Saturday, 15 September 2018

Another morsel for the crocodile

The industry-funded alcohol education body Drinkaware have recently teamed up with Public Health England to launch a campaign to encourage people to have alcohol-free days. Some of us may enjoy a touch of Schadenfreude at the news that this has led to the resignations of several prominent figures such as Sir Ian Gilmore on the grounds that health campaigners should not have any association with the drinks industry.

However, that should not lead us to conclude that it is anything other than an act of appeasement of the anti-drink lobby. It takes as read the unscientific 14 units a week consumption guideline, something that if generally adopted by the population would probably render most of the pubs in the country unviable. It is worth noting that the equivalent guidelines in Italy are 35 units for men and 26 for women.

Plus, as often happens with such initiatives, the effect is likely to be more to encourage the already prudent to even more unnecessary over-caution, while being cheerfully ignored by the irresponsible. The objective often seems to be less to change behaviour than to further denormalise alcohol consumption per se. And, intuitively, it seems to me that drinking one pint every day of the week is likely to do you less harm than drinking seven pints on one day.

Accepting this guideline may give the industry a figleaf of respectability, but it’s an ever-shrinking one. Not so long ago, the figure was 28 units a week for men. It was then cut to 21, and now to 14. Will they still parrot it when it’s further reduced to 7, and then to 2? And how about when the official line becomes that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption, something that has been claimed in a recent study? If drinks producers and retailers want to see where they will stand in the eyes of officialdom in twenty years’ time, they have only to look at the tobacco industry. They will have become a “toxic trade”.

It’s often a source of disappointment that industry bodies are so reluctant to speak out in their own defence, and just tag along with the official message. However, it has to be recognised that business is about making a profit, not conducting a moral crusade, and it may well make sense to keep your head down, playing along with the official agenda while dragging your feet a bit, and hoping that in time the storm will pass, which of course the previous temperance crusade of the 1870-1930 period eventually did.

On this note, it’s disappointing to see that the Drinkers’ Voice campaign, which I enthusiastically welcomed last year, seems to have become moribund. They haven’t updated their Twitter account for two months, and nor do they seem to have issued any press releases. It’s not exactly difficult for a pressure group to keep up the illusion of activity without actually doing very much, but they haven’t even been able to manage this, despite having received a substantial amount of seedcorn funding from CAMRA.

It’s always been difficult to get private citizens to come together in defence of their liberties as consumers and users of public services, as there’s an assumption that somebody else is going to do it for them. But if industry isn’t prepared to, then who else will? Of course there are individual bloggers and commenters who are prepared to speak out, but even they often come under suspicion, however unjustified, of being paid shills. Incidentally, CAMRA doesn’t really qualify as its original raison d’ ĂȘtre was to campaign against the policies of the brewing industry, not government, and it’s not really its role to become a generalised defender of drinkers’ interests.

There’s no body to champion the rights of all drinkers of alcohol, or of soft drinks, or of consumers of food. It’s all too easy just to chuckle when the other lot get it in the neck from government. But, at the end of the day, everyone will. United we stand, divided we fall.

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Counting the calories

We now take it for granted that the alcoholic strength of beers and other alcoholic drinks is declared on packaging and at point of sale. It’s hard to believe that, forty years ago, the brewers were extremely unwilling to release this information, and CAMRA paved the way in working out the original gravity of all the real ales in the country where the brewers were unwilling to divulge it themselves. The brewers’ argument was that people would judge beers purely on the basis of strength, but in reality were probably more worried about having it exposed just how weak many of their beers were. Experience has shown that the concern about “drinking on strength” was largely unfounded – people continue to choose beer of a wide range of strengths based on taste and occasion, and indeed in the current century the general trend has been towards lower strengths.

So, on the face of it, it would seem uncontroversial that we should be given the same information about the calorie content of the food we eat. This is already the case with pretty much all packaged food you buy in shops, but it doesn’t apply to fresh food or to most of the food sold for out-of-home eating in pubs, restaurants and cafes. There are, of course, a few exceptions to this, such as Wetherspoon’s, who also declare the calorie content of their alcoholic drinks.

So the government have now decided to put this into action. While I’ve been sceptical of many other so-called “health” initiatives, this can’t be criticised as an example of nannying, as all it is doing is to give people the information on which to make informed decisions. However, it poses a number of practical problems. Working out calorie content is by no means as straightforward as alcohol content, and the range of different food items is far greater. It’s likely to impose significant costs on small businesses, which may cause them to discontinue providing food at all, and also deter food businesses of all sizes from offering one-off daily specials. So inevitably there are calls for smaller business to be excluded.

However, simply exempting them seems like something of a cop-out that will undermine the objectives of the scheme. I’m no expert in the field, but wouldn’t it be possible to come up with something like providing official indicative figures for a range of food items that could be used if providers aren’t in a position to make a detailed analysis? Even if somewhat inaccurate, that would surely be better than nothing. An ounce of fried rice is an ounce of fried rice, regardless of which venue is serving it. The industry should be looking at realistic solutions rather than pooh-poohing the whole idea.

It can’t be denied that there is a serious issue here. Eating out of the house has boomed in recent decades, and accounts for an ever-growing proportion of our food intake. Not only do many businesses provide no calorie information, but they also offer standard portions that are way above what is regarded as compatible with a healthy diet. The typical portions served up by takeaways are easily half as much again as what a normal person would regard as a filling meal, and could often provide two slightly frugal meals. Even when calories are declared, the size of meals is often pretty overfacing. For example, Wetherspoon’s Ultimate Burger with chips is 1516 calories, while their Pepperoni Pizza is 1170, when the recommended daily intake for an adult male is 2,500. That may be OK for an occasional treat, but if you’re eating meals of that kind on a regular basis you’re going to have a problem.

Like many of those whose parents lived through the Second World War, I was brought up to finish everything on my plate, accompanied by exhortations to think of the starving children in Africa. I still feel a touch of guilt about leaving food on the plate in pubs and restaurants, and see it as something of an insult to the chef. Yet I find myself increasingly ending up leaving a quarter or a third of a meal uneaten, and having to apologise, saying “The food was fine, it was just a very big portion.” I still gag at the thought of the pub offering a “belly-busting pound of chips” on its menu. Calorie labelling would at least expose the true size of portions. And the risk is that, if the food industry doesn’t act to provide information and offer the choice of smaller portions, the government will end up enforcing them.

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

HOW much a pint?

Last month, CAMRA reported the results of a survey revealing that a majority of people in the UK now considered the price of a pint in the pub to be unaffordable. So it’s hardly surprising that eyebrows were raised when it was reported that a London branch of the Craft Beer Co. was selling AleSmith Speedway Stout Hawaiian Special Edition for no less than £22.50 a pint.

As is often the case, the issue is rather clouded by the question of strength. Unlike wines and spirits, there is a wide variation in strength between different beers. This particular brew is 12% ABV, and thus is not directly comparable with a pint of 4% standard bitter or lager that even in London would sell for no more than £4.50. However, even if you make a strict bangs-per-buck comparison, it still seems pretty poor value.

It’s generally accepted in the fields of wine and spirits that some rare and prized examples will sell for vastly more than the norm – for example a bottle of whisky was recently sold for almost £43,000. However, beer is much more considered to be a drink for ordinary people, and this wasn’t some scarce vintage brew of which there was a finite supply, it was one brewed for current consumption and sold on draught just like a normal pint of bitter. Of course there’s nothing wrong with some specialist beers selling for eyewatering prices, as after all nobody is forced to buy them. But it’s understandable that it makes headlines.

