Supremacy of the beer engine…

Sparkler in Action

Sparkler – being used incorrectly I believe, but it does nicely show how they function – from Flickr

There has been some discussion of sparklers recently. Yet again. The near-religious divide they create in the cask beer world is amusing. Personally I am usually happy to put it down as a matter of personal preference & taste and leave it like that. (Although it can be fun to carry on purely for the sake of a good argument.) Really it is another thing that goes in the same bag as preferences over temperature, carbonation, and actual styles of beer… I’d not profess that stout is the one true way to drink and enjoy beer, so why would I profess that some given fixed method of dispense is a “one true way”?

I, personally, prefer that my pint is not put through a sparkler. What they do is force carbonation out of beer. For the sake of appearances… that nice tight head.[1] There is also an impact on the flavour and aroma of the beer. What they cannot do is add condition that isn’t there in the first place. Neither can using a beer engine without a sparkler. Neither can gravity dispense.

Gravity dispense… is where I found my thoughts wandering. It is common knowledge, widely believed, that the humble beer engine is the best way to serve a cask ale. But why is it so? Is it so?

What a beer engine does is “suck” the beer from the cask along several feet of pipe, through a cylinder, and shoot it down a narrower pipe into your glass. In the process the beer is severely agitated – releasing CO2 from solution and helping to form a nice head on your beer. But this is a side-effect really – the purpose of the beer engine is simply to move the beer, against gravity, from the barrel to the glass. From the best place to keep the beer (nice cool cellar) to the best place to serve the beer (nice warm bar). It certainly saves on having to run up and down stairs a lot.

So what we have is a practical device that has the side-effect of helping to force CO2 out of solution and giving your beer a nice foamy head. The humble sparkler takes this one step further by adding to that agitation, forcing more CO2 out of solution more rapidly – and forms a tighter head on your beer. (Whether or not that is an improvement is entirely up to the individual.)

But the fact is that that same beer dispensed directly from cask into a glass is going to have more CO2 in solution. Beer dispensed via beer engine (with or without sparkler) simply cannot be less “flat” than the same beer dispensed directly from the cask. Yet is seems to be a commonly held belief that gravity dispense means flat beer. This, I suspect, comes down to two things:

  1. The “head” on a beer is seen as an important indicator of non-flatness. Yet is it really? The mechanism of a beer engine (especially with sparkler) can force what little CO2 remains in a beer out of it, it creates head against all odds. The result is your already pretty flat beer ends up even flatter for the sake of that head. Appearances can be deceiving?
  2. Most people’s experience of gravity dispense is beer festivals. And there are a whole host of issues with beer festivals, especially: insufficient conditioning time, insufficient cooling, insufficient cellaring skills. All three of these yield flatter beer.
    1. Conditioning: the tight schedule of festivals relies on beer coming from the brewery/supplier sufficiently conditioned. This is the norm these days, but sometimes a beer needs time that a festival simply cannot give it.
    2. Cooling: warmer beer has less CO2 in solution. If you vent your beer at 15C, say, it’ll loose a lot more CO2 – and if it then cools to 12C it will appear even flatter as a result. (Ensure your beer is cool before you vent it.)
    3. Cellar skills: knowledge of the previous two, but also simple things like use of nylon pegs at all non-service times for most beers. Keep that condition in the beer!

So, basically, beer festivals give gravity dispense a bad name.[2]

An antidote to this is a sharper focus on cask ale “cellaring”/quality at festivals. Adequate cooling, adequate space and time to match bar capacity, and adequate knowledge and skills. With these three sorted a pint of cask ale whether from beer engine or gravity should be fantastic and sport a nice frothy head.

Gravity dispense in pubs is rare – but is a growing trend mainly thanks to the micropub “boom” and use of non-pub buildings as pubs. Where I have come across it it usually suffers the same problems as festivals. A lack of ability to give at-bar stillaged beer appropriate time and cooling are the enemies here – so too is the lack of knowledge of some of these new landlords who’re new to keeping cask ales.

Gravity Dispense - middle of 3-day festival

Gravity Dispense – middle of 3-day festival

Gravity Dispense - end of 3 day festival

Gravity Dispense – end of 3 day festival

If there is a natural superiority to the beer engine it is that it allows you to keep your beer in a properly cooled cellar away from the point of dispense. Gravity can be just as good… but due to various practical limitations the odds are often against it.

The story does not end there with respect to comparing cask dispense methods. I have tasted a few beers side-by-side sparkled-and-unsparkled and there appears to be a flavour difference. Albeit this has not been done in a blind tasting situation – just casually in a few northern pubs. The sparkled beers usually appear muted… blunted… you could say “smoother” perhaps. What is behind this? Tight head on a sparkled pint blocking some level of aroma perception perhaps? Is enough CO2 forced out of the beer to perceptively alter acidity? Is there something else there… does the sparkler add a rapid-oxidation effect, with an impact akin to putting wine through a blender to “breathe” it?

