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.