Principles for Reviewing Beer and Bars

Japanese notebook by Lenore Edman (Flickr Creative Commons)
Japanese notebook by Lenore Edman (Flickr Creative Commons)

We thought we’d covered all the bases when we wrote this piece about how we haven’t taken to Arbor Ales.

We’ve been reading various critics on their approaches to reviewing restaurants and extracted what we think are some principles of ‘good practice’ for writing about beer and pubs:

  1. Visit more than once at different times of the year and week. While we agree with the thrust of Max’s argument here, it’s as easy to have a one-off great experience as it is a one-off bad ‘un.
  2. Remain as anonymous as possible to avoid preferential treatment. (Not that we’d expect red carpets…)
  3. Pay our own way in pubs and bars; disclose relationships and freebies which might be seen to influence our thinking.
  4. Convey the specific details of each experience — ‘show our working’.

Rule 4 seems to have done its job, however, and we have had some feedback suggesting a fifth rule is required:

  • If a beer is bad in a pub orbar, even if it’s not ‘off’, take it back to the bar and give the staff chance to explain why.

We can’t see that doing so would have made much difference in the case of our piece on Arbor — we really don’t think the beer was off, or at the end of barrels, or has any such other excuse, and it tasted consistent with our various experience of their beer in the preceding 13 months — but our failing to do so provides a convenient get-out clause.

So, from now on, we will always steel ourselves and take not very pleasant pints back to the bar for appraisal. (Even though most ‘normal’ consumers wouldn’t bother doing so.)

Thesis: in nine out of ten cases, we’ll get told to piss off, and that the beer tastes fine (assuming rule 2 above has been applied), but we’ll keep a tally and report back with some figures in a few months.

40 thoughts on “Principles for Reviewing Beer and Bars”

  1. The other day you were talking about something like rule #5. Frankly, I think it’d be terribly unfair to the pub if people started to take back pints they aren’t enjoying because, well, they don’t happen to like them, as it seems to have been your case with Arbor.

    If the beer is well made, i.e. reflects the intention of the brewer, then there’s nothing really wrong with it. Next time, you should be more careful when ordering something new.

    That being said, the staff of the pub, or at least someone in there, should be sufficiently informed to be able to answer any reasonable questions regarding the beers they are selling.

    1. “I think it’d be terribly unfair to the pub if people started to take back pints they aren’t enjoying because, well, they don’t happen to like them…”

      That’s what we thought up until now, but we’re being told otherwise by publicans.

      1. I still believe it’s something that shouldn’t be encouraged. I see no way in which, if this becomes widespread, it will help pubs in the long run. And it’s not too difficult to prevent, really. Don’t know anything about the beer? Ask for a taster. You are refused one? Order something else.

  2. I guess what we’d be seeking to establish is whether the beer we’re not enjoying does ‘reflect the intention of the brewer’ — i.e. ‘Is it meant to taste like this?’

    1. Nah — the more we analyse it, the clearer our thinking gets, and the more confident we feel in doing what we’re doing.

          1. We have foregone the simple pleasure of ‘drinking’ in order to fulfil the sacred duty of ‘critic’. Such is our burden.

            [SMILING FACE FASHIONED FROM PUNCTUATION MARKS, obviously.]

  3. Good luck with that…

    Although I do agree it should be at least possible to talk to someone about your pint/half, practically speaking, how often are the people serving you (a) knowledgable (b) interested (c) feel empowered or willing to change it anyway because you don’t like it, or even when sometimes it most definitely IS off or past it’s best?

    You could say “don’t drink there then”, but if not a regular haunt how would you know.

    Even in some places I do know well & trust, it can make doing that more awkward due to friendship or loyalty issues, or not to be seen as the “troublesome” beer geek.

    Although slightly unrelated I recall one landlord slamming a bottle of Budvar Dark on the bar top before barking “WHAT DOES HE WANT THEN” to my wife, all because I said it was warm and I’d said specifically that I only wanted it IF it was cold because it was baking hot outside. (This was my third bottle) He then proceeded to get a thermometer out to test it although it clearly hadn’t been refrigerated long enough.

    Samplers too are great, but can you really get a good sense of what is to come from a sip of beer served in a shot glass?

    In short I am really interested in your experiences in how this pans out, but also believe your expectations will be well founded.

    I also agree that if you’ve made a decision that Arbor or whoever is not for you that should be fine too, especially as you’ve based this on multiple experiences. You may really love pork sausages for example, that doesn’t mean you have to love every single pork sausage makers recipes..

