It’s often been said that quality-or rather lack of-is the biggest problem that real ale faces. For far too long it was common for every struggling pub or wannabe bar to bang a handpump or two on the counter in the hope of enticing the wandering imbiber. The problem was that often the bar personnel knew nothing of the product and cellarmanship was lacking. Thereby leading to the old circle of poor quality/diminishing demand. Things have improved somewhat over time. You only have to look at London for testament to that.
However, sadly, problems do persist, whether it is in the beer range itself or just with our old friend, quality. Often this is simply down to having too many beers on. You would think that a professional outfit in the business of selling beer would realise this. But apparently not. Step forward Greene King. The much-loved St Edmunds brewery and pubco have gone down the path of many of their rivals by offering guest beers in their pubs. Well who wants to drink their own beer, right?
This sounds like good news. But are they getting it right? The answer would be no, based on my local experience. The Knowsley in Bury town centre is in a good central position: opposite the travel interchange and potentially in the middle of a decent pub crawl. Having been informed secondhand that they were now offering guest beers, I have been keeping my eye on them. My last visit sums up the problems and pitfalls that shoddy establishments can inflict on real ale and those that seek it out.
Firstly, there was no indication that the place served guest beers. A departure of that nature needs advertising outside and, ideally, in the local media. Even inside there were no point of sale adverts or indicators to tell the customer what was on offer. Which considering that they are offering four guest ales on top of their normal range, doesn’t bode well. Particularly as this is a pub that has struggled to sell much real ale at all. Presumably the proximity of two Spoons undercutting them on price hasn’t helped.
So you have three pumps facing you as you enter and one tucked away right round the corner. Now anyone who has worked at beer festivals will tell you that the tucked away one will always suffer in comparison to the more obvious choices and in a pub environ needs to be clearly signposted. Of the three on the main bar, the first was warm-only a half had been poured that day and tasted pretty poor; like the lines had never been cleaned. The St Austell Tribute (pumpclip stuck on Greene King IPA) was no better and tasted suspiciously like, erm, Greene King IPA.
I went for the hidden pump as it was Ossett Yorkshire Blonde. A good beer. Or it should be. This was pure vinegar and looked disgusting. The landlady claimed it couldn’t be vinegar as it was “a fresh barrel”. This was a barefaced lie as I know for a fact that it was vinegar the week before. On having it thrust under her nose, she concurred that it was indeed vinegar and exchanged it for Tiger which was the best of the bunch, being merely warm and flat. She did not, however, turn the pumcpclip round and that beer was on offer to customers for days afterwards.
This sort of attitude and laziness to cask and customer alike does no one any favours. Unless there is rapid and massive improvement, I can’t see guest beers lasting long here.