Thursday, 20 June 2013

Quality drop

Tandleman is a regular visitor to London, and often reports his disappointment at the proportion of cask beer he finds there that is a bit warm, tired and lacking in condition. Maybe that’s mainly a London phenomenon, but I have to say that in the past year or so I’ve gained the subjective impression that standards of cellarmanship have been slipping around here too.

More and more, I find myself going in pubs where the beer, while not bad as such, or remotely returnable, is nowhere near as good as it could be, and exhibits the flaws mentioned above. This tends to happen more in the tied or pub company outlets with five pumps than the specialist pubs with fifteen, probably because in the latter most of their customers are there for the ale and they also have a better idea of how to look after it.

Partly this must be down to a question of turnover – both stocking more beers than you can actually sell in a reasonable period of time, and also leaving beer festering in the lines for too long at times when trade is slack. If you have five pumps, but only sell ten pints during the lunchtime session, how can you realistically ensure that all of them will be in good nick? Recently, I went in one pub to have some lunch. During the forty-five minutes or so I was there, while there was a reasonable scattering of customers, I didn’t see a single pint of cask pulled apart from mine. So what chance the next one dispensed will be flabby?

In the past, swift throughput has often compensated for flaws in cellarmanship, but they are now becoming increasingly exposed. I get the feeling that the basic principles are becoming less well understood, in particular the need to use hard spiles to maintain condition in your beer. Maybe also the ending of afternoon closing denies beer a bit of recovery time. It’s also inexcusable in a pub where throughput may be slow at quieter times not to keep your beer lines cool as well as your cellar. Cask beer should not be flat, and it should not be lukewarm.

In contrast, I recently visited a rural free house with just a single cask beer. I doubt whether they have any modern cellar management equipment, or have even studied the subject beyond picking it up from the bloke who did it before. But each group of customers included at least one person drinking it, and it was fresh, delicious and cellar-cool, just as it should be.


  1. Did you not stand at the bar telling everyone Old cockwhacker was drinking well today and berating those that bought chemical fizz? That would have improved turnover for your second pint.

    But yeh, you can I think get the gist of whether the handpulled beer is any good by observing whether other punters are necking it then using that to inform your decision on old man beer V fizzy piss.

  2. I had a pint the other day that wasn't served warm. What a pleasant surprise that was! Its a depressing situation when to receive a pint of bitter at the correct temperature is a point worth noting.

    The problem is that a lot of people actually believe that beer should be served warm. I went to a village event the other day and the beer stall had bottles of GK IPA at room temperature (it was 20 degrees). When I asked if there were any cold ones, the chap rather reproachingly said, "this is proper beer, its meant to be drunk at room temperature". I didn't have the heart to correct him and had a glass of squash instead.

  3. I think, PYO, that the American cliché that the English drink warm beer is largely to blame. It wasn't helped when John Major as prime minister waxed lyrical about England, citing cricket, warm beer and wayside inns in support. It turned out that his idea of a wayside inn was a Little Chef. When anyone comments about real ale being warm to me, I usually say, "Try having a bath in it; then you'll see how warm it really is."

  4. Not hard-spiling the beer is definitely a problem with a lot of licensees. When we had our Real Ale Off-Licence I used a simple little device known as a "Race Spile". These are basically nothing more than two-way valves. If the pressure in the cask becomes too high, the valve will open to allow some of the excess gas to escape. In normal use, the valve remains closed until beer is drawn off (by the action of the person at the bar pulling on the handpump). The valve then opens the other way, in response to a fall in pressure inside the cask, allowing just sufficient air in to restore the equilibrium, before shuting off again.

    These inexpensive devices act as hard spiles, but they save cellar staff forgetting to replace the spile between sessions or, indeed, during slack periods when no-one is drinking th beer.

  5. It always amazes me how people bugger up such a simple thing as keeping cask beer. There is no great secret, but keeping it cool to the point of dispense and keeping the condition in is paramount. 10 - 12C in the cellar and around 12C at point of dispense.

    I like Race spiles too.

    Any duff beer pubs, I'm available for consultation at very reasonable rates.

  6. I can't understand why pubs where only a minority of customers drink cask beer put on four or five cask bitters of which only one or two are in decent condition. What do they think they are achieving?

  7. Having a wide range of cask beers is often portrayed as "a good thing" even if there isn't the turnover to support.

  8. Martin, Cambridge21 June 2013 at 23:03

    I've been to all the pubs in Gtr London in the current beer guide, and can agree with Tandleman that beer quality is disappointing, largely I think due to low turnover (lager rules) and disinterested tenants. This is particularly true of North London, barring the Spoons. Wigan should get NW Londons Beer Guide allocation.

    Slightly surprisingly, as soon as you get outside the M25 beer, whether Greene King or Mighty Oak, seems to be consistently good in Essex, with real ale being drunk much more widely.

  9. I've not had a pint within the M25 since 2005, but in visits to the wider South-East area I've generally found beer quality quite decent. Tandleman will disagree, but I find the absence of sparklers gives a more "honest" presentation.

  10. Martin, Cambridge22 June 2013 at 09:22

    Agree on sparklers, and outside the M25 you can find some gorgeous Harvey's and Dark Star in Kent and Sussex, but even there you'll find some very tired beer too.

  11. It isn't just tired but usually too warm, which if course makes it even more tired.

    As for without sparklers being more honest - well that could do with some elaboration.


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