Sunday, 2 August 2015

Any colour you like, so long as it’s brown

There’s an old saying that “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing” This illustrates a fundamental divergence in humanity. Some people have a wide range of interests about which they have a reasonable level of knowledge, whereas others have one particular passion that dominates their life. Likewise, some businesses succeed by offering a wide range of products or services, but others do well by concentrating on the one thing at which they excel.

In recent years, the fox has been very much in the ascendant in the pub trade, with pubs aiming to offer an ever-expanding choice of beers and other drinks. In general, more choice has been greeted as a good thing, but it does have its downside, especially with cask beer, where tired beer is a common problem in pubs that try to sell more beers than they can turn over properly.

So it was interesting to see on this post on Stonch’s blog that one commenter suggested “Someone should be bold and do a single beer boozer.” This seems unthinkable in this country, but is not uncommon on the Continent. As well as the Czech examples given, many of the traditional taverns in Cologne serve just the local Kölsch beer and nothing else. It’s seen as part of the local heritage and identity.

Yes, there are handful of British pubs that just serve a single draught beer, but in general they’re out-of-the-way rural taverns where turnover is the main consideration, such as the Dyffryn Arms in Pembrokeshire, which is mentioned in that thread. In the Anchor at High Offley, the choice is basically Wadworth 6X. I think there is also a lager pumps, but scarcely anyone drinks it. I wouldn’t say Sam Smiths pubs qualify as, while they only offer the one cask beer, they also stock a wide range of keg ales and lagers which, as far as I can see, make up a substantial proportion of the sales.

But there used to be a prime example of the one-beer pub in the Athletic Arms (aka the Diggers) on the west side of Edinburgh. Close to Murrayfield and Tynecastle, this pub could at time get extremely busy. The only cask beer was McEwans 80/-, dispensed by air pressure through traditional Scottish tall fonts (shown at top), and I doubt whether much of anything else was sold. However crowded it was, if you walked through the door and held up the relevant number of fingers, the same quantity of pints would be waiting for you on the bar when you got there. Described just as “Mecca” in early Good Beer Guides, it was somewhere you would be guaranteed a fresh pint.

McEwan’s 80/- is now a thing of the past, and it has now become a more conventional multi-beer pub, although one that, according to this write-up is still well worth a visit. I was particularly struck by the picture of a cosy corner shown at the right, which epitomises what pub interiors should look like. (In a public bar environment, leatherette is acceptable). I should say that, while I have visited Edinburgh several times, I have never been in this particular pub.

Maybe, in the right British location, the one-beer pub could work. The key advantage of the concept is that you know the beer will be fresh, and won’t have been lingering in the pipes. And this can make a surprising difference to quality. Obviously it won’t work for your typical village pub, but in city centres it could prove very popular and suddenly find itself riding a trendy wave. But you have to have a beer with sufficient cachet that customers will flock to drink it. And in my view the ideal beer for the one-beer pub is not some weird crafty indulgence, but Draught Bass.

Friday, 31 July 2015

Pubbly Jubbly

Back around 2007, when beer blogging was in its infancy, there was a tendency for bloggers to gush with enthusiasm over every new development in beer. This became described as “cheery beery”, in the sense of seeing every innovation as positive and exciting without any discrimination between excellent and mediocre. Since then, people have grown up, the craft beer industry has jumped a number of sharks, and writers are more willing to be critical when it is deserved.

However, this tendency now seems to have spread into the field of pubs. After a quiet period when the country was in the economic doldrums, the last few years have seen an unprecedented wave of new bars opening and existing pubs being expensively refurbished by brewers and pubcos. Pretty much every project has been accompanied by a noticeable broadening of the beer offer – even family dining pubs now have a craft beer fridge. But, just as it was with beer, all of this seems to be met with universal, uncritical approval.

In my view, the only really acceptable form of pub refurbishment is a good spring-cleaning, a fresh coat of paint and new upholstery. However, in the real world it has to be accepted that pub owners often do think that changing the layout and appearance of a pub may yield dividends, and so you have to consider how sensitively it is done, and how congenial an environment the new pub offers. I’ve mentioned before that, all things considered, Robinsons have done a pretty good job with the Tatton Arms at Moss Nook and the Davenport Arms at Woodford.

However, I was strongly critical of the pretentious, over-designed scheme at the Farmers Arms, Poynton, even though what went before didn’t have much to be said for it either. And, after I had listed the Bakers Vaults in Stockport market place as Worst Pub Refurbishment of the Year, I was taken to task for criticising it, as it had reopened a previously closed pub and offered a more enterprising beer choice than any other Robinsons pub. That’s true, but the interior (pictured) is still to my eye utterly dreadful, making a very poor use of space and offering scarcely any seating except at high-level posing tables. Good beer does not excuse bad design.

Some may argue that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and it’s all basically just a matter of personal taste. However, I would counter that an insensitive disregard for previous arrangements, and coming up with schemes that are austere and uncomfortable, or absurdly mannered and over-styled, are always very hard to justify. It’s also the case that many of the new-wave bars, while often showing admirable enterprise on the beer front, present an austere, hard-edged aspect that is reminiscent of an IKEA kitchen-diner and are not places where your backside would thank you for lingering.

In the early days of CAMRA, the organisation was happy to criticise pub operators for opening pubs out, knocking two bars into one, and generally eroding their character. Nowadays, though, you will often see interiors that are bright, airy and open-plan being spoken of as a step forward. Possibly a factor in this is that, nowadays, CAMRA scouts are likely to be much better acquainted with licensees than they were back in the 1970s, and so are reluctant to make any criticism, even if the design scheme is entirely the responsibility of the pub owner. Many licensees interpret any criticism of their pub as something personal.

Surely, though, it is high time that beer writers and CAMRA publications started to apply a more critical eye to pub refurbishments and design schemes, rather than just taking the view that, if the beer’s good, then a blind eye should be turned to any kind of aesthetic or architectural vandalism.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Three thought experiments

From time to time, especially towards the end of an evening in the pub, it’s interesting to speculate about what might be the result of certain changes to legislation or social customs. Often these aren’t things that aren’t realistically going to happen, or that we don’t support, but they can be useful in testing the validity of commonplace ideas.

These are three that have occurred to me in recent months:

1. Cut the price of on-trade beer

We’re often told that cheap supermarket beer is killing the pub. So let us assume that, somehow, the on-trade price could be cut so that nothing was over £2 a pint. This would greatly reduce the differential between on and off-trades. I’m sure it would increase the amount of bottom-end, price-conscious customers. But I can’t see it would make much difference to middle-class pubgoing.

