Monday, 16 March 2015

Cask beer in the 1950’s –Secondary Fermentation

Whoever knew handling cask beer was such a complicated process? Anyone with half a brain should realise. That not everyone does is the cause of crap cask.

The following stuff about secondary fermentation – the good and the bad kind – is revealing:

“Secondary Cask Fermentation. In dealing with this subject, we wish our readers to separate in their minds a perfectly usual secondary fermentation from a violent fret which may be the outcome of wild yeast; or may be due to the beer having been insufficiently fermented before racking, to the presence of too much yeast in the beer as racked, or to the use of too fermentable a priming in warm weather. So far as is possible, the brewer arranges for a secondary movement, which is necessary for the development of condition in the cask, to take place in the brewery. There may be occasions when, owing to an unusual rush in the trade, this secondary fermentation may not have taken place in the brewery. It will then take place in the cellar of the licensed house. Indeed, we, personally, prefer to see some movement after the beer has been delivered. If properly regulated and controlled, this movement need give no cause for alarm. In the warmer months of  the year it is unusual to find beer without a certain amount of kick in it, after a journey entailing a deal of knocking about.”
"Brewing Theory and Practice" by E. J. Jeffery, 1956, page 257.

So conditioning of the beer – carbonating it through fermentation – was supposed to happen in the brewery? Though I see Jeffery prefers some fermentation – or “movement”, as he call it – to continues in the pub. I can understand that you wouldn’t want too violent a fermentation in the cask.

I have to smile about wild yeast being a possible cause of a faulty secondary fermentation. A 19th-century brewer’s idea of a secondary fermentation would necessarily been the result of something other than Saccharomyces. Though they didn’t actually understand the mechanics of the process until Brettanomyces was discovered.

Here’s how to handle a secondary fermentation in the pub:

“When a secondary fermentation develops, much C02 gas will be generated. Unless it is allowed to escape by the judicious use of porous pegs, the beer will become super-saturated, and difficult to control. The situation can be eased by drawing off a pint or two, a procedure which will save loss, as the beer may be placed in another cask and used. A normal secondary fermentation can last about 24 to 36 hours, after which time the cask should be pegged up tight. The beer should be allowed to settle and regain its condition. If served before condition has been regained, and the beer is still thick, the flavour will be much impaired.”
"Brewing Theory and Practice" by E. J. Jeffery, 1956, page 257.

Soft spiles – what a wonderful invention. I wonder when they were first introduced? A hard spile is pretty obvious, but a soft spile is a more subtle device. This is quite good advice about the use of the two types of spile.

“Should fermentation persist, and become even more violent, in spite of efforts to reduce that condition, it is advisable to consult the brewer. It may possibly be that a fret has occurred due to the presence of wild yeast.

Violent Cask Frets. Violent frets are usually due to the presence of wild yeast, and may be distinguished from the ordinary secondary fermentation by the persistence and violence of the movement. We have known them to last for a week or even longer, during which time an immense amount of gas will be generated. This gas can and must be released by the careful use of porous pegs, which should be replaced from time to time. Pores are liable to get clogged with yeast, when the peg will cease to function. There will also be a tendency for beer to flow from the peg, causing loss, so that it is advisable to draw off a pint or two to prevent this occurring.”
"Brewing Theory and Practice" by E. J. Jeffery, 1956, pages 257 - 258.

Surely the correct procedure would be to return the cask to the brewery as ullage? If the beer is infected with wild yeast, it’s going to taste like shit. What’s the point in messing around trying to rescue it?

This is what you wouldn’t want as a brewer – wild yeast rampaging through your brewhouse:

“Infection with wild yeast is most likely to have been present in the beer when it left the brewery, although carelessness in handling in the house may be responsible. If infection is fairly widespread throughout a particular gyle, the cause should be sought in the brewery itself. The detection and avoidance of this infection is dealt with in the next chapter. If only occasional casks show the trouble, then it is probably due to infection from the cask and the remedy is to be found in more stringent cask treatment. Casks which have been returned with serious wild yeast infection should be specially treated before being put into service again.”
"Brewing Theory and Practice" by E. J. Jeffery, 1956, page 258.

Wooden casks must have been more prone to infection than modern metal ones. Wood is pretty porous and offers plenty of hiding places for something as determined as Brettanomyces. Personally, I’d burn an infected cask rather than try to rescue it through special cleaning.

Here’s a glimpse of what this whole series has been leading up to:

“One possible source of trouble which may arise in the house itself is caused by the return to cask of overflow from the pumps and drainage from pipes. It is quite a usual practice for this to be filtered and returned to cask. In many cases the beer is strained through a cloth in the funnel and the cloth receives merely a perfunctory wash out afterwards. This is asking for trouble. The beer should be filtered through a clean filter paper taken from a pack which is kept in a clean, closed box and of course only used once. The beer should be quickly dealt with and not left lying about in open buckets. Any receptacles and funnels used should be kept scrupulously clean and preferably sterilized by a suitable antiseptic. It would be preferable if such beer could be returned to a special cask and returned to the brewery as ullage, but most breweries consider this to entail unnecessary waste.”
"Brewing Theory and Practice" by E. J. Jeffery, 1956, page 258.

