Ok so we’ve all been faced with this situation before, well maybe not all of us but those that like a regular beer for sure!
You walk into a pub, be it your local or one you are visiting for the first time, you look along the bar or down the blackboard and gently salivate over the beer you’re about to select, you place your order, receive your pint and take that well deserved first sip, so deserved after a long journey on the road or a shitty day at the office. Whatever the reason, you walked into a pub for a pint of beer because you wanted to, and you handed over your hard earned cash for it!
Then the joy turns to horror as you’ve been served a ‘bad un’. In the space of a heartbeat you go through all the possibilities, end of the barrel, dirty lines, beer been on too long or perhaps it’s supposed to taste like that and it’s just that you don’t like it.
Whatever the reason, you’ve given your custom to that pub and that enjoyable moment you were expecting didn’t arrive and whatever the problem with the beer, you’ve had a disappointing experience and it isn’t over yet, it’s about to get much worse!
Now the thoughts race through your mind of what you are going to do about it. You have a number of options, you can take it on the chin and drink it so as not to make a fuss, you can secretly pour it into the nearest pot plant and go and choose a different beer, you can leave it on the bar, walk out and never return or you can go for ‘The Challenge’ and take it back to the bar to complain. All the options apart from ‘The Challenge’ are negative and no good for you or the pub in question. That feeling that runs through you when you decide to challenge is one of the most uncomfortable feelings you can have. From my own bitter (excuse the pun) experience I know that 9 times out of 10 ‘The Challenge’ isn’t going to be a pleasant experience for any party and before you get back to the bar, you’ve already got a good idea in your mind of how it’s going to go and have thought of every answer you will give to the range of excuses about to be offered by the bar tender, and you also know you might not have the courage to give those answers.
“Excuse me, I don’t want to cause a fuss but I don’t think this beer is right”
“Why, what’s wrong with it?”
“It’s how it’s supposed to taste”
“George over there in the corner is on his 7th pint and he hasn’t complained about it”
“Can’t be anything wrong with it, I only just put it on”
Bartender takes a sip and says “Tastes ok to me to me mate, I can serve you something else but you’ll have to pay for it”
If you’re really lucky and you’re in a decent place that knows their stuff they might say “Oh I’m terribly sorry sir, let me get you something else to enjoy whilst I investigate the problem” This positivity is enhanced if they then stop serving the beer to other customers. If they don’t, then you just know they’ll be telling other staff what an arse you are and laughing under their breath. But of course if they are a decent place that knows their stuff, then why the heck did they serve you the bad beer in the first place? I know why and will come to that in a moment!
I’ll share with you 3 experiences I’ve had recently.
In a pub in Bath with a friend and we were both served a sour pint. My friend just said “Life is too short to drink shit beer” and decided to just buy two different ones without causing a fuss. The lady behind the bar recognised that we’d only just bought a beer and enquired of the problem. She apologised that it must be the end of the barrel, replaced with 2 great beers and removed the badge from the pump immediately, no fuss, no awkwardness and I’d visit the pub again.
In a Wetherspoons in Nottingham which was conveniently next door to our hotel my other half and I ordered 2 different beers, one was lovely, the other tasted like old socks. Took it back to the bar and politely asked the grumpy cow behind the bar if she’d change it as it wasn’t right and I got faced with “Nobody else has complained, what’s wrong with it?” I suggested she tried it herself, she did and said “I don’t drink beer but it tastes ok to me, guess I’ll have to change it for you” She then poured me a pint of the lovely beer, handed it over and said “That’s 13p more so you’ll have to pay for it” No seriously, she really said that! We drank up and that bar will NEVER get my business again.
