Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Kegged v. Bottled Beer Experiment

I was sitting at the bar of my local not long ago, enjoying a few pints of Anchor Steam on draught, when I was approached by a beer nerd/hipster drinking a bottle of the same thing. Elbowing my friend to get within an arms length of me, he brazenly hoisted his bottle before my eyes and told me in a very matter-of-fact, douche-bag type of way that if I wanted to drink Anchor Steam at its peak flavor, I should be drinking it from the bottle. Seemingly smug with himself and the lack of an immediate response on my part, he the went on about how bottle conditioned beers are better than those from the keg and other stuff he must have picked up from one of those 'beer advocate' magazines. After he was done with his line of misinformation, I promptly told him to stick his Ray-Bans where the sun don't shine... and then ordered another pint of Anchor Steam for good measure.

Regardless of why the guy felt obliged to tell me this, or how hipster-beer nerds are possibly the bane of the craft beer world, the incident did get me thinking about a few interesting topics. Namely, when it comes to bottled and kegged beers, which ones tastes better under ideal conditions? For example, is Rochefort 10 really that much better in a bottle than when it can be found on tap? Not to mention the whole unpasturized keg beer versus the pasteurized bottle thing. Cask v. Keg too?

However, one application of the keg v. bottle debate that does have real implications for homebrewers is when it comes to competitions. As anyone who's ever shipped homebrew across the country knows, getting a beer from one place to another in the same shape as it left isn't so easy. Temperature fluctuations and agitation are not your friends. Luckily, if you bottle condition, there isn't too much to worry about. Ship the beer out in the mail and hope the competition organizers give your bottles a few days to let the yeast sediment to settle out. In contrast, those who keg their beer have a bit more to think about. Since kegged beer is best kept at cool temperatures, bottling a beer from the keg and then letting it sit around at room + temperature is not always a good thing. And when you consider that many homebrew competitions have bottle entry deadlines set weeks in advance of the actual judging, letting a kegged beer sit around for a few weeks (or a month, a la NHC shenanigans) at might not be the best thing for your beer.

To determine the effects of letting keg filled bottles of beer sit around at room temperature, I did a little experiment with my latest batch of ESB. I wanted to know exactly what happens to the flavor of my beer when I send it to a competition and it sits around, non-refrigerated, until judging time.

First, the details. This ESB (Amalgamated II) was brewed on January 19th and kegged on the 4th of February. Three weeks later, I started drinking the beer and a few weeks after that, I filled a dozen bottles straight from the keg. Half of those bottles went into the refrigerator to age and the other half into my basement where it stays a pretty constant 64-65F. Fast forward to this past weekend. Before the keg kicked, I lined up the three versions of the same beer for a blind tasting with one of my friends; the beer straight from the keg (A), a refrigerated bottle (B), and a bottle kept at room temperature (C). All of the beers were served around 50F. Here are our tasting results. (Unfortunately, I have no pictures of the tasting event. Forgot the camera).

Appearance - All three of the beers are of the same appearance, a reddish/copper color with adequate head retention and carbonation levels. Clarity is good on all of them, although beer A has a slight haze to it.

Aroma -  Beer A's aroma is biscuity malt and light caramel followed by herbal and flowery hops. Some sweetness is present, although the overall impression is of malt and hops. Few esters and no diacetyl. Beer B is virtually the same as A, except that it has less hop character. Beer C is much different, the hop aroma is subdued and the beer has a strong caramel and malt aroma. Esters are fruitier than A or B and my friend mentioned he picked up some slight butterscotch. I agreed.

Taste - Again, beer A and B are nearly identical, though beer B is somewhat less hoppy and bitter. Both beers have a medium biscuit and caramel flavor and beer A finishes bright, clean, and hoppy... B to a lesser extent. Esters for both are lightly fruity and we notice no diacetyl. In contrast, beer C is quite different. This beer has a strong caramel sweetness that is reminiscent of the dreaded "candy-corn" flavor I get in old bottles of Fullers, and the hops - bitterness is very low. In fact, the hop character so found in beer A is completely drowned under all the caramel character. Also, beer C is 'fruitier' than the others and it does have a slight butterscotch, toffee type of flavor.

Mouthfeel - Virtually no difference here.

