Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Careful cultivation

Whenever you hear that a pub is going be closed for refurbishment, there’s always a slight feeling of unease. OK, if it’s just a case of repainting and reupholstering and improving the toilets, then there’s nothing to worry about, but anything more than that and you sort of know it’s going to end up worse. Smarter, brighter, cleaner maybe, but inevitably opened out a little more, lacking a few more original features and a bit less cosy and comfortable. It will be praised in the local CAMRA magazine for being “sensitive” and “widening the pub’s appeal”, but some of what gave it character before will have gone. You can see this in some local pubs – the Spread Eagle in Bredbury particularly springs to mind – where, over the years, multiple revamps have transformed what was once an unspoilt traditional interior into an open-plan space that could be any of a hundred pubs.

It’s even more worrying when you hear rumours of work being planned at a much-loved pub that features on CAMRA’s National Inventory of historic pub interiors. For quite a while there has been talk of changes at the Nursery in Heaton Norris, Stockport, and Hydes Brewery have now formally lodged their plans with the local council. However, having had a good look at them, it appears that there’s nothing to be concerned about. The pub, a rare original example of a 1930s design scheme, is now a listed building, which restricts the scope to make structural changes, and the fact that Stockport’s chief conservation officer lives just a few doors down the road will have ensured that the plans received careful scrutiny. The documents attached to the planning application include a large number of interior photographs and before-and-after floorplans.

The only structural alterations are to convert the disused off-sales department into a ladies’ toilet to serve the vault (which previously only had a gents’), close off a serving hatch that wasn’t an original feature anyway, and replace the modern back bar fitting. All the fixed seating and original period decorations including the stained glass windows depicting plants and garden implements are to be retained, while the decorative designs make extensive use of Thirties motifs. So all credit to Hydes for coming up with a very sympathetic scheme that if anything will improve the pub. As the planning assessment concludes:
The impact of the redecoration will therefore be to enhance the existing character and internal building features, reinforcing the separate room layout of the plan form with reference to the 1930’s in the finishes without attempting to create a museum or stage set.

The proposed refurbishment of the Nursery Inn in Heaton Norris represents a faith in the future of this public house by the brewery and will help to secure its long term future and use.

The character of the Listed Building will be enhanced internally and the fabric of the building given a new lease of life.

If only they’d take the TV screens out of the rear smoke room, though!

Hydes are also planning to refurbish the Horse & Farrier in Gatley in the coming months. This doesn’t have an original interior like the Nursery, but maybe fifteen or twenty years ago it was renovated to become a “Heritage Inn” with much dark wood and a rambling layout of several cosy areas around the central bar. To my eye it's one of the most congenial non-original pub interiors in Stockport. No plans have been published yet, so let’s hope they’re not too drastic.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Of Irish gold and gamma rays

Back in the 1990s, following the success of Guinness Draught in a can, Guinness launched “Guinness Bitter”, using the same widget technology. I remember it being advertised showing a fisherman putting his four-pack in the river to keep the cans cool, but it never seems to have been a great success and has long since disappeared from the market. To this day I still have a Guinness Bitter fridge magnet, though.

Now, as part of the initiative that has led to the introduction of Dublin Porter and West Indies Porter, Guinness have re-entered the ale market with the launch of Guinness Golden Ale. As it was on sale at £1.50 a bottle in my local Tesco, I thought I would give it a try. The first thing that strikes you is that, as Beer Viking reports here, it isn’t actually a golden ale. In colour, it’s more mid-amber, a similar hue to, say, Marston’s Pedigree, and certainly nowhere near as pale as the likes of Thwaites Wainwright. I’d broadly agree with his review that it’s a perfectly decent beer, fairly rich and “beery”, with subdued caramel notes, whereas some so-called “golden ales” have a rather insipid, lemony flavour. But I can’t see it winning many converts from lager, and the name is frankly misleading.

Locally, we’ve recently seen the opening of a new combined bottle shop and bar called Bottle Heaton Moor. The owner Corin Bland is someone who is really enthusiastic about his beer, and I’m confident it will prove a successful venture for which there’s a strong demand in the area. There’s a detailed review here on Beers Manchester. My only caveat is that it’s not exactly a comfortable place to sit and have a drink, as the picture above shows. But it’s not really aimed at me anyway.

When I called in, I spotted cans of Beavertown Gamma Ray on sale and bought one out of curiosity. Don’t worry, this isn’t “Mudgie goes Craft!” When they first launched a few years ago, Beavertown were so achingly craaaaaffft that they almost came across as a parody, but they have gone from strength to strength, and Gamma Ray seems to be regarded as one of the defining beers of the current “craft beer revolution”.

