Wednesday, 19 August 2015

What Happens When You Complain About Beer?

 I go to London a lot and have been doing so for the 16 years or so we have owned a flat there.  Before that I spent around nine months in London managing the removal of  IT systems from Euston Tower and relocating them in Lytham St Annes and Leeds.  I drink beer there and have done so for a long time. I know a fair bit about the beer scene, both now and when I first ventured there. Bit of background that.

Now being a blogger and writer, I sometimes write, when it happens, about bad beer in London.  Now there are some that think I have an unfortunate down on London and that I just complain for the hell of it. Why would I? When I'm in London I'm just out for a drink, usually with my better half.  I rather like to visit, among other types,  the classic London pub with a beautiful interior and loads of customers spilling out onto the pavement. It is a "thing" about London I rather like and there I'm just a customer paying (top dollar) for my beer. I'm not really looking for bad beer to write about, because quite frankly if I was, I'd be writing about little else. I'm not talking here particularly about one or two of the top pubs where you have a much better chance, but of the pubs a normal beer drinker might visit. The pubs are jumping and beer is flowing freely from the handpumps.  Having spoken about warm temperatures being the enemy of cask beer, the other main enemy is lack of turnover. That causes staling and souring.  Now in the pubs I'm visiting turnover of beer is certainly not a problem, at least during the week. The beer though is often flabby, warm and lacking the zing that properly conditioned cask beer needs to have.   What's a beer drinker to do?

Recently I have been advised by a well known beer writer, in a somewhat testy exchange of views, to complain. It is my duty apparently and my failure to complain is the reason why pubs are being killed.  What tosh. The pubs I'm complaining about are going like a fair even if the beer is crap. Of course I've complained but it gets you nowhere.  My Mrs calls me a serial complainer, so unless the beer is absolutely cloudy and muddy*, I don't bother embarrassing her and frustrating myself. It changes nothing. Here's a few scenarios from memory:

Me: I'm sorry but this beer is far too warm:
Barperson: I don't know I don't drink the stuff

Me: I'm sorry but this beer is far too warm / flat:
Barperson: Everyone else is drinking it /nobody else has complained

Me: I'm sorry but this beer is far too warm:
Barperson: Would you like something else?

Me: I'm sorry but this replacement beer is still far too warm:
Barperson: What do you want me to do then?

Me: I'm sorry but this beer is far too warm:
Manager: Ah yes. The cooler's broken (a favourite that)

Me: I'm sorry but this beer is far too warm:
Manager: It's a hot day

Me: I'm sorry but this beer is far too warm:
Manager: Oh sorry about that
Me: I see you have a Cask Marque plaque outside, I'll report this to them.
Manager: Suit yourself.

The point is that in good pubs the beer won't be warm and flat and the staff will know that and be concerned if it is.  This isn't about them, it is about the vast number that don't do it properly. What's the use of complaining if a replacement beer comes from the same warm cellar and the same uninsulated beer lines and your complaint results in no change? None.That's what. The pubs are run by people who are transient, know nothing about cask beer and frankly don't care. They are selling lots of it to a transient and couldn't be bothered arguing clientèle. They are probably underpaid and overworked. Why should they bother? The beer shifts anyway.  (Some places that should know better don't do much better. More of that another time).

When I started working in a pub many years ago, my boss, one of the old school, taught me many things about the pub trade and serving customers. I've mentioned some of them in this blog before, but one that sticks particularly in my mind is this "If a customer complains about the beer, just change it without question - he'll tell everyone that if you have a problem in my pub, they'll sort it out immediately. . That's worth money to me."  Now of course he knew there was nothing wrong with the beer, but his point was that it was good business for him reputationally.  The customer would get a new pint he felt better about and tell all his friends how great the service was. Pubs were a very competitive business then and he wanted an edge.  How does that apply in London and in the scenarios mentioned, all of which are absolutely true? It doesn't.

One other thing I'd mention again from my old times and also from running a pub cellar, many beer festival cellars and from working in a pub. The last person to find out there's something wrong should be the customer. The beer should be checked before service and importantly, during service.

(The other main enemy of cask beer not already discussed is cleanliness in both cellar and beer lines.)

*I tweet such photos and usually name names. 

Next: The Keyboard Warrior in his pride. Cheery Beery? Trust me. I'm only just warming up.


Pete said...

When specifically talking about warm beer, I think you're right that complaining isn't really going to achieve anything - it's highly unlikely that one cask is too warm but everything else is right.

That said, I continue to be surprised that apparently nearly every pub you visit in London serves beer that's too warm - I more often find it the exact opposite, with pubs cheerfully serving cask beer at fridge temperatures.

Curmudgeon said...

On a couple of occasions recently I've gone into a pub at a quiet time and thought "hmm, I might get a dud pint here as it may be the first one out." But both times my fears were unfounded, and I was served a pint that was fine in both temperature and condition. So, as you say, it's not primarily the result of slow turnover or "first one out" syndrome, it's because pubs aren't doing their job properly.

