If you drink a particular beer regularly, you will become aware of the variations in the taste. Take Adnams Southwold Bitter. When it is young it has a fresh clear, crisp taste. Think Peter Buck’s guitar on REM’s Shiny Happy People. As it ages it becomes more of what I think of as a woody taste, more like Spirit of the Age by Hawkwind.
Some will prefer the younger Adnams bitter whilst others would rather wait until it ages a little. So what causes the change? In simple terms oxygen is responsible for most of the alterations in flavour as beer ages. Not all are bad. The same thing happens with wine, and many connoisseurs will leave a bottle of red open for a while before drinking it. Indeed, some decanters are shaped like an inverted mushroom to allow a large surface area of liquid to come into contact with the air. The end result of the oxidation of beer and wine is vinegar. Check the supermarket shelves and see the malt, wine and cider vinegars created by this process. These are created deliberately, but the same processes are taking place in the cask of beer in the pub cellar. As liquid is drawn off, it is replaced by air causing the top layer of beer remaining in the cask to oxidise. If the cask is undisturbed this should not affect the taste as your pint is drawn from the bottom of the remaining liquid, however as the beer begins to run out, this oxidised beer taints your drink and it’s time to have a word with the barman.
So how long will a beer last in the cellar? The rule of thumb is three days. This can vary according to a whole host of circumstances. Heat increases the rate of oxidation, so cool cellars are good. Stronger beers last longer, so mild tends to go off more quickly.
Bearing that in mind, it was slightly worrying to be offered a pint of Ruddles County for a £1 in a local bar recently. Talking to the barmaid confirmed that it was not in great condition and that she did not expect it to last more than about another week. Is it worth selling an extra couple of gallons for minimal return and losing your reputation as a seller of quality beer? There are other local pubs where I will not drink the guest beer on a Wednesday or Thursday as I know that they put them on for the weekend and by the middle of the following week, they are past their best.
It is a difficult situation for landlords, who know that some customers want different beers to try every week, but knowing that if a dud is chosen, the pub may be left with half a cask of vinegar.
What to do? I would rather see the approach of Dave at the Stuart House who will only serve a couple of good beers during quiet times and save the third hand pump for busy periods.
It is also possible to ask breweries for smaller containers, as Ingoldisthorpe Club did with their Batemans. Either way, I think trying to flog poor beer, even if it is cheap, is poor decision.