Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Lack of Consistent Quality is Cask Beer's Real Enemy


I read with interest and without surprise that in the blog of  Roger Protz veteran and still going beery guy, guest writer Jane Peyton, would like to see a more united front in the continuing pursuit of good beer.  The article can be read by clicking the link above and is well worth a read.  In it Jane makes the usual points in trying to encourage togetherness and overall there is little if anything to disagree with.  I particularly like her point about the growing generations (not all young and female by my observation) of "sweet" cider drinkers, though to call some of these abominations cider, is stretching it more than somewhat given the low (if any) apple juice content, but the point is still particularly valid.  Another very obvious but overlooked point (though Jane puts it in reverse) is that the vast majority of pubs are kept open not by cask ale or craft keg drinkers, but drinkers of utility lagers such as Carlsberg, Carling and Fosters.

Where I part company with her is where she says "I can understand why so many CAMRA members  resent kegged beers, after all those members have campaigned for years to protect cask ale against boring and flavourless pasteurised beer and thanks to their efforts the war has been won."  I wonder about that. I am sure that many CAMRA members do resent keg beer, though, as there is so little competition from keg beer in the standard three to five percent range - the norm for cask beer drinkers - do they really need to?  Ordinary lower alcohol beers don't really present as well when kegged.  It's one of the reasons why so few do it. But "the war has been won." Has it really?  It has been won in the sense that cask beer's market share is shrinking less in today's market than other products (except craft keg oddly), but is it out of danger? I'd say not and while craft keg is a factor, there are a number of others.  Oddly, availability is one reason. Too often cask is available, but poor. Cask ale being very perishable, depends on a quick turnover.  It requires folks that will happily rattle back two, three or four pints in a session and it would seem that there are less drinkers of that ilk around now.  Volume drinking is, if not exactly going out of fashion, decreasing in popularity, especially with younger drinkers who don't quite see beer, or indeed themselves in that way, being often more eclectic in their likings (both beerwise and socially) and pretty concious of outcomes in terms of weight, health and image. 

The demise of many local pubs has diminished cask ale drinking too.  True many closed pubs were pretty poor, but even those, in my younger drinking days in Liverpool, were almost all cask, though of course not so latterly.  Turnover leads to quality and while choice was less, bad pints were rare.  And there is a quality issue with cask in many places.  I rather think we are getting a little nearer than we realise to the bad old days of the 1980s when Ruddles, Theakstons, Boddingtons and others became national brands with a resulting drop in quality overall.  Nowadays it is seen as enough by many (as it was then) to have a slow shifting, badly kept set of beers such as Doom Bar, Greene King IPA, Deuchars, London Pride and others of that ilk, that demonstrate the same "boring and flavourlessness" - to quote Jane - that the old keg beers of yore did, with the added disadvantage that it will likely be sold to you in less than perfect condition and temperature.  In the "bad old days" when pubs were brewery owned that happened so much less.  Most breweries policed their estates somewhat assiduously then.

 There was a very good piece in his blog by Martyn Cornell on the subject of CAMRA's stance on pub closures and changes of use.  He makes a lot of good points, including some that may not meet with universal agreement.  But where he is certainly right is in his point that CAMRA should have a campaign to raise the standard of cask beer sold in the UK today.  I agree with him, though in my case, as it would be as well as, not instead of campaigning against certain pub closures. My CAMRA Branch has an over-riding campaigning objective of so doing - and we have pretty good cask beer on the whole, so it could be argued that we don't need to do so.  Other CAMRA branches - and they need to be honest with themselves - ought to do the same. As long as cask beer is sold in many outlets in its blandest form, as long as pubs don't cellar and keep it correctly, as long as access to the market for more interesting beers is made either impossible or impossibly expensive by the Pub Companies, cask beer will always be in danger. When you can confidently expect a perfectly kept pint of interesting cask ale in the vast majority of pubs, then maybe, just maybe the war will be won. Not until then though and that's a long way off.

There is still plenty campaigning to be done.  The war to keep cask safe isn't yet over. The enemy though isn't craft keg, which is very encouraging of new entrant beer drinkers (a big plus to me), it is the quality of cask beer at the point of dispense and probably always has been.

