Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Too much of a good thing?

Regular readers of this blog will have gathered that I strongly favour multi-roomed pubs with intimate spaces and cosy snugs over echoing, open-plan wastelands. However, the layout of any pub has to be considered in terms of how it actually works, and how the customers distribute themselves, and it has to be said that some designs, while looking good on paper, fall over in practice.

Last year, I praised Sam Smith’s for their refurbishment of the Swan at Holmes Chapel in Cheshire, which involved reinstating a number of small rooms. There’s a general description of the project here. However, even at the time, I have to say I felt a slight sense of unease that the individual rooms were too much separated from the bar. In my last post, I reported how the pub had recently dropped cask Old Brewery Bitter due to an insufficient level of sales, and my correspondent tells me that the locals are unhappy about the pub’s layout.

The plan above, courtesy of Michael Harris, (click to enlarge) shows the general arrangement. The bar counter is actually against the left-hand wall of the top right room, not the bottom, and the gents’ toilets are in a different place, but it still basically reflects how it is. Going in through the door on the left-hand side, facing the main road, there are four small rooms, two on each side of the corridor. The front bottom room was originally laid out as a vault, although I’m told the dartboard has now been removed. To the rear of that is a cosy snug with plush bench seating which to my mind is the best spot in the pub – see the photo below. This is where I encountered the amiable Porter, last year’s Pub Cat of the Year, who sadly vanished shortly afterwards.

Further back, there is the room containing the bar counter, shown below, and a further room opening off it which is used as a dining room. Many pub customers either want to stand at the bar, or sit fairly close to it, but the room it’s in is fairly small and has no fixed seating, while the four rooms at the front of the pub feel quite remote and cut off from it.

Thinking about other pubs, even those that have a complex, multi-roomed layout tend to put the bar at the centre of proceedings. This is certainly true in Stockport’s National Inventory pubs such as the Alexandra, Nursery, Swan with Two Necks and Arden Arms, plus others with a traditional layout such as the Blossoms and the Griffin in Heaton Mersey. The other week, I spent a few days in East Yorkshire during which I called in at two of Sam’s classic unspoilt gems, the Olde Blue Bell in Hull and the White Horse in Beverley. Both of these have plenty of small, cosy rooms, especially the latter, but both also have a long, centrally-located bar counter in a sizeable room with plenty of fixed seating, so customers can choose whether to be in the middle of the hustle and bustle or somewhere more secluded.

This is where the Swan falls down, and why a layout that looks appealing on the drawing board fails to work on the ground. I’m not quite sure how it was before, but my recollection is that it was more open-plan, with the bar counter on the left-hand side (top on the plan). To my mind, it would be better if the rearward top snug could be combined with the current bar room, and the counter moved so that it was against the left-hand wall. This would create a bigger bar area with more room for customers to circulate and mingle, and also bring the four remaining rooms into closer connection with it. But what’s done is done now.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Moving in mysterious ways

Twitter correspondent Michael Harris has recently reported that Sam Smith’s have removed cask Old Brewery Bitter from the Swan in Holmes Chapel, only just over a year after it was reinstated following the pub’s extensive refurbishment, which I described here. Apparently it just wasn’t selling quickly enough, leading to a lot of wastage. There’s nothing wrong with that approach in principle, and indeed some other pub operators would do well to follow it rather than struggling to sell cask where there’s insufficient demand.

However, looking at Sams’ mix of cask and keg pubs, it’s hard to believe that it’s applied in a consistent way. For example, surely the very popular Sinclair’s in Manchester city centre must easily have enough turnover for cask, and it’s hard to believe that the Roebuck in Rochdale town centre, which Tandleman wrote about here, doesn’t either. Likewise the well-situated and busy Duncan and General Eliott in Leeds city centre, both noted for their down-to-earth atmosphere and presumably shifting impressive barrelages.

On the other hand, cask seems to be almost ubiquitous in Sams’ clutch of rural and village pubs in Cheshire, some of which must have a much lower turnover than the urban boozers I mentioned above. Might a consideration be that some pubs have a more middle-class clientele that might be rather more resistant to the removal of cask beer? After all, how many keg –only pubs do you come across and think “that’s a missed opportunity for cask”? In general, it’s associated with inner-urban and estate pubs catering overwhelmingly for local trade.

Another curious feature of Sams’ pubs is the variation in the selection of keg beers available. They have a very wide range – I think 14 including the cider – and obviously most pubs would struggle to sell the lot, but what you get often seems quite arbitrary. Virtually all pubs seem to have OBB, whether cask or keg, Taddy Lager, Stout and Cider, but beyond that it can be pot luck.