It was a distinctly steep £2.60 for a 330ml can of a 5.4% beer. The can has a striking science-fiction design showing an alien with a ray gun. Incidentally, why do “craft cans” tend to have a slightly rougher surface texture than soft drink ones? It pours a bright, almost orangey colour, with vigorous carbonation and a thick white head. The taste is that classic piney, resiny American hop flavour in spades. If you like that sort of thing, it will be right up your street, but I have to say that I see beers of this kind in the same way as highly peated Islay malts – you respect them, but they’re not something you’d like to drink a lot of. Personally I also find it offputting that it’s hazy verging on cloudy. I’m sure they have the technical expertise to brew a clear beer, so it has to be assumed that they are deliberately brewing a “London murky” as a sign of just how craft they are. If I wanted to drink a beer of that type, I’d much prefer either BrewDog Punk IPA or Thwaites 13 Guns.

Apologies for lack of blogging in recent weeks – I’ve just not had my interest sparked by anything. Now that the general election is less than a month away, I’ve reinstated the voting intentions poll in the sidebar – mobile users can access it here. I’d be grateful if readers didn’t share this elsewhere on social media, as last time some did this rather over-enthusiastically, which distorted the results to the extent that they were pretty meaningless.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Glass half empty?

Well done to George Osborne for making a small cut to beer duty for the third year running, something without precedent in living memory. But inevitably some have given this a grudging reception, saying that a penny a pint duty cut is neither here nor there, and most pub operators won’t apply it anyway. I suspect many dislike Osborne so much that they would still whinge even if he totally abolished beer duty and gave everyone a flying horse to transport them to and from the pub.

In reality the comparison is not with a duty freeze, but with the continued application of the beer duty escalator, which would have resulted in a pint in the pub being 30 or 40p dearer by now. If you can’t see, or acknowledge, that, you’re either an idiot or someone who allows political partisanship to override a rational consideration of the interests of the brewing industry and pub trade. The Centre for Economic and Business Research has calculated that the beer duty reductions have already saved over 1,000 pubs from closure. Surely that’s something we can all celebrate regardless of political affiliation?

Friday, 20 March 2015

Knotty solution

When I first started going in pubs, I rapidly picked up the habit – possibly from my dad – of tying empty crisp packets into a little knot so they took up less space and so could easily be placed into an ashtray. Yes, kids, in those days every pub table had an ashtray.

A few years later, I remember doing this in a remote country pub in Sussex and the grumpy landlord saying “I bet you used to make model aeroplanes when you were younger”. Which I actually didn’t, but you understand the point. I still do it, and friends view me seizing on a stray crisp packet as a form of OCD. I never embraced folding the packets into little triangles, though.

I recently came across this article on How to Eat Crisps* and was rather gratified to read the following, which confirms my view:

In public, where you might not bin it immediately, fold the packet lengthways into a narrow strip and then tie a knot in it. People who fold the packet into a tight, precise triangle are psychopaths.
Apparently, the UK consumes more crisps than the rest of the EU put together. And, the question of what you do with your rubbish in the pub following the demise of the ashtray, which I mentioned here, has still not been solved. It seems that you just leave it on the table and wait for a member of staff to clear it away.

* what next? “How to wipe your arse”?

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Plates are so last century

Go in any pub or restaurant nowadays that has the slightest aspiration to be fashionable, and the odds are that you will have your meal served, not on a plate, but on a roofing slate, a chopping board, a baking tray or even just a plank of wood. Your chips may be stacked on their end in a mug, salad under an upturned wine glass and vegetables in a flowerpot.

Some of the worst examples are shown on this page, including bread in slippers, chips in a miniature shopping trolley and steak on a meat cleaver. The picture on the right shows fish on a rectangular piece of wood, with chips in a little stainless steel bucket and mushy peas in a latté glass.

Not too long ago, people were complaining about square plates replacing round ones, but this is taking things to a whole new level. There are obvious practical objections, in that an entirely flat surface does nothing to stop food sliding or dripping off the edge, and you have to wonder how thoroughly chunks of wood are washed, especially those with cracks in them. Some types of containers may make it physically difficult to actually eat the food from them.

But ultimately this is just a rather pathetic attempt to come across as funky, artisanal and cutting-edge. Anything, no matter how absurd, is better than a boring old round plate. Come on, we all know the food’s just popped out of a microwave and they’re not actually slaughtering pigs round the back. There’s even a Twitter account @WeWantPlates to highlight some of its more laughable excesses.

However, Wetherspoons are bucking the trend – not so long ago they replaced plain square plates with very retro-looking round ones with blue and white patterns. It might be a good idea for more pubs to follow suit and stop opening themselves up to ridicule.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Last pub standing

The Harewood Arms in the Tameside village of Broadbottom was chosen as CAMRA’s Greater Manchester Pub of the Year for 2014, and went on to be among the four finalists for the national award. Originally known as the Griffin, it was taken over in 2013 by Green Mill Brewery, and has effectively become their brewery tap, with the brewery operating in the cellar. But perhaps what is most notable about it is that it is the sole survivor of what were relatively recently no fewer than nine pubs on the road up from the bridge over the Etherow at the bottom end of Broadbottom to the A57 junction in Mottram-in-Longdendale, a distance of about two miles.

