Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Home Counties havens

Spectator Life magazine recently published a feature on the best country pubs within touching distance of London. I posted on Twitter that you just knew what kind of pubs these were going to be, and I wasn’t wrong, as they were, entirely predictably, the type of places where “Mouth-watering mains include whole Roast Grouse with Game Chips & Bread Sauce and Venison Steak with Quince Jelly & Blue Cheese Mashed Potato.”

So I invited suggestions for some genuinely unspoilt and characterful pubs that would fit the bill better, and the results are shown below. I haven’t made any attempts to vet the list and they are presented as given to me. The only ones I’ve actually been to are marked with a *. In particular, I really don’t know rural Hertfordshire and the southern part of Essex well at all. The preponderance of pubs in these two counties is, of course, maybe driven more by who responded than being an accurate reflection of the relative quality of the pub stock in the various areas. I’ve provided links for some that people waxed particularly lyrical about. Initially, nothing was suggested in Buckinghamshire, but I’ve now added a couple from the comments.

Bedfordshire

Cock, Broom *

Berkshire

Bell, Aldworth *

Buckinghamshire

Prince Albert, Frieth
White Horse, Hedgerley

Cambridgeshire

Queen’s Head, Newton *

Essex

Bell, Castle Hedingham
Cats, Woodham Walter
Chequers, Dunmow
Chequers, Marks Tey
Compasses, Littley Green
Hurdlemakers Arms, Woodham Mortimer
Rodney, Little Baddow
Station Arms, Southminster
Swan, Little Totham
Three Elms, Chignall St James
Three Horseshores, Duton Hill
Viper, Mill Green (pictured above)

Hampshire

Harrow, Steep
Plough, Little London

Hertfordshire

Angler’s Retreat, Marsworth
Cross Keys, Harpenden
Crown & Sceptre, Bridens Camp
Green Man, Sandridge
Half Moon, Wilstone
John Bunyan, Coleman Green
Plough, Ley Green
Queen’s Head, Allens Green
Red Lion, Marsworth
Rising Sun, Berkhamstead
Rose & Crown, Trowley Bottom
Strathmore Arms, St Paul’s Walden
Woodman, Wild Hill

Kent

Crown, Groombridge
Five Bells, Eynsford
Old House, Ightham Common *
Queen’s Arms, Cowden Pound
Rock Inn, Chiddingstone Hoath

Oxfordshire

Black Horse, Checkendon

Surrey

Fox, Worplesdon *
Fox & Hounds, Godstone
Royal Marine, Lyne
Scarlett Arms, Walliswood *

Sussex

Blue Ship, The Haven *

This one – the Green Man at Sandridge – certainly sounds a world away from the kind of pub listed in the original article:

Something I’ve observed before is that traditional country pubs with a substantial wet trade seem to be much more prevalent in the South of England than the North, and an attempt to come up with a similar list for Cheshire and Lancashire would, I think, yield pretty slim pickings.

Monday, 9 September 2019

Cream of the crop

My recent post about how judging the quality of beer contains a large element of subjectivity was prompted by Boak & Bailey defending Matthew Curtis’ right to say he liked Harvey’s beer. It certainly seems to be true that they attract a fair bit of affection from the craft fraternity.

Much of the contemporary British craft beer movement seems to have set out its stall by pitching itself in opposition to the established real ale scene, both in terms of “boring brown twiggy bitter” and the wider culture surrounding it of socks and sandals, folk-singing and steam railway preservation. But Harvey’s is one of the select band of established family brewers who seem to be an exception to this.

So why might this be the case? They are fairly close to London, which inevitably gives them a higher profile. I think they only have a couple of pubs in the capital, but they have an extensive free trade, often cropping up in those pubs that are viewed as making an effort on the beer front. On the other hand, they haven’t succumbed to the lure of getting large-scale deals with the major pub companies, which may bring more distribution, but inevitably leads to a drop in quality at the point of sale and an element of familiarity breeds contempt. They have also not gone for national supermarket distribution for their bottled beers, which is a low-margin, cut-throat business and again will erode the feeling of exclusiveness.

They have added to their pub estate piecemeal over the years – the latest Good Beer Guide gives a figure of 48 – but it hasn’t grown to the extent where they start being accused of high-handed practices towards their tenants and imposing bland corporate uniformity. And, most importantly, they do actually brew some very good beer. They have a range of products, have produced various seasonal and limited editions, and have even dabbled in the more crafty side of things. But their flagship product is undoubtedly Sussex Best Bitter, of which Mike Dunn in his 1986 book Local Brew says:

This is a magnificent beer, one of the truly great and distinctive bitters which are still available; quite sharp to the palate but nevertheless essentially malty in character, it i s regarded as well suited to local tastes and so, very reassuringly, there are no plans to follow other, more short-sighted, breweries by reducing its distinctive nature.
And the same still holds true thirty-three years later. It’s perhaps the archetypal example of the classic English balanced country bitter, and it makes no concessions to modern craft trends. But I think part of the affection for it stems from people saying “well, that’s not really my style of beer, but within that category that’s the one I like.” That’s an entirely reasonable stance, and not in any sense insincere. Many people might say something similar about whiskies, or blue cheeses. You can’t have an in-depth experience of everything. There may also be an element of “revealed preference”, with people saying they like it, but not in practice making a great deal of effort to seek it out.

It’s interesting to look at how Harveys have risen to this position of pre-eminence. Going back forty years, they were just a small curiosity in the roll-call of independent breweries, to be be filed alongside the likes of Burts and Paines. According to the 1978 Good Beer Guide, they had a mere 24 pubs, of which only half sold real ale. They also provided beer to the 26 pubs of their erstwhile local rivals Beards, who had closed their own brewery in the early 1950s due to a yeast infection, but only half of these had real ale. Yes, their beer was good, but in the South-East south of the Thames Gales, King & Barnes, Youngs and Shepherd Neame were more highly regarded.

But, since them, under the stewardship of Miles Jenner, who combined the roles of Joint Managing Director and Head Brewer, the company slowly but steadily advanced. It maintained the quality of its core beers, while expanding its range, increasing its pub estate and developing its free trade. And, partly due to others falling by the wayside, it’s emerged at the front of the pack in that part of the world. Three of the breweries I mentioned have gone, while Shepherd Neame seem to have sacrificed beer quality on the altar of expansion.

