Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Such a nice little pub

Tandleman writes here about his very positive experience of drinking in the Mill Road area of Cambridge. This is an area of densely-packed Victorian terraced housing that has now been largely taken-over by middle-class residents, but has retained its corner pubs, although they have very much changed in character. He suggests that a large proportion of the population is students, but I would guess that many residents are professional people working in the University and the city’s booming science-based industries.

Areas – and pubs – like this can be found in many of the cathedral cities and university towns across the South and East of England. I was recently in St Albans where the Sopwell district just across the road from the Cathedral is very much like this, with pubs like the Garibaldi and White Hart Tap (pictured). They’re essentially locals, not destination ale shrines, but will offer a variety of beers and are likely to be doing good business even on evenings early in the week. They’ll serve evening meals, provide newspapers and magazines for customers to read, and host a variety of activities such as pub quizzes, folk music and themed food nights.

You don’t really find that kind of thing around here, as the historic pattern of development is different and pubs tend to cluster in local centres rather than in the back streets. Where extensive areas of Victorian terraces do survive, they’re often now largely devoid of pubs. Probably the nearest thing I can think of locally is the Olde Vic in Edgeley, which isn’t really the same, but does have a very different atmosphere from the Castle Street pubs and attracts some of Edgeley’s growing number of middle-class residents.

When done well, this can to my taste provide a very congenial style of pub. But, to those who are used to drinking in that kind of area, it would be a mistake to imagine it is representative of much of the rest of the country.

Monday, 20 October 2014

In the air tonight

With an impressive 119 votes, the poll on wi-fi in pubs shows almost two-thirds (64%) either being indifferent or seeing its absence as a positive, and only 36% considering it a must-have or highly desirable feature. The point of asking this question is not to criticise its presence as, after all, unlike such things as loud music or screaming children, it scarcely impinges on other customers, but rather those who see pubs as simply a list of “facilities” and feel aggrieved if one lacks the particular feature that interests them. Surely it’s a good thing that pubs aren’t all the same.

On a recent pub-crawl of Edgeley, one of the more down-to-earth parts of Stockport, one fairly traditional pub was advertising free wi-fi as you went in through to door, so obviously it’s becoming pretty commonplace. However, I have to say that (perhaps because I am short-sighted) that browsing the internet on a smartphone cuts you off much more from what is going on in the rest of the pub than reading a newspaper, so possibly to some extent it might promote disconnection and social isolation.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Some more equal than others?

Some years ago, it was not uncommon for pubs to employ people with mild learning disabilities as potmen to collect empty glasses. They may not have been paid very much, but it gave them something purposeful to do and increased their sense of self-worth. This is something you don’t seem to see any more. Partly, no doubt, because pub tables are no longer groaning with empty pint glasses the way they used to be, but also, I suspect, because the introduction of the national minimum wage meant that licensees felt it was no longer economic to employ them.

This was brought to mind by the recent furore over Lord Freud’s comments that it might be preferable to allow some disabled people to work for less than the minimum wage than for them not to work at all. Many of his critics seem to have missed the point that personal worth is not the same as economic worth. Of course people are all equally valuable as individuals, but it’s a fact of life in every society that some people are paid more than others because their economic contribution is greater. Wayne Rooney earns more in a day than most of us do in a year, but that doesn’t mean he works any harder or is any better a person.

The comment was also not directed at disabled people in general. Although it was not always the case in the past, it is universally acknowledged now that people with physical disabilities lack nothing in mental acuity compared to the able-bodied. But few would deny that there are people with learning disabilities who may be capable of a limited amount of straightforward work under close supervision, but whose capability falls well short of that of a non-disabled person. Given that, to employ them and pay them the full minimum wage would be an act of charity, not a rational business decision.

This point was recognised by Mencap when the minimum wage was originally introduced in 2000, when they argued that that a special category of therapeutic placements should be introduced for people whose capability was well below that of non-disabled staff. If the government wanted to preserve the principle of the minimum wage, they could top up their payments to that level, which would probably be offset anyway by a reduction in benefit payouts.

This would help in giving disabled people more of a sense of purpose and self-esteem, and it may be that experience of work would improve their abilities and self-confidence and allow them to earn more. That is surely preferable to leaving them languishing on benefits because you think they’re not just good enough to work at all. The very fact that people are paid gives them more incentive and motivation than unpaid activity. As the article says,

Steve Beyer, deputy director of the Welsh centre for learning disabilities at the University of Wales, said studies showed that people with severe disabilities could benefit "very considerably" from work in terms of motivation and skills development.

He said: "For many people, the alternative is going to a local authority day centre. Although good examples do exist, there is plenty of research around to show that day centres are generally segregated and that they provide at worst a lower level of activity, a lower level of development and a lower level of interest."