Inevitably, there was a rather defensive reaction from some quarters saying “why quote a price per pint when it isn’t drunk in pints?” but that’s rather missing the point. Price per pint is a straightforward and generally understood yardstick for comparing the cost of beers. Whether or not it is actually drunk in pints is irrelevant. Fine wines and spirits are generally priced per bottle, but that doesn’t mean that a bottle is the usual measure in which they’re served. And whatever unit was chosen, the relative disparity would be just the same.

In response to this, the Sun newspaper ran a feature in which members of the public were invited to taste a range of expensive craft beers. Fairly predictably, they weren’t particularly impressed - see the image above. Of course there is a tongue-in-cheek aspect to any such piece, but inevitably it touched a few raw nerves and provoked accusations of “reverse snobbery”. However, surely it is the job of the media to prick balloons of pretentiousness and self-importance.

It wasn’t long before the mask slipped, with comments being made that many of the drinkers pictured looked like “gammon”, and one well-known beer journalist who really should have known better tweeting that most of them were probably Brexit voters. He later had second thoughts and deleted it, so I can’t link to it here. So much for an inclusive beer community – obviously that’s the wrong kind of inclusiveness.

I’ll leave the final word to this Twitter commenter:

Thursday, 30 August 2018

The cask crisis

I’m a regular follower of Martin Taylor’s blog which records his travels around the country in his Sisyphean quest to tick off every pub in the Good Beer Guide. One thing that is very noticeable is that, although he encounters plenty of excellent beer, he also comes across a surprising amount that varies between disappointing and totally undrinkable, and sometimes ends up being disposed of into a convenient plant pot. You may say that he’s often going in pubs at opening time in the morning, or at other slack times, and realistically you have to expect the first one out to be bit sub-par. But this is the Good Beer Guide, not a random selection of pubs, and it shouldn’t be happening anywhere near as frequently as it does.

He also records many pub visits where there are more handpumps on the bar than customers, or when not a single pint of cask is pulled in half an hour, sometimes when the Peroni and Prosecco are flowing like water. Clearly, despite all the efforts of CAMRA, all is not well in the realm of cask beer. In recent months there have been a number of articles seeking to analyse the problem and sometimes to try to suggest what could be done about it.

One such appeared recently on “Good Beer Hunting” entitled Critical Drinking – State of the Burton Union. Now, I certainly don’t agree with everything in this piece, and in particular it is yet another attempt to argue that cask’s woes will be helped by charging more for it, which comes across as a touch arse-about-face. Many of the points raised are rebutted here by Ed Wray. However, it is right to point out that, after a period when it seemed to be bucking the trend of declining on-trade beer volumes, it saw a 3.8% fall in 2016, which was more than the overall market. It’s clear that there is some kind of malaise; that cask is no longer seen as a happening thing.

It’s not as though cask is in imminent danger of disappearing or anything like it. Nor was it, if truth be told, in the early 1970s, despite what some mythmakers would have you believe. I visit plenty of pubs that clearly have a very healthy cask trade and where the quality is consistently good. However, it’s not hard to imagine a situation where there was a perfect storm leading to a substantial decline in availability, with a pincer movement of high-end craft bars seeing no need to stock it, while working-class locals find there’s no demand. A few ordinary boozers in Stockport have dropped it in the past few years despite having sold it consistently for a long time beforehand. In fact, much of its resilience has been due to the biggest developers of new pubs, Greene King and Marston’s, both of whom are also brewers, seeing it as a key part of their offer. But if a substantial operator of mainstream pubs decided that their business could manage perfectly well without it, it’s conceivable that the floodgates could open, especially if they could point to the presence of “craft kegs” like Punk IPA as providing something for the beer enthusiast.

A key problem that cask suffers from is that, while at its best it’s wonderful, it’s too often rather lacklustre. During the recent few days I spent in and around Carlisle, I had fourteen pints of cask in twelve different pubs. All but two were decent enough, but there was only one where you would turn to your drinking companion and say “Taste this! This is what cask’s all about!” There does seem to have been a general erosion of standards of cellarmanship following the break-up of the Big Six national brewers, but the central issue is surely the ever-increasing proliferation of handpump numbers.

The 1978 Good Beer Guide lists six pubs for Stockport. Five of them have just two beers, while the Midway, a prototype of the multi-beer free house, has seven. On the whole of the page on which it appears, there are only a couple of other pubs stocking more than two, both Tetley pubs with Draught Bass alongside Bitter and Mild. Since then, the total amount of beer sold in pubs has fallen by almost two-thirds, while the market share of lager has more than doubled. That means that the volume of cask beer sales is only a quarter of what it once was, if that. It’s hard to do a comparison with 2018, because so many pubs are just “beer range varies”, but the Magnet alone must stock more different beers than all the six 1978 pubs put together. Even with smaller cask sizes, if you keep increasing the range in a declining market something’s got to give.

The problem isn’t simply “too many beers”, though, as just decommissioning a few handpumps wouldn’t really make much difference apart from causing some to complain about reduction of choice. It’s more that cask has been held out as something that can provide infinite variety, which is something it is fundamentally ill-suited to do. By its very nature, it is a highly perishable product. It has to sell, and sell in volume, to justify its presence. It can’t just be an optional niche product on the end of the bar to satisfy a handful of enthusiasts. So it needs to play to its strengths rather than trying to compensate for its weaknesses.

Pubs should see their cask offer as central to their business model rather than being just one amongst a range of products. In a sense selling cask represents a whole system of running a pub. There’s not much you can do about lager sales, but if your best-selling ale isn’t cask you’re doing something wrong. Think carefully about which beers will appeal to your customers and draw people in. Try to stock something that has a connection to the area or the history and traditions of the pub, rather than a brand from the other end of the country that was never seen locally until a few years ago. In a sense this is what the pubs in the East Midlands serving Bass and Pedigree that Britainbeermat blogs about are doing – they are stocking a beer with a clear local identity that has loyal supporters amongst their customers in a way that Doom Bar or Wainwright in the same pubs never would.

Regard three days’ serving time as an absolute maximum, not a target. Beer may still be acceptable then, but it won’t be at its best. And seek to make your cask offer something that defines you as a pub and makes you stand out from the crowd, rather than just the apparently random selection of beers that often crops up today. That doesn’t mean that no pub should sell a range of constantly changing guest beers, but if you want to do that have some kind of theme to it rather than just accepting what turns up. Make it so that people will say “You really need to go to the Jolly Plover – they sell a great pint of XXXX – or, maybe, they have a great range of YYYY” rather than an anodyne “they have lots of real ales”. Whatever else you do, your cask beer should be part of your USP, not just something you happen to have on the bar. But if you’re half-hearted about it, best not to bother and leave it to those who can summon up some enthusiasm.

The article I linked to above suggested that CAMRA needs to take a lead in improving standards, but that’s making too much of its role. It is, at the end of the day, a pressure group, not the custodian of cask beer, which is a commercial product made by a large and variegated collection of breweries. It shouldn’t be CAMRA’s job to run training courses on cellarmanship. And asking CAMRA to call for smaller beer ranges would be rather like asking your dog to voluntarily go on a diet. But it could take the issue of quality more seriously, rather than simply paying lip service to it and often giving a free pass to new breweries and bars that are felt to need encouragement. And it should recognise that, in a declining market where consumers demand ever more choice, there are some venues that simply are never going to have the turnover, or indeed the commitment, to do cask justice. It’s not something you just dabble with, it needs to be taken seriously. And if the bottom 20% of marginal outlets took it out, it would probably make it a stronger and more valued product overall.

