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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Thursday, 8 May 2014

With great beer comes great responsibility

I didn't want to write this post, but I have to.

It comes on the back of me breaking my own cardinal rule about not behaving like a dick at the bar.

In a version of that classic "Do you know who I am?" thing that spoilt celebs do, there are often times when I'm tempted to counter claims of "There's nothing wrong with that pint" or "Well, no one else has complained" by pointing out that I know the brewer of said beer, have judged it competitions, written tasting notes for it, perhaps even helped brew it myself. It's a horrible situation where even though I might be right, I would still be an insufferable, pompous prick for pulling rank in this way. So I have always resisted the urge.

Until last week.

I was staying in a hotel in Bristol. The Bristol Hotel in fact. I went into the bar and was utterly blown away by the range of beers on offer. Not the widest or best range of beers I've seen by a long way, but certainly among the very best I've ever seen in a British hotel bar, where usually it's a choice of Stella, Becks Vier and Boddington's on tap. This place has Freedom as its pouring lager, a couple of decent craft keg ales, and a wide range of bottled beers from Bristol Beer Factory.

I ordered a bottle of BBF's excellent Southville Hop. The barmaid began pouring it into a branded glass. 'This is excellent,' I thought.

Then, halfway down, she swirled the bottle to agitate the yeast, and poured me a cloudy beer with bits in it.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

"That's how it's supposed to be poured," she replied.

"No it isn't, can I have another one where you don't do that?" I asked.

She referred me to the duty manager, who looked far too young to be out this late.

"It's meant to be poured like that," he said. "We've been trained."

I spotted bottles of Bristol's Hefeweizen in the fridge, and understanding dawned.

"Ah, no," I said, "They probably showed you how to pour the Hefe with a swirl, to agitate the yeast - it's a tradition for that style. But you don't do it with an IPA."

"Look," he said angrily, "I've done a training course with the brewery. And I'm telling you that's how you pour this beer!"

And that's when I cracked.

"No, you look," I replied, "I'm one of the UK's leading beer writers. I've written a whole book about IPA. And I'm doing an event with the brewer of this beer tomorrow. And I'M telling YOU that it's not poured this way."

Rhetorically, I had won the argument. But not really. The barchild had proven himself to be a twat. I had proven myself to be a bigger twat. There were no winners. So I ordered a pint of lager instead, which thankfully came without bits in.

There are of course debates to be had about the desirability of swirling yeast in a bottle conditioned beer. Coopers Sparkling Ale use this as their serving gimmick. (I did check with Bristol Beer Factory, and they don't.) But in any case, with any beer, the accepted norm in the UK is to try to pour a bottle conditioned beer without the yeast. And if you DO want the yeast, that is a matter of personal choice. This is why most good bar staff leave it to the customer to pour their own bottled beer as they see fit.

I still think it's wonderful that the Bristol Hotel stocks such excellent beers. And I think it's amazing that the brewery offers training to bar staff. But here was a classic example of a little bit of training having the opposite effect to that intended.

The downside of the craft beer revolution is that such hazards are commonplace. I hear stories of brewers trying their own beer in craft beer bars, taking it back because it's cloudy, and being informed that the beer is unfiltered and is meant to be served that way. If the brewer wants to explain that he created the beer, and that he goes to great lengths to have the beer served sparkling clear, he's running the risk of emulating my twattish behaviour.

Recently I was served a pint of porridge in a local Cask Marque accredited pub. When I took it back, the barman poured another pint from the same tap, the same barrel, and said, "No look, this one's the same. It's meant to be like that." I've almost stopped drinking cask in London craft beer pubs, because so many seem to think that it's OK to serve a beer as soon as it's dropped clear. They proudly tell you "This one only came in this morning!"which I find confusing given that every single piece of cask ale cellar advice I've ever seen insists the beer should condition for three days in the cellar before it's ready to serve. Of course, this varies from beer to beer. But hop-forward cask beers in particular have a jagged, pixellated flavour when they have not been given time to condition.