In my experience Wetherspoons are usually very good at changing beer without question - no doubt because the staff aren't qualified to question customers' judgment.

I'm more than happy to complain about short measure and obviously cloudy or vinegary beer, but in the case of warm beer I've usually just supped up and left because it's something that's much harder to demonstrate. And, as you've said in the past, I go out to enjoy a pint, not to have an argument.

Erlangernick said...

I honestly don't recall beer being too *warm* on the day we were out...3 weeks ago now, at the end of which you proclaimed all London cask to be shite. There was some off beer, some strangely bad beer (whether recipe or ???), but I honestly don't remember us whinging about warmth.

But then, I was a few pints ahead of you and memory is what it is in such situations. And I'm more tolerant of warm beer than you, I think.

Was there warm beer that day?

Stonch said...

In 2007 when I started blogging and was, essentially, just making it up as I went along and, moreover, a hot headed youth in my 20s, you started your site shortly after and were pretty much the main person for me to bounce off. We didn't really get on. I subscribed to the view you were unnecessarily negative about cask in London pubs. Then after running my own pubs for seven years where I served cask beer at the right temperature, properly conditioned, I woke up to how poor the situation was. I learned that you'd been right all along.

Cask in London certainly hasn't got better, with the explosion in breweries and the opening of all these new beer-focussed pubs and bars. Indeed, in the new wave craft beer pubs and bars, it's very often dreadful due to neglect - because the focus is on craft keg so we now have specialist beer houses with enthusiastic staff who "don't drink the stuff" due to a fixation on novelty keg beers. That rubs off on the customers and then the quality of the product.

All of this of course, could be said to be "negativity". I notice once of the latest try-ons from those trying to scratch a living as pro beer writers (or at least supplement their income from a day job they don't enjoy) is to complain that they're being criticised unfairly for just being "positive" about beer.

That's a smokescreen, a straw man. The truth is that the culprits are only being criticised for promoting businesses that have paid them something, covered their travel costs, given them freebies or are simply mates of theirs. Even where no money or goods have changed hands yet, if these supposedly impartial writers think some reward might be forthcoming in the future - perhaps a full time job or some freelance work doing events, PR or copywriting perhaps - they'll be reluctant to be critical. It's not just about getting jam today, it's about future proofing their potential jam tomorrow.

This why with a few honourable exceptions (almost entirely amongst the old guard of beer writers I might add) we can't trust 'em and those of us who, like Tand, are merely enthusiastic amateurs should not allow ourselves to be shouted down.

In short (because that was long) - bravo, Tand, and more power to your thermometer.

Alan said...

Don't you think writing about proper standards and disappointments related to customer service in a well known public forum like this blog is a far more effective way of complaining that a one on one exchange with a spotty faced teen serving at the bar? Sure you may get your beer swapped but if the first one was poor likely the next one will be as well. No, unless you've tied your bank account and personal reputation to the bland bugging up of all beer there is no better way to make change occur than broadcasting your opinion as widely as possible.

Tandleman said...

See "Cheery Beery" soon.

py said...

I like it properly chilled too, but unfortunately a lot of punters don't care/don't notice/ don't know any better / actually prefer it like that and think that's how its meant to be served.

So complaining isn't really going to help. Best take Cookie's advice and upgrade to the craft keg for only £2 extra per pint.

Neville Grundy said...

I was chatting to Gail, the licensee of my local in Southport, about people bringing beer back to the bar. She said that her staff are instructed just to change it, as it's cheaper to lose a pint than a customer.

Martin, Cambridge said...

I share your experiences in London; not just temperature mind. Your key point is that a good pub won't serve warm beer in the first place.

A really good pub (I'll name the Old Vic from Darlington) will pull beer through before a session, taste it, cgeck it in the glass, offer a sampler before and even ask what you think after - that's how to get customers coming back. In London, I'm not sure beer quality seems to be necessary to achieve that, or perhaps they come back and order Peroni.

Cooking Lager said...

Well yeh, a pint is a trivial transaction. What is the point of complaining? Can sour an evening out

Most people just leave it and write off the pub as a dead loss and don't return.

What's your crime? That has prompted this inspiration/justification? Having a twitter moan and disagreeing with a SomALEier (course £180 and in no way an actual proper qualification, ‘cos those take years of study) that was hawking her mates gaff for a free starter?

The issue isn't really "bloggery ethics" or any such crap. Paid for journalism is dying and freelancers are seeking new revenues. That means beers tours, beer seminars, beer events, beer curating. They are not then going to be critical of the pubs they are doing this in. They have become part of the supply chain, not consumer critics of it.

