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Why landlords go for the usual suspects

With people like Jeff (aka Stonch) of the Gunmakers Arms and Dave from the Woolpack blogging, we’re getting some great insights into the life of the pub landlord.

Jeff’s recent post about the benefits to the landlord of sticking to the usual suspects made us feel chastened, as it’s something we’ve moaned about in the past. In short, he points out (whilst gallantly naming no names) that some of the smaller breweries don’t deliver good quality product.

We’ve seen that in bottles, too, so it doesn’t surprise us. Given that we all root for these small businesses, should we be helping them out by letting them know when we’ve had a dodgy bottle, or would that just wind them up?

24 replies on “Why landlords go for the usual suspects”

I think any small business with a lick of sense would welcome genuine feedback, especially when someone’s pointing out a problem with their product. If nothing else it gives them the chance to identify potential problems and fix them before they get a reputation for unreliability.

We should definately let them know – it could only help them in the long run. The question is – how many times do you encounter an iffy brew before you tell them?

I must be lucky in never really having a dodgy bottle from a micro – although the Red Rock Bitter I had last week was borderline. I gave them the benefit of the doubt and put it down to it being bottle conditioned and me being too impatient to let it ‘settle’ properly.

We’ve had some shockers, including one brewery whose entire range of bottle conditioned beer wasn’t actually conditioned at all — every bottle was completely flat. Sometimes it works out for the best, though: one of the Brodie’s bottled beers we tried a few months back had soured in a very pleasing, Cantillon-esque fashion.

At one stage, I had a real issue with bottle-conditioned beers (and still do to some extents) — the only ones I would trust would be Summer Lighting, Port Stout and Royal Oak (now discontinued) and Youngs’ London Special — I have opened a West Country brewery’s bottle in the sink and watched it gush; years ago I was rhapsodic about a bottle of Freeminer’s Trafalgar, then the next bottle was yeasty and listless — I spoke to the brewer and he said that he had to deliver the beer and that it should have sat around for a while before going onto the shelves, but no. On the cask-conditioned side I am still wary in a tickers’ pub and always opt for the best seller or — if there’s a Staropramen or Budvar — I go for that. Beer is much better than 10/15 years ago but I do wonder if there are too many breweries.

If there is one thing big brewers are good it is the constant quality of their product, so a landlord, who runs a business, will want to play safe and buy what he/she can be sure will be in decent condition to sell the patrons.

I think you should let brewers know that you got a dodgy bottle. The thing to consider is that many times, once the bottle has left the brewery, the brewer has lost all control over the product and can only hope that the beer will be handled and stored properly, which is not always the case.

Adrian — except for the busiest tickers pubs, you’re right — there’s often a lot of stuff that’s been sitting about for going past its best. And I still haven’t learned to open bottles over the sink: cleaning beer from the cutlery drawer is a very boring job.

PF — I think there’s something in that, although some smaller breweries really are operating out of sheds, lock-ups and less-than-ideal industrial units, so I suspect cleanliness might sometimes be an issue. And, as discussed in a comments thread somewhere recently, it seems some of the bigger breweries cheat at both cask and bottle conditioning, so the beer isn’t as ‘alive’ as advertised, and therefore less volatile.

A very interesting debate that I think has two angles:

1. Should you let the brewery know if something isn’t right, or will it upset them too much? The concern about upsetting the little guy, who probably isn’t making much money at the job, is a justifiable concern. However, constructive feedback, done sensitively and directly, should always be seen as helpful. Sometimes it can be hard to swallow though.

2. There are issues surrounding variability that are inevitable with any hand-crafted product and the various methods used that might or might not be cheating and might or might not produce good results are interesting.

I’ve recently started bottling. After three years of brewing my cask, dare I say it, is normally pretty good. My bottling needs development. Recent feedback upset me a little, but was done nicely and all I can do is try harder next time.

Constructuve feedback should definitely be given if there’s something wrong with the beer. If they had sense they wouldn’t be upset. Even as a home brewer I value honest opinion. How else can one improve? If it is just inconsistent I’d have no real problem with it. That’s the fun of a hand-crafted beer.

And if it’s something outside their control, they can at least look at the processes going on beyond the brewery walls and talk to the people selling it on to see if the beers are being mishandled.

