Saturday 12 January 2013

Obscure beer syndrome

Something I’ve noticed a few times recently is pubs aiming to establish their credentials for selling and promoting real ale trying a bit too hard by offering an ever-changing roster of often distinctly obscure and seasonal guest beers. These are not the specialist multi-beer alehouses, but pubs of a more general appeal, with food trade and footy-watching regulars, that want to make a mark for themselves.

There’s nothing wrong with rotating guest beers, but you can have too much of a good thing. In the widely-mentioned Peter Jackson article about CAMRA’s image with the young, he says that the reported factors putting people off drinking it include “too much variety” and “confronted with unfamiliar brands, which makes the decision difficult”.

I’m probably vastly more knowledgeable about the beer market than most punters, but even so I recently went in a pub where I was confronted with four totally unfamiliar beers and struggled to establish which I’d actually want to drink. I’m not suggesting an unremitting diet of familiar brands, but surely it would make sense, especially in a pub with a lot of casual customers, to have at least one beer on the bar such as, say, Brains SA, Black Sheep Bitter or Draught Bass that they might at least recognise. In a pub with a stronger regular trade, perhaps you should have one or two regular beers from a well-respected local micro on the bar alongside the more unusual brews. A well-chosen permanent beer can be a pivot around which the guest beers revolve.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that, even now, most real ale is probably consumed by drinkers as their “regular brew” in just the same way as Carling, Guinness and Strongbow. It certainly is round here in the average Robinson’s, Holts and Sam Smith’s pub.

Another problem is that this approach can easily lead to a lack of balance in their beer range, and four rather samey beers occupying the pumps. Ideally, if you have four pumps, it would make sense to offer a choice of a dark mild or stout, an ordinary bitter, a stronger special bitter and a golden ale. Christmas brings a slew of seasonal specials which are typically not too dark, not too strong and not too hoppy, and four of those can be distinctly underwhelming.


  1. Agree 100%. I can't imagine a pub without at least two regular local beers. When I was at my local in UK I would normally drink one of the 'house' beers, but I'd always try the guest beers. Sometimes I'd like them, and drink them during their tenure at the pub, sometimes they were not to my taste, so I'd revert to my regular 'house' beer.

    Yes, there should always be something familiar and reliable on tap. A lot of people really don't want to be adventurous (and usually at a premium) in their beer drinking. They like their 6X or Directors or whatever, and that's the end of it. They're not interested in Boutique Breweries and their wares.

  2. There's always the reassuringly familiar chemical fizz to have a go at should the obscure vinegary filth not appeal.

  3. I've been in three different pubs recently that were serving a couple of dark beers alongside six different bitters in the 3.8-4.8% range, some of them from quite obscure breweries. I can't imagine who drinks them all - there can't be that many tickers about, can there?

  4. Martin, Cambridge13 January 2013 at 12:28

    My main consideration in a new pub is to order a beer that's getting regular pull-through. Where the choice is a mainstream beer (say Bass, Balck Sheep or (coughs) Doom Bar, I'll go for that over the micros unless its obvious there's custom for those, or the barman is willing to tell me what's selling well.

    At £4.10 a pint (GBG pub in Shepherds Bush on Friday, it pays to be picky).

  5. Have only rarely experienced this myself, but when I did it certainly made me stop and think "what the hell are these places doing?"

  6. On more than one occasion, I have seen a potential real ale drinker, when faced with a row of unfamiliar beers, just opt for the smoothflow.

  7. ...and yet the pubs that have a reputation for selling a wide range of interesting beers are going from strength to strength and opening new premises all over the country, whereas those that sell the same small range of crappy bitters are racing each other to be converted into Tesco Express's.

    Nowadays we can get so many different beers in the supermarket, pubs need to offer more interesting beers that can't be bought there.

    You wouldn't see a wine bar attempting to make a selling point of only offering a choice of Blossom Hill and Blue Nun, so why do beer oriented pubs think a choice of three low quality bitters is going to keep the punters coming in week after week?

    Clearly the evidence is overwhelming; it doesn't work. If a beer enthusiast went into a pub that offered a choice of Doom Bar, Directors or 6X, they would leave after a pint and wouldn't return. Why would they? They can buy Directors from Tescos for half the price.

  8. The post did specifically say this wasn't specialist pubs.

    I get the impression you rarely venture outside the "beer bubble" into the general run of pubs, py0.

