In Comes the Keg (Beer)

Stanton (Stan) Delaplane was a Chicago-born journalist based in San Francisco. He is remembered in drinks history for introducing the Irish Coffee to the United States in 1952. But he should be known for another first (almost certainly a first, anyway): introducing the term “keg bitter” to American audiences, in 1962. It was a long time before the mid-1970s, before writers and famously Michael Jackson in The World Guide to Beer (1977) talked up, or rather down, the term to bemused but enthusiastic American beer fans.

On May 27, 1962, reporting from England in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Delaplane explained to Americans exactly what keg beer was, with colourful references to dubious English drinkers not happy at paying 2d. a pint more for beer that didn’t require the tender care of publicans, anything more than turning the tap that is.

According to Delaplane’s reportage the price differential, something that much exercised beer writers later, seems clearly to have been justified by the capital investment necessary to convert to keg production on a large scale. It wasn’t corporate greed, in other words. True, once the brewers got their money back in the estimated two years, the price should have come down, especially as some later studies showed keg beer was weaker than cask ale.

But there was all that national advertising to pay for. Anyway, prices don’t come down after two years in that kind of environment for that kind of product. C’est la vie.

Delaplane’s information seems to suggest there was no actual quality difference. In fact, early recipes for some keg beers suggest keg was not as beyond the pale (sorry) as beer obsessives later argued. But hey, we know that keg bitter and cask bitter were two different animals from Day 1. They still are, partly for different reasons today.

Delaplane explained that the merger of Flowers and Whitbread breweries in 1962 meant keg beer would replace cask-conditioned ale in Whitbread’s huge tied estate. This seems to show fairly clearly that keg beer, from this early year, was meant to replace cask beer in the tied system versus being an expedient for isolated retail outlets or those with irregular sales as some have suggested. See e.g., the 1992 journal article discussed by Ron Pattinson in a blog post of some years ago, here.

The term keg for pressurised, filtered, often pasteurized beer seems to date from 1954 or 1955 (dates vary) via the trade term Flower’s Keg Bitter for its pressurized, sparkling draft. The beer itself, stated beer historian Ian Hornsey (see p. 671), was a spin-off of wartime efforts at Luton, home of Flowers’ Green brewery, to design draft beer for American servicemen not used to warmish, sometimes misty cask ales.

Watney’s famously or infamously introduced its keg-style beer in the 1930s at London’s East Sheen Racket Club. The little red barrel in the associated marketing, used into the early 1970s and in the term Red Barrel Beer, perhaps inspired Flowers’ use of “keg” for a draft beer served in a metal barrel under injected pressure.

In any case by the early 1960s as we see, the term keg bitter and cognates were evidently established in the London trade for a new kid – keg – on the block. Beer appreciation circles started to rumble which lead finally to the creation of CAMRA or The Campaign for Real Ale, the consumer beer lobby.

So again we see: little is really new in the beer world. Americans were told early on what keg beer was. They were told the potential nemesis of traditional cask beer it proved to be. All this in the dark ages of American brewing, the JFK early 60s. But American brewers were preoccupied with things such as turning all-malt, draft-only Michelob into an adjunct bottled (and draft) beer. With ever-reducing hop and malt levels in beer. With contrived, national ad campaigns. The space age-shape bottle was little consolation to the hard core then, but it had no voice.

As I have shown too, through the 1950s-80s Americans had good supplies of quality imports – in a surprising range of styles including “sours” and Imperial stouts – from the key beer producing countries. There were mid-1970s press reports too in the New York press on the start of CAMRA.

America had everything and all the knowledge to stimulate a beer revival much earlier than 1976 when New Albion Brewing was founded by Jack McAuliffe.

But things don’t happen in a logical fashion, or one that seems logical at any rate retrospectively. They happen because people – or enough people – do things that get noticed by enough other people, whence the ball starts to roll. And whether and how they will do those things is never inevitable or predictable even in broad strokes.

Still, we can look back to see that the tools were available for great changes to occur, even though no one could have said then how or when.

Note re image: The image above was sourced from the 1962 news article linked in the text (via Fulton Newspapers). All intellectual property therein belongs to the sole owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.