The other day I sat listening to Arthur W. Seddon, master brewer emeritus of England's Bass Brewery, talk about beer in a foreign tongue.
He spoke English, but he was using the language of a British brewer. And, as marvelous as his words sounded, I had a hard time understanding what they meant.
But since Seddon was a wonderful story teller, and since the beer was flowing, and since it was a beautiful day at the Baltimore harbor, I sat there sipping and smiling.
I let the wave of terms like "hopping ladies" and the "brewer's dray" and "stoneys" roll over me. Occasionally I'd snag one and ask Seddon to translate.
He drew illustrations, wrote down definitions and answered my endless questions about making draft beer or, as the English say, cask-conditioned ale. By the end of the session, I think I might have learned something.
I now know, for instance, who the "hopping ladies" are. They are the women who skillfully add 2 ounces of hops, by hand, to the 36-gallon cask of ale as it ferments in a British brewery.
And I know who the "drayman" is. He is the chap who transports the barrels of cask-conditioned ale to a pub. He uses a "brewer's dray." In the old days, this was a wagon pulled by Shires, a type of horse favored by brewers. Nowadays a brewer's dray is a truck.
The tavern keeper is called many names, most of them printable. He is a "publican," a "licensee," or the "innkeeper," Seddon said.
When it comes time to unload the beer from the dray, the drayman and the publican work together. The drayman moves the casks into the pub basement by way of "the cellar drop," Seddon said. The drop is a chute which slants from the sidewalk, or "pavement," into the basement. The drayman secures a rope to the "chyme," or lip of the cask, and casks of ale are eased into the pub.
Once inside, the publican uses his bobbin, or wooden stick, to maneuver the casks. With the help of the drayman, the publican moves the casks onto his "stillage," an elevated wooden rack. Not all the ale in the stillage is ready to be served. Some needs to finish fermenting in the cask. The publican knows when the ale is ready, Seddon said, by watching the froth that forms on a peg in the cask's "tut."
I have to pause here. It took me a long time to grasp the concept of the "tut hole" and the "bung hole." I thought they would be like the "black hole" of space, a term I use but never understand. But after staring at an illustration of a beer barrel that Seddon drew, and conducting a follow-up phone conversation with Seddon from his home in England, I think I've got it.
The "tut," he said, is a small hole in the middle of a larger plug. The big plug is called, the bung, it goes in the "bung hole" on top of a barrel.
Having mastered the concept of the tut being a hole within a plug, I had to understand that there are two different kinds of pegs that go in the tut. The first peg is made of oak sapwood. Since that wood is porous, excess carbon dioxide gas from the fermenting beer can slowly escape through it. As the gas works its way out of the peg, it leaves a frothy residue.
By keeping an eye on the residue of the tut peg, the publican knows when a barrel of ale has finished working and is ready for drinking, Seddon said.
When the froth has spoken, the publican replaces the porous peg with one made of harder wood. The tip of this second peg is covered with wax to keep the ale and the remaining carbon dioxide sealed tight.
A good publican, Seddon said, rarely uses more than three strokes to tap a cask. He hits a soft spot on the face of the barrel.
Any more than three swings, Seddon said, disturbs the yeasts and hops in the cask, and makes the brew get cloudy.
When the ale comes out of "tapping cant" and into your glass or "stoney," you don't want it to be cloudy, Seddon said. Instead you want an ale to be "star bright."
A "stoney," Seddon said, is a brown stone jar that Englishmen traditionally used to carry ale from a pub to their home. Sadly, stoneys are being replaced, he said, by rather ordinary-looking glass jugs.
When drawn from a cask, the ale is served in vessels called "half-pints," "pints" and "tankards," he said. But if you were drinking a special bottled unpasteurized ale, called Worthington White Shield, you would ask for a "Worthington glass."
This is a U-shaped glass, with a stem on the bottom. The idea is to decant the ale, he said, leaving the sediment in the bottle, and pouring the "star bright" ale with its head of foam in your Worthington glass.
And there I had it. I had followed the travels of cask-conditioned ale from the hopping ladies, down the cellar drop, and into a pint. Seddon said I could now call myself a "toper." It rhymes with "roper." It means a man who loves his beer.