Then there are the bars and pubs with six handpulls, all of them with pump clips turned backwards, because on a busy shift where a lot of beer is being drunk, there's not a single member of staff on the premises who knows how to change a cask.

The situation is often little better with craft keg: beers pour cloudy, flat and lifeless, and because it's 'craft', most bartenders and drinkers, for whim this is a new experience, assume it's meant to be like that.

At six quid a pint, this simply won't do.

Sometimes a lackadaisical approach to beer quality is born of simple greed and cynicism. America may be the home of late stage consumer capitalism, but over there, there is at least a belief in the value of capitalism, and pride in a job done well.  Other European countries are less aggressively capitalist than us. We seem to have this uniquely British combination of belief in the primacy of profit, but a cold cynicism of achieving it by any means necessary, preferably not involving genuine hard work.

In other pubs, intentions are good and honest, but the sheer hard work of trying to stay afloat as a pub means that training in speciality beer styles and optimal serves is simply too difficult to achieve.

Either way, it's just not good enough.

Craft beer, whether it's in bottle, keg or cask, is capable of saving pubs and making them profitable. It sells at a price premium. It justifies that premium because it is better beer. Because it is better beer, it deserves to be kept properly. If you cannot serve it properly, you should not be selling it - and you certainly shouldn't be selling it at a premium.

It's a simple as that.

If you think you can't train your staff, or it's not worth doing so because they move on quickly, then consider that staff who have better training have better job satisfaction, and stick around longer. If it means you have to pay then more, then do so - you're asking them to do a more specialised job than their counterparts in a bog standard pub selling Fosters and John Smith's Smoothflow, and your prices already reflect this.

If you went to a fine restaurant and your sommelier was a nineteen year-old who knew nothing about wine, poured your bottle of Margaux badly and didn't offer you a taste first, you'd be appalled. But we still accept similar standards in bars that boast of being beer specialists, that have accreditation and even awards saying they are.

Any fool can phone up James Clay and ask for a selection of interesting beers. That doesn't make you a great beer bar. If you want to be known for great beer, you have to go further than the average pub and take some pride in how the beer is kept and served. If you don't, then as the price of a pint of craft beer increasingly takes the piss, the bubble will very quickly burst.

With great beer comes great responsibility: if you can't look after it properly, if you're not prepared to learn how it should be served, then don't fucking stock it. You haven't earned the right.

32 comments:

Glyn Roberts said...

Too fucking right.

Tandleman said...

Pete. You make many points that I have been banging on about for years and you make them very well indeed.

Don't get me started about the poor standard of cask beer in craft London pubs. I have written about it extensively though.

As for cloudy beer? You say " I hear stories of brewers trying their own beer in craft beer bars, taking it back because it's cloudy, and being informed that the beer is unfiltered and is meant to be served that way."

My motion to the CAMRA AGM about this kind of thing was defeated, the opposition lead by no other than Roger Protz. It serves nobody well at all, that even in the best of establishments, the bar staff basically either don't have a scooby, or as in your case have the wrong end of a stick, or worse, have the inflated idea that just by serving expensive beer in a craft bar, that somehow, by osmosis,they are blessed with knowing something about it.

I too drink little cask beer in London craft bars these days. Mostly, with a few honourable exception, it is just chucking money away.

My blog posts referred to above are:

http://tandlemanbeerblog.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/clouding-issue.html

http://tandlemanbeerblog.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/clouding-issue.html

More power to your elbow on this one.

Pete Brown said...

Cheers Tandy - I did kind of feel you looking over my shoulder while I was writing this one!

Darren said...

Good article, Pete. On a lighter note, I sat in a quiet corner at a pub beer festival at the weekend and learned from a barman educating some novice drinkers that IPA started out at 4% when it left London and was brewed for a second time on the ship to arrive in India at 7%. And that Butcombe Haka is a New Zealand beer made under licence in the UK. "Like Foster's." I, too, decided to break the cardinal rule...

BeerCast Rich said...

Fantastic post, Pete.

