For the February 2011 installment of The Session, Simon Johnson, of the Reluctant Scooper, asks beer bloggers across the globe to a address a straightforward yet complex question: cask, can, keg, or bottle? Simon says, “The question is simple but your answer may not be: Cask, Keg, Can, Bottle: Does dispense matter?” My answer is that it depends on the situation, there are pros and cons for each method. I’d also like to observe that Simon forgot one vessel: the growler.
If you have been reading Beer 47 for a while, then you may already know about The Session. Those of you new to The Session, it is a virtual gathering of beer bloggers, who all write on a single subject on the first Friday of every month. It was started 48 months ago by Jay Brooks of Brookston Beer Bulletin and Stan Hieronymus of Appellation Beer.
To some folks, the method by which the beer is dispensed is of utmost importance. For me, on the other hand, it really depends on many more factors and each has method has their own distinct pros and cons.
I really enjoy beers on cask when I can find them fresh and in a place with high turnover. A fresh cask of beer can have a wonderful smooth creamy texture. In general, I usually enjoy beer better at cellar temperatures, where the flavors and aromas are not masked by the cold, and cellar temperature is the proper serving temperature for cask ales. Casks are also naturally carbonated, which produces a much fine bubble.
Despite the benefits, awe, and reverence that casks have, there are down sides of cask conditioned beer. First, cask ales may not be as popular particular bars so the turnover rate will be lower resulting in old and flat beer. Next, the proper cask temperature (53º-57ºF) is not the same as room temperature and not all bars serve cask ales in this temperature range. This results in poorly stored, warm beer. Oddly enough, I’ve found that craft breweries in San Francisco take much better care of their kegs than most of the dozen or so pubs I visited in London back in August 2009.
Who doesn’t enjoy a good beer on draft? It is almost always handled and stored properly and even if the beer is weeks old it still tastes great. Furthermore, there are a few breweries that only offer their beer from kegs. Kegs are reusable. The environmental impact of kegs is also much lower than than of bottles and even cans. And you’re not going to find Pliny the Younger in anything but a keg.
One downside to kegs is that the serving temperature is usually very cold to prevent the beer from foaming up and I usually prefer my beer closer to 50ºF. I often get impatient waiting for the beer to warm up and indulge anyway. The other downside of a keg is that they are not portable. Even when you try to transport them, if you don’t get the beer cold enough or don’t let the beer settle, it will dispense foamy. I always run into this problem when bringing kegs of my home brew to parties.
Beer has been available in cans for decades, yet craft beer in cans is a relatively new occurrence. The benefits to cans are numerous. First, the beer never touches the metal, since all beer cans have lining for the purpose of preventing contact with the metal. Cans are more airtight (oxygen is bad for the beer) and prevent all light exposure. They are lighter, allowing more to be shipped on one truck at a time, and thereby using less fossil fuels which is good for both the brewer and the environment. Cans can also go where glass bottles cannot, such as golf courses, the beach, parks, hiking, etc. Finally, aluminum is easier to recycle and more often recycled than glass.
There is, however, some growing controversy around can. First, the surface mining of bauxite can have a environment impact on the areas from which it is mined. Next, the plastic lining in cans contains Bisphenol A, or BPA. Even though studies found that the amount of BPA found in soda (or beer) cans was low, it is a substance that can cause health problems. Check out the wikipedia article on BPA and other sources to make up your own mind on this matter.
Bottles offer the convenience of delivering your favorite craft beer from your own locality or from the other side of the globe. Furthermore, there certain beers that are offered in bottles and only bottles. For instance, Cantillon just would not be the same if it were made in a keg because bottling is a big part of the process of making their sour beer. Duvel is another example of a bottle only beer so much so that the draft version of Duvel was given a different name, Duvel Green. I would also venture to guess that bottles offer the most variety of beer to the consumer.
A few problems with bottles are that they are heavy and breakable. Not all breweries choose the proper color glass (brown) to bottle their beer, thereby allowing light to damage, or skunk, the beer. Brown bottles cut down significantly the amount of harmful light but stil are not 100% immune to the effects.
Finally, there is the growler. Most growlers are about 2L or close to 0.5 gallons and are filled or re-filled directly at the brewery or from your own kegs of home brew. They are highly re-useable and offer both portability and the variety of what is available at a local craft brewery. I once filled a growler, put it in a back back, and rode my bicycle from the brewery home without any problem.
The downside of growlers is that you need one growler for each brew pub. In California and many other states, breweries can only fill the growlers from their own brewery.
Which is my favorite? I really like the idea of the growler. It’s portable and reusable container can can be filling from most any keg (depending on the growler). I just wish the laws were more flexible for the filling of growlers.