Sunday, 21 May 2017

A matter of taste

I recently linked to an article entitled Ten Commandments for the Public House, which was a list of things that well-run pubs would do well to avoid. Perhaps surprisingly, the one that people seemed to take exception to was Number 5 – “don’t offer tasters of beer”.

In the early years of CAMRA, when the vast majority of pubs just offered a fixed beer range, the idea was unknown, and to ask for a sample would have been greeted with derision. However, as ever-changing guest beers have increasingly become the norm, the practice has become more and more common. If you go in a pub and are confronted with an array of ten beers you’ve never heard of before, it’s not unreasonable to ask for a taste before committing yourself to spending what now can often be approaching a couple of quid just for a half.

However, the range of flavours encompassed by the great majority of beers is fairly limited and predictable, so you’re unlikely to end up with something that really frightens the horses. If it doesn’t suit your palate, then just don’t buy it again. It’s also doubtful whether a small sample really gives a fair impression of what a beer is like. It’s often said that you don’t fully appreciate a beer until you reach the bottom of the glass. Recently, I was peering at the handpumps in a pub, and was offered a taster of one of them by the landlord (note that I didn’t ask for it). One sip seemed fine, but the actual pint ended up being distinctly hazy and yeasty, so the sample didn’t provide a fair representation.

Asking for tasters is obviously something likely to incur the wrath of both bar staff and other customers if you do it when they’re three deep at the bar. You can imagine the H. M. Bateman cartoon of “The man who asked for a taster in Wetherspoon’s at 10.30 on Friday night”. And it does seem to appeal to a certain type of person who can only be a dignified with the title of “tosser”. As Paul Mudge said on the Beer and Pubs Forum:

“My agreement with 5 is mainly from working at beer festivals and experiencing 'tasters' being abused, a customer asking "can I have a taster of A", "oh, no, I don't like that, can I have a taster of B", "oh, no, I don't like that, can I have a taster of C", "oh, that's a bit better, I think I'll have a third of a pint of of C", then doing precisely the same every half hour with a different volunteer each time, not just the time taken but always getting well over half a pint for the cost of a third.”
I’ve sometimes seen it argued that offering tasters is a good way of encouraging people to try cask beer. But surely, if anything, it just adds a layer of mystique to the subject, and the best way of promoting cask must be to keep it in good condition and offer beers that people actually want to drink and are likely to make repeat purchases.

One person on Twitter even suggested that asking for tasters was now necessary in view of the poor standards of cellarmanship in London pubs. He may be right on that, but the point of tasters is not to check whether the beer is off, and, as said above, a taster may not give a proper impression of the beer anyway. I’d say you have a reasonable expectation in any pub of not getting a duff pint and, if you do, the remedy is to take it back and ask for it to be changed.

Yes, if a beer has an unusual or challenging flavour, then offering tasters makes sense. But, for the great majority of beers, it’s just an affectation on a par with putting little jam jars of beer alongside the pumps to indicate the colour. And you never see people ask for tasters of lager, do you?

24 comments:

  1. I want the manager of staff to taste the beer, not me, to determine whether it's good enough to sell. The landlady in the Old Vic in Darlington did it ("I wouldn't sell beer I haven't tasted myself".

    I agree with everything here. About the only time it's relevant is for beers like that Stonehenge green one, or something very hazy, not your run of the mill pale beers.

    As I wrote yesterday, a dining pub in Battle offered tasters of Peroni and a keg stout !
    MT

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    1. What I have gathered from the blogs of Simey & Martin is that in a British pub it is the job of the customer to check for quality, not the proprietor. Your idea has a distinct continental aroma quite out of step with modern Brexit Britain.

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  2. "However, the range of flavours encompassed by the great majority of beers is fairly limited and predictable"

    There speaks someone who mostly drinks in Robbies pubs...

    Seriously, though, it depends a lot on the pub and the range of beers. I'll sometimes ask a taster if the beers are mostly from micros that I don't know or don't trust, and definitely if I'm looking at something strong and expensive in a crafty place, but less so if everything's middle of the road beer from fairly dependable breweries.

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    1. "There speaks someone who mostly drinks in Robbies pubs..."

      Come on, I also drink in Sam Smith's pubs ;-)

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  3. But then, I've never really understood the objection to the jam jars thing either, except as part of a general suspiciousness towards anything new or different.