Friday, 24 August 2018

A mixed blessing

This week has seen the thirtieth anniversary of the introduction of all-day opening for pubs, which came in on 22 August 1988. From the perspective of today, it seems hard to believe that pubs were required to close for two or three hours every afternoon. It was originally introduced by Lloyd George as an emergency measure during the First World War, but lingered on for over seventy years.

There were dire predictions of mayhem in the streets in the early evenings after people had been drinking for hours, but needless to say nothing of the kind occurred. However, it’s important to remember that pubs didn’t immediately fling their doors open. For quite a few years, most stuck to the old pattern of opening. I remember it being well-nigh impossible to find anywhere open in central Manchester on a Saturday afternoon after 3 pm. It was only the pressure from Wetherspoon’s and other pub chains that forced the generality of pubs to follow suit.

However, it’s now become well-nigh universal for pubs in urban centres, and for food-led pubs in general. Overall, it’s hard to dispute that it’s greatly benefited pubgoers, allowing pubs to tailor their hours to what their customers actually want. It enables the kind of afternoon pub crawls that have now become standard practice for those of us interested in pub exploring, while Good Beer Guide tickers liked Martin Taylor have noticed the growing phenomenon of pubs having a busy session around four in the afternoon when many tradespeople knock off, something that once would have been impossible.

The change didn’t at first apply to Sundays, where lunchtime closing was initially only extended by an hour to 3pm, and even that was considered to have been something of an oversight by Parliament. However, this was increasingly undermined by food-serving pubs declaring part of their trading space to be restaurants, where they were permitted to sell alcohol with meals throughout the day. Eventually, Sundays were brought in to line in 1995. It is very noticeable now how busy many dining pubs are late on Sunday afternoons, which once would have been a dead time.

While many pubs with footfall throughout the day benefited from the extended opening times, others found that they were spreading the same amount of customers over a greater number of hours, and thus increased costs. Therefore they had to look critically at when it actually would be financially worthwhile to be open. This is a trend that has increased in the current century when there has been a steady decline in the overall business of pubs, peaking of course in the years after July 2007.

Before 1988, the vast majority of pubs would open for every one of the fourteen legally permitted sessions. The only variations were that many didn’t open quite as early as allowed in the morning, and they often opened later on Saturday evenings. But now we have a growing number of pubs that don’t open at all on one or more days of the week. Outside town centres, wet-led pubs are more often than not deciding not to open at all at lunchtimes, either on weekdays or even seven days a week. For whatever reason, this seems more common in the North than the South, where many pubs still keep to the traditional afternoon closure.

Of course much of this would probably have happened even if we still had fixed hours, but removing them has given licensees a blank sheet of paper as to when they feel there is any point in being open. I’d guess that, if you took a set of pubs in a typical area that have been trading throughout the 1988-2018 period, the total amount of opening hours would actually be markedly less now than it used to be.

One aspect in which this is most marked is delaying lunchtime opening. Depending on the area, the old system allowed for opening at various times between 10 am and 11.30. Some pubs wouldn’t open quite as early, especially if the permitted time was before 11 am, but virtually all were open before noon. The 1978 Good Beer Guide lists ten pubs in Manchester City Centre, where lunchtime opening was 11-3. None is mentioned as opening later. Yet, in 2018, of the seventeen pubs included, only three open before noon, and some don’t open on weekdays until late afternoon. It’s a bit disingenuous to claim that you’re “open all day” when you fail to take advantage of all the hours that were available to you before 1988.

Of course pubs shouldn’t be expected to open if they don’t believe there’s sufficient business, but the whole process of curtailing hours has resulted in a disbenefit to potential pubgoers, which is made worse by the uncertainty involved. At one time, you were reasonably confident when you could expect pubs to be open, but this is less and less true, and is made worse by the fact that pubs, even though they have far more diverse hours than shops, seldom display their hours outside. It’s not exactly very helpful if you turn up at a pub and find it closed with no indication of when it will open. I’m convinced that taking away the predictability of opening times has harmed the trade as a whole.

I’ve made the point in the past that many drinking occasions have always revolved around ritual and routine, something that was underpinned by the old system of restricted hours. The approach of either closing or opening concentrated the mind, whether it was the prospect of the shutters going down in the early afternoon, the early doors opening for that after-work pint, or the narrow two-hour window of Sunday lunchtime. If the pubs are open anyway, the incentive to have a drink now rather fades away, and sometimes leads to not bothering at all. Although the traditional Sunday lunchtime session would probably have been eroded anyway by the growth of other things to do on Sundays, in particular Sunday shopping.

There can be little doubt that the extension of opening hours has expanded pubs’ opportunities to sell food, but the same isn’t true of drink. There was no evidence before that there was a huge pent-up demand for afternoon drinking, which was borne out by what happened after the reform came in. It’s more the case that people had a fairly fixed budget to spend on drinking in pubs, which was then spread out over a longer period of time. Indeed, it could be argued that, given a largely fixed demand, the pub trade actually benefited from restricted hours.

All-day opening, or the possibility of it, has now been with us for thirty years and has become accepted as a fact of life. It’s impossible to envisage going back, and indeed when anti-drink campaigners talk of restricting availability they are normally referring to cutting back hours in the early morning and late evening, not bringing back an afternoon closure. Overall, it’s been greatly beneficial to pub users, and I’ve certainly taken advantage of it on a huge number of occasions. Most of the negative trends that have affected the pub trade would have happened anyway regardless of what had been done with hours. It’s certainly dramatically changed the landscape of how pubs actually function throughout the day, but it has to be accepted that change, even when generally beneficial, is rarely entirely without any negative outcomes.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Think about the average

Jeff Alworth has recently made a very interesting post on his Beervana blog entitled What If We Just Stop Drinking? which speculates on the effect on the beer industry if everyone curbed their drinking to the average of the entire population. While this is very much oriented towards the US, he makes a number of points that have featured on this blog over the years.

Beer consumption, like most things, is subject to a Pareto distribution. In the US, way over half of all beer is drunk by the top 10% of drinkers – see the graphic above. It’s probably much the same here. We responsible “moderate drinkers” who say we love pubs have to accept that they are sustained in business by people who would generally be classed as heavy, if not problem, drinkers.

Taking a median figure, if we look at all drinkers of alcohol in the US, the average person consumes only two drinks a week, which really isn’t very much. In the UK, the average adult drinks a mere two pints of beer in pubs a week, which isn’t going to keep very many of them in business. And that’s just a third of a pint of cask beer.

And the decline of pubgoing has been to a large extent driven by the decline of the kind of social occasion that encourages the sharing of a couple of drinks.

As entertainment options multiply, people spend far less time in the larger group settings that were once a place for drinking. Blame the Millennials all you want, but whatever happened to bowling and nights at the Elks Lodge? ...It's not just drinking, either. Church attendance has plummeted in that same period, and social club membership has almost completely vanished. And all of that happened before cell phones.
Of course everyone isn’t going to stop drinking completely. But just imagine what the pub landscape would be like if they all cut down their drinking to the average level. We would be left with sanitised restaurants that happened to serve alcohol to the minority of their customers who wanted it. And that, pretty much, would be it.
Alcohol has been a feature of human life since well before we domesticated grains, and it's not going to vanish. But it is possible to imagine the amounts we drink shrinking by 50-75% in a few decades. Our focus on health has made heavy drinking a shameful thing, mirroring our attitudinal shifts on smoking. Given the shrinking number of opportunities for social drinking, an increased focus on health, the stigma against drunkenness, and the availability of other drugs—all trends that started years ago—it's hard to envision how consumption doesn't shrink.
Do read the whole thing – it’s well worth it.

