Tuesday 7 June 2016

Getting it right

One of the perennial themes of this blog has been that far too much cask beer is presented to the customer in a condition that falls well short of the ideal, and that this “quality lottery” is a major factor in dissuading people from choosing it. The worst enemy of cask beer is the poor pint of cask beer.

Very often, the best policy in choosing a beer is to watch what other customers are drinking, so at least you’ll get one that has been pulled through. And I have to admit that, on occasion, when I’ve gone into an unfamiliar pub and the only cask on offer is a national brand on a single apologetic handpump, I’ve decided discretion is the better part of valour and plumped for a reliable pint of Carling instead.

The point is reinforced by this letter that appeared in June’s edition of What’s Brewing.

Over the last weekend, I was buttonholed by a drinker at the Stockport Beer Festival who told me how he had called in at a Good Beer Guide-listed pub in rural Cheshire. It was just after one o’clock, but he suspected his pint was the first one pulled that session. The licensee asked him how the beer was. “Not so bad,” he replied. “Good to hear that,” said the licensee. “I thought it was a bit warm myself.” Sorry, but if you think it’s too warm, what business do you have selling it to customers?

At the recent CAMRA AGM in Liverpool, Peter Alexander (aka Tandleman) and Graham Donning successfully proposed a motion saying:

This Conference notes that the Key Campaigns make no reference to the quality of real ale at the point of dispense. This conference agrees to add “improving the quality of real ale at the point of dispense” as a Key Campaigning Priority.
However, it’s one thing to say this, but another to do something about it.

You can’t force people to toe a particular line, but local newsletter editors need to be encouraged to take the point on board that more choice is not necessarily a good thing if it leads to slower turnover and lower quality. There is still a lazy assumption that “The George & Parakeet has added an extra handpump” is always something to be welcomed. Locally, we do it with our regular “Staggers”, but how many other branches are prepared to name and shame pubs serving up poor pints?

Newsletters could also publish a series of articles on cellarmanship provided by St Albans. And all breweries and pub-owning companies should be encouraged to run annual cellar competitions and give out well-publicised awards. The average quality of beer in Robinsons’ pubs, at one time highly variable, has greatly improved since they started doing this.

Maybe CAMRA should also organise formal training courses on how to recognise poor beer. In my experience, too many members struggle to make the distinction between the intrinsic qualities of a beer and how it is kept. I’ve never had any tuition in tasting, but I have no trouble recognising obvious faults such as beer being green, stale, sour, too warm, lacking condition, hazy, affected by diacetyl etc. Yet some people seem remarkably forgiving of downright rubbish, while condemning well-kept beer just because it’s not brewed in a railway arch.

It’s not just a question of handpump numbers, either, as very often the pubs such as the Crown and Magnet with twelve or more pumps keep their beer in consistently good nick because most of their customers are ale drinkers. The pubs that struggle tend to be the more generalist ones that feel that putting six beers on is doing cask drinkers a favour, but don’t have anything like the turnover to sustain it. And nor is it simply a matter of throughput. I’ve been in pubs where I strongly suspected I was getting the first one pulled that session, but it has still been spot-on. That should never be an excuse - it can be done with a bit of effort.

Good cellarmanship isn’t rocket science, it’s just the conscientious application of simple, basic principles. Sadly too many licensees nowadays don’t even seem to be able to manage that.


  1. Superb piece of writing. I was reading a raft of recent branch newsletters last night and hardly any refer to quality, just loads of pump counts and mentions of new beers spotted. I'll name Derby and Bristol. Stockport is an honourable exception.

    I know how difficult it is to tell a pub their beer isn't OK, taking a beer back is a social minefield, particularly unlikely when you order a half. The marginal cask outlet selling, say, Tetley in Widnes, will just stop selling enough of it for viability, and take it off. The average pub with too four or more handpumps will just keep serving a lottery of beer quality.

  2. "The worst enemy of cask beer is the poor pint of cask beer." Absolutely true!

  3. When in doubt, stick with lout.

    If you all stopped bothering with the pong and it's variable nature and accepted the joy of lout, you'd stop fretting and enjoy pubs and drinking so much more.

  4. I realise this is heresy, especially as it would preclude a pub from getting into the Good Beer Guide, but the user of cask breathers needs to stop being regarded as a deadly sin, particularly for places where real ale is a niche/fringe product.

    1. Oops, forgot to put my name to the comment.

    2. Not heresy here - I'd far rather have real ale stored under a cask breather than "craft keg" :-)

  5. While quality is clearly an issue I get the impression that it's more of an issue in some parts of the country than others. I think that locally in Stockport it's not too bad at all (with a few exceptions). Looking back at Staggers in old issues of Opening Times what does come across from the mid-1980s is just how much truly terrible beer was found and that's generally not the case now.