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Big-headedness

The photo attached to my previous post raises an interesting question. It shows five old boys sitting in a rural Dorset pub in 1934, each with a traditional straight-sided tankard about two-thirds full of beer, but with a head reaching almost to the top of the glass. Depictions of beer from the inter-war period, whether photos or drawings, often show foaming heads, and of course immediately after the war the Ancient Order of Front-Blowers was formed. They wouldn’t have been able to blow froth if there hadn’t been much there in the first place.

In those days there wouldn’t have been any electric pumps or swan-necks, and a lot more beer, especially in rural pubs, would have been dispensed by gravity. Nowadays we tend to associate gravity dispense and unsparklered handpumps with a fairly thin, shallow head, so you have to wonder whether they were doing something different in those days. Maybe it was a case of deliberately producing frothy pints just for the camera, but perhaps sparklers were more commonplace than we now think, or it could have been the usual practice to let the beer develop more condition, which can be done by a variation in cellar practice. It’s entirely possible to produce a thick, lasting head by gravity dispense from a newly-tapped cask.

It’s certainly my subjective impression that over the past forty years cask beer has tended, on average, to be served with less condition than it used to be, and you get a fair bit of beer that is not off as such, but just very flat and tired. Possibly the ending of the opportunity for a bit of hard-spiling offered by the afternoon break has something to do with it.

This brings to mind the North-East practice of “bankers”, which I have heard about but never actually seen. What this involved was serving a half into a pint glass and letting the head rise almost to the rim, then setting it on one side and, a few minutes later, carefully topping it up so the head protruded well above the top of the glass. Sometimes pubs would draw a whole row of these in anticipation of thirsty miners or steelworkers coming in at the end of their shift, which is where the name comes from. They might even put them in a fridge to keep them cool. I wonder if that still goes on. And was that technique once more common across the country?

No country for old men

A recent report by the International Longevity Centre has highlighted the growing problem of social isolation amongst older men living alone. Men seem to find it more difficult to make and maintain social contacts than women, and many will have largely depended on their wives or partners for their social life and found themselves cut adrift when they died or divorced. The report predicts that the number of older men living alone in England will increase by 65% by 2030.

You might have thought pubs had a role to play in tackling this issue, but in fact things have gone the other way. A generation ago, it wasn’t uncommon to see groups of old codgers in pubs, maybe playing a game of crib or doms, or just chewing the fat while nursing a pint of mild. But that wasn’t seen as a very lucrative trade, nor something that conveyed the right image. So many pubs were remodelled to appeal to a younger audience, with loud music, TV screens and uncomfortable posing tables, while others went all-out for the dining trade and made it clear that social drinkers, especially slow-spending ones, weren’t really welcome.

Then the smoking ban came along and made even more customers feel unwelcome. As one commenter often reminds us, older people will be particularly resistant to being forced out into the cold and rain, while non-smokers may have found the pub less appealing once their smoking friends had stopped going. Large numbers of pubs have closed entirely, while others have taken the commercial decision to stop opening on weekday lunchtimes, which for many pensioners was their favoured drinking session. And the remorseless drip-drip of anti-drink propaganda has created something of a stigma about pubgoing that wasn’t there twenty or thirty years ago.

Wetherspoon’s are often mocked for the number of customers using mobility scooters, but surely this should be seen as a positive sign that they are actually providing a social function for older people. I was recently in a branch in a fairly workaday town in the South-East where this was very noticeable. But Spoons tend in general to be located in town centres, so don’t act as local pubs near to where people live, and they’re also not noted for seating comfort.

The industry often claims that pubs play a vital role in communities, and in the best cases that’s undoubtedly true. But maybe they need to live up to the hype and take a long, hard look at making their venues more pensioner-friendly. After all, it’s the only growing section of the potential drinking population. And the argument that it’s encouraging excessive drinking amongst the elderly doesn’t really stand up, as most will only have a pint or two anyway.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Out of touch?

Mark Daniels complains here about pubs failing to offer free wi-fi, and reckons that “talk to each other instead” has become a hackneyed excuse that is no longer funny. Now, it’s up to each individual pub to decide whether providing wi-fi makes commercial sense, and unlike some other “features” such as Sky Sports it doesn’t really impinge on other customers’ experience.

However, this view stems from the attitude that pubs should be contemporary, wipe-clean, family-friendly retail outlets where the more “facilities” they offer the better. Surely, though, a pub is more than just a business – it is about tradition, character and community, and very often pubs are valued as places where people can escape, if only for a couple of hours, from the stresses and pressures of everyday life.

Personally, while I might avail myself of the facility in Spoons or wherever, I’d see a pub making a point of not providing wi-fi as a positive feature. You wouldn’t whinge about its absence in a church or a historic house, and the same should be true of pubs.

