Saturday, 15 November 2014

A Bone Picked Out

Ed set the cat among the pigeons with his controversial (though he'd say tongue in cheek) post about the so called elitism of craft beer.  There was a flurry of responses, probably by now not far short of 100 of them. I don't think it unfair to say that these generated more heat than light, but also a fair degree of exasperation. There is an amount of defensiveness in the crafterati and a large portion of doubtful economics on the side of those that think craft is overpriced for what it is.  That generated a lot of passion, but you must pick the bones out of that yourself, though I do wish that craft aficionados would stop saying that it is worth paying "a little more" for "better beer". It is rarely a little more. It is a lot more. And it isn't always by any means better.

In all this I would like to commend to you for consideration the words of Yvan Seth when he says "And hell, £1 more for keg because I don't have to play cask-quality-roulette and I can just get on with my drinking without the fuss of returning beer or putting up with a semi-drinkable pint. This is a point I have made before (hence my liking it), but it harks back to why keg was so welcomed in the 60's when cask quality was thought to be uniformly dire.  It took the lottery away when purchasing a pint. This quality lottery goes a long way towards explaining why when I'm in London, I quite often end up drinking commodity lager. Yes I know where to get good beer, but despite the beer revolution in London, you still have to travel to get that good beer. Random decent looking pubs will often disappoint.

Then Yvan goes on to say something with which I more or less totally agree. It is worth repeating here:

"[IMO, if there is one thing CAMRA could *really* do for the future of cask ale, & the good of the cask ale drinker, it would be to drop most of what it does now and focus entirely on quality of beer at point of dispense. Because on average it is abysmal. This might even help save flagging pubs."

I have said until I'm blue in the face that quality at the point of dispense is cask beer's Achilles Heel.  It might well be in an advanced state of decrepitude in London, but it has problems in cellar skills everywhere. We have all played the cask beer lottery and all lost.  Yvan is absolutely right that CAMRA does not do enough about that. I'm not yet sure what that might be. I'm thinking about it, but it shouldn't be that difficult to come up with something. After all it is the "raison d'etre" of the Campaign.

There are those that say the CAMRA battle has been won. Real ale is indeed everywhere, but as long as a quality pint remains elusive, CAMRA still has plenty to do. We  need to fight the right fight though.  Keg beer, in whatever form is not the enemy. Lack of quality cask beer at the point of sale is. 

I watched Scotland win last night in my local London pub. My pint of Gales Seafarer (see above) was a warm, flat mess. I'd have had three or four pints if the beer was any good. I had one Gales and a pint of Becks, which was awful in a different way, but at least cold and with condition. Bad beer loses pubs money.


Pastey said...

I couldn't agree more. It's the quality of cask that often gets me to go to the keg.

Cellar work isn't that difficult, but it does take a little more thought, planning and time. But the benefits, a good pint of cask ale, are definitely worth it.

Rob said...

Absolutely. There is a free house where most cask beers are £2.40. My local (tied) pub is about £3.50 a pint. I haven't had a decent pint at the free house in about 5 visits, so I don't go there. The tied pub might be a bit pricey but they generally keep it well. (Apart from the occasional dark beer which I put down to not getting through it quick enough. I wish more people would drink stouts and porters.)

Cooking Lager said...

I agree with you, quality is the key. I potter into a boozer and almost immediately have a guess as to whether the cask beer is any good by seeing what others are necking. It's rarely wrong. What most others are on is usually the best on offer.

Rob said...

You are a wise man cookie. See I was excited by the choice of 8 different cask beers on offer. I should have noticed that no one else in the pub was drinking any of them. How on earth a pub has that number of casks on but fails to keep any of them in good condition I do not know.

Yvan said...

It is a problem I ponder frequently. I'm just not sure what CAMRA can actually do. One prong is to create people like myself. Who not only are interested in cask ale but have learnt a hell of a lot about it - both theoretical and practical.

But unless we actually have any traction with pubs this doesn't do a great deal. I have successfully advised/improved things at only a couple of pubs. Most pubs don't want a bar of it. "Who's this telling me how to run my pub?! Hah!" The fact I'm 35 rather than 50 and don't yet have grey hair may not do me any favours, nor have I run a pub/cellar myself. These folk have been doing what they do for years and people rarely complain about their beer... sadly. They think their sales are OK, and if they aren't then they blame everything except themselves. I'm generally quite reserved and gentle in offering any advice I may have. But it is impossible to do it without having to basically say first: there are problems with the way you serve your beer. How do you make that go down well?