Neither Cask Marque nor the Good Beer Guide will guarantee good beer sadly, but we should feedback to both when it isn't up to snuff.  If nobody complains..............

19 comments:

Dave Unpronounceable said...

shameless plug to a piece I wrote for Sheffield CAMRA's magazine... (Page 16 IIRC)

http://www.sheffieldcamra.org.uk/Beer%20Matters%20444.pdf

Tandleman said...

Not a lot to disagree with there Dave. Some mind you!

Dave Unprounceable said...

Well I have to fit in SOME controversy ;-)

DavidS said...

Good point well made.

But since this is essentially what the Good Beer Guide and Cask Marque are meant to achieve, should the emphasis be on making them fit for purpose? Or something else?

colin said...

Interestingly though I think craft keg has the same problem. So many new styled breweries have huge quality control issues and this does have a negative effect on quality. Interesrtingly though the drinking public don't seem to be swayed by the odd off tasting pint because the marketing men have persuaded them that its a "unique flavour"

Pastey said...

One of the first things I was taught when I started working behind the bar was what made Real Ale real, and when I became full time in the pub, the first thing I was trained in was cellar work. At subsequent pubs I then went of to work at I was employed almost purely as a cellarman, focusing on the beer first, and then working behind the bar second.
This was back in the 90s though, and there weren't that many great pubs. Every city had usually one, some cities had two. When visiting somewhere new for just one night you wouldn't usually need to dig out the GBG, because these few pubs were really the ones you wanted to go to. What they all had in common was that they all either employed a cellarman, or made sure that their staff were properly trained to run a cellar.

As most people here will almost certainly already know, running a cellar isn't just about ordering enough beer in and rotating stock. Running a cellar is about knowing the breweries, and knowing their beers. Knowing that a beer from Llyods usually only had 14 shelf life from leaving the brewery. Knowing that anything from Oakham would drop bright overnight. Knowing that anything from Roosters would sell out almost as soon as you put it on. You had to know these things, and you learned them through experience. You learned which breweries sent their beers out green and needed more cellar conditioning, you learned which ones were likely to be coming in with tired finings and would need a good shake and longer on the stillage.

It's harder now, especially with more breweries to try and learn about producing more and more beers. But it's not impossible, a phone call to the brewery usually gets you the information you need from a usually very helpful brewer who wants to see their beers sold at their best.

But we don't have cellarmen any more. There's very few pubs I know that even train up all their full time staff properly in looking after beer. And I think this is where the quality problem is coming from.
There will always be pubs that shift beer as a product, roll it in, rack it up, shift it out. More interested in getting money in the tills than making sure the customer is getting a decent pint.
But the pubs that are known for focussing on the beer, they really need to keep that focus. They need to make sure that staff are properly trained, and they need to make sure that any beer that goes over the bar, whether cask or keg, is in the best condition it possibly can be. Because at the moment it's not.

There's too much variability in the beer we're seeing. Yes, it's great that there's a lot of new breweries and a lot of interest in beer, but if that beer's not at it best then it's a wasted opportunity.

Curmudgeon said...

Little to disagree with there, although surely there is a lot of keg of the smoothflow type sold in the same strength range as most cask, even if the two don't tend to compete for the favours of the same drinkers.

I get the impression that many pubs simply don't have the turnover to keep all their cask beers in good nick, and I wonder whether many of them are in fact resorting to cask breathers to prolong shelf life. I come across a lot of beer that, while not off as such, seems very dull as if it's somehow had the stuffing knocked out of it.

Cooking Lager said...

Well put Tand. The problem is duff pubs flogging ropey grog.

Us supermarket lager drinkers, are not in the gun sights of the beards. Nice one, sir.

Alistair Reece said...

"It requires folks that will happily rattle back two, three or four pints in a session and it would seem that there are less drinkers of that ilk around now."

It is becoming ever more clear that my country needs me...

Martin, Cambridge said...

