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.
*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.