Thursday, 3 November 2011

Can I Have a Taste of That?

We are told that one of the best ways of encouraging people to try cask beer, is to offer tasters. Indeed the principle can be stretched to all beer, but I'd guess that it is to cask beer that it most often applies, given the huge number of different beers available and the lack of information provided about what's on sale in most pubs. There is a touch of psychology involved here too. Perhaps it is a British thing particularly, but there is a degree of obligation then put on the drinker, in his or her mind at least, that having tried a beer, you must buy a beer. I can't recall many, if any times, where I or others having tried a sample or two, then said "No thanks" and left. It is you would say, a "win win" situation. The drinker gets a beer they are more or less content with and the pub makes a sale. Simples.

Stepping back from this a little and broadening things out, there is still a distinct lack of information about beers on sale in most pubs. Bar staff are often guilty of complete lack of knowledge of even colour, despite serving the stuff - even sometimes it has to be said - at the end of a shift. Boards rarely indicate style or colour and the Cyclops scheme of how a beer appears and should taste is yet to make much of an impression. At least, nobody has ever read the Cyclops tasting notes back to me.

Last week in Liverpool I came across something that has only happened on the odd occasion. In one pub, a request by my drinking companion for a taste was politely refused, citing company policy. In another the very helpful barmaid explained that third pint tasters (as a pint) were available, so that you could make up your own mind at your own cost, as the burden of paying for tasters had proved uneconomic to the pub, mostly due to abuse of the system. Interesting stuff.

Now it may be that they are just a mean lot in Liverpool, but I doubt that. Personally I'd rather the pub factored in the cost of tasters in their pricing, as I'm sure most do, but given the wide variety of beers and beer styles available and the huge lottery of buying the unknown blind, I'd say pubs are missing a trick if they don't offer free tasters and make more effort to tell folks what the beers available are like. On the subject of third pints and three for the price of a pint in particular, I've noticed this becoming more common. It is a good thing, but not as a replacement for a quick taste to see if I'd like it in the first place. For the record, I've never come across any pub that sells a third of a pint on its own. Does that happen anywhere?

Tasters can be misleading of course as most drinkers know, but at least they give you a fleeting impression of the beer, but more product information is never a bad thing. The customer not only deserves it, but with huge choice, actually needs it.

I have even heard of CAMRA run festivals where the third has replaced tasters. Bad form.


Mark said...

Yeah, I agree with you. Never been refused a taster but have been answered with an "Ok" accompanied by a roll of the eyes and a tut or two.

Equally, I've never asked for a taster and then walked away from the bar without buying something.


Erlangernick said...

I've never come across any pub that sells a third of a pint on its own. Does that happen anywhere?

Yes. I was delighted to learn you can do it at The Grove. Just another reason to go there.

I've also learned you can do it at the SIBA GNBF. Even managed a couple on my own!

Eddie86 said...

Yep, you can but third of a pints with us, as well as 2/3 pint shortly (waiting for new glasses to come through).

I encourage all the staff to have a taste of the beers when they come on shift - not only does it help them describe the beers but it also keeps a regular eye on quality control, which is vital for us during this time of year.

I've seen someone ask for a taster in a JDW to be given a shot glass of the ale in question, we offer them freely but suggest a donation in the charity box.

For the record, we also offer tasters of the keg beers and, if I've opened a bottle of something from the fridge at the end of my shift and someone asks about it, they get a taste of that too.

The best thing about beer and pubs is discovering new ones and sharing that with others


Anonymous said...

Tandleman should read his 2012 Good Beer Guide .... the entry for the Ashton Arms in Oldham contains the following

Third-of-a-pint measures are always available.

Tandleman said...

Anon - I'll check that out and then let you know if I can find the corner you are hiding in.

Mark said...

Tasters are great and I often go for them - it's a safety net against something bad. I don't feel too pressured to order what I taste because often there's something else which I'm happy to order so I take the taster to try something else!

The staff is a bigger issue. It's fine to offer a sample but if a blank face stares back and offers nothing more than a bored expression then what help is that?

Matt Gorecki said...

We always offer tasters on draught beer and as far as I'm concerned it's an industry standard.

Staff should always have to opportunity to taste and thus be endowed with the knowledge and confidence to sell something to a customer more often than not if a member of staff is good enough they can sell the product without even requiring a taster.

I don't see why people don't offer 1/3 pints it's a nice option, but they shouldn't replace a small taster.

Even where most bottles are concerned we operate a policy where if you as a customer are actively recommended a beer and you absolutely hate it, are honest in your intentions and bring it back relatively untouched you can swap it (you'll pay the difference for a more expensive product of course).

