Friday, October 08, 2010

Why all the fuss about sparklers ?

One of the subjects guaranteed to get beer drinkers talking is the subject of sparklers. Whether they are a good thing or not, whether they should be used or not,and what effect they have on the beer. I do not intend to get into that debate but feel that I need to have my say.

'A Swift One' as most people will know is based in Huddersfield, which is a northern town, and as such, most of the pubs here will serve beer in the northern way, through a sparkler, sometimes more 'tight' than others. There are certain pubs here though that do not use them.

Firstly I should address the need for them at all. As the drinker knows, beer can be served in several ways. The most basic is straight from a barrel, through a tap on the barrel itself. Generally the beer served this way comes out flat, without a head, and although the quality may be good, the product does not appeal to the eye, not in my opinion anyway. It also sometimes leads to sediment transferring from the barrel to the glass, again not appealing to the eye.

To try to counter this the beer engine was invented. This is a mechanical way of transferring the beer from the barrel to the point of sale. In real ale pubs, this is generally by manual means of the bar person 'pulling' the beer from the barrel, through the engine and into the glass. In other pubs, the electric dispense is more common, especially for lagers. Dispense through a beer engine seems to give a more lively beer, although not necessarily a head on the beer.

To get a head on beer seems to be slightly more hit and miss. It depends on the beer, the condition in the beer, the method of dispense and sometimes the skill of the dispenser. But do we all want a head on beer ? Maybe not. I personally find it makes the beer more visually appealing, others I know think differently. There is an argument that by having a head the character of the beer actually changes, drawing more hop flavour into the head away from the beer itself and altering the taste. This is accentuated by the actual way the beer is dispensed.

Let me try and explain. The basic beer engine would have a mechanical method of drawing the beer from the barrel but the point of dispense would historically have a fairly wide spout, thereby not subjecting the beer to any great agitation. However, nowadays it is more common to find a spout with a narrower bore and maybe a swan neck. This leads to more agitation in the beer and often, but not always a head (although fairly loose it has to be said) on the beer itself. To make the head tighter, a sparkler is used. This is a small device, similar to a shower head attached to the spout at the point of dispense. Now this seems to be where the arguments start.

Sparklers have holes in them obviously. The smaller the holes the tighter the head in theory. This acts in two ways; initially it acts as a secondary filter for the beer, the primary filter being fitted to the tube leading from the barrel, but it also makes the beer aireated and creates the head we northerners are used to.

Now then, what if we want a beer without the tight head ? It makes sense to take the sparkler off. Unless the sparkler is built into or welded onto the spout, this should present no problem. They screw on and screw off quite easily. If I am a barman, and the customer wants his beer without a sparkler why not? It his choice after all. I am merely providing him with the product as he wants it. Lets face it, if we went into a restaurant and ordered a steak medium rare, but the chef refuses to serve it as such because he thinks it tastes better well done, we would not be impressed. Surely the same applies to beer. The customer is always right, irrespective of what I may think. To do this is easy in a pub with removeable sparklers.

What annoys me is the pub where the landlord has made the unilateral decision that all the beer will be served without sparklers. I am a paying customer, surely I should be allowed to have my beer served how I want it, as the steak analogy shows, not how he thinks I may want it. I know the Good Beer Guide marks certain beers that the brewer thinks taste better without sparklers, or vice versa. But again, that is only a guide. If I believe his product tastes better with a sparkler, why am I not allowed that choice, even if it alters the taste, it is again a matter of personal choice.

The sparkler argument will always be there, and there is not definitive answer. It is down to personal choice, surely we should be allowed, as paying customers, to have that choice. Or do we just have the choice to drink elsewhere where our needs may be better met. I will let you decide.


Barm said...

The beer engine was invented so that pubs didn't have to employ small armies of pot-boys to run up and down to the cellar all the time fetching jugs of beer, not because there was anything wrong with beer served by gravity.

If gravity served beer is flat it's because the beer doesn't have enough condition in it.

Serving the same beer through a sparkler will disguise the fact that it's flat, until you taste it.

Steveg said...

I am probably not the only person who believes that the term "flat" can be very misleading and should only be used with caution. To many seasoned beer drinkers the retort that "that beer is flat" would normally indicate the drink in question has a distinct lack of "condition" (characterised mainly by the tingling-on-the-tounge sensation given by the liberation of natural Co2, resulting from secondary fermentation in the cask). However many drinkers unwittingly use the term "flat" to convey the fact that the surface of said liquid has a lack of undulations and therefore resembles the characteristics of a fart!

