Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - May 1999
* Product Before Packaging *
Last year, Hydes launched what, to all intents and purposes, was a new dark mild. It sold for quite a bit more than the existing dark mild, although still a shade less than the bitter. It was strongly promoted, and had an eye-catching point-of-sale display. So far, it seems to have done pretty well, and has won a surprising number of converts from lager, cider and Guinness. The beer, of course, was Hydes Black, and it's a nitrokeg. Does anyone seriously believe that, however good it was, however consistently well kept, however prominently promoted, it would have done so anywhere near so well as a real ale?
Real ale, to be blunt, has an image problem, and this prompts the question of whether handpumps are, in all circumstances, the best method of presenting it on the bar. Twenty-five years ago, few people knew the difference between cask and keg beer, and a lot of real ale was dispensed from electric pumps which could be hard to tell apart from keg taps. However, CAMRA made the concept of "real ale" much more widely appreciated, even if people didn't really understand the details, and, linked with this, it promoted the handpump as a powerful and unmistakeable symbol of its availability.
For a time, this link served real ale well, but, at a time when it has been forced onto the back foot by the advance of nitrokeg, the handpump all too often gives a sign to people that it is something to avoid at all costs. I know drinkers who have had a few bad experiences with real ale, and have therefore been put off trying anything that comes out of a handpump. But that is not to say that they are unwilling to try any new form of beer - and might real ale win new converts more easily if it wasn't dispensed in a way that so obviously sets it apart from everything else on the bar? It's not the product that deters people, it's the packaging.
In a sense, that is what Robinson's are doing with their dubious "smooth" beers which involve putting real ale through a nitrogenator and then dispensing it from a tall font. However, it is of course perfectly possible to dispense real ale, unadulterated with nitrogen, out of trendy light-up boxes, or even out of "Continental" T-bar fonts as found in the Baker's Vaults in Stockport. There's no deception involved, it's simply trying to gain a wider market for the product by not confining it to a ghetto on the bar. For example, I'm sure that a fair few people who drink premium lagers like Grolsch or Stella might develop a surprising taste for strong pale ales such as Summer Lightning or Porter's Sunshine - if only they could be persuaded to try them, and not dismiss them out of hand because of the shape of the pump.
* Reinventing the Wheel *
I read recently that one of these new designer outlet centres had created a "Men's Creche" where menfolk could go and relax while their wives or girlfriends indulged in some serious shopping. It's not a new concept though - it was invented many years ago, already exists in every traditional town centre, and goes under the name of a pub!