Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Pouring the slops back into the beer

An autovac beer pump, with the pipe
from the drip tray to the line clearly visible
For a long time, it was often claimed that the beer in pub drip trays was poured into the mild, as it was usually the darkest beer. Although this was dismissed at the time by some licensees and even some drinkers as a malicious rumour, it was often true, frequently done on the instructions of the brewers who used to own most of our pubs. (Other money-saving measures they might recommend included removing undamaged slices of lemon from used glasses for recycling in later drinks.) By the time the beer was poured into the mild, it could have been sitting in open steel buckets for quite a few hours, plenty of time to be contaminated and then infect the whole barrel. No wonder cask ale in general, and mild in particular, didn't have a particularly good reputation in the 1950s and 1960s: keg with its characteristic consistency must have been very welcome, despite never being better than mediocre. Mediocre is preferable to bad. If we could travel back to those times in the TARDIS, while I'm sure we'd find some good cask beers, I'm certain we'd be disappointed with much of what was on offer.

Another practice I have never been able to understand is when drinkers insist on keeping the same dirty glass, even though an identical clean glass is available. I can't see how traces of old beer and head in the glass will enhance your next pint, and the accumulation of fingerprints on the outside over an evening won't improve its appearance either, although I can see why pubs might have liked having fewer glasses to wash. It's an utterly pointless ritual that could pass on infections when the nozzle is inserted into the beer in a dirty glass and then into the next customer's beer. Unlikely, you might say, but what if the previous customer had a dripping cold or a cold sore? What if they had a more serious illness that can be transmitted by bodily fluids? "Unlikely" isn't good enough when the simple expedient of a fresh glass removes the risk altogether.

I also recall that pubs would pour beer from drip trays into pint glasses and keep them under the bar by the relevant handpump. If you'd ask for a pint, they'd lift out the partly filled glass, top it up and sell it to you as a fresh pint. They might say that they'd just poured this in error for another customer, and was that okay? Until I learnt better, I used to say yes. Once I realised the trick, having witnessed it a few times, I developed the habit of leaning right over the bar to be certain a clean, empty glass was being used.

With the modern emphasis on health and safety, you'd think such practices would have died out, and they mostly have. One exception still exists: the autovac. I was reminded of this device's existence by a recent post on Tandleman's beer blog. The autovac automatically drains the beer in the drip tray back to the lines for recycling into the next customer's pint. I regard this as a disgusting practice as the beer will have run over the pourer's hands and the outside of the glass before reaching the drip tray. If just one dirty glass is reused, the beer is contaminated. But it goes further than that: the beer will be contaminated anyway if the bar staff's hands aren't spotlessly clean, which is impossible unless they wash their hands every single time they use the till, handle money, wipe tables and collect dirty glasses. If a barman dipped his finger into your pint as he gave it to you, you'd probably refuse to accept it, but that is precisely what happens with the autovac.

I'm surprised the autovac isn't illegal. I understand that pubs where it is still used, which are mostly in Yorkshire, are obliged to use a clean glass every time, but that only addresses one of the problems, and not even that if busy bar staff succumb to a drinker's demand to reuse the same glass. I've been even more surprised when some Yorkshire real ale drinkers, even CAMRA members, have defended the autovac, seeing it as essential to the alleged unique qualities of the Yorkshire pint. This is nonsense: health objections aside, I am utterly unable to see how returning beer that has already been poured, and thus lost some of its condition, into fresh beer will improve the quality of the next pint, and I've never seen any explanation how it would. In fact, you'd get a pint that, despite a thick, foamy head, has less condition, i.e. it's more flat. But then, there's none so blind as those who will not see.


  1. I'm with you every step of the way Nev, on both fresh glasses each and every time, and on autovacs. A pretty disgusting and totally unecessary device, and I too am amazed they haven't been phased out on hygiene grounds.

    Of course, here in the soft south, such devices are unecessary anyway, as we prefer nothing more than a thin loose head on our beer, rather than a couple of inches of shaving foam!

  2. Getting a fresh glass every time is one of the noticeable changes in pubs in the past twenty or thirty years. At one time the same glass would generally be used unless you specifically asked for a new one, and if there were two of you the bar staff would usually make an effort to keep the two glasses in order.

