Sunday, 5 January 2014

Unhappy returns

There have been a number of posts in the blogosphere recently on the subject of returning beer to the bar. I’ve always been of the view that if beer is obviously cloudy or vinegary it should automatically be taken back and a refund or replacement provided without question. I’ve rarely had any problems with this in recent years although in the past I have had more than one “it’s real ale, it’s meant to be like that”.

On the other hand, Boak & Bailey raised the question here of whether it is acceptable to return a beer if it simply isn’t to your taste. My answer is a firm “no” – if you are going to order beer that is in some way weird, odd, experimental, boundary-pushing, you have to be prepared to take the rough with the smooth and accept you may encounter the odd turd in pursuit of the truffle. If in doubt, ask for a sample first, and any pub or bar selling cutting-edge beers should offer them as a matter of course. Nobody would buy some unusual foodstuff from Tesco and then ask for a refund simply because they didn’t like it, so why should pubs be any different?

But there’s a third category, of beer that isn’t blatantly “off”, but is just downright poor. Over the past few months I’ve had more examples than I would have liked, often in well-regarded pubs, that have simply been flat, tired and stale. Not obviously cloudy or sour, though, so you need the courage of your convictions to take them back. Maybe in a pub where you know the licensee well you might stick your neck out, but in general discretion is the best part of valour, and you just struggle through it (or leave it) and move on to another pub. As has been said in the past, you’re going out for a relaxing drink, not a confrontation. In one pub, the licensee, who knows me, did ask “how was the ****?” and I replied “a bit past its best, I think”. Hopefully the point was taken and acted upon.

Given that the British are noted for their reluctance to complain, perhaps what is needed is a mechanism to allow customers to give anonymous feedback.

The point must also be made that any business that cares about its reputation with customers should aim to arrange its affairs so that occasions where customers feel the need to return sub-standard products are minimised.

As an aside, a while back I was in a Robinson’s pub and ordered a pint of Dizzy Blonde. It was very slightly hazy, and obviously past its best, but I took the view that it wasn’t really bad enough to take back and next time I’d have a Unicorn. However, obviously I had been looking at it rather quizzically as, when I had drunk about two-thirds, the barmaid came over and replaced it with a crystal-clear pint from a new cask. That’s the kind of customer service that sticks in the mind, like this one reported by Tandleman.


  1. I only take back a pint if I know that I cannot physically drink it due to it being off, as I have some darker beers at at a pub of my acquaintance who think stout has infinite keeping qualities

  2. If it's on the turn, when I return the glass and I'm asked if I'd like another, I respond that I'd like something else as it tasted awful/iffy/not quite right.

    If it's that bad that I can only stand a sip, it's a pretty full glass, and it's usually replaced FOC without request.

  3. There is another situation that is difficult. You are in a round, order say, three pints, and after much pulling of the pumps the server says 'I've pulled two but the barrel has gone'. Do two of you politely accept the end of the cask and one lucky member chooses a fresh beer. Or do you all refuse the beer and insist on something else? This happened this afternoon and the manager wasn't impressed when we insisted on a different beer even though I tasted the end of cask offering and deemed it sub-standard.

  4. Im more willing to take back off pints than I used to, but pints that are just in the poor category, Id still bite my tongue on and drink up, if it kept happening at the same pub, Id probably look to go drinking elsewhere.

    Though I actually think its harder in pubs where you know the licensee well to take stuff back, as theres that added embarrassment of recognition, you arent some anonymous customer complaining, theyll remember that you are telling them theyve mucked up, and thats quite a difficult conversation to have unless the beer is so obviously out of sorts its actually even more an embarrassment that they served it to you in the first place.

    and thats where I disagree slightly on the, its great service to give you a replacement beer,because why are the bar staff serving you complete dross in the first place.

    great service to me is the bar staff looking at what theyve poured quizically,and only selling you what they are happy to begin with, and if Ive ordered a beer thats normally crystal clear,citrussy & hoppy, and theyve served up something that looks like hoegarden & comes with added sarsons and they dont notice thats wrong, I dont really care if they give me a fresh pint off the next barrel,theres a fundamental problem theyve missed in that exchange (and thats even happened to me in a CAMRA pub of the year, more than once)

    though that isnt the worst offending problem with off beers, thats reserved for those pubs where you return a genuinely off beer, the bar staff totally accept it, serve you something different, but wont take the off beer off and happily keep selling it to unwary customers.

  5. The only rules in the marketplace are :

    "Don't ask, don't get" and "Be a cheeky bugger"

    If you can get away with a refund, why not?

    I remember buying some beer from a supermarket that had a money back guarantee offer. I mailed back the form and receipt for my refund before even trying the stuff. That was that Carling C2 muck that came out a few years back.

    Money is better of in your own pocket. Get away with what you can.


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