Saturday, 15 April 2017

Turned over again

Last week, there was an interesting interview on the Morning Advertiser website with Richard Westwood, the MD of Marston’s, in which he made some salient points about cask beer turnover and quality.

“There’s a big decision to be made here and that’s a balance between consumer choice and quality. When you see pubs that, maybe, sell 200 barrels a year and have, six, seven or eight handpumps, you know there is a good chance you will be served a substandard pint.”
That’s a very good point. But, in fact, for most pubs serving cask, 200 barrels a year would be pie in the sky. As I wrote here, the average is far less, with many pubs struggling to even achieve one barrel a week. And the figures haven’t got any better. CAMRA’s WhatPub site reports 35,844 pubs currently serving cask, and the BBPA reckons that about two million barrels are brewed each year. So that’s a mere 56 barrels a year per pub, and that’s before taking account of cask beer supplied to clubs and beer festivals.

Given those figures, it’s hardly surprising that it’s so common to encounter beer that is clearly past its best. Probably fewer than 10% of all cask pubs really have the turnover to sustain more than two or three beers, yet the evidence of my eyes suggests that the average number of pumps is considerably greater than that.

Although it officially makes the right noises, given its long-standing championing of “choice”, this is an issue that CAMRA remains reluctant to confront. For every reference to a “sensibly limited beer range”, there must be ten mentions in local magazines praising pubs for adding another handpump. All too often, the Good Beer Guide comes across as the “wide beer choice guide” rather than the “well-kept, fresh beer guide”.

The case is made more difficult by being able to point to pubs like the Magnet in Stockport which successfully manage to keep twelve or more beers in good nick. But those are specialist pubs attracting an overwhelmingly ale-drinking clientele, and it is delusional to imagine that the same formula would be a guarantee of success in an estate or dining pub.

Westwood also suggests that brewers and pub operators should consider a wholesale switch from 18-gallon kilderkins to 9-gallon firkins. In some cases this is a sensible solution, and most microbrewers now seem to have adopted firkins as their normal cask size anyway. But it increases the amount of handling work, and of wastage, per pint sold, so it isn’t without cost. And, even using firkins, a pub with the average level of cask beer sales can still only sustain two beers on the bar if it is to empty each cask within four days.

Sadly, this is an issue to which everyone will continue to pay lip service, but few will really be willing to address.

18 comments:

  1. Back in mid January I was invited on a tour of Banks's Brewery in Wolverhampton, a rather short affair around the older part of the brewery, our guide informed us that due to health and safety concerns, all cask ales, be it own label or contract brews, left the brewery in firkins only, having run a pub with a particularly low ceiling this makes perfect sense in more ways than one.

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    1. In which case you do have to wonder what Richard Westwood is talking about. However, that does surprise me a bit, as I would have thought traditionally many Banks's pubs had a high cask turnover.

      The Boar's Head in Stockport gets through three full 36-gallon barrels of Sam Smith's OBB a week.

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    2. Banks's has gone down the food road big time, selling off many of their smaller wet led Banks's & Hansons houses whilst bizzarely increasing the amount of cask choice, all from the Marston's portfolio, in their new build emporiums where pints of lout seem to be the order of the day.

      I suspect most Batham's houses have a similar turnover to The Boar's Head, and I know they supply their free trade accounts in kilderkins.

      Something I read years ago was that Holt's used to send hogsheads of both mild & bitter to their pubs, such was the popularity and keen prices of their brews.

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    3. How times change. I used to be a relief for Banks's. Mild in the Black Country pubs used to come in 36 gallon casks, the bitter in 18s. Getting on on the stillage was always fun! Turnover was never an issue though and depending on the pub, we used to do 2 or 3 36s a week easily in wetled pubs. Pubs around Worcestershire, we used to go with Mild and Bitter in 18s. Your earlier point about choice was a valid one though. We only ever had Banks's mild or bitter on (occasionally Hanson's mild as well), and that was that in terms of ale meaning the mild or bitter was always being pulled (just like the Batham's).

      They only time I ever dealt with Firkins was when in my Uni job days working for Whitbread. Guest ales always came in a firkin.

