Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Browned off

Regular readers will be aware that I don’t really have that much time for beer writer Pete Brown. He comes across as arrogant and self-opinionated, his articles too readily assume that London is representative of the rest of the country, and he is prone to allowing his politics to interfere with his opinions on beer. I have to say when I read that CAMRA Chairman Colin Valentine had attacked him for saying that he’d largely given up drinking cask, that he’d just gone off on one again.

However, when I came to read what he’d actually written, I had to concede that, while he was over-egging the pudding, he did have a point. At its best, there’s nothing to beat cask in a British pub. But, in practice, too much cask beer is distinctly below par, and does the category no favours.

Now, it must be said that Pete is writing from a London perspective, and many people have reported that, on average, cask beer in London seems to be noticeably less well-kept than in other parts of the country. Whether the reason is lack of knowledge, lack of turnover or low customer expectations, I don’t know. That doesn’t really tally with my own personal experience in the North-West. I have a round of pubs that I visit regularly, some on CAMRA business, some from personal preference, where I can almost guarantee getting a good pint. And on our local branch pub crawls, which include all the real ale pubs in each area, it’s very rare to get a pint that’s returnable. However, those are done on Friday nights – the situation on Tuesday lunchtime might be rather different.

I suspect even if I lived in London, I would still be able to find pubs that served cask reliably well, but they would probably be amongst the scattering of independent brewer tied houses. But I know that if I just went in pubs at random, here as much as there, I would run a serious risk of getting beer that ranged from very tired to completely undrinkable. It’s not confined to any one type of pub, but the worst offenders often seem to be the generalist food-oriented pubs which think a row of six different handpumps is an adornment to the bar even if they hardly sell any of it. And, looking at the pubs I go into, if I decided to eschew cask for something else, I’d generally be drinking either smoothflow, Guinness or lager.

Of course poor beer is nothing new, and that’s why CAMRA started producing the Good Beer Guide and local guides in the first place, so drinkers could be steered towards pubs that did keep their beer well. But, in the old days, quick turnover could cover a multitude of sins, something that is less and less the case today.

The problem may be put down to poor cellarmanship in general, but I’d say the overwhelming reason is that beers are simply not turning over quickly enough. While cask beer volumes continue a long-term decline, the number of handpumps on the bar has been heading in the opposite direction, with all too predictable results. Cask beer, unlike any other product in the pub, is critically dependent on throughput for quality, and, quite simply, if you’re not confident of shifting it in three days, you shouldn’t put it on the first place. But, sadly, the mindset of more choice always being a good thing remains very prevalent, and I struggle to think of any example of a CAMRA magazine criticising a pub for an overambitious beer range.

Rather than just raising their hackles and going on the defensive, CAMRA needs to accept that there IS a widespread problem with poor quality of cask beer at the point of sale, and formulate a strategy to address it. And part of that needs to be a greater willingness to call out badly-kept beer when it is encountered rather than giving it the benefit of the doubt.

31 comments:

  1. Well managed pubs I visit will anticipate their trade and temporarily retire pumps in slack periods eg current January lull in order to maintain throughput in the remaining pumps

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  2. What other drink in the pub is a gamble on getting undrinkable muck?

    Plenty of CAMRA award winning pubs where you can get undrinkable muck, to boot.

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  3. Not really news as many CAMRA members have been saying/doing the same for years/ It's only because Pete Brown said it that it becomes news. The problem isn't just about turnover and tired beer, though. He rightly highlights the problem of under cellared or 'green' beer which is a problem even in places like Spoons that do have a high turnover. Sadly, there's a lot of work yet to be done to tackle the issue of getting consistently good cask ale.

    Oh and i don't think choosing to drink beer in a tied house in London would benefit you much, either. Fullers and Sheps often serve up some of the worst conditioned beers around.

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  4. maybe I'm lucky, but I find that I almost never get a bad pint, and when I do, its my own fault because I've hesitated before ordering because I've known in advance that the pint was going to be bad, but have chanced it anyway and subsequently regretted it.

    Its not rocket science to figure out which pubs are going to take care of their cask ale and which aren't. You can normally tell within about 30 seconds of walking in the door.

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  5. Most CAMRA members wouldn't know a good pint of beer if it bit them on the bum

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    1. Yet they do manage to publish a book that one can rely on to yield great results.

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    2. ... Seriously? Certainly from the areas of the country I know well, the GBG entries and the pubs that actually serve decent beer are two completely different things.

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    3. Actually, I am serious. Please do not infer from my statement that the GBG lists the only good pubs. From my experience I have had good luck sticking to those in the book. The few that I have ventured into that were not in the book have been sub par, Red Lion in Little Messenden, for one. Traveling from the US I must use something for reference and the GBG has been reliable. The only other way to get other pubs is by recommendation. So, if you are willing to share your knowledge, I am willing to listen and would give them a try if I am ever lucky enough to get to those areas.