  4. Oh well. Believe that if it makes you feel better, but as a former professional manager one of the first things you learn is that putting rules in place to cover a one off situation is invariably a bad idea and usually a knee jerk response and cloudy thinking. The putting in of rules does give that warm feeling of confidence, of doing something, of making things better, but I wouldn’t be so sure if I were you. Continually traipsing back to the bar and suggesting doubt seems wise does it?

    Either you review as you find, or as you seem to suggest, you make some sort of long term hybrid. You might as well do it in advance and say “It’s sometimes good and sometimes bad to us, but to you it may or may not be different”.

    1. “Continually traipsing back to the bar and suggesting doubt seems wise does it?”

      Well, if you put it like that, no! But if we’ve decided the line our review is going to take and, for the sake of a two minute conversation, we can avoid giving the subject a get-out clause, then we might as well go the extra mile.

      More generally, we’d like to be able to say with some authority in a few month’s time how pubs/bars react to ‘I don’t like this’. There may be something interesting in it.

  5. Blog and be damned, I say (having just done so myself). You’ve got a bit of a following as bloggers, but at the end of the day you’re not Delia Smith* – sales of kvass aren’t going to boom because you say it’s the next big thing, and Arbor aren’t going to go bankrupt because you’ve had the temerity to say that two very different beers were both a bit duff although a third was pretty good.

    In my case, the off flavours only became obtrusive halfway down the pint – asking for a replacement at that point would have been taking the p. I could have engaged the barman in a general “I say, do you think this beer is meant to taste like this?” conversation, but it would have been difficult (on a Saturday night) and I don’t think it would have been very productive – particularly given the style factors I talk about in my post.

    *Beer equivalent? Protzie?

  6. Sounds like you’re trying to atone for an honest review just because you’ve had a bit of stick. Anyone with half a brain in their arse could see your post was balanced.

    If you need to see how a negative review shouldn’t be done just read the pompous waffle and downright bile spouted by people like Jay Rayner. It does nothing for the restaurant trade, humiliates the subject of the review and seems to be for no other benefit than the titillation of the champagne socialists who read The Observer.

  7. There are a few issues here, firstly you do not have the balls to write anything under your own names, even resorting to writing a book under the same pseudonyms.

    Secondly, you don’t seem to have a tongue between you in order to ask for a sample of any beer you intend to buy unless forced at you (at Brewdog, for example).

    Both issues, it seems, show a certain amount of cowardice and a total lack of gumption.

  8. I know your real names and have your address details from the electoral register, considering blogging this info for the sake of increasing your openness.

          1. No worries — got to crack the whip when the first ‘twat’ comes into play or, before long, it’ll be all the genitalia-related swear words…

  9. You don’t get to take a beer back just because you don’t like it. Suck it up – or leave it. Put it down to experience. Feel free to write about that experience. Offer the bar / brewer (who are, presumably, grown-ups) a chance to reply, here.

  10. Keep up the good work, there are a few right morons here today, carry on ignoring them. Thanks for drinking dodgy beer so I don’t have to.

  11. I can understand how (good) publicans would encourage you to bring back a beer that you’re not enjoying. What they want, after all, is for you to enjoy the overall experience of their establishment.

    If I get a pint which I know is off or not quite right, I’ll take it back. If I get a pint which I’m not particularly enjoying (but I don’t think it is off), I normally bring it back to the bar but explain myself as best I can, being honest in that I don’t think it’s off, I just don’t like it. I don’t expect to be offered anything else in this circumstance and I’m more than willing to pay for a different pint. But, depending who you’re speaking to and how busy they are, as often as not they’ll give you a replacement anyway. As with most of life, having manners and courtesy take you further than being brash, arrogant and assuming.

    (That’s a generality there, B&B, I’m not accusing you! I enjoyed the Arbor piece, thought it fair and balanced. Sometimes people forget that what they’re reading is your opinion, not solid fact.)

  12. The discussion around this is unnecessarily heated. It’s only beer guys!

    Anyway, I read the Arbor blog and now read this one and I think that this rule #5 is one to tread carefully with. Taking a beer back to the bar is not as simple as some of the angry commenters on the Arbor blog are making it out to be.

    *disclaimer* I say the following from my experience as bar staff over the last 5 years in a couple of different places but mostly The Grove. This is my experience/opinion, I don’t represent all bar staff! Also this is addressed to anyone reading this, not the bloggers/any particular commenters.

    When you work in a bar you get people bringing back beers for all sorts of reasons but most often it is because the beer is near the end and has gone slightly vinegary or flat or muddy etc. The attitude that people come to the bar with, and their reasons, can elicit wildly varied responses. Constantly checking with bar staff about a beer is just as likely to offend them as it is not to. Why? Because it implies that they don’t know the products they are selling and they don’t care. If you’re asking constantly, it could lead to a resentment of those customers because they appear to not trust you.

