Sunday, 30 October 2016

Fear of the dark

There has recently been a debate in the columns of the CAMRA newspaper What’s Brewing about whether pubs should make more effort to stock dark beers. On the one hand it is argued that, if pubs have eight or more handpumps, they could allocate one or two of them to dark beers to provide more stylistic variety. But, on the other hand, there is no point in stocking beers that don’t sell and, while you can lead a dark horse to beer, you can’t make him drink it.

This is exemplified by this letter in the November edition from Paul Hurditch, licensee of the Star in Glossop, a long-standing Good Beer Guide entry.

As he says, he’s made the effort to put dark beers on, but his customers don’t want to drink them. That is simply commercial reality – you offer the types of beer that your customers want. I’ve complained more than once myself over the years about pubs with eight beers that are all variations on the same theme, but sadly it’s a fact of life. Often it’s hard enough to find a brown beer, let alone a dark one.

I’ve spoken to several licensees of family brewer pubs who have told me that they tend to pass on any dark beers in the brewery’s seasonal range, as they simply don’t sell. And it’s always very noticeable at the end of Stockport Beer Festival that most of the beers left over are dark ones.

There is a widely-held belief that dark beers tend to be on the stronger side, which isn’t by any means always the case, but does deter people from drinking them. And all dark beers are not the same – there is a clear division between roasty, strong-flavoured stouts and porters, and sweeter, more mellow milds and old ales. Some drinkers try to avoid those roasty notes, while others will run a mile at the thought of anything with a chestnut flavour, let alone reminiscent of Christmas pudding.

I have to say I tend to prefer the more mellow side, and I have fond memories of drinking the distinctive old ales that used to be produced by breweries in the South-East such as Brakspear, Gales and King & Barnes. These typically had a strength of around 4.3 or 4.4%, so it was easy to drink a pint or two, but they still had a rich flavour and a touch of winter warmth about them. Sadly there doesn’t seem to be much brewed in that kind of category nowadays.

Yes, it would be good to see more dark beers on the bar. But all dark beers are not the same, and it has to be recognised that their absence is not due to a lack of imagination of the part of licensees, but to customer preference.

38 comments:

  1. Harvey’s XXXX Old Ale, 4.3 % ABV, is still very much alive and kicking. Many Harvey pubs appear to stock it and the brewery put quite a bit of promotion behind it each year.

    Like you, I have fond memories of the Old Ales from Brakspear, Gales and King & Barnes. Young’s Winter Warmer is still around, but it’s several years since I last tried it. Martyn Cornell (Zythophile), mentioned it, alongside other now vanished “Old Ales”, in his post Snug Beers & Snug Bars. Definitely well worth a read. http://zythophile.co.uk/2016/10/28/snug-beers-and-snug-bars/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Harvey's brew Old Ale for five months of the year over the winter period or did when I lived in East Sussex, I always used to look forward to its arrival

      Delete
    2. I recently discovered that Brakspear's Old Ale is being brewed to the original recipe at the Bull in Bell Street, Henley. It has an 8-barrel mini brewery that produces Brakspear's Special year-round, again to the original recipe. Both beers are superb and exactly as I remember them. Well worth a visit - but the Old is only being brewed until the end of November.

      Delete
    3. I never really understood why Marston's, who own the Brakspear brands, discontinued Special as an all year round beer.

      It certainly looks as though a visit to the Bull in Henley, which I remember from the days when Brakspears still brewed in the town, would be well worth it.

      Thank you for this information.

      Delete
  2. Id want to know alot more about how they were trying to sell those darker beers before I decided there was just no demand for them, people will always stick with the familar in preference to chancing something they arent too sure about, that then comes back to do the pubs provide tasters, are the staff told what the beer is like and how to describe it, are they actively promoting it or just letting it sit on the bar.

    I mean if I go into a pub this time of year, and its just a sea of hoppy golden beers, I dont turn around and walk out again, Ill still buy a drink, but Id prefer to find a choice of porters,stouts and milds instead.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The guy is running a cask-focused free house that has been in the GBG for 11 years, so I think he knows all about how to sell beer.

      Delete
    2. Agree. How exactly do you promote a particular beer, particular in a sea of cask, keg fonts and other stuff ? Make the dark beer pump bigger ? The number of times I've walked up to a bar and had a particular beer suggested is less than two, and that beer was a leftover from the previous week's fest.

      Delete
    3. I love dark beer. I wish more were on. How many would pay a premium to offset the loss by the publican? I would. I would have an interest in helping my pub put a wider range on.

      Delete
    4. Reduce the price Martin. If dark beers were a pound cheaper than golden ales I might drink a few pints

      Delete
  3. Isn't the whole point of CAMRA about trying to get people to neck stuff they wouldn't otherwise neck in the hope they might like it and stick with it?

    That's why festivals exist with 100 types of bitter and no lager.

    That's why there's month where all the beards neck mild despite it being rubbish and not as nice as bitter.

    Why not have a crack at dark beer? I drank summat called black IPA recently and quite liked it. Not all dark beer is crap.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It may have slipped your mind that the local beards run an annual "Winter Warmer Wander" trail which majors on dark beers.

      Delete
    2. Not a bad indication, I would guess, as to whether a beer style was "inherently crap" is whether the local beards feel the need to single it out and spend a month necking it and running a panini sticker type thing and dishing out t shirts.

      If the drink was at all pleasant people would neck it anyway.

