Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Full marks for effort

Simon Everitt has recently ventured to the outer reaches of Doncaster in his quest to visit every pub in CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide. It must be said that Simon’s blog is well worth following, not least for his no-punches-pulled assessment of pubs.

A noticeable point about these pub visits is that in two of the four pubs he went to he was given a cloudy pint. Now, every pub will have its off day, and I’ve occasionally had to return pints in some of the nailed-on GBG favourites. But two out of four on a single day suggests a problem, and surely the probability of being given a cloudy pint when walking into a GBG pub should be far less than 50%.

On Twitter, Martin Taylor suggested that in some areas with little real ale, CAMRA branches were putting pubs into the GBG on the grounds of making an effort to serve it. I’m sure he’s right, and in a way you can’t really blame them, but overall it undermines the Guide. It’s rather like giving struggling pubs an award to “show support”.

My local branch recently held its GBG selection meeting. Out of maybe 200 pubs in the area, we had 69 that met the criterion of having an average score of above the 3 (i.e. good) on CAMRA’s National Beer Scoring System. Some were debarred for various reasons, but we could easily have chosen 40 pubs rather than our allocation of 25 which would not have disgraced the Guide.

If you go in a GBG pub at a slack time, you should still have a reasonable expectation of a good pint. Cloudy beer is something you should only encounter extremely rarely. If a pub can’t meet the requirement of consistently providing a good pint it really shouldn’t be included, even if it results in large empty spaces on the map.

Turnover is a key issue – if most of your customers drink lager or smooth, then you will struggle with selling real ale. That has been a long-standing problem in areas such as the West Country, Wales and Scotland where, in many locations, the locals drink keg and real ale is something for the tourists. You can normally tell within a few minutes whether or not it’s a pub where the ale shifts. Perhaps we need another Guide to real ale oases in areas where most pubs only offer keg.

Obviously it’s not a realistic option, but it might be a good idea if selection was entirely dependent on the quality of beer encountered at the first opening time on Tuesdays, whether lunchtime or early evening.

27 comments:

  1. Totally agree, and I am also firmly for qulaity over quantity: 6 hand pulls are better than 10 if the pub is only doing, say, 10 firkins a week.

    One point i'd like to make that some punters may not be aware of, is about more pubs using the Cask Widge system (as I do). It's vertical extraction system that gives a greater yield and saves space in the cellar. The main drawback is that on the last couple of pints out, the beer is cloudy, as the widge extracts the dregs, with no indication until the very end of the beer that it is going.

    What this means is that (especially with a sparkler) you can serve a beer and the customer takes it away before it's settled and it turns out cloudy. Now as long as the server is happy to replace it promptly with no fuss it shouldn't be a problem; but sometimes reputational damage is done simply by this occuring.

    In my next pub i'll be using traditional stillage for this and other reasons.

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  2. For me the test isn't about never getting a cloudy pint, but how they deal with you taking one back.

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    1. Even the best pub can get it wrong sometimes, and if it's changed with good grace then no problem. However, if you're regularly getting cloudy pints then, as Kieran suggests, it implies there's something amiss with the cellar management and it is likely to harm the pub's reputation.

      Over the years I can think of more than one pub, often championed by the local CAMRA branch, where I've regarded it as a bonus if I got a clear pint first time out.

      Wetherspoons, to their credit, seem to have a consistent "no quibble" policy over changing unsatisfactory beer.

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    2. equally they go too far sometimes, Ive had a 'Spoons happily pouring a half and suddenly last topup it went cloudy, obviously just end of the barrel,beer had only been on 2 days, I was happy to drink it or at least try it, but they refused to serve it to me "because I might get ill from it"

      but Im not sure Id be happy to NBSS a pub just on the one visit though, because whilst a bad pint might be a one off, so might an exceptional pint, so as I always give a pub two separate visits to get it right, I cant not give a pub two goes to get it wrong too.

      I would say though the biggest issue with GBG selection,is getting enough of the branch membership to vote, I suspect Stockport/Cambridge have a high turnout, I suspect other branches may have less than 10%.