On a purely personal note, I for one appreciate the abundance of condition in a beer both as proof of it's readiness for imbibing and as another dimension of pleasure whilst doing so. Long Live Real Ale!!!

Brian said...

Barm's summed it up nicely for me! Sparkler or not, a beer's condition will speak for itself.

No need to ask which pub is referred to in the 2nd paragraph of course, we still have a sparkler for those who won't be persuaded otherwise. We don't have swan necks for a reason - a beer forced through a swan neck without a sparkler looses much of it's condition, leading to a flat pint. Hence we have short necks fitted to all pumps now. I can honestly say that I've served beers through a tight sparkler with less resulting 'head' and which have flattened far quicker, than the same beer served without (Not just southern beers).

Having said that I appreciate the argument to go by the GBG (Although I have spoken to brewers who actually give contradicting advice to that printed). But, as I began with, if a beer is in prime condition in the barrel, and the pub looks after the lines and the temperature of the beer, then I prefer the pint to speak for itself, same beer in the glass that which left the barrel. I'm not going to ask for a sparkler to be put on or taken off, whatever the beer or location and will trust the pub's judgement, and consequently make my own on the pint I'm drinking.

Timbo said...

Thanks for the comments...I may have not made it clear that when I referred to beer being 'flat' I meant there was no discernable head on the beer, not that it lacked main concern when drinking beer is the condition of the product at the point of sale, however it has arrived there..and that is down to the skill or otherwise of the brewer,landlord and dispenser.

As for Brian's assumption about the pub in question, it is not right. I have usually had my beer served there in good condition, and without a sparkler, I have no issues with the pub and still drink there, Brian knows, he sees me there. I was actually referring to another pub. Not in the town, but which I will not name. Sorry for the confusion.

Tyson said...

Well said. Frankly it’s a scandal that some landlords are so arrogant that they think they serve beer so well that they deprive you of a sparkler. And yet when I suggest they should be compulsory, that’s wrong!

I think some landlords (and drinkers) are just pedantic. They don’t like the look of beer served through a sparkler and have convinced themselves that it can be just as good without. It’s actually nothing to do with “Flat” beer. Sparklers have been around since the 1920s and most cask beer (all in my experience, but let’s err on the side of caution) tastes better through one. That’s why I don’t like pubs trying to foster sub-standard beer on me.

Brian said...

But then there's the flip side to that argument, Tyson. Some don't like the look of a beer without a sparkler, and have convinced themselves that it can't be any good without one.

I expect the truth is that maybe some beers do taste better through a sparkler, some maybe don't. I don't mind either way, in most cases, as a beer in great condition is going to be great either way.

As for arrogant Landlord's, in some cases it's just their Southern and have the inherent belief that sparklers are the spawn of Satan himself!

Timbo, sorry for last night/this morning's assumption! You know your one of our favourites ;) (Do I sound like Chloe yet?!)

Anonymous said...

Interesting debate! Some landlords prefer not to use a sparkler because they can serve the beer faster and with less waste. We would prefer it if our beers were served through a sparkler. This does not mean that we think our beers lack condition! But why do the none sparkler people always insist that their view is the only correct one. Live and let live!


Tandleman said...

Cram the beer with condition and then sparkle it. Then what Tyson says.

It is a particularly good point that sparklers have been around a long time, but as another point, if you look at old photos from then, almost every pint will have a head on it. The "flat" London pint is a relatively recent and unwelcome addition to beer drinking.

Jibber said...

Timbo is quite right. Surely any decent landlord should serve a pint in the way a customer requires.

And when I say a pint, I mean 20 fluid ounces. I have in front of me one of those CAMRA cards that you hold against a brim measure glass to see by how much you have been ripped off by a frothy head. An example from the card - a 10mm head on a £2.60 pint means you have been overcharged by 23p.

All credit, then, to pubs like the Grove using oversize lined glasses (and believe me, Chloe hits the line with incredible accuracy!).

We've all heard stories of managers of chain pubs being expected to get 80 pints out of a 72 pint barrel. Scandalous.

Froth or no froth, we, the customers, need to be less supine and insist on getting what we have ordered. Can any of us really afford to subsidise pubs and breweries?