    Of course, you end up using the same glass numerous times at the typical beer festival.

  3. To be honest, Curmudgeon, I have wondered how beer festivals get away with that. I don't regard it as an entirely satisfactory situation.

  4. A beer festival will always in theory allow you to exchange your glass, but it would make life very difficult if most punters did.

    Another unhygienic feature of beer festivals is the fact that many male punters take their pint glass into the bogs with them as there's nowhere to leave it.

  5. It was interfering idiots like you, RedNev, that caused the formation of Camra in the first place.

    Yorkshire is the biggest county in the UK.

    In fact, the West Riding of Yorkshire, on its own, is the biggest county in the UK.

    With tens of thousands of Real Ale drinkers who DO want their pint through an Autovac.

    So why do folks from other parts of the Country feel they have the right (and you fools have been trying for years) to evangelise on how we should drink beer?

    So you don't like 'Autovacs? Cool - stay away and drink whatever you like - but DON'T try to tell us what we should prefer.

    We don't expect you to like them, but just like Camra told the Megakegeries back in the 70's - keep your nose out of our beer!

    Folks from West Yorkshire don't try to foist our drinking habits on you, so why the hell do you feel you have the right to foist your beliefs on us?

    There is a very short phrase that would be good advice to you, but I will refrain from using it, in order to keep this message clean.

    1. I’ve often noticed the most aggressive comments on blogs, like the most aggressive letters to the newspapers, are anonymous. The word coward springs to mind.

      Yorkshire is big – I knew that. That’s got nothing to do with the autovac. Sorry to break this to you, but since 1974 the term West Riding of Yorkshire hasn’t referred to any tangible entity.

      Yorkshire is a part of England and the UK; it is not separate in any way. As a British citizen, I am not an outsider when I go into Yorkshire; I am travelling in my own country, and I’m glad to say that all the Yorkshire people I’ve met over many years of frequent visits to that part of the UK don’t exhibit the xenophobia that you have just done in your rant. That’s just as well considering how important tourism is to the local economy.

      I am not interfering when I express a view; I am stating an opinion in a country where we still have a modicum of free speech. I therefore accept you have a right to your views, although you have no right to tell me – as you have done – that I am not entitled to hold mine, especially on my own blog.

      “With tens of thousands of Real Ale drinkers who DO want their pint through an Autovac.” How do you know? As far as I know there has been no survey canvassing drinkers’ views on this issue, so who appointed you as spokesperson? Even if it were true, which I don’t automatically accept, that is a tiny percentage of real ale drinkers in Yorkshire, which has a population of well over 4 million.

      “So you don't like 'Autovacs? Cool - stay away” Sorry, you don’t own Yorkshire – you just live there, and I’ll travel wherever I like in my country. Similarly, although I am proud of my Liverpool roots, I don’t own Merseyside.

      “Folks from West Yorkshire don't try to foist our drinking habits on you, so why the hell do you feel you have the right to foist your beliefs on us?” You also use the word “evangelise”: you really have lost it here. A dislike of autovacs is not a belief; it’s not a religion – it’s a preference, that’s all, and I have every right to express my view about them, despite your clumsy attempts to impose censorship on this issue by anonymous bullying.

      “We don't expect you to like them” Why not if they’re so wonderful? This comment reveals that you know autovacs are unsavoury, which indeed they are.

      I think that deals with all the points in your comment. Close the door on the way out, will you?

    2. Yup - "anonymous" because it is plainly pointless trying to make a point with you, so why should I be arsed "joining". Is it your little narrowminded club?

      Let me know when you wankers create AntiCamra.

      "We know better than you do"

      Yeah, f****ing fight you do.

      What does it feel like to be SO pompous?

    3. Anonymouse - Er, as well as enjoying drinking the Autovac piss in West Yorkshire, you're also taking it. Right?

  6. In fact, you claim to be a "trade unionist" , but you are clearly some kind of beer fascist.

    I have no wish to tell you what to drink, but you think it is perfectly OK to tell me what to drink.

    You even want to educate me on West Riding history. F*** off!

    And if you want to tell me to my face, come to the Brewers Pride in Ossett (10 autovac pumps), and tell us all that we are drinking shite beer :)

  7. You really haven't got a clue, have you? As far as I'm concerned, you can drink any contaminated, unhygienic slop you like - I really couldn't care less. You don't just disagree with me: you are offended by the fact I have an opinion you don't like. Your "Come over here and say that!" attitude clearly implies that I might get a kicking if I tried.