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Fill your boots

In recent years, licensing authorities have put a lot of pressure on pubs and bars to stamp out promotions that supposedly encourage irresponsible drinking, including offers of “all you can drink” for a fixed price. So I was rather surprised to see that, at next year's Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, CAMRA will be offering an inclusive all you can drink option called the MBCF Experience for £40. This will be limited to special sample glasses of, I believe, 120ml (just over 4 fl. oz). If an unlimited supply is available, there is no requirement to serve beer in officially-designated measures.

Clearly, given the very steep price and the small measures, this isn’t the same as “All you can drink for a tenner” at Porky’s Fun Pub, and it’s unlikely in practice that it will attract people who are simply setting out to drink as much as they can, or that it will lead to disorderly behaviour. But the difference is one of degree, not of principle, and it sits rather uneasily with CAMRA's External Policy 2.3, which states:

“CAMRA opposes promotions that encourage excessive or speed drinking, rather than providing a discount on the price of the product and allowing the consumer to determine his/her own preferred consumption.”

The reason given for this is to allow people to sample as many different beers as possible, and it follows the practice at many craft beer festivals. However, simply because someone else is doing it doesn’t automatically make it a good idea. Indeed, at some craft festivals it is the only payment option available, which really doesn’t seem consistent with responsible drinking and offers a very poor deal to those of more limited capacity. Frankly, I’m surprised that the licensing authorities haven’t questioned this. It’s another example of how the craft beer community imagines that it operates on a higher moral plane than the thick, Carling-swilling plebs.

CAMRA is always going on about encouraging “responsible consumption in a supervised environment”, so it offers up a hostage to fortune if its critics can then come back and say “well, but you allow all-you-can-drink at your festivals.” It’s rather like Jamie Oliver running an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant.

Presumably an offer of this kind would not be permitted under Scottish (and soon Welsh) minimum pricing, as it is theoretically possible (although highly unlikely) that the average unit price could dip below the minimum if there is no cap on consumption.

A further concern is that apparently, when beer is sold in this way, drinkers are inclined to throw away anything that isn’t to their taste and move straight on to another beer. The amount of food waste we produce is often highlighted as a problem – doesn’t this apply equally to beer waste? Although maybe the contents of the slops bucket could then be resold to the public, and no doubt some beer communicator would declare how awesome it was.

It’s also disappointing that they will be abandoning traditional British measures in favour of metric ones – what would be wrong with a quarter or a sixth of a pint?

Saturday, 11 August 2018

State of decay

A few years ago, I wrote a piece about the State Management Scheme in Carlisle and the surrounding areas, which was introduced in 1916 at the height of the First World War as a means of curbing excessive alcohol consumption amongst munitions workers in the area, and ended up enduring until 1971. During the inter-war period, the scheme’s architect, Harry Redfern, was responsible for remodelling a number of existing pubs and building entirely new ones, following the “improved” model of pub design which sought to reduce “perpendicular drinking” and encourage a more civilised and female-friendly atmosphere. These pubs were widely regarded as outstanding examples of enlightened pub design, and the scheme merited an entire chapter, together with numerous floor plans, in Basil Oliver’s Book The Renaissance of the English Public House, which was published in 1947.

Obviously times and fashions have changed, and in Carlisle as everywhere else the traditional intimate, compartmentalised interior layouts have largely been swept away by drastic knocking-through. I recently spent a few days in the city, so thought it would be interesting to take a look at what remained of what were once considered model pubs.

The twin towers of the Citadel immediately outside the station mark a dramatic contrast in Carlisle city centre. To the north, where the main shops are, it’s a dignified, genteel county town, but to the south, along Botchergate, it’s a garish, youth-oriented fun strip. Indeed, such is the level of revelry that Botchergate is closed to traffic on Friday and Saturday nights. Remember that Carlisle is sixty miles from the nearest big city, so if you’re going to have a night out, you’ll be doing it locally.

Rather marooned on Botchergate between the city’s two Wetherspoons is the Cumberland Inn (illustrated above), of which CAMRA’s heritage pub site says “Built 1929-30 to designs by Harry Redfern, this is the least altered of the Carlisle & District State Management Scheme pubs.” It has a narrow, dignified but rather austere Tudor-Gothic frontage in stone, which widens out further back. While some internal walls have been removed, it retains extensive wood panelling and a number of distinct areas which still give much of a flavour of how it once would have been. Apparently the two upstairs rooms, which are now occupied by a separate restaurant business, are even less spoilt.

However, the drawback is that its actual pub offer is pretty dismal. On the beer front, it has nothing but a selection of mainstream kegs, while various dubious entertainments such as karaoke and discos are provided. Maybe that’s what the location demands, but it seems completely out of keeping with the surroundings. I couldn’t help thinking that it would do much better, and be more true to its origins, as a Sam Smith’s pub. I had my annual half of Guinness, which reminded me that the promise is always better than the reality.

North of the Citadel on Lowther Street in the more sedate part of the city centre is the Howard Arms. This is a Victorian pub with a distinctive tiled frontage that was internally remodelled under State Management ownership. Some opening out has occurred, but it still has distinct lounge and public sides and a variety of areas surrounding the central servery. It also has that vanishing species – a jukebox. There were two cask beers on, one of which was a pretty decent drop of Theakston’s Best Bitter. It can’t be said that Carlisle is one of Britain’s great pub towns, but the Howard Arms is one of the most congenial in the central area.

The last pre-war pub to be built by the State Management Scheme was the Redfern Inn, named in Harry Redfern’s honour but actually designed by his deputy Joseph Seddon, which actually did not open until 1940. It stands in the suburb of Etterby, a mixed residential area about a mile and a half from the city centre on the north bank of the River Eden. It’s a long, low, brick-and-timber building in an Arts and Crafts style that wouldn’t look out of place in the Weald of Kent.

The interior layout, with extensive wood panelling, looks pretty traditional, but in fact a comparison with the plan in Basil Oliver’s book shows that the counter has been greatly extended on the public side, while on the lounge side the two rooms have been amalgamated and a new serving counter added. The pub originally featured a bowling green at the rear, but this has been out of use for some years and is now slated for redevelopment as housing, although as yet this hasn’t actually happened. It’s another pub where the offer doesn’t really match up to the surroundings, being just an ordinary, slightly down-at-heel local where the only cask beer available was, slightly bizarrely, a rather past-its-best drop of Brakspear Bitter.

Another pub with a bowling green is the Magpie in Botcherby on the eastern side of the city. This is in an inter-wars council estate and fits more into the mould of “estate pub” with a distinctive white-rendered design with prominent gables. It has experienced something of a chequered history, falling into the hands of Oakwell Brewery and then being closed for period before being bought and brought back to life by Sam Smith’s, who also, to their great credit, have restored the bowling green to use.

The interior layout seems little changed from the plan in the book, with the only significant alteration being replacing the off-sales area with a passage through from the public bar to the “smoking room”. Indeed, this room and the adjoining “tea room”, with the ladies’ and gents’ toilets on either side of the entrance porch, seem largely intact, so it’s a surprise to see that the pub doesn’t even feature as a regional entry on CAMRA’s National Inventory. Like many Sam’s pubs now, it has no real ale, but their keg range is much more appetising than that in a pub like the Cumberland Inn, and my OBB was decent enough.

While their original interiors may have been swept away by modernisation, there remain many architectural reminders of the State Management Scheme. For example, just a few doors down from the Howard Arms on Lowther Street is the rather grand Apple Tree, while on the main road north to Scotland is the Coach & Horses, which has appeared in several past Good Beer Guides. The scope of the scheme extended a fair distance beyond Carlisle itself, and you can still see examples of distinctive SMS architecture in places such as Gretna, where the round-arched doorway of the Hunter’s Lodge is a distinctive Redfern feature.

