Sparklers, in summary

The Grey Horse, Manchester.

So, to summarise:

  • Sparklers work best with well-conditioned beer, bringing some of c02 out of suspension to form a denser head, but leaving plenty in the body of the pint.
  • But if a beer is low on condition, a sparkler might well rob it of what little CO2 it has, leaving it with a head, but even flatter beneath.
  • Therefore, sparklers might equally be used to make beer in poor condition look better than it is, or to give a beer in good condition a particular presentation.
  • But there’s no way for a drinker to know until they taste it.
  • Sparklers may also mute or otherwise affect perception of certain flavours and aromas. Some beers are brewed with this in mind.
  • Otherwise, it’s a matter of personal preference.
  • So sparklers are neither purely good, not purely evil.

Is that about it?

What’s Brewing? Same as 40 years ago.

Header for CAMRA's What's Brewing letters page, mid-70s.

Tom Stainer, editor of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) newspaper What’s Brewing?, once pointed out, while under fire, that there aren’t many arguments about the Campaign’s policy that haven’t already been played out, often repeatedly, over the course of forty years. Going through old issues of What’s Brewing, we suddenly saw what he meant: there were entire letters pages from the mid-seventies that, if printed in the next issue of WB, wouldn’t seem incongruous.

Some people would drink oil served by handpumps. January 1975. ‘In view of CAMRA’s strong emphasis on the mode of dispense of beers should it not be renamed the Campaign for Unpressurised Ale? Surely the major emphasis should be on what goes into the beer and what it tastes like?’

Why I’m thinking of leaving CAMRA. March 1976. Correspondent feels the Campaign is drifting away from its founding principles of battling keg. Refers to CO2 as ‘tear gas’.

It’s not muck. Same issue. ‘Fanatics of all kinds always annoy me and I must therefore comment on your correspondent… who wrote of his CAMRA colleagues drinking “pressurised muck” at their local as if they are on a level with Judas Iscariot.’

A narrow-minded approach to beer. April 1976. Chairman of Ruddles brewery says: ‘There are times when I feel that all draught beer [cask] is automatically good and all keg, bottled and canned beer is automatically bad, in the eyes of CAMRA. This is surely a very narrow-minded attitude.’

Purism wins. Same issue. ‘I didn’t think I’d ever see the day when I would read a spirited defence of fizz from a CAMRA member [‘It’s not muck’, above]… I despair at the idea of any CAMRA member regularly drinking fizz because it is sometimes inconvenient to drink real ale… It is the very fanaticism (purism would be a better word) of many CAMRA members that has held back the tide and retained real ale for us.’

And who started the endless bloody sparkler debate? Two chaps from Sheffield, with the following letter from March 1979.

‘Tight head’ give same results as air pressure. ‘To add a new dimension to the air pressure debate, we would like to argue that a difference in taste comparable to that produced by air pressure is produced by the universal Northern practice of pulling beer through a tight sparkler, thereby thoroughly agitating the beer and mixing it with air, resulting in the characteristic northern “head”… This has the effect of disguising the flavour of the beer, of obscuring the distinction between real ale and bright beer, and of giving the average Northern drinker a spurious criterion by which to judge a good pint…. when we have been able to drink local beer “flat”, is has seemed to excel in body and flavour.’

Weird bar staff quirks

Here are a couple of oddities we’ve come across lately.

1. The barman who warned us not to mix the sediment from our St Austell clouded yellow into the glass with the beer or we’d “end up very poorly”. That’s clouded yellow. It’s a British take on a Bavarian wheat beer, and the bottle advises that it can be served with or without the yeast sediment mixed in. Yet more evidence of the British fear of suspended yeast and its supposedly poisonous qualities.

2. The barmaid who thought we weren’t looking when she held a sparkler near the pump in the last few seconds as she pulled the pint to lively up the head. She didn’t attach it, she just held it in place while she put the finishing touches to our pints. Without this bit of weird jiggery-pokery, we suspect they would have been completely flat.

UPDATE 27/07/2012: we spotted another barmaid in a St Austell pub doing more-or-less the same thing with the sparkler only, this case, she stopped when she had the glass two-thirds full, fixed the sparkler properly, and then finished the pint. We asked why and she said: “Because Proper Job is a bit lively. If you leave the sparkler on the whole time, it gets too much head. This is the best of both worlds.” So, there you go, we got it wrong first time round.

Active drinking

Confronted with a sparkled pint in a pub in Cheshire recently, I thought I’d try the same trick. I actively supped, rather than just pouring the beer in through my horrible great cakehole.

sparklypints

In the latest edition of James and Oz Pretend to Argue about Booze, a man told them how to drink Guinness properly. He insisted that you “pull the beer through the head”.

Confronted with a sparkled pint in a pub in Cheshire recently, I thought I’d try the same trick. So, I actively supped, rather than just pouring the beer in through my horrible great cakehole.

It worked.

I got the benefit of the pillowy head, but the beer came through loud and clear — not muted, or subdued. I left the head behind in the glass, where it belongs, making my pint look nice.

It’s odd to find yourself rethinking something as natural and instinctive as the act of taking on liquid through the mouth, but I guess an obsession with beer will do that to you.

Incidentally, we thought Oz and James were pretty dreadful last night, although it was worth putting up with 25 minutes of self-indulgent drivel to see the Beer Nut and Bionic Laura on our screens.