Saturday, 27 April 2019

A load of froth

It’s generally taken as read that beer in the North has a thick creamy head, while Southern beer is flat. There’s a fair bit of truth in this – but why has this division come about? What follows are just a few reflections based on my personal experience, and I don’t claim they represent any kind of definitive answer to the question.

The first thought is that, broadly speaking, the North was much more industrialised than the South. This led to greater population density, and many more pubs needing to cater for hordes of thirsty miners and factory workers. Therefore turnover was higher, and beer in the North was, quite simply, usually fresher. Even when dispensed straight from the cask, newly tapped beer will still produce a thick, frothy head, although that will largely disappear once it has been on sale for a couple of days.

The distinction is certainly long established and not a recent phenomenon. In his book The Brewing Industry 1950-1990, Anthony Avis describes how, in the 1950s, beer in the North-East was typically served with a head standing proud of the glass which drinkers would proceed to blow off onto the floor, while in Norfolk, “all the Norwich brewed beers, before and after the last war, were much the same – thin, flat and lifeless; however, they suited, or appeared to suit, the customers.”

Another factor is the use of electric metered dispense with oversize glasses, which obviously allows a head to form in the glass above the surface of the beer. These were widely adopted in the North and Midlands from the early 60s onwards, but never caught on to any extent in the South – the only Southern pubs I’m aware used them were a handful of Gales tied houses. I understand they were introduced by brewers because they believed that it was in principle illegal to serve any short measure, so this system would allow them to continue meeting the local customer preference for a thick head. In my early drinking years in North Cheshire in the late 1970s, metered dispense was the norm, and handpumps a relative rarity.

In my view, this was a better system than handpumps, as it ensured full measure, was much quicker in a busy pub, and largely removed the ability of bar staff to ruin a pint by poor pulling technique, although obviously that battle is now lost. From the late 1970s, following case law that allowed, within reason, the head to be defined as part of a pint, most brewers stopped installing them, and they gradually died out over the next twenty years. Their only remaining stronghold is in the club trade in the North-East, albeit pretty much always with keg rather than cask beers.

But, in the 1960s and 70s, if you went in the average pub across much of the Midlands and North, you would be likely to be served your beer in an oversize glass with a thick head reaching almost to the top, whereas in the South you would get beer from a handpump with a head no more than a quarter of an inch deep, or often just a thin coating of foam on the top. It’s also worth adding that, in the South, you would often get keg beer with little or no head as well. Getting a pint a totally flat-looking beer with plenty of CO2 still dissolved in it was a touch disconcerting.

Where handpumps were used, the difference, while still there, was not so great. Pubs in the North-West did generally use sparklers, but they were just the short stainless steel type that screwed on to the end of the pump nozzle, and could be tightened or loosened as desired. A few rural pubs still served their beer on gravity. One feature that was commonplace, both on handpumps and meters, was the “dog’s dick”, a conical white plastic device that screwed on to the pump nozzle, with an extension that emerged from the centre when beer was pulled through it to aerate it more, hence the name. You never see those any more.

However, cross the Pennines into West Yorkshire and you would encounter something completely different – a pint pulled with an incredibly tight, creamy head that initially looked like milk and took several minutes to clear. I hadn’t really done much drinking in that part of the world, and remember being taken aback when I first came across this system in a Taylor’s pub in Heptonstall in about 1984. It was also commonplace in Tetley’s pubs. This was made possible by the use of the “economiser”, a device which allowed the recycling of spilt beer collected in the drip tray, so it was possible to pull a pint and let a lot of beer cascade down the side of the glass without wasting it. This obviously raised some hygiene concerns, but it undoubtedly, with fresh, lively beer, produced an extremely smooth and distinctive pint that literally could be described as “silk in a glass”.

This system never really spread beyond West Yorkshire and Humberside, although there is a small outpost in and around Edinburgh. Even there, some local authorities took exception to it on hygiene grounds, and forced the brewers to come up with an alternative. What this involved was using a handpump with a quarter-pint rather than half-pint cylinder, and a long “swan-neck” pipe that reached to the bottom of the glass, so pretty much all of the beer was being dispensed within the liquid in the glass rather than cascading on top of it.

Done properly, this gave a decent approximation of the economiser-style pint, and it rapidly spread across most of the North where economisers never reached. Swan-necks are now the standard means of real ale dispense. As with economisers, if the beer is fresh and full of condition, it can produce very good results, but with beer that has been on sale for several days you can end up with a lovely-looking pint of utter glop, with the sparkler having knocked any remaining life out of it. Another problem is that they make it all too easy to serve seriously short measures.

