Tradition and Science in the Pub Cellar

We know next to nothing about the cellaring of cask ale which is why we’ve been so interested to read a couple of blog posts which have appeared this week.

First, pub manager Ed Razzall wrote this piece outlining his own approach:

I’ve drunk in pubs where I’ve seen on twitter that they proudly announce “Yay! [Insert beer name here] delivered this morning – on the bar tonight”. I defy anyone to tell me that it is physically possible to rack, condition, settle, and serve a beer in less than 24 hours (Marstons FastCask I hear you cry! That’s a different kettle of fish all together).

Now, we have reason to trust Mr Razzall’s opinion, because the pub he runs is owned by Mark Dorber, of whom he is something of a protégé.

Dorber was, for a time, the most famous cellarman in the world, having had a starring role in Michael Jackson’s 1990 television series The Beer Hunter. In the very first episode, he demonstrated to Mr Jackson how to care for Bass Pale Ale in the basement of the White Horse, Fulham. Dorber started working there as a student in 1981 and almost immediately took over management of the cellar, as he told us last year:

I hadn’t been there long when someone said, ‘The Everard’s has run out,’ and no-one knew what to do about it. I knew Everard’s beer from a pub in Salford, so I said, ‘I’ll go down and sort it out.’ I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I suppose I applied an academic approach. I spent an hour on the phone to the head brewer at Bass talking about cellaring and cask-conditioning…

With 30+ years experience under his belt, and an approach based on (a) meticulous care and (b) a frankly elitist view of beer appreciation which brooks no mediocrity, Dorber’s opinions are not to be dismissed lightly.

But beer distributor and blogger Yvan Seth has suggested that some practices of the Dorber-Razzall school of cellarmanship might owe more to tradition than to reason:

Myth (mostly): “secondary occurs at the pub”: It is perhaps a legacy of historic practices that people believe breweries ship beer to pubs before substantial secondary fermentation has occurred. I hear this still happens sometimes… but in almost all cases: no. Most breweries do their best to ensure secondary has progressed sufficiently before the beer leaves the brewery.

We’re very much in favour of questioning assumptions, and will continue to watch this conversation with interest.

Cellar doctor

cellardoctor.jpgGreene King are obviously trying to win some brownie points in the face of a lot of vitriol from ale fans – they’ve launched a website to help pub landlords diagnose and cure problems with their cellars which are leading to dodgy pints.

It’s a clever idea, and could really be useful, especially for novice landlords. Many are saddled with poor quality cellars, or are dealing with equipment that their predecessors just didn’t look after, so this could make a real difference.

But it’s also standard practice for companies with poor reputations – and Greene King are going that way – to try to associate themselves with the very people who oppose them. BP are now branded much like Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth, for example. Is this Greene King’s attempt to start a “Campaign for Decent Pints”?

And, of course, a good beer tasting course might be just as usefu. The landlord of one of my local pubs – which often serves bad pints – told me once that he didn’t drink ale, and had no idea what it was meant to taste like… worrying.