Tuesday, 17 March 2020

A case of Corona

We are currently in the midst of a growing crisis caused by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, which is unprecedented during my lifetime and comparable in many ways to the “Spanish Flu” of 1918-20. It isn’t for me to comment on the wider aspects of this, although it hasn’t stopped half the members of Twitter and Facebook becoming armchair experts overnight.

However, something that is closer to home is the potential impact on the pub and brewing industry. Yesterday, the Prime Minister made an announcement in which he advised people to avoid pubs, clubs and similar social venues, although he did not seek to close them down. Again it is not for me to say whether this is the correct course of action.

But it was immediately criticised from various quarters for leaving the pub trade in limbo, in particular meaning that, in the absence of a specific instruction from government, pubs would not be able to claim against business interruption insurance if they had to close down. This was repeated in a rather hasty press release from CAMRA. It also seems a touch ironic for CAMRA to be actually calling for pubs to be closed down.

Again I am no expert in the field of insurance, but I have to say this immediately struck me as questionable, as pandemics surely fall into the same category of risks as war and nuclear contamination, which are potentially existential perils and thus impossible to insure against on a commercial basis. And indeed this was confirmed this morning by the Association of British Insurers, who I assume do know what they’re talking about.

So the suggestion that pub owners would be better off if the government did force them to close is essentially fake news. Clearly there is a good case for government assistance for this, and other, industries that are suffering from the effects of the virus. But, as long as a pub can continue to trade and make a marginal profit, it makes financial sense to stay open. If, on the other hand, they judge that it isn’t worthwhile, then that decision must be respected.

Our four local family brewers – Holt’s, Hyde’s, Lees and Robinson’s – have all announced this morning that for the time being they are aiming to keep at least their managed pubs open. Robinson’s, for example, said:

Robinsons are keeping their managed houses open, and for the rest of their estate have agreed an immediate four-week rent-free period for all licensees with suspension of loan payments and interest charges where applicable.
I don’t consider myself to be at elevated risk of either transmitting or contracting the disease, and I will certainly continue to go to pubs for as long as I can. If I couldn’t, it would deprive me of a substantial source of social interaction.

If the government did instruct all pubs and bars to close, it would represent a massive escalation of the level of lockdown, and to be even-handed it would surely have to be extended to all other on-premises catering businesses such as restaurants and cafés. There would then inevitably be dog-in-the-manger calls for the prohibition to be extended to what might be seen as competing businesses such as takeaways and sandwich shops. This may have to happen in the coming weeks, but that kind of restriction of everyday life, while manageable in a short-term emergency, would prove difficult to sustain over a prolonged period and would inevitably lead to potentially explosive social tensions.

Friday, 13 March 2020

A capital day out - Part 2

We pick up the story of our Proper Day Out in Burton-on-Trent, the capital of British brewing, having just left the Burton Bridge Inn and heading across the Trent Bridge. Originally built in 1864 and widened in 1926, this is a very long bridge spanning two channels of the river and the intervening flood plain, where there was still some standing water. The amount of rain over the previous few weeks was shown by the powerful flow of water over a shallow semicircular weir.

The south-eastern end of the bridge is dominated by Swan House, which was formerly a pub. Here we turned right and followed Stapenhill Road, which runs parallel to the river and climbs a small hill alongside the cemetery, to reach the Elms Inn. This Victorian pub with its striking Bass lettering stands in an elevated and surprisingly rural-seeming position, although trees block the view of the river. I was able to take advantage of a brief gap in the busy traffic to take the photo below.

At the front there are three small traditional rooms around the bar, with a more modern extended lounge area to the rear. The central corridor boasts a stone-flagged floor. It was now mid-afternoon, and there were a fair number of customers of mixed age groups. On the bar were Bass, Pedigree, Taylor’s Landlord and Brains Reverend James. The early arrivals were greeted with rather so-so Bass, but they may have then changed the barrel, as those of us who got there a little later found it fine. The person who generally prefers the paler, hoppier beers decided to try the Reverend James as he had never had it before, even though I did warn him it was distinctly dark brown and malty. And so it was, but it was pretty good.

From here, some of us chose to save time by getting a taxi back into the town centre, and the lengthy journey along the southern part of Stapenhill Road and across the newer St Peter’s Bridge reinforced the wisdom of this decision. Our next port of call was the Dog on Lichfield Street, a pub that has gone through various incarnations, including a spell as an O’Neill’s, but has more recently been acquired by Black Country Ales and turned back into more of a traditional pub.

It has their typical high-quality refurbishment, with a variety of comfortable areas rambling around the central bar, but also their characteristic extended beer range, with no less than eleven cask ales being advertised. These included their own house beers together with Bass (of course), and a variety of guests, most notably cask Worthington White Shield. This was pretty good, although I wasn’t sure how it compared with the bottle-conditioned version. Our hop-lover was satisfied with Salopian Safe Room, which was described as a “piney citrus IPA”.

There followed a ten-minute walk through the back streets skirting the town centre to reach the Coopers Tavern on Cross Street, a renowned classic pub that I had somehow never managed to visit previously. It was originally the unofficial Bass brewery tap, but was owned by a number of years by Hardys & Hansons before recently passing into the hands of Shropshire-based Joules.