And if a change of flavour is evident in sparkled-v-unsparkled cask ale – is there similar between gravity-v-beer-engine? Can a beer engine actually change, and improve, the flavour of beer? I doubt it. But I keep an open mind…

Some further research is required… aka: drinking beer ;)

[1] I’m not saying sparklers make beer flat! If the cask is well kept and contains a good amount of CO2 in solution there will still be a good vol CO2 in the beer post-sparkler. In fact, as I see it, in order to serve non-flat beer sparklers demand the best in cellarmanship. (And perhaps this is why beer is generally kept better up north than it is in, say, London.) That said, I near-always find a sparkled pint is flatter than I would like. I do have a preference for a bit more carbonation in my beer however, dirty foreigner that I am…

[2] Though some are better than others – I pride myself in the quality of the beer at my own festival. But even I, with my pretty good practical knowledge and scientific understanding, cannot have 100% perfect beer at a cask ale festival. Cooling is a pain – even using the fancy CAMRA HQ cooling equipment (this year I had beer getting a bit too cold). And the “time” element is impossible to do anything about (luckily few beers come to a festival with insufficient condition in this day and age, but there are always some.)

Followup: Cask Ale Fallacies

Well, there has certainly been some interesting discussion out of the “Three Cask Ale Fallacies” post. On the back of some of this discussion some updates have been made to that post (all clearly labelled as such). It is time to post a follow-up I think, rather than muddy the waters by adding more updates to my own post.


There is some discussion worth reading on the Boak & Bailey post.


I just want to take a moment to state clearly what I am NOT claiming, and never claimed:

  1. Most importantly: I am NOT claiming that Ed is serving duff beer. I think his process is sound but I challenged some of the methods and justifications. I thought I was very clear in my post that a) I expect Ed serves fantastic beer, and b) I think Ed is the sort of cellar person we need in more pubs.
  2. I am NOT claiming that there is a one-true-way to keep cask ale. This would just be totally bonkers. I just seek to examine the reasons behind certain thinking and practices.
  3. I am NOT claiming that I am an expert on the subject. However, I do consider myself an informed commentator… who is seeking to extend and clarify his own knowledge on the subject.
  4. I am NOT claiming that the general public ought to be aware of any of the technicalities. This is a discussion for people who keep beer or are deeply interested in it. Albeit if I hear “the general public” peddling bullcrap as fact I will sometimes challenge them on it. This most often involves “I’m a CAMRA member” types who’re are proselytizing or trying to “educate”. It happens on the oxygen front predominantly. I suspect I find myself on the receiving end of such education more often than older folk purely because I spend too much time around beer and I’m under the age of 50 (I’m 34, for what that’s worth) and I’m a foreigner (Australian). So it is assumed that I need a proper education in “English beer”. This is usually hilarious… but anyway, I digress.

The conversations coming out of my original post ranged far and wide with all kinds of wild tangents of discussion and heated argument taking place. Even “CAMRA bashing” became the topic at one point. I’m sticking purely to my original points in this post.

1. Oxygen (O2) – needed in secondary/conditioning?

I see my job as the cellarman is to use what the brewer has given me (namely yeast + sugars), add some oxygen, and let rip.

There’s all many of biochemical reasons why oxygen is important – one of the most is allowed aerobic respiration to occur which re-metabolises compounds like diacetyl (produced during anaerobic).

This point hasn’t really been discussed much. I stand by my statement that any requirement for O2 to help/start “secondary” & “conditioning” is a myth.

I don’t know where the diacetyl item comes from… the material linked to in the comments appears to me to claim the opposite. (Find the “OXIDATION” section, it does explain that plenty of oxygen is needed in the wort to ensure a healthy fermentation with little diacetyl production.)

I take it by the lack of discussion on the topic that there isn’t any real technical challenge or counterexample.

With respect to Ed’s cellaring process I don’t think O2 plays any role in the quality of the beer coming out at the tap. When a cask is vented it’ll be ejecting CO2 which will mostly keep air/O2 away from the beer. If the cask is sealed with a nylon peg when it is not active then this ensures O2 continues to stay out of the picture. It won’t be until the beer is served that air/O2 is drawn into the cask as per usual with cask ale. (Where we hit a whole different kettle of fish with respect to the desirability of oxidation to “soften” beer.)

3. “Secondary” (cask conditioning) – does not occur at the brewery?

you say “do any brewers send out beer that isn’t in condition these days though?” Every single one does.

Ever drunk cask beer straight after it’s been racked and tapped? There is no condition in it whatsoever.

There has been a little discussion on this topic but not a lot. I’m standing by my position that _most_ cask beer leaves the brewery with suitable “condition” (sufficient vols CO2) to serve. (Meaning only that there is sufficient CO2, not that the beer is ready to serve… this will depend the beer and maturation required to achieve peak/desired flavour.)

