Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - October 2004

* Tall Poppy Syndrome *

It’s not impossible for a major brewer to produce a champion beer

A LOT OF EYEBROWS were raised when Greene King IPA won the Standard Bitter category in CAMRA’s Champion Beer of Britain competition, and was runner-up for the overall award. IPA is now probably the best-selling real ale in Britain and, while not an intrinsically bad beer, is widely perceived as rather bland and ordinary. Surely it couldn’t have won in a fair fight against so many other more highly-regarded brews.

The organisers pointed out that they go to great lengths to ensure that the competition is a genuine blind tasting, and the fact that it runs over several stages makes it effectively impossible for a brewer to submit a “doctored” sample of a beer that bears little relation to the standard product. Despite this, some still found the decision incredible.

However, there are two factors at work here. The first is that a beer produced in small batches by a microbrewery will tend to be sold mainly in specialist pubs where it will be well looked after. In contrast, a beer produced in larger quantities and widely distributed will inevitably end up in establishments where the standards are not so high – so, irrespective of the inherent quality of the beer, the average pint will not be so good. It has often been remarked how some pubs succeed in coaxing a depth of character and flavour out of beers like Tetleys and Boddingtons that few others manage.

The second is that, with the best will in the world, if such things matter to you, it is difficult to avoid tasting the policies of the company in the beer they produce. If you know that a beer comes from a large brewer it will inevitably colour your expectations. It might be instructive to see what conclusions the knockers reached if presented with a sample of IPA in a blind tasting and being told that it came from a new microbrewery in deepest Suffolk.

Therefore I see no reason in theory why Greene King IPA shouldn’t win this award, although I must admit I have only rarely come across examples that suggested it was deserving of it. The episode underlines how many in CAMRA perhaps set too little store by the standard of cellarmanship in the pub when judging how good or bad a particular beer is. There are few beers in this category than are incapable of being really enjoyable when found in first-class condition, whereas any beer can be unpleasant if not looked after properly.

* Cronyism *

A pub that appeals only to the landlord’s clique is a pub on the slide

ONE OF THE MOST dispiriting experiences in pubgoing is walking into a strange pub, and finding that the only customers are a small group clustered around the bar. They seem to be friends of the landlord, mostly middle-aged men, maybe with a few wives or girlfriends. And they give you a funny look as if you’ve invaded their private space. There are plenty of comfortable seats, but nobody’s using them. There may be an extensive menu, but nobody’s dining. It’s even worse when occasionally some of them nip behind the bar to serve themselves, blurring the distinction between staff and punters.

One of the features of virtually all good pubs is that they appeal to a mix of customers who spread themselves around engaged in a variety of activities, such as eating meals, playing games or just reading the newspaper. While there’s much to be said for pubs having a strong local identity, a pub that appeals only to a clique of the landlord’s mates is surely a pub without a future.

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