I guess I've been lucky up to now, not having experienced something similar. Until the other week, when I was in a restaurant having a bottle-conditioned IPA. The waiter cheerfully wandered over to our table and topped my glass up with the sediment I had carefully left in the bottle, before dipping his head politely and moving off.

Being British, once I'd recovered from the shock, I gamely sipped it as much as I could, but it was pretty awful compared to how it was tasting previously. Should I have complained? Absolutely.

What I did, instead, was drink it as best I could, then order another, immediately putting the sedimented bottle on an empty table. Ironically, they forgot to add this beer to our bill. Did I tell them?

Well...karma and all...

Jeff Pickthall said...

I like "pixellated flavour". I'm stealing it.

Liz Crew said...

I think you can be excused being a tw*t in this instance.
My favourite personal grumpy old git story is at the Tobacco Factory (also in Bristol) - 50yds up the road from where BBF is brewed. In the theatre I was served some rank cask BBF beer so I sent it back "it's always like that" she said.
I told her to pop down the road and tell the brewer that, since it would probably make him cry.
Last time I went there they were only serving it in bottles.
The problem is that we've been trying to make more people like cask beer for ages, and if people like you don't make a fuss and someone new to cask ale comes in behind you, they'll condemn all that brewery's beer as shite...and possibly all cask ale too. And that's the real shame.

Cooking Lager said...

Eye, you're not wrong Pete. You are on the path matey. The circle we all go on.

From drinking whatever is cheap at the SU to get pissed with mates, to caring about it and wanting others to aswell to all the way back round to figuring out it's a lot of bother and you're better off with cans of cheap supermarket pish.

Rod Howard said...

I really cannot blame you for breaking the cardinal rule Pete.
Dunno what I would have done witnessing my requested Southville Hop poured out like that and the bar person having the temerity to argue with you. Probably something involving my hands and someone's neck.
forExcellent post.

Jeffrey said...

All good points but what you fail to touch on is that many of the new wave of craft brewers are really shitty about ullages and this has a knock on effect on the people who buy their beers and sell them to the public.

In the past I've been treated with suspicion and thinly veiled contempt when I've rung up a brewer to say the beer isn't in a saleable condition. It doesn't happen much now because I've learned to stick to breweries run by professionals.

Pete Brown said...

Fair point Jeff - always curious as to how much of a clue some brewers have. With nanything as potentially lucrative as craft beer, there are opportunists in both manufacture and retail...

Jake Scholan said...

Thanks for writing this. This is something I've been saying for some time over here in the States; When a bar decides to start serving a higher end product, there is an inherent responsibility you must take to be sure you are serving said product correctly.

Unfortunately, that gets written off as snobbery. And something my good friend and partner in crime (Oliver from Literature 7 Libations) just reiterated to me: "The problem is that beer is new. The rules are pretty complex to the layman, and we haven't had time, as a culture, to digest it as a product. It will get better, but we're gonna have to roll with a few punches along the way."

Curmudgeon said...

And if you don't serve it properly there's a major risk of putting people off it.

Thirty years ago to some extent "real ale" suffered from the same kind of problem because it had been put into lots of new outlets, many of which didn't know how to keep it to save their lives.

Anonymous said...

Good point well made and I understand your predicament, it's so hard to bite your tongue when you know something isn't right. A reflection of how turning to keg in the 70's lead cellarmanship from being an art to a plug and pour job.

Sarah said...

Why is complaining twattish? Surely putting up with ignorance and arrogance is more twattish still. Complain and don't feel guilty about it!

Jim Anderson said...

Always apply the same standards to choosing a hotel as you would to a bar. Your commute may be longer in the morning but your chi will thank you for it!

paul said...

Well, don't put all the blame down to the pub and its staff.

Do the brewers not have a responsibility too? If not to the drinking public, then at least to themselves? By this I mean that, if they become aware that their beer is not being stored or served correctly, shouldn't they intervene themselves (not directly at the bar, but via their own channels)? It does their reputation no good if the drinking public get the impression that the brewer makes crap beer, when its caused by the low standards of the retailer.

pjamesryan said...

