Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Sheep in wolf’s clothing

In the early days of CAMRA, a substantial proportion of cask beer, especially in the Midlands and North of England, was served via electric pumps of various kinds. However, there was a problem with this that it could be well-nigh impossible to identify what was real and what was not. So, progressively, with a certain amount of encouragement from CAMRA, breweries replaced them with handpumps, which gave an unmistakeable sign that the beer was real. I wouldn’t want to suggest that increasing profits by, in many cases, exchanging metered dispense and oversize glasses with brim-measures ever entered into their heads. There were a scattering of cases of keg beer being dispensed via handpumps, but those now seem to have pretty much entirely disappeared. If you see a handpump, you know that the beer will be real.

However, this can cut both ways. It can also be a clear sign of something you wish to avoid, and for many drinkers it may be once bitten, twice shy with anything coming out of a handpump. Anoher problem is that handpumps may be perceived as dull and old-fashioned in comparison to the brightly-illuminated keg taps that adorn many bar tops, not to mention harder to see. As I wrote last year:

Maybe it is also time to question whether handpumps can be more of a hindrance than a help...

...However, what allows you to clearly identify something also allows people to instantly reject it as something not for them. In many pubs, there’s a binary division between stuff on T-bar taps (including craft kegs) and stuff on handpumps, and many drinkers just won’t consider the beers on handpumps. So, just a thought, but might it be an idea to try dispensing cask beer though the T-bar taps (obviously with the word “cask” on the label) so it is not immediately marked out as something “other”. There’s no technical reason why it can’t be done as, in the past, many cask beers were sold using freeflow electric dispense.

This was really only a speculative thought experiment, but Nathaniel Southwood reports that Sharp’s brewery have tried just such a thing in an experiment at the Royal Cornwall show, as pictured above. It’s in conjunction with an attempt to introduce a chilled version of Doom Bar, but it also offers the normal-temperature version alongside it. It does state clearly on the font that it is cask beer.
I’m not saying that it will work, and there’s always the possibility that drinkers are so wedded to the concept of handpumps that it will deter more than it attracts. But it must be worth a try, to see whether it helps to make cask look more like everything else on the bar rather than something “other” that is to be avoided at all costs. It might eliminate some of the variability caused by incompetent bar staff having little idea how to use handpumps. Plus I would certainly be interested to see how the head and condition turn out in the absence of a swan neck and tight sparkler. However, it’s definitely not going to cover up faults in beer that has been allowed to become flat and stale. And it would probably be too much to ask for them to get some oversize glasses and attach meters to these new pumps.

14 comments:

  1. We'll have keg drinkers claiming they've been conned into cask ;-)

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  2. The Stafford Mudgie11 June 2019 at 14:42

    A colder version of Doom Bar and of Wainwright comes several years after Youngs did one that I don't think lasted long.

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  3. Seems like a great idea. Those that know, will know, those that don't will probably try it and like it. These pumps use narrow bore lines so there's much less to go off between the cellar and bar and the lines go though a python so will be cooled right up to the tap, and the extra chilled is simply the cellar temperature beer taking a trip through a chiller. Swan necks are a relatively new thing (pioneered by Angram from memory) and there are still many handpumps in use that don't have them that still deliver a tight creamy head, as they always have, and pouring a pint with a head from these things should be no different to pouring keg beer.

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    1. Yes, there are a number of things in their favour, such as the narrow bore pipe and the constant, regulated suction. Cask beer no more has to be served from a handpump than it has to come in a wooden barrel or be delivered by a horse-drawn dray, and indeed hamdpumps could be regarded as old-fashioned and needlessly labour-intensive. But I suspect the attachment to handpumps will win out. Mind you, it would be fun seeing the "keg is piss" diehards spluttering about them.

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    2. I'm picturing a couple of very longstanding Tyneside members having their spluttering moment!

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  4. Are Doom Bar drinkers/target drinkers likely to be bothered about whether it's cask, keg or something in between? I'd suspect that on balance they are unlikely to be so.

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    1. I would say the opposite; Doom Bar's brand is that it's a REAL ALE that you've heard of. It's got the weird name, the faux-local identity, it's pulled from a hand-pump: all targetted at people who want to identify as real ale drinkers but are wary of what they don't know. It's got nothing else going for it. In 10 years' time it'll probably only be found in keg form in social clubs.

      AP

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    2. That's my point - the non-cask versions seem to sell well, with nobody complaining that they're not even brewed in the same place. The cask version is often borderline brewery-conditioned and racked with so little remaining fermentation that some question whether it should even qualify as 'real', and they've tweaked the recipe numerous times, again with few apparently complaining.

      I'd conclude fairly emphatically that the Doom Bar market really don't care what is or isn't 'real ale' and probably aren't particularly bothered about the provenance of the beer, who owns the brewery that produces it, or any of the other stuff that enthusiasts get enthusiastic about. The sort of folk who think a beer is a real ale because they think it's a real ale. Despite the official definition, it still means what people want it to mean, almost as much as 'craft' does.

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    3. Most people who drink real ale see it as a broad-brush concept and aren't tied down by specific definitions. Hence people often refer to brewery-conditioned premium bottled ales as "real ales" when they are the same brands as popular cask beers.

      I don't think there's a specific "Doom Bar" market, but there is a large market for well-known, widely distributed cask beers. This probably accounts for 90% of all real ale sold. The question is whether these drinkers are so attached to handpumps as part of the real ale concept that they would reject this system even if it might have advantages.

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    4. I don't see PBAs as real ales, but then I'm a bit pedantic. I do smirk when I see "CAMRA says this is real ale" on the beer.

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  5. I've come across this recently. Shep's Whitstable bay (insipid beer anyhow) from, what looked like, a keg font in a trendy bar; it says on their welsite that it's cask only, so i suspect that this practice is more widespread than people realise. What's more, quite a lot of handpumps are fake anyway, the handle activates a solenoid which engages a CO2 powered pump in the celler.

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  6. If you really wanted to make it look modern and trendy, wouldn't you put it on the wall at the back of the bar? Or give it one of those big American style font extensions? It just looks a bit too much like keg bitter, which is definitely not cool.

    Another thought - many people pick cask because they feel safe that its probably going to be a relatively sensible price - £3 or £4, rarely more. Whereas the keg taps are a bit of a lottery, and most people feel self-conscious asking the price of beer before ordering. Might this put people off?

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    1. 'Modern and trendy' back wall taps are the bane of any brewery's marketing department who spend fortunes on branding (even the little guys) only to find their beer being sold from anonymous numbered taps sticking out of fake tiled walls, so don't expect any brewery to think that's a good idea. I'd agree that picking cask might be a safe choice, price-wise, but you also enter the quality lottery by choosing it, so maybe the keg is a better bet, assuming it's 'craft'.

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  7. Doombar is normal bitter, like John Smiths. Normal beer for normal people. None of whom give a monkeys about beard rules or beard definitions.

    The beardie weirdie handpumps are not going anywhere, there'll still be in the soulless poky camra micropub.

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