'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.