Chris Maclean: Hogsheads, firkins and kilderkins - does the future of cask lie in the pin?

By Chris Maclean

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Cask beer, Beer, Cask ale, Brewers

I have an old eighteenth century school maths book. In it is the following problem; "If in a family consisting of seven persons there are drank out...

I have an old eighteenth century school maths book. In it is the following problem; "If in a family consisting of seven persons there are drank out two kilderkins of beer in twelve days.....". It's a breathtaking idea.

Consider it. Mum, dad and five kids drinking two kilderkins in twelve days. I know pubs that sell less cask beer than this. Few pubs sell beer from kilderkins (18 gallons) now. Most now just use firkins (9 gallons).

I've been in the trade many years now and can remember when pubs mostly used barrels (36 gallons). At almost a quarter of a ton in weight they were awkward, and dangerous, to move yet I remember them with some affection. I always felt I really deserved a beer when I re-stocked the stillage.

But with the decline in cask beer sales, the popularity of other drink types and the extraordinary variety of cask beers now available, coupled with the huge advances in cellar hygene and technology, I am astonished that we still hang on to such archaic units as the kilderkin and firkin.

My maths book has the following units:

  • 1 hogshead of beer is one and half barrels or 54 gallons.
  • 1 barrel is 4 firkins or two kilderkins
  • 1 firkin of beer is 9 gallons
  • 1 firkin of ale is 8 gallon

Away from London, it suggests, "for ale, strong beer and small, 34 gallons to the barrel, and 8 and a half gallons to the firkin."

But beneath this is one measure often overlooked. The humble pin. The pin is half the size of a firkin; 4 1/2 gallons or 36 pints. The pin is used extensively in our brewery to hold samples of beer in the sample room. It allows the head brewer to hold reasonable sized containers of beer for sampling.

And I think that the pin could be the unexpected saviour of cask beer.

Almost universally a licensee has two choices for cask beer containers; kilderkins or firkins. The choice is generally determined simply by cellar & stillage space but, most importantly, by how quickly it can be sold.

Consensus suggests that if beer is on sale for more than three days it might be below par. So licensees can only sell as many beers as they might reasonably finish within three days. This will determine both the size of container and the range of beers. Often alarm bells ring when I visit a pub with five, or more, cask beers. Perhaps one is past it's best?

But just imagine, for a moment, if breweries produced beer in pins. Just four and a half gallons. Thirty-six pints.

My brewery tells me it isn't viable. That pins would be too expensive. Or they would all be stolen. They cannot afford to supply them. Or that the process of handling them would be too difficult.

But think on it. Pubs that cannot sell cask beer might risk it for 36 pints. Pubs reluctant to offer a wider choice might risk 36 pints. A firkin, at in excess of £100, is a risky option. A pin at £50 isn't so dangerous.

Cases of beer come in 24's. A case of wine (at 175ml measures) offers 48 measures. A bottle of spirits (at 25ml) offers 28 measures. Why is cask ale, the most vulnerable of our products and most inclined to spoil, not available in a container of less than 72 measures (1 pint)?

I genuinely believe that if brewers were to offer cask beer in a smaller container ~ and I'd argue the case for the pin ~ the cask ale market in the licenced trade could be transformed.

All we need is a brewery prepared to pave the way.

Related topics: Beer

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