As someone about to start a new brewery I would definetly want to know if my beer was not up to scratch. Smaller breweries where the owner is also completely involved in day to day brewing should be in a good position to ensure quality control, after all the best form of quality control is actually tasting the product and continuing to do so over a period of days.

You are right to point out some breweries don’t make the initial investment in simply constructing hygenic fermenting rooms or conditioning rooms or even ensuring the drainage and flooring is adequate. Small brewpubs may be able to get away with that but if your selling to trade it’s a recipie for disaster.

I do have some sympathy for the arguement that once beer has left the brewery, the brewer has lost control, but at least in terms of cask, you get an idea when you see a pub’s cellar as to what conditons your beer may be kept in and when I start selling my beer I will make a point of sampling the beer once it’s gone into trade. Thats where customer feedback can be crucial.

I dare say some breweries may be taking a few shortcuts in trying to meet increasing demand, with the consequence that quality suffers.

Andy — some very reasonable points, especially around testing your product at the point of service. After all, when a pub serves your beer in bad condition, it’s your business and brand that’s being harmed as much as theirs. We’ve often lamented the sudden dip in quality that seems to come with the expansion of a successful small brewery. Meantime are one example: we love their beers at the Union but, for the last few years, they’ve always seemed very ropy when consumed anywhere else. Good luck with your brewery!

Dave — very honest of you to admit that feedback isn’t always nice to hear. Much as we’d all like to think we’re above taking feedback personally, it hurts to hear that your best efforts haven’t paid off. From our homebrewing, we know that bottling is harder than it looks. Our favourite thing is how homebrew can be flat for three months and then jump pretty quickly to being over-carbonated. What fun.

Barry — I guess if you’re trying to get a business of the ground, though, there’s a bit of wishful thinking: it costs time and money to fix underlying problems so it’s easier to pretend the consumer is just being awkward and hope the issue goes away.

Thanks Bailey. It won’t be a million miles away from the regular Boak and Bailey stomping grounds, so I may be in receipt of some constructive feedback from your good self in the future!

At risk of jinxing it as I am hoping to sign the lease on the unit today, it will be based in the traditional real ale heartland of Tottenham, N17…. To be fair Whitbread did have a brewery there years ago and the UK’s first lager brewery was also established there in the late 19th century. My 12 barrel brewery will be considerably smaller than either of those!

Excellent news. It’s weird that London has so few breweries and there’s definitely room for a few more in the market.

Great to hear from Andy of a new London brewer. Please get in touch and tell me more!

Cheers

Jeff

Constructive criticism coming from a place of concern is a good thing. Tell them. If there’s a date on the bottle, tell them that, so they can look back and see if there’s any oddities in that particular brew’s production. Tell them where and when, as well, so they can follow up.

“Why landlords go for the usual suspects”

I’ve come late to this but while agreeing that some, indeed many, micros are dodgy, there are plenty that aren’t. You could easily build up a portfolio of trusted micros if you could be bothered enough. There is enough info out there to do that too, without costly trial and error.

Tandleman, and obviously publicans who run successful real ale pubs do. That’s why I sell beer from, for example, Hop Back and Purity very regularly. Also there are some regionals who may offer consistency, but produce beers that are consistently unpalatable and unsuitable for modern palates. Lees is one of those, incidentally.

Jeff – I wasn’t aware you were familiar with the full Lees portfolio, but assuming you are, it depends a fair bit on point of view.

I am though, as it happens, trying to persuade the brewer to think outside the box, but family brewers are cussed buggers. Part of the charm, part of the problem.

Yes, it goes without saying that not all micros are bad.

What’s wrong with Lees? They’re not Earth-shatteringly original beers, but they’re streets ahead of, say, Shepherd Neame. That Coronation Street is rubbish, mind.

> should we be helping them out by letting them know when we’ve had a dodgy
> bottle

I think we definitely should. It’s useful to them to know that (a) the product is bad and (b) that people notice. I’ve done this in Norway on occasion, and always been well received. In several cases pubs and breweries have even made changes to their processes to fix the problem.

> or would that just wind them up?

If it does then at least you know they are not professionals.

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