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    3. Surely the point is that you give an NBSS score on each visit, and collectively, across multiple scorers, they provide a reasonable average.

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  3. Good point.

    The issue is more about low turnover than cellar management, though the two are related.

    The type of pub I mean are those typically serving one well know beer (say, Wainwright), and several from tiny breweries of no interest to the lager-drinking or dining locals. The pub will have provided adequate beer on one occasion to a group of drinkers, but consistently produce near vinegar to its locals, while apparently promoting the cause of real ale.

    My evidence is subjective, but I must score 50 pubs a year new to the Beer Guide at NBSS 2 or less that would fit that description, which is about 10% of the pubs I'll visit.

    For the record, Stockport and Cambridge are model branches in selecting on the basis of quality, in my experience. They also have the pubs with the best beer.

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  4. Of course, one of the main reasons for poor turnover is low custom due to poor choice. People like pubs with lots of choice. Take away that choice, and they will go elsewhere. Start removing cask lines and the problem will only get worse.

    Craft keg and cask breathers are quite obviously the answer.

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    1. "People like pubs with lots of choice. Take away that choice, and they will go elsewhere."

      That depends a lot on the location and the clientele. The newly-chosen Pub of the Year for mine and Mudgie's CAMRA branch, the Boars Head in Stockport, has one, well-kept cask beer (Sam Smith's) and is busy when other pubs aren't. The pub which I drink in most in Manchester city centre has a similar older, working-class male clientele who tend to drink smooth bitter, Guinness or lager, but one regular cask beer (Bass) which is always in good condition.

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    2. I'd say 95% of pub beer drinkers have no interest in choice so long as the pub sells one that they like. And, if you have a problem with cask turnover, doubling the number of ales on sale will make it worse unless you more than double the custom.

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  5. "I'd say 95% of pub beer drinkers have no interest in choice so long as the pub sells one that they like"

    eh?

    Given that the probability of the pub selling a beer I like is a directly controlled of the number of beers they sell, isn't that basically the same thing? If they sell 8 beers, there is exactly twice the probability I will find something I like than if they sell 4 beers.



    "doubling the number of ales on sale will make it worse unless you more than double the custom".

    ... which it does, generally. People aren't stupid, they know that the pubs with the widest range are most likely to provide them with something they like, so they go there. Why would you go to a pub that sells 4 beers when there is another pub down the street that sell 8 beers? You'd have to be stupid.

    Whatever city you are in, name the pubs with the widest selection of beers, they will also be the ones that are busy 7 nights a week. The beer in the 4 beer pub will almost certainly be stale and vinegary, whereas the beer in the 8 beer pub will almost certainly be fresh and revitalising.

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    1. But the eight-beer pubs are catering for a specific market, and are almost entirely found in the centres of cities and large towns. It doesn't follow that if the four-beer pub doubled its range it would double its turnover, or anything like it. There's only so much overall trade to go round. Do you really think that if the pubs where Simon had poor beer doubled their range, they'd suddenly be deluged with beer enthusiasts?

      84% of pub beer drinkers don't drink cask. If it has Carling, or Guinness, or John Smith's, or another beer they like, they're happy. And a lot of the 16% are content with their regular pint of Unicorn, OBB or IPA.

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  6. py = we're all different, Given a choice of 3 otherwise similar pubs - one selling 8, one selling 4, one selling 1 beer, I'd go for the single beer pub as having a higher probability of a good pint. It might be the case that the 8 beer pub is a specialist beer pub (A Kingston Arms or Magnet say) with high turnover across the range, but in my experience they're in the minority. Too much choice across it's drinks range has done Wetherspoons no favours recently.

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  7. "I'd go for the single beer pub as having a higher probability of a good pint"

    with respect, you'd almost certainly be wrong.

    Golden rule: NEVER drink the cask ale if there is only one line in use, because its a sign that the regulars don't drink it and its only really there for show. Its almost certain to be vinegar. I still regularly make this mistake.

