Sunday, 3 July 2022

Rapid feedback

Last weekend there was a Channel 4 programme in the “Inside the Superbrands” series looking at Guinness. I can’t say I was expecting too much from a rather tabloidy format, but in fact it turned out to be surprisingly insightful. Plus it was presently by Carlisle-born Helen Skelton, who has an unmistakeably Northern accent.

One thing that took me by surprise was that it featured the Shit London Guinness Instagram and Twitter account (suitably censored), which highlights poor examples of Guinness served around the capital – see photo above. You might have thought this was bad publicity, but in fact a Guinness representative said that “as soon as we see a post on that account, we aim to be round there within four hours”. It’s performing a valuable quality control function.

And I couldn’t help thinking that cask beer wouldn’t half benefit from quality control that even remotely approached that standard. Obviously it’s different in that Guinness is a single product produced by a single company, but far too often the presentation of cask in pubs is utterly dreadful. Maybe a representative of Cask Marque should follow Martin Taylor on his GBG ticking travels and take action whenever he has to pour one in a plant pot, which seems to happen a lot more often than it should.

There has been some discussion recently over the negative image of cask, but surely its poor presentation is its major problem. All too often, outside familiar pubs, it’s a total lottery. I’ll just offer two examples.

On my trip to Berkshire in May, I was taken to a pub that isn’t in the current Good Beer Guide, but has a pretty decent reputation. Two different beers came out as total soup and were returned. If you have to return two successive pints, you start feeling like a pernickety arse, and on similar occasions in the past I’ve cut my losses and asked for a refund. Eventually we got a good, clear pint, but you shouldn’t have to go through that.

More recently, I went in a pub that had a single cask beer on one of three handpumps. It came out nice and cool, but once I took it back to my seat it was obviously pretty opaque, so it went straight back. “It’s the end of the barrel, but we’re just putting another one on. It’ll be ready in a few minutes”. Fifteen minutes later, it wasn’t, so I settled for a John Smith’s. Perhaps, on reflection, I should have had a Guinness.

I persevere with cask, because I know how good it is when it’s properly kept, but it’s understandable that plenty of others are very wary.

Another problem is that many people who write about cask beer and sing its praises only tend to drink it in “recommended” outlets, so don’t get to share the experience of the typical drinker out in the wild.

22 comments:

  1. The Helen Skelton programme didn’t mention the fact that Guinness is nowadays always served as cold as ice cream in pubs.

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  2. I only drink cask where I know it's going to be good, so that's a handful of pubs. Imagine buying other fresh food where there was a 20% or greater risk that the product is off or deteriorated?

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    1. So far this year I have made 630 pub visits to 458 different pubs. By your estimate I should have been served well over 120 poor quality beers, but I would say it's more likely about a dozen.

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    2. Were all or most GBG pubs? If so, the risk is going to be reduced considerably, but even Retired Martin gets more than his fair share of dodgy pints.

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    3. And then they try to make the customer feel guilty about it - "Don't you know real ale's supposed to be like that?" - "You're drinking with your eyes!"

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    4. electricpics - I would guess most I go in are not GBG pubs, but I haven't bought the GBG for more than a decade, so I can't be sure. Next thing you'll be telling me I don't know the difference between a good pint and a bad!

      Your assertion of a 20% risk of a bad beer is given without evidence, since you say you only go in places where you know the beer will be good. I also go to really good pubs where I know I will get great beer (Kelham Island Tavern, Fat Cat, Wellington, Blake Hotel, Sheffield Tap) and a lot of the time when I'm "drinking away" I know I'll sometimes get beer that's not as good but generally acceptable, even in some of the "no real ale" pubs. (Had a really surprising John Smiths Smooth in Hull at the weekend!)

      But sometimes I'll find a pub that has an unexpectedly brilliant but what some people think of as ordinary beer, like Everards Tiger in the Honey Comb at Mickleover a couple of weeks ago.

      Coming on a forum or blog and telling people there's a one in five chance of getting crap beer in a real ale pub is not doing anyone any favours.

