It is a lamentable fact that the original good quality of draught beer in the brewery becomes deteriorated through incorrect handling in the public-house. The beer is too often sold flat, having lost all its carbonic acid gas. Now, if draught beer is to be a pleasant-tasting, refreshing and attractive-looking beverage, it is absolutely necessary to preserve its CO2. In order to obtain this result the correct control of the beer mains and casks is essential to the preservation of the keeping qualities and original pure flavour and condition of draught beer. It should not be a difficult matter to set before public-house cellermen simple directions which, if adhered to, will make the serving of a good glass of beer to their customers a very simple matter.
(From “Cellar Management“, G.R. Seton, Journal of the Institute of Brewing, 1908).
It should be a simple matter indeed, but the devil is in the details. We see above the same basic challenge to cask beer as exists today, pre-Covid 19. Over 100 years later, not much has changed.
Below I survey cellaring methods and advice stretching from today back 80 years. We’ve seen, c. 1955, the view of H & G Simonds in Reading. And yet earlier, the chart the British army used c. 1900 for canteen operations.
So, first, from the revered Joseph Holt’s of Manchester, “Looking After Cask Ale in the Cellar” in its Cask Ale Guide.
Second, an entry by UK cellaring specialist Mark Dorber in the 2011 Oxford Companion to Beer (at 231 et seq).
Third, Roy Hayter in his manual Bar Service (2000).
Last, brewing scientist H. Lloyd Hind in Brewing: Science and Practice, Volume II (1940) (pp. 873 et seq).
Holt’s, for its part, suggests its beers can be spiled and tapped within two to three days.*
Dorber’s discussion is the most nuanced and detailed, as expected from a hyper-specialist, a maven with an admirable appreciation for nuances of taste. He states cellaring is “a blend of the aesthetic and the practical”, so that should tell you something.
He states Bass pale ale was cellared for three to four weeks and some old and other special ales can go two months or even longer. For standard draught bitter, he allows two weeks in general.
His timelines exceed the longest period attributed in the c.1900 army chart, which is one week. That chart did not address strong ale, probably because little of this beer was sold to the soldier for cost and discipline reasons. This appears from the report that followed the inquiry at which the chart was tabled.
Hayter offers a brisk, smartly-paced treatment of this whole area, it is perhaps the best I know. He states two to three days for venting, tapping and commencing dispense.
Lloyd Hind is quite summary in his discussion. He reads broadly in the way of Hayter and Holt’s, which H & G Simond’s advice (1955) accords with as well.
Perhaps because Hind’s Volume II was issued during the war, and/or his focus on brewery (not pub) operations, he doesn’t linger on cellaring, much less insist on subtleties in its execution.
Seton’s article, despite its title, does not describe venting and tapping procedures for cask ale. He focuses more on cellar temperature and cleaning (handpulls, pipes, cellar floors and walls), and raising beer by either air or carbon dioxide pressure. To the extent he approves dispense without pressure, he likes it best straight from the barrel behind the bar.
(Many cask experts if pressed would agree. Author Michael Jackson (1942-2007) once told me this was his view, but the beer needed to be “beautifully kept”).
None of the sources above except Mark Dorber distinguish between beer types for approved service. And Dorber does it in a way different from the army over 100 years before. Let’s recall the army wanted porter and stout dispensed unvented, hence in high condition, with little or no resting at all.
And it had mild ale dispensed within two days simply by removing the bung and laying it lightly on the hole. Dorber treats mild ale like bitter except with faster cellaring due to lower gravities and hopping. And stout and porter are not addressed. He did write a book on cellaring, cited in the link above, so that should be consulted by those wanting the last word.
Looking at this broad-brush, I suggest the army cellaring was kind of mid-way between the hyper expertise of Dorber (for ales anyway) and modern, more peremptory practice. While we don’t know how widespread was army practice for beer cellaring back then – and Seton makes it clear conditions in the field were far from ideal – as a large-scale purchaser of beer, we can take it the army had expertise in these matters.
(This is evident too in other ways from the inquiry’s report, for example its insistence on all-malt brewing).
I like Dorber’s punctilious approach though, he channels the spirit of Edwardian cellaring more than anyone I know today.
Today, the main form of cask ale is bitter. Six full days to the Sunday of dispense, sounds about right to me. If I had my own pub and my own casks to tend, I’d follow the army way. For starters anyway.
N.B. I should mention one situation where cellaring can be achieved in less time than even the shortest windows mentioned above. This is where the beer is partly-conditioned at the brewery before dispatch. Fuller’s in London has done this, see John Keeling’s explanation in this 2017 article by Bryan Betts in Craft Beer and Brewing. What happens here is a centrifuging, re-seeding with yeast (as for some bottle-conditioned beer), development of condition at brewery, and dispatch to pub where the process still continues. Enough condition is in the cask that soft spiling is not needed and indeed not advisable. A day only is needed before tapping, to settle the beer out a bit.
Note re image: the first image above is drawn from Joseph Holt’s website identified and linked above. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.
*Of course, as with all cellaring advice, correct temperature and other right conditions are assumed. Variations may be apt for particular cases. Say a cask of beer is delivered ice cold. More time will be needed to get it right for cellaring.