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    4. Well said Richard. I'd like Anonymous to tell us which GBG pubs in his area shouldn't be in which ones should please. Obviously you could also go to the GBG selection meeting and have your say, or tell us what was wrong with the process, which I'd find very interesting.

      Martin Taylor

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    5. GBG selection is entirely political. Who is related to who, who knows which landlord, who gives the best discounts, nudge nudge, wink wink.

      THe GBG is just an arbitrary list of pubs that the old duffers who compile the list happen to have some affiliation with. You'd find a better selection of beers by selecting pubs at random from yellow pages.

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    6. The problem with the GBG is that it needs to be about half the size it is. Many branches have 3 or 4 stunningly good pubs, but up to 20 GBG entries to fill.

      This results in rewarding the additional 10+ pubs with what is effectively recognition for "Good Beer"... and this is not actually good for beer. It sets the bar too low. So even though some branches do do GBG apolitically and as well as they can the result is a list that leads to beer-quality-roulette.

      I gave up on the GBG some time ago personally. I know others seem to get more mileage out of it than I did... but too often I went to places to be GBG-directed to a pub serving beer in a terrible state. (And in addition to this quite often I was able to find pubs serving better quality beer that weren't in the guide... amusingly this is sometimes the nearest 'spoons.)

      In these days of super-populated social media it seems usually more reliable to put out a "WHERE IS THE BEER?" call onto various social platforms.

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    7. @Anon - that's just trolling, plain and simple.

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    8. And plain incorrect about choosing a pub from the yellow pages. I provided an example of doing so. You provided no examples. Mudgie is correct, trolling. Why do people like you bother to reply? And, yes, I would like to know.

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  6. Well said Curmudgeon, and it needs to be said loudly and often. I'd even suggest that the main reason you don't have too much of a problem finding a decent pint in the Stockport area is that you live there. Sure, some towns/areas are better than others overall, but if you stay in one place for a while, it's possible to find a 'circuit' of OK pubs. But what are my chances of finding a good pint as an uninformed visitor? I'm sick and tired of trying three different beers in a pub and finding none of them drinkable (and too much 'choice' is definitely part of the problem). I once met an American who laughed derisively when I said I loved English beer: he said 'English beer? That's SAD-ASS SHIT!' Unfortunately I knew exactly why he meant, and much of the time, he'd be right!

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    1. I am an American who loves English beer. I would have told that American that he chose poorly.

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  7. I couldn't agree more with Pete Brown, particularly with the conditioning thing, which I don't think is helped by many brewers - large, small, old and new - telling their customers that they can have their beer on sale a few hours after it's been delivered. On Tyneside I know where I am going to get a reliable, quality pint of cask, where I'm probably not, and where I'm very unlikely to. There are a lot more in the latter two categories, and the Good Beer Guide would be of only partial help to a visitor.

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  8. This is exactly the way I wanted CAMRA to respond to Brown. A top post. I've given up returning pints - they just don't get it and if I get the response, "it's a personal preference" steam comes out of my ears.

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  9. Well i think a lot of you have bad luck when visiting pubs,i visit many pubs in the Nottingham area which i do know well so i do know which pubs to go in,but i have also done over 500 new pubs to me last year if i dont count the keg only pubs which was just over 100,of the other 400 which sold real ale,most were decent with only one being totally undrinkable.
    I am easily pleased though and enjoy most pub visits,i have tried to drink real ale whenever possible since i was 20 and i am now 54.

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  10. You can buy 2 pints of cask ale for the price of 1 pint of 'craft keg'. So as long as it's better over 50% of the time, your winning :)

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  11. "I suspect even if I lived in London, I would still be able to find pubs that served cask reliably well, but they would probably be amongst the scattering of independent brewer tied houses."

    Then you would suspect wrong. The best kept cask beer in London, by a country (or even an urban) mile, is actually served in those there modern, trendy, expensive 'craft' bars.

    Places like the Rake, Euston Tap, Pelt Trader, the Craft Beer Co chain, 3 Johns and so on. The same places where you also find the best keg beers. I wrote an article for the London Drinker on this paradox a few years back 'For great cask beer, follow the keg'.

    Yeah, occasionally you might find a decent pint of Ordinary in a Wells/Youngs pub or some drinkable McMullens somewhere, but mostly the beer in the tied houses of regional breweries is pretty indifferent. It's also surprisingly mediocre in many of the brewpubs/taprooms, even though it's their bloody beer and they should be able to look after it!

