Thursday, 1 January 2015

A Sparkler is a Device Which Ruins Beer! Discuss..........................

Over the years, various Bloggers have written posts on the often derisive issue of sparklers; that Devil’s invention designed to produce an inch of shaving foam on top of a pint by knocking all the condition out of the beer. A decade or so ago these wretched devices started appearing here in the south; a region where we like our beer un-sullied and served as the brewer intended – well-conditioned and with just a slight loose and fluffy head. Fortunately local resistance saw off this unwelcome northern invasion; an invasion  which I suspect was inspired by marketing and advertising people, more interested in image than in taste and who had probably never drank a decent pint in their lives!

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:,:

“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.


Ed said...

Sparklers are undoubtedly the devil's work.

John Clarke said...

I'm sure Tandleman will be dropping by before long...

Phil said...

Depends what you mean by 'sparkled', depends what you mean by 'North'. I have had beer with virtually all the gas knocked out of it into the head; it was in Hartlepool and the head stood a good three inches proud of the glass. Down here in Manchester you expect about half an inch of head - no less but certainly no more - and the effect on the carbonation of the pint is pretty minimal.

Interestingly enough, since visiting Hartlepool I've had that same beer (Cameron's Strongarm) subjected to a 'normal' (for Manchester) level of head-production, and it tasted worse for it - the flat, dense texture of the almost completely gas-free version actually suited the flavour of the beer.

I think the real enemy is unthinking standardisation - the idea that beer, any beer, anywhere, should always come with X amount of head. It's not North v South, it's people who know & care about beer v those who don't (often their bosses).

jesusjohn said...

I used to be of a very similar view. Certainly down south (I am from Kent - not too far from your neck of the woods, in fact) sparklers are all too frequently - basically - sharp practice; giving the impression of condition to flabby, over-vented, poorly conditioned beer.

But my experience of excellent cellaring in the north of late has forced me to revise my opinion. The experienced cellarman/woman who aims for well-conditioned sparkled beer will vent less, taking the sparkler into account.

Northern cellars in destination pubs do also tend to be cooler than in their London counterparts (where I now live), helping the beer stay in good condition.

I love both sparkled and unsparkled beer. What matters most is the relevant condition for the chosen method of dispense.

Paul Bailey said...

TM is probably propping up the bar of the Tandle Hill Tavern as we speak John, and I certainly expect a visit from him before the day is out!

Both Phil and John make some interesting points, and I’m please to learn that a “Manchester head” has a minimal effect on the condition of the beer. I’m sure that some beers may benefit from this sort of handling- the Cameron’s Strongarm you mention Phil, sounds like it does, and the high standards of cellarmanship in many northern pubs, which you describe John, can only be a force for good.

Standardisation without thought, especially when it’s a dictat from head office, hundreds of miles away, is the enemy of decent beer and pub chains really do need to educate their staff much better in this respect. I agree that this isn’t a straight North v South issue, even though it often gets labelled as such and that from my point, as the author of this post, it was both convenient and deliberately thought-provoking to do so.

Well I’m just off down the road for a nice, well-conditioned pint of Harvey’s; a pint with just the slightest of loose, fluffy heads, but which is anything but flat!

Tandleman said...

I'll have a chance to reply tomorrow, but basically, what some American Home Brewer found or thinks is neither here nor there.

As for " 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."

Where is your science and logic? None. And any fool knows that you can't put condition into warm, flat, over vented beer. If they do that in the South as you suggest, then they are just further ruining already ruined beer.

Cooking Lager said...

Curmudgeon said...

A lot of the perceived "issue" comes from the use of the long "swan neck" pipe which reaches almost to the bottom of the glass. These were unknown in the North-West until the late 80s.

Paul Bailey said...

Some interesting points coming out here. You are correct about “swan necks” Curmudgeon. They seemed to have appeared quite suddenly, but their use would have been frowned upon back in the day when customers kept the same glass all night; taking it back for a refill each time. Being offered a fresh glass on each trip to the bar was something of a revelation to me, and I must say it took a bit of getting use to.

With a fresh glass each the risk of contamination from used glasses has vanished, but the use of “swan necks” does complicate things further. I presume they are used to prevent over-fobbing when the beer is pulled through a tight sparkler, but irrespective of the tight head issue I still feel that unless they are wiped clean by the bar staff between each pint, they are still not a good idea. A residue of sticky, stale beer will quickly build up on outside of these pipes, and the thought of this then being immersed in my glass and mixed into my pint doesn’t exactly inspire me with confidence.

Now to reply to some of the points Tandleman raises. He and I, of course are strongly at odds over the use of sparklers, but I think we are both agreed on the importance of condition in a glass of beer. We differ over the effect that a sparkler will have on this all important condition, but forcing the beer through a series of tiny nozzles agitates it and this agitation forces much of the dissolved CO2 out of solution and into the head, where it is trapped by the sticky gums and proteins left over from the brewing process.

