Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - August 2003
The myth of the “traditional Northern head” does good beer no favours
BODDINGTONS BITTER is advertised as “the Cream of Manchester”, and it’s almost become an article of faith that Northern beer is served with a thick collar of foam. But, in reality, that’s a surprisingly recent tradition. I suspect the idea that Northerners like a big head on their beer has its origins in the 60s when many outlets, particularly working men's clubs, switched over to metered dispense and 24oz oversized glasses, often associated with tank beer. Before then, it probably amounted to no more that the fact that pubs in the industrial North turned their beer over more quickly than those in the rural South, and so tended to serve it with more of a natural head.
Even in the mid-80s, the now ubiquitous swan neck pipes on handpumps were largely confined to Yorkshire. On this side of the Pennines, a short neck with an adjustable metal sparkler ring was normal, sometimes with the sparkler replaced by a plastic agitator crudely but descriptively referred to as a “dog’s dick”. Typical heads from handpumps were nowhere near as thick as they are now, and there were several country pubs in Cheshire featured in the Good Beer Guide still using gravity dispense.
But, in the late 80s and early 90s, brewers and pub companies seized on the idea of the swan-neck and tight sparkler as a way of ensuring that every pint of real ale looked the same in a way that appealed to casual drinkers, even if in the process much of the character had been knocked out of the beer. Swan neck dispense and thick, creamy heads can all too easily reduce real ale to a lowest common denominator by flattering the appearance of poor, tired beer while taking the edge off distinctive flavours.
Real ale in good condition should have something of a head, and if it comes out looking completely flat the odds are it’s well past its best. But, in this part of the world, a move towards serving beer with a shallower, looser head would give drinkers more taste and more value for money, and also make it far more obvious in which pubs beer was being looked after properly.
Scrapping electric meters in favour of free-flow dispense is a bad idea in every way
REGULAR FOLLOWERS of this column will know of my affection for metered electric pumps, which were once commonplace around here and the standard method of real ale dispense across large areas of the North and Midlands. They gave a guaranteed full measure while also ensuring a consistent pint by eliminating any variability in bar staff technique. Unfortunately, over the past twenty years, they have steadily been removed, generally in favour of handpumps. While these don’t provide full measures at least they give a clear indication that the beer on offer is real.
But a recent trend in several local Robinson’s pubs is to replace metered dispense and oversize glasses with free-flow electric pumps and brim measures. Surely this is the worst of both worlds, losing the guarantee of full measure while not providing any sign that they are dispensing cask beer. Indeed many drinkers are likely to mistake them for keg dispensers. If metered pumps are to be chucked out, then handpumps are the only reasonable replacement for any pub with a commitment to cask beer.