Tuesday 27 March 2012

How to Deal With Bad Beer

In a post entitled  "Dealing With Bad Beer", renowned blogger and beer writer Mark Dredge describes two beers he tried recently; one a stout and the other a golden ordinary bitter. He found both extremely unpleasant. Neither were off or past their sell-by-date, but  they just didn't taste right in fact, as Mark points out, they were horrible.

I'm sure many of us have had similar situations where we try a new beer only to discover, to our intense disappointment, that it's thoroughly unpleasant. We can't send it back, or ask for it to be replaced, because it's not actually off. With this sort of experience in mind, Mark concludes his article by asking the following questions.

" If I ran that place and I put those beers on the bar, would I continue to serve them after tasting them or would I pull them off the tap? How much responsibility should the bar/pub have on serving beer like this?

It damages what I think of the place as well as the breweries. But what can they do? Make the call that says they don’t like the beer or serve 70 pints of it and hope for the best? As the only fault is the flavour, then can the customer return the beer and ask for something else? When a bad beer gets to the pub then who should deal with it and how?" 

Speaking from personal experience those are difficult questions to answer. When I ran the Cask and Glass, an off-licence specialising in serving cask ales to take away,  I personally tasted every draught beer that went on sale. I also regularly tasted the beers throughout the time they were on sale, just to make sure they were still up to scratch. This is something I would expect every self-respecting licensee to do, but sadly many don't follow this practise, as we all know to our cost. ( I would also like to add  that I always gave people the opportunity to taste the beers before committing to buying a full 2 pint or 4 pint container).

Despite this attention to detail,  something of a dilemma  can arise when you order a beer you are not familiar with. You go through the ritual of tapping and spliling the cask, you draw some off and are pleased it has cleared nicely and appears suitably lively in the glass. However, when you come to taste it, it's just not right. It's not off in so much that it's oxidised, sour or infected, it's just plain bad! The beer could be overtly bitter or cloyingly sweet. It could be too thin, unbalanced or just badly brewed. It might even be as the brewer intended and it's just down to personal preference that you don't like it. If you're a regular beer drinker though, with faith in your own judgement,  you know deep down that for whatever reason something is not right with the beer and worryingly you could be left with 70 odd pints of beer that you will struggle to sell! As Mark says "When a bad beer gets to the pub then who should deal with it and how?" 

As a licensee or bar owner, the first thing  to remember is not to panic. I quite often found that beers I personally didn't like still sold; some people even enthused about them!  There was one brewery who's beers were so un-balanced  that I'm not surprised they're no longer trading. I won't mention their name but they were based a dozen or so miles from where I live and their beers all had a "cricketing theme". One beer in particular was so overtly over-hopped you could smell the resins in the glass - they were that over-powering. Now I like hoppy beers, but there has to be the right amount of malt flavours to balance the bitterness, and that balance was certainly lacking in this particular brew! It definitely wasn't to my taste, and I don't think it was to many other people's either,  but strangely enough the odd customer or three enthused about it and despite my initial fears I still managed to sell the beer. In practise  it was very rare that I was ever left with beer that had to be thrown away, and given the earlier comments, this often amazed me.

As drinkers we all like to think we are good  judges of beer, and no doubt we are in our own way. However, we're all different and what appeals to one person may not necessary tick the right boxes with another. So just because you think a beer is "bad", it doesn't necessarily mean that others will judge it the same way.. Therefore put it down to experience and make a note to avoid that beer, or indeed any beers from that brewery in future.

And if you're running a pub or bar and you find yourself in this position, wait and see what happens first before deciding to take the beer off sale. If you get loads of negative feedback, then fair enough, cut your losses and remove it from sale, but don't be too hasty.  If you DO have  to take it off then you owe it to yourself, your customers, and also the brewery responsible, to pick up the phone and tell them why you had to stop selling their beer. Any self-respecting brewer should be able to handle criticism. so long as it's constructive and fair, so tell them the truth, without being too negative about it.

If you find  the beer sells, but moves noticeably slower than normal, and in addition you receive only lukewarm praise for it, or indeed no praise at all,  make a mental note not to order that one again. The brewery concerned may still phone you, especially if they are looking for repeat orders. Again, tell them the truth about the bad experience you have had with their beer. At the end of the day you have the final say, and it is your reputation as a good licensee/cellarman that is at stake here.

The bottom line in all this is whether you are a drinker, a licensee or a happy combination of the two, over time you will gradually  build up a mental picture of those beers you rave about, those you enjoy, those you tolerate and those you wish to avoid altogether. Sure you will get caught out from time to  time, especially as you become more adventurous in your sampling, but that's part and parcel of the joys of beer drinking. Learn from these experiences; revel in the good ones, put the bad ones behind you and move on. There are always more beers out there for you to sample, enjoy and, if you're a licensee, there's the added bonus of serving the best of  them to an appreciative public as well.