It’s a shame that so few pub interiors remain to remind us of this unique episode in the history of the British pub trade, but sadly wholesale internal destruction has been general across the whole country. Meanwhile, we should celebrate what is left, and in particular the Redfern Inn deserves to be cherished as a memorial to the work of the great pub architect.

Incidentally, while I was in Carlisle, I took a look inside the giant ASDA on the north side of the city next to Junction 44 of the M6, but didn’t see any specific signs of catering for booze tourists from north of the border following the introduction of minimum pricing. This convenience store and off-licence in a prominent position in the centre of Dumfries had closed, but far be it from me to draw a connection between the two.

Friday, 27 July 2018

A taxing issue

The industry-funded group behind “There’s a Beer For That” has now transformed itself into Long Live The Local, which is campaigning for a cut in beer duty. This is being championed by, amongst others, supermodel turned pub landlady Jodie Kidd. Now, cutting beer duty, and indeed alcohol duties in general, is undoubtedly a worthy cause. The UK only accounts for 12% of the beer drunk in the EU*, but pays 40% of the duty. High duties distort the market, place a burden on less well-off consumers, and mean that quality is compromised as products are tailored to meet particular price points. They’re also highly regressive in their impact on the population.

But it’s questionable to what extent a beer duty cut would do very much to increase trade in pubs. As I’ve argued before, the decline of pubs vis-a-vis the off-trade has been driven by a list of factors, most of which have nothing to with price. In broad terms, changes in social attitudes have meant that the range of occasions when people will even contemplate a visit to a pub just for a drink has steadily diminished. Responsible people who aren’t on the breadline, which is most of us, don’t go to the pub because the opportunity doesn’t arise, not because they can’t afford it. Would you really go to the pub substantially more if beer was even 50p a pint cheaper?

Well-meaning people who say they’re pub-lovers decide, for valid enough reasons, that a pub visit isn’t on the agenda in a range of situations when their predecessors thirty or forty years ago might well have done. And it must be remembered that, in the past, pubs were sustained by a core of customers who, not to put too fine a point on it, were heavy drinkers – the blokes who were getting through numerous pints on most nights of the week. That’s much less common, and much more frowned upon, now, and the people who still do drink in that way are doing it more at home with a slab of Carling. Pubs aren’t going to thrive on customers who drink a couple of two-thirds of craft beer a week.

Yes, cutting duty would help pubs a bit, not least in putting them on a firmer financial footing, even if it didn’t result in lower prices over the bar. But it’s wrong to see it as any kind of magic bullet for the trade, and “beer tax is killing pubs” is at best a gross over-simplification. And it rings rather hollow when there can be such a wide variation in beer prices between different pubs. Within a mile of my house, I can pay £2.50 or £4.00 a pint for the same or very similar beers. If the pub trade as a whole really thought price was such a significant factor, then you might expect it to make more of an effort to be price-competitive.

There are things that government could do to help pubs, specifically to relax the smoking ban somewhat and to stop the demonisation of moderate drinking in public health messages. But, realistically, it’s highly unlikely to do either of those things. If the industry wanted to concentrate in a taxation campaign that really would make a difference to the viability of pubs, then it might be better to focus on reforming the system of business rates. But that isn’t something that resonates with the drinking public in the same way.

* Until 29 March next year, obviously

Friday, 20 July 2018

Sense of place

We were recently discussing the idea of “destination beers”, that is either ones that you need to journey to experience at all, or which are best drunk in a particular location. I suggested a pint of Donnington BB or SBA in one of their beautiful Cotswold pubs. “Surely you must be joking,” came the reply, “Donnington beers really aren’t up to much, are they?” Maybe they’re not, but that’s not the point. These beers, and the small estate of characterful pubs in which they are sold, represent a unique beer-drinking experience. If the beers were replaced by Doom Bar, and the pubs subjected to a pastel-shaded gastro makeover, the world would be a poorer place.

When I first became interested in real ale in the late 1970s, perhaps what fascinated me most was how there was a patchwork of independent breweries the length and breadth of the country, ranging from regional giants such as Vaux and Wolverhampton & Dudley to tiny firms like Bathams and Burts. Each had its own territory, its own distinctive beers and very often its own style of pub. It was a lesson in geography, with strongholds, heartlands and outposts. Drinkers would speak of “Gales country” or “Jennings country”. Of course some of the beers were better than others, and some more to my own taste, but there was a tremendous variety of different characters, and virtually all were enjoyable when in good condition, although I might make an exception for Gibbs Mew.

To visit an area and sample the beers of one of the more obscure breweries for the first time was a journey of discovery. You could go to a city only fifty or sixty miles away and be presented with an entirely different selection of beers, such as Home and Shipstone in Nottingham and Mitchells and Yates & Jackson in Lancaster. Often one of the pleasures of going on holiday was sampling the local brew such as St Austell in Cornwall or Adnams in Suffolk. Progress on a long road journey was marked by the changing brewers’ names on the pub signs. The distribution was patchy, and some areas such as Devon and Norfolk were devoid of independent breweries, but in others, such as Dorset, Oxfordshire and Greater Manchester, they were thick on the ground.

It wasn’t confined to the independents, either. All the Big Six national brewers, to a greater or lesser extent, retained some kind of regional identity in their beer range and pub branding. Indeed, in the late 70s and early 80s we saw a revival of local names, something was especially marked with Allied Breweries, who created dedicated pub estates for old brewery brands such as Peter Walker, Holt, Plant & Deakin, Friary Meux and Benskins.

Of course it wasn’t perfect, and there were beer deserts and local monopolies and duopolies. But, in the greater scheme of things, it didn’t matter too much if most of the pubs in Henley-on-Thames were Brakspear, or Palmers in Bridport, and it added to the individual character of those places. Overall it provided a rich tapestry of local and regional identity in beer, with the locality being enriched by having its own distinctive brew, and the beer enhanced by the link with a particular place.

Since those days, the number of independent family breweries has more than halved, although it needs to be emphasised that the vast majority sold up voluntarily. In the North-West alone, we have lost Boddingtons, Oldham, Greenall Whitley, Burtonwood, Higsons, Border, Matthew Brown, Mitchells, Yates & Jackson and Hartleys. Very often, those that remain see themselves more as pub companies that happen to have an ale brewery as a sideline. As the market share of ale has declined, the sign on the gable end that says “Mudgington’s Noted Ales” becomes less and less of a draw to Carling or Peroni-drinking customers.

The disruption following the Beer Orders resulted in the transfer of the former tied estates of the Big Six to pub companies and the loss of their distinct identities. While an old livery may say Bass or Courage, it’s no guarantee that particular beer may be available, and nor is its absence a sign that it won’t be. Increasingly, pub company outlets have come to offer the market-leading beers regardless of supplier, so a bar lined with Carling, Stella, John Smith’s, Guinness and Strongbow has become almost a standard feature for many ordinary pubs. The drinker of mainstream kegs and lagers has markedly less choice overall than there was prior to 1990.

Against this has to be set the dramatic rise in the number of microbrewers, and in the sheer variety of beer styles being produced. In theory, there is more choice than ever before, and for many beer enthusiasts it has opened up a cornucopia of delights. But it’s not like Amazon where every single book in existence is available to order, as a pub is limited in the number of lines it can stock, especially of cask beer. And, all too often, what you’re actually going to find in the pub becomes a lottery. It’s impossible to exercise choice in a meaningful way if you don’t know what to expect, and have little hope of being able to make a repeat purchase the next week. In effect, “beer range varies” has in itself become a single option.

