Sunday, 17 November 2013

Beer Choice

In a recent post I criticised licensees and the general public for “playing it safe”, with regard to the selection of beers that are available in the average pub. At the time I was undecided as to just who is to blame for the lack of choice in many pubs; and to a certain extent, I still am. Is it a case of publicans reacting to their customers’ lack of adventure? Or, is it that landlords and landladies prefer to stock a “safe” selection of well-known brands in the belief that their customers will feel more comfortable with beers they are familiar with?

Actually the reliance on tried and tested familiar brands of beer, which is so common to many of the nations’ pubs, is probably a combination, in varying degrees, of both factors. However, like many beer lovers, I am being a little churlish here, as even the most average pub today stocks a far greater range of both beers and other drinks than was the case when I first started drinking, in the early 1970’s. 

Back then your average pub would most likely have been tied to a brewery, and would have stocked almost exclusively beers from the owning brewery, with the notable exception perhaps of Guinness. The brewery’s own beers would have consisted of a mild, a bitter and a keg bitter on draught, with probably the full range of the brewery’s bottled beers (light, pale, brown, stout and sometimes a barley wine.) on a shelf behind the bar, and not in a fridge. Some pubs had started to sell Draught Guinness, but by no means all did, so the bottled version was the order of the day. Draught lager, in the form of a watered-down Heineken, alongside Harp Lager, brewed by a consortium of brewers, headed by Guinness, was probably more commonplace than draught stout. That was it in the majority of pubs, and there were certainly no guest beers and virtually nothing in the way of imported bottled beers available either.

How times have changed, with most pubs today stocking between one and three real ales, one or two keg beers, two or three international draught lager brands, various bottled beers – both domestic and imported, plus several different ciders – one of which will probably be on draught. Then of course, there has been the rise of the “beer exhibition” pub, where often upwards of six and sometimes even ten cask beers will be available. Fine, so long as they are all kept well, and the pub manages to shift them before they start to deteriorate.

Actually, I can remember similar pubs back in the early 70’s making a feature of selling a wide range of beers. These pubs were invariably free-houses, but the difference between these early “exhibition” pioneers and today’s establishments is that beers stocked in the former were, with a few notable exceptions, virtually always keg. Keg was modern, keg was easy to handle and with the considerable variation in quality of traditional cask beer during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, keg was seen as the way forward. People actually liked it and even asked for it. People that is, who didn’t know any better, and here I have to confess to being one of them. For a young lad and his friends, all of whom had only recently started drinking, the lure of McEwan’s Export and Younger’s Tartan, available locally only at the Five Bells in Brabourne, a few miles outside Ashford, proved too strong. To us these were exciting new beers, which we hadn’t seen before, and to our young and inexperienced palates they were almost irresistible.

To return to the main thrust of the argument; we have a situation today where drinkers have a degree of choice that is without parallel, and yet still we cry out for more. CAMRA’s best selling Good Beer Guide has become more and more a Good “guest” Beer Guide; hardly surprising when there are now in excess of 1,000 breweries in the UK. And yet, leaving questions of quality aside for the time being, could there now be too much choice?

The dramatic increase in the number of new breweries and the large number of different beers available is mirrored elsewhere in our consumer society. Take a walk down the aisles of any large supermarket and it is quickly evident there is a vast array of different foodstuffs and ingredients available to today’s shoppers, giving and un-paralleled degree of choice that would have been unthinkable even 20 years ago. With so many different choices available to consumers there is a degree of “information overload” which ironically leads to a situation of, “more variety, less choice”.

As in the supermarket, so in the pub, and when faced with a bank of hand pumps, all adorned with an array of unfamiliar pump clips, many drinkers end up confused or even totally bewildered. Is it any wonder then that many will just opt for something they know, especially when they are unable to decide which of the myriad of different beers to go for, or they feel self-conscious whilst standing at the bar trying to make their minds up as to which beer to have. Despite counting myself as fairly knowledgeable about beer, I have been in similar situations when confronted with a totally alien display of different pump clips. (Hint, landlords and landladies, please can we have more use of legible chalk boards, or even printed menus, which give us drinkers some proper details about unfamiliar “guest” ales on sale in your pubs? Things like style of beer, strength, basic tasting notes, who brews the beer and where are they based!)

In response to my earlier post about “playing it safe”, fellow blogger the Pub Curmudgeon replied that “I don't think you can really blame drinkers for preferring to stick to the tried and trusted. After all, lager, stout and smooth drinkers do, so why shouldn't cask drinkers too?” He has a point and I know several CAMRA members who eschew the new wave of “Golden Ales” with their American hopped, citrus-loaded flavours, and stick doggedly to traditional “Brown Bitters” which they know and trust. One member, who I know well, won’t touch anything dark, thereby denying himself the delights of mild, old ale, porter and stout!

