Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Nature or nurture?

Greene King IPA is possibly the biggest-selling cask beer in the UK, and is often dismissed is irredeemably dull and bland. But, as Paul Garrard points out here, when it is well kept it can be a very good and distinctive beer, something with which I would agree on the rare occasions (generally in East Anglia) I have encountered it on top form. But this raises the important question of to what extent the drinker’s enjoyment of a pint of cask beer derives from the intrinsic characteristics of the beer, and to what extent from the general standard of cellarmanship in the pub.

It has long been noticeable that a few pubs manage to coax depths of flavour and character out of beers such as Tetley Bitter which most others signally fail to do. And I would contend that the vast majority of beers (or at least those that have become reasonably well established and are not produced by short-lived micros) have the potential to be very good indeed in the right hands. I will admit that there are a few, however, such as Websters Yorkshire Bitter and Worthington Bitter, that do seem so intrinsically bland that they can never get there however well looked after, although an example where all the tick-box aspects of good cellarmanship are there can still be recognised.

It is certainly the case that all the regular beers from the four Greater Manchester family brewers, although dismissed by some as rather dull, are capable of scaling the heights when well looked after. Indeed probably the most memorable pint of beer I have ever had was a pint of Robinson’s Unicorn (Best Bitter as it was then) in a Stockport local towards the end of a pub crawl when you might have expected tastebuds to be getting jaded. So I would say the relative contribution of cellarmanship to the quality of the beer in the glass is considerably more than is often acknowledged.

Some of the beers that enthusiasts rave about only tend to appear in specialist outlets where they can expect to be well looked after, and might fare differently if made available to a diverse cross-section of pubs. Even a Thornbridge product might not be too impressive if turning over a bit too slowly on a lone handpump at the end of the bar of a family dining outlet.

And I can’t help thinking that often there is a lot of “tall poppy syndrome” amongst beer enthusiasts, in that any widely-available beer is inevitably dismissed as dull and bland, and any “cult” beer that achieves widespread distribution – Pedigree, Landlord, Deuchars etc – is said to have lost much of its character.

26 comments:

  1. Fair points, well made. I would ask of all the people on the blogosphere moaning about Tetley bitter being brewed by Marstons and laughably promising to boycott Carlsberg. When did you all last have a pint of it?

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  2. Cellarmanship is key to cask beer. It really makes the difference when someone knows what they are doing. One often overlooked point is that cask beer isn't at its best when it has just dropped bright. To buy in front to allow more conditioning takes money a lot of publicans just don't have, which often results in green, underconditioned, immature and downright flabby beer being sold.

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  3. ditto what Tandleman said.
    It'll be interesting to see what this 'new' Marston's process brings forth.

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  4. I think you're absolutely right about the tall poppy syndrome but I think its a characteristic of many hobbies that are seen as a way of differentiating yourself from the mainstream - you can witness the same syndrome in music circles when favourite indie bands are seen as "selling out " when they take the major's shilling and start selling millions and touring the stadia.

    Thus its always about the new and the rare, the pink vinyl import or limited edition pineapple stout and so real ales that sell the most are often dismissed as boring brown beers despite the fact that millions drink and enjoy them, the national/regional brewers and their products are often avoided/damned with faint praise in favour of anything from a micro-brewery however bland and even undrinkabale some of their output can be, and of course that rare American Quadruple IPA (or whatever the latest favourite is) is always better than anything we could produce in the UK (and of course it operates in reverse, witness the Amnercian predeliction for raving about Newcastle Brown, Bass and Sam Smith's beers)...and so on.

    But at the end of the day the "beer enthusiast" (and I'm one myself !) is a tiny, tiny proportion of the market compared to the "beer drinker" and they're not doing anyone any harm so let them enjoy their hobby within our little bubble (I doubt Marstons, Greene King, Youngs or Fullers really give a monkeys what a few beer geeks think about the most popular pints of real ale in the UK - and as Mr Cooking Lager would no doubt remind us, the big international lager brewers don't care about real ale drinkers full stop !)

    As you say, it will be interesting to see in years to come when Brew Dog are in every supermnarket and corner shop, when you can't walk into a pub without seeing Thornbridge Jaipur alongside London Pride, whether the enthusiasts will be paying them any attention any more. I remember when Deuchars first started to slip into a few London pubs and the thrill of finding it on the bar, now its dismissed as boring, and now the same thing is happening to Sharps and St Austell beers as they become more popular and ubiquitous, I wonder who'll be next to earn the "boring2 tag....?




    tends to be the


    I guess its the nature of the beast in terms of the comparatively

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  5. Last summer I worked on a real ale bar at a charity event in Southport. On gravity dispense were 3 donated bitters: Tetley's, John Smith's and Black Sheep. After the Black Sheep ran out, I poured myself the John Smith's with little enthusiasm but found found to my surprise it had far more flavour than I'd expected. Not wonderful, but unexpectedly acceptable. And this was John Smith's!

