The Sound of the Sea by Jessica Spengler, from Flickr (Creative Commons)

Chocolate Fondant with Tomato Ketchup

Our experiences of the past few days in Bristol have led us to ponder the rights of the consumer when a beer is not technically ‘off’ but just plain unpleasant.

In a restaurant, we’d feel reasonably happy complaining about a dish if it was, e.g. burnt, cold or mouldy. (Well, not happy, exactly — we are British, after all.)

If, however, we ordered something advertised as ‘super hot’, would we complain if it was either too mild or too spicy? Probably not. What if the sauce was too salty for our taste? In a cheap and cheerful curry house, no; at a ‘posh’ restaurant, maybe.

What if we ordered something ‘wacky’ — chocolate fondant with ketchup, say — and then didn’t like it? We would probably blame ourselves for making a bad choice, or not ‘getting it’.

So what about pubs and bars?

If you choose something that is technically in good condition but simply tastes dreadful, do you take it back?

“I’d like this pint changing: the pump clip says it’s really hoppy, but it’s actually quite bland.”

It’s not the done thing, so we don’t do it. We are, however, likely to become wary of the brewery, and think less of the bar for failing to ‘edit’ or ‘curate’.

With beer, it’s not always clear that you’re ordering something ‘weird’, especially if you’re not a beer geek. It can also be hard to tell where intentional weirdness ends and ‘offness’ begins, especially as sour beers become more common.

We’ve yet to see a tasting note on a behind-the-bar blackboard that says something like ‘smells like antiseptic and tastes like mud, but meant to be like that’. (Because no-one would order that beer?)

Some bars very wisely do give warnings — ‘You’ve had this before, yeah?’ Tasters are also helpful. After Russian roulette at one bar in Bristol, we appreciated all the more that at Brewdog, it was almost impossible to order a beer without being given samples and advice.

While some publicans might get hacked off at people who try taster after taster, surely in the long run it is the best way to achieve a satisfactory consumer experience if quality beer is at the heart of your offer.

Photo: The Sound of the Sea at Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck restaurant, by Jessica Spengler. (Flickr, Creative Commons.)

7 thoughts on “Chocolate Fondant with Tomato Ketchup”

  1. Depends on the place I am, and the situation. At one of my usual watering holes, if I see something unconventional that I have no references of, and happen to be in the right mood to give it a go (which, lately isn’t that often), I’d most probably ask the staff to give me a small sample. If I order it and end up not liking it, tough luck

  2. There must be no other consumer product where there’s anything like the same chance of encountering something seriously weird. I suppose if punters are prepared to take the risk they need to accept that sometimes they will encounter something not remotely to their taste, but on the other hand bars offering “unusual” beers should routinely offer tastings.

    Maybe an equal problem is ordering something that looks fairly mainstream but turns out to be rather outré or at least nothing like what the pumpclip suggested.

  3. The problem iin England is more ofte the pump clip promisin something stronger in flavour or alcohol than the beer actually delivers. But samples of beers where the match between the drinker and the beer is in doubt is always good.

  4. Recently I took a terrible tasting beer back to the bar. There was nothing wrong with the condition, but it should have plain not been released to the public. The owner, (Bruce) very quickly and politely gave me something else instead. In the pub that prompted your post, the brewer would have preferred it if you had taken the beers back to the bar, (I have had a chat with him.) If you don’t engage with the staff then they don’t know that there is something wrong. Staff cannot be tasting beer all day long.

    I have no problem with offering tasters, but it is ALWAYS better to engage the landlord first about the beers on sale. I can direct you towards your preferred style and towards the better offerings much more efficiently than tasters. If somebody asks me what a certain ale is like, I will always be positive but tell the truth, (sometimes being positive means saying a different one is extremely nice.) I try to keep average beer off my bar, but it’s not always possible and if somebody comes to the bar and says three pints of such and such, it is not my job to argue with them. I have never refused to change a pint for a customer to date, although I have told them there was absolutely nothing wrong with the beer before changing it.

    1. Luke — think you’re referring to the Three Tuns, but this was actually prompted more by Small Bar, where we had a couple of really unpleasant beers. One was advertised as a ‘sour red’ so we were expecting *sour*, but not all the other nasty flavours. Still not sure whether it was off, bad, or just not to our taste. We should have asked for tasters, but it was busy, and we usually like the brewery’s output (it was from the Wild Beer Co).

      “If you don’t engage with the staff then they don’t know that there is something wrong. Staff cannot be tasting beer all day long.”

      Not sure we’d agree with the idea that quality control is the customer’s job, on top of paying however much for the beer in the first place. If not
      ‘all day long’, shouldn’t someone behind the bar at least *taste* each beer a couple of times during the day?

      1. More than once I’ve decided against taking a beer back/sending a meal back because I’m just too tired to deal with the hassle. With the beer it might be that I can’t face struggling through a crowd to the bar, or perhaps I’m on my own and the place is busy and I don’t want to risk losing my seat. With food it might be that I’ve just come in from a long walk and I’m really hungry and don’t want to wait longer for a different dish. It’s not the end of the world if I end up just drinking the glass of water I asked for on the side instead of the pint of beer I paid for, and the occasional burnt or oversalted meal won’t kill me either.

        (Since I generally write up my experiences on RGL afterwards, this does open me up to charges that I shouldn’t say something negative about a place unless I’ve given the staff every opportunity to remedy the situation. I do have some sympathy for that view, but equally, it’s as you say, quality control shouldn’t be the customer’s job. And I always try to be as fair and as positive as possible.)

  5. The one that I took back and Bruce swiftly replaced was a Wild Beer at Small Bar too. Not the sour though.
    Quality control is the brewers job and the landlords job. But beers sometimes go off swiftly and unexpectedly. I had a beer go sour this month after only 4-5 days open. My cellar is a nice cold temp, too cold sometimes, but the heater in there has broken recently.
    Sometimes you buy barrels in good faith, from previously good breweries, and the beer is terrible. And sometimes the brewer is less than helpful in accepting returns. although this is the exception. Luke.

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