    1. I'd say we still have a lot of distinctly lacklustre beer. If you look at Stagger scores for the pubs that never get close to the GBG, there's plenty of beer in the 2 to 2.5 NBSS range. You wouldn't send it back, but neither would you stay for another one if you had the choice.

      In our own discretionary pubgoing we inevitably choose the pubs that we know are more likely to provide a good pint, and so don't tend to experience this "long tail".

      A couple of weeks ago, as I reported, I had a free pint of Stella in the Bobby Peel. I wouldn't have had great expectations of the Doom Bar being much cop.

    2. If anyone can guess the cognitive bias of The Clarkster (a normal trait, not having a pop at the fella, everyone does it), I think a prize should be awarded. From Mudgies pocket, not mine, obvs.

      The answer is on this list

  6. I too noticed this letter in “What’s Brewing”, and agree it represents a worrying trend. Poor cellarmanship really is the “Achilles heel” of cask beer, and the situation isn’t helped either by pubs stocking too many real ales, which realistically they are never going to shift before the beer deteriorates.

    The punter, who related his experience about the first pint out of the pumps, mirrors my own thoughts, as this is a pet hate of mine and I am always extremely wary of being the first customer in a pub after opening time.

    Licensees who are either too lazy or more likely too tight, to pull through beer which has been sitting in the lines, between sessions, will soon find customers voting with their feet. Also, how many inspect the beer and actually taste it prior to serving it up to the hapless customer?

  7. I accept that the nature of real ale means occasionally I'll get a bad pint, but I'm not too bothered as long as the pub deals with the matter satisfactorily. What I don't understand is why some people prefer to suffer in silence and then slink away. I've even read complaints on beer blogs along the lines of "I just left the pint on the table and walked out". Why?

    People should complain when their beer isn't satisfactory; I doubt they'd be as tolerant about unsatisfactory food from a supermarket. I've never found complaining easy, but it makes a lot more sense than whingeing afterwards. The last time I took a pint back was about three weeks ago, and I was quite happy with how I was dealt with (as it happened, it was the end of the barrel). It is so long since I've had an argument about returning a pint that I cannot remember when or where it was.

    However, if there are any licensees who argue the toss, perhaps they should adopt the practice of the licensee of my local: any customer who complains about a pint gets an automatic replacement, even when there is nothing wrong with the beer, and it's just the taste they don't like. "I'd rather lose a pint rather than a customer," she told me.

    1. I'm sure Cookie and others who know me will confirm that I'm usually the one saying "you ought to take that back, mate!"

      But there are times when it's just not worth it. As has been said in the past, you go out for a convivial drink, not an argument. If it's not blatantly cloudy or vinegary, just generally a bit crap, and it's a pub you're not likely to be going back to, then leaving it and walking out is probably the best course of action.

    2. It sounds as though people here have a lot worse luck than me in getting bad beer. I find it comparatively uncommon, but on the odd occasion it's happened, I don't get arguments. As I wrote before, I can't remember the last time I had one about a bad pint. Perhaps it's the manner in which some people take them back that provokes the argument.

    3. Pick a pub that does beer you like. Then stick with that. Then all beer is good. Simples.

  8. fwiw last couple bad pints (not undrinkeable vinegar admittedly) I just thought yeah it happens,didnt take them back,carried on, drank it,but probably then just moved onto another pub, what annoys me more is when it is vinegar and I take it back,the pub might grumble about giving me a replacement, but then continue to serve the rank beer to unsuspecting punters.

    But I do think it needs to be a persistent drop in quality, rather than the occasional one off, say 3 strikes before a CAMRA branch pub co-ordinator/liaison officer just had a quiet chat offered some advice/feedback during their regular chats, CAMRA does do beer quality tasting sessions, but the kits are very expensive, but I would be and am totally against CAMRA branch newsletters naming/shaming pubs, thats the wrong way to tackle that issue and is far more divisive a device in the pub trade with people building businesses in a tricky time to be trading, who arent there just to please the local branch,and do remember not all local branches are equally well run.

    but if a branch wanted to hand out a special achievement award yearly, or name a pub of the month, in addition to pub of the year awards, for hitting consistently good beer scores,although youd have to trust members used the system appropriately, thats much better aligned with the Campaigning for stance CAMRA stands for.

  9. The irony is that most cask beer, certainly that from larger breweries and more established 'micros' is so much easier to keep than it used to be.There's clearly much more brewery conditioning going on leading to far less (if any) secondary fermentation, much less sediment and the evidence of dry hopping around the shive bung in a cask at one of my locals recently had the manager asking me to have a look at it to see if it was ok.


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