CAMRA needs to work on its relationship with pubs I think. Create 'beer champions'? Appropriately credentialed. And somehow supply free advice/support to pubs in a manner that will be accepted - especially new publicans, who often dive in head first with so little knowledge it scares me.

Another prong is to perhaps to somehow reduce the perceived reward granted for having numerous beers on draught. In most pubs 6 handpumps is over the top... yet this is increasingly common. CAMRA members and others flock to this variety. How do we get people to flock to quality rather than variety? When those 6 pumps are then matched by 6 FoT keg lines then the consistency offered by the keg product is very alluring for anyone who doesn't have the "cask ale" religion. (Such as myself, I'll drink the beer I expect I'll enjoy the most not the beer that some misconceived idea of "rightness" tells me I must drink.)

I think WhatPub, NBSS, and a slicker online GBG-type interface may have a role to play here. These are currently underutilised resources in pub promotion IMO. (I am not much of a fan of the GBG and the branch-sourced style of populating it. It needs rejigging somehow, revitalising.)

I did my CaskMarque/BII cellar training recently and found it taught good practices. Nowt new to me on the cask side of things and definitely "dumbed down" - but providing a standard procedure that should work in most cases. I don't think a majority of the other folk on my course particularly cared alas - but some did, especially those few of us self-funded and motivated participants. (Most are put through it by their employer... this a plus for chain/managed type pubs & bars, it just takes one or two motivated staff in a bar to make all the difference.)

CAMRA could actually offer better than this training in a 1-day course. Hell, *I* could... Or could CAMRA do a deal with Cask Marque to fund/discount access to the course for publicans?

Just throwing out some random thoughts/ideas...

Paul Bailey said...

"Lack of quality cask beer at the point of sale is the enemy." I'm not sure what the answer is here, but I suspect there are other issues as well which contribute to poor quality.

How often do publicans clean their lines? How clean is the pub cellar? - I've seen some immaculate looking cellars and also some pretty appalling ones. No prizes for guessing what the beer was like in the latter.

Cookie is right when he says that it pays to have a quick look around to see what the other punters are drinking. If they're all drinking lager then order a half pint of cask to begin with.

Phil said...

I don't range as widely as Tandleman - I hardly ever go to London for one thing - but I do spread my custom around a fair bit. And I can count on the fingers of two hands the times when I've had a cask beer in bad enough condition to take back. If it's a lottery it's one that I win several times most weeks. This evening, for instance, I was drinking in a bar with eight handpumps (seven operational) plus twice that number of keg taps; I had a black IPA, a 'smoked bitter' and a pale ale, all of which were in good nick (despite the fact that the first two were over 6% and were almost certainly moving a lot slower than the third).

I agree that it's a problem - or rather, I'll take your word for it that it's a problem in a lot of pubs I don't go in. But I don't think we should overstate it. If someone says that choosing keg is the only way they can be sure of getting a decent pint, that person is either (a) very unlucky in their choice of pubs or (b) wrong.

Rob said...

There is a range between being in top condition and vinegar. Either I have higher standards than you or I just choose pubs badly, but I've had to take pints back far more than that, and I don't get to go to the pub that often. In the past month though I have had one pint that was warm vinegar (when I took it back they said, oh it must have just been sitting in the pipes, so pulled it through and then it was cool vinegar instead. I got a different pint but they left it on still), a pint with no condition at all, and another that was murky when it isn't normally and not quite right. I only took the vinegary one back because I only do that when its undrinkable. But still, 3 times in a month when I've maybe been out 6 times. Not on really. It is very rare to get a bad pint at my local thankfully.

Anonymous said...

Pubs are crap. Drink bottled beer at home the way the brewer intended.

Stonch said...

Pins are part of the solution. Breweries aren't interested in them because they cost the same as a firkin, and when they do sell them they charge way more than 50% of the firkin cost making them prohibitively expensive.