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  6. I find John Smith's cask bitter a perfectly acceptable beer, albeit one at the rich, malty, caramelly end of the spectrum. Perhaps it suffers from the association with Extra Smooth.

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  7. I couldn't agree more about cellarmanship and tall poppy syndrome. For years, I knew which was the best pint I'd ever had: Thwaites Bitter, beautifully kept and at an ideal temperature with a fine, creamy head. Not much of a fashion beer but it was truly memorable due in large part to the landlord's skill.

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  8. RedNev,

    Quite. Properly kept John Smith's can be quite good. I even had a nice pint of Boddingtons once (only once, though).

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  9. Martin, Cambridge17 March 2010 at 15:11

    Excellent points rarely recognised in local CAMRA circles, where a line-up of Deuchars/Pride/Adnams is routinely written off as bland.

    The ubiquitous Pedigree seems to have suffered the most though. Ouside it's Midlands heartland it is often a shadow of the classic beer it can still be (particularly when from the barrel). It's often the worst choice in a Wetherspoons.

    And yes Curmudgeon, the local Manchester beer do indeed seem highly variable to an outsider. I had a fantastic pint of Holts near London Bridge recently, but generally struggle with it. The variability in Robbies is highlighted in the views from the Stockport Stagger reports (including your own).

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  10. Tandleman, you again are making cask conditioned beer sound like brain surgery, it isn't. There is no science behind ANY of your comments. They are your opinion, which is subjective. Cask ale fails from not selling and losing condition, which are both intermingled. The stuff you come up with is in your head. Define the flavor profile of immature beer. Also, explain how bright, naturally carbonated beer is immature.

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  11. Whorst, I'm afraid it's you that is showing your ignorance. It is not subjective to say that cask beer still needs to mature after it has dropped bright before it reaches its peak of flavour, as anyone who has had any experience with it will tell you. Tandleman is absolutely right,

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  12. Now then Sausage. The other name for cask conditioned beer is cask matured beer. Matured! Geddit?

    I don't pull you up on home brew - don't you pull me up on cellarmanship.

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  13. Absolute bullshit! I disagree adamantly with both of you. An ordinary Bitter can spend four days in the fermenter and be ready to drink at its peak of flavor in a very short period after, without being immature, green, or whatever the fuck you call it. You're something else. In the end, you've won, because this is the kind of shit that I can do without. I spent an hour on the phone this morning speaking to three brewers in the UK who shall remain nameless. They have requested that I do not use their names in referring to this post. One of them actually reads beer blogs because he finds them amusing. Go figure! Two of them have mentioned that YOU, Tandleman are FULL OF SHIT! Which is good enough for me. So good, that I'm done. Sooner or later someone else will call you on your bullshit, or maybe they already have.

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  14. Cellarmanship is vital. Try a pint of a Thornbridge beer in a decent pub and it can be fantastic. The same pint in a certain sports bar in Sheffield ain't half as good and gets ruggedly pulled with little care.

    Your examples of beers that are often dismissed intrigues me. Personally I don't like Deuchars and I know few people that do (bland, although maybe I've never had a really well kept pint of it?!) but Landlord and Pedigree are revered and sought out. Landlord is certainly a tall poppy! Granted it might not get the column inches but that's the 'new wave' does but then again you don't see Timmy Taylor's pulling PR stunts.

    Cookie: I must have said a thousand times I don't buy Tetley bitter often, usually only if in certain pubs pre-match on a Saturday where it's the only cask. Even then I'll often opt for whatever nice lout there is because the Tetley's is treated with contempt by most of the bar staff in these places. I'd still prefer it to be brewed in Yorkshire though, for carbon footprint reasons almost as much as heritage etc.

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  15. Had a couple of great pints of Tetley's recently, in remote pubs in Northumberland of all places. Definitely down to cellarmanship.

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  16. Tandleman et al, the maturation of cask ale after it has dropped bright is utter rubbish for about 90% of cask production. The larger (relatively) regional brewers all precondition, fine or filter their beers before even racking them to cask. The beer is delivered and only needs to spend a couple of hours in a pubs cellar before it is right to sell.

