In a cosy canteen on a winter morning in west London, 20 strangers sit wearing green badge identification, waiting to be called through.
All have walked through the ornate iron gates of Fuller’s Brewery to attend the BIIAB Award in Beer & Cellar Quality (ABCQ) course, run by Cask Marque. Exactly what that entails, we have yet to find out.
In the training room, course leader Day Harvey deftly explains why cellar skills should be taken seriously. “As pubs struggle and with people more educated about their drinks, it is more important than ever to serve high-quality products from your cellar,” he says.
Good quality means people will keep coming back.
But many pubs begin at a disadvantage as Harvey admits there is no such thing as an ideal cellar.
“[Pubs] face so many challenges. Listed buildings, small basements, the space needs to be clean, it needs to be hygienic, and it needs to be at the right temperature. But that is sometimes a challenge in itself.”
He says most publicans have to do the best they can with what they have.
And this is before you throw rookie employees into the mix. It’s no wonder that off beer and ice cream pints can become an issue for customers. Fortunately, the ABCQ course, as we’re about to learn, is designed to prevent such mishaps.
While there are complete novices on the course, Harvey says he still sees publicans struggle to get major things right, no matter how long they’ve been in the industry. The main mistakes are incorrectly or completely failing to condition cask ale, poor beer line cleaning, and overall issues with cellar hygiene.
Out of condition
‘Passing on knowledge is important’
Publican Peter Clements, Ei Publican Partnership’s Cellar Keeper of the Year 2018 gives his advice.
“Attention to detail, and ensuring you have good procedures in the cellar, which you adhere to, is important for good cellar management. Make sure everything you do is done as it should be. For example, there are set times you should put your beers on stillage, times that you vent or tap them, etc., – make sure you do them then. Don’t cut corners.
“The cellar is the engine room of the pub. It’s where everything comes from that we are here to sell.”
Clements has completed a variety of training courses
during his 17 years in the trade, including courses Ei have put on, and others run by the British Institute of Innkeeping and Theakston Brewery.
“I’ve done other training as well, because even with the length of time I’ve worked in the industry, there’s always something you can learn.
“Training is definitely worth it, and passing that knowledge on to staff is important too. Don’t keep it to yourself, you want everyone in your team singing off the same song sheet.”
He tells the class “cask beer needs to undergo a process called ‘conditioning’ in the pub cellar before it is ready to serve” because it takes up to three days for most beers to be fully ready.
“I’ve had a lot of people on the course who think that when they have a cask delivered they set it in place, vent it, tap it, knock a cask bridge through it, and it’s ready to go, which it’s not,” he says.
Conditioning a cask requires certain steps to be followed precisely. The first step is to store it to allow time for its second fermentation to take place and for it to settle. One way to tell the difference between freshly delivered cask and conditioned cask, Harvey tells the group, is to try it when it first arrives. Then let it settle, and try it again. “You’ll see the difference,” he smiles.
When it comes to the exact process of conditioning he advises following the brewer’s instructions as it varies between products. It’s so important that many brewers put on their own courses to educate pub staff about their beer and how to ensure it gets to the customer in the perfect state.
Limited shelf life
Another surprise for course attendees is how quickly beer can go off once it has been connected to the taps, Harvey says. Cask will deteriorate after three days due to exposure to airborne yeast, bacteria and oxygen in the cellar, while keg has a slightly longer shelf life of five days once connected.
The most common problem is that pub staff don’t understand the product they’re selling, he warns. “Recently I visited a pub where the three guys clearly didn’t know a thing about the beer, or anything about the cellar side of things,” he says. “One of their cask ales had been on sale for a week and it tasted of vinegar.
“They are selling that to their punters. They might get away with it with some people, but cask ale drinkers might notice that and never go back, or tell everyone it’s an awful pub – essentially, it damages their reputation.”
