Thursday 21 August 2014

A beer apart

I was recently in a pub in north-east Derbyshire, and next to me were a couple of old boys who were talking quite knowledgeably about the old beers and breweries of the area – Stones, Whitbread, Mansfield, Home Ales, even Holes of Newark. However, even though the pub was listed in the Good Beer Guide and had a range of four cask beers, when one returned from the bar he was carrying pints of John Smith’s Extra Smooth and Theakston’s Mild, both keg.

If you go back thirty-five years, north of a line approximately from Worcester to the Wash, probably well over half of the cask beer in England was served by electric pumps. Home were one of the breweries where they were well-nigh universal in their estate, as, of course were Wolves & Dudley in the West Midlands. For most of its drinkers, it was just seen as beer, not as something different called “real ale”. My subjective memory is that electric dispense tended to produce a more reliable pint than handpumps, although whether that is down to the fact that it was used in higher-turnover pubs, or that it made it more difficult for bar staff to ruin a pint through incompetent pulling technique, I wouldn’t like to say.

Of course, if you want to promote real ale as something that stands out from other beers, it doesn’t help if it’s dispensed from bar mountings that are indistinguishable from those used for keg and tank beers. And so, over the years, brewers, encouraged by CAMRA, steadily replaced electric pumps with handpumps, to the extent that electric cask dispense has pretty much entirely disappeared now. I’m sure the fact that there was a saving to be had from replacing oversize glasses with brim-measure ones never entered their heads.

However, this has left a substantial population of older drinkers who would once have happily drunk real ale in the pub, although never thinking of it as such, but have now been deterred by bad experiences of that funny stuff that comes out of handpumps and prefer to stick to the likes of John Smith’s. Indeed on several occasions I’ve heard older drinkers ask bar staff “have you got any smooth?” when, in their drinking heyday, “smooth” as such had not even been invented.

And might there also be many younger pubgoers who will make a point of avoiding anything that comes from a handpump, but would be prepared to experiment with a chilled and carbonated “craft keg” if it came from the same T-bar row as San Miguel?


  1. There's a cost element as well, I reckon. I was in the Robert Peel a couple of Saturday lunchtimes ago and the old bloke next to me just asked for a pint of 'bitter - the cheapest'. Which I'd guess in most pubs is going to be the smooth?

  2. Actually I'd say that in pubs like Holt's and Hyde's where a cask "bitter" is offered, the smooth tends to be a bit dearer. Likewise in Sam Smith's Sovereign is a few pence more than OBB.

  3. I assume you mean the Robert Peel Spoons in Bury - in which case the Ruddles will almost certainly be cheaper than the John Smith's. In my local ones Ruddles is £1.85 and JS £2.15, although admittedly the guest ales are £2.20.

  4. There is an oddity about older people that were brought up on real ale, now drinking smooth. Cost is a factor of course as usually you only get smooth in lower end, lower priced establishments - or posh hotels strangely though that is changing.

    Maybe older drinkers just like the comfort of ordering "bitter" without being asked "Which one?"

    FWIW my older mates tend to prefer just Lees Bitter while the slighly younger amongst us prefer the more hoppy seasonals.

    Despite what some think, hops aren't everyone's cup of tea.

  5. "usually you only get smooth in lower end, lower priced establishments"

    Not sure that's true - I'd say the vast majority of pubco-owned mainstream pubs have it, even if they also have several cask beers. For example, the Plough in Heaton Moor, which is quite aspirational, and where cask is well north of £3, also has Tetley's Smooth.

    I've not been in a Brunning & Price pub recently, but I wouldn't be surprised if there was a John Smith's tap lurking there somewhere.

  6. The old codgers probably like cheap white sliced bread, instant coffee, tinned peas & tinned ham too. Leave 'em to it, they are not doing anyone any harm.

    I like the posh poncy bread, my expresso machine, fresh veg & poncy foreign sounding cold meats from the deli counter. Leave me to it, I'm not doing anyone any harm.

  7. A lot of the pub-co owned pubs do seem to be stuck in the mid 90s with their generally pitiful beer choice, compared to brewery owned pubs or freehouses.

  8. Younger pub goers? younger people have more sense than to frequent disreputable public houses and waste money non intoxicants that harm ones health and well being.

    Young men are wise enough to use gymnasiums and embrace an healthier and more productive life, partaking of a social carrot and wheatgrass smoothie after an invigorating session on the weight machine.

  9. I'm starting to enjoy "Temperance Tim" almost as much as Anon.

  10. As one of those old boys/codgers who orders 'smooth' I think a lot has to do with what I think of as 'body'. So many real ales seem quite thin and flat. Has this anything to do with the yeast and more in (old style)proper beer being allowed to work in the barrel whereas the yeast in real ale is killed off before it enters the barrel?
    I also speak as a Northerner brought up on BYB, Whitakers, Tetleys and even Beverley's who now lives in the distant South where ALL beers (except in Wetherspoons) cost £3 or more.

  11. Martin, Cambridge21 August 2014 at 22:25

    Is it not possible that some folk just prefer John Smiths to other beers, and would have drunk the cask before it pretty much got consigned to history a few years back. I had many a happy crawl through Barnsley area pubs drinking just "the Johns".

  12. There is a loyalty to familiar brands, but I do think a lot of it is preferring keg/smooth as a category. Of course, very often the only cask beers available will be ones most drinkers have never heard of.

  13. The Blocked Dwarf23 August 2014 at 09:36

    "social carrot and wheatgrass smoothie after an invigorating session on the weight machine."

    I just brought up a little vomit at the back of my throat.


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