Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Quality versus Quantity


Readers of this blog and others will know that there is, knocking about and turning up like a bad smell, an irksome commentator called "py".  He spouts lots of anonymous inane comments to the extent that he has got himself barred from commenting here and there - but not here as it happens. I generally prefer to just give him it on the chin as required, rather than ban him, but I can see the point of those that do. However every dog has its day and occasionally, inadvertently really, a vexatious litigant can make a point that if you dissect it a little, may contain a grain of truth.  He says in a thread about the poor quality of cask beer/real ale in London:

py said...
Its by no means just a London thing. Wherever CAMRA is, then warm beer follows. Go to any CAMRA summer beer festival, the beer is always served as warm as day old piss. You wonder why its the foreign beer bar that always runs out first?

Deny it all you like, reply with some pointless childish insult if that is really the best you can think of, but CAMRA have done more than anyone over the years to damage the quality of cask ale.



21 August 2016 at 22:01

Now clearly much of that is nonsense, but while the writer doesn't expand his "thoughts", is there just a smidgen of what might pass for a reasonable comment there? Well, let's take his point about summer beer festivals. My branch simply wouldn't run one for the very reasons stated. That is, the danger of beer being as described.  Fortunately in Greater Manchester we have always had a heightened view of cask conditioning and beer presentation. We have strengthened that further, with our own cellar experts, who have developed cooling suited to the needs of smaller festivals. It may not be a complete answer, but I must agree that uncooled beer, in the height of summer is a very unwise business, could bring CAMRA into disrepute and my advice to CAMRA Festivals is "Unless you can guarantee the quality of the beer - don't do it."  The reputational risk is just not worth it. This advice should be followed not just by CAMRA beer festivals, but by all that sell real ale. If you can't provide top quality cask beer, just don't do it.

On a second point, Why do so many pubs insist in having a large number of below par beers on sale rather than two or three in top condition? Has CAMRA unwittingly made them think it is the only way to get in the Good Beer Guide? There is some evidence to suggest that might be the case, with the number of single or two beer pubs in the GBG diminishing severely. The current Good Beer Guide, somewhat astonishingly, shows only two such pubs out of 21 pages in Greater Manchester's entries. And even though we know in this area how to look after beer, can this really be wise?  Of course I know that sensible pubs will cut their ranges down at quiet periods, but are we in CAMRA encouraging, or at least not discouraging enough, this quantity over quality concern? On a brief look at this area, it kind of looks like it.  (The number of 3 beer pubs isn't that high either with "Beer range varies" being very common).

In the continual search for quality at the point of dispense, things such as cellar skills, venting practice, temperature and more are all at the top of the list, but when CAMRA looks to implement my motion bringing the quality of beer at the point of dispense into its Key Camapaigns, I reckon we need to include strong advice to pubs that too many beers on at the wrong time is just as bad for beer quality as some other more obvious faults.

Although he is unable to express it without giving offence, it may be that py has a case to argue. 

 I know from my own experience that persuading landlords of this isn't easy though and yes, I think sometimes the triumph of choice over quality can  be partially at least, placed at the door of CAMRA members voting for Good Beer Guide entries.

There needs to be sufficient process safeguards to challenge this at meetings, though of course, a lot of this stems from the pubs presenting too many beers in the first place.

34 comments:

Curmudgeon said...

As you know, I entirely agree with your analysis, but the pursuit of ever more handpumps is something that it will be very hard to wean CAMRA branches off.

One of the one and two beer pubs is of course Sam Smith's Boar's Head in Stockport, our current local branch Pub of the Year. I assume this is the only Sam's pub listed in Greater Manchester, although they have plenty more that serve good beer.

py sometimes does speak good sense, as in this comment on Boak & Bailey.

Tandleman said...

Blimey. That's lucid and makes sense.

Curmudgeon said...

He just needs to wean himself off the argument that the way to revive failing estate pubs is to put on eight cutting-edge craft beers, whether on cask or keg.