The 1990s saw the rise of “smooth” keg ales, which were initially developed as an extension of the Guinness dispense system, first seen in Caffrey’s, but rapidly became more of an attempt to replicate the look and mouthfeel of swan-neck dispensed real ale. They certainly do look the part, but in my view have a rather “soapy” feel to them and don’t come anywhere near that actual drinking experience of cask. These have now spread across the South, retaining the same thick creamy head, but are still seen as something distinctively “Northern”, underlined by the advertising message of John Smith’s, the leading brand. Non-smooth keg ales have now largely disappeared outside the craft sector – would a pint of keg Courage Best ecountered in a South-East pub now also be smoothflow?

As I said, not the full story, just a few thoughts from my own experience on how we have arrived at the present-day situation. And it’s interesting how memory of how things used to be fades, so fewer and fewer people will even be aware that electric metered dispense was once widespread, or the typical handpump had a half-pint cylinder, or there were such things as “dog’s dicks”, and even those who were around at the time may struggle to recall them.

43 comments:

  1. I have a feeling that the line of sparkler usage has moved southwards and that there's a view that a roper pint needs a head.
    My grandad in his north Warwickshire pub had his own technology for economising..slops bucket and lemonade going in the barrel every night.

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  2. My memories of electric pumps in the seventies is that we viewed them with some distrust as not being traditional. I don't know if this was something we learned from CAMRA or just our inate conservatism.

    But the final straw was the night the power failed in the Dog and Duck and we were reduced to drinking Red Barrel by candlelight.

    Your comment from Avis about blowing the froth of is, presumably, the origin of the name of the charity The Ancient Order of Frothblowers, though that is a pre-war institution. It is also reminiscent of the way beer is served in parts of Germany where the froth is sliced of with a flat wooden spatula before presenting the stein to the customer

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  3. In 2014 I wrote this fine piece about where the dividing line is. Even if I say so myself, it is still worth a lead, though I doubt if the exact liocation of the spakler/no sparkler line will also be debated. https://tandlemanbeerblog.blogspot.com/2014/09/does-civilisation-end-and-begin-at-derby.html

    I too remember metered dispense. When I lived in Liverpool, for real ale, it was almost everywhere. Tetly often, Greenalls almost always, Burtonwood likewise, although Higsons served theirs Southern style and unsparkled through ancient Dalex handpumps with short non swan neck dispense. (That changed in the latter part of my tenure there). And if metered it usually had the slotted steel sparkler which was in my experience, almost always at the loose rather than tight end, though that varied of course. I personally never saw a dog's dick sparkler used on an electric meter though I may well have happened.

    The meter tended to produce beer with a fairly loose head, though when a cask was changed it wa a lotb thicker and things equalised inside the cask. I liked that method.

    It cannot be emphasised that knackered beer is knackered beer. If it is then forced through a sparkler, it will still be knackerd, just a lifeless, flat beer will remain just that if served Sourthern style. The use of this to liven deed beer is a bit of red herring. An urban myth if you will. When you do this, the head collpases pretty quickly.

    An ineresting read though Mudgie.

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    1. My local pub, the Nursery, certainly used dog's dicks on metered beers but, as I say, memory becomes increasingly hazy and unreliable.

      The dividing line seems to be somewhere in the North Midlands, but within that area I'd say that the more traditional pubs are less likely to use swan-necks. I recently had a pint of Joule's Pale Ale in the Old Bull's Head in Newcastle-under-Lyme which, although very good and full of condition, certainly had a very shallow head.

      Next week we're having a pub crawl of Rugby, so I'll try to note which pubs have swan-necks and tight sparklers.

      Just had a couple in a Holt's pub which definitely had both.

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    2. The Stafford Mudgie28 April 2019 at 14:34

      There were definitely sparklers, though not DD sparklers, in all the Banks's pubs I was familiar with and they were invariably tightened such that a small amount of each pint overflowed into the drip tray. Autovacs weren't used but the drip tray contents were certainly returned to the cask and, with a pub shifting several hogsheads a week, that was rumoured to amount to a not inconsiderable bonus for the publican each year.
      Lined oversized glasses, with handpumps, might ensure a full measure is served but metered pumps, with UNlined 24 ounce glasses, ensured full measure out of the cask but NOT to the customer.

      Oh, and the only pub I ever knew with metered pumps, no sparkler and brim glasses was Burtonwood's union in Manchester.