What it is about is owning the debate. Dismissing your criticism as vacuous because you did not complain in the pre-approved manner that is “good for beer”, a catch all term for seeking consensus around a general gentrification of beer & pubs which is good for those making a quid from it. It’s no different from trying to own the word “craft” to prevent it being applied to grog you don’t like to bullying the poor sod that put some harmless smut on a pump clip. Get with the program; everything has to be “good for beer” or “good for those making a quid and not necessarily for those spending a quid”

Tandleman said...

Ah Cookie. Straight to the heart of the matter. You see I am three things in this. A drinker who 99%+ of the time pays for my own beer. It is my money that is being taken by those who don't look after real ale correctly. Quite often you'd be as well just to walk in the pub, not bother with beer and just leave four quid on the counter.

Secondly I am a beer blogger. I am someone who writes about beer and, within the law, I say what I like. That what blogging used to be about until it became a vehicle for careerists. (That line has to be be tread carefully as with twitter. It is done well by some and less well by others.)

Thirdly. I campaign for real ale. I have done so in pubs for over 30 years. Been chucked out of a few for it. I don't need lessons from many on good real ale, though many could do with lessons from anyone it seems. Keyboard warrior? I don't just talk the talk. Pub man to my core.

I am not and won't be always "cheery beery" for the reasons you state and the bitter experience - or should that be the experience of the bitter - over 40 odd years of drinking in pubs.

It isn't all good and when my money goes down the drain - literally - I'll mention it,if I feel like it, in whatever way I like.

Tandleman said...

PS: "Paid for journalism is dying and freelancers are seeking new revenues."

I really don't care about freebies. Good for them but one has to be careful. He who sups with the devil, needs a long spoon.

StringersBeer said...

We know they're careerists, they're not hiding it, they're happy to tell us what they are. But they're not crooks, they're not bad people, it's just a job. Bullshitters rather than liars.

Tandleman said...

Agreed they are but not sure they don't hide it. I care not either way

Of course they aren't bad people.

Mark said...

You only briefly touch on cleanliness and beer lines, but it reminded me of a particular 'favourite' experience I had in a London pub.

After taking back an early lunchtime pint that tasted like bleach, I was told: sorry mate there's nothing wrong with that, that's dry hopping, these American styles all have that flavour. I'm no professional brewer, but I'm pretty confident I can taste the difference between dry hopping and cleaner that hasn't been pulled through the line sufficiently ...

Ben Viveur said...

Cookie is right that there are some who have essentially crossed over the dividing line between customer and service provider, and in truth most beer writers could be a lot better at 'naming and shaming' as well as making our case at the point of service.

Oftentimes we don't want to rock the boat; we're just here for one; it's not a pub we frequent often etc. etc. it's easier to make excuses and rationalise internally than to get all activist-y.

For me, literally 98.5% of pubs in London aren't worth drinking in regularly, either because of quality issues, temperature issues or a lack of choice (important for me as a ticker).

Having reached this conclusion, I'm comfortable with this state of play. I know the handful pubs where I'll get new beers, served in decent nick and cool enough for me to enjoy, and I choose to drink in those places.

So I do the opposite of naming and shaming and extol the virtues of the few pubs I actually like. It's safe to assume that if I don't talk much about a pub, it's either a gem I've yet to discover, or, far more likely, complete shite.

Anonymous said...

I have been drinking in London pubs for 40 years and reading your blog for 7 0r 8 years.When at home you tend to drink or comment about pubs you know and have good beer but when in London you often comment about random pubs near your flat.In London we have got a massive choice of beers now,probably too many for the amount of customers so you need to pick and choose the right pub if you are fussy about your beer.Warm beer has always been a London problem imo but I like beer at the top of the a Camra temperature range so I don't have too many problems but have noticed lot of pubs selling it this way this year.I think its lack of turnover and lack of knowledge by the staff on cask beer.None of the new craft beer pubs seem to have a problem with beer temperature nor the chains like Nicolson or Wetherspoons.I have drank in over 150 different pubs this last 12 months so I am not just talking about walking down to my local.Bring back sparklers I say.
cheers john

Thomas said...

A poster on the back of the cellar door in the first pub I ever worked in:

" Don't use your customers as quality control".

Martin, Cambridge said...

Am in one of Cambridge's famed pub (Beer Guide 20 years etc). No other customers. 5 beers on from smallish brewers. Took 1st pint back as vinegary. Barmaid was superb, apologised and offered tasters, but 2nd pint frankly no better. What do you do apart from post scores on WhatPub?

ABrewHaHa said...

On Monday evening I went to The Union Tavern, Fullers craft pub, hipster gent in front of me asked to taste one of the beers and said "that's really nice, two pints please". I thought, why not it looks nice and clear and he seems impressed.
Pint ordered, retire to comfy seat, take one sip, then another, grimace and go back to the bar. "This beer's nasty, in fact it's dead", bar person looks askance and pours a half, take a sip and removes the pump clip.
God know what the numpty in front of me is used to drinking.