It has a superb unspoilt interior that earns it a full entry on CAMRA’s National Inventory. Pride of place goes to the tap room at the rear, where you can sit on a bench in the same room where the beer is actually dispensed from casks on a stillage, although a short bar counter has been added as part of recent renovations. Further forward from this are a number of other small, characterful rooms with real fires, and there is a more modern extension right at the back. There was, however, some discussion as to how original it was - go in with a fresh pair of eyes, and you would be hugely impressed, but those who remembered it from how it was before maybe felt that some character had been lost.

The beer range comprised the standard Joules beers, Bass and one or two guests including the potent Elland 1872 Porter, on a mixture of handpumps and serving directly from the cask. This was the only gravity-dispensed Bass of the day and, while you would not expect it to have the creamy head of a pint pulled through a handpump, the general feeling was that, while pleasant enough, it was somewhat lacking in condition even by the standards you would expect of beer on gravity. Still a memorable pub, however, where you could happily while away many hours.

We then returned to Station Street and our starting point, passing the Devonshire Arms to reach our final destination, the Roebuck, a street-corner pub with a distinctive curved frontage. It was originally the Ind Coope brewery tap and was the scene of the launch of Ind Coope Burton Ale in 1976. It has now been opened out into a one-room interior, with the bar along the left-hand side, comfortable bench seating around the walls and plenty of dark wood in the decor. It’s one of those places that seems to have a lot of floor space in relation to the amount of seating, and initially all the seats were taken, but after about five minutes a group left leaving a table free.

The beer range was mainly comprised of familiar brews such as Bass, Pedigree, Summer Lightning and Old Peculier, and all those tried were pretty good. Peter Allen, after a day on the cask, eventually couldn’t resist the temptation and succumbed to a pint of Burton’s biggest-selling product, Carling. We were joined by the elusive Life After Football, who was impressed by how coherent the conversation was at such a late stage in the day. It comes from long years of practice, we told him. Fittingly for his former career, the urinals in the gents’ were fitted with little plastic goalposts where you could steer the ball into the goal with an appropriately directed jet!

From here, it was only a short walk back to the station for trains home. I was pleasantly surprised to find my service to Sheffield operated by a High Speed Train, which are a vanishing species nowadays, but continue to provide a superior passenger environment to pretty much all their successors. So ended another excellent day out, with a very high standard of beer, pubs and conversation, and the added bonus of meeting two long-term Internet correspondents face-to-face for the first time. Given the current worrying news about coronavirus, it remains up in the air as to when the next one is likely to be. Burton is a very rewarding place for the lover of pubs and beer, although it does involve a good bit of walking, and there were several worthwhile pubs that there simply wasn’t time to reach.

Paul Bailey has also written a detailed account of the day here and here.

Thanks to Peter Allen of Pubs Then and Now for the photos of the Coopers Tavern and Roebuck. It should be pointed out that these were taken in the morning, not at the time we visited these pubs when the light was fading The one of the Roebuck, however, is shot directly against the sun.

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

A capital day out - Part 1

No, not that kind of capital, Burton-on-Trent, the capital of British brewing. I went to Burton a couple of times in the 1980s, once to visit what was then the Bass Museum, but hadn’t been there for over thirty years, so it seemed a good choice for the latest Beer and Pubs Forum Proper Day Out on Friday 6 March. It also offered the opportunity of a rehearsal for National Bass Day on Saturday 11 April.

Burton grew dramatically in the 19th century due to the expansion of the brewing industry, attracted by its high-quality hard water rich in gypsum. At one point, the town was responsible for a quarter of all beer produced in Britain. It became a County Borough in 1901, but in fact did not grow significantly after that, and by the time of local government reorganisation in 1974 was the second smallest County Borough in the country after Canterbury. Today, given the decline of brewing, it gives the impression of being like a man who has lost weight and is now too small for his clothes, being rather like Bradford in that respect. I remember from my previous visits that it had an unusually sprawling and dispersed layout, with the town hall and parish church situated on the north-west side of the station, three-quarters of a mile from the main shopping centre.

This meant that the pubs we wanted to visit were widely spread out, and some of the distances between them were a bit excessive for those with a limited amount of time to spend there. This gave rise to some debate on the forum about the itinerary, but eventually we arrived at a compromise which allowed those with more appetite for walking to follow a different route to call in a couple of the more far-flung ones. This prompted me to discover a website which enables you to calculate the walking distance and time between a pair of postcodes, which will prove useful in planning these trips in the future. It doesn’t give any indication of hills you might encounter, though, which was certainly a issue in Preston, but was unlikely to affect us in Burton, which is largely flat.

The day dawned bright and cold, a sharp contrast with the almost constant rain we had endured during the previous few weeks. The trip gave me another opportunity to take advantage of the savings available from the Senior Railcard that I acquired the previous year. On the scenic route through the Peak District between Stockport and Sheffield I noticed some snow still lying on the hilltops in the Vale of Edale. South of Sheffield, any flooding appeared to have receded, although the river levels still looked pretty high.

