Friday, 22 April 2016

Fear of the dark

A recent beer list at the
Magnet freehouse, Stockport

In recent years I’ve heard a few reports of people going into pubs, scanning the row of pumps on the bar, and then asking “have you got anything that isn’t pale’n’hoppy?” I recently found myself on the point of asking that at the local CAMRA branch meeting in the Magnet in Stockport. I’m not for a minute knocking the pub – it’s a beer-focused pub that does extremely well by giving its customers what they want. And that is, overwhelmingly, new and unfamiliar beers at the pale and hoppy end of the spectrum.

So I’m confronted with a long list of cask beers, most of which are marked as “pale”, and virtually none of which I’ve drunk before. So I have a Fernandes Session IPA, which I suppose does what it says on the pumpclip, but turns out to be so enamel-strippingly bitter that it’s hard work to finish. Someone recommends another beer which turns out to be more mellow but not at all memorable.

Then I look again at the beer list and choose about the only beer shown as “medium” – Kennet and Avon Dundas – which turns out to be a pleasant enough traditional best bitter, although not that different from many others. And I’m left wondering why an evening out in the pub has to be a game of Russian roulette, why there are so many beers but so little stylistic choice, and why there’s nothing available that I’ve ever had before.

The picture of the beer list, taken I think a few days later illustrates the point – of 13 cask beers, 11 come into the “pale” category. As I said, this is absolutely not a criticism of the pub – it’s a very well-run, successful establishment that offers a wide range of well-kept beers at reasonable prices, with plenty under £3 a pint. It’s more a lament for the state of our beer culture. Actually, from that particular beer list, I’d probably have settled for the Bradfield Farmers Blonde, and the Welbeck Abbey 100% British Bitter certainly sounds worth trying too.

I’m certainly not averse to pale and hoppy beers as such, and a Marble Manchester Bitter or Kelham Island Pale Rider would have leapt off the bar in my direction. And I’m quite happy to try new beers in moderation. But I might have felt happier if I’d also encountered a Caledonian Edinburgh Castle, Hop Back Summer Lightning or Brains SA. So I ended up with a pint of Paulaner Hefeweizen and a very nice half of some craft keg that I don’t remember the name of (although John Clarke might remind me). It may have been the Thornbridge Halcyon with Belgian yeast shown on the board.

“Why didn’t you ask for a taster?” someone will inevitably ask. Well, as a rule I’m happy to take pot luck. If I don’t like it, I’ve lost nothing more than the price of a pint. And anyone asking for tasters when they’re three deep at the bar is, to be honest, a bit of a knob.

So, from a personal point of view, it would be nice to be offered a wider choice of beer styles by beer-focused pubs, and also sometimes to see beers that I’m actually likely to have drunk before. If I have to choose from unfamiliar beers, then an indication of colour is always helpful, and rather than being a 3-point scale it should be a five-point one of Straw – Gold – Copper – Chestnut – Ebony. It would also be useful to provide a similar bitter-sweet scale.


  1. I recognise at least half the beers on that blackboard as being fairly well-known traditional ales. Surely you can find something you know and like from that list?

    I think the pale ale thing is just a matter of supply and demand. Probably 90% of people want something pale and sessionable, so 90% of beers offered are pale and sessionable. You might get one dark beer, one brown beer and one DIPA, but by and large you're going to find 4-5 different pale beers between 3.5 and 5% because that's what people want to drink.

  2. More nonsense beamed in from py's weird world of bollocks.

    I hardly think you can call anything from Track, Squawk, Almasty, Hopcraft, Cloudwater or Fernandes "fairly well-known traditional ales". I've only ever had three of those - Titanic Plum Porter, Bradfield Farmers Blonde and Salopian Oracle.

    Anyway, I'll be in the Magnet later on tonight so we'll see what they have on then.

  3. Part of the reason we opened our own pub was the lack of choice in many pubs with a sea of hand pulls. 5 beers, all golden and 4%. Great.

    Apparently you can't sell dark beer in such and such a town. I think that's mainly because people never sell it! We always have a dark beer on, and people seek it out...

    Choice, for me, is one beer of each style (I'm happy with a 3 point scale of pale, mid, dark), but choice for most people seems to be a selection of their favourite type! No wonder quality suffers in a lot of places.

