Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - December 1997
* Blame It On The Penguins *
If you ran a supermarket, you'd be a brave man to refuse to stock Nescafé or Kellogg's Cornflakes, even if you thought they were the worst products in the world, because they're such well-known and heavily promoted brands. On our Levenshulme Stagger earlier this year, it was clear that in many pubs now operated by pub companies, John Smiths Extra Smooth was being given pride of place, and the popularity and quality of real ale were suffering as a result.
When these pubs were owned by brewers, they had a vested interest in selling the products of that particular brewery, and if head office said sell real ale, then they sold real ale. But now that link has been broken, the temptation is very strong to stock the heavily-advertised brand leaders that every other pub sells, in preference to less well known cask beers from small breweries. There's a danger that pubs owned by the big chains will end up offering a number of mass-market nitrokeg brands with perhaps a solitary handpump dispensing an overpriced, high-gravity real ale for the awkward bunch who insist on drinking the stuff. If that turns over too slowly and ends up in poor condition it will no doubt then be axed on the grounds of "no demand".
It's spurious to argue that this is just a matter of consumer choice, because a choice between good products and rubbish isn't really a proper choice at all. The message must be clear that those pub companies which have a commitment to quality will place real ale at the core of their beer range, rather than just one in a number of products jostling for space on the bar.
* The Full Monty *
Real ale is supposed to be served at a temperature of 55° F or 13° C, which makes it pleasantly cool, but not cold. Unfortunately, a significant minority of pints I come across are still dispensed much too warm. Even if pubs have cellar coolers, beer can still warm up to room temperature if it's standing in the lines for more than a few minutes. This is a particular problem in multi-beer alehouses.
The answer is a python - not a snake, but a water-filled cooling jacket which surrounds the pipes on their way from the cellar to the bar. Suffolk independent brewery Adnams have recently installed these in all their tied houses and have reported a marked improvement in both quality and sales volumes. I can think of quite a few local pubs where tepid beer is all too common, and one of those particular reptiles would make a big difference.
* Greenalization *
It's interesting how Greenalls are stealthily applying their corporate identity to the pubs they acquired from the Boddington Pub Company. Most of these are still identifiably "Boddingtons" pubs, but, particularly outside the core strongholds of Boddingtons Bitter, this is changing. For example, the Rope & Anchor at Dunham Massey, which has just been refurbished, now offers Greenalls Bitter and Original alongside Boddingtons - and keg Greenalls Mild, too - in other words, just the kind of beer range you could expect to see in the old Greenalls estate. We are heading for a state of affairs where Boddingtons will be just another brand in the Whitbread portfolio, and nothing will remain to suggest that it was once also the name of a company with a substantial and distinctive pub estate.