Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Size Matters


Well they do say that don't they? Of course it all depends on context and to some extent disposition, circumstance and perspective, but when it comes to cask beer containers, size matters very much and in a specific way. Size must equate to turnover and freshness. "Container" by the way, is the generic trade name for the vessel from which your beer is dispensed and is divided into various sizes, the most common of which is the nine or firkin, but eighteens (kilderkins or just kils for short)are still very common. They are both sub divisions of "barrel" which is 36 Imperial Gallons. There are others sizes too.

Why the lecture? Well, I like to read the blogs of various people in The Publican. Not just our own dear Pete Brown, but when he appears, Chris Maclean, who is a a Shep's landlord and old school. He therefore appeals to my way of seeing things by and large. In his latest column here, Chris calls for wider availability of the "pin", a vessel of 4.5 gallons which used to be common, (often seen on a stillage on the bar in winter and containing something dark, strong and warming,) but sometimes too, utilised in the cellar for slow moving beers.

If you've never seen a metal pin then you won't know how cute they are. That's part of the problem. They are very desirable, nickable even and they are relatively expensive to buy too. Modern automated cask washers often can't handle them, so they have to be hand washed, thus increasing costs. While they offer the possibility of fresher beer to low turnover outlets, they mean that less beer might be ordered from the brewery as publicans downsize to a pin. The upshot is that for all these reasons and more, most breweries simply don't supply them.

I moaned the other day about dodgy pints, though that was probably aimed more at breweries than publicans and while probably not what I had in mind, no doubt container size plays a part in some cases. Metal pins may well be too expensive an answer, but I can't help but think Chris has a point. Surely the breweries could do something to modify a polypin, say with an integrated demand valve that vented off excess CO2 - like the Race spile - and an adapted tap to which a line to the handpump could be readily attached - thus solving the cost problem? I sympathise with the argument that for some, offering a guest beer or a seasonal one in a pin, is just less risky and costly than buying a nine. It is less risky for the customer too in these outlets.

These days few breweries supply beer in anything other than nines or eighteens. A few high volume outlets will still take barrels and there is still the odd Joey Holt's house with the mighty hogshead, (54's) but surely anything that helps shift cask beer, maintains quality and offers more choice and less wastage must be worth a go?

I have visited Joseph Holt's store of hogsheads. An impressive sight indeed. One of my mates used to be a Rochdale and Manor Brewery Manager and before that, a drayman. He tells me tales of handling wooden hogsheads that would have you rushing for your steel toecaps!

27 comments:

Velky Al said...

when I eventually get a hand pump for the home bar I want to build, in time, and given the money, I am hoping to rig up some way of attaching it to a polypin - I may have to call of the spirit of my dad's regiment, Rough Engineering Made Easy!

Curmudgeon said...

I was told recently that the Davenport Arms at Woodford (which one might not have expected to have their highest turnover of mild) was the only Robinson's pub still to take Hatters Mild in barrels, and the number of their pubs taking Unicorn Bitter in barrels was now only just in double figures.

On the pins issue I've always tended to feel that if a pub can't shift 72 pints of a beer in 3 days it probably shouldn't be selling it anyway. But, if the economics can be made to work, perhaps it's worth giving it a go.

Ed said...

We have some pins at the brewery I work at, though they're not cute as they're really cut down firkins. And to be honest I find them a bit of pain. I'd rather people just bought at least a firkin at a time.

I'm not sure your modified polypin idea would work, as they're quite pricey as it is. Cypherco do make plastic pins which might be of use to some people.

MicMac said...

I read a while back that Norfolk micro, Buffy was adapting handpumps to serve beer from polypins. As well as the smaller volume for less busy outlets, it had the added advantage that without the staling effects of air, polypin beer lasts a good bit longer than an open cask.

Tandy - you mentioned Race spiles, surely these little wondrous inventions could be used (instead of pins) in a lot of low-volume pubs, as it's said they can extend the life of a cask to c.2 weeks I think?

I'd not heard about pins not being suitable for cask-washers, but I guess that most microbreweries cask-washers could cope with them.

Cooking Lager said...

Could polypins be used also as a cheap method of supplying cask beer to the off trade, being presumably recyclable and cheap plastic?

Paul Bailey said...

Some interesting points raised here, by several correspondents, and speaking as a former licensee I will attempt to address some of them.

First pins. Yes they are attractive, and for that reason the few breweries, such as Harveys, that still use them charge a substantial deposit to any outlet taking them. (£50 in the case of Harveys).
I do agree with Mudgie though that if a pub can't shift 72 pints of beer in 3 days, then it probably shouldn't be selling it.

Secondly, Race Spiles. They certainly do extend the life of beer in a cask, principally because they only admit air as beer is drawn off. This device is a vast improvement on the standard cellar practice of removing the hard-spile whilst the pub is open for business.
I would however, dispute that they can extend the life of a cask to 2 weeks! One week would be the maximum achievable, in my experience, but that is twice the life without using a Race Spile!

Third. Connecting a handpump to a polypin. Westons Cider provided our off-licence with such a system. The cider was supplied in 20 litre "bag-in-a-box" type polypins. These have a much more flexible inner liner than traditional polypins, consisting of a similar material to that used in wine boxes. Westerham Brewery supply their beers to private customers in this type of polypins, and provided the beer within is not too lively this system can easily be adapted for hand-pump dispense. (Westons provided an adaptor that fitted onto the tap of these "bag-in-a-box" type polypins.

Finally, I remember hogsheads being delivered to certain Manchester pubs, back in my student days. Certainly Holts were using them, but I also believe that Boddingtons and Wilsons had them as well.
Those were the days!!

