The Beer Primer – Now Extra Smooth

22 Apr

Lagers make up most of what you can get on tap in any given pub and we’ve certainly taken an extensive turn through the wonderful world of lager. This edition of the Beer Primer is, however, just a little bit less exciting. Sorry about that. It does, however, involve Science and may well be unusually educational for an article on alcoholic beverages. This is because today I’m going to be taking a good hard look at those other beers you can get on tap that are most certainly not lager; the extra smooth beers. This may not sound like it provides much scope for an article, but it is certainly important – it’s a range of beer that includes John Smiths, Boddingtons and Guinness, among others. Perhaps not the most interesting beers in the world, but ones that make up a decent proportion of the sales of draught beer. Guinness itself may well be one of the best known brands in the world of alcoholic beverages, if not the world as a whole.

The important catch here is that this isn’t a family of beers by type, but a method of storing, treating and delivering the beer that distinctly alters that character of the beer that you can get. This is best illustrated with an example. Greene King IPA is one of the most prolific commercial IPAs around, and it’s one that is readily available in both cask and keg (or pump and tap) varieties. It’s also as about the only IPA I’ve ever seen served in a nightclub, which allowed me to find out that dancing whilst drinking ale is not a good idea.  The cask variety is a typical commercial IPA; mild and lightly hopped ale with no particular distinguishing features and a light head. A pleasant drink, if a little bland. The keg version is, however, both colder and far smoother with a much creamier head.

So, what exactly causes this change? As I mentioned above, it’s largely down to how the beer is stored and treated. Cask ale is unfiltered and unpasteurised. It also contains yeast that continues the fermentation process the bottle or cask. More importantly, it’s also stored without carbon dioxide being used to pressurise the container, as is the case with lager. Keg ale is, however pressurised with both carbon dioxide and nitrogen. Nitrogen, being one of the most boring gases around, is less well absorbed into the beer than its more exciting cousin and so means that whilst the keg is has the same pressure as lager, it is much less fizzy. Combined with a faucet on the tap that acts in much the same way as a widget does in a can, this provides a beer than is creamier, colder and more sterile than a cask beer.


Now that I’ve Scienced everywhere, what is the beer actually like? For me, the phrase sterile covers it quite well. I can’t quite place why this is. As a best guess, I’d say it’s the combination of the beer being colder and smoother with a general sense of the beer as being factory produced. Factory beer isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, but extra smooth beers nevertheless feel more than a little fake in comparison to their cask brethren. The exception to this is, of course, Guinness, mostly because of the fact that it occupies a space separate from other beers thanks to their eternally successful marketing. It may well be the only commercial beer that has a ritual associated with pouring it. Of course, it does help that it does have a bit of taste to it too, even if you do get the sense that the flavours get less distinct the further away you get from Dublin. There are alternatives in some pubs too – my local has Titanic on tap instead, which is bursting with flavour compared to most of the Guinness I’ve drunk in my time.


I’d also say that this isn’t a matter of snobbishness, or denigrating a type of beer that is generally fairly cheap and that commercial produced beer can often be tasty, or at least a satisfying drink. It just doesn’t have the advantage that lager has of being in a family of its own, but is instead something of a mutation of another family of beer. Cask ale is generally no more expensive, and produces the same kind of tastes in a manner that doesn’t feel quite as sterile.

So, that’s extra smooth (or nitrogenated) beers for you and in the next instalment of the Beer Primer we shall be bridging the gap between the tap and the pump with a family of beers that have something of both – the wheat beers. In the meantime, I’ll be reviewing an alternative to Guinness and crowning the brewer of the week.


2 Responses to “The Beer Primer – Now Extra Smooth”

  1. Christopher Everett May 11, 2013 at 1:44 pm #

    Eagerly awaiting your next primer! I have been almost exclusively drinking Weiss Beer as my choice of draft in Italy (other options usually being bottled import lager, or the unpalatable ‘Red Beer’).

    • Patrick Reckitt May 11, 2013 at 3:15 pm #

      Thanks! Weiss beer is normally fairly good in any circumstance and red beer certainly is unpalatable. I think I might have to tackle ale next, when I’ve got the time. May be a fairly long one.

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