Blog by Nigel Walsh


The Cask Whisperer Tackles the Tough Subjects: Sparklers



Blog by Nigel Walsh


The Cask Whisperer Tackles the Tough Subjects: Sparklers

What is the deal with sparklers?

Everybody seems to have an opinion on them… a contentious, nay, viral opinion on them.

Check it out on the interwebs, I did.

You will find seemingly innocent posts from all manner of reasonable bloggers, and both objective and subjective ‘discussions’ in well regarded beer-centric publications, and then read down to the comments; there will be many comments, most of them ending up in total flame wars… ugly, ugly flame wars.

Just don’t attempt to find out what the late great Michael Jackson thought of sparklers in an attempt to settle the issue; if you do try to track down any of his writings on the subject, you will instead find many disturbing images of the King of Pop spontaneously combusting. Not a pretty sight… almost as ugly as those flame (oh dear) wars.

But what about the Cask Whisperer? Surely, he has an opinion on sparklers.

Well, no.

I happen to have several opinions on them, apparently mostly conflicting, but ultimately reassuring, well to me at least.

Before we get on to my thoughts, let’s get a little background:

  • A sparkler is a small widget not unlike a shower head with small holes, that fits over the end of the spout of a handpump beer engine.
  • You will not find one on a gravity cask tap.
  • You will not find one on a traditional Scottish tall (Aitken) font; it doesn’t need one, as the air pressure basically turns the entire device into one giant sparkler.
  • Its intended purpose is to put a thick foamy head on a pint (it really must be a pint) of beer, and to give that beer a smooth creamy mouthfeel; think Guinness, or better yet, canned Boddies.
  • It is beloved by those folks in the UK who live north of [insert place name here], and derided by the folks (well, some of them) from the south.
  • Here in the US, it is pretty much the default; why is that?

So, if you have been following the Cask Whisperer background story closely (as I am sure you all have), you will remember that I spent as much time drinking in the north (well, Scotland) as in the south, and have spent most of my drinking career in the States.

It will go a long way towards explaining my rabid ambivalence.

Does a sparkler damage a beer as some claim, by disrupting the natural carbonation that the brewer and the cellarmaster worked so hard to impart in it, or does it enhance the flavor, and the experience of the drinker, by balancing out any rough edges that the raw beer may have?

In my opinion it does both, although damage may be too strong a word; what it really does is change the character of the beer, and it essentially changes the ‘style’ of the beer.

If you have ever sampled both the sparkled and unsparkled versions of the same beer, you will see exactly what I am talking about.

If you haven’t tried both methods of dispense but have tasted the same brew through a handpump (sparkled or unsparkled) and straight from the cask via a gravity pour, you will also get the idea.

The physics appears to change the chemistry, and not necessarily in a bad way.

Going back to those tall fonts in Scotland; when I lived in Edinburgh almost all of the real ale that was available at that time was served via air pressure, and it worked for the three general types of 70/- (heavy) and 80/- (export) ales available then.

Both Youngers and McEwans real ales were pale, slightly sweet, and malt-forward, Maclays and Lorimers looked more like traditional amber bitters but were also sweetish and malty, and Belhaven practically served as the model Scotch Ale you see around here, dark amber and malty sweet; add the foamy head and creamy body from the tall fonts and you have the perfect image of a Scottish beer.

You would think that was just how the brewers intended their beers to taste and look (important), at least for the local population, and maybe it was.

But there was one exception to the traditional dispense, the Grey Horse in Balerno, just southwest of the city served its Belhaven 80/- directly from the cask, and it looked and tasted like a different beer entirely; still dark and malty, but a previously unnoticed bitterness shone through, giving it an intensely raw balance. It looked very inviting as well; not flat, but with a small delicate head, ranging from scuzzy to frothy. Wonderful stuff.

Going in the other direction, the venerable Churchkey in DC serves all of its cask beers through sparkled handpumps (I have forgiven them) regardless of beer style or place of origin, including in the past, some southern UK mainstays such as Adnams Ghost Ship and Southwold Bitter and Harvey’s Sussex Best.

All three beers were awesome, not ruined at all but just different, and that difference really leaps out at you in the Sussex Best, which I would consider to be the most quintessential southern hop-forward bitter, not brewed by Shepherd Neame.

Real praise from this poor southern boy, whose stated preference has always been for intense, flat, bitter beers with just a few scummy bubbles on top; why is that?

And here we come to one of the Cask Whisperer’s primary philosophies on cask beer:

  • I drink cask because of the joy of anticipation that I get with each and every new pint.
  • Because of the nature of the product, each pint has the potential to be different from the one that just preceded it, or the same one that I had yesterday.

So why should I have an issue with how this next pint is to be dispensed?

Enjoy the adventure folks!

Now, of course this could all just be me, having my head full of empty bubbles…

Scorecard w/e 08/29/23

In the past week, The Cask Whisperer has enjoyed the following casks:

  • Barrier Simple: Lager @ Jones Wood Foundry
  • Wild East Radiance @ Jones Wood Foundry
  • Transmitter Ginger Lemongrass Saison @ Jones Wood Foundry

And remembered the following casks:

  • Belhaven 80/- @ The Grey Horse
  • Adnams Ghost Ship @ Churchkey
  • Adnams Southwold Bitter @ Churchkey
  • Harvey’s Sussex Best @ Churchkey

Upcoming Cask Festivals

09/09/2023: 8th Annual Noah Webster Real Ale Harvest Fest

* Check out their Instagram feed for some previews.


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