Sunday 25 March 2012

Marston's Oyster Stout

Just a very quick post, almost a "tweet" in fact - except I don't do Twitter! Lidl's are currently selling Marston's Oyster Stout for just £1.29 a bottle, and very nice it is too, especially when you haven't had a dark beer in ages, and you've been working in the garden all weekend!

I might just have to grab a few more bottles on my way home from work tomorrow, before it all sells out. Happy drinking !

Sunday 18 March 2012

A Walk to Pembury

After my last post about pubs struggling to survive, it was good to visit one on Friday that was thriving. Seeing as the walk Eric and I had  planned along part of the Wealdway was thwarted by the closure of the Hare and Hounds in Bidborough (see below), we were debating where to go instead, and in what direction to walk. We eventually decided to walk cross-country to Pembury, have a couple of pints in one of the villages four pubs and then catch the bus back to Tonbridge.
We had more or less made up our minds beforehand as to which pub we would visit, deciding against both the Camden Arms Hotel and the King William IV. The former establishment, an old coaching inn, was ruled out as it has recently been purchased by Shepherd Neame. Neither of us are fans of this brewer's beers, and neither are we fans of Greeme King, who own the latter named pub. In fairness to the King Will, the current licensees have done an excellent job in turning round what was once a rather run-down establishment. In fact, last year it was voted as the "most improved pub" by my own local  CAMRA.branch, (West Kent). This made the Black Horse, on the village High Street,  the obvious choice, as we had also ruled out the sport-oriented Royal Oak on the northern fringes of Pembury.

The weather was dull and overcast when we left, with a chilly wind blowing. This was in complete contrast to  the previous day when I had gone out for my lunchtime walk without a coat! Not to worry, at least it wasn't raining, but the rather overcast conditions did mean that as we climbed toward Pembury the views the views back towards Tonbridge and across the Medway Valley were less than spectacular, being shrouded in haze.

Our route took us through the grounds of Somerhill House, once the manorial seat of the d'Avigdor Goldsmid family, but now home to a couple of fee-paying schools, and then down towards the hamlet of Tudeley. From here we followed the busy B2017 for a short while before turning off and beginning the ascent towards our eventual goal. We passed the racing stables of Daniel O' Brien, who runs a highly successful stud farm, before crossing the interestingly named Dislingbury Road. We were passed by several jockeys on their steeds out for a morning's ride, before turning off through woodland. From here we skirted the grounds of Pembury College, an elite fee-paying girls school. The path then passes through the churchyard of St Peter's Old Church, a most attractive building constructed from local sandstone, before joining up with the road that leads from the college passed the slightly less attractive, but still interesting looking water works that in part reminded me of a brewery.

We crossed the busy A228 Pembury Northern Bypass by means of a footbridge and then passing through more woodland arrived in the village itself. We gave the Royal Oak a miss, and headed into the centre of Pembury. Neither of us have done much walking during the last year or so, so we were a bit foot sore and weary by the time we arrived at the Black Horse, an attractive tile-hung pub fronting the Hastings Road, which before the opening of the A21 Pembury Bypass was a very busy thoroughfare.

Arriving around 1.30pm on a Friday lunchtime we expected the pub to be quite busy, which it was, but we nevertheless managed to find a seat at a table next to the fireplace. The beer selection was perhaps on the safe side with Fullers London Pride and Taylors Landlord complemented by the pubs "own" Black Horse Bitter, but as the latter is just re-badged Courage Best  we opted for the guest beer, Adnams Ghost Ship. This pale-coloured beer has a good assertive bitterness with a malty background and  a citrus flavour  from the use of  Citra, and  other American hop varieties. This was my first taste of this 4.5% abv beer. and it didn't disappoint. I also tried the Landlord which was equally good.

There was quite a crowd in the rear of the pub watching the racing from Chelternham, perhaps connected to the racing stables we had passed earlier. I have been visiting the Black Horse on and off for the best part of the last 25 years, What surprised me was that this was Eric's first visit to the pub since 1973 and he's more of a local lad than me! Apart from the pub being extended to the rear, Eric reckoned it hadn't changed all that much, so after checking on the pub's website it was comforting to see that it has been in the capable hands of landlord and landlady Gary and Michelle  for the past 22 years. The couple are obviously doing something right!

From the Black Horse, it was a short walk along the High Street to the crossroads, and then a similar distance downhill to the new Tunbridge Wells Hospital at Pembury. From here we were able to catch a bus back home to Tonbridge, after what had been a most enjoyable day out.