At the bottom end was the Cheshire Cheese, described in CAMRA’s 1995 guide to Tameside pubs, Nine Towns Bitter, as “easily the busiest in the village”. Heading up the hill, the Shoulder of Mutton was one of the earliest to close, but in the past had been highly regarded for its beer. I remember a new bar opening in the old station building, maybe in the late 80s, but by 1995 it seems to have disappeared. Next came the Griffin, now the Harewood Arms, and a bit further up on the same side of the road the Crescent, which the guide describes as “a mecca for the local worshippers of Duke Boddington”.

On the road between Broadbottom and Mottram was the Waggon (pictured), which closed relatively recently, a Robinson’s pub that once had ambitions as a destination food house. The centre of Mottram is a conservation area, with attractive stone-built houses lining a small triangular market square, and the church dominating the scene from its hilltop. Just off to the west was the Pack Horse, a large former Wilsons pub that has been closed for many years. On the square itself is the White Hart, most recently a Lees house, which managed to cling on but which the latest issue of Opening Times reports as imminently closing. Then down on the congested A57 crossroads was Robinsons’ Junction, which the guide describes as having an “emphasis on food in a separate dining room”, and which offered an impressive view of the Peak District hills to the rear.

And it doesn’t stop there. On the main road north from Mottram towards Stalybridge, the Roe Cross, a large roadhouse that was once a popular pub-restaurant, is now a garden centre. Heading west, there used to be an estate pub on the back road to Hattersley called the President, which eventually ended up as the Flat Cap and is now demolished. The guide describes it as having “a run down appearance catering just to a local need.” On the main A560 through Hattersley was Robinsons’ Chapman Arms, a commodious stone-built pub now converted to flats.

The roundabout at the eastern end of the M67 does boast a new family dining pub, the Mottram Wood (originally the Outside Inn), with associated Premier Inn, but you have to wonder how many residents use it as a local boozer. Down the A57 towards Hyde was Robinsons’ New Inn, a substantial rustic-styled 1930s roadhouse. On the main part of the Hattersley overspill estate, the guide lists three pubs – Centuries, the Four in Hand and the Hustage – none of which show up in web searches, and so presumably are all gone now.

In the opposite direction, heading downhill along Mottram Moor, the Gun Inn at the traffic lights where the A628 meets the A57, is still going, as are the New Inn and Organ Inn in Hollingworth village, although the Royal Oak has bitten the dust. The future of the Organ has been called into question, but as far as I know it is still open. Towards Glossop on the A57, the Woolley Bridge Inn is long-closed. Then, crossing the border into Derbyshire, there are four closed pubs, and none still open – the long-gone Spread Eagle and Plough, and the more recent casualties the Spring Tavern and the Junction.

All in all, quite an astonishing record of pub closures. Nine Towns Bitter lists nineteen pubs in the district of “Longdendale”, of which only four are still trading, with one new addition. Excluding the four in Hollingworth, it is just one out of fifteen. While Hattersley is poor and run-down, the older villages of Broadbottom and Mottram with their characterful stone-built terraces give the impression of being fairly prosperous and favoured locations for Manchester commuters.

None of these pubs, except perhaps the Roe Cross, have any shortage of nearby housing, and cannot be considered to have been critically dependent on car-borne customers. On the other hand, the endemic congestion on the unbypassed A57 through Mottram, and the rather savage traffic-calming scheme introduced in Broadbottom about fifteen years ago, can’t have helped. But the whole sad saga underlines the point that, while some city and town centres and prosperous suburbs may be seeing something of a pub and bar revival, in many areas outside that bubble the pub scene continues to be one of drastic retrenchment .

Saturday, 14 March 2015

The bland leading the bland

Greene King have recently relaunched their flagship IPA brand to give it a more contemporary and, dare I say, “craft” look. This beer is derided by many beer aficionados for being dull and bland, and various comments appeared on Twitter about “polishing a turd”. I wouldn’t go quite so far – while it’s certainly not a beer I’d go out of my way to find, when well kept it does have a bit of character and can be an enjoyable pint.

However, as Martyn Cornell points out in this blogpost, the critics are missing the point. Greene King IPA is intended as an approachable, easy-drinking beer for mass-market consumption. It’s never going to excite the tastebuds of those who are looking for extreme and challenging flavours. This illustrates a wider point, that from the early days of CAMRA, beer enthusiasts have consistently failed to understand why the general public choose to drink beers other than those they favour. Another example of this is shown by this post by Boak and Bailey about how the rise of lager in the UK has consistently been misunderstood and underestimated.

