Tuesday, 6 October 2015

I went in seeking clarity

The debate about clarity and murkiness in beer has recently burst into flames again in the response to a post by Quinno on Stonch’s blog entitled #Murkshaming. While I firmly come down on one side of the debate, I can’t thinking that to a large extent it’s arguing at cross purposes. One point that has been made more than once is that defence of clear beer is very much a CAMRA position, and that craft brewers producing murky beer is at least partly an exercise in cocking a snook at the CAMRA orthodoxy.

In the early days, CAMRA members were often characterised as humourless types who went into pubs, ordered halves and then held them up to the light. I’m sure there was a bit of truth in that, but in reality I think CAMRA tried to take a less absolutist approach to beer clarity. It has to be remembered that, in the Fifties and early Sixties, there were still plenty of small, rather moribund family breweries with poor quality control procedures who seemed to find it difficult to produce consistently (or indeed ever) clear beer. The rise of keg beer was to some extent a reaction to this.

My recollection is that CAMRA tried to promote a more nuanced view of beer clarity, pointing out that just because a beer was crystal clear, it didn’t mean it was any good, and that there were circumstances such as thunderstorms and “layering” which could turn clear beer cloudy. These last two always seemed to me rather like old wives’ tales, but they underline the point that CAMRA didn’t dismiss any kind of hazy beer out of hand, and I’ve heard members say that a bit of haze might add more character.

However, as the “real ale revolution” started taking it into pubs where it hadn’t been served for fifteen years, we increasingly saw incompetent licensees trying to hide behind real ale’s rustic image. The cry of “it’s real ale, it’s meant to be like that” was heard up and down the land, and its image was tarnished. Many drinkers reached the conclusion of once bitten, twice shy, and understandably started to view anything short of crystal with suspicion.

I would say, though, that, both officially and individually, CAMRA has never taken a dogmatic stance that all cloudy beer is inherently bad, and has been sympathetic to the idea that unfined beer might result in more depth of flavour, so long as drinkers are informed what to expect. Some other members seem to be more tolerant than I am of moderate cloudiness. But it is not unrealistic to point out that the vast majority of cask beer brewed and sold in the UK is intended to be served clear, that drinkers have a reasonable expectation that it will be clear, and if it isn’t, it’s almost always an indication of a flaw in brewing or cellaring.

(acknowledgements to Tandleman for the photo)

Friday, 2 October 2015

Every little less never helps

Four years ago, I wrote about how the ever-increasing beer choice in supermarkets was cutting into the market of independent off-licences. At the time, it was a valid point but, as often happens, subsequent events have gone in the opposite direction. The craft beer sector has expanded into ever more obscure sectors, most of which the supermarkets will never touch with a bargepole, even if they stock Punk IPA and Hardknott Azimuth. And there has been a big growth in independent beer-focused off-licences, often in city-centre locations, which appeal to high-spending young hipsters professionals who probably never get in to Tesco Extra.

My local Stockport branch of that particular chain was notable for its impressively wide beer and cider selection, something that twenty years ago would not have disgraced a specialist off-licence. However times have changed and, in response to the challenge from discounters like Aldi and Lidl, the major supermarkets have been looking at streamlining their operations and rationalising their ranges. Apparently 20% of all products stocked sell either one item a week, or none.

So Tesco have decided to take the axe to their beer range. One of the most high-profile casualties has been Carlsberg, as Stonch reports here, but their more specialist ranges have been drastically reduced too. Imported German and Czech lagers, Belgian beers, premium ciders, British craft beers, all have suffered. The Premium Bottled Ale range doesn’t seem to have been too badly affected, and is always subject to churn anyway, but one of my favourites, the bottle-conditioned Shepherd Neame 1698, has disappeared. Some of the shelf space seems to have been reallocated to PBA multipacks.

Regular blog readers may have noticed that I have a fondness for authentic imported German lagers. Tesco used to sell three – Bitburger, Krombacher and Warsteiner – which were usually included in multibuy deals. Not maybe Augustiner Helles or Jever Pilsner, but all very decent, palatable beers. Now all gone, along with similar beers like Baltika 7 and Pilsner Urquell. Surely a range rationalisation should have reduced the three to one, rather than scrapping the category entirely.