One way to avoid this is to order the correct size cask or keg to sell within three to five days respectively. If you’re not selling it in time, it will go to waste or you risk the reputation of your premises by continuing to sell it. Smaller containers could also help with space management in the cellar.
Contaminated cellar air isn’t something many customers would think of if they were served a bad pint. But Harvey says this can contribute to a beer’s unpleasant taste and aroma, so pubs need to pay special attention to cellar cleanliness. He explains every time a pint is dispensed on the bar, a pint of cellar air is drawn into the cask. The dirtier the air, the quicker the beer will go off. Research from Cask Marque shows 29% of cellars are unclean.
He says staff should be cleaning the cellar at least once a week with an odour-free sanitiser or pressure washer. The best time to do this is just before a delivery.
Storing open food in the cellar is another no-no as it can taint the beer. For example, a bag of onions can alter the aroma and taste of beer in the same way that strong-smelling cheese or garlic in your fridge will impart their flavour to the food around it.
Worryingly, Harvey says: “I’ve seen food in the cellar, and even pets in the cellar. I once had a dog throw up on my foot while I was standing in a cellar trying to teach someone how to clean beer lines.”
Beer that comes out of the tap too frothy and gives a pint a head that is too big – known as fobbing – is another common problem and can be caused by high cellar temperatures and dirty beer lines.
Fobbing can prompt inexperienced staff to pour good beer into the drip tray to reduce the head rather than nipping down the cellar steps to check if the root cause is beneath their feet. If one drip tray per tap per day is filled with wasted beer due to fobbing, it can equate to more than £16,000 in wasted beer a year. This is based on a 10-tap account with beer retailing at £3 a pint, according to the course’s accompanying handbook.
To avoid this, monitor cellar temperature every day and maintain it between 11°C and 13°C. It needs to be like the three bears’ porridge – just right – to prevent beer fobbing or unwanted aromas and flavours being given off if the beer has been stored in a warm cellar. Too cold and it will chill haze the beer, which will present to the customer as cloudy in the glass.
Cleaning beer lines is another essential process many people still get wrong. Given the impact of dirty lines on beer quality, it’s worth remembering research by AB InBev that found 34% of customers will walk away and go to a different pub if the quality of draught beer is poor, and 49% of customers will not order the same drink again if they think the quality is substandard.
Harvey tells the group you could take the most wonderful beer in the world and completely ruin it by putting it through dirty lines. But even people who regularly clean their lines, which should be done every seven days, can still be doing it wrong.
The trick to good line-cleaning is to always follow the manufacturer’s instructions. Use the right measurements of the cleaning chemicals, and do it for the exact amount of time recommended. Not leaving it for long enough means the fluid won’t clean the lines properly; leave it too long and the chemicals can damage the lines which, in turn, could affect the quality of the beer. One of the group asks, “Surely the longer the cleaning fluid is left on the better?” Harvey explains leaving the chemicals on too long removes a layer of material in the line that can affect the taste of beer passing through it.
Beer nozzles also need to be cleaned properly. Harvey says lots of people have admitted to cleaning them by leaving them overnight in soda water. “Rinse them in hot water, a bit of sanitiser, use a bottle brush put them back on. Or you buy some sanitiser tablets to soak them in but it’s a no to cold fizzy water.”
The biggest challenge for publicans managing their cellar is their own inexperience, which can be exacerbated by employing inexperienced staff, Harvey says.
The trouble is there is “horrendous variance” in experience in the trade, he explains.
“There are some who know and care about what they are doing, and some who really don’t. I’ll hold my hand up and say I didn’t necessarily understand the product when I was running pubs.
“There’s so much to do when running a pub. Sometimes publicans don’t delegate or get people who can take some of the pressure off and help run the cellar – or know how to look after beer.”
With beer quality, word-of-mouth recommendations and return business more important than ever, it would seem improving staff cellar skills is an investment worth making.
Special thanks to the British Institute of Innkeeping and Cask Marque for allowing MA to attend the course.