There has been some lighthearted challenge on the use of the term “secondary”. A bit nitpicky perhaps… we all know that it is just a continuation of fermentation, right? And it is common practice to use the term to refer to that phase of fermentation used to achieve sufficient CO2 is in the beer. This “secondary” fermentation might take place in bottle, cask, or tank – and it doesn’t magically cease when the beer leaves the brewery. (Ignoring sterile filtered and/or pasteurised beer of course.)

As for the original point – I fully accept that sometimes beer does leave the brewery without sufficient carbonation. I said as much in my post. There is a variety of reasons for this – the yeast might just be a bit lethargic, possibly due to cold weather, or the brewery might not have given it enough time… and in this latter case I believe it is normal for a brewery to give a warning. It is also not unusual for a pub to reject a beer that does not arrive with a reasonable CO2 level. This has been my personal experience on this subject.

I have asked a few brewers about this in the last week and the uniform answer has been that they don’t let the beer out of the brewery until sufficient time has been given for the beer to reach a desirable carbonation level. (It is an amusing co-incidence that one brewer who I don’t believe was aware of this discussion warned me: you can have this beer but we’ve only just racked it so it will need a week.) The most useful bit of information on the topic I’ve found is a blog post from Jon of Stringers Brewery: Gas, and Hot Air – this discusses tank versus cask conditioning at the brewery, the relevant part of his post is the bit where cask leaves the brewery at 1.4 vols CO2 to be ready for venting at the pub at 1.5 vols CO2 (and will be finally be served below this after being vented).

Why is Ed’s experience of this at odds to the reality? It may be due to venting immediately after shaking the cask… this will cause a violent exit of CO2 from solution. So if you immediately sample the beer from this cask it probably is seemingly flat. However as Ed explains he then gives his beer plenty of time to generate some more CO2 to recover its condition.

My experience of cask ale is that is usually arrives from the brewery well carbonated. It is left on stillage for at least half a day and then vented carefully to try and retain CO2 in solution. Retaining CO2 is ideal for beer festivals, the context in which my own experience lies. I don’t have the experience of a pro cellarman, but I have vented at least 1000 casks in this way across a very wide variety of breweries and beers.

I cannot say whether one or the other method results in better beer. One could ponder that Ed’s violent “whoosh” of CO2 release carries away undesirables – sulphur compounds perhaps that give “green” beer its “Burton Snatch”/struck-match aroma? On the flip-side this could perhaps cause the beer to give up volatile hop aromas that brewers try so hard to keep inside the beer. One for some experimentation perhaps.

2. Yeast rousing (shaking/rocking casks) – is essential for good beer?

This item has been rearranged to be last as it is the “myth” I’m least convinced about. When doing my training I was instructed by a good brewer to *not* agitate casks unnecessarily. I took it as being a strict rule, coming from an experienced chap with a Heriot Watt masters degree. However I’m now thinking this was a “lies for children” sort of instruction… a rule of thumb that hides a hell of a lot more “under the bonnet”.

Where I now stand on this is: know your beer.

The factor that is most important here seems to be finings performance. A complicated subject in which there are several variables to consider (brewery fining practice, chain of supply, yeast properties, beer properties, temperature… at the least). This is why “know your beer” is the rule here.

The main item of interest seems to be performance of finings across “drops”. The feedback seems to go something like: On the first “drop” after the finings have been added to the cask the trub layer will be relatively loose. On the second drop a little tighter. On the third and maybe fourth drops the tightest. After which the finings will start to get “tired” and be less effective. This is the collected anecdotal evidence from several brewers and does not represent a set of hard rules, but seems to be a generally accepted pattern.

If you buy your beer from a brewery that fines their beer when they rack it it would have dropped once after racking. Then a second time after transit to your cellar. Then the third time after you agitate it before putting on stillage. (Unless it has been shaken about additionally along the way!)

If you buy your beer from a distributor then there is probably at least one extra step along the way, likely more! As a new distributor myself I am now ultra-aware of this and will be careful not to move casks unnecessarily in the future.

Obviously there is a vast array of possibilities here. I hear some breweries add finings only when the cask leaves the brewery – so if receiving direct from the brewery it is only on its 1st drop when it hits your cellar. Based on the ideas discussed so far there would seem to be a definite benefit to thorough agitation before putting this cask on stillage.

So, what’s the worst that can happen if you agitate? Due to chain of supply it’ll have been through 6 or more drops and simply won’t clear. (Ever? Or will it just be very slow?)

So, what’s the worse that can happen if you don’t agitate? It’ll be on its 1st or 2nd drop and may not form as tight & small a trub layer as it could – thus you have a higher ullage and you get a lower return on your cask of beer.

There are people who swear by doing it either way… I think perhaps a few more have stated that they do rouse than those who have stated that they don’t. However I’ve not had time to try and find and count all the responses.

