ALE Spring 1996 No. 284

Nitrokeg - The Truth

If you have ventured into a Greene King pub recently, you may have noticed three things. Firstly, how consistently excellent is Abbot Ale nowadays. Secondly, what a splendid addition to the Kings Court seasonal beers is the cask stout, Royal Raven. Thirdly, that a contraption may have appeared on the bar dispensing something called Wexford Ale.

An Insult to Irish Culture

What is this apparent Irish intruder? Well, it is certainly not real ale. Rather it is an example of the latest craze in the brewing industry, nitrokeg. There are plenty of other examples, many with Irish names, like Caffreys, Kilkenny and Milligan's Mist. The Irish connection exists simply because, in marketing terms, Ireland is fashionable at the moment. Nitrokeg versions of big brewery cask ales can also be found - John Smiths, Boddingtons, Tetley.

Goodness and Life Removed

Nitro, like all keg beers, undergoes a great deal of processing at the brewery. It is firstly chilled to make it easy to filter out all of the residual yeast. This renders the beer entirely sterile. It will also be pasteurised to make the beer chemically stable.

Gas and Chemicals Added

Old style keg beer then had to be pumped full of carbon dioxide to give it an ersatz form of life. The result was a cold, bland and very fizzy product. As the new name suggests, nitrokeg uses a mixture of gases dominated by nitrogen, which makes the beer less gassy, but no less cold and bland, as you would expect of something quite dead.

Served to Sip, not Sup

Clever marketing, especially the spurious Irish angle, has helped sales since its introduction a couple of years ago. But the weather last summer was just the boost that nitrokeg was depending on, as purveyors of cold drinks raked in the dosh. Many pub cellars were apparently unable to keep cask beer in prime condition during the protracted hot weather. As well as picking up a lot of the lager and "traditional" keg trade, a portion of real ale drinkers took the opportunity to see what the stuff was like. Most real ale drinkers subsequently reverted to their traditional tipple, unable to tolerate the gut-busting texture. For others, the dedicated followers of fashion, the fad passed.

Brewed for Economy, not Flavour

If you want to drink nitrokeg, that is your business, but there are four things you should be aware of:
  1. nitrokeg is expensive - usually 20p or 30p a pint more than cask bitter.

  2. because it is generally served with a large head, you will not get anything like a pint of liquid in the usual brim-measure glass.

  3. the brewery processing ensures that there is very little flavour.

  4. most importantly, nitrokeg is not real ale; it is quite dead.

Real ale is a natural living beer which continues to condition and develop flavour in the cask. A well-kept pint of a good real ale is a highly rewarding taste experience. Nitrokeg may be consistent, but it is consistently boring.

What the growth of nitrokeg does show is that real ale cannot rest on its laurels. People will divert if there is indifferent, poorly kept cask beer around. CAMRA will continue to press for high standards in the brewing and presentation of real ale. Those breweries and pubs which achieve excellence will be highlighted, those which achieve indifference or less will be castigated.

ALE Spring 1996 No. 284 : Next section
Cambridge & District CAMRA