The Boar’s Head in Stockport has pretty much the full range apart from the higher-strength India Ale and the rarely-spotted Best Bitter. The light mild is rarer than the dark, but most of the pubs Tandleman has visited in Rochdale don’t have either. One pub I visit has the excellent Double Four Lager, while another similar one doesn’t. Sovereign Bitter, which, although of similar strength, is an entirely different brew from OBB, sometimes crops up, and sometimes doesn’t.

The German Wheat Beer is, perhaps understandably, fairly rare, while the relatively strong and expensive India Ale doesn’t appear in the two Stockport town-centre pubs, and nor in most of their Cheshire estate, where presumably the fact that many customers will be driving is a consideration. I believe it is popular in their London pubs, though. In fact, finding a 5% keg bitter outside of a “craft” pub is quite a rarity. Incidentally, I recently tried this on draught for the first time in the White Horse in Beverley, and have to say it’s a beer I would drink more often if I came across it.

I wonder if anyone’s ever tried to make a serious analysis of what sells where, or whether it’s simply something that has developed arbitrarily over the years based on past trading patterns.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

A matter of taste

I recently linked to an article entitled Ten Commandments for the Public House, which was a list of things that well-run pubs would do well to avoid. Perhaps surprisingly, the one that people seemed to take exception to was Number 5 – “don’t offer tasters of beer”.

In the early years of CAMRA, when the vast majority of pubs just offered a fixed beer range, the idea was unknown, and to ask for a sample would have been greeted with derision. However, as ever-changing guest beers have increasingly become the norm, the practice has become more and more common. If you go in a pub and are confronted with an array of ten beers you’ve never heard of before, it’s not unreasonable to ask for a taste before committing yourself to spending what now can often be approaching a couple of quid just for a half.

However, the range of flavours encompassed by the great majority of beers is fairly limited and predictable, so you’re unlikely to end up with something that really frightens the horses. If it doesn’t suit your palate, then just don’t buy it again. It’s also doubtful whether a small sample really gives a fair impression of what a beer is like. It’s often said that you don’t fully appreciate a beer until you reach the bottom of the glass. Recently, I was peering at the handpumps in a pub, and was offered a taster of one of them by the landlord (note that I didn’t ask for it). One sip seemed fine, but the actual pint ended up being distinctly hazy and yeasty, so the sample didn’t provide a fair representation.

Asking for tasters is obviously something likely to incur the wrath of both bar staff and other customers if you do it when they’re three deep at the bar. You can imagine the H. M. Bateman cartoon of “The man who asked for a taster in Wetherspoon’s at 10.30 on Friday night”. And it does seem to appeal to a certain type of person who can only be a dignified with the title of “tosser”. As Paul Mudge said on the Beer and Pubs Forum:

“My agreement with 5 is mainly from working at beer festivals and experiencing 'tasters' being abused, a customer asking "can I have a taster of A", "oh, no, I don't like that, can I have a taster of B", "oh, no, I don't like that, can I have a taster of C", "oh, that's a bit better, I think I'll have a third of a pint of of C", then doing precisely the same every half hour with a different volunteer each time, not just the time taken but always getting well over half a pint for the cost of a third.”
I’ve sometimes seen it argued that offering tasters is a good way of encouraging people to try cask beer. But surely, if anything, it just adds a layer of mystique to the subject, and the best way of promoting cask must be to keep it in good condition and offer beers that people actually want to drink and are likely to make repeat purchases.

One person on Twitter even suggested that asking for tasters was now necessary in view of the poor standards of cellarmanship in London pubs. He may be right on that, but the point of tasters is not to check whether the beer is off, and, as said above, a taster may not give a proper impression of the beer anyway. I’d say you have a reasonable expectation in any pub of not getting a duff pint and, if you do, the remedy is to take it back and ask for it to be changed.

Yes, if a beer has an unusual or challenging flavour, then offering tasters makes sense. But, for the great majority of beers, it’s just an affectation on a par with putting little jam jars of beer alongside the pumps to indicate the colour. And you never see people ask for tasters of lager, do you?

Friday, 19 May 2017

Wells I never!

Many industry watchers were taken by surprise at yesterday’s news that Marston’s were to acquire the brewing interests of Charles Wells for £55m. While Wells are not particularly prominent as pub operators, they also own the Young’s, Courage and McEwan’s brands and are major players in both the cask and premium bottled ale sectors. Production figures are hard to come by, but my understanding is that they, alongside Greene King and Marston’s, formed the “Big Three” of British-owned brewers, and this deal will clearly propel Marston’s into first place.