You are met at Burton Station by an impressive former Midland Railway grain warehouse, presumably once associated with brewing, but now converted into a Travelodge. The first pub was the Devonshire Arms, which is just a few minutes’ walk from the station. Like most of the other Burton pubs apart from Wetherspoon’s, this doesn’t open until 12 noon, and my photo shows a group of us sitting waiting outside for the door to be unbolted. It also shows what a bright, sunny day it had turned out to be. This, along with several other pubs, does not open until teatime earlier in the week, making Friday the earliest day when such a trip is feasible.

The Devonshire is a four-square, free-standing pub set back from the road and having something of the air of a “country pub in the town”. Inside it has a plain public bar at the front with bench seating down two sides, where our group slowly trickled in over the next half-hour, and a more spacious, rambling lounge at the rear. I met Ian Thurman aka thewickingman, with whom I had corresponded extensively via the Internet, for the first time. We were rapidly joined by another group of customers who we were advised were the local vicar and his family.

For a while, it had been a Burton Bridge tied house, and it still had a variety of their beers including Bridge Bitter and Stairway to Heaven, alongside Bass, which is the biggest seller, and guests such as Dark Star APA and Gates Burton Ale. Most of us went for the Bass, which was in excellent form, although our rather BBB-phobic member preferred the APA. This, for me, was both the beer and pub of the day, although there were plenty more delights to come.

From here, there was a split in the party, with some choosing to head for the Derby Inn, while others went straight to the Brewery Tap, which was the planned lunch venue. While the Derby, which is the nearest pub to Burton Albion’s ground, sounded an excellent pub, it was judged just too far in terms of both distance and walking time. The route to the Brewery Tap passed between a number of brewery buildings and conditioning tanks which dominate this part of the town. We noted that a pipe bridge spanning Station Street that had previously connected two sets of the Bass brewery premises had recently been removed.

Approaching the Brewery Tap along Guild Street, there is a preserved set of Burton Union casks with the steel trough to collect the fobbing beer running along the top. At the end of the street is the impressive former Magistrates’ Court, built, in 1909-10 in the Baroque style. The Brewery Tap is the bar attached to what is now the National Brewery Centre but was originally the Bass Museum, although time didn’t permit us taking a look around. It’s a pleasant but functional modern bar, and had quite a few customers in, who mostly seemed to be taking advantage of the food.

It has an extensive and fairly good-value menu, with most of us taking advantage of a combination of light bites and sandwiches. I got an impressive portion of whitebait for a mere £3.50, and the fish finger sandwiches, which were actually proper fish goujons, also went down well. We considered ourselves decently fed in a town that seems short on pub food options. We were less impressed by a soundtrack that seemed tailored for a much younger age group than most of the customers, including Ariana Grande and what sounded like an entire album from Scouting for Girls.

On the bar were a selection of beers brewed at their own pilot brewery, including Masterpiece, St Modwen and a recreation of Charrington IPA, plus the almost inevitable Bass and Cotleigh Snowy. The Charrington IPA was very good, although distinctly more hoppy than I remember it in the South-East in the early 1980s. Those who had detoured to the Derby Inn eventually caught up with us here.

A fairly short walk down Horninglow Street brought us to the Burton Bridge Inn, just short of the Old Bridge across the Trent. This is the home of Burton Bridge Brewery, and is a three-storey Georgian building with the entrance down the passageway to the right. Inside it has a rambling and surprisingly spacious interior around the central bar, with a public bar and adjacent room at the front and an extensive lounge to the rear. The brewery is at the back, and we were told there is a skittle alley on the first floor. Friday afternoon in a wet-led pub is hardly going to be the busiest time of the week, but we were the only people in apart from one other customer who left shortly after we arrived. Hopefully we didn’t drive him away!

There was a wide range of their own beers, including Bridge Bitter, Golden Delicious, Hearty Ale, Porter, Old Expensive and their own take on Burton Ale. With fond memories of the original Ind Coope Burton Ale, I tried the Burton Bridge version, but unfortunately it was rather woody-tasting and past its best. The other beers that were sampled were better, but none were particularly outstanding. The brewery is apparently up for sale, which explains why they have been disposing of their small chain of pubs, including the Devonshire Arms which we had visited earlier.

To be continued...

(Thanks to Paul Bailey for the photo of the Burton Bridge Inn)

Saturday, 7 March 2020

Running with Tigger

There has been a considerable amount of outrage this week over the decision by the Portman Group to uphold a complaint against the packaging design of Lost & Grounded Running With Sceptres, which features a parade of cartoon animals. While it does not have the power to prevent the packaging being used, it can recommend that retailers do not stock it, which will obviously severely limit its distribution.

There are plenty of reasons to be critical of the Portman Group – its judgments often seem censorious and heavy-handed, it can act on no more than a simple flimsy complaint, which may have come from someone involved in the public health lobby, and it offers no appeals process. However, it’s important to remember, as Martyn Cornell points out in this blogpost, that it was set up as a voluntary body with the specific objective of staving off the possibility of statutory regulation of alcohol promotion and marketing. Some people may naively imagine that a statutory regulator may offer a more benign regime, but that is very hard to imagine, and in reality it is much more likely to result in much more severe restriction.