Another question is: if a cask has been sat on its end for 24+ hours and you move that cask from that position to being sat on a traditional stillage, what happens to the trub layer and how does it settle without the additional agitation? It was specifically this situation in which I was originally instructed that there was no need to go shaking the cask unnecessary. However that is in opposition to this statement:

I’ve done some searching on the topic but haven’t found anything particularly enlightening. I did find a treasure-trove of interesting beer information along the way however: – in this I found papers on some experimentation with finings performance: Improving the Effectiveness of Isinglass Finings for Beer Clarification by Optimisation of the Mixing Process. Part 1: Laboratory Scale Experiments (Also: Part 2: Pilot Scale, Part 3: Full Size). But whilst these papers are interesting the context is not right in the context of this discussion.

Ed Wray did a little digging to see if he could come up with any data on the topic and came up with: So no definitive answer yet. I suspect it’s one of those questions to which the answer is “it depends”.

Ed Razzall has used his connections to do a little experiment for us all. He’s going to get two glass fronted casks of Ghost Ship from Adnams and treat them both exactly the same way aside from the vigorous agitation pre-stillaging. This is exactly the sort of thing I love… experimental evidence! I’m looking forward to finding out the results. It will not give us a definitive answer to the “do” or “don’t” agitate question… but it will give us a useful and interesting datapoint.


As is often the case more questions are raised than answered. I still stand by my original statements with respect to “myths” 1 (oxygen) and 3 (condition). In the case of myth 2 (rousing) we seem to have hit a clash of two differing schools of thought neither of which has any hard evidence to back itself up or shoot down the other side. Whilst the true answer may be “it depends” – I’d like to know why? Because that’s just the sort of person I am.

But I do accept there may be no clear (haha) answer to some of these questions…

Kat’s IndyManBeerCon Android App

IMBC-Logo-300x272 Last week Kat decided to ask if she could knock up a beer list Android app for the Independent Manchester Beer Convention. The IMBC folk were very busy of course – but were happy to send us a full beer list earlier this week, and so Kat has got the app working just in time… it is a little rough around the edges – but should form a reasonable digital alternative to the paper lists at IMBC. Of course you can’t scribble on the digital version! (Note taking is possible though.) But it does support neat features like filtering and sorting that a paper list doesn’t provide. :)

We’ve been trying to push this onto Google Play but Google Play isn’t playing ball with us for some reason – after a 12 hour wait: still no listing. So, for now, if anyone is really keen on trying out Kat’s app you can do so by downloading the APK directly.

Beer List

Beer List

Filtered List: Thursday, Keg Sorted by %ABV

Filtered List: Thursday, Keg Sorted by %ABV

First your phone will need to be configured to allow apps not from Google Play to be installed. To do this go to: Settings > Security – and then tick the Unknown Sources option. Now: download the APK:


(Don’t worry… we promise it won’t harm your device! It is a very simple app and Kat has some others on Google Play.)

Once the APK is downloaded you can select the download notification and it will ask if you want to install the application. Select “Install” … and we’re done! [You can now untick the Unknown Sources option.]

Launch the app and it’ll download the latest beer list data from our online database – this initial step takes a few seconds to complete, but should be less than a minute.

Beer View - shows location of beer

Beer View – shows location of beer

Brewery View

Brewery View

The blurb about the app features/etc that will (eventually) show up on Google Play is:

** ALPHA – has a few known bugs!

An unofficial 2013 Independent Manchester Beer Convention Beer List app!

We got hold of a sneaky pre-release of the IMBC beer list and adapted our existing beer list app for IMBC. There are a few rough edges still as this was a very last minute job! But the essentials are there…

– List of all IMBC keg & cask ales
– Filter by day (top left of beer list view)
– Filter by cask/keg (top middle of beer list view)
– Sort by name, brewer, or ABV (top right of beer list view)
– Beer location (Room 1, 2, and 3) is in the beer detail view

After installation the list can be live-updated by selecting ‘Refresh’ via the top-far-right menu, we will update things if there are any glaring errors or omissions… so long as we’re sober enough to operate the database.

Finally, as the IMBC list states: “Please note all beers are subject to availability and they could change at the last minute, so please don’t be upset.”

TODO / Future improvements:

1) Re-jig filtering mechanism
2) Add wishlist!!
3) Add search!!
4) Add events and notification
5) Auto-sync the app list with the online database

GBBF: CAMRA Bar Management Training

Bar and Kilderkins

These kils need to be on that scaffold… time for some proper work.

I did my first GBBF this year. My first as a volunteer I mean. Except I wasn’t there just to pull some pints, I was attending the CAMRA Bar Management Training that is held at GBBF every year. What is a “CAMRA Bar Manager” – what does this so-called “training” cover? Some would make jokes about beer gut cultivation (doing fine there on my own alas), choice of correct sandals (was a confirmed sandal wearer before I moved to the UK), and beard growth strategies (follicly challenged in the face department alas). Hey, I make fun of CAMRA too sometimes. However, the training really is a good and useful thing for anyone who wishes to care for cask ale – especially in a beer festival environment.


