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Are You Being Served?

Beer comes in so many different styles these days that it can be difficult to know what you are getting for your money without any guidance. Are pubs and bars doing enough to make it clear what you are buying and help you, the customer? Here's a few thoughts....
Once upon a time, it was a lot easier for beer drinkers. They were simpler times, a time when choice was limited to bitter, mild, maybe a stout or a porter, maybe a strong bitter or premium bitter, usually from the same brewery who more often than not owned the pub too. Back in those days, when you went to the pub - more often than not, the same one - much more regularly than you probably do now, you knew what you were getting. You got used to the style of the beer you liked, and even if you only tolerated it, you'd still drink it because that's where your mates and family went, you'd maybe play for the football or darts team. The pub was a big part of your life and played a huge part in knitting together the fabric of the community, and you drank what was on offer, without having to question it. Should you need to, the landlord and/or landlady would normally be serving anyway to sort things out. A visit to another pub would possibly bring you into contact with another brewery's beers, and you would notice the difference - Tetleys was different to Websters which was different to Taylors which was different to Sam Smiths, etc.

Gradually times changed. The big brewers were broken up, pubcos became the new landlords, and in many parts of the country we saw the rise of the free house, who were, as the name suggests, by and large free to sell what they wanted. Maybe a helpful brewer said they would pay for a line to be installed on the understanding that they could have that line dedicated to their beers, but by and large, the choice of beer on offer would be much wider than it had been ertswhile, even if there would be 2 or 3 regulars with one or two guests. Even then, the fact that the beer was from a different brewery than you were used to made it interesting in itself, and you could still go back to what you were familiar with if you didn't like it.

Over the last few years, though, and particularly with the increasing availability of beers on tap, the choice on offer has just mushroomed. Many places now don't have a regular beer on, although some may have a pump dedicated to a particularly brewery. Some breweries don't even have a regular core list of beers, so from a customer's point of view, the choice can be bewildering....
Where to begin?
....all of which means there is a lot more responsibility on pubs and bars to provide sufficient information to the customer so that he/she can make an informed decision.

All of this came to mind the other evening when I went for an after-work pint. A disappointing range of beers on hand pump to choose from in terms of style and strength - don't get me started on that one - so I opted for one from the taps. Nothing on the font or on a chalkboard so that I knew what to go for. In the end I opted for a half from a familiar brewery whose beers are normally excellent, Wilde Child. The beer, with which I wasn't familiar with, was called Flow Rider. The bar was too busy for me to ask behind the bar what style it was, as the person serving me would have had to go and ask for help. So I bought it in good faith, and when I returned to my seat and took my first sip I was confused. It was clear, almost golden in colour, with a strong fruity sourness which initially made me think it was a cider that got hooked up to the wrong line! My companions each had a sip and thought the same, which prompted a discussion about pubs and bars providing clear information for customers and the lack of it. Now when I got home and looked it up, it turned out that Flow Rider is a Key Lime Sour which, had I known at the time of drinking, would have made my drinking experience less confusing!

Too many places, sadly, do not provide enough information for their customers. And these days, when so many beers are unfamiliar and pricey as well it simply isn't good enough. Some places, to be fair, are very good, with chalkboards not only listing the beers, but with full tasting notes as well, which virtually all the breweries willingly provide anyway. Many places will let you have a taster, although a thimbleful doesn't always reflect how a beer will drink over a pint or a half. Some places also have staff who have sampled the beers and can offer some great advice on what they are like, some actually go over the top by being too attentive and over zealous in trying to help. But so many places don't, and whilst apps from CAMRA and the likes of Untapped can give you sound advice, let's face it, not everyone has those anyway, and it is much better to hear it from someone who is knowledgeable about what you are buying, and can advise accordingly.

Our Tom recently started working in a wine bar in Halifax, in a trade where providing customer information has helped boost sales massively over the past 30 years or so, going back to the days when Oddbins had their handwritten tasting notes alongside each bottle of wine on their shelves. And whilst there are some commendable places that have adopted this approach in the way they sell their beers, sadly there are still too many that do not. There is so much good beer about these days - some of it pretty expensive, too - that there deserves to be the right amount of readily-available information and support so that customers can have some idea of what they are getting before they buy their drink....

**Please note that the places pictured in this article are shown for illustrative purposes only and there is no implication that they themselves are not providing the right level of information for their customers**

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