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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

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Thursday, 9 August 2007

Losing your head?

"Englishmen are like their own beer: Frothy on top, dregs on the bottom, the middle excellent."

Voltaire said that.


Fran├žois-Marie Arouet (21 November 1694 – 30 May 1778), better known by the pen name Voltaire, was a French Enlightenment writer, essayist, and smartarse about English beer. Much like me - apart form the French bit. And the whole affectation about having to write under a pen name. And the global fame, obviously. And the memorable epithets.

A couple of recent posts on here have raised a bit of debate, so in a devilish mood I thought I'd throw another one in.

Imagine you're in Starbucks. You order a cappuccino. Here it comes, in its big cup, a dense, creamy foam piled high. If you're feeling naughty, it might have chocolate or even cinnamon sprinkles on it. What do you do? Is it:

a) Think, "Mmm, lovely, an indulgent little treat to start the day. This is way posher than a cup of Nescafe. Because this is REAL coffee, like the Italians drink, but with a really complex ordering system, like the Americans have. So I feel a little bit more stylish, like an Italian. And also, at a subconscious level, though I may not realise it, I'm associating myself with the opening scenes of Hollywood romantic comedies in the tradition of Working Girl with Melanie Griffiths. They always use moments like these to symbolise the start of yet another humdrum working day and then something wonderful happens. So in drinking this particular type of coffee I'm making my working day a bit more like Melanie Griffiths's, so that means that I too am making myself slightly more likely to be swept off my feet by Harrison Ford fifteen years ago. Shit, I suppose I'll have to settle for Hugh Grant, or Sandra Sodding Bullock if I'm the heterosexual male of the piece. Still, at least the coffee's nice," before enjoying a tiny, lost, blink-and-you've-missed-it moment of private bliss as the foam caresses your top lip and you mouth puckers downward through the fluffy clouds in search of the hot, dark delights it conceals.

or is it:

b) Take your coffee back to the counter and say "Oi! I think you will find I asked for a cup of COFFEE! What do you call THIS?! I think you'll find that this is half a cup of coffee, and a lot of air. I'm not standing for this! I demand you scrape off all this foam, NOW, and fill up my paper mug with more coffee until it's dribbling down the sides, or I shall have no alternative other than to mutter under my breath and sign a strongly worded petition!"

Which one are you? I really hope it's not (b). Nobody would be that sad. So why would you choose (b) if we switched the capuccino for a pint of beer?

Melanie Griffith asking Harrison Ford if he likes a good head.

It's really simple: a foamy head is an integral part of a pint. It's not something that sits on top of a pint, superfluous, it is part of the pint. A pint is not complete without a head. Want to do this on technical grounds? OK, a head releases volatiles from the hop compounds in the beer, which improve the aroma of the pint. And head formation indicates that the glass is clean, and that the beer is fresh. The world's brewing scientists KNOW that a head is an important part of a beer. If you disagree, and you're not one of the world's leading brewing scientists, then I'm afraid you're wrong.

This is why I have a major problem with CAMRA's dogged determination to fight for a change in the law to demand a full pint.

First, let's define parameters:

  • It's acceptable for a head to constitute five per cent of the total pint. You may like it to be more than that, but if it is more, no-one's going to call you an arse if you demand a top-up.
  • I share the view that the simplest solution to the whole controversy over a full pint would be to introduce over-size glasses with the pint mark clearly on them, to allow room for a head.
  • And I do know that pub companies have been known to ask for yields from tenants of over 100% of the volume of a barrel, effectively ordering bar staff to short-serve.

So I'm not saying there isn't an issue here.

But I've seen data from research sponsored by CAMRA, and it says that most consumers think you're a bit of an arse if you keep banging on about our right to have a full pint. Alright, it doesn't say that; I'm lying. But it really does say that most drinkers, if they were given a short measure, would simply ask for a top-up. And you know what? The vast majority of pubs would give you one, no questions asked. Most pubs these days even have signs behind the bar stating that they will give you a top-up if you are not happy with your serve.

So at best, the issue is not all that big, and CAMRA's campaign for a full pint is a waste of valuable campaigning time and energy.

At worst, it's damaging the interests of the beer drinkers it seeks to protect.

