Sunday 22 November 2009

The quality lottery

From time to time in the beer blogosphere, the argument crops up that, as cask beer is a high-quality craft product, it should be able to command a price premium over mass-market kegs and lagers. That has a lot to commend it – and indeed in the premium bottled beer sector it is already the case. But, in terms of draught beer in the pub, there is a big problem – as cask beer is a natural product, and dependent on care in the pub cellar, it is inevitably subject to variations in quality.

Our local branch of CAMRA organises monthly Friday evening pub crawls – known as “Staggers” – around various parts of the area. Last month we covered the Stockport Market Place area – and I had my arm twisted to do the write-up for the local magazine Opening Times. We went in eight different pubs – oh, I know, a disgusting binge, even if you only drank a half in each one. Of these, in three the beer was very good, and fully up to the standard you would expect from pubs in the Good Beer Guide. In three more, it was pretty decent, and you wouldn’t have minded being stranded in there all night. But in two pubs, the beer was distinctly lacklustre and disappointing, warm and/or tired. That included the local Wetherspoon’s.

It was an enjoyable evening, and on such an occasion you expect to take the rough with the smooth. It all adds to the interest of life. Had I specifically been going out for a drink, I would probably have made a beeline for one of the three “good” pubs where I would have felt confident in getting a top-class pint. But if my only drink of the evening had been in one of the two pubs where the beer was indifferent, I really wouldn’t have been happy with paying a price premium. Unless you can reliably deliver top-notch quality, you can’t get away with charging over the odds.

Interestingly, only one of the three “good” pubs – the superlative Arden Arms – is in the current Good Beer Guide, although I think recent licensee changes debar the other two. And one of the “poor” pubs is in the Guide too. The other two “good” pubs – as they deserve the accolade – were the Boar’s Head (Sam Smiths) and the Bull’s Head (Robinsons).

I suspect if you spent the evening drinking your way along the pumps in a multi-beer pub, you would have a similar experience.


  1. Martin, Cambridge22 November 2009 at 21:04

    Good points PC, particularly the last one - ordering a beer from a pub selling 6 or more beers is often a lottery compared to a good Hydes/Robbies/Marstons pub, and my polite request for "the one selling quickest" often offends.

    The Good Beer Guide seems to me to sometimes reward quantity and quirkiness of range over quality, though to be fair there is a goodly number of 2 real ale locals in the Greater Manchester section.

    Finally, you seem to have a below-average Spoons (compared to the two in central M'cr), and you're spoilt for characterful pubs that aren't quite in the Beer Guide - lucky you.

  2. It has to be said that the Calvert's Court, in terms of layout, beer range and beer quality, is far from the best example of the Wetherspoon's estate.

  3. " Unless you can reliably deliver top-notch quality, you can’t get away with charging over the odds."

    No arguing with that. I am always banging on about quality. It is a major issue still.

  4. In an attempt to improve quality we always reduce the number of beers we have on when we expect it to be quiet. Sometimes we get it wrong and there then arises the conundrum of just how "tired" you allow a beer to become before you heartbreakingly pour it down the drain. I've become more stoical, I've learnt it's not worth it, but it still takes courage when the money comes off one's bottom line.

    Recently we had a nice chap staying who is a CAMRA member. He stayed for a couple of days. He enjoyed the beers but complained incessantly that I had not got enough of a choice for him. He still didn't shut up when I explained that it was the only way to ensure quality. Biting of tongue was required.

    And then you get the people complaining about the lack of a mild.

    And one other thing, cask breathers......

  5. Oh, I didn't say, balanced piece, thanks.

  6. There is a certain beer snobbery element within (and outside) Camra that puts a premium on multi-beer pubs. Which is really setting yourdelf up for a fall as quality tends to be more varibale in these places. Or your expectations are such that you have the scenario that Dave describes-you'll be wanting a Mild/IPA etc when there isn't one on.

  7. Quite so, the best consistent beer quality tends to either be in tied houses or those that have a select range of four or five. But, on the other hand, part of the appeal of the multi-beer pub is the journey of discovery, so you expect a bit of variation. If you're not familiar with a beer, unless it's obviously "off", it can be difficult to tell whether it's not in very good nick or just not to your taste.

  8. Great blog PC, I just stumbled upon it. "Quality Lottery" is a fine term, I wish I had thought of it as it is exactly how I feel when ordering a pint in a pub here in Canada. We have the same issues here as well. Cask hasn't really caught on here (yet) but it will eventually I believe.
    We have other basic issues with non-cask beer like clean glasses, proper temp, clean lines, and pints poured with a head to name a few. Small steps I guess. Cheers.

  9. Picked up a copy of OT last night, I visited the Arden and the Railway. The beer in the Arden was disappointing, but it was top notch in the Railway. Again, you never can tell.

    As an aside, if I recall correctly the Boar's Head used to use cask breathers so I suspect that's why it isn't in the guide (could've changed in the 5 or so years since I was last in the cellar, though).

  10. Sam Smith's do tend to rotate their managers fairly frequently, so as soon as one has built up a track record that would qualify them for the GBG they get moved on.

    IME the beer in the Boar's Head can be variable, but I always like going in there because it has such a cracking atmosphere.


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