Years ago, The Guardian’s Weekend magazine ran a drinks special. It presented a range of consecutive double-page spreads: wine (obviously) then tea, coffee and beer.
Each spread was illustrated by a shot from directly above, looking down on a surface full of different examples of each drink. So the wine page featured a bunch of perfect glass circles with different hues of red and gold against a brilliant white background. It was really striking.
The browns and greens of tea and the artfully decorated discs of coffee froth received similar treatment. But when it came to the beer one, instead of the shot being artily immaculate like all the others, the different beer glasses stood against a surface stained by drips and dribbles, concentric circles interlocking where dirty, dripping glasses had been picked up and put back done again in a slightly different position.
At the time, I was outraged by this. Every other drink had been made to look as aesthetically and visually appealing as possible. Beer was made deliberately to look a bit crap compared to all the other drinks.
But as the years have passed, I’ve come to accept this as simply reflecting the reality of how we encounter each drink.
Can you remember when you were last served a cappuccino where all the foam had run down the sides, staining the cup brown? Or a tea where the cup was swimming in the saucer? Or a glass of wine that wasn’t poured into a proper wine glass?
I’m not saying these things don’t happen. But in my experience of beer, they happen more often than not.
A capital offence
At least once a week, I watch a bartender pour my pint from a keg where the pressure isn’t right.
There’s a half a glass of foam, so I stare as they keep pouring and allow at least half a pint to disappear into the drip tray, along with the licensee’s profits. Sometimes there will be another glass of the same beer that’s been sitting there for god knows how long, warm and stripped entirely of its carbonation, and they’ll use that to top up my pint. This is almost a capital offence in a Czech pub, but British bar staff don’t seem to see the problem with it.
More often than not then, a pint is handed to me with both beer and foam pouring down its sides, forming an immediate puddle on the bar.
In the worst instances, the member of staff will have to rinse and dry their hands before they can do anything else, and yet they still expect me to pick up the same glass without complaint. On these occasions, my undesirable passive-aggressive side comes out, and I ask for napkins to dry my glass. Sometimes I’m looked at as if I’m being fussy. Never once has a bar person taken the hint and cleaned my glass off before handing it back to me.
This is why I was delighted to see the audit form for the newly launched Beer Marque last month.
From the people who brought you Cask Marque, this is a new quality scheme that applies to all beer. Pubs hoping to gain the accreditation will need to demonstrate proper cellar and serving temperatures, clean glassware and so on.
But for a lager, as many marks are given for presentation as they are for beer quality. The correct glass, appropriately presented to the drinker, with a head the right size, the nozzle never touching the beer and the server’s hand never touching the rim of the glass, all count towards gaining a pass.
I’m sure over-worked, harried publicans might see this as yet more hassle in an already over-worked day. So why bother?
Well, whether you choose to have Beer Marque assess you on this or not, if you aren’t putting this kind of effort into keeping and serving your beer, you’re losing money. Partly because your margin is literally going down the drain, and partly because you’re happily making your product look (and feel) rubbish as you hand it to people.
As a society, we’re more visually led than ever. As drinkers, we deserve a product that’s served with as much care and attention as a Costa Coffee next door. Come on, that’s not such a high bar to clear, is it?