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” by G.R. Seton, Journal of the Institute of Brewing, 1908).
It should be a simple matter indeed but the devil is in the detail. 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 back 80 years. We’ve seen c. 1955, the view of H & G Simonds in Reading. And earlier, the chart the British army used around 1900 for its canteens.
So, first up, “Looking After Cask Ale in the Cellar” from the Cask Ale Guide of revered Joseph Holt’s of Manchester.
Next, remarks by UK cellaring specialist Mark Dorber in the (2011) Oxford Companion to Beer (p. 231 et seq).
Third, Roy Hayter from his manual,Bar Service (2000).
Last, the brewing scientist H. Lloyd Hind in Brewing: Science and Practice, Volume II (1940) (pp. 873 et seq).
Joseph Holt’s for its part, suggests 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 with an appreciation for the nuances of taste. He states that 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 that some old, and other specia,l ales can go for two months or even longer. For standard draught bitter, he allows two weeks in general.
His timelines exceed the longest period attributed in the army chart, which is one week. That chart did not address strong ale, probably because little of this beer was sold to the soldiers for cost reasons and to keep good order. That appears in fact from the report of the committee of inquiry.
Hayter offers a brisk, smartly-paced treatment of cellaring, perhaps the best I know. He allows two to three days to vent, tap, and commence dispense.
Lloyd Hind is quite summary in his discussion. He reads similarly to Hayter and Holt’s, and H & G Simond’s advice (1955) accords in essentials as well.
Maybe because Hind’s Volume II was issued during the war, or that his focus is brewery (not pub) operations, he doesn’t linger on cellaring. Hence advice on subtleties of treatment are absent.
Seton’s article, despite its title, does not describe venting and tapping for cask ale. He focuses more on temperature and cleaning for handpulls, pipes, cellar floors and walls, and also the raising of beer by 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 it was his view, but beer needed to be “beautifully kept” to be served that way.
None of the sources except Dorber and the Army distinguishes between beer types. Dorber does it in a way different from the Army, too. The Army wanted porter and stout dispensed unvented, hence in high condition, with little or no resting at all.
And it had mild ale served 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 full book on cellaring, hyperlinked above, so that should be consulted for those wanting all the details.
Looking at this broad-brush, I think the Army’s cellaring was mid-way between the hyper-expertise of a Dorber, for ale anyway, and the modern more peremptory practice. We don’t know how widely the Army rules were actually followed, and Seton makes clear conditions “in the field” were far from ideal.
Still, as a large-scale purchaser of beer we can take it the Army had expertise. This is evident too in other ways from the inquiry’s report, for example its stipulation for all-malt brewing in contracts.
I like Dorber’s punctilious approach though, he channels the spirit of Edwardian cellaring today more than any other source I know.
As well today the main form of cask beer 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.
N.B. I should mention one situation where cellaring can be achieved in less time than even the shortest windows in these sources. That 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 a 2017 article by Bryan Betts from 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 despatch to pub where conditioning continues. Soft spiling is not needed and indeed not advisable. A day only is needed before tapping, to settle the beer 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.