Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Distributed Denial of Standards

It should come as no surprise that I spent Saturday afternoon in the pub. It was, after all, the traditional English football season curtain raiser, the FA Community Shield - though my brain still thinks of it as the Charity Shield. I am a Liverpool fan, have been since I was knee high to a grasshopper, and so by virtue of winning the FA Cup last season we got to play Premier League champions Manchester City. Enough though of my footie choices, this is a booze blog after all.

I was sat in the pub, the kind of place that is owned by Brits looking to recreate something of the British pub on foreign shores, the kind of place that I love. Mismatched tables and chairs, dark wood, an almost forbidding air. Even though my first visit to the place was for the Champions League final that Liverpool lost, I had a great time and decided this pub would be a place to visit whenever I am in Mrs V's hometown of Columbia, South Carolina.

The pub in question has a decent number of taps, with a blend of well regarded national craft brands and a clutch of local brews from throughout South Carolina, as well as the stock in trade Guinness, and the usual domestic suspects in cans. The atmosphere during a match was almost like being back in Zlatá Hvězda, raucous, a distinct blue tinge, and not from cigarette smoke, with plenty of banter between fans of different clubs. I was kind of in my element, at least during the Champions League final, as the Community Shield didn't attract anything like a sizeable crowd, but I was cool with that given the ongoing pandemic.

Anyway, having tried a couple of local brews that didn't do anything for me, and the one I really enjoyed on a previous visit having kicked, I had a Guinness while I pondered my next beery move. They had Devils Backbone Vienna Lager on tap, so I decided on a pint of that. It was pure vinegar, a fact that my server recognised when she tried it and apologised, taking the beer off tap. That was how I got talking to Lesley (I am assuming on the spelling here), the Cicerone Certified Beer Server, who also works at Hunter Gatherer, Columbia's original craft brewpub that I have a massive soft spot for.

We got talking about line cleanliness in particular and I learnt something that was actually new information for me. Line cleaning, at least in the US (meaning this likely varies state to state), is a service provided by beer distributors. Having not heard this before, I sent a quick message to a mate of mine that used to work for a big Virginia distributor and is now general manager of a brewery near my house. He confirmed that it is indeed the standard that distributors clean lines, so I bluntly asked:

"So shit draft beer is the distributor's fault?"

His response was just as blunt...

"Yes"

Our conversation continued, and of course pubs can clean their own lines if they have the necessary equipment, which I get the sense many an American pub doesn't, and are thus at the mercy of the distributor's commitment to cleanliness. Imagine being at the mercy of the one part of the American beer system that gets precisely none of the shit for a bad beer. How many customers had the Devils Backbone Vienna Lager and decided that obviously the brewery is shit because it is owned by AB-InBev, when the problem is the distributor not caring for the product appropriately, and ensuring that it cleans lines regularly.

This experience left me wondering about beer distribution in this part of South Carolina in general as it was the second egregious experience with bad beer while I have been down here. I only realised the first when I got to Florida for our beach week, having muled a mixed case of beers down. The case included a couple of four packs of a go-to pilsner of mine, Eggenberg's lovely Hopfenkönig, I wish I had checked the bottom of the cans earlier...

I seriously purchased beer that was canned before the pandemic began...28 months ago. I opened a can and while it was far from terrible, it was not the great pale lager I have come to love. Of course there is a large dose of caveat emptor here, especially given I have had out of date beer from this retailer before. I have to admit that I feel far less sympathy with a bottle shop in this instance than with a pub, unless distributors actually have a sale or return element to their contracts by which they remove out of date goods from the shelves - which I believe is not a common thing here. Being an idiot I turned down the option of a receipt, and so have no recourse to get my money back, but I will be far more careful in future buying from this particular retailer.

2 comments:

  1. Beer distributors are often the most power members of the distrurbution chain. They often wield tremendous political clout.

    On another note is Fuller's London Porter brewed in the US or is it shipped from the UK. I had some a year ago at a pub in Athens, Georgia. It was superb! The Royal Peasant was the pub's name, well worth a visit.

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  2. Distributors wield a lot of political clout at the state level. They are responsible for a lot ridiculous laws concerning alcohol.

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