Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The Devil's in the detail


    I have to stifle a snigger when I read the phrase of the title because its one of many I have attributed to "management" at my employer, and is therefore, of course, to be used sarcastically, and to mock the inconsistencies of messages received from such people.

How apt then, that this cliche applies to bottle conditioned beer labelling, what I see plenty of.

I know from years of experience of Bottle Conditioned Beers (BCA), that there's a tried and tested formula to avoiding fountains, fobbing, foam and frustration. Admittedly this formula relies on the product being drinkable, and Christ, that's a whole other story, but for now I am concentrating on beers you can, or at least could, drink.

I usually chill the BCA in the fridge for half an hour, then let it come back to room temperature. That way its less lively on opening but can still be drunk less chilled if desired. Yet only recently have I noticed any suggestion on BCA bottle labels that the beer should be served cool, or that it could be lively. Here is a range of advice found across a number of excellent bottles, giving mixed messages to the consumer:

Brampton Winter Bock, one of the best bottled beers I tried this year, simply advises that for best results the beer should be "served cooled but not cold, at between 12 and 14 degrees Centigrade".

The Durham Jubilate India Pale Ale advises "Serve at 10 degrees C. This beer may be lively so have a glass to hand when opening". Their 2010 vintage of Temptation advises only "do not serve below 8 degrees C.", and the May 2007 vintage advises that to enjoy the full complexity of flavour it is "best not to chill".

Thornbridge Islay cask reserve stout, bottled 2006, advises only that you "store upright in a dark cool place and pour carefully". Their Alliance sherry cask strong ale, confirms that the bottle contains champagne yeast, and instructs the drinker to "age upright in a cool dark place and pour slowly to allow the natural sediment to remain in the bottle".

Dunham Massey Porter is significantly less verbose and states only that the beer should be served between 12-13 C.

Meanwhile Blue Anchor Spingo advises to "serve slightly chilled and pour with care".

George Gales Prize Old Ale advises "stand for some hours at room temperature" and then, "carefully withdraw the cork and pour slowly"

And finally, Penlon Stock Ram Stout, advises you put the bottle in the fridge for 30 minutes before opening as it is lively! Hurrah! Some decent advice at last! *

The problem with these mixed messages comes when a lack of info results in a poor drinking experience for the consumer. Because the only consistent message seems to be to drink at 8-14 degrees C., and to pour carefully. Only the Spingo (which is an unfailingly dire BCA) suggests chilling to any extent, along with the Penlon beers. The Gales advice is quite detailed, which is ironic, considering how unsophisticated their sherry like offering was, but crucially none of the stronger ales including those you are positively encouraged to age, make any proviso for the obvious result of natural carbonation from the live yeast. Why?

BCA is already a seriously maligned concept suffering from terrible practitioners and poor retailer knowledge. As this shows, a lack of useful labelling advice potentially exacerbates the problem. The label is the producers last chance to influence the consumer's drinking experience, so, whilst label space is limited, maybe include words along the lines of "this beer is conditioned naturally in the bottle and can be lively on opening. For best results please open the bottle chilled to reduce the carbonation. The beer can then be left to reach room temperature, allowing you to fully appreciate the flavours."?

OK, so there's no career for me writing succinct bottle instructions, but the label content is a manageable factor for producers in their products journey to the glass, and easier to control than elements such as the vagaries of staff and retailer knowledge.

Some BCA's don't need chilling. Very few. If chilling reduces the likelihood of more indefensible fountains of failure, then surely that's good advice to impart?

Wee Beefy

*amusingly, Wee Fatha keeps all his BCA's in his "chilled" hallway (non scientific, not always accurate). Without reading the Penlon label I went to open the bottle from the hall at the table, since, last time, there had been a war of attrition between me and Wee Keefy and Wee Fatha to persuade him to refrigerate a wheat beer, which he vehemently opposed as beer "shouldn't need to go in the fridge". And when the Penlon escaped in foam all over his table? He said " you should have put that in the fridge". Thanks for that. The Devil's in the detail it seems....


  1. 'Pour carefully'

    Bit tricky when the bugger's trying to leap down your sleeve/the sink/onto the carpet.

    12 degrees works for me in the main, but that's not to say all the time!

    1. Yeah, I also loved the "have a glass to hand" - with some ales, notably Burton Bridge Empire, you needed two large glasses, preferably 1 a litre in size, to contend with the foaming expulsion.

      The other thing is, chilling might negate the affects of poor storage temperature or unseasonably warm weather.

      I also liked the literal element of the advice. The instruction to "age upright in a cool dark place"? That's no way to live your life....

  2. We've not had any bottled Spingo. The whole operation is so, ahem, rustic that it doesn't surprise us to hear the bottles might be a bit of a gamble. They have massively improved the quality of the beer in the pub in the last year or two, though, so maybe the bottles will get sorted soon, too?

    1. I like your optimism Bailey, genuinely! I bought a couple of bottles in 2008 and both exploded and almost didn't taste of beer, more washing up liquid and seaweed. A friend then bought me one in 2011 and it was marginally better, but still not one I'd reccommend.

      I think the nature of the beer's taste and their presumably somewhat eclectic bottling process means they could only really bottle the stronger one. Besides, I'd rather drink in the Blue Anchor anyday!