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    5. I think he may have been alluding to this tweet by Lisa Grimm:

      “I will say that of the 10 or so cask pints or halves I had in London the other week, 2 were absolutely undrinkable vinegar. Not a great percentage!”

      I’d agree that 20% overall is a considerable exaggeration, but on the other hand many people have reported that cask in non-specialist pubs in London tends to be a lot less reliable than in the rest of the country.

      Of course we all suffer from selection bias, so we are more likely to visit pubs where we expect the cask to be decent. But the generality of drinkers who may be on the cusp of choosing it over lager are likely to encounter it in the chain pub with one handpump type of venue.

      I’d say that roughly 1 in 20 pints encountered are seriously deficient, if not actually returnable. FWIW on my trip to Berkshire I had to return cask in two of the fifteen pubs in which I ordered it, in one of them, as described, twice. These were about 50/50 GBG/non GBG.

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    6. @sheffieldhatter I'm not suggesting anything of the sort - why make up something? My assertion isn't without evidence because I listen to people who do go to the pubs where the cask beer is consistently of poor quality. Telling the truth is very much doing people favours! It's certainly a pleasure when you come across an ordinary beer that's had some good cellaring, clean lines and glasses and perfect temperature.

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  3. I'm with Sheffield Hatter, there's plenty of good beer in AND outside the Beer Guide.

    The Channel Islands, Wales and Scotland were notably better than expected, partly because there's fewer pumps these days (and therefore less opportunities for microbreweries, as you've noted).

    I've only tipped half a dozen halves in 500 pub visits so far this year, but of course they get the attention. Frankly I'd tip a half but take a pint back.

    Mudgie is right on the two main points; most people won't persevere with dull cask and keep taking pints back till they get a good one, and most cask enthusiasts (as opposed to pub enthusiasts like Will and I) will stick to a few known pubs. And who can blame them if they go to the pub for beer rather than the different pub experiences ?

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  4. Although nowhere near Sheffield Hatter or Retired Martin in the pub visit stakes I've managed approaching 200 different pub visits this year so far and honestly not felt the need to return any beers, of course there have been a number that were average or slightly below or simpley not too my taste. Admittedly there has been a handful of pubs that I've walked into that are obviously Lager drinkers pubs with a solitary handpump that no one is drinking and avoided it, as experience has taught me thats often a recipe for disaster.

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  5. The issue for me isn’t shit pints, they are clear cut and as mentioned above, less common than stated. It’s the tired 5/10 pints that are drinkable but wouldn’t sell cask to anyone. I come across far more of them, maybe 1 in 15-20? You could take it back but it’s much more debatable and likely to cause a fuss. I had one on Saturday in a GBG pub - but by the time I’d convinced myself it wasn’t *quite* right, I’d drunk too much to take it back! As you say, you need the courage of your convictions.

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  6. I think it would be a good idea and I've always been surprised that the major cask breweries don't do something like this - Guinness have done this kind of quality control for years, in Dublin anyway. Sheffield Hatter mentioned Tiger, and my impression is that Everards do insist on certain standards within their own pubs at least. You could see it working for Landlord or London Pride. In an industry that is struggling with recruitment, it could be linked with upskilling of staff.

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    1. Landlord and London Pride are good examples of respected beers with national distribution (Landlord is near ubiquitous in eastern Scotland) which are often sampled well off its glorious best.

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    2. Professor Pie-Tin6 July 2022 at 16:49

      I concur. Landlord and Pride are both on tap at one of my new locals and they're inconsistent to say the least. I also watch the landlord pour the Guinness in one go and serve it with a head so large it should come with a 99.But as someone who has served thousands of pints of Guinness I'll let you into a secret - bad ones are not the pour but the flithy state of the glass it's poured into.In Ireland every pub has their lines cleaned by the breweries now and that has improved quality - as soon as anyone saw the brewery cleaning van outside the local the Whatsapp messages would start pinging and everyone horsed into the porter that evening.The difference in quality is that noticeable.

