Friday, 20 March 2015

Cask beer in the 1950’s – hard spiles, soft spiles and ullage

Can you believe it? We’re just about done with this look at the handling to cask beer.

The correct use of spiles is essential to produce cask beer in good condition. Though it seems brewers didn’t 100% agree on what that correct usage was:

“Use of Hard and Porous Pegs. The injudicious use of both hard and porous pegs will soon spoil beer, however well it has been brewed. Although their careful and systematic use may need time, it is well worth it. A hard and fast rule is impossible, and common sense must be the guide. Each brewery even appears to have its own ideas, and to give its own instructions as regards the use of pegs. These instructions may be justified by the peculiar conditions attached to the brewing and storage of its beers.”
"Brewing Theory and Practice" by E. J. Jeffery, 1956, page 259.

Though I case the state the beer arrived in at the pub had an influence on how the spiles were used. A beer that was actively fermenting would need different treatment from one that wasn’t.

Here are some more detailed instructions:

“For our part, we prefer to bore or punch through the half-bored shive of each cask as soon as it is placed on the stillion, and to leave it for a couple of hours without a peg, provided the condition is not violent. If condition is violent, then a porous peg must be inserted at once. If, however, there should only be a slight blow of gas from the peg hole, it will assist the fining to some extent if the peg is left right out for a time. Some slight emission of sludge may take place, and as soon as this has ceased the peg must be inserted further. It is a safe plan to case a hard peg every four or five hours, especially during hot weather, when internal cask conditions change rapidly. If there is only a slight blow of gas, and no emission of beer follows, it may be assumed that the contents of the cask are in good order, and the peg should be replaced at once. A porous peg should be used at the first sign of any fermentation, and not delayed until the beer is moving violently. The porous peg must not be inserted too tightly, otherwise the pores will be compressed and the peg fail to act as desired. This misfortune is often found to have taken place, resulting in the cask movement being unduly prolonged. Portions of hops and yeast, too, will frequently choke the pores, in which case a new peg should be substituted at once. A porous peg must not be allowed to remain in a cask of beer any longer than is necessary, or the contents will be flattened beyond recovery. A peg should be removed from the cask before any beer is drawn by means of a pump, or a vacuum may result which will upset the clarity. The peg must be replaced as soon as the period for trading has expired. There are several patent pegs on the market for use when the beer is being drawn, the idea of many being quite good. Unfortunately, some of them are very difficult to keep clean.”
"Brewing Theory and Practice" by E. J. Jeffery, 1956, page 259.

That all makes sense: while the beer is fermenting you need a soft spile to stop too much pressure building up in the cask. Once the beer has calmed down, you need to seal it with a hard spile to build carbonation. And obviously you need the peg out when serving so there’s pressure on the top of the beer. If air goes back through the tap into the barrel it’s likely to displace sediment at the bottom of the cask.

I assume that a patent peg was one that let in air as required to maintain pressure inside the cask. Like a non-evil version of a cask breather.

Now ullage. The topic we’ve been leading up to.

It is difficult to describe what actually and exactly constitutes ullage. Some people regard it as the first pint or two drawn off to clear the tap, together with the sludge at the bottom of the cask. Others would include beer drawn out of the pipes which has remained in them between each interval of trading, also any waste from overflow when filling tankards and glasses. Whatever the rule about the allowance for ullage may be, we have very strong opinions about the practice of draining sludge, hops and finings from a cask and putting them into one so-called ullage cask. Sooner or later, this cask becomes a receptacle for other undesirable matter. The system is a wrong one which has ill effects winch may not at first sight be apparent. A beer cask is not a cheap article, and its value is much impaired if every drop of moisture is drained from it. The situation is worse if the cask is then turned out into a yard in the hot sun, when the timber will dry out. This misfortune would not take place if the bottoms and sludge were left inside, and it would also be less difficult to clean than a bone-dry cask. For this reason alone we think it would pay any brewery to make a monetary allowance for such ullage. Included in this allowance should be consideration for loss of beer occasioned when beer is used to remove any traces of soda from the pipes. This beer should be put down the drain and not into any cask.”
"Brewing Theory and Practice" by E. J. Jeffery, 1956, pages 259 - 260.
I thought ullage was beer that for one reason or other was unsaleable and which was returned to the brewery for landlord to be reimbursed.

“overflow when filling tankards and glasses” will be the contents of drip trays which, as we learned earlier, some returned to the cask.

There wouldn’t be the same problem today in draining all the liquid from as cask, seeing as they are usually metal. Once again you can sense Jeffery’s exasperation with pub landlords who mistreated casks. Better for the brewery to pay the landlord for the gunk left in the cask than have their casks ruined.

I’ve never heard of this practice before, putting slops into its own special barrel:

“Beer which is drained from pipes between each period of service, together with the overflow from tankards and glasses, also any drawn off to ease heavy cask condition, need not be regarded as ullage, but can either be put into a small cask which the brewery will usually supply, fined down and used when bright, or it may be filtered through an efficient filter, and returned to a cask very slowly through a proper spile-hole pipe. In either case, the beer should be used up while it is fresh and sound, and no attempt must be made to sell any which shows the slightest trace of acidity.

Beer which has been allowed to stand in buckets and exposed to the air, so that a white film of mycoderma yeast has formed upon it, must on no account be treated as ullage or put into casks. The drain is the only suitable place for it.”
"Brewing Theory and Practice" by E. J. Jeffery, 1956, page 260.

My guess is that most publicans put such beer back into the cask it came from. Leaving beer standing around in buckets sounds lovely. I’m sure this did go on. And probably still does in less reputable pubs.

We’ve just a little further to go – handling empty casks and cleaning glasses next.


Phil said...

Thanks! If you'd told me half an hour ago that I was going to read a really interesting article from the 1950s about hard and soft spiles, I'd never have believed you.

Anonymous said...

About 40 years ago we occasionally drove off to the wilds of Lincolnshire to a Bateman's pub. With well kept mild at 10p a pint and free petrol it was a cheap night out.
The landlord told us he paid £15 per quarter for rent and Mr.George allowed a 6% ullage allowance.And if Mr.George appeared in the pub it was free beer all round.
Happy days.

Gary Gillman said...

Very interesting as always. Ron, does he mention material for spiles, different kinds of wood that is? I think Jackson wrote that bamboo was used for soft spiling.



Interesting. In the U.S., ullage refers to the headspace above the beer in the cask (or keg), not to the beer itself.


There is a modern device called a 'race ventilator' that acts as the
'patent spile' seems to have: allowing air ingress when the tap is open, shutting off air flow when no beer is being pulled from the cask.