Over the years, I can’t say I’ve drunk a huge amount of Harvey’s beer, as it is rarely seen in my part of the world. I’ve probably not had more than thirty pints of it in total, despite having both been on a pub crawl of Lewes and had a holiday in Eastbourne, two things that I suspect few of my readers have done. But I’ve had enough to say that, in my view, Sussex Best is one of my favourite cask beers, and one of the best beers of its category in the country. It’s definitely one that would spring out from the bar when I walked into a pub.

But I’m not convinced it really does stand head-and-shoulders above its competitors. Last month, I had an excellent pint of John Smith’s Cask in Preston, and recently I’ve had several very good drops of Black Sheep Bitter. Are they as good as Harvey’s? Probably not. But they’re certainly in the same general ballpark of quality when well-kept. And, if I was marooned on a desert island and could only drink one beer for the rest of my life, I would probably choose Draught Bass in preference, and certainly Batham’s Best.

If you decide Harvey’s is the one trad beer you like, that’s fair enough. But if you then dismiss Wadworth’s 6X, Palmer’s IPA and Brain’s SA as boring brown bitters, then you’re just demonstrating your own ignorance.

Friday, 6 September 2019

Making pubs safe for Saskia

Every year, the Good Pub Guide is published around this time, and often courts controversy with the accompanying publicity. As I’ve mentioned in the past, it has a very specific vision of what constitutes a “good pub” – namely an unthreatening, smart, middle-class dining pub. The occasional more basic and characterful establishment may occasionally get a look-in to add a touch of colour and authenticity, but they know very well what their readership is looking for.

This year, they have chosen to celebrate the transformation of pubs in the twelve years since the introduction of the smoking ban. However, its tone comes across as smug, middle-class triumphalism. What we don’t like, nobody else should be allowed to have, especially not the scummy plebs.

12 years since the introduction of the smoking ban in England, a pub guide has credited the initiative with transforming pubs and forcing them to become cleaner, brighter places with better food and with greater appeal to women and families...

“Those bars full of fug and male chat quickly became a thing of the past,” the guide notes. “Pubs adapted by installing smokers’ shelters and outdoor heaters, and licensees soon realised that by making their pubs smoke-free, they turned into cleaner, brighter places, and opened up a massive new customer base: women and families with young children who headed to pubs for a meal and even an overnight stay.”

However, even before 2007, there was no shortage of bright, family-friendly, food-dominated pubs. What has happened is not so much that the old working-class wet-led boozers have transformed themselves, as that they have closed down in huge numbers. The article says rather dismissively “It was predicted to be the death knell for the traditional British boozer and likely to lead to a slump in business and permanent closures,” but then goes on to contradict itself by pointing out that fourteen pubs a day are still closing. The amount of beer sold in pubs has fallen by 35% since 2007. As one commentator on Twitter says,
It’s rather baffling how the smoking ban is supposed to have made pubs more appealing to women, when a higher proportion of women smoke than men. And the very fact that they have chosen to return to the subject twelve years on indicates that it is still a live issue that has created an abiding legacy of bitterness. We haven’t moved on and put it behind us. If people choose to constantly reiterate their argument it suggests they do not feel that they’re standing on particularly solid ground.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

The twenty-year itch – Part 2

We pick up the story of our Proper Day Out in Preston having just left the Olde Blue Bell and retracing our steps along Churchgate towards the city centre. We turned right along Lancaster Road, passing between the actual Guild Hall, a modern edifice on our right, and a row of impressive Victorian civic buildings on the left. This brought us to the Guild Ale House, described as “a larger than average micropub”. It also has longer than average hours, being open from noon every day to 11 pm most evenings.

It has a main bar area with posing tables, a more comfortable snug to the rear where we were able to find some seats, and also an upstairs seating area reached by a Wild West saloon-style open staircase. There were seven cask beers on offer, from which we chose Lancaster Blonde, Blackedge Cascade APA and Bank Top Swan Lane Mill. The latter was an amber-coloured beer which was in good condition but had a distinctive liquorice flavour that wasn’t to my liking.

We then had a long but fortunately level walk up North Road, passing the New Meadow Street Labour Club where people in the outside drinking area at the front were obviously enjoying their Friday afternoon in the sun. I’m sure if Life After Football had been with us he would have wanted to dive in for a swift pint. Eventually we reached our next port of call, the Moorbrook, which is now the solitary pub on a road junction where there used to be several others. Here we stragglers at last caught up with the rest of the party.

It has a distinctive frontage with arched, single-light, frosted windows on either side of the entrance door. Inside the bar is on the right with two snug areas with bench seating to the left. There is also a small beer garden at the rear. Once a Thwaites pub, it is now a free house, with eight beers on the bar, including their own Moorbrook Pale Ale brewed by Blackjack, Durham Lemon Dib Dab, Potbelly Streaky and Raw Black Forest Stout. This did seem a somewhat ambitious range for such a small pub, but all those we had were in decent enough nick. My sole previous visit here had been on Saturday 27 November 1993, when I memorably watched England beat New Zealand at Rugby Union, and also visited two of its now-closed neighbours.

Heading back down Moor Lane towards the city centre, past further closed pubs, we turned off the right along Adelphi Street to reach the Vinyl Tap. Formerly the Hearts of Oak, this street-corner pub has now been reopened and revived with a vinyl record theme. There were two large racks of vinyl albums for people to pick out, although it wasn’t entirely clear to the casual visitor how the request system worked. We were treated to Hot Fuss by The Killers which, let’s face it, wasn’t exactly Jethro Tull.

The pub has a spacious single-room interior, albeit with something of a lack of seating, although we were able to find a berth at a long table in the centre. There were five beers available including their own Vinyl Tap Pale, Duffield Amber, Waen Eek-a-Mousse Stout (a musical reference there, folks) and Abbeydale Reaper.

We then followed Friargate back towards the city centre. This is a long street that, despite closures, still has plenty of pubs, including the Old Black Bull, once the city’s premier specialist beer pub, but now apparently fallen on hard times in the hands of Greene King, and the Sun, where Paul Mudge was staying. This is the last remaining Thwaites pub in the city centre, and we had considered including it on the itinerary for that reason, but he reported that they actually had no Thwaites beers on the bar. The top end of Friargate is closed off by an impressive vista of the Victorian Harris Museum which many people might imagine was the town hall.

