Wednesday 8 November 2017

Quantity and Quality

This is a post made by Kieran Lyons, owner of the Blue Boar in Leicester (pictured), on the Beer and Pubs Forum and CAMRA Discourse, which I reproduce here with his permission. It's fair to say I agree with the general thrust if not every single detail.

I've recently had cause to think about the question of how many cask ales to offer at any one time after reading the blogs retiredmartin, pub curmudgeon and beerleeds.

I'll start by outlining what I think affects beer quality.

  1. The brewing of it. No amount of cellarmanship can make a bad beer good (although the reverse is true).
  2. Temperature. It's often said that certain beers 'don't travel well'. This is bollocks. What's happened is it's been handled badly, probably left unchilled for too long. Wholesalers are the weak link here. Also buying direct gets you a better price anyway. For most pubs temperature isn't a problem - beer goes straight in thecellar.
  3. Conditioning. Every cellar course i've ever been on has been too prescriptive about conditioning. Not a single trainer talked about actually tasting the beer. It was always: 'leave it for X time'. But that doesn't work because every beer is different.
  4. Dispense. Get a clean, oversized glass and pour so that you get a nice head. Can't be done right in a brim measure without complaint. If using hand pulls, clean the lines after each beer.
  5. Freshness. Ideally you'd sell the whole firkin the same day you put it on sale. My personal record is about an hour :) The longest you can keep a beer on is ....well every beer is different. You have to taste them at the start of each trading session. An obvious point but not something widely done. No cellar course ever recommended doing this to me, yet it seems essential. Instead they say 3 days for best quality, 5 days max. This is a good rule of thumb but cannot be relied on.
So how do you achieve best quality consistently? Well, you need people to buy it. So you have to either have or create demand. This can be a bit chicken and egg. What comes first, the ale selection or the ale drinkers?

You have got to put on what sells, and just as every beer is different, there is no typical pub and no prescriptive advice that can be given; but i'm going to have a go anyway and give my thoughts on what pubs should be doing. You may well think of real life exceptions to every rule I make here.

  1. Mid size estate or suburban working class boozer. A single beer here ain't enough but 3 could be too many. Two beers of different styles, say a dark bitter and a hoppy pale, both around 4.5%. Even tied houses could manage that. Sell 3 firkins per fortnight of each and that's enough if (and these rules apply to every pub):
    a) it's kept at 10 degrees C all the time.
    b) you use a racing spile or hard peg between sessions.
    c) you pour off some beer before each session- every line is a different length, some are chilled, but the stuff in the beer engine is definitely waste.
    Now if you start selling 2 per week you can think about adding a third beer. Make it a guest maybe, to give extra interest and allow seasonal variation eg. green hopped beers and winter warmers.
  2. Food led dining pub. Same as above really, except you're gonna want to cook with the beer to improve throughput further. Get your prices right as well. Put Landlord on if you want but don't expect to make the same margin on it. If it's overpriced it will only sell to diners and if you are only selling to diners stick to bottles.
  3. Busy city centre pub. You'll have a broader mix of customers here that will include 'beer enthusiasts' (I believe this is the polite term). You'll have an oppurtunity to convert people to cask if you want to. A broad selection is needed and for me the minimum is 5, if you are serious about it. This allows for a bitter, a session pale, a stout or porter, a mild and an IPA. Too many pubs have 3 beers of varying brownness. You don't have to have permanent beers (although it's a good idea that one or two are) so long as you get the style mix right. Now if you think you can sell more than 5 at once then go for it but don't think you can flex up and down during the week, and have more beers available at the weekend. This doesn't work. The people who want a broader range are usually mid week drinkers and at weekend punters are more infrequent (not regulars) so they go for what they've had before and can rely on. Instances of buying rounds goes up, especially on match days, with everyone drinking the same thing. If you change the amount of beers you have day to day on it just leads to disappointment and confusion, in my opinion. You have to manage expectations.
  4. Specialist ale house. Go for the biggest choice you possibly can and be prepared to pour beer down the drain when you need to. It's the cost of doing business. If you don't sometimes chuck half a firkin you're doing something wrong. Get your selection right as well. At the Blue Boar, we have 9 hand pulls but also the ability to serve direct from the cask and can go up to 20 beers available if needed. When you're a specialist, your turnover of your specialist product is higher because it makes up the majority of your sales. We are small but the space is mostly taken up by ale drinkers. We are city centre so we have a constant flow of customers from 11am to 11pm. I could tell you how many firkins a week we usually sell and you could work out how long each beer stays on the bar, on average, but that wouldn't give you the full picture. 36 Gallons of the house pale goes through the same line each week; but we've had a barley wine on sale served from stillage for a fortnight and it was at it's best on the last day. The point is we are constantly tasting it and are not afraid to take beer off sale if it's out of condition.
One final point I will make - when you serve ever changing guest beers because that's what your customers demand, you are going to get mixed quality. It's why beer scores don't bother me too much. I don't brew it and I'm not going to take offence if you don't rate it. I won't even get defensive if you say it's in poor condition - i'll try to find out what went wrong.