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    1. I don't "object" to them, I just see them as a pointless gimmick that doesn't really convey any meaningful information to the customer, especially when they encompass the likes of Greene King IPA. In general, the name and pumpclip will convey a broad impression of the style, and if a colour indication is really needed, it can be put on a blackboard.

      Also having beer hanging about in little jars for days strikes me as a touch unhygienic.

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  4. I have seen drinkers abuse the system of tasters at CAMRA beer festivals, not helped by the fact that most volunteers give nearly a third of a pint as a taster anyway. As we know, margins on real ale can be very slim; one licensee told me that she simply couldn't afford to give tasters.

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    1. And you can't charge for tasters, as they don't represent a legal measure.

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    2. You will have to let the blogosphere know when you are next volunteering at a beard event, Nev. It would be fun to go mither you for free tasters all afternoon and see if I could make you snap.

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    3. But you could give a short pint (pint -, volume of tasters)

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  5. I’m quite ambivalent about ‘tasters’; I’ll probably have one if offered but can only think of one occasion when I’ve actually asked for one. But I am very much in favour of ‘jam jars’ or the like as they at least give an indication of the make up of the brew on offer. Something that helps considerably given the bizarre names that some of the brewers come up with for their beers.
    As someone who prefers a porter or a stout (yes, even in ‘summer’) it at least gives me a chance to avoid the light / hoppy beers. IG.

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  6. Completely agree on this. I recall that the Wellington in Sheffield had a sign behind the bar saying "our tasters are called halves" and I wish more pubs would do this. It seems quite common in American brewpubs for tasting 'paddles' with half a dozen beers to be available, but obviously at a charge. I think a local Wetherspoons tried this two or three years ago, but it was short-lived - too much trouble, higher wastage, or just the paddles being lost/stolen?

    An argument that I have heard is that in pubs which routinely serve short measures, having a taster as well gets you back to the pint that you have actually paid for. But this shouldn't be necessary...

    One reason why a pint might change character when being consumed is that it will warm up in the room or hand during the half hour or so that seems to be a fairly average drinking time. You can't reproduce this with a taster.

    You could always ask what's selling well, but this works best if you know the pub as I suspect that in some places staff are told to suggest a beer that isn't shifting or costs more. I remember my wife going to buy the drinks in a pub in Cardiff and on being told that the (cask) beer I had been drinking had sold out, asked for what was popular and came back with a pint of Stella Artois (and no taster..).

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  7. I think you are correct that this practice is used for determining whether a beer is to taste rather than of quality. Interestingly when the practice of tasting is used when buying a bottle of wine it is to determine whether the wine is corked (quality) than to taste. A practice that persists in establishments that serve mid range screw top wine which suggests maybe an element of ritual and theatre maintains the practice beyond it's original purpose.

    Is essence though, a practice of taste before you buy is not used for reliable products the consumer would not ummm and ahhh over before purchase. it used to instil confidence in an unreliable product. Whether concerns are over quality or taste.

    I think it persists at beer festival due to the volunteers being under the impression they are engaged in a campaign to convince people of the merits of cask beer rather than the commercial endeavour of monitizing their goodwill via unpaid labour.

    Whilst commenting on the appearance of beer geeks and CAMRA wallas never goes out of fashion and is always humorous there is a specific niche of beer geek that appears to desire tasters beyond simply freeloading. What you might call the Dickie type. Those that see themselves as more discerning and see that as an important part of their self image. Those sleeveless fishing waistcoats with lots of pockets over a faded beer festival t-shirt coupled with a general hobbit like quality to them often ask for tasters then make a bit of a show of the beer passing muster before ordering a pint & handing over £1.79 & a Wetherspoons token.

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    1. "I think it persists at beer festival due to the volunteers being under the impression they are engaged in a campaign to convince people of the merits of cask beer rather than the commercial endeavour of monitizing their goodwill via unpaid labour."

      The main reason I think is that there are quite a number of non ale drinkers at these events at least down our way. We do not get too many requests for them and often it is from people who are suffering from hop overload and want something more balanced or less citrus. Plus when it is quite, many of the staff actually enjoy it as due to the banter. We advise tasters to be restricted to one finger (on our half pint glass) or there abouts.

      With regards to the pub I only ever ask for tasters in my two locals, but it is rare. For example if I am drinking a beer and will continue to drink that all night, I may ask for a sip of one of the others on if it is unknown to me. Again banter usually follows with some of the bar staff having a sip as well.