Deliberately putting off the best until last, we diverted off Friargate along Orchard Street to reach the Market Tap, which not surprisingly faces the Victorian covered market halls. This pub seems to be undergoing an identity crisis, as it has been fashionably renamed “Tap”, but still plainly says “Market Tavern” on the frontage, as the photo shows. I suspect even that is relatively modern, and going back forty or fifty years it might well have been the Market Hotel or Vaults.

It has an L-shaped single-room interior around the central bar, with plenty of bench seating and couple of intimate but rather dark booths on the right. A notable feature is a glass panel on the floor just inside the door allowing you to see down into the cellar. There were four beers on the bar – John Smith’s Cask, Hawkshead Bitter, Titanic Plum Porter and Beartown Bluebeary. Compared with one or two of the earlier pubs, it was good to see some familiar pumpclips, and the John Smith’s, while it might be a beer that some look down on, was in fact very good indeed. Jessie’s Girl by Rick Springfield on the soundtrack brought back some memories of the 1981. Maybe, or maybe not, by coincidence, that particular day happened to be Rick Springfield’s 70th birthday.

Doubling back down Orchard Street took us to our final call and the crème de la crème of Preston pubs, Robinson’s Black Horse. This is an impressive late-Victorian redbrick street-corner pub that merits a full entry on CAMRA’s National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors. There are a couple of cosy front smoke rooms on either side of a mosaic-floored corridor leading to an amazing ceramic bar counter in what was originally the public bar. At the rear is a comfortable recessed seating area with mirrored walls, with the entrances to the Ladies’ and Gents’ toilets on either side.

There seemed to be something of a Hop Back tap takeover, with Citra, Entire and Fuggle Stone, but in a pub such as this it would be rude not to drink the Robinson’s, which was available in the shape of Unicorn and Dizzy Blonde in both standard and chilled version. The Unicorn was excellent and for me was the best beer of the day. We discussed what was the point of chilled cask beer when the actual serving temperature achieved was so variable anyway. Wouldn’t it be redundant if the target cellar-cool temperature was reliably achieved?

From here it was a brisk ten-minute walk back to the station for those of us not living locally or staying overnight. As always, a great day out with good beer, good – and varied – pubs and good company. Sheffield Hatter had worked out that the planned itinerary covered 4.2 miles, and with the fruitless short cut to get to the Continental it must have been more like four and a half. Who says beer drinking doesn’t keep you fit?

Thanks to Peter Allen of Pubs Then And Now for the photos of the Guild Ale House, Vinyl Tap and Market Tap/Tavern.

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

The twenty-year itch - Part 1

The Lancashire city of Preston is well-known for celebrating its Guild Festival every twenty years, and it occurred to me that the last time I had been drinking there was in fact nearly twenty-four years ago. Back then, it still had numerous Thwaites pubs, and it wasn’t that long since the other major local independent brewer Matthew Brown had been taken over, but a great deal has changed on the pub scene in the intervening years, although one or two things refreshingly hadn’t. It therefore made a good venue for our latest Beer & Pubs Forum Proper Day Out. It was a poignant thought that my last interaction on social media with the late Richard Coldwell had been discussing arrangements for this trip, which he hadn’t been able to fit in anyway.

We met up just after 11 am on the morning of Friday 23 August in the Old Vic, a large four-square pub conveniently situated right opposite the railway station. While the interior has been much opened out over the years, it retains a number of areas of comfortable seating ranged around the central bar counter, with plenty of dark wood in the decor. I’d actually say it’s a better pub than you might normally expect in such a location. There were seven of us, including a number of the usual suspects plus local boy Matthew Lawrenson of “Seeing the Lizards” fame in his trademark Paisley shirt.

For such an early hour, the pub was ticking over nicely, with a variety of customers. The Test Match was showing on various TV screens, fortunately with the sound down, and Jason Roy’s dismissal at 11.16 am proved to be the first of many throughout the day. Indeed, for the next three hours, England were averaging no less than three wickets per pub. There were four beers on the bar, including Timothy Taylor’s Knowle Spring, White Rat, Bombardier and Reedley Hallows Beer O’Clock. The Knowle Spring proved the most popular and was in pretty good nick. Martin Taylor’s liver was still suffering from his GBG-ticking exertions in Scotland over the previous couple of days, and he restricted himself to an alcohol-free Heineken, which was available here on draught, something I had not seen before.

On the map, the route to the next pub, the Continental down by the riverside, looked a straightforward one along the west side of the railway station, but in fact we ended up taking a wrong turn into a postal delivery depot, in contrast to some earlier trips where unpromising-looking cut-throughs turned up trumps. Don’t blame me, I wasn’t navigating. We had to retrace our steps a fair distance, and ended up about a quarter of an hour behind schedule. The pub is indeed situated right by the river in the shadow of the railway viaduct, although there is no view of the river from the extensive beer garden. By this time, after an overcast morning, the sun had come out, and it was starting to get pretty warm.

It’s a former Boddingtons pub, and still retains their characteristic external lettering. Internally it was been much modernised and extended, with a variety of seating areas, including a large conservatory. There were perhaps seven beers on the bar, including Pendle Witches’ Brew, the very hoppy Northern Monkey English Pale Ale, Ossett Treacle Stout and the hazy Pomona Island Pale, declared as such on the pumpclip. Although situated in something of a backwater, one would imagine the pub becomes pretty busy on sunny summer weekends. Here we picked up some copies of the newly-produced Preston Real Ale Trail leaflet.

Compared with many other towns and cities, Preston perhaps doesn’t make much of its river, and you could easily visit the centre without realising it had one at all. However, our walk to the next pub took us along an attractive promenade on the northern bank of the Ribble through Miller and Avenham Parks. It no doubt looks better when the tide is in, as it was today. A steep and rather lung-bursting climb followed, taking us into a area of handsome late Georgian and Victoria housing in the Avenahm district of the city, much of which now appeared to have been converted into offices. We spotted the cat shown above sunning itself in a precarious position on a window ledge.

