Sparklers – what’s the fuss about then?

sparklers.jpgOne of the potential downsides to York as a drinking destination is the universal use of sparklers.  I say potential, as the sparkler has its vociferous defenders as well as its opponents.

A sparkler is a little plastic device that sits on the end of the pump and has lots of little holes, to create tiny little gas bubbles as your pint is dispensed.  You end up with a creamy head that takes ages to settle.

We’ve read lots of theories on this – that it alters the taste as well as the mouthfeel; that “northern” beers are formulated to be served like this and therefore alway should be; that sparkled beers are quicker to drink. So we thought we’d try a quasi-scientific test and compare the same beer with the two different methods.

The test brew was “Old Boy” from the Oldershaw brewery in Grantham, the place was the Yorkshire Terrier on Stonegate.   We asked for a half with a sparkler and a half without.  The barmaid was perfectly happy to do this, by the way.

Well, the two looked totally different, as we hope can be seen from the photo.  That’s not particularly surprising.  The taste was also different.  The sparkled version had a creamier mouthfeel and a more “muffled” flavour.  The unsparkled version was rawer — you could say less balanced — but the malt and hop mix hit you quicker.

We both preferred the non-sparkled version, hands down — it just seemed a lot more exciting.  And as a result, it got drunk quicker…

That said, it wasn’t so convincing a test as to make us ask for the sparkler to be removed every time.  And I have to say that late that day I had a lovely sparkled half of Theakston’s Old Peculiar, which I’ve never really enjoyed before in its “raw” state.  So, I wouldn’t be in a hurry to say that non-sparkled beer was “better” than sparkled beer across the board.

It’s probably partly a question of what you’re used to, as much as anything else.


26 replies on “Sparklers – what’s the fuss about then?”

I was going to write my views on this but have already expressed them at length. And the ad break between Skins and the dirty version of Hollyoaks has been shorter than expected.

This is certainly a subject that has been done to death. To be honest, I’m not sure the test even qualifies as “quasi-scientific.” When I’ve tried it on tasting panels, it’s always been on beers where you know whether the beer was intended for sparkler use or not. Oldershaw may be one that isn’t meant to have a sparkler. I generally prefer sparkled beer anyway, but it can be interesting to compare the two. If I were you I’d try something like Sam Smiths to appreciate the difference.

Or Lees, or Phoenix or….. Oh I could go on. Like Stonch says, it has been done to death, but in the end two things stand like stone. One is condition. Beer must have it sparkler or not. Two is preference and upbringing. What’s bred in the bone and all that.

I’ll add a third actually. A half pint just doesn’t do it, even in a fairly meaningless comparison. Speaking as a barman, you need a pint to pull properly through a sparkler. Four? Dammit I’m off to Germany now.

Interesting, and thanks for clarifying what a sparkler is. While it might have been “done to death” — really? hyperbolize much? — it seems like writers often assume everyone knows what it is they’re so vehemently denouncing / endorsing. More light, less heat, please.

I haven’t seen anything anything similar in central Europe, so it’s nice to read your take on it. Now if I could just get to a place where I can try them both.

Mmm, creamier mouthfeel and muffled flavours…

Evan, I think this is where we have to be realistic about our audiences! The majority of readers of my blog, and I’m sure too, are in the UK and most of those will be real ale drinkers. I make certain assumptions all the time.

And heat is good. More heat, please. It’s fun.

Evan — ta. We try hard to stick to the principles of plain English and avoid jargon, although we don’t always succeed. That probably means that we occasionally explain something some of our readers already know perfectly well, but I think it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Stonch — you’d be surprised how many of our readers aren’t that into beer. Some of them are just people we know from the real world, or have stumbled on the site googling for something specific. We want to engage their attention a bit, if we can, rather than just preach to the converted. God knows if we’re achieving that, but it can’t hurt to try.

And I really hate heat. If I want to hear people bicker, I can spend a weekend with my parents…

My blog has a steady trickle of readers who come looking for pictures of Gemma Atkinson and Billie Piper. Now that I’ve left this comment, you’ll get your share too.