I haven't barred him as such, but did have a spell imposing moderation of all posts and deleting such drivel on sight.

Ed said...

I always enjoy Py's comments. Surely the essence of beer blogging is to state your own opinion as an objective fact, and Py is the purest expression of this.

Professor Pie-Tin said...

One of my favourite pubs in the universe - The Haunch of Venison in Salisbury - rarely has more than two or three beers on tap.
It has been going for 700 years so obviously less is more in this instance.

Martin Taylor said...

I go the Haunch every August and they still serve the beer too warm, much as I love the pub.

Well said Tand and Mudge. Opening Times and More Beer are exceptions, but many CAMRA magazines still bang on about choice rather than quality.

I think the Boars Head is now only GBG entry in Gtr Manc, which is odd to say the least.

Erlangernick said...

Only GBG entry ... *what*? (Cue John Cleese's fire conjurer.)

Erlangernick said...

Clearly py is TAND's sock puppet.

Tandleman said...

Ed - Oh indeed. He has entertainment value. He just needs to not overstep the mark as he has got near to doing. Think about this as a pub where a discussion takes place. It gets too personal the outcome can be anything from exasperation to a punch up. Happy to apply the rule that keeps it below punch up.

Others: Many thanks, but do detect a divergence of views about the Haunch.

Curmudgeon said...

I think he means the only Sam Smith's GBG entry.

Also none in Cheshire despite plenty of excellent Sam's pubs. But the Cheshire branches in general go overboard for quantity over quality.

Stono said...

but a pet theory of mine on this is that in areas where there is greater concentration of small/micro breweries, there is then a correpsonding tendency for those pubs within the brewery delivery area, to try to cover the choice that provides and this is where you get the undercutting/loss making stuff going on that several brewers complain of, but as a pub owner why wouldnt you provide lots of choice if people are fighting over and literally giving their beer away to you, choice is something people do consider as a factor. And that means as we often bemoan of some pubs that try similar selections in my area,a feel the width not the quality approach, fortunately round here those are the exceptions though.

Birkonian said...

I would go so far as to suggest that a majority of pubs serve poor quality cask beers.
Warm, slow throughput, too long in the line, end of barrel, it's easy to tick all four in one session. Wirral has a population of over 300,000 and I can think of maybe half a dozen pubs with consistently good beer. The local CAMRA branch include some terrible pubs year after year. I'm sure they are not the only ones. I won't be popular in saying that Greene King tied pubs are a good bet for a consistent pint. Indeed, pubs tied to breweries often have better quality cask beer than pubcos or free houses. You don't know how lucky you are to have a solid base of Hydes, Lees and even Robinson's pubs.

Curmudgeon said...

@Birkonian - agreed. The pubs that consistently serve the best-kept beer tend, with few exceptions, either to be brewery tied houses or non-enthusiast free houses with a sensibly limited range.

Don't really know the Wirral very well pubwise, but the Cheshire branches of CAMRA are among the worst offenders in going for quantity over quality in GBG selections.

Cooking Lager said...

It's a fair point that CAMRA sort out quality at it's own festivals before ragging on pubs selling warm flat pish.

Talks a lot of sense, Py. More than most bloggers.

Tandleman said...

No. He is of questionable sense. Bit of a twat really.

Andrew said...

In my part of North London a decidedly unimpressive pub has recently reopened with about a dozen keg and six cask options. I was a little surprised at the number of cask lines and in the half dozen visits I've paid so far, my fears seem to have been confirmed - the cask is at best out of condition and last Thursday close to vinegar.

The keg's fine, and since the reopened pub is now the best option for me locally, I keep going back, tending to ask for a taste of one of the cask beers - and then ordering the keg. It's a shame, as they've had some excellent cask options available - in theory.

Professor Pie-Tin said...

