Origins of the Beer Sparkler

The Road to Wigan’s Pint – and the North’s

A beery controversy in the U.K. since the 1970s is whether the “sparkler” is good for beer. A sparkler is a perforated ball fitted to the end of the tap. It aerates and forces CO2 from the beer as the handpump draws it from the cask. The pint acquires a dense head and creamy texture.

Without the sparkler cask ale pours fairly flat with a loose, thinnish head that dissipates quickly. Serving the pint sans sparkler is popular in the south of England. In the north the sparkler is generally liked although custom can vary by sub-region and pub.

You don’t read much today about “the sparkler – is it good or bad?”, but oceans of ink and bandwidth were sacrificed in the past to a cause that seems delphic to non-initiates.

It’s not that the hard core has tired of the controversy. Newer issues arise and attention turns elsewhere.

Still, the matter of sparkler and cask ale quality remains. For what it’s worth I prefer cask bitter without the sparkler. Its effect seems to blunt hop flavour and generally flatten out the taste.

The sparkler was referred to parenthetically in a 1949 brewing journal article by J.W. Scott, “From Cask to Consumer”. Initially, I thought it was a post-1945 invention, or perhaps an expedient to make thin, wartime beer more attractive in the glass.

In fact its use well precedes that date. The sparkler was invented and patented in the early 1880s by George Barker. He advertised the device for sale in 1885 and identified himself as from the “Crown Hotel, Ince, near Wigan”.

The first advertisement I saw left off the “l” in Hotel, or the upload to Google Books did that. I thought that “Ince” must also be a misprint, or an imperfect uploading again. But no, Ince is a real place nearish to Manchester, Ince-in-Makerfield. (About 17 miles).

The above short article is from p. 707 of the November 1, 1885 issue of The British Trade Journal and Export World, Vol. 23. It explained what Barker’s device did, indeed exactly as people describe the effect today. The sparkler makes flat beer seem more sparkling by agitating the beer and creating the creamy effect.

The ad shown above is from the journal mentioned.

Anyone familiar with beer knows you can swirl the glass to pick up the foam, or with a stirrer of some kind. Barker’s invention did the same thing but methodically.

Cask ale of course has no CO2 added at the brewery or pub, so, as it pours fairly flat, the sparkler enlivened pints that looked unattractive. For some reason the south has never minded flat pints, it may be palate-related, it may be the desire to have a brimful glass.

I cannot find any trace of a Crown Hotel at Ince. But there was one – and is – at 106 Wigan Road, New Springs, near the canal. Ince was a kind of suburb of Wigan, itself some miles from Manchester.

New Springs is only two miles from the centre of Ince. You see its Crown Hotel pictured, a handsome house that looks old enough to have been the locale where Barker did his field work.

Maybe he lived in Ince and worked at the hotel, or used the hotel for a business address. It’s a nice looking pub, isn’t it? It’s still going strong and gets fine reviews, see details here. It serves, need I say, cask ale, presumably through Barker’s Aerator, the formal name of his device.

In this Google maps view, you see the route from Ince to the Crown Hotel. The route wends further to another Crown Hotel in Worthington. That is another old public house, now closed. I thought it might have been the place Barker did his testing.

But Worthington is seven miles from Ince, likely too far for Barker to have travelled there unless he did so intermittently.

I feel fairly certain his Crown Hotel is as pictured, at 106 Wigan Road – unless you sleuths reading – you know who you are – uncover a Crown Hotel in Ince. If you do, a pint on me, but you must meet me in Toronto. Okay, two pints.*

Wigan, for non-Britons reading, is Lancashire – up north you know, so that part ties in.

Note re images: the first two images above were sourced from the 1885 journal article linked in the text. The third was sourced from this Google Maps view, and the last, from the Google Maps view linked in the text. All intellectual property in the images belongs solely to the lawful owners or authorized users, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

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*In fact, reader Roy Pearson has shown that there was a Crown Hotel in Ince, tenanted by Barker, see his message in the Comments. We thank Roy for straightening this out.

 

11 thoughts on “Origins of the Beer Sparkler”

  1. I am from the north and travel to London often around 6 times a year various parts so I visit lots of London pubs. I have tried beers with a sparkler and without. And I have to say I prefer the flavor and mouhfeel of a sparkler. Wethe rtou use a sparkle or not should be he customers choice but I’ve been in London pubs that have almost shouted at me telling me it makes the beer uncontrollable and wastes beer? Now I’m a barman have been for decades and I don’t lose anymore beer using a sparkler than not using one. We are happy to accommodate both ways. But I prefers the mouthfeel of the sparkler to the rougher southern style pint

  2. Rob misleads a bit here Gary. In no way is the main use of the sparkler to disguise flat beer. That would mean that huge swathes of the North and Midlands, most of Wales and more are being systematically fooled. Hardly.

    Au contraire use of a sparkler on flat beer makes it even flatter. That is obvious when you taste it. In a small minority of places the misuse of the sparkler may happen, but like as not it likely stems from poor beer keeping in the first place.

    He is right about the myth that cask beer is naturally flat. In cask beer condition is all and it is poor cellermanshio that causes flag beer.

  3. There was a Crown Hotel on Manchester Road in Higher Ince. The pub closed in the 1970’s.

    According to an entry in the London Gazette in 1886, George Barker was indeed the ‘licensed victualler’ at the aforementioned pub. See http://bit.ly/2yYONKo

    The existence of the Crown Hotel in Ince is also confirmed in articles on the Wigan World website – see http://bit.ly/2zGDDqH.

    Hope this helps to provide some clarity.

  4. The sparkler! A debate if ever. I lived in England for 3 years. Northern and Midland breweries tended to prime their beers and Southern breweries did not. The former used sparklers as their customers liked a pint that poured with a tight creamy head that lasted all the way to the bottom, while the latter did not, preferring a beer with a pancake head. I prefer a sparkler as I like a tight creamy head to a depth of 3/8″ on a pint. I do not prime cask beer. I trained as a brewer in London. A cask beer should be clear as a bell, which most breweries here seem to ignore. Quality ale, whether unfiltered or filtered should be crystal clear.

    • That is very helpful Charles, thanks so much.

      Why do you consider clarity vital, is it because you feel a haze makes the beer too yeasty in taste? Or is it an aesthetic thing? Thx again.

      Gary

  5. Flat-caskers…rejecting the science and bubbly evidence at hand.

    By the way, when one finds the rare beer engine in the U.S., more often than not, the handpump does have a sparker head attached.

    Thanks for the story, Gary. Good sleuthing.

  6. “Cask beer pours flat” is a fallacy that is often repeated by sparklerites to justify the use of their devilish device. Of course, some cask beer does pour flat due to lack of condition, and the real use of the sparkler more often than not is to disguise that fact until the unlucky punter has been parted from his money. But it depends on the condition – properly conditioned beer is not flat, and will produce a loose, rocky, foamy head without the aid of a sparkler. (The same argument is used about gravity dispense, equally falsely).

  7. Clearly the exhibition mentioned in the 1885 article on Barker’s invention was the International Inventions Exhibition held in South Kensington. See some details here.

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