So: if you don’t want state regulation of the advertising and marketing of alcohol, don’t give the wowsers reasons to complain by using cartoon images on your cans and bottles that would not look out of place in the children’s section of a bookshop. And if you feel that restricts your artistic liberty, I really don’t have any sympathy: I’d rather see cartoon teddies and tigers banned from beer bottles than a Norwegian-style total prohibition on any sort of advertising or marketing.
Sometimes it may need to act in a firm manner to make it clear to the watching world that it is doing its job. And is defending figures reminiscent of children’s cartoon characters really the hill you want to die on when standing up for the rights of alcohol producers? It can’t be denied that the cartoon tiger looks very much like Tigger out of the Winnie the Pooh books. And alcohol is an adult product – why should anyone even want to use imagery that can all too easily be interpreted as appealing to children? Whether in practice it will do isn’t really the issue.

The charge has been levied against the Portman Group that, considering it is funded by large brewers and drinks producers, it discriminates against small and innovative brewers. However, surely it is simply the case that the large firms have a better awareness of the regime they are operating under and are naturally risk-averse. If small brewers fall foul of the code, it is more likely due to naivety about the nature of the regulatory environment, or indeed in some cases deliberately tweaking its tail for the publicity value, although I’m not suggesting that applies here.

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, at least to some extent, craft brewers believe that they are operating on a higher moral plane than the mass-market producers and can thus push the boundaries further. You can’t really imagine George the Bear being brought back to advertise Hofmeister. And this sudden anger against the anti-drink tendency seems very selective and limited in scope – how many of those who are complaining about this have spoken out against much more serious manifestations of the trend such as minimum pricing, which was introduced in Wales only last week? At root, it’s really more concerned with getting at “big beer” than confronting the anti-drink lobby.

If you look into it, the ruling against Oranjeboom 8.5% is actually much more worrying. It is revisiting a packaging design than had already been approved a couple of years previously, and seeking to micromanage the size and positioning of text conveying purely factual information. That is surely much more concerning than objecting to cartoon tigers. Apparently the producers were already going to withdraw this product from the British market, but the precedent has been set. One day this will come back to bite the craft brewers - who have been known to put very strong beers in large containers - on the backside.

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Chairs, chairs, everywhere...

...but not a place to sit. I concluded my recent blogpost about the pleasures of solo pub visits with “It also must be said that there are many – probably too many – pubs where the general layout, atmosphere and offer make enjoying that solitary pint well-nigh impossible.” And, all too often, I now find myself going into pubs, looking round, and deciding that, even though there’s plenty of seating, there’s nowhere I actually fancy sitting.

The photo above is taken from this newspaper article about Sam Smith’s Crow’s Nest pub in Cleethorpes. It was built in 1957, and has probably been little changed since then. It shows the lounge, with a pattern of seating that, a generation ago, was very typical of many pub interiors, with continuous fixed wall benches and relatively small, round-cornered tables.

I have discussed the merits of bench seating in the past – it is comfortable, with upholstered seats and backs; it is sociable, facing into the centre of the room rather than just at your companions; it is flexible, so you can spread out your coats and bags, or squeeze together to allow more people in; and it is consistent, so it is the same in each spot in the pub. It is the quintessential type of pub seating.

However, in more recent years benches have increasingly been replaced by other forms of seating. First are the dreaded posing tables, which to my mind are extremely awkward and uncomfortable, and create a division with anyone at a lower level. If I went in a pub and saw nowhere to sit but posing tables, I would go elsewhere. In a bizarre move, one fairly traditional pub not too far from me has recently replaced half the seating in what was a very pleasant and well-appointed lounge with posing tables. No, I don’t understand it either.

Then there is the introduction of much larger tables, that may be suitable for eight or ten. These dominate the interior and, compared with smaller ones make solo drinkers or groups of two or three feel out-of-place. They also make the usage of the space less flexible. My local pub had a fairly respectful refurbishment a few years ago, but it would greatly benefit from overlarge tables being replaced with twice as many smaller ones.

In contrast, other pubs feature regimented rows of small rectangular tables for two or four, with bare wood dining chairs, which produces an atmosphere more akin to a French bistro than a cosy pub. This is a particular favourite of Wetherspoon’s. You go in Wetherspoon’s in the morning, and see a fair number of the tables occupied by one solitary bloke with his newspaper and plastic carrier bag. Put them on benches facing into the middle of a room, and they’d be much more likely to talk to each other, as indeed they do in certain other pubs.

Then you get squishy sofas, which place you at the wrong angle for drinking, make a very inefficient use of space, and put you at a lower level than other customers. And don’t get me started on industrial-chic craft bars where you’re expected to sit on what is basically a plank!

While all of these forms of interior design may have their fans and their merits, to my eye all are much inferior to wall benches. Introducing a variety of them in the same space produces an awkward, unsettled interior, and means that if your favourite type is occupied you may have to put up with something you don’t care for.

Bench seating is always a positive in pubs, but it is possible to produce an appealing interior without it. A key factor is to have comfortable chairs with upholstered seats and backs, like those in the picture of the Crow’s Nest, rather than spindly bare wood ones or backless stools. And the chairs should be arranged so that half of them have their backs against the wall and face outwards into the room, rather than facing tables arranged at right-angles to the wall. Tables should be relatively small, ideally no more than four-seaters, and encourage a more sociable and pubby feeling if they are round or oval rather than rectangular. You can also move around them to get closer together or further apart. The round, three-legged Britannia table, shown at the right, is the pub classic – and, of course, three-legged tables don’t rock on uneven floors.