  9. Your impression is entirely wrong. I have no idea where this beer bubble is or even how to find it; I'm just reporting on the real world outside of CAMRA circles.

    All pubs are specialist pubs in some way. You have to attract punters somehow.

    But this may be an age thing, I admit.

  10. Yes, I think you are correct here Mudgie. Indeed from my experience in Manchester and Stockport the freehouses ususally have either one or more regular beers or at least regular brewers on the bar (for example the "Pictish pump" in the Crown). Even somewhere as specialist as Port Street Beer House usually has beer (both cask and keg) from the likes of Magic Rock, Thornbridge and Summer Wine. So, even if you might not be familiar with the actual beer you are familiar with the name (and reputation) of the brewer.

    Can't immediately think of any that constantly ring the changes (athough I'm sure they are out there - and that I've overlooked somewhere obvious)

  11. Well, I'm not advocating pubs serving "a small range of crappy bitters", simply saying that many punters will be put off if they see nothing on the bar that they recognise. Most pub customers are not "beer enthusiasts".

    I don't really see this huge upsurge in "pubs with a wide range of interesting beers". If I think of my own corner of Stockport, it has 13 pubs, two having closed in recent years. It includes one tied house each of Holts, Hydes, Robinsons, Lees and Greene King, the other eight belonging to pub companies of some kind.

    Only one goes anywhere near the problem I referred to, and that is by excessively favouring the products of one particular rather indifferent local micro. Indeed, overall the best range of beer can be found in the Hydes pub which offers guests as well as their own beers.

  12. You wanna move so you're walking distance from a Spoons.

  13. I'm walking distance from the Nursery which knocks any Spoons into a cocked hat.

    There have been rumours of Spoons "doing a Kingfisher" with the Moor Top, of course.

  14. Remember that post "a growing divide" from a while ago?

    Most of the common big name bitter are considered to be boring and vaguely unpleasant by most people who take an interest in beer. Timothy Taylor was obviously the notable exception there. Just look at the ratings they get on

    Its a generational thing; the older generation have grown up drinking those beers and are not particularly interested in trying new things: the younger generation are no longer willing to settle for Robinson's Unicorn now they've seen how much better beer can be.

    The "majority of pub goers" who weren't beer enthusiasts are the pub goers who stopped going to the pub 5 years ago.

  15. What proportion of pubgoers, or even of real ale drinkers, actually give a toss about ratings on, or indeed have even heard of it?

  16. Well amongst the ignorami in the crap holes you drink in, probably not a lot. Rate beer is the talk of the Spoons among the discerning as me and Dickie let it be known the Ruddles is drinking well.

  17. I'm not saying people pay attention to it; simply that its a reasonable indication of the general opinion of the quality of the beer.

  18. Think this year's cask report came to the same conclusion. Off the top of my head, it suggested that pubs with one or two pumps stick to 'familiar brands' (e.g. Doom Bar); pubs with three have one 'guest' slot for something less well known; and that any pub not carrying at least one name brand is doing itself out of business.

    Of course Sam Smith's have never had any trouble stocking only their own wacky made-up brands, though I bet their bar staff get bored of saying: "We don't sell Stella but..."

  19. Myself and several of my friends are quite into real ale and frequently go round Cambridge to the different pubs that sell interesting ranges of ales. The wider the range, the more frequently we visit. The thing is you only need one beer enthusiast in the group and he will choose the pub based on his preferences. Everyone else can find identikit commercial lager wherever they go.

    Unfortunately our local pub has listened to the stupid advice of the cask report and now sticks to two "recogniseable brands", Doom Bar and GK IPA; as a result of this, everyone just drinks Guinness. We also go in there significantly less than we otherwise would. I've never seen anyone order either cask option.

    Good for diageo, not so good for the pub and not so good for real ale.

  20. Possibly one way to encourage people to drink a pint of something obscure and unfamiliar is to give it a daft name? Maybe a sexist and/or misogynistic pun with a badly drawn picture of a woman striking an overtly sexualised pose? A group of lads are bound to want a pint of that, aren't they?

  21. So that's three, Carlings, and what do you want Brian? One of your mucky old man ales?

    errr a pint of tramps crotch please?

    What was that Brian, speak up son? You want to suck off a tramp? Hahahaha!

    Yeah, thats gonna sell really well.

