Thursday, 11 August 2011

The Case for Naming and Shaming

Mark has written a very good piece about bad beer and bad drinking practices on his blog.  He remarks about a frank exchange of views on Twitter (involving me) about just such an experience and wonders how best to go about things when you are less than satisfied.  A good question.

I am often thought of as a "namer and shamer" and indeed when I see it as justifiable, that is indeed what I do.  Of course I praise far more pubs and beers than I ever criticise and that's as it should be. You  ought to find good beer far more than bad in your travels and that should be reflected when recounting your experiences. There is no point in simply trotting out a serious of negatives. Of course there is a view that such naming is inherently counter productive and that a quiet word will solve the problem. You know what? It almost never does in the beer business and I have been around that business a long, long time.  How many times have you complained at the bar that a beer "might be a bit off" or "near the end of the barrel" - always said deferentially and apologetically and usually by way of a circumlocution - when you know in fact that it is undrinkable? The typical response is to have your view either denied, or at best an exchange given, while the beer continues to be served to the next mug.  How many times have you felt the beer is too warm, or too cold, or flat, or old, or any number of other faults? Have you had that quiet word, or just accepted it as a fact of life? Do you repeat that experience in the same pub time after time, or go elsewhere? Badly presented beer loses customers, whatever they either say or don't say to the management and it puts people off drinking beer.

Then there is the brewer and his reputation. People don't always make the correct association between "bad" beer and bad cellar practice. They often blame the brewer. Unfair?  I'd say so. (That works in reverse too). What about the cost? You can shell out up to £4 a pint for beer and for that, don't you deserve a beer on top of its form?  Curiously there is an unjustifiable degree of public tolerance for bad beer, bad service and a bad experience in pubs, which is strangely at odds with our views elsewhere. Would you be happy at Tesco if your roast ham was clearly past its best?  With Sainsbury's if your milk was on the turn? More tellingly, would they? Would Waitrose say "well everyone else is eating it?" when you expressed doubt about the freshness of their quiche?  No. They'd be horrified and be unable to do enough to make amends.  That's the attitude we ought to encourage in pubs surely?

And then there is focusing on the positive. This is good as far as it goes, but when it happens, should the bad be overlooked? Does the restaurant critic hold back on his findings? Of course not. But that's their job you holler? Well maybe, but my aim as a blogger is to give opinion based on experience and knowledge.  That's my job if you like.  I rarely have anyone deny the message, tell me I'm wrong about what I say, or  that what I say just isn't so. They just tell me that it should not be said.  "Bad form Old Boy."

So back to naming and shaming. Mark says rightly, that this has to be given proper consideration. I agree and despite some cynicism, I suffer too much from the triumph of hope over experience, so it is rare that I'll go into print about something that has happened, unless it has been more than once.  That isn't to say a mention won't be made in passing, or as a recounting of an experience. As I really believe that quality is absolutely important, if you knowingly and repeatedly fail to deliver that quality, then yes,  I will likely name and shame you. It is a discourtesy to beer and to my readers not to issue a warning where one is needed. The reader can then make their own mind up. (Interestingly publicans never respond with outrage either and if it was me and it wasn't true, I'd be spitting tacks.)

I was a fully trained barman under an old school boss when I was 18.  High standards of customer service and quality were drummed into me.  As part time bar staff we did everything in the customer facing part of the pub, from serving and changing beer, cleaning lines and even toilets. I have looked after more beer (both in festivals and in the pub) and drunk more beer and beers than most people have had hot dinners and I do know what I'm talking about, but you know what, that isn't the main point? Above all I'm a customer and I like things to be good.I was taught that one bad experience will poison the customer's mind and the minds of those to whom he or she tells the tale, while a good one will do the opposite and bring more customers in.

I am bitterly disappointed if my experience isn't good - that the publican doesn't care as much as I do - and I may just tell my readers about it.  It is disappointment and the taking away of my enjoyment (as well as my money) that really irks me and motivates me to comment on it.  Above all it is just feeling let down.

Mark's other point about the increasing influence of bloggers is interesting and relevant, but is for another time.


Curmudgeon said...

A problem is that most beer drinkers don't really know how to identify poor beer. Yes, if it's cloudy, that's an obvious fault, but otherwise they will tend to just struggle through it and think twice about going back there again.

I recently was served a pint that was obviously "on the turn" in a GBG-listed pub. I took it back and it was changed without demur. But how many drinkers would have the courage of their convictions to do that?

More than once, on pub crawls, we have gone into a pub and been presented with blatantly vinegary beer. The sight of several customers getting their beer changed has then prompted an old boy in the corner to decide that he shouldn't really be putting up with the pint of Sarson's he was nursing.

Anonymous said...

your blog is in bold

Tandleman said...

Anon - Thanks. Fixed.

Coxy said...

poor beer is everywhere, I live in St Albans the home of CAMRA where nearly every pub has a cask ale on, only four or five really serve it well. I was in Glasgow the other day had a couple of terrible pints in The Three Judges , a pub with lots of choice but crap cellarmanship.I also went to the non cask selling Brewdog pub,the keg was pretty good ,not as good as a good cask pub but they are thin on the ground, so I am all for keg beers in most pubs as I keep wasting money on poor beer. As for Brewdog bars ,couldn't they just have one cask on?

Unknown said...

Tandy's blogs are always bold.

In many ways I agree with the principle that a lot could be done to improve beer quality. I'm also not against identifying offenders per se.

However, I guess I do see things from another perspective which is quite complex.

