Saturday, 19 June 2010

North vs South Pouring Battle: THE SPARKLER VERDICT

The latest in our somewhat nerdy series of beer tasting events was less well attended than some. Clearly a couple of hours discussing different head consistencies is not everyone's bag. Still, Pete Brown (Beer Writer of the Year 2009) and Duncan Sambrook (Wandle brewer and all-round local hero) were there along with a small but focused crowd, all of whom were able to walk out unaided at the end.

So what was it all about?

In essence, cask ale in the North of England is often pulled though a sparkler, a small showerhead-type object affixed to the end of the nozzle. This forces the beer through microscopic holes, agitating the carbon dioxide in the ale and thereby delivering a more full-bodied pint with a thick, creamy head. A bit like (forgive me) tinned Boddington's, though that effect is created by releasing nitrogen so is, in fact, an entirely different process. Draft Stouts use a similar device with a similar outcome, though the creaminess seems more profound and long-lasting on the black stuff.
By contrast, in the South, the beer is poured straight out and - if well kept, pulled and served in a very clean glass - creates a foamy head which disappears after a few minutes. 

Our goal on Wednesday, other than drinking a cellar-load of beer, was to play around with the sparkler a little and see what happened. Thus we selected an archetypal Southern brew (Sambrook's Wandle) and a quintessentially Geordie effort (Mordue's Workie Ticket) and sampled them both with and without the Sparkler.

Having discussed this at some length on Twitter (and - gasp! - in person) with Drapers Arms-owner Nick Gibson I was forewarned. But nothing prepared me for how dreadful Wandle would taste through the Sparkler. Duncan was appalled (see below). Pete refused to drink his. That's how bad it was. Wandle is a truly great beer which perfectly encapsulates the unique genius of traditional British brewing - namely to produce full-bodied, full-flavoured ale with a low alcohol content (in this case 3.7%). But put through a Sparkler it became sweet dishwater.

By contrast, Northerners, it would appear, swing both ways. Mordue's Workie Ticket worked well with and without the sparkler. But again they tasted entirely different.

There it is above, in all its creamy-headed glory. Still sweet but balanced by the extra-bitter hops included in the brew to balance the sweetening effect of the Sparkler. 

Duncan Sambrook, a chemistry graduate, explained the sweetness. Apparently the agitation of the CO2 by the sparkler causes the bitterness molecules from the hops to attach themselves to the CO2 molecules. Thus most of the bittnerness is removed from the beer itself, and resides afterwards in the head. To prove this, Duncan encouraged us to take the teaspoon test. This involved spooning a small amount of the creamy head into one's gob - and sure enough it was astringently bitter. Fascinating.

Attendee James Diggle (above) enjoying a Workie Ticket without sparkler. This had a goodly amount of bitterness and kept its head well.

Having learned to drink cask ale in Edinburgh - my palate shaped on the forge of such great sparkler-led institutions as the Athletics Arms, the Windsor Buffet, Mathers, and the legendary Blue Blazer, I expected to like the sparkler more than I did. 

In all honesty, I have been corrupted by weak Southern ways and I like my beer foamy and thin. Ho hum.

Thanks to Pete brown (of whom I neglected to get a picture) and especially to Duncan Sambrook for allowing us to roundly mock the Sparkler-Wandle (followed by much adulation of the straight-out version) and to all attendees. Watch this space for future chronic outbreaks of beer-geekiness.

1 comment:

  1. hi, I heard a theory that the sparkler helps to make the ale clearer by catching any sediment that has managed to find its way out of the barrel ( I disbelieve this completely). could anyone give me a concrete answer to this?