Monday, 2 July 2012

How Pubs Evolved – Rise Of The Keg

Once upon a time, pubs dispensed two kinds of beer: draught and bottled. That was the way of the world until 1931, and for many years afterwards in most of the trade. But the die had been cast when Watneys came up with what at first was intended as a niche product for sports and social clubs that could not move enough beer to justify having the stuff on tap.

The stuff of nightmares

Keg beer was “brewery conditioned”, that is, it was dead on departure: unlike cask, which continues to develop, or be conditioned, in the barrel, keg was filtered and pasteurised after brewing. It was then preserved and dispensed using carbon dioxide gas. And the stuff might have stayed in its niche market, had it not been for the Second World War and its aftermath.

The rationing, which went on for many years after hostilities ended, affected not only the amount of beer produced, but also its quality. As almost all of that beer was cask beer, cask beer got a bad name. On top of that, swathes of built up areas in towns and cities were demolished, together with their pubs, as part of the post war move to clear slums and improve living conditions.

So along came new pubs. And here, the newly amalgamated brewing combines saw their opportunity: to introduce new beer brands, which would only be sold in keg form. There would be no chance of the stuff going off, no wastage, and a predictable revenue stream. Publicans were sold the idea of easier cellar work. The ad-men did the rest. Cask beer became unadvertised and therefore unfashionable.

At first, established cask brands remained – typically the house bitter and mild, with some brewers also offering a premium bitter and occasionally a strong or winter ale – alongside the often nationally promoted keg pale ale and the creeping peril of lager, supposedly like continental Pilsner beers, but in reality a pale imitation. But even those brews began to be replaced by keg products.

Many brewers introduced metered dispense, supposedly to make sure drinkers got their full pint, but in reality to ease the introduction of keg beer. If it came out of the same kind of pump head, what could be the problem? Profits kept on going up, older and smaller breweries were closed down, new larger ones opened, and the process then became one of eliminating cask beer altogether.

It’s doubtful that this was the intention back in 1931 when Watneys first introduced keg beer. But brewery conditioned beer became an easy way not so much to a fast buck as to a more predictable and consistent one. That’s what accountants like. And accountants were increasingly pulling the strings at the big brewing combines. That’s how the situation in the early 70s came into being.

Next, a look at national keg bitters. Which are now, mainly and thankfully, history.

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