In general though you learn which breweries to trust and which to avoid. We wouldn't buy a beer off someone new without researching it at least a little bit, and the rule of thumb is to give a new brewery a year to get good before buying.


  1. Couldn't agree more with all of that. Just one point though - not everyone uses firkins - there are still plenty of pubs with decent turnover selling beer from kilderkins - wooden ones in Sam Smith's case, who also still use barrels in some of the higher turnover OBB outlets.

    1. The Boar's Head in Stockport certainly still uses barrels and gets through three of them a week, plus huge volumes of Sam's keg beers. I'm sure there are other breweries such as Holts who still send out some cask beer in barrels.

    2. We have our house beers in kilderkins. More pubs would use pins if more breweries sold them i'm sure. The perfect sized container in most cases is in fact 6 gallons. That's 48 pints and if you can't sell that in 2 days then give up. I've yet to think of a name for it, or get a cooper to make me one, however.

    3. Both Lees and McMullens have confirmed on Twitter that they send at least some beer out in barrels :-)

  2. A few quick points:

    1. Not entirely convinced on "you need to taste all your beers", as that seems to imply that non-drinkers can't run pubs. And you don't taste all your lagers, wines, whiskies, or food. May be appropriate for a specialist multi-beer pub, but for a normal pub with two or three cask lines it shouldn't be necessary with proper stock management.

    2. Agree that oversize glasses are preferable, but you're on a losing wicket with that one, as they're vanishingly rare nowadays.

    3. Interesting that you reject the conventional wisdom of putting extra beers on at weekends when it's busier. As I'm not a choice hound it doesn't bother me, but it's very common for pubs to do that.

    1. Surely the need to taste your beers is because beers start deteriorating the instant they are tapped and the only way to know when they are finished is by tasting? That doesn't apply to wines, whiskey, lager and food to anything like the same extent. And I suppose as teetotal landlord could ask one of his clients to taste the beer for him. That's a job I would happily take on :-)

    2. A half decent cellarman should know that any cask beer is going to be past its best if it's not selling fast and there's still some left after four or five days, depending largely on strength. You can get away with longer but it's down to the beer and the cellar conditions which sometimes aren't exactly ideal. Ironically it's the likes of Heineken and Greene King that are consistently on the ball when it comes to good cellar conditions.

    3. 1. It's essential if you want to know how good your beer is. Many cooks don't taste their food and get along fine but they'll never be chefs. Stock control can achieve good results most of the time but sometimes you get sent bad beer or visual indicators of condition are not sufficient.
      I have tasted all the wines and whiskeys in the pub and so have all the staff, you have to know what your selling after all. Hard life. But as mentioned by David it's not ongoing.

      2. Yes I think your right, unfortunately, and it's a customers preferance with brim measure what size head they get.I'd like to see more people accepting bigger heads, not for profits but because it's the best way to serve most beers.

      3. It probably does work for a lot of pubs actually, but it hasn't ever for me. I'd rather punters had less choice at the weekend, to speed up service! but consistency of the offer at all times is important I think.

  3. Professor Pie-Tin8 November 2017 at 16:39

    Thanks for the great post Kieran - it makes a change to hear from someone on the other side of the bar who actually knows his stuff to the " experts " on the other side who only think they know their stuff.
    Too many brown bitters and not enough landlords tasting their own beers is,to my mind,the root cause of crap pubs.
    You wouldn't expect a chef to send out his food without tasting if there's enough seasoning in it.
    You and Stonch talk a lot of sense.I would include Hardknott in my favourite landlord posters but he can be a bit,lets say, intense at times.
    More please.

  4. I think a problem here is that a lot of pubs in Category 3, or even Category 1, like to think they are in Category 4, but don't have the necessary ale trade.

    1. Indeed. Furthermore, there are pubs in Categories 1 and 2 which really ought to be Category 0 (e.g. give up on cask altogether)

    2. Although I'd say the vast majority of pubs could sell at least one cask beer successfully given the necessary commitment - the issue is generally lack of interest rather than lack of potential demand.

  5. Great to hear the landlord's tale. Lots of sense. Be good to hear from landlords in other types of locations.

  6. Knows his stuff this fella. You should let him take over the blog. It's a much better quality of read.

    1. Cookie, you're being bombastic again.

      Sometimes it's enjoyable but this time, as with your "Heavy Lifting" comment*, it's pretty thin stuff... just like your lager. :)



      PS - unless, of course, you meant to put a /sarc tag on the end? ;)

    2. Sometimes Cookie's comments are witty and insightful. This wasn't one of those occasions...


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