Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Quality, consistency and the magic of interaction

Good morning,

  I have noticed lots being written and debated about beer quality and consistency recently. This issue was never far from my thoughts when I worked selling bottle conditioned beers, and the same applies when I continue to find crap undrinkable cask gunk served by people who appear not to know what they are doing. So I wanted to ask you, the reader, a few questions.

Unfortunately I don't really have loads of page views, I only have 3 followers, who I'm eternally grateful to, but unlike Tandleman or similar, I don't have numerous regular posters of comment that generates discussion. And I always seem to end up reading other blog posts too late to comment.

So I thought this would be a good opportunity to try to summarise my thoughts on the issues of quality and consistency, and see if I can tempt anyone nito blurting out a reckless and unreasonable opinion of their own, to misquote Mr Cholmondley Warner.

I'll do this by looking at both cask, and bottle conditioned beers. Tonight, its all about the cask. Below is a handy pictorial reminder of what cask ale can look like. Although if you are unsure, its debatable if there's much point you reading on....

I love cask ale. Be it hand pulled, gravity dispensed or electrically assisted, its still a fantastic product to be enjoyed. Such a shame then that its so inconsistent and often of poor quality. Why is this?

1. Staff.

How many times have you had a pint of sour beer passed to you? Its got to be lots (I've been drinking 20 years now, sort of). In this time I've witnessed a real ale boom in the mid nineties, a micro brewery boom through the noughties, an explosion in Key-keg beers in the 2010's, and yet against this backdrop of soaring success, there is still a prevalent belief that you can sell off beer, and come armed with a 1976 guide to justifying why said beer isn't off.

It seems like a parody but staff, (landlords, stewards, cellarman, etc) still love to roll out the same story. Choice gems still heard whilst holding a pint of vinegar in my hand include "no-one else has complained", "its meant to taste like that" and "it can't be off, its a fresh barrel".  Sometimes you can shame a person into admitting they don't have the faintest clue about keeping beer, and an equal number of times I've had pints swapped unbegrudgingly. However, some people blindly refuse to recognise the spirit and legality of the sale of goods act, and this seems to be happening more and more. This really can't continue.

This is a problem that has to be addressed by the custodians of the bar. I'm sure back in the eighties and earlier there was crap beer in the market, and that this shoddy situation was allowed to flourish by landlords forming and never shaking bad habits, maybe neither knowing or caring about looking after beer. Ironically, nowadays, good beer is almost exclusively found in pubs with long serving licensees, so its beneficial to have an older or more experienced custodian.

Even then, so much pressure is applied by pub companies to achieve pie in the sky sales targets in every pub, that now a new breed of custodian is commonplace, someone who travels the country for a Pubco turning round, just keeping going or sometimes actively running into the ground, their pubs. Where's their motivationn to stay put gaining knowledge and appreciation of beer and cellarmanship naturally, over time, when they could be in a keg only pub next week?

Whats the risk if this situation continues ? Most people argue that falling sales and visitor numbers to pubs are down to a cocktail of ills; beer duty rises, cheap supermarket alcohol, cheap Euro imports consumed at home, and the smoking ban. I think all of these play a part, but what about badly kept or just plain rubbish beer? People have a more developed palate these days, are better informed, and have an expectation of choice and quality. If this isn't being met, then you only need to combine that with one of the above causes and there's an explanation right there for why revenue is dwindling. So maybe it really can't continue?

So my question is :

Would solving the issue of inconsistent and poor quality beer in pubs help revitalise the industry and stop so many pubs closing?

2. Yawn and groan-a-likes

Then there is the issue of woefully bland beer. Often mass marketed, and shipped all over the UK without thought for its travelling capabilities, its probably had its ABV reduced in the last 10 years for "market sector" reasons. Bland beers are down to breweries. Some breweries are rubbish. Sorry, but thats a Wee Beefy beer fact! (fact subject to personal interpretation). Their beers aren't necessarily always off or anything, but they might be samey or simply lacking in flavour.

This observation is a response to changing tastes - a flood of New World hops and punchy American takes on our own styles has made us yearn for something that stands out. That doesn't mean a traditional mild or a low gravity small beer isn't good, but whilst ever it represents such a small percentage of regional brewers output then its not the above, but the big blands that we see almost all the time.

And this desire for more interesting, more distinct, micro brewery and  "Craft" (whatever that is, I think it involves card and glitter) beers comes at a time when the big breweries no longer nrew, and those remaining are pursuing a widening roster of drab, inoffensive, allegedly easy to keep Unibeers.

Back in the 1990's I was wooed by almost any beer not brewed by Whitbread, Tetleys or Bass North! Yet, all these breweries actually could produce good ale,  if it was kept well, and, if you could find it. Examples included Tetley Walker Wild Rover, Whitbread one offs such as Ryman's Reserve,  Stones Dark in cask form, and even, when I didn't rate it that much, Bass. The thing is, this was the result of major breweries still being that, and allowing fleeting glimpses of what they could do using the retained experience of brewers who probably rejoiced at the chance to brew something different.

Nowadays, different is paid lip service to but isn't part of the big plan. The super regional's swallow up other regionals and even large micro's then whittle out the quirky and notable in their acquisitions, and brew everything in one place, whilst neglecting the gems in their existing portfolio. The only boundaries between these brews are their oft barely detectable geographical origins.