Marston’s have a fairly good track record in keeping open the breweries they have acquired, as acknowledged in CAMRA’s very measured press release, and I’d say there is little immediate threat to either the brands or the Bedford brewery. It’s a large, modern plant and possibly has a brighter long-term future than some of Marston’s other sites.

However, the deal takes a major player out of the market and must, to some extent, reduce the amount of competition. Inevitably, some beers will be singled out for investment and promotion while others, while remaining in production, are allowed to linger on in zombie brand status without any active support. It isn’t an immediate hammer-blow, but in the long term it isn’t really going to be good news.

The reduction of competition will be felt less in the cask sector than in premium bottled ales, where Marston’s, as well as their own label, Banks’s, Jennings, Wychwood and Ringwood, have recently acquired Wainwright and Lancaster Bomber from Thwaites, and have now added the four Wells brands on top of that. A surprising proportion of the shelf space will now be occupied by the products of one company. And, if times become harder in the future, the pressure will come for rationalisation of both brands and production facilities.

A few years ago, I was kindly given a number of samples of Wells & Youngs’s beers (as they then were) for tasting, which I reported on here. The conclusion was that they were a generally high-quality range of beers that demonstrated accomplished brewing skills and brought something distinctive to the market. It would be a pity if that were to be eroded over time. More recently they have introduced Charlie Wells Triple Hopped IPA, which is not really the “hop monster” the name might imply, but overlays a strong hop element on Well’s characteristic dry, malty base and is one of my favourites amongst currently available bottled ales.

By disposing of their brewing interests, Charles Wells will lose what made them distinctive, and end up just becoming yet another pub company.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Tough on pubs, tough on the causes of pubs

Amongst the proposals leaked this week in Labour’s election manifesto was one to carry out an enquiry into the reasons behind the “large-scale demise” of pubs. This comes across as quite jawdropping, given that the Labour government elected in 2005 both imposed the blanket smoking ban and introduced the alcohol duty escalator. Both of these, especially the former, have been major causes of the decline in pub numbers.

They also twice proposed cutting the drink-drive limit in England and Wales, which would have led to the closure of thousands more pubs, and might well have gone through with it if they had been re-elected in 2010. Whether this proposal stems from a genuine lack of self-awareness, or breathtaking chutzpah, is hard to tell. It’s rather like Dr Beeching calling for an enquiry into the reduction in railway mileage.

The whole thing is comprehensively demolished by Christopher Snowdon, which concludes by saying:

There seems to be a reasonable chance that the Labour government that banned smoking in pubs is the last Labour government Britain will ever have. Tony Blair resigned just days before the legislation came into force in 2007. If so, the final 'up yours' to the working class that the smoking ban represented would be a fitting bookend for a party that was once on the side of ordinary people.
It brings to mind the occasion back in 2009 when Alan Campbell, the Labour minister responsible for regulating the licensed trade, couldn’t recall the last time he’d actually been in one. No doubt if Jeremy Corbyn dared to venture into a pub somewhere outside of North London the customers would impart some home truths to him.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Degradation by stealth

The makers of Lucozade have recently come under a barrage of criticism for changing the formula of the drink to reduce the sugar content, to bring it into the middle band under the government’s sugar tax plans. This has been done for other products, such as Irn-Bru, but seems particularly inappropriate for Lucozade. While in recent years it has been marketed more as a lifestyle drink, it was originally specifically intended to have a high glucose content. That’s why you were given it as kid when you were ill and couldn’t stomach proper food. With the sugar content halved, it will also be of much less use to diabetics who previously often kept a can handy in case of a hypoglycaemic attack.

You can read the whole sorry story over at Chris Snowdon’s blog. What is most worrying about this is that it represents part of a concerted attempt to in effect change the national diet by stealthily cutting the sugar content of food and drink. As he reports, it’s not judged acceptable to introduce a new, lower-sugar variant and give people the choice, because apparently they wouldn’t buy it. This despite the fact that diet soft drinks already account for over half the market without any government arm-twisting. And nor should manufacturers retain the old formulation in a separate “classic” brand as that would be against the spirit of the policy.

As he points out, food manufacturers do not put salt and sugar in their products out of malice, but because they make them taste better. The scope for reducing sugar content in, say, chocolate bars is fairly limited if you still want them to be palatable, so at the end of the day the only option if the targets are to be met will be further cuts in portion size.

