However, it doesn’t pay to let ones guard down as I discovered the other day when I was un-wittingly served a pint pulled through one of these damned things. In the previous post to this, I wrote about a pint of Adnams Southold being totally ruined with all the condition knocked out of it, just to create an inch of unwanted froth on top of the beer. Pure madness, and seeing as the crime took place in a pub which is part of a nationally-owned chain, it seems as if the jokers in the marketing department are still calling the shots.
So what is a sparkle and what does it do? Well according to Wikipedia, “A sparkler is a device that can be attached to the nozzle of a beer engine. Designed rather like a shower-head, beer dispensed through a sparkler becomes aerated and frothy which results in a noticeable head. Some CO2 is carried into the head, resulting in a softer, sweeter flavour due to the loss of normal CO2 acidity.
|Spraying the beer into the glass!|
There is some dispute about the benefits of a sparkler. There is an argument that the sparkler can reduce the flavour and aroma, especially of the hops, in some beers. The counter argument is that the sparkler takes away harshness. A pub may favour sparklers because the larger head they produce means it does not need to supply as much beer. Generally, breweries in Northern England serve their beers with a sparkler attached and breweries in the South without, but this is by no means definitive.”
I’m not certain exactly when I first came across the dreaded sparkler, but it must have been fairly early in my drinking career. I would imagine the first time I saw these devices in action would have been in association with the bar-mounted cylinder-type electric pumps which were extremely common when I first went up to Manchester as a student, in the autumn of 1973.
Actually it may even have been some 6-8 months previous to that when, whilst still in the Upper VI, I was a member of a school party, on a geology field trip to North Wales. We were based in the small town of Bangor, and at the end of each day in the field, we would write up notes, compare specimens and plan the next day’s activities. The rest of the evening was then our own, so naturally many of us would drift off to explore some of the local pubs. We weren’t supposed to have been drinking, as certainly most of the Lower VI pupils who had travelled with us were under 18. Back then no-one seemed to mind overly, and the teachers who’d accompanied us weren’t bothered, as long as we behaved ourselves and didn’t come back rolling drunk!
The majority of the local pubs were tied to Greenall Whitley; a brewery I had never heard of, but to our untutored palates, “Grotty Greenalls” didn’t taste too bad. What did come as a revelation was the extensive use of the aforementioned cylinder-type electric pumps. I remember being fascinated by the movement of the piston back and forth along the horizontal glass cylinder; with each strike dispensing an exact half pint into an over-sized glass. The beer was dispensed each time with tremendous force, so much so that it hissed audibly as it was forced into the glass. There was a white plastic collar attached to the end of the spout and this was almost certainly a type of sparkler.
I remember seeing those same collars in use a few years later in some of the few Greater Manchester pubs which had hand pumps at the time. The bar staff had to use a considerable amount of force in order to operate the beer engine in order to pull the beer through, and it was fascinating to watch the milky-looking beer swirling in the glass, before separating out into a thick, creamy head, above the clear, bright beer below. From memory it was mainly the older, “none improved” Boddingtons and Robinsons pubs which still retained hand-pulls; with most of their modernised houses converted to metered, electric pump dispense.
|It's Frothy Man!|
The beer, in the main was very good. I drank enough of it as a student with a three or four pint session most nights! I’ve no doubt that this type of dispense suited beers such as Boddingtons, Robinsons, Holts, Hydes, Lees, Wilsons and even Greenalls. However there are a great many beers where pulling through a sparkler not only strips them of both character and condition, but also completely alters the overall balance of the beer and hence spoils the taste.
It seems I am not alone in thinking this. Following various visits to Britain, American home-brewer Jim Williams, makes the following observations on his blog: http://caskaleathome.blogspot.co.uk/p/word-on-sparklers.html,:
“In the UK, one pretty much only sees the sparkler in the North of England, then it seems to almost disappear throughout Scotland appearing at some pubs while not at others. I’ve been to the UK many times, but it was always time spent in the south. I was lucky to spend 3 weeks travelling around Northern Britain in the summer of 2010 and got to speak with many Northerners about the subject of the sparkler and the conclusion was interesting!
With the exception of every cellar-man we spoke to, Northerners prefer beer served with a sparkler. Why? Surprisingly, it didn’t have anything to do with how the ale tasted, but how it looked! They prefer the tight creamy head on the beer, rather than the “flat” beer of the south. Thing is, if you taste a beer with and without the sparkler, they are quite different! To my taste, the sparkled beer tastes flat, old and stale, with no hop character in the beer, but possibly more in the aroma. The non sparkled beer tastes fresh, lively and more bitter, yet well rounded. It makes sense; you’re taking a lightly carbonated ale and literally forcing it through tiny holes. Of course, that’s going to knock out carbonation and force hop aroma into the head of the beer. Thing is, if you force that carbonation out of the beer, it’s going to foam like crazy so you have to start with even less carbonation to balance it out!
The cellar-men we spoke to also had different views on how best to serve their ale. In the south, it seemed they were indifferent towards the use of a beer engine vs. straight from the cask in the cellar. Either one was great, and was basically, the same. In the North, without exception, every cellar man preferred the ale straight from the tap in the cellar. As the cellar-man at the Lion in Nottingham proudly stated, “You have to pull the bloody sparkler off upstairs if you want a proper pint!”
Several times, we ordered pints in the North with and without the sparkler just to taste the difference and invited locals to taste with us. They always commented that the sparkled pint “looked nice”. And, we don’t like “flat” beer. Eventually, we were no longer surprised that they “drank with their eyes”. Not once did the discussion revolve around how the beer tasted, and I guess that’s my biggest issue with this discussion.
I have to also speculate that the sparkler is also nothing more than a short cut for the publican to not do his job very well. He can focus less on the conditioning of the ale, and more on how loose or tight that sparkler is on the end of the long swan neck!”
In other words a device to cover up the shortcomings of badly-kept and poorly-conditioned beer! To sum up, sparklers add absolutely nothing to a pint; in fact they ruin it by knocking the condition out of the beer by forcing it into the big foamy head. Northerners drink with their eyes and are far more concerned with how the beer looks in the glass than what it actually tastes like. They use the word “flat” to describe a beer which lacks a thick head, rather than a beer which is devoid of condition.
I therefore rest my case and now challenge any northern drinker who can put forward a counter argument based on science and logic, rather than prejudice and emotion, to do so.