Pembury is a large just to the north-east of Tunbridge Wells with a population of around 6,000.  The village centre, including the village green and High Street,  is a conservation area.

Wednesday 14 March 2012

What Future If Pubs Like This Can't Survive?

There's been a lot  happening on the beer and pub scene during my year's absence, not all of them good I have to say. Probably the most depressing thing  has been the continuing demise of that great British institution - the pub. It seems everywhere one looks there are more and more of them calling time on "last orders".

I was reminded of this fact just today whilst deciding where to stop off for a lunchtime drink on Friday. My friend Eric and I have pencilled in a walk in the country, and were planning to follow part of the Wealdway footpath that we completed a couple of years ago. The idea was to head out of Tonbridge along the Medway, before ascending Bidborough Ridge - with its spectacular views over the flat ground towards the Greensand Ridge. The Hare and Hounds in Bidborough village seemed a good place to stop, but it was only after mentioning this plan to a work colleague that I was informed the pub had recently closed. A quick glance at the pubs website and the reason for the closure became all too clear!

If you click on the link you'll see that it's our old friends Enterprise Inns up to their tricks again, with the pub's proprietors stating "The business in its own right, is unable to sustain the disproportionate rent and beer surcharges of the Enterprise Inns tie." That says it all, so far as Enterprise Inns are concerned; surely the modern day equivalent of the "robber barons"? What particularly concerns me though is if a pub such as the Hare & Hounds cannot survive, what future is there for the English pub?

For those not in the know the Hare & Hounds was everything a village pub should be. Warm and welcoming with a choice of several different bars, ranging from a traditional public bar with darts, pool and a juke box, to a saloon with comfy sofas and a library of books, a main bar with tables for bar food, plus a separate restaurant to the rear. There was a  good selection of beers, with food options ranging from a keenly-priced pensioners menu to gourmet dishes. The pub was home to Bidborough's many sports teams, and housed the cups and trophies won by the various clubs.

I can't say I was a frequent visitor there, but by all accounts the Hare & Hounds  seemed to be doing alright. It was certainly  busy when I popped in one Sunday lunchtime a couple of years ago, as described here. I therefore find it all the more disturbing to learn of the pub's closure, and can only hope this is a temporary state of affairs. However, despite the team that ran it doing everything right, one can only despair for the future of a much cherished institution all the time companies such as Enterprise are in control of things!

Bidborough is a village in the borough of Tunbridge Wells in Kent, England, north of Tunbridge Wells and south of Tonbridge. It is situated on Bidborough Ridge, an area of high ground with spectacular views north across the Medway Valley.

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Which Beers to Stock?

My last post concerning the difficulties experienced by micro breweries in finding suitable outlets for their beers begs the question how do free-house owners go about selecting the beers they wish to sell? Leaving aside for the moment  issues such as loan-tie agreements and other financial incentives, should licensees play it safe and stock well known brands?, or should they be more adventurous and stock something out of the ordinary?

A good licensee will listen to what his/her regulars want and will not be  motivated solely by profit. Speaking from my own experience (running an off-licence for five years that specialised in draught ales to take away), I tried to strike a balance by stocking what the majority of my customers wanted (one would be stupid NOT to do this), but also offering a couple of regularly changing guest ales.The two most popular beers, ie. the one's requested the most,  were Harveys and Larkins. I therefore alternated between these two as my regular beers. They were complemented by a couple of guest ales, which would be on sale at the weekends when demand was at its peak. I would then gradually run stocks down over the course of the coming week, before repeating the cycle all over again. I also made a point of stocking seasonal ales, in particular old ales and porters in winter (sometimes from Harveys and Larkins), refreshing golden ales in summer and other interesting beers when they were available.

This approach worked, and as well as keeping the Harveys and Larkins drinkers happy I was able to introduce other customers to the delights of  brews from both near and far. Near, included the likes of Westerham and Hog's Back,  who's beers I took on a fairly regular basis, whilst beers from further afield were primarily sourced through Beer Seller, now known as Waverley TBS, who offered monthly promotions on a wide range of cask ales from both micro breweries and established regionals.

I was also approached from time to time by other micro's, most of whom I was happy to deal with on an infrequent basis, although I did find it annoying when pestered with phone calls by certain breweries trying to persuade me to take another firkin of their beer, particularly when I had only recently purchased one! It seems  that once some companies get a foot in the door they just won't leave you alone! (Counter productive in my case, as the more they pestered the more inclined I was NOT to take any more of their beer). Some breweries would offer substantial discounts if one agreed to take several of their beers in one hit. Whilst this made sense for  them by cutting down on their delivery costs, and was an obvious attraction for cash-strapped licensees, I seldom went down this route preferring instead to ring the changes and not tie myself down to a particular brewer's products. I also believed that such practices work against more local breweries keen for the chance of seeing their beers on sale.