Drinkability & Notes - All of the beers taste good, no off-flavors to speak of. We agree that beer A and B were very similar, except for the slight difference in hop character, bitterness, and clarity. Beer A was deemed the most crisp and clean beer, followed by B, and C was deemed the most "flavorful." A and B were virtually the same in terms of flavor. On the other hand, we were really surprised how much different beer C was from the other two. The one thing that really stood out was how beer C had a very strong sweet, caramel flavor and how the hop and bitterness character had seemingly disappeared. It definitely had more of an 'aged' character than the others. My friend mentioned he thought beer C tasted the most "British" and that it reminded him of Sam Smiths Pale Ale. He liked beer A&B more than C, but said it he would prefer to drink A. I agree.

In conclusion, while my experiment was is pretty limited in scope and does not entirely replicate the exact conditions of a competition, it does show that leaving a keg-filled bottle of beer at room temperature for a few weeks does have a substantial impact on flavor, at least in this case. In particular, I was was shocked how quickly beer C started developing those sickeningly sweet, "candy-corn" flavors that I so equate to bottles of older, imported British beer. With that in mind, I think it is safe to say that the average American beer drinker's perception of  British beer (caramelly, sweet, not hoppy) could be attributed to the effects of higher temperatures and/or age of the bottles of beer they are drinking. I'm not saying anything we don't already know, just that the British beer we are drinking from the bottle today, probably tastes substantially different than the stuff they're drinking across the pond. This is probably true of kegs too.

As for the ramifications of entering homebrew competitions, at least for the British styles, the changes between beers weren't so bad I think it would be a complete disaster to let keg filled bottles sit around for a week or two before judging. If anything, the change in flavor - an increase in caramel character along with the decrease in hoppiness - is probably better suited for an American BJCP competition than what may actually be found in the UK. However, I will say that I still prefer to drink beers without the 'aged' caramel flavors and won't be subjecting my beers to such a process, even if the judges like one version more than the other.

Lastly, while I don't see this type of thing being a major problem for bitters, brown ales, and darker beers, I would imagine some styles like pilsner and lighter colored beers might not benefit from such treatment. Same with low alcohol beers (mild) or those styles where you want to preserve the hop character. Moving forward from this, it would be interesting to see how a keg filled bottle of beer stacks up to one that was carbonated via priming sugar and stored under the same conditions. Would the presence of yeast in the bottle offer more stability than the one kegged under colder temperatures and without lees? Also, what about the effect of movement and heat on a beer? Maybe I'll stick a six pack of different kegged beers in the trunk of my car and drive around with them for a few weeks to find out...

5 comments:

  1. I commend your restraint!

    I would likely have vented my spleen in a tirade of British invective, leaving said trendy wannabe bemused at the sheer inventiveness of the English language, and that would have been for coming between me and my mate. Once he had insulted the way beer was meant to be drunk, I fear I would have snapped the skinny (I assume, as hipsters tend to be thus, forgive my hipsterphobia) in half.

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  2. I had the same thoughts after I saw the actual judging dates for the NHC first round. Its nearly a month after the entry deadline in Atlanta. I hope they have the entries at least somewhat cool. Otherwise why the hell did I pay for 2 day air?!

    This is my first competition. I don't have very high expectations but just hope the beer the judges are tasting is somewhat similar to the beer as I'm drinking it.

    Just bought a keg freezer, now I just need to fill it with kegs. I can't wait. No more late nights washing, sanitizing, filling, capping, and rinsing bottles.

    Cheers!

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  3. I'm really curious as to the experiment between kegged vs. bottle conditioned. I don't keg, but want to. It would be interesting to do something like an APA and a Belgian Triple to see the effects at lower and higher gravity.

    I too applaud your restraint. Hipsters make me want to hit something.

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  4. And thus is the problem with so many of the craft beer bars around me, each pint comes with a complementary hipster. I'm finding I don't go out much to drink these days...

    Congrats on the keg freezer, now get it filled with kegs! I didn't enter the NHC this year, since I'm still bitter about last years Saratoga debacle. I'll get over it eventually...

    I will definitely bottle carb a few bottles from my next batch to compare the two. I suspect the naturally carbonated ones will hold up better, but you never know.

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  5. I was thinking about kegged vs bottled after work yesterday when the restaurant we were at told me they no longer carried Newcastle brown on draught and only had it in a bottle- not anywhere close to as good! The only beer that does better in the bottle here are macro beers like Molson Canadian - almost drinkable from the bottle but always headache inducing piss-water when ordered on draught.

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