Wednesday 8 June 2016

Quality Counts

A popular refrain among some real ale drinkers is quality. In a way, this is obvious: poor quality doesn't attract customers, but real ale is different from many other drinks and foodstuffs in that the vendor is an important part of the process. It's not an exaggeration to say that knowing how to prepare, keep and serve real ale after it has been delivered to the pub can make the difference between a good pint and an undrinkable one. It's also important to know when to stop serving it once it has passed its best.

This latter point can be a major part of any problems concerning quality. To stop using a barrel which isn't empty involves a financial loss; the beer is usually just poured down the drain, and the cost comes out of the licensee's pocket. The temptation is to leave it on longer to squeeze out a few more pints, but a poor quality product will not encourage repeat purchases, so the problem is likely to get worse.

So why might beers go off?
  • There simply isn't a market for real ale in the pub.
A few years ago, I asked a licensee why she had stopped selling real ale, and she replied that we CAMRA members hadn't supported it. I didn't ask her how she would know they hadn't, seeing that not all CAMRA members conform to an obvious stereotype, or have CAMRA stamped on their foreheads. Instead I simply explained there weren't enough CAMRA members in the area to keep every real ale outlet going, and that she needed to build up her own custom for real ale if she wanted to serve it. If a pub does try that through publicity, announced launches, perhaps even tastings, but still gets nowhere, then perhaps it's time to give up on the idea. That might seem like heresy on a blog partly devoted to real ale, but rather than serve real ale that's off, it's better to have none at all.  
  • There are too many real ales on.
A long row of handpumps seems to gladden the hearts of some real ale drinkers, and if all the beers are selling enough, it is a welcome sight. If, as can happen, the turnover isn't sufficient to keep all the beers turning over quickly enough, then you'll end up with either a flat, flavourless pint or, worse, one that smells like vinegar. The solution is to reduce the number of handpumps operating. With better quality beer, the sales may well climb in time and those spare handpumps might come back into use when the pub has a sufficient market to justify using them.
  • The pub doesn't know how to keep real ale.
There are other reasons why failures in beer quality occur, such as it being served too cold or too warm, whether the lines are cleaned often enough, and so on, but the cost of serving sub-standard beer for a pub can be considerable. The Cask Marque’s Beer Quality Survey of 2016 said that 61% of people would not drink poor quality beer if they were served it in a pub; instead they'd complain about it and tell their friends, which is not enviable publicity. The answer is surely refresher training.

I've had a couple of undrinkable pints in recent months in two different pubs; in both cases, it was because it was the end of the barrel, and both pints were changed without any problem. This has been my experience for a long time now, and I can't remember the last time I had an argument about taking beer back. Some drinkers say that returning a pint leads to replies from the pub such as: "No one else has complained," and "It's real ale; it's supposed to taste like that." Obviously I can't contradict what they say, but for my part, I last had the former response at least 25 years ago, and I don't recall hearing the latter at all.

Now and then, I read of sarcastic comments addressed to bar staff about unsatisfactory beers, such as, "If I wanted vinegar, I'd have asked for chips," or, in relation to the size of the head, "I didn't ask for ice cream" (or shaving foam, or similar). Some people seem so proud of their witticisms that occasionally they send them to the letters page of What's Brewing, the CAMRA newspaper, or record them on social media. Here's an idea: be polite and friendly when returning a pint and don't raise your voice so the whole room can hear - that's just bad manners. If you do face resistance, then that would be the time to get stroppy.

One response to a bad beer that I don't understand is simply to leave it, walk out and then whinge afterwards - often on social media - without having given the pub a chance to address the problem. If they don't deal with your complaint well at the time, that's a different matter and they deserve to be criticised accordingly; otherwise, be fair. I can only conclude that some real ale drinkers have money to burn if they can afford to abandon something that can cost more than £3 a pint without even a murmur of complaint.

As has been said by Tandleman and Curmudgeon, who have both covered this theme recently, you don't go into a pub for an argument, just for a convivial night out. I agree, but on the odd occasion I've politely taken a pint back, there hasn't been a problem - certainly not an argument. Perhaps I've just been lucky, but I doubt that's the reason.


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