Cask vs. Keg festival at The White Horse: Battle plans are laid

“Haven’t you got any ordinary beer?” said the man standing next to me at the bar at the White Horse.

His request for a beer had started out in quite a normal fashion, not to say mundane: “A pint of Harviestoun Bitter and Twisted,” had been the opening gambit. Innocent enough.

To which, the response from behind the bar was, “Cask or Keg?”
“Sorry?” he said with genuine surprise.
“Do you want the cask version of the Bitter and Twisted, or keg?,” while this contained more words, it clearly did not produce a deeper understanding in the customer.
“Whatever is quickest and cheapest.”

Our man was standing right next to the keg fonts, but I’d seen the prices on the chalk board.
I was no longer paying attention to my place in the queue to be served. She served a pint of the keg, and said, “Five pounds and sixty-five pence, please.”

“Sorry?” For the second time.
“Well, I did a quick cost/benefit analysis based on your “quick-and-cheap” request, and since I was standing next to the keg, I thought the downside of the extra 50p would be outweighed by the extra time it would take waiting for the cask tap to be free.”
“Oh, thanks. I appreciate your effort.”

Although everything else in the reported dialog happened, in reality, there was no “cost/benefit” exchange, and our thirsty, and increasingly indignant punter merely came out with, “£5.65 for a pint?!” and the line that opens this post. He was in the wrong place for “ordinary” beer, even if I did have sympathy for his reaction.

£5.65 is expensive for pint in a pub, even in Parsons Green, London, but as the bar person explained, this was a festival, and there were was no charge for entrance. There was no “ordinary” beer and this was no ordinary festival. This was The Cask vs. Keg festival.

There is a lot of talk about contentious subjects in the beer world. You might have read my report on the Twitter flash-mobbing of Saturday Kitchen in relation to getting food and beer on TV. More contentious by far, in the UK at least, is whether good beer can be served from a keg.

Here, at the White Horse, was a chance to try cask versions of a beer next to their keg counterparts, Instead of just declaring “two legs good” in the modern way, or sticking to the dogmatism of the old, we had the opportunity to find out who was right; the craft beer “revolutionaries” or the faction of CAMRA that says only cask deserves support, by which they mean so-called real ale. Unmissable, surely.

So where was everybody? I mean, it was a pretty full pub, and the green outside was chock-full (even if there was a lot of Pimms being drunk). By “everybody” I mean people who really need to test their own beliefs in this Cask vs. Keg thing. Maybe they went on other days in the weekend, or came in after I left, but in my experience, the sort of people who get invited to these sort of events usually arrive early. Ah, they could have come early. However, I haven’t seen anything written. Maybe I should look harder.

So what’s the festival all about? Maybe I should explain briefly why a festival called “Cask vs. Keg” should arise in the first place. (Beer “Bloggerati“, look away now!). Let’s start by saying (again) that without the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), this blog would probably be about whisky, wine, and food, as beer as an interesting drink would probably have shuffled off this mortal coil in 1974. Back then, kegged beer was the “enemy”; it was pasteurised, filtered, and pumped full of and dispensed with CO2. A dead parrot.

These days, the techniques in kegging beer have moved on, thanks largely to the craft beer movement in the US. Beers of all styles (not just ales) can be put into kegs without pasteurisation and with minimal or no filtration, so they contain living yeast. They can also be served using compressed air. As I understand it, this equates to what CAMRA calls “real”. Anyone who has tasted beers from Flying Dog or Stone presented like this knows that Polly most definitely has voom.

Well, that’s OK then, surely everyone is happy, no? Not everybody, but a lot of people are happy. Cask beers have a cachet in the US and certain parts of Northern Europe and people in the UK are catching on to a whole New World of beer styles. Sure, they can be a bit cooler and are generally more carbonated (as they don’t lose CO2 when the cask is breached), but some some believe certain beer styles are more suited to the new keg methods.

Unfortunately, there is intransigence on both sides. I find the standpoint, “CAMRA and real ale. Epic. Fail” just as tedious as “What’s the matter lagerboy? Frightened of tasting something?” Which is why the White Horse was such a draw for me; a chance to do an A/B comparison of a range of different styles of beers, each available in cask and keg.

In Part 2, find out what we tasted and what the verdict was.


One of the first Nightjar posts: Cask jousts with keg at Hampton Court Jazz and Beer Festival.

Beer “Bloggerati” refers to a remark made at a CAMRA AGM by an official in reference to supposedly troublesome beer bloggers who didn’t toe the CAMRA party line. These influential beer writers of a certain disposition would have no reason to read my explanation of the cask vs. keg debate origins, even if they did read this blog.

The “lagerboy” reference is a quote from an advertising campaign by Wychwood Brewery for their Hobgoblin ale.

What is “real ale”?

The White Horse, Parsons Green, London.

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