A word on Sparklers

Flat, clear beer is the norm in Britain. We drink with our eyes and then jazz up flat beer by forcing it through a tight sparkler.  

-Mark Dorber

I couldn’t agree more. In the UK, one pretty much only sees the sparkler in the North of England, then it seems to almost disappear throughout Scotland appearing at some pubs while not at others. I’ve been to the UK many times, but it was always time spent in the south. I was lucky to spend 3 weeks traveling around Northern Great Britain in the summer of 2010 and got to speak with many Northerners about the subject of the sparkler and the conclusion was interesting!

Ale being forced through a sparkler. Generally, the swan neck would be submerged under the top of the beer to help with foaming. This photo was taken from wikipedia.

With the exception of every cellarman we spoke to, Northerners prefer beer served with a sparkler. Why? Surprisingly, it didn’t have anything to do with how the ale tasted, but how it looked! They prefer the tight creamy head on the beer, rather than the “flat” beer of the south. Thing is, if you taste a beer with and without the sparkler, they are quite different! To my taste, the sparkled beer tastes flat. Old. Stale. No hop character in the beer, but possibly more in the aroma. The non sparkled beer tastes fresh. Lively. More bitter, yet well rounded. It makes sense; you’re taking a lightly carbonated ale and literally forcing it through tiny holes. Of course, that’s going to knock out carbonation and force hop aroma into the head of the beer. Thing is, if you force that carbonation out of the beer, it’s going to foam like crazy so you have to start with even less carbonation to balance it out! Mark Dorber goes on to say,

We cannot put our well-conditioned pale ales through a sparkler at the White Horse without substantial wastage due to the relatively high level of CO2 in solution.

The Cellarmen that we spoke to also had different views on how best to serve their ale. In the south, it seemed they were indifferent towards the use of a beer engine vs. straight from the cask in the cellar. Either one was great. Basically, the same. In the North, without excpetion, every cellarman preferred the ale straight from the tap in the cellar. As the Cellarman at The Lion in Nottingham proudly stated, “you have to pull the bloody sparkler off upstairs if you want a proper pint.” Hmmmmmmmmm.

So where did the idea to force beer through lots of tiny holes come from? I have no idea, but I’d like to speculate for just a bit.

Apparently, once upon a time ale was not vented.  The ale would condition in the cask, they’d hammer in a tap and start serving. The ale would be quite lively thanks to the lack of venting off excess c02, so when it poured it would throw a big head of foam. Somewhere along the way, they started venting, but now that head is gone. What to do? Some enterprising publican came up with a way to bring it back, and here we are today with sparkled beer in the North for a reason. Tradition. Appearance. Local taste. And, by default, through ignorance in the US.

To continue along these lines, the lack of venting was something I read about Bass ale from the City of Burton Upon Trent in Yorkshire. Maybe, breweries in the south always vented beer, and that’s why they were never looking for that huge head on a beer. Maybe.?!

Several times, we ordered pints in the north with and without the sparkler just to taste the difference and invited locals to taste with us. They always commented that the sparkled pint, “looked nice”. And, we don’t like “flat” beer. Eventually, we were no longer surprised that they “drank with their eyes”. Not once did the discussion revolve around how the beer tasted, and I guess that’s my biggest issue with this discussion.

I tend to condition my beers similar to what I’ve tasted at the White Horse. However, part of what allows that is the use of the cask breather since, to a certain extent, it locks in the conditioning for a time. It would slowly drop off if the ale was open to the atmosphere for several days, losing condition and gradually getting flatter and flatter. Such is the nature of real ale and the importance of the skill of the Cellarman in the pub. 
Like the White Horse, I couldn’t put my “well conditioned” pale ale through a sparkler. It’d foam all over the place. I have to also speculate that the sparkler is also nothing more than a short cut for the publican to not do his job very well. He can focus less on the conditioning of the ale, and more on how loose or tight that sparkler is on the end of the long swan neck!

A “well conditioned” pale ale served through a short spout with no sparkler bursting with condition and hop character!