Speaking personally, if I don’t feel “at home” in a pub, I will be deterred from returning, no matter how good the beer is. Obviously, all the above is basically subjective personal opinion, but I think I’ve spent enough time in pubs to have a good idea of what works in promoting social interaction, and what makes people feel awkward and ill-at-ease.

Thursday, 27 February 2020

Keep it flowing

On the National Bass Day Facebook group, several pubs such as the Old Vaults in Uttoxeter, the Fountain in Leek and the Devonshire Arms and Derby Inn in Burton-on-Trent have stated that they are selling 80 to 100 gallons of Draught Bass every week. That’s nearly three full barrels and, given that Bass is supplied in 10-gallon containers, means that they’re usually emptying a container within a day.

Forty years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for big, busy pubs in industrial areas, such as Holt’s in Manchester and Tetley’s in Yorkshire, to be shifting twenty barrels or more a week of Bitter. The sight of the pumps being constantly in action was usually a reliable sign of a decent pint. However, the switch to lager, especially amongst volume drinkers, and the general decline of beer sales in pubs have put paid to that, and in today’s climate three barrels of one single cask beer is pretty good going.

So often nowadays you encounter cask beer that, while not off as such, is that little bit tired, tepid and flat, and many pubs seem to be constantly operating on the edge of the maximum recommended time for keeping beer on sale. And it’s not that uncommon for beer to tip over the edge and turn to Sarson’s Best. But if you can reliably shift a container within a day, or not much more early in the week, you can at a stroke eliminate one of the main reasons behind customers receiving poor beer over the bar.

Of course, it’s not the only factor, and attention still needs to be paid to giving beer time to settle and mature, basic hygiene and maintaining temperature and condition. It’s also not as simple as saying that if a pub cut its number of cask lines it would turn the remaining beers over more quickly, as the reduction in choice might well result in customers taking their business elsewhere. However, there’s an element of chicken and egg about the trade-off between range and quality, and if you are succeeding in selling a cask a day it’s a sure sign that your customers appreciate it. No pub will be able to do that if the beer isn’t good in the first place.

It’s always worth remembering that two of the fundamental tenets of good cellar management are keeping the beer in the cellar for a decent period to allow it to settle and mature, and once it has been put on sale to empty the cask as quickly as possible. So many of the problems drinkers experience with poor beer are due to those principles being reversed.

Monday, 24 February 2020

You can lead a horse to water

The latest imposition on business from the public health lobby has surfaced in Bristol, where the city’s health and wellbeing board has proposed requiring pubs to stock a non-alcoholic beer on draught. This would initially only apply to city-centre venues with a large number of taps, but presumably would eventually be rolled out to cover the rest. They claim that the idea “would increase consumption of the healthier drinks by making them more visible and socially acceptable because they would look the same in a pint glass as an ordinary beer.”

This really is an unprecedented step, not simply to prevent businesses from selling a particular product, but to force them to sell one. And, of course, while you can make pubs stock alcohol-free beer, you can’t make customers buy it. The risk is that pubs will be left with stocks of unsaleable beer that they end up having to pour down the drain, at their own cost, of course. There’s a very good reason why low-volume products are sold in bottles or cans rather than on draught.

In any case, in the past few years there has been a huge expansion in the availability and choice of alcohol-free beers in pubs, so the market is already providing a solution to the problem. I’ve recently spotted draught Heineken Zero in a couple of pubs. If the demand is there, pubs will meet it.

It brings back memories of suggestions in Glasgow a few years ago to require pubs and other eating places to offer “healthy” salads on their menus. This fortunately never came to anything, but you can see the public health lobby’s eyes lighting up at the thought of all kind of things they could mandate businesses to do, without having any responsibility for the potentially adverse effect on profitability.

It’s worth noting that the proposals also involve further ostracism of smokers by reclassifying part of outdoor smoking areas for vaping only. Given that indoor vaping remains a legal activity, wouldn’t it make more sense to encourage pubs to provide vaping rooms or sections inside their premises?

Friday, 21 February 2020

Stuff this great Bass

As many readers will already be aware, National Bass Day is being held for the first time on Saturday 11th April this year, a day that marks the 243rd anniversary of William Bass buying his first brewery in Burton-on-Trent. The thinking behind it is fully explained here by thewickingman, but basically it is an independent initiative to celebrate an iconic British beer that seems to have been sadly neglected by its current brand owners. It has attracted an impressive amount of support, with its dedicated Facebook group now approaching 700 members, and a growing number of licensees pledging to get a cask on specially for the day.

However, probably inevitably, it has attracted the usual crop of carping and naysayers. One obvious question is that of why should anyone want to give support to a brand owned by a multinational company and contracted out to another large brewery. However, it is a central part of our beer heritage, the first registered trademark, and still probably the best-known British (as opposed to Irish) beer name in the world. It’s something well worth championing, and if its owners are happy to neglect it then someone else has to stand up.