I've drunk at the Haunch all year round and can't say I've noticed much difference in the beer in August although considering the size of the cellar and the fact that it leads directly into behind the bar I'd say it must be a bugger to keep anything cool.
It has been going 700 years after all ...

Rob Nicholson said...

I think we have two Sam Smiths pubs in East Cheshire. From memory of when I was pub's officer, we get very few or no scores at all from them. Without those, they'll never get a look in with the GBG. Yes we know it's not fair but we're strapped for resources already without having to insist the active members visit every pub.

But yes there is a leaning towards the free houses offering choice which just shows our beer enthusiast roots.

That said, we pretty much pay lip service to the GBG these days due to it's inherent limitations and questionable campaigning benefits.

Rob Nicholson said...

I notice that Stockport had cooling - didn't notice whether it was on every cask but a welcome change. Not sure when that came in. Macclesfield is borderline in early May but the ambient temperature is often below 13C during the week and certainly overnight. Bollington (non-CAMRA) has always had cooling jackets because it's late July and the temperature in the tent was nearly 30C on the hottest day of the year last month. We do have sufficient coolers but in a tent, they did struggle to get the beer temperature down below 15C especially those darn plastic casks :-) Seemed to be okay though and if anything the warm day at the start of the settling phase did help with the conditioning.

But yes, we take cooling very seriously. I recall going to Sheffield beer festival a few years ago when it was in the sports hall. Only festival I've ever walked out of because the beer was warm and bordering on undrinkable.

Cooling jackets aren't cheap (~£80) so it's taken five years of buying a few a year to build up our stocks. Does CAMRA have a stock for loan? Can't remember if it's on the list?

Nick Boley said...

I think there are 2 points to be made about this:

1) Too many CAMRA branches/members are obsessed with range and choice and sacrifice quality for quantity. Choice is good but 2-3 really well-kept beers beats 10 loads of Sarson's any day.
It isn't rocket science to look after cask ale well. Clean lines, cellar temperature and cleanliness, only have enough beers so that no beer is on for more than 3-4 days, proper use of hard and soft spiles.

2) Although many CAMRA festivals sell their beer in really good condition, sadly not all do. The use of coolers (not just for the warmer weather but to prevent problems from temperature fluctuations, keeping the temperature constant), not serving the beers too "green" - i.e. allowing beer to stillage for 48-72 hours at least before serving should all be followed. We, as an organisation, are not in a strong position to preach quality to licensees until all our festivals beers are of a very high standard.

Rob said...

The local Greene King pub which has had a 'craft' makeover has far too many casks on. Think they opened with 10 but typically have 7 or 8. I haven't had a good pint there in 4 or 5 visits, and most times have had to take some flat vinegar back to the bar.

Rob Nicholson said...

We have way more "good beer" pubs with high quality beer in East Cheshire than our allocation of just 13 pubs. Therefore we, like many branches, apply other criteria to get down to our allocation. Choice being the obvious candidate as well as popularity - the two often go hand in hand anyway.

Ben Viveur said...

Where are all these pubs with only 1-2 beers that are in fantastic condition?

In the vast majority of pubs I've ever been to with only one or two cask beers on, the beer quality has been absolute rubbish and few regulars drank it. The beer on is almost always a national bland to boot.

For as long as I've been drinking, cask quality has generally been at its best in pubs that offer a wide selection, that cater to enthusiasts and that turn their 8-10 beers over quicker than the pub with 1-2 beers can turn over their 1-2 beers. Back in the 90s this meant Whitbread's Hogshead chain and the better Spoons. Nowadays it's places like the Craft Beer Co.

I know it's a snug theory that fewer beers will equate to better quality, but this just isn't borne out in reality. At least not in this part of the world. For me it's a poor argument on a par with 'cask beer has been saved'.

Of course, there are some pubs with big selections where quality is poor (like the bloody Bree Louise), but it's logically fallacious to conclude from this that the opposite will always hold true.

Curmudgeon said...