Firstly, having run a pub, and having cared a lot about what I was doing, I knew I didn't always get it right. Everyone makes mistakes.

Mudgie's example is interesting. It's true that many customers won't point out that their beer is off, or possibly don't even know. It may even be the case that the barman/cellarman/publican is unaware. I have tried a beer on opening the bar in the morning and it's been perfect, but 2 hours later the combined effect of diminishing volume in the cask and ingress of air has turned the beer quicker than expected. I have always imagined that there is a layer of vinegar floating on the top of the beer in the cask so noticeable is the effect at the end of the cask.

Also, and this may not go down well, but the "C" word has to be mentioned. Like it or not Tandy, you are inextricably linked to CAMRA. This, by itself, is no bad thing; In many ways you have a much more diverse and contemporary view than some people, who I'm sure we could both identify. Moreover, our interactions I find useful and positive, even when, and possibly because, we have frank and honest discussions.

But there is undeniably some people in the trade who feel unnerved by CAMRA trying to tell them how to do their job; how to run their businesses. I worry that you will just be seen as another one of them.

Sorry, that was all a little blunt, but I'm trying to be honest, and it's only my perspective anyway.

We should agree that we both have the aim of improving the quality of beer. I wish I could tell more publicans how to handle my beer. Most seem to have the attitude that they know better and don't need to be told, tactful training seems to work better than blunt bollocking.

Tandleman said...

Reasonable points up to a point Dave. I never identify myself in any way if I complain. I just politely point out what I feel is the problem. I don't drink as a CAMRA member and I don't complain as one. I complain as a customer. Nor do I complain as a blogger in pubs, though clearly I sometimes do afterwards.

You are even more constrained I'd suggest, but in matters of opinion, we are both likely to be on a stickier wicket than matters of fact.Temperature is a matter of fact. In that respect I'm certainly telling them how to do their job. They clearly aren't doing it themselves.

My beer isn't free. I go back to my supermarket analogy and I think I have clearly indicated that tactfulness is already included.

I know things go wrong from time to time, but that should be the exception, not the rule.

Bailey said...

We started out determined to accentuate the positives and not to slag anyone/anything off. Our logic was that the cream would rise to the top fuelled by good publicity and the bad would either learn from what the good were doing or disappear. In recent years, though, we haven't been able to resist calling people out where we've been particularly appalled. It has also, at times, started to feel like lying by omission.

Where a brewer or pub is doing some things we like, and others we don't, we try increasingly to recognise both sides. The fan-boy/hater dichotomy isn't one we're comfortable with: surely it's always more complex than that?

Certainly in the early days, if you don't mind me saying so, I used to find you quite scary, and thought your blogging persona a bit 'Mr Angry'.

The example that always comes to mind of someone who is honest but never seems mean or 'negative' is the Beer Nut. He by no means likes everything he drinks but always comes across as very reasonable in his criticisms. Reading his blog, the overall impression is that beer is exciting and there's a lot of good stuff to be found; and fun to be had sorting through the dross to get to it!

Des de Moor said...

I confess to being one of the non-namers and shamers, and having spent almost a decade systematically sampling British bottle conditioned beers for my BEER column, I'd have plenty to name and shame should I choose! Far too many 'Real Ales in a Bottle', CAMRA-accredited and all, are bodged by breweries, resulting in a rather depressing succession of badly conditioned, infected or otherwise off beers.

The reason I've generally resisted naming and shaming in my print writing is that space is very limited, and I'd rather use it to be positive and praise good beer than slag off bad beer. But I do usually let the breweries know why I haven't chosen to feature their products. There's also always the fear that too much emphasis on the negative might put readers off from exploring beer in general, working against the principle reason why I write.

Those that have read my new London guide may have spotted that I trod a very fine line in my writeup of the Bree Louise, trying to set the reported problems with some of the beers there in the context of their broader support of small local brewers. The landlord, Craig, has since told me he's appreciative of what I wrote, and thinks it's fair and balanced. I was glad of his attitude -- being critical in a measured way shouldn't alienate you from the people you're criticising.

On the other hand, we should be wary of using the public platform afforded by the internet simply to "get our own back" by indiscriminate slagging off. I also omitted one pub from my book after the landlord was extremely unpleasant and offensive to me on a research visit. But I did so not in retaliation but because after the way he treated me (and numerous other people according to pub user websites) I didn't think I could confidently recommend his pub to readers.

On my website I'm clearly not so limited for space and, following reading this piece and sundry other discussions with Tandleman and others, I've decided not to be quite so reticent to "name and shame" when I really think it could serve a good purpose.

Tandleman said...

Bailey. Scarey? Moi? As you know in person I'm an absolute pussy cat. Mostly in my blog too really. And it is a fine line, but in contrast to the Beer Nut, I tend to talk about how pubs do it wrong - him about beer - and yes, I sometimes say "the beer was a touch warm" which is my euphemism for "I burned my mouth on it". Where it is actually a touch warm I say nowt.

Des - Measured as always and I understand what you say, especially when it serves a good purpose. I hope my recent piece has and I think it just might, though I'll probably be kicked out of the Dean Swift!

I suffer for my art.

Brewers Union Local 180 said...

Since we have our casks in a temperature controlled cellar behind the bar on auto-tilts, my staff is aware that the leaning firkin might be going funky and to warn the punter that his/her pint might be off. The potential imbiber, thusly warned, can give it a taste and let us know if the thumb points heavenwards or otherwise. If not, we'll swap the cask and offer an alternative.