Greene King IPA is possibly the biggest-selling cask beer in the UK, and is often dismissed is irredeemably dull and bland. But, as Paul Garrard points out here, when it is well kept it can be a very good and distinctive beer, something with which I would agree on the rare occasions (generally in East Anglia) I have encountered it on top form. But this raises the important question of to what extent the drinker’s enjoyment of a pint of cask beer derives from the intrinsic characteristics of the beer, and to what extent from the general standard of cellarmanship in the pub.
It has long been noticeable that a few pubs manage to coax depths of flavour and character out of beers such as Tetley Bitter which most others signally fail to do. And I would contend that the vast majority of beers (or at least those that have become reasonably well established and are not produced by short-lived micros) have the potential to be very good indeed in the right hands. I will admit that there are a few, however, such as Websters Yorkshire Bitter and Worthington Bitter, that do seem so intrinsically bland that they can never get there however well looked after, although an example where all the tick-box aspects of good cellarmanship are there can still be recognised.
It is certainly the case that all the regular beers from the four Greater Manchester family brewers, although dismissed by some as rather dull, are capable of scaling the heights when well looked after. Indeed probably the most memorable pint of beer I have ever had was a pint of Robinson’s Unicorn (Best Bitter as it was then) in a Stockport local towards the end of a pub crawl when you might have expected tastebuds to be getting jaded. So I would say the relative contribution of cellarmanship to the quality of the beer in the glass is considerably more than is often acknowledged.
Some of the beers that enthusiasts rave about only tend to appear in specialist outlets where they can expect to be well looked after, and might fare differently if made available to a diverse cross-section of pubs. Even a Thornbridge product might not be too impressive if turning over a bit too slowly on a lone handpump at the end of the bar of a family dining outlet.
And I can’t help thinking that often there is a lot of “tall poppy syndrome” amongst beer enthusiasts, in that any widely-available beer is inevitably dismissed as dull and bland, and any “cult” beer that achieves widespread distribution – Pedigree, Landlord, Deuchars etc – is said to have lost much of its character.