The Beer Engine

The beer engine is a simple device with which every beer drinker and home brewer should be familiar. Sometimes known as a hand pump or “wicket,” it is the earliest known and still used draft system. This amazing device was designed to simply pump beer from a cask stored in the cellar of an inn up to a spout on the floor above. It is also the traditional method of serving British cask conditioned ales and is spreading across the United States in a similar attempt to attain the traditional time-honored cask ale characteristics. Most American pubs that brew their own beer will even have at least one offering “on cask.”  Cask conditioned ales are usually transferred to the cask (or Firkin) and allowed to finish their fermentation. This simply means that the beer carbonates itself from the continued working of the yeast. In the home brew community this is known as natural carbonation. When the keg is ready to be consumed, a porous wooden plug (or spile) replaces a solid non gas-permeable plug on the cask. Excess CO2 pressure is allowed to vent through the spile and then the hoses are connected to attach the Firkin to the beer engine.

Beer EngineThe inner workings of the beer engine consist of  a simple cylindrical chamber. Beer is drawn into the chamber by the physical movement of a sealed piston that  works only in one direction. The piston movement reduces the pressure inside the cylinder which causes the beer to be sucked from the cask below. The size of the chamber dictates the pull of the pump and is usually available in either a quarter or a half pint pull. From the top of the beer engine’s hydraulic chamber, the siphoned beer is dispensed through a short steel spout into a clean glass. Sometimes, a device known as a sparkler can be attached to the end of the spout in order to agitate the liquid and create a thick creamy head. Some traditionalists, however, believe that sparklers are an unnatural phenomenon and should be avoided at all costs. Because the pump is sucking beer from the cask, air is allowed to vent into the keg through the porous wooden spile to equalize the pressure. Since air is entering the cask, it is necessary to consume the cask’s contents quicker in order to avoid oxidation of the beer. Some of the more modern beer engine/cask systems vent CO2 into the keg at atmospheric pressure instead of air in order to reduce the chance of beer spoilage. This results in a blanket of CO2 over the beer in the cask and does not increase pressure in the container. True real ale fanatics frown at this, however, because the beer won’t change character as much during its dispensing time as it would using the traditional air venting method. The beer engine/cask method of serving usually results in a slightly warmer and less carbonated beverage than most Americans are accustomed to. However, these slightly warmer, “cellar,” temperatures (50 to 55 degrees) and less carbonation reveal more of the flavor characteristics of the ale.

Joseph BramahThe beer engine was patented in May of 1785 by Joseph Bramah as a labor saving device to aid inn keepers of the time. It wasn’t until 1797, however, that the beer pump was actually put into use by London beer servers. Up until this point, they were forced to run down into the cellar in order to fill jugs or pitchers with beer from the casks. The casks had to be stored in the lowest part of the building, the cellar, because this is where the temperature was the coolest and most consistent since there was no refrigeration available. As more people came to populate London from the country and travel became more and more popular, this became considerably more impractical for the poor inn keepers. Customers, as you know, demand immediate service and can be quite unruly. Joseph Bramah’s Beer Engine seemed like, and truly is, a miracle device.

Joseph was born in Stainborough, Yorkshire, England in 1748. He was the son of a farmer and worked in the fields as a young boy. In 1765, he broke his ankle which crippled him for life. Because he was no longer able to perform physical labor on his father’s farm, his father procured him a position as a carpenter’s apprentice. Upon completing his apprenticeship and becoming an expert carpenter, he moved to London to become a professional cabinet maker. He is best known, however, for inventing the Bramah Safety Lock, which he patented in 1784. The lock was considered to be “unpickable”, and he offered £200 to anyone who could open it without a key. It wasn’t until 1851 that it was finally picked by an American who took 16 days to finally get it unlocked.

Bramah had patents for over 20 inventions during his lifetime. These included a hydrostatic Machine (hydraulic press), a beer pump, the four-cock, a quill sharpener, a working planer, methods of paper-making, improved fire engines, and printing machines. In 1806, Joseph Bramah patented a machine for printing banknotes that was used by the Bank of England to print sequential checks. He also made a hydrostatic press capable of removing trees and their roots. He died at the age of 66 from pneumonia after catching a cold while watching his hydrostatic tree removing press work. Luckily for us, many of his fine inventions, such as the beer engine, still live on in his memory.

If you have never experienced a pint of traditionally dispensed ale, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. The flavors of the brew make a dramatic appearance and the lower carbonation levels allow a more pleasing beer consuming experience. Whether you like it or not, you can still appreciate the engineering marvel known as the beer engine and give thanks to Joseph Bramah for inventing true draft beer. For without him, you probably wouldn’t be experiencing CO2 propelled beer today. You may as well raise a pint to his memory and give thanks for beer on draft.