Friday, 20 July 2018

Sense of place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 16 July 2018

Heartland heritage – Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Heartland heritage – Part 1

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

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

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

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

The Woodman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Pie in the sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Into the lions’ den

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Hotting up for craft lager

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 22 June 2018

The great craft sell-out

This is the column that I submitted earlier this month for the next edition of my local CAMRA magazine Opening Times, which is due to be published at the beginning of July. I normally wouldn’t release these until the first of the month, but in view of its topicality I thought I would let readers have a preview.

The Great Craft Sell-Out

It’s a fact of life that most successful start-up breweries will end up being bought by bigger competitors

THE PAST few years have seen a growing trend of successful craft breweries founded in the modern era being acquired by the major international brewers. We have seen such well-known brands as Goose Island, Lagunitas and Ballast Point being taken over in the US, plus Meantime and Camden in this country. As “Opening Times” went to press, there were reports that Heineken was planning to buy a stake in craft favourites Beavertown.

This has resulted in widespread disappointment, even a sense of betrayal, amongst craft beer fans. Selling out to “the man” is, for many, hard to forgive. On the other hand, if the owners are offered well over the book value for their company, they can’t really be blamed for seizing the chance of a comfortable retirement. It also contains an element of railing against fate. It may be regrettable, but it’s simply a fact of business life that the most likely outcome for a successful start-up is to be taken over by a larger competitor. Very few go on to spread their wings and fly independently in the way that BrewDog has done.

There’s a strange reluctance to recognize any merit in beers produced by the major breweries. In the 70s and 80s, CAMRA was very critical of the market dominance of the then “Big Six”, but it always accepted that they did produce some excellent real ales. Yet many craft fans are unwilling to touch anything in which the big boys have had a hand. But surely it’s entirely possible for a big company to produce a good beer, just as a small company can make a poor one. This comes across as an exercise in cutting off your nose to spite your face.

This wave of takeovers is significantly different from those that occurred in the British brewing industry in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Then, the prime objective was to get hold of smaller competi­tors’ tied estates and distribution networks. Promises may have been made about maintaining production at original sites, and keeping brands going, but they were rarely worth the paper they were written on.

The more recent ones, however, are about acquiring beer brands, not outlets, and so there is much more of an incentive to maintain the brand equity. Inevitably, in many cases, it will end up being eroded over the years by changes in recipe and production methods, but if they’re not careful the buyers end up destroying the value of their own purchase. It’s also hard to see the takeover of a start-up only a few years old as quite as much of a loss as that of a business that has been established for several generations and become part of its local community.

Every small business start-up has a life-cycle, and there will come a time when the owner wants to move on. Most micro-breweries eventually just shut up shop because the owner has become too old, or unwell, or has lost interest, or isn’t making a worthwhile profit. If you look at the micros from the first couple of decades of CAMRA, few are still in existence in any form. Companies like the remaining family brewers, who have been in existence for a hundred years or more, are very much the exception, not the rule.

Brewing remains an industry where, compared with many others, the barriers to entry are very low, as shown by the fact that over 1,500 new breweries have been set up in this country in the present century. The loss of some favourites may be regretted, but we are likely in the future to see the cycle of cool new start-up turning into corporate acquisition repeated over and over again.

Obviously a huge amount has already been published on the subject of the Heineken investment in Beavertown. I thought this blogpost from Katie of The Snap and the Hiss offered a very balanced perspective from the point of view of someone who is a Beavertown fan.

In contrast, Boozy Procrastinator has speculated on what Logan Plant’s famous dad might think of it all (definitely NSFW).

Thursday, 21 June 2018

A rare outbreak of normality

Over the weekend, I was in one of the dwindling number of pubs in my local area of a broadly traditional character. I saw what I assumed was a middle-aged couple come in (although they seemed a little ill-matched) and sit down with drinks. They were joined a few minutes later by a couple of younger blokes of around 20, who may have been the son of one or both of them and his mate.

Nothing unusual about that, you may think. But how often nowadays do you see that kind of mixed-sex, mixed-age family group in a pub, who are just having a drink and a chat and not eating? It was once commonplace; it isn’t now. This is the pub functioning as it should, as a “third space” for social interaction away from the baggage of home and work.

