Wednesday, 25 May 2016

You can lead a horse to water...

Wetherspoon’s have always put cask beer at the centre of their offering, and their recent expansion into medium-sized towns in Scotland and Northern Ireland has brought cask to places that have scarcely seen it for decades. I recently saw a comment along the lines of “Why keep knocking Wetherspoon’s? No other pub in my town sells cask, full stop.”

So, full marks for effort and, in my experience, Spoons also do a good job of promoting cask beer at the point of sale. But the problem is that, while you can make it available, you can’t force people to drink it. Tandleman has recently been to Dumbarton in Scotland to visit his elderly mother, and reports a very dismal experience in the Captain James Lang, which WhatPub says is the only cask outlet in a town of 20,000 people.


Martin Taylor backs this up with a more general comment about Spoons:

Inevitably, this leads to a vicious circle of declining sales leading to declining quality which just serves to put more people off. Cask, more than anything else sold in pubs, is critically dependent on volume. You can’t stock it as a niche product selling five pints a day. I’ve long said that, if a pub can’t turn over enough cask beer to keep it in good condition, it shouldn’t stock it at all, and CAMRA should accept that rather than complaining. On too many occasions, I’ve had a pint of soup or vinegar from that solo apologetic handpump at the end of the bar, with the result that in unfamiliar pubs I now often think twice before ordering it. While it may not please many in CAMRA, maybe Wetherspoons need to recognise that cask simply isn’t a viable product in some of their Scottish and Northern Irish branches.

Some inhabitants of the beer bubble (not Tandleman) often fail to appreciate how, for large swathes of the pubgoing population, cask is something they simply won’t consider. On a recent Sunday lunchtime, I was in my local pub, where there were a mixed group of people in their twenties and thirties, plus a couple of reasonably well-behaved children. Quite respectable, not at all chavvy, indeed the kind of customers pubs want to encourage for the future. Yet the drinks were a mixture of lager, fruit cider and soft drinks. If any of them had had a pint of cask, it would have raised eyebrows. There were more cask beers on sale in the pub than there were people drinking it, with the not entirely surprising result that my pint, while acceptable, was a bit dull and tired.

You sometimes have to wonder how often some of the people who pontificate about beer on the internet ever actually go in pubs used by “norms”.

(NB: I got the OK from Tandleman before posting this)

27 comments:

  1. Craft keg is the answer (obviously). Cask beer is either a major selling point of your pub, in which case the more lines the better, or its not, in which case give it up.

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    1. Meanwhile, back in the real world, most pubs seem to happily tick along with 2-4 cask pumps doing a reasonable turnover.

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  2. When in doubt, stick with lout.

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  3. The number of lines is not the point: whether you have one or ten, you must have the turnover to justify them. There is a belief among some real ale drinkers, although I don't hear it as much as I used to, that if only people would try real ale, they'd be converted to it. This is probably true to an extent, but it ignores the fact that many drinkers are quite happy with their smoothflow or lager. A lot of people don't particularly want variety, and prefer consistency. It also ignores the fact that we don't all taste things the same way. As I've said before, I loathe fish and seafood, and if everyone experienced their flavours as I do, I can't see how anyone would eat them. The same variation of experience will apply to drinks too.

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    1. Pubs compete with one another over who has the best selection of beer. If there are 500 people thinking about going to the pub for a nice beer on a given Tuesday evening, and they have a choice between 4 pubs with 2 hand pumps and 1 pub that has 10 hand pumps, then probably 400 of the people are going to choose that pub as it gives them the best chance of finding a really good beer. So that pub will be packed, whilst the others are deserted. This is just basic common sense.

      If you install sufficient lines to get yourself a reputation as a beer drinkers' paradise, the turnover required to get through the beer will follow.

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    2. Oh no, not this old shit again. (Some) busy pubs may have lots of cask pumps, but having lots of cask pumps doesn't magic customers out of nowhere.

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    3. There is nothing magic about it. Its basic business sense. People like having a good choice of beer, so if you give them a good choice, they will come back next week.

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    4. At least 95% of beer drinkers couldn't give a shit about having a good choice; they just want something they're happy with. And even if drinkers move from one pub to another, it makes no difference to the overall size of the market.

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    5. I had a great night last Saturday in a pub with only one cask beer. The sales were enough to keep it in good nick, but that doesn't mean the licensee should immediately instal another half dozen handpumps, not unless he wanted 7 varieties of vinegar.

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    6. IMO beer choice is a third or fourth consideration. Loads more to consider before that.

