Q&A: Electric Beer Pumps

We like it when people ask us questions. Yesterday, we got this one from Simon Briercliffe:

These days, hand-pulls are the standard symbol of Proper Real Aleness, but in the 1970s measured electric dispense (push the button once for a half, twice for a full pint) were common enough, especially in the north, to warrant a diagram and description in multiple editions of the Campaign for Real Ale’s Good Beer Guide, first published in paperback form in 1974. The main image above is from the 1976 edition and is accompanied by text saying: “Taps operated by little levers or push-buttons can, however, work either by electricity or CO2 pressure and the only way to tell the difference is to pay your money and taste the stuff in your glass.”

Working back through a selection of how-to-run-a-pub guides in our library we dug up this reference from James H. Coombs’s 1965 book Bar Service: “For some time beer meters have been installed throughout the country and their operation takes all the guesswork out of drawing beer.” (We filleted that book in two posts here and here.) That helps narrow the search but left us mildly dissatisfied — surely there must be some more concrete dates we can pin down?

Well, here’s the lower boundary: it would seem that in 1948 when J.W. Scott delivered his paper ‘From Cask to Consumer’ (PDF) to a meeting of the London section of the Institute of Brewing, reliable beer dispense meters were not widely available on the UK market. He had designed his own which, while intended to deliver half a pint at a time, was not precise:

Mr H.G. SPILLANE asked whether it was possible for the author’s dispense to be regulated to serve half-pints of mixed beers… Mr SCOTT replied…. [that the] machine he had described did not give a definite measure, thought it was attempted to approach it closely; he could then give a head, or could fill the glass right to the top by means of the topping-up or agitating device. It was almost impossible to design a machine to give a precise measure because of the varying condition in the beer, which covered a fairly wide range when a vent peg was used.

Scanning more closely between those dates we find an article in the December 1955 edition of trade magazine A Monthly Bulletin on short measures:

From time to time various methods of serving draught beer [cask ale] without overspill have been propounded. One was the adoption of a dispenser which would measure out exactly ten ounces in oversized glasses. Such a device would have to be easy to clean, quick to operate, simple to use and maintain. So far as is known, no machine has yet been invented that could be used with beer engines or in drawing beer from the wood. It is possible to adjust a beer engine to deliver an exact half-pint with one even and continuous pull. That is, in favourable conditions; in practice, to use a beer engine as a measuring device would depend too much on the care and skill of the operator.

There are tantalising mentions throughout the 1950s, locked behind paywalls and copyright barriers, of Mills Electric Beer Engines. If anyone can tell us more about that, from sources un-Google-able, we’d be grateful. Here’s a (fairly useless) morsel we did find in a 1957 edition of the Morecambe Guardian from 1957, via the British Newspaper Archive:

Mills Electric Beer Engine advertisement.

It’s not clear from that whether the Mills device was merely an electric pump, not necessarily metered, or something more sophisticated.

One other important date would seem to be 1963 when a new Weights and Measures Act came into force. Before this, as we understand it, short or long measures of alcoholic drinks weren’t actually illegal, merely frowned upon. Suddenly, publicans were obliged to provide exactly a half pint or full pint or risk prosecution. Speaking in the House of Commons in July 1966 the Minister for the Board of Trade, George Darling MP, described a proposed amendment to the Act to allow for the use of meters (our emphasis):

What the Order does is to recognise approved new appliances for measuring beer and cider in public houses and bars of hotels which have come into use generally since the Act was passed…. Hon. Members who take a modest glass of beer or cider occasionally will have seen these new devices in operation. They usually have the appearance of a glass or transparent plastic cylinder which, when a tap is turned or a lever pulled, fills up with beer or cider to a mark on the cylinder and then empties that amount into a glass or mug.