It is somewhat patronising to believe that people are gullible fools who are persuaded by expensive advertising campaigns and glitzy illuminated fonts to choose dull mass-market beers over the good stuff. Most drinkers are not enthusiasts and will apply different criteria, but, as I argued here, that doesn’t mean they’re stupid. They are likely to put a higher value on consistency and the absence of strong, possibly offputting flavours.

In the past, local monopolies were often blamed for brewers being able to foist dull beer on drinkers, but that has been much eroded now. There can be few significant towns where the pubs don’t offer a wide selection of different beers. But it is very noticeable that the cask beers you see everywhere tend to be the classic “brown bitters” such as Bombardier and Doom Bar, or the easy-drinking interpretations of the modern golden ale style such as Wainwright and Dizzy Blonde. There’s nothing stopping pubs stocking other beers, but in general they don’t want to frighten the horses too much.

The same is true of the Premum Bottled Ale shelves, where everything is on a level playing field, but the more accessible beers, whether malty bitter or soft golden ale, still rule the roost. Indeed some of the more strong-flavoured beers, such as Thwaites Indus IPA, have struggled to maintain a listing. But this is due to consumers demonstrating an informed preference, not because they are too thick to know any better.

It’s also an interesting thought that in the early days of CAMRA, there were no extreme or challenging beers, and very few above an OG of 1050. And some of the favourite beers of the pioneering campaigners were ones such as Holts that many ordinary drinkers steered clear of because of their distinctive flavour. You wouldn’t believe it now, but my father used to tell an anecdote of going to a Rugby League match in West Yorkshire in the 1950s, calling in a Tetley’s pub (before they took over Walker’s of Warrington), and finding the beer just “too bitter”.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Irish Coffee, Sir?

It was a sign of the times that the long-running US sitcom Friends saw the main characters socialising in a coffee shop rather than a bar. It began showing in 1994 and, since then, coffee shops have enjoyed exponential growth and become a standard feature of most British High Streets.

Personally, I have never seen the point, but their success is undeniable. I would say they have created their own market rather than taking existing trade from pubs – they come across as welcoming, unthreatening and, dare I say it, female-friendly. A coffee shop is basically a window on the world, whereas a pub is a refuge from it.

Now, the market-leading operator Starbucks have announced that they are going to roll out the sale of alcohol in some of their UK outlets, following successful trials in the US. It’s part of an “evening concept” that also includes serving more substantial meals. I can’t imagine that Tim Martin will be quaking in his boots, but it’s easy to see the appeal to tourists wanting a pre-theatre snack, or office workers enjoying a glass of Chardonnay after work before getting the train home.

It’s another example of how the on-licence scene is fragmenting and diversifying. We now have large numbers of bars in former shop premises, micropubs, bottle shops with in-house bars and fully-licensed “bar and restaurant” operations. It’s becoming less and less true that you need to go to a pub to have a drink outside the house. However, I would say that trying to ape coffee shops is about the worst thing pubs could do.

But, if you do want an Irish Coffee, you’ll be disappointed, as they’re not planning to serve spirits. But perhaps liqueur coffees would be a good sales tactic...

Friday, 27 February 2015

Killed by red tape

In this blogpost, Christopher Snowdon publishes the text of a speech he gave to the Future Pubs conference. In it, he mounts a trenchant attack on the view that increased market regulation and planning controls will benefit the pub trade and keep more pubs open – something I have often argued on here in the past. He concludes:

If you believe, against all evidence and experience, that more government is the solution, then you will continue to get more government and you will get it good and hard.
Go and read the whole thing and see what you think. I made the point on Twitter that it’s interesting how the anti-pub anti-pubco lobby never seem to be up to challenging his arguments. So if you have a comment to make, please make it there rather than here.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Take 5

Last year, I expressed concern that Holt’s were planning to convert the Cheadle Hulme pub in the suburb of the same name to a “family dining venue”, and expanded on this in my Opening Times column.

The work has now been completed and the pub reopened as Platform 5 this Monday. The name comes from it being situated next door to the station, which has four platforms because it is in the fork of two lines. I put my head round the door to take a look and have to say it has turned out a lot better than was feared. I’m not sure whether it was always going to be like this, or whether they tweaked the concept somewhat in response to local concerns.

It’s certainly not a family dining pub of the Hungry Horse type, being a notch or two more upmarket in both its menu and general style. The pub is split into two halves, with that on the left being in café/restaurant style, and the right being more conventionally “pubby”. Between the two is a “waiting room” with high seating and a screen showing departures from the station. However, all the TV screens showing Sky Sports have been removed from its previous incarnation.

As the photo suggests, while it does have the usual contemporary style touches such as a lack of beermats, scatter cushions and meals served on chopping boards and roofing tiles, it does retain extensive bench seating and generally makes use of warm colours – reds and browns. While obviously mainly food-oriented, it’s certainly somewhere you could happily just sit and have a drink, and to my eye is a more congenial pub interior than Holts’ other two recent upgrades – the Five Ways in Hazel Grove and the Griffin in Heald Green.

