Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Cask Report: The Kennington View Pt. 2

In the first part of this article, I set the scene and wrote about some of the pubs located around Kennington Cross. Thanks to local blogger The SE11 Lurker for linking to part 1. If you're a Kennington resident and found your way here via his blog, I'm interested in getting your non-'beer geek' perspective on the local pubs - the beer (especially handpulled cask beer), the prices, the clientele. For this you have my grateful thanks.

To kick off this part then, it's on with the visits.

The Pilgrim (left) and I go back a ways. This was my local through much of the 80's and early 90's after I came back from Germany, the guv'nor being quite tolerant of things like having a chorus line doing 'New York, New York' with their trousers around their ankles at last orders, or filing in on a busy Friday night with underwear being worn on the outside. Those things create a bond. It was a Courage house for years, and was the first pub in which I started to regularly drink cask.

These days, the pub has a very young feel with friendly hipster bar staff, and the two beer engines look a bit out of place. I noticed the large fridge had several bottles of ale (sorry Martyn) though. Perhaps Da Kidz prefer their top fermented beer from bottles. Only one cask beer was on, Deuchars IPA. Again, it was in mediocre form. A couple of older drinkers sitting at a table supping pints of lager (the working man's pint says The Pub Curmudgeon, and I agree) looked out of place.

The original landlord of The Pilgrim stayed in the area, taking over the nearby backstreet boozer The Duchy Arms (right), and he's still there. This is a family-run pub, rare these days. Those working-class drinkers I was looking for drink in here, though there's some lunchtime office worker trade too. This place has been a sometime local for me in the past, but I've usually steered clear of the cask offering. The pub used to have two beer engines with Adnams and a guest, and last time I popped in it had the worst Rosey Nosey I've ever tried. Pure vinegar. These days The Duchy has three beer engines, and my half of Wye Valley HPA was pretty good, in fact apart from the Late Red, the most drinkable beer I had on the day. Pricewise, it was just under £3 for a pint.

The next stop is also a blue-collar pub, The Ship (left). Not a pub I ever frequented much, it provided a base for Peckham RL club many years ago. Despite sitting amidst terraces of million pound townhouses, it's tended to draw custom mostly from the local housing estates. A couple of beer engines, but only one with beer, this time Courage Best. It was in pretty poor shape, though much cheaper than in the more upmarket pubs.

I went by a little oddity, The Royal Oak (right) in Fitzalan Street. It's like the 80's never happened. Note the old Youngers' sign on the wall. The old guv'nor (now sadly passed on, I believe) used to run a Rolls Royce, which he parked outside the pub. Hours were whatever he felt like, he'd pay you to play the jukebox and would buy the whole pub a round. Cask beer? Not a chance. This place gets customers from the nearby estates, and probably always will. Time might have stopped for some of them, as well...

If Kennington Cross is the town centre, Kennington Park Road near Kennington underground station is the town end. More nice houses, Guinness Trust flats and a couple of large estates, very little in the way of shops and two pubs right next to one another, unfortunately on the wrong side of the underground to appeal to thirsty travellers. I say two, only one is actually trading. That's the Old Red Lion. This was a geezers' pub, all keg and big-screen sports. I didn't know it had changed hands since the Grade II listed facade always made it impossible to tell if the place was open or shut, but since earlier this year it has been part of the Antic Pub Co. This, alone of all the pubs I visited, doesn't try to attract any lunchtime trade during the week, with opening hours from 4pm to midnight. The interior has been remodelled extensively, creating a curiously dissonant effect setting mock tudor against 60's modern furniture. There are 6 beer engines. Only one was dispensing beer, Purity Ubu being sold from a tap with a parcel tag instead of a pump clip. On the other side of the island bar, a Doom Bar clip was turned around. £1.60 for a half which was OK.

On the left of the picture you'll see The Mansion House. So what? you'll say. The bloke who owns The Hermit's Cave in Camberwell used to have it, sold out to Shepherd Neame who spent a fortune on a new kitchen but couldn't make any money, and it's been closed since. It's of interest because it would have been a genuine destination pub in Kennington. If you ever heard talk of Oakham Ales opening a London tap to be called 'OAKA', this was it. They even gave out free pint vouchers at GBBF a few years back. I don't know why it didn't come off, but Kennington still sits and waits for a genuine decent beer venue. Footfall might pick up on this side of 'town' when a new Tesco's opens next door to The Old Red Lion.