At the other end of the timeline, digging around highlighted what might be another important moment: Gaskell & Chambers, manufacturers of beer engines since the 19th century and the dominant name in beer dispense equipment, announced plans to market their new beer metering system in the company statement for 1966-67, published in May 1967. Here’s some blurb from an accompanying advertorial published in the Birmingham Daily Post on 4 May 1967:

Changes in the physical handling of beer at the point of sale have been helped along by Gaskell & Chambers…. The old manual beer engine which has for so long typified the English hostelry is slowly yielding ground to neatly styled dispense taps in decorative housings, and to beer meters.

So the guess in Simon’s original Tweet doesn’t look far off the mark: 1963-1967 is when metered dispense really took off.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 8 July 2017: London Fields, St Ives, Anywhere

Here’s all the beer writing and news from the past seven days that’s grabbed our attention, from brewery takeovers to the (literal) essence of craft beer.

First, a bit of beer blogging admin: the British Guild of Beer Writers has launched its annual awards. If you’re a blogger, as opposed to a professional or semi-pro writer who happens to have a blog on the side, do consider entering in the Citizen Communicator category.

A sign points to London Fields Brewery.
‘Wall’ by Matt Gibson from Flickr under Creative Commons.

The big news of the week was that, having enigmatically trailed such a purchase a few months ago, Carlsberg has just acquired a UK craft brewery: the troubled, morally murky, unloved London Fields. We didn’t have time to produce anything substantial about this (just a Tweet) but if we had, we’d have written something much like this from Richard Taylor at the Beercast:

From their Hackney base… the Danes will have a London-centric brand to push across the country and beyond. And the fact that it has the city name in the brewery title is an added bonus… Looking at some of the tweets from beer industry people – particularly those based in London – was an almighty WTF moment. Of all the brands to acquire, why pick one with so little public recognition and so much industry resentment? The continual attitude and actions of the founders have blackened the name of London Fields within the beer community – but, as we’ve all seen since time began, the big lager boys don’t really care for that anyway. It’s the bottom line that matters, and in their eyes, picking up London Fields for even £4m is peanuts compared with what they would have to fork out for other alternatives.

The bar at Beer & Bird.

Those of you heading down to Cornwall on holiday this summer might find the latest post at Pints and Pubs useful: it’s an extremely comprehensive run down of the pubs of St Ives. It includes news of an interesting development in the form of a bar that has spun off from the town’s impressive specialist off-licence, John’s:

The most recent addition to the beer scene in St Ives, next door to the Castle Inn… It has easily the most extensive bottle and can list of any of the St Ives pubs, but also a decent selection of draught, with three cask and five keg when visited – we had good pints of Firebrand Equinot and Black Flag Simcoe Amarillo Pale.

Sign: "Traditional Real Ales".

Reflecting on the difference between Real Ale and Craft Beer as subcultures Pub Curmudgeon makes an interesting suggestion with reference to a wider division in post-Brexit Britain:

There’s obviously a big area of overlap, as after all both are broadly about ‘quality beer’, but the wellsprings of sentiment from which real ale and craft grow are essentially different things. One is, at heart, about tradition and roots, the other about modernity and innovation. It’s basically the Somewhere versus Anywhere division expressed in beer.

Those on the other side of the political and cultural divide from the Curmudgeon probably wouldn’t disagree with the idea but might spin it differently: ‘Real ale is inward and backward looking, while craft beer points forward and outward!’ At any rate, he might be on to something.

A portrait of Bim looking pensive.

Jordan St. John at St John’s Wort, one of the co-authors of the Ontario Craft Beer Guide, paints a portrait of Luc ‘Bim’ Lafontaine, a revered Canadian brewer whose new venture is straining under the weight of expectation:

[People] talk about the brewery before the opening in messianic terms; as though Bim walked into town across Lake Ontario. At one end of the spectrum a local wag claims on twitter that the beer is terrible and two of the first three batches should have been drain poured. At the other end is a wine professional who proclaims the English style IPA the best he has ever had. On both ends is the response to the expectation that Godspeed will somehow redeem the Toronto beer scene, as if it needed it… Bim has been trying not to look at the reviews although they filter in. There are some concerns about the pricing. $3.75 a can for 355ml seems high to the public… The other gripe is about the styles of beer being brewed. There are people reviewing it who are willing to dismiss a third of the nascent brewery’s production because there is a Dortmunder Lager involved. I know through the rumour mill that Bim has spent much of the last two years drinking Spaten Munich Helles.