I’ve created a new poll on the issue here.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Here today, gone tomorrow

The latest version of Pete Brown’s Cask Report was published last week, and again it records a story of success in a declining market, with cask beer continuing to gain absolute volume, not just market share, and having reversed the proportion of the ale market it enjoys vis-a-vis keg since 2006. It’s the drinkers of traditional keg ales, not cask, who are literally a dying breed. The report can be downloaded here.

However, it has some interesting things to say about drinkers’ expectations of how rapidly beers are changed and rotated on the bar and how, maybe surprisingly, drinkers tend to be less adventurous in their tastes than publicans think they are.

But drinkers are more conservative than publicans on the optimal trade-off: the mean score from our research shows drinkers are happiest with an average of 4.9 beers over a 4-week period, versus an average of 7 for publicans...

We showed last year that publicans and drinkers have different perspectives on how often guest ales should be rotated. Publicans felt they should be rotating guest beers once a week, while drinkers wanted to see them on the bar for longer. Our new research bears this out: 76% of cask ale drinkers want to see some beers changing over time, but not as often as you might think...

In terms of the mix of range – the types of beers on the pumps – attitudes among drinkers and publicans are more uniform. If a particular pub were to have four cask ales on the bar, on average:
• Drinkers would like 2 of those beers to be permanent, and two guests. Publicans are slightly less conservative – they think they should be stocking a mean of 1.7 permanent beers and 2.3 guest beers.
• Both drinkers and publicans would like to see, on average, a 50-50 split between beers that are local and beers from further afield.
• Both drinkers and publicans would like to see, on average, a 50-50 split between brands that are familiar to them and new brands they have not seen before.

This theme is reflected in a letter in October’s What’s Brewing from Graeme Baker who complains that, if he enjoys a guest beer in his local, next time he goes back it’s no longer on the bar. And I’ve made the point myself that sometimes you can be confronted by a line of beers on the bar where you have no idea what they’re like.

I’m certainly not averse to trying new and unfamiliar beers, but sometimes it’s good to see an old favourite on the bar, particularly if you just want a dependable pint to wash down your lunch. And, from the breweries’ point of view, surely it will help their long-term prospects if they can build up a reputation for specific beers and get repeat business rather than an endless series of one-off specials. Thornbridge Jaipur is a good example of a beer that many people will immediately order if they see it. It would seem from the Cask Report that Britain’s cask ale drinkers agree.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Jurassic pub

It’s often said on beer blogs that the old-fashioned, unreconstructed CAMRA members who take a dogmatic “four legs good, two legs bad” attitude towards the real ale vs keg debate are a small and dwindling minority. But I’m not so sure. I would say these attitudes are far more entrenched than is often supposed.

Recently the issue came up the end of a pub crawl in one of our finest local pubs. The two individuals concerned are office-holders in the local branch and people who I would count as friends. But their opinions are pretty uncompromising, and I would say follow these principles:

  • Cask-conditioned (and bottle-conditioned) beer is intrinsically superior to all other forms of beer
  • Most non-real products are worthless crap
  • There may be some half-decent beer available in places like Prague and Munich, but it’s not a patch on real ale
  • So-called “craft keg” is just old-fashioned keg dressed up in a trendy suit
  • CAMRA should officially not make any favourable mention whatsoever of non-real beers
Everyone is entitled to their views, but I would say the kind of internecine squabbling that these opinions inevitably encourage does the overall cause of the appreciation of beer no favours.

As founder member Michael Hardman famously said:

“I must point out that we’re not fighting against anything, we’re fighting for something,” he says, as measured as a well-poured pint. “There may be some members who give a different impression and I apologise to the general drinking public for the fact that we’ve recruited those people.”
But unfortunately there are still many members who feel that the endless war against keg is their primary purpose. Supporting something doesn’t mean that you have to condemn everything else that doesn’t fall within that category.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Forever Amber

The George & Dragon is an imposing former coaching inn in the centre of Stockport’s satellite town of Cheadle. For many years a Greenall’s house, it closed down a few years ago and, as I said here, there didn’t seem to be much prospect of it ever reopening as a pub. However, it has now been taken over by Amber Taverns, who specialise in reviving wet-led community pubs and, after a fairly thoroughgoing refurbishment, reopened its doors last week.

They’ve done a pretty good job of giving it a “pubby” atmosphere, with extensive bench seating, warm colours and much use of dark wood. It’s resolutely wet-only, with no food of any kind being served, which is a little surprising in a town-centre location. There’s also a strict over-18s only policy, so you won’t be bothered by noisy children running around. The interior is, however, dominated by numerous large screens for showing televised sport, and you can see it becoming the go-to location in the area to watch big matches. There’s an extensive ouside drinking area at the rear.

Although there have been reports of Fool Hardy beers being sold, on my visit the cask range consisted of Pedigree, Cumberland Ale, Hobgoblin and Deuchars IPA, which isn’t exactly going to encourage drinkers to go out of their way. The Pedigree was in decent nick, but at £3.20 a touch pricy for this kind of venue. There’s the usual range of kegs, but nothing of a remotely “craft” nature.