The Wellington was our scheduled lunch top, although as some members of the party were either not particularly hungry or fancying something a touch more crafty to drink, there was a split in the camp, and it was a depleted group that crossed the threshold. The Good Beer Guide says that it is popular at lunchtimes, but even on a Friday, and close to the city centre, it plainly wasn’t, with virtually no other customers. Significantly, it didn’t appear on the Preston real ale trail leaflet, and a little birdie told us that it had failed to make it to the 2020 edition.

There’s a central bar with three distinct areas opening off it, plus a small room at the front right with a door marked “Hotel”, where we chose to sit. Of four handpumps, the only one in use dispensed Marston’s EPA, a beer that seldom rises above lacklustre; on the reversed pumpclips were Cumberland Ale and two Rosie’s Pig fruit ciders. Peter Allen couldn’t really be blamed for choosing Carlsberg instead. There’s an extensive food menu at reasonable prices, plus a range of pensioners’ specials at £4.95. From these were chose cottage pie, lasagne and a ham salad, but unfortunately they took around thirty-five minutes to appear, putting us even further behind schedule. The food was actually decent enough, but the overall experience was distinctly disappointing.

We couldn’t help overhearing the Eastern European barmaid having something of an altercation with the manager. In retrospect, this pub probably wasn’t the best choice, but realistically the pub lunch options in this, or any other part of, the city looked rather limited unless you wanted to resort to Spoons.

Just to the north, we emerged on to Churchgate in the heart of the shopping centre, making the Wellington’s lack of customers even more surprising. Heading east past Preston Minster, the street turns into more of a “bar district” and develops a more down-market atmosphere, most noticeably with the distinctly seedy-looking Bear’s Paw pub. Just past here, but on the other side of the road, was Sam Smith’s Olde Blue Bell, with a lively group of drinkers sitting at the outside tables. I remember this pub as having been white-washed, but in more recent years this has been removed to reveal the original brickwork.

We encountered the other members of the party just as they were leaving. They were able to tell us that England were now all out for 67, although due to Sams’ mobile phone ban we were unable to confirm this for ourselves. Of course Ben Stokes was able to make amends a couple of days later. The interior has been remodelled at some time in the post-war era, with a central bar serving a long room on the left and two smaller snugs on the right, but it retains some original stained glass in the doors to the toilets. It’s all in Sams’ characteristic style, with plenty of dark wood and comfortable fixed seating. As always, there was only the one cask beer, Old Brewery Bitter, which I found pretty good, but Paul Mudge felt wasn’t quite up to the standard you might find in the Boar’s Head in Stockport. Peter Allen once more went for the lager in the form of the premium Pure Brewed.

To be continued...

Monday, 26 August 2019

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

Last week, Boak & Bailey defended people’s right to make subjective judgments about beer without having their sincerity questioned. It was a post that raised a number of interesting issues. But one question that arose from it was whether it is possible to define in any objective sense which beers are good and which are not, something that prompted some debate on Twitter. One person thought it was in general pretty obvious, but I’m not so sure.

For a start, beer isn’t solely or even mainly a functional product. We don’t judge it in terms of the maximum alcohol content at the lowest production cost, and indeed beers that score highly on those criteria tend in general to be judged pretty poorly. Beer is, broadly speaking , evaluated in generally subjective terms.

For draught products, the influence of cellarmanship needs to be discounted. This applies particularly to cask, but to sme extent to keg beers as well. Even the finest beer in the world will be pretty unpleasant if it is served flat, stale and warm, but some people who comment on beer seem to have difficulty in distinguishing between how well it is kept and its intrinsic qualities.

In business terms, quality is generally defined as consistent adherence to specification. It’s not about how good a product is an absolute terms, but whether it achieves what it’s supposed to do. If you don’t think much of it, blame the specification. In brewing, there are a range of production faults that will mar the character of the finished product, such as diacetyl, oxidation, lack of clarity (in intentionally clear beers) and obvious off-flavours. These will be obvious to anyone with much knowledge about beer, and should manifest themselves in the taste as perceived by the drinker, although some people insist on finding redeeming features in beers that to most are blatantly off.

However, I’m not aware of any regularly-produced beers that consistently manifest such obvious brewing faults. If they do, there’s something wrong with them. But, looking at it in more fundamental terms, what makes a poor beer as opposed to a good one?

A rough correlation is often drawn between the strength of a beer, and the cost of the ingredients, and its quality, but it doesn’t necessarily always work that way. After all, Harvey’s Sussex Best, which is what prompted this discussion in the first place, is a beer of relatively modest strength that retails in pubs for normal prices; it isn’t some eyewateringly expensive, mega-strong show pony.

The mere fact that something is a mass-produced, “industrial” beer doesn’t automatically make it a bad product. It is made to satisfy a different demand from a salted caramel quadruple IPA, and needs to be judged in those terms. In absolute terms, a Rolls-Royce or Ferrari is no doubt a better car than a Toyota Corolla, but it also costs hugely more to make, and possibly doesn’t offer anything like as good value for money. For most drivers, the Corolla will meet their requirements.

There has long been a tendency in some quarters to allow your opinion of the brewer to sway your judgment of a beer – they may be plucky independents challenging the industry giants, or standing up for fashionable causes. There may be entirely valid reasons for this, but it’s always a mistake to mix up the worthiness of the brewer with the intrinsic quality of the beer. There should be no “marks for effort” in assessing beer. Nor should a beer be dismissed out of hand purely because it’s popular, or lauded for obscurity.

Much of the above may suggest that there are really no absolute standards in judging beer, and that everything is entirely subjective and a matter of personal preference. Clearly this isn’t the case where beers demonstrate obvious brewing faults, even if some people are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. But, if you assemble people with some knowledge of beer and brewing, they are likely to reach a broad consensus on how good or otherwise a beer is.

They will look at the ingredients used, the malt and hops, and whether inferior adjuncts have been used to reduce costs. They will consider the production process, such as the nature of the fermenting vessels and how long a bottom-fermenting beer has been lagered. And they will assess the overall flavour profile – is it bland, or harsh and one-dimensional, or is it complex and well-rounded ?

Yes, of course it is possible in broad terms to say that some beers are better than others. But, as with literature or music, it’s an art, not a science, and personal taste plays a large part. It’s by no means as obvious as some seem to imagine. Beers also need to be viewed in the context of their market segment – few would dispute that Pilsner Urquell is a better beer than Carling, but Carling is a well-made, consistent product that satisfies its customers; it’s not in any sense a “poor beer”.

