The Key to KeyKegs By Andrew Conway

Posted by Andrew Conway on April 7, 2020.

A horse walks into a bar and the landlord says, “Why the long face?” The horse sighs heavily and replies, “Well, to be entirely frank with you my good fellow, I’m a bit of a staunch traditionalist when it comes to ales and I like my beer to come directly from the cask, but all […]

A horse walks into a bar and the landlord says, “Why the long face?”

The horse sighs heavily and replies, “Well, to be entirely frank with you my good fellow, I’m a bit of a staunch traditionalist when it comes to ales and I like my beer to come directly from the cask, but all I can see here are those new-fangled plastic KeyKeg things and, not wishing to appear rude, I’d rather stick my face in a horse trough than drink from one of those!”

Well, as the saying (sort of) goes, you can lead a horse to beer but you can’t make him drink it….

The reality is, whenever we settle down by a cosy inglenook in some comfy, traditional pub, clutching our freshly poured pint, it’s always nice to cling to the romantic notion that our ale has been drawn from a beautiful traditional cask in the age-old manner – it always tastes that much better, doesn’t it?  But the reality is often more prosaic and a tad less sexy.

In real terms, a cask is just a receptacle, a vessel for holding liquid in.  They can be wooden, metal, plastic, but in the end they’re just a convenient and practical way of conveying our favourite drinks from one place to another without spilling them. 

It’s also true to say that when we refer to a cask in the Micropub trade we’re generally talking about something the size of a firkin (around 9 imperial gallons) and it’s usually made of metal or plastic.  We can also assume that the beer is also ‘cask-conditioned’ which is to say that it is unpasteurised and naturally carbonated/conditioned through the use of active yeast still present in the firkin, which is where we get all that lovely, chewy sediment from when the cask is almost empty.  The other thing to remember is that once a cask has been tapped and vented (maybe that’s another blog altogether), air has been allowed into contact with the beer and no matter how well stored and properly conditioned that beer is, it’s now a race against time to consume it before oxidation sets in and the beer loses its edge.  Ah, if only drinking beer were an Olympic sport, because that’s the kind of ‘race against time’ I’d be up for any day of the week….  But I digress, – generally a cask is a cask……

Well, except when it’s a keg.  Ok, I think I can hear your eyes rolling into the back of your head now so let me clarify before I lose you entirely to Netflix or Game of Thrones.  A standard pub keg (and I emphasise standard, as they come in all sizes), is a little larger than a cask (about 11 imperial gallons), is usually made of steel or aluminium, and is stored upright rather than on its side like a cask.  Whilst you can store all kinds of beers in Kegs, they are especially well suited to storing lagers or other drinks that rely on artificial carbonation, as through design the liquid is kept under pressure so will not lose its fizz and that same pressure is used to force the beer out (this is why casks are stored on their side as they have to rely on gravity to push the beer out rather than Co2).

“So, where do KeyKegs come in?” I hear you ask semi-curiously.  Well, these are basically an evolution of the standard Keg, but instead of metal they’re made of plastic and they’re smaller too, coming in at only 20L and 30L.  The key difference though (see what I did there?) is that unlike standard kegs where CO2 is pumped directly into the keg and forcing the alcohol out, KeyKegs store the beer in a bag suspended in a pressurised plastic container and air is then pumped into the container, which in turn compresses the bag and forces the liquid out.  Are you with me?  Maybe?  Ok, here’s a diagram:

The beer still conditions in the bag, much like a cask, but because a KeyKeg stands upright the sediment remains at the bottom, which means that less beer is wasted.  The other great thing, and one of the major upsides with this form of storage, is that the atmosphere does not come into direct contact with the beer and so it remains fresher for longer, several weeks in fact.

To give you a sense of scale, here’s an image of Alison and Phil setting up the KeyKegs prior to service:

KeyKegs have also significantly proven their worth with certain styles of beer.  Whilst casks are great for bitters, as well as porters and stouts, because those styles of beer are actually aided by some initial air contact and evolve in a more gradual manner, KeyKegs have proven their mettle with other styles of beer:  Saisons, sours, double dry hopped beers (DDHs), super-hopped IPAs and imperial stouts all benefit from this storage method because their natural carbonation and all those fabulous, complex flavour profiles and delicate aromatics are well protected from air contact and remain full and vibrant as they hit your glass.

We’re going through something of a renaissance with beer at the moment I believe, so, those incredibly inventive brewers at Hammerton, Tiny Rebel, Brew by Numbers, Verdant etc. etc. All know they can be bold and inventive with their brewing and remain confident in the knowledge that the flavours they are creating will remain uncompromised and as delicious as they intended.

KeyKegs are ideally suited to these smaller, artisanal style breweries, the kind of set ups that are geared towards experimentation, creativity and real passion for reviving those age old styles and methods of production that can sometimes be forgotten in the great rush to jump on the bandwagon in the pursuit of what’s currently grabbing attention and “likes”. Now this group of entrepreneurial beery creatives can produce a remarkable and eclectic range of beers in smaller batches, constantly shifting to something new or rediscovered, always pushing the envelope when it comes to exciting our taste buds and all because of an elegant solution in beer storage.  But, I guess, ultimately it doesn’t really matter how our beer is shipped and stored, just so long as it tastes super fresh like the day it was brewed.

So the next time you wander into the Hop Inn and you look up at the chalk board to examine what wonderful new cask ales we have to tempt you with, allow your attention to drift momentarily over to our KeyKeg list, because I guarantee you that whatever we have on, it’s going to be funky, original, strikingly different, fresh and always fantastically tasty!

A horse walks into a bar and the landlord says, “Why the long face?”

The horse replies, “Because I’m a horse you idiot!”