Sparkler or no sparkler?

With the upcoming ECB competition for best bitter, I thought I’d share some information that I’ve recently read about carbonating ales. Most of this I’ve read from Ray Daniels’ book “Designing Great Beers: The Ultimate guide to Brewing Classic Beer Styles”, but also supplemented with points of view from other brewing forums.

As a side note: Some brewers tend to think of bitters and pale ales as separate styles, when in fact the styles share more similarities than differences, and their recipe formulations are almost identical. Their differences lie in small shifts in bitterness and gravity.

‘Real Ale’ is defined as “A name for a draught (or bottled) beer brewed from traditional ingredients, matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide”1).

To brew bitters and pale ales, pay attention to the carbonation and serving techniques. With real ales, no external CO2 pressure is applied to drive the beer, so beer engines are commonly used (the cask admits air in to replace the beer drawn). This of course changes the flavour of the beer from hour to hour and day to day, providing a characteristic charm to real ale. Purists are against the use of sparklers (forces beer through tiny holes aerating it and creating a frothy head). Some brewers claim the sparkler can reduce the flavour and aroma by forcing the hop flavours out of the beer and into the head, thereby changing the flavour and therefore balance of the beer, making it less lively and “flat”. It has also been said that the thick head blocks aroma from the beer itself.

Of course, not everyone has a beer engine, so the other option is to use bottle conditioning. You should aim for values of 1.5 to 2.0 volumes of CO2. Another option is to use a keg without a beer engine. You could force carbonate to a low level of CO2, but it is more traditional to carbonate by priming.

As a final point, real ale can’t be served cold (purists state that it shouldn’t be stored cold). A real ale cellar is 13-14°C. More flavour and character will result at this temperature.

Megan G.

1Cellarmanship )Herts, England: Campaign for Real Ale, 1992), 4.

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