Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Waiting for the other guy to blink first

There scarcely seems to be a week that goes by when GBG ticker Martin Taylor doesn’t go into a smart dining pub in some leafy part of the country on a weekday lunchtime, spot more cask beers on the bar than there are people drinking them, and end up with a glass that varies between mediocre and undrinkable. It’s generally acknowledged that there is a widespread problem with pubs stocking more beers than their turnover justifies, with the inevitable knock-on effect on quality. Indeed, this was acknowledged in the recent Cask Report:

Five years ago, I wrote how a simple mathematical exercise shows that the average pub serving cask beer does not have the turnover to justify more than two lines, yet the simple evidence of one’s eyes shows that the actual average number is considerably more. Matters have certainly not improved in the intervening years. On yesterday’s trip to Leicester (full report to come) we visited eight pubs, by no means all specialist alehouses, where the average number of different beers on sale was seven. Only one of them could have been called busy, and that was one with the second lowest number of pumps. We only actually encountered one returnable beer, which was changed without demur, but that had clearly been lingering in the pipes for days.

This issue seems to be generally acknowledged within the trade, yet there is a strange reluctance to actually do anything about it. I’m sure a lot of it comes from a fear of being the first pub to blink and be seen to be reducing its range, which may be perceived as a sign of retrenchment or failure. And CAMRA doesn’t help with its constant demands for “more choice” and lauding pubs when they add another pump to an already over-extended range. But, as long as it isn’t addressed, the endemic problem of slow turnover leading to poor quality will remain, and continue to lose sales for cask to more reliable kegs, thus creating a vicious circle.

It is true that some specialist beer pubs do manage to sustain ten or more beers in good condition, but that is because they have a specific appeal to beer drinkers, so 80% of their customers are drinking cask, as opposed to less than 20% in more mainstream pubs. And I’ve been in well-known GBG-listed multi-beer pubs when on a Tuesday lunchtime the beer has been distinctly past its best. If you only drink on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights you may not notice a problem.

In the past, I’ve mischievously suggested that pubs should display on each pumpclip the day and time that the beer was put on sale. Clearly that isn’t going to happen, as it would expose far too much poor stock management practice, but it would certainly concentrate a few minds if it did. Perhaps a more realistic option would be for Cask Marque to include within its assessment viewing pubs’ records of stock and sales, and failing pubs that routinely keep beers on beyond three days.

I know it may be an unfashionable view that goes right against the current CAMRA orthodoxy, but I would contend that fully half of all pubs currently serving cask only have the turnover to keep two beers in decent condition. And a substantial number, especially those dining pubs without any real beer-drinking customer base, should only be serving one throughout the week, with possibly another tapped on a Friday to sell over the weekend when it’s busier. “Guinness is their draught stout; XXX is their cask ale”. It’s never going to happen, though.

38 comments:

  1. Not much to disagree with there. This is shooting yourself in the foot and then the other foot and when it is hurting you keep on shooting. Pubs need to get real. No pun intended.

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  2. Opps. Finished too soon.The bit I disagree with is the blinking first theme. It is a kind of collective madness though and a failure to understand quality must come first.

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    1. I don't think we really disagree there - it *is* a collective madness, but nobody is willing to accept any personal responsiblity for doing anything about it.

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    2. They don't understand it because of the 'cask range paradox'. The pubs where the cask is in the best possible condition tend to be places for beer geeks where they can, and do, turn over 10+ beers in a wide range of styles. (And equally there are countless pubs with only 1-2 ales on offer, which are almost invariably undrinkable).

      I can see why somebody running a 'normal' pub would look at the lay of the land, observe that the popular, award-winning pubs with good reputations offer lots of beers and conclude, wrongly, that it's all about quantity.

      The sad truth, for them anyway, is that snobs like me aren't going to be attracted to their pubs whether they offer six mediocre beers or two boring beers in decent nick when there are entirely better pubs elsewhere. A pub needs to offer a lot to get me to spend my time, money and calorie allowance there.

      In the words of Portishead, Give me a reason!


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  3. Not sure this past few years CAMRA is still promoting more more more pump wise.Certainly competition wise a low number of handpump pubs are winning high up in pub competitions.This year the Scottish one only has a modest 3-4, West Pennines similar.In my area a bastion pub has just gone down from 12 to 8 handpumps & the nobodies made a fuss about it. I do note as many do that some Spoons seem to be quietly offering less handpumps. I may need to be corrected but was not their October festival a fifty beer offering at some stage? This year it is a thirty certainly. Of course the handpumps need reducing, I agree with the sentiment of the article, but of course by default this will also when it happens plough more agony onto the much oversupplied market, increasing pressures on the too many now (I feel) breweries.