There was sport on the TV, by the way, but it was just one of the more obscure World Cup matches. And they asked the barman to change it over to the cricket anyway, although I don’t think that was their main reason for being there.

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

True crafties don’t drink halves

Over the weekend, Boak and Bailey tweeted a telling little anecdote.

The immediate response is obviously that he needs to get himself some new mates, but it illustrates how the craft beer sector, despite its claims to “considered, mindful drinking” is not immune from this kind of laddishness. It also underlines why mainstream draught beers much above 5% ABV are so rare, as they offer an obvious come-on for irresponsible drinking.

Mind you, if you are going to drink pints of DIPA, it’s always best to make sure it’s someone else’s round.

Meanwhile, the beer and food pairing lobby have been coming up with their usual snobbery about how the worst thing that ever happened to beer in this country was the pint glass. It cuts both ways.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Free the keg

One change that was made at the recent CAMRA AGM was to remove the previous prohibition on CAMRA beer festivals selling British beers that didn’t meet the definition of real ale. This was always, in Highway Code terms, a “should not” rather than a “MUST NOT”, and some branches did disregard it, surely to some extent out of a desire to cock a snook at what they saw as stuffy traditionalism. However, removing it entirely will surely encourage others.

As I’m someone who doesn’t tend to attend beer festivals as a customer, it will make no difference to me personally. But I do have to wonder what exactly is the point. If you’re supposed to be a Campaign for Real Ale, having keg beers at a festival comes across as rather like having cats at a dog show. It has been suggested that keg and cask beers might be presented alongside each other to underline the superiority of the latter, but that comes across as a touch disingenuous. Who would want to serve X at a festival merely to show that Y was better? Plus, in any case, beer festivals by their nature rarely show cask at its absolute best.

If festivals are to serve keg beers, they should give some thought to what they’re aiming to achieve, rather than just doing it because they can. Maybe consider beers that simply aren’t available in cask form, or where it is felt that the keg format shows them at their best. A good example of the latter would be to showcase British craft lagers, which are often spoken of as a massive potential growth market, but which by definition aren’t going to be real ales. Or perhaps nitro stouts from craft breweries.

Or even why not offer a selection of the established beers such as M&B Mild and Tetley Imperial, which live on in keg form but, because of that, never receive any attention from enthusiasts? Who even knows what beers are out there in the marketplace? OK, that may be a bit of a mischievous suggestion, and is unlikely to happen in practice, but to someone interested in our brewing heritage it could be far more interesting that a random selection of the local railway arch brewers’ latest pastry stouts.

Presumably this also removes the prohibition on selling British bottled beers that aren’t bottle-conditioned. I’ve referred in the past to the insistence on bottle-conditioning as being an unhistorical shibboleth, so this is a move to be welcomed. It will give festivals the opportunity in future to sell, for example, bottled Robinson’s Old Tom. And it could be a good thing if small brewers were given the opportunity to showcase their beers in more reliable brewery-conditioned form rather than expose them to the lottery of small-batch bottle-conditioning.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Looking for a role

Phil of Oh Good Ale has recently been recounting his experiences doing the local CAMRA Mild Magic trail. In his concluding post, he makes some very thoughtful observations about the current state of the pub trade.

So, what’s going on out there? Pub-going is changing; like Spinal Tap, its appeal is becoming more selective. The progressive denormalisation of alcohol and social drinking, as a part of everyday life, is continuing to drive pub-going numbers down – or rather, it’s ensuring that losses in pub-going numbers (which are inevitable with social and cultural changes, plus the march of time) aren’t being made up by equal numbers of new drinkers. There is a new breed – or a number of separate, partially overlapping new breeds – of drinker; it’s not just a few hundred hipsters, but on the scale of the population as a whole their numbers are tiny. We can get a false impression from looking in the wrong place, I think. People come from miles around to destination bars in the town centre (and Chorlton), and those bars get pretty crowded at times – but if they’re in town, those people aren’t drinking in the pubs where they live. Thanks to a range of social changes, many of them positive, pubs have lost what used to be their steady clientele (defined roughly as “every unmarried male over the age of 14 and a large proportion of the married men”) – and people who know their Beartown from their Beavertown aren’t going to fill a gap that size...

...There are places where an old style of pub-going doesn’t seem to have gone away, but there are many others where it seems to have died completely, leaving big multi-room pubs waiting for a clientele that isn’t to come back (or not more than a couple of times a week)...