And ignorant blanket statements such as “all keg is piss” or “macro lagers are crap” really say much more about the people making them than the product under discussion.

Saturday, 17 August 2019

Typecast

Last month, I wrote about how it was becoming ever harder to find pubs whose decor and general offer hadn’t fairly recently been put under a corporate microscope. One result of this process is that, over the years, pubs have become much more differentiated in terms of the type of clientele they’re aiming to attract.

Of course, going back forty years, there were plenty of different types of pub – rough boozers and genteel middle-class haunts, those with youth appeal and those frequented by the older generation, those that did a healthy food trade and those that made a speciality of live music. And, given the typical lack of external cues, it could be all too easy to end up in the “wrong” type of pub and feed distinctly out of place.

However, they also had much more in common. The vast majority were owned by breweries and offered that firm’s standard beer range regardless of their customer base. They tended to have names like the Dog & Duck and the Northumberland Arms. Hardly any brand-new pubs had been opened since the war apart from those on new housing estates, or replacements for pubs lost to the Luftwaffe or to redevelopment schemes. There was much more commonality of interior design, with most pubs still having public and saloon or lounge bars with a distinction in furnishings. Nobody had ever heard of posing tables, and the only televised football was Match of the Day and the FA Cup Final.

Since then, though, whenever brewers and pub owners had money to spend on their estates, they started to look much more closely at exactly what kind of customer they wanted to attract. One of the first manifestations of this in the 1980s was the youth-oriented fun pub, which has now pretty much died the death but for a time was all the rage. By definition, the older person wanting a comfortable seat and a quiet pint felt excluded.

There have been a variety of other trends pulling the pub trade in different directions. The rise of satellite TV sport, especially football, has led to many pubs where that is the core of their appeal. In contrast, others have concentrated on ever more ambitious food to the extent where dining becomes their prime or even sole purpose. The growth of innovation in beer has resulted in more and more pubs and bars that deliberately set out to appeal to beer enthusiasts who may often pass many others to visit them. And the relaxation of the restrictions on opening new licensed premises has allowed venues to spring up that make no pretence to a generalist appeal, many of which entirely lack the “body language” you associate with a pub.

The result is that we now have different types of pub with very little overlap in clientele. There is the lively, sports-oriented boozer, the upmarket gastropub, its more plebeian family dining cousin and the specialist craft beer bar. When people are planning a pub visit, there are many more places that they won’t even consider. I’m always struck by how, in the Stockport suburb of Heaton Chapel, the Heaton Hops, a small modern craft bar, stands directly opposite the George & Dragon, a big Edwardian boozer majoring on TV sport and cheap and cheerful eating. I wonder how many customers ever go out unsure as to which one they plan to visit. It was once the case that, in many smaller towns and suburbs, having a wander round the local pubs was a popular Friday or Saturday night activity. That’s much less common now, and even if people do it many of the pubs will be ruled out because they don’t fit the bill.

Pubs with a broader appeal across different categories of customer do survive, but they tend to be the smaller and less high-profile ones, and nobody is opening new ones. The one category that is missing from the selection being developed is those specifically catering for the traditional core purpose of pubs, simply meeting and socialising over a few drinks. There is, of course, one pub operator for whom that is their USP, but at present they rather seem to be contracting rather than expanding.

It could be argued that Wetherspoon’s fill that niche, and they certainly attract a much wider range of customers than many of the other pub categories. But they are also themselves a very carefully targeted proposition that is deliberately pitched to be nothing like traditional pubs, and whose design militates against cosy conviviality.

One benefit of this segmentation is that it reduces the chance of inadvertently wandering into the “wrong” type of pub, but it doesn’t entirely eliminate it, and many independently-run dining pubs don’t obviously advertise that fact. It’s still entirely possible to end up in a pub and think “Oops, I’m the only one in here not eating!”

Pubs are often viewed through rose-tinted spectacles as hubs of the community where all classes and types of customer happily mingle together. That was always a somewhat optimistic view, and the ever- greater fragmentation of the trade further undermines social cohesion. How can a pub be the heart of its community when its business formula deliberately excludes whole sections of people?

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Very early doors

The determined band of drinkers who assemble in Wetherspoon’s at 9 am are often viewed with a mixture of amusement, derision and pity. There’s sometimes even a whiff of moral panic about it: “just look what 24-hour drinking has led to!” However, Tandleman recently found himself in a branch of Spoons at this hour and took a considerably more sympathetic view:

By ten past nine when I leave there is a noticeable air of contentment and the genesis of a conversational buzz... Some spend quite a few hours there, but by four even the most hardcore will be gone, many resting for a repeat performance the next day. This is an interesting sub culture of pub goers. Good luck to them I say.
The last is an important point. They’re not settling in for an all-day session; many will be gone at lunchtime, and pretty much all by mid-afternoon. And is it really all that different from the regular sessions straight through from 5 or 5.30 to 11 pm that used to be commonplace and hardly remarked upon? I’d also suggest that in many cases they will only be drinking at a leisurely pace too.

The Eastern Daily Press reports how the phenomenon has spread well beyond Wetherspoon’s in Great Yarmouth, with pubs even offering happy hours for early morning drinkers. There seems to be a general feeling of conviviality and sociability. One customer said “I love the atmosphere in here and it's great to catch up with my mates. The pints are cheap and everyone is in good spirits”, while a barmaid commented “Everyone knows each other in here and they just have a laugh. There's no trouble.”

Other customers gave safety as a reason for coming out earlier. One said “I don't feel safe coming into the town any later. There are too many yobs on the streets and who knows what might happen”, and another added “It's not safe for someone like me who has health problems to come to the pub in the evening.” These fears may seem a touch exaggerated, but many towns that encourage a lively nightlife do develop a distinct “atmosphere” later in the evening that makes older drinkers feel uncomfortable.

It may not be something that appeals to you or me; it’s unlikely to meet with the approval of the public health lobby, and it’s certainly not compatible with holding down a job. But isn’t this really just a case of the liberalisation of licensing hours opening up opportunities for people to go to the pub at times that suit them? In this respect it’s similar to the busy sessions now seen in some pubs in the late afternoon when tradespeople knock off, a time of day when, before 1988, the pub doors would have been firmly shut.

