Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - May 1996

* Nitrokeg on the March *

It may have made a slow start, but the march of real-to-nitrokeg conversion is now getting into its stride. For the first time in many years, the number of pubs selling real ale has started to decline. At first it was only the unappealing, marginal pubs which were switched over, places which you felt were no great loss, but it's now starting to affect prominent, high-profile pubs too. For example, I was recently taken aback, on walking into a pub in Chester which had featured in the Good Beer Guide for many years, to find nothing but nitrokeg beers on the bar.

The ultimate aim of the big brewers is to make nitrokeg the standard beer which most people drink in most pubs - just as it was with "traditional" keg in the 60s and 70s. They won't kill real ale off, but they want to restrict it to being a low-volume, premium-priced product consumed only in specialist alehouses. CAMRA has to start all over again convincing drinkers of the superior quality of real ale - something it has perhaps tended to take for granted.

In doing this, we must be careful not to be over-critical of the real ales we have. After all, four-fifths of the real ale drunk in this country is brewed by the big brewers, and that isn't going to change dramatically. Tetleys, Theakstons and John Smiths may not be the best beers in the world, but they're decent enough if kept properly, and a damn sight better than their nitrokeg equivalents. If we go about making blanket condemnations of these mass-market real ales, then why should we expect the general public to choose them in preference to nitrokeg? Dismissing the majority of real ale as not worth drinking simply lends support to the big brewers' nitrokeg agenda.

* Pub In-Conveniences *

They're probably the one facility that every pub customer uses at some time, yet the toilets seldom get either the attention or the investment they deserve.

How often, in some pub that seems to be revamped every other year, do you "nip round the back" and find a scene unchanged since the 1950s? Although standards have improved, why is it still all too common to find no towels, no soap, no hot water, no lock on the door, no paper, no seat and even no lightbulb? (One pub on the last Hillgate crawl failed on all seven counts!). When the Victorians were famed for their magnificent loos, how come a pub such as the Plough in Heaton Moor, which has been decked out in lush Victoriana, has toilets so bleakly modern and functional? Why, when more and more women are using pubs and drinking beer, are there never enough cubicles in the Ladies'? And what constipated planner at Marston's gave such a huge pub as the Hare & Hounds in Timperley just a single trap in the Gents', when the after-effects of Pedigree are so notorious?

If pub operators want us to believe they are serious about improving standards, they must pay more attention to the final resting place of everything that passes over the bar.

* Out of Condition *

It's good to see the growing number of bottle-conditioned ales now available, including many from micro-breweries. However, a rigorous approach to quality control is needed if drinkers are to be convinced as to the superior character of "real ale in a bottle",. Too many of those I have sampled have either completely or partially failed to condition, leaving a stagnant pool of brown liquid in the glass, and a distinct feeling of disappointment at having wasted 1.50 or more. Bottle-conditioned beer won't make any headway if it's a lottery whether you get a good one or a dud.

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