Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - March 2013
The idea that familiar beers have become less distinctive may be more than just nostalgia
IT’S NOT UNCOMMON to hear people complaining that many well-known cask beers have become blander over the years and have lost much of the character they once had. It’s tempting to dismiss this as simply looking back on the past through rose-tinted spectacles, and it is certainly true that as you get older your tastebuds become less sensitive. It may also be the case that the introduction of some very strongly-flavoured brews in recent years has made some of the established ones pale in comparison.
However, a couple of months ago, Peter Alexander wrote about how some of the major brewers have admitted making lager brands less bitter in a bid to gain wider acceptability, and it is hard to believe that the same never happens with real ales. It is certainly my subjective impression that many beers that have been around since the 1970s are not as distinctive as they once were. One where it’s hard to argue this hasn’t happened is Holt’s Bitter, which is still an excellent beer when well kept, but over the years has become noticeably rounder and mellower in flavour, and darker in colour, compared with the pale, “shockingly bitter” brew described in early editions of the “Good Beer Guide”.
There may be other factors at work, though. One is that beers once confined to brewers’ tied estates, where they had some control over how they were kept, have now become widely available in the free trade and pub company outlets where standards of cellarmanship are not as consistent and therefore the average quality encountered is not as good. This undoubtedly was the case when many previously keg-only Whitbread pubs began stocking Marston’s Pedigree in the 1980s, and seems to apply today to, for example, Taylor’s Landlord.
I also suspect that financial pressures to turn stock over as quickly as possible lead many pubs to put beers on as soon as they have dropped bright in the cellar and not give them sufficient conditioning time to develop their full flavour. It has often been remarked how some pubs manage to coax depths of flavour out of beers widely dismissed as a bit dull, and maybe serving beer before it has had time to mature properly in the cellar is one of the main reasons why beers don’t seem as distinctive as they once were.
The decline in beer sales is now hitting both on- and off-trades equally
One of the major trends in the beer market in recent years has been the steady move from pub to at-home drinking. According to statistics produced by the British Beer and Pub Association, in 1997, the on-trade accounted for 71% of total beer consumption, a figure that had fallen to 52% by 2012. This is often simplistically blamed on supermarket discounting, although in reality the reasons behind the shift are much more varied and complex.
However, the latest figures tell a different story and suggest that this trend has come to a grinding halt. In the twelve months to December 2012, the total UK beer market declined by 4.7% compared with the previous year, with the falls in the on- and off-trades being pretty much the same. The malign effects of the beer duty escalator must bear a large share of the blame for this but, even if it once contained an element of truth, it is wide of the mark to suggest that cheap beer in Tesco is currently killing pubs.