Despite an almost total lack of advertising and promotion, and the absence of the support provided by a tied house network, it still retains a strong following and huge reserves of customer loyalty, both in its home territory and across the country in pubs from Tynemouth to Falmouth. Some pubs who have joined the Facebook group are reporting selling 80 or 100 gallons a week, or nearly three full barrels, which is some going for a single cask beer in this day and age. That is surely something worthy of celebration. Without the muscle of a PR machine behind it, or any pressure to bundle it in with other products, every pub that stocks Bass has made a positive choice to have it on the bar, meaning that it’s generally well cared for.

But, of course, it’s not what it was, is it? It hasn’t been brewed in the Burton Unions since 1981, and since then it’s been passed from pillar to post and ended up being contracted out to what were once one of its main local rivals. However, memory is a very fickle thing, especially when it comes to taste, which is something that cannot be preserved. Can we honestly say that anything is really what it was? And the fact that it was once brewed in the Unions is now ancient history. I’d say it’s still a fine beer, very quaffable for its strength, with a distinctive bittersweet character and slight hint of sourness, that certainly doesn’t disgrace its proud heritage. As thewickingman says in the post linked to above,

Is Draught Bass still that beer, produced in the Burton Union system, in my memory from the days as a young bloke in Burton? Who knows, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. What is certain is that the Draught Bass, currently brewed under licence by Marston’s in Burton, is one of the most well-crafted traditional beers coming out of any brewery in England. As Roger Protz has written, “If Timothy Taylor’s Landlord…or Draught Bass are bland beers, I am a banana sandwich.” He’s not a banana sandwich, but he does support National Bass Day 2020. Thanks Roger.
And aren’t customers being misled as to its provenance? Shouldn’t it say on the pumpclip “Brewed by Marston’s”? Some people do get rather exercised about this issue, but it has to be recognised that, nowadays, most beers and other consumer products sell through strong, easily-recognised brand names. The days of “Bloggs’ Burpington Bitter” have long gone. Drinkers of Doom Bar or San Miguel really aren’t that bothered about who owns the brand or where it is brewed. There is no deliberate intention to deceive here, and it’s surely common knowledge amongst Bass drinkers where it actually comes from. At least it’s still brewed in Burton by people who care about it.

If Bass doesn’t particularly float your boat, or you see nothing to appeal to you in this initiative, that’s fair enough. Everyone has their own tastes, and it’s not compulsory to get involved. But it seems a touch churlish to carp and whinge about something that, after all, is promoting British beer and pubs. As thewickingman’s granny used to say, “If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.”

It would perhaps be wrong to attribute too much wider cultural significance to National Bass Day, but it’s worth noting that it is a grassroots initiative to promote a traditional British cask beer, and the largely traditional pubs that sell it, that goes completely against the grain of the rejection of the past and the quest for ceaseless innovation that seem to characterise so much “beer enthusiasm” nowadays.

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

In praise of boring brown beer

It’s common to hear people refer disparagingly to “boring brown beer” and dismiss it as all much of a muchness. However, as former Fuller’s head brewer John Keeling argues in this article, that is very far from the truth.

Yes, now of course there is much more choice of beer styles in absolute terms, but in practice there’s often much less variety across mainstream pubs, and we have lost the contrast provided by distinctive tied estates owned by a range of brewers, and the fascination of discovering new beers that had their own territory in limited areas.

...one of the joys of travelling through the country was to try the local version of bitter. In fact, being `a born and bred Mancunian’ meant it was not difficult to find different versions. I grew up on Boddingtons, Robinsons, Holts, Hyde’s, and Oldham Brewery.
He forgets Lees, and within the Manchester area there was also plenty of real ale from independent brewers such as Marston’s, Higson’s, Thwaites and Samuel Smith, plus Big Six offshoots such as Tetley’s and Wilson’s, plus Bass and Whitbread to a limited extent. All the bitters, and milds, produced by these companies, had their own distinctive character and were often very different from one another. In no way was the drinking experience dull or samey. There was also far more real ale around in total than is often imagined, or than there is now, although availability was much patchier and it was very thin on the ground in London, thus leading CAMRA’s “Founding Four” to imagine that it was on the brink of disappearing.

It should also be remembered that, back then, the pubs were much busier, had a wider social mix of customers and often, despite the supposed introduction of “all-day opening”, were open for longer hours than they are now.

He also makes the important point that “CAMRA was formed to save the great beer that was being brewed and not to get people to brew great beer.” It’s often claimed today that CAMRA’s primary objective was increasing choice, but in fact this represents an attempt to rewrite history. In the early days, this was definitely not the case. Real ale was felt to be under threat, and so the core purpose was a preservationist one, to champion the beers that were already in existence, encourage people to drink them and spread the word about where they could be found.

The main focus of change was to persuade breweries to swap keg or top-pressure dispense for cask on the beers they already sold, not to add new ones. The days of microbreweries and multi-beer free houses, except in penny numbers, were still well in the future. Even new beers were virtually unheard of – the first major new beer launch of the “Real Ale Revolution” was Ind Coope Burton Ale, which didn’t come along until 1976.

Looking through the 1975 Good Beer Guide, all the entries on the page including Stockport were just selling standard beers, bitter and usually mild, from the likes of Ind Coope, Wilson’s, Whitbread, Boddington’s and Robinson’s. No premium beers (apart from one with Bass) and nowhere with more than three different ones on the bar. Of course there was choice, and there was plenty in Cheshire, but it was found across the tied houses of different brewers, rather than within individual pubs.