My fellow GBBF Bar Manager trainees.

How do you get to do it?
The training is for CAMRA members and you need to be nominated by your regional director. In my case I was lucky to have been pushed into it along with a colleague from North Herts CAMRA branch because our festivals lacked technical knowledge, plus as of this year we’re running a festival in summer and this requires cooling equipment. Under some guidance I’ve done most of the “cellar” for the last couple of festivals, and looked after the cooling at the last festival. (Luckily we had the GBBF technical director to hand to give us a crash-course.) I say “under some guidance” but there are only a couple of folk in the branch who’s guidance I particularly trust, whilst I’ve had some downright suspect instructions from others! Basically I was a little confused and certainly lacking confidence.

If you’re interested in doing the training I suggest that first you need to be involved with your local branch and have an interest in running festivals. If your branch lacks technical knowledge (many seem to) and you’re keen, you probably have a good chance of getting on the course. (However numbers are limited, so if at first you don’t succeed…). This year the course had people along ranging from 18 years old through to (at a guess) well into their 60s. We only had one woman on the course, which isn’t surprising I guess – is that in line with active membership or below? For my branch it is certainly below. Anyway – one is better than none. The trainees had travelled from all over, a chap even harking from the Isle of Man – plus a dude from the US doing the course as part of some exchange programme.

Scaffold Training

We learnt how to put together this modular scaffold stuff. (Not rocket science… but there are some tricks to it.)

What is covered?
A suffusion of beer festival information! The course is misnamed in a way. Whilst set-up and care of cask ale was core, we also had sessions on health and safety, risk assessment & insurance, ordering kit from HQ, foreign beer, beer flaws & infections, dispense technicalities (a keykeg made an appearance – yes, they can be perfectly OK as “real ale”), scaffolding, beer logistics & stock management, and cider. So really you could call this a “festival organiser course”, I think I probably could have a go at running a whole festival now (if I was that masochistic).

The course is a mix of theory sessions, hands-on practical sessions, and for the majority of the time plain old hard graft behind a GBBF bar. Every trainee is given to a GBBF bar manager (Buster Grant from Brecon Brewery in my case) and expected to get stuck into all aspects of looking after the bar (whilst trying not to get in the way too much).

Beer beasties!

Beer nasties under the microscope in the GBBF QA lab. They take this stuff seriously.

GBBF trainee schedule, in brief…
I arrived on Saturday August 10th, signed in and immediately reported to Buster – for the first two days trainees are handed straight over to their managers to provide extra muscle for set-up. First job: kils are arriving on pallets and need to be up on stillage. Cooling was hooked up. Beer lines and pumps set up and cleaned.

A typical GBBF stillage exists in two distinct parts – one is what you see behind the bar: a scaffolding structure with a lower and an upper deck where casks are sitting under cooling jackets. Part of the art of setting this up is deciding where to put the casks in order to aid efficient take-down. I.e. under Buster’s system the 1st and 2nd casks on are all out to the edges so that the outer cooling systems can be broken down early. There is no prescriptive one-way-to-do-things however, and each GBBF bar manager has developed their own methods and tricks. There are some constraints of course, such as: there are typically 4 kilderkins of each beer and these need to be arranged such that the line from a given hand-pump is able to reach them all. (Having done this GBBF I can very much see why kils are a necessity!) [Edit: I forgot to explain the “second part” – this is a huge refrigerated box located behind the stillage that has the other half of the beer in it. Up on a double-layer scaffold. The cooler boxes are much simpler to set up and manage and some think it should all be done that way as it is so much easier – however others think the “look and feel” of a festival is not as good without all the kils out on display.]

The first casks were vented and tapped on Sunday so they would be ready for the “trade session” on Tuesday. Through the week the remaining casks are vented, tapped, and hooked up to lines as required. Twice a day the volume of beer in the casks that are on is measured with a dipstick and this feeds in to deciding when to vent the next-casks-in-line. When a cask runs dry it is sealed up and moved to “the crypt” at the end of the day.

This all amounts to a truly epic operation. Have a look at the crypt for an idea of the scale of things… (you can drag the image around for a full 360-degree experience… Google did NOT make this easy to achieve!)

The actual coursework and theory of the training is held in sessions from Monday through to Friday. Monday is a quiet day for a good bar team anyway – as most of the set-up is done and it is just a matter of spit-and-polish. A day of rest before the beer-drinking hoards hit the festival on Tuesday. Throughout the weekdays trainees split their time between the sessions and helping out at their bars wherever they can be of use. Everything from beer technicalities to serving customers at the bar – plus quite a bit of mopping at times.

Colin thirsty for hops...

Colin thirsty for hops… enjoying a beer in the Voly after another long GBBF day sitting on my head.