... That’s the world we’re in now, pretty much; unless that wider trend towards denormalisation can be reversed, the pub industry’s going to be facing lean times – or rather, even leaner times.

This echoes several of the points I’ve made in the past in posts such as this and this, that:
  1. The “denormalisation” of drinking alcohol, especially in a social setting, is one of the key factors in the decline of pubs

  2. People increasingly see going to the pub for a drink, if they do it at all, as a distinct leisure activity in its own right rather than something woven into the fabric of everyday life

  3. “Use it or lose it” is a simplistic and not very helpful statement. The problem isn’t so much existing pubgoers visting less, but demographic churn not replacing them with a new generation
While some pubs, in specific locations, catering to specific markets, continue to thrive, many others, even if still open, are all too visibly “running on empty”.

Friday, 8 June 2018

More Blogger bother

Blogger have recently carried out a number of changes to their service. As usual, these seem to fall into the category of Hutber’s Law, that is “improvement means deterioration”. One is the removal of support for OpenID, which allowed people to leave comments using their account on other blogging platforms such as Wordpress. They claim that this was little used, but it certainly was on this blog, and it was valuable in adding authenticity to comments. Using the “Name/ID” function, anyone can superficially pretend to be anyone else.

On top of this, they have stopped e-mailing comments on my own blog to me. They accept this is a fault, but after a couple of weeks have done nothing to fix it. The big problem with this is that, if comments require approval, I don’t receive them. The only way I’m aware of them is if I log on to the control panel, which obviously is a lot more trouble than just looking in my inbox. So, if you’ve left a comment and are wondering why it hasn’t appeared, please be patient...

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Welcome to the real world

A couple of years ago, pressure was exerted on the brewers of “super lagers” to change their packaging to bring them in to line with guidelines on “responsible drinking” that no single-use bottle or can should contain more than four units of alcohol. All of the major brands have complied, through one or both of reducing the strength from 9% to 8%, and reducing the can size from 500ml to 440ml. It’s not a law, though, and you can still find 500ml cans of Polish 9% lager in corner shops.

Now it seems that the spotlight is being turned on the craft beer sector and, as the Morning Advertiser reports, they’re not at all happy about it. Indeed, their response seems ridiculously hyperbolic. Russell Bisset, of Leeds-based Northern Monk, says that the move comes across as “an attempt to curtail them growth of the independent craft brewing sector”, and he is “troubled by the Portman group’s attempt to influence and dictate the strength of beer we are able to produce”.

Come on Russell, keep your hair on! Nobody’s trying to stop you brewing very strong beers, just wanting to control the maximum size of package you can put them in. Indeed, many people have criticised craft brewers for their tendency to put very strong beers in containers of 500ml or above, when generally you only want to drink 330ml or less at once. At the same time, there have also been numerous complaints about the craft tendency to put beers of modest supping strength in “child-size” 330ml bottles and cans as a mark of differentiation from the 500ml bottles of boring mainstream brown bitter.

Yes, this is a restriction on brewers’ freedom, but in the overall scheme of things it’s an utterly trivial one. If customers really want to drink that volume, why can’t they buy two smaller bottles instead? Although no doubt we’ll also get the guff about secondary fermentation in larger bottles imparting an additional depth and subtlety of flavour. And there is a good argument that standardisation of package sizes helps consumers by making it easier to compare value for money between different products.

It’s noticeable how the craft brewing sector imagines that it should be exempt from the rules that apply to ordinary mortals. Large bottles of mega-strong beer, cartoon characters on labels, and fixed price all-you-can-drink offers are fine for them, but not, it would seem, for normal drinkers. They are thick, irresponsible drunken plebs who can’t resist temptation, while the crafties, in the words of Mr Bisset, are “champions of considered, mindful drinking”.

Did we get a peep out of these people when the same arm-twisting was applied to Carlsberg Special? Nope, didn’t think so. So I can’t say my cup of sympathy is exactly overflowing. Welcome to the real world, crafties!

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Yer what?

The Morning Advertiser reports on Frazer Grimbleby (surely a character from an Ealing comedy) of Craft Union Pub Company talking about the resurgence of wet-led pubs. It would be good if that were true, but to be honest I see precious little evidence of it. It’s more like a case of old friends steadily dropping off one by one. Maybe a more honest narrative would be to say that some wet-led pubs were proving resilient to the long-term market decline.

