Confessions of a volunteer key-keg barman at a CAMRA festival.

Warning – some may find these views controversial!

A brief overview regarding the provision of key-keg dispensed real ales at the recent Leeds CAMRA beer festival:

Leeds beefest empties

Wasted Key-kegs

Firstly, despite the belief of one irate gentleman who carried on like a spoilt nine year old for well over an hour, I was not the person responsible for inventing key-kegs. Neither was I the person responsible for making the decision at CAMRA national level that key-keg beers may be real ales, nor the decision to have them at Leeds CAMRA beer fest, not even the decision of which beers to have. No, all I did was volunteer to supervise the bloody bar.

I am 100% certain that there were people at Leeds beer fest who didn’t even venture out of the main hall to have a look at the separate key-keg/cider/global beer bar – Nowt for us up there mate, just a load of rubbish! A lot of people did come for a look though, some out of curiosity about this key-keg thing, some for ciders and perries or for the superb bottled beers on sale. Fair enough, there were many people I spoke to who thought that key-keg beers had no place at a CAMRA beer festival. We discussed it, debated it, they formulated their own opinion and I respect that. I have no problem with that; different isn’t wrong and what’s right for one person isn’t right for another. We are all entitled to our own views and I enjoyed the stimulating discourse on the subject.

Over three days I sort of became a key-keg expert and I’m not going to bore you on the many fascinating facts and the argument, but I must point out that ALL the key-keg beers on sale at Leeds beer fest were ‘real ales’. That means they were relatively unfiltered, or not at all in the case of Brass Castle whose beers are also unfined, and definitely not pasteurised. You really do have to let the key-kegs stand for the sediment to settle out and when a keg runs off all the crap at the bottom comes up the line, just like cask beer. Any carbonation in the beer is there solely from the natural action of live yeast in the beer.

Leeds beerfest kk bar

View from behind the Key-keg bar

Some people had never tasted real ale dispensed from key-kegs and many were instantly converted, others were more sceptical; at least they had a go. Strangely the people who headed directly for the key-keg bar tended to be the younger, more open minded visitors; please hold this thought for future argument.

Whatever people thought, I think that this experiment by Leeds CAMRA was a resounding success. The key-keg bar was closed by late afternoon on Saturday after fourteen key-kegs of ten different beers had been sold. There was some more beer on standby, but it was on ‘sale or return’, so in the interests of saving CAMRA a bit of dough, the fact that it is a ‘real ale’ festival and still plenty ale from the cask left, an executive decision not to broach any further kegs was made. This suited me because it meant I could stand down from official duties, listen to the bands and sample the excellent real ales in the main hall. Believe me, there were some crackers, just the same as there were some cracking real ales on the key keg bar – they just got served up a different way!

What is the difference then, I hear you say? Well, along with others whose experience I value, I did a side by side tasting of both the Ridgeside Nautilus and Brass Castle Sunshine from cask and key-keg. Both excellent beers, Sunshine a particular favourite. The consensus being that they tasted the same but the key-keg dispensed ale is colder and has more carbonation. One chap came up with the theory of the cask ale being like the pork pie you buy fresh and still warm from the butchers while the key-keg was the same pie that had been taken home and chilled; an interesting one that. I’ve also done a side by side taste with Bad Co Wild Gravity before and it’s clear that some modern styles of beer are far superior from a keg than they are a cask and probably vice versa with other more traditional styles.

To sum up my feelings simply, I will echo the rude man who just wouldn’t shut up on Friday morning: Yes, you’ve been fighting for real ale for forty years, and do you know what mate? You’ve won! Just look at all the superb beers available from myriad small, medium and larger breweries. In fact you won years ago and it’s now time to move forward. Of course there will always be a place for real ale, the centre piece, the jewel in the crown, but there’s room for something else, something more modern.

Why do you think Elland are doing 1872 Porter in keg? I’ll tell you, because despite being an outstanding ale, unless you have a really big turnover, a lot of pubs will struggle to sell it before it turns; mainly on colour (dark), ABV (strong) and price (not cheap). Put it in a keg and it has a longer cellar life and more places can afford to stock it and more people can taste it and the brewery will sell more beer; it’s a win-win situation for everyone. Okay, I would rather have it in a cask, preferably a wooden one, in fact I would rather have it in a key-keg than a fizzy Fosters style keg, but I’d rather have it that way than none at all. Better that than the mass produced product dispensed from a cask that purports to be real ale in a lot of pubs.

Leeds beerfest sat pm

Saturday PM – Main Hall

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6 thoughts on “Confessions of a volunteer key-keg barman at a CAMRA festival.

  1. Nice piece.

    Very much echo’s the experience at Manchester although on a smaller scale (Manchester sold around 50 x 30l key-kegs). Clear divisions between the don’t care about the dispense customers; the interested in giving it a go customers; the willing to try but don’t like it and finally the “it has no place, don’t want to try it, the end of the world is nigh” customer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the feedback GeordieManc. We must always revere and protect our excellent real ales and I respect everyone’s viewpoint. Unfortunately, in whatever arena of life, I am always saddened by the outlook of the latter category you describe.

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  2. Always good to read a piece by people who do the work at Beer Fests. No place for rudeness, whether to volunteers or paid staff, of course.

    I’ve no care how it’s dispensed. Taste, texture and temperature is what counts to me. The beers labelled KeyKeg do seem cooler, which general suits the slightly stronger beers anyway.

    In the IPA tasting at Manc Beer Fest my main observation was that all beer tasted better once decanted into a nice pint glass !

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  3. Excellent piece. Couldn’t agree more. CAMRA’s own definition of real ale is that it has sediment in the container, a lot of key keg beer is neither fined nor filtered and is served with a haze and is therefore, to my mind, more “real” than some cask. Their arseyness about this never seemed to bother them when putting bright casks on at their own festivals!

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    • From chatting to Phil Saltonstall (Brass Castle) his contention is that his own beers will contain more mg of yeast per ml of beer than a lot of the fined cask ales.

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