Brown's beer: Dodgy pints are the Achilles heel of the craft beer revival


Pete Brown laments the unfortunate recurrence of badly maintained beers and ales

It’s a problem we all encounter from time to time, but I find it more awkward than most.  Having said that, it’s not a comfortable conversation for anyone.

“Er… sorry…” (I mean, why do we start by apologising?) “But this pint is off.”

The game is afoot.  The battle of wills commences. 

Fortunately, we’ve made sufficient progress with both beer quality and customer service standards that the reply that can move me to violence: “No mate, it’s real ale, it’s supposed to taste like that,” is seldom heard these days.

But the next rung down is almost as infuriating, and far more common: “Well I think it tastes fine.”  Or it’s slightly more passively aggressive sibling, “No one else has complained.”

If you want to persist with your complaint, the barperson has now turned it into a situation where you have to criticise them, or your fellow drinkers, rather than just the beer itself. 

And this is where it gets more difficult. 

Because, as someone who writes about beer for a living, the first temptation, quickly bitten down and never said, is to say something like, “Excuse me, I’ve helped brewed this beer,” or “I’ve judged it in competitions, and I know, for an absolute fact, that it is not meant to taste like that.” A little less arsey than then old ‘do you know how I am,’ routine – but not by much.

This is usually why ‘no one else has complained’.  If they have detected a fault, and if they they do so often, they’ll simply stop coming to the pub instead of making a scene.  And if they really do think that the beer ‘is meant to taste like that,’ they’ll stop drinking that kind of beer too.

This worries me more than my self-image at the bar. 

Last month the real ale industry released the Cask Report (http://www.caskreport.co.uk) which showed that real ale grew volume for the first time in twenty years last year, against the context of a total beer market that continues to slide.  Beyond real ale, what we might loosely term ‘craft beer’ – interesting beer with flavour, brewed by small, often artisanal breweries, but often not conforming to CAMRA’s definition of real ale – is a small niche in phenomenal growth. 

Last time real ale grew was when a guest ale rule was introduced so pubs could choose a beer from outside the breweries they were tied to.  So many pubs thought this was a good idea, they stocked loads of guest ales without learning how to keep them well.  Beers were often dodgy, so no one bought them, so they went stale in the pipes and started tasting even worse, and we had a vicious cycle that culminated in a precipitous decline and morons working behind bars thinking real ale was actually supposed to taste like vinegar and piss.  It’s taken two decades for the drink to recover.

Now, real ale and craft beer are positively trendy, especially in London, and the most impressive ranges are to be found in designated craft beer bars populated by hipsters who, in the words of one bar manager I spoke to, “Feel like they should be drinking real ale, but don’t know why.”

Increasingly, these exotically facial-haired and charity-shop-chic attired dudes and gals are working behind the bars as well as propping them up.  And the old problems are starting to re-emerge.

I was in one pub last Friday that I desperately want to like.  It has a nice vibe and a great range at the bar.  Everything about the place says that it is not your typical boozer, but somewhere that prides itself on giving you the coolest and most interesting drinks around.  I spotted my favourite perry, and ordered a pint.

It was one of the nicest vinegars ever, and would have made a beautiful salad dressing.  But I know the guy who makes it, and he would be distraught if he’d tasted it served like that, to people hoping to drink it straight. 

I told the barman it was off and happily, he agreed to change my pint.  “This really is very off,” I said.  “It shouldn’t taste like that.”

“Yes, it’s definitely not right, is it?” he replied.  And then served the next customer.  When I left the pub at closing time, the offending drink – which the barman had tasted and admitted was faulty – was still on sale.  I’m sure it’s still there now, waiting to convince anyone who has never tried perry before that they were right not to.

Another very popular craft beer bar, famed in beer geek circles nationwide for its range and quality, is exploring a new trend for ‘unfined’ beers that are not filtered before packaging.  Some people think this is a sign of quality artisanship.  But there are many who disagree, including one brewer I know who was drinking in the bar last week, ordered his own beer and was served a cloudy pint.  He protested that the beer should not be like this, and was told in no uncertain terms by the bar staff that the beer was unfiltered and meant to be served like that.  The fact that he had created the beer, and therefore perhaps knew better, failed to convince the staff that they had served a faulty pint.

Amazingly, the place I’ve had the best service in this regard is Wetherspoon’s, where a faulty pint is replaced and the beer taken off sale immediately, pending the manager’s investigation.  The downmarket chain has many faults.  So how come it gets the basics so much more right than supposedly premium bars? 

The fact that craft beer bars can regularly sell beers for upward of five quid a pint is perhaps part of the reason why there’s a new one opening just about every week in the capital.  We’re brilliant in Britain at spotting something new, special and exciting and then saying ‘right, how can I cut corners and offer people a lower quality version of that for the same price?’

As I look around at the hipsters paying these sums, some of them don’t look like they’re enjoying their drinks.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m aware that hipsters aren’t allowed to show any indication of enjoying anything much.  But increasingly, I notice the levels in chunky retro pint glasses aren’t going down as quickly as they should.

The whole point of craft beer bars is that they are meant to offer superior quality, substance over – or at least as well as – style.  If they can’t get their beer quality as good as Wetherspoons, we’re all in trouble, and craft beer will prove nothing more than a brief fad. 

I for one am not prepared to let that happen.