      Cheers,

      Chappers

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    4. An excellent post that I think highlights the biggest issue in cask at the moment. I wonder if Marstons would like to release an list of the ratio of barrels to no. of hand pumps for all of their pubs? Are they following their own advice or persuading tenants to have more and more hand pumps?

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    5. As late as twenty five years ago Mild was outselling Bitter by a ratio of 3 to 1 in Banks's and Hanson's urban houses, but with its regular drinkers dying off, the huge loss of sales to the club trade and the ill thought through decision to replace electric metering with handpumps, those figures have almost certainly reversed.

      Hanson's Mild was a much darker brew than it's Banks's equivalent, and was never the same after the brewery in Dudley closed and brewing moved to Wolverhampton.

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  2. Great run of blogs Pubcurmudgeon. You are on a roll.

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  3. Lager customers may want 3 or 4 pints of consistent deliciousness but ale customers don't want to drink a second one of the same. They want the next pint to have a different name, be a slightly different shade of brown and e slightly more or less bitter than the last one. They can't tell whether it's off or not because it's all off, it's all pongy and it's all warm. That's what the ale punter wants.

    Your suggestion goes against market fundamentals

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    1. Me and my wife are real ale drinkers and whenever in our local Spoons like yesterday we rarely change what real ale we drink unless the first one was not to our taste,four pints of Nottingham Bullion for me and four halfs of the same for my wife,it was'nt warm,dont know about it being pongy as i can not smell anything after my first stroke in 2004.

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    2. In Spoons - and other pubs - it's often best to see what other people are drinking and stick to that.

      I regularly go in a local Holts pub, but I know from experience to stick to the Bitter and steer clear of IPA, Mild and guest beers.

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  4. look whilst I dont doubt there are pubs that struggle with turnover, dont assume that means all pubs are like that. I know one of my locals has already sold nearly 500 firkins of ale this year and have had over 100 different beers on. and you know what the most popular beer is, London Pride, they sell so much of it they actually get it in kilderkins from Fullers.

    even the Wetherspoons claims to have sold 1000 firkins of ale last year. and I wouldnt said I live in the booze capital of East Anglia.

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    1. I say clearly in the post that there *are* pubs that get the balance right. But averages don't lie, and if the *average* cask pub is only selling just over a barrel a week, and some like your Spoons are selling five barrels a week, plenty must be selling a lot less.

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  5. My local gets their dark beer in pins because otherwise they wouldn't get through it (and then has 4 bitters/golden ales all 3.8-4.1%).

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  6. Does beer really last 4 days in good condition? That's a genuine question. Doesn't really fit my understanding of "selling like hotcakes", and a few pubs (and clubs) over the year have claimed to change the beers on a pump once or twice during the day.

    Re: Spoons,1000 firkins equates to 200 pints over a c.15 hour day, or 13 an hour spread over eight or more pumps in their busiest places. Less than two pints per hour per pump on average. Which is pretty much my observation in Spoons. Carling would be ten times that.

    MT

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    1. Tandleman would be able to answer that question better than me. I'd say it can if you've got a decently cool cellar and peg it overnight, but very often after 3 days it's getting distinctly tired. Beers put on at Stockport Beer Festival on the Thursday afternoon are like dishwater by Saturday evening, but that's not ideal cellar conditions.

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  7. One way of solving this problem, of course, would be to display when each cask was first put on sale. However, there's no way pubs are going to do that because it would expose just how slowly some beers actually sell...

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    1. That would be great to see - perhaps those happy pubs shifting 'kins quickly could lead the way - the rest would soon catch on if drinkers kept on asking how long a cask had been on.

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  8. My local has been (deservedly) in the GBG for 32 years without a break under the same owner. In the early days he sold up to eight cask beers but as the years have passed volume has dropped so to retain quality he now sells just four: Bass - around 7 kils a week, Deuchars IPA - around 4 kils a week, Mordue Blonde, around 4/5 kils a week, and a guest beer with around 3-4 firkins a week. I defy anyone to find a better, more consistent pint of cask anywhere on Tyneside but strangely enough it's only once been local CAMRA pub of the year - in 1984 - despite selling better beer than any pub I can think of that's won the title since, but strangely enough all of those tend to have a wide, ever-changing range of new and 'exciting' micro brewery beers.

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