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.


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.


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

Real Ale Homebrew Party

My buddy Trevor and I have been talking about hosting a real ale party for a while. We finally decided to pull the trigger and enlisted a couple other home brewers. The result was a four pin (each pin contains 5.4 gallons of beer) party with 40-50 guests.

Traditionally, cask beer is all about drinkability. With that in mind, we decided to brew relatively low abv beers. Up first, Trevor brewed a poundable raspberry wheat clocking in at 5.8%. He was shooting for under 5% but he added so much raspberry that he gained an entire percent. Next, I brewed a 3.7% pale ale inspired by the en vogue New England style IPAs. Christian brewed a traditional 5% British Strong Bitter (or ESB). And finally, Justin brewed a fabulous 5% horchata stout.


One of the great aspects of real ale is its freshness. Because the beer is low alcohol, you can push grain to glass pretty quickly with very little “greenness” you’d pick up from bigger beers. The result is wholesome and fresh tasting beer that is a delight to drink. None of these beers were a month old. The nose on the raspberry wheat exploded with raspberry and the pale ale showcased ample dry hopping. Another week of age on either of these beers would have produced an inferior beer.

Real ale only has a shelf life of a few days after the cask is opened for service. Whatever we didn’t drink, we would have to dump at the end of the night.  We were fully ready to dump a few gallons. We didn’t think we could get through 21+ gallons of beer during a 4-hour party. 40 people and 21+ gallons, you do the math. The first pin kicked just over 2 hours in and all 4 were kicked before 4 hours was up. All the beer was gone. Victory.

As usual, the local home brewers and craft fans, showed up with mountains of quality food. So much great food.

One of the fun debates in the real ale world revolves around the use of a sparkler (I’ll post a summary of the debate in the next week or so). We encouraged everyone to try each beer with and without a sparkler and see if they formed a preference. The consensus was that the sparkler did indeed to change the beer. Two of the beers, the raspberry wheat and the bitter were generally agreed to be better without a sparkler and the pale and stout were better with the sparkler on. What struck me was that the preferences were almost unanimous.

Another great home brew party. We will definitely throw another one of these before the year is out. Thank you to everyone who brewed, cooked, drank, and help in other ways. We have a great community here in Arizona. Cheers!


Kevin’s Costwolds Constitutional Conclusionary Compendium

I am sitting in the tiny courtyard of my Bath hotel.  My cigar is down to a nub.  Oddly, the cry of seagulls cuts through the now foreign and otherwise deafening electric drone of the building’s utilities machinery.

Not more than two hours ago, I bid farewell to Bart and Ronny.  If either of you end up reading this, I want to say again, thank you for your companionship.  I hope that our paths cross again.  I could not have asked for better company.

It’s time to reflect on my adventure.

Here are the cold hard facts:

  • Days walking: 7
  • Miles traversed: 102 plus a few lost and not so lost wanderings
  • Elevation gain: 12,000 + feet
  • Days with rain: 2
  • Heart palpitating sunsets: 2
  • Pubs visited: 22
  • Pints of real ale consumed: 38
  • Varieties of real ale consumed: 35
  • Cigars smoked: 7
  • Ounces of medicinally applied whiskey: 7
  • Pointless alliterative phrases penned: 11
  • Friends made: 2
  • Episodes of joyfully induced tears: 3
  • Randy Newman songs spontaneously hummed or sung: too many to count

Fascinating foot facts (make that 12 pointless alliterative phrases penned):

  • Blisters: 3
  • Sacrificed toenails: 1
  • Incidents of medical treatments applied: 14

There is no way to articulate what this trip has meant to me.  I wrote in my initial post that I viewed this adventure as “sustenance for my metaphysical me,” and that’s exactly what it was.  I can’t, in good conscience, characterize it as “recharging the batteries” or by employing some other trite phrase.  This was something I dreamt about for half my life and my entire adult life.  I was afraid it wouldn’t deliver.  But it did.

Thank you all for sharing in my adventure.  I know there are a number of you  who took more than a mild interest in this enterprise.  I hope with all sincerity that each of you can identify your own Cotswold constitutional and have the courage to take the chance to be enchanted.

I am now, and will forever be, the Pedestrian.

THE LAST drops of the thundershower had hardly ceased falling when the Pedestrian stuffed his map into his pocket, settled his pack more comfortably on his tired shoulders, and stepped out from the shelter of a large chestnut tree into the middle of the road. A violent yellow sunset was pouring through a rift in the clouds to westward, but straight ahead over the hills the sky was the colour of dark slate. Every tree and blade of grass was dripping, and the road shone like a river.

Those of you who have peppered me with questions on facebook, please send me direct messages if you are still interested in the particulars of the trip.  This, of course, will not be the last of my entries here.  I still have a few more days to explore England and will be in Copenhagen for a few days.   Stay tuned.

Day 5 Lunch Update

8 miles down, 7 to go. I’m sitting in one of England’s most decorated real ale pubs. The Old Spot in Dursley with 7 pumps, serves up an ungodly amount of real ale.  If the number of handles did not fully articulate this fact, the parking lot made it abundantly clear.

According to the publican, this about a week’s worth. Notice the cask to keg ratio. Incredible. I’m sipping a delicious local cask IPA.

This morning’s walk started with almost all woods with some incredibly steep descents.  Right before Dursley, the landscape turned to hilly farmland.

Usually I try to hurry through lunch but today I think I’ll wait for the Belgians and take my time.

Day 3: Cleeve Hill to Birdlip, Do You Like Brilliant Cask Ale and Getting Caught in the Rain?

Here’s something that I don’t think any of my friends and family in the land of eternal summer can possibly wrap their sweaty heads around: I’m sitting in front of a crackling fire – and it’s exactly where I want to be.


