Monday, 14 August 2017

Nobody else has complained

Cask beer is a natural, living, variable product and, as such, with the best will in the world, it’s inevitable that very occasionally you’ll be served with a sub-standard pint. What matters is not that it’s happened in the first place, but that the pub deals with the issue swiftly, politely and without quibble. Unfortunately, though, as Martin Taylor recently experienced, it doesn’t always work out that way, and an ill-mannered and unhelpful response can easily put a dampener on an enjoyable evening. Indeed, the whole business of returning beer to the bar can be something of a minefield.

The first thing is to be specific as to exactly what it is you’re complaining about. If the beer is obviously cloudy or vinegary, then you should have a cast-iron case, although opinions will vary on what degree of haziness is acceptable. Personally, unless it’s declared as a beer that is intentionally hazy, I’m pretty dogmatic on the issue, and will reject anything with more than a slight cast. But, of course, if it is a deliberately hazy beer, how do you or the bar staff know how much haze is too much?

However, there are other faults that are not so clear-cut, for example being served far too warm, lacking in condition, having a noticeable off-flavour such as diacetyl, or simply being generally tired and end-of-barrel-ish. If you’re in a pub where you’re a regular and are known to the licensee and bar staff, such a complaint might be taken seriously, but in a strange pub you could well feel that you are chancing your arm.

It’s also important to be clear about your objective when making a complaint. Obviously the best solution is to be given an acceptable replacement, either the same beer which has been pulled through, or a new cask tapped, or a suitable alternative. Failing that, the aim should be to be given a refund, which you may well prefer if it’s the only cask beer on sale and you don’t fancy a Carling as a replacement. Or, in some cases, just venting your spleen will leave you with a sense of moral satisfaction.

The last two outcomes, though, imply that you’ll be bringing your visit to an end. If you’re in the middle of a pub crawl, or there’s an alternative pub nearby, or you’ve just popped in for a swift pint, that might be entirely acceptable. But in other situations, for example having a meal or social evening with a group, or watching a football match or live music performance, you might not want to do that, and thus be reluctant to create a fuss. You’ll just quietly leave the sub-standard pint, and put up with Guinness or Diet Coke for the rest of the proceedings. The point has also been made in the past by Tandleman that you’re going out for a pleasant social evening, and creating a confrontational situation may end up leaving a sour taste in the mouth even if you gain a moral victory.

I’d say in general that attitudes to changing sub-standard beer have improved over the years, although it may simply be that as a more mature chap I command more respect than a pimply youth. The days of “everyone else is drinking it” or “real ale’s meant to look like soup/taste like vinegar” are largely a thing of the past. One of the worst responses I recall was “but you’ve drunk some of it!” Well, if I hadn’t drunk any, how would I know it was foul?

However, as Martin and his friends found out, that kind of quibbling hasn’t entirely disappeared. In that case, although they had spent £60 in the pub, they would now think twice about going back and he has disseminated his experience over the Internet. Given the amount of goodwill at risk, compared with the gross profit on a pint, it’s hard to see why pubs continue to argue the toss about changing beer if customers present a reasonable case. After all, I don’t think anyone beyond a handful of troublemakers deliberately sets out to wind pubs up by returning perfectly good pints.

To their credit, Wetherspoon’s seem to have adopted a no-quibble policy when it comes to exchanging cask beer. Bar staff who are not beer experts will be in no position to decide whether or not a complaint is valid, and they must recognise how much goodwill they stand to lose. If any customer established a reputation as a “vexatious complainant”, I’m sure it would be brought to management’s attention.

No doubt someone will point out that that, if you stick to mass-market lagers and smooth beers, you won’t have any of this problem with variability. However, the point about cask beer is that, when it’s good, it’s much superior to kegs and lagers, and the occasional duff pint is a price worth paying for that. If you stick to pubs in the Good Beer Guide, or ones with a decent reputation locally, you’re unlikely to have much problem. The only returnable pints I’ve had in recent months have been when drinking off-grid in pubs that I happened to like the look of, but came with no recommendation. And keg beers, especially small-batch “craft” ones, are by no means immune from faults either.

But, if you go into a food- or sports-oriented pub with a solitary Doom Bar handpump at the end of a long line of kegs, it’s entirely understandable if you decide to give it a swerve. And, at least once, we’ve all been there with that pint of slightly warm, slightly flat, slightly stale, slightly hazy beer, where no one fault really makes a convincing case for taking it back, but we conclude the best solution is just to leave it unfinished on the table...

Edit: I’ve added a poll on taking beer back in the sidebar, which mobile users won’t see.


  1. Good piece. As your poll will no doubt show,really duff pints are quite rare, though disappointing pints (often lacking cellar coolness and condition) that make you wish you'd picked the other one are much more common than in the days when we had more turnover over fewer pumps.

    You capture the difficulty of returning a drink well; it really signals an end to the evening, drawing attention to yourself as a complainer. In a busy chain pub full of folk complaining about condiments, that's OK, and Spoons save themselves hassle by just replacing it. But elsewhere, it's no fun.


