I recently had a somewhat unedifying experience in one of my local Wetherspoon’s:
One or two people suggested that I shouldn’t have complained about it, as the pint was changed without demur, which indeed it was, although the novice barperson had to consult with his supervisor first. Indeed, Wetherspoon’s in general have a very creditable policy of changing duff beer without quibble. You never get “have you tasted it?” or “real ale’s meant to be like that”.
Oh, I’ll try one of the beers in the Spoons real ale festival. Twelve pulls on the pump and, surprise, surprise, it’s a pint of murk. To their credit, they changed it willingly and took it off sale. But it’s hardly surprising people are put off drinking cask 🙄— Pub Curmudgeon 🌸🍻 (@oldmudgie) October 16, 2022
But surely having to return a pint is something that should only be necessary on very rare occasions. The customers shouldn’t be expected to do the pub’s quality control for them, and it shouldn’t be regarded as a regular hazard of choosing cask beer. Indeed, that was the second time in a row when ordering a guest ale in Spoons had resulted in it going straight back.
The whole business of taking beer back to be bar is fraught with difficulty. Many people are understandably very reluctant to do, on the grounds that they’ve gone out for a drink, not a confrontation. I wonder how many drinkers would have struggled through that duff pint and ordered a Shipyard or a Guinness next. On CAMRA pub crawls, when the group have returned poor beer, I’ve occasionally seen an old boy in the corner pluck up the courage to do the same.
I’m normally pretty dogmatic about it if there’s an obvious fault such as the beer being cloudy or vinegary. Beer is so expensive nowadays that you shouldn’t have to put up with poor quality. But it’s more difficult if the problem is a more subjective one, such as the beer simply being in general a bit stale, flat and warm. If I knew the landlord, I might mention it, but there again the pubs where I know the landlord are not those likely to serve poor beer very often.
In an unfamiliar pub, though, discretion can often be the better part of valour. If it’s a pub that I’ve just visited for the one pint, and am never likely to visit again, just leaving the beer and walking out may be a better option than having an argument. When making a complaint, you always need to have a clear view of what your objective is. If it’s getting a replacement, that’s fair enough, but in a pub with only one cask beer you may not want any of the replacements. A refund is also a valid aim, although that can leave a sour taste in the mouth. But if you just want to have a bit of a scene it may be wise to count to ten and walk away. And I’ve heard other customers remark “some people just come out to complain!”
Most of us who enjoy cask beer will choose most of the time to drink it either in familiar places where we have a reasonable expectation of a good pint, or in those recommended to us by friends, social media or publications such as the Good Beer Guide. But we have to recognise that our experience can be very unrepresentative. Once you venture “off grid”, the experience of drinking cask beer can too often be pretty dismal, as I found back in 2011 in and around Hereford.
I do make a point of sometimes seeking out new pubs, or ones I haven’t visited for years, and I have to say sometimes it’s very disappointing. For example, I recently called in at a pub that had been described as a community local but in fact was more of a smart dining pub. Four beers on the bar, all good ones from the better-known micros. I chose my favourite amongst them, but it was terrible – hazy, no head, full of bubbles, slightly off aroma. It was changed for another, which to be honest wasn’t all that much better. But it always takes a lot of moral courage to return two beers in succession as frankly, however, justified, it tends to make you look like a bit of an arse. So I drank it and went on my way, and I don’t think I’ll be going back there in the near future. That isn’t at all untypical of going “off grid” and, very often, the pubs where that happens also have the dearest beer.
And, every time someone feels the need to return a pint to the bar - or indeed chickens out of it - the reputation of cask beer takes another little knock.
(There are some reflections on the issues around returning beer on this post by Martin Taylor.)