The reward at the end of every night is time for a couple of free pints in the “Volunteers Arms” (aka “the voly”) - the staff-only bar (with over 200 different beers on over the course of GBBF – it is a beer-festival within a beer-festival). It was a long week with post-voly bedtime most nights being about 2AM. However we didn’t need to be on-site until 10AM(ish) so that’s not all that bad.

At the end of the final day, within 2 hours of 5pm “time at the bar”, all casks and equipment were off stillage and on pallets. On Sunday the 18th, my last day, I was mostly in the crypt sorting and stacking dead casks. One final batch of hard graft before scooting home on the train for a much needed night in my own bed before heading back to office drudgery on Monday.

It was a long 9 days – and the seriously hardcore volunteers have a couple more either side to make it about 2 weeks on-site. Dedication to cask ale!


The handpumps of Bar 19.

Cask ale care…
(especially with my own festival in mind)…
All the topics covered interested me. (Well, to be honest: the cider session was a nightmare). But I was really there for the beer. How does one serve cask ale in good form? Unfortunately there isn’t 100% agreement on this! However most disagreement comes down to peripheral issues like whether or not venting tools were good and how you should arrange beers on stillage. The term “dark art” came up more than once. However there was enough of a consensus for me to build up a plan for my next festival. I’m lucky enough to have one that isn’t complex – we have 1 cask of each beer (a mix of firks and kils) and they all go on at once for 2.5 days of service starting Thursday evening. Here’s my rough timeline - feel free to critique it. Please.

  1. Monday: (preferable) or Tuesday (ASAP) get all casks on stillage and under cooling.
    • Would prefer Monday with casks sitting overnight before venting, but that incurs the cost of an extra night of overnight security.
    • Conflict exists about whether or not to be variously violent with casks to “redistribute muck and finings”. My position is violence here doesn’t seem necessary. Plus they have already been rolled around the ground quite a bit at this stage.
    • Conflict exists here with respect to use of soft/hard pegs. My position is that soft pegs should only be used where casks exhibit excessive activity. Hard pegs should be applied as soon as activity dies down.
    • Ideally casks should have a few hours to sit at this point prior to venting.
  2. Tuesday: vent and tap all casks.
    • Hard pegs firmly in all casks unless there is excessive activity.
  3. Wednesday AM: 1st check of beers.
    • If good mark as “OK”, otherwise mark as appropriate – making note of any particular taints or excessive haze.
  4. Wednesday PM/evening: 2nd check of beers.
    • If good mark as “OK”. Any still with with excessive haze that hasn’t changed since the 1st check to be tested for overnight with isinglass and aux finings (if possible).
  5. Thursday AM: 3rd check of beers.
    • If determined that finings should be added to any beers, do it now. Carefully & in-place, using a funnel and bent tube. (This is how it is done at GBBF.)
  6. Thursday pre-opening:
    • Check any non-“OK” beers before opening. Attach/flip their cask-end-cards for “OK” beers. Soft spiles in “OK” casks for duration of service.
  7. Thursday end-of-night: Stock-take with dip-sticks, and hard spiles in all beers.
  8. Friday pre-opening: Check any beers not yet “OK”. “OK” them if possible.
  9. Friday end-of-night: Stock-take with dip-sticks, and hard spiles in all beers, perhaps plastics in any below half-full.
  10. Saturday pre-opening: Check, “OK”, etc…
  11. Saturday end-of-night: It’s all over!
    • Pack up as much kit as possible before bed as it all needs to be packed and off-site by Sunday arvo.

This isn’t actually a massive change from my usual schedule – but it does contain more detail and care than previously! Any glaring problems in the schedule? Please let me know in the comments or on Twitter… Some trivialities are omitted, it is the general timeline that’s the important part. It contains things I did not do before, such as:

  • Much more fine-grained checking of the beer in the lead-up to opening.
  • Using finings on beers that really don’t seem to want to drop bright.
  • Regular stock-taking throughout the festival (we need a flexi dipstick!)

My primary goal at any beer festival is: serve an enjoyable pint of beer. Sometimes the beer works against you and it seems to be a given that less-than-perfect pints are not unexpected at CAMRA festivals. I wish this were not so. We should be shining a light upon what a good pint of cask ale can be. Alas the beer works against you sometimes. I have had perfectly fine tasting beer arrive dead flat. What do I do then? I’d like to mark it as crap and send it back to the brewer – cue frustrating arguments. If it tastes fine, has condition, but carries a little haze or “cast” (a very very light haze) I put a note on the cask-end card and tell the bar staff to give prior warning along the lines of “it tastes perfect, but has a little haze to it”. (When we have unfined beers this is perfectly OK of course – though this is more difficult to explain to staff, let alone customers!) Anyway – enough of an aside here, this paragraph is what comes from my personal experience prior to GBBF. (GBBF training cannot offer any silver bullets for these issues.)

