Wednesday 31 October 2012

Never mind the quality, feel the width

In a recent post, Tandleman quite correctly says:
Choice is often good, but quality is always good. I’d rather have two beers in top nick, that ten in so-so condition. Poor quality beer has always been cask beer’s Achilles Heel. Pubs really do have to ensure that they always serve beer well, particularly as they struggle to lure customers in. Failure to do so really is both inexcusable and suicidal these days.
I have to say that I encounter more pints than I should, even in Good Beer Guide listed pubs, that, while not returnable as such, are just a bit flat, tired and lacklustre. And, as I’ve said before, for many people the risk that one in five pints is going to be dull and flabby is one they don’t think is worth taking. So I thought I’d do a bit of maths on pub turnover.

According to the BBPA statistics, there are about 2 million bulk barrels of cask beer sold in the UK each year. Let us assume that there are 50,000 pubs, and 60% of them sell cask beer. It doesn’t matter if those figures are a bit out, as the general point remains the same. That makes 67 barrels per pub per year, 369 pints a week, or 53 pints a day. It’s generally reckoned that you’ll struggle to keep cask beer in good condition beyond three days, so even if you get your beer in 9-gallon firkins, that means you can only have two beers on before quality begins to suffer. Beer is available in 4½-gallon pins, but they’re far from usual. It’s also the case that pubs typically do half their weekly business on Friday and Saturday nights, leaving only 185 pints for the rest of the week, or 37 a day. So it’s hardly surprising you often get a tired pint early doors on Tuesday evening.

Simple observation suggests that the typical pub selling cask beer has more than two beers on, and in recent years the number has tended to increase even as overall volumes have fallen. Many ordinary pubs now have five, six or seven different beers. Obviously there are some pubs that do have the turnover to keep a lot more beers in good nick, but the law of averages means that others won’t even have the turnover for two. Keeping beers on well above three days must be extremely commonplace.

So perhaps there needs to be more emphasis on quality rather than quantity for its own sake, and the automatic praising of a pub for “putting on another handpump” should be replaced by positive references to pubs that limit themselves to one or two well-chosen beers.


  1. "I have to say that I encounter more pints than I should"

    Me too Mudgie, me too!

    Seriously, we do need to up the emphasis on quality. It needs to a a CAMRA campaigning priority.

  2. Mein Gott!, I only bloody well agree with both of you. I think of a couple of boozers in my neck of the woods which used to have quite a decent pint of bitter on. Cheaper than the lout, too.

    These days you see 3 or 4 pumps of vinegary piss mon-thurs, and okayish grog at weekends.

    I'd always assumed the beards liked vinegary piss, though, and like the beer to go a bit off before drinking it.

    Like Napoleon telling Josephine not to wash as he was coming round, it's a bit minging but whatever gets you through the night is alright, as John Lennon said.

    Why not just admit all you beards just prefer a bit of vinegary piss?

  3. Bang on - quality over quantity every time.

  4. But on the other hand... a well kept pint of a dull, vaguely unpleasant beer is still a pint of dull, vaguely unpleasant beer.

  5. But surely that's just your personal taste and opinion? Other people might find it hugely enjoyable.

  6. And a stale, flat, tired pint of potentially the best beer in the world is still a stale, flat, tired pint. It all turns to a similar grade of Sarson's in the end.

    To my mind, pubs shouldn't even consider deliberately trading quality for quantity.

  7. I'm just pointing out that the probability of finding an enjoyable pint is directly correlated with the number of beers available, regardless of personal taste.

    Perhaps the reason all these pints are going off is that no-one wants to drink those particular boring beers in the first place? Rather than reducing the variety, simply replace them with something people might actually enjoy, and you might find the punters get through them quicker. Some kind of balance has to be struck, surely?

  8. "the probability of finding an enjoyable pint is directly correlated with the number of beers available"

    Surely that statement needs to be revised to finish with "the number of beers in good condition". I don't want a choice of fifteen flavours of Sarson's, thank you very much.

    "Rather than reducing the variety, simply replace them with something people might actually enjoy, and you might find the punters get through them quicker."

    Where's the extra trade coming from, though? The idea that the woes of the British pub trade would magically go away if every pub was a specialist alehouse is, frankly, pie in the sky.

    Even if it has a bar groaning with Thornbridge, Magic Rock and Dark Star, an inner-urban boozer in Stockport or Bury isn't going to have the throughput to present seven beers in good nick early doors on Tuesday evening.