Here's a true story. Last year Paulaner lager (I know, it's not a real ale but bear with me - it's still a very fine beer and the story is still relevant) introduced special World Cup glasses into UK pubs - it's a German lager, World Cup in Germany, good promotional opportunity. These were over-size glasses, with pint line clearly marked, to allow a good couple of inches of head, as is the tradition for German lagers.

As a new, different, quality lager, served in its own unique glass, Paulaner could be sold at a premium price compared to other lagers, but bars weren't too keen on stocking it. One of the importers, a friend of mine, went out to find out why. Bar staff were filling the glass to the brim, serving drinkers considerably more than a pint, and yet, serving a drink that looked, smelled and tasted a little less appetising than it should. Pubs were losing money, and at the same time, the beer was not as attractive as it should be. My mate pointed out the lined glass, the fact that you didn't need to fill it to the top. The barman said, "Watch this."

A customer came to the bar and ordered a pint. The thing about a large head in an oversized glass is, when the beer is first poured, the head extends below the pint glass mark. But we all know that as the beer settles, the head doesn't just evaporate; the level of beer comes up as the level of head goes down. The drinker, however, wasn't having this. He insisted he had not been served a full pint. The barman explained what I've just said. So the drinker waited at the bar for several minutes, until the head had disappeared and the liquid had settled at the pint mark. Despite being proven wrong about his accusation of being short-served, despite pissing off the barman, despite allowing the head on his beer to disappear and the beer to warm up, giving himself a poorer quality pint, despite spending ten minutes more at the bar away from his mates, he was satisfied.

The barman explained to my mate, better just to over-serve. Better still just to give them an ordinary lager in an ordinary pint glass.

This doesn't have to happen. But if we get what we want and we have all beer served in over-sized glasses, then it will happen - maybe not to this extreme degree, but drinkers won't be any happier, one way or another, with what they get. And that's because this British attitude, where we always assume we're about to be ripped off, leeches both the trust and the joy out of what should be a happy, informal occasion. CAMRA didn't invent this attitude, but they are encouraging it with a full pint campaign that doesn't explain all the issues around the importance of a head, and which panders to and encourages English small-minded pettiness.

Where there is a short serve, people are happy to correct it. To shout shrilly (and ultimately, inaccurately) about it could ruin perfectly good and valid beer serves.

OK, I'm ready. As the late, not-so-great Mike Reid would have said, "Rrrrrrrrunaround now!"

8 comments:

BLTP said...

When did you last have a coffee, it's all dodgy south african tea round your gaff? Camra tray purses anyone?

Stonch said...

Pete, you're spot on.

A full pint is great, but a flat pint is a travesty.

Bailey said...

Correct on all counts. I don't want a quivering cuticle on my pint.

Mark said...

Weird. I was having this discussion just last night.

Maybe CAMRA is forgetting that, revolving around the all-holy Real Ale, exists a whole universe of beer, many styles of which develop a luxurious head.

That's why it's important for the bar staff to receive proper training on what they're serving. Here in the USA, beer knowledge on the part of the server or bartender is often next to zero. Yet only they can prevent the guillotining of your beer!

Melissa Cole said...

I absolutely agree with your comments here Pete, there wasn't a problem until CAMRA created one as far as I can tell.

And to be honest if you don't have the gumption to ask for a top-up on your pint it might be a more worthwhile use of your time to be looking for your backbone rather than bitching about irrelevancies!

I have a pretty simple policy - if I ask for a taster in a pub and they say no, I leave. If you refuse to top up my pint, I drink it and leave and don't come back.

Boak said...

I just love the contrast with Belgium. There, you get what looks right in the glass.

I wonder whether the campaign is some kind of attempt to appeal to beer drinkers beyond real ale types. I can't see any other reason for banging on about it so much. And what exactly do they expect "the government" to do? Set up an Agency to go round pubs monitoring measures?

Sorry Pete, I think you're going to have to try harder to be contraversial!

Mark said...

It's pretty silly to even consider pint volume legislation. Is it ever a good idea to draw the attention of lawmakers to our favorite beverages and place in which we consume them? What are the chances they'll only mandate changes to the aspects we dislike?

Anyway, it's easy to withhold one's business from a place that pours short. We're all responsible for our own pints :)

Matt said...

a camra created tempest in a pint glass.