Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - March/April 2018
Asking for tasters of beer is an affectation that is of little real value to the customer
THIRTY years ago, when most pubs just offered a fixed beer range, the idea of asking for a taster would have been greeted with derision. More recently, though, as ever-changing guest beers have increasingly become the norm, it has become much more common. If youíre confronted with an array of ten beers youíve never heard of before, itís not unreasonable to ask for a sample before committing yourself to spending what now can often be approaching a couple of quid just for a half.
However, the range of flavours encompassed by the great majority of beers is fairly limited and predictable, so youíre unlikely to end up with something that really frightens the horses. If it doesnít suit your palate, then just donít buy it again. Itís also doubtful whether a small sample really gives a fair impression of what a beer is like. Itís said that you donít fully appreciate a beer until you reach the bottom of the glass.
Itís also something likely to incur the wrath of both bar staff and other customers if you do it when theyíre three deep at the bar. You can imagine the cartoon of ďThe man who asked for a taster in Wetherspoonís at 10.30 on Friday nightĒ. And it does seem to appeal to a certain type of person who specialises in making a nuisance of himself. With sufficient chutzpah, it can easily be exploited to get a significant quantity of beer for free.
Itís sometimes argued that offering tasters is a good way of encouraging people to try cask beer. But surely it just adds a layer of mystique to the subject, and the best way of promoting cask must be to keep it in good condition and offer beers that people actually want to drink and are likely to make repeat purchases. And nobody should be asking for tasters to check whether the beerís in good condition. You have a reasonable expectation in any pub of not getting a duff pint and, if you do, the remedy is to take it back and ask for it to be changed.
Yes, if a beer has an unusual or challenging flavour, then offering tasters makes sense. But, for the great majority of beers, itís just an affectation on a par with putting little jam jars of beer alongside the pumps to indicate the colour. And you never see people ask for tasters of lager, do you?
In spending vast sums on refurbishments, are pub operators chasing their own tail?
THE ECONOMYíS growing steadily, unemployment is at a ten-year low, and pub operators seem to have plenty of money to invest. Scarcely a day goes by without reading of some pub or other reopening after a £250,000 refurbishment. One local pub reputedly had a cool £1 million spent on doing it up. But, looking at the industry as a whole, you have to wonder what benefit it produces. Is it actually generating new business overall, or is it just dragging the same customers around the stock of pubs in a giant game of musical chairs?
I would have thought all that even the tattiest pubs need is a deep clean, new wallpaper, upholstery and carpets, perhaps a bit of new loose furniture and, if appropriate, some new kitchen equipment. The vast majority of refurbishments, when they involve any structural alterations, end up leaving pubs worse, not better. Maybe customers are attracted by novelty, but that soon wears off. The best pubs, in my experience, are those that havenít been knocked around for decades, and benefit from continuity and familiarity. But maybe, if youíve already thoroughly wrecked a pub once, youíre fatally committed to wrecking it again every five years. Itís like a drug where you have to keep on increasing the dose to get the same effect.