    Freedom of speech = accepting others' views even if you disagree.
    Fascism = I'll beat you up because I hate your views.

    I think you need go no further than your own mirror to see your fascist. I note you're still anonymous.

    1. So you go in kicking pubs? Well that explains your thick headedness, I guess.

      Folks like me will always be anonymous to the likes of you, matey.

      I live in a place where we don't try to tell others what to do.

      But you really don't get it, do you?

      You really believe that trying to get rid of my preferred method of beer dispense is you doing "free speech".

      Absolute total bollox.

      But hey, your a left wing scouser. What else should I expect?

      Goodbye. Have fun in your narrow little world. But keep your nose out of autovaced beer.

  8. I don't go in violent pubs (I don't know of any) and I never fight; as you fully realise, I was referring to your comment daring me to go to Ossett to express my views in front of autovac drinkers. If you don't realise that, re-read what I wrote. I don't care in the slightest what you choose to drink.

    I notice that you haven't answered a single criticism I made of the autovac. Because you haven't done so, I conclude that everything I wrote is correct - you'd have torn my arguments to bits otherwise. I don't have the authority to get rid of autovac, and me expressing my opinion on my blog isn't going to get it banned, so I really don't understand your gross overreaction.

    First I'm a fascist, then I'm left wing: make your mind up. I also notice you are prejudiced against Scousers.

    So what do we have? Someone who:
    can't cope in a rational manner with differences of opinion, and instead uses abusive language and insults against a person whose views he doesn't like;
    is incapable of replying to the points made;
    is prejudiced against people from Liverpool;
    throws political terms about without understanding what he's saying;
    makes a lot of noise but bravely hides behind anonymity.

    As I said, I don't care in the slightest what you choose to drink; I haven't once told you or anyone else what to do, and you continually whingeing that I have doesn't make it so. I have simply explained why I don't like the autovac, and your aggressive attitude and insults can't change that.

    I would have been interested in an intelligent explanation as to why you think my views on the autovac are wrong, but I suspect that someone who can only respond with insults isn't bright enough; everything you write confirms this supposition. If I'm wrong, prove it with a rational response to what I wrote about the autovac without insults or abuse. If you do, I'll leave it there for people to decide whether they agree with me or you. If your reply is simply abusive, like all the others have been, I shall delete it and put a comment on the blog to say I've done so.

    Did I mention that I couldn't give a damn what you drink? I really don't care. I just don't like the autovac, BUT I am entitled not to like the autovac. You are the one who is trying to tell me what I should think. There is a word for that kind of person, one you have already used.

    I really don't care what you drink. You can drink what you like - it's no skin off my nose - but I am not apparently allowed to think what I like. Now don't bother replying unless you are prepared to debate, rather than just insult.

  9. In the absence of a constructive response from our West Yorkshire friend, I am providing - purely for the sake of balance - this link to the only defence of the autovac I've come across, and even this accepts there is a hygiene problem.

  10. one thing to note is that alcohol is a poison, it hinders your immune system, its bad for your stomach, its bad for your brain cells and alters your brain chemistry (which is why we like it so much :) )

    Its also bad for germs (just think about alcohol wipes). low concentration (5%) my not kill them, but it certainly doesn't help them multiply. so it might not be as bad as you think.

    1. Hi Nev, stumbled across your blog whilst Googling stuff about pubs re-serving slops. Love your discussion with the lobotomised friend from Yorkshire, very funny. ADD.

  11. Hi, I bel you have missed the main point of autovac is not to recycle beer but to ensure a heavily aerated pint creating a creamy head and in some opinions a better pint. Since we are the bastions of creamy head in Yorkshire this is why there are more common here. I've worked with many beer engines over the years and do have a preference for a pint pulled on autovac despite agreeing with the minor health issues

    1. Most good bar men in Yorkshire can still pour a nice thick headed, airy pint without autovac. I've even seen some spoons bar people pour a decent pint. Fancy that eh ;)

    2. I agree, Anon. I've been going on holiday in Yorkshire for around 35 years, and I've had loads of decent pints served without autovac.