The old pub sold a couple of guest ales and beers from Holts’ Bootleg micro-brewery, but the selection has now been pared down to their mainstream range – Bitter, IPA and Two Hoots – although it was good to see the IPA beng replaced by Mild when it went off. Possibly they will have the two on rotation. The beer names are hand-chalked on pumpclips like little blackboards.

There’s an extensive food menu of the kind of sub-gastro type often seem in such places. For pub food it’s not cheap, with most main meals some way over £10 – if you want a cheap lunch you would be better off in Wetherspoons’ King’s Hall just down the road. It also seemed to suffer from the common problem of “chips with everything”, served, of course, in a little basket of their own. And yes, there were at least a couple of pulled pork dishes.

It’s also worth mentioning that the male bar staff seemed to be decked out in hipster uniform, with beards and check shirts, the lead barperson sporting particularly impressive ginger facial hair.

Not my kind of pub by any means, but it could have been a lot worse and, unless you really hanker after Spoons’ beer range, probably the best on offer in Cheadle Hulme.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

It won't lie down

You often hear antismokers claiming that the smoking ban enjoys overwhelming public support, it has now become generally accepted, it is water under the bridge and we now need to move on. But, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

A new poll carried out by the Institute of Economic affairs has shown that 51% of respondents supported pubs, clubs and bars being allowed to have separate smoking rooms, with only 35% opposing, the remaining 14% being “don’t knows”. Yet only one major political party is even prepared to consider the idea.

Far from being accepted as a milestone that will never be reversed, the smoking ban has created an abiding legacy of bitterness and remains very much a live issue. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that it has been a key factor in alienating the traditional working class from the Labour Party, when they see so many of their pubs, clubs and bingo halls going out of business.

No doubt in the middle of American Prohibition, many in the anti-drink lobby were stridently insisting that there was no going back, but eventually there was. There are some legislative changes that do mark a once and for all watershed, but this isn’t one of them.

Another interesting snippet from the same report is that considerably more people think the duty on spirits and wine is too high than think it is for beer.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Victory salutations

Congratulations to the Salutation Inn at Ham in Gloucestershire for winning CAMRA’s National Pub of the Year Award for 2015. As the article says:
Judges, who included Camra volunteers, hailed the friendly atmosphere and simple characteristics of “the definitive country alehouse”. It offers customers five real ales, eight real ciders, traditional pub games such as skittles and an unfussy lunchtime menu that includes ham rolls, made from from the pub’s own pigs.
Sounds right up my street. The skittle alley at the rear is an increasingly rare feature. It’s situated in a village rather off the main tourist track just south of the small town of Berkeley, in whose castle King Edward II was reputedly murdered in 1327 by having a red-hot poker shoved up his backside.

I actually visited the pub in the Autumn of 2008 and have to say that my feeling then was that it was pleasant enough, but nothing special, and I was disappointed by the very limited food offering. However, I suspect it’s one of those places that grows on you with familiarity, and the article suggests that the current owners, who have been there for a couple of years, have significantly upped its game.

As with last year’s winner, the Swan with Two Necks at Pendleton in Lancashire, there have been grumbles that it represents an old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy view of the ideal pub and fails to reflect the burgeoning, cutting-edge urban craft beer scene. However, as I said then, I would regard it as a positive step that they have chosen a pub with a broad appeal to the general public rather than a narrowly-focused beer bar, whether alehouse or craft emporium. The other three finalists were all definitely pubs, and none in city centres. Possibly the expectation that entries should demonstrate community involvement and a varied cross-section of clientele told against some of the more specialist venues.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

The Grudgebearers’ Arms

This time of year sees CAMRA branches across the country selecting the pubs they will include in the following year’s Good Beer Guide. They now have results from the National Beer Scoring System to inform their decisions* but, inevitably and rightly, other more subjective factors will come into play. A welcoming, well-run pub with good scores may well be preferred to one that has slightly better beer but is otherwise far less pleasant, and a large number of scores provide more confidence that they are representative than a small handful.

However, it’s interesting how, over the years, people have sought to bring various kinds of anecdotal evidence into the discussions in an attempt to sway the outcome. A prime example is how, many years ago, someone tried to get the local CAMRA branch to target individual pubs suspected to be returning slops to the cask. This is undoubtedly a reprehensible and insanitary practice, not to mention being illegal, but the problem is that it also is well-nigh impossible to prove through observation from the customer side of the bar. So the end result is that you just end up levelling accusations against pubs that can neither be proved nor disproved, but where some mud might stick. And the pubs singled out always seemed to be those that the complainers didn’t much like anyway.

Another pub was criticised for closing its front door on busy weekend evenings which, given that it is a very small pub in a city centre, doesn’t seem that unreasonable to me. It was pointed out that customers in the know could get in round the back, but one person claimed that when he had tried to do so, he had been attacked by a large and vicious dog. Whether or not that was the case, it was brought up for several years, by which time it had turned into a shaggy dog story.