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    3. That's interesting about cleaning the lines, Prof. Who owns the pubs in Ireland, anyway ?

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    4. there are two main reasons for that though, Pride is so ubiqitous it often ends up in pubs where little care is taken of it or cask beers, see also Doom Bar, whilst Landlord is a tricky beer to keep in the sweet spot as it can be very lively sometimes. I knew a beer sommelier who always said if you saw Landlord on to have a pint as it reward the commitment of the landlord to attempt to keep it, but it can certainly be a bit hit & miss. However Landlord now also notably comes (even before inflation/covid) with a price premium of 30-40p more for equivalent cask beers, meaning it suffers from being too reassuringly expensive and ends up left on for longer than it should, so even if it starts off well, it can inevitably suffer.

      certainly Fullers, and I think Timothy Taylors too are into Cask Marque and provide pub staff with the proper training on how they are supposed to care for cask beer.

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    5. Ive not had to return a pint of beer for along while as Ive not had anything that bad for years, and I do sample pubs outside of the guide, though I do remember the last really bad pints Id had, one of the bar fly locals on the bar tasted it as we asked for it to be changed and said it was totally fine, it tasted like pure vinegar.

      but most pubs seemed to have spent lockdown cleaning their equipment & pipes as I havent really had any bad pints since,some might seem to be heading back towards tired pints but I think thats more an impact of lower turnovers still in many pubs, some are back to normal busy levels, but others feel quite like ghost towns in comparison and still struggling to find that optimum level of what & when to keep beer on.

      fwiw pre-lockdowns Id have agreed that London was the worst for bad pints, the London murk wasnt coined without a good deal of evidence based experiences , even in GBG listed pubs, I always felt it was a gamble sometimes trying a pub crawl of London pubs as you inevitably hit a bad one, that made you wished youd just stayed at the last good pub instead, as some of those off flavours can stick with you for the rest of the session.

      I dont know why thats the case in London, maybe its just there are so many pubs your chances increase massively of hitting the bad ones more frequently.

      but that last few times Ive been Ive been pleasantly suprised how good the beer has been in London pubs compared to how I remembered it a few years back, but whether thats a sign things have changed or I just happened to pick a better selection of pubs I dont know, its always difficult to take 6 random pubs on one day as an accurate guide to the many thousands of pubs there are just even in central London.

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  7. Professor Pie-Tin7 July 2022 at 10:37

    @anonymous. All pubs in Ireland are privately owned.Breweries simply provide the beer.Some years ago they decided the only way to get rid of poor lines was to clean them themselves.The dirty or old glass thing is important - some pubs keep them for years while others change them frequently.It really has quite an impact on the quality of the pint.

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  8. Like Sheffield Hatter and Retired Martin I'm more interested in the pubs than the beer, and while 90% of what I have is cask, a lack of ale doesn't put me off visiting somewhere. Having also visited in excess of 500:pubs this year in many different parts of the country, there have not been that many times I've had to take a beer back to the bar. I'd say approximately 15 so far, in at least half of those occasions it was early in the day, and the beer had probably not been pulled through and taste tested by the pub before opening.

    With a downturn in customers, some pubs probably leave some beers on longer now than they would have done previously, this bad practice will put off drinkers who expect consistent quality, especially those who visit pubs infrequently.

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  9. I find in the West Midlands that Bathams/Holdens beers are consistenty good due to their high turnover. I had 10 out of 10 score pints of Holdens Black Country Bitter and Golden Glow last night in the Robin Hood Holdens pub in Ironbridge. The Glow was a very reasonable £3.35 a pint.

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    1. Family brewer tied houses are generally some of the best bets for getting a consistent pint.

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  10. I only usually venture out to Durham nowadays and the only bad pint I've had in the past few monts has been Boltmaker in Old Elm Tree. This was on Wednesday. It was not warm, it was just lacklustre past its prime big time. Half Moon had no Bass.

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