One of the perennial themes of this blog has been that far too much cask beer is presented to the customer in a condition that falls well short of the ideal, and that this “quality lottery” is a major factor in dissuading people from choosing it. The worst enemy of cask beer is the poor pint of cask beer.
Very often, the best policy in choosing a beer is to watch what other customers are drinking, so at least you’ll get one that has been pulled through. And I have to admit that, on occasion, when I’ve gone into an unfamiliar pub and the only cask on offer is a national brand on a single apologetic handpump, I’ve decided discretion is the better part of valour and plumped for a reliable pint of Carling instead.
The point is reinforced by this letter that appeared in June’s edition of What’s Brewing.
Over the last weekend, I was buttonholed by a drinker at the Stockport Beer Festival who told me how he had called in at a Good Beer Guide-listed pub in rural Cheshire. It was just after one o’clock, but he suspected his pint was the first one pulled that session. The licensee asked him how the beer was. “Not so bad,” he replied. “Good to hear that,” said the licensee. “I thought it was a bit warm myself.” Sorry, but if you think it’s too warm, what business do you have selling it to customers?
At the recent CAMRA AGM in Liverpool, Peter Alexander (aka Tandleman) and Graham Donning successfully proposed a motion saying:
This Conference notes that the Key Campaigns make no reference to the quality of real ale at the point of dispense. This conference agrees to add “improving the quality of real ale at the point of dispense” as a Key Campaigning Priority.However, it’s one thing to say this, but another to do something about it.
You can’t force people to toe a particular line, but local newsletter editors need to be encouraged to take the point on board that more choice is not necessarily a good thing if it leads to slower turnover and lower quality. There is still a lazy assumption that “The George & Parakeet has added an extra handpump” is always something to be welcomed. Locally, we do it with our regular “Staggers”, but how many other branches are prepared to name and shame pubs serving up poor pints?
Newsletters could also publish a series of articles on cellarmanship provided by St Albans. And all breweries and pub-owning companies should be encouraged to run annual cellar competitions and give out well-publicised awards. The average quality of beer in Robinsons’ pubs, at one time highly variable, has greatly improved since they started doing this.
Maybe CAMRA should also organise formal training courses on how to recognise poor beer. In my experience, too many members struggle to make the distinction between the intrinsic qualities of a beer and how it is kept. I’ve never had any tuition in tasting, but I have no trouble recognising obvious faults such as beer being green, stale, sour, too warm, lacking condition, hazy, affected by diacetyl etc. Yet some people seem remarkably forgiving of downright rubbish, while condemning well-kept beer just because it’s not brewed in a railway arch.
It’s not just a question of handpump numbers, either, as very often the pubs such as the Crown and Magnet with twelve or more pumps keep their beer in consistently good nick because most of their customers are ale drinkers. The pubs that struggle tend to be the more generalist ones that feel that putting six beers on is doing cask drinkers a favour, but don’t have anything like the turnover to sustain it. And nor is it simply a matter of throughput. I’ve been in pubs where I strongly suspected I was getting the first one pulled that session, but it has still been spot-on. That should never be an excuse - it can be done with a bit of effort.
Good cellarmanship isn’t rocket science, it’s just the conscientious application of simple, basic principles. Sadly too many licensees nowadays don’t even seem to be able to manage that.