The amount of beer I drink in pubs is constrained variously by health concerns (yes really), a wish to avoid hangovers, to be still functioning later in the day or the following morning, and the drink-drive legislation. Slashing the price would make virtually no difference. Certainly, in general, it wouldn’t remotely take us back to the glory days of the late 70s. Plus, if it encouraged more scrotes and deadlegs to drink in pubs, it could make them less appealing for more responsible customers. It would not be a magic bullet.

2. Let local groups run failed pubs

Rather than selling them off to developers, pub operators with pubs they consider to be unviable could lease them out to local community groups at a peppercorn rent. There are plenty of campaigns to “save the Canard & Conundrum”, so maybe the pubcos could call their bluff and say that provided they came up with a credible organisation and could put a few thousand pounds on the table, the pub was theirs to run. If they failed, then the title would revert to the pubco to do as they wished.

This would completely take the wind out of the sails of the anti-pubco campaigners. But I suspect the take-up would be very low. Realistically, despite the claims, few closed pubs really are viable, and the campaigners generally expect someone else to run it at a loss rather than take it on themselves. This would prove the point, one way or the other.

3. Make all beer the same strength

The vast majority of spirits are either 40% ABV or 37.5%, which realistically is neither here nor there. Most table wine falls within a limited strength range which is basically that between bitter and best bitter Yet beer ranges from 2.8% to over 10%.

I see this as a good thing, but what if pretty much all commercially available beer was at the same strength, say 4.0%? Brewers would have to differentiate their beers by colour, body and flavour, rather than strength. It would set them an interesting challenge and be a test of their craft. Indeed, going back a few years, the vast majority of beer in Germany was within the range of 4.8% to 5.2%, yet they still showed a huge variety. Maybe strength differentiation is an easy way out.

Oh, and just to reiterate, I’m not advocating any of these policies, just speculating as to what the effect would be. Any thoughts?

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Old soaks

It’s now the silly season for news, as shown by the widespread coverage of the increasingly surreal Labour leadership contest. Last Friday, on what was obviously a very slow news day, a story cropped up in many of the papers about an alleged Middle Class Drink Epidemic.

The whole thing is, as we have come to expect, comprehensively debunked by Christopher Snowdon. The fundamental point he makes is that, while there may in a sense be a disproportionate level of middle-class drinking (although they are still drinking less than they used to), there’s no similar epidemic of middle-class alcohol-related health problems.

Indeed, what the story does is to demonstrate the exact opposite – that while middle-class, middle-aged people may drink more than the lower orders, they stubbornly refuse to demonstrate the related health issues.

Because this group is typically healthier than other parts of the older population, they might not realise that what they are doing is putting their health in danger,
If there was any truth in it, then surely the problem would be demonstrated by the outcomes. And he makes the important point that there isn’t necessarily a direct relationship between average group behaviour and individual circumstances.
You cannot assume that an arbitrarily defined group of people is going to produce more death and disease than another group merely because their group average exceeds an arbitrary guideline. Why? Because averages tell you nothing about individuals. Yes, people on low incomes drink less than middle class people on average. They don’t have much money and alcohol is a heavily-taxed luxury, but within this group are some people who not only drink very heavily but also have a propensity for other risk-taking behaviours. It should therefore not be surprising that a disproportionate number of alcohol-related hospital admissions and deaths arise in the group that drinks the least. The fact that lots of other poor people bring the group average down by drinking moderately or abstaining is neither here nor there to the low income alcoholic.
The conclusion is that, while middle-class people may on average drink more than working-class ones, in general they still only drink moderately and remain in control of their lives. There is no health epidemic or timebomb, and the government “limits” are largely meaningless.

As the novelist Kingsley Amis, a famously dedicated drinker (who, to be honest, died at the relatively young age of 73), said “No pleasure is worth giving up for the sake of two more years in a geriatric home at Weston-super-Mare.”

It has to be said that this report met with amused scepticism in several of the newspapers, such as here and here, which must be a positive sign.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Dangerously drinkable

It recently seems to have dawned on some beer bloggers that drinking lots of high-strength craft beers, even if only in halves or thirds, does have a tendency to get you drunk. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise, but in reality the availability of a wide choice of strong beers in all kinds of styles is a fairly new phenomenon on the British beer scene. Perhaps it needs a fundamental reconsideration of how beer drinking is approached.

If we go back to before CAMRA was formed, the number of beer enthusiasts in Britain, in the sense of people who would make a point of trying out new or different brews, was minimal. Of course a lot of people enjoyed drinking beer – and they drank a lot more of it than we do now – but pretty much all of it was mild and bitter of various kinds, and little much over 4% ABV. Many brewers produced old ales around Christmas time, but virtually none had a draught stout, where Guinness enjoyed an effective monopoly. The exotic (and often strong) foreign beers from Belgium and Germany that now cluster on the shelves of your local Tesco were scarcely ever seen.

In the early years of CAMRA, little changed. The organisation, after all, was primarily interested in methods of storage and dispense, not in beer styles. Yes, it did like to imply that real ale was made of authentic natural ingredients, and keg beer was made from chemicals, but that was always at best a gross exaggeration. Its first ten years were basically spent championing the products of the independent family brewers and the real ales still made by the Big Six. There was more emphasis placed on stronger premium bitters – most notably with the introduction of Ind Coope Burton Ale – but the general mix of styles remained much the same. While lager steadily gained market share, much of that was even weaker than ordinary bitters.

The 1980s saw the first wave of microbreweries, but again they were generally just trying to brew their own versions of the classic British beer styles, often well, sometimes incompetently. One noticeable change was the growing number of cask stouts and porters, but they were generally of fairly sessionable strength. Then we had the rise of golden ales, which eventually became regarded as a beer category in their own right. But they were really just a subset of “bitter”, and indeed there had previously been some distinctly pale bitters such as Boddingtons, Stones and Theakstons. Even the more recent trends of “very pale and very hoppy” and New World hops still essentially stayed within the conventional categories of style and strength.

It’s only fairly recently, spurred on by the increasing influence of US craft brewing, and the rise of craft keg, that especially strong beers and experimental flavours have become commonplace. Looking back through the archives, I don’t think I ever mentioned “craft beer” before 2010. To be honest, this trend doesn’t really float my boat, and on the rare occasions I really want something strong I’ll go for an Old Tom or something Belgian. It’s also something that runs contra to the current movement towards lower-strength beers. I’m certainly not against it, though, and enterprise and innovation always deserve celebrating even if they’re not my thing.