I feel this way about beers served in the United States at the same temperature: 30-40 degrees Fahrenheit. Then the drinker has to sit with his hands around the pint until the beer is bearable to drink.

On too many occasions have I tasted beer that was too cold. I realize it's a challenge to chill beers at different temperatures, but it affects the quality of the drinks!

Martin Oates said...

An excellent blog and I agree completely, stock and serve what you are good at.

Phil said...

I hear stories of brewers trying their own beer in craft beer bars, taking it back because it's cloudy, and being informed that the beer is unfiltered and is meant to be served that way.

Thanks so much for saying this. I've been moaning about this problem for a while now - ever since I ordered a Moor beer (clearly labelled as unfined & therefore hazy, which is fair enough) and got a pint of yeast soup. Saying it's the luck of the draw isn't good enough any more.

Nick Love said...

You hit many nails on the head Pete - problem is that with the continued renaissance and growth of the real/craft ale market we are getting a proliferation of 2 types of bar.

The first will be the one we all revere - the one that keeps and serves its products in superb condition maybe opened by skilled enthusiasts leveraging advantageous trading conditions to start a great business that they have a commitment to.

The second, of which there are a plethora appearing, are existing pubs and bars that see real ale as a potentially lucrative revenue stream, given its popularity. They don't give a shit about acquiring a deeper level of knowledge and developing a better skillset to be able to do it justice - to them its ££ in the till, cynically so.

You then get the old chestnut from people who tell you that they've tried real ale for the first time and it was rubbish. That's the hugely frustrating part of the whole thing - artless mayflies who jump on and off bandwagons at will but can do significant damage as they do so...

BeerMatt said...

You make good points Pete, but your analogy forgets that in the greater dining experience there are only a handful of Michelin-starred restaurants, and the others - even if they're serving deconstructed whatever because its trendy - don't necessarily want to be one.

In a world of ever increasing craft brewery numbers where all of their product needs to find a home are you suggesting that every beer-serving venue needs to be the equivalent of a Michelin starred restaurant. While we all want that, it simply defies logic and history that this will happen.

The venues that stock good beer but serve it badly will keep serving it badly and go back to easy-to-serve international brands because they are less fuss. That's how we got to where we found ourselves 10 years ago. People like consistency but consistency is hard to do. This is the Achilles heel for craft if it relies on venues doing it right.

Mind you, it sounds like the Bristol Hotel had been training its staff to some extent. If they have and they still can't meet the standard, it shows why craft is having a brief time in the sun and the gravity of consumer demands for consistency will surely drag us back to the past.

py said...

They can f*ck off with their price premiums. I want top notch craft beer for the same price as a Carling. If you can't brew it that cheap, give up brewing son. If you refuse to sell it that cheap, enjoy finding a new job when your crappy pub shuts.

py said...

oh oh oh, my favourite sign of well educated bar staff is when you buy a bottle of craft ale and they don't offer you a glass. Then when you ask for one, they give you a glass full of ice like its a magners or something. Never fails to make me smile.

Roger Pettet said...

Wonderful Pete. Gave me a huge chuckle along with support for what I have been complaining about here in Toronto and seems to be expanding proportionally along with "Fashion Statement" expansion of craft brewing.
Don't misunderstand. I'm excited about all these young people experimenting with beer-young brewers, bars Ana a whole new generation of punters, but please don't take the piss. Give me a full clear fresh pint and don't be fobbing me off with thimble sized servings of unbalanced head bangers at 10 dollars a thimble.
And by the way I hear from a reliable source to anticipate paying a higher price for my beer soon.
Lots of "Business" reasons apparently but the poor man's trouser pocket is getting picked once again.
I'm starting to feel like the old fellow in Elbow's song!

Gary Gillman said...

You should not feel badly about forcefully making your point especially when you get pushback like that. "The customer is always right" seems too often to be forgotten especially here when you were actually right. When I order a bottle, I always insist to pour it myself. When ordering any draft now, cask or other, I ask for a taste to judge the clarity and the actual taste. This is rarely refused.