We saw something similar a few years ago in the form of government-inspired arm-twisting to get manufacturers to “take alcohol units out of the market” by reducing the strength of popular beer and cider brands. However, more recently things seem to have gone quiet on this front. In the alcohol market, the strength is much more prominent as a headline number on the bottle or can, and there is a wide range of brands in the market so there are more opportunities to switch if you’re not happy.

There’s also only so far you can go before you completely change the nature of the product. Twenty years ago, I admit to having a sneaking liking for Stella Artois which, at 5.2% ABV, was that little bit stronger than most of its competitors and also, despite being British-brewed, was actually made of some fairly decent ingredients. However, after having been reduced to 4.8% and the quality of materials cheapened, it’s now a very forgettable and wishy-washy liquid. Cut a premium lager further to 4.5%, and it’s no longer a premium lager. It’s also noticeable how it’s always beer and cider that are singled out for these cuts, and never wine or spirits.

Government-mandated measures also make it impossible to cut drink sizes without people noticing, although I’m sure the public health lobby are looking approvingly at all those titchy little “craft cans”, while regretting that the two-thirds measure has never taken off in the mainstream pub trade.

Reading all of this, its hard to avoid agreeing with Simon Cooke when he says It's time to close down public health and get our lives back.

Tablets of stone

It’s not very often that I come across an article in the media that has me nodding vigorously in agreement throughout, but this one in Spectator Life certainly qualifies: Ten commandments for the public house. Do read the whole thing, but the ten points very much come across as a Mudgie manifesto. He’s even got posing tables in there as #6!
  1. Don’t be pretentious
  2. Don’t serve food that takes more than six words to describe
  3. Don’t change your name
  4. Don’t pipe music
  5. Don’t offer tasters of beer
  6. Don’t fill the room with those bizarre high chairs
  7. Don’t fetishise the handled glass and its quaint dimples
  8. Don’t allow tables to be reserved
  9. Don’t upgrade your toilets
  10. Don’t plaster the walls with TVs
Incidentally, for the benefit of mobile readers, I’ve recently added a General Election poll to the sidebar of the desktop version. I’ll publish the final figures on June 8th, but please don’t share it around social media as it may distort the results.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Reduced to clear

If you see a product on special offer, it will usually be a good buying opportunity if it’s something you actually want. However, for perishable goods, the benefit may be more questionable, and that particularly applies to cask beer.

On New Year’s Eve last year, I accompanied American visitors Dick and Dave Southworth on a brief tour of some of Stockport’s pubby delights. We went in the Red Bull, where Hartley’s Cumbria Way was on the bar at the bargain price of £2 a pint. I was doubtful, but one of them was tempted, only to receive, as I could have predicted, a glass of beer that wasn’t off as such, but distinctly tired, stale and lacking condition. The standard full-price beers, though, were fine.

Later in January, Reading CAMRA luminary Sir Quinno and his missus made a fleeting lunchtime visit to Stockport, which they had never been to before. After a swift half in the Crown, we headed uphill to the Armoury, where again one beer, I think Robinsons’ outgoing seasonal, was available at a reduced price. Once more, one of them was tempted, and ended up with a lacklustre pint, while the standard beers were in good nick.

Realistically, cask beer is only going to be reduced if it’s getting past its best and the pub is struggling to sell it, so, however attractive the price may seem, a cut-price offer will rarely be worth the risk. The only possible exception is particularly strong beers that are likely to keep better and may be still be palatable even if they have acquired a somewhat vinous character.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The Effingham Arms

A distinctive feature of Sam Smith’s pubs is a variety of peremptory notices saying things such as:

  • “The Brewery require all customers to leave within twenty minutes of time being called”

  • “No doubling up at last orders”

  • “The use of e-cigarettes is strictly forbidden”

  • “We serve beer with a traditional Northern head, but we’ll top it up if you really want to look like a Southern Jessie”

The latest commandment to be handed down on a tablet of stone from Tadcaster is a total prohibition of swearing, which has attracted a good deal of press and social media comment.

