The perfect amount of foam on a pint of beer

Of course there is no correct amount – it will vary from beer to beer, from region to region and from person to person – but it looks as if a beer we were served on Friday night was pretty close to perfect.

When we Tweet­ed this with the mes­sage ‘One for the Foam Police’ we were being delib­er­ate­ly vague.

What we meant was ‘This looks pret­ty good’ but want­ed to test a the­o­ry: we reck­on it is pos­si­ble for a spe­cif­ic indi­vid­ual pint to have both (a) too much head and (b) too lit­tle.

When we Tweet pic­tures of the beers we’re drink­ing, it’s quite com­mon for peo­ple to reply with either some­thing like ‘Stick a Flake in that?’ or ‘That looks in poor con­di­tion’.

In this case, though about 90% of poll respon­dents thought it looked fair­ly spot on, the remain­ing votes were split between too much and not enough, with a slight bias towards too much.

It would be inter­est­ing to have the abil­i­ty to drill down into the results a bit more. We sus­pect those who vot­ed ‘too much’ will be in Lon­don and the Home Coun­ties, while those who vot­ed ‘not enough’ will skew younger. But those are just guess­es, for now.

Anoth­er inter­est­ing thing was that some peo­ple want­ed to know more about the beer before form­ing a judge­ment:

Of course there’s a lot of cer­e­mo­ny and debate around lager, espe­cial­ly in the Czech Repub­lic, but we hadn’t con­sid­ered before that keg beer might be expect­ed to have more head than cask. Now it’s been raised, though, it does feel right.

Alto­geth­er, though, what this proves is that it’s a mat­ter of taste, as sub­jec­tive as any­thing else.

Is the the­atri­cal cut of The Lord of the Rings: The Fel­low­ship of the Ring too long, too short or about right? Would you like more tracks on Sgt Pepper’s Lone­ly Hearts Club Band, few­er, or about the same num­ber?

Well, sub­jec­tive except for in the (sort of) legal sense. There’s a gen­er­al accep­tance, rein­forced by mes­sages from indus­try bod­ies and Trad­ing Stan­dards, that says a pint should be at least 95% liq­uid, and no more than 5% foam.

We sus­pect our ‘about right’ pint on Fri­day might have failed this test, by a per­cent­age point or two, but in the moment, we real­ly did­n’t care.

Training Day: pull it flat

Lots of drinkers in Bristol like their pints flat. That is, completely without foam.

We’ve writ­ten about this before but in the past week got more evi­dence when we saw a pub man­ag­er train­ing a new mem­ber of staff.

No, way too much head, bit more,” said the man­ag­er. “Just give it anoth­er pull.”

Like this?”

No, still too much head. You might get away with that up norf but not in Bris­tol, mate.”

It’s OK, we don’t mind a bit of a head on our pints,” we said and then took the oppor­tu­ni­ty to ask a cou­ple of fol­low-up ques­tions.

The man­ag­er told us that old­er Bris­to­lian drinkers espe­cial­ly real­ly appre­ci­ate pints where the beer is absolute­ly to the rim with as clear a sur­face as pos­si­ble.

He put it down to stingi­ness – “They’re afraid you’re doing them out of nine pence worf of beer.” – but con­firmed that it cer­tain­ly was a mat­ter of pref­er­ence, not the result of poor­ly-con­di­tioned beer.

In Bris­tol, we’re begin­ning to think the default flat­ness of the pints is a pret­ty good indi­ca­tor of how many born-and-bred locals drink in a par­tic­u­lar pub.

In the city cen­tre, where incom­ers, com­muters and daytrip­pers drink, it’s quite pos­si­ble to be served 450ml of beer with sev­er­al inch­es of head (“Could I get a lit­tle top up, please?”) but that’s much less like­ly in back­street pubs and the more down-to-earth sub­urbs.

