Saturday, 16 April 2011

Pull it through

Holts have recently introduced a very good new beer called Holts IPA, which sells alongside their standard bitter in a number of their pubs. But it’s effectively a different form of “bitter” – slightly less strong, paler and hoppier – and it will have the result of dividing “bitter” sales in two. Much of my discretionary pubgoing takes place at weekend lunchtimes, which for many pubs are nowadays a fairly slack time. At lunchtime today I went in my local Holts pub and had a couple of pints of IPA. It wasn’t bad, but it was a bit warm and a bit dull. I suspect the first was the first to be drawn through the pump that session, and the second one had been lingering in the pipe for half an hour.

We seem to be in a paradoxical situation where the number of cask beers on bars is steadily expanding, but overall sales are at best flat, so slow turnover becomes more and more of a problem. When going into a multi-beer pub, often my choice of which beer to drink is influenced by what I have seen someone else just buying a pint of. If a pump is not dispensing beer at least every quarter of an hour, you’re likely to end up with a lacklustre pint. It’s no good saying the beer is fine when it’s busy, if it isn’t when it’s quiet.

It may be a controversial opinion, but I firmly believe that nowadays most mainstream pubs only have sufficient turnover to keep one cask beer well, which to maximise sales and throughput should be a well-known “premium bitter” in the 4.0-4.5% range of the likes of Jennings Cumberland Ale, Taylors Landlord, Marstons Pedigree and Wadworths 6X. You can see this in some “dining” pubs which sensibly only have one cask beer on the bar.

13 comments:

  1. Martin, Cambridge16 April 2011 at 18:00

    Good points. The first four premium bitters are all excellent beers when turnover allows, but often attract withering comment in CAMRA newsletters (not S&SM) due to familiarity.

    In a quietish pub I'll often ask the barman which beer is selling best, and hope for an honest answer. A fast-selling pint of John Smiths is always better than an poorly-selling Copper Dragon, however good the cellarmanship.

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  2. Some years ago I remember going in the Elephant & Castle near Westgate Station in Wakefield. The beer range was John Smith's Bitter and Magnet, but the pub was packed and it wasn't half shifting, and I got an excellent pint :-)

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  3. I agree with your general point, but think saying that most pubs can keep only one beer in decent nick is going a bit too far.

    One licensee with a range of 10 beers told me how she kept them in good condition. It was a food pub, popular with pensioners at lunchtime, and many of them ordered a shandy with their meals. Unless a drinker asked for a particular beer for his shandy, the staff were instructed to use the real ales in rotation to maintain turnover. The result was the beer was always in great condition in the evenings.

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  4. I have the problem at the moment that I'd like to suggest to a pub I visit that they are stretching themselves attempting to run 5 or 6 lines. I'm finding that they're keeping casks on far too long such that the beer is often flat and dull.

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  5. Holts have also been making the IPA available as a guest, which is how I had it the other week at a local gastropub with five or six active handpumps. It was in fine condition and tasted great. It was 11.05 on a Saturday morning, and I was the first customer in the pub. Maybe some pubs manage their beer better than others.

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  6. By "most mainstream pubs" I don't mean specialist beer pubs and GBG contenders, I mean the general run of dining pubs, sports bars, community locals etc, which often now have no cask beer at all, and if they do seem to struggle to keep it in good condition.

    But slow turnover at slack times is a general problem, even in well-regarded pubs. I've heard it said that you shouldn't drink Robinson's mild before 9 pm in Stockport pubs as the odds are you'll get the first one pulled through that evening. How many pubs really have line cooling for their cask beers?

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  7. As you suggest, PC, a single, nationally promoted, "premimum" cask product seems to be the usual offer in a certain type of establishment.

    Things move on don't they? Nowadays, we have cylinder jackets, small-bore beer line, gizmos such as race spiles. All this simple technology should allow us to keep a beer on longer, and in good nick, even as it sells slower than it might have in the olden days. Hence, offering a somewhat wider range is perfectly feasible - which is not to say that it's always done right.

    But if you're only putting on one beer, these national brands, designed to offend the smallest number of drinkers, without actually exciting anyone, are probably the way to go.

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  8. "premimum"? where did that come from?

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  9. Back in 1987, when he owned the Kings Arms pub and brewery in Ardwick, the brewing legend Brendan Dobbin told me that there was no mystery to stopping beer going off; just keep it cold. It works. Half drunk bottles of wine, kept in the fridge, stay in good condition for several days.

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  10. It should be standard practice that all cask beer is dispensed through insulated ale pythons with cold water jackets around the cylinders. It's not that difficult to do. The reason you tend to see only a small number of national cask ale brands is because these brewers fork out the money to install & service this equipment. The prevailing attitude amongst micro brewers is 'we've sold the beer I don't really care what happens to it next, the dispense cost is someone else's problem.' As a small brewer I despair of the majority of my peers on this matter.

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  11. Given that microbrewers are very often selling into a guest ale market rather than having their beers permanently on the bar, such an attitude is maybe understandable. It's much less forgivable in tied houses where brewer and pub owner are one and the same.

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  12. I take your point about tied houses. However it's not a given fact that that microbrewers' beers are mostly guest ales. These days microbrewers are serving local markets more and more as a permanent beer on the bar, yet there is no correlation to this upturn in sales and investment in dispense equipment. I believe it's because this is the unromantic boring side of the brewing game, and it costs money to do it right. Beer quality at the point of dispense has improved over the last decade, but if the resurgence in local cask ale is to continue then there will have to be a change
    in small brewers attitudes on this.

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  13. I went in there again today and, at around 2 pm, I had the most lacklustre pint of IPA imaginable - warm, stale, ever-so-slightly hazy and not far short of on the turn. I'd lay money that it was the first one pulled through that session. The Bitter, on the other hand, was fine. In future I'll have to stick to that. Local readers will not have much difficulty in working out which Holts pub I am referring to.

    Incidentally, while I am not much of a mild drinker, they didn't appear to have any cask mild available at all.

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