On Real Ale: The Sparkler

Last year I wrote about my love for real ale. To summarize, real ale is England’s traditional method of fermenting and serving beer. The result is a less cool, less carbonated, low alcohol, and ultra fresh beer, which is supremely quaffable and moreish.

The English pub culture, with all its distinct regions and football schisms, generally shares an undivided adoration for real ale. However, there is one point in which the country vehemently disagrees: to sparkler or not to sparkler. The sparkler is the King in the North, while in the south (meaning, anywhere but the north), it is considered terrible for beer.

To understand the sparkler, it is important to understand how real ale is served in the English pub. In America, we use systems that push the beer out of a keg and through the tap by forcing pressurized co2 through the lines. With real ale, because of the beer’s natural and relatively low carbonation, the influence of extraneous CO2 is frowned upon. Not only is the use of forced CO2 not traditional, it can over carbonate real ale and hinder the change of favorable flavors caused by oxidation.

Real ale is therefore served in one of two ways: 1) by use of a simple gravity tap (common during beer festivals) or 2) pulling the beer from a cask located in the cellar by use of a hand pump, referred to as a “beer engine” (commonly employed in a pub).

A sparkler is a small perforated nozzle that screws onto the tip of a beer engine thereby causing the beer to shower out of the pump. Without a sparkler, the beer is pulled out in a steady uniform stream. The sparkler acts a diffuser, generating a pint full of beer with tiny uniform bubbles. There are a few different variations of sparklers, each with different sized holes, resulting in different sized bubbles. Visually, a beer poured from a sparkler has an ample, tight, and uniform head and cascading bubbles that clear from the bottom up – exactly like a beer on nitro, like Guinness (which is no accident. Nitro beers we specifically engineered to mimic cask beers served from a sparkler). The same pint pulled through an engine with no sparkler will pour clear and have a significantly smaller head made up of much larger, un-uniformed bubbles, and often, no head at all.

The northerner argues that a drinker first drinks with his eyes. The big soft head and cascading effect of a sparkled beer is more visually appealing. And while a southerner, may not disagree with this assessment, they are quick to point out that such an appearance comes at a price. Real ale already contains relatively low volumes of CO2 in solution. When the beer is pulled through a sparkler, the CO2 is knocked out of solution and transformed into tiny bubbles and cascading beer. The result is a flatter beer.

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cascading beer pulled from an engine with a sparkler

The northerner may agree that the beer is negligibly flatter but the mouthfeel of the sparklered beer is far smoother, even creamy. A sparkled beer is, therefore, more quaffable.

Perhaps the south’s primary gripe with the sparkler is that it produces a finger or two of head, which replaced another ounce or two of beer. The sparkler, it’s argued, results in a short pour.

But what about the actual flavor? In my opinion, this is where preference based on objective facts takes a backseat to subjective perception. It is generally true that hoppy beers benefit greatly from a nice head. It is the reason many brewers demand that a bottle or canned IPA should be poured into a glass before serving. The aroma compounds of hops use foam as a diving board. IPA beer served with a head, generally smells hoppier than the same IPA served without a head.

In the sparkler debate, the north takes the position that a foamy head helps the drinker experience the presence of hops. They also believe that by knocking that hop aroma to the head, some of the harshness of hop bitterness is dissipated. A sparkler also aerates the beer thereby achieving a kind of favorable quick oxidation. Less hop bitterness and aeration produce a seemingly maltier and sweeter beer. The southerner doesn’t necessarily disagree with the notion of how the sparkler alters the taste of hops in the beer. They, however, argue that by knocking hop aroma to the head, the flavor of hops is diminished, which makes for an inferior pint, and produces a beer different from what the brewer intended.

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I tend to side with the north. When I make real ale at home, I usually use a sparkler. I do like a creamy head and smooth body. And a cascading beer is something to behold. However, I haven’t formed an opinion in terms of actual taste differences between the two pouring methods. I intend to conduct scientific experiments on my walk. Stay tuned.

For further real ale information, check out the following videos:

Charlie Bamforth on the sparkler

Yorkshire’s Perfect Pint Series – a fantastically informational and entertaining real ale series by the owner of the pub I will be visiting

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