Tuesday, 7 May 2019

The taste test

I recently came across this interesting article discussing whether the temperature at which it is served is holding cask ale back. However, it also included the depressing, although not remotely surprising, statistic that fully 90% of cask beer was kept on sale beyond the recommended three days. This prompted a lively debate on Twitter about how to improve cask turnover in pubs, in which several people made the point that licensees or cellar managers should be routinely tasting their cask ales to make sure they haven’t gone off.

This may seem like a statement of the obvious, but is that really the case? Pubs sell a huge range of drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, and for virtually all of them the licensees never have to taste them to ensure they’re OK. If they did, they would turn into alcoholics. Plus, many pubs sell a lot of food, but they have sufficient confidence in their suppliers and their kitchen hygiene that they don’t feel the need to nibble a corner of each steak or sandwich before they’re sent out to the customers. Is cask beer something so exceptional that it is different from everything else sold in the pub?

Added to this, there are many people running pubs who, for genuine medical or religious reasons, do not drink. Obviously that means they’re not in a position to sample the product. But it doesn’t follow that they shouldn’t be in the business in the first place. Likewise, there’s no reason why a vegetarian, provided they do it from personal choice rather than wishing to impose it on everyone else, should not work in a food business selling meat dishes. Across the whole spectrum of businesses, there are plenty of examples of people who work at providing goods and services for which there is a demand, but which they do not personally consume. Why should the pub trade be any different?

It’s sometimes said that anyone running a pub really should drink the beer themselves. This is clearly ridiculous for the generality of pubs, and does it even apply to specialist bars? I’ve come across people over the years who have opened craft bars and micropubs because they see an attractive business opportunity, but who personally do not drink, or at least do not drink beer.

Yes, tasting the beer may be useful in some circumstances, and undoubtedly cask beer is a perishable product that does need special care. But a properly run pub really should be able to ensure that its stock turnover, supplier selection and cellar management practices are such that it is not routinely operating on the verge of its cask beer going off. The only skills really needed are to be able to smell vinegar and see if a pint isn’t clear.

21 comments:

  1. I think you should accept a pubs right to keep perishable beer on for 5 days if they so choose. You should be grateful and go support it and just get it down you no matter what it's like. If you supported pubs, you would.

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  2. I remember, back in 1988, Brendan Dobbin telling me there was no secret to stopping beer going off. Just keep it cold. I follow his advice and keep opened bottles of wine in the fridge for several days.

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  3. I used to drink in a pub where the landlord and landlady drank nothing but Bacardi & Coke. The cask ale was excellent.

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  4. There's a danger in setting 3 days in stone in that it becomes cellar management by rote. Someone has to taste the product before it's served in order to prevent bad product being served. All too often cask beer can be tainted from the start ... e.g. TCP flavour from fermentation faults or dirty casks. Clarity, smell and conditioning aren't going to spot all faults. In addition, while 3 days is a reasonable rule of thumb, it does depend on many other factors e.g. strength, microbiological cleanliness of beer/container/cellar/dispense, temperature, brewery conditioning time, distribution temp etc. etc. Only by tasting the beer can one determine whether a cask beer is in peak condition. That being said, familiarity with a brewery/beer is valuable. I knew a tee-total landlord who always served TT Landlord blob on, but even he was caught out on the rare occasion a duff cask was delivered. I think one of the main issues with multi-pump pubs is lack of familiarity with the breweries and beers and hence how to handle them. Cellar management is a skill after all.

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    1. On the other hand hand, GK tell their managers that 7 days is acceptable. And 99% of publicans think beer is ready to sell as soon as it's clear, which is very much the wrong way round.

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  5. I feel there is much truth in the argument that very regular tasting shouldn't be necessary,and isn't practical or realistic in all cases. Some of the above comments highlight successful landlords who don't, which proves the point.Mr Enderby makes some very valid points and of course some beers need some tasting at certain times most definitely,but I wouldn't say all times. I am also in the camp believing 3 days is a brilliant rule of thumb but mustn't be definitive. However given the practicality often of operations in a tight labour market,long opening hours and not always superlative training for all staff as a result,3 days is a damn good starter,that can I would suggest be tweeked slightly when the experience & quality is regularly in the bag and being delivered.

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    1. Wise words as usual. Of course it's not a hard-and-fast rule but, as you say, a good rule of thumb. And if a lot of pubs adopted it that currently don't bother, we would get much better beer.

