Keg beer, once a liquid deemed so foul it prompted the creation of one of Europe's most successful consumer organisations of all time, namely the Campaign for Real Ale, is back in fashion.

Indeed, keg is so in vogue that some craft brewers are abandoning cask altogether – see BrewDog, Beavertown and Cloudwater to name just a few of the more high profile ones.

Perhaps even more interestingly, however, is that now even the more traditional regional brewers are entering the category – Marston's is enjoying the success of its new keg brews, including Shipyard American Pale Ale, for example, and more recently Fuller's launched London Pride Unfiltered, a keg version of its flagship ale.

How on earth could this have happened, you might be asking yourself and, moreover, is it a category that needs some attention in your pub?

 

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The changing face of keg

One of the prime reasons that keg beer has had a resurgence is because a number of the early wave craft brewers could see its business benefits.

"We started out as a cask brewer and moved into keg two years ago because we could see the demand in London already and because we could see that keg would allow us access to more outlets, such as bars that don't have the facilities for cask," explains James Morgan, co-founder of London's revived Truman's brand.

"There's an obvious quality benefit to keg," he continues.

"It's more convenient to transport and store and less knowledge and care is needed from the bar staff, compared to cask. Ultimately it's about taking great beer to as many drinkers as possible and offering keg helps us do that."

It's not just about quality in the pub, either. Technological advances means the quality of keg produced in the brewery has also improved and it's, "just not the same product as it was in the 1970s," says Rupert Thompson, chairman of Surrey's Hogs Back Brewery.

"Back then keg beer was anodyne with little flavour but there has been huge improvements in pasteurization – we can flash pasteurize now, which is much better for the beer. The old way also oxidized the beer but that process has improved too over the 30 years and so even the 'smooth' style beers are better than they used to be."

The so-called "new wave" keg beers, such as his own recently launched London's Outback Pale Ale, are also made in smaller batches and with more flavor than their older relatives, Rupert points out.

 

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Luring in the lager fans

Some brewers also suggest that keg can be more forgiving than cask, making it ideal for start-up craft operations.

"You can hide mistakes more easily in keg," says Fuller's head brewer Georgina Young.

"Adding CO2 will mask flavours and lots of hops can also cover infection or oxidization. That's not to say I think keg beer is a bad thing because I certainly do not and developing beers such as our craft keg lager, Frontier, and our new London Pride Unfiltered has been a great opportunity to get more creative and experiment a bit."

Georgina's colleague Jane Jones, head of marketing at Fuller's, points out that the fizzy, cold attributes of keg have also been key to its success, as it is those attributes that have attracted lager drinkers to the category.

"Keg beers are also ubiquitous in terms of the drinking occasion, which has boosted its popularity," she says.

"Cask beer tends to be drunk on quite low tempo occasions, over a roast dinner or sitting down, perhaps. Keg plays there as well but it is just as often enjoyed in beer gardens on hot days or on big nights out."

This theory has been backed up by new research from Marston's, which found that the majority of drinkers were coming into keg from mainstream lager and not cask, as had been expected.

"We thought it might be a migration of drinkers from cask but actually it's the fact it's cold that's the big driver into keg," agrees Marston's on-trade category manager, Thomas Winter. "Cold goes hand in hand with refreshment in the eyes of drinkers,"

And just like premium lager, keg can also command a tasty price premium over cask and this makes it an attractive opportunity that all licensees should be looking at, says Thomas.

 

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Make more margin

"While keg is still in volume decline (mainly due to the performance of the classic smooth brands) the category has seen a value growth of 3.2 per cent over the last 12-months," he explains.

"That's because, as CGA figures show, craft keg can be priced as much as 90p more per pint than cask. This will vary venue to venue, of course, and depends on what the craft keg and the cask ales are."

All of this means the keg opportunity is one most licensees should be looking at, whether it's for a city center bar or a community boozer. However, there are some dangers to heed.

"One of the biggest mistakes we see is licensees completely overhauling their keg range and actually going too far - alienating their existing customer base and not appealing to the mass market. Be sensible, start slow and gage interest and feedback," advises Thomas.

It is also worth remembering that craft beer does have a lower number of average drinks per pub visit compared to overall beer (two versus three), so you may have a lower rate of sale compared to a mainstream lager, for example.

 

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And be careful not to fall into the trap of merely adding yet another tap, warns Mark Fewster, product manager at Vianet.

"Our research shows that independent pubs are over-ranging by an average of at least three taps and overall the problem costs the sector about £73m in cleaning, wastage and running costs.

"Pubs should take a 'test and learn' approach by rigorously analysing the data gathered on what's selling...this will help operators find the right balance of beers that ae both interesting and deliver good throughput."

All that said, though, craft keg is still a must now for any pub. It will bring in new drinkers - and ones that are willing to pay just shy of a £1 more for a pint. It also gives your existing customers something new and exciting to try and is less labour intensive to look after for you and your staff.

It's official: keg is back.

 

  • Don't Forget Beer Day Britain this year on June 15th. Check out the official website for ideas and support materials and don't forget to raise a glass at 7pm #CheersToBeer