  22. If you only have two casks on then it would be stupid to rotate them all the time. You could have a standard beer and then one that changes with the seasons (e.g. a bitter that's on all the time, and then light beers in summer and dark in winter). If it was GK IPA then I would avoid it anyway as I've never had a pint that hasn't tasted like warmed up piss. And a familiar name doesn't have to be one that is ubiquitous and boring. Beer is still quite regional, so where I am Landlord and Black Sheep would be known to pretty much everyone, and enjoyed by lots of people too (if it was kept well).

    If you have more than two pumps on then you can be more adventurous. I'm getting rather bored though of going to places which have 4 or 5 pumps going but are all foul. Quality is far more important than variety. Too many pubs are trying to jump onto the bandwagon but don't have a clue how to keep the beer. I'd far rather have one decent cask beer on than 4 or 5 that are in crap condition. I'd go so far as to say that unless the pub is known as a real ale place, and so will hopefully have enough throughput to keep the beer fresh, most pubs shouldn't have more than 3 casks on.

    I went to a wedding a few months back and the hotel only had Ilkley Mary Jane on, but it was in great condition and from what I could see was holding its own against the lagers.

  23. "Myself and several of my friends are quite into real ale and frequently go round Cambridge to the different pubs that sell interesting ranges of ales."

    So you tend to confine yourself to a specific "beer enthusiast" type of pub. There must be loads of pubs in and around Cambridge that you never visit because they don't appeal to you. So you can't extrapolate from your own limited experience that what you find applies to the broad generality of pubs.

  24. "So you tend to confine yourself to a specific "beer enthusiast" type of pub. There must be loads of pubs in and around Cambridge that you never visit because they don't appeal to you"

    I've visited every pub in Cambridge for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the beer is the attractive quality, sometimes its the dartboard, sometimes its the televised sports, sometimes its the beer garden, sometimes its the open fire, sometimes its the food, sometimes its the music. If the pub had nothing to offer I went once and didn't return.

    As a pretty typical 30 year old pub goer, if a pub doesn't offer anything to attract even me, its probably not going to last long. And indeed that seems to be the case; in Cambridge the pubs that have something to offer thrive, the rest go under.

    If a pub doesn't offer a decent range of beer it had better offer something else pretty special to persuade people to go there.

    The problem is a lot of pubs don't offer anything but beer, and the beer they offer is boring. So what happens? They go bust. Its survival of the fittest. If you aim your beer selection at old men, what happens when all the old men die?

  25. Professor Pie-Tin14 January 2013 at 20:34

    Only a beer blogger would complain about pubs selling TOO MANY varieties of real ale !

  26. I'm sure plenty have complained about pubs selling more real ales than they can keep in decent condition.

  27. Martin, Cambridge14 January 2013 at 21:08

    On py0's point, I'd agree that Cambridge is a city where variety is the selling point for pubs, with a custom base more akin to Didsbury than Stockport (not necessarily a good thing).

    Outside the estates and a few idionsyncratic Greene King pubs, Cambridge has few pubs offering a standard beer range. One of the exceptions, the Maypole, moved from a plainish ex-Pubmaster range to a ten-handump free house a couple of years ago and is packed, maintaining great beer quality.

    Personally I'd love a Cambridge pub to offer me Bass, Pedigree and 6X but you won't find those anywhere.

  28. py0, I'm not sure what you mean by boring beer.

  29. By "boring beer" I mean

    a) low quality, industrially produced bland tasting beer
    b) the same beers you see everywhere in the country, or even everywhere in the world to some extent
    c) a so called "choice" of beers that are all virtually indistinguishable

    If I was talking about a choice of Carling, Fosters and Carlsberg, most people here would agree with me; after all there are great lagers out there, its just that British pubs don't sell them. As it happens I'm talking about the same phenomenon that we've grown used to seeing on the keg fonts on the casks.

    I love TT Landlord so its not just that I don't like traditional bitters. I just think its depressing that we keep seeing the same poor quality examples over and over and I don't understand how people don't see the correlation between this and the decline of both pubs in general and the proportion of real ale being drunk in pubs.

  30. Cambridge has some fine ale pubs who offer a good selection, but there are plenty of pubs there where I have had and would expect to find an example of a national brand ale available.

