In my recent postings, I have reviewed the history of compressed air dispense, and referred frequently to pressurized dispense via CO2 or mixed gas (CO2 + nitrogen), as well as pulling beer by suction handpump, a system which started around 1800.
There have always been variations on these systems. For compressed air, equipment improved in the early 1900s permitted different pressure settings for different types of beer. CO2 dispense has been used to tap beer filtered and carbonated at the brewery, but also unfiltered beer, beer that would be “real ale” but for the addition of CO2 to force it through the lines to the glass.
In the 1970s, “top-pressure” was often used to describe the last method. Where the pressure was held to about 5 psi, although still not meeting CAMRA’s definition of real ale, the beer was felt to offer excellent quality by many drinkers. This is made clear in the short but learned Beers of Britain, a mid-70s booklet describing pubs in different regions, by Conal Gregory and Warren Knock. But as the authors noted, in practice the pressure level often exceeded 5 psi with the result too much gas got into the beer and “altered its character” – the baseline being that of well-pulled cask ale.
In time (in England), this mix of real ale and Continental methods to dispense beer went by the boards in favour of keg beer full stop. This was beer that was filtered at the brewery and often force-carbonated and pasteurized. So that you had either that form of beer, Guinness, say, or one of the many ales dispensed in that way (John Smith, Kilkenny, Tetley, etc.), or, hand-pulled cask ale which remained unfiltered unless by the permissible finings and to which no CO2 or other gas was added.
A handpump can be used to draw brewery-conditioned beer too, a practice disliked by real ale fans as it disguises the nature of the beer drawn.
Even real ale pure laine hasn’t remained static. Some is “decanted”, poured off its lees into another vessel, so as to be clear or almost, which saves on wastage and avoids the step of waiting for the beer to clear in the cellar. It’s like normal cask beer poured into your pint glass, except in a larger container. The shelf-life is short, but this suits some serving conditions.
Some cask ale is centrifuged at the brewery and sent out almost clear with a small amount of yeast, which ensures it is real ale, probably. I understand Fuller in London is a proponent of this system.
Then there is real ale – except CAMRA doesn’t agree – where, instead of air being vented in the cask to replace beer going up to the bar, CO2 gas is drawn in from a cylinder. This gas is intended as a light blanket to sit on the beer and protect it from premature oxidation or souring. This is the aspirator system. The gas doesn’t push the beer out from the cask – the vacuum of the handpull does that – it simply has the protective function mentioned. Some drinkers don’t like the effect on the beer, but the cask breather system as it’s also known has many adherents. I understand the C’est What bar on Front Street in Toronto uses it for its bank of real ale handpumps. I can’t say I ever noticed a particular effect of the aspiration, but I haven’t done comparative side-by-side tastings. Also, beer not sold quickly enough will sour ultimately too with cask breather, at most it buys some time.
Most real ale fans know too of the “sparkler”, a perforated small metal ball through which the beer is forced after leaving the swan neck of the handpump. Its purpose is to agitate and aerate the beer and create a foaming head. The sparkler goes back to the 1940s at least, it was mentioned in the 1949 article on compressed air dispense to which I referred a couple of posts ago. I don’t like the texture it gives to beer, it alters it in some way, just as I think nitro-dispense does. Still, with a very hoppy beer, current IPA, say, the dampening might not hurt, or even assist somewhat, the taste.
How much can the customer do to affect what goes in his glass, apart from the brand? Not that much. You need to ask questions of the pub and experience will show which ones get it right the most often. One thing a customer can control, though, is excess carbonation in the glass. Just shake it out, by swirling the glass after the first two swallows or using a swizzle stick. Or just pour back and forth with another glass until the level is what you like. I constantly read reviews where people say: it’s too fizzy. Few think to adjust the carbonation level to their particular preference.
Finally, gravity dispense – drawing beer by a hand-turned valve on the cask – is still seen. Some bars put a small cask on the counter on a Friday night, say. Some English pubs, especially rural ones, still follow an ancestral practice of serving beer this way. When well-kept, this is an excellent way to serve beer, but in practice, it is too easy to abuse gravity-dispense – either it is too flat, too cloudy, or not the right temperature.
Also, bar staff often simply tip the keg up to drain the last leavings into the hapless drinker’s glass, a practice deeply objectionable, yet I see it frequently.
Day in day out, most beer seems to get served in a way acceptable to the patrons. But in practice, there is still lots of room for improvement.
Note re first image above: it was sourced at this pub guide site and is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.