    "It might be the case that the 8 beer pub is a specialist beer pub with high turnover across the range but in my experience they're in the minority"

    I could name you 20 pubs in Cambridge alone that consistently have 5-8 casks on and almost never serve a bad pint - and the situation in exactly the same in Nottingham and other cities that I know well.

    I could also name you 20 pubs that have 1-2 cask lines on that are consistently dreadful because no-one drinks the cask except the occasional curious tourist. That's why there are only 1-2 lines on! If the punters drank it, there would be more.

    There are 3 types of pubs: beer pubs with 5-8 lines on, food pubs with 1-4 lines on, and crappy, empty pubs with 0-2 lines on. Avoid the latter 2 options if you want a good pint!

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  8. py - I was talking about similar pubs i.e. pubs with similar appeal and standards. You're right that the best Cambridge pubs tend to have most pumps and the rest (let's call them Greene King estate pubs) have one or two. The Milton Arms or The Ship, whose beer was average recently, aren't going to improve by adding four more pumps. A pint of IPA or Eagle is enough for their occasional ale drinkers. I've had distinctly average pints in Cambridge's Beer Guide pubs over the last six months when surveying, which I put down to too little custom over too many pumps, not poor cellarmanship. St Radegund is Exhibit A.

    Nottingham could really do with some Sam Smiths pubs. The pubs in the centre were dead yesterday.

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  9. I don't really pay much attention to what is in or out of the beer guide. Its a pretty random and arbitrary selection in my experience.

    Some pubs specifically cater to cask ale (and craft beer) drinkers - these pubs will tend to have 5+ beer lines, some interesting stuff on keg, take pride in their beer, and generally have a comfortable pubby atmosphere. As a group, they have done well over the past 5 years. These are the pubs you want to go to if you want good beer.


    Other pubs cater to families or people looking for cheap food, others to youngsters who want cheap lager and jagerbombs, and others to people who want to watch sport etc. None of these types of pubs typically do good cask ale.

    I honestly don't know of any pubs that serve good cask ale, yet only have 1-2 lines. It seems like an unlikely combination. Can you give an example or two?

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  10. The Boar's Head, Stockport
    The Armoury, Stockport
    The Tandle Hill Tavern, Middleton
    The Anchor, High Offley

    I could go on...

    And some pubs, often the best ones, appeal to a wide variety of different customers.

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    1. I'd add the Black Country brewpubs, most of which sell a bitter and a mild.

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  11. Don't know any of them, but OBB is really not a good beer. There is a reason Sam Smiths sell mainly keg beer.

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    1. How about something to back up what you say? I think OBB is an iconic beer and the reason they only sell one cask beer is to maintain quality control after they failed with cask Museum Ale and Tadcaster Bitter. They don't sell cask OBB to the free trade apart from one or two exceptions, and they're quick to replace it with the keg version in low volume outlets. A traditionally-brewed Yorkshire bitter exclusively from oak casks - what's not to like?

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  12. What's not to like? The taste. The only thing that matters. Who gives a fuck about tradition and oak casks if the result tastes like shit?

    If you like sugary brown water, knock yourself out. But I prefer beer, and so do most people.

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    1. Only one of the four I mentioned is a Sam's pub. And, while it not be to your taste, OBB in my view is an excellent beer. Many people don't like beers that taste of grapefruit. And how does that explain the popularity of Doom Bar?

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    2. People will drink any old shit if a) its cheap, or b) the other beer on the bar is GKIPA.

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  13. "we could easily have chosen 40 pubs rather than our allocation of 25"

    eh?

    if so, why so many duff ones make it? the selection reads like a barrel scrape.

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    1. Careful now, the CAMRA thought police will be after you for showing a lack of positivity.

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  14. @PY - given that you and Martin both live in Cambridge, maybe you should get together over a few pints and compare notes ;-)

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  15. Yvan Seth only lives down the road as well in Willingham. and the bloke who writes pints and pubs.

    Perhaps you and Cookie could join us.

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    1. It's a bit of a long way for a day trip. But if you're ever in Stockport I'll happily buy you a pint of OBB in the Boar's Head. :-)

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