I was in a particular London pub recently and they had a bunch of Kernel beers on draught. I was refused a taste on the grounds that they didn't have a lot of it. If they'd have let me have a taste they'd have had a lot less left, for the simple reason that we would have stayed in the pub for more than one drink.

Dave U said...

the Ship & Mitre sells thirds - or at least did. A few of my locals sell thirds of the stronger beers (7.5+)

the Cask & Welly has a sign reading 'Tasters come in half pints'... I'll leave it to your judgement how tongue in cheek that is...

RedNev said...

My local the Guest House offers third of a pint measures. I disagree completely with the suggestion that pubs should factor in the cost of tasters - beer is dear enough as it is. I want to buy a pint - not a pint and several other people's tasters, especially as I don't ask for them myself.

It is argued that tasters will encourage more people, particularly women, to try give real ale a go. It seems such a simple and obvious idea, but I can see reasons why it isn't as good as it sounds.

Firstly, it will cost the pub money, especially if hopping along the bar trying out beers until you find one you like becomes a regular occurrence in your pub. Several free samples will soon add up to a pint - £2-50 to £3 lost. With the outrageous mark-ups that Pub Cos put on their supplies to pubs, plus beer tax, the margin of profit on a barrel is not large and could be seriously eroded or eliminated by free samples, which would surely lead to higher prices.

Secondly, my beer festival experience is that it tends to be the more experienced real ale drinkers who ask for samples; the person tentatively looking at the array of beers not knowing which to buy won't usually ask for one unless it's offered. This suggests to me that it would tend to be the experienced drinkers who would ask for samples in pubs, not the novices, so I'm not convinced this would usher in legions of new women real ale drinkers. Besides, waiting to be served behind someone who is going through the beers, sniffing, sipping and holding them up to the light, is not what I want to be doing in a pub. And there would always be the selfish oaf who would insist on doing that three minutes before closing time, not caring about the queue waiting to be served behind him. It's no good saying there should be more staff; it's not practical just to deal with the last orders rush. At beer festivals I've dealt with people who abuse tasters to drink free beer for as long as they can get away with; I'm certain some would try it in pubs.

Thirdly, while a sample may let you know you'll strongly dislike a particular beer, it may not do other beers justice. Sometimes it takes several mouthfuls rather than a quick sip before my palate adjusts to a beer, especially if I've just finished one with a very different character. As a result, I've sometimes been initially disappointed with a pint, only to find I quite like it about a quarter or a third of the way through.

If a pub feels confident it can afford to offer samples, then that's all well and good, but I don't think it's reasonable to expect this to become general practice. That's why I welcome the use of third pint glasses, even though I doubt I'll ever use them myself.

Birkonian said...

Would the pub that refused a taster be The Dispensary by any chance?

Tandleman said...

RedNev - Good points though since beer costs money, in my mind it has to be priced in.

I think people asking for sample after sample would soon get short shrift, but it can and does happen. They should be told in no uncertain terms that isn't the done thing.

Your point about several mouthfuls to adjust to a beer is a telling one. It is why samples are good, but not perfect. I've like samples and hated the pint. But it is better than hating a whole pint you have paid for.

Birkonian. No. It wasn't. But you are warm.

StringersBeer said...

I'm all for pubs offering tasters if they want to - and for pricing it in if that's their business model - but not everyone wants or expects tasters. So those drinkers are subsidising the eccentricities of the undecided toper. Which doesn't seem entirely fair.

We wouldn't neccesarily expect a taster in a kebab shop or, for that matter, a michelin-starred restaurant. Why in a pub?

A good pub, will have a range of good beer, well kept, available in halfs. If you suspect some of the beer is cack, stop drinking in cack pubs. Some publicans may consider a request for a taster as implied criticism of their taste and skill. If you see an unfamiliar beer, buy a half. It may not be to your usual taste, but you might end up broadening yr horizons a bit.

Or let's have taster trays... for sale.

geordiemanc said...

Would it be a large brewery owned pub just up the road from The Dispensary?

The same one where the manager's response to having the vinegar he had just served returned was to ask the CAMRA bar manager who was returning it what she'd had for breakfast because it was affecting her taste?

As for the general cost of tasters, yes ultimately they will add up, but the suggestion that several samplers will quickly add up to a pint suggests a pub giving a lot larger samplers than is actually necessary.