The Drap­ers seems to strug­gle some­times, too, with bar staff get­ting mixed mes­sages from tra­di­tion­al­ist locals and beer geeks. A few weeks ago we got served beau­ti­ful pints, foam piled high, with an apol­o­gy: “Sor­ry, it’s very live­ly.”

Almost any­where else in the UK, it wouldn’t have seemed so.

The good news is that at the pub we vis­it­ed last week, the new mem­ber of staff even­tu­al­ly got the hang of it, pulling a string of pints with a per­fect­ly rea­son­able amount of foam – nei­ther exces­sive­ly north­ern nor too strict­ly Bris­to­lian.

That Little Bit of Magic

Cask ale collage.Drink­ing extra­or­di­nar­i­ly good Bass at the Angel at Long Ash­ton on Sat­ur­day we found our­selves reflect­ing, once again, on the fine dif­fer­ence between a great pint and a dis­ap­point­ment.

A few years ago, when we were try­ing hard to make the Farmer’s Arms in Pen­zance our local, we had a ses­sion on Ring­wood Forty-Nin­er that made us think it might actu­al­ly be a great beer.

But every pint we’ve had since, there or any­where else, has been pret­ty dread­ful.

What gave it the edge that first time? And what was miss­ing there­after? Extra high fre­quen­cies, or an addi­tion­al dimen­sion, some­how.

This elu­sive qual­i­ty is what we tast­ed in eight pints of Tim­o­thy Tay­lor Land­lord out of ten at the Nags Head in Waltham­stow for sev­er­al years in a run, and what is so often not there when we encounter it as a guest ale any­where else.

It’s what makes rec­om­mend­ing or endors­ing cask ales in par­tic­u­lar a mug’s game: “Is it only me that’s nev­er got the fuss about Lon­don Pride?” some­one will say on Twit­ter. No, it’s not, and we don’t doubt that you’ve nev­er had a good pint, because it can taste like dust and sweet­corn, and does maybe more than half the time we encounter it. But when it’s good, oh! is it good.

Bass isn’t a great beer in absolute terms, but it can be, hon­est.

Har­vey’s Sus­sex Best can be a wretched, mis­er­able thing – all stress and stal­e­ness – and might well have been every time you’ve ever encoun­tered it. But the next pint you have might be a rev­e­la­tion.

Are the lows worth endur­ing for the highs? Yes, and it might even be that they make the highs high­er.

(We’ve prob­a­bly made this point before but after near­ly 3,000 posts, who can remem­ber…)

News, Nuggets and Longreads 19 January 2019: Bottleshares, Boddies, Brand Loyalty

Here’s everything on beer and pubs we felt the urge to bookmark in the past seven days, from coolships to kask kontroversy.

Joe Stange is now writ­ing for Craft Beer & Brew­ing and has announced his arrival with an excel­lent piece on Fran­co­nia which suc­ceeds in find­ing some new angles on this much-writ­ten-about beer region:

Here is anoth­er thing you can see upstairs, in the attic: a wide, riv­et­ed cop­per cool­ship… Or rather: You can see it, until the boil­ing-hot wort hits the pan—littered with a sur­pris­ing amount of hops pel­lets for a burst of aroma—and opaque steam rapid­ly fills the attic. After that, it’s dif­fi­cult to see any­thing in there for a while. This cool­ship is the kind of thing you might expect to see in a lam­bic brew­ery, or in an ambi­tious Amer­i­can wild-beer brew­ery, or in a muse­um. Its orig­i­nal pur­pose, how­ev­er, has noth­ing to do with sour beers. It is sim­ply an old-fash­ioned way to cool wort. Andreas Gän­staller uses it every time he brews lager… “The wort streams out real­ly clear,” he says. “The beer is much more clear because all the bad stuff goes away in the steam.”


Illustration: beer bottles.