Obviously supermarkets have an interest in selling whatever they can sell, whether beer or bread. But the beer category has wider implications, as it is one of the factors that people will use to choose one supermarket above another (rather like cask drinkers choosing which pub to go to) and also an area where supermarkets can reclaim market share from independents. They will never remotely match the range of the specialists, but there’s a substantial proportion of customers who might think if they can get Punk IPA in Tesco for £1.50, there’s no point in making an effort to trek to the independent to pay £2.80 for Beavertown Gamma Ray.

If customers think “oh well, I’ll manage with what’s left”, then Tesco have won. But if they think “I’ll now have to go somewhere else for that”, it may seriously undermine their business. The key USP of the conventional big supermarkets is that they offer a much wider ranger than the discounters. If they cease to do that, what’s the point? Tesco have also recently annoyed me with several delistings of non-beer products.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The man who...

Earlier this year, I was in one of Sam Smith’s Cheshire pubs, which can fairly be said to attract a wide range of customers from regular boozers to National Trust visitors. A group of fairly ordinary-looking people came in, not in any way rough or chavvy, settled themselves down, and one was heard to say “Now this is more like it, isn’t it?” I didn’t catch every word of their conversation, but the gist was that they had poked their noses through the door of a pub up the road – a rather smart dining pub owned by one of the local family brewers – and felt they had been looked upon like something the cat dragged in.

It seems to be a growing phenomenon that pubs are deliberately pitching their appeal at a point so upmarket that many potential customers in the C1C2 social group will not remotely feel at home. Yes, there have always been snobby pubs, but in the past many of them still retained a public bar, and my recollection is that thirty years ago there wasn’t anything like the obvious stratification of pub menus that we have now. Also, much more smart dining was done in formal restaurants, not pubs.

Obviously this has its spiritual home in the archetypal “country dining pub”, but it has also spread into historic towns and the more prosperous suburbs of major cities. As we know, class remains a sensitive subject in this country, and has infinite subtle gradations. Now, I am unequivocally a middle-class person, but, along with Neil Kinnock and Joe Biden, I fall into the category of “the first Mudgie in a thousand generations to go to university”, so I have a foot in both camps. While I can manage it without difficulty, I have to admit feeling somewhat uneasy if I venture into one of these airy, pastel-shaded eateries with their separate tables arranged in an artfully irregular pattern. I can’t help thinking I’d be far happier somewhere with dark wood and wall benches.

Clearly this formula is making money for many pub operators, but it is opening up an unprecedented divide in the pub trade. Back in the 1950s, people would have laughed if someone had suggested that in 2015 many pubs would be too posh for a huge number of potential customers. In the past, if on holiday, or out on a day trip, or breaking a journey, you could rely on most food-serving pubs to offer some some reasonable, not too expensive pub grub. But now, unless there’s a Spoons in the vicinity, you can see many people looking at cafés or casual dining chains rather than some pub trying to charge you 8 for a fish finger sandwich on a brioche bun.

The worst thing is the greeter who asks you when you walk through the door “and will you be dining with us today, Sir?” There’s nothing so calculated to make the common folk feel ill at ease. And should you reply that you’re just after a drink, you will be made to feel like the subject of an H. M. Bateman cartoon entitled “The man who walked into a dining pub and asked for a pint of bitter”. Or maybe the character in the Fast Show played by Mark Williams who looks at the menu in a high-class restaurant and asks “So which are the turkey Kievs?” then, after a painful silence, says “I’ll get me coat”.

Edit: although the above was prompted by a particular overheard conversation, and essentially relates to food-serving pubs, possibly much the same divide is growing between craft beer bars and traditional boozers. I would doubt whether many of the customers of the George & Dragon and Heaton Hops, which are across the road from each other in Heaton Chapel, would seriously consider going to the other one.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Glass half full

Pete Brown (again) has recently produced the latest edition of the annual Cask Report, which in fact will be the last one he writes. Obviously the purpose of this publication is to take a positive view of cask beer, and encourage pubs to stock and promote it, but it does make some important points:

  • Cask is the only section of the on-trade beer market that is in growth
  • Cask is a significant driver of trade to pubs, as the cask drinker is the most likely to want to avoid pubs that don’t sell his favoured tipple
  • Cask is unique to pubs – it can’t be replicated at home in the way that most other drinks can
This has been extensively discussed on blogs and in social media, notably in this post on Stonch’s blog, so I won’t attempt any kind of general summary. However, there are a few notes of caution that need to be sounded.

