Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - May 2010

* Nature or Nurture? *

What happens in the pub cellar is the key factor affecting the quality of beer in the glass

GREENE KING IPA is possibly the biggest-selling cask beer in the UK, and is often dismissed is irredeemably dull and bland. But, when it is well kept it can be a very good and distinctive beer, something that I have experienced on the rare occasions (generally on its home turf in East Anglia) I have encountered it on top form. But this raises the important question of to what extent the drinkerís enjoyment of a pint of cask beer derives from the intrinsic characteristics of the beer, and to what extent from the general standard of cellarmanship in the pub.

It has long been noticeable that a few pubs manage to coax depths of flavour and character out of beers such as Tetley Bitter which most others signally fail to do. And I would argue that the vast majority of beers (or at least those that have become reasonably well established and are not produced by short-lived micros) have the potential to be very good indeed in the right hands. I will admit that there are a few, however, such as Websters Yorkshire Bitter and Worthington Bitter, that do seem so intrinsically bland that they can never get there however well looked after, although an example where all the tick-box aspects of good cellarmanship are there can still be recognised.

All the regular beers from the four Greater Manchester family brewers, although seen by some as rather dull, are capable of scaling the heights when well looked after. Indeed probably the most memorable pint of beer I have ever had was a pint of Robinsonís Unicorn (Best Bitter as it was then) in a Stockport local towards the end of a pub crawl when you might have expected tastebuds to be getting jaded. So I would say the relative contribution of cellarmanship to the quality of the beer in the glass is considerably more than is often acknowledged.

Some of the beers that enthusiasts rave about only tend to appear in specialist outlets where they can expect to be well looked after, and might fare differently if made available to a diverse cross-section of pubs. Even a Thornbridge product might not be too impressive if turning over a bit too slowly on a lone handpump at the end of the bar of a family dining outlet. It is far too simplistic to say that Beer A is wonderful and Beer B is rubbish when so much depends on what happens in the cellar.

* Going Dry *

A major pub operator divesting wet-led sites sounds an ominous death-knell for the pub trade

MANAGED house operator Mitchells & Butlers have announced that they are planning a rapid exit from wet-led pubs, and intend to focus their efforts on dining brands such as Harvester, Toby Carvery and Sizzling Pub Company. Hopefully this will provide opportunities for other companies to acquire some of their wet-led sites and run them in a more enterprising manner. But I canít help thinking it represents a further step in the steady erosion of the original concept of pubs as essentially places to drink and socialise, with food at most as a sideline.

In a growing number of areas, the proportion of pubs of that actually are pubs rather than ďdining outletsĒ is rapidly dwindling, and the welcome to customers who donít want to eat can be grudging in the extreme. Indeed, in many cases where a pub has been turned over to a food-led operation, the removal of public bars and meeting rooms has led to the expulsion of what wet trade there still was in the place. They may serve up a tolerable meal, but would anyone even cross the street to a Toby Carvery to savour its atmosphere and drinks range?

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