Traditionally, the ordinary pub drinker would rarely touch anything above about 5%, except maybe for a half of Old Tom or suchlike at the end of the evening. However, if you want to enjoy a series of Imperial Stouts and Double IPAs, you just can’t jug them back like cooking bitter. You have to pace yourself, drink thirds if available and maybe have water spacers. It’s nothing like the classic Friday night out and, if anything, more like a whisky tasting session. If that’s what you want to do to catch all these flavours, fair enough. But it bears very little resemblance to the way beer is enjoyed by the vast majority of the drinking population, and it could be seen as another way of cutting the enthusiast off from the mainstream. He’s no longer drinking just better beer, he’s drinking completely different beer.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Hearty harmonisation

Last week I attended a residents’ meeting in one of my local pubs, the Plough in Heaton Moor, to discuss M&B’s plans for refurbishment and updating the licence conditions. The pub had previously been owned by Orchid Taverns and was acquired by M&B when they took over the company around the turn of the year. Possibly this is something that the conditions oblige them to do but, even so, all credit to them for taking it seriously and letting people air their concerns. Inevitably, some hobby-horses were given an extensive airing, but the general atmosphere was amicable and there wasn’t anything in the licence application that raised serious concern.

One subject that divided opinions was the admission of dogs, although it seems that the pub will remain dog-friendly. Some attendees also expressed disapproval of M&B’s plans to remove Sky Sports, which obviously I would thoroughly applaud. “It’s always busy when City are on,” they said, which I’m sure is true, but rather ignores the counter-argument that, if you’re trying to appeal to diners and families, it may attract the wrong kind of clientele and also deter many from visiting in the first place.

Three and a half years ago, Orchid carried out a modest refurbishment and rebranded the pub as a “Pizza Kitchen & Bar.” Personally, I welcomed this, as it made a refreshing change from the usual formulaic “pub grub”, and the menu offered a number of dishes, not just pizzas, that appealed to me. However, it never seemed to do particularly well (although I generally only visited at lunchtimes) and it was hard to avoid the conclusion that they had rather overestimated how trendy and yuppieish Heaton Moor is. Yes, it’s moving that way, but it’s still far from Didsbury or Chorlton and still has a strong core of established older residents.

M&B said they were going to replace this with a more conventional menu of traditional pub favourites and “hearty dishes”, plus roast dinners on Sundays. This met with the general approval of the meeting, and indeed may well be a more appropriate option for that particular location. However, it’s another example of the tendency for more and more pubs to offer what is, with the odd tweak, basically the same menu. The days when many pubs featured a particular cuisine as a speciality of the house have long gone. And you can’t help thinking that, in these days of street food and ever-increasing interest in dishes from around the world, pubs’ food offer so often looks stodgy and dated.

The company also said they were planning to introduce a wider range of real ales and craft beers, so we’ll see how that turns out. They did, however, breezily dismiss complaints that the beer prices were too high, so we can expect it to remain one of the dearest in the area. Today is the last trading day under the old regime, and it’s scheduled to reopen on Friday 21 August.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

The return of sticky bum time

Older readers will remember that dreadful vinyl upholstery in cars of the 60s and 70s, which didn't breathe at all and stuck to your clothes as soon as the sun came out. Fortunately, consumer demand has now long since banished it to the dustbin of history, and even the cheapest models now come with comfortable cloth seats.

During the same period, many pubs installed upholstered “leatherette” fixed seating, often superseding plain wooden benches, which had exactly the same effect when the temperature rose and the place was packed with sweaty bodies. In the 80s, as with the car market, there seemed to be a swing against this, with more comfortable and breathable cloth seat coverings often replacing vinyl. At the time, it was seen as giving a more up-market impression.

However, more recently, the tide seems to have turned, with many recent refurbishments ditching the velour and moquette in favour of a return to plasticky “leatherette”. I suppose there are benefits in that it is more durable and easier to clean, but it seems to be part of the vogue for giving pubs a “harder” appearance that goes against the earlier trend towards being cosy and comfy. Replacing carpets with bare boards is much the same.

And, when the weather gets a bit warm and airless, the effect on human flesh through cloth is exactly the same is it used to be, making the experience of going to the pub a bit tacky and uncomfortable. It’s designer vision being put ahead of customer convenience. Nobody’s going to walk out of a pub because it has vinyl rather than cloth seating, but, like removing beermats, it’s yet another of those little niggly annoyances.

I’ve just been out for a lunchtime pint in a pub that very much does still have cloth rather than vinyl upholstery. I’ll have to start making a note of which pubs have which.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Selling off the silver?

Given that Wetherspoons still only run about two per cent of all the pubs in Britain, some people have been known to express surprise at the prominence given to the company in online discussions about beer and pubs. It sometimes seems that Spoons is the only subject that provokes much discussion on the CAMRA Forum.

However, given the large average size of their pubs, they’re probably in sales terms the biggest single pub operator in the country, and they’re certainly the biggest retailers of real ale. They’re also intimately bound up with CAMRA through the members’ discount scheme and, unlike other pub operators, they have a pretty standard offer across their whole estate and are often seen as a bellwether of industry trends. So it’s hardly surprising they get the attention they do.

While their overall success seems to continue unabated, they’re always churned their portfolio to some extent, in some cases because they’ve acquired a better pub nearby, in others because the location did not prove as profitable as they hoped. I’m not aware, though, that they’ve ever put on sale a batch of twenty pubs, as they have this week, mostly in London and the South-East. Although I’m familiar with the location of the one in Lichfield (pictured), I’ve never actually drunk in any of them, so I can’t really offer any personal perspective on the reasons for their lack of success.

From comments made by others on Twitter, they seem to fall into four broad categories:

  1. Towns that are fertile ground for Spoons, but where they have a better-located pub, such as Lichfield and Newport, IOW
  2. Places which are mainly dormitory towns and haven’t in the long run offered sufficient footfall to make a Spoons viable, such as Sevenoaks and Haslemere, both of which have been in Spoons’ hands since before 2000. Paul Bailey has written about the Sennockian here
  3. Greater London locations where there are other branches nearby
  4. Locations in purpose-built shopping centres where the amount of evening trade may be limited
I don’t see this as signifying that Spoons are faltering in any way, just that they are doing the kind of assessment of their operations that any successful business should. Indeed, in the days before the Beer Orders, brewers of all sizes often hung on to pubs when they were no longer viable because they gained a degree of status from the size of their estate. Let’s hope as many of them as possible continue in business as pubs under new owners.

As I’ve written recently, in their quest for expansion Spoons have been opening branches in smaller market towns that previously they wouldn’t have looked at, and also opening second branches in towns such as Preston. Inevitably this will increase the risk of failure, although so far I’ve not seen much evidence of retrenchment from market towns. They seem to have burnt their fingers in Whitchurch (Shropshire) but as far as I can see are going strong in places like Market Drayton and Leominster which have a similar population.

