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Quality, not Quantity....

Whilst the increasing spread and widening presence of real ale is to be applauded, unfortunately for the real ale drinker, there are dangers lurking out there.

Walking in to a pub for the first time to be greeted by a bank of hand pumps stretching as far as the eye can see is certainly a sight to make the pulses quicken. What delights are there on offer? Some rare classic from a far-flung part of the country? Or the first brew of a fledgling start-up? Or maybe a collaboration between two of the rising stars of the brewing scene?

The sad truth is that for so many pubs more than 4 real ales on sale can be a problem. Few places can pull it off. There are exceptions, of course, than can do it, such as the Cross Keys in Siddal, just outside Halifax. However, once you get above 4 or 5 beers it can become increasingly difficult for many pubs to manage and maintain the quality of the beer unless the footflow is regular and sustained, the range of beers is well balanced in terms of style and strength, and all is working well in the cellar. 

One of my regular haunts is a good example of what can happen. Packed at weekends, it nonetheless has a steady flow of customers during the week. What often happens is the most popular beer sells in vast quantities to the more transitory weekend crowd, meaning that it tends to be the less popular beers that get left for the regulars on the weekdays. And when the ever-popular pale and hoppy beer goes on during the week, it ends up being the only beer that most people are drinking, so when that goes it is still the same group of less interesting beers that are left, but in a poorer condition.

In simplistic terms, if the custom doesn’t justify 8 different beers, then don’t offer that many on the bar. A well-balanced choice of say 4 beers is better than 8 that include a couple that turn over too slowly. Whilst most pubs will change a pint without any difficulty, not everybody likes to complain, and it is quite possible that the customer who doesn’t like the quality of their beer will not return. Now I realise that it is never quite that straightforward and popular beers will inevitably sell out faster, but those pubs who know and care about their customers’ tastes will generally be able to back this up with the right beer styles and quantities as far as possible.

Choice is paramount. Understandably, pubs take advantage of deals from breweries, but if the bar is filled with 3 or 4 from the same place and you don't like their beers, you are not a happy bunny!

Another issue is that beers can be put on too quickly, before they have had time to settle in the cellar, and whilst improved techniques and storage systems can help improve turnaround time, if a beer's not ready, it's simply not ready. I remember more than once being in a pub when Bob Hunter, of the much-acclaimed Bob's Brewing Company, was loudly bemoaning the quality of his beer being served in that pub because it was on too early. And quite right too!

Then there is cleaning the lines. This needs to be done regularly with line cleaner and thorough rinsing, but it seems that too many places cut corners in doing this, with the result that once again the beer quality suffers. With regular changes of beers and styles of beers, this is even more critical. 

The main thing though is to have a landlord or landlady, or a cellarman, who cares about the quality of the beer they sell. We are lucky that generally the standards have risen, so that your chances of getting a decent pint are so much better than they used to be. Unfortunately, though, without care, standards can slip. This doesn't necessarily mean experience, I have been in loads of places where the people behind the bar are first-timers and care, have taken the time to learn how to look after a beer, and want you, the customer, to have a fantastic pint and experience, and come back, whilst sadly though, there are some places that trade on past reputations and don't seem to appreciate that as a beer drinker, you have the right to walk away if you don't like what you are being presented with. And unlike, say, a train, there may become a time when you don't stop there any more...


The Cross Keys, Siddal ,August 2015 - a pub that always delivers an excellent pint


**Parts of this piece are taken from an article I wrote for Caldercask, the beer magazine of Halifax and Calderdale CAMRA**

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