These are the tools of the beer QA/lab.

These are the tools of the GBBF Beer-QA lab. Probably a bit more than I really need…

Tools & Toys…
My branch has a couple of toolboxes. Mostly they’re full of rusting relics. Post-training we’re going to have to audit the selection… and we already have a shopping list! Perhaps more on that another time, “The CAMRA Bar Manager’s Toolbox”?

One interesting point is the obvious issue of returning part-full casks. We just hammer in the hard spile and put a cork in the end. While this is clearly not sufficient to stop beer leaking out I’d figured it was simply “the done thing” as it is the thing that is done. After having worked at GBBF, with an actual brewer as a bar manager, I now know this is one of the things that can make brewers quite grumpy. So… want to keep your friendly brewers friendly? Your festival should have a de-shiving tool and sufficient replacement shives and bungs. Any beers returned with a lot still in the casks should have new shives and bungs fitted and ideally be marked as part-full. If the beers were “wrong” in some way this should be marked in some way too – red tape over the bung helps to identify casks with a possible infection. We shall be obtaining such a tool (a sturdy screwdriver can do the job, but the correct tool is easier & safer) and some bags of shives & bungs.

GBBF bar banner

Featuring “Let There Be Beer” – a travesty.

I have great personal conflict & angst over my involvement in CAMRA. On the one hand I think cask ale is great and worthy of advocacy, I love the CAMRA community, and I love being involved in and going to beer festivals. On the other hand I  have found the organisation’s vague support for pubs disheartening – though that seems to have improved greatly in the last year. I’m regularly angered over CAMRA’s willingness to be an advertising-front for JD Wetherspoon and their friendliness with some “brewers” who’re also actively destroying pubs. More recently, I’m really irate about their ill-conceived involvement with this whole Let There Be Beer shambles. LTBB is primarily (solely) promoting big-brand beers available on the cheap from your local supermarket. This does nothing for cask ale and is actively anti-pub.

I swing between really enjoying being a part of CAMRA and feelings of ARGH, CAMRA! *angryface* I QUIT! (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

I have, quite inaccurately, split the target of these feelings between “what normal CAMRA people do” and “what HQ decides”. HQ gets the anger pointed in their direction and meanwhile I get on with beery things with the normal CAMRA folk. The ones who love beer, enjoy beer festivals, and mostly just want to have a good time. Whilst doing so they hope that they can help others discover the beer they love to drink and ensure its availability in the future. We are volunteers putting our own time into something we love. GBBF is the product of 10s of thousands of hours of volunteer time – I can’t help but be impressed by that, and be proud to have been a member of the 2013 GBBF team.

I’ll be back.


I did it all for this – I’m official now. Look – it has a shiny sticker on it!

Complete photo-set:

KeyKeg, KeyCask, and what is “Real Ale” anyway?


Key Cask © KeyKegWhat is “KeyCask“? Last year I had it from the manufacturer that “KegKeg”[1] and “KeyCask” are the same thing, the assumption on my part being that the latter is merely a re-branding to make it less contentious amongst cask ale drinkers. To quote KeyKeg’s tweeted response to me:

KeyKeg = KeyCask. KeyKeg is perfectly suited for Real Ale. CAMRA acknowledged this. KeyKegs for Ale will be branded as KeyCasks.” (20th Aug 2012)

On the other hand a CAMRA internal post on the matter states:

In KeyCask the bladder is made from a semi-permeable material to allow reaction of the beer with oxygen.” (23rd May 2012 — CAMRA login required I’m afraid.)

In essence there is some confusion on the subject — and several Twitter conversations I have had over the last few months imply I’m not the only one who is uncertain. The only relevant information I can find on the KeyKeg website states “Special laminated inner bag for Ale” — does “special” mean “oxygen permeable”? Meanwhile the KeyKeg online shop lists just KeyKeg as an option for purchase, but perhaps the elusive KeyCask is only available wholesale?

I have no clear confirmation one way or the other on this one. I have sent the KeyKeg folk an email asking if they can provide any further information on the subject.

Update 2013-02-28

Now here we have it, lifted straight from a Lightweight Containers newsletter:

The KeyCask has now become a full-fledged member of the KeyKeg family. Several English and German ale brewers have opted to fill their ales in KeyCasks. With the exception of the name and the instructions on the packaging, the KeyCask is still identical to the KeyKeg – for now.

However, the Lightweight Containers R&D department is continually testing new types of inner bags for the KeyCask. If a different type of inner bag may turn out to perform even better for particular ales, it will be installed instead. For the time being, ale brewers are completely satisfied with KeyCasks. They keep the ales fresher for much longer, which suddenly means that ales can be exported.