Finally, the Beer Nut highlights the existence of Essence of Craft:

BREAKFAST DEBATE: Is the Cloudwater News the End of the World?

Eggs with sriracha chilli sauce.

The highly-regarded Manchester brewery Cloudwater is to stop producing cask ale — is this a portent of doom, or a drop in the ocean?

The news dropped this morning in a characteristically open blog post from brewery boss Paul Jones:

We worry that cask beer has backed itself into a corner that risks becoming unattractive to modern breweries. Where we can just about tolerate today’s market pricing for our keg and bottled beer… we see little sense in continuing to accept the labour of racking, handling, and collecting casks whilst we make insufficient margin… When we take into consideration the sort of beer the cask market laps up we see high demands for traditional beer, albeit with a modern twist. In comparison, the keg and bottle market demands our most innovative and progressive beer… There’s another often encountered set of issues we face with the cask beer market – if cask beer isn’t bright the quality is often questioned (and in some cases our slightly hazy casks are flatly refused, regardless of flavour), but if casks are still conditioning out, and because of that, or because of inadequate VDK re-absorption at the end of fermentation, tasting of diacetyl, then it’s all too often good to go.

In other words, for a brewery like Cloudwater, producing cask is fairly thankless task, offering poor financial returns, little satisfaction for the brewers, and huge risk to reputation because of point-of-sale issues beyond their control.

We read it bleary-eyed with our morning tea and then discussed over breakfast with this particular question in mind:

Boak: This does worry me. My impression — and it is just an impression — is that younger drinkers are less interested in cask than our generation was, and that this is part of an increasing divergence in the  market whereby cask is about price and keg is where the really good beer is. I keep thinking about that pub in Bolton that was selling some well-kept but pretty terrible cask ale purely, as the landlord admitted, to reach a price point his customers demanded, while at the same time my brother tells me [he works at Tap East] that some customers won’t drink cask at gunpoint even if the beer is better and cheaper than the nearest keg alternative.

Bailey: I think there’s some hysteria here, though. How many keg-only craft breweries do we actually have? Off the top of my head it’s BrewDog, Lovibonds, Camden, Buxton (kind of) and now Cloudwater. Let’s say there are a few more I don’t know about, or even let’s say the top twenty coolest craft brewers (definition 2) go keg-only — that’s still only a handful of the 1,800 total. Most brewers are really into it. And I don’t think we can equate the era of the Big Six with what’s going on today. Cloudwater’s keg beer isn’t Watney’s Red Barrel.

Boak: No, although there’s a different kind of homogeneity in craft beer. And your first point… That sounds complacent to me. I can easily see this being a tipping point for some breweries that have been considering going keg-only. Cloudwater is a role model for a lot of smaller, newer breweries — more so than BrewDog who have tended to alienate people. And I reckon we could quickly slip into a situation where the places that are known for good beer ditch cask altogether. Or where more distributors start to find it too much hassle to handle cask when keg is easier and more profitable so that even pubs that want to stock cask can’t get a steady supply of the good stuff.

Bailey: But that hasn’t happened! People are borrowing trouble. Cask ale is everywhere and, admittedly with a bit of research, you can reliably get good cask ale almost everywhere in the country. Sure, chalk this up as a warning sign and be wary, but do you really think we’re worse off for cask now than around 2005 when we started taking an interest?

Boak: I think maybe London is worse than it was, and I think it’s on the verge of getting much worse again. I love Fuller’s but the fact that we can have such a variable experience of cask ale in Fuller’s own pubs worries me. Oh, I don’t know… Maybe it’s not worse but cask in London hasn’t made much progress and I still find it hard to get satisfying pints there which surely can’t be right in the age of the Craft Beer Revolution.

