BEER FESTIVALS – THE CELLAR TEAM TASKS
Ever thought of working at a CAMRA beer festival and looking after lots of casks of beer ? I started helping at the Sheffield festival about 15 years ago, initially on the bar, but now on the cellar.
My aim is that every pint served reaches the drinker in prime condition, cellar cool and does justice to the skill of the brewer. I wouldn’t want a warm, flat , cloudy or contaminated pint if I went in a pub and I don’t expect festival goers to accept that either.
Here’s a guide to what’s involved in being part of the cellar team. The title is a bit of a misnomer, as unlike your local real ale pub, there is no physical cellar to keep the beer in. We start and end in an empty hall. Everything is assembled from scratch, a daunting task, but with plenty of volunteers it becomes straightforward .
BUILD A STILLAGE
The beer needs the maximum time to settle, so the earliest task is to build a “cellar. The stillage is heavy duty steel racking , usually seen in warehouses. It just locks together like a giant Lego set, with plywood shelves to take the heavy weight of the beer. Once this is built, the 9 gallon casks of beer are lifted onto it, and held in place, tilted slightly forward , with wooden chocks for support There is also a separate row of casks, on end on the floor in front of the stillage. These will be under the bar ,which is also being erected from fold flat kits .
This is a major milestone as the beer should not need to be moved again, and the yeast sediment can begin to settle leaving the beer clear. However, the beer is now quickly getting to room temperature , making the yeast more active and the beer could be served too warm .
Years ago we used mutton cloth sleeves on the barrels, sprayed with water. As the water evaporated this cooled the casks, but wasn’t really up to the task. These days the casks are cooled by a bespoke cooling system from CAMRA HQ. It’s just like a home central heating system in reverse , with chilled water instead of hot water. Large refrigeration units chill water to just above freezing and it is pumped through insulated plastic pipes to a metal coil which straddles each cask. The pipework is all simple push fit, but a leak can quickly spill gallons of water so it all has to be carefully tested for leaks . An insulated jacket drapes over each cask to “keep the cold in”. The cooling also extends to the floor based casks beneath the bar .
Great first day over, all beer racked on the stillage and keeping cool.
Like handling any food product, cleanliness is paramount, and beer can quickly be ruined by contamination from other yeasts, mould or fungal infections. It can make it hazy or turn it into vinegar in a short space of time. The bungs of all casks are sterilised. Cleaning this way reduces the risk of infection from anything picked up in transit or on site. All taps, beer engines, plastic beer lines and other equipment that comes into contact with the beer have to be cleaned and sterilised too.. Buckets of line cleaner have to be pulled into the beer engines and left to do its work , then thoroughly flushed through with water. The same has to be done at the end of the festival as stale beer left hidden in a beer engine or tap quickly becomes a source of infection next time it is used. Cleaning all these beer engines is a tedious but essential task, but at least it limbers the arm muscles up for pulling pints ! The line cleaner is hazardous to our skin, so gloves and other safety wear are essential for those handling it. All the newly sterile equipment is rinsed thoroughly and kept in buckets of clean water until needed. A load of chores, yes , but far better than the risk contaminated ale , and having to pour thousands of pounds of down the drain, leaving drinkers thirsty.
Our cool beer is happily resting, and the casks can be vented. Our beer is a living product and the yeast is still causing a secondary fermentation in the cask, which builds up carbon dioxide . This sits in the small air void above the beer and builds up pressure in the cask. A hollow tapered metal spike(the venting tool) is hammered into the centre dimple of the shive (bung) The excess gas in the barrel is vented out by the tool into a small tube and away. If the cask has a lot of “condition” (gas) inside it hisses violently and frothy beer can also be sprayed out. If the cask has been left to get warm, this can be a Vesuvius spectacular. I’ve never been able to vent all the casks without at least one drenching. Once the eruption has died down a tapered wooden peg (spile) is loosely put back in the vent hole .
Next the plastic taps, each with tapered shaft , are hammered into the keystone on the front. It has to be done firmly and quickly, and with the tap turned off, otherwise you get a face of beer. Too timid and the bung will leak, too hard and you’ll knock the cask off its chocks. As a novice you will undoubtedly get it wrong in every conceivable way, but the quick learners avoid getting a repeat soaking. So now , as long as it settles ,the beer is potentially ready to serve. Different beers have different settling times, usually 1-3 days and in many ways you can only make a guess based on previous handling of that beer.