    As for unfamiliar vs. warm and comfortable - much more difficult to crack. I've not heard of a lot of things some people have, and vice versa! And *that* is why there's so much Doom Bar around :-(

  4. In my local pub which got into the top four in the Camra finals in 2013 i think has about 10 real ales on and a board at the side of the bar has a pump clip which is on colour coded board with strengths of beer and colour and price,so you know what style of beer and at what price and strength to choose your beer from.
    I think a lot of people who serve in pubs and bars think most customers want a light beer,when in Bristol i asked for a drink of keg Bath Darkness i was asked do you know this is a stout,probably thinking i did not know what i was ordering,but i did and it was very nice.

  5. Yes it was the Halcyon Belgian Yeast Edition - and rather good it was too, wasn't it? Dom at Thornbridge tell me they reduced the bitterness in this version so it would marry better with the yeast.

    In fairness to the Magnet they do more often than not have a better spread of beer colour than the night of the meeting (and indeed the day of your screen shot).

    Oh and as you say - the usual tosh from planet py.

    1. I'm absolutely not knocking the Magnet, which is an object lesson in how a beer-focused pub should be run. Was in there earlier tonight at the end of the Stagger, and it was absolutely rammed, and the beers I sampled were good.

      But the beer board was still overwhelmingly pale.

  6. With you on this Mudgie. After ending a brief sesh in the Magnet on Thursday with yet another IPA (an enjoyable but taste bud shrivelling Tiny Rebel Hadouken) it was a joy to wobble up to the Hope and try a cherry mild.

    It is the variety of tastes that make a good night out for me, coupled with a leap into the unknown when supping summat new.

  7. I did spot the Titanic Plum Porter amongst the citrus hop-bombs, and whilst I have heard of the majority of the breweries on that list, I would agree it definitely steers toward the pale’n’hoppy.

    I obviously don’t know the pub, but that does seem a rather large range of casks for a pub to be carrying. Aren’t we in danger now of a situation where too much choice means less choice? Especially where most of the beers are a similar style – the very point you are making, of course!

    1. It is a very popular beef-focused pub, so I can assure you it turns over all its cask beers quickly enough. It's rare to see the same beer on the board for three nights running.

    2. Er, "beer-focused" ;-)

      I'd like to find a beef-focused pub, though.

  8. Just because they don't sell it in Tesco, doesn't make it "obscure". Cloudwater, Salopian, Thornbridge, Tiny Rebel, Roosters and Buxton are all very well known breweries. You lads need to get out more and take a bit of an interest in your regional breweries.

    Either that or, with all due respect, stick to pubs that are aimed more at your end of the market and are likely to have a nice pint of doom bar or john smiths on.

    1. That's a different list to the one I quoted back at you. And I doubt whether any of those get much recognition outside of the beer geek community. Plus their output can't remotely be described as "fairly well-known traditional ales".

      I'd say it's you who needs to get out more and go in a few normal pubs.

    2. Sure. You picked the obscure half to quote, I picked the well-known half. I didn't even mention Titanic, whose beers are available in "normal" pubs all over the country, or Bradfield, who describe themselves as "real ale from the heart of Yorkshire" with the tagline "try the taste of tradition".

      That fact that half ARE well-known breweries proves my point. Cloudwater might be a bit geeky, but they're very well known in Manchester, and the rest that I mentioned are all well-established and nationally recognised breweries.

  9. I need to have a rant about beer boards. The example above is very poor. A big wall messy writing. Capitals and lower case mixed together. Not much info, a confusing colour key.
    I see bad beer boards, or worse - no beer boards, all the time. Some are behind you as you are standing at the bar. Some are written in normal chalk that's barely visible.

    Here's what I do: each beer clearly seperate from each other. Name of the beer in a bold colour and big writing. Brewery, price and strength in a different colour, smaller writing. Tasting notes underneath in a different colour. Everything in capitals. Tasting notes are 3-5 words starting with the colour of the beer. eg. Golden best bitter or Pale, hoppy, subtle citrus.
    Beer board behind or to side of pumps.

  10. Unless the bar in question is hosting the annual Meeting of The Bru-Bros or the local chapter of the Great Unshaven & Unwashed Whippet Worriers there really is no excuse for having a Beer Board with 20(?-only glanced at it cos it made me head swim, Kieran needs to give Master Classes) different beers. A tidy orderly bar, a 'tidy' bar girl and a tidy orderly beer board tell me I could eat my pub grub off the beer cellar floor & sup my ale from the sink in the gents.

    Same goes for toilets btw. Back when I used to visit pubs (pre 2007) I would always head for the 'Gents' first. If the toilet was as clean as mine own at home then I had no worries about ordering either beer or food.

    A tidy SHORT Beer Board = A Barman who understands his craft. I challenge anyone to keep 20 beers, be they keg, craft, draught or in a fucking Tetra-Pak® at their optimal prime.


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