  2. Another problem is that, if they're three deep at the bar, taking a pint back may seem more trouble than it's worth.

    1. Professor Pie-Tin16 August 2017 at 18:00

      I have this theory.
      It's about glasses.
      Where I drink in Ireland there is no cask beer.Everything is keg including the craft beer.
      Most of the pubs cool their beers in cold rooms and every pub has its lines cleaned professionally on a regular basis by the people supplying the beer ( mainly Diageo and Heineken ).
      Yet some pubs consistently produce better pints than others.
      Which leads me to the only conclusion available that the one thing the breweries don't have control over is the glasses.
      The best beer is served in pubs where the glasses are sparkling.The very best pub in town hand rinses every glass BEFORE it goes into the washer.The landlord of my own particular local even takes all his lager and beer glasses,although not stout,to a company that sand-blasts the bottom of the glasses to create a widget to keep the head.It costs him 50c a glass.
      The worst pubs consistently have filthy glasses that go into dirty water often with a rinse aid added.And added unscientifically in the sense the some spotty youth just glugs it in without measurement.
      The result - flat and often dodgy pints.
      I've yet to be convinced otherwise.

  3. Very nice piece.

    I must admit that due to my being a visitor and only seeing good pubs two weeks a year, it makes it difficult to hold a strong grudge. I still think highly of the pub but, if lucky enough to visit again, will anticipate scrutinizing the beers even more. The fact that the lady who refused to replace it that day went out of her way the next day to say a new cask was on, reveals that she knew it should have been replaced. However, no adjustment was offered. I chose not to push it further. We have left pints on the table and not returned. Some pubs are special enough that I will suck it up and find a pint worth drinking. It is rare for us to have that experience. And as Dave hypothesized, it could have something to do with my accent.

    1. If you've gone back, and she's made the point that a new cask had been put on, I'd say you've gained your moral victory :-)

  4. Are you me? I had this exact discussion over the weekend. Excellent post.

  5. Part of the reluctance to return a bad pint is not knowing what kind of reaction you'll get. Some licensees take any hint of complaint as criticism of their skills, which is certainly not the case. If drinkers could be sure that they'd just be faced by something like, "Sorry about that - we'll change the cask [or] what will you have instead?", perhaps there'd be less reluctance, but none of us goes out for an argument.

    However, some drinkers don't help themselves. I've seen the occasional letter in What's Brewing boasting that the writer, dissatisfied with a pint, had commented to staff along the lines of: if he'd wanted vinegar, he'd have asked for chips. That's not going to provoke a very positive reaction. Nor will comments about shaving foam or ice cream when presented with too big a head.

    As you say, it's not being given an unacceptable pint that's the problem; it's how it's dealt with, but our own attitudes can affect that response.

    1. Thee is a category of people who can only be described as "professional arseholes" who unfortunately give genuine complainers a bad name.

    2. 'Some licensees take any hint of complaint as criticism of their skills, which is certainly not the case'

      Surely it is an implicit criticism - if their skills were up to scratch you wouldn't be having the problem with the product they're selling. It's all about how you approach the complaint though, as you've pointed out.

  6. All these ropey pints to complain about. Tell us all again how cask beer is the pinnacle of the brewers art or some such tosh.

    1. 83% in CM's poll have voted that they return fewer than one pint in fifty. If you like consistency combined with unvarying mediocrity, drink cooking lager.
      Each to their own, CL.

    2. As I said, to scale the heights, you have to occasionally endure the troughs. But better that than just the dull dreary plain of cooking lager :P

    3. love it lads. The key skill to appreciating cask ale is being able to complain about it.

      umm, the pinnacle of beer.

  7. Lager can go off. The BII, British Institute of Inn keepers, reccomends 2 weeks, not infinite time! My Morretti was horrible!

    1. At a CAMRA Pub of the Month presentation at the Olde Cock in Didsbury, I decided to try a half of Camden Hells, which turned out to be well past its best - flat and a touch hazy. To their credit, they exchanged it without quibble for a half of cask and refunded the difference. Serves me right, I suppose...

    2. it can do, but it don't because it's lovely and people neck it.

      bitter goes off because no ones= touches it.

  8. I returned a vinegary pint in a pub in Knutsford only to be amazed to witness some faux biochemistry theatre with the barman using a straw to pipette some of the beer into a fresh glass to taste it. He only needed to smell it.

  9. Syd Differential.16 August 2017 at 07:29

    I just think fuck 'em and walk away never to return.
    I used to do 50 pints a week for years in a pub in my town and had such a fuss made about returning a dodgy pint I just walked out and went to another one where I continued to do 50 pints a week until I moved out of the area.
    The original landlord implored me several times to come back when he met me in the street but I laughed in his face the miserable bollox.
    Never,ever let the tail wag the dog and those lazy arses who get used to your custom and take it for granted deserve no sympathy.

    1. you got it right, pal, but these camra weirdos are insanely grateful that someone is willing to take their cash.

  10. My brother tasted one of my real ales in a local pub. It was very near the end of the cask, but it had turned. He got a replacement and I got an order for another cask of one of my beers. As you say, real ales are live beers and landlords know they will last about a week to ten days depending on ABV and the interest of drinkers. It always surprises me how many landlords do not drink beer!

  11. It takes a long time to build a reputation for good beer and not very long at all to lose it. People talk and word of mouth is the best advertising. I have a policy of replacing any beer for any reason, no questions asked - even if it's fine and the customer just doesn't like it, for whatever reason. The cost of doing this is tiny in comparison to what you gain through goodwill.
    Besides, I operate on the basis that a firkin will yield 8 out of 9 gallons, because of ullage, tasters (myself and customers) etc.


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