I’m certainly not averse to trying new things, but I don’t want to make every visit to the pub a journey into the unknown. Pubgoing should be primarily about relaxation and sociability, not beer sampling. I would probably count myself amongst the 0.1% of people most knowledgeable about beer, but I find it dispiriting when I wander into a pub and survey a row of unknown or vaguely familiar pumpclips on the bar to try and identify something that might suit my mood and palate. Some of the new generation of breweries have established a strong regular foothold in pubs – for example, last month I was down in Dorset where many pubs served Otter beers. But there’s no sign outside saying “This is an Otter House”, and thus the visible identification between brewery and pub is broken. In 1978, if you wanted to sample an obscure beer, you might have a long journey, but you could probably find it in one of its brewer’s pubs, whereas now it can all too easily become a wild goose chase.

Of course we have gained something through the massive increase in both the number of breweries and beer styles being produced. But we have also lost something valuable in the way the link between beer and place has been eroded through the decline of family brewers and their tied estates. We should treasure the continued existence of quirky, independent companies like Donnington.

On a brighter note, it is good to see the trend being reversed in a small way by brewers such as Joules, Titanic and Wye Valley building up their own pub estates, although a cautionary note must be sounded that a similar policy in the past has caused brewers such as Smiles, Archers and Copper Dragon to come to financial grief. Joules in particular have developed a very distinct and identifiable style of pub - if I see a Joules sign, I know pretty much what to expect. And of course that is exactly what BrewDog are doing by opening a chain of bars in big cities majoring on their own beers, although they do feature some guests. But they stick to a single format, so you’re not going to come across a BrewDog estate boozer or rural gastropub.

Monday, 16 July 2018

Heartland heritage – Part 2

This is the second half of my account of our Digbeth heritage pub crawl on Wednesday 11 July – see here for the first one.

The Anchor
Having eaten our lunch in the Big Bull’s Head, washed down with Diet Coke and keg beer, we crossed to the south side of Digbeth High Street to reach the Anchor. This is another full National Inventory entry, again with the characteristic plan of L-shaped public bar in the apex and smaller lounge/smoke room at the rear. A significant difference here is the retention of a head-height wood and glass partition dividing the public bar in two, which is a very rare survival. There was a sensibly limited range of three cask beers of differing styles – Wye Valley Bitter, Hobsons Twisted Spire and Titanic Chocolate and Vanilla Porter – all from breweries in the greater West Midlands area. I had the Wye Valley, which was pretty good. Guns’s’Roses were again playing on the sound system, albeit this time from their earlier, classic era.

The Old Crown
The plan had been for the next call to be the Old Crown, a magnificent Grade II* listed half-timbered building that claims to date from 1368 and to be the oldest extant secular building in Birmingham, although it now looks stranded amongst more modern buildings and vacant sites. We were aware that the interior didn’t match up to the exterior, but on entry we found the only cask beer to be Hobgoblin, which was being served in plastic glasses, presumably as a response to the crowd of football fans hogging the bar. The consensus was therefore to give it a miss and move on.

The Wagon & Horses
The Wagon & Horses was reached by passing under both the main railway viaduct, and another branching off it at an angle which was thought to be something of a “line to nowhere”. It stood at the furthest extremity of the route from the city centre in a real backwoods area of small workshops and car breaking yards. The pub consists of a front public bar and a more comfortable lounge set back at the right, reached through an archway. We received a friendly reception in pretty much all these pubs, but the warmth of the welcome from the barmaid here particularly stood out. The beer range consisted of Doom Bar, Ringwood Boondoggle and Hobsons Old Prickly, so named because a donation is made to hedgehog preservation from each pint. I don’t think anyone tried the Doom Bar, but the other two were in good nick.

The Ruin
As we were a pub down due to not having a drink in the Old Crown, the suggestion was made that we call in the Ruin which was roughly on the way back. This is a pub of more modern style situated in a similar industrial backwater, which we reached by cutting through the premises of the former Bird’s Custard Factory. I’m not sure if it is a conversion of an old street-corner pub, but it certainly looks like one. It has a modern, stripped-back, bare-boards feel rather different from the heritage pubs we had visited, but nevertheless offers a variety of congenial spaces around the central bar. There were two cask beers available, Oakham Citra and Sharp’s Atlantic, both of which were good, although we were told by the barman that they would have additional beers from local breweries at the weekend.

The White Swan - this is a stock photo; all the others are my own taken on the day
With the kick-off now only a couple of hours away, we made our way back to the White Swan, which we had passed before as it didn’t open until 4 pm. This was the third full National Inventory entry of the day, with a long public bar and a smaller, cosy lounge. It was now filling up for the football, but we found some seats at the far end of the bar, which has a particularly magnificent long, carved counter. Here we met up with the legendary figure of “Cooking Lager”, proving to the assembled company that he was an actual person and not just a figment of the imagination. He informed us that our planned final stop, the Spotted Dog, wasn’t going to be opening that evening, so the White Swan would be our final call. There were two cask beers on the bar – Banks’s Amber Bitter and Marston’s Fever Pitch. Everyone had the Amber, which was on excellent form and for me undoubtedly the beer of the day.

I left the pub just as the match had kicked off for the fifteen-minute walk back to New Street Station and my train home, which was considerably quieter than it normally would be. I got back in time for extra time, but as it turned out it was not to be England’s day.

In summary, an excellent day out, in which I visited seven pubs entirely new to me, including three full and three regional National Inventory entries. Virtually all the beer was good, and as always the company couldn’t be faulted. However, there was one less positive note. Clearly visiting these pubs on a Wednesday lunchtime prior to a major football match wouldn’t show them at their busiest, but it must be said that, in all except the White Swan, our party of six at least doubled the number of customers. Hopefully the ongoing regeneration of Digbeth is going to generate more trade, and more love, for them, as on that evidence you have to question whether they can enjoy a bright fututre.

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Heartland heritage – Part 1

Last October, we had a very enjoyable Beer and Pubs Forum Proper Day Out in Birmingham. We discussed making a return visit to the city with the specific intention of visiting the cluster of unspoilt heritage pubs in the Digbeth area. However, due to a combination of difficulty on agreeing on a date and other events moving up the queue, it ended up being pushed back several times. We eventually managed to grasp the nettle and arranged it for last Wednesday, July 11th. England then went and got themselves into the semi-final of the World Cup that evening. Our peregrination would be finished by the time the match started, but it inevitably had an effect on the trade and atmosphere in the pubs earlier in the day.

Digbeth is an area to the south-east of the city centre that historically was home to a concentration of factories and workshops, with numerous pubs to serve their employees. Most of the workplaces are now gone, either demolished or derelict, and the area could be described as being on the cusp of decline and regeneration. However, an impressive number of the pubs have survived, and in many cases the decline of their surroundings prevented them from being subject to modern remodelling. The whole area is dominated by the massive purplebrick railway viaduct carrying the former Great Western main line to London. This is still in use, but looks a touch uncared for, with plenty of vegetation sprouting from the brickwork.

I was at University in Birmingham for three years from 1977 to 1980, but did very little drinking in the city centre and its environs, which were then dominated by the dreaded duopoly of Ansells and M&B. In fact, all the pubs visited apart from the first one were entirely new to me.

We met up in the Wellington, the well-known multi-beer pub close to New Street station. This is owned by Black Country Ales but has a wide range of guest beers as well as their own, with sixteen handpumps in total. I had Hook Norton Old Hooky, maybe not the ideal beer for a boiling hot day, but in pretty good nick nonetheless. Oakham Citra and Wye Valley HPA were also well-received. It is home to a famous pub cat, who goes by the Twitter handle of @Pussia_Galore, but I heard the barmaid explaining to a customer that, due to advancing years, she now spent most of her time upstairs and rarely ventured into the public areas.