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  8. I seem to agree with all sides on this one! Mudge all your points are quite valid, or at least would be in an ideal world. I think it really depends on the situation. I don't think tasters should be expected, and it's up to the publican whether or not to offer them (but then I think almost everything should be up to the publican: opening hours, smoking, dogs, etc etc) . . . Of course you don't get tasters of lager, because you know exactly what you're going to get in every pub; that's why a lot of people drink it. But there is a lot of mediocre to downright bad real ale out there. If I know the pub, and I know their standards are high, I would not really expect or ask for a taster. On the other hand, if I go into an unfamiliar pub and see ten hand pumps with unfamiliar beers, and the pub is quiet . . . damn right I'm going to try a couple of samples.

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  9. Good points Mudge and Cookie.

    From a landlords point of view:
    I actively offer tasters because we serve 9+ constantly changing beers and it can actually be a time saver in helping a customer decide what they want.
    As for the cost, I build tasters, and lined glasses, into the price of a pint.

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  10. Also it would cause considerable loss of good will if I were not to offer tasters.
    Yes it means the non-tasters subsidise the taster, but since they don't know that it doesnt bother them!

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  11. I think offering tasters can be a legitimate tool by the bar staff. In arguably my favourite St Albans pub, there are seven engines - two (sometimes three) of which rotate. This taster is only usually offered to decide between the guests. I have a pint of whichever I prefer. You're right you don't get the whole experience - you're unlikely to pick up any body but you do get the full aroma hops. In this pub they've taken it a step further: I often go in and the barman will candidly say "that's the one you want" This is based on the beer drinking particularly well.
    In another pub I've seen the flip-side. A man tasting a beer that's past its best, bearing his teeth, smacking his lips and doing a Hannibal Lecter F-f-f-f-f-f-f before ordering a pint, so in this case, a bit of public theatre only.

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  12. "And it does seem to appeal to a certain type of person who can only be a dignified with the title of “tosser”."
    Harsh... but fair.

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  13. Some years ago I was in a pub that had a really big blackboard describing in detail a beer that was on a hand-pump. Having been living abroad I was unfamiliar with craft beers in the UK but could tell this was not likely to be a traditional beer style; the mention of Chinook hops, which I guessed were American, was perhaps the big give away. I asked for a half saying that I was not sure I was going to like it and the barman offered a taster; never thought of asking back then. Well, it did not even seem like a beer, more like something made out of grapefruits: I could not even finish the taster.
    With all these unfamiliar small breweries, which to a certain extent are trying to push the taste boundaries, I am reluctant to try them without some idea what they are like: I will just go with something I know, maybe even a Guinness, and that does not help the small producer. Beer in pubs is just too expensive to even buy a half and not want to drink it and that applies especially to craft beers. Giving tasters costs the pub money: maybe more in staff time including extra glass washing than in unpaid for beer. It was not previously necessary: A’s bitter might not be the same as B’s but it was similar. An alternative is to have well trained bar staff who can describe the beer but that is still going to have staff costs and create a queue: even me reading a leaflet describing the beers at the bar is going to make service worse.

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  14. Lord Egbert Nobacon22 May 2017 at 10:53

    I just spend a week in Florida and most craft beer bars I drank in often had between 20-40 beers on tap so all were happy to offer tasters.
    Interestingly the one where they seemed to be offered begrudgingly and came in a plastic thimble containing almost all foam and no beer was a small brewpub where the beer was lousy and the people so up themselves about their craft I supped and left after one half of cloudy,flat,warm beer ( it was 93 degrees outside ) that cost six bucks.
    Happy to say I absolutely trashed them on Tripadvisor unleashing a torrent of sarcastic bile reserved for the very worst places I visit.
    Fuck 'em.

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  15. My other half has a policy of always asking for tasters in an unfamiliar pub (and some familiar ones), given the likelihood of a warm/stale pint. She always gives immediate and honest feedback, too! I often just plump for something. She usually gets the better beer.

    As Kieran says, tasters and lined glasses are built into our overhead calculations, if we were to refuse them it would lose us a lot of goodwill. Tasters aren't a problem, it's the self-entitled Real Ale Twits who ask for discounts that wind me up!

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    1. But surely the point of asking for a taster is to get a feel for the flavour, not to check whether or not a beer was in decent condition. If I was a licensee and someone kept doing the latter frankly I'd feel rather insulted - especially if it was for a beer I knew they'd had before.

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    2. Of course it should be! But why should we suffer poor beer because the licensee can't be arsed to make sure it's good?

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