Saturday, 18 October 2008

Beer quality

I finally managed to look at tandlemans blog last night. The guy keeps making comments on other blogs, but the link is to his profile, which is not set for public viewing. Anyway, I finally found the blog link with a massive list of other beer blogs on Stonch's blog.

Tandleman talks about Beautiful Beer Awards and how it is basically being phased out because the BBPA who fund it believe that the money would be better spent on lobbying about political issues. Tandleman thinks that the Beautiful Beer scheme is good because it helps maintain beer quality and helps customers to know where to get good beer. Some comments left point out that Cask Marque is taking it over, if I understand correctly. There are various other comments that are part of what I think is a useful debate, after all, we should all care about beer quality.

I could leave significant comments on the original piece, but I felt that, as a licencee, brewer and past member of Cask Marque I have too much to say on the subject to hijack a worthy blog, so I thought I would make more of it here.

We became involved with Cask Marque when we started looking to buy The Woolpack Inn back in 2003. We investigated which breweries we should buy beer off, and because the advice was to shop around we did, and so found Jennings ales to be the best value for money. They also promised that they would refurbish the cellar equipment and sponsor our entry into the Cask Marque scheme. I will say at this point that although we do not trade with Jennings any longer, we did get extremely good service off them and the quality of the ale was then, and I think still is now, a very good.

One of the Jennings pitches to us was that Cask Marque was such a good scheme that it was bound to help significantly in our hopeful entry to the Good Beer Guide. It was also going to have our pub rammed with drinkers as it will indicate that we serve good quality ale.

These were significant over statements. It is hard to know if Cask Marque had an effect in us getting into the Good Beer Guide. We certainly did not get into the publication until we had set up the brewery, and we believe we got in because we brewed ale, of a reasonable quality, and cared about keeping other breweries beer, as well as our own, in top condition.

Now I'm not convinced, in reality, that the scheme brings in significantly more customers. I'm not sure that Beautiful Beer would do either. But what really concerns me is that I doubt if it really does improve the quality of beer. The reason for my doubts are twofold.

Firstly, the correlation between pubs that serve good quality ale and those that are in the Cask Marque scheme appears not to be present. Indeed it could be imagined that the pubs that waste time with this sort of thing are possibly less likely to serve good beer, but that may not be true.

The second reason that I cite is that it is very difficult to get thrown out of the scheme. It is not in the best interests of the scheme to throw a pub out. They really want as many pubs in the scheme as possible. I am aware of the process as we discussed it with our inspector - not because we were in any danger of being thrown out I hasten to add, it's just one of those curiosity things, but the process gives a significant number of retries before a complete failure.

As an aside, but relevant, we consistently gained very good marks for our beer. Clearly I have an interest in telling the reader this and I'm not going to pretend I'm not more than just a little pleased about that. However, the thing that concerns me is that there were times when in all honesty we should have been given lower marks.

Now, please allow me to digress a little. There is no such thing as a free lunch. For instance, consider store loyalty cards. Do you really think the discounts you get are worth the space in your wallet? I personally don't think so. I think last time I checked Tesco gave less than 1% discount on your total purchases as a result of using the card. However, the store gets an enormous amount of information about your spending habits and can, over time, gain useful information about what sort of people respond to what sort of advertising. It's extremely powerful, I don't like it and refuse to have a loyalty card.

Cask Marque is similar. Why do breweries support the scheme? It's because they get powerful information about the type of beers that pubs put on their bars. The free trade (untied pubs) are very important to them. A brewery will still sponsor a free house even if there is only one of their beers on the bar when the bar contains 4 or more handpulls. It enables them to spy on the landlord and find out how they compare to other, smaller breweries. Sponsorship is only removed once trading ceases completely with the sponsor.

Now I have to admit that the above is partly conjecture. It might be seen as being unfair and to defend Jennings, who sponsored us, they did refit our cellar and provide useful support for over 2 years. They certainly provided a springboard to our current position, they did a fantastic job as did our Cask Marque inspector.

To return to the issue of beer quality. Where Cask Marque may help is in dragging the very poor pubs up, from so unacceptably poor a quality that they may as well not do cask, to the point where the ale is reasonable most of the time. It will probably generally not take the beer to exceptional. These places are generally the tied houses, the brewery owned pubs. This is perhaps where the scheme is good and serves a purpose. New licensees will benefit from the very good advice that the inspector provides. We certainly did and we very much appreciated it.

In my honest opinion, the best kept ale is nearly always in free houses. The best range of ales is nearly always in free houses. Free houses, the really, really free and totally independent free houses, will not generally waste marketing revenue on a pointless scheme as they know that it is better to put that effort and money into making sure the beer is good.

Better still choose a brew pub because nearly always that is where the beer is best.

Before anybody tells me they know this or that pub to prove me wrong; I know that there are always places that will prove to be the exception, and that of course is good. But if you feel the need to tell me about them then go ahead, comments on my long boring ramblings will be appreciated, even if only to show somebody is reading.

Finally, I would like to explain that the for big boys, it's part of their ploy to try and tell the little guy like me that we cannot, and will not make our pub work without their amazing scheme. The industry is awash with such stuff and nonsense. We have consistently refused to go along with this type of hype, and now are very proudly free of even the smallest of tie. I suspect I will have more on this general subject soon............


Tandleman said...

Dave - Sorry you had problems finding my beer blog. A simple google or similar search for "tandleman" would have got you there though.

I've been thinking about what you have said and in a way I agree with it all. The problem I was identifying though was not so much the value of the scheme, but the BBPA is sending out by downgrading it. I said elsewhere that all such schemes are flawed and they are, but they are better than nothing and you admit to getting some value yourself from Cask Marque.

You have widened the argument to say that the best beer is nearly always found in free houses. Well, yes and no. Free houses make the same mistakes as tied houses do with beer. Yes you will get better choice in most free houses and usually you will get good quality too. It isn't always so of course.

Good subject and I have to say I have enjoyed your comments and blog(s)

The Woolpack Inn said...

Thanks tandleman. I didn't intend to have a dig about finding your blog.

I'm glad you enjoy the comments. The discussions are good, even if the view points can sometimes be very different.