Rather than laughing or sneering at the early-morning drinkers, shouldn’t we just accept that they’re taking advantage of longer opening hours to drink in a way that suits their particular pattern of life? It’s also usually going to be a calmer, more relaxed and sociable way of drinking than is typically associated with late nights. That surely is what pubs should be all about.

Friday, 2 August 2019

Under pressure

The Morning Advertiser reports on a survey which claims that Millennials feel five times more likely to be pressurised into drinking alcohol when socialising than older generations. Now, this has to be taken with a considerable pinch of salt, as it has been produced on behalf of a maker of low- and zero-alcohol punches, but it completely flies in the face of my own experience.

I would say that, over the past twenty years, the pressure to drink alcohol on social occasions has greatly reduced, and in many situations not drinking has become the norm. This is particularly the case with anything connected with work, after hours as well as at lunchtime. Indeed, it is often the person who chooses an alcoholic drink who stands out and ends up being stigmatised. When visiting friends and relatives, you are much less likely to be routinely offered an alcoholic drink than you once were.

Back in 2002 I asked Can a responsible person ever be seen with an alcoholic drink in their hand?

Twelve people from my workplace went out to the pub one Friday for someone’s birthday. Apart from myself and one other, it was a round of ten Diet Cokes, including one for the person who was supposed to be celebrating. Anyone would think that a pint of bitter or a glass of wine would have them throwing up over the boss or copying their backsides on the photocopier. Is it any wonder that the licensed trade and the brewing industry are in such a bad way?
And it certainly hasn’t got any less so in the intervening years.

It would be interesting to be given examples of precisely in what kind of situations people do feel pressurised into drinking, as I really don’t see this at all. One area where this is often mentioned is in social life in higher education institutions, but they provide a huge range of activities, most of which don’t involve drinking in any way. The fact that someone has organised a Carnage pub crawl doesn’t mean you’re under any obligation to go on it.

The article says that people don’t drink alcohol on two out of three social occasions, so the pressure can’t really be that intense. If they truly were having their arms twisted to drink, surely we wouldn’t be seeing so many pubs closing. And, if you really don’t much care for drinking, but most of your friends seem to do nothing else, maybe it’s time to find some new friends.

In reality, this is an example of the common phenomenon of something attracting more criticism as it becomes less popular. We have seen exactly the same happening with smoking. Forty years ago, there undoubtedly would have been more social pressure to drink, but nobody complained about it back then.

Saturday, 27 July 2019

Stubbing out the habit

The government have, perhaps rashly, pledged to end smoking in England by 2030, as part of “a range of measures to tackle the causes of preventable ill health.” If this was some kind of infectious disease, that might be a reasonable objective. However, let’s think about this a little more deeply. While it is known to carry significant health risks, smoking is a legal activity that large numbers of people enjoy. Many of them don’t actually want to quit, as Pat Nurse explains in this article. And, if they are adults in full command of their mental faculties, why should they? Many commentators seem to forget that, whatever the risks, smoking is a very soothing and relaxing activity.

There are plenty of other activities people engage in that carry substantial risks of death, injury and ill-health, but the government seems happy to tolerate them, possibly because it would be seen as politically incorrect to criticise them. Prejudice against people on a wide range of grounds has now rightly become socially unacceptable, but it seems that much of that bile has now been redirected against smokers.

The plan doesn’t seem to involve outright prohibition, just an ongoing campaign of denormalisation and exclusion of smokers from more and more public places. However, while that may apply a continuing downward ratchet on smoking levels, it’s not going to eliminate it entirely. People would still be able to import tobacco or buy it on the black market, and smoke it in private homes or secluded areas. Even outright prohibition wouldn’t really work, as it has been so notably unsuccessful with various kinds of illegal drugs.

Of course we now have the means at our disposal to achieve a substantial reduction in smoking, by encouraging vaping as an alternative. However, this tends to be pooh-poohed by the public health lobby, both because of “not invented here” syndrome, and because it is often espoused as a recreational activity in its own right rather than simply a smoking cessation therapy. Indeed, some countries such as Australia have banned vaping altogether while continuing to tolerate smoking, which by any reasonable calculation is surely considerably more dangerous.

As has often been said, the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stone, but because something better came along. The same could be true of smoking and vaping, but it’s not going to be achieved unless the government takes a markedly more positive attitude towards vaping. The licensed trade could also play its part by ceasing to take such an absolute and dim-witted attitude – Wetherspooon’s, I’m looking at you! But it’s much easier just to continue to demonise smokers, and all too readily lump vapers in with them.

There’s currently a lot of talk of legalising, or relaxing the prohibitions, on cannabis, but it would be interesting to know how many of those who support these campaigns at the same time also want to see a further crackdown on smoking, something that comes across as a distinctly hypocritical stance. Apparently the US state of Colorado, which has legalised recreational cannabis, has passed an ordinance preventing employers from discriminating against cannabis users. But they haven’t done the same for smokers, or drinkers.

Of course, some will say, smoking is a special case, something uniquely harmful, and these tactics are never going to be turned against any other activity. Or are they? The cartoon at the top is borrowed from this blogpost by Christopher Snowdon, but it seems that nowadays the tables have been reversed. If we can eliminate smoking by 2030, then why not fatty and sugary food by 2040, and then alcohol by 2050?

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

A whiff of intolerance

It happens as regular as clockwork at this time of year. A few days of hot, sunny weather bring people out into beer gardens for the first time since last summer, and they discover to their horror that they are already populated by filthy, smelly smokers. This results in the inevitable cries for smokers to be banned from outdoor areas of pubs. The latest to jump on this bandwagon was radio presenter Jeremy Vine, although fortunately 50% of respondents to his Twitter poll were prepared to stand up for tolerance. Frankly this attitude displays one hell of a cheek, when these people have presumably supported the legislation that forces smokers to be in the beer garden in the first place. You have a choice as to whether to be inside or outside, while they don’t. They have no alternative but to go outside, regardless of how unpleasant the weather is, but on the few hot days a year you think they should be banished just for your convenience. Vine talks of smokers’ lack of consideration for others. Well, if you had been more considerate to smokers, you wouldn’t have compelled them to go outside in the first place.