The Woodman

Heading east out of the city centre, crossing the former Inner Ring Road brought a definite feeling of moving on to the wrong side of the tracks. The Woodman had been left standing in splendid isolation in a zone of dereliction, and indeed had been closed for a while, but has now been restored to life. Like several of these pubs, it was designed by prolific pub architects James and Lister Lea, and is in the front rank of National Inventory entries. It has a characteristic Birmingham plan of spacious public bar in the apex of the building, with a smaller smoke room at the rear. This is the pub’s crowning glory, with bench seating all around, an original fireplace, half-height wood panelling and tiling to the ceiling.

There were nine cask beers available, with Old Hooky again being good. Most of us, however, had the lighter Mallinson’s Bramling Cross, which some liked, but which I thought was a touch yeasty. There was a high-quality soundtrack including both Guns’n’Roses and the Stone Roses. The pub had an extensive food menu, but our plans were to eat a little later.

Passing the monumental frontage of Curzon Street Station, the original terminus of the London & Birmingham Railway dating back to the 1830s, a very short walk brought us to the Eagle & Tun. This is another pub that was closed for a number of years, but has recently been brought back to life. It may, however, be under threat from the controversial HS2 railway line.

The general plan is similar to the Woodman, and it retains some historic features, although less is original. There is an off-licence attached which contained a surprising number of exotic beers and other drinks. A menu of Indian food was available, but as the chef was delayed by trouble with his car we were unable to partake. There were four beers on the bar, including Green Duck Duck Blonde and Silhill Gold Star and North Star, but unfortunately several of those tasted had something of an end-of-barrel character. This was partially compensated for by another classy soundtrack including More Than A Feeling by Boston and Carry On Wayward Son by Kansas.

Big Bull’s Head
A ten-minute walk through an unpromising zone of small industrial units brought us to the Big Bull’s Head on the main Digbeth High Street. However, jaws dropped when we spotted a complete and unexpected absence of cask beer on the bar. But this was our scheduled lunch stop and, as none of the later pubs did food, we were committed to eating here. It’s always interesting to see the consternation of beer aficionados when required to buy a drink in a keg pub – some won’t touch the stuff, while others will sample the keg beers with a greater or lesser degree of reluctance. Amongst about fifteen different beers, there were two that could perhaps qualify as “craft keg” – Sharp’s Wolf Rock and Franciscan Well Chieftain, together with Marston’s Oyster Stout under the pub’s own brand, and the usual suspects of Carling, Guinness, Worthington Creamflow and the like.

There was an extensive menu of what would best be described as generous portions of cheap and cheerful food. The £5.95 roast pork dinner that one of my colleagues had looked especially filling, and it was one of those rare places where the chips are actually cooked. It’s another pub with the archetypal corner bar and rear lounge layout, and retains enough original features to merit a second-tier National Inventory entry. In fact, there was nothing really wrong with it as a pub except the beer. One interesting feature was an enormous Atkinson’s Aston Ales mirror.

I’ll cover the second half of the itinerary in a later post – watch this space...

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Pie in the sky

From time to time, someone comes up with a report claiming that food is the future of pubs, and that wet-led pubs are doomed to disappear. I remember writing about something similar ten years ago. The latest is one Christel Lane who has published a book entitled From Taverns to Gastropubs which seeks to “contextualise the rise of the gastropub through an exploration of food, drink and society over the past 500 years.”

Of course, the importance of food to pubs has greatly increased over the past few decades, and in some it has now gone so far that they have become restaurants in all but name, with few if any drinking customers. In a sense, it could be said that the rise of food has, overall, made pubs more civilised. However, it’s important not to get carried away. Pub food is nothing new, and thoughout my drinking career people always seem to have been harking back to a non-existent past era when all you could get was crisps and nuts. Indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me if more lunchtime pub food had been sold on Mondays to Fridays in the 1970s than there is now.

These analyses always seem to reflect a very limited and partial experience of pubs confined to city centres and prosperous commuter belts. Go to any ordinary town and you will still find plenty of pubs, and not by any means just in obscure locations, where the food trade is limited or non-existent, and the vast bulk of their business is done after 9pm. How pubs like that are meant to adapt to a brave world of wall-to-wall dining is very difficult to fathom.

In fact, in recent years, in less prosperous areas the tide has been flowing the other way. Many pubs that used to serve weekday lunches for workers from local businesses have now dropped the food and often stopped opening at lunchtimes completely. As Phil of Oh Good Ale has reported, in the smaller satellite towns of Greater Manchester, it’s often difficult to find any pub food whatsoever apart from in Spoons.

And, of course, over the past few weeks, many pubs have been packed with punters watching England’s progress in the World Cup, and most certainly not sitting down to a meal. Yes, wet-led pubs may have declined, but they’re certainly not going to disappear or anything like it. There are now specialist operators like Amber Taverns who are concentrating on the sector rather than regarding it as a poor relation to the upmarket food houses.

Incidentally, although not directly related to this article, it irritates me when people limit the term “wet-led” to pubs that serve no food whatsoever. Surely all it means is a pub where the drinks trade predominates, and any food served is ancillary, not necessarily completely absent.

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Into the lions’ den

All About Beer magazine has recently published an article by Boak and Bailey entitled Decoding the English Pub, about the potential pitfalls awaiting the unwary explorer if they inadvertently venture into the “wrong kind” of pub.
But if you wander into side streets, the outer suburbs, or into the shade of concrete tower blocks, you might still come across the kind of pub where it is possible for an innocent abroad to get into trouble. There aren’t many exterior clues other than a general state of disrepair, although with experience you develop a kind of sixth sense based on the state of the curtains or some subtle hint implied in the signage.
While I can identify with much of what they describe, I have to say that the article rather exaggerates the scale of the problem. I’ve been making a point of going in to unfamiliar pubs for more than forty years, and during the earlier part of the period I was very much a speccy, geeky student type who would stand out like a sore thumb in a working-class boozer. Obviously not all pubs are to everyone’s taste, but the occasions where I’ve experienced any kind of overt hostility have been extremely rare. And those have more often than not been in smart pubs, or ones that clearly set their stall out to welcome casual customers, not grotty backstreet boozers.

To some extent, the process is made easier by the passage of time. When you’re young, you tend to be more self-conscious, and often with good reason, as young people tend to be much more judgmental about their peers. The examples I referred to above in general occurred when I was under thirty, and involved people of a similar age. But, as you grow older, this dissipates, and you just blur into the generality of middle-aged people. Nobody’s looking at you, nobody’s judging you, nobody’s bothered. It only becomes an issue if you choose a slack time to venture into a pub that there’s no obvious reason for someone like you to visit.

Another factor is the decline of the tied house system. Going back forty years, the vast majority of pubs were tied to breweries, and these estates include a wide cross-section of types of pub. In many areas, you would have to visit some pretty unpromising establishments to find a particular beer. I remember visiting the Bay Horse on Grinfield Street in Liverpool, about fifteen minutes’ uphill walk from the city centre, in search of Thwaites. It wasn’t threatening as such, but a fairly grim council estate boozer that I wouldn’t remotely have chosen to go to except for the beer.

But, as the Big Six tied estates have been broken up, and the remaining family brewers have disposed of most of their bottom-end pubs, it’s pretty rare that you will need to go anywhere “rough” in search of a specific brew. While many people may feel seriously out of place in the new generation of craft bars and micropubs, it’s unlikely that they’re going to be told to their face that they’re not welcome.

