Craft Beer, Craft Keg, and Real Ale – a discussion

There’s been a lot of discussion in beer drinking circles about Craft Beer and Craft Keg beers, and whether the latter count as Real Ales. Here are my views on this topic.

Real Ale is defined by CAMRA as ‘a natural product brewed using traditional ingredients which is left to mature in the cask (container) from which it is served in the pub through a process called secondary fermentation’. Such ales are referred to as being ‘cask conditioned’, and they can be served either directly from the barrel or via a hand pump (or beer engine). But no additional carbon dioxide is added, and any effervescence the ale might have comes from the fermentation process.

The term ‘Craft Beer’ is harder to define, but often refers to beer brewed by a smaller brewer, perhaps using specialised ingredients and made in smaller quantities. However the important point is that the term doesn’t say anything about the way the beer is produced. If it is cask conditioned, then it is as much real ale as a real ale from one of the national breweries. Examples of craft real ales were available at this year’s GBBF, for example.

So, what about ‘Craft Keg’? Well, keg beer is produced in a different way from cask conditioned beer, in that the fermentation process is completed in the brewery, followed by conditioning, chilling and filtering. Carbon dioxide or a mixture of carbon dioxide and nitrogen is then added, as there is no natural effervescence because the fermentation process has been stopped. ‘Craft’ Keg refers to beer produced by Craft brewers (as defined above), but using the keg brewing process.  So, although it may have the interesting features of a ‘Craft’ product, as is the case with many craft keg beers brewed in the US, for example, it is still keg beer, and therefore not what CAMRA defines as real ale.

That’s not to say that Craft Keg has no place in the market. Real Ale requires appropriate storage and serving facilities, as well as a lot of attention to detail in serving it well. It also has a limited shelf life, requiring good turnround. Craft Keg is easier to handle in these respects, and where such conditions are not met, it certainly has a place.

To conclude, Real Ale and Craft Keg are very different products, but they are not mutually exclusive, and having both provides more choice, which is surely a good thing.

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