There was one practice that I thoroughly disapproved of, and still do. I don't know how wide spread it is now, but six or seven years ago it was quite common. I am talking about so-called "badge brewing". This is when a brewery churns out a plethora of different beers, often with silly names, that to all intents and purpose are just a variation on a handful of basic recipes. By doing this they are catering primarily for the "tickers" market, and are duping those licensees foolish enough to believe they are getting something new and different each time. I won't name the guilty parties, but I'm certain many people, both in the trade as well as  industry observers, will know who I am talking about!

Fortunately, none of the breweries in this neck of the woods can be accused of this practice, but companies from outside the area that do indulge in it, plus pub landlords who stock their products, are doing a dis-service to local concerns by effectively tying up space on the bar with gimmicky products designed to cater for a small niche section of the market.

I appreciate things have got a lot tougher since I left the trade and that it must be tempting for free-house proprietors to either go for one or more of the deals described above or, more tempting still so far as the licensee is concerned, take out a loan offered by one of the larger regionals, (again mentioning no names!). However, as we all know these loans come at a price, as they normally require the pub to sell a certain barrelage of the company's beer in order to qualify for the low interest rates offered.

What is the way forward then? What should individuals do when they are in the enviable position of owning a free-house and able to afford the luxury of saying "no" to loan tie agreements? My answer is they should follow their hearts and their instincts, and not be afraid to go out on a limb. There is a heck of a lot of good beer out there, providing one knows where to look, and people who get this vital part right stand a very good chance of getting the rest right. I believe this is exactly what those behind the real success stories in the trade are doing, and as long as there still are people with a passion for good beer, people able to brew it, plus of course people keen to drink it, then decent pubs stand a good chance of not only surviving, but prospering as well!

Thursday 1 March 2012

What Future for our Micro's?

Whilst compiling my recent post regarding the new breweries that have commenced operations in West Kent during the past two years I was struck by the thought can they all survive? They all seem to be reporting a steady growth in sales, which is obviously good news, but with beer sales declining generally, and falling off quite dramatically in the pub trade, are they all chasing a declining market? Where are these extra sales coming from?  If beer sales in the on-trade are declining as much as we are led to believe,  this sales growth can only be coming at someone else's expense! The question is who's?

We know that cask is the one growth area in the pub trade, so hopefully our local micro's are increasing their sales at the expense of the huge conglomerates that  dominate the market. If they are taking sales away from  heavily promoted global lager brands then so much the better. However, I fear this is not the case and suspect much of this growth is either at the expense of each other, or at the expense of the remaining old established family firms. To a certain extent the latter are cushioned by their own tied estates; a luxury our small, newly established concerns do not possess, (Royal Tunbridge Wells and Westerham, both have one tied pub apiece, but this is small beer, if you'll pardon the pun, and like their competitors they rely almost exclusively on the free-trade.)

However, genuine free-houses are becoming few and far between, with the more successful of them being snapped up by larger regional firms such as Fullers, Greene King and Shepherd Neame. Even those still in private hands are often effectively tied, by way of loan agreements, to taking beer from the likes of the aforementioned. Although many will feature a "must stock" beer such as Harveys (nothing wrong with Harveys I hasten to add!), this leaves precious room on the bar for beers from our budding local entrepreneurs. Some of these firms will undoubtedly strike lucky and find a more or less permanent place on the bar for at least one of their beers. Others may find free-trade outlets taking their wares on a rotating basis with products from one or more of their competitors. Nothing wrong with that either; I am all in favour of competition, so long as it's fair, and from the drinker's point of view there's nothing better than being offered a wider choice of beers.

Rather than rely totally on the vagaries of the free-trade, one or two of our local brewers have branched out into selling bottled beers. Most successful of these is Westerham who's beers are stocked in local branches of Waitrose and Sainsburys. Moodleys appear at the moment to be concentrating solely on bottled beers (bottle-conditioned), which they sell  mainly through local farm shops, specialist off-licences, direct from the brewery and the odd pub.

With schemes like CAMRA's  LocAle in place,  a reduction in "food miles" combined with the provenance of local produce very much in favour at present, it seems more vital than ever that our local breweries be able to sell their products  into a market place that is close to home, rather than have to ship them miles outside the area. However, as pubs continue to close and more and more "free-trade" outlets are either bought up, or become tied up through loan agreements, it will become increasingly difficult for our micro's to find suitable outlets for their beers. I hope I am wrong, but I do fear for the long term future of some of them.