Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - April 2014
Too many pubs are prepared to compromise beer quality in an attempt to offer more choice
THERE’S NOTHING to beat a cool, fresh pint of cask beer, bursting with life and flavour. However, unfortunately it’s still a lot more common than it should be to be served with one that doesn’t come anywhere near that description. Over the past few months I’ve had more than one really tired, lukewarm, flat, stale pint in pubs where I might have expected better, and in one high-profile pub on a recent Stagger we were served up with total vinegar in the middle of Friday evening.
So it might be interesting to do some maths on beer turnover in pubs. According to the British Beer and Pub Association, in 2013 there were 13.8 million barrels sold in the on-trade in the UK. The annual Cask Report reckons about a sixth of this is cask beer, or 2.3 million barrels. CAMRA’s What Pub website counts 35,800 pubs across the country selling cask beer. So, given that a barrel contains 288 pints, that makes 64 barrels per pub per year, 354 pints a week or 51 a day.
It’s generally reckoned that you’ll struggle to keep cask beer in good condition beyond three days, four at most, so even if you get your beer in 9-gallon firkins, that means you can only have two beers on before quality begins to suffer. Beer is available in 4½-gallon pins, but they’re far from usual. It’s also the case that pubs typically do half their weekly business on Friday and Saturday nights, leaving only 177 pints for the rest of the week, or 35 a day. So it’s hardly surprising you often get a tired pint early doors on Tuesday evening.
Simple observation suggests that the typical pub selling cask beer has more than two beers on, and in recent years the number has tended to increase even as overall volumes have fallen. Many ordinary pubs now have five, six or seven different beers. Obviously there are some pubs that do have the turnover to keep a lot more beers in good nick, but the law of averages means that others won’t even have the turnover for two. Keeping beers on well above three days must be extremely commonplace.
So perhaps there needs to be more emphasis on quality rather than choice for its own sake, and the automatic praising of a pub for “putting on another handpump” should be replaced by positive references to pubs that limit themselves to one or two well-chosen beers. Both quality and choice are desirable, but choice should never be placed ahead of quality, and it shouldn’t be a matter of pot luck whether or not you get a decent pint. As is often said, the worst enemy of real ale is the bad pint of real ale.
Paradoxically, this doesn’t seem to be a problem that tends to affect the specialist multi-beer pubs with ten or twelve handpumps, probably because they attract an overwhelmingly beer-drinking clientele who ensure the beer turns over quickly enough and because they are run by people who place a high priority on maintaining beer quality. The prime offenders seem to be the more mainstream pubs where a lower proportion of customers are beer drinkers.
One way of addressing this problem would be for pubs to display on every pumpclip the date when the beer was put on sale. Obviously in the real world it’s never going to happen, as it would expose just how long many beers were kept on, but it would certainly give pubs a rocket up the backside to ensure they matched their range to the actual demand, as they would know that beers that had been on too long simply wouldn’t sell.