This is the science and logic I am referring to, and it is also irrefutable that the extreme agitation caused by pulling the beer through a sparkler, alters both it balance and its flavour characteristics. Now Phil stated earlier that this can improve certain beers, and he cited Cameron’s Strongarm as an example. I have heard that Tetley Bitter also benefits from being served in this fashion, but a great many other beers are not improved by this rough handling. Hop character is forced out and into the head, and the loss of condition from the main body of the beer completely alters the mouth- feel and overall balance.

At no point in the article do I suggest that warm, flat and over-vented beer is prevalent in the South. It may be the case in parts of London, and I know you drink in the capital quite often, TM. London is NOT the South though, and like many people in the bottom half of the country I get tired of being associated with the great metropolis. London is a case on its own, with a high turn-over of bar staff and a constantly changing pub and bar scene which just isn’t reflected in the rest of the country, so please let’s not equate Kent and Sussex, where I live, with what happens in the capital.

As for the observations made by our American Home-Brewer. We can dismiss them, if we like, as the thoughts of an ignorant foreigner, but home-brewers do know a fair bit about the brewing process and understand the importance of maintaining condition in the beer. He reports those cellar-men he interviewed as being universally against the sparkler, even the ones who worked in the North. One Nottingham-based employee even went as far as saying, "You have to pull the bloody sparkler off upstairs if you want a proper pint!”

Alright, these are the thoughts of just one observer, but they do underline what many in this part of the country have long suspected, about people drinking with their eyes, rather than their taste buds.

I look forward to your detailed reply tomorrow, Tandleman.

John Clarke said...

The swan-neck was initially introduced in Yorkshire to replicate the effect of an auto-vac when those devices were outlawed on health grounds (although the odd one still lingers on here and there). I remember swan-necks being used at a GBBF in Leeds and being given a lesson in how to use them properly as they were a new-fangled device.

Chris Tate said...

Great article although I think we disagree :)

I prefer beer when a sparkler is used. I live in Nottingham and I would say it's 60/40 in terms of pubs that use them and most of the 40 will put one on if you ask.

I just returned from a trip to Edinburgh and I was very pleased that all the pubs I tried had them. I also spend quite a bit of time in Yorkshire where they seem to be used a lot.

It's personal choice I guess, I think the best solution is to give people the option and then everyone is happy?

At the minute, a trip to London usually means disappointing beer to me :)



Unknown said...

Eating and drinking with your eyes is a science. Feel free to read "the perfect meal" by Charles Spence. So how people prefer their pint to look did have an impact on taste.
Nottingham is not the north! It's the Midlands.
And by using a swan neck and sparkler and a slow first pull on the beer engine you will create a small tight head. Locking in flavour but not losing condition.
As for your comment about stale beer going into your pint from a swan neck, consider going to a pub that had a high through put.

Hmmmm beer said...

Chris tate - the voice of reason!!

Hmmmm beer said...

Chris tate - the voice of reason!!

Unknown said...

Im a Yorkshireman living in Hampshire, every cask pint I ever drank in the North had a sparkler on, I personally hate the flat southern pints and prefer to drink Guinness and lager down here, the sparkler changes the texture also, drinking southern beer is like drinking tea, I can't get used to it, pubs down here won't put sparklers on and even if they did, the bar staff dont know how to pour the pint properly with them on.

Anonymous said...

Also coming from Yorkshire, beer was always served through a sparkler. I definitely prefer it this way. The head lasts all the way to the bottom of the pint and it looks creamy and appetising. Living in London is a challenge as most ale I've tried is pulled flat with hardly any head. Looks like dishwater. Recently visited the theakston brewery. All their ale was served through a sparkler. It tasted amazing. If that's how it's served at the source then why can't pubs in London serve it like that's? Surely that's how best to serve the pint. Obviously personal preference. For me, no sparkler, no ale.

Thuc Nguyen said...

This time there is a good beer too :)
teefury , redbubble , threadless.

Anonymous said...

Utter nonsense :) I'm glad sparklers are finally appearing here in Devon as they vastly improve everything about cask beer.

tricky_dicky said...

Ban the bloody things they ruim everything about cask beer

blacktiger said...

I have one question for those that prefer a Sparkler. What do you do when you go to a beer festival where the beer is served straight from the Cask?

I have heard it said that serving beer trough a Sparkler is traditional. WHAT?? Now, straight from the Cask would have been the first method of dispense. Then the beer engine would have been invented. Then, and only then would someone have thought of the Sparkler. Traditional?Phaf! You've all fallen for the marketing spiel.
Cheers, HowardM.