Last night was the Guild of Beerwriters annual jolly, a chance to recognise the bloggers ," nu media"[sic] producers, book writers and other producers of fine literature about the elixir of life (well, at very least the mash tun).
It was good to see some new faces getting recognition, and such a great industry turnout to boot.
With some well known brewers and a couple of the "Old School" beer writers on board, things were going so well..... Until, that is the brewers cluster started to discuss amongst ourselves the 101 "initiatives" orbiting the industry right now which seem to be as much as anything else a pension plan for the old guard of the industry who seem to want to hark back to some long forgotten utopian age of brewing.
The only place where it existed was in the pages of the likes of Jerome K Jerome or John Majors addled ramblings about warm beer and family values (Now there was a statement left in history which came back to bite him on the arse thanks to Edwina , and I am sure that Cack Nark would have failed any pub he drank at found guilty of serving beer above regulation "Slush Puppy" temperature!).
The objects of our bile were the number of initiatives out there all trying to drain us of money under the guise of training, education, or, empowerment of the customer, most of them, in reality, another cash cow for another part of the ancillary bodies which exist in a strangely nebulous layer hanging on to the producing brewers like a bad fart which cannot be escaped as it seeps through the cracks of commercial opportunism.
We are pushed by pubcos to pay for beer ID systems which involve sending beer to "expert" tasters who will then come up with a "simplified" pictogram which would have been great for the average egyptian beer drinker with the symbols and masonic logos involved, but most of which leaves bar staff as confused about the beer as they are about the credit crunch or Korean politics, so what chance there is of the customer understanding what the description is saying when they are told that the pumpclip is telling the server that this beer is "eyeball, snotty nose sunshine thingy", hmm get the dry hop on that one.
To arrive at this point will have cost the brewer time, cash , beer and high blood pressure, especially when the description bares no resemblance to the beer sent, which is not surprising since when the beer left the brewery, all control of storage etc left the brewers hands. Someone has now done very nicely thankyou out of half an hours work and the beer may now be sold at further chisseling discout to the pubco which insisted on the job being done, the brewer being grateful that the burden of carrying all that money around in his pockets has been relieved to support yet another stealth tax on his business.
I could easily rant all day about these different money spinners but I will shorten my comments to say that in any other industry, they would be called an extortion racket , in the beer industry it is possible to dress them up as more attempts to bring cask ale and good beer to the awareness of the wine drinking pub goer.
Why do I get so wound up about all this? Well, to put it simply, tradition is a great foundation but a poor building block. When I started brewing in the craft sector, there were less than 100 micros, many of the originators of these "added value" scams were part of big or family brewers, saw us as a threat and in one or two cases openly admitted to looking forward to this latest "fad" falling flat on its whatsits.
While I am all for tradition, and its reminders from the past for those of us in the present, it is a good yard stick but a poor master, in that the ways in which many of these initiatives are shaped belong in the '70's, not the 21st Century. It is all very well clinging to how pubs were in "the old days" and how [in the opinion of a few] the decline in beer sales can be reversed, but more and more, I feel that the point is missed by a mile.
Only a few weeks ago I attended an industry event where a panel was discussing the issues around the various declines of the industry, and to cut a long story short, the conclusions of those on the panel (of national and multinational brewers) were that customers, especially women, want to be attracted by light low challenge beers, nice glasses, and recognised brands! Well no shit Sherlock! that must have taken HOURS to come up with, really, hours. If that is how the bigger end of industry sees things then we are doomed.
What the customer wants is for everyone to get the attention of bar staff when being served, everyone to get a clean, appropriate, glass, everyone to get a properly informed answer about a beer if they ask it, and no, I do not think that it requires a bloody expensive set of stealthy beer fees to add another tin medal to the pub door to prove that something was about right in the opinion of another retired member of the 70s Red Barrell makers club on a particular day out of 365, or the local enthusiasts club were pleased with the sandwiches and an obscure pint for their ticking book. Success begats success. a busy pub is usually the best sign of a good pub.
Everyone in the industry is looking to blame someone/something for declining pub sales - why it is so hard to see is beyond me, there are simple reasons, and simple solutions, and they do not need another cash raising seminar to be identified.
Look at the pubs which are doing well, selling plenty of beer per square foot, buzzing seven days a week, most of them have some fairly simple rules of engagement: staff who actually know, enjoy, and understand beer, clean glasses, the right glass for the job, and who know how to present something which for someone on minimum wage represents over 3/4 of an hours toil to earn so that the drinker feels that their choice to drink a pint in the pub which costs as much as a 4 pack of "Wife Beater" from the offy is justified.
While I am very much for quality of dispense, serving temperature, and quality of cellarmanship, I think that because it is harder to sell a course for part time staff who will be on their way when term finishes, it is not considered a big enough stealth cash gold mine for the "audit Brigade". I notice that many of the small pub staff I come accross, where the owners have personally trained their staff don't have Cack Mark, but do have staff who know their beers, even the 1 or 2 day a week ones, they have clean glasses, and staff who can say a bit more than "it's wet, foamy, and comes in pints" the staff actually look like they want to be there and even part timers get swept up in the enthusiasm for beer.
Endless testing [for a fee] may tick the right boxes, but it doesn't allow for the human factor, something which seems to have gone from the pub from both sides of the bar. To get the utopian pub of dreams, first we need to look at the point of sale and its front of house face as much as looking at screwing a few more quid out of the brewer towards the pension fund while trying to be the "voice" of authority about pubs, you had your chance 30 years ago, and it didn't work then. Look around, the pubs which are doing well tailor their offering to the customer, not the latest seminar tick box inspection!