It may seem quaint now, but one of CAMRA’s main campaigning planks in its early years was the ending of local quasi-monopolies in the tied house market, which eventually triggered some half-hearted pub swaps between the major brewers in the late 1970s. Now, of course, the post-Beer Orders break-up of the erstwhile “Big Six” has pretty much entirely swept that local dominance away.

While CAMRA undoubtedly played an important role, it is probable that many of the changes in the beer market that it is linked with would have happened anyway to some degree with the change in emphasis from the glossy modernism of the 1960s to the more natural, traditional, “small-is-beautiful” ethos of the 1970s.

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Solitary splendour

Martyn Cornell recently wrote a very interesting post on his Zythophile blog In defence of sitting in a pub on your own. This is a subject I have touched on in the past, for example here and here. Some people find any kind of solitude unsettling, but for others, especially those of a quieter and more introverted nature, having a couple of drinks on your own in the pub can provide a valuable opportunity to relax, recharge your batteries and order your thoughts. The idea of the pub being a valued “third space” where you can take refuge, if only for a while, from the concerns and responsibilities of home and work applies just as much to the solo pint as that enjoyed in company, As he says,
I’m entirely happy here in my own head, sitting and thinking, people-watching, enjoying my pint, getting a vicarious buzz from all the social interaction around me, and I will get up after a beer or two and go home having had all the contact with people I need right now.
And, as I said in one of the posts I linked to above,
Until various illnesses put it beyond him, my late dad used to go out for a pint or two at lunchtime a couple of days a week. My mum would ask “what’s the point of that if you never talk to anyone?” but that is missing the point. If nothing more, it provides a change of scenery, a bit of mental stimulation and something to look forward to. Sometimes you exchange a bit of conversation, other times all you do its talk to the bar staff, but anything’s better than nothing.
This is reinforced by another rather poignant comment:
This one hits the point with me. I'm old and now alone, but not lonely, my wife passed away 4 years ago. I use the pubs several times a week just to sit quietly chat, read a book and a change of scenery. Without the pubs I would be lonely but I find I get the necessary interaction with just a brief visit to charge my batteries up for another day or two. Probably seems sad to most people but we all have our own ways of coping with different and difficult situations.
This is especially important for people with Asperger’s syndrome and similar conditions, who may find any kind of social interaction challenging. However, that doesn’t mean that they want to shun all company, more that they prefer to do it in a manner that allows them to control just how much contact there is, and retreat if it becomes too much. The simple act of getting out of the house and being in the company of others, even if you don’t converse with them, can in itself be very valuable. Vicarious socialising is still socialising. I can’t think of any other situation other than the pub where that is possible.

Martyn also raise the issue of the “age of invisibility”, especially in relation to women visiting a pub on their own. That is perhaps really a separate subject but, as I said in the comments, it applies to men as well to some extent. Young people are very judgmental of their peers, and when I was younger I would occasionally attract unwelcome attention from people around my own age if I was in a pub on my own. Now I am just another indistinguishable bespectacled late middle-aged bloke, nobody seems remotely bothered.

It also must be said that there are many – probably too many – pubs where the general layout, atmosphere and offer make enjoying that solitary pint well-nigh impossible.

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Double standards? I’ll bet!

As explained on this website, children under the age of 18 are not allowed in a betting shop under any circumstances. This is obviously a very different situation from the law that now applies to pubs. Following on from my post earlier this week about the links between drinking and gambling, I thought I would ask on Twitter whether people felt this restriction should be relaxed. The results, as shown below, were a pretty decisive no.

However, this comes across as more than a touch hypocritical. Is the action of taking your child with you into a pub while you have a pint really much different in principle from taking them into the bookie’s while you put a tenner on Brewer’s Droop in the 4.15 at Catterick? Obviously taking a child into a pub for a meal is a different situation, but otherwise both are a case of a child accompanying its parent while they carry out what is basically an adult activity. The child is expected to behave as well as possible while they’re there, but they’re not there for their own benefit.

Some people look on taking children to the pub through highly rose-tinted spectacles.

The reality, though, can be very different: The reason children were excluded from betting shops was to protect their own interests, not for the convenience of the punters. But are they really corrupting of the young by several orders of magnitude greater than pubs? The article I linked to above suggests that, if adults find it difficult to put a bet on with a child in tow, they should consider internet betting instead. However, that fails to recognise that, for many, physically placing a bet and then possibly watching the result on TV, is a kind of “getting out of the house” social ritual in just the same way as going to the pub.

Betting shops are also, of course, prohibited from selling alcoholic drinks. But, as well as the ban on children, they are also required to have opaque windows to stop people on the street gawping inside, something else that is now less and less common in pubs. So spending an hour or so there might not actually be all that unpleasant...

Monday, 10 February 2020

Pubs and punters

I was recently in a pub in central Stockport* when a bloke quickly finished his pint and said he had to leave to put a bet on at the nearby bookie’s. “Beer and betting, that’s all I live for now,” he said. And the two activities certainly have a long and close connection. Before the legalisation of off-course betting in 1961, the pub was the favourite hangout of the bookie’s runner, and the preferred activity of the legendary Pub Shaman of Prestwich was “the solitary pint in a smoke-filled vault poring over a fixed odds coupon and going through a packet of Bensons.” One of my local pubs when I lived in Runcorn had a betting shop built in a corner of the car park for the convenience of its customers.