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  6. Why not stock it in smaller barrels?

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    1. The Stafford Mudgie7 May 2019 at 22:12

      Because it takes twice the time changing casks and staff wages are to be kept to a minimum.
      And because there's not the cellar space for twice the number of, albeit slightly smaller, casks.

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  7. The answer is usually to stop stocking more beers than your turnover will allow to guarantee freshness, and as Andy said, use smaller containers. Unfortunately the latter point tends to just mean some pubs will sell even more beers. The whole guest ale thing is generalky responsible - when pubs sell cask beers on a permanent basis it's much easier to keep them right. But if course, that's boring now.

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    1. The Stafford Mudgie8 May 2019 at 01:44

      "that's boring now" - but for me beer has to be to my taste, not necessarily interesting.
      Do all those people having a cup or two of P G Tips every morning ever think that it's "boring"?

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    2. I was more alluding to the general dismissal of brown bitters and the like, in favour of trendy grapefruit beers, and the trend for endless wickets selling constantly changing beers. Absolutely nothing wrong with PG tips, but it's the equivalent of being happy drinking nothing but John Smiths Smooth.

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    3. The Stafford Mudgie8 May 2019 at 07:48

      but is P G Tips really pasteurised and pressurised ?

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    4. I think the point was more that those who are constantly seeking out new and experimental beers are often highly predictable and conformist in other aspects of their liie. On the other hand, as I said on here a few years ago,

      "There are some people who give the impression of trying to live their entire lives on the bleeding edge of experiment and unconventionality. And they are often some of the most crashing, self-obsessed bores you can hope to meet."

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    5. The Stafford Mudgie8 May 2019 at 09:17

      Yes indeed.

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  8. They don't need to swallow it.
    Do what wine tasters do.
    Put a little in a small glass, hold it up to the light, swirl it round, sniff it, taste a little, spit it out.
    Nah. Just slop it into a glass and dare the punter to comment on the murky, stale, sour expensive liquid.

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  9. Pubs should definitely concentrate on selling only what they can turnover. Look at Bathams - 2 usually. Sam Smiths 1. 3 is plenty.

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  10. Cask is the pinnacle of the brewers art. That means punters have to accept they are the quality control, not the pub. If you want safe, stick with lager. Cask is beer roulette for the dangerous boys of beer.

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  11. Obviously nobody should be forced to constantly taste their product if they don't want to, but I'd at least expect them to bring in someone that knows their stuff if they're going to take it seriously or expect any credibility in the beer selling business.

    Martin Hayes was able to establish a small chain of consistently excellent pubs, despite not drinking *but* he got serious beer people involved from day one and I doubt a single beer has ever gone on sale in any of his pubs without being tasted by someone with a good idea of how it should taste.

    The 'three days' rule of thumb may be too vague to be useful in that some beers can last a fair while longer without detriment, and certain styles will naturally turn over faster or slower in certain types of outlet and/or at certain times of year.

    In my local a 4.2%-ish golden beer with citrussy hops will only last about a day. A brown malt-led 'traditional' bitter might take two days to shift. Stout or porter typically takes 3-4. A 6.5% IPA might last 4-5 days, but is more stylistically adept at lasting longer. More 'specialist' beers - Imperial, fruit, sour, saison etc. - tend to turn over less quickly than this, and for that reason are usually keg rather than cask.

    Temperature should not be discounted as an issue either - even if you like warmish beer at the point of service, it's really not good for a cask to be left in the heat and the beer can deteriorate far quicker if this is the case. Last Summer the beer at some outdoor beer festivals was virtually undrinkable because casks had been sitting in the sun for days without adequate cooling.

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  12. Is one of the unsaid reasons for the apparent demise of cask not down to pub staffing nowadays? Most pubs owned by chains seem to only have the licensee and some very inexperienced staff. How many pubs have a dedicated cellarman these days? Prior to the beer orders there was at least some overseeing of bars by the brewery that owned them, some sort of corporate pride to make sure that their own ales were well kept. Now in the vast majority of the trade there is no direct link between the producer and point of sale.

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    1. Yes, if your name is above the door you have an inbuilt incentive to ensure your beer is in decent nick. In general, I find the standard of beer in tied houses (where they still exist) to be noticeably better than in pubco outlets.

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