It’s sometimes argued that, even after the ban, pubs can still cater for smokers. Yes, this is true to a limited extent, but they are still treated as third-class citizens. Yet, despite this, smokers on average still spend more time and money in pubs than non-smokers, presumably because many non-smokers are prissy, health-obsessed people who would never be seen dead in a pub in the first place. To prevent smokers even using outdoor areas would do severe damage to the business of pubs.

I have noticed an increasing numnber of pubs designating a section of their outside drinking areas, often the most attractive part, as non-smoking, and banishing smokers to a grotty yard round the back. Yet, on 330 days a year, these non-smoking areas are completely unused. And no doubt even with this arrangement the antismokers will moan that “there’s someone smoking 50 yards away! I’m going to die!” Pubs like this really don’t deserve smokers’ custom.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Woken from slumber

In the early years of my drinking career, one of the most interesting aspects was visiting new pubs and finding so many that seemed to have been little changed for many years, both in their fabric and the way they were run. Indeed many could have to been said to be stuck in something of a timewarp. Some of them were pubs that fell into the category of Classic Basic Unspoilt Pubs featured by Rodney Wolfe Coe on his famous list. The Sun at Leintwardine, pictured right, was the only one to merit five stars, although since then, while the original core remains unchanged, it has received a large modern extension at the rear. I did have the privilege of seeing it in its original form in the late 1980s.

But there were also plenty of pubs that, while not meeting those standards, didn’t fall far short, and quite a lot of them were within brewery tied estates. Often it was actually the Big Six brewers who had the least spoilt pubs, as they had acquired huge swathes of pubs from often moribund family brewers over the preceding couple of decades and had not yet got round to doing much about many of them. Some of the independent brewers had, in contrast, been pretty assiduous in upgrading their pubs – I was struck in the early 80s by the contrast between Greenalls’ estate in Cheshire, and the unimproved nature of many Allied Breweries and Courage pubs in Surrey. Even at the bottom end of the size scale, most Donnington pubs had received a significant makeover in the 60s or early 70s in a style that was fashionable at the time. On the other hand, some independents had estates that seemed barely touched for decades – Brakspear particularly springs to mind.

To me, and many others, one of the key aspects of the 1970s “real ale movement” was the preservation of our beer, brewery and pub heritage, and there was certainly plenty out there to explore and discover. Back in those days, there was much less of a spotlight on the performance of individual businesses, and it was a lot easier just to plod along for many years ploughing your own furrow. But that is now all in the past, and to find any pub that can remotely be described as unspoilt is far more difficult.

Since then, a huge amount has changed. Large numbers of pubs have been drastically altered, and still more have seen their offer totally revamped, often to accommodate the seemingly inexorable advance of food. At the same time, pubgoing has become much less of a default activity for the general public. Many thousands of pubs have closed, especially in the present century, and those have often been the smaller and less altered ones. And, even when some of the classic unspoilt pubs survive, they have become in effect museum pieces owned by people with deep pockets rather than a living tradition. The original fabric of the front rooms of the Sun at Leintwardine has been preserved, but they have become little more than a curio attached to a much larger modern pub.

No more can pubs just moulder away with little attention as part of sprawling tied estates. Since the Beer Orders, pretty much all the pubs previously in the hands of the Big Six have been churned and rechurned several times through the hands of various pub companies, with each one being put under a spotlight and the less lucrative allowed to fall by the wayside. The surviving family breweries have also in most cases taken a long hard look at their estates and disposed of those pubs that don’t fit in to their desired business model.

There has also been a distinct change in public attitudes. Back in the 1970s, the fact that a pub was quirky, old-fashioned and unspoilt was often reason in itself to visit it, but that has now largely reversed, with the new, glossy and trendy finding favour. In their 1989 book, The Quest for the Perfect Pub, Nick and Charlie Hurt wrote that the Barley Mow at Kirk Ireton “is often packed with young people from the nearby cities of Derby and Nottingham, where most of the pubs are now amusement arcades. They learn how to play dominoes, love the beer and the atmosphere, and revel in the quiet simplicity to be found here.” Their modern-day counterparts don’t do that, and would look at you in bafflement if you suggested they should.

Of course there are still plenty of good experiences to be had in pubs, and the mere fact that one is modern, or has been dramatically remodelled, doesn’t meant it isn’t worth visiting. But it’s now much harder to find one where you get the impression that the decor and the food and drink offer haven’t been fairly recently put under a corporate microscope. And, all too often, in the rush to promote various “activities” in pubs – dining, watching sport, listening to music, doing quizzes – their original core purpose of just providing a space for people to meet and have a drink seems to be forgotten.

Often now, the best chance of finding genuinely unspoilt pubs is in long-established free houses, which by definition are more likely to be in market towns and rural areas rather than large towns and cities. Family ownership through multiple generations is often a factor. In my experience, the Welsh Marches (at least south of Llangollen) and Mid and West Wales are some of the most fertile hunting grounds. But, even here, it’s possible to walk into an outwardly traditional-looking pub in a small and sleepy town and be confronted by a monstrosity of chrome and mirrors.

Some may say that none of this really matters so long as the food and drink are good, but that’s rather missing the point. Pubs are far more than just retail businesses, they are part of our heritage, and it can’t be denied that something valuable has been lost in the march of progress over the past forty years.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

But where are the customers?

At the end of June, I spent a few days in Cornwall, and on the way back stayed for a night in Gloucester. While I was there, I called in to Sam Smith’s Robert Raikes’ House, which is situated on one of the main shopping streets in the city centre. This is a magnificent 16th century half-timbered building that in recent years has been very carefully and lovingly converted to pub use.

It was a sunny Saturday lunchtime, and the pub looked very appealing with boards outside advertising that it was serving food. Yet it had no more than a thin scattering of customers, when Sam’s pubs in similar central locations in Stockport, Leeds or Chester would be heaving. This has also been observed by Martin Taylor. Boak and Bailey have described Sam’s William IV in Bristol, another impressive historical building, as “a pub which rarely has any atmosphere at all.” So you have to ask what is the trick Sam’s are missing.