Firstly, cask now appeals predominantly to an ABC1 customer base, which is a striking turnaround from the situation at the birth of CAMRA, when cask beer (albeit often served under top pressure) was the ordinary beer in pubs, and lager and keg were premium products. In a sense this is a good thing, as it attracts better-off customers into pubs, but there are risks associated with too much of an upmarket, élite image, and of course cask more than any other pub drink is critically dependent on throughput. It can’t survive as a low-volume niche product. It would be interesting to ask the C2DE drinkers why they shun cask - it certainly isn’t on price grounds.

Allied to this, there is the repeated call for cask to be regarded as a “premium” product, something that is often echoed by brewers and pub operators. However, for historical reasons, cask has always sold at a discount to other beers, because it was originally the basic, staple beer sold in pubs, and there’s little sign of that changing. There’s also a “risk premium” associated with cask as, unlike other beers, there’s a small but significant chance of getting a dud pint. In most markets, the concept of “premium” is associated not just with higher quality, but with greater consistency and reliability.

This leads on to another issue – that of choice. The report urges that pubs should offer a “broad range of styles”, but only tangentially adds that “stocking too many ales can have an adverse effect on quality”. But, as often said, the worst enemy of cask beer is a bad pint of cask beer, and in recent years the quality vs quantity trade-off has veered far too much towards quantity. The good pubs still provide a reliably good pint, but in the general pub trade I’d say the chances of getting a poor one have significantly increased. CAMRA spokespeople and magazines continue to promote the idea that more choice is desirable, but we have long passed the point where it has a negative impact on beer quality. This really is an elephant in the room that CAMRA needs to confront.

The report also seems to make a lot of assumptions that may be relevant to a certain category of middle-class, cask-focused London pub, but don’t really apply elsewhere. Apparently having bar staff knowledgeable about beer, and offering tasters, are key points in encouraging cask sales. This may be true in specialist pubs, but in reality many bar staff are students and others just doing it for a short time, and it’s unreasonable to expect them to have a knowledge of the beers on sale, let alone the wines or whiskies. It’s still the case that most cask drinkers see it as their regular tipple, and to ask for a taster of Old Brewery Bitter in the Boar’s Head, or Unicorn in the Armoury, would be greeted with incomprehension.

Yes, in recent years cask beer has enjoyed a moderate success story, and when it’s on top form it trounces everything else on the bar. But there is no room for complacency, and there are serious issues its champions need to address – in particular beer quality.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

If only you could bottle it

When he’s not engaging in juvenile rants against the Ebil Toriez, or claiming that a big brewery merger spells apocalyptic disaster, leftie beer writer Pete Brown can actually come up with some sensible stuff when he sticks to the knitting of beer and pubs*. Recently, he’s written an excellent piece for the Morning Advertiser about how atmosphere in pubs is arguably more important than either beer or food.

And he’s quite right, of course. No matter how good the beer or food, if you don’t feel at home in a pub you may not be inclined to linger, or to visit again. It can be very small or subtle things that deter people, or indeed make them feel welcome. He gives a couple of examples – 80s power ballads being played, and a massive plasma screen showing daytime TV. Now personally I’m more than happy for Ann Wilson to sing to me “how do I get you alone?” but I fully recognise that music needs to be tailored to the clientele. Indeed, I’ve often come across contemporary R&B/hip-hop music being played to customers with an average age well north of 50.

Clearly, “atmosphere” doesn’t just mean things I might personally like. A pub crammed with football or rugby fans watching the match will undoubtedly have atmosphere, as may one with a stand-up throng playing kickin’ music at top volume. It’s also generally the case that, regardless of the style of pub, more customers generate more atmosphere.

