March/April 2018

A Matter of Taste

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 you’re confronted with an array of ten beers you’ve never heard of before, it’s 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 you’re unlikely to end up with something that really frightens the horses. If it doesn’t suit your palate, then just don’t buy it again. It’s also doubtful whether a small sample really gives a fair impression of what a beer is like. It’s said that you don’t fully appreciate a beer until you reach the bottom of the glass.

It’s also something likely to incur the wrath of both bar staff and other customers if you do it when they’re three deep at the bar. You can imagine the cartoon of “The man who asked for a taster in Wetherspoon’s at 10.30 on Friday night”. 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.

It’s 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 beer’s 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, it’s 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?

Good Money After Bad

In spending vast sums on refurbishments, are pub operators chasing their own tail?

THE ECONOMY’S 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 haven’t been knocked around for decades, and benefit from continuity and familiarity. But maybe, if you’ve already thoroughly wrecked a pub once, you’re fatally committed to wrecking it again every five years. It’s like a drug where you have to keep on increasing the dose to get the same effect.

January/February 2018

Nobody Else Has Complained

Returning defective beer to the bar can all too easily become a minefield

CASK BEER is a natural, living product and, as such, with the best will in the world, it’s inevitable that occasionally you’ll be served with a sub-standard pint. What matters is not that it’s happened in the first place, but that the pub deals with the issue swiftly, politely and without quibble. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way, and an ill-mannered and unhelpful response can easily put a dampener on an enjoyable evening. Indeed, the whole business of returning beer to the bar can be something of a minefield.

The first thing is to be specific as to exactly what it is you’re complaining about. If the beer is obviously cloudy or vinegary, then you should have a cast-iron case, although opinions will vary on what degree of haziness is acceptable. However, there are other faults that are not so clear-cut, for example being served far too warm, lacking in condition, having a noticeable off-flavour, or simply being generally tired and end-of-barrel-ish. If you’re in a pub where you’re a regular and are known to the licensee and bar staff, such a complaint might be taken seriously, but in a strange pub you could well feel that you are chancing your arm.

It’s also important to be clear about your objective when making a complaint. Obviously the best solution is to be given an acceptable replacement, either the same beer which has been pulled through, or a new cask tapped, or a suitable alternative. Failing that, the aim should be to be given a refund, which you may well prefer if it’s the only cask beer on sale and you don’t fancy a Carling as a replacement. Or, in some cases, just venting your spleen will leave you with a sense of moral satisfaction.

The last two outcomes, though, imply that you’ll be bringing your visit to an end. If you’re in the middle of a pub crawl, or there’s an alternative pub nearby, that might be entirely acceptable. But in other situations, for example having a meal or social evening with a group, you might not want to do that, and thus be reluctant to create a fuss. You’ll just quietly leave the sub-standard pint, and put up with Guinness or Diet Coke for the rest of the proceedings. And, even if you gain a moral victory, creating a confrontational situation may end up leaving a sour taste in the mouth and spoiling your evening.

In general, attitudes to changing sub-standard beer have improved over the years. The days of “everyone else is drinking it” or “real ale’s meant to look like soup/taste like vinegar” are largely a thing of the past. One of the worst responses I recall was “but you’ve drunk some of it!” Well, if I hadn’t drunk any, how would I know it was foul? But that kind of quibbling hasn’t entirely disappeared. Given the amount of goodwill at risk, compared with the gross profit on a pint, it’s hard to see why pubs continue to argue the toss about changing beer if customers present a reasonable case.

Some will point out that, if you stick to mass-market lagers and smooth beers, you won’t have any of this problem with variability. However, the point about cask beer is that, when it’s good, it reaches heights that keg never can, and the occasional duff pint is a price worth paying for that. If you stick to pubs in the Good Beer Guide, or ones with a decent reputation locally, you’re unlikely to have much problem. And keg beers, especially small-batch “craft” ones, are by no means immune from faults either.