It’s not simply a question of there being a set limit for the smallest town that can sustain a Wetherspoons – you also need to consider the strength of the nearby competition and the degree to which the town acts as a magnet for the surrounding area. The smallest towns to have a Spoons would appear to be Pwllheli in North Wales (pop. 4,000) and Perranporth in Cornwall (pop. 3,000), although both of these attract a lot of summer holidaymakers and the pubs will probably be pretty quiet in winter, even to the extent of shutting part off.

What makes one pub succeed and another fail is always something of a mystery, and if Wetherspoons sometimes make a mistake it’s not entirely surprising that others often get it wrong. It’s an elusive combination of location, offer, price and standard of service.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Action not words

Market research organisation Mintel has recently published an interesting report on pubgoing in Britain. Amongst the results are that one in five people visit a pub each week, which raises the obvious question why four in five don’t. It would be illuminating to compare this with the situation thirty years ago.

It also stated that 20% would be more likely to visit pubs if drinks were cheaper, while 54% could be encouraged if pubs offered more appealing food. 72% of those dining in pubs opted for homemade dishes, and 54% preferred dishes with locally sourced ingredients, with 38% picking those with seasonal components.

But all of this has to be taken with a large pinch of salt. Asking people what they would like to see in a pub is very different from what would actually motivate them to go to pubs more. As I argued here, these surveys often give disproportionate weight to the opinions of those who rarely visit pubs anyway. Before the smoking ban, large numbers of people said in surveys that they would go to pubs more often if smoking was prohibited, but in practice virtually none did. And going every three months rather than every six is unlikely to do much to help the pub trade.

There’s a well-known case study where McDonalds introduced a range of “healthier” menu options in response to customer research, only to find that sales fell well below projections. It seems that many people are happy to say what they would like to see in pubs, but that doesn’t mean they would actually consume these products, or that their availability would make them visit more often. “I think pubs should stock more alcohol free beers, but that doesn’t mean I will actually drink them.”

In market research it is far more important to track how people actually behave rather than what they say they will do viewed through a filter of political correctness. Most people surveyed would probably say that pubs should offer a wider range of soft drinks, and charge less for them, but it’s very doubtful whether that would make much difference to whether or not they chose to visit.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Tales from the front line

Last week I’ve been away for a few days in West Wales. Contrary to popular myth, a Mudgie holiday doesn’t mean an epic pub-crawl that isn’t complete without a night in the cells, but it does give the opportunity to visit a few unfamiliar pubs out there in the real world. I’ve written before how some beer bloggers seem to exist in an urban craft bubble and find their heads exploding when they find themselves in an ordinary pub out in the sticks used by non-enthusiast customers and have to cope with the dilemma of whether to drink Doom Bar or Draught Bass. This is never going to be a “what I did on my holidays” kind of blog, but I thought a couple of experiences were worth retelling.

I’ve often tended to regard CAMRA’s National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors as a kind of informal Mudgie pub guide, that at best will lead me to unspoilt gems where the only sound is the chatter of a few old boys setting the world to rights, and in general to respectable, well-behaved pubs where I don’t feel unwelcome. But I have to say I was disappointed by the Plume of Feathers in Carmarthen. Yes, everything it says about the fabric of the place is true, plus there are the historical associations with heroes of boozing such as Oliver Reed, Richard Harris and Richard Burton. But, as a pub, it’s a serious let-down. No real ale (and no proper keg either, just smooth), deafening piped music and a clientele that seemed to consist mostly of barely-legal teenagers and local deadlegs. Given its situation right in the centre of the town, surely it has the potential to become something of a showpiece for Brain’s brewery.

Then, a couple of days later in Haverfordwest, a perusal of WhatPub? suggested that the Pembroke Yeoman, which was quite close to where i was staying, might be worth a visit. It is featured in the 2014 Good Beer Guide and had a previous local CAMRA Pub of the Year plaque on display. It seemed OK as I walked in, and I was pleased to see Hopback Summer Lightning on the bar. I ordered a pint, but my expectations immediately plummeted when I saw the barmaid plonk the glass on the drip tray and pull the pump with one hand to fill it. It must have taken at least fifteen pulls, during which she was distracted at several points by chatting to the customers. As I feared, it was hazy and totally devoid of condition, but not vinegary as such. In some pubs, you would take it back, but in a place that you’re unlikely to every visit again, it seems a bit pointless to cause a scene. And yes, I would have been far better going to Spoons, as I did the next night.

Having said that, I had my fair share of good pub experiences too. The Good Beer Guide listed Queens in Carmarthen, just round the corner from the Plume of Feathers, was a good, solid, traditional, wood-panelled pub where I would be happy to spend a lot of time. And I managed to fit in a visit to the legendary Dyffryn Arms at Pontfaen, which is really special and everything I had hoped it would be. It was rather amusing to see a party of normal tourists venture in and be totally fazed by the experience.

In one pub, there was a cardboard box on the bar of the kind normally used to hold charity sweets, but which happened to be occupied by a small dark tortoiseshell cat curled up and fast asleep. At first I thought it was a soft toy until it moved an ear. Now that’s the sort of thing you really remember about pubs.

And in another pub a local wag suggested that I looked like Inspector Morse, which I suppose is a kind of compliment. Far better than comparing me to Ronnie Barker or Elton John.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Shunning strength

Boak & Bailey have recently been reporting on their holiday in the wonderful Yorkshire Dales. In Settle, they were taken by the Talbot Inn, where they came across the beer list shown to the right. It’s a good mix of styles, and small vs established breweries, but it’s notable that nothing is above 4.0%, something that one commenter pointed out.

It’s an obvious trend of recent years that the average strength of cask beers in pubs offering a varied range has fallen. Going back to the days before CAMRA, most draught beers in the UK were of “ordinary bitter” strength or only a little above. The popular premium kegs such as Red Barrel and Double Diamond were only about 4%, and little on draught was much stronger than that.

In the early days of CAMRA, many of the poster boys of the “real ale revolution” were beers around OG 1050 such as Ruddles County, Abbot Ale, Royal Oak and Gales HSB. Going to the real ale freehouse meant not just drinking different beers, but drinking much stronger beers that weren’t available in the general run of pubs.

Then in the 1980s came the rise of the premium lagers, with Stella to the fore, which were seen as something better than the normal Heineken or Skol, but which many used to drink as if they were session beers. By the 1990s, with many pubs in the post-Beer Orders landscape aiming to stock a wider range of cask beers, it could be difficult to find anything much below 4.5%, as I reported here.