A while back, I tried to define Pubbiness, but it’s always something that is very difficult to nail. We all know when a pub has atmosphere, but it’s something that simply cannot be bottled. You certainly can’t easily transfer the winning formula of one pub to another, although pub operators often try. I could try to attempt a definition based on factors such as landlord involvement and interaction between customers, but that would probably fall flat on its face. It’s often the case that there’s a close correlation between atmosphere and popularity, but it doesn’t always follow. I’ve also noticed how some CAMRA members seem completely impervious to any question of pub atmosphere so long as they like the beer. I don’t think pubbiness is quite the same as atmosphere, although there is a substantial overlap.

I regularly visit a handful of Sam Smith’s pubs, mainly because they have an atmosphere that suits me. I know I can get a wider choice elsewhere, and maybe better beer too (albeit at a price), but the alternatives just don’t seem so congenial. If those pubs dropped cask OBB in favour of keg, which many Sam’s pubs have done, then, probably I’d keep going there. Because of the atmosphere.

And it can’t be a coincidence that Tim Martin has included “Moon” in so many of his Wetherspoon pub names, given that particular celestial body’s well-known lack of atmosphere.

* I created a second Twitter account to express my more general political views, recognising that introducing too much of a political element might alienate many of my beery followers. Perhaps Pete Brown would help his cause by doing the same.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Suffer the little children

I’m not a huge fan of the Good Pub Guide, but its most recent launch highlighted the issue of children in pubs, something that has long been something of a hobbyhorse of mine. Phil Mellows, on the other hand (whose opinions I generally respect), doesn’t see what the fuss is all about. However, the fact that Good Pub Guide readers consider it their most important issue shows that it is far from being resolved. Clearly, the days of kids being left outside in the car with a packet of crisps and a bottle of pop are long gone, and that in itself is a very dated stereotype. But nowadays the boot seems to be on the other foot, with children being allowed free rein throughout pubs.

But you don’t have to be a child-hater to think that you should be allowed to enjoy a quiet pint, coffee or sandwich without the constant refrain of their happy laughter. One family dining pub I know has a clear delineation down the middle – under-11s are not allowed on one side. That seems to be a sensible model that others should follow. Also, my local pub, which has a strong emphasis on food, has taken the view that children should not be admitted into one of its three rooms. Recently, the Waterfront pub in Burton-on-Trent gained many plaudits on social media, and increased its business, by banning children under five.

Another problem is that, because of the Mumsnet lobby, licensees are extremely reluctant to confront parents over bad behaviour by children, as it will make them seem, er, curmudgeonly, and may lead to them being severely criticised on social media. So plenty of adult customers quietly make the decision to go elsewhere in future. Clearly this is not something that is just going to go away, and remains a serious issue for many pubgoers. Licensees really need to sit down and consider their policy on children, and recognise that a free-for-all is something that increasingly turns potential customers off. Not to ban children entirely, but to create a clear distinction between child-friendly and adult-only areas. As with so many other things, a one size fits all policy is not the way to go.

The late CAMRA stalwart Humphrey Higgins once found himself sitting next to a mother and baby in a pub. The mother said to him “do you mind putting out that cigarette – it’s annoying my baby?” He replied “do you mind shutting up that baby, it’s annoying me?” Needless to say, it was him who ended up being asked to leave...

Friday, 18 September 2015

Keeping it regular

For many years, I’ve regularly distributed the local CAMRA magazine to a varying selection of pubs. One thing that always struck me was that, in some pubs, whatever the time or day I called in, there were always a few customers who could be relied on to be there.

The “pub regular” is often lionised as the backbone of the trade, but is he really the ideal customer? I recently wrote about the book A Year in the Drink by Martin Green. In this, he describes pub life in a small Welsh market town where, frankly, there was little else to do but go to the pub. And he makes the point that many of his regular customers were rather sad individuals who had no other social life, not cheery stalwarts.

We all want pubs to succeed, and most of us will have been regulars in some pub or other over the years, whether it is meeting up with mates on a Friday night, reading the paper on Sunday lunchtime or calling in for a couple a few nights a week on the way home from work. When I was at university, a mate and I in the same house would go down to the local (rather crappy) pub two or three nights a week.