I have to say it’s something that has never remotely appealed to me, and I have never put a commercial bet on in my life. However, I recognise that, since the dawn of mankind, there has been an irresistible inclination to lay wagers on all kinds of activities, and gambling is an extremely popular activity worldwide, even in countries where alcohol is prohibited. It is also something that is highly susceptible to criminal activity, which is why there is a strong argument for making it legal to a greater or lesser extent, to bring it in from the cold. That, of course, was the motivation behind the legalisation of off-course betting in the UK in 1961. While strictly illegal, it was widely tolerated beforehand and indeed implicitly supported by the publication of race cards in newspapers.

In some respects, gambling is similar to alcohol in that it is something that is widely enjoyed, that most people manage to cope with and keep under control, but which does cause serious problems of addiction for a minority. Both have issues of restricting access for minors – while children are now widely admitted to pubs, betting shops are strictly over-18s only. Plus, both have for a very long time been the target of campaigns of moral disapproval. Indeed at present it seems that gambling, especially in terms of its connection with football, is the subject of a moral panic that possibly is diverting some of the prohibitionists’ attention from alcohol.

I can’t say it’s a subject that I’ve studied in any depth, and it’s not for me to say that the balance between control and permissiveness has currently been struck in the right place. But I know that Christopher Snowdon, who has been assiduous in exposing the lies and exaggerations of the anti-drink lobby on his Velvet Glove, Iron Fist blog, has pointed out many of the same things about gambling, that both the prevalence of “problem gambling” and the rate of its increase have been greatly overstated by the those whose agenda is to oppose gambling per se.

This underlines one of the key problems faced by those who are opposed to increased lifestyle regulation, that people so often think in silos and, while they may perceive a threat to their favoured indulgence, fail to draw the connection with other activities towards which they are indifferent or indeed may even actively oppose. There’s no point in standing up for freedom if you’re only prepared to defend those things you personally like.

* No prizes for guessing which one.

Wednesday, 5 February 2020

Lowering the bar

“Dry January” always sees a surge in media interest in low-alcohol and alcohol-free beers, and they are certainly showing a substantial rise in sales, with annual increases of 6% being reported. This has led to an expansion of the selection available in supermarkets, where two or three years ago you would find very little beyond rather dull mainstream lagers and one or two rather unpleasant alcohol-free ales. My local branches of Tesco and Morrisons have both started doing three for £3 offers to appeal to customers who want to try a variety of different examples.

As I’ve reported before, this is an area of the market that I have dabbled with, so over the past couple of months I have sampled some of the newer arrivals.

  • Brew Dog Punk AF (0.5% ABV) – this seemed to me to have a one-dimensional, aggressive hoppiness, whereas in Punk IPA this is balanced by the alcohol. Not to my taste at all.

  • Coast Beer Co.(Belgium) Hazy IPA (0.0% ABV) – only subdued hoppiness, sweetish, citrusy flavour. Quite pleasant, but more like a vaguely beer-flavoured soft drink.

  • Big Drop Brewing Company Stout (0.5% ABV) (pictured) – the pronounced stout flavour rather compensates for the lack of alcohol, although you do notice it eventually. Quite decent overall, from a new brewery specialising in low-alcohol beers.

  • Brooklyn Special Effects Hoppy Lager (0.4% ABV) – darker than many IPAs, quite full-bodied, hoppy but not aggressively so. This is probably the best of these I’ve tasted – something you might well be happy to drink for its own sake.
It’s certainly true that both the range and quality of no and low-alcohol beers has shown a marked improvement over the past couple of years. I would say from these that the little bit of alcohol contained in a 0.5% beer, as opposed to a 0.0% one, does in general bring about a worthwhile improvement.

However, as I wrote around this time last year, the inherent limitations of non-alcoholic beers place a fundamental ceiling on their prospects in the marketplace, and I would say some of the more bullish projections of growth are overstated. However good they are, they will never be any more than a pale echo of normal-strength beers. They may mirror the experience of drinking it, but they omit the essential point of beer. And it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that the major brewers are promoting them partly to act as a shop window for their standard products.

Friday, 31 January 2020

Raise a glass

Well, at last we’ve got there. Forty-three months after the referendum, and ten months after it was supposed to happen, today we are finally leaving the European Union. So I think I can be forgiven for indulging in a celebratory libation of English ale.

The day after the referendum, I made the point that the smoking ban, and other instances of the political class treating ordinary people with patronising contempt, was a small contributory factor towards the result. And subsequent events have only served to reinforce that message.

A reminder that the comment facility is not provided as a platform for Brexit bitterness.

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Can I just try one of those?

Martin Taylor has drawn my attention to this brilliant skit making fun of people who take advantage of asking for tasters in pubs. The punchline is, from what I’ve heard, only too true. While tasters have their place, I have written before about how asking for one is often just an affectation, and some people do abuse the facility. As one licensee said, “Yes, I do offer tasters. They’re called halves.”