However, things then began to change, and possibly the Beer Orders were partially responsible. Whereas before you had a choice of beers of varying strength from the same brewery, increasingly you had instead a choice of beers of similar strength from different breweries. A beer that was an outlier – either too strong or too weak – simply wouldn’t sell as much. We have also seen the rise of a number of widely-distributed premium ale brands such as London Pride, Bombardier, Doom Bar and Wainwright, which are all around 4.0–4.2% ABV, so as not to frighten the horses too much.

Some beers such as Old Speckled Hen and Batemans XXXB have had their strength cut to bring them down to 4.5%. This may be seen as a way of saving duty, or appeasing the government initiative to take units out of the alcohol market, but in reality the main reason was that they simply weren’t selling at the higher strength. Robinson’s of Stockport brew a 5.0% ABV beer called Double Hop which is rarely seen in their pubs because people won’t buy it. Of course with cask beers their perishability is a limiting factor – once you start having to throw beer away it becomes unviable.

Most of the well-known premium lagers like Stella and Carlsberg Export have been cut to 4.8% (which may have more to do with government arm-twisting) and draught Budweiser was even cut from 5.0 to 4.3%. Plus there has been a switch back to the 4.0% cooking lager category with new products like Beck’s Vier and Amstel.

So we are now in the situation where the beer list shown above is very typical of what will be found in many pubs. I would say most people are more sober and responsible now and there is much more social pressure not to lose control. Even students prefer 4% fruit ciders to Old Rosie. People with money to spend are more fitness-oriented and there is less tolerance of those who are sometimes a bit “blurred at the edges”. Plus those who are still prepared to drink and drive within the legal limit are less willing to take any kind of risk and largely stick to beers of 4.0% or less, which is a significant factor outside large towns and cities.

Yes, there are still many stronger beers produced and you’ll see plenty of them at beer festivals and in beer-focused pubs in urban areas. Indeed the new wave of craft keg ales are often notably strong. But, across the country, in the more mainstream pubs, you’ll be lucky to find them, or in fact anything above the low four percents. And it’s down to good old supply and demand, not any kind of hidden anti-drink agenda.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Liquid lunch

On his Oh Good Ale blog, Phil has been recounting his experiences doing the local CAMRA Mild Magic trail, which makes interesting reading. One particular point he makes is that, in many of Manchester’s satellite towns, lunchtime pub food has largely become a thing of the past.
Lastly, I made the surprising – but perhaps predictable – discovery that pub lunches are basically a thing of the past: there are Spoons and there are high-end bars serving equally high-end food, but in between, and outside the city centre, there’s pretty much nothing. I guess that workplace puritanism has grown, and lunchtime drinking declined, to the point where serving actual lunches no longer makes sense for most places; the cheap and cheerful pub meal has gone the way of the cloche of curling sandwiches or the jar of pickled eggs.
For decades, we’ve constantly been told that food is the future of the pub, and in many of the more prosperous suburban and rural areas this has proved to be true, with it becoming increasingly difficult to find any pub that isn’t to all intents and purposes a restaurant. But, as I’ve remarked before, in urban areas, especially the less prosperous ones, the tide has flowed the other way, with many pubs that served cheap’n’cheerful food in 1985 having stopped doing so entirely, and many too having stopped opening at lunchtimes Monday to Thursday, even in shopping centres. Thirty years ago, plenty of pubs would offer a straightforward menu of sandwiches, toasties, burgers, ham, egg and chips, maybe a pot of chilli. That kind of basic food offer is now largely a thing of the past and, if shoppers want a bite to eat, they will increasingly turn to cafés, which seem to have enjoyed a surprising renaissance.

In places like Stalybridge, Hyde and Denton, you will now struggle to find any lunchtime pub food at all outside of Wetherspoon’s, if there is one. One popular and well-regarded Stockport pub just outside the town centre recently tried serving lunchtime meals, but stopped after a few months due to lack of demand. Even in Stockport town centre, while there are five or six non-Wetherspoon’s pubs offering a reasonably broad menu, there’s nothing like the choice there was thirty years ago.

The reasons behind this are all the usual suspects – the general decline of the pub trade, the reduced tolerance of employers for their workers to go to the pub at lunchtimes, and the fall-off in footfall in many of the smaller town centres. Very often, only Wetherspoon's are still flying the flag for lunchtime pub food. In recent years, I’ve been in towns which are not obvious tourist magnets where the only place I could find any reasonable-looking pub food was Spoons, which indeed was often the most upmarket-seeming venue. And, in some locations, you have to wonder how often they sell many of items on their extensive, standardised menu.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

First come, first served

It’s now almost forty years since CAMRA held its first national beer festival at Covent Garden in London. Since then, the number of beer festivals has mushroomed and, alongside the Good Beer Guide, they are the aspect of CAMRA’s activities most visible to the general public. From being an opportunity to showcase beers you might want to seek out in the pub, they have become an attraction in their own right, often featuring new and rare beers you would be lucky to find anywhere else.

In the early days of beer festivals, it made sense to stagger putting the various beers on sale, as there was always a risk of not selling out, so you might want to sell unbroached casks on to local free trade pubs. This also had the advantages that, if the festival lasted more than one day, choice would be maintained throughout and the chance of getting tired beer towards the end would be much reduced.

However, in more recent years, this approach has attracted growing criticism, partly, although not entirely, from the beer-ticking fraternity. You never know when each beer is going to be on sale, and it seems unreasonable to withhold a beer when it’s perfectly read to be served. So the preference is increasingly to put all beers on sale at the beginning of the festival, and when they run out, they run out. At one time, customers were happy that a beer festival simply a provided a decent choice of unfamiliar beers, but now some are much more insistent on being able to sample a particular new or rare beer. This way, at least they know they will be able to find it on at the start.

Obvious drawbacks are that, with the best will in the world, beer stillaged in a beer festival is likely to lose its sparkle more quickly than in a pub cellar, and the choice towards the end of the festival will be limited, with all the more appealing or unusual beers having run out. On the other hand, it has to be recognised that a beer festival is run in the interest of the customers, not for the convenience of the staff, and if there’s a strong demand for something then it makes sense to respond to it. In effect, first night punters are being favoured at the expense of final session ones.

Last month, following years of grumbling, it was finally decided to adopt this approach at the Stockport Beer & Cider Festival. The results were entirely as expected, with a magnificent range of fresh, lively brews available at Thursday teatime, but by Saturday evening many of those remaining being distinctly tired, and some customers complaining of lack of choice – although that is always going to be an issue on the final session. The festival overall showed a substantial increase in attendance over the previous year, and virtually sold out, so the punters didn’t seem to be too concerned.