An obvious problem is how you define swearing in the first place. Is it just the well-known c-, f- and w- words, or would it extend to “Jesus Christ, what a bloody cockwomble!” And, as Richard Coldwell points out, given the distinctly down-to-earth nature of many of Sams’ pubs and their clientele, it could prove rather difficult to enforce, not to mention alienating the regular customers. He says, with a memorable turn of phrase, “trying to enforce a swearing ban in somewhere like the very busy General Eliott or The Duncan in Leeds city centre would be like trying to plait snot.” (Incidentally, credit to Richard for the picture reproduced above)

I’m old enough not to be shocked by swearing, but I have to say that the sound of other customers continually effing and blinding can lower the tone in pubs and produce a somewhat uncomfortable atmosphere, especially when combined with a generally rather coarse line of conversation. As I reported in my Opening Times column back in 2004,

IF YOU'RE a frequent pubgoer, it doesn’t do to be a shrinking violet. Robust language and forthright opinions are commonplace, but what’s acceptable at one place and time might not go down too well across the board. One Sunday lunchtime I was in what can only be described as a rather genteel pub, when a group of lads came in to have a meal. They proceeded to engage in a conversation that nobody else in the room could have failed to overhear, liberally laced with four-letter words and including detailed accounts of their sordid holiday exploits that left little to the imagination. They weren’t at all threatening, and this was nothing that would have been out of place in a city centre at ten o’clock on Friday night, but in an environment where there were pensioners just wanting a quiet drink, and families eating lunch with children, it was distinctly jarring.

Surely in a situation like this the old-fashioned landlord would have come into his own with a well-timed intervention of “come on lads, mind your language!”

This, as you might have guessed. was in the Nursery, my local pub in Heaton Norris. I can’t say I come across such egregious swearing in pubs very often, but the one place I encounter it most is maybe in Wetherspoon’s, which tend to attract a younger and more downmarket clientele than most of the other pubs I frequent. On the other hand, a no swearing policy has long applied in Ye Olde Vic in Edgeley, the community-owned free house.

So maybe this is an area, rather like certain other issues, where there’s a good case for reinstating the traditional distinction between public bar and lounge, where there’s an expectation that different standards of conduct apply. To quote Richard Coldwell again, “Industrial clothing and language should always remain strictly within the tap room, in my opinion.”

Friday, 21 April 2017

White trash

From time to time, the authorities have a go at trying to single out categories of alcoholic drinks that they think are consumed disproportionately by “problem drinkers”. A few years ago, it was high-strength “super” lagers, which gave rise to the additional “Old Tom tax” on any beers over 7.5% ABV. It doesn’t seem to have done much to eradicate them, though, and in my local corner shop you can buy still four cans for £6, which equates to 37.5p per unit. It seems that the additional tax is largely absorbed in lower margins rather than being passed on to the consumer.

Most of them do seem to have been reformulated to 8% ABV rather than 9%, but that’s basically to avoid falling foul of the alcohol nannies by having more units in a single-use can than the daily recommendation. And, of course, many high-quality “craft” products such as the aforementioned Old Tom fell into the net of the tax, underlining the point that it’s impossible to distinguish in law between what are perceived as “good” and “bad” drinks.

The latest product to hove into their sights is “white cider”, with the government currently consulting on ways of increasing the tax level on this product, which benefits from the much lower duty rate attached to cider rather than beer. A few years back, a requirement was introduced that any product classified as cider for duty purposes had to contain at least 35% apple juice amongst the fermentable materials. However, it seems that white ciders still fall within this definition, despite reputedly being mainly composed of high-fructose corn syrup.

I can’t say I’ve ever tried any white cider, as my student days were well before it had been invented, and I have no plans to change that. And it’s hard to argue that it falls even within the broadest definition of connoisseurship. But we have to be very careful to avoid falling into the trap of categorising some alcoholic drinks as “bad” and others as “good”, purely because the latter are more expensive. If you’re swigging cheap gutrot, you’re a pisshead, if I’m sipping expensive craft beer, malt whisky or claret, I’m a discerning connoisseur. As this Daily Mash article says:

GETTING drunk while looking after your children is fine if you are drinking Chablis rather than WKD, it has been confirmed.

Middle class mother Eleanor Shaw and her friends regularly drink ‘some’ bottles of Chablis during their children’s play dates, insisting it is a civilised approach to parenting and ‘something French people probably do’.

Shaw said: “Chablis is a cultivated drink filled with interesting ‘notes’. It’s not like we’re just getting shitfaced.

“Sometimes we describe it using words like ‘biscuity’.”

She added: “Of course, if one of my friends turned up with a bottle of Tesco own-brand vodka I would confiscate it and then report the bitch to social services. Chablis is barely alcohol at all, really.

It’s also very nice if you mix it with half a pint of artisan gin and then stand on the kitchen table singing “Hit Me Baby One More Time.”

This is an attitude that is sadly very common amongst beer-lovers. But, at the end of the day, however much we may savour the taste and character, nobody can ignore that fact that alcohol has an effect on you. Not necessarily an instant road to oblivion, but certainly a gentle warm glow or a lubricant of sociability. You wouldn’t drink it in the same way if it didn’t.