If you’ve ever fan­cied organ­is­ing a bot­tle share, or won­dered exact­ly what a bot­tle share is, then you’ll find this primer by Rach Smith at Look at Brew use­ful. In in, she explains how the bot­tle share she runs in Brighton works, and offers tips on set­ting up your own:

Think about the order in which you’ll be pour­ing. If there are pale/low abv beers for exam­ple, start with them and leave the big, bold Impe­r­i­al stouts for last so you don’t com­plete­ly destroy your taste buds ear­ly on… [And] don’t judge. It’s not about who can bring the rarest beers, it’s about social­is­ing, learn­ing a lit­tle bit along the way and hav­ing a damn good time.


Icon: NUGGET.

An inter­est­ing point from Ed – could the rea­son cask beer num­bers are down be because we lost a few big brands that made up the bulk of the num­bers, such as Bod­ding­ton’s?


Sierra Nevade Brewing Co neon sign.

With #Flag­shipFeb­ru­ary in mind (see last week’s round-up) Kate Bernot has writ­ten about con­sumer promis­cu­ity for The Take­out:

I say this whole idea of promis­cu­ity and no brand loy­al­ty is gross­ly mis­de­fined,” says Lester Jones, chief econ­o­mist for the Nation­al Beer Whole­salers Asso­ci­a­tion. “It was pret­ty easy 25–30 years ago to find a brand that you liked and trust­ed and had rela­tions to. I don’t think peo­ple have changed, I think it’s just tak­ing longer to sift through the mul­ti­tude of choic­es.… Instead of accept­ing the fact that their job is a lot hard­er, it’s easy for brew­ers to turn and say ‘The con­sumer is fick­le. He doesn’t know what he wants.’ No, the con­sumer knows what he wants and the con­sumer is tast­ing to find what he wants, but giv­en so many choic­es, it just takes longer,” Jones says.


Generic beer pumps in photocopy style.

All this is well and good but what peo­ple real­ly want to know is this: where’s the beef at? Well, Jes­si­ca Mason wrote this piece argu­ing that the embrace of cask beer by the likes of Cloud­wa­ter sig­nals a resur­gence in the health of its image

[Cloud­wa­ter’s Paul] Jones [says] that a lot of tra­di­tion­al brew­eries up and down the coun­try are ‘com­plete pros and leg­ends’ with­in cask beer, even if they’re not turn­ing their hands to more mod­ern beer styles. ‘I think some­thing of a hybrid offer­ing from us real­ly ought to diver­si­fy what cask beer is and what it could be in the future.’

Wild Card’s head Brew­er Jae­ga Wise, who recent­ly won the title of Brew­er of the Year, will be relaunch­ing its cask-beer offer­ing next year. How­ev­er, she stress­es that it will be on the brewery’s terms, remind­ing how mod­ern brew­ers are reit­er­at­ing cask’s rel­e­vance, but are not will­ing to bow to out­dat­ed stereo­types.

…which prompt­ed this come­back from Tan­dle­man:

So we need mod­ern craft brew­ers to show us the way and revive cask? These are the same peo­ple that give you cask beer that looks like chick­en soup and under­mine the work done by brew­ers for many years to ensure clean, clear, bright beer with dis­tinct flavours.We’d more or less lost the “It’s meant to be like that” non­sense until craft got its hands on cask. Now it is back with a vengeance, as over­turn­ing the ortho­doxy has giv­en bar staff the right to say it once more, even if the beer looks like a mix­ture of lumpy fruit juices and smells like Hen­der­son­’s Rel­ish.

More point/counterpoint than beef, real­ly, but it’s fas­ci­nat­ing how the fault lines (cul­tur­al, gen­er­a­tional) con­tin­ue to reveal them­selves in new forms.


And final­ly, there’s this reminder of how many oppor­tu­ni­ties for dis­as­ter are built into the cask ale sup­ply chain:

As ever, for more links, check­out Stan on Mon­days (usu­al­ly includ­ing lots of stuff beyond beer, but still about beer) and Alan on Thurs­day (gen­er­al­ly thread­ing links togeth­er to make some sort of point).

Citra as Brand, Like Bacon as Brand, Like Chocolate as Brand

Detail from a 1943 advert for Lifesavers depicting fruit on a tree.