Realistically, it’s an approach you can’t follow if your beer festival lasts more than three days, and even that to my mind is stretching it a bit. Quality should never be sacrificed for maximising choice. If managing beer availability is seen as a major negative factor by customers, then the only way round the issue is to have fewer individual beers but buy two or more casks of those that are expected to be more popular. In a sense, this was what was done at Stockport with the “Bar Nouveau” (pictured) which highlighted beers released for public sale for the first time. There were around ten different beers, with three firkins being ordered of each. They all went on at the start, with the last cask being emptied late on Saturday evening. That way, the principle of free choice was maintained, but the customers knew they were always getting a pint from a cask that had been tapped less than a day before.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Lager in the doghouse

Last autumn, as reported here by Boak & Bailey, Wetherspoon’s with a great fanfare introduced keg Devil’s Backbone IPA and BrewDog This.Is.Lager into their pubs, and added both to the list of drinks allowed in their inclusive meal deals. This was seen at the time as a major step forward in the march of “craft keg” into the mainstream.

However, not everything seems to be going according to plan. Tandleman reports here how his experiences of This.Is.Lager have been inconsistent and lacklustre, something with which, having tried it a few times, I have to agree. It doesn’t seem to represent any notable improvement over the mainstream brands and isn’t a patch on the best German and Czech imports.

One theory that occurred to me is that, like many British-brewed “craft” lagers, it uses the wrong type of hops and thus fails to achieve that distinctive grassy note characteristic of authentic Continental lagers. However, others in the comments have suggested that it’s simply not turning over quickly enough and thus becoming stale. It’s probably a beer that needs to be served fresh for the hop character to emerge.

But its days seem to be numbered. On a visit to my local Spoons yesterday, it had been discounted to £1.99 a pint, and the barman said it was being dropped. If you think about it, it can only have ever appealed to a small segment of beer-savvy customers who weren’t single-minded cask drinkers. Unless it’s part of a meal deal, paying £3.10 a pint when cask is £2.30 is a large jump, and the “normal” lager drinker won’t see the point when they can get Stella, Kronenbourg or Carlsberg Export for a similar price.

Likewise, I can’t see them selling much Devil’s Backbone, and apparently in many branches that has already been withdrawn. The Wetherspoon’s “craft revolution” may have been a cunning plan to blunt the appeal of trendy craft beer bars in major cities*, but in Northern industrial towns I doubt whether it’s even caused a ripple, with all those bottles of Lagunitas IPA remaining in the fridge unsold. I was told that many branches only started shifting the cans of Sixpoint Bengali Tiger once they were discounted to 99p and thus started to score on the “bangs per buck” front.

Maybe this is another indication that Spoons need to differentiate their beer offer more between branches with markedly varying customer bases, rather than following a one size fits all approach. If “craft keg” really is to break out into the mainstream, it needs an instantly recognisable brand to lead the way and give a strong reason to visit. “We must go to the Aardvark & Artichoke, they have Frobble’s Funky Fizz on there!” Even Punk IPA may not cut the mustard as it is too strong. Or is this a sign that, as far as mainstream pubs go, we have now reached the high tide of “craft keg”?

Incidentally, on this visit to Spoons, a mixed-sex group of young people of somewhat studenty appearance came in. Their favoured tipple seemed to be some variety of purple-coloured fruit cider, and the craft beer taps and fridge remained firmly untouched.

* Spoons were never going to be a craft beer destination of choice, but amongst mixed groups the argument that “we’re not going there, they have no craft beer” would no longer wash, just as many pubs in the 1970s were persuaded to put real ale on again.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

It’s the taste, innit?

Some years ago I used to have discussions on motoring-related Usenet groups with a retired Cheshire traffic police officer called Kevin Lunn. It was tangential to the main issues at hand, but he did at one point say he was a connoisseur of malt whiskies. However, he insisted that he only had one or at most two glasses when at home, and drank them entirely for the taste, as he wasn’t aware of any alcoholic effect whatsoever.

I found this a bit strange at the time, although I have no reason to believe it wasn’t a genuine statement. But it does reflect a sentiment I’ve often heard from beer enthusiasts that the alcoholic content gets in the way of their appreciation. For example, I recently saw this comment by Nick Boley on Boak & Bailey’s blog:

“...we do need as a society to differentiate to some extent to those who drink because they enjoy the flavour and accept intoxication as an unwanted occupational hazard, and those who drink to get intoxicated regardless of what it is they’re drinking.”
But this is rather missing the point. Alcoholic drinks first developed precisely because of their intoxicating effect, and it was only later that people started to appreciate that some tasted better than others – although probably the first spontaneously fermented fruit juice wasn’t all that bad. It was only relatively recently – within the last 150 years or so – that ordinary people in developed societies got the opportunity to buy alcoholic drinks that weren’t the staple produce of their own locality. Yes, wine had been shipped long distances for thousands of years – remember the Quinquireme of Nineveh and its cargo of sweet white wine – but in countries like England it had always been a luxury product confined to the rich.

In reality, the presence of alcohol is essential to the taste of alcoholic drinks, and as they become stronger it becomes more important. The flavours become more intense and complex, but you know you must imbibe more sparingly, so it’s a fundamental limitation. There is, broadly speaking, a trade-off between taste and effect. Products deliberately produced to have a lower level of alcohol than normal usually taste rather lacking, even if palatable enough.

And it’s wrong to suggest ordinary drinkers drink purely for intoxication. Of course they are interested in the effect, but more often than not it’s for relaxation or companionship, not getting drunk for the sake of it. The average number of drinks consumed per drinking occasion is probably well under two. Even then, they choose the drinks that they like the flavour of. Only alcoholics pour stuff down their necks regardless of the taste. Yes, the enthusiast may be more selective in their choice of drinks, but if they’re routinely drinking in situations where non-enthusiasts wouldn’t, they might need to consider whether they have a problem.

And some of the brews that have sprung from the craft beer movement which are extreme in strength and/or flavour may be magnificent examples of the brewer’s art, but aren’t things that realistically any normal person is going to consume in a social setting.

Monday, 25 May 2015

The monkey’s paw strikes again

I’ve made the point in the past here and here that the pubcos are not going to adopt a supine response to any government-imposed change in their business model, and that the recent “Pubco reform” was essentially a Pyrrhic victory for CAMRA and Greg Mulholland.

Now Enterprise Inns have set out their strategy following these reforms, and it’s not remotely surprising. They are planning to convert 750-850 of their most profitable sites to direct management, sell off about 1,000 bottom-end pubs and convert another 1,000 to arm’s length commercial leases. The remaining 2,200 pubs will be subject to tied agreements of up to five years, where presumably they will seek to minimise the opportunities for licensees to take up the market rent option (MRO).