Today started out brilliantly sunny.  I hoofed it up to the highest point of the trail, Cleeve Hill.  I was worried about my foot but, luckily, Anna convinced me to pack some moleskin foot pads, which ended relieving my heel and making my day so much more enjoyable.


The top of Cleeve Hill, looking down on the city of Cheltenham

Today’s walk was front loaded with about 8 miles of pure vista.  The trail followed the top of an escarpment that runs the edge Cheltenham.  As a result, there were plenty of ups and downs.

The view from the top of Cleeve Hill, looking down on the city of Cheltenham

Cleeve Hill, the starting point, is the hill center right (the higher of the hills) in this picture. The trail followed the top of the hills around to this spot.

I knew there was going to be rain this afternoon so I beat my beat feet to the end point.  I finished the 16 miles in the same amount of time of the first 10 miles of the first leg of the hike.  Despite my best efforts, I still ended up hiking 2 hours in light rain but luckily, the most vertical portions were behind me at that point.  To be perfectly honest, I was looking forward to hiking in the rain.  I don’t want to be wet the whole trip, but I figure that an English hike without rain is like an Old Fashioned without an orange peel.

Road weary and slightly bone chilled, this fire is a very welcome fixture.

I’m hoping that I can convey the variety of the trail by the time I am finished with this blog.  Almost every mile reveals different scenery.  Today, I leave you with a picture of a common forest view.



Shadow man of Cleeve Hill

Racing rain results in rapid relaxation

How Quiet is Quiet?

The bell rang ten times at Stanton’s only church.  A church older than the first settlement at Jamestown.  I sat on a wooden park bench in pitch black, save for the illumination of a street lamp older than my state, with its soft yellow light barely giving form to the hedges, likely older than the furthest generation in which I can trace my heritage, in front of cottages built by wool barons but now occupied by millionaires who disappear with the sunset.

It’s so quiet that I can hear the subtle crackling of tobacco as I draw on my cigar.  The quiet clink of my steel flask as I drop the lid is almost deafening.  This is it.  This what I came for.  This little strip of grass, flanked by Disneylandesque manicured shrubs, has not been altered by modern times.  This park bench still entertains the sounds of shoed horses – at least as much as cars.  This has not been fabricated.  It has been preserved.

On stiff legs, I hobble and wobble and swagger back to my inn in perfect serine darkness, extinguish my smoke and say good night to Mr. Elijah Craig.

How can I describe magic?  Pure alchemy.  What an amazing evening of solitude.

I spent the pre-dusk portion of my evening at Stanton’s only restaurant, the Mount Inn.  Amazing beer and food that were trifling compared to the view.  IMG_2023


The sun setting behind the spire of Stanton’s church


Tomorrow, 13 miles through Winchcombe and on to Cleeve Hill.  Day one: unmitigated success.  Smoking, sipping in silence. Satisfied in Stanton.

Day 1: Chipping Campden to Stanton, 10 miles

The 2-hour train ride from Paddington station to Moreton in Marsh was uneventful.


When I arrived in Moreton on Marsh, I was immediately approached by an unlicensed taxi driver who was looking to take someone to Chipping Campden.  I politely declined after he quoted me a price of 20 pounds.  Chipping Campden was only 6 miles away and my train fare was a mere 15 pounds.  I set off looking for the bus spot and when I finally found it, I discovered there is no bus service on Sundays.  Luckily, I had a pub guide, which directed me to a close establishment, where I enjoyed my first (and second) real ale of the trip.


The publican gave me a number for a local cab and soon I was off, twisting and turning through the countryside on my way to Chipping Campden.  The driver, a Cotswolds native, was very enthusiastic about my trip and told me a couple cool stories.  Total cab cost 8 pounds.  Score.

My Chipping Campden inn was part 17th century pub, part Indian restaurant and part b&b.  I had a quick pint, checked in and headed to a more upscale pub for lunch.  After a bite and a beer, I roamed the village for a couple hours.  Every twist and turn in the road revealed new wonders.  This place is brimming with character and history.


After my little walk, I crashed for a few hours, woke up, and had dinner and promptly went back to sleep.  I think my family in London showed me too good of a time the previous night.  I was beat.

I can’t begin to describe how excited I was to get on the trail this morning.  It’s hard to believe something I looked forward to for so long was finally starting.  I practically pranced to the stone that marks the beginning of the trail.


In about 10 minutes, I found myself outside the village, climbing a steep hill.  At the top, I was treated with my first, of many, sheep pastures.  The next segment of the path was relatively flat, crossing through wheat fields and pastures.


Overlooking Chipping Campden


About three miles into the trail, I came upon Broadway Tower and climbed to the top.  On a clear day, you can see 12 counties.



It’s another two miles to the village of Broadway, almost all down hill.


Broadway was another beautiful village.  I stopped in a pub for lunch and had a few beers.  On my way to Stanton, I made a wrong turn and walked about a mile before I realized I was no longer on the right trail.  Unfortunately, that mile was all downhill so I had to go back up a steep hill to get back on the path.  Normally, this kind of detour would make me all grumpy but today, I didn’t mind being on the trail for a little longer.


A picture of a person minutes before they realized they are lost

Describing the path thus far is a little hard.  Today I went through open country with huge vistas, down to flat farmland, through numerous woods and down old country roads.  Every part was unlike the previous parts.  It was exactly what I was hoping for.


I’m currently lying on the bed in my Stanton inn.  I don’t think I’ve heard a car for an hour, but I’ve heard at least four horses trot by.  Birds are chirping and the breeze is rustling the trees.  It’s bliss.  I’m off to explore Stanton now.  Here’s a short video of what it looks like right when you enter the village.