Then there are the inevitable reports that “I had a bad pint” and “I was served short measure”. Now, I can’t think of a single pub I regularly visit where I’ve never had to return beer to the bar, and so an isolated instance tells you nothing. If people were regularly receiving bad pints it would be reflected in the scoring. Some pubs may be a bit more likely than others to serve short pints, but at the end of the day it’s up to the customer to ensure they get a full glass, and indeed on occasions I’ve seen CAMRA members take blatantly short pints off the bar which surely would have been topped up without asking if they had left them,

Another accusation levelled against certain pubs, although less so now, is that they were “cliquey”. This was essentially shorthand for saying they had a substantial contingent of regular middle-class drinking customers, amongst whom the duffle-coated ale enthusiast might not feel at home. This has now much reduced as the middle classes have become less keen on drinking (as opposed to eating) in pubs but, even so, unless a place is actively unwelcoming, you have to accept its social mix for what it is. On the other hand, more recently a pub’s suitability was questioned because some of the clientele were “a bit rough”. This didn’t mean it was in any way threatening, just that it was popular with older working-class drinkers who at times might burst into song or use some ripe language. Compared to some of the raw Holt’s boozers of thirty years ago it was like a vicarage tea party.

A perennial gripe is that some pubs charge extortionate prices for their beer. There is a wide variation in prices depending on location and the affluence of the customer base but, when it’s now commonplace to pay well over £3 for ordinary-strength beer, who is to say what is and isn’t too much? Several Brunning & Price pubs appear in the Guide despite being well-known for pricing at the top end of the scale. It often seems that people are prepared to tolerate high prices in pubs they approve of, but eager to moan about them in those they dislike.

The common thread throughout all these points is that they are only brought up by people who don’t like the pub in question in the first place. If I had had one bad pint in a pub during the year, but ten good ones, I wouldn’t bring it up. And if you have had one bad pint and never gone back, your experience can hardly be said to be representative. If, on the other hand, you went to a particular pub every month to attend meetings of a club, and never had a good pint, then your experience would be much more relevant to the discussion.

* some branches of CAMRA, including my own, created their own beer scoring systems well before the NBSS

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Not fit to be out

There have been a growing number of schemes where the police have started “requesting” nightclubs to breath-test customers before allowing them entry, for example in Loughborough and more recently in Croydon, where some pubs are also included. The maximum permissible alcohol level seems to be generally set at twice the English drink-drive limit. Some have said “that’s only four pints”, but in reality two pints will keep a man below the driving limit, and two and a half or three would be needed to reach it, so realistically it’s more like six or seven pints. Even so, that’s a level many people will reach on a weekend night out.

This sets a somewhat disturbing precedent of the authorities seeking to monitor pedestrians’ alcohol levels even if they’re not obviously “drunk”. Chris Snowdon has suggested that it represents something of an unholy alliance between the puritans and the nightclub bosses, to discourage punters from pre-loading at Tesco or Wetherspoon’s, In principle, this is a good point, but the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR) have come out strongly against it, and I would expect the overall result would be to deter customers from visiting nightclubs. I doubt whether on balance they will benefit from it.

As it stands, it probably won’t affect you, and it certainly won’t affect me, but it’s easy to see the principle being extended, especially as the Croydon scheme includes pubs too. In five years’ time, will we see the CAMRA posse being refused admission to the final call on the pub crawl due to having imbibed too much Old Snotgobbler earlier in the evening?

It may seem far-fetched, but there have been serious proposals to introduce drink-walk limits for pedestrians in both Australia and Spain. You can sort of see the argument behind this, as apparently 40% of all pedestrian fatalities are above the drink-drive limit, rising to 80% between 10 pm and 4 am. But it would represent a drastic curtailment of individual freedom to protect a few people from themselves, and would really put a dampener on any kind of celebration or festivities outside the house. The effect of alcohol on individuals varies widely, and some may be falling over at 160mg, while others will still be entirely compos mentis.

As with many such ideas, it may at present seem outlandish and laughable. But, by raising the subject, it has opened an Overton Window through which it becomes included within the scope of serious debate. And, twenty years ago, many would have dismissed the idea of a blanket ban on smoking in enclosed public places as equally unrealistic...

Mind you, every cloud has a silver lining, and at least it would mean that at long last cyclists were brought within the scope of breath testing.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Nowt to eat but crisps

Boak and Bailey recently did an interesting blogpost on the subject of pub snacks. This raised another question – it’s often claimed that, going back fifty years ago, the only thing you could get to eat in pubs was a packet of crisps.

My memories of legal drinking in pubs go back to 1977, but even then pub food was commonplace and varied, although there were more wet-only pubs, and food could be harder to find in the evenings and on Sunday lunchtimes. So I find it difficult to believe that, ten years earlier, little or no food was served.