The old pub had an extensive car park, but for some reason they have decided to block this off. The excuse that they don’t want to encourage drink-driving doesn’t really hold water, and in a busy spot with no free on-street parking a car park does give you a competitive advantage. Maybe the longer-term objective is to sell it off for redevelopment. While I was in there, one group came in and asked about parking.

Given the dominance of TV sport, it’s unlikely to become a regular haunt of mine. But it will be interesting to see if Amber Taverns can buck the trend and make a success of an unashamedly down-to-earth, wet-only boozer. There’s an article about their business formula here.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Drinking is good for you

Here’s a must-read article by US addiction export Stanton Peele entitled The Truth We Won’t Admit: Drinking Is Healthy, making the point – which the health lobby do their best to sweep under the carpet – that there’s overwhelming evidence that moderate drinking (even well above official guidelines) produces better health outcomes than abstention.

The U.S. public health establishment buries overwhelming evidence that abstinence is a cause of heart disease and early death. People deserve to know that alcohol gives most of us a higher life expectancy—even if consumed above recommended limits...

In fact, the evidence that abstinence from alcohol is a cause of heart disease and early death is irrefutable—yet this is almost unmentionable in the United States. Even as health bodies like the CDC and Dietary Guidelines for Americans (prepared by Health and Human Services) now recognize the decisive benefits from moderate drinking, each such announcement is met by an onslaught of opposition and criticism, and is always at risk of being reversed.

Noting that even drinking at non-pathological levels above recommended moderate limits gives you a better chance of a longer life than abstaining draws louder protests still. Yet that’s exactly what the evidence tells us.

Driven by the cultural residue of Temperance, most Americans still view drinking as unhealthy; many call alcohol toxic. Yet, despite drinking far less than many European nations, Americans have significantly worse health outcomes than heavier-drinking countries. (For example, despite being heavily out-drunk by the English, we have almost exactly twice their levels of diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.)

Well, I’ll certainly drink to that conclusion!

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Standing the test of time

I was recently highly critical of Robinson’s refurbishment of the Farmer’s Arms in Poynton, with its fibreglass cow and bucket urinals. In response to this, John Clarke said in the comments:
Well, who's to say what's "appropriate" for pubs these days? If you have a certain fixed idea of what a "proper pub" should be like then maybe. However "the pub" as a concept is evolving into a variety of incarnations and what is appropriate for one won't be for another. I don't think these days you can apply a blanket "one size fits all" rule of thumb.
Of course pubs have always been designed in many different ways, but there are some design elements that stand the test of time, and some that rapidly go out of fashion and end up being changed into something else. A key point is that the primary purpose of a pub is for people to meet and socialise with each other (as opposed to just eating meals) and therefore the seating plan should promote that. It needs to be arranged so that most seats are looking in to the centre of each room or area, and the seating should preferably be mainly either fixed benches or settles as opposed to individual chairs. If you want to run a restaurant, fine, but it’s not exactly “pubby”.

If you look at the seven National Inventory entries for Stockport – the Alexandra, Arden Arms, Armoury, Blossoms, Crown, Queen’s Head and Swan with Two Necks, plus the nearby Nursery and Griffin, every single one is characterised by extensive fixed seating. These are pubs where the design scheme has lasted for at least 75 years. Indeed, you would struggle to find many National Inventory pubs that don’t have either fixed seating or settles. I can think of a few recent refurbs where eliminating comfortable seating seems to be a high priority, and I wonder how long they will last.

The second point is that colour schemes should be predominantly “warm”, to give a cosy and welcoming impression. This is well summed up by this extract from The Traditional English Pub by Ben Davies. The point that pub colours should reflect the colours of drinks is very well made.

I recently mentioned a Robinson’s refurbishment saying it used “a palette of light, neutral colours”, which basically is completely wrong. Pubs should use a palette of rich, warm colours.

Over the years, people have come up with all kinds of gimmicky pub designs, seating plans and colour schemes. They always think that the tried and trusted is old hat and they know better. But, by and large, they’ve all rapidly dated and been replaced before too long by the latest fad. If you want your refurbishment to last, you need to look at what has lasted before.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Buying on strength

I’ve often referred semi-jokingly on here to “bangs per buck” as a factor in buying alcoholic drinks, and I recently mentioned that one of the reasons advanced by the brewers for not declaring alcoholic strength was that it would tend to lead drinkers to “buy on strength”.

However, in practice the vast majority of drinkers don’t look at it that way. While obviously alcohol has an effect on you, it is generally seen as something that will aid socialising or relaxing, rather than regarding inebriation as an end in itself, to be achieved as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Apart from a few expensive premium brands, the vast majority of spirits are sold at standard strengths of 37.5% or 40% ABV which makes little odds either way – it’s the difference between Carlsberg and Fosters. Most table wines come within a range equivalent to that covering bitters and best bitters, and recently there has been something of a backlash against the richer New World reds achieving strengths above 14%.

