In my post yesterday I discussed some details of Scottish tall font dispense of naturally-conditioned beer. I noted the prescience of the Irish brewing scientist, Michael Donovan, in forecasting (1826) the use of compressed air and finally metal containers to dispense the beer.
Compressed air dispense became popular in Scotland but in the rest of England, it had much less acceptance. England stayed with the old suction handpull system, indeed to this day the equipment is essentially the same as devised in about 1800 by Bramah and other pioneers.
In a detailed 1949 article by J.W. Scott for the Journal of the Institute of Brewing called “From Cask to Consumer”, Scott reviewed the many challenges real ale offered to brewers and publicans. The sophistication of Scott’s discussion shows that he was an engineer of some kind, possibly in hydraulics. He goes over everything from the ideal angle of the handpump to the width and composition of tubing lines, cellar temperature and ventilation, flooring materials, and much else.
He states frankly that if these challenges were not addressed including the requisite training and surveillance of publicans, the indifferent cellaring of real ale would lead ultimately to adoption of brewery-conditioned beer. Beer, that is, which was filtered and carbonated at the brewery. Beer that was clean and consistent but could never offer the subtleties of naturally-conditioned draft.
Scott stated that while post-war difficulties were such that people drank any beer wherever they got it, the time would come when they would avoid pubs that served real beer in bad condition. Bad condition means, too flat, sour, with damp cardboard smells, infection or all of the above. Not pretty, is it?
He devotes some discussion to compressed air dispense and commences with this sobering remark: “The prejudice against compressed air is tremendous”.
Expecting to read that introducing oxygen to the cask was an ignorant 19th century nostrum which modern science should summarily dismiss, I was surprised to find no reference to oxidation at all. Rather, Scott focused on cost and related issues: compressed air equipment for the cellar was trouble to install and maintain, and was an extra expense. Where the cask needed to be bleeded of pressure before the air could be charged in, you needed a special valve to do that work. If the electricity went out, you would need a back up system to hand-pump the air in from the reservoir. And so on in this vein.
Yet, this was his conclusion:
“If the components comprising a compressed air system are carefully and intelligently chosen, this method of beer-raising will be found to be simple and trouble-free, with the great advantage of maintaining condition [a lively, fresh quality] longer than any other method”.
He thus validated Michael Donovan’s advice of 1826 in regard to the advantages of compressed air dispense. Critically, though, everything had to be right for the system to work perfectly, and in practise, this was often not the case.
Indeed, through the 50s and 60s, real ale was steadily replaced in Scottish pubs by brewery-conditioned beer, or by lager. Scott’s concern that the technical and financial challenges posed by real ale would be too great to overcome was amply justified. And the same thing happened in England, the hand pumps came out and were replaced by equipment delivering brewery-conditioned beer.
Scott, who worked in the Midlands, died in 1981, long enough for him to see the revival of cask ale in the post-CAMRA era, at least in England. Cask ale too did make renewed progress in Scotland finally, but thus far, without re-adoption of the tall font system to serve the beer. A few pubs still use the old equipment, in Edinburgh and here and there elsewhere, but generally where real ale is available, it is served by the “English” handpump system. (And in truth, at least where handpumps are used, the quality issue remains, but that is a discussion for another time).
The wildly successful Scottish craft brewery, Brewdog, should promote the tall fonts as a uniquely Scottish way to serve its beer in cask form. I am not saying all its beer, and its policy to sell brewery-conditioned beer is well-known and understood. But this other avenue offers commercial and socio-cultural opportunities, as it were, that should be investigated.
There would be no better place to install new tall fonts than in a Brewdog bar in Scotland, and then elsewhere.