The Session rolls round again and once more I am permitted to digress momentarily from my usual straight-laced beer reviews and propound one of my half-baked general theories on beer at large. Reluctant Scooper has picked the topic: nothing more controversial than Cask, Keg, Can or Bottle. Nothing anyone, particularly in the UK, could possibly get heated about, then. With that in mind, allow me to tell you how it is.
Cask beer is still very much a novelty in Dublin, even though I now need to employ the fingers of both my hands to count the pubs where it's readily available. Between these places and the growing festival circuit, there's plenty of opportunity to compare keg, bottled and cask versions of the same beer. (I'm not going to touch the bottle-conditioned vs. force-carbonated-bottle issue as I think it's usually more of a marketing sideshow than a real taste issue). I think, after much deliberation, I've come up with a grand theory of How Cask Beer Is Different From Keg Beer. Here goes:
Cask blends, keg separates. That is, in a keg beer you get each element of the flavour served to you by the carbon dioxide separately: here's some hops, now here's some malt, now here's some yeast esters. With the calmer gas of cask, all of this gets mixed in together and you get a smoother and altogether more holistic experience: your pint is doing one thing. It may be a very impressive balancing act, but it's still just one thing.
The problem with keg is that flaws stand out a mile. They jump out of the glass and have a whole platform to themselves from which they can wreak havoc with your drinking enjoyment. That little bit of oxidation? Those funky off-notes the yeast threw? The watery absence of any proper flavour? There they are, large as life.
Cask will shut them up. But, of course, carbon dioxide doesn't know the difference between a flaw and a subtlety, and cask serve can very easily bury delicate flavour elements, especially in stronger beers. If you want to make the hops shine in a cask beer you need to dry hop it or risk their being shouted down by the malt.
By way of evidence I present three Irish beers I've had the pleasure of in cask and force-carbonated form. Clotworthy Dobbin is the one I usually cite in evidence because the difference is so startling. Bottled and kegged Clotworthy is a work of incredible balance: chocolate raisins from the malt are given a spicy green twist by the American finishing hops. A mouthful goes maltmaltmaltmaltHOPS! On cask, the hops just vanish and you're left with a big heavy, but rather dull and monotonous, MALT.MALT.MALT.
Galway Hooker is less understated with its hops: Saaz and Cascade bounce around in a zingy grassy fizz-driven flavour bomb. Take away the fizz, however, and it's like a balloon from last year's birthday: sad and shrivelled with just flat, sharp vegetable flavours on water. We've not seen cask Hooker for a while now, though the rumour mill has it that a dry-hopped version may be on the way and that should do it the world of good.
Finally the first edition of O'Hara's Leann Folláin. The bottled version had a jarring oaky sort of tang apparently caused by the yeast. It wasn't meant to be there (and, happily, it's absent from the version now on sale) and it really spoiled the party in what should have been a great extra stout. I couldn't believe, when Leann Folláin showed up on cask in the Bull & Castle, that there was no sign of the off flavour: all was happy, stouty, normal chocolate malt and roast barley, and absolutely delicious to boot. The difference between the two was truly amazing. Cask blend effect to the rescue!
So there you have it. Some beers suit cask better than keg, and some the reverse. It just depends on the beer. Brewers generally will have one or other in mind when they assemble the recipe so it's not surprising that a beer brewed for keg is sometimes lacking on cask, and vice versa. In the UK, the cask and keg or bottle versions of supposedly the same beer are often brewed to different recipes, sometimes even in different breweries.
Enough controversy for one post? Nah. I'm just getting warmed up. Can we do black IPA next? Much electronic ink has been spilled in debating the ins and outs of this recent addition to the beer classification firmament. Is it a whole separate thing? Is it just hoppy porter? And are any of the other names more suitable than the oxymoronic "Black India Pale Ale"? I happen to have one in front of me, kindly gifted by Oblivious, but I'm not going to delve into any of the taxonomic issues. It's not like I'm organising a competition.
More relevant to the topic at hand is the dispense method: this is the first craft-beer-in-a-can that has crossed my path. The brewery, 21st Amendment of San Francisco, has pioneered the practice, and breweries all over are following suit. And it's yet another thing that some beer commentators get highly vexed over. Just as there are some who believe -- despite the logical absurdity of the position -- that cask beer in prime condition simply cannot be bettered, there are those who believe that good beer cannot come in cans. Daft absolutist statements are perhaps best treated with a nod, a smile and another pull on your pint. It's better not to engage. So, without any prejudices on style or dispense, how is 21st Amendment Back in Black?
Rather than pure black, it's more of a dark but translucent ruby red in the glass. The aroma is striking: brewery-fresh grapefruit. Not at all boozy despite a considerable 6.8% ABV, no acid harshness: just citric hops in perfect balance. The head is tight and lasting and the texture light. On tasting it's definitely an IPA. Maybe not an especially hoppy one -- the taste doesn't deliver the full-on experience promised by the nose -- but it's gently fruity and very drinkable. As to the dark malts, they add a token dusting of dry roast and chocolate, but nothing that would make anyone call this beer a porter. Drink it with your eyes closed and you'd be hard pressed to tell it's black. An all-round decent US IPA that just happens to be darker than most.
But would you know it didn't come from a bottle? No. It tastes much fresher than a lot of American hoppy beer we get, but then it was imported by Oblivious directly. From the drinker's perspective I see absolutely no downside to quality beer being packaged in cans.
As with any method of dispense: if it tastes good, do it.
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