    However, this could go the other way. There have been a few cases in the past where we suspect a beer may be infected but it’s difficult to tell whether it’s just a bad beer or mildly infected. In these cases we may get told to serve the beer but change any that come back without question. Maybe in this example, in an ideal world we wouldn’t serve the beer at all but sometimes breweries don’t answer questions you send them (and we risk upsetting them too if that’s actually how the beer should taste) and also it’s a big thing to waste off a whole 9 or 18 gallons of beer when you don’t even know if you can get your money back. I don’t need talk about the precariousness of the pub trade and why landlords might be nervous about losing money on a cask. Also it’s worth pointing out, some people enjoy beers that we (the geekier types) think are bad, for whatever reason (it’s a mystery to me but bafflingly seems to happen).

    I don’t want to go on too much but that’s just two examples, I could easily elaborate on more. For people reading this, I hope I don’t have to tell you that if you come to the bar to bring back a beer, politeness and friendliness goes a very long way in, what I think, is a bit of a minefield. I wonder if a blanket policy of taking beers you dislike back is a sensible idea, however I would also encourage you to do so if you believe you have good reason. I just think it’s something you should be careful with.

    Hali

    1. Hali — thanks for that — really helpful insight.

      To be clear, we do quite often do as Alex Routledge suggests and take beers back to the bar if we’re not enjoying them and then say, very politely (and quietly!): ‘We don’t think this is off, but we’re not very keen, so we’re happy to buy a pint of something else instead.’

      The usual reaction is ‘Fine’ and a shrug.

      Occasionally, we get a defensive: ‘I know it’s not off, and everyone else likes it.’

      And, on a couple of occasions, we’ve been offered a free replacement, but certainly don’t expect it.

      As you say, not as easy as some make it sound, and, if we weren’t blogging, we probably wouldn’t bother as often.

  13. As a part of the exercise of CAMRA NBSS beer scoring over a handful of years I’ve had a lot of experience with taking pints back to the bar on a matter of condition. (NBSS is supposed to be 100% about the condition of the pint, not about whether or not you like the beer.)

    If a beer is unpleasant due to being oxidised, flat as a tack, vinegary, full of floaties, etc… it’s going to get a ‘0’ or ‘1’. But I never do this to a pub without giving them a chance first. Across a wide range of pubs the reaction is usually mildly exasperated acceptance unless there is a visual flaw (why does this pint look like a snow-globe?) In a handful of cases I’ve been met with downright hostility. In a very small number of cases they don’t even offer a replacement. Every now and then the pub might simple be too busy, if it looks like it is going to take me five minutes to get served to talk about the duff pint then I’ll probably simply write it off unscored and move on elsewhere. (I should note that if a pub does begrudgingly replace the pint but leave the beer in question “on” then they tend to get the bad score anyway as well as whatever they get for the replacement pint.)

    Given this experience I rarely bother to take anything back when in an unknown pub and not NBSS-ing, because it is all a bit tiresome… and I don’t want the difficulty of the 1-in-10 hostile encounter. Were I intending to *review* the pub then I’d treat it the same as the NBSS case & I’d not take a beer back just for being a bit low on the condition front but I would write that it was a bit low on the condition front … because that’s the experience a normal customer would be met with. I don’t necessarily agree that if you’re going to write a generally negative review you need to have multiple samples of the venue – i.e. rule 1. Few of us have the status & respect for our individual negativity to matter all that much in the long-run… our opinion just goes into the general melting pot. If a pub gets one negative review amongst a dozen good ones it matters not. But if it gets a dozen negative reviews… well, they ought to have a look at themselves and take the feedback on-board. (The B&Bs, Zak Averys, etc of the world have enough clout that they probably ought to be a little more considered I guess… with great power comes great responsibility?:)

    As an aside: is cask ale unique in being a product for which it is expected that the customer puts up with mild flaws? If someone served me slightly soured milk I’d complain. If my bread was a bit stale I’d complain. If my steak was medium instead of rare I’d complain. If I got a non-fizzy pint of Stella I’d complain. I’ve paid my hard-earned cash for this flawed product before me… but if my beer is near-flat I drink it anyway.

    1. ‘I don’t necessarily agree that if you’re going to write a generally negative review you need to have multiple samples of the venue – i.e. rule 1. Few of us have the status & respect for our individual negativity to matter all that much in the long-run… our opinion just goes into the general melting pot.’