However pins mean (obviously) a pub has half the pints to sell and even low turnover places or those with unusual peaks and troughs in their business (yes, that's my new pub at the moment) can offer a range and keep everything in top condition. And these days you have to offer a range or nobody comes in the first place, so it's a catch 22 if you're trying to grow your reputation.

My parents moved to Suffolk earlier this year. Their village pub - disposed of by Punch so now a freehouse no longer subject to pubco churn - has new licensees who can offer two standards and a guest because they only use pins. The beer is top class (they use sparklers by the way!) and people are beginning to come in slightly greater numbers for it. I smashed four pints when I visited having intended to only have one.

Curmudgeon said...

Good post. It's very difficult to wean CAMRA members off handpump-counting, and often it's not the twelve-handpump specialist pub that has a problem with quality, but the six-handpump pub company one.

Also from my experience many CAMRA members have little idea what constitutes a good or bad pint.

Professor Pie-Tin said...

There's no cask in the Irish town where I live.
Just keg stout and lager dispensed through lines which are cleaned regularly and professionally by the two major chains Guinness and Heineken.
Despite this there's still a huge difference in the quality of the beers which are delivered to every pub off the same lorries.
The best is a pub where the landlord drinks at least a gallon of Guinness every day - the worst by a landlord who only drinks bottled Bulmers with ice.
The difference,therefore,is what happens to the beer between keg and glass.
And I still haven't worked out what that is.
But I know in which pubs the pint is shite - a brown head and a sour taste in the stout - and where the pint is consistently excellent.
All ten of them last night watching the rugby.

Matt said...

I'm sure you meant to write "harks back" but "harps back" is much more appropriate when discussing the beginnings of keg beer in Britain.

Anonymous said...

Rob- couldn't agree more. I'm often served with a pint that is not up to par in some way, but not demonstrably awful enough to take back. This grey area is enough to make me wary of what and where I drink on cask.
If I'm only having one drink that evening, I tend to plump for a reliable craft keg. JC

StringersBeer said...

Cask breathers.

DavidS said...

Totally agree!

I'm not sure what the solution is, though.

py said...

Quality is irrelevant if there isn't any beer on that you want to drink anyway. A well kept mediocre beer is still mediocre.

Unknown said...

Part of the problem with keeping cask beer really well is that it does take a little bit of care and attention. Finding people to employ who can provide that care an attention can be a little troublesome in my experience.

Cask breathers might be a solution.

But then, so can keg.

Anonymous said...

py- isn't 'being something you wish to drink' an intrinsic part of 'quality'?
I don't think the OP was advocating the polishing of turds. I take it to mean good beer served at its best.


Phil said...

Cask breathers might be a solution.

But then, so can keg.

I've said this before, but - every single beer I've been lucky enough to find on both cask and keg says otherwise, Dave. I wouldn't go so far as to say kegging is destroying the village in order to save it, but the village is definitely better off in cask. The cask needs competent looking after - but competent cellaring isn't all that demanding, or rare.

There's a big difference between "bad cellaring is all too common" and "you can't get a decent pint of cask these days". I'm a long way from needing to agree with the second of these.

py said...

py- isn't 'being something you wish to drink' an intrinsic part of 'quality'?

Not really no. I might not want to drink a 6% stout, doesn't make it poor quality.

The greater the choice, the greater the chance that people will find what they like.

Unfortunately, the greater the choice, the greater the chance it will be off, unless you're a very busy pub.

Cask breathers would help, and if it wasn't for CAMRA and their unremitting mission to destroy cask ale, they would be very common and cask quality would be higher across the board and correspondingly more popular.

Anonymous said...

Py-I'm never quite sure what people mean by cask breathers these days. There are the fairly common one way valves that will extend the life by a couple of days, and the blanket mixed gas or nitrogen, which is much more effective, by eliminating oxygen.

In practice, sensible CAMRA branches ignore cask breathers as an issue, but it would be helpful if they were to rescind this rather silly article of faith.
It seems to stem from a misguided belief that oxygen is good for beer, and that atmospheric pressure mixed gas will somehow 'fizz up' the beer.

I'm not sure if this is there policy or just accumulated rumour over the years. I'd be glad if anyone could clarify?

Steve said...

> "a warm, flat mess"

Yes, that's what Seafarers is like. It's a 3.something percent brown English bitter, so that's exactly as expected.