Tradition and Science in the Pub Cellar

Benskins cask IPA.

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?

  2. No. You are just miss­ing out the word “some” before brew­ers. Brew­ery prac­tice varies enor­mous­ly.

    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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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!

  7. 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.)

  8. No dirty secret at all. Com­mon among cer­tain most­ly large brew­ers. More soon.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.


    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.)

  11. 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.

  12. 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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