“Turn Again Whittington” – “No Thanks Beer’s Better up North!”

I’ve just been to London again. The pubs?  Just as good. The beer? For me, not great.

Before anyone leaps to the old war cry of “southern hard water”, I can’t believe that it’s that. London, as with the whole of the UK has many fine cask ales from all over the country, using local water and anyway, the Burton Standard, that is adjusting the mineral content of the water to improve its quality for beer making, should take care of that.
I think it’s down to a couple of things:

One is the fact that Londoners seem to like, what to us would be, an over conditioned pint of cask. Conditioning is a measure of the amount of CO2 left in the beer when it’s drunk. More CO2 gives more mouth feel (I hesitate to say fizz) and northern beers tend to have more left in than southern beers with the result that southern beers look and taste flat to us northerners.

The other is the fact that, south of about Mansfield, there is no use of that iconic bit of Yorkshire kit – the sparkler.

This last fact reminded me of a piece I wrote for Sheffield’s CAMRA magazine, Beer Matters, back in May 2015. It explores the sparkler issue but more surprising to me when I re read it was the fact that it was written in a world when Craft, Keg, Key Keg or Artisan were a mere glint in the Brewer/Brewster’s eye. In the whole magazine the only mention of craft is an advert for The Beer Engine, most adverts state “XX CASK Ales” on draught. Only two years ago an advert stating “XX KEG lines” would probably guarantee an empty pub. How times change, in May 2017 s issue, every pub advert except one uses “Craft” “Keg” or both in its list of “attractions”.

I suppose the whole article is a little antediluvian now given that keg and craft is pre conditioned and the cellerman/landlord has no input into how much gas is dissolved in it. Anyway, here it is for the Craft Crew to have a giggle over.

From Beer Matters May 2015

While downing a convivial pint with friends at one of Sheffield’s premier cask ale pubs, I was dismayed to find that while the beer was served in oversized glasses, there was an absence of the good thick creamy head which typifies (or used to typify) a pint of fine Yorkshire ale. The little head there was, was thin and resembled washing up bubbles in texture. My musings led me to the much discussed and intensely opinion dividing subject of sparklers or no sparklers so here’s my two pennorth:

Traditionally, northern beers or more correctly, Yorkshire beers are served through a sparkler while beers from other regions are served without. As a proud Yorkshireman I’m no doubt influenced to some degree by this but as that proud Yorkshireman, I’m a little saddened that some of the best cask ale pubs in our city are choosing to serve their beer without that tight, creamy head which clings to the glass and lets you know how many pulls you’ve had from it.

It’s often argued by the no sparkler corner that perfectly conditioned beer needs no sparkler. Probably true but, as with most things in life, true perfection is well-nigh impossible to achieve on a regular basis. There are so many variables from brewer to cellar man that the perfectly conditioned pint is not always achievable no matter how good the craftsman. It would make sense then to get a little help wherever we can.

To my mind sparklers do one simple and incredibly important thing……They AERATE the beer. Please, please don’t confuse this with the no sparkler corner’s argument that sparklers “knock condition (CO2) out of the beer”. CO2 and air are two totally different substances. They affect the taste of beer differently. Take for example a pint of normal keg which has CO2 dissolved in it and a pint of the exact same beer but with a Nitrogen mix dissolved in it, so called “smooth beer”. The characteristics are totally different because there are different gases dissolved in it. Why is aerating so vitally important to taste? Well, ask yourself this, when a wine expert smells a wine what’s the first thing he does? He swirls it in the glass. Why? To get air into it and release its aroma. When he tastes the wine what’s the first thing he does after he’s taken a sip? He does that daft slurping thing we all laugh at…he AERATES the wine in his mouth. Why? To release its flavour. If it works for wine then it works for beer and any other liquid you care to taste. It’s the same with cask. Some CO2 is displaced from the beer into the head (creating of course, said head) by the aeration but the same process dissolves 21% oxygen, 78% nitrogen, 1% argon and all the other trace gases present in air into the beer affecting its taste (whether to its benefit or detriment is, of course, the $64,000 question).

On a final note and as a dire warning not to let the great American tradition of pretending they invented something great and therefore know all about it, creep into cask ale writing, I recently read a treatise online vehemently demonising the sparkler. The writer’s credentials? He was an American who cited his visit to “the great Yorkshire city of Burton Upon Trent” as inspiration for his tirade against the sparkler……’Nuff said.

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