I reckon I drink more mediocre beer, though rarely poor beer, than 10-15 years ago, and I think you correctly put that down to turnover. This is not surprising when you look at the expansion in handpumps, growth in keg cider, and general reduction in drinking.

One example - on a small trip round York's newer Beer Guide entries on Monday nights, I probably enjoyed 1 pint out of 4, and that was in the Tap, which was the only pub with enough custom to justify having an average of 6 pumps on.

Many CAMRA branches seem to champion choice over quality.

Darren Turpin said...

Hear, hear. Well said throughout.

Reminds me of a visit to a new-ish pub just south of Burton-on-Trent a couple of years back. Eight handpulls, all in the 4%ish range, with Cask Marque labels on every handpull. The first two beers I tried were badly off. The young lad behind the bar swapped them happily, but also said that he couldn't tell himself because he "never drinks the stuff". And when I turned around with my third-time lucky pint, which was okay if not great, a bloke on a table behind asked if I was drinking the Marston's Pedigree, as his was ropey. As that wasn't one of the two I'd tried, that made it three out of eight.

It's these sort of pubs - especially if they make a point of advertising their cask ale range, as this one did on boards outside - that could do with more encouragement from the local CAMRA branch to either get their cask offering right and make sure the staff know what they're doing with it. Okay, we were there on a Thursday and the place wasn't jumping, so maybe we were drinking the last of the previous weekend's fresh stock, but that just illustrates the need for turnover management. Better to only have three out of eight handpulls available and all of them fresh and tasty, with bar staff briefed to tell customers that they were saving the other five for the weekend rush.

Oblivious said...

Great post tandle, its interesting that the issue of quality was raised at the GABF.

Curmudgeon said...

Yes, the problem tends not to be in the specialist beer pubs, even though they might have 15 pumps, but in the more mainstream ones that don't have enough turnover and maybe less skilled cellar staff. If you actually want cask beer to be widely available it's this type of pub that needs to be tackled.

Sadly too many CAMRA branches still egg pubs on to put on extra beers even though they must know it might endanger quality.

Matt said...

I really don't understand why non-specialist pubs where most customers drink lager or smoothflow put on more than two casks as if having more, lower-quality beer is going to pull in the punters.

Cooking Lager said...

As a punter walking into a pub, we can all see the signs as to whether the cask is worth a gamble? Come on, I'm not the only one. The signs are all there. What are the other punters drinking is the first sign to look for.

Curmudgeon said...

Yes, but we shouldn't have to work out whether the cask is worth a gamble.

DavidS said...

"I really don't understand why non-specialist pubs where most customers drink lager or smoothflow put on more than two casks as if having more, lower-quality beer is going to pull in the punters."

The trouble is - and I know I'm sometimes guilty of this myself - that on some level people see a line of four or six handpulls and think "aha, this pub clearly cares about Real Ale". It's obvious at a glance and it'll get people through the door.

Living in an area where there are quite a few pubs that have lots of ales on and the turnover to get through them, I may not give somewhere with a big range of badly kept beers many second chances, but I might not even get round to giving somewhere with just one or two a first chance, particularly if they aren't particularly interesting beers either. And I think most non-specialist places pick their ales, I suppose reasonably, for the benefit of regulars who Don't Know Much About Beer But Know What They Like (and what they like is Doom Bar or London Pride week-in week-out rather than having to try something new and different from a local micro every couple of days)....

Matt said...

And following on from what Darren said, anyone working behind a bar should be able to taste - not drink pints of and enjoy - all the beers they serve and tell if they're off. Can you imagine going to a restaurant and complaining about the food only to be told "we never eat it"?

thebeerthinker said...

Good points well made, Tandy.

I'd like to add that half the reason we have this cask vs keg debate (forgetting the economic and logistical reasons of returning the empties etc) is that newer breweries, realise that the quality of their product is in the hands of the cellarman. Bad beer not only reflects poorly on the pub, but also on the brewery. Keg mitigates this risk to some extent.

Cellar training is vital - I take much pride in trying to do the brewery well by showcasing their product the best I can - whether this means ringing them and asking what they recommend, or talking to others who have worked that beer in the past.