      They even have one hawking cider, I gather. Not nice cider like Magners but that sour, flat, warm and musty smelling filth that comes in plastic home brew barrels and is better used for cleaning stripped engine parts.

      Delete
  4. "Not all dark beer is crap." Are you suggesting that certain styles of dark beer are inherently "crap?" Mild is a style. Some are good; some are not. Good or not is related to the quality of the brewing. Not the overall style. You seem to confuse style with quality. Damning a whole style doesn't really move a beer conversation forward. I don't drink Pilsners. This fact doesn't make Pilsner a bad style. It means I choose other beers. The publican's point, and the person who runs my bar, is that no matter what dark beer they put on it is a style people don't choose. "Necking" it isn't working. How would you suggest dark beer be "necked" in order to sell it?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm pretty sure Cookie would drink just about anything if the price was right. Maybe that's the answer? Or, better, images of beautiful people necking the stuff. Like the Martini ads, but for Mild.

      Delete
    2. So my statement above is wrong! The answer is to give it away. And beautiful people rarely drink stout in my experience.

      Delete
    3. Thanks for sharing that Martini ad with us, StringersBeer. It brought back a few memories and even though I was still a pimply youth at the time, the idea of plying a beautiful woman with a drink like that, in order to woo her, made anything seem possible. It didn’t take long though, to find out life isn’t really like that. Oh the shattered dreams of a mis-spent youth!

      Delete
    4. Not sure that Cookie's contributions here are intended for serious debate ;-)

      Delete
    5. Always amuses me when people get muddled between Cookie's serious points (always well argued) and those which are obviously...well, not.

      Delete
    6. Am I suggesting that certain styles of dark beer are inherently "crap?"

      Yup. Mild being one of them. What's the point of it? There isn't one.

      Anything I don't much like can be categorised as crap, imv.

      Delete
    7. It's actually in the BJCP Style Guidelines - if you enter a mild in a homebrew competition, you'll get points knocked off for not being "true to style" if it's insufficiently crap.

      Delete
    8. Well yes, DaveS. When you look at how to improve mild you basically end up with a bitter, which is nicer.

      If you tried to improve it further you'd eventually end up with lager.

      Delete
    9. I reckon Mild is due an ironic retro makeover. You'll be all over it then, Cookie.

      Delete
  5. Oddly, the wife and sister pretty much stuck to the dark beers at IndyMan and the specialist craft places, as they're often the stronger ones. Those only really work on keg though.

    ReplyDelete
  6. My local tends to have a dark beer on, along with 4 bitters. But they only get a pin of the dark one, and even then it can sometimes be a struggle for them to get through it in time. I went to a new local bar that was keg only, and every single beer they had on was an IPA of some sort, and the house lager. Good beers in the main but a bit of variety would have been nice (how long do keg beers last?)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I don't tend to drink it, but I'm sure stale keg beer is a much bigger problem than often supposed, and that many pubs keep kegs on way beyond two weeks. Apparently this was an issue with BrewDog's This.Is.Lager in Spoons - it didn't sell and so often came out well past its best.

      Delete
  7. I had Harveys Old Ale at the Eastbourne Beer Festival earlier this month. It was delicious. Other favourite dark ales for me are Taylors Ram Tam and Dark Mild. I am also very fond of Bathams Mild and Holdens Black Country Mild. I too remember enjoying Brakspears Old Ale.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I quite agree about Ram Tam. I can only hope to see the others at some point. This December's visit would be perfect.

      Delete
  8. I read somewhere the original point of mild was a weak beer which iron and steel foundry workers could drink in large quantities to rehydrate themselves. The Ruhr valley area has a similarly weak beer style.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. http://www.germanbeerinstitute.com/D%FCnnbier.html

      Delete
    2. Historically a defining feature of mild was that it was a "running beer" intended for immediate consumption which experienced little or no secondary fermentation.

      Delete
  9. The issue isn't just specific to dark beers. It's equally (or indeed more) difficult trying to find a wheat beer, saison, sour, cask lager, fruit beer, DIPA etc.

    And those beers are often the ones that sell out first at beer festivals, not those left over at the end.

    From my perspective there is still far too much Boring Brown Bitter (and its golden-coloured but basically the same counterpart) dominating the bar...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. But you wouldn't have a reasonable expectation of finding any of those on cask, especially outside of enthusiast pubs.

      Delete
    2. You wouldn't have had a reasonable expectation of finding cask porter or mild c.1989 either.

      Tastes change, markets adapt. It's far easier now to find a pale ale with American hops than it was 20 years ago. It's probably a bit harder to find an old ale on cask.

      In 20 years time the landscape will have changed again. Who knows what will be popular and available by then?

      Delete
    3. "You wouldn't have had a reasonable expectation of finding cask porter or mild c.1989 either."

      Nonsense, I'd have had far more expectation of finding a mild in 1989 than I do now.

      Delete
  10. My local, The George at Cullingworth, has two dark beers - Old Spot 'Spot o'Bother' and 'Light but Dark' on most of the time - suggests either they sell well or else that Chris likes making them!

    ReplyDelete
  11. No problems with dark beer in the Bakers Vaults today was there though?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Indeed - we managed to have a round consisting of Old Tom, Trooper Red & Black and Titanic Plum Porter :-)

      Delete

Comments, especially on older posts, may be subject to prior approval. Bear with me – I may be in the pub.

Please be polite and remember to play the ball, not the man.

Any offensive or blatantly off-topic comments will be deleted.

See this post for some thoughts on my approach to blog comments.