Thursday 28 June 2012

Bottom of the Barrel

You know how it is. The pint you have just ordered doesn't seem quite the same, or as good as your previous one from the same handpump. You'd enjoyed the last one and this purchase somehow doesn't seem to measure up. It isn't as clean or satisfying. It's flatter and just, well, just inferior. You can't quite put your finger on it, but it leapt out at you on your first sip. What could have gone wrong?

Now of course I am talking about cask beer here. Real Ale if you like. The live stuff. Because it is live, you need a little more care in both serving and drinking it. So hopefully this will help when you get the experience desribed above. There are a few possible causes: you may have got a dirty glass. Not so common and it usually doesn't get as far as taste. Usually you can smell a dirty glass, but in bad cases it can taint the beer in some way. Most often it just smells bad. A much more likely cause is that the beer is reaching the bottom of the cask. After all, all good things come to an end and it is a living product. Now my experience tells me that with some beers, particularly if they are fast moving, you can squeeze almost every last drop out of a cask with little loss of condition, though there will always be some. Some beers pick up taint from the sediment (aka trub or lees - deposits of dead yeast or residual yeast and other particles that precipitate in cask conditioned beer at the bottom of the cask) more quickly than others too and some sediment is just heavier and stronger tasting and more likely to affect the last few pints of liquid.

In the case of the "not quite the same" pint there are one or two tell tale signs to look for. The first is that the pint will take a bit longer to clear and secondly, it will not have the same condition. It may well have a cloudiness or haze that was not apparent before.  In the worst case you will get a tell tale sign of "bottoms" - the sediment at the bottom of the cask, which will often taste very yeasty, but not in a good way. A faint (or not so faint) whiff of vinegar will sometimes be evident. These are signs that you should hot foot it to the bar and say in your best apologetic manner "I think this might be getting near the bottom."

Good luck with that. Perhaps I'll do a tutorial on that too.

The apologetic bit is most important. You are British for God's sake, so it is your fault.


Professor Pie-Tin said...

Thanks for the brilliant advertisement for keg beer !

beersiveknown said...

I had an off pint in Belfast the other day, was changed after licensee double checked (apparently the cask was fresh on) I can well believe it as the brewery in question have had quality issues before. I went for a bottle of same and the taste difference was enormous. Then a new cask went on and I got on and masively preferable to the bottle.

Drinking in Bristol at the weekend I was fortunate enough not to have any even tired pints. Couple not to my tastes and one poorly conceived beer but everything still in great condition.

beersiveknown said...

@Pie-Tin keg beer isn't always fresh either

I find if a pub is too lazy to take cask it often is lazy about other things, cleaning lines/ checking sell-bys etc

Tandleman said...

Tie Pin. Of course with keg there can be issues too, usually for the reasons stated by Steve, but often too in the mistaken belief that keg doesn't go off. Most sellers are complacent in that respect. It has many other negative qualities too, but this wasn't an exercise in comparisons.

With cask you can get lows, but boy are the heights worth reaching for. If your search in beer is consistency keg may be a better bet for you. I say "may" as always you are in the hands of the cellarman.

Bailey said...

We had an 'off' keg lager the other night. Like a not very good geueze (sp?). If you try to say keg beer is off, they look at you really oddly.

Rob Nicholson said...

There is a bit of a debate going on in the land of CAMRA beer scores re: do you score a bad pint because it was end of barrel. Personally I don't if I know that's the cause and it's replaced.

Tandleman said...


I'd guess a lot of imported keg beer may have a fair degree of staling.


No you shouldn't. If it was replaced that would be perverse.

Professor Pie-Tin said...

I'm only jesting, of course,as is my wont.
I drink in a town where only keg drink is on offer - stout,lager and a rather horrible red ale.
It never ceases to amaze me the difference in quality between not just pubs but the same pub on different days.
But as a golden rule I always reckon if the pub looks tired then the pint is likely to be as well.

Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

I always find it interesting when handed an off ale, it’s as if the beer has been deconstructed to all of its constituent parts, none of them working together. A bit of an intellectual challenge almost. Happened to me in a brewpub in Norwich last week.

Martyn Cornell said...

Some of the very worst pints I have had have been appallingly badly kept keg beer.

Tandleman said...

See tomorrow's post about stale keg

Bailey said...

Tandleman -- although this was British (Cornish, in fact).

Curmudgeon said...

An interesting question to what extent the average punter will take a pint back unless it is blatantly cloudy or vinegary.

Mark said...

"A faint (or not so faint) whiff of vinegar will sometimes be evident."


"it will not have the same condition"

Strictly speaking, aren't these things more likely to be a result of the amount of time since the cask was vented - and air was allowed in - than how close you are to the bottom of the cask?

Unless the beer is selling quickly, how close you are to the bottom and time since venting will of course be closely related, but you get my point ...

Tandleman said...

Mark: Yes you are right about oxidiaation, but it will often only become evident as the cask empties.

The sudden change in condition is, on the other hand, a sure sign of near its end beer.

But yes, I do get your points.

Ente said...

As beer is drawn from the cask, it is replaced by air. This tends to oxidise the surface of the beer in the cask. If the beer has been on sale for longer, then this oxidisation may be more evident.
When the cask comes to an end, the surface, oxidised beer will be drawn into the last pint, or two, with a possible loss of condition.
So, this is really the "top of the barrel" not the bottom.
If the cellar is not kept clean, or the beer is not spiled properly, then off flavours and infections can be drawn into the cask with the air, and this can result in a vinegar flavour. This can be avoided by having a good cleaning regime for the cellar as well as the lines, and by having the stock moving quickly enough (a pub boasting dozens of handpumps is only a good thing if they are selling it fast enough)

Tandleman said...

Nothing argue with there at all.