Every now and then we’ll reach a point in a conversation where the person opposite wants to know, “What’s a good beer I should be looking out for, then?”

This used to be fair­ly easy to answer, but with more brew­eries, and more beers, and what feels like a ten­den­cy away from the con­cept of the core range or flag­ship beer, it’s become tricky.

There are beers we like but don’t get to drink reg­u­lar­ly enough to say we know, and oth­ers that we love but don’t see from one year to the next.

Last time some­one asked, though, it just so hap­pened that we’d reached a con­clu­sion: “Well, not a spe­cif­ic beer, but you can’t go wrong with any­thing with Cit­ra in the name.”

We were think­ing of Oakham Cit­ra, of course – the beer that effec­tive­ly owns this unique Amer­i­can hop vari­ety in the UK, and has done since 2009.

In his excel­lent book For the Love of Hops Stan Hierony­mus pro­vides a pot­ted his­to­ry of the devel­op­ment of Cit­ra:

[Gene] Probas­co made the cross in 1990 that result­ed in the Cit­ra seedling. At the time brew­ers did­n’t talk about what would lat­er be called ‘spe­cial’ aro­ma, but “that’s where all the inter­est seems to be these days,” he said. In 1990 he cross-pol­li­nat­ed two plants, a sis­ter and broth­er that result­ed from a 1987 cross between a Haller­tau Mit­tel­früh moth­er and a male from an ear­li­er cross… [In 2001 hop chemist Pat Ting] shipped a two-pound sam­ple to Miller… Troy Rysewyk brewed a batch called Wild Ting IPA, dry hop­ping it with only Cit­ra… “It smelled lke grape­fruit, lychee, man­go,” Ting said. “But fer­ment­ed, it tast­ed like Sauvi­gnon Blanc.”

Cit­ra was very much the hot thing in UK brew­ing about six or sev­en years ago. It was a sort of won­der hop that seemed to com­bine the pow­ers of every C‑hop that had come before. It was easy to appre­ci­ate – no hints or notes here, just an almost over-vivid horn blast of flavour –and, in our expe­ri­ence, easy to brew with, too.

We’re bad at brew­ing; Amar­il­lo often defeat­ed us, and Nel­son Sauvin always did; but some­how, even we made decent beers with Cit­ra.

Now, with the trend­set­ters hav­ing moved on, Cit­ra con­tin­ues to be a sort of anchor point for us. If there’s a beer on offer with Cit­ra in the name, even from a brew­ery we’ve nev­er heard of, or even from a brew­ery whose beers we don’t gen­er­al­ly like, we’ll always give it a try.

Hop Back Cit­ra, for exam­ple, is a great beer. It lacks the oomph of Oakham’s flag­ship and bears a dis­tinct fam­i­ly resem­blance to many of the Sal­is­bury brew­ery’s oth­er beers (“They brew one beer with fif­teen dif­fer­ent names,” a crit­ic said to us in the pub a while ago) but Cit­ra lifts it out of the sepia. It adds a pure, high note; it elec­tri­fies.

Since con­clud­ing that You Can’t Go Wrong With Cit­ra, we’ve been test­ing the the­sis. Of course we’ve had the odd dud – beers that taste like they got the sweep­ings from the Cit­ra fac­to­ry floor, or were wheeled past a sin­gle cone on the way to the ware­house – but gen­er­al­ly, it seems to be a sound rule.

We were recent­ly in the pub with our next door neigh­bour, a keen ale drinker but not a beer geek, and a Cit­ra fan. When Hop Back Cit­ra ran out before he could get anoth­er pint his face fell, until he saw that anoth­er beer with Cit­ra in the name had gone up on the board: “Oh, there you go – as long as it’s a Cit­ra, I don’t mind.”

All con­sumers want is a clue, a short­cut, a bit of help. That’s what they get from IPA, or ‘craft’. And appar­ent­ly also from the name of this one unsub­tle, good-time hop vari­ety.