Here’s one that I think will divide along the lines of drinkers versus people who work behind the bar: what’s the right thing to do when a customer complains about a beer being off? Or rather, not the right thing, but the most realistically acceptable thing?
I’m pretty sure it’s not what happened to me in the Queens pub in Primrose Hill, NW1 the other week.
I ordered a pint of Young’s Special that was full of diacetyl. This is a concentrated butterscotch flavour that can also have a greasy mouthfeel. Hints of it can be positively wonderful in the right beer, but when it’s all you can smell or taste in the beer, it’s pretty horrible. It occurs during fermentation and then normally falls away to very low levels. So apparently, these excessive levels are due either to a prematurely ending the brewing process, or to bacterial infection. I’m not an expert, but I could immediately identify the fault. At the end of the day, if the beer tastes so horrible you don’t want to drink it, and you can identify the off-flavour, you have to take it back.
“This beer is off,” I said.
The first thing the barman did was to pour some more beer from the barrel. He sniffed and tasted it. “Do you think it’s getting near the end of the barrel?”
“No, it’s full of diacetyl,” I replied.
He made it clear with his facial expression that he wasn’t convinced, that he didn’t think there was anything wrong with it, but he replaced my pint with an alterative without saying anything else.
But then, he didn’t take the beer off sale. He continued to serve it to other punters, who didn’t complain.
And here’s the dilemma: the reason I’m writing this is that this really pissed me off. I’d told him the beer was unfit for sale, and specified why. He had decided not to disagree with me, but by not taking the beer off sale, he was effectively telling me either that I was wrong, or that my opinion didn’t matter.
I hate taking pints back because I’m always worried that the conversation might reach a point where I have to make a ‘do you know who I am’ type comment to establish the fact that I know what I’m talking about, that I’m not one of those belligerent old punters who mumble about ‘the pipes’. But when I’m standing in a pub watching a barman continue to serve a beer I’ve told him is unfit for sale, my only options are to accept that he is basically humiliating me – “I’m tolerating your complaint but it makes no difference to me” – or to make a complete arse of myself and start banging on about how much I know about off-flavours.
But look at it from his point of view. He obviously didn’t know what diacetyl is. He saw a punter complaining, replaced the pint, job done. How was he instructed to handle this kind of incident by the management, by the PubCo? (This was a Young’s beer in a Young’s pub – it would be interesting to know what their policy is.) If you threw away the barrel every time a punter complained that he didn’t like his pint, wouldn’t you bankrupt the business? And no other punters were complaining, were they?
But I still think he was wrong. Most people don’t complain – they just don’t go to that pub again, or don’t drink that beer again. Sometimes, they can be turned off real ale for life. They don’t know enough about beer faults, don’t have the confidence to take on a skeptical barman. How many punters did that faulty barrel discourage from drinking that beer in that pub again? And if you think I’m wrong, tell me. Let’s loose the passive aggression.
What do you think?