Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - October 2012
Will some pubs simply never have sufficient demand to make real ale viable?
“OPENING TIMES” is a magazine produced by the local branch of the Campaign for Real Ale, and so obviously promoting the availability of real ale is one of its core aims. If a pub has put on real ale, that is naturally reported positively as a “gain”, whereas if it has been removed, it is viewed negatively as a “loss”. Any pub encountered on a “Stagger” serving only keg beers will be briefly dismissed as “no real ale”. So it’s not surprising that some pubs, feeling they may be missing out on publicity, have decided to put real ale on their bar where there was none before. If they can make a go of it, that’s all to the good.
However, real ale isn’t just like any other product – you can’t just stock it and forget it. You have to take some degree of care to look after it properly, and it also needs a certain level of turnover to stop it going off. It’s also, unlike in the past, no longer a matter of simply replacing keg bitter with cask bitter, as real ale brands are now very much distinct from keg. So you have to do one or both of persuading your existing drinkers to switch, and attracting new customers who want to drink it.
In recent months, sadly, we have encountered a handful of previously keg-only pubs that have put real ale on, but haven’t been succeeding on the above criteria. The beer offered has varied from extremely tired, through borderline “on-the-turn”, to absolute vinegar. In the last case, it was handed back and a refund provided without question.
“Opening Times” is entirely within its rights to severely criticise licensees for not looking after their beer properly. But, if poor quality is entirely due to low or erratic turnover, does it maybe need to be accepted that some pubs, because of the profile of their trade, are never going to be fertile soil for real ale, and they should not be criticised too harshly for recognising that stocking it is simply not viable?
Some pub customers are still far too reluctant to return poor beer to the bar
ON A TOUR of Scotland, some friends called in to a hotel in a remote location on the North-West coast. They were pleased to see a handpump on the bar, and so ordered a round of pints which they took outside to drink. However, apparently the beer was so vile that they just left it on the table and walked away. Given that they are not exactly a bunch of shrinking violets, I was surprised to hear that they hadn’t gone back in and asked for it either to be changed or a refund given.
Admittedly, sometimes you feel that you just can’t be bothered, particularly if the beer’s only borderline returnable and it’s somewhere you won’t be going again. I have occasionally left near-full pints and walked away that in a familiar pub I would undoubtedly have returned with a comment like “sorry, but this really isn’t on very good form today”. After all, you’re going out for a relaxing drink, not a confrontation.
But, to my mind, if beer is blatantly sour or murky, then really it’s almost your duty to take it back and politely request that something should be done about it. British people are still too often unwilling to “make a fuss” or “cause a scene”, and this reluctance to point out poor beer ultimately does the reputation of real ale no good. On several occasions I’ve seen people who really should know better struggling through seriously below-par pints that should have been sent straight back.