This is perhaps where the problem comes - too many pubs give "samples" that are 1/6 - 1/4 pint. I find two problems in this - firstly it is costing the pub money but secondly I never know what to do when I don't like the beer. I'm left with a quarter pint in front of me - do I drink it even though I don't like it or do I leave it to be thrown away?

I have come across pubs where samplers are served in shot glasses and I think it's a good policy. It might not be the ideal vessel to get the aroma etc from a beer but the point is not to run a tasting competition, it's to find out if a beer is worth a try.

Instructing staff to give tasters in shot glasses serves the purpose while automatically stopping staff giving too much away and making it clear to the punter that they are getting a limited amount thereby cutting back on the "serial tasters" getting merry on free beer.

RedNev said...

No one (not even TM) has yet explained why I should pay extra for my pint so that other people can have free tasters.

Matt: it's not an industry standard. Most places I go to don't offer them.

TM: they only have to be priced in if they're available, which I don't expect - and if it costs me more for my pint, don't want either. Beer is dear enough as it is.

If you're not keen on the beer you've bought, just don't buy it again, just as you would if you bought some food from the supermarket and found you didn't like it. Why do certain real ale drinkers expect to be mollycoddled and spared the terrifying experience of a beer they're not keen on?

the comfy gill said...

An interesting discussion with a wide range of views on a subject near to my heart. I am more than happy when going in a "new pub" to buy a half on the beers on offer, as I did last week on my first visit to an Allgates house.However, there have been times when have been charged significantly more for two half's than a pint and I think this is a bit sharp.
Allgates did have on offer Windermere Pale so the idea of a half or a third never entered my head.

Stono said...

@RedNev I dont think you (or I or anyone) should have to pay extra to cover the cost of free tasters, obviously some landlords might see it as giving away free beer and its a potential cost margin issue and its understandable that they might think that if they havent seen the system in practice, but the cost of providing a taster should be covered by the sale of something the customer wants to drink + their repeated custom, people who drink something they like tend to stay and drink more of it, even if it doesnt lead directly to a sale to them at the time it reinforces a postive customer experience, and I always find the busiest pubs are the ones where you get the most positive staff to customer interactions going on.

as opposed to the standard way where a customer ends up picking something they dont like because the staff dont care, hates it, it puts them off, they move on and maybe never come back, which just leaves you with lots of undrunk beer which you end up throwing out moaning about this awkward cask ale stuff, that ends up costing far more than giving people a quick taste of the beer first.

my experience of working behind the bar at beer festivals is yes the more experienced drinkers will generally ask for tasters first, though not as many as you might think, and obviously you always have the power to stop people abusing the system, whilst the less experienced tend not to know they can even ask

but thats where you as barstaff can make the most positive difference to them and can either suggest a taster first to try a beer you know is an acquired taste that theyve picked and theyll probably hate, or as a taster to get them trying something that suits their tastes more or is a bit different because they want to try something new.

and my experience is that sells more beer than if I just stood there and dispensed on request like some glorified vending machine.

offering tasters should be an idea pubs embrace willingly, that they dont tells you more about how most pubs in the UK are run IMO, personally always found the best bars (the award winning ones been in the GBG countless years etc so its not just my opinion :) ) Ive been in offered tasters as a matter of course

geordiemanc said...

Excellently put Stono.

Tandleman said...


Erlangernick said...

Maybe it's a bit different for me, wandering into the pub as a foreigner. Maybe I'm treated a little more gingerly than the usual ticker, but when I look over the pump clips and ask, "What's xxx like -- is it pale and hoppy?", I'm normally OFFERED a taste.

"Well sure, if that doesn't put you out or anything." "Oh no, it's what we do here to help you decide."

Agreed on Stono's points, and what a beautifully long sentence at the start!

Anonymous said...

This will have to be anonymous otherwise I won't get served next time.

My 'local' is a regular GBG entry and Pub of The Year. Unfortunately, it also employs staff who don't drink ale.

Inevitably, sour beer turns up more often than it should. Tasters are an essential protection against this.

Why is it a GBG regular? Good question.

RedNev said...

Sorry, Anon, I disagree - the protection against a sour pint is taking it back and getting it changed. When incompetent licensees have to pour pints of unsold beer away, they might take beer quality more seriously. Relying on tasters as quality control simply means they will continue to foist bad beer on other customers, and as we know, many won't complain.

I have never been refused when I’ve taken a beer back, although there has been the occasional argument. On one occasion, I was told, “No one else has complained.” I replied, “It’s not my fault if your customers don’t know what a decent pint should taste like.” I got my replacement pint, which was fine but served with bad grace. I didn't go back into that pub for more than 25 years.

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