To take this “narrow-mindedness” with regard to beer a stage further, an even more extreme example can be seen in the group of drinkers who attend the Kent Beer Festival every year, but then spend their whole time there drinking Shepherd Neame! This is in spite of the enormous variety of beers available at the Kent Festival. Perverse in the extreme, or horses for courses? Whatever your view, whilst this situation appears odd, it is not much different to what goes on at the grand-daddy of all beer festivals – Munich’s Oktoberfest.  It is perhaps not widely acknowledged in this country that at the most famous beer festival in the world, there are only six different beers available, and all of these are brewed in the same style. (By decree, only Munich’s “Big-Six” brewers, Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräu, Lowenbräu, Paulaner and Spaten are permitted to have tents at Oktoberfest, and all offer a specially brewed, Märzen-style beer, with an abv of around 6%). Once seated in one of the tents, and visitors NEED to be seated in order to be served with a beer, there is not much incentive to move on and try the beers in one of the other tents. So in a strange kind of way, our Shep’s lovers at the Kent Festival are not so different from say, Hacker-Pschorr devotees at Oktoberfest.

Choice then, whether it is too little or too much, can sometimes detract from one of the chief pleasures of beer. Apart from the obvious attraction that a good beer tastes good and a great beer tastes even better, beer is a sociable drink; in fact it is often described as the “best long drink in the world”. This leads me on to the final part of this particular thread, and one which I will be discussing in greater detail next time. I am referring to the occasion or setting in which beer is drunk, as this can often be just as important and rewarding as the appreciation of the taste and the overall appeal of the beer itself. See you next time.


RedNev said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
RedNev said...

Most drinkers are not particularly interested in experimenting. The beer is an adjunct to their evening's entertainment, rather than its raison d'être. When I used to work at the Bury Beer Festival, I was surprised how many drinkers would pay to enter and then order the local brew, JW Lees, available without an entrance fee in pubs nearby.

A friend of mine who lives in Hounslow will, on his visits to Southport, order Fullers London Pride in my local which has 11 real ales on at weekends. He may try others that I suggest, but always ends up on the Pride.

We're the oddballs, when you think about it, not them.

Cooking Lager said...

Nev is right, but don't put me in the the we're.

Get on the Carling and stick to it.

Tandleman said...

Your point Paul aboyt some kind of idea what the beer looks like colour wise and tastes like, is very well made.

Especially when, as is often the case, the bar staff don't have a scooby.

Curmudgeon said...

Yes, the free house with a multiplicity of kegs is definitely a thing of the past now. I think I was a bit late on the scene for this, or maybe it was always more of a Southern phenomenon. One of the last must have been the Traveller's Rest at Flash in the Peak District - note John Clarke's comment about keg Joules bitter.

Paul Bailey said...

Nev, we probably are the oddballs, but it's great fun being one!

Cookie, if I wasn't such a polite and respectful person I might tell you where to stick your Carling!

Tandleman, I think some of the more forward thinking pubs are taking this idea on board, but it does take time to write up new entries on a chalkboard, and on a busy Saturday night, when the beer is flowing fast, it could prove tricky. (The bar staff could always write up a few entries in advance though, under the heading "Coming Soon".)

Curmudgeon, Mr Clarke's liking for keg Joules Bitter can perhaps be excused, back in those pre-CAMRA days. As I admitted in the post, I actually liked McEwan's Export and Younger's Tartan, when I first started drinking!

Martin, Cambridge said...

Paul - When I visit your part of the world, I want to enjoy consistently brewed beers at their best, so I'd always go for Sheps, Harveys, Dark Star etc, rather than a guest from the other side of the country which probably isn't the fastest selling beer. I'm not surprised Norfolk villagers prefer Adnams to Rudgate, though I share your views on Woodfordes, the Nog apart.

There are some fabulous micro beers, Old Diary for some, but I've also sampled quite a bit of dull pale home brew which seems to have been stocked purely because it's new.

Paul Bailey said...

Martin, I fully agree with your sentiments, with the exception of Shep's, who's beers I dislike to the extent that I won't set foot in one of their pubs unless there's a very good reason. (A pity, as the company has some excellent pubs!)

One of the most enjoyable experiences, back in the early days of CAMRA, was visiting different parts of the country in order to sample the local beers. In fact, beer festivals aside, this was the only way one could get to drink these beers.

Even today, I still prefer to sample the local beers when visiting somewhere different. My gut feeling the other weekend in Norfolk, told me the guest Rudgate beer might not be any good, but as it is a beer we seldom see in this part of the country I fancied giving it a try.

Old Dairy produce some excellent beers, and so do Gadds, Larkins, Foundry, Kent, plus several more locally. I do agree there are others which are lacking somewhat, but my pet hate has to be the "badge beers" turned out by certain brewers. These are churned out under different names each month, purely to appeal to the "tickers", but are in fact just minor variations on a few basic recipes. I feel a new post coming on about this subject!

Curmudgeon said...

"One of the most enjoyable experiences, back in the early days of CAMRA, was visiting different parts of the country in order to sample the local beers."

Yes, while in total there is undoubtedly much more choice now, I feel that we now miss out on that "sense of place" which you got from only finding beers on their home territory. Now, wherever you can, it can often seem like just a variation on the same theme. Indeed I wrote a column on this very point sixteen years ago!

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