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  4. Good points well made. Yesterday in Leicester a good example. The best pubs beerwise in a big city, and hardly any of the beer was better than OK.

    Responding to Dave, I still see a fixation on "improving range" in CAMRA magazines and GBG descriptions, if honest.

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    1. Yes, the King's Head was particularly egregious example. A very nice pub, but one that can't really claim to be a specialist alehouse. It had (I think) eleven beers on, which I would say is at least seven too many.

      The problem is not so much in the specialist pubs, as in the mainstream family/dining/sports/local ones, many of which now seem to have four to six handpumps even though most of their beer drinkers are on lager.

      Licensees would say, of course, that if they cut it down to two people would moan about lack of choice.

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    2. Yep and if you're specialising to the extant that the only draught product you sell is cask ale, you can afford to have a bigger range. In a busy city centre pub where 80% of sales are cask ale, a lot of stock is shifted.

      I agree though that in general more choice isn't always good. I've thought a lot about this actually but don't want to do a massively lengthy reply here and now.

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    3. i will say something in defence of the king's head though - he varies the amount on and it's a massively busy pub usually (tuesday is the quietest day and night in leicester)

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    4. That's a helpful and fair defence, Kieran. I've been to the King's Head 3 times now; first time (unknowingly) after a Tigers match beer was very good, on two Tuesdays since it just hasn't. Problem with slow early week trade is you end up with pubs closing altogether lunchtimes and early in the week, which isn't a gain. But you wouldn't go back to the real ale if ypur experience of it was the King's Head on a Tuesday.

      Martin Taylor

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    5. Fair enough. I think your right that closing isn't the answer; it's a vicious cycle. Close on a tuesday and customers avoid it on a wednesday 'cos they think the beers been sitting in the lines for all that time.

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  5. *cough* cask breathers *cough*

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  6. *cough*smaller barrels*cough*

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    1. The figures I referred to assumed pubs were using 9-gallon firkins. If you feel you need to go down to pins, then maybe you need to question whether you should be serving that beer on cask at all. And remember that, if you switch to smaller casks, the handling and delivery costs don't reduce proportionately to the volume of beer.

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  7. *cough*buttercup syrup*cough*

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  8. There's a pub in our branch that's pretty much in the middle of nowhere, which is proudly advertising it's just gone up to 12 pumps. I simply cannot fathom how it manages to do this, given most rural pubs up here struggle to turn over 2. Last time I was before this and they 'just had the 8 on' and quality was just on the acceptable side of OK.

    The formula is simple. Number of lines = number of containers per week /2

    I wonder how many town/city centre pubs achieve that...

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  9. One almost wishes for the old days. 1 bitter,1 mild and occasionally a best bitter. Pubs full of customers, beer good, enjoying a smoke and good conversation and sensible opening times.

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  10. What's wrong with cask being a niche product only in a few pubs that do it well? Why try and force it on the rest of us?

    Leave it out of the gaffs where the punters are sensible enough to be on the lager. Only a couple of places in any given town need it. Those where the Camra lot go to.

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  11. I bumped into a long standing senior member of my local branch last week, and during the conversation he bemoaned the refurbishment of the pub over the road because they'd reduced the cask choice from four to three, which I thought was eminently sensible on their part but someone who I had assumed to know better clearly rates pubs on the number of pumps first, quality second.

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    1. wont that rather depend on what they put on those 3 pumps though, maybe the 4th was the ever changing guest beer and the rest were Doom Bar, Greene King IPA, Spitfire or maybe a Tribute, Old Speckled Hen, Pedigree or Hobgoblin, Robinsons, Thwaites, its choice after all, but Id take one look at those and go find another pub, because they arent beers I want to drink.

      and thats one thing that doesnt fit in the analysis that quality is always better with smaller numbers of pumps, it can be in some situations of course if the volume isnt there to be sold its pointless having too much choice, but it also depends on what you put on the pumps, is it stuff people actually want to drink in volume. and you hit on a real marmite of a beer, youll struggle to shift it regardless of how many hand pumps youve got on.

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    2. Well, obviously fewer pumps is no guarantee of quality, just as more pumps isn't a sure sign of poor beer. It's a case of matching the number of lines to the turnover.