Beer obviously covers a much wider range of strengths, but even here people in general choose products within a particular strength category rather than just looking at what’s going to get them drunk most quickly. If they do discriminate, it is usually to buy cheaper products within the same category. In the off-trade, this may well involve going for what’s on offer; in the on-trade, it’s more likely to be a case of choosing the pub charging lower prices overall.

Indeed, some beers have suffered from being a little stronger than the norm. Many drinkers used to complain that Robinson’s Best Bitter (now Unicorn) gave them a “bad head” because, at 4.2%, it was that bit stronger than the norm of ordinary bitters. More recently, a number of beers such as Old Speckled Hen and Bateman’s XXXB have had their strength reduced because pub drinkers were steering clear of beers around 5%.

It’s also a myth that the notorious “super lagers” such as Carlsberg Special Brew are particularly cheap in terms of cost per alcohol unit. It’s generally not difficult to find a lower unit price amongst the cheaper end of the 5% premium lagers. The main attraction of these products is that they offer a quick and effective alcohol delivery mechanism – drinking eight cans of Stella is much more like hard work than four cans of Spesh.

The only category where drinkers can really be said to be buying on strength is the absolute bottom end of the cider market, the 3-litre bottles of Three Hammers and suchlike. But, across the generality of the alcohol market, it isn’t a principle that holds water.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Dining down Memory Lane

I was recently going through my late mother’s effects* and came across this typed menu from the Old Vicarage Hotel at Stretton in Cheshire. From the combination of date and day it dates from either 1979 or 1984, but I strongly suspect the former.

It’s very much a sign of a bygone era. The lack of floweriness and pretension in the food descriptions is notable – if you have to type it out, you can’t afford to be too verbose. Also there’s a complete absence of a vegetarian option. Rainbow Trout Cleopatra – which is what I would probably have chosen on that occasion – doesn’t involve asp venom or asses’ milk, it’s just served with herring roe and capers.

Hotels don’t tend to be seen as such desirable dining venues as they once were, and this one has long since been completely rebuilt and massively extended as the Park Royal.

* Don’t worry – she in fact passed away last year, but I’ve only just got round to getting my old scanner working again

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Give us the facts

I was recently critical of a report by a Parliamentary committee calling for more prominent and graphic health warnings on alcoholic drinks. However, as this opinion piece in The Grocer argues, surely providing more information is a good thing, and up to a point the author is right. I remember when alcoholic strengths were never stated on bottles of beer or wine, and spirits were quoted in terms of % proof which to most people was meaningless. Now it’s unthinkable that this information shouldn’t be provided and, far from leading to people “buying on strength” the end result has often been choosing slightly weaker drinks. Likewise, stating the number of alcohol units gives a ready comparison between drinks of different strengths and package sizes.

If we have to have health warnings, the present rather discreet and standardised ones aren’t really too objectionable, and at least they admit the possibility that very modest consumption might not be harmful. Nobody who is likely to take any notice can be unaware that excessive consumption may have an adverse effect. And it’s hard to see any objection to following the example of virtually all other food and drink products and stating both calorie content and ingredients. The latter is something that producers of all types of alcoholic drinks have long resisted, suggesting that they may have something to hide.

But there comes a point when the provision of facts to help people make informed purchases morphs into a conscious attempt to deter purchase in the first place. Even without photos of diseased livers, putting more prominent health warnings on the front of packages would fall into that category and needs to be strongly resisted.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Bucket challenge

I’ve linked to them in the comments, but I thought it would be worth posting another couple of pictures of the interior design scheme at the Farmer’s Arms in Poynton. First is Ermantrude (sic) the full-size fibreglass cow, and second is the gents’ urinals, which take the form of a row of stainless steel buckets. I bet they pissed themselves laughing when designing that.

Considered contemporary design is one thing, but with gimmicks like this the joke will very soon fall flat.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Pretentious, moi?

Going back forty years or so, Robinson’s brewery seemed to have been afflicted by a virus for drastic, then-trendy pub refurbishments. These had no regard to the pubs’ traditional character and typically involved severe knocking through, “Spanish arches”, white artexed walls, 24-panel glass doors and low, lounge-style chairs. Fortunately, they eventually came to their senses and began carrying out sensible, tasteful updates like that of the Railway at Rose Hill, Marple.

But, more recently, a new generation of Robinsons has taken over, and they have started to take a more drastic approach. For a start, they have closed down a substantial number of their under-performing pubs, as I described here. Now, I’m the last person in the world to expect breweries to keep pubs open that they don’t see as viable, and Robinson’s haven’t applied restrictive covenants to any of them, but even so it’s a clear statement of intent.

