|Brewtopia Events LLC
Kegs vs. Bottles
Which is Better?
By Owen Ogletree
Athens Magazine Beer Columnist
This article originally published in Owen Ogletree's ON TAP beer column in Athens Magazine.
beer aficionados tout the merits of draft beer and seek out their
favorite brands on tap in pubs and restaurants. Following suit, better
package stores are now stocking kegged versions of the vast array of
craft and import beers that were once only available in bottles. Why is
draft beer gaining such popularity, and what are the nuances of bottled
vs. kegged beer?
Most will agree that well maintained, properly served draft beer tastes better than beer from a bottle, and the primary reason is oxygen. Oxygen is the enemy of any beer - it slowly combines with carbohydrate, hop and alcohol molecules, and this process of oxidation causes a crisp, sweet, fresh beer to taste stale and take on notes of wet cardboard and sherry. Whereas bottles contain quite a bit of airspace with oxygen, kegs are filled to the very top. A 12 ounce bottled beer usually contains substantially more oxygen than an equal sample of its kegged version.
Unlike glass, kegs also protect beer from the harmful effects of light that can react with hops to produce the unpleasant "skunky" notes often encountered in beers packaged in clear or green bottles. Sachin Patel, owner of Five Points Bottle Shop, explains, "Most beer connoisseurs understand keg beer has not seen the light of day and is normally kept colder through the whole distribution process. These two factors help maintain a fresher flavor."
In terms of longevity, most standard bottled beers should be consumed within three to six months after leaving the brewery. Bottled beers sometimes sit on retail shelves or in coolers for months, but pubs and restaurants order kegs based on current demand, and these kegs are usually drained in short order. As a rule of thumb, the higher the alcohol of the beer, the longer it can stand up to age in the bottle or keg. The flavors of many strong Belgian ales and English Barleywines become more pleasantly mellow and round with months or even years of aging. It's not surprising that these wine-like beer styles are usually bottled.
Eric Johnson co-owns Athens' Trappeze Pub that serves a tremendous variety of craft beers on tap. "Instead of a processed, preservative-filled beverage like most soft drinks, we need to think of beer as a natural, fragile food product. Clean carbon dioxide and nitrogen gas go into the pressurized keg as draft beer is served and stored, so there are no spoilage or freshness issues. It's also extremely important for pubs to maintain a super clean draft dispensing and tap system and move through draft beers in a timely manner to ensure continued freshness," notes Johnson.
Most tailgaters and party throwers use a simple hand-pump tap in serving their kegs. These taps use air to pressurize the keg and push out the beer. Trouble is, air contains oxygen and bacteria, and a keg with a hand-pump must be consumed within a day or two to avoid oxidation and spoilage.
A growing base of adventurous craft beer drinkers, willing to purchase expensive, gourmet kegs for home use or parties, are also investing in home systems that utilize carbon dioxide gas, standard bar taps and refrigerated boxes. These "kegerators" recreate the pub experience at home and allow a fresh draft beer to be served over several days or weeks.
Ounce per ounce, draft beer offers a bargain to consumers. "Because they are profit driven, bar and restaurant owners embrace draft. The per ounce cost of draft beer is much less than the same beer in bottled form. When it comes to gourmet beers, most bars can make an extra dollar per beer when pouring draft," says Jared Penso of Savannah Beer Distributors.
Trappeze's Eric Johnson is emphatic that draft is the purest way to experience any beer. "Having poured thousands of pints, I still don't know all the reasons why keg beer tastes better, but when a customer experiences a craft beer on tap that they've only drank previously from a bottle, they discover the beer in a new way. Draft beer is the way the brewer intended it - the freshest, truest representation of this delicate, complex beverage."
Five Points Bottle Shop's Top Selling Craft Beer Kegs…
Terrapin Rye Pale Ale - A spicy pale ale made with a portion of rye for a clean, smooth finish. On draft this beer exhibits a creamy mouthfeel and thick head.
Oskar Blues Dales Pale Ale - Light amber in color with a soft, fruity malt sweetness and pleasant, citrusy hop flavor for balance.
Heavy Seas Loose Cannon Hop3 Ale - A 7.5% alcohol ale with a enormous profile of spicy, aromatic hops that comes through beautifully on draft.
Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA - During the brewing process, hops are added continuously during the entire 90-minute boil of this potent pale ale. Dangerously drinkable for its 9% alcohol content, this complex beer exhibits aromas and flavors of dark fruit, candy sugar and citrus.
Victory Prima Pils - A crisp, refreshing German-style pilsener that is golden in color, with notes of honey and flowers in the aroma and flavor. Finishes with an elegant, dry bitterness.