Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Big-headedness

The photo attached to my previous post raises an interesting question. It shows five old boys sitting in a rural Dorset pub in 1934, each with a traditional straight-sided tankard about two-thirds full of beer, but with a head reaching almost to the top of the glass. Depictions of beer from the inter-war period, whether photos or drawings, often show foaming heads, and of course immediately after the war the Ancient Order of Front-Blowers was formed. They wouldn’t have been able to blow froth if there hadn’t been much there in the first place.

In those days there wouldn’t have been any electric pumps or swan-necks, and a lot more beer, especially in rural pubs, would have been dispensed by gravity. Nowadays we tend to associate gravity dispense and unsparklered handpumps with a fairly thin, shallow head, so you have to wonder whether they were doing something different in those days. Maybe it was a case of deliberately producing frothy pints just for the camera, but perhaps sparklers were more commonplace than we now think, or it could have been the usual practice to let the beer develop more condition, which can be done by a variation in cellar practice. It’s entirely possible to produce a thick, lasting head by gravity dispense from a newly-tapped cask.

It’s certainly my subjective impression that over the past forty years cask beer has tended, on average, to be served with less condition than it used to be, and you get a fair bit of beer that is not off as such, but just very flat and tired. Possibly the ending of the opportunity for a bit of hard-spiling offered by the afternoon break has something to do with it.

This brings to mind the North-East practice of “bankers”, which I have heard about but never actually seen. What this involved was serving a half into a pint glass and letting the head rise almost to the rim, then setting it on one side and, a few minutes later, carefully topping it up so the head protruded well above the top of the glass. Sometimes pubs would draw a whole row of these in anticipation of thirsty miners or steelworkers coming in at the end of their shift, which is where the name comes from. They might even put them in a fridge to keep them cool. I wonder if that still goes on. And was that technique once more common across the country?

16 comments:

  1. It's chemicals in the water what the government put in there. It's in everything. You've spotted a minor clue, like them that sport chemtrails.

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  2. Sparklers were certainly around a lot earlier than the anti-lobby like to admit. My copy of Licensed House Management from the 1920s warns that there is sometimes a difficulty in producing a good head in the winter months. This is to be avoided and the use of sprinklers (sparklers) is recommended.

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  3. 'Bankers' - I've seen exactly that, in Hartlepool. Thought the barmaid was crazy. Elsewhere in H'pool I was served a pint with a Mr Whippy of a head, produced straight from the pump. It was a good 2-3 inches proud of the glass and impossible to drink through - I don't know what you're actually meant to do with it. The beer, when I got to it, was rather slack and lacking in condition - the gas must all have gone into the head.

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  4. Phil: Metered pints into oversized glasses using a slotted steel sparkler is what you describe.

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  5. Yes "bankers" at the Causeway in Hartlepool. I think it was Cameron's Strongarm. Weird 4" head but a decent pint at the time (late 80's).

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  6. If you want a really good head but not destroying the whole pint by the forcing out of all the CO2 (if the C02 exists in the first place due to poor conditioning and cellaring) then a small amount of beer may be blasted with a good immersion blender like the Bamix. The immersion blenders are used to create foams and such like in them fancy restaurants. A tad time consuming for the average pub server.

    Yes, the condition of the beer and the skill of the person running the cellar should always be ruined by running the beer through the beer engine and then through the swan neck and finally the tiny holed sparkler. The hand pump serves a function to deliver the beer over a distance, marketing men made us believe the tight head was the desirable part or indeed was sign that the beer was of a quality.

    Last thought, champagne sparkles more in dirty glasses (all glasses are dirty but some are cleaner than others.) Is this the same with head creation and head retention?

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  7. Yes, Cameron's Strongarm always seemed to be served like this, even as far south as the midlands in the 90s.

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  8. Newcastle Exhibition, Camerons Strongarm, Vaux Samson. All brewed for heavy industrial drinking, allowing it to be half-poured (including pre-keg days) with a thick creamy head pending the mass arrival of the punters following the factory/shipyard/steelworks whistle. Last time I saw it was just before the 1991 closure of Smiths Dock, North Shields in the adjacent Woolsington House (also now closed). I've never heard anyone refer to the practice as 'Bankers'

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  9. Martin, Cambridge15 October 2014 at 22:06

    Best place to see "bankers" is at the Sun in Stockton on Tees, where pints of frothy Bass are kept in a pub before being topped up. It's very good, if as far from flat Bass from a jug as you can get, and a bastion of bench seating as well. Best followed up with a chicken parmesan.

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  10. Surely the pub next to Smiths Dock in North Shields was the Crane House Hotel?

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  11. @ Peter S - The Crane House, latterly the Chainlocker (now flats), was next to a gate to the dock that had been closed for as long as I can remember. The main gate - above the dock, was ten yards from the door of the Woolsington House. I've no doubt that when the bottom gate was open the Crane and the Golden Fleece (Now the Porthole - still open but might soon c=become offices) would have benefited from not only the Smiths Dock trade but also shipyard workers from yards on the South side of the river returning home on the Shields ferry.

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  12. electricpics.- Now I remember. But the Golden Fleece to close? Now there was a pub, along with the New Dolphin and Low Lights Tavern at the fish quay end. Remember Uncle Tom's Cabin? Ah, happy (if rather squalid) days...

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  13. Uncle Tom's is before my time! The owner of the Porthole has sadly applied for planning permission to turn it into office space and flats upstairs. It's not certain if they'll get away with it or not.

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  14. Martin Cambridge
    I work two minutes away from the Sun in Stockton. However I must admit - last time I was their I was drinking Foster's (hangs head in shame).
    JonT

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  15. Martin, Cambridge19 October 2014 at 00:37

    Jon T - nothing wrong with Fosters, and lager seemed to be keeping the Sun going last time I popped in, though with enough Bass sales to keep it viable.

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  16. It still goes on! I live very close to the Wellington Inn in Wolviston and nipped in for a couple of quick pints yesterday! On ordering a pint of Bass I was asked by the barmaid "Banker or straight pull?" I went for 'straight' as as previously mentioned it was a couple of 'quick' pints!
    Johnny

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