They have also been taking a very consciously un-traditional approach to pub refurbishments, and seem to have completely jumped the shark with what has been done to the Farmer’s Arms in Poynton (which I have to admit I have never actually been in before or after).

Upon entry you are greeted by the gaze of Ermantrude, a full-size fiberglass cow. Hand painted, her floral design emulates the upholstery that adorns several new seating areas and is a taster of what awaits.

Elsewhere, customers will be charmed with a flutter of butterflies across the ceiling and a pantheon of cascading flowers that seemingly grow from the walls creating a theatrical focal point that has never before been seen in a Robinsons pub...

Major structural work has also taken place with the addition of an impressive orangery. New wallpaper, which resembles the shadows of trees, covers the walls of the new extension and seems to move with each cloud that passes overhead.

Nurse, nurse, the smelling salts please! The illustration looks as though someone has thrown up all over the wall and ceiling.

In the 60s and 70s, the then Watney Mann employed an interior designer called Roy Wilson-Smith who carried out some quite bizarre internal refurbishments that made drinking in a pub seem more like being in the jungle or a grotto. It seems that his spirit is alive and well and stalking the Robinson’s estate.

I’m sure I’m not alone in finding what has been done to the Farmer’s Arms a load of fashionable, pretentious twaddle that shows zero understanding of or sympathy for the concept of “pub atmosphere”. It’s the kind of trendy nonsense that CAMRA would once have had the guts to roundly condemn but will probably now praise as “bright and contemporary”. Will people never learn that what seems modern and cutting-edge today will look sadly dated in a few years’ time?

Browsing through Robinson’s website, I also came across this description of the refurbishment of the Crown on Walney Island in Furness, where the illustration (right) comes across as just the kind of deliberately uncosy, cold-coloured pub interior that I was complaining about here. It says it uses “a palette of light, neutral colours”, which is just what you don’t want to see in a pub, where colour schemes should be rich and warm.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Booze, blokes and banter

Over the years, on several occasions I’ve mentioned the lively, traditional pub atmosphere that still prevails in many Sam Smith’s pubs, in particular the Boar’s Head on Stockport Market Place, for example here.

It’s interesting that Timbo, posting on the A Swift One blog, has noticed the same thing in the Commercial, Huddersfield:

The Commercial was rammed, I struggled to find somewhere to sit and people watch. It brought my thinking round to the old days. This was how I remember pubs from my youth. Lots of middle aged and older men, sitting around, chewing the fat with their mates and shifting gallons of beer. It was a proper pub. No pretensions, just lots of chat. I could overhear conversations on many and varied topics. Football, Politics, The inefficient local council, and so on. There was background music, but unobtrusive.
Thirty or forty years ago, plenty of pubs were like that, but it’s now very rare outside of the Sam’s estate. Even most of Holt’s pubs seem to have lost it. Obviously Sam’s cheap prices are an attraction, but it’s more than that – a camaraderie develops, and a feeling of being at home. The cosy design encourages people to talk to each other, whereas in Spoons, which are similarly cheap, you often get each table occupied by a solitary bloke with his plastic carrier bag, copy of the Sun or Mirror and pint of John Smith’s.

As you can see from the photo, it’s a very plain, foursquare stone building with a marked lack of external advertising. But it doesn’t need to shout from the rooftops to drum up business, as its loyal regulars are well aware of what they’ll find inside.

A beer apart

I was recently in a pub in north-east Derbyshire, and next to me were a couple of old boys who were talking quite knowledgeably about the old beers and breweries of the area – Stones, Whitbread, Mansfield, Home Ales, even Holes of Newark. However, even though the pub was listed in the Good Beer Guide and had a range of four cask beers, when one returned from the bar he was carrying pints of John Smith’s Extra Smooth and Theakston’s Mild, both keg.

If you go back thirty-five years, north of a line approximately from Worcester to the Wash, probably well over half of the cask beer in England was served by electric pumps. Home were one of the breweries where they were well-nigh universal in their estate, as, of course were Wolves & Dudley in the West Midlands. For most of its drinkers, it was just seen as beer, not as something different called “real ale”. My subjective memory is that electric dispense tended to produce a more reliable pint than handpumps, although whether that is down to the fact that it was used in higher-turnover pubs, or that it made it more difficult for bar staff to ruin a pint through incompetent pulling technique, I wouldn’t like to say.

Of course, if you want to promote real ale as something that stands out from other beers, it doesn’t help if it’s dispensed from bar mountings that are indistinguishable from those used for keg and tank beers. And so, over the years, brewers, encouraged by CAMRA, steadily replaced electric pumps with handpumps, to the extent that electric cask dispense has pretty much entirely disappeared now. I’m sure the fact that there was a saving to be had from replacing oversize glasses with brim-measure ones never entered their heads.

