Tandleman is a regular visitor to London, and often reports his disappointment at the proportion of cask beer he finds there that is a bit warm, tired and lacking in condition. Maybe that’s mainly a London phenomenon, but I have to say that in the past year or so I’ve gained the subjective impression that standards of cellarmanship have been slipping around here too.
More and more, I find myself going in pubs where the beer, while not bad as such, or remotely returnable, is nowhere near as good as it could be, and exhibits the flaws mentioned above. This tends to happen more in the tied or pub company outlets with five pumps than the specialist pubs with fifteen, probably because in the latter most of their customers are there for the ale and they also have a better idea of how to look after it.
Partly this must be down to a question of turnover – both stocking more beers than you can actually sell in a reasonable period of time, and also leaving beer festering in the lines for too long at times when trade is slack. If you have five pumps, but only sell ten pints during the lunchtime session, how can you realistically ensure that all of them will be in good nick? Recently, I went in one pub to have some lunch. During the forty-five minutes or so I was there, while there was a reasonable scattering of customers, I didn’t see a single pint of cask pulled apart from mine. So what chance the next one dispensed will be flabby?
In the past, swift throughput has often compensated for flaws in cellarmanship, but they are now becoming increasingly exposed. I get the feeling that the basic principles are becoming less well understood, in particular the need to use hard spiles to maintain condition in your beer. Maybe also the ending of afternoon closing denies beer a bit of recovery time. It’s also inexcusable in a pub where throughput may be slow at quieter times not to keep your beer lines cool as well as your cellar. Cask beer should not be flat, and it should not be lukewarm.
In contrast, I recently visited a rural free house with just a single cask beer. I doubt whether they have any modern cellar management equipment, or have even studied the subject beyond picking it up from the bloke who did it before. But each group of customers included at least one person drinking it, and it was fresh, delicious and cellar-cool, just as it should be.