The cloudy thing is a spin-off of the American craft revolution, far from the best part of it. But the funny thing is, it is relatively new. The idea of serving craft keg cloudy only came in about five years ago. Bottled craft beer often was filtered and even if it wasn't, of course in one's own hands you can treat it as you like. Cask here was and is almost always served cloudy due to a misunderstanding of what unfiltered means.

So this has migrated over but people need to resist it: ask for tastes to judge the clarity, and don't let someone pour your bottle for you: it is the only way.

Gary

Tim said...

I'm happy as long as i can still drink my Coopers cloudy!

Publican Sam said...

Spot on... although not nearly as high profile as you, I have taken more than one member of bar staff and publican to task over the condition of their beer.

Unless drinkers assert their "consumer rights" in the face of "trained" bartenders I fear this situation will prevail and the nascent craft beer movement may well come a cropper.

Being polite and firm in complaining about poor beer quality is just as valid as any complaint about food or service or any other deficit in a business's offering.

And in any event, it's good to release the "inner twat" from the constraints of the traditional British habit of not complaining.

Anonymous said...

I had a similar experience recently when I ordered a half-pint of some kind of IPA and, though you couldn't quite have dressed a salad with it, it was definitely distinctly acetic.

I said it had gone sour and asked if I could have a replacement. Th guy poured himself a taste and said it was fine. After some back and forth, he got his manager over who also tasted it and said it was fine. Eventually I ended up saying 'Look, I brew my own beer, I know what acetic acid tastes and smells like, and this beer has it in it.'

After the guy asking whether I brewed commercially (!) and, when I said I homebrewed, he said 'That's a bit different', I said it wasn't and that acetic acid smells the same in homebrew as it does in commercial beer. They said no one else has complained, and it had only been on for two days. So I said the brewery either sent them infected beer, or they had dirty lines. Eventually, after insisting that they replace it, I got a half of a different beer, which was only slightly less acetic. I drank about half of it and left.

This 10 minute discussion was over a *half pint*, which they ended up replacing anyway. Absolutely absurd. I felt like a bit of a twat mentioning that I brewed, but I genuinly don't know what else to say to such pig-headed ignorance. The less they know, the less they know it.

This has happened enough that I, also, rarely get cask ale from craft beer pubs (or at least make sure I get a taster first). They get into beer from the keg/bottle side of things and don't understand that cask is a different beast and some level of cellarmanship is required.

I get the feeling sometimes that people work in a craft beer pub, taste a few IPAs, and immediately feel like expert beer-guru-hipsters (a little like many 'baristas' you meet in overpriced coffee shops).

They feel like they know better than all their customers and, by pointing out a fault in a beer and asking for a replacement, you're making some kind of personal affront to their expert authority.

Anyone with tips on how to successfully get faulty beers replaced without a fight, or the need for twattish appeals to your own authority, let me know!

Pete Brown said...

Thanks for all the responses. Just one point on my unease about complaining:

It's not the complaining itself that I have the problem with - I actually take pints back to the bar at least once a week at the moment. The bit I felt uncomfortable with this time was having to resort to the "Do you know who I am" type spiel. I should be able to resolve the situation without pulling rank, so to speak, and this time I failed.

Stephen Beaumont said...

Pete; I realize that I'm late coming to this, but I only just read the post. First off, what you were doing, albeit rather indelicately, was not "Do you not know who I am?" but rather "These are my credentials for saying that I'm right and you're wrong." Big difference, IMO. It shouldn't be necessary, but occasionally is.

Secondly, if you think things are back over there, try drinking around North America for a while. Try explaining massive diacetyl to a bartender. Try finding a pint of cask that isn't cloudy. Try getting your pint poured in an unchilled glass in the southern U.S.

Nothing is going to change until all the people who do know better complain about the shite beers they are served, and explain why and occasionally how they know.

THOMAS CIZAUSKAS said...

Cloudy to murky: standard, expected, forecast in the U.S.