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    3. I didn't check in every one, but as far as I can recall all the Rugby pubs apart from the craft bar with beer on gravity were using swan necks, so the boundary has obviously moved down to the South Midlands.

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  4. God. I must check what I write before sending. Sorry about all the spelling and grammatical errors.

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  5. The Stafford Mudgie27 April 2019 at 13:08

    That's quite a detailed account that fits in with my memories.
    Electric metered dispense with oversize glasses was of course the norm in Banks's pubs I knew for nearly thirty years.
    Such dispense, installed when an M&B pub, is still used a few miles from me in the Cross Keys at Penkridge which has had the same landlady for thirty years, mainly Punch but now Star. All three cask beers are metred, not just Banks's Original but also Greene King IPA - that really is a rarity.
    That they were "much quicker in a busy pub" was undoubtedly a factor, along with eliminating spillage, in their installation across the Midlands and North nearly fifty years ago. I even remember the George in Wolverhampton - though no other pub - having pairs of nozzles so that the halves could go into a pint glass concurrently rather than consecutively.

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  6. An excellent read Mudge, and one I will respond to in more detail when I am back home .

    I well remember the metered electric pumps and the over-size glasses from my time in Greater Manchester, as a student in the mid 1970s and thought they were an excellent idea.

    I think CAMRA's insistence on the handpump as the symbol of Real Ale had much to do with their demise.

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    1. I've written about this before, but it seems that CAMRA had to make a choice between full measures and an obvious sign of real ale, and chose the latter. Rather ironic given the way they now bang on about full measures in a futile manner.

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    2. The Stafford Mudgie27 April 2019 at 15:30

      "bang on about full measures in a futile manner" and especially futile when it's suggested that handpumps and oversized lined glasses can be used in ordinary pubs.

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    3. Yes, a further illustration of how some CAMRA members do not inhabit the real world. If the full measures legislation they advocate came in, all draught beers in Wetherspoons and other managed pub chains would very rapidly be put on meters to avoid wastage.

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    4. The Stafford Mudgie27 April 2019 at 17:31

      And with handpumps to meters goes cask to keg.

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    5. Just to confuse matters, brewers such as Bass Charrington were using "free-flow" electric pumps in many of their pubs, rather than metered ones.

      Such pumps used illuminated "boxes" on the bar counter that were identical to those used for keg beer. The only way to tell the difference was either to ask the bar staff (not always totally reliable), or to order a pint and taste the stuff!

      The confusion caused by such pumps, may also have been a factor in alienating electric pumps in the eyes of CAMRA, although it must be said by confusing drinkers in this way,the brewers weren't doing themselves any favours either.

      As for the rather disgustingly named, but accurately described "dogs dicks", I do remember seeing them, again during my student days in the North West. They always seemed rather pointless, particularly to a southerner like me, and must have been difficult to clean as well - assuming the licensee bothered, that is!

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    6. The Stafford Mudgie27 April 2019 at 21:13

      PB,
      Useful clarification. Yes, the Cross Key's electric pumps in M&B times and that 1979 Draught Bass in my then nearest pub were free flow, not metered, pumps.
      "Difficult to clean as well" - but I thought they were licked clean !

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    7. Stafford Mudgie, also the Draught Bass in the now sadly closed Cross Keys, Eccles.

      We'll excuse your comment about cleaning the dog's appendage!

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    8. The Stafford Mudgie28 April 2019 at 02:38

      PB,
      I meant the Cross Keys in Penkridge that I had referred to yesterday.
      I had a good crawl of the Eccles and Patricroft Holts pubs a few weeks ago.

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    9. "but I thought they were licked clean"

      LOL!

      Yes, a lot of Bass and M&B pubs did use free-fow electrics, but they also used meters.

      Bass had a distinctive rectangular bar mouting with a mirrored front.

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    10. The Stafford Mudgie29 April 2019 at 07:53

      With Bess Charrington I remember it approximately as meters up north, freeflow in the Midlands and none down south.

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  7. I well remember Tetley's served from an economiser 'up North' many years ago - never really liked it before, but served properly (as it was probably designed to be served) it was superb. During my 1970s student days in the North East Newcastle Brown (& my personal favourite Newcastle Amber) were served by electric pump - always seemed a sensible idea to me - and it still does.

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    1. Your memory of student days seems to have been clouded - Neither Newcastle Brown or Amber Ale have ever been served by any sort of pump, electric or otherwise. :)

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    2. Newcastle Exhibition was their well-known keg beer.