This is borne out by a quotation on the Boak & Bailey post:

Here’s Maurice Gorham on central London pubs in The Local 1939:

“At midday practically every pub can supply something eatable at the bar, and many have separate dining rooms or restaurants as well… At the other end of the scale are the small houses where you can get bread and cheese and perhaps a ham sandwich and hard-boiled egg.”

So what I think is that pubs throughout that era did continue to serve plenty of food, but in general only where they had a captive market of people away from their homes – such as in city centres with numerous office workers, tourist spots and along main roads. They may have done straightforward grub for manual workers too. The big innovation in the 1960-75 period was that pubs started promoting themselves as destinations to actually go out for a meal.

I also advanced the speculative theory that, in those days, there was a kind of unacknowledged divide between “pubs” and “hotels and inns”, which has pretty much disappeared now. I certainly remember as a kid being taken into “hotels” by my parents which would now be just regarded as pubs.

People’s memories of pubs in the pre-CAMRA era are notoriously unreliable – for example it’s hard to get an idea of when top-pressure taps started to replace handpumps across the South of England. But I think it’s fair to say that plenty of food was served in pubs in the 50s and 60s, but only in those pubs that had an obvious dining clientele on their doorstep.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Bad manners

I recently spotted an article listing the 16 Most Annoying Customer Types in pubs. I’ve never personally worked behind a bar, but I’ve talked to plenty of people who have, and I can see the truth in most of them. However, I freely admit to #3 – if it’s not immediately obvious, I’ll always hold my pint up to the light to confirm its clarity.

In my experience, most bar staff are polite, welcoming and competent. Even in Wetherspoons, which always seem short-staffed, the actual customer interface is usually good. But, to put the boot on the other foot, there are a few who bring them into disrepute. So I compiled a quick list of 16 Annoying Bar Staff Behaviours, covering those who...

  1. greet you with “Are you alright there?” rather than “What can I get you?”

  2. can always find something to do behind the bar like slicing lemons or rearranging glasses rather than actually serving customers

  3. totally mishear a clearly-spoken order – “Pint of Harvey’s Best, please” – goes to Foster’s tap...

  4. ask “what?” when you order one of the regular cask beers

  5. treat you with supercilious disdain as though you’re something that the cat dragged in

  6. happily gossip with customers when there are people waiting to be served

  7. have no idea in which order customers should be served

  8. hand you a blatantly short pint and then walk off

  9. have to check the till before they can tell you the price of the most popular draught beer in the pub

  10. insist on asking “Is there anything else?” when it’s clear from your order that there isn’t

  11. have no idea how to use a handpump, so you either get a totally flat pint or a glass of foam

  12. give you a pint with obvious airspace between the beer and the rim

  13. blatantly favour regulars sitting or standing at the bar

  14. ask “have you tasted it?” when you return a pint looking like raw sewage

  15. refuse to change music or heating levels despite most customers asking for it

  16. expect you to point out the dish you are ordering on the menu
Most of these fall into the two categories of poor training and rank bad manners.

Any more suggestions will be gratefully received.

I asked for ideas on Twitter, and one person replied with “lacks product knowledge”. I can see that being a problem in a specialist beer bar, but in the average pub it’s enough to expect that they’re actually familiar with which products are on sale.

Friday, 30 January 2015

Happy days are here again!

The latest British Beer Barometer statistics from the BBPA show that, in 2014, overall UK beer sales rose by 1.3% over the previous year, the first time this has happened for ten years. It also represents a landmark in that the tipping point between on- and off-trade seems to have been finally reached, with the off-trade accounting for 50.2% of sales in the full year and 52.5% in the final quarter. Having said that, the on-trade only fell by 0.8%, a rate of decline that newspaper publishers would kill for. They also make a good point that seven out of ten drinks sold in pubs are beer.

This rise results from a combination of economic recovery and two years with no increase in beer duty. If the duty escalator had still been in force, then a pint in the pub would now be 20-30p dearer and the figures would look much less healthy. No doubt the anti-drink lobby will be spluttering into their sarsaparilla, so watch out for them stepping up calls for further punitive duty increases.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Reversal of fortune

Following an accounting scandal and a dramatic downturn in trading figures, Tesco have announced the closure of 43 stores across the country and the scrapping of plans to open another 49. No doubt many who have opposed the conversion of pubs into Tesco Express stores will experience a pleasing sense of Schadenfreude.

Amongst the closures is the Tesco Express store in Heaton Chapel (pictured), which was converted from the former Chapel House pub and has only been open for about three years. I wrote about it here. To be honest, it had never been a particularly appealing pub throughout my time living in the area, going through a short-lived incarnation as a Tut’n’Shive (often disparagingly referred to as the Tub’o’Shite) and ending up as the Irish-themed and keg-only Conor’s Bar. Few tears were shed when it closed.