We got plenty by posting the words “Amy Winehouse”…

Seriously, even if you’re quite into beer, if you’re London-centric you can be blissfully unaware of sparklers. I can honestly say I’d never heard of them until about a year ago. Go on. Mock.

Although I can appreciate what you are saying-lots of “ordinary” drinkers are unaware of sparklers, I think Stonch is right. There is a certain level of assumption that is (mostly rightly, made. Whilst it’s great to be inclusive, the nature of blogs will mean they appeal to a mainly specialist audience. They are not the ideal medium for long running deabtes-such as sparklers. By the time they were discussed properly, the blog would have moved on to many new topics.

Evan. I’ve been on the net since 1992-pre Google and even Yahoo was but a twinkle. Way back then, on Usenet, there was a big fuss about sparklers. When I created my first website in 95, I was talking about it then. Drinkers were interested in them, but without a proper search engine, information was scarce. So, I’ve been discussing them for 16 years, hence my comments about them being done to death-ie nothing new to say about them. Although, like sex, people are always discovering them for the first time:)

Tyson, your date of first internet use (wow! congratulations! you’ve got street cred, bro!) doesn’t do anything to change this fact: assuming that your readers know exactly what you’re talking about is not widely considered a practice of good writing — not in blogs, not in newspapers, not anywhere. I gather from your comment that you’re not a writer by profession, so I do understand your confusion there.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Michael Jackson’s writing. To me, one of its great aspects is how inclusive it is, how even people who don’t “know everything about beer” and who aren’t total beer fanatics can open up a page and wade in to a very pleasurable reading experience. If only more bloggers could write like that!

And to bring it back to this particular blog, I simply don’t agree with your premise: to me, it doesn’t matter if the subject was “done to death” on a usenet group 16 years ago. You want me to fire up Lynx and go read your flame war on sparklers from ’92? You want me to fire up Mosaic and check out your site from ’95? Sorry, buddy. Ain’t gonna happen.

I tune in to this particular blog because it’s well-written, it’s amusing and I like Boak & Bailey’s take on most subjects they choose to address. And that, my friend, is never going to be outdated.

Of course you are entirely correct, Evan, but in the “blogosphere” I don’t think it’s quite cricket to talk down to people on the basis they’re not “a writer by profession”! 😉

What an excellent article, and thank you for telling me what a sparkler is. This is definitely a quasi-scientific test (see Campbell and Stanley, 1963).

I’d like to pick up on what Tandleman said “A half pint just doesn’t do it, even in a fairly meaningless comparison. Speaking as a barman, you need a pint to pull properly through a sparkler.” I’m firmly in the anti-sparkler camp, and Tandleman’s comment just reinforces my belief. Pints are great but occasionally I will have a half of something, often a strong one to finish off the evening. What’s the point if it doesn’t do halves as it should. Presumably you get half ruined beer as opposed to totally ruined beer.

Nicely twisted Paul. That isn’t exactly what I am saying. I am saying that the half pint is rarely pulled with the force needed to produce the creamy head, so you will get less of the characteristics of the sparkler. The beers will be much more alike than in a pint. It will vary though of course.

As for ruination, as I have said many times before, it is largely preference and upbringing.

On a different subject, can I endorse what Stonch says about Evan Rail’s condescending post to Tyson!

“it is largely preference and upbringing”

Amen. When you hear and consider different views on this – and its good that Tandleman speaks up for sparklers – that’s the only sensible conclusion. Although I did work in a real ale pub before I went to uni, almost all of my ale drinking has taken place down South, where sparklers are rare. That is what informs my view on the subject.

On a different subject, can I endorse what Stonch says about Evan Rail’s condescending post to Tyson!

Can I just say having met Evan, he is a very nice chap and therefore I’m sure he didn’t mean to offend! Indeed he bought me and the Long Armed Goon tickets for the Prague metro when were we too drunk to work the machine. A gentleman and scholar, no less.

