Tradition and Science in the Pub Cellar

We know next to nothing about the cellaring of cask ale which is why we’ve been so interested to read a couple of blog posts which have appeared this week.

First, pub manager Ed Razzall wrote this piece outlining his own approach:

I’ve drunk in pubs where I’ve seen on twitter that they proudly announce “Yay! [Insert beer name here] delivered this morning – on the bar tonight”. I defy anyone to tell me that it is physically possible to rack, condition, settle, and serve a beer in less than 24 hours (Marstons FastCask I hear you cry! That’s a different kettle of fish all together).

Now, we have reason to trust Mr Razzall’s opinion, because the pub he runs is owned by Mark Dorber, of whom he is something of a protégé.

Dorber was, for a time, the most famous cellarman in the world, having had a starring role in Michael Jackson’s 1990 television series The Beer Hunter. In the very first episode, he demonstrated to Mr Jackson how to care for Bass Pale Ale in the basement of the White Horse, Fulham. Dorber started working there as a student in 1981 and almost immediately took over management of the cellar, as he told us last year:

I hadn’t been there long when someone said, ‘The Everard’s has run out,’ and no-one knew what to do about it. I knew Everard’s beer from a pub in Salford, so I said, ‘I’ll go down and sort it out.’ I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I suppose I applied an academic approach. I spent an hour on the phone to the head brewer at Bass talking about cellaring and cask-conditioning…

With 30+ years experience under his belt, and an approach based on (a) meticulous care and (b) a frankly elitist view of beer appreciation which brooks no mediocrity, Dorber’s opinions are not to be dismissed lightly.

But beer distributor and blogger Yvan Seth has suggested that some practices of the Dorber-Razzall school of cellarmanship might owe more to tradition than to reason:

Myth (mostly): “secondary occurs at the pub”: It is perhaps a legacy of historic practices that people believe breweries ship beer to pubs before substantial secondary fermentation has occurred. I hear this still happens sometimes… but in almost all cases: no. Most breweries do their best to ensure secondary has progressed sufficiently before the beer leaves the brewery.

We’re very much in favour of questioning assumptions, and will continue to watch this conversation with interest.

21 thoughts on “Tradition and Science in the Pub Cellar”

  1. Well I can tell you one thing. Most beer does leave breweries with the secondary fermentation to be completed in the cellar. But most will condition the beer in the brewery cellar, for a time, room and other considerations notwithstanding. There are many reasons for this.

    Complicated to a point. Each brewery and cask is different but you can tell when you’ve done a few hundred what has or hasn’t happened in the brewery.

    So not wrong but not right either. Entirely.

    1. Why do brewers I speak to say otherwise then?

      Secondary isn’t on/off of course. It will continue out of the brewery… But, as I explain, brewers give beer time at the brewery after racking to ensure sufficient secondary has taken place such that the beer will be ready to serve at the pub soon after delivery.

      Maturation/etc and serving beer than you think is better thanks to additional time is another stage of the process. During which some quiet continuation of the secondary will occur as per normal attenuation.

      Or am I getting my information from the wrong brewers?

    1. If you read my post, or even just B&B’s excerpt from it above, you would notice that I am VERY careful not to speak in absolute terms.

      However my queries to brewers suggest that *most* beer goes out to the trade only after sufficient secondary has taken place. No brewer I have asked has told me they do otherwise. But there are many many breweries out there of course and I invite feedback from brewers who do send their casks out to the trade straight from racking.

  2. I’d like to make it clear that my post was aimed at three specific pieces of information on Ed’s post. By attacking tradition I seem to have struck a nerve and the responses are mostly along the lines of “it works so it must be right”… I took pains to explain that I think the beer coming out of the process Ed applies is going to be fine. Yet seem to be getting poked with as sharp stick as if I’ve said Ed is shit at his job. I did not do any such thing. I merely pointed out that there seems to be some incorrect thinking behind his seemlingly sound process that likely produces very good beer regardless.

    1. Ed specifically states he thinks O2 is good for beer, implying it is required for secondary and for mopping up diacetyl.

    I provide evidence to the contrary and invite evidence refuting it. People seem to be ignoring this one. It’s very worrying.

    2. Ed states beer should always be roused upon delivery to the cellar.

    Again I provide evidence to the contrary and ask for evidence refuting it. This spawns several useful conversations and I update my post accordingly… albeit, building on feedback given, I still don’t agree that rousing always is necessary, and still believe it could be counter-productive w.r.t the effectiveness of finings.

    3. Secondary, this is a little more complicated, I’ll quote: “I see my job as the cellarman is to use what the brewer has given me (namely yeast + sugars), add some oxygen, and let rip.”

    The implication here is that no secondary has occurred, as if we have a freshly racked cask sent straight out of the brewery. This does not conform to my experience of cask ale nor to my knowledge of brewery practice. I’ve still not seen a brewer say “we casks to pubs prior to secondary fermentation taking place”, but I’ve heard the opposite. I stated I accept that some brewers may do this but that it is not the norm. I invite evidence to the contrary.

    What more in that quote we have an implication that oxygen is needed to get things going w.r.t. cask conditioning. That’s just plain bollocks.

    More: “Ever drunk cask beer straight after it’s been racked and tapped? There is no condition in it whatsoever.”

    I have, often, and this is untrue.

    Sorry for the very long comment. I’m regretting posting my original post now as it seems to have attracted more argument than rational discussion.

    1. Oh dear. We weren’t having a go with this post – absolutely approve of you questioning!

      1. No worries Bailey. I didn’t read your post in a negative light. I just chose it as the forum in which to attempt some clarification as to my purpose… (impossible on Twitter) I think your post a helpful mechanism to invite feedback.

