Changing tastes

Drink - Victoria Moore on why bitter isn't always better

Not many people know that the great escapologist Harry Houdini nearly died when he was challenged to escape from a padlocked metal cask full of Tetley's ale in 1911. He was rescued by a colleague who, disturbed by the deathly silence behind the curtain, rushed to his aid and found him languishing in the beer only partly conscious. Could Harry have been trying to drink his way out? Yorkshiremen would surely feel that would have been the most sensible option.

For a pint of Tetley's is one of the joys of the north, up there with fish'n'chips with scraps (for my southern readers, literally scraps of batter) and long muddy walks over rainswept moors. You can find Tetley's in pubs across the country, of course, but any man with Yorkshire in his blood will tell you it doesn't taste the same. A pint of bitter pulled in Yorkshire, they gripe, is to a southern pint what a piping hot dish of creamy porridge is to a watery bowl of workhouse gruel. Tetley's will not travel more than ten miles from its Leeds brewery, so the complaint goes. Why this should be remains one of the great mysteries of western civilisation.

In search of an answer, I telephone the Man from Tetley's, a Dr George Philliskirk, who at once (and with some pride) tells me he is a Yorkshireman "by birth and upbringing". But he disagrees with my thesis. "Some pubs in the south pull a good pint," he says, before proceeding to demolish the notion that Tetley's doesn't like the M1. "All cask Tetley's goes to Northampton before it is redistributed, even if it then goes back up to Leeds," he explains to my astonishment, "so it's all down to the individual landlord."

Dr Philliskirk suggests two factors that could affect the taste of the ale. The first is that magic little gadget commonly known as the sparkler - a perforated disk that aerates the beer to crown it with a creamy head. Dr Philliskirk doesn't call it a sparkler, though. He prefers the term "red angram pip", actually a particular kind of sparkler. So if you want a properly pulled pint of Tetley's, look for a red ring on the spout of the hand pump. In the south, where legend has it that they prefer flatter beer, Dr Philliskirk says that they sometimes take this off. And the second point is that cask Tetley's should be drunk within three days of opening. If it isn't, it develops acetaldehyde and a tell-tale whiff of green apples. In Leeds it is unthinkable that a cask of Tetley's might not be polished off in three days.

It sounds so easy. I head into the hinterlands of south-east London in search of a good pint of Yorkshire bitter. It is a dark and menacing day, the butt end of autumn. "Two pints of bitter, please," I say to the first barman in the first grimy pub we slink into. "And, er, could you put the red angram pip back on the pump before you pull it, please?" "The what, darlin'?" comes the surly reply. "The sparkler, I think it might be called, perhaps," I say, doing my best to smile sweetly. The barman claims it's got one on already, even unscrews something to prove his point. But the bitter isn't creamy when it's pulled.

At the pub round the corner I fare no better. "Oh yes, it's got one of those sparkler things on," says the landlady. And once again the beer isn't creamy. So I go back west, to the pub favoured by my latest love ("The best pint of Tetley's in London, but not as good as in Yorkshire"). It's a nice pint, creamier than the others, but the landlord tells me they certainly don't use a sparkler, they've no need: he keeps his pipes clean and his beer is well-stored. And I'm no closer to solving the mystery than Houdini was to escaping from his padlocked cask. Landlords, answers on a postcard please.