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    3. The Stafford Mudgie1 May 2019 at 09:41

      Yes, like a keg 80/-

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    4. No, Exhibition was a pale beer, whereas 80/- is typically darkish. McEwan's Export is more like a keg 80/-.

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    5. The Stafford Mudgie1 May 2019 at 18:41

      I thought it was more the colour of Youngers No 3 than a pale beer but that was 1972 or '73, I've drunk quite a few beers since then and can't properly remember them all.

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    6. McEwans Export, and its caramel cousin Best Scotch were both brewed as 70/-. No.3 was 80/-.

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    7. The Stafford Mudgie2 May 2019 at 19:39

      "Scotch" was used by Youngers for their beers of different strengths.
      Newcastle Exhibition, McEwan's Export and the noticeably darker Youngers No.3 were of 80/- strength.

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  8. I recall in one of the editions of Malting & Brewing Science by Briggs et al, it is said that the pale ale of Burton is tradionally served without a head, something that I have been told elsewhere.

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    1. The Stafford Mudgie27 April 2019 at 19:36

      Gavin,
      Yes, when I were a lad a pint of Draught Bass would be handed back if there was a head on it.
      But by 1979 Bass Charrington were selling it on electric pump,

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    2. I met a chap from West Yorkshire who said that Bass in London was traditionally served flat with yeast in the glass, back in the day

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    3. I think the first time I ever encountered Bass was on meters in the Bull's Head at King's Norton, Birmingham.

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    4. The Stafford Mudgie28 April 2019 at 02:40

      That can't be far from the Big Bulls Head where the broccoli was on the back burner last year.

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    5. About six miles, probably.

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  9. Metered dispense is apparently still in use in the Rovers in Classic Coronation Street on ITV3 (currently set in Spring 1992). I had assumed it was all-keg but recent exterior shots have shown a large number of casks... Will be interesting to see when they switch to handpumps.

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    1. If Newton & Ridley was a realistic Greater Manchester family brewer, the Rover's Return would have been serving real ale through meters, not keg.

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  10. The beards like the clear distinction hand pulls offer between keg and cask. But again they fail to consider the regular normal drinker that distinguishes between products they like and ones they don't rather than cask/keg.

    Handpulls have created a separate group of old man beard beer largely ignored by anyone but enthusiasts and thus sales have gone down the toilet.

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  11. And now many craft beer places are rejecting handpumps in favour of more modern-looking methods of dispense, such as the wall of taps behing the bar, so once again it is harder visually to distinguish between cask and keg.
    AP

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    1. The Stafford Mudgie29 April 2019 at 12:45

      Yes indeed and when I see a wall of taps behing the bar I assume it's all keg and go to a proper pub.

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  12. Professor Pie-Tin29 April 2019 at 22:59

    I'm happy with both methods providing,as mentioned earlier,the beer is in good condition.
    I had four pints of London Pride in the Fuller's Pub at Heathrow's Terminal 2 on Sunday morning.
    They weren't sparkled but the pull-through produced a decent head that lasted all the way down and I've no doubt it was because the beer,as it should be for a bar which advertises along one wall the history of Fullers Brewery,was in such great condition.
    And,a big bug-bear of mine,the cleanliness of the glass is a hugely underrated factor in a good pint.
    But you're right.
    Shit beer is shit beer however it's dispensed.

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    1. Clean glass, properly rinsed. Not with that lovely taste of stale detergent.

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    2. The Stafford Mudgie1 May 2019 at 09:40

      My taste bubs not being what they once were I struggle to tell the difference between stale detergent and New World hops !

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  13. I like beer but never understood the need for a head, other than as proof that the stuff had been kept correctly in the barrel/keg/cask/tank.
    All this false head stuff is just kidology. To fool the customer and increase profits. I don't drink or eat the head - it is tasteless.
    Some beers I like with the CO2 still dissolved and being released for as long as my pint lasts and some beer I like flattish and at not far below room temperature.
    A barman once told me that with a tapered glass, especially one with thick side walls at bottom, that half inch of head on top has a lot more volume than a half inch at the bottom. But the eye and brain see them as equivalent.

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  14. I'm just back from a holiday in Cancun, and battling a vicious head cold that started the day I left (flying was bloody awful with the sinus pressure!).

    So, excuse me if this is slight off topic but the size of the head can definitely change the taste. For example, check out this YouTube video by Pilsner Urquell:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DxnKhNoLs6g

    Cheers

    (goes to take yet another cold and sinus pill) ;)

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