"Where are all these pubs with only 1-2 beers that are in fantastic condition?"

The Tandle Hill Tavern, perhaps? ;-)

Tandleman said...

The Tavern has three actually. Three isn't so bad if you know what you are doing and in a pub like the THT you need to know what you are doing.

Ben:You are other right and wrong really. London is a different ball game. I don't believe the Bree Louise is alone. I have had some right old chap in plenty of so called great beer places.

Anonymous said...

I was drinking in central London on wed .7 keg/keykeg beers all good temperature..6 cask only 2 drinkable and both in a Wetherspoons.Cask beer on warm nights can be a lottery in London.Can see and am seeing keg pushing out cask in London due to crap cellar management.cheers john

Martin Taylor said...

I'll show my ignorance here. Why are Key Keg beers so much cooler than cask ? A lot of the beer I've had in 50 odd pub this August has been OK, but too warm. There must be a solution in 2016 ?

Erlangernick said...

Martin, I suppose it's for the same reason that lager and other keg is colder than cask.

RedNev said...

There isn't a right answer here. I know pubs with 2 or 3 real ales that are good, and others with the same number that are not. I also know good and bad pubs with banks of handpumps.

Surely the simple test for the pub is whether the beer is going off regularly. If so, there are probably too many on, so cut the numbers. This test would work whether you have two handpumps or twelve.

I don't accept the assertion that CAMRA is to blame for poor quality beer in pubs. Pub training should not be based on what would qualify for the GBG, but I really doubt that it is anyway. I have known of instances where licensees, especially those in pubco pubs, are encouraged to stock real ale but are not given the requisite training. It is a poor business that sets up situations that result in an asset, in this case beer, being discarded because it has gone off owing to overstocking and lack of proper attention. No businesses can blame CAMRA for such failures. Quality is their job.

Curmudgeon said...

I'd say CAMRA does need to take part of the blame for encouraging pubs to expand the number of handpumps beyond the level the trade can sustain.

Joe Hill said...

Quantity over quality DOES bother me - and I feel it stems from a British philistine* approach to taste and value. Look at food - generally, a restaurant/caff will get us tut-tutting with a small menu - even if the quality is top-hole (common sense should dictate the obvious fact that a smaller menu = greater proficiency in preparing said eats, but our common sense circuitry is wired differently) We like to get our money's worth (volume-wise) and have plenty to choose from; on the whole quality is secondary.

My perfect pub serves only Landlord on cask, with bottles of Kernal impy stout in the fridge (gasp) and Thornbridge Wild Swan on keg. Seabrooks salt and vinegar of course, plus a fire, a snug, a dog and eternal autumn rain outside. Sadly, I'm yet to find this pub, though it could be recreated sans dog/fire in my shed, at a pinch - though The Rising Shed has no cellar, alas.


*in the nicest possible way

PY said...

Well said, Ben Viveur. This idea that if you're not getting through your beer quick enough, simply reduce your choice and everything will be sorted is simplistic in the extreme and doesn't really show any kind of understanding as to how pubs attract customers.

Specialist cask beer houses with multiple pumps have clearly made a business plan out of attracting cask beer enthusiasts and get through their beer quickly, and the result is consistent high quality. There are enough pubs like this around that we all must have been in a few.

Pubs that for whatever reason are unable to attract enough beer enthusiasts to put on a decent choice (3-4 pumps) of cask ale without compromising on quality would be better off not offering any cask ale at all, frankly. This is the bit CAMRA bods don't like because they think every pub should offer cask ale, no matter how marginal the demand. Just put a some bottles of local ale in the fridge, at least they don't go off in 4 days.

Tandleman said...

I don't think the case of specialist real ale pubs is what I was referring to. Also your second sentence isn't what I said.

If you reckon that you always get consistent high quality in specialist pubs then you are wrong. You may have a better chance, but then again, you might not.

Curmudgeon said...

There's a serious py infestation at present over on my blog :-(