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    1. Ben,very curious, what is your opinion on the Royal Oak(Borough)? We had the Harvey's Mild and Old. They were excellent that day.

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    2. I was merely thinking of which pubs might actually achieve a decent turnover for their beer.

      "London" is of course a very large and far from homogenous place, and if I lived there I expect I would do most of my drinking in and around my local "village" rather than in the centre.

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    3. Richard, I have to admit that I don't go in there an awful lot, but that's due more to the range than the quality - it's no secret that I'm no great fan of Harvey's.

      That said, I was in there just before Christmas - probably the first time in a couple of years - and the Old was indeed in excellent condition.

      I did once have a discussion with a large group of people in the Market Porter all drinking Harvey's Best and basically told them: If you're only going to drink the Harvey's, WTF are you doing in here, go down the road to the Royal Oak where at least it'll be in decent nick!

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    4. I really wanted to see the Market Porter, but it was closed on New Year's Day when we were there. The Royal Oak certainly made up for the disappointment. I think your advice was excellent.

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  12. well firstly Im disappointed on something referring to Pete Brown there isnt at least half a page of footnotes to go with it ;) but more importantly we need to point out it didnt raise CAMRA hackles as much as the Morning Advertisers over dramaticising a story about something Pete Brown has been saying for years and most CAMRA members actually agree with. Weve even had motions at conference about beer quality, frankly I saw far more craft beer types jumping in and lauding what they thought Pete was saying about cask beer, rather than what he had actually said, and equally CAMRAs response was perfectly reasonably measured and not some of the wildly misquoted stuff some people were using on social media. So overall big storm in a tea cup I think.

    but I do recognise the problem if you have an interest in tasting different types of beer, you are likely to visit alot more pubs than just your local that you settle on that serves good quality beer, and youll actively seek out pubs youve not been to before, London is one of those places where its not quite a pub on every street corner, but youd struggle to cover any remarkable distance doing a pub crawl around all of it, how CAMRA in London keeps on top of it I dont know because its a continually changing pub/bar landsacpe. And youll hit alot of pubs in London that serve cask ale, Ive no idea what volumes some of them get through day to day as alot are off tourist trails just serving local residents, or only open midweek to serve office workers (lots of pubs in the square mile actually shut Sat/Sun), and yet youll find a pub in a back street with 6 or more handpumps of local beer, which even the best pub in most towns or other cities would struggle to get through.

    Certainly when I think in London terms which are the pubs/bars I visit regularly, because of beer quality issues, yes I end up in places like Craft Beer Co, Cask Bar, Euston Tap or the Rake, etc etc because largely I know Ill get decent drinkable beer, whereas good cask in London can be hit and miss, a pub that was good last time can serve average beer or even vinegar the next, its that variable, which I dont think you get, or certainly Ive not encountered in such abundance elsewhere in the UK


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    1. I know a lot of CAMRA members (notably Tandleman) accept there is a major problem with beer quality at the point of sale, but all too often what CAMRA says and what CAMRA does are entirely different things. There is still far too much gushing over pubs that have put on a range of eight beers even though people must surely know there will never be the turnover to sustain it.

      Also, in my experience, many CAMRA members are poor judges of beer and are far too inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to breweries and pubs they think are "trying hard".

      I accept that there is an issue with green beer, but the downside is far less than that with beer that is days past the time it should have been removed from sale.

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    2. "Also, in my experience, many CAMRA members are poor judges of beer"

      If a CAMRA member and beer enthusiast can't tell there is anything wrong with the beer, then presumably the wider public couldn't tell there was anything wrong with the beer, so what is the problem?

      Taste is subjective, and if a beer tastes perfectly fine to 9 punters out of 10, then I don't really see the problem. I personally think Big Mac's taste awful, but clearly most people disagree, so its really none of my business to tell them they're wrong.


      The fact of the matter is that a pub with 2 mediocre beers kept perfectly is less likely to satisfy its customers than a pub with 8 interesting beers kept adequately. A perfectly kept pint of a shit beer is still a shit beer, An adequately kept pint of a great beer is still a great beer.

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    3. Which are these "mediocre" beers please ? Even GK IPA and Doom Bar could be enjoyable in a good pub (examples from several on here on request. MT

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    4. In reality there isn't a simple trade-off between quality of beer and quality of cellarmanship. Either you achieve the basics of cellarmanship in terms of clarity, temperature, condition and freshness, or you don't. I wouldn't want to drink a stale, cloudy example of the best beer in the world. And, as MT says, there are very few beers that aren't enjoyable when well-kept.

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  13. As a rule of thumb if there are a lot of people drinking cask I'll have cask. If not I buy a bottle or drink lager.

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    1. And if you do go for cask, it's often wisest to choose the one you've just seen someone else order.

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