QUALITY CONTROL – IS IT FIT TO DRINK?
Spiles are removed and a sample of beer tasted. Held to the light, is it crystal clear, hazy or are there great dollops of yeast floating in it? Next taste it – is it clear of any vinegary sourness , musty or woody taste which denote infection or contamination? You may have no idea what flavours the brewer intended for that particular brew, but put simply does it taste OK . If its not your style of beer, let others in the cellar team taste it . When there are a couple of hundred beers to inspect this has to be a shared task as even a small sip from each cask renders you unfit for further tasting- or much else- after a while. Working to a master list , record the results for serve , waiting or condemn the beer from each cask.
Amazingly, when it comes to tasting you discover that you have suddenly become very popular with everyone on site……
All these tasks have to be done before the beer goes on sale. Everybody the first day wants to sample the beer and expects everything to be available. Tickers in particular want to sample each beer, and have sometimes pleaded with me to let them sample a beer that is simply not ready yet. (Strangely I’ve never seen anyone plead with a pub landlord to sell a beer that he says isn’t ready yet), however I can understand that people may have travelled miles to a festival to experience a particular brew. So sometimes you have to bend to their wishes , give them a secret sample , but keep the beer off open sale until it comes good. Generally though if its not right , don’t serve it – the brewer would be disappointed his wares weren’t at their best and drinkers will mostly be underwhelmed . As opening hour approaches, spiles are removed, taps on ale extractors turned on, and some beer drawn through the hand pumps so the first customer servings are fresh. The ones that aren’t on sale have to be clearly marked for bar staff, who will be busy and may not notice that the spile is still in and that’s why only a dribble of beer comes out.
Anyway at this stage stand back and watch people happily drinking beer for a while- well ten minutes at least, then the problems will start to flood in
KEEPING ALL THE BALLS IN THE AIR
Cleaning uses copious buckets of clean water, and there is dirty water and beer ullage to get rid of with minimum spillage. Water taps and drains are rarely as close as you want so you will often have a lengthy trek. Drip trays have to emptied and spilt beer from the taps mopped up. Bar staff will be under pressure to serve crowds quickly and accidents can happen, so there is constant mopping up to do. As the beer is sold from each cask, the rear chock has to be moved carefully to stoop the cask so clear beer runs out the tap. Ale extractors have to be pushed further in the cask as they are meant to take the bright beer from the top . At the end of each session the spiles have to be put back, as leaving the casks always open to the air causes the beer to go stale as the contents drop.
Spectacular or acclaimed beers can run out in less than an hour, so any reserve casks must be prepared for changeover. Beer lines must be cleaned with water for each new cask, any equipment from used casks must be cleaned before re-use , and frequent checks have to be made for leaks from the cooling or cask bungs/faulty taps. Beer unready at the outset has to be rechecked before it can go on sale. As the festival progresses stooped casks will be down to the dregs, and as fewer beers are on sale, this causes a bit of a domino effect on the remaining beers. Hopefully at the close all beer is sold. Anyway things never happen smoothly- casks at different ends of the stillage need changing at the same time. The mallet you had in your hand a moment ago has gone walkabout ( all tools have a life of their own once it is busy , believe me). Oh quick someone’s knocked a cask over……..
As the festival winds down, you switch from set up and beer dispense to thoughts of take down. Empty casks can be removed, redundant beer engines and taps cleaned, and even the cooling equipment can be truncated in situ and packed away. At final close any unsold beer can be supped, for in the morning the rest has to go down the drain. Cork bungs and spiles are whacked in casks and then stacked for the dray to collect. All the equipment has to be cleaned and packed away and refrigerating units emptied . Lastly the stillage is taken down .
As you take a last glance at the empty hall you started in ,you are left with a memory that the cellar team built a temporary shrine to the joys of real ale and that everyone who came enjoyed the marvels of the beer they so lovingly nurtured. It all passed in a busy blur, you may remember some of the glitches , however a record amount of beer was sold, and no-one complained of a duff pint . Then something up on a window ledge catches your eye. So that’s where I left that damn mallet!!!!!
Now, fancy joining me?