West country sparklers

David Jesudason, on a regional beer mystery


North v south. Sparkled v unsparkled. Nothing is more divisive in beer circles than the use of a perforated ball that is fitted to the end of the tap which causes a cask beer to have a foamy head. 

The argument – and it is very much an argument, one that regularly flares up online – goes that those in the south like their ale unsparkled (“There’s no point if the beer is good!”) and those in the north like it sparkled (“As nature intended”). But is there really a north/south divide?

To discover the truth of this you shouldn’t visit Manchester or London but Bristol, and in, particular, Left Handed Giant’s brewpub where a few weeks ago I was served an oaky, cocoa-like dark mild. Sparkled. 

You might think that because it’s a modern taproom this beer was served with a beautiful head because it’s more Instagram-able or a novelty but venture further south and you can also expect to have sparkled traditional beers, such as, St Austell Brewery’s Proper Job or Tribute. So maybe it isn’t a north v south debate after all with those in the West Country siding with the north. 

Full disclosure: I’m originally from Bedfordshire but moved to Leeds, West Yorkshire when I was 17 years old, therefore, I am partial to sparkled beers particularly the ones that I was served in Whitelock’s Ale House in the city centre. But I once had a Burning Sky Plateau so fresh that the lacing was so perfect that to sparkle it would be a crime – it truly was an ever changing joy of a drink with each mouthful offering me different, subtle flavours.  

To discover whether the West is sparkling or non-sparkling country we need to ask the brewers of Left Handed Giant’s Mild, Tribute and Proper Job. Luckily, Jack Granger, MD at Left Handed Giant, is keen to take me through the origins of the sparkled Mild I enjoyed so much. 

It truly was an ever changing joy of a drink

“The Dark Mild was originally brewed in December 2020 as a one-off beer,” Granger tells me about the ale that is now part of his brewery’s core range. This year they’ve already brewed seven different cask ales including an XPA 3.8%, a 4.5% Bitter, an English Golden Ale at 3.9% and a 5% American Red Ale.  

“We had been through a period of brewing little to no cask beer,” he says. “And mainly through the desires of our brew team, we wanted to produce some traditional British styles of beer for cask including a Dark Mild.

“As with all of our cask beers, we don't specifically brew them with a sparkler in mind, but we taste the final product both with and without a sparkler and take a consensus as to which method we prefer drinking. In the case of the Dark Mild (and almost all of our cask beers thus far) the overwhelming decision has favoured a sparkler.”

Granger is an Aussie so he doesn’t fit the north/south template which also allows him to be flexible to customer preferences: on occasion drinkers have asked for the sparkler to be removed and he’s more than happy to oblige. He admits, though, that there are differing opinions on the sparkler debate within the brewery with the most entrenched sparkler being sales manager, Hannah, who is from Manchester.  

These regional variations of workers within one brewery is a leitmotif because St Austell Brewery also have the same phenomenon. Bristol-born brewing director, Georgina Young, admits her personal preference is for unsparkled beer but the trend for a foamy head isn’t a Cornish or West Country trait but an inherited practice.

“Tribute and Proper Job,” she says, “were designed by my predecessor Roger [Ryman] who was a Yorkshireman. He designed them – despite being quite hoppy – with a sparkler in mind because that’s how he wanted them served. 

PHOTO: Left Handed Giant

“He’s not around to tell us [Ryman died in 2020 of cancer aged 52] but I assume that’s why he put so much hop character in there. So there’s a hop character throughout the beer to make sure you don’t get a hoppy pool at the bottom of the glass.”

Young, like Granger, admits that some customers in the West ask for the sparkler to be taken off and it happens enough for the sparklers to be on sliders so drinks can be dispensed easily. But the majority of St Austell’s beers are sparkled and Young recommends that they are served that way.

Young used to work for Fuller’s, possibly the most London-y brewery going, and reveals they did try Pride and ESB with a sparkler but because they weren’t overly hoppy beers there was a claggy-ness towards the end of the glass. And a beer like Pride’s conditioned in the brewery for a week so it has enough CO2 to keep its head – compare that to Proper Job or Tribute which rely on the supply chain “and a sparkler will help with that”, says Young.

Which shows that a beer has to be specifically brewed with a sparkler in mind and that this isn’t a regional divide but maybe a brewer divide especially if you consider that anyone who wants to serve Proper Job or Tribute – even in London – is given a dispense specification by Young.

“I come from the south,” concludes Young. “And spent most of my time at Fuller’s but I knew coming into Cornwall it probably wouldn’t be a wise thing to go ‘I want everyone to take these sparklers off this beer!’

“You learn to enjoy it and the pints look beautiful.”

I guess this means that Bristol is the kind of place where you can expect sparkled beer and trenchant arguments for or against it? Ray Newman, who writes about beer as Ray Bailey as part of publishing duo Boak & Bailey, explains that this isn’t the case for now.

“Outside of CAMRA types,” Newman says, “I don’t think people would bat an eyelid [in Bristol] if they were served a sparkled or unsparkled pint. I grew up in the West Country and I didn’t realise this was a cultural thing until I got to London and I found the pints generally a bit flat.”

You learn to enjoy it and the pints look beautiful

Bailey, like me, grows tired of the north/south sparkle/unsparkle debate that occurs (online) regularly and believes that it actually puts a lot of people off understanding more about the wonders of cask. 

“If you say to people,” he adds, “'There’s a small change to the way you serve this beer which will fundamentally change its presentation and potentially how it tastes,’ I think people would go ‘Cool! Can I have one sparkled and one unsparkled, please!'”

The north/south debate might rage on online but if you take a step back and judge sparkling on a pint-by-pint basis then maybe a lot of enjoyment can be derived from shedding our identities and pre-conceived notions of how an ale should be served. Or maybe we should just take each pint as it comes and find a different identity and become Bristolian in whether we like foamy heads or not. We have a choice after all. 

“Bristol is certainly not Northern,” Granger concludes. “Most in Bristol are very proud of their identity and don't like to be lumped in with London. More than any city I've ever lived in, Bristol has a huge love, provides massive support to local industry and gets behind people trying new things.”

Cover photo: St Austell Brewery

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