    I have chatted about this with Jeff (aka Stonch) on a few occasions and he claims that Landlord is an exception as are a few of the micro's who rack when the beer reaches a gravity around 1020.

    Sure in the CAMRA ideologists world all beer is racked to cask at 1020 and requires lengthy conditioning once it reaches the cellar, but in the real world this is the exception and not the rule.

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  17. Grow a pair
    Bit rich coming from an Anon. who is too scared to even use their real name.

    Being racist, and calling me a kiddie fiddler hardly make you an expert on beer. I was only commenting on the theme of the thread with my knowledge from discussions with a couple of landlords and brewers.

    Too many weirdo's in this beer blogging business. No wonder I gave up on it.

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  18. Good stuff that. I can now stop worrying about the taste of my pint or looking after beer properly. It's clearly a waste of time because a Yank with a strange UK obsession and a Aussie with a chip on his shoulder have cleared up the mystery.

    Well I'm glad that's sorted. Thanks Lads.

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  19. I have deleted the offending post - as it says, ad hominem attacks are not welcome.

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  20. Greene King is very drinkable especially when confronted by rows of lager taps. I am not a great fan of Tetleys, Pedigree and John Smiths type beers, but much prefer the ABV beers of 4.5-5.0 such as Abbott, Fullers ESB, Wadsworth, Bombadier and Bishops Finger.

    I passed by my way home and popped into the local..er..whisper... Whetherspoons and the guest ale was an absolute beauty. Arkells Kingsdown with an ABV of 5.0. Dark, strong and bursting with hops, it is the best new beer I have tasted in ages.

    Just to be contrarian I do also like wine too. I got the taste from using the tube in London. After downing my 5 pints I caught the tube. It got stuck in a tunnel for 30 minutes and I had a very uncomfortable time. So wine reduces the volume of course.

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  21. The cut and thrust of debate is one thing ~ personal abuse is something else altogether.

    Many years ago I went on a brewery trip to Hydes. Mr Hyde, who was showing us around, said that his beers were at peak condition as soon as they had cleared in the pub cellar. At Moorhouse's on Tuesday, on the other hand, our guide said the beers were greatly improved by being left in the pub cellar for a few days to let the flavour fully develop.

    So, no consensus among experienced brewers either.

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  22. That might explain why Hydes beers, while pleasant enough, often seem rather "plain vanilla" and lacking depth and complexity (and my local is a Hydes pub, so I have plenty of experience).

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  23. Spot on, Curmudgeon, on tall poppy syndrome. See my blog about Marston's FastCask this week. Most people agree that if it doesn't affect the flavour, it's probably a good thing. Some people rightly point out that yeast settling is no the only factor in good cellaring. A minority argue that if it comes from Marston's then it must by definition be shit.

    I wish some of these people could just see themselves from an external perspective. I pray to a God I don't believe in that I never sounded so much of an arse when I was bemoaning indie bands in the eighties for selling out.

    Whorst - I'm sorry mate, I've tried, but I just don't get the joke. Your online beery persona is clearly taking the piss out of someone or something, but it's gone over my head - or perhaps under my arse. Am I being thick here? If you're trying to be a wind-up merchant, you're making a very poor job of it. Just give up and read Cookie instead, who is doing an infinitely better version of the same job, in that he hits home with valid criticism, is extremely funny, and demonstrates some intelligence and understanding rather than merely desperately 'edgy' nihilism. You do none of these things. Please - put your cock away and shut up.

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  24. Oh, and on a technical point - Red Nev is right.

    When I wrote the Cask Report last year, I did a section on cellaring. I based it on what I learned on a cellarmanship course wit a very successful regional brewer. Before it went to print, it was rewritten by three different brewers in succession, each of whom thought I'd got it wrong because I'm not a brewer, unaware that another brewer had written it.

    Different beers require different cellaring. Simple as that.

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  25. I see you saved your ass Brown. Any body that knows anything about brewing will tell you there there are just too many variables for someone to say that "cask beer isn't at its best when it has just dropped bright." Gravity, yeast type, etc., all play a role. Taking the theory "cask beer isn't at its best when it has just dropped bright," when will it become at its best?? Another day, two, maybe in another week?? What starting gravity are we talking about??? Anyone who thinks that excessive cellaring of a 3.5% Bitter is just plain ignorant.

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  26. "Different beers require different cellaring. Simple as that."

    Amen to that.

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