The question must also be asked how many people are actually looking to visit unfamiliar pubs at random anyway. Yes, if you’re a pub enthusiast such as Boak & Bailey or myself, you might be, but I’ve written before how the general public are much less likely to visit pubs on spec now than they used to be. And, with the growth of information on pubs available on the Internet, a couple of minutes’ research should give an indication of the flavour of the place. Pub enthusiasts will know the rules of the game and sometimes will be willing to take a chance out of curiosity.

True, the Good Beer Guide tickers are under a compulsion to visit certain pubs, like them or not, but how many of the kind of unwelcoming establishments we’re talking about actually make it into its pages nowadays? They might have done forty years ago, but not now. Ironically, you’re more likely to encounter a problem ticking off the National Inventory, which records architectural distinction, not pub quality as such. I’ve written before about how I felt I stuck out like a sore thumb when visiting the Wheatsheaf at Sutton Leach in the suburbs of St Helens, and I also felt in the Plume of Feathers in Carmarthen that, while it had some interesting features, there was no conceivable reason I’d want to be there for beer, company or atmosphere.

The well-documented decline of the traditional working-class boozer, exacerbated by the smoking ban, has greatly reduced the potential for the casual pubgoer to encounter a hostile reaction. Such pubs do still exist but, as the article says, you have to actively seek them out in inner-urban backstreets, downmarket suburbs and council estates, and are unlikely to stumble upon them by accident. There are still a few in plain sight in locations with greater footfall – two that spring to mind, at least by reputation, are the Three Legs and the General Eliott in Leeds city centre. However, there is a difference between the atmosphere being a touch “raw” and actively threatening, and both of these pubs must be accustomed to the occasional casual punter wandering in off a busy city street. Having said that, I recently found no problem in the Eliott’s sister pub, the Duncan, although a keg-only, no-food boozer with an older, working-class clientele may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

For a related, although not identical, set of reasons, the “strangers in tonight” rural pub of the “Slaughtered Lamb” type is also a vanishing species, although I’m sure some do still exist in the deep countryside away from the major conurbations and off the tourist trail. They may well appear on WhatPub and other online guides, but the evenings-only opening hours and lack of food (and possibly the absence of real ale) give a clear indication that they’re not looking to appeal to outside visitors.

There can, of course, be other forms of discomfiture of a more subtle and unintentional nature. After all, not every pub is going to suit everyone, and in some you may well conclude “this just isn’t for me”. I recall when aged about 20 venturing into a Shipstone’s pub in Leicester city centre (since demolished) and finding I was the youngest customer by about thirty years. I have to say I did feel rather out of place and didn’t linger too long, but there was nothing unpleasant. You would probably feel the same today if you wandered into the Boar’s Head on Stockport Market Place, although how many 20-year-olds would do that just on the offchance?

A couple of decades later, I went into the National Inventory-listed Golden Cross in Cardiff to admire its magnificent tiled bar, unaware that in the evenings it was the city’s premier gay venue. It was inevitable that other customers drew the wrong conclusion about my reasons for being there. And many people may get the impression that their custom isn’t really wanted if they go into a pub and find that every single table has a place setting, or they’ve never heard to any of the beers on the bar.

In summary, the chances of the casual punter wandering into a pub where they’re made to actively feel unwelcome are actually pretty slim, and probably lower than they ever have been. If it really concerns you, there’s a simple option in most towns of any size, which is to go in Wetherspoon’s. Yes, they may contain some rough-hewn customers, but the general atmosphere is never hostile, as their whole set-up is intended to welcome casual custom. Or, very simply, don’t go in any pub that doesn’t display a food menu. On the other hand, some of the most genuinely welcoming and characterful pubs in the country, both urban and rural, may not look too promising from the outside. But, if you are curious about pubs, it’s always best to do a bit of research beforehand rather than leaving it entirely to chance.

On a different note, the article also refers to the tourist trap pub, where “you will end up paying over the odds for substandard food and drink consumed in a joyless, plastic setting.” Now, I’m sure such places do exist, which cynically provide a poor offer at inflated prices to a captive market, but again I’d say they are a lot less common than they once were as people become more savvy. I can’t, for example, think of a single place in the centre of Chester that falls into that category. And it shouldn’t be taken to include branches of chains such as Wetherspoon’s and Nicholson’s, that happen to be in favourable locations, but in fact just provide the organisation’s standard fare.

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Hotting up for craft lager

The current spell of hot weather inevitably raises a question mark over the quality of the cask beer you’re likely to encounter in the pub. If they get their cellar and line cooling right, and achieve a decent throughput, there’s no recent why a well-run pub can’t serve you up a cool, tasty refreshing pint. In the past week or so I’ve had no problem in finding decent cask. But, unfortunately, too many pubs are left exposed on one or more of these points, and you end up with tepid dishwater.

So, the dilemma arises as to whether, if you don’t feel you can trust the cask, you’d be better playing it safe and sticking to the lager instead. And that leads on to the further question of why craft brewers can’t get more of a share of the lager market, which is currently dominated by the large international brewers. Lager accounts for two-thirds of all beer sold in British pubs; cask only a sixth, so there is a huge untapped market out there that, on the face of it, is ripe for the picking.

However, things aren’t quite that simple. Lager has long since taken over from bitter as the default beer in British pubs, the one chosen by people who aren’t really that interested in beer. What is important to its drinkers is something that is accessible, consistent and refreshing, not something with strong or unusual flavours or wild variability. But that doesn’t make them stupid. As I wrote here, “For most drinkers, beer is just a commodity, and within their terms of reference they are making a rational and sensible choice by picking well-known keg and lager brands. In no way are they deluded dupes.”

That is the barrier that has to be surmounted, and it’s noticeable how, at present, where craft lagers are available, they are more often chosen by those who usually favour cask or craft ales, not the drinkers of Carling and Stella. You don’t win converts by telling people that what they’re currently drinking is rubbish. And it always seems a touch ironic listening to CAMRA members in their practical Millets trousers berating others for their lack of taste and discernment.

It’s also often thought that lager, which by its nature is inherently a somewhat subtle type of beer, sometimes verging on blandness, is therefore easy to make, whereas in reality the opposite is true. Because of its unassuming, unadorned character, there is nowhere to hide, and you can’t mask defects by chucking in loads of hops or fruit flavours. Quite a few of the British craft lagers I’ve sampled have exhibited obvious faults, and many of them seem to have a rather sweet, malty taste that is lacking in the grassy, noble hop character found in some of the finest beers in the style. Some of them are also top-fermented ales masquerading as lagers, an updated version of the “bastard lagers” of the past like Robinson’s Einhorn.

That’s not to say that British craft lagers can’t be excellent, of course. There has been a lot of praise, for example, for Lost & Grounded’s Keller Pils, and I recently had a very good pint of their own-brew Craft Lager in Brewhouse & Kitchen. But, to gain wider acceptance, they have to progress beyond just being one of a row of rotating craft kegs on the back wall, where they will inevitably be overshadowed by beers with louder, showier flavours. They need to become permanent fixtures on bars, so they attract regular, loyal customers, to be consistent, and not to be so distinctive that people will find them offputting. Of course quality is important, but you also have to get your distribution and image right.

Clearly it’s unlikely that craft lagers are going to gain the mass following of Fosters and Kronenbourg, and if they did they would probably be disowned by the craft movement anyway. But there is a huge potential market out there if you can produce something that offers a little bit more in terms of flavour and character, and is perceived as being a cooler choice while not marking the drinker out as being a bit weird. And it has already been done in the form of Camden Hells, which I’m told is now a very common sight in more upmarket pubs and bars in London. Yes, it is now owned by AB InBev, but the foundations of its success were laid when Camden was an independent company. That’s the model that aspiring craft lager brewers should be trying to follow.