      That’s what we’d thought up until now but, yes, we’re aware (cringe) that what we say now has a bit more weight than it did in 2007. Our posts do seem to do quite well in Google searches for various terms.

      These are *our* principles, though — not general rules we’re expecting anyone else to sign up to — and we can’t guarantee we’ll always stick to them. For example, we might want to write about the Sandford Ale House in Cheltenham soon, where we’ve only been once, so we’ll have to make that clear in the post.

      1. I am fine with it being your rule only and that it is an experiment but I also wonder still what the underlying reason is. I have never to my knowledge taken a bee back except for a dirty glass. I tend to drink a second rate beer anyway or just buy another. When the beer I don’t finish but which I have paid for is taken away half the time I will say that it sucks and leave it to the bar staff to decide what to make of me. I have received emails saying this review or that is not fair and, if I reply, I let the people in the trade whose money depends on a passive customer base know how deeply I do not care. I have paid for the beer. That is my part in the fairness equation.

  14. Its hard enough taking a beer back when its a duff pint, if I just don’t enjoy it the act of buying something different indicates that and good bar staff should ask why it was unfinished. It shouldn’t be up to the customer to point out what’s not right.

    On the other hand as beer enthusiasts who want other people to enjoy decent beer, if nothing is said and a first timer tries a bad beer and is put off by it they may never try cask again. So actually we should give feedback.

    Its completely up to us as writers what we do and don’t include on our blogs but I’d be much more likely to trust someones opinions if they include bad as well as good.

    And bobthebrewer, well done you can use a whois function *clap* now run along and go troll somewhere else.

  15. Following on from what Hali said (as a side point, are you standing as Barstaff representative at the AGM?) about bringing beers back I’d like to address something if I may?

    If there’s something “wrong” with the drink, that’s not intentional and by not intentional I do mean beers that are end-of-barrel-mud, beers that are sour and shouldn’t be, flat as fuck, that sort of thing. Then please bring them back to the bar in a polite manner (I cannot stress how important being polite is at this stage), discuss with the bartender and you will usually find that they are apologetic and will, most of the time, offer a replacement.

    For me, If a beer is out of the ordinary, such as a deliberately sour beer, a beer I consider to be expensive, a beer that is hazy due to un-fining (Moor is an example of this, but I’ve had it with Magic Rock, and was even emailing photos of the drink to them, to be told it was OK to serve), a beer that is different from the norm in any way, I will offer a taster and try to tell the person what the beer is like (and how much it costs). If they choose to ignore me and buy a pint anyway, then if they then don’t like it, that’s unlucky. They were given the chance to try the beer before hand, they were “warned” that the beer had whatever characteristics. I did everything up until the point of sale to help them with their choice.

    The point of tasters is there so that a whole pint isn’t wasted if you don’t like it, either at your cost, or the bars. So if you don’t like it, that’s unfortunate. You will be offered the chance to buy another drink.

    Now, if it’s someone who is nice about it, and it’s not something they’ve ever done before then I would probably, as a one off, just replace the drink with a kindly reminder that they should probably take me up on the offer of a sample in the future.

    FWIW, our samples are done as a splash in 1/3 glasses so you can get your hooter in there and smell.

    1. a beer that is hazy due to un-fining

      My problem with unfined beers is that the cloud that’s meant to be there can mask cloud that means something’s wrong, as it would in any other beer. At least, that was my experience with one Moor beer last night, blogged rather splenetically here. (Unless it was meant to taste ‘bready’? Can’t believe that, though, if only on the basis of their other beers.)

  16. Agree with everything hopsinjoor said. I cannot stress enough how much politeness and general niceness matters. As Al said, even if it is your mistake and not the bar’s then if super nice about it we might change something for free. If you are rude and abusive (something which happens unprovoked with depressing regularity) and there is a grey area in whether the beer should be changed or not, make no mistake, you will not get a free swap.

    It is worth remembering that most of us are not paid a living wage and regularly have to put up with misogyny, homophobia and racism. Nice people who love beer being polite and reasonable is what keeps many of us going.

    1. Surely it shouldn’t have to depend on whether the bar staff have had a bad day – or even on whether the punter bringing the beer back seems like a nice guy or not. While I’d much rather be served by someone who’s behind the bar because they love beer (in a good way) than by a teenager who’s had basic corporate hospitality training, I do think Wetherspoon’s policy on returns has a lot to commend it: the pint is replaced and the beer is taken off, quickly and without fuss. I’ve experienced this three times in two different Spoons’, so I assume ‘policy’ is the word. Admittedly I’ve never taken back a beer because I just didn’t like the taste; that might fall outside JDW’s SOP, making it more important not to be a berk about it.

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