Sunday 12 April 2009

The inconstant pint

The other day, I ordered a pint of Thwaites Bitter in a pub that for many years was a Good Beer Guide regular, although not in the current edition. The barmaid sawed away at the pump for about ten or twelve pulls (always a bad sign) and produced a pint of tired, flat, tepid liquid that wasn’t returnable, but really wasn’t very good at all.

Obviously I wouldn’t drink cask beer if I didn’t enjoy it, and part of its appeal is that it varies between different pubs and different batches. But sometimes I do feel you have to take the rough with the smooth more than you really should. Most of my drinking is done in pubs that are either in the Good Beer Guide or would be strong contenders for it, yet even here I would guess that around 20% of the pints I buy fall into the category of being distinctly disappointing.

I put up with this as a price worth paying for the superior quality of the remaining 80%, but it’s easy to understand why some drinkers may be put off for life. Possibly it is also one reason why cask beer still sells at a discount to keg lagers, stouts and ciders. And I’m sure pubs could do more to improve the ratio of good to poor pints – there are a few, but only a very few, where indifferent beer is almost unknown.

Some years ago I had a work colleague who seemed to get the idea I was some kind of expert on beer (!?) We were away on a course, and two successive evenings soon put paid to that notion, from his point of view at least. On the first occasion I ordered a Hoegaarden in a restaurant, and he was visibly taken aback to get a glass of distinctly cloudy beer. Then, the next night, we went into a pub near where we were staying. Courage Best and Directors on the bar, I plump for a pint of Best and so does he. It was crystal-clear, but, if anything, even worse than the Thwaites I mentioned before. I doubt whether he’s ever ordered a pint of cask since.

Occasionally I have thought that life must be much easier for the keg drinker, who doesn’t have to worry about all this variation in quality, but even keg can be made worse by poor cellar practice and not cleaning lines properly. And in general my response when tasting widely-available keg beers has been that it must be very depressing knowing it will never get any better than this.


  1. A conundrum indeed. The constant worry for most publicans is how to balance beer variety against beer quality for a given throughput.

  2. I suspect the 18 year old staff now making up the workforce in most chain pubs wouldn't recognise a good pint if you poured it over their heads. Instead we get the keg variety, served at 2degC from the same chillers that the lager comes from.

    Still it's not all bad. The pleasure of finding a decent beer is now enhanced due to it's increasing rarity.

  3. Isn't your poll missing a question? I had some pints yesterday that were a perfect temperature.

  4. No, obviously plenty of beer (hopefully the vast majority) will be served at an acceptable temperature. The idea of the poll is to find out, when people get a pint that falls outside their view of an acceptable temperature range, whether it is more likely to be too warm or too cold.

    We often hear grumbles about over-chilled cask beer, especially in Wetherspoon's, but it seems from the results so far that people are far more likely to be served a pint that is too warm. If pubs are going to be serving more than a couple of beers they really need to have line cooling as well as cellar cooling to maintain a proper temperature at quieter times.


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