Sunday 14 July 2013

Hot stuff

Yesterday at around 1.45 pm I walk into an attractive, well-situated pub, although admittedly one that doesn’t tend to be a contender for the Good Beer Guide. I order a pint of what is usually their best-selling beer. It’s not very busy, and I suspect it is probably the first one pulled that lunchtime. It comes out at room temperature and downright cloudy. So I take it back, and get it replaced with a different beer, which is a bit cooler and only slightly hazy, but still really not much good at all.

On the local CAMRA e-mail group, someone reports on a bar in a building belonging to a charitable body (so not a pub as such) which “had two cask ales on this afternoon... Both were very warm, out of condition and totally undrinkable. The staff told me that they haven't got a proper cooling system in their cellar and gave me my money back.”

Yesterday was probably the hottest day of the year so far, but it’s certainly true that hot weather sorts out the sheep from the goats when it comes to cask beer. It’s often claimed that the long, hot summer of 1976 was a major factor behind the rise of lager in this country, and today there must be many people who throughout the year regularly include cask in their drinking repertoire, but at these temperatures unhesitatingly plump for the Carling tap.

Although there’s no shortage of cellar and line cooling equipment available nowadays, if anything the problem has got worse since 1976, due to the reduced overall sales of cask beer, the proliferation of handpumps and the fact that cask has gone into many non-traditional outlets that don’t have naturally cool cellars. The odds of getting a pint that has been festering in an uncooled line for an hour or more are disappointingly high.

If you’re serious about cask beer as an all-year-round product, it’s vital to ensure that you store it in an environment with a temperature consistently no higher than about 12°C and, unless you have a particularly high turnover, also make sure that your lines are cooled so it remains at that temperature right up to the point of dispense. Some pubs manage to do this, but sadly far too many fall embarrassingly short.

And there’s a good argument that marginal outlets such as wine bars, restaurants and college bars might well be better off putting on craft kegs rather than cask, as they would be easier to keep and less vulnerable to low and erratic turnover.


  1. Then weather is Gods way of saying "opt for super chilled"

  2. Actually Mudge that bar selling warm soup isn't run by a charitable body. It simply occupies its former premises.

  3. I didn't want to name names, but if it's a commercially-run bar it makes the offence worse.

  4. "marginal outlets such as wine bars, restaurants and college bars might well be better off putting on craft kegs rather than cask"

    Or they could have bottle-conditioned beer stored in a cool place.

  5. There may be no shortage of cellar and line cooling equipment available but I remember my youth when we used the low tech solution of wet hessian sacks over the barrels.

  6. I wasn't drinking beer in 1976 but I think beer quality in general has improved since I started drinking, though there is less excuse that some cellars do still have poor cooling.

  7. We may have put some of the worst horrors of poor cellarmanship behind us, but slow turnover and its consequences are an increasing problem today.

  8. Equipment and prices for cooling facilities are a lot better than they used to be. I don't think there is any excuse for it. Plenty of places managed to serve cool pints yesterday and so I can only conclude that those that didn't are less well-run.

  9. Is there any technical reason why the same super chilling line equipment cannot be used for cask that is used for keg? Other than a few beards being horrified? I'd like a pint of citrusy golden pong as ice cold as Carlsberg.

  10. Martin, Cambridge15 July 2013 at 14:13

    Last night in Islington I paid £4 for a pint of "craft" cask that would have been very good if it wasn't served at about 16 degrees. The half of US keg cost even more, but it was cool and quite superb. Why would keg beers be so much cooler ?

  11. "Is there any technical reason why the same super chilling line equipment cannot be used for cask that is used for keg?"

    No, but if it's still 20C in the cellar the beer won't condition properly.

    There's no technical reason why cask lines can't have chilling jackets.

  12. ...or rather, cask beer will lose condition excessivly when vented warm (as CO2 is less soluble at eleveated temps), later cooling the beer down in the line won't put the CO2 back in. FWIW (and having just done an actual experiment ) Wet towel / sack can't be cooling much below 16C in the current daytime weather we're having here. Cooling saddles / jackets are an option if there's a suitable source of coolth i.e. a big chiller not being used for anything else, but most decent pubs manage by having decent cellar coolers / shutting the f-ing door / not using the cellar to store veg, etc.

  13. ... Martin, the keg beers will have been through a remote or shelf cooler on their way from the cellar to you.

  14. you do sometimes get the converse problem though in some real ale pubs with low turnover with very good cooling, who then turn the chillers upto "11" to maybe try and extend the life of the beer for as long as possible, and you get a pint thats often painful to hold, let alone drink, with most of the life sucked out of it.

