Session #48: Bottle, Can, Keg or Cask?

beer-bottle-brown beer-can-beer keg cask-firkin
Our 48th Session is hosted by Simon Johnson of the Reluctant Scooper. He’s chosen as his topic the age-old question about which package is best: “Cask, Keg, Can, Bottle?.”

The method of beer dispense often raises the hackles of even the most seasoned beer drinker. Some evangilise about living, breathing cask as being the one true way. Others heartily support the pressurised keg. The humble tinny has its fans. Lovers of bottled beer, either conditioned or pasturised, can be equally voiciferous.

Perhaps you think that one method magnifiies a beer’s impact. Perhaps you won’t try a beer if it’s dispensed in a way you don’t agree with. Perhaps you’ve tried one beer that’s been dispensed every which way.

The question is simple but your answer may not be: Cask, Keg, Can, Bottle: Does dispense matter

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I’m not necessarily a champion of any one beer delivery system over the rest. It seems to me that each contributes something to the final product, the beer. And while I applaud CAMRA’s efforts, especially early on, they seem to be stuck in the past these days continuing to promote the idea that cask beer is the only beer, whereas many forward-thinking British brewers are making great beer that’s kegged and bottled. I personally feel they should embrace any beer that tastes good and lose their preoccupation with one delivery system. (I have been a member of CAMRA, but my membership is currently lapsed.) I should also say that’s only how CAMRA seems to me from 5,000 miles away, it’s just my perception. I could be totally off base on that.

keg-wooden That being said, I must confess a weakness for cask beer, and generally order a beer on cask or in a firkin if a bar offers one. But that has more to do with wanting to encourage every bar, or at least all the good ones, to keep at least some cask or firkin beer on their menu. That, and cask beer in the U.S. is still uncommon enough that I still get excited when I discover that a new place has some. I suspect if I lived in England where it is far more common, that my choices might be different. Certainly whenever I visit the UK I rarely order beer that’s not on cask, unless it’s something special that’s not available on cask, as is increasingly the case from small artisanal British and Scottish brewers.

I really do love cask beer, especially when comparing the same beer on cask and on keg or bottled. While many people complain about cask beer seeming flat, I think the lack of carbonation allows you to taste more of the flavors of the beer that are often masked by the CO2 in non-cask beer.

keg Which brings us to kegs, which for many, many beers work just fine, as far as I’m confirmed. Certainly nitrogen kegs have a smooth taste as a generality and many regular CO2 kegs have that bubbly carbonation that for some beers works quite well, many lager styles for example seem to me to be improved by the carbonation, which give them a cleanliness of sorts — scrubbing bubbles is how I often think of them.

beer-bottle-brown Bottles, of course, allow us to be able to drink many more beers from around the country and the world because they make it possible for the beer to travel farther and last longer. Of course, clear bottles and green bottles pervert those advantages with new problems, but brown seems to do a pretty good job. I once read that red bottles would actually offer the most UV light protection, but apparently they’re prohibitively expensive for some reason (or perhaps it’s just a matter of little or no demand?). I’ve actually only seen one red bottle, which was a specialty beer I picked up at the Trumer Brauerei in Salzburg, Austria. I’ve also seen white and blue bottles, too, but have no idea how they compare.

Then, of course, there’s bottle-conditioned beers, with live yeast in them that continue to ferment in the bottle. For me, they’re the preferred bottle for many, if not, most styles of beer. Interestingly, the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale in bottles — which is bottle-conditioned — uses a slightly different recipe for their kegged pale ale, and have been experimenting with essentially a keg-conditioned version that they’re hoping will more closely approximate the bottled version.

growler-2 Of course, the question also leaves out the hybrid package: growlers. Growlers are essentially a hand-bottled keg or cask beer that you can take home with you, but you have only a day or two in which to drink it. So it’s not exactly the best of both worlds, but it is a great way to try a draft-only beer in another setting.

beer-can-beer Cans are the wild card, I think. For so long, they were dismissed as a package. Back in the early days, brewers and other beer folk (myself included) hailed the brown beer bottle as the package for craft beer. So convincing was the argument at the time that I think it’s actually slowed the acceptance of craft beer in cans. Because the issues of beer in cans — specifically metal turbidity, which is metal leeching into the beer — have been largely solved. And beyond that, cans have many advantages over bottles. I’ve been involved in several side-by-side tastings of canned vs. kegged beer and the consensus in every case has been that no discernible difference can be detected. Is anyone yet doing a can-conditioned beer?

In the end, yes, I think the package does matter, but not to the point where I’d ever pass on a beer on that basis alone. Ultimately, it’s what the beer tastes like that’s most important. The package may determine that to some extent, and some do a better job with certain beers, but enough certainly seem suited to their primary package for it not to matter. As long as it ends up in my glass, I’m going to drink it, and I’ll probably enjoy it, too.

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