Sunday, November 16, 2008

Tradition and 'traditionalists', and beer engines

The occasion
A meeting of the Chesapeake branch of the Society for the Preservation of Beer From the Wood (SPBW).

The setting
The upstairs bar at the Metropolitan, a combination of coffeehouse, restaurant, music spot, wine bar, and good beer bar in the Federal Hill neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland.

The situation
The bartender asked the customer if she should pull a pint of cask-conditioned stout for him.

"Handpulling from a beer engine isn't traditional," the customer replied, "and I'm a traditionalist. The cask should be sitting on the bar."

Bruce pulls a pint


Just at that moment, Bruce Dorsey, owner of the restaurant, happened to be walking past."Yes, it is traditional," he growled.

Traditional since 1797, he explained. That's when Joseph Bramah —the inventor of the hydraulic press— created, what he called, a beer engine. Despite its name, a (true) beer engine is not motorized. It's a hand operated piston pump which pulls beer from a cellar up to a bar.

Most 'real ale' pubs in the U.K. serve cask via beer engines. Pubs in the U.S. —those, that is, that serve cask-conditioned ale (a tiny number, but increasing each year)— use beer engines and pour from casks simply placed on bartops.

Firkin Thursday


"Oh ... but I prefer my cask ale pulled through a beer engine," the customer verbally backpedaled.

I was reminded of the scene in Woody Allen's film Annie Hall in which an officious man is pontificating about Marshall McLuhan and the global village. The man behind him announces that he is Marshal McLuhan, and that the other man has no idea what he's talking about. Woody Allen breaks character, faces the camera, and asks whether we wouldn't prefer real life to be like this.

The bartender pulled the customer his pint of Wolaver's Organic Oatmeal Stout. We all smiled.

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  • When this post was written, Metropolitan had only just re-opened after suffering damage from a fire.
  • More about cask-conditioned ale: here.

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