And I would expect that most of the drinkers of white ciders, like those of super lagers, are not derelicts or hopeless alcoholics, but simply generally responsible people who prefer to go a bit higher on the volume/strength trade-off. In general, they’re no cheaper per unit than weaker drinks in the same category, so they can’t be regarded simply as being chosen on the bangs-per-buck ratio. People just don’t want to have to drink large quantities of liquid to achieve the desired effect.

So it’s good to see Gordon Johncox of Frosty Jack’s maker Aston Manor having the courage of his convictions to challenge the attempts by anti-alcohol campaigners to single out white cider.

“There is a constant barrage of criticism and unsubstantiated points made around white cider, who drinks it and why they drink it, from all sorts of bodies.

“We got frustrated with the headlines that were being achieved by some of these well-intentioned but ultimately misguided bodies, and we have actually written to some challenging them.

“The research shows that the typical white cider drinker is very different to the demon presented by some of the bodies. We have written to the Alcohol Health Alliance. They have not replied yet.

“We are going to be far more robust in our challenges than we have been in the past. It’s just wrong that these bodies should be able to get away with making unsubstantiated claims.”

It’s a pity other producers of alcoholic drinks aren’t willing to make a similarly robust response rather than just quietly appeasing the neo-Prohibitionists and hoping they will go away.

As Chris Snowdon argues in the article, if you tax white cider off the shelves, problem drinkers will simply move on to something else. And one of the most obvious destinations is normal “amber” cider where, as I’ve argued before, the line between high-quality craft product and cheap, high-strength booze can be a very fine one.

Then there are all those genuinely artisanal West County farmhouse cidermakers who win numerous awards at CAMRA festivals. But you do wonder whether they actually end up selling much of their production to red-faced old boys who turn up at the farm gate in rusty Lada Nivas with a handful of plastic containers.
In my local Home Bargains, you can buy a four-pack of 500ml cans of 7.5% ABV HCC Black cider for £2.99, which is a mere 20p per unit. But that’s proper cider, not white cider, so it would escape any crackdown that focused solely on the latter.

Of course, you can simply use a big hammer and indiscriminately apply a minimum unit price to everything. But that, as I’ve pointed out before, would kill small farmhouse cidermakers stone dead, or at least ensure that they stopped selling any commercially.

At the end of the day, any legislative attempts to single out “bad” alcoholic drinks are likely to be fraught with problems of definition and end up bringing within the net all kinds of products that weren’t intended. Maybe we need to abandon all attempts to be logical and just ask a panel including Pete Brown and Jancis Robinson to make subjective judgments as to what is for the discerning drinker and what for the antisocial pisshead.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Micro appeal

A point about this blog that some people seem to struggle with is that the fact I don’t show much enthusiasm for something doesn’t mean I actively dislike it. This is a point I made in this blogpost, where I argued that you can’t expect people to be enthusiastic about everything. If you’re a member of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, you’re still likely to use many examples of modern architecture, recognise some as efficient and functional and even, in a few cases, like their design. But it doesn’t mean they’re something you want to pursue or champion as a leisure interest.

There are plenty of things in the world of pubs and beer that for me fall into this category, including most of what has been promoted as “craft beer”. And another is the micropubs that have blossomed in recent years. Now there is one very good thing about micropubs, in that they demonstrate that free markets work. Make it easier for people to open new drinking establishments and, where there is the demand, they will spring up to replace the big, old-fashioned pubs that have struggled to prosper in a changed climate for the licensed trade. But, as places that I personally want to visit as a drinker, they tend to leave me cold.

The first problem is that they generally seem rather Spartan and lacking in comfort. They’re usually devoid of upholstered benches and comfortable chairs, and high-level posing tables and hard stools often predominate. The photo, of the Hopper’s Hut in Bexley, underlines the point, although it is perhaps at the extreme of stark functionality. Indeed, last year I walked out of one GBG-listed micropub in Deal in Kent because there was no seating on offer apart from high-level stools.

Allied to this is the enforced sociability. In traditional pubs, even the smallest ones, it’s generally recognised that it’s up to you whether you want to engage with the company or just enjoy a quiet drink on your own. But, in a micropub, it’s often difficult to avoid social interaction, whether you want it or not. Some people just prefer to mind their own business. Plus the clientele is often something of a monoculture, and lacks the variety of ages, sexes, classes and types of drinks which is often what gives a proper pub its atmosphere.

