K IS FOR KEG
By Matthew Latkiewicz
K is for keg, the glorious centerpiece of most parties held in fields and frat houses.
The keg is of course a large metal barrel thing in which beer is stored, sold, and from which it is eventually served through some sort of tap system, whether hand-pumped or gas-forced.
For most of its history, beer was stored in wooden barrels, or casks, and served warm. Yeah! There was no refrigeration, no taps, no lines. To get your beer, you went direct to the barrel, and either by ladle or gravity, filled up your cup with warm, barely carbonated ale. Which is still what you’re doing today when you get a beer “on cask” at a fancy beer bar. Although now they’ll pull your pint using a beer engine, a device invented by John Lofting, a London dwelling Dutch inventor, in 1688. The pump meant you could at least store your cask in a cellar beneath the bar, but it is essentially a long siphon system for drinking your booze out of barrel, the contents of which are, cellar temps notwithstanding, rotting.
Before the advent of modern brewing techniques and technology, all beer was either cask or bottle conditioned, which means that a bit “priming sugar” is added to unpasteurized and unfiltered ale after it’s in the cask or bottle. Because the ale isn’t pasteurized, there is living yeast that eats the priming sugar in a secondary fermentation, creating a light natural carbonation. Certain beer nerds will argue this, cask ale, is the only true beer. Check out Camra, or the Campaign for Real Ale, to get a sense of their tastes. The beer is still alive—there are like bacterias and microbes in it – and like wine, it continues to evolve in the barrel. In the wooden barrel. The beer nerds will tell you this creates more complex flavors and a more pleasing body, but it also means that the beer goes bad, quickly, once it’s tapped. AGAIN, it’s just a wooden barrel and once oxygen gets in, you only got a couple days before its starts tasting… weird.
So of course bar owners and beer manufacturers went looking for a beer storage and serving mechanism that would increase the shelf life of beer. And they found it… in the Industrial Revolution and the Scientific Method! A few things came together – mostly pasteurization, temperature control, and industrial manufacturing – to create the cold, carbonated beer (and the pressurized metal vessel it is served from) that you and I know and love today.
In the mid-1800s, Louis Pasteur figured out that heating wine and beer to a certain temp for a certain time would kill the microbes responsible for spoiling it, but wouldn’t change the flavor. At the time, you may remember, England had quite the Empire, and were literally sending their beer around the world, pushing beer storage and “stabilization” to the test. They added hops to beer as a preservative; started making barrels out of metal; and definitely started pasteurizing their beer, filtering it to remove the yeast, and – because removing the yeast removed the secondary fermentation – pumping it full of carbon dioxide to carbonate it. The first beer to do this on a large scale was Watney’s, with their export friendly Red Barrel: pasteurized, artificially carbonated, stored in a pressurized metal can, and served cold.
And this is where we’re at now. A couple generations of beer drinkers who prefer the cold temp, high fizz, beers with a long shelf life.
K is for Keg.