Paul Garrard said...

"but surely anything that helps shift cask beer, maintains quality and offers more choice and less wastage must be worth a go?
" - too bloody right!

If it extents choice or allows some pubs to be a bit daring with their selection then it has to be good.

Barm said...

Or folk could just use a cask breather.

Paul Bailey said...

Or a Race Spile, Barm!!

Kieran Haslett-Moore said...

Velky Al, Cornelius kegs can be used to 'cask codition' beer at home and be rigged to a beer engine with relative ease.

RedNev said...

I agree with Curmudgeon: if you can't sell 72 pints of real ale before it goes off, you probably haven't got a market for it, so why bother? I would imagine that anything smaller would be quite fiddly for a busy licensee to deal with in relation to the return s/he will get from it. It would take as much time and effort to prepare and serve a 36 pint cask as a 72 pint one. There's also the question of space in the cellar. The unit cost at the brewery would obviously be higher, and I can see licensees being faced with complaints if that had an effect on prices. Nice idea, but it won't catch on.

Mark, Real-Ale-Reviews.com said...

I never expected you to utter the words 'cute' about anything Tandleman...

Tandleman said...

@RedNev, @Curmudgeon: In principle I agree with you, but still seems to me tohave limited use for some.

@MicMac: The Race spile deserves wider use IMO

@Barm: I have no ideological objections to a breather in some limited situations

@MarkRAR: I'm just a big softy. Ask anyone.

Penny said...

Are you feeling a bit frisky? Your blog post titles are getting very fruity:) Has summer, or someone, put a spring in your step?

Tandleman said...

Life in the old dog yet Pen!

Barm said...

It's more of the polarisation of the cask beer market. At one end the moribund pubs that can't sell a firkin in a week, at the other the pubs that sell a firkin in two hours.

ChrisM said...

Many real ale breweries offer bag in box polypins these days, and the connectors for hand pumps are widely available. If it's served in this way it's difficult to tell the difference. The beer in bag in box polypins also stays fresher for longer due to the bag compressing around the remaining beer and allowing less oxidation. Race valves are also a good idea, but my experience is that they don't extend the life of the beer by a great amount as there is still air in the cask as soon as some beer is drawn off. Cask breathers on the other hand... ;-)

ChrisM said...

Also, I really wish more beer was available in larger casks, especially for beer festivals, as firkins are just too small! It really annoys me that breweries like Fullers are happy to put London Pride in kils but only sell ESB and the rest in firkins, no matter how much throughput you have. Where's the logic!?

chris maclean said...

It's saddening that views are polarised into "at one end the moribund pubs that can't sell a firkin in a week, at the other the pubs that sell a firkin in two hours."
For pubs that would wish to develop cask beers, or for those who would wish to expand the range, the option of a container unit smaller than 9 gallons would be welcome.
Would you try a new cereal brand if it only came in a 50 kg bag? No.

Tandleman said...

@chris maclean. Polarised views are common in blogging, but I still reckon you have made a good point. It seems likely though that nimble micros are more likely to take up the challenge. Bigger breweries still seem to think they know best, in a lot of cases at least.

Reanna said...

Of course size matters, but as you say it's all in context. It's all what you are planning to do with it really.

A smaller one may just be right in some circumsatnces, but then there's always a time and a place for something much bigger.

Sorry, I'm still on the "Drinking a pint of cask is like making love to a beautiful woman" thread:)

You're a very naught blogger:)

Tandleman said...

This blog not only informs, but thrills. (-;

Reanna said...

If you're ever in Hampstead, look me up:)

Tyson said...

I think the "if a pub can't sell 72 pints in 3 days" is "old skool" thinking that goes back to when nearly everywhere sold cask. There are plenty of places that could sell cask, if not to that timetable

First stop should be the Race Spile. In my experience, this does give it a crucial few more days. Of coursw we can't mention cask breathers...but polypins are a safe bet. I've hooked up Phoenix pins to handpumps without any problems.

MicMac said...

A comment on The Publican site alerted me to the news that GK sell Abbot in pins - a pleasant surprise to hear this from such a big brewery.

Gazza Prescott said...

We bought 10 of the Cypherco plastic pins as we intend to put stronger beers in them once we're producing full-time.

The main reason for plastic (all our casks are plastic, quite ironic when we're called Steel City, but hey) was that they're at least half the price of metal ones and hopefully won't get knicked as often, although homebrewers will have any pin they can get!

I disagree fundamentally with the comment about if a pub can't sell a 9 in 3 days it shouldn't sell beer - are we trying to improve the variety and scope of cask or not? Pins may be fiddly, not fit on auto-tilters (a big problem these days) and give less saleable beer per volume but they're the way forwards for many pubs wishing to sell cask who currently can't or those who want to sell a stronger beer but can't.

And they're cute.

StringersBeer said...

Yep, the plastic pins are OK - altho' not 1/2 the price of a plastic 9 - shame. We have some, mainly for QC. But we have a couple of customers who'll take a pin .

It's not hard to connect soft pvc tube to the tap on some polypins (put a screw clip on for security). Some "vent" a polypin with a dart (or similar pointed device) and use a dab of sticky tape to keep it closed between sessions. It's worth noting that while the tap on your classic homebrew "barrel" is often dificult to get hose onto, many of them screw in on a 3/4 bsp thread - you can replace this with an alternative fitting - e.g. a more suitable valve) to which a regular burr and tail can be attached at a later date.

The problem with transporting containers with fittings (taps) attached is obvious.