And they seem to lack that distinctive “character” that long-established pubs acquire over the years, both from their architectural and design qualities and from the steady accretion of memories and identity from a succession of licensees and customers. Partly that’s a function of newness, but you do wonder whether, in view of their narrow appeal, many micropubs will ever achieve it, and it’s certainly unlikely that it will survive passing out of the hand of their original owner. People will often travel long distances and go well out of their way to visit some traditional pubs of character, but it’s very hard to see that happening with micropubs.

On his Thewickingman blog, Ian Thurman was rather sceptical about the rise of micropubs, and I have to say I share his sentiments.

I’m unconvinced that micro pubs have increased consumer spend and therefore they must be taking money from proper pubs. I’m all for innovation and letting the market decide but for the reasons described above I’m not sure we have a level playing field for pubs v micro pubs. As increasing numbers of micro pubs hit the GBG (and hit trade in other pubs) we are, in my view, hastening the decline of proper pubs and we could be heading to a world of converted shops as our leading ontrade beer emporia.
As I said, I’m not against micropubs, and if they meet a demand and prove successful then good luck to them. I might even enjoy the occasional pint in one. But visiting them and writing about them isn’t something I choose to pursue as a leisure interest. And, to be honest, in general I’d much rather plonk myself down in Wetherspoon’s.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Turned over again

Last week, there was an interesting interview on the Morning Advertiser website with Richard Westwood, the MD of Marston’s, in which he made some salient points about cask beer turnover and quality.

“There’s a big decision to be made here and that’s a balance between consumer choice and quality. When you see pubs that, maybe, sell 200 barrels a year and have, six, seven or eight handpumps, you know there is a good chance you will be served a substandard pint.”
That’s a very good point. But, in fact, for most pubs serving cask, 200 barrels a year would be pie in the sky. As I wrote here, the average is far less, with many pubs struggling to even achieve one barrel a week. And the figures haven’t got any better. CAMRA’s WhatPub site reports 35,844 pubs currently serving cask, and the BBPA reckons that about two million barrels are brewed each year. So that’s a mere 56 barrels a year per pub, and that’s before taking account of cask beer supplied to clubs and beer festivals.

Given those figures, it’s hardly surprising that it’s so common to encounter beer that is clearly past its best. Probably fewer than 10% of all cask pubs really have the turnover to sustain more than two or three beers, yet the evidence of my eyes suggests that the average number of pumps is considerably greater than that.

Although it officially makes the right noises, given its long-standing championing of “choice”, this is an issue that CAMRA remains reluctant to confront. For every reference to a “sensibly limited beer range”, there must be ten mentions in local magazines praising pubs for adding another handpump. All too often, the Good Beer Guide comes across as the “wide beer choice guide” rather than the “well-kept, fresh beer guide”.

The case is made more difficult by being able to point to pubs like the Magnet in Stockport which successfully manage to keep twelve or more beers in good nick. But those are specialist pubs attracting an overwhelmingly ale-drinking clientele, and it is delusional to imagine that the same formula would be a guarantee of success in an estate or dining pub.

Westwood also suggests that brewers and pub operators should consider a wholesale switch from 18-gallon kilderkins to 9-gallon firkins. In some cases this is a sensible solution, and most microbrewers now seem to have adopted firkins as their normal cask size anyway. But it increases the amount of handling work, and of wastage, per pint sold, so it isn’t without cost. And, even using firkins, a pub with the average level of cask beer sales can still only sustain two beers on the bar if it is to empty each cask within four days.

Sadly, this is an issue to which everyone will continue to pay lip service, but few will really be willing to address.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Spreading yourself thinly

I recently wrote about my visit to the Royal Exchange in Stourbridge, where well over half the customers were happily drinking the one – admittedly superb – beer, Batham’s Best Bitter. The following day I called in to a pub in a nearby town that had recently been acquired by a relatively new microbrewery.

This had six or seven of their beers on handpump, some very similar to others in terms of colour and strength, alongside a couple of guests. Not being familiar with their range, I chose one almost at random that appealed to me, only to get a hazy pint with a distinct bite of yeast. I duly returned it, and asked a couple of regulars standing at the bar what they were drinking. They recommended an alternative beer, and that at least was clear, although still a bit yeasty and not particularly enjoyable.