    I often think those places if they just dialled it back a touch theyd sell far more beer and not have the problem they are trying to get round in the first place. age old thing isnt it, never had a warm/bad pint in a busy pub.

    but actually even low tech solutions work, I was very impressed earlier in the year (when it was Summer pt1) at a beer festival in a tent which must have got up to about 25-26 degrees inside,and they were just using the wet hessian/cotton cloth technique, and it was working extremely well at keeping the temperature down, and it was close if not actually at the perfect beer temp.

  15. I couldn't think of a better way to put an entire generation off real ale for good than to serve it to them warm.

  16. Fugger Von Bebenhausen16 July 2013 at 12:05

    Last month on my hols I sat in the Porch craft beer bar in Key West.
    It was over a 100 degrees and fiercely humid outside - inside a dozen taps were producing chilled craft keg beer and the bar's A/C was so high every single nipple in the place looked like a Scammell wheel nut.
    Thankfully not a beardy sandalista in sight.
    Why anyone would bother is cask ale in this weather is beyond me.

  17. Fugger Von Babenhausen16 July 2013 at 12:09

    Mind you it was the only civilised bar in a town a fat yahoo frat-boys.

  18. Fugger - how much beer does your £5-6 buy you in the Porch ?

  19. Fugger Von Babenhausen17 July 2013 at 09:38

    Martin - not much I'm afraid.
    Drinking alcohol is an expensive business in the States and as the Porch is just off Duval Street the main tourist drag in Key West we paid top dollar. From memory it was $8-9 a pint and then the fuggers add sales tax to that and they expect you to tip the barman.Not much change out of 20 bucks for two beers.
    But it's just about the only place in KW that does decent beer AND is served in a glass ( everywhere else serves it up in plastic glasses on account of Americans being unable to drink more than three Bud Lights without falling over pissed. )
    The kegs were all small and all kept in the single cooling unit right under the bar and the glasses came out chilled too. This ensures a large selection, fast turnover and uniformly crip,cold beer that slipped down a treat in scorching temperatures.
    I rather liked the Magic Hat#5 although the bar staff expressed some concern when I ordered a 4th pint - they don't really do sessions,as such.

  20. The places that don't keep the ale properly chilled are also the kind of places that don't offer any ale I like anyway. Hence for me there is no dilemma really.

  21. I think the comments suggesting it is inexcusable for pubs / bars not to install cask line cooling to the handpump are over the top.

    If this country steadfastly continues to refuse to install the infrastructure to deal with the fact that it snows on an annual basis, why expect every single pub and bar to install additional systems to deal with the fact that it gets stupidly warm one year in five?

    Most pubs cellar systems are installed and maintained by some kind of deal tied into a supplier and pubs often have to beg and plead for anything deemed "special". Installing cooled cask lines is not as simple as some make out, it involved installing completely separate pythons and separate coolers operating at cask temperature - essentially a duplication of what is already their for the keg lines. To justify getting your supplier to put in the same system for one or two cask beers that they have for ten keg lines is not easy for a pub who is taking the brave step of trying to offer cask ale.

    Yes, we need to keep on top of quality, but judging a new pubs efforts based on the last couple of weeks is a little unfair. Dismiss them for warm beer when it's 30 degrees outside and you may get what you deserve - no cask at all when temperatures return to normal.

  22. Stringers beer - evaporative "cooling" is not really expected to be able to actually cool a cask. What it is reasonably efficient at is keeping cool beer cool.

    While ambient temperature does make a difference to how well it can do this, the main problem is that in high temperatures the water is evaporating so fast that it's a challenge keeping the system damp so it keeps working 100% of the time - once the covers dry, your beer is warming up and won't cool back down again.

    At our recent festival was reasonably pleased that while the temperature outside was 28 degrees and the beer halls were more like 34 at times, under evaporative cooling the beer reached a peak of around 17.5 degrees.

  23. @geordiemanc - partly it's a question of turnover. If you have a temperature-controlled cellar and are selling the beer fast enough that it doesn't have time to warm up in them lines, then you can dispense with in-line cooling. Minimising the distance the lines run outside the cellar will also help.

    But selling unpleasantly warm beer isn't really acceptable, so if pubs are finding it a problem then maybe they need to look at reducing their cask range in hot weather, or even (horror) dropping cask entirely once the mercury climbs above 25.

    Presumably keg beers use flash coolers rather than continuously cooled lines - could this be an option for cask set at a higher temperature?

    I think you make allowances about temperature at a beer festival that you won't in a pub.


Comments, especially on older posts, may require prior approval by the blog owner. See here for details of my comment policy.

Please register an account to comment. Unregistered comments will generally be rejected unless I recognise the author. If you want to comment using an unregistered ID, you will need to tell me something about yourself.