Beer is one of the world’s most popular beverages, enjoyed by billions and sold in abundance from London to Lisbon, from Sydney to Sochi.
While you’ll often order beer by the pint or the bottle at the bars like this Irish pub in Houston, if you want a larger quantity it will typically come in a keg. But what’s the reason behind the keg being the container of choice, and just how much booze does a typical keg contain?
A brief history of Kegs
For much of the history of brewing, beer was stored and transported in barrels, because this was the best technology available prior to the industrial age.
The problem with this was that barrels, combined with the unpasteurised nature of pre-19th century beers, didn’t stop the beer from fermenting further after initial production, meaning it didn’t stay fresh for very long.
Modern kegs came about in the 20th century, when aluminum became viable as a material for manufacturing purposes.
Being able to store beer in sterile, pressurized containers made it more long-lasting, easier to transport over great distances, and still simple enough to roll down into the cellars of drinking establishments. From pale ales to IPAs, from lagers to stouts and beyond, kegs have become the norm.
Understanding different sizes of kegs
There’s not one specific, unified definition of what a keg can contain, so it’s helpful to refer to this keg size chart to get an idea of the different volumes out there in the modern market.
The largest keg you’ll encounter is the half-barrel, which has a capacity of 15.5 gallons, or around 59 liters. That equates to roughly 165 bottles of beer, or 124 pints.
A smaller 50 liter keg is also commonly used, giving you about 140 bottles or 105 pints. Meanwhile quarter-barrel kegs have 82 bottles or 62 pints onboard, and sixth barrel kegs accommodate 55 bottles or 41 pints.
Getting to grips with keg snobbery
If you’re a fan of beer, you might have heard others talk condescendingly about the use of kegs, and this generally comes down to the fact that they are associated with mass-produced brews made by multinational corporations and shipped to mainstream bars and pubs.
In reality the idea that the container has anything to do with the quality of the beer it contains is nonsense.
It’s perfectly possible for a very good mainstream beer to be stored, transported and served from a keg, just as it is likely that you’ll encounter some artisanal equivalent served from a cask that is really not up to scratch.
Obviously this is all subjective, but it’s important to remember that there’s no point looking down on someone for enjoying beer in whatever way they like. There’s no right or wrong way to go about this, and we should be thankful for the proliferation of the keg over the century or so, as it has helped to bring beer to more people than ever, and long may it continue!