An English pub in a can

Special to The Times

BEER has tasted like nectar to me exactly three times in my life: When I was living in Lincoln, Neb., and learned that it could be cut with tomato juice to make “red beer” in honor of the Cornhuskers on home game days. When I was stranded in a motel in a dry county in Georgia’s “Deliverance” country and a friend revealed he had a six-pack in his car. And over the holidays, when Boddingtons Pub Ale was first snapped open in my vicinity.

This is one brew that makes it clear what all the fizz is all about. Instead of the usual “all bloat, no buzz” effect, Boddingtons is foam on the top and creamy flavor on the bottom thanks to an innovation the brewer imaginatively describes as a “widget.” When one of the bright yellow cans is opened, the little capsule inside injects a bit of nitrogen to aerate the ale as if it has just been drawn in a pub. You get a sense of immediate vibrancy, with no metallic undertone of carbonation, rather than the faint echo of a soda that’s been sitting on the shelf past its sell-by date.

The widget, officially known as the DraughtFlow System, is the reason I first noticed Boddingtons at a party. An expatriate from England was blithely opening tall ales from a cute little four-pack while everyone else was constantly trying to find the corkscrew for wine. And whenever he poured a fresh one, he drew a crowd, as much for the foaming show as for the tale of the widget and the design award he said it won from the queen.

When I got a taste, it was a beer I could finally see drinking. As the label notes, this is an ale known for “little gassiness.” But more than that, it’s about flavor, smooth and light. You don’t drink it mindlessly.


Steve Ward, marketing director for European brands at Labatt USA, which imports Boddingtons, said both the brewery and Guinness developed similar technology for the widget in 1988 in an effort to replicate pub ale. But only Boddingtons uses nitrogen alone, which he said adds a softness and “creates that creamy and cascading effect.” The plastic capsule, almost like a fishing bobber, releases its contents when the pressure inside the can changes; you wait about five seconds, then pour the ale into a tall glass for the full effect.

Boddingtons is a real cult drink in England, where it has been brewed in a part of Manchester known as the Strangeways district since 1778. But there it is mostly pub ale. The kind in cans is now sold in more than 30 countries. And it’s spreading fast around America.

After discovering it at the party, we brought some to my consort’s parents in upstate New York, only to find they had already become converts on a trip to Denver. Ward said San Francisco and Los Angeles are also growing markets for Boddingtons, which is sold at Ralphs and Vons and other large chains.

The British Empire could rise again, one spurt of nitrogen at a time.