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  4. I remember someone finishing off the quote about leading a horse to water with 'but you can put salt in its oats', perhaps Spoons need to find some way of encouraging folks to try something different, whether that's through buy one get one schemes, or something like the Castle Tavern in Inverness do by having the option of 3 thirds of different beers for the price of a single pint. The trick though is always going to be excellent cellarmanship and consistently well kept beers. Oh, that and where necessary cask breathers.

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    1. You can have the best cellarmanship in the world, but if the beer doesn't turn over it's to no avail. Maybe a pub like the James Lang should cut down to two cask lines, both of familiar but local beers (one maybe Deuchars IPA), promote them heavily and cut the price to the bone. If cask still doesn't sell, then give it up.

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  5. A lot of people like drinks that are cold and sparkling, whether it's beer or cider or prosecco: it's an integral part of it for them. I have friends who love Punk IPA and Camden IPA, but if they're not available, go back to San Miguel or Peroni; they wouldn't dream of drinking cask Jaipur.

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  6. Even I, a pong & pub tourist, have learnt to ask how the pong's drinking today, especially when I roll into a place with one pump and everyone's on the lout. If they say no one's been drinking it, best order a half and make a big fuss if it's not good.

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    1. I (still) agree with Nick. Don't be afraid to ask which beers are being sold, it's no different from the waiter in Wetherspoons recommending the manager's specials.
      The best beer in Scotland often came in pubs just selling Deuchars, as Mudge suggests. Glasgow's Spoons (we did six in an hour) all had variable beer though Deuchars good.

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    2. But would you trust them to give the right answer and not the one to sell the older beer? There's a landlord in our town where we don't even trust him to give the correct change.

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    3. You forgot to add "ask for a dimpled jug". :)

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  7. You'd think CAMRA would be against people selling dodgy pints of ditchwater, at the end of the day is someone wanders into the pub and has a pint of Doombar that's been sitting in the pump for a week they're not likely to try it again and persuading them that real ale is a special part of our cultural history will be a very hard sell.

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    1. Agreed - at times CAMRA is guilty of egging pubs on to stock cask beer where there really isn't a market for it.

      In the old days, it was simply a matter of whether your standard beers were cask or keg, but cask has now become a distinct product category. You don't take John Smith's Extra Smooth off if you put cask on.

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  8. northern ireland wetherspoon pubs do well on cask and as a result never had a bad pint - they know how to match # of handpumps serving to expected turnover

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  9. It obviously depends on the location, but our local Spoons (Sevenoaks, Tonbridge & Tunbridge Wells), seem to shift plenty of cask. Sevenoaks and Tonbridge also organise “meet the brewer” evenings, or hold a “tap-takeover”.

    Scotland is a difficult market for cask to break into, as there’s been a long tradition of lager drinking north of the border; far more so than in England.

    Ireland is probably a lost cause, as the tradition of cask died out ago – as CAMRA’s four founders discovered whilst on holiday there!

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    1. Someone on Twitter said that cask was going great guns in the Wetherspoons pubs in the Republic of Ireland.

      I'd say it's not a Scotland issue as such, but a problem in non-touristy provincial towns. I wonder if the same is true of the James Watt in Greenock, across the Clyde from Dumbarton, which again is the only cask outlet in a town of 45,000 people.

      Also perhaps of some of the industrial towns in the North of England and South Wales.

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    2. I think one of the problems in Scotland is that the big brands aren't focused on cask any more. If something was on the bar from McEwans or Belhaven that might grab people who now drink smooth better than Doom Bar. I'd guess no one is interested in doing a big relaunch on cask simply to sell it to Spoons at a discount though.

      I'd also say that a pint of Devils Backbone is always going to be a safer choice than cask that might not have sold for a week.

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    3. I am really looking forward to drinking Devils Backbone when I am home in a few weeks!

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  10. And a message for PY - you're barred indefinitely for trolling. As is "CAMRA Bell End".

    My gaff, my rules.

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  11. I was in the Captain James Lang last week - five or six cask lines at £1.79. I had a pint of Kelburn Jaguar (champion beer silver medal 2015) which was good but not just as good as in another spoons and a half of Jaw Drop which I suspect was not really what it should be. The pub actually was about as empty as I have seen a spoons on a curry night.

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  12. The most surprising thing I saw in York on Saturday night was how much cask was being sold to folk in their twenties at a gig at the Fulford Arms. It's a Punch pub, with the usualpremium lager and cider range, and the ale range was solid by 2016 standards (i.e. peoplehave heard of them). Must have sold around 100 pints in 90 minutes, well over half the drinks sold.

    The gig was reflective rather than raucous, but the crowd were exactly whoyou would have seen in the better known pubs on Fossgate (and the usual 50-something gig goers you always get).

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