First is the question of price. While Sam’s are noted for their low pricing policy, they apply a set of three or four fixed price bands dependent on geographical area, which don’t necessarily correspond to how affluent a particular place is. Old Brewery Bitter in this pub was £2.80 a pint, which may be about the cheapest in central Gloucester apart from Wetherspoons, but isn’t the outstanding bargain that £2 is in the North. Gloucester isn’t by any means the most well-heeled of cities, and overall is probably less prosperous than Chester.

The low prices aren’t just a matter of luring customers in purely on value for money. Once people have been tempted over the threshold, they find a distinctive ambiance that creates a critical mass of like-minded drinkers and that particular Sam’s atmosphere. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but in many places in the North it’s a very successful formula – you know what a Sam’s pub in going to be like.

There is also the issue of the unfamiliarity of the brand. In the North, Sam Smith’s is a well-established company that has been around for decades if not centuries, and the name will be familiar to most pubgoers. In the South, they’re not known at all, something that is compounded by their policy of only offering their own brand products across the entire range of drinks and snacks. The barmaid in the Robert Raikes very carefully and accurately explained to a customer the difference between the four Sam’s lagers, but in most pubs you don’t even have to ask because you will recognise some of the brands on the bar.

Plus you have to consider how the building actually works as a pub. I have written previously how Sam’s very careful remodelling of the Swan in Holmes Chapel had actually ended up too compartmentalised for its own good, with the bar tucked away in one small room right at the back of the pub. And in fact that particular pub is currently closed, and has been for some time.

Of course there is much to be said for pubs having a variety of distinct areas, but they also benefit from a substantial circulation and seating area close to the bar to promote a sociable feeling. The Robert Raikes isn’t as bad as the Swan, but even so the servery is situated in one room in the centre of the pub that doesn’t directly open on to any other rooms apart from the central corridor. It also has the toilets up a flight of stairs that Wetherspoons would be proud of, which could be another factor that older customers find offputting.

Sam’s deserve praise for taking on premises like Robert Raikes’ House and converting them to pub use in a manner that respects their fabric, and where no expense has clearly been spared. There are examples in a number of other cities – the Wortley Almshouses in Peterborough spring to mind. But, for their own sake as much as the customers’, they also need to have a look at their pricing policy and the circulation of people within the building, to make sure they actually succeed as pubs and not just as pieces of architectural restoration.

Saturday, 6 July 2019

Dispensing wisdom

I recently made a couple of posts that touched on issues of beer dispense. These spurred me to look at what was going on in pubs more closely than I had before. The first explained the development of the “swan neck” nozzle for serving cask beer, which originated as an attempt to emulate te creamy texture of beers dispensed using the “economiser” that was once commonplace in West Yorkshire.

These are often seen as something distinctly Northern, but when we went to Rugby in May pretty much every pub with handpumps seemed to be using them. Since then, I have had holidays in Bath and the surrounding area, and in Cornwall, where I observed that swan-necks seemed to have become pretty general as far south as you can get in the country. The only exceptions were pubs using gravity dispense, and those with very old sets of handpumps. A noticeable difference, though, was that they seemed to be of a thicker gauge than those usually found in the North, and were generally used without sparklers.

Someone made the point that dispense equipment was generally provided by brewers, not the pubs themselves, so the pubs had little alternative but to go along with the trend. The only exceptions would be some free houses which owned their own pumps. Swan-necks mean that, for most of the pull, you are dispensing beer in the midst of the liquid rather than on to the top, but in the absence of a sparkler it’s hard to see what difference it makes, or what advantage it offers. I would have thought it made it harder to bar staff to influence to final presentation of the head, which may or may not be a good thing.

Swan-necks by definition involve inserting the pump nozzle into the beer, but in this post on beer presentation it was strongly argued by Pete Brown that keg beers should ideally be dispensed without the nozzle touching the beer at all, a point echoed in this video:

I have to say I expressed scepticism at the time as to how often this was achieved in practice, and this was certainly borne out by my observations. Most keg beers nowadays are dispensed either from T-bars or tall fonts standing well above the bar top. The old-fashioned bar-top illuminated boxes have pretty much entirely disappeared except in Sam Smith’s pubs. They have a stainless steel nozzle about three inches long.

From what I saw, the nozzle was almost invariably inserted into the beer to a greater or lesser extent, and sometimes the pint glass was moved up and down, or swirled around, to achieve the desired final appearance of the head. So clearly the ideal is scarcely ever being achieved there and, to be honest, with brim measure glasses and nozzles of that length, it would be extremely difficult to do so.

Friday, 5 July 2019

Unavailable at any price

Three weeks ago, as part of our day out in Uttoxeter, we were very kindly given a lift by Paul Mudge’s wife Jacquie to the outlying Plough. She wanted a soft drink, but not being a lover of artificial sweeteners, asked for one of the full-sugar varieties. However, the pub didn’t have anything available in this category, although it was eventually able to dig out some expensive premium drink.

The sugar tax has been in the news recently, and one fact that has emerged is that it has only raised one-third of the revenue that it was predicted to. This is due to a mixture of manufacturers reformulating their products and, as in this case, outlets simply ceasing to stock the full-sugar versions. It’s certainly not just confined to pubs – in Subway, all of their draught soft drinks are diet versions, while I was recently in a branch of Waitrose where only diet drinks were included in “meal deals”. Fortunately you can still get a full-sugar Pepsi with your burger in Wetherspoon’s.

Now, as someone with Type 2 diabetes, this is academic to me, but it still represents a significant denial of choice. Some people simply don’t like the taste of artificial sweeteners, while others are allergic to them, and there are also concerns that they may lead to long-term health problems, as we have found with replacing butter with various kinds of artificial spreads. Plus there is the fact that full-sugar drinks can be a life-saver for Type 1 diabetics experiencing a “hypo”.

It is one thing to seek to deter people from consuming certain products through higher taxation, although whether that in itself is proving effective is highly questionable. But it is something else entirely to simply, through a form of official arm-twisting, make those products completely unavailable. Surely adult consumers should be treated as informed, empowered people who have the right to make their own decisions about their diet. And, if price is an issue, why can’t retailers simply include smaller measures in all-inclusive deals, such as 375ml bottles rather than 500ml?

There’s a parallel with the schemes that, not content with imposing additional duty on higher strength beers and ciders, seek to remove them from the shelves entirely.