Saturday, 12 April 2014

The Gravity of Dispense

On our recent visit to Norfolk, I noticed that both the pubs we visited  employed a practice which to me seems highly laudable and a good way forward, especially for outlets where the trade is variable or intermittent. Both pubs (Darby’s plus the Mermaid), had between four and six cask beers on sale; their presence being advertised by the hand pumps, and associated clips on the bar. Upon ordering a pint, the bar staff grabbed a glass and then headed for a back room where the beers were stillaged, and drew off the beer by gravity. The same arrangement was followed in both pubs.  Judging by the excellent condition of the beer, especially in respect of temperature, I would say that the rooms in both pubs were temperature controlled.

This struck me as an excellent arrangement, for a number of reasons. These include no beer lines or pumps to clean, no wastage of beer left lying in the lines, and none of that “first pint out the lines” syndrome, which can afflict the unwary pub goer who has the misfortune of entering just after opening time and is treated to a glass full of beer which has been lying  in the lines since the last session, either because the staff are too lazy to pull some through before opening, or because the landlord is too tight and doesn’t want to waste any beer.

There are a number of pubs in my part of Kent that follow this practice, although none of them actually have hand pumps on the bar. All but one, keep their beer in a temperature controlled room behind the bar, and two of them have an ingenious set up whereby the casks are fitted with extra long taps which protrude through the wall (in both cases via false barrel fronts). This leads to speedier service, as the bar staff don’t have to keep disappearing into the back room in order to dispense the customer’s pint.

This sort of gravity service can have its limits though, particularly when the beers are racked straight behind the bar. My recent visit to the Bree Louise revealed the shortcomings with this arrangement; warm, flat beer, totally devoid of condition. Back in my youth, I remember casks of seasonal beers, such as old ale or Christmas specials, occasionally kept in a cradle on the bar itself. Back then smoking was universal in pubs so, as you can imagine, the smoky atmosphere plus the smell of food did little to improve the flavour of condition of the beer!

These limitations aside, properly kept gravity-dispensed beer should mean a  perfectly conditioned pintcan be served at the correct temperature, without wastage and all the bother of cleaning the dispense equipment. There are few who could argue against this, apart from perhaps our friends in the north, who seem to like an inch or two of thick, creamy foam on top of their pint; and a drink with all the life (and flavour) knocked out of the body of the beer and into the head!

I know some people actually like beer with all the stuffing knocked out, and a layer of cream topping that you have to drink through before you even get to the liquid below, so if you're a northerner who happens to find find yourself in a pub offering gravity dispense, look out for a "cask pump". Although rarely seen these days, these hand pumps in miniature allow beer to be dispensed direct from a cask with the added "benefit" of serving it with a good 'head'.  I saw these strange, but ingenious devices in use just once, at the Covent Garden Beer Exhibition, back in 1975, when they were used to dispense Sam Smith’s  beers direct from the cask.

I could only find two photographs of such devices on Google Images, and both are copyright protected. I will in the course of time, request permission from their respective owners to show the photos, but in the meantime you'll just have to be patient. I do recall another way to achieve a northern style head using gravity dispense, and that is to draw some of the beer off  first into jugs, and then pour it from a height of around 10"-12" into the customer's glass. Back in the 1970's, this used to be the practice at the Ram's Head (Owd Tupps) at Denshaw; a 450 year old inn, high on the moors above Oldham and Rochdale. The Younger's XXPS Scotch Bitter kept by the pub, tasted particularly fine when served in this fashion - a case of the best of both worlds.

I haven't been to the pub in over 30 years, but I understand  it uses conventional hand pumps now. More's the pity, as another hangover from a bygone age has been sacrificed on the altar of standardisation. Perhaps the north-south divide is having an effect with gravity dispense all but vanished north of the Midlands, but becoming increasingly popular here in the South East and East Anglia. But then we always were more discerning in this part of the country!