Evan. It’s a fair cop-I don’t earn the majority of my income from writing, so couldn’t/wouldn’t claim to be a professional writer. However, unlike most bloggers, I have actually had hard copy published, and practised editorial duties, so I would hope I understand the nature of the written word. I will take the charitable view that you simply misunderstood my comments, rather than being too dense to understand them. Basically, all I was doing was agreeing with Stonch about everyone making certain, basic, assumptions. I didn’t say anything about assuming readers know “exactly” what I’m on about-my blog is deliberately just about pubs and drinking, and nothing technical. You can’t get more basic than that. But, for example, I do make the same assumptions that most (including this excellent one), beer blogs make. I expect the readers to be generally interested in beer/pubs, and I don’t continuously explain what real ale is. I don’t think crediting the reader with above amoeba level intelligence is any bad thing.

Having said that, I may be wrong. “You want me to fire up Lynx and go read your flame war on sparklers from ‘92? You want me to fire up Mosaic and check out your site from ‘95?” Er, no. I don’t remember saying that either. I was actually thinking that you could try a 30 second net search. The point was that the subject of sparklers has already been discussed ad infinitum. That’s a fact you are going to have to live with. What it does mean is that all the information you need is out there, and (nowadays) easily accessible. What, you want me to reinvent the wheel because you’re too lazy to Google? Sorry, buddy. Ain’t gonna happen.

Finally, apart from your condescending, and infantile tone, can I also say I’m offended by the notion that I’m some sort of beer fanatic/geek. Also, can I say, I’ve never, ever, been involved in a flame-war.

Do you think it would be ok to take your own sparkler to a pub and ask them to use it when pouring your pint — or do do you think I’m likely to be kicked out !?. I live in London and just prefer how a beer drinks after its gone through a sparkler, and they don’t use them here.

Welcome Guy. I think if you were in a pub where they took the beer seriously, they may have a sparkler knocking around, or may allow it. However, I reckon your average London bartender would look quite confused.

I just happened across this discussion and wanted to add my tuppance, just to qualify my comments I am an experienced manager in the industry with over 25 years actual operational management including Manchester, Liverpool, Derby, Leicestershire, Surrey, Warwickshire and my home county of Northumberland. All beers and lagers are left with a risidual amount of gases after the brewing process, trad ale is unique as when delivered to the pub it needs to undergo a secondary process called working out, this process is started by tapping and venting which lets this happen and conditions the beer ready for sale. During this process of secondary fermentation the beer will let off an amount of gases usually expelled through a soft peg in the spile, mainly co2 but also vaying other elements such as nitrogen depending on the actual brew. The sparkler is used to aid in the release of the gases that are absorbed in the beer and to produce a head, the best being a tight creamy head that lasts to the bottom of the pint and leaves a lace on the glass. There is to my knowledge no beer that is brewed either for or not for a sparkler as all beer has absorbed gases, the only difference is either a flat pint or one which has been livened through a sparkler. Also as a drinker of over 30 years most bar staff are poor in both their service and product knowledge, the head on a pint is constucted in the first pull and trying to put a head on at the end will result in a poor head which generally doesn’t last, my standard is to not only train my staff how to serve all the products but also to ensure they are knowledgable about them, they are taught to construct a pint with the minimum of waste and to the correct level of no more than 5% head, I also include glass handling amongst other issues as it annoys me when I see bar staff handle a glass in the area which a drinker drinks from. The arguement will continue but the reality is that no sparkler means a flat pint, the reality is that southerners would rather have a flat full pint cause they are tight wads.

25 years experience and still clueless? No sparkler doesn’t mean a flat pint unless the beer is flat to begin with. If your beer won’t form a head without forcing it through a sparkler then it’s in crap condition in the first place.

I’d rather have an unsparkled pint because I like real ale, i.e. ale that’s been traditionally brewed, using traditional ingredients and which comes straight out of a barrel via a simple tap or a simple beer engine. The fact that sparklers turn the top of the beer into a whipped-creme emulsion might remind Northerners of their much loved ‘smooth’ keg beer like John Smiths but it irritates the hell out of me. I don’t want a foam mustache and I don’t like the fact that the average ‘sparkled’ head gives the pub a tenth of a pint to sell on to another customer.

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