That's all the pubs. Well, pretty much. I left a couple out, and there's the many that have disappeared over the years - The Alderman, The Rising Sun and Court Tavern, lost to residential use; The Cricketers and Horse & Groom near Newington Butts, The Giraffe, The Carpenters Arms, all closed. The Cock Tavern in Kennington Road is now South London Pacific, a cocktail and cabaret club.

Conclusions? Well, there's this idea of the 'community pub'. I'm not sure which of these is a 'community pub'. Possibly all of them are since they are clearly targeting different markets in the area. Thirty years ago, most of them were selling to a working-class clientele which during the week was swollen by workers, with regular lunchtime trade Mondays to Fridays. These days Kennington is much more socially-mixed, with almost all of the newer residents being squarely in the crosshairs of the Cask Report's ideal drinker profile. Several of the pubs have mutated (evolved?) into gastro and food-led establishments to service their business, and the neighbourhood has more dining out and bar/bistro type places competing for that business as well. Only The Royal Oak on my tour is wet-led.

Cask presence? All of the pubs that used to ignore cask beer now sell it, and what's more, most sell it at what to me is a premium. The 'town centre' pubs have already priced the working-class drinker out of the area. Prices were between £3.30 and £3.40 a pint. Compare that to specialist beer venues like Cask (£3.35) and The Rake (£3.10), and noted real ale venues like The Harp (£3.10). The two pubs which attract a more blue-collar clientele were the exception - The Duchy Arms and The Ship were both £3 or less, and I'd assume they have relatively lower prices for other drinks.

The beer. There were some usual suspects, hardly anything micro. Taylor's Landlord and Sharp's Doom Bar turned up regularly. Neame has their own beers on the bar at The Prince of Wales, and Young's, Black Sheep and Bombardier were about. Most of the pubs are either free houses or part of small pubcos, but all played safe with brands which might be familiar to cask drinkers. Most of what I had was in average shape. The Courage Best from The Ship and Doom Bar in the Tommyfield was clearly on the way out and shouldn't have been on sale.

That brings me to the matter of beer quality. Judging by what I found, this is a substantial hurdle. The only beer I tried in really good form was in The Prince of Wales, a tied house. The Cask Report suggests the ABC1 cask ale consumer is a fickle one. Unless their cask experience is routinely good, they'll turn their backs on it. The Report suggests cask beer is some kind of shorthand for craft offerings to a receptive audience who are tightening their belts but will still spend on quality. Curmudgeon does an excellent job of deconstructing premiumisation here. I don't know how the manager of The Tommyfield (the only clear 'gastro' venue trading on local provenance) sets about quality control in his cellar and among his punters. I don't know what his company's position on having cask on the bar is, except to wonder that the atmos they're striving to create might be undone the first time a customer spits out the pint of near-vinegar they just sipped.

Can you get away with premium pricing and a 'craft' proposition if the beer is routinely in poor form? Which way do you turn when sales drop off? Do these places provide suitable training for their staff? Do any of the pubs offer samples and tastings to customers? Of all the pubs I visited, only The Duchy Arms is a member of Cask Marque. While I hear mixed messages from the trade about their value, membership is at least a pointer to some kind of commitment to keeping and selling cask beer in good condition. Maybe the 'Guardian-reader' pubs don't expect to sell much, or rely on the ignorance of their customers to get away with beer in poor form. The two pubs with a decent lunchtime crowd in, were the two pubs with cask in drinkable condition, though I didn't see anybody else drinking it after I left The Prince Of Wales.

This is all anecdotal. I didn't rigorously sample every cask beer in every pub. I didn't check temperature, or try to find out how much each place sells, the proportion of wet sales, or the prices of keg alternatives. I didn't ask the pub operators for a comment about their commitment to cask beer. But taking the long view, having some historical knowledge of many of these pubs, it seems clear that Kennington does, in fact, reflect some of the good and, especially, the bad of what the Cask Report has captured and concluded. For me, I'll still be on the bus outta there when I'm after a decent pint...


Tandleman said...

Interesting post which I am glad mentions the quality issue. Not enough attention given to that, which is why I keep banging on about it.

Sid Boggle said...

You'll have to give me the address of your probe supplier... ;-)

This was hardly forensic but quality kept coming up, and whether cask can 'cross over' in a market like Kennington will depend on selling it in drinkable form. If Cask Report lists the ingredients, this is the one that's missing.