The Perfect Pint - The Old Hall in Whitehough
PUBLISHED: 16:51 15 September 2011 | UPDATED: 19:59 20 February 2013
In his tour of Derbyshire's micro-breweries NikCook found brewers always worry that their beer is at its best when served. He visits his own CAMRA award-winning local to discover how to present a flawless pint
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In his tour of Derbyshires micro-breweries Nik Cook found brewers always worry that their beer is at its best when served. He visits his own CAMRA award-winning local to discover how to present a flawless pint.
For a brewer, every time a pint of their beer is ordered and served their reputation with that drinker is on the line. If the pint isnt quite right, its highly likely the customer will avoid that brewerys fares in the future, and even warn their friends off them.
The problem is that real ale is a living product and, like any animal, needs to be handled with care, expertise and understanding to get the best out of it. Once a cask leaves a brewery, no matter how good the beer inside is, poor handling of the beer by a landlord will result in a pint that is at best a shadow of the original product and at worst, undrinkable.
The Old Hall in Whitehough has won numerous awards for its beer including CAMRAs Derbyshire Pub of the Year in 2010, Champion Mild Pub 2010, Pub of the Season 2010 and Best Cask Pub in East/West Midlands in 2010/11. As this is written, theyre waiting to see if they will retain the Derbyshire crown for 2011 and are keeping their fingers crossed for a national award. They hold two massively successful beer festivals each year. The one on the third weekend in September serves 110 beers and ciders and the other, during the last weekend in February, has a smaller, but still impressive, 80 beers and ciders on offer. As they are obviously doing something right with their beer, it seemed an ideal place to discover the mysterious art of serving a perfect pint of real ale.
Twenty-nine year old Dan Capper took over the running of the pub from his parents three years ago and from the start made serving quality locally sourced produce a priority. For beers, the emphasis was placed on Derbyshire and Cheshire breweries such as Thornbridge and Storm, but guests from further afield also make an appearance, such my personal favourite Punk IPA from the BrewDog brewery in Aberdeenshire. Running a free house with an ever changing beer selection does have its challenges though.
You have to put far more effort into sourcing and, compared to a tied pub that might have one visit from the drayman each week, well have up to five deliveries per week. We can rack 30 casks and will typically have 20 different beers on sale throughout the week. We listen and respond to feedback from customers rather than just looking at sales figures. Our regulars will tell us what they like, dont like and make suggestions. We dont actually have a formal beer committee, but we might as well!
Once the casks of beer arrive at the 16th century inn, they disappear down the traditional hatch and into the original stone-arched cellar. Although there is an air-con unit, Dan barely has to run it with the cellar naturally maintaining a perfect 11C. Recently he has lowered the floor of the cellar by a foot and a half and installed a modern double height racking system. As well as optimising the space and allowing a more varied rotation of beers, it makes keeping the cellar environment clean far easier. As quickly as possible after the casks arrive, Dan gets them onto the stillage racks.
I stillage the beer the minute its delivered. On the lorry and coming into the cellar, everything will have got mixed up in the cask making it the perfect time to get it settled into its permanent position. After five minutes on stillage, the cask is vented and then a soft porous peg is inserted to allow the beer to breathe. When you vent a cask, you get the most incredible hoppy aroma bursting out and, unfortunately if youre wearing your best shirt, some beer too! Real ales from micro-breweries always tend to be livelier.
Once on the racks, the cask is allowed to rest horizontally for four days. Dan explains why this period is so important. As well as being shaken up in transit, the brewery will have added finings to the cask to precipitate out a number of organic compounds and form a stable sediment. This clarifies the beer. If you tap a cask too early,
the finings wont have done their job, the sediment wont have settled and youll get a hazy pint. A hazy pint is completely unacceptable to most British drinkers and although it doesnt necessarily mean the pint is bad or off, it can do.
The cask is then slightly tilted, tapped and the beer is ready to be sold. Care and attention has to be taken at this stage too. The porous peg is replaced by a hard peg as you have to minimise the amount of air getting into the cask because its this that sours it. Our new racks use springs to easily and accurately tilt the casks. A hop filter is put on and the cask is connected to the lines and our eight hand pulls. We clean the lines after every beer and this is essential. Once tapped, the beer is sold within two days. The stronger beers can keep a little longer. We only put a slight tilt on our casks. Many landlords will tilt them much more to get every possible drop out of the cask but we want the last pint we serve out of a barrel to be as good as the first. Our reputation is built on the quality of our beers and if we served eight bad end of the barrel pints every night, wed lose that reputation. All the lines are insulated to keep the temperature stable and, being small bore, theres only ever about a pint and half sitting in the line.
Dans right hand woman is 22-year-old assistant manager Laura Cole. Before she started working at the Old Hall she knew nothing about real ale but since she started dealing with the breweries, talking to customers and tasting the beers, her interest and knowledge have grown. Last year Marstons Brewery sponsored her to take a course leading to the Beer and Cellar Quality Award qualification. She told me: The course involved going to the training centre where a classroom was equipped with a fully functioning cellar. After wed learned all the practical skills we had to sit an examination. I love all the variety of tastes of the beers and being able to share that knowledge with customers. The perfect pint should be bright, clear and have a good head. If it looks good, its more likely to taste good. Everything has to be ultra clean, including glasses which also have to be at the right temperature. You have to keep on top of and be super-organised about cellar management. Once a cask is on the stillage racks it has to stay put, so if youve got a good range of beers and a constant rotation, you have to know exactly where each one is going. We also make sure all of our bar and waiting staff have tasted and can describe the current beers.
Laura is about as far from the stereotypical image of a real ale enthusiast as you can get. She is adamant that real ale is cool and is happy to name her favourite tipples. Young people want to try something new and dont just want bland lagers. Its great to be supporting local businesses and producers and cask ale, with its minimal packaging, has strong eco credentials. Its become fashionable. My personal favourites are Thornbridges Kipling, Abbeydales Absolution and Happy Valleys Sworn Secret. All golden beers I drink with my eyes!
Having toured the county and seen the love thats put into brewing real ale and now observed the work put in by Dan and Laura to make sure customers are served with the pint the brewer intended, it seems only right that we beer drinkers the final link in the chain should applaud their efforts and realise our role. Real ale has gone from strength to strength. The number of microbreweries is rapidly expanding and an incredibly diverse range of craft beers is now available. Pubs have been forced to raise their game to survive and outstanding free houses like the Old Hall are a million miles away from those unwelcoming pubs pushing bland beer. If you have a great local pub, our role is to support it. Cheap supermarket beer might be tempting but theres something wonderful about walking to the pub to build a thirst, meeting a few mates, finding a friendly face behind the bar and enjoying a freshly pulled pint. A bottle in front of the TV just cant compare. Make a special effort to go to your local as youll miss it once its gone.