Bailey: OK, so if this is one warning sign, what might be some others?

Boak: If a big regional went keg-only, I would be very concerned — Fuller’s, Adnams, one of the breweries that’s been experimenting with craft beer in keg. Or Oakham. Or Thornbridge! If they went keg-only, that would really freak me out.

Bailey: Me too but I can’t see that happening any time soon. I’d be more worried if Doom Bar or Greene King IPA suddenly became keg-only beers because I bet there are a lot of pubs that would ditch cask altogether without those — would literally, 1975-style, rip out their beer engines and lose the capacity to sell cask. The infrastructure would disappear.

Boak: If the Craft Beer Company stopped selling cask that would be a really bad sign. They seem pretty committed to it at the moment — lots of pumps — but who knows? I’d love to know how much they actually sell and what the split is with keg.

Bailey: That micropub in Newton Abbot sells 60 per cent keg, 40 per cent cask.

Boak: Hmm. Related to that, I guess micropubs might be the counterbalance, because (that one in Newton Abbot aside) they’re so cask-led, and so flexible when it comes to purchasing, that they might give that side of the industry a boost. But they’re not, to generalise, popular with young people, are they? So they don’t do much to win the next generation over to cask.

Bailey: There’s Wetherspoon’s, too — they’re playing with craft keg and cans and what have you but there’s no indication that they want to ditch cask. If anything, they seem more committed to it now than ever. Maybe what we need is a big chart with plus and minus columns for the health of the cask ale market in the UK.

Boak: That’s our homework, then. On balance, the reaction to this particular news does seem over the top, but I have to say I’m less confident in my view that The Battle has Been Won than I was when we wrote the book. I think it’d be pretty catastrophic if the only cask ales you could get anywhere were Doom Bar and GK IPA.

Bailey: Me too, I suppose, although I’m only a tiny bit concerned. As I’ve said before, we can’t be on a permanent war footing–

Boak: But we have to be ready to remobilise if the threat re-emerges and, at the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law, make sure that the next generation is educated in the danger signs so that they don’t repeat the mistakes of history.

This has been edited to make it vaguely coherent. We actually rambled a lot more and you don’t need details of our discussion about what to have for tea.

Beer in Pubs, 1951

Spread from LHATM.

It’s always exciting to come across specific notes on how beers of the past looked and tasted, especially when those notes are from someone inside the industry.

Through a footnote to a footnote in someone else’s book we recently came across Licensed Houses and Their Management, a three-volume guidebook published in multiple editions from 1923 onwards and edited by W. Bently Capper. It’s made up of a whole series of essays and articles by different authors covering everything from book-keeping to ‘handling female staff’. We’re going to post a few more bits from it in the Bits We Underlined format at some point but, for now, the stuff on beer seemed too interesting not to share in its own right.

The section is called ‘Ales and Stouts and Hints on Cellar Management’ and is credited to an anonymous ‘A Brewery Cellars Manager’. (Worth noting, maybe, that the accompanying pics are from Fuller’s.)

First, we should say that, throughout, it is made clear that beer should definitely possess ‘brilliancy’, i.e. must be completely clear. We’ve collected lots of examples of people not minding a bit of haze in their beer, or even preferring it, but there was certainly a mainstream consensus that clarity was best by the mid-20th Century.

There are three types of dispense listed: straight from the cask, via beer engine and ‘the Scottish method of drawing’ — that is air or top pressure. (The cause of so much strife in CAMRA during the late 1970s.) There is also a lovely mention of what are now known as sparklers:

With the beer engine, there is sometimes a difficulty during the winter months of producing a good head on the beer… To combat this there are several excellent fittings on the market in the shape of ‘nozzles’ or ‘sprinklers’ which are fitted to the spout of the engine. These agitate the beer as it passes into the glass and produce a head, without affecting the palate in any degree.