    As an example you can walk along from the Pickerel (Taylor Walker) just by Magdelene College, to the Baron of Beef (GK) & then the Mitre (Nicholsons) which is nextdoor, hardly estate pubs and the Maypole was just round the corner, all walkable within 10-15mins, right in the main part of the city and havent even mentioned Wetherspoons yet.

    the fact people dont see the correlation between quantity of choice and the decline of pubs is because all the sales evidence of the stuff, very clearly points the other way. Too much choice puts the majority of beer drinkers off if the choice they are presented with is too unfamiliar.

    Even in pubs that sell 20+ different cask ales you will find the major national brands the London Prides, the Tributes, the Doom Bar even the GK IPA are their top selling beers.

    which is the whole point of brewers like GK or Wells & Young spending millions of pounds each on promoting their beer & brands, to build the recognition so you automatically walk into a pub and go yes please a pint of GK IPA, not Ill have that what is it Muck Cart Mild...

  31. Quite often when you have a pub that sells a choice of GK IPA and Doom bar, you do indeed find that both of those beers are in their top selling real ales. This logic I cannot disagree with.

    However if you compare the pubs that struggle for customers with the pubs that don't, you'll see a different picture. The pubs that offer interesting choices are the ones that get the customers coming back week in, week out and are flourishing. The ones that only offer a choice of GKIPA and the toekn gesture of a badly chosen guest ale might find that the GKIPA sells quicker, buts that's entirely besides the point. The punters are still staying away in droves.

    Real Ale total sales are up, but real ale sales in pubs are down. What is it about the choice of 100 bottle conditioned beers in Tescos compared to the choice of 2 near identical beers in the local pub that makes one so significantly more attractive than the other? I wonder...

    If people don't see the correlation, its because they're misreading the statistics. If CAMRA had just accepted the obviously false sales evidence back in the 70s where would we be now?

  32. Perhaps I have misread this, but doesn't The Cask Report 2012-13 (I have a copy in front of me) say that on-trade cask sales grew in the period to July 2012 and since then was on track to hold its own throughout 2012?

    It might also include RAIB but I'm pretty sure it doesn't (as it's aimed primarily at publicans and does seem to refer to draught). If I've read it right it probably means that real ale sales in pubs aren't in fact down.

  33. Not sure what you use your cask report for, but I read mine, hence I noticed this:
    "To July 2012, Cask is fractionally down versus the same period last year."

    and "Penetration of Cask ale in UK on-trade up from 53.6% last year to 55.9%"

    so despite being sold in more pubs, sales have actually fallen. Some things wrong there.

    Meanwhile, a report sponsored by several big brands (listed at the end) worried about losing trade to local breweries and micros, makes the bold claim that all pubs should stock their beer based on evidence from surveymonkey with no methodological details attached. Stop the presses! Large Business's seek to maximise sales!

  34. Stats are out of date but probably still indicative:

    "Siba, the Society of Independent Brewers, said its 420-plus members had seen their combined sales rise 4% in 2009 compared with the previous year. Siba's smaller members, who each brew fewer than 350 barrels a week and constitute the vast majority of its membership, saw volume sales rise by 8.5%"

    So you can see where the driving factor in real ale sales is coming from.

    "Tesco now stocks 350 bottled ales, compared with 20 in 2005. Figures from Kantar Worldpanel, a firm of independent retail analysts, show that shop sales of real ale rose by 7.2% last year."

    Again: increased choice is the driving factor behind increased sales.

  35. The cask report is hardly an unbiased look at the market. It is commissioned to put a positive gloss on a particular perspective. That is not to say that perspective has no merit but it ought be taken with the pinch of salt it deserves.

  36. Absolutely cookie, I'm not saying they've made the stats up by any means, but you do have to consider why they might have "interpreted" them in the way they have.

    Certainly from my experience of the four or five UK towns/cities I know well, the number of specific beer focused pubs have grown hugely over the last few years and all been extremely successful, in direct contrast to the traditional "three lagers, two bitters and a guinness" pub market as a whole. So have they not read the cask report, or do they just see the market differently?

    Maybe someone should tell the ever growing Brewdog empire that they need a Marston's Pedigree on tap.

  37. Beer sales are falling and the remaining pubs, many restaurants in all but name, tend now to be frequented by the more health conscious and those out for a meal with their families. Does a large choice of beer and consequent lower sales volume of some, make it difficult to keep it in good condition?