But it has to be admitted – and most licensees will know this – that, for some people, being in the pub every night is a symptom of a sad and broken life, and there’s simply nothing else for them to do. Stonch nails it in this blogpost, where a commenter says that “the thought of listening to the bollocks that tsunamis over the bar on an average night for the rest of his life was too much for any half-intelligent person to put up with.” If you think you’re going into the pub trade to be the centre of cheery bonhomie and witty banter, you’re sadly mistaken.

This is, of course, not to say that pub companionship and conviviality isn’t generally a very good thing but, as with many other things, once it becomes your sole focus in life, it has its dark side. You do see this rather less now – the foodification of many pubs, the smoking ban, and the ever-rising price of on-trade beer must be factors. But you wonder how many of the former barstool raconteurs are now sitting at home with a packet of Bensons and a four-pack of Special Brew swearing at the telly.

I once remember overhearing a conversation in a remote pub in the Yorkshire Dales about a character called Rodney who ran a chip van on Blubberhouses Moor. When not doing this, he spent every night in the pub. Whether or not he was married I do not know. Someone once asked him “Rodney, have you ever tried staying in just for one night?” “Aye,” he replied. “It were ten year ago. Didn’t like it.” Funny, yes, but at the same time rather sad.

Monday, 14 September 2015

The Donnington Way

In the early days of CAMRA, Donnington Brewery in the Cotswolds was widely seen as the ideal of the small, rustic, country brewery. The brewery stood in a picture-postcard location by a pond with a watermill, it brewed some distinctive, although maybe a bit rough-edged, country beers, and had a small estate of classic stone-built Cotswold pubs all within a few miles. It was owned and run by Claude Arkell, a member of the Swindon brewing family, as an individual sole trader – it wasn’t even a limited company.

In the early 80s, I lived for a few years in Surrey and so regularly travelled up to visit my parents in Cheshire. The Cotswolds were roughly half-way, and so it often seemed a good idea to stop off at a Donnington pub for a pint and a bite to eat. The Coach & Horses at Ganborough, on the A424 just north of Stow-on-the-Wold, very close to the brewery, was a particularly convenient location. They used to do a very good Stilton Ploughman’s.

Over the years, I managed to visit 12 of their original 17 pubs, which must be the highest proportion for me of any brewery in the country. I’ve been to four or the original “Bathams Eight” and, over a long period of time, have been in about half of Robinsons’ much larger tied estate, but that remains a personal record. Since then, they disposed of two of the 17 – the Bell at Winchcombe and the Merrymouth Inn at Fifield – leaving 15, of which I have visited 11, or 73%.

The pubs were mostly venerable buildings of Cotswold stone, and had a distinctive, welcoming, down-to-earth atmosphere with beer prices well below the local average – this in an area noted for its snobbiness and wealthy residents. The picture on the right is the Golden Ball in Lower Swell. However, it seems that in the 1960s Mr Claude was bitten by the modernity bug, and many of them had been opened out and furnished in a faux-rustic style with wobbly-edged tables that even in the early 1980s seemed very dated. The Black Bear in Moreton-on-Marsh was particularly notable for this.

Also they had a flirtation with keg (or probably top-pressure) beer that persisted into the CAMRA era. The beers were the rare Mild, the “ordinary” BB and the “best” SBA. They were good, enjoyable beers, but, as said above, maybe a touch rustic and artisanal. In itself, that is no bad thing, but they were never going to be the best beers in the land.

I moved back to the North-West at the end of 1984 and so wasn’t passing through the Cotswolds so regularly, but I’ve tried to make the effort to visit at least one Donnington pub if in the area. For a time they seemed to have something of a beer clarity problem – I remember one particularly hazy pint in the Mount Inn at Stanton – but this appears to have been resolved, and my most recent example was fine.

In the past few years they have largely dropped off my radar, and I included them in this blogpost amongst the list of family brewers now largely ignored by CAMRA. Their pubs also feature much less in the Good Beer Guide than they once did. However, in the same week Tyson posted a review of bottled Donnington Gold, which alerted me to the fact that they had now entered the Premium Bottled Ales market. They have always brewed the old-fashioned half-pint bottled beers for their pubs.

