Tuesday, December 30, 2008

North v. South: A bitter divide

When we went out with the Moomins and the Ducks the other week, we came across John in the Jolly Sailor, uncustomarily drinking cider. It transpired that he was refusing to drink beer because they had lost the sparkler - for the uninitiated, that's the twiddly thing they screw on the beer tap to squeeze it out through a smaller gap and thus create the foam that constitutes the head that some people like...

Now that's the point. That some people like. I was quite surprised at how vociferously some of those present asserted that it was the only right way to do it. Come to a pub down here, and your beer will be served without a sparkler; straight out of the tap and into the glass. You'll get a glass filled to the top with beer and not with froth. And down here, that is the right way to do it. It's the way I like it, and not only because it's what I'm used to.

There's probably an element of horses for courses; many southern beers (particularly the ones I like best) certainly seem to look and taste - and feel - better without the life squeezed out of them, while more typical traditional northern ones (and that's definitely not including many of those being produced by new breweries) - have a very different character to start with. They found the sparkler in the Jolly Sailor. I was drinking Bombardier, and I'm sure it didn't benefit from the frothing treatment. But if I had been drinking the Black Sheep, it might well have suited it.

So I accept that it is a matter of taste, and of tradition, and maybe of different approaches suiting different beers. But I will not accept - as I have heard claimed on more than one occasion - that in all cases it is wrong to deliver beer without a sparkler. And above all, I will not accept that beer served without a head is 'flat'. On the contrary. Every one of the little bubbles making up that layer of foam on the top is one less bubble in the beer. Call me southern if you like, but I prefer my bubbles in the beer where the brewing process put them, not forced out to sit on the surface. That's what gives the beer its tingle; that little extra thirst quenching quality. A million miles away from the artificial fizz of carbonated lager; just beer that's naturally, healthily, alive.

Perhaps the idea that a creamy head is a good thing arose because a during the brewing process the development of a froth on the top is a sign of a healthy fermentation. But when beer is drawn from the bottom of the barrel, that should stay on the top, surely, not be delivered into the glass. Taps remote from barrels and connected by yards of pipework are a relatively recent phenomenon, and I wonder whether the sparkler was invented to recreate that symbol of a good brew artificially. Perhaps even more likely in the dread days of the sixties and seventies when real decent beer was hard to find - the sparkler was maybe a way of conferring that sense of quality upon an inferior product.

Whatever the reasons, I will continue to maintain that beer forced through a sparkler is not necessarily better, and is often worse. Landlords shouldn't force their prejudices onto us, but should do what's right for the customer, and above all, what's right for the beer. Easier said than done with the (welcome) proliferation of new beers, and guest beers being sold far from their traditional homes. When I'm up north I'll happily do as the northerners do, and enjoy the new experience. I will always be delighted to take the advice and recommendation of a knowledgeable landlord or bar person. But if I'm after the comforting familiarity of a beer I know and love, far from home, I will continue to ask for the sparkler to be taken off and the glass filled to the top. Only not when John's watching.


Brian and Diana on NB Harnser http://nbharnser.blogspot.com said...

Just think back to when they took a jug to the tap room and opened the tap on the barrel to draw the beer. no sparkler used there

Anonymous said...

Oh no, the dreaded thrasher! No thankyou, I'll have my beer with it's own CO2 still in place please.

Unfortunately these days, according to 'cash flow', or maybe the fact that licensees (designated premises supervisors) come in with high hopes and no experience and go out slightly later with no hope and a bad experience, some brewers tend to forgo the 'cask conditioned' bit and rack off lifeless beer into cask with no fresh yeast priming just so that it can be dropped off in the morning and served that afternoon.

Beer given this treatment has no condition (natural CO2) at all - so it needs to be pushed through the thrasher to give an illusion of life.

Some times the thrasher is there to generate a profusion of froth to occupy space in the measured glass where beer should be. 80 pints from a 72 pint cask? No problem Sir !!

Halfie said...

Well said, Sarah.