In Stroud, I had a meal and chose a beer that is brewed by a friend of mine, this friend being Nik Milo from Cotswold Spring who brewed the national champion SIBA beer in 2011 and 2014. I took a sip, got vinegar, told the young girl behind the bar it wasn’t right “Well it’s definitely not the end of the barrel so it must be fine” I then felt compelled to do the hideous “Do you know who I am type thing” and said “Sorry but I’m in the trade, I know the brewer really well and this is not how his beer should be”, she replaced it with a different beer reluctantly but carried on serving this vinegar to other customers. I will NEVER visit that pub again, oh and I told the brewer too!
Now, although the Bath incident was handled well and without fuss, it was still a negative experience because my friend and I had to experience the initial taste of an oxidised beer!
Let me just explain how a cask conditioned real ale works. When you first vent a cask by knocking a spile (plastic peg) in the top, the clock starts ticking as you have let air on to the top layer of the beer. Ideally you should be serving that beer on your bar within 24 hours or slightly longer for stronger and livelier beers and then you have between 3 and 5 days to sell that beer before the oxygen penetrates so much that you’re serving bad beer way before the cask is emptied, you can extend this life a day or two by using special breathers or race ventilators but honestly if you’re a pub that cannot get through a cask of beer in 5 days then you need to either consider reducing how many you offer at once, use smaller casks (4.5 gallon instead of 9 gallon) or give it up altogether! Much stronger beers of course will last longer and many will improve and peak many days after you start serving.
So, when we had the vision for The Vaults it was the Bath incident that stuck in my mind and I decided I didn’t want to subject our customers to that horrible emotional feeling of ‘The Challenge’ but most importantly I didn’t want folks that were too embarrassed to complain to head off out and tell the world they had a ‘bad un’ in The Vaults.
So, because we are completely independent and can buy our products at better rates than most of the other pubs in our town, and the fact our overheads are quite low considering our size it gave us margins with room for movement but allowing us to still be competitive. We looked at the volume of beer in a 9 gallon cask (firkin) and based our margins around 65 pints rather than the usual 72 thus allowing us to offer tasters to any customer to make an informed decision which would in turn highlight if there was a problem, we actively encourage customers to try before they buy and have no objection to you trying all 5 before you make a decision.
We decided against auto-tilt systems that squeeze every last drop through the pump including the ‘bad un’ and had our cellar racking designed so that the beer would stop pumping with a couple of pints of beer still left in the cask. A percentage of that beer left in that cask is usually perfectly ok, but it’s not knowing what percentage that troubles me so it goes down the drain and I have the satisfaction that no customers have been served a ‘bad un’ or had to face ‘The Challenge’. Of course there will still be the odd exception for a number of reasons but if a customer should ever have a problem, we will without quibble or fuss, replace that beer with something else regardless of any price difference and then investigate the problem and take whatever steps are necessary.
Our guarantee doesn’t end there though. If you buy a beer that has nothing wrong with it but you just don’t like it, rather than force yourself to drink it, just tell us. You are someone who has visited us, perhaps chosen us over another venue and we want you to have a positive enjoyable experience, just tell us and we’ll help you to find something that suits your palate better, no bother, no fuss, no extra 13p!
Some time after we opened, our local Camra chairman Don Jones recalled a visit to The Maltings Pub in York where he ordered a beer that he didn’t like and went back to the landlord, not to complain but just to buy something else. The landlord insisted Don shouldn’t pay for his beer if he didn’t like it and Don insisted he should, they compromised by Don putting the cost of the pint in the charity box. I was pleased to hear this as I know this pub well and I know that is exactly what landlord Shaun would do. His pub is a similar size to ours but with a much smaller cellar and most nights you can’t move in there, I wonder why?
I’ve advised other publicans to adopt this kind of policy and most don’t get it, they focus on the short term loss rather than the long term gain and seem to think that if customers know you’ll replace a beer for any reason they’ll be trying it on all the time. Well that could be true if you’re selling crap beer but it’s a cynical outlook and approach to the world and is completely wrong if you’re serving consistently good beer!
Don of course has recalled this story many times over the years and where do you think he visits every time he goes to York?
Ain’t bloody rocket science is it?