The two photos depicting beer being dispensed by gravity, from wooden casks, were taken in Germany, where this method of serving beer is relatively common. There is no problem with not getting a head on your drink, as the beer is so well conditioned it forms a dense head naturally when poured. Gravity dispense is also by far and away the most popular means of serving beer at CAMRA beer festivals.
450 years old it sits at 1212ft above sea level and enjoys panoramic views of the Saddleworth moors towards Rochdale, Oldham - See more at:
450 years old it sits at 1212ft above sea level and enjoys panoramic views of the Saddleworth moors towards Rochdale, Oldham - See more at:
450 years old it sits at 1212ft above sea level and enjoys panoramic views of the Saddleworth moors towards Rochdale, Oldham - See more at:


Curmudgeon said...

The Boot at Willington in Cheshire used to serve Greenall's beer by gravity back in the day.

One or two local Robinson's pubs still have a pin of Old Tom on the bar in winter, although it's more often dispensed from the cellar by handpump now.

I agree that, at its best, gravity dispense is the ideal way to serve real ale, as there's no chance of knackering the beer in the lines. But you do need to sort out the temperature issue. And there's still a right and wrong way to pour it.

Paul Bailey said...

Crikey, Greenalls on gravity! Did it improve the taste I wonder? Most of the Greenalls pubs I knew used electric dispense. I think some even used this type of service for tank beer, thereby further confusing drinkers, (or at least those of us who cared enough about such things!)

I agree, Curmudgeon, temperature is a big issue here, which is why those pubs which keep the casks on view behind the bar, rather than in a temperature-controlled room, are on a hiding to nothing.

Cooking Lager said...

Umm warm flat vinegary bitter.

I'll have a bottle of lager from the fridhe, please.

Paul Bailey said...

Cookie, I'd join you IF it was warm flat vinegary bitter.

Tandleman said...

I am not at all convinced by gravity dispense unless it is kept at cellar temperature and served over a very short period of time. It can be good, but rarely is. I know like most Head Cellarmen for beer festivals, it is rarely the best way to serve beer and given that secondary fermentation varies so much from beer to beer and brewery to brewery, it is difficult to get it right.

Personally I see it is a distress way to serve beer, though it can be done. Better by far though to python the lines and serve it by handpump.

As for "apart from perhaps our friends in the north, who seem to like an inch or two of thick, creamy foam on top of their pint; and a drink with all the life (and flavour) knocked out of the body of the beer and into the head!" you are just being mischievous. You are far more likel;y to get a lifeless pint in the South where over-venting cask beer is a regional pastime.

Paul Bailey said...

I was being mischievous over the sparkler issue Tandleman, although I didn't actually mention the device by name.

I agree that over-venting can be an issue, but wonder if your London experiences have influenced your final comment, as this practice is definitely NOT a pastime in this part of Kent, neither is it one in neighboring Sussex!

Simple devices, such as Race Spiles will help to maintain condition in cask beer, and their low cost gives pubs no excuse not to use them.

As I said in the post, gravity dispense will only be an option in those pubs with easy access to a temperature-controlled room. I do believe though that advantages such as not having to clean beer lines or dispense equipment, work in its favour; as does not being served with a pint that has become warm, flat and vinegary through sitting in the lines overnight - yuck!

Tandleman said...

Alas my Kent and Sussex drinking has been limited in recent years. I must remedy this

StringersBeer said...

Surely venting is the same essential problem regardless of how the beer's han dled after the tap. It's poor temperature control that's the issue with many gravity dispense setups isn't it?

Anonymous said...

The Oast Theatre in Tonbridge have started serving gravity real ale pre show and during the interval. 'Coppernob' delivered in pins from Tonbridge Brewery. It's going down rather well.

Paul Bailey said...

StringersBeer - temperature control is definitely the main problem with gravity dispense, which is why it is only acceptable where the casks are kept in a separate, temperature-regulated room. Casks stored directly behind the bar may well look all rustic and quaint, but they do the beer no favours at all.

As you rightly point out, over-venting will affect beer no matter what form of dispense is employed!

Anonymous - Tonbridge Brewery beers seem to be popping up all over the place, which is great news. The company produce a wide range of excellent beers, and have already needed to relocate to larger premises to keep up with demand. Nice to see a local success story for a change.

Shea Kang said...