Saturday, 16 November 2013

Beer Quality

My two most recent posts touched on the related subjects of beer quality and beer choice, and these are areas I want to explore further. In this post I will look at quality, whilst in the subsequent one I will examine the issue of choice.

Those of us who enjoy the odd pint or three of cask-conditioned ale (commonly known as “Real Ale”), will be only too aware of just how important quality can be. Most beers consumed in the pub environment, are brewery-conditioned, and as such require little in the way of further attention once they arrive at the pub. Cask-conditioned beer, on the other hand, are “living” beers in so much as they reach the pub in an immature state and require a further period of fermentation (conditioning) in the pub cellar before they can be served.  This maturation allows condition to develop in the beer. By condition I mean dissolved carbon-dioxide gas, which when present at the correct level, gives the beer that pleasant slightly prickly feel on the tongue. Without it, the beer would be flat and lifeless.
The conditioning period also allows the remaining yeast distributed throughout the beer to drop out of suspension, so that the beer ends up bright and sparkling. Get this process right, and the beer can be amongst the best you have ever tasted. Get it wrong and the end result is a flat, stale, cloudy pint which not only reeks of old socks but is also sufficient to put a novice off ever trying a pint of real ale again!

Seasoned real ale drinkers know this, and given the often unknown factors which come into play here, reluctantly accept it. Brewers also know that despite their best efforts in the brewery to produce a first class pint, the final part of the process is outside of their control. This is why brewers both large and small, have invested a lot of time and money by running courses in cellarmanship for pub landlords and landladies.

Unfortunately, a lot of pubs these days are not owned by breweries, but by Pub Companies instead, and many of these organisations are not so much interested in teaching their tenants about looking after beer, as they are in screwing every last penny out of them. It also has to be said that many new entrants to the licensed trade are rather wet behind the ears when it comes to looking after beer, and as some don’t even drink the stuff, how can they possibly know whether they are letting a good, a bad or an indifferent pint over the bar when you the customer walk into their pub and order a beer?

Fortunately there are industry-led organisations such as Cask Marque, who provide training and advice to publicans and bar staff, so all is not lost. Cask Marque, and individual breweries, not only teach licensees how to look after cask-beer properly, but also stress the importance of fast turnover. Because traditional casks are open to the air, it is essential that the beer within them is consumed within a few days. Three days is ideal, five will just about be ok, but anything above this and there is a serious risk of flat, oxidised, off-flavoured beer which is sufficient reason for a seasoned drinker to hand his or her pint back and,  as I said above, enough to put a newbie off real ale for life!

That’s cask beer dealt with, so what about brewery-conditioned “keg” beers? Surely these are foolproof? Well, not always. True they are much more robust compared to cask-conditioned beers; there is no “live” yeast to worry about, and as they are stored in sealed containers under a blanket of CO2 gas at all times, they are not exposed to the oxidising effects of the air. Even so they can still be spoilt by careless handling and sloppy hygiene practices. The pipes, which deliver the beer from the keg to the bar tap, still require cleaning as despite keg beers being both filtered and pasteurised, there is still a tiny amount of residual yeast present which can, over time, lodge in the beer lines and associated fittings, and multiply so that eventually off-tastes and even haziness can appear within the beer.

Then there’s the vexed question of temperature. The Australians and, to a lesser extent, the Americans have a lot to answer for in this respect. Nobody likes a warm beer, and the myth that the English drink warm beer is one which thankfully has now been well and truly laid to rest. However, whilst a warm beer is an unpleasant drink, an ice-cold beer is equally repellent. Although lager-style beers are designed to be drunk cold, they should not be drunk at a temperature that is so cold it makes one’s teeth rattle. On a visit to the historic Pilsner Urquell Brewery, in the city of Pilsen last summer, I was surprised to see on the wall of the brewery restaurant a prominent illuminated digital thermometer, displaying the temperature of 7°C with a notice underneath proclaiming that all beer served on the premises, was stored and served at a constant temperature of 7°C. This apparently, is the optimum temperature for the enjoyment of Pilsner-style beers. Go much above this figure and the beer starts to taste flabby and warm, but go too far in the opposite direction and the beer loses its subtle flavours as well as its aroma. Try telling that to the clowns who came up with the concept of “Extra Cold”! Actually they are probably the same people responsible for the daft adverts for Fosters, think - “Well you wouldn’t want a warm one would you?”

My answer is “No, of course I wouldn’t want a warm lager, but then neither would I want one which is so icy cold and close to freezing that it sets my teeth on edge, and is totally devoid of any flavour!” Fortunately this daft fad, which in JDW outlets at least, also involved a digital thermometer showing the temperature hovering around freezing point, seems to have died a death. I don’t recall seeing it Wetherspoons recently, but I may be mistaken.

Cask-conditioned, real ales should be served at a slightly higher temperature than lagers. Being top-fermented, they need to be kept and served at a temperature that reflects the slightly warmer conditions they were fermented at. It used to be said that the optimum temperature for serving top-fermented, cask-conditioned beers was 10° -15° C, with 13° C the ideal. In recent years, especially with the advent of the paler, hoppy Golden Ale style of beer, the optimum temperature seems to have dropped to 11° C. Again, Wetherspoons seem to have led the way here, with not only adequate cellar cooling, now virtually de rigueur for pub cellars, but also with insulated cellar pipes and jacketed cooling around the hand pump cylinder at the point of dispense.

I must admit that being a little “old school”, and being brought up on beer which was served at the older, slightly higher temperature, chilled cask beer took a bit of getting used to, but now it is something I welcome, especially during the summer months.

To sum up then, in order to satisfy even the most discerning of consumers, the beer must be bright and clear so to look appealing in the glass. It must be served at the correct temperature, with the correct amount of condition and must not have any off-flavours or nasty tastes and smells. In short, it should be presented and served to the customer in the condition its creator (in this instance the brewer), intended. It’s not hard is it??


Tandleman said...

A point I'd add us that the warmer a cask beer gets, the more condition it loses. It is therefore essential to start off at the right temperature or the beer will never be right.

We can also think of how much over venting affects cask beer.

Paul Bailey said...

There are still licensees, (and CAMRA members!), who don't know the difference between a hard and a soft spile!

Nick Boley said...

You are spot on (and you, too, Tandleman). I am seriously considering a motion at teh CAMRA AGM in Scarborough to get a commitment to address the quality issue one and for all. Every poor pint served is a potential member lost. I get fed up working at beer festivals and being told that "this beer is lovely, it tastes nothing like this in my local so I drink lager there". It isn't rocket science, many pubs do it well, and there is so much more we can do to guide those that don't.