As I’ve said before, it’s hard to see why any pubco would be interested in owning pubs run on an MRO basis in the long term. Enterprise are going to transfer a lot more pubs to commercial leases where they no longer have any interest as to whether the business is run as a pub or a supermarket. If any licensee on a tied agreement goes for an MRO, they will not renew his agreement and will probably either transfer the pub to management or sell it off. It’s also very doubtful whether there’s enough liquidity in the market to take up the 1,000 pubs being sold off, and many will surely end up converted to alternative use.

No doubt Punch Taverns will come up with similar plans, and we will end up with yet another Beer Orders style upheaval of the pub trade. Maybe the trade does need a further culling, but it’s hard to see that that was the objective of the campaigners for pubco reform.

And, for those who didn’t get the reference, see here. It’s the classic cautionary tale of being careful what you wish for.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Wizard brew

At the end of last year, I reported that Robinsons had announced they were going to axe their 1892 Mild. The general verdict was that, while it was sad, the decision was understandable in view of plummeting demand, and nobody was going to be staging protest marches.

At the time, they said they planned to introduce a new 3.7% amber beer, not as a direct replacement for 1892, but to plug a gap at the bottom end of their range, something that caused many beer enthusiasts to yawn a little. This has now appeared in the form of Wizard, which did not greatly impress RedNev when he came across it. In the first two months of the year, Robinsons produced a seasonal beer called Mojo, which was also 3.7% and was thought to be a trial run of Wizard.

However, in fact Wizard is noticeably different, being paler, dryer and a little lighter on the palate. Robinsons say that they “have combined 5 English hops, pale, wheat & crystal malts to produce Wizard, a moreish, sessionable 3.7% ABV mythical amber ale. Packed full of flavour, Wizard has a spell-bounding fruity & zesty hop palate complemented by a magical full malt character.” Fair enough, but perhaps a touch of hyperbole for something that is basically an “ordinary bitter”.

As I said, it’s fairly dry, mid-amber in colour (a little darker than Unicorn), with a touch of the distinctive Robinsons house character and a good balance of malt and hops. It’s never going to set the world alight but, there again, that isn’t the point of ordinary bitter. Where available, it will probably become my usual drink in Robinsons pubs unless there’s a particularly interesting seasonal beer.

Historically, Robinsons have been in the unusual position of selling a “best bitter” as their everyday quaffing bitter. They weren’t alone in this – for example, Camerons Strongarm was their staple beer in the North-East, while the weaker Bitter was favoured in Yorkshire, Draught Bass and Marston’s Pedigree were both often the staple beer across large swathes of the Midlands, and in the South-West many breweries offered a “best bitter” at around 4.2%, and a “boys’ bitter” around 3.2%. But it was pretty much unique in the North-West.

Many people, unaware of the relative strength, used to complain that a night on Robinsons Best Bitter gave them a “bad head”, when in fact it was markedly stronger than most of its competitors. They did produce a weaker version at about 3.5%, just branded as “Bitter”, but for whatever reason it was only available in a handful of outlets, including locally the Queens in Cheadle. This was relaunched as “Old Stockport” at the same time as Best Bitter became Unicorn, but never really gained much favour and was axed a few years ago. They did introduce the 3.8% golden ale Dizzy Blonde, which can be very enjoyable when well-kept, but it has never claimed to be an ordinary bitter and indeed often sells at a premium to the stronger Unicorn.

But it seems a sensible move to launch a lower-strength ordinary bitter that will also allow Robinsons to be more price-competitive in many of their pubs where they have been struggling a bit. Then Unicorn can be repositioned as a premium beer going head-to-head with the likes of Wainwright and Doom Bar in the free trade. And it has a very recognisable brand name.

There is one worry, though. Historically, breweries in the North-West have always struggled to sell a bitter-style beer that is weaker than their standard beer, especially if the latter is automatically proferred when a customer just asks for “bitter”. Sam Smith’s Tadcaster Bitter is a prime example and, more recently, Holts IPA. The other day I was in a Robinsons pub serving a very decent pint of Wizard, but where an old boy went to the bar asking for bitter and got Unicorn. Unless Wizard overcomes that hurdle it is likely to struggle, although I’m sure the price differential will help.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Back to when pubs were pubs

I recently happened to be in Stockport town centre on a weekday lunchtime for an optician’s appointment, and afterwards thought I would call in Sam Smith’s Boar’s Head on the market place for a swift pint. I’ve written about this pub before as being a bastion of the old-fashioned wet-led, pint-drinking pub culture, but in general I’ve only visited in the evenings and at weekends.

It doesn’t serve food (although it has in the past) but it was noticeable that, just before one o’clock, and not on a market day, it was busy, with a cluster of drinkers at the bar, and pretty much every table having at least one customer. The vast majority were over fifty, and most would fall into the category of being “down-to-earth”. No doubt most were either retired, unemployed or on disability, and so had time on their hands. I, by the way, am a “semi-retired gentleman of leisure” so am completely different.

The beer feminist sisterhood will no doubt point out that it was also a mostly male clientele, but it did include couples, individual women and all-female groups. I don’t see that the pub is in any way female-unfriendly, though, it’s more a generational thing whereby older women just don’t visit pubs on their own. Many widowed or divorced men will find a bit of social life in the pub, if they can get there, but women will be more inclined to sit at home and feel lonely. Maybe in twenty years’ time that will have changed.

Being a Sam’s pub, it has no piped music or TV sports, which will have encouraged the customers to chat to each other. It’s the kind of pub where complete strangers strike up conversation and even offer to buy each other drinks. The low prices will help, too. For these people, the pub is a key part of their social life, not just somewhere to go for a leisure experience. And, to cap it all, there was a large, fluffy, black-and-white pub cat, fast asleep on a bench and taking up two seats. I was warned not to be too affectionate as it had a tendency to be a bit snappy. You don’t get that in Spoons. The Old Brewery Bitter was pretty good, too.

I’ve often sung the praises of Sam Smith’s pubs in the past – cheap beer, brown decor, bench seating, no piped music, no TV sports, and proper pub customers engaging in proper pub chat. Now, they’re certainly not my ideal pubs – the limited beer range and the fact that the punters would often consider the Daily Mail to be a posh newspaper militate against that. But many other pub operators, in their quest to promote fancy food, music, TV and other distractions, seem to have forgotten what pubs were originally all about. And they have priced themselves out of the reach of many ordinary customers who once saw the pub as a valuable social resource.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Pride before a fall?

I recently wrote about the travails of Tesco, which had expanded beyond the point at which the business was sustainable, and raised the question as to whether the same fate might eventually befall Wetherspoon’s.