Right, then — time for the main event: BEER. This section begins by highlighting the importance of choosing good beers and the strength of ‘local conditions and prejudices’:

In London, for instance, one class of beer will find favour in one district, whilst in another part of the town the same beer would not be appreciated. The same thing applies through the whole of the counties…

The author then very usefully breaks it down by style:

Mild Ales… In some parts a dark, sweet ale must be served. This must be as fresh as possible and quite brilliant. In the industrial centres this beer will be in very great demand… In the residential or suburban areas, a mild ale of a lighter colour is more in favour…

Ron Pattinson has explored the difference between urban and country milds but we love the idea of Metroland Mild!

Burton… is a heavy-gravity ale, very red in colour, and with a distinct dry-hop flavour. There is a very steady demand for this beer all the year round, but in winter-time the sales in some districts equal those of mild ale… [It should be] neither too bitter nor too sweet, but [have] a round, full-bodied flavour.

Colour and flavour notes! Red ale — sounds quite trendy, doesn’t it?

Bitter… Bitter ales form the great part of the saloon and private-bar demand. These beers are the most delicate and sensitive of all brewed. The colour must be as of bright polished amber, and the pungent aroma of the hops must be well in evidence. It is very important… that the palate is quite clean as the great charm of bitter ales lies in their delicate palate flavour… There is little doubt that the Burton-brewed ales are the best of this variety, although great progress has been made in other parts of the country by brewers and competition is very keen in this beer.

In case you don’t know how social class mapped to bars, the saloon and private-bar were the relatively posh ones. Bitter was a premium product, the craft beer of its day, drunk for flavour as much as alcohol content or nourishment. (There’s more from us on the history of bitter here.)

Stouts… are brewed from highly roasted malts and are therefore dark brown in colour. The palate should be full and creamy, but not too sweet. Avoid stouts that are not in condition or that have too bitter a flavour. There is little doubt that among the best stouts the best are those brewed in London…

An early use of creamy to describe beer, there? From long before nitro was a thing, too. But what is the difference between stout and porter?

Porter… is a light-gravity black beer which is usually much sweeter than stouts.

There you go. Sorted. Sort of.

There are many more editions of LHATM stretching back 25 years from this one — if you have a copy from before World War II, perhaps you can check whether this advice changed over the years?

QUICK ONE: BrewDog and Real Ale

BrewDog has just announced LIVE beer (their capitalisation) — a version of their session-strength Dead Pony Club packaged with live yeast and conditioned in the keg.

Of course they are obliged to present it as a great breakthrough, and deny that it’s anything like CAMRA approved real ale, for the sake of pride, just as CAMRA could only grudgingly approve of certain keg beers after much soul-searching. (See Chapter 14 of Brew Britannia for more on that.)

Live beer being poured.
SOURCE: BrewDog. Photo by Grant Anderson.

The thing is, quite apart from the fact we’ve been hearing gossip about this for months — tales of Martin Dickie and team earnestly studying cask ales with notebooks in hand in Scottish pubs, a false rumour of cask ale’s imminent reinstatement at certain BrewDog bars — it was inevitable BrewDog would do something with live yeast at some point.

Imagine the pickle they’ve been in since they made a big deal of dropping cask half a decade ago just as American brewers decide it’s the cutting edge of alternative beer culture.

Imagine how annoying it must be to know, in your heart of hearts, that beers with live yeast are interesting, are a part of tradition with a compelling story, are the beer equivalent of stinky cheese and sourdough bread, but that you’ve made it a point of principle not to do it in large part because your ‘brand values’ (modern, hip) are at odds with the Campaign for Real Ale’s (traditional, curmudgeonly), as well as for convenience. Not very ‘craft’.

Now CAMRA are finding a way to live with kegs (of a sort), and BrewDog are finding a way to live with real ale (of a sort), is it too soon to start dreaming of demobilisation and street parties? And might we see a BrewDog stand at the Great British Beer Festival in 2017?