Read on for the original KeyKeg/KeyCask oxygen WTF-confusion… but really there is no need, as it was just that: confusion. KeyKeg = KeyCask (“for now”) and for the life of me I can’t imagine why this shouldn’t be the case. If, for example, beer racked off “bright” to a poly can be served at a festival as “real ale” (it can) then KeyKeg is certainly no different. Better yet you do have the option of conditioning in KeyKeg, I spoke to Batemans brewery folk at Craft Beer Rising last weekend and they said they had been experimenting with this with definite success. I don’t think KeyKeg is always the ideal solution — but it seems like a good option for pubs with lower turnover or pubs that’d like to put something a bit stronger on that may not sell fast enough to make a 9g cask a good idea. There’s also factors of reduced transport weight and no need for container return. Anyway, more on that another time… perhaps.

However the debate doesn’t stop there — exactly why must the bladder be “semi-permeable” in the first place, why does this matter?

The CAMRA internal post on the subject has a short comment thread attached that asks some pertinent questions:

“Could do with a bit more detail here. For example: the difference between a keykeg and a keycask how to prevent one being passed off as the other what are the venting difficulties? Is there a technical report I can see?” — Peter Alexander (23rd May 2012)

From the perspective of a CAMRA volunteer running beer festivals this is a somewhat important question. Regardless of my personal views on cask/keg I want to work within the rules when running a CAMRA festival. If there is a real difference and CAMRA really only approves of one of them then us festival buyers/organisers need to know how to tell which is which. However Hardknott brewer David Bailey then asks:

“Not sure why semi-permeable bags are needed. Why do we want beer to come into contact with oxygen? Oxygen makes beer go off, not improve it. What is the problem with beer that is conditioned in the container from which it is dispensed and dispensed without any contact with extranious gas?” — David Bailey (24rd May 2012)

This was my initial reaction on hearing about the whole semi-permeable/oxygen issue. I don’t remember seeing a CAMRA definition for “real ale” that says it needs to come into contact with oxygen. The primary online CAMRA definition of “real ale” makes no mention of oxygen — then again it is pretty useless in any technical sense. All we can really garner from this definition is that secondary fermentation in cask/bottle/final-container-of-your-choice is the important part — making it “living” beer.[2]

With tank-conditioned beer going into cask near-bright for speedy pub sale being not uncommon I wonder if any of these definitions hold up in practice. Can you tell if a cask breather is being used, or if the cask ale you’re drinking was tank-conditioned and racked off near bright? What if it was tank-conditioned with injected CO² — does cylinder CO² taste different to that farted out by yeast? No. Pubs are excluded from the Good Beer Guide if they’re known to use cask breathers — even though others who do use them are often in there. (How many CAMRA branches ask their GBG pubs to confirm they never use breathers — how do they ever know for certain?) If pubs start using KeyCask then things get murkier still because even fewer branches are going to understand these newfangled devices or whether they’re being used correctly within the definition of “real ale”.

What we need if we’re to pursue “real ale” realistically are guidelines that normal people can read and understand. Ignore the container, ignore everything up until the point that you have a drinking receptacle full of beer in your hand, and from there beer in your mouth. People who like traditional beer can then rate it on their perception of carbonation level, temperature, flavour and overall quality — which is JUST AS IT IS CURRENTLY DONE in practice. But then the waters get muddied by all these borderline technicalities that have little to do with the quality of the beer.

The “definition” of “real ale” we have is inadequate, and unmeasurable in any case. It is little better than “craft beer”. What is “real ale”: “I knows it when I sees it!” — no, you just think you do.

[1] For the unaware, what KeyKeg/Cask is is essentially a “bag inside a ball“, the foiled bag contains the beer and the polycarbonate ball holds everything together under pressure. This all comes in a neat cardboard enclosure to hold it upright. You need a KeyKeg coupler to connect this up to a dispense system — as with any other keg. Typically you get beer out of the keg by introducing gas (CO² or pressurised air) between the ball and the bag, thus squeezing the beer out of the bag. Alternatively you could suck beer out of the bag with a straw if you’re desperate — or a proper hand-pump will do the trick too. Leave the air inlet on the coupler open, and the beer engine will happily pump beer out of the bag. I’ve successfully hooked beer engines up to KeyKegs at a beer festival, it works pretty well.

[2] The published “What is Real Ale” page leaves a lot to be desired. Not only is its definition of “real ale” of little technical value it makes other brash inaccurate statements, which you could call “lies” I guess: “Brewery-conditioned, or keg, beer has a longer shelf life as it is not a living product.” That’s a mean & misleading thing to be telling the general drinking public. Firstly I know of “brewery conditioned” beer that goes into cask as a “living product” so this term is not a synonym for “keg”. Secondly I know of “keg” beer that is unfiltered and unpasteurised and tastes incredibly good. Beer does not exist in a black and white world of “cask” and “keg”, as much as CAMRA policy continues to espouse the idea that it does. And “Why isn’t all beer real?” — seriously? *goesforapintofunrealbeer*. Sometimes I’m vaguely ashamed to be a CAMRA member, let alone an active one.