Love them or loathe them, Spoons have been the great pub success story of recent years, proving that even in a declining market you can still thrive by giving customers what they want. I’ve written about the reasons behind their rise here.

They still seem to be going from strength to strength, with a solid programme of new openings in the pipeline. They reckon that their ultimate goal is about 2,000 pubs – twice as many as they have today – which would mean that few people in the UK would not be within easy reach of a branch.

It hasn’t been a seamless ascent, though. Over the years they have encountered a number of setbacks, for example

  1. in the late 90s becoming too closely associated with the “night-time economy” in major cities
  2. jumping the gun on both full measures (which never happened) and the smoking ban (which, sadly, did), both of which alienated customers
  3. more recently, trying to push prices up in some branches in more prosperous areas and meeting much customer resistance
They have also made a number of errors in site selection, most notably the Edwin Chadwick in Longsight which even I would have warned them about. However, the juggernaut keeps rolling on.

I do wonder, though, whether they are now running into the same problems as Tesco – diminishing number of suitable new sites, and the risk of new openings cannibalising trade from existing venues. There are plenty of towns – such as Preston – where one Spoons has recently become two.

I’m not saying they’re anywhere near banging their heads against the ceiling, but that day must come. Tim Martin has just turned 60, and won’t be around forever. Some have suggested that the company depends on his personality holding it all together.

But my recommendation as to when to sell the shares would be on the day they make a public announcement that they are going to segment their pubs between different categories. It may seem to make commercial sense, but it will undermine the whole concept. The fact that a Spoons is a Spoons wherever you go is, to my mind, their USP.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Bipolar beer

Last month’s CAMRA AGM passed a motion instructing branches to desist from “anti campaigns” denigrating other drinks. Many would take the view this was long overdue, and indeed founder member Michael Hardman famously said “I must point out that we’re not fighting against anything, we’re fighting for something.” Over the years this has included both a blanket dismissal of whole categories of beer as worthless rubbish, and casting doubt on the intelligence of those who chose to drink them. This kind of attitude may come across as narrow-minded and dogmatic today, but it’s interesting to consider how it arose in the first place.

When CAMRA was formed in the early 70s, the British beer and pub landscape was very different from how it is today. Approximately 90% of beer was sold in pubs and clubs, and 90% of that was ale – either bitter or mild in various forms. People weren’t “keg drinkers” or “real ale drinkers”, they were bitter or mild drinkers, and what CAMRA was trying to do was to to raise awareness of whether that beer was real or pressurised in some way. It also needs to be remembered that in those days non-real beer covered a multitude of categories beyond keg as such – blanket pressure, top pressure, bright beer, tank beer etc. But, at this time, it was correct to say that cask beer, when well kept, was almost universally better than any form of pressurised beer, so the simple dichotomy of “real ale good, keg beer bad” contained a substantial element of truth.

Of course there was at that time one clearly-defined group of “keg drinkers” – those who went for the big brewers’ premium keg beers such as Watney’s Red, Double Diamond and Worthington E, but even there they identified with the brand rather than the category. These were among CAMRA’s first targets and within a period of about five years they had reduced them from being seen as an aspirational product to something irredeemably naff. “Keg drinkers” as such didn’t re-emerge until the early 90s and the rise of “smooth” as a distinct product. At first, with products like Caffrey’s, the brewers hoped to reconnect ale with a younger market, but it has been increasingly characterised as the choice of older, working-class male drinkers. They do specifically ask for “smooth”, though, whereas nobody really used to ask for keg.

In the long run, cask has won the battle against keg, which now accounts for a smaller proportion of the ale market than at any time during CAMRA’s existence. But ale has decisively lost the wider battle against lager, which has come to represent 70% of the on-trade beer market. The spectacular rise of lager is often thought to have really taken off in the hot summer of 1976. This was harder to oppose than keg ale, because it wasn’t possible to point to a direct “real” alternative, and so inevitably lager drinkers themselves began to be stereotyped. Initially they were seen as effete “shandy drinkers”, but as lager gained popularity amongst a new generation of drinkers, they metamorphosed into the laddish followers of George the Bear, and in a sense lager became the drink of the Loadsamoney generation. Obviously this was easy for the beer buffs to look down their noses at, but they started to realise that in Germany and the Czech Republic you could actually find some excellent lagers, so it became more difficult to condemn the whole category. You won’t win any converts by asking What’s the matter, Lagerboy?, and it’s noticeable how nowadays it’s vanishingly rare to see any working-class man under 40 drinking ale, either real or keg.

In the early 70s, bottled and canned beer only made up a small proportion of the market, and it didn’t matter all that much when CAMRA decided to make bottle-conditioned beer, which was down to a small handful of products, the packaged equivalent of real ale. But in the longer term, as drinking increasingly moved from the pub to the home, this proved to be a strategic error. Bottle-conditioning is great for strong speciality brews but, because of the practical difficulties of storage, pouring and consistency, it is never going to be a realistic option for everyday quaffing beers, something that the brewers had realised long before they started dropping cask on draught. So, when all the well-known real ales started appearing in bottles, CAMRA lumped them in the same category as cans of Long Life, while encouraging small breweries to produce bottle-conditioned ales which qualified for “CAMRA says this is Real Ale” but were often highly inconsistent products that did not encourage repeat purchase. It’s commonplace for the drinkers who choose cask beer in the pub to buy the bottled versions for drinking at home and refer to them as “real ales”, even though strictly speaking they aren’t. Drinkers see the two as equivalent even if CAMRA doesn’t. One CAMRA magazine notoriously declares “tins are always very, very bad”. The likes of Beavertown might have something to say about that!

Forty years on, the beer scene is far more diverse than it was in the early days. Lager has come to dominate the market – much dull or indifferent, some truly excellent. We have imports from all over the world, the craft beer movement has brought a bewildering array of styles and flavours, and we have high-quality beers from small new breweries appearing in keg form, some of which technically qualify as real ale. The old certainties have gone, and it no longer makes any sense to dismiss entire categories of beer out of hand or suggest that the people who drink them are ill-informed. Most of us, including most CAMRA members, are to some extent “repertoire drinkers” now, and don’t religiously stick to the same product on grounds of principle. I rarely drink anything but cask in pubs, as I make a point of choosing pubs that serve decent cask, but I’m certainly not the kind of person who sits at a wedding drinking bitter lemon with a face like a wet weekend because the only beer available is Foster’s. If you want to encourage people to try something new, denigrating their current choice is not a good way to go about it. It is good news that CAMRA has at last officially recognised that championing Britain’s unique contribution to the beer world and a key part of our national heritage requires a positive, outward-looking approach rather than refighting the doctrinaire battles of forty years ago.