It’s that one little phrase “It is quite a usual practice” that caught my attention. Tales of slops being returned to casks have been kicking around as long as I’ve been drinking. But trying to find out how true they were was difficult. Unsurprisingly, landlords weren’t that keen on revealing the truth. This implies that it was pretty standard practice.

Isn’t this what I just said?

“A fermentation due to wild yeast is generally succeeded by a period of extreme flatness. The cask should be kept under a hard peg. After a time, the addition of a small amount of extra finings will generally result in the beer clearing satisfactorily. Flavour can never be as originally intended, however, and it will always drink very thin. It is far better to return such a cask to the brewery than to attempt to use it.”
"Brewing Theory and Practice" by E. J. Jeffery, 1956, page 258.

Too right – send infected beer back to the brewery. Drinks thin, eh, infected beer? I wonder if that was the reason many beers in 1920’s London (at least according to Whitbread) drank thin? Were these beers infected? I can see why an infected beer would drink thinner. The wild yeast would have chewed its way through material which wasn’t meant to be fermented.

Ullage next. It’s going to be great fun.


Gary Gillman said...

This is completely in accord with a number of both bottled-conditioned and even ordinary draft beers I've had, the venting issue doesn't arise of course or in the same way, but I'll give you an example. Once a glass of draft poured well (without excess head) because the typically North American serving temperature held down the fizz. But in the glass it was tremendously fizzy and "violent" and the usual swirling didn't dissipate it. I had to request an empty pint glass and pour it back and forth to get the fizz level to a normal state. The bubbles were large and pear-shaped, a typical look of a brett infection.

The beer actually tasted okay, somewhat like Orval in fact. I've had bottle-conditioned beers which act in a similar way especially ones which are dry-hopped with a local or wild hop variety.

I think he means that the secondary should occur primarily under the influence of the primary yeast - this is really a continuation of the first fermentation but in a second container - and not with wild yeast doing the job.


Steve N, Seattle said...

Hi Ron,

Hope all is well. I've a couple of tales of slops being returned to cask or otherwise. Firstly, when I worked in a pub in Liverpool in the early 90's, we were told that any spillage or overflow in the drip trays should be decanted into a pint glass. That pint glass would sit there until the next unlucky customer ordered that particular beer. Flat, warm, and topped up, not many people ever noticed - except for Guinness. Since it took longer to pull a pint, any rapid presentation of a pint of Guinness within a few seconds would arouse suspicion. Of course, we were told just to leave it there until someone didn't notice. Nothing was wasted.

Second story, from my sister who used to work in another pub in Liverpool. Their one constant in a sea of guest real ales was Marston's Pedigree. It fluctuated in quality from bad to terrible. Sulphurous, inconsistent, warm, flat. No two pints ever tasted the same. It turns out that the slops from the drip trays of all the real ales were returned to the Pedigree casks - hence the lack of consistency. There was some rumour that the undrunk dregs from people's glasses were also used in this way, presumably filtered for fag ends and glass eyes. Although that's another story.


Anonymous said...

I returned to the cask, beer that had been stood in the pipes. Beer that was drawn to check clarity, beer that was drawn to avoid wastage as described in the article. Beer that was unhooked from the cask when line cleaning took place and before water or cleaner was introduced. I found it hard to believe that people would filter back customer slops from discarded pints but sadly this is true. I am sure our good friend Jeffrey meant the acceptable filter back uses.

Ron Pattinson said...



I suspect practices varied from pub to pub, with the worse ones using the leftovers of pints as well as stuff from the drip trays.

But it does seem reusing some beer in some way was pretty standard.

Gary Gillman said...

Marston's was always sulphurous though, it is in the nature of it.


Gary Gillman said...

Filtering back beer from discarded pints? Unbelievable. I wonder if anything of this nature was ever done in Germany or the Czech lands, I doubt it. Sad. The fate of real beer as the dominant type in England, already parlous due to inherent difficulties in keeping and serving, was probably rendered a fatal blow by such unthinking practices.


Jeffrey Bell said...

I've only once seen slops from drip trays returned to casks in a cellar - and it was in a pub that won the highest CAMRA award possible. Publican in question was doing it with all the equipment described here - filter papers, clean funnels etc - but I was astonished. Such a lot of faff, and something customers would clearly be upset about, all to avoid a bit of natural wastage.

marquis said...

A local landlord, noted for his exceptional cellarmanship always found the beer from one pump not quite up to par. Despite thorough cleaning the fault persisted , eventually it was traced to a kink in the line . The beer was Pedigree which has a high yeast count.
Not all pubs returned slops to the barrel.Many landlords regarded this as an abomination.Their beers were always outstanding.