Cask Vs Keg Showdown – The Results
This is it. We’ve studied the numbers, read all the comments, pondered the meaning and this is what we’ve found. The question was how does the serving method affect the flavour of the beer? And which is better, cask or keg? The answer to this hotly debated conundrum turned out to be a lot more involved and complex than we first thought.
First things first. What exactly is the difference between a cask ale and a beer served from keg? If you ask hardcore CAMRA zealots, their answer is usually that cask ales are ‘Real’ and keg beers are evil. There’s no denying that CAMRA did a heroic deed by saving the tradition of ale drinking when the onslaught of vicious lagers flooded the country in the 70s, yet now they’re in danger of being seen as a bunch of old fashioned fogeys by a new generation of beer lovers. One of the misconceptions about keg beers is that, unlike cask ales, they’re all filtered and pasteurised. This is untrue. The main difference is that cask ales are naturally carbonated and keg beers have been fizzed up, usually using a mix of carbon dioxide and nitrogen gas. After the initial fermentation cask ales are put into casks along with sugar that keeps the yeast going for a bit longer to create the natural carbonation. Because of this continued fermentation cask ales need to be stored at higher temperatures than kegs. The result is a slightly warmer and less carbonated beer than what you get from a keg. If what you’re drinking is cold and sparkly it’s definitely a keg beer. Although cask has a real romantic craft to it, keg is being favoured by some brewers because it gives them more control and it keeps better than cask ales.
This is a debate that someone much more intelligent than me could easily write a pretty thick book about. However, the point of the tasting event, the very reason all these people had turned up at Craft Beer Co in Clerkenwell, was not to put an end to the cask and keg debate. The task was simply to see how the factors of carbonation and temperature would affect the flavour of the beer. It was all a bit of fun and pretty straight forward. Four different beers, served from both cask and keg, tasted blindly, one beer at a time. People then scored the beers out of five on aroma, mouthfeel, taste and gave them an overall score. Comments could be added, if they felt the urge to express their opinion, as well as an indication of how different they thought the two serving methods tasted. These scorecards formed the basis for the results you find below.
As well as relying on the palates of both the beer geeks and novices that had joined the tasting event, we’d enlisted the help of a couple of genuine beer aficionados. Partizan brewer Andy Smith and beer writer Will Hawkes both kindly agreed to lend us their finely tuned tasting apparatus and give their expert comments on the beers.
But enough waffle, onto the beers and the results.
On cask people generally thought this pale ale was citrusy and hoppy. The carbonation on the keg was almost extreme, which meant it was clean but also lacking in both aroma and flavour. Fizz has a tendency to do that, which sometimes means that it can mask off flavours, but in this case it just made the beer blander than on cask. Cask won on every single front, and with quite a lot on aroma.
Best comment, about keg – “Marginally less offensive”
On cask Andy thought the aroma was clean and hoppy, but he picked up a hint of rubber and an unusual earthiness. He also noted a slight harsh bitterness on the flavour. He thought the keg was all over cleaner and brighter, and that the zippy carbonation carried the bitterness much better. Will picked up some grapefruit on the aroma of the cask. He thought the keg was almost too cold but he found the flavour to be more focused than on cask.
Andy scored both beers an overall of 4 and noted that he would be happy to “bake my antlers” with the keg version. We can only assume he means to get obscenely drunk on it. Will scored the cask a 2 and the keg a 3, which he thought was all over more satisfying.
So the public found the keg blander than the cask, but the judges thought the keg was more clean and bright, which made it a more enjoyable beer.
This was a bit of strange one. Cask won on both mouthfeel and taste, but keg came out on top on aroma and overall. People noted that they thought the two versions were very different, and they really were. They were even quite different in colour. On cask it tasted a bit light, with a floral note to it. Some people noted it had a farmyard flavour. The carbonation and the coldness of the keg made it a lot fruitier and refreshing.
Best comment, about keg – “Don’t know why it is nicer, but it is nicer”
Both judges picked up a bit of booze on the aroma and flavour of the cask, as well as mandarin and a lot of lime. Andy thought it had an almost sherry like booziness, which he preferred over the keg. He thought the keg had an aroma of condoms with added hops. So not a fan, and the complete opposite of the public. Will wasn’t a big fan of either version and thought the mouthfeel of the keg had a slight astringency to it.
Andy gave the cask a 4 and the keg a 2, and Will gave both beers the humble score of 2. It’s difficult to pick a clear winner on this one, especially since the two versions were so wildly different.
The Public’s Verdict:
Again, another win to cask, on all fronts. This beer has a lot of fans out there, some of who were surprised they didn’t recognise it when they tasted it blindly. This was a more malty beer than the others so far and people picked up notes of butterscotch, toffee and vanilla on cask. The fizziness of the keg made it less sweet and a bit fruitier.
Best comment, about cask – “Doesn’t smell like pee”
Andy found the aroma a bit sticky on cask, and preferred it on keg, where he said it was more focused. Will thought the cask smelled a bit like a hoppy pilsner and found the mouthfeel of both of them to be a bit drying. Andy wasn’t a fan of the flavour of the cask and gave the keg an ok, although he found it to lack a bit of life.
They both scored both beers a 2, so neither of them a big fan of the Revelation, no matter how it’s served. Andy also pointed out that he was getting drunk and losing interest and flavour perception.
The Public’s Verdict:
The last beer of our cask vs keg showdown also turned out to be the one that scored the highest. Out of all the beers this was the one that the most people enjoyed the most. Cask won out on the aroma but keg was victorious in the other categories. People picked up both the very obvious flavours of coffee and chocolate, and quite a few noted they got marmite on the keg version.
Best comment, about cask – “Yum”
Andy thought it had a good aroma on cask, with plenty going on, but he found it to lack condition and he blamed the cellarman. Will also got some off aromas on the cask. He preferred the mouthfeel of the keg but in the end he thought the flavour if it was less interesting and he favoured the cask version, despite its lack of conditioning. Andy’s comment about the flavour of the keg sums it up rather eloquently, “ This beer is fucking great, dude, yes… Give me more”. Enough said.
Will scored both versions a 3 and Andy scored it, well, a 6 out of 5. To which serving method is unknown. Despite the fact that the cask seemed to be a bit off it did very well, but the highest score of the evening went to this newcomer stout on keg. Congratulations.
After this long tasting event it’s safe to say that we don’t have a clear winner. Cask seemed to be favoured a bit more by the public, but they were almost always contradicted by our expert judges. What does this mean? Only that every mouth is different and everyone likes different things. Horses for courses and all that. I will say though that drinking cask ales aren’t always as nice as when they’re being looked after by the professional staff at Craft Beer Company. But some of them were truly remarkable on this tasting. By now it’s painfully obvious that it all depends on the beer. Judging from these four beers it seemed that the higher temperature of the cask ales brought out more of the flavour. When it’s a good beer, this is a good thing. The keg beers were generally more fruity and quaffable. They make you want to dance more than cask ale does. All in all I think it’s fair to say that they both deserve an equal amount of love.
Whether this event shifted people’s opinions, gave some insights or just made people more confused, it doesn’t really matter. It was all in the name of delicious beer. For us it was great just to sit down with a bunch of people and drink some of the best beer this country has to offer.
Lastly, we want to send a great big thanks to all the lovely people at Craft Beer Co for making it happen, and especially to Tom Cadden for sourcing the beers and generally being a great guy, and Stephen Balderson for all the organisation and promotion.
Until next time.