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Last week, there was an interesting interview on the Morning Advertiser website with Richard Westwood, the MD of Marston’s, in which he made some salient points about cask beer turnover and quality.
“There’s a big decision to be made here and that’s a balance between consumer choice and quality. When you see pubs that, maybe, sell 200 barrels a year and have, six, seven or eight handpumps, you know there is a good chance you will be served a substandard pint.”
That’s a very good point. But, in fact, for most pubs serving cask, 200 barrels a year would be pie in the sky. As I wrote here, the average is far less, with many pubs struggling to even achieve one barrel a week. And the figures haven’t got any better. CAMRA’s WhatPub site reports 35,844 pubs currently serving cask, and the BBPA reckons that about two million barrels are brewed each year. So that’s a mere 56 barrels a year per pub, and that’s before taking account of cask beer supplied to clubs and beer festivals.
Given those figures, it’s hardly surprising that it’s so common to encounter beer that is clearly past its best. Probably fewer than 10% of all cask pubs really have the turnover to sustain more than two or three beers, yet the evidence of my eyes suggests that the average number of pumps is considerably greater than that.
Although it officially makes the right noises, given its long-standing championing of “choice”, this is an issue that CAMRA remains reluctant to confront. For every reference to a “sensibly limited beer range”, there must be ten mentions in local magazines praising pubs for adding another handpump. All too often, the Good Beer Guide comes across as the “wide beer choice guide” rather than the “well-kept, fresh beer guide”.
The case is made more difficult by being able to point to pubs like the Magnet in Stockport which successfully manage to keep twelve or more beers in good nick. But those are specialist pubs attracting an overwhelmingly ale-drinking clientele, and it is delusional to imagine that the same formula would be a guarantee of success in an estate or dining pub.
Westwood also suggests that brewers and pub operators should consider a wholesale switch from 18-gallon kilderkins to 9-gallon firkins. In some cases this is a sensible solution, and most microbrewers now seem to have adopted firkins as their normal cask size anyway. But it increases the amount of handling work, and of wastage, per pint sold, so it isn’t without cost. And, even using firkins, a pub with the average level of cask beer sales can still only sustain two beers on the bar if it is to empty each cask within four days.
Sadly, this is an issue to which everyone will continue to pay lip service, but few will really be willing to address.