Tucked away on a side street near King’s Cross is a lovely little pub called the King Charles I that I’ve been irregularly visiting for many years to enjoy the superior quality of its beer. A recent visit involved a couple of pints of perfectly served cask pale ale, followed by the same beer that was not a patch on the previous pair.
This was puzzling. The only noticeable difference for this discrepancy was the person serving the beer. When I asked the old guy behind the bar why his beer was so superior to that served by his younger colleague, he shook his head and said he’d asked him numerous times to pull the final part of the pint slowly through the hand-pull in order to deliver a perfect pint, but he’d ignored his advice. Needless to say, we sought out the senior guy for our final pale ale of the night.
The King Charles I pub interior
This extra few seconds of effort was deemed a waste of the younger server’s time. I’ve come to the conclusion that this incident amounts to much more than a small insignificant act and that it possibly highlights how beer – especially at the craft end of the market – is being stripped of the experience. When people go out to the pub or bar, they want that extra component for which it is worth paying a premium. This is increasingly the case in a cost-of-living crisis.
Part of this experience is simply about time – the server committing time and effort with the customer to deliver the product in the perfect way. Guinness has long recognised this crucial element and has become the UK’s best-selling beer partly on the premise that this is a beer worth waiting for.
We all accept this waiting factor when ordering a pint of the black stuff. It is no coincidence that Diageo is spending £73m on a seriously chunky development in London’s Covent Garden that is all about emphasising the Guinness experience, which is replicating the model found in Dublin at the Guinness Storehouse.
The Czechs have also understood the theatre of the beer pour and traditionally dispense their lager through a unique side-pour tap that gives a thick foamy head with a creamy texture. Such taps are a rarity in the UK but would certainly add to the experience of beer were they to be more widely used in the on-trade.
Czech beer pours
Phil Lowry, founder of the London Brewers’ Alliance and expert beer guy at global hop merchants BarthHaas, reckons beer has been losing out to cocktails, which have been building market share through delivering a rich on-trade experience that successfully commands a premium in the marketplace.
This encompasses not only the delivery of the product, which may involve many steps of preparation, but also in the rise of high-concept, richly furnished cocktail bars and hidden speakeasys that have sprung up. The likes of Mr Fogg’s, The Cocktail Club and, at the more affordable end, Simmons Bars, have stolen a march on the beer world through the delivery of a much better overall experience.
This is such a shame, because reminiscing with Lowry, we recalled the heady days of the craft beer boom around a decade ago. Brewing had become cool and product launches were truly exciting events. Suddenly, chunky premium pricing was attached to beer and it was no longer the cheaper cousin of wine and spirits.
Dedicated beer festivals followed, which all helped nurture communities that supported these new craft breweries. There was real excitement in the sector, and craft beer bars and hybrid bottle shops became a feature in the hospitality industry.
Many of these businesses have sadly struggled and buckled under the reality of the harsh economics of small-scale operations. The wind has also been taken out of craft beer sales by the product becoming all too accessible. The likes of BrewDog, Camden Town and Beavertown are not only becoming ubiquitous in every supermarket across the country, but also in the on-trade, which has contributed to something of a commoditisation of the category.
One part of the beer market that continues to prosper is the taproom. These typically sit alongside the craft breweries, and in many cases, represent the bulk of the business’ sales. Not only are drinkers at these establishments tapping into localism, but they are also being immersed in the experience. Taprooms are dedicated to delivering the optimum product, served by knowledgeable servers, within unique surroundings.
If this sense of experience could be imbued across the craft beer category generally, then there would be a chance of returning to the previously exciting times that Lowry and I, along with many other beer drinkers, very much miss. Sadly, parts of the industry are maybe more interested in shaving seconds off serving times in the drive to greater efficiency to the detriment of the experience. That was a memo Guinness clearly chose to ignore, and maybe others should take note.
Glynn Davis, editor of Beer Insider
This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Beer Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.