  12. If you had bet any money on it, you'd have lost! We'll just have to agree to disagree, but at least you have been polite, unlike a previous person on this thread - thanks for that.

  13. I have kept and served beer for over 20yrs. Auto vacs were designed to get rid of the remaining CO2 in the beer, by a competant person tipping a clean glass away from their hand and over pulling the pint so it recycles around the system a couple of times leaving you with a 3/8th inch (9.5)mm creamy head Not foam. No gas mean it doesn't leave you full of wind. You may want to try it

  14. Unless your beer is under gas pressure, in which case it is not real ale, the CO2 you are referring to is a result of cask conditioning. Get rid of that and you end up with a flat pint.

    "You may want to try it" - what makes you so sure I haven't? As a regular visitor to Yorkshire, I have on many occasions. I agree you do get a nice head, but I usually find the beer doesn't have the flavour it should have.

  15. Yes you are right, the process of cask conditioning needs to complete, remember the term Tap & Vent, anyone who can keep beer knows you need to vent a barrel days before using it to complete the conditioning. The head of a pint is created by the first pull of the beer through a sprinkler nozzle capturing air, If you serve a beer that still has gas in it, it will soon look flat, because the bubbles coming to the surface will make the head collapse. And the reverse is what people want, to keep the head all the way to the end. Real ale correctly prepared has minimal CO2 left in it, it is beer not pop

  16. Nev,

    I am born and bred a Tyke (Leeds LS1) and I agree totally on autovacs, no way I want to drink from them....ever, I avoid pubs that recycle beer it is not necessary to have a great pint of real ale.

    I apologise for my fellow Tyke, he demeaned himself and his retort said more about his manners than his views.

  17. Thank you very much. I have visited various parts of Yorkshire many times over the years and I know the bad manners of your 'fellow Tyke' are not typical in the slightest of the people of that great county (and I was born in Liverpool, then in Lancashire!). All the best.

  18. This is hilarious. I'm from Leeds, I've worked in pubs with auto-vacs an personally I don't mind pubs using them. My opinion is indifferent. One thing is for sure though I certainly won't be going to Brewers Pride in Ossett now. It doesn't sound like the friendliest place if someone get so irrationally fired up about one guy's opinion! Yeah it's not the most hygienic way of serving a pint but the troughs should be cleaned daily and in pubs like this ale will be continuously be going through the system so it won't be in there long. Occasionally though the floats get stuck at the bottom of the trough so staff might have to stick their hand in to pull it out... probably best keep an eye out if they've washed their hands before they do that!

  19. Thanks for that. I'm quite happy agreeing to disagree in a civilised manner. I should be flattered that the violence-threatening Anon from the Brewers Pride in Ossett seems to think my little blog can lead to the banning of the autovac, but it's definitely not that influential.

    One message I am getting is that the autovac can evoke strong feelings in certain parts of Yorkshire. Fair enough. This post is simply my opinion, written two years ago, and I'm certain that no pub will have thought about removing the autovac as a result.

  20. Is this pouring slops into what I pay as a fresh pint legal ?

  21. Pouring the slops back into the barrel, as I described in my first paragraph, is definitely not allowed nowadays, but the autovac is. I'm not sure why.

  22. Interesting reading here, as far as I was aware it was CAMRA who preserved the autovac in parts of Yorkshire and I, as an escaped northerner from Bradford, prefer it! I dont' think it is because I was brought up drinking it from the early seventies (legally!) but I do actually prefer the smoothness of it and find most, not all, beers pulled with minimal head to be a tad on the heavy side. I now live in Cornwall and over the past 20 yrs or so the beer has really improved down here but when I first arrived here there was hardly anything palatable, Tinners and Duchy being the main ones and I had mad dashes back to Yorkshire for a decent pint, but times have changed here. I enjoy the beers pulled through the dreaded sparklers as they are similar to the smoother autovac pints, some breweries recommend the use of sparklers with their beers, some don't, not everyone wants bowling over with heavy flavours. That bloke from Ossett, well the least said the better.

    1. I welcome the fact that you argued for the autovac without resorting to abuse, and your final sentence is spot on!

    2. I work for Ossett brewery and we only have auto-vac systems i prefer a pint pulled by them i think its taster and always gives a fantastic pint you can get close to this with standard swan necks if you have 1/4 pint pull pumps but they need pulling hard and i just end up snapping the wickets but each to your own.