      One phenomenon that has been widely observed is the pubs in Scotland and Wales that put on a token cask beer for the tourists, but where a combination of lack of turnover and lack of care means it's frequently foul.

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    3. Stono, no, all cask beers change in this pub. It's just about got the volume to guarantee quality on four, but three suit it better as it's fairly quiet during the week and weekends are busy with people swilling lout. My point was that regardless of what was on sale, said CAMRA member was primarily interested in the pump count. You'll generally find most GBG pubs in the Tyneside & Northumberland branch area have lots of pumps, and quite a few don't deserve their entries. My local sells three regular cask - Bass, Deuchars, Mordue Northumberland Blonde and a guest: He could easily have two more beers on but deliberately doesn't to guarantee quality which I'd say is a constant NBSS 4 or more.

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    4. Knowing the branch well from years ago that doesn't surprise me too much...! Not sure what their selection criteria is these days, but when I was branch Secretary I pushed the use of NBSS scores when they were first being rolled out - and not surprisingly there was a lot of resistance from longer standing members who were more bothered about 'their' pubs getting in...

      Only one pub with that beer selection and quality - I assume the Lodge is still in the Guide!?

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    5. Stono makes a fine point. It's not just about the 'absolute choice', it's also the 'effective choice', e.g. The range available once you have discounted anything you're never going to choose, like the Spoons 'Trio of Doom'.

      A big range is not the same as a good or interesting range.

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    6. Of course, this situation is often related to the restrictive policies and dubious practices of the PubCos. 'Sure, you can stock a guest ale, so long as you also take these five boring, standard beers that any fucker can find anywhere because we need to get our units up this month...'

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    7. I know you can't judge CAMRA exclusively by the branch magazines, but it's educational to read a few to see how members think. Picking a current one at random(Mansfield), I read of local pub "boasting" x no of handpumps, pub beer festivals with 30 beers, a real ale census celebrating the number of different ales per pub (3.75), and the words "pleased to see 12 hand pulls still available" in a Greene King pub. Quality ? Never heard of it, mate. MT

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    8. That kind of attitude is common in CAMRA publications, even "Opening Times". There's still widespread denial about the problem.

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    9. But most normal people want to drink the "boring, standard beers" that they regard as familiar and reliable.

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  12. A good read, I agree with your comments about pubs often selling too many beers, having long argued that point! With regards to pubs highlighting the day and time that a beer was put on, one pub I know does just that - the Jubilee Refreshment Rooms beside Sowerby Bridge railway station! And generally a maximum of three beers at any one time!

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    1. If more pubs had the courage of their convictions to do that, it might just take off...

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  13. On the London/Essex borders a lot of pubs serve only two real ales, plus maybe a guest. The lack of choice is really down to them mainly stocking London Pride and Doom Bar. If different pubs served different beers you could have choice and quality and there are three pubs I will make the effort to visit because it is not Doom Bar or Pride. I don't know if this would work generally.

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  14. In the pubs I visit, the ones with 6 beers are better quality than the ones with 1 or 2 cask beers as the former attract cask drinkers and in the latter, most are drinking lager and I am often the only one drinking cask.

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    1. Well, a pub with six pumps *can* keep its beer well, but that doesn't mean that putting six beers on will automatically bring cask drinkers flocking to its door. And most people who drink real ale don't identify themselves as "cask drinkers". You're confusing them with "beer geeks".

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    2. I would say "most" beer geeks are cask drinkers, but certainly not all cask drinkers are beer geeks (I define cask drinkers as those that visit a pub where they usually expect to get a drink of good quality cask).
      As has been said by others on here, in pubs with one handpump, most people are drinking other beers and the cask has often run out or gone off. The landlord of multi cask pump pubs is usually more interested in his beer and proud to know they serve a good pint.

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    3. I have to say that's completely at variance with my own experience. For example, it's hard to argue that the King's Head in Leicester, which we visited the other week, didn't have far more beers on than the level of custom justified.

      You're not "py" in disguise, are you?

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  15. When I started drinking in rural North Yorkshire in the 80's, 2 beers - Strongarm and Best Bitter by Camerons Who had a strong local dominance via the tied estate, and no-one minded) and they were both usually in good nick. Four or more ales was areal rarity; at a brewery tap perhaps. Agree there is a lot of insipid, if not actually 'off' beer around.

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