Friday, May 27, 2011

Key Keg - the mystery unravelled

Drinkers in The Grove will recently have noticed that on their foreign beer board there are several beers that are shown as 'Key Keg'. The question is what is key keg and what difference to it make to your beer? And why is it different to other forms of beer, if it is at all ?

Beer drinkers are used to their beer being served in many ways. The easiest being gravity dispense straight from the beer cask, but we can also have our beer in bottles, with the beer either bottle conditioned or pasturised, served through a beer engine on handpull, or served, under pressure from a pressurised cask.

Cider and wine drinkers are used to their choice of tipple served straight from a box with the product in a plastic bag inside the box but not served under any pressure other than gravity. Could this be a way forward for beer dispense ?, 'Keykeg' believe so.

To make the concept of Keykeg it as simple as possible, the old idea of a cask, bulky and heavy, awkward to transport and store, let alone clean, is replaced by a box containing a polythene ball.
The ball is filled with liquid, (eg beer) and because of its makeup is flexible, and is housed within an outer cardboard container. The liquid is then dispensed by filling the space between the outer housing and the inner ball with pressure which forces the liquid out of the bag, without the pressure coming into contact with the liquid at all. There is no requirement for the space to be filled with co2, air will do the job just as well, it just has to have sufficient pressure to force the liquid out of the ball.

As the liquid evacuates the ball, the ball will sink so that eventually the box will flatten. It can then be disposed of quite easily. There is no need to return the box, as is the case with kegs.

The makers suggest that the keykeg beer has a shelf life of up to 9 months, and once opened the beer is fresh for up to a month.

I can see plenty of advantages to the system. Not the least of them being its cheapness. As I have already mentioned, it does away with having to return barrels, and the brewer having to subsequently sterilise them. They are easier to handle and transport than beer barrels, and easier to store. They allow small volumes of beer to be available for parties and the like.

Full details are available on the 'Keykeg' website, along with what the company views as their advantages, most of which I have outlined above, but the do make a big play of their environmentally friendly potential, both in transport and production.

But what of the taste of the beer ? I have sampled a few beers served through keykeg, mostly from the more innovative breweries such as Brewdog, or from foreign breweries who I assume find the system easier to transport beers from overseas. Generally the result has been quite acceptable, though may be lacking a bit of the sparkle I expect in draught beer. However the beers I have sampled have been stronger beers which I assume need a fairly long shelf life, which may benefit from the system.

Whether this is the option for every pub I can not say, but it certainly seems an option for pubs with a small turnover of a particular beer, in the same way that some pubs keep boxes of cider.
It could even be an option for beer festivals. But to expect it to replace the beer barrel may be a step too far at this stage, but there again, time will tell. We can only wait and see. In the meantime, if you want to see what all the fuss is about, call at the Grove and sample them yourself.


RichardB said...

Hi Timbo

We've just started using key-kegs and there are a few inaccuracies in your post.

Key-kegs are a bag within a rigid plastic ball which then sits inside a cardboard outer. The bag within the ball is filled with beer (often pre-carbonated but not always). The bag when full fills the plastic ball up. Gas is then introduced into the plastic ball which pushes on the bag within expelling the beer.

The plastic ball doesn't collapse but stays rigid the entire time. The ball can however be de-gassed and then squashed when its empty for re-cycling.

Key-kegs are relatively expensive compared with the cost of renting casks (about £9 for a 20l size) and therefore not really an alternative for cask beer for breweries or pubs, obviously the beer cannot be pre-vented as with cask either.

What they are essentially is an alternative way to serve Keg beers without having to apply top pressure to the beer which would make the beer slowly more fizzy while its on the bar.

While expensive, Key-kegs allow small breweries to experiment with carbonated beer without the need to invest in expensive keg cleaning and filling equipment.

The beer is usually pre-carbonated via a couple of methods. A holding tank can be top-pressured with C02 until the desired carbonation is reached. Or the holding tank can be sealed up while there is still some fermentation happening and the beer will effectively carbonate itself (known as spunding).

The other main benefit of key-keg is for sending beer long distances (overseas) without having to get the expensive metal keg returned. This is why the system has become popular with the likes of BrewDog and Thornbridge and why the Grove is able to offer excellent foreign beers on draught.

Effectively key-kegs are just a one-way keg system, however as it is small breweries who have taken them up using them the beer is often un-pasteurized and un-filtered making the beer very similar to cask. Its worth pointing out though that they could quite as easily be filled with pasteurised and sterile filtered Fosters or Stella.

The main benefit for a pub/bar is the same as with any keg-product; longevity of the beer on the bar.

In case anyone is interested we've just key-kegged our first beer Cannonball IPA, and it was un-pasteurised, un-filtered and naturally carbonated.


Richard (Magic Rock Brewing)

Timbo said...

Richard, thanks for clearing up a few points..I have never used key kegs, only drunk the beer from them..your comments do clarify some points that have confused me by reading the products web site and hopefully will give our readers a more accurate view of their role and function..much obliged..hope to try Magic Rock on draught and keg keg soon...thanks again

Anonymous said...

Fascinating write up between the two of you here. Very informative.

Johan Winäs said...

In Sweden key kegs are very popular today.
The traditional kegs are owned by each brewery here, they can not be rented nor circulated. Due to this each keg must be sent back to the brewery, making for two shipping fees.
With the cost of buying your kegs, shipping them two ways, and the equipment to fill and clean them, the key kegs are simply much better price.
A new steel keg, 30L is around 5000SEK. A key keg is 130SEK. Shipping is reduced to half. No cleaning equipment is needed.
Used key kegs are recycled as a PET bottle, a plastic bag and a cardboard box.

Anonymous said...

Richard, you guys make some awesome beers! I love Barrel aged bearded lady, it's a master piece :)

Anonymous said...

How do you smile and vent a cask beer in a Key Keg?