  23. I'm pleased to see the passion here...personally, I prefer Autovac served beer. Fresh glass isn't a problem at all. Autovacs, to my taste, offer a better tighter head that lasts longer. Swan neck served beer tastes flat - odd as ale is flat really. Just my 2p worth, but a good well trained and experienced bar person makes more difference than the pump...

  24. This is an excellent original post RedNev, sorry I came across it so late in the day. I came to it through a link on the CAMRA unofficial Facebook group

    1. Thanks, I'm glad you like the post. I wrote it nearly 4 years ago and it has been one of the most, if not the most, controversial posts I've written, something I had not anticipated. However, I didn't know until now that it had appeared on the CAMRA unofficial FB page!

      I'm happy to have any disagreements, but I was more tolerant then; nowadays I'd simply delete such abuse and put a note on to say I had, explaining why.

  25. This post has now been mentioned on CAMRA Discourse so expect yet more comments to come your way ;-)

    1. Thanks for the tip-off. Forewarned is forearmed, so they say.

    2. Very interesting, although I think CAMRA are generally not inclined to get involved with this from what I've seen.

      I have set up an online petition with the aim of getting pubs to display mandatory notices if these are in use. Hope it's OK to post a link to that here RedNev?

  26. I'd like to add my tuppence worth to the debate if I may.

    I moved up to near Edinburgh last year and hadn't heard of these devices until a friend had mentioned them to me. He was always a bit of a joker so I naturally thought he was pulling my leg. However, a few weeks later a complete stranger whispered in my ear "I see you are drinking the warm recycled beer then...". Took me by surprise a bit and of course when I looked behind the bar I was horrified. The bar manager went into an explanation to try and convince me it was a good thing but this just doesn't sit well with me and if people are OK with this then that's up to them.

    My position is this. I'm not trying to shut pubs down as one of my adversaries has insinuated. A good friend once said, "There are good pubs in Edinburgh that could be a lot better". I'd like to see Autovac (or return trays as the call them here) completely gone. But at the very least I'd like to see customers made aware they are in use. I had no idea and most people don't either. With the exception of the tall fonts, the only way is to crane over the bar and have a look. Mandatory notification is the way forward I think and then customers can decide for themselves whether or not they are happy with the use of these devices. If the pubs that use them think they are OK then they shouldn't have a problem telling everyone they are in use.

    I have since boycotted all the pubs I know that use them and have started mapping the pubs that have these return trays as well as the ones that do not, mainly in Edinburgh for the time being. I wouldn't go as far as to say "don't go to these pubs". That's up to the individual, but I would rather drink in a pub that doesn't use Autovac and I'm sure there are others out there that feel the same.

    The autovac map:

    Local CAMRA magazine article regarding return trays:

    1. Thanks for your comments, Moth. I think your suggestion that, if pubs think autovac is okay, they should have no problem in letting customers know, makes a lot of sense.

      I wouldn't knowingly use a pub with autovac, but here in the North West they are unknown anyway.

  27. I am originally from Australia and work all around the UK. I wondered why i liked the beer so much in Yorkshire and got talking to different barmen whenever i visited. It turns out that not only did i love Yorkshire beer, but I had naturally gravitated towards the pints being pulled on Autovacs as they had a really lovely texture and taste.

    The difference too is most of the pubs i have visited in Yorkshire have been fairly busy so i imagine they get through quite a few barrels on an evening and the beer is always fresh.

  28. Despite my handle I live in Hampshire. I prefer beer that does not have a foamy head, That reminds me too much of the Keg beer that largely dominated the market before CAMRA started. My regular pubs are 1. The Guide Dog, Southampton - handpump dispense, 2. The Flowerpots, Cheriton - gravity dispense, 3. The Wheatsheaf, Shedfield - gravity dispense, 4. The Albion, Winchester - handpump dispense. All four pubs serve cask beers in excellent condition and at a temperature that does not overchill the beer. I have not seen pubs 1. and 4. use Autovac. Maybe that is not common where I live.

  29. It's not common but there are pubs in Edinburgh and parts of Yorkshire that use them


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