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The Caterer

Is this our best beer or our worst-kept pint?

12 October 2004
Is this our best beer or our worst-kept pint?

You have to feel sorry for the postman that delivers to Camra's St Albans headquarters. Its members' monthly organ, What's Brewing, has never had such a weighty mailbag. When Greene King IPA won gold in the bitter category and silver overall in the organisation's annual beer awards, a debate was sparked which goes right to the heart of whether licensees make the most of the beer they sell.

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The pub has as much influence on quality as the brewer… so pick a pub that knows how to look after real ale
On the one hand were those dismayed the Bury St Edmunds-brewed ale had won the award. Letter writers to Camra's editorial offices proclaimed the ordinariness of IPA sold in pubs. Even What's Brewing's editorial column said, "On the average day in an average pub… It's bland. It's dull. It's noxiously innocuous, offensively inoffensive." Incredulous, many Camra members accused Greene King of brewing a special batch or questioned whether the judges had been nobbled. The award's defenders said it was impossible to make special batches available for the many rounds of judging, from pub preliminaries to Olympia finals. As for the panels, tastings were blind, so no one could have knowingly favoured a beer on anything but taste. Fine brew There is no doubt the judging process was fair and that Greene King IPA served to its potential is a fine brew. So how did the beer achieve the pinnacles of flavour and freshness that Camra judges look for while being widely perceived as average? Greene King declined to comment, but the director of beer quality benchmarker Cask Marque, Paul Nunny, is clear where the responsibility for good beer lies. "When you get IPA that's better in some pubs than in others, it is down to how it is kept," he says. "Most beers leave the brewery in good condition and the onus is then on the licensee to carry out the secondary fermentation and produce splendid beer." Where keg beer is pasteurised to ensure long shelf life and gas injected to give it sparkle, cask ale is given natural effervescence by a second fermentation of yeast in the barrel. To serve the cask beer at its best, the publican has to work within clear limits of temperature, stock rotation and cleanliness. Cask Marque strives to set and maintain these standards and awards recognition to licensees achieving them. But, many publicans are just not getting it right, Nunny says. "Our research has found 30% of cellars are not at the right temperature. And the longer a beer is on sale the more the balance of delicate flavours created by the brewer is destroyed, leaving the sharper tastes to take over," he says.
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Greene King's IPA won the bitter category in Camra's annual beer awards… and they may never hear the last of it
But just how concerned should publicans be about serving cask ale? Thousands of licensees make a good living selling keg beer to willing drinkers and cynics might argue that the commotion is more down to real ale fanatics than bottom lines. While cask remains a relatively small proportion of overall UK beer sales however, its recent renaissance means real ale is a growing market opportunity. But you've got to get quality right to attract a convert, says Roger Protz, editor of the Good Beer Guide. "One bad pint of real ale is not one lost pint but probably a customer that is lost forever. If it is murky, too warm or too vinegary they will take refuge in keg. Everyone has to redouble their efforts to achieve the highest standards." Cask Marque's Nunny points out that a reputation for good beer can make or break a pub - and a bad reputation can take a long time to repair. Especially, he says, as cask ale drinkers are key spenders of the leisure pound - male, over 30, social category ABC1 and often "decision-makers" in their social groups who will take their mates to a pub because of its beer. Quality and profit Nunny points to Interbrew research which has found a direct link between cask ale quality and profitability. "If you don't have best practice you lose on yield. If you don't sell in the given time you get wastage. If you get best practice in the cellar you improve yields by 2%. If you get the temperature right you increase turnover by 2%," he says. Pubs are no longer a default choice of leisure time activity. These days publicans have to work hard to make people choose an evening's drinking over DVDs at home or a trip to a film multiplex. What the Greene King IPA storm in a beer glass illustrates is that a beer can be the best in the land but if it is not brought to perfection by the publican they risk selling a product that is average or worse. Cask ale quality doesn't come without careful work in the cellar but getting it right can reap rewards. n CAPTION:
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