A bit more digging revealed that they now have a website, although they haven’t yet made an appearance on Facebook or Twitter. Cluade Arkell died in 2007, and the business has passed to two of his cousins, who seem to have cautiously taken a more enterprising approach. They have acquired three additional pubs just outside the fringes of Donnngton’s original trading area, and have introduced an additional beer in Donnington Gold.

I still have a little booklet from the early 1980s entitled “Donnington Brewery and the 17 Cotswold Inns”, illustrated with black-and-white photos which, from the cars depicted, probably date back at least a further ten years. It’s accompanied by a foldout map which, bizarrely, lists the pubs at the bottom with grid references, but doesn’t actually show them on the face of the map itself, so I have written them in myself by hand.

It’s a pity we don’t have more small, quirky country breweries with their own distinctive, tight-knit tied estate, whose beers can only be found in their home territory and don’t turn up in every multi-beer pub the length and breadth of the country.

The Donnington Way is a walking trail connecting all the pubs. The Wikipedia article says that “a ‘Donnington run’ means visiting all 15 pubs in a single evening.” Hopefully with a designated driver!

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Someone's gonna have to pay

In his budget in July, George Osborne announced that, from April next year, the National Minimum Wage would rise to £7.20 an hour for over-25s, and that by 2020 he intended to raise it to a “National Living Wage” of £9 an hour. Some accused him of stealing Labour’s clothes, but there can be no doubt that this represented a major commitment to raising the living standards of poorer workers.

A large number of employers have spoken out against this, claiming it will damage their business, and Tim Martin of Wetherspoons has lent his weight to their campaign. Obviously it will increase the costs of labour-intensive businesses, such as any in the catering sector, but arguably across the whole economy it will be beneficial. I’ve not so far seen any beer bloggers raise this issue.

I’m not trying to start a general debate on the merits of minimum wage policies but, as with other things such as minimum alcohol pricing, the issue is not so much the principle as the level at which it is set. Some people seem to think that an increase in the minimum wage is in effect conjuring money out of nothing, but in reality it would be a transfer of resources from one group to another, and someone would have to bear the cost. This would be a mixture of:

  1. Customers, through higher prices
  2. Employees, through reduced hours, job losses and restriction of fringe benefits
  3. Business owners, through reduction of profits and dividends
This article in the Financial Times (free to view, but you have to register) suggests that larger companies will have the power to decide where these effects are allocated, and thus will only be affected to a limited extent. However, most pubs are either tenanted or leased, or independent freeholders, not part of massive national firms, and small businesses will be damaged much more. Independent pub operators aren’t exactly rolling in money as it is.

If a company is large enough, it will have the flexibility to make choices over where the costs of the minimum wage will be met. And although big businesses may squeal — or wish they could in the case of many large retailers, who bemoan the change in private but fear speaking out publicly lest they alienate customers — it is small businesses that have a much more legitimate gripe.

After all, among people who work at large companies, fewer than 4 per cent are paid the minimum wage; at businesses employing fewer than 50 people the figure is more than one-third. The national living wage is targeted to be worth 60 per cent of the UK median by 2020. But, if you look only at people employed by “micro” businesses that have fewer than 10 workers, even the current minimum wage of £6.50 an hour already meets that objective. For these companies, the new £7.20 figure looks particularly out of whack.

Small businesses have less than a year between the announcement of the NLW and its implementation. And that is not the only new financial and administrative burden with which they are grappling. The summer budget included a change in the tax on dividends, which will hit small business owners. So will their obligation to enrol all workers into a pension scheme, unless they opt out. Small business owners argue persuasively that the NLW will force them to cut jobs and even push some into bankruptcy.

It is sometimes argued that the increased costs of a National Living Wage will be redistributed through the economy, and thus stimulate demand. However, the costs will be mostly borne by labour-intensive businesses such as pubs, whereas the benefits will be spread across the board.

It is also claimed that the current minimum wage is set at a level