was still only a distant glimmer on the horizon.

What was then the “Beer Revitalization Campaign” had been going on for a year before a friendly pub owner took them to his cellar and showed them the difference between carbonated cask ale and fresh, living cask . It was only then that the founders had their technical point of difference between good beer and bad beer: cask versus keg.

To be fair, at the time, that was probably a better metric than most. Back then, cask beer was, on the whole, bubbly and tasteless, and if you were in the right pub, the cask tasted much better. The styles of beer we were drinking then – ales, bitters, and sweet at a relatively low ABV – had evolved alongside cask brewing to become layered and flavorful thanks to secondary maturation in the cask and the lively nature of beer. The renowned real ale campaign said the keg was real and the keg was, and should always be, inferior.

This was the start of a revolution in British beer. But it also contained its biggest setback.

Imagine if these four founders of CAMRA had met in the United States. Or met 40 years later. Or just met in another pub with another owner. Like the Americans, they may have decided that “real ale” could only be made by small, independent breweries with traditional ingredients and no adjuvants. It would also have been a very good description of “real ale” – in fact, the very first attempt to describe a “craft brewery” in the United States ended up saying that the beer produced by these breweries should be known as “real ale”.

The best way to serve beer

Or imagine if they had met in what was then Czechoslovakia, the biggest lager-drinking country in the world. They probably would have decided that “real ale” was brewed with bottom-fermented lager yeast and conditioned for at least four to six weeks.

The beer on tap is remarkable, easily one of the wonders of the beer world. But for many drinkers who grew up loving it, there’s a belief that it’s objectively the best way to serve beer, in any setting. And this is where things can get problematic.

If when we say “best” we mean “it’s my favorite”, there isn’t a brewer or beer writer on the planet who can tell us we’re wrong. Your palate is unique to you.

But if we want to say “beer on tap is better than any other beer, regardless of style”, we’re doing both the beer and ourselves a disservice.

Anyone who likes Pilsner lager can agree that it is more enjoyable cold and bubbly (though not necessarily “bubbly”) than it would be on tap. “Well, yes,” said the keg loyalist. “But beer is better than lager, and any beer of any style will taste better on tap than on tap.”

This may have been true in Britain in 1971, when all the beer we drank was a continuation of a single British beer tradition dating back to the late 19th century. (Those who say draft beer is beer as it’s always been made aren’t quite right – it’s a fairly modern beer in its own way). Now we are blessed with access to different traditions from all over the world and these traditions are blending and fertilizing each other – as they always have.

A big eye opener for me was when I first tasted hoppy American IPAs. They had the depth of beer, the bite of lager, and a character all their own. Because they were developed without keg dispensing, they used hops in a different way to British brewers to add character, placing much more emphasis on flavor than traditional British brewing.

Cask might make it worse

“Think how good they would be on tap,” you could be forgiven for saying. But here’s the thing. When American brewers started experimenting with the barrel, the intensity of the hop character didn’t work. They were built to counter the fact that carbonation takes away a lot of flavor and releases it as aroma. Remove the carbonation and all that hop character stays in the body of the beer and can give it an oily, cloying character.

If a beer wasn’t designed for the keg, keg dispensing won’t necessarily make it better. It may even be worse.

Some beers from some modern British brewers work both ways, but differently. But, overall, if you brew with New World hops, with a modern approach to hop rates and dry hopping, as a general rule, the beer will perform better with the distribution for which it was developed.

So when a British brewer creates a cask and carbonated beer using hops with flavors of peach, mango and papaya, he is right to pack it in cask and carbonated. It is not a threat to beer on tap. It’s not heretical. It just means we have more choices.

To this day, no one will convince me that Timothy Taylor’s Landlord can be better served than when bottled, with a sparkler on the pump. Beer has evolved based on this dispensing technology and it is sublime.

But if the same brewer wants to experiment with more modern and exotic styles, with a beer like the Hopical Storm, it makes just as much sense to serve that beer with respect to the different tradition that created it.

Look at it this way: imagine if you had only ever eaten fish and chips, always whisking them with salt and vinegar, because that’s what they need. Then one day, you want to have spaghetti Bolognese for a change. Would you like that dipped in salt and vinegar too? Or will you follow the recommendation of garnishing with fresh grated parmesan cheese and black pepper?

Beer is just another aspect of cooking. Like food, it is best enjoyed according to its own tradition. And isn’t it amazing that we now have so many traditions to choose from?

Written by Pete Brown. Item commissioned by Timothy Taylor’s Brewery.