  3. On the other hand I hear of some breweries’ beers that drop bright quicker than others, not that I have ever worked in a cellar — sadly I am beginning to feel that cask and keg beer is becoming a bit of a lottery in some places due to a lack of knowledge of when it is right. Budvar is doing well out of me at the moment.

  4. It is complicated isn’t it? Will give some more thought to this when I have my PC not my smartphone. But actually I agree with most of what you say, particularly about O2.

    The rest may benefit from the odd word of qualification.

    1. I didn’t go into this thinking it was simple – no fear! I must not have made that clear enough in my own post. I fully agree that further/completion-of secondary fermentation is sometimes required at the pub. Sometimes the beer just seems a bit lethargic and needs time… sometimes the beer is still rather violently going when it gets to you… (as you discover when you vent it)… Sometimes it is dead flat on receipt… in which case it seems pretty normal practice for the brewery to take that cask back as an ullage. (Fuelling my belief that it is far from standard practice these days to expect cellarfolk to have to worry about whether sufficient secondary has taken place.)

      I am completely open to editing my post to correct or clarify. The Internet has enough wrong information on it and I have no interest in contributing to wrongness.

      Anyway, I should leave off now. I’m feeling like a raving madman.

  5. With several years of cellar experience behind me, I’ve got quite a bit which I’d like to add to the discussion. There are half truths and myths here, but also some inescapable hard facts. Much has moved on in recent years, regarding the quality of cask beer, where things like yeast counts etc, are much more tightly controlled than they were, even a few decades ago.

    Like Tandleman though, I need to think through my responses, in my case in the cold light of day, and not at 11 o’clock at night, after a busy day and a couple of beers!

  6. How prevalent is the practice of racking bright conditioned beer into cask prior to delivery? I know of a few breweries that do this and are quite open about it.
    If I was in the cask game this would be how I would package. It might not be traditional but it would protect the customer and the brand from poor cellermanship, the latter of which appears to be quite common.

    1. Haha, I’ve just mentioned we’re wandering towards this little nugget on Twitter. I don’t have a good handle on how common tank conditioning for cask is… I know it happens. I feel it might be a bit of a “dirty little secret” in “real ale” terms. (On the converse you have folk like Justin as Moor who condition both cask and keg in container. It’s a diverse world…) I’d love to see actual numbers on things like this. Maybe it is time to run an (anonymous?) brewer(y) survey?

      (Sorry – couldn’t resist commenting again.)

  7. Jon. As you and I both know, it depends. Like so much stuff here. Anyway, I’m fed up of it for the time being at least.

  8. A very interesting discussion, and I look forward to further thoughts being posted. I think the variety of beer brought in for cellaring must be considered. Some would be almost flat at racking since transfer beer transferred from open squares, say, would have had little CO2 and it was an object of priming and/or finishing about terminal gravity to stimulate production of a final bubble. (Can’t comment really on rolling of casks except to say it used to be done in some brewery yards to rouse the yeast). Some beer though, produced in more modern closed fermenters, might have a fair amount of absorbed CO2. Some breweries filter roughly at the brewery, e.g. centrifuge, and add a different yeast but relatively little of it, so the beer probably is in pretty good shape to be served even without be stillages, spiled, etc.

    Finally secondary conditioning must always be understood as a continuation of the primary one. It isn’t really two separate stages. So it’s a question of degree where the beer js in the process when it arrives at the pub cellar. As long as it wasn’t mechanically filtered at the brewery or force carbonated, it is still real ale.

    Gary

    1. No disagreement from me Gary.

      I keep repeating that my issue is with absolutes/”facts” given in the original post and that I offer no absolutes in return… only “mosts”, “somes”, etc. This is the case in the excerpt from my blog in B&B’s post and well and truly the case in the full text of my own post. Just because I don’t agree with something given as absolute fact does not mean I am proposing that the opposite is the absolute truth. (Even in the case of O2 I allow for the fact that some claim to enjoy staling beer.)

      Back to the root of the “secondary” issue, I ask:

      “do any brewers send out beer that isn’t in condition these days though?”

      The response is:

      Every single one does. I see my job as the cellarman is to use what the brewer has given me (namely yeast + sugars), add some oxygen, and let rip. Ever drunk cask beer straight after it’s been racked and tapped? There is no condition in it whatsoever.

      The two bolded segments are both incorrect. The first is a persistent belief that I presume is rooted in history. I’m not saying it never happens, only that it is no longer the norm. The second bolded item is untrue in the majority of cases from my personal experience (and also as a corollary to the incorrectness of the 1st statement). Whilst nothing as compared to pro cellarfolk of multi-decade CAMRA folk, I have vented/tapped/tasted well over 1000 casks in a variety of circumstances over the last 5ish years. (Now, perhaps if you shake the cask up, then vent it immediately, so much CO2 will leave solution so as to make it seem the beer is pretty flat?)

      Lots of the jargon is problematic alas. As you point out “secondary” is really “continuation of fermentation”. I typically use “secondary” to specify the phase of fermentation used to carbonate the beer – be it in tank, cask, or bottle. The word “condition” is so overloaded as to be a constant source of confusion. When talking “shop” I tend to use “condition” solely to indicate appropriate CO2 dissolved in solution. (Albeit I will casually say a beer is “in good condition” to indicate a variety of factors are right.)

  9. Unable to post tonight as threatened, as am off out shortly to enoy some cask-conditioned ale (hopefully properly conditioned), out in the real world!

    Might do a post about cellar practices on my own blog, but I admit this whole area is a real minefield, and there probably are no absolute right or wrong ways here.

  10. On a side note, Ed Razzall wrote:

    I defy anyone to tell me that it is physically possible to rack, condition, settle, and serve a beer in less than 24 hours

    Conditioning aside, I know I’ve been served beer in the past that just hadn’t had time to settle.

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