This raises the obvious question of whether that pub ever enjoys sufficient trade to turn over nine different beers quickly enough to keep them in good nick. And you also have to wonder whether brewing a large range of beers, some of which are fairly similar to others, is the best approach for a microbrewery.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to brew fewer beers, in distinctly different styles, that would stand a better chance of both achieving decent turnover in their own pubs and gaining attention in the free trade? “It’s yet another beer from XYZ Brewery” isn’t exactly a winning formula. And my heart always sinks when I hear that small breweries have put their entire range of eight beers into bottles. Again, wouldn’t it be better to concentrate on one or two that could stand out and make a name for themselves?

Quality isn’t something that happens overnight – it needs close attention to detail and a process of tweaking and refinement over time. Breweries would stand a better chance of achieving it if they concentrated their attentions on a smaller range of beers.

It also raises another point that often seems to be overlooked in the gush of enthusiasm for the opening of new breweries. Whisper it softly, but a lot of microbreweries aren’t really that much good at it. Some are simply incompetent and produce beers with obvious flaws and glaring inconsistencies. Most of these don’t last long, but a few inexplicably manage to keep going.

Others are competent enough, but make rather dull beers lacking in any particularly distinctive character, while some do achieve distinctiveness, but at the price of being somewhat one-dimensional. It’s like comparing the bold primary colours of a naïve painter to the subtle, complex shades of an Old Master.

Of course this doesn’t apply to all, and some of the finest beers in the country are made by breweries founded in the past forty years. But novelty certainly doesn’t automatically equate to quality, and often the best drinking comes from beers that have developed complexity and subtlety through steady evolution over the years, and have stood the test of time.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Put t’wood i’th’ole

The brief flurry of warm, sunny weather over the weekend reminded me of a perennial bugbear in pubs – flinging all their doors open at the slightest sign of the sun. I commented on this back in 2004. I suppose the aim is to appear open and welcoming and, well, “sunny”, but it ignores the basic principles of thermodynamics. No amount of open doors and windows is actually going to bring the warmth of outside indoors, and, at this time of year, a bright sunny afternoon often follows a chilly night, meaning that your rooms aren’t going to start the day very warm at all.

All too often, while it might be pleasantly warm if you’re sitting outside in the sun, indoors you’re exposed to a chilly draught. Pubs should only really be doing it if the sun is genuinely cracking the flags and several days’ hot weather has led to hot, stuffy conditions inside. And staff working up a sweat behind the bar may not realise how chilly it still remains in the far corners.

At least in one pub I got the impression that the people standing at the bar pointed out to the staff that wedging the doors open at both ends of the pub produced a howling gale past their backsides, and managed to get one of them closed.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Curate's keg

It’s long been the received wisdom that keg beer, while it will never scale the heights that cask can, at least offers consistency. You’re much less likely to get a seriously duff pint. However, that doesn’t mean that the odds are zero, and keg beer, while it will keep longer than cask, is not immune from the constraint of shelf life and the need to keep lines cleaned. Indeed, the recently-published Beer Quality Report showed that keg beers were significantly more likely to be dispensed from dirty lines than cask.

Substandard keg beer is less likely to exhibit the glaring faults that poor cask does, such as being cloudy or vinegary. It will probably be just a bit flat, stale-tasting and possibly slightly hazy when you would expect it to be crystal-clear. This makes it rather more difficult to have the courage of your convictions and return it to the bar. Girl Meets Pint reports here that she received a substandard pint of Charles Wells Dry Hopped Lager – possibly not the pub’s best seller – but, understandably enough, demurred.

As it turns out, the lager was distinctly past its best, and to be honest I really should have taken it back, but I’m afraid to say I didn’t.
Incidentally, that’s a blog well worth following for its superb, detailed observation of everyday pub life.

I have to say I very rarely drink keg beer in pubs, so don’t have much personal experience to draw on. However, a few months ago, I was at a CAMRA Pub of the Month presentation at the Old Cock in Didsbury and thought I would try a half of Camden Hells lager, which was on tap there. It came out as described above – flat, stale-tasting and hazy – and, after about two seconds’ thought, I went back to the bar and asked for it to be changed which, to be fair, was done willingly and the difference in cost between that and the replacement refunded. Serves me right for swerving the cask, some might say. I assume it had been stocked on the instructions of the area manager, but in practice just didn’t sell.

With the growth in craft keg offerings, many of which by definition will be low-turnover, niche products, the risk of getting sub-standard keg beer is only going to increase. A further factor is that craft kegs are likely to be unpasteurised, and may still contain live yeast, so the shelf life will be less and the risk of something going wrong increased. As with cask, drinkers need to grasp the nettle and return what appears to be faulty beer rather than just grimly struggling through it. But, if something is designed to be a murky sour in style, how are you expected to know if it’s off?