  38. Undoubtedly. A pub needs to decide what its main competitive advantage is: is it a beer focused pub that may also do food, or is it a restaurant that sells beer, or is it an entertainment and meeting venue that does a bit of both?

    The latter two may be better off with a couple of recognisable ales depending upon the tastes of its target audience. But a beer led pub will soon find its competition stealing its customers if it follows the same strategy.

    I don't think there is much of a place in the market for a pub that doesn't really do anything exceptional anymore.

  39. "Maybe someone should tell the ever growing Brewdog empire that they need a Marston's Pedigree on tap."

    And BrewDog have, what, about a dozen outlets, all in trendy big-city areas unrepresentative of the country as a whole. Maybe one day you should get the train out of Cambridge to, say, Thetford, have a tour of the pubs and tell us how those innovative beer-focused pubs are doing.

  40. Description of the highest rate pub in thetford, in fact the first pub I clicked on:

    "8 Draught Ales (All local breweries) & 9 Bottled
    2 Draught Stout (Guinness and a local One) & Bottled Guinness
    4 Draught Ciders, 10 Bottled & apparently a new warm cider for winter"

    Maybe you should take the train to Thetford and see how these beer focused pubs are getting on yourself Mudgie?

  41. Walking along oxford street at lunchtime. Brewdog bar empty. Not a soul barring 1 bearded bored looking barman. Spoons ticking along with happy burger munchers. Walking up past CAMRA pub, the Lass, it cannot be bothered even opening. The future is Spoons!

  42. CL, most of the Lass's custom was from the BBC, which has now gone. Kro2, on Oxford Road, shut soon after the BBC left.

  43. Spoons is for alkies and old folks, only alkies and old folks drink on a tuesday lunchtime. Add to that the McDonalds factor, and its mystery solved.

  44. Martin, Cambridge15 January 2013 at 21:28

    I've lost the plot with this thread, and now we're onto Thetford I've gone a bit dizzy.

    It's a pleasant town of basic Greene King locals and faded hotel bars, with no sign of the beer revolution that's taken in place in Norwich or Cambridge, but plenty of basic pub character that the smoking ban has squeezed out.

  45. "Spoons is for alkies and old folks, only alkies and old folks drink on a tuesday lunchtime."

    Wow, sweeping generalisation alert. Mind you, I suppose to py0 I qualify as old folk ;-)

    @Martin: I just picked on Thetford at random as an ordinary sort of town readily accessible by rail from Cambridge. I imagined it as you describe it, although I suspect Portuguese imported beers may be popular. Somewhere like most of Britain where the craft beer revolution has barely touched. But py0 seems to have found a pub where the craft has landed ;-)

  46. think the actual pub py0 is referring to is the Lord Nelson at Bradenham, which is at least 20 miles north of Thetford (which is yep GK heavy, not surprising as Bury St E, is down the road)

    personally never visited it, its right out in the sticks so they must be doing something right to stay open with that many beers on tap but we dont know what volume they sell, the lack of alternatives within stumbling distance for locals could be a factor and Buffys & Wolf have strong following in Norfolk given the predominance of certain brands, throw in a restaurant and it might work, dont know, I knew a fish & chip restaurant once that sold TTs Landlord, very unusal for East Anglia as normally its just Gk/Adnams etc, shut because no one ever used the restaurant, but the beer was always great.

    I dont think it proves or disproves much, other than beerintheevening isnt a reliable mapping tool for planning beer expeditions :)

    all of which misses the point being made if were not careful, that for the average pub its pointless getting into a constantly changing obscure guest selection of beers only the most ardent beer scooper has heard of, because if your selling a beer customers have to google the name off a website to find out what its about,by the time anyone has done that, theyll be sitting down drinking a Fosters or Carlsberg instead.

    that doesnt ordinarily apply to speciality ale pubs or bars, the Brew Dogs etc of this world, though there is still that danger which is why I do think the beers they pick are very carefully selected, and it would be nice to think more pubs were that careful.

  47. Its this constant insistence that so called "ordinary pubs" need not be speciality beer pubs that is the reason that these "ordinary pubs" are the ones closing at record rates.

    If you don't attract punters with an interesting beer selection, what exactly DO you expect them to leave their nice warm houses for?

    There are two types of beer I drink: ones I know I like and ones I don't know I don't like.

    You shouldn't have to google a beer to be able to tell what its like; the name should give you a clue and the obligatory blackboard should give a more detailed description.


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