However, he then goes on to make the jawdropping statement that “The smoking ban is the best thing that ever happened to the pub industry”. Presumably the huge tide of post-2007 pub closures has passed him by, and he is totally indifferent to the customers who have been forever alienated. I was tempted to make a Ken Livingstone-esque comment but, deciding that would be in bad taste, I’ll content myself with saying that it is akin to claiming that Christmas is the best thing that has ever happened to turkeys.

Again, honesty would result in something more like “the smoking ban has posed serious challenges for the industry, and we have had to work hard to salvage something from the wreckage.” And, if he is so cloth-eared to what has happened in his own industry, you have to fear for the future of the pubs his company runs.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

The future’s so bright you gotta drink keg

Twenty years ago, if you were after “interesting” home-grown draught beer in the UK, cask was the only game in town. However, since then there has been a steady growth in “craft keg”, to the extent that in some enthusiast pubs it is now the dominant or even sole dispense method. As Roger Protz reports, Adnams are saying that they expect keg production to overtake cask next year, while Dave Bailey of Hardknott Brewery asserts that the future really is in keg beer.

Now, I took issue with that in the comments. While I certainly have no objection in principle to drinking keg beer, I said “For British-style ales, cask, when done properly, is much preferable. To argue otherwise is to say that CAMRA has basically been barking up the wrong tree for forty-five years.”

However, it can’t be argued that keg, due to its longer shelf-life, provides the opportunity to offer drinkers much more choice of different styles and strengths. As Jonathan Adnams says in the article I linked to above,

There’s a lot of cask beer from micros – some of it not very good. At the same time, fewer people are going to pubs while some publicans are putting in a lot of handpumps to offer choice. The beer is often poor quality and drinkers won’t pay £4 for poor beer. They want reliability. Cask is now a lottery for drinkers.
Cask beer, by its very nature, is essentially a high-volume, quick-turnover product. It was ideally suited to the days when pubs were shifting huge quantities of Mild and Bitter, but is much less at home in a world where customers drink much less anyway while expecting a wider choice. As I’ve said ad nauseam on this blog, far too many pubs offer more cask beers than they have the sales to turn over properly, with the inevitable effect on quality. Even the pubs that do it well often give the impression of operating on the edge of acceptable throughput, especially early in the week. A lot of beer in GBG pubs is, while in no sense bad, not bursting with freshness. So maybe, if the future of draught beer is one of declining volumes and increasing expectations of choice, it is a keg future.

It has to be said that many bloggers who spend most of their time drinking in urban beer specialist pubs exaggerate the market penetration of craft keg. Yes, it’s certainly growing, but so far it hasn’t made much impact in “normal” pubs. Earlier this month, on our trip to Northampton, which by definition majored on beer-focused pubs, while most had one or two craft keg taps, there was only one – the Princess Alexandra – where it was at the centre of the beer offer, with cask as a “round the corner” afterthought.

Last week, I spent a few days in the more rural parts of South Wales, during which I visited ten different pubs. I wasn’t specifically looking for craft keg taps, but in all of them* the bank of handpumps remained the centre of attraction on the bar. There’s still a long way to go before craft keg replaces cask as the leading option for staple quaffing beers. It’s still something of an expensive, specialist product.

However, there are signs that things are changing. For example, the bar in the new The Light cinema in Stockport offers Camden Hells and Pale alongside one Robinson’s cask beer – Light Brigade on a recent visit. And I spotted the sign shown above outside a food-oriented pub in a tourist location in the Peak District. The tectonic plates are clearly shifting.

So maybe it’s time for CAMRA, if it wants to “do what it says on the tin”, to be more assertive in proclaiming that cask beer, when done properly, is better, rather than just weakly conceding the ground and muttering “well, a lot of that modern keg beer isn’t too bad either”. But, if people are served up with flat, warm, stale cask beer, you can’t remotely blame them for choosing keg in preference. Cask has no divine right to a place on the bar.

* There was one that was keg-only, but didn’t have any craft keg either, unless you count Marston’s 61 Deep, which strangely seemed to be the only “bitter” on offer. I went there for food, and actually had some keg Banks’s Mild.