They still own and supply untold thousands of pubs, yet only their most non descript products fit the requirements of a pubco or their own estate. The nett result is "doing a Whitbread" and producing 15 rebadged beers with little tangible difference between them, a brooding rainstorm of dreary blandness from which the average tied house or pubco pub visitor cannot escape. The monotaste brews then fall out of favour leaving them conveniently free to concentrate on mega brands. That's bad for choice, and bad for beer, (and crucially, means we are presented with numerous offerings that I doubt you could make less bland and thus less crap, by being a genius in the cellar)

So my question is :

with mega regional's real ale becoming less distinct, and more widely available, are there sufficient spikes of quality to sustain interest and appreciation of real ale, or is the future a dread flatline of mediocrity? 


3. Not that again...

Its lazy to claim that any brewery with a large portfolio is spreading itself thin but its true that many drab ales come from such producers. But market dominance in any form is bad news, even if we love the breweries that achieve it..

If you see the same choice of beers every time you go out, even if you are often drinking in pubs with a wide range of beers to try, aren't you usually disappointed at the sight of something that's on everywhere? It seems to be the case that the widespread availability of a breweries beer means you will end up drinking it in places that only sell one real ale and don't really have the knowledge of or interest in looking after it. Its brilliant to have local breweries doing well but sometimes their very prevalence is detrimental to how we see the product and how easy it is for them to sustain its consistency .

Take two beers that I don't really bother trying in pubs anymore. Both are pale and designed to be more modern in flavour and to an extent perhaps attempt to attract the curious lager drinker Both of the beers come from producers that have had to expand to meet demand, and who have made stringent efforts to get their beers into a huge number of pubs in Sheffield. So now that we know for certain which beers I mean, I wonder, are they of poor quality, or does their very familiarity dissuade me from making a fair assessment of the beer's merits? I think the answer is the second possibility.

That they have saturated the market means by the law of averages there will be poor quality examples of a good batch of the beers, instead of such examples being from a bad batch. And if I am not fed up of seeing them in pubs where I'd prefer to see something more unusual, I'm glad to see them in non real ale savvy pubs where they then taste grim. So I find myself forming the opinion that these aren't good beers because I am so desensitised to them that I can't tell if they are being presented how the brewer wants them to be.

So my last question is :
are the most commonly found beers actually not worth drinking or are they simply a victim of their success?

I concede that my 400,000 word thesis is a bit lengthy. It may be supercilious. It might be a bit wandery. It may even be the reason that I rarely get comments on my blog! Despite this, even if you only take up one of the points, I'd love to hear from you,in responses up to but not exceeding a million words if possible.

Thanks for your time and continuing support,

Wee Beefy.


  1. Wee Beefy, I thought I'd trample in to this discussion armed with only passing knowledge of the pub trade and throw my twopenneth in...

    Point 1 - Is it actually possible to have consistent independent cask ales across distances and pubs, whereby individual licensees are responsible for keeping ale? Or are you maybe here in danger of almost advocating a...er... pubco approach of management of customer expectation? Taking it to it's logical conclusion, should the beers be homogenised to ensure a good pint throughout the land? i.e. we all bow down to SAB Miller whilst they shaft us with smoothflow. Surely shit pints are as much part of the real ale landscape as the good pints?

    Point 2 - Pretty much the same as my points above. There will always be spikes of interest; probably no more than there is now or ever has been. It may be argued that we are currently experiencing a 'mega' spike in ale interest, within which patterns repeat from years ago. Of course, there's no way I'm going to analyse data or what not to find these patterns.

    Point 3 - well I think you answer your own question here; we become 'desensitised' to the most common ales to the point that we find them uninteresting. And linking back to point 1 - there will always be inconsistencies in brews.

    Of course the most commonly encountered beers are worth drinking, because they have only become commonly encountered through being a decent, solid - and heaven forbid, good selling - beer.

    Another over-arching point I'd like to make is that I believe the same issues crop up over and over again across time. There has always been and always will be inconsistencies between landlords, beers, pubs, customers, expectations yadda yadda yadda. Just like there are inconsistencies in anything in life (well, except for the Tories being thoroughbred tosspots, that is unarguably consistent), you will find inconsistencies in ales and their consumption.

    Hope some of this tripe has some validity...it's late...

  2. Thanks anon, I suppose my gripe with inconsistency re landlords is that crap beer served, i.e already checked, is too easy, and too frequesnt. No-one wants shafting by Miller, and since real ale is a fluctuating living pint, as misunderstood by pubco's, I agree there will be inconsistency. Its frail reliability is indeed part of the joy but that doesn't stop pubs upping their game.

    I agree about the spike, was hoping others would notice it, mainly I was just wondering whether people may get bored since there are still far fewer microbrewery and specialist ales available across the UK pub estate.I hope and suspect not.

    Finally I take your point re reocurring issues, but surely there is a market and consumer weighted need to make changes to now address quality? Cask Marque Adnams and others are making small changes, but is this enough to keep Britain's best drink afloat?

    Thanks for taking the time to comment, WB

  3. I agree that I don't know what frequesnt means. Disgraceful sloppiness .....