However, this has left a substantial population of older drinkers who would once have happily drunk real ale in the pub, although never thinking of it as such, but have now been deterred by bad experiences of that funny stuff that comes out of handpumps and prefer to stick to the likes of John Smith’s. Indeed on several occasions I’ve heard older drinkers ask bar staff “have you got any smooth?” when, in their drinking heyday, “smooth” as such had not even been invented.

And might there also be many younger pubgoers who will make a point of avoiding anything that comes from a handpump, but would be prepared to experiment with a chilled and carbonated “craft keg” if it came from the same T-bar row as San Miguel?

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The future’s so bright, you gotta wear shades

Regular commenter “py” recently posted this link to a collection of students’ thoughts on “traditional pubs”. A lot of the comments are along the lines of “pubs are old-fashioned” and “pubs don’t cater for us”.

What a contrast to my student days! Yes, this was in the era of Small is Beautiful, the Good Life and Citizen Smith, but our approach was completely different. Pubs were there, as they were, warts and all, and they needed to be explored and understood. We used to go on pilgrimages out to the Black Country to visit the Old Swan and Batham’s, Holden’s and Simpkiss pubs. These were generally small, basic pubs with an older, working-class clientele, but they were still interesting and worth exploring. The regulars were probably astonished at being invaded by parties of students, but they took it in their stride.

The pubs (OK not the Simpkiss ones) are still there now, but you really can’t imagine today’s students doing the same. In those days, people put a positive value on the old-fashioned, individualistic, quirky and traditional, and were prepared to make an effort to understand it, whereas now they prefer instant gratification and having everything served up on a plate.

As I’ve mentioned before, the appreciation of the past has greatly diminished. CAMRA, to its great credit, continues to maintain the National Inventory, but a growing number of members fail to see the point. I remember when any move by the breweries to “knock through” or “gut” a pub was roundly condemned, but now it’s often welcomed as “making it brighter and more contemporary”.

Much the same is true in the beer sphere, which maybe deserves a post of its own. And I can’t help thinking that in this relentless pursuit of modernity and innovation we’re losing something. Give me a pint of Draught Bass in an unspoilt wood-panelled snug any day!

Saturday, 16 August 2014

The best-laid plans

Given all the discussion at present about pubs and the planning system, I thought it would be worth looking into the subject in a bit more detail. I found this document which gives a pretty good overview of the rules applying to change of use.

Pubs fall into Use Class A4 “Drinking establishments” and can be converted without needing planning permission to A3 “Restaurants”, A2 “Financial and professional services” and A1 “Shops”. The thinking behind this is that planning permission shouldn’t be needed to convert premises to uses that are likely to have less adverse impact on the local community.

It should be noted, though, that planning permission is needed to convert pubs to residential use, and is also needed if any change of use involves demolition or significant external alterations. So essentially the further restrictions CAMRA is calling for involve requiring planning permission to convert existing pub buildings, largely unaltered, to restaurants, bank branches or retail.

The restaurant element can be discounted, as the boundary between the two is very blurred and it isn’t difficult to turn a pub into something that to all intents and purposes is a restaurant but still retains a small bar at which you can in theory just buy a drink. There are plenty of Indian “restaurant and bar” establishments in former pubs that must come into this category.

The idea of pubs being turned into banks is a little far-fetched – indeed it isn’t that long ago when it was commonplace to see conversions going the other way. So basically we are just left with retail premises. What people are concerned about are examples where apparently entirely viable pubs have been abruptly closed and then suddenly turned into a Tesco Express without any form of public consultation. If it needed planning permission, the argument goes, then it would all be out in the open, and other pub operators and community groups would be given the opportunity to make a bid.

While this has happened in a few cases, in reality, the instances where others are going to come in and make an offer to keep the place in operation as a pub are relatively scarce. It is far more common for a struggling pub to close its doors and then remain boarded up for twelve months or more before someone comes along with a plan to turn it into a shop. There will have been plenty of time for others to bid, but it just doesn’t happen. There are three local examples of former pubs that have been turned into convenience stores, such as the White Lion in Withington shown above, all of which had been previously closed for some time, and I’m not aware of any attempts to keep them going as pubs.

In recent years, two of the four nearest pubs to me have closed. The Four Heatons has now been demolished and is being rebuilt as a convenience store with flats above, which of course did need planning permission. While once a thriving pub, the smoking ban effectively sealed its fate and I doubt whether many will have mourned its passing. It was closed and boarded for three years before building work started. Likewise, there hasn’t been any evidence of interest in reviving the Woolpack (pictured right) as a pub. Again, this was once highly-regarded but, on an awkward site with minimal car parking and no nearby houses, it had struggled for a while, and in fact closed once, was then revived for a couple of years by new owners, but now seems to have closed for good. Requiring planning permission for change of use would not magically bring these pubs back to life; it would simply keep them closed and boarded for longer.