  9. Just presenting a different point of view. I don't think you can separate out beer quality and beer variety as if they're unrelated factors.

    If a pub can't get through the four handpumps of the four near identical bitters it stocks without them going off, the answer MIGHT be to reduce the number of handpumps as you suggest.

    But my point is simply that an alternative approach would be to replace the beer selection with something more interesting and attractive, and it would sell out quicker, removing the quality problem.

    Which approach would be effective would obviously depend on the pub.

  10. Ummm, achieving variety and extending shelf life. Umm. Craft keg anyone?

  11. Over time, I go into quite a few pubs which might have only one or two regionals on, or even Tetleys. I've usually gone in for reasons other than the beer: a music session, a friend wants to meet there, etc. "Boring brown beers", as I've heard them described, are still very popular with a lot of drinkers. It's the old "one man's meat is another's poison" situation. If you want to put on just one real ale, you're probably better going with something like London Pride than a microbrewer that the average drinker hasn't heard of. I was playing in the Railwayman's Club in Southport last year; they were serving Spitfire and Tetley's, both in good condition and put on at the members' request. I asked the steward whether she'd tried Southport beers, which generally go down well locally. She said she had but her customers preferred brown beers, not golden ones (as most Southport beers are). But some people who write on blogs would dismiss that club out of hand.

  12. and that example fits into the category being discussed of pubs that can't get through their beer quickly enough before they go off... how exactly?

  13. I'm "just presenting a different point of view", to quote you. You also said: "simply replace them with something people might actually enjoy, and you might find the punters get through them quicker".

    My point is quite simple: saying "get what they want" is easy, but defining what they might want is not, and the types of beers often praised by beer bloggers are often not what the ordinary drinker wants. An obvious point, really; so you didn't understand that - how exactly?

  14. I understood it, you just seem to have missed the point of this discussion entirely. If the beer is selling so slowly that its going off, then it obviously isn't what the "ordinary drinker wants" at all, otherwise he would be buying it.

    It is not me or "some beer blogger" that are saying the beer isn't exciting enough, its the ordinary drinker voting with his wallet. Do you know better than the ordinary drinker what he wants? Perhaps rather than offering them something different to entice them, pubs could hire you to lecture the ordinary drinkers on the joys of the beer they haven't been buying?

  15. Sigh...

    The point being made is that many pubs put more beers on than the turnover justifies. To say that all these pubs could attract sufficient trade to turn them over properly if they chose to put different beers on is utterly absurd - there simply isn't the overall level of custom in the pub trade to support it.

    And I would suggest less than 1% of all pub customers see a wide choice of real ales as a key reason for going to a particular pub.

  16. An Anonymous Boozer1 November 2012 at 19:54

    I do agree that there are pubs which have too many ales on at once for their turnover. But then I do also think that there are probably also other pubs which sell, say 4 or so ales, where mid-week 3 out of 4 will be vinegar while 1 (the popular one) will still be doing ok as turnover will mean it's still fresh. Around here that's often Deuchers. Quite often in pubs with 4 or so real ales on, the Deuchers will be ok, but the others (which probably are just variations of that theme - perhaps even produced by Caledonian) are quite tired. I'd wager there's a chance with those types of pubs that if the other choices were something very different to Deuchers, they'd at least have a chance of better turnover.

    But really, I agree with what Cookie said (joked about?). This just seems to be a potential market where a consistent-quality 'craft keg' producer who prices their beer competitively could make a killing.

    Or at least use some cask-breathers...

  17. "I would suggest less than 1% of all pub customers see a wide choice of real ales as a key reason for going to a particular pub."

    That certainly seems to be the opinion held by a lot of landlords... about a week before they go out of business, while the beer focused destination pub down the road continues to make record profits.

  18. I mean if you went into a pub with four taps and they had four different stouts on, you'd think they were nuts. Yet four indistinguishable 4% bitters and suddenly that is good business sense?

  19. Martin, Cambridge1 November 2012 at 22:36

    It's much harder to promote your own pub on the subjective basis of beer quality rather than the number of pumps or typical beer range, but quite easy for the regular pub goer to tell exceptional from average beer.

    I do see a few pubs with, by 2012 standards, unexciting ranges, but which thrive by serving those beers at their peak. Best example is the Dove in Bury St Edmunds, where the Crouch Vale and Woodfords standard bitters are magical; Dead Poets in Holbrook is another of that ilk.


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