However, if we are to believe the narrative that greedy supermarkets and pubcos have conspired to close thriving pubs, then surely all those making this argument will be queueing up to invest in turning it back into a pub. Won’t they?

It’s also somewhat ironic how people campaign against Tesco coming to their area, but then many of the same people complain about the loss of jobs when they close a store.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Nanny in a bunny suit

The Green Party have recently enjoyed a marked rise in the opinion polls, and this week released a policy statement, which is well summarised here. Many might see their economic policies as occupying the middle ground between utopia and insanity, but at the same time would imagine them to be quite fun, in a waccy-baccy, rough cider, dreadlock, dog-on-a-string kind of way.

But, if you read more closely, they outdo the other major parties in their desire for nannying and social control. They say “Higher taxes will be brought in on alcohol and tobacco, and a complete alcohol advertising ban imposed.” They would also seek to encourage a “transition from diets dominated by meat”. It seems that they have a real problem with any commercial organisation profiting from people enjoying themselves.

One commentator has described their ideology as “Communism designed by middle-class women”. Nobody should imagine that voting Green will lead to a kinder, gentler, more tolerant society – indeed the opposite would be far more likely. Less free and less prosperous. Although no doubt many middle-aged beardies with a love of twiggy bitter will do so all the same.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Micro to macro?

Let’s imagine a new wave of pubs started opening in the UK. They were small, plain and unassuming, with no food, children, piped music or pay-TV, where good beer and conversation ruled the roost. Mudgie heaven, you might think, but not really very likely. However, it does seem to be happening in the form of the still small but fast-growing micropub sector. Indeed, it has now been forecast that in five years’ time their number will mushroom from a hundred or so to five thousand. We’re even shortly going to get our own local example in Cheadle Hulme.

Let me be quite clear, I’m entirely in favour of micropubs. Most of them sound like places I would find very congenial to drink in, and they also underline the point that, if existing pubs don’t provide what people want, the opportunities are there in the market to open up new venues that do. But I can’t help thinking that, as I’ve said before here and here, they have been over-hyped and their potential for expansion is exaggerated.

For many years, industry experts have been saying that the days of the old-fashioned, wet-led, adults-only, drink and chat pubs are numbered. Customers are demanding food, music (whether live or piped) and TV football, and want to take their offspring with them, and you increasingly struggle to find pubs that do none of the above. Where they still survive – often in small towns and rural locations – they seem like an anachronism whose very survival is surprising.

As I’ve often said on here, in my view this trend has been overstated, and the obvious success of many Sam Smith’s pubs suggests there remains a market for pubs without these diversions. Plenty serve some food, but many don’t, and I’d suggest the tiny Queen’s Arms (aka Turner’s Vaults) in central Stockport is the closest thing we have to a micropub at present. Maybe the Olde Vic in Edgeley too. But it’s hard to deny that, in general, the embrace of some combination of food and entertainment has dominated for several decades. Is there really a large untapped demand to buck that trend?

I also get the feeling that, from their very intimacy, micropubs may end up being somewhat cliquey, basically a drinking shop for the landlord and his mates. It’s always been an important feature of pubs that customers decide for themselves to what extent they interact with others. If you want to chat, fine, but if you just want to sit reading the paper, or browsing the smartphone, that will be respected. But if it’s just a group of blokes sitting around a single table, will that be possible?

It may seem a piddling point, but you do wonder whether small, plain pubs will also have rudimentary toilet facilities. I don’t know from personal experience how far this is true, but I would feel uncomfortable spending much time in a pub with only a single unisex WC. I’d expect as a bare minimum a gents’ with one urinal and one trap. But that level of provision – plus the ladies’ – might take up as much room as the entire bar.

Some of the early micropubs seemed to suffer from an anti-lager mentality. “A pint of real ale for the gentleman and a glass of generic white wine for the lady”. Many pubgoers are in mixed groups, some of whom will drink real ale while others prefer lager. Deliberately alienating a large section of your potential market doesn’t come across as good business practice. And lager doesn’t have to mean Carling – there are plenty of excellent British-brewed craft lagers out there. Micropubs won’t enjoy rapid growth if they just cater to a limited audience of middle-aged and elderly Real Ale Twats. But there is always the risk of metamorphosing into “trendy bars”, which have also taken over plenty of former shop units. Where do you draw the line?

Will we be seeing village micropubs too? No doubt many villages could sustain a micropub even after a full-service pub trying to attract out-of-area dining trade has failed. That may be a great opportunity.

The licensed trade is becoming increasingly diverse, with more and more different types of venues opening up to appeal to a variety of clientele. It would be wonderful if, in five years’ time, there were five thousand micropubs up and down the country. But I doubt whether Tim Martin will be quaking in his boots.

The picture is of the Bouncing Barrel in Herne Bay, Kent, which gets very good reviews on TripAdvisor.