In a blogpost that no doubt will ruffle a few feathers, Martyn Cornell points out two more significant drawbacks of CAMRA’s proposals. The first is that, once it became clear that new planning controls were on their way to the statute book, there would inevitably be a stampede amongst pub operators to convert some of their more marginal outlets to retail use, thus precipitating the loss of even more pubs. And, if you had to get planning permission to convert even the smallest bar in a shopping parade to an optician’s or a delicatessen, it would make people far more reluctant to open new bars in the first place, and banks to lend them money. The growth in new outlets in former retail premises, from Wetherspoon’s to micropubs, has been one of the biggest sources of change and innovation in the licensed trade in recent years. The end result would not be a more successful pub sector, but one that was smaller, more stagnant and less able to respond to changes in the marketplace.

It’s possible to think of ways of mitigating the second problem, such as setting a size threshold below which the planning requirement did not apply, or allowing the reconversion to retail of new bars within a period of x years, and points such as this would need to be carefully considered. At a time when the future of High Streets is a live political issue, making the planning system more rigid and unresponsive could easily end up acting against their regeneration.

As I have said before, the idea that stricter planning controls would save any significant number of pubs from closure is complete pie in the sky and, sadly, CAMRA is once again wasting its campaigning efforts on a wild goose chase.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Time to revive pub-lic life

Looks like someone's been reading this blog...

Without a vibrant public sphere, what need is there for the public house? In the eyes of the state, pubs are places where all kinds of unacceptable behaviour take place – and therefore they must be strictly controlled. Binge drinking is defined by the NHS as consuming more than eight units of alcohol for a man (fewer than three pints of lager) and six units for a woman (two pints of lager). This means that on any given night, the vast majority of people sitting in pubs across the UK are doing something the state does not approve of.

The state has been on an all-out assault on peoples’ perceived vices for a long time. Despite UK chancellor George Osborne cutting the duty on beer by a token 1p in two consecutive budgets, it will take inflation some time to catch up with the price of a pint. Indeed, between 2008 and 2012, prices rose by 42 per cent – the result of an ‘escalator’ sin tax. Other intrusions, such as the smoking ban, have also made pubs less desirable to hang out in. Young people, too, are drinking less than ever before, and when they do drink it is unlikely to be in pubs, thanks to overzealous enforcement of underage drinking laws and government-funded campaigns like ‘Challenge 25’.

It is difficult to know how to rejuvenate the pub. But for the likes of CAMRA to call on the state to come to pubs’ aid is counter-intuitive and absurd. The underlying societal issues behind the decline of the pub are hard to tackle, but we could start by scrapping the smoking ban, beer duties and anti-drinking campaigns, and stop the demonisation of young drinkers. Then, perhaps, people might come out from behind their laptops and go out for a drink. And that could only have a positive effect on public life as a whole.

It’s certainly true to say that more regulation never revived anything.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

You have been warned!

Over the weekend, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Alcohol Misuse (which is basically a self-appointed collection of nanny staters with no official standing) issued a report calling, amongst other things, for the introduction of health warnings on alcoholic drink packages:
“Health warnings are a familiar and prominent feature on all tobacco products. Likewise, detailed nutritional labelling is ubiquitous on food products and soft drinks.

“Yet consumer information on alcohol products usually extends no further than the volume strength and unit content.

“In order to inform consumers about balanced risk, every alcohol label should include an evidence-based health warning as well as describing the product's nutritional, calorific and alcohol content.”

Note how, not for the first time, the treatment of tobacco is being used as a template for alcohol policy.

I have to say I start to suffer from “outrage fatigue” in response to stories like this – RedNev covers it in more detail here. However, some of the implications need to be considered. It somewhat surprisingly ignores the fact that the vast majority of bottles and cans already have health labelling as shown in the example above. However, the implication is that they want much more prominent warnings, on the front labels rather than on the back, and presumably large notices along the same lines to be displayed in pubs and bars where many drinks are not served from individual containers.

The claim is that this will be providing consumers with information about what they are drinking, but of course they have that information already and, in any case, surely nobody who is likely to be influenced by such warnings can have no idea that alcohol might be damaging to health if consumed to excess.

The drinks industry has always enjoyed a figleaf of respectability behind which it can say that it is not alcohol per se that is dangerous, just drinking too much of it. However, warnings of this kind will increasingly snip that away and instead at least imply an unequivocal message that any quantity is bad for you.

Now of course many people will cheerfully ignore these labels, but on the margins some will look at a bottle with a big notice on the front saying “This stuff is bad for you” and conclude it’s something they really should be avoiding. Who wants to sit there at a dinner party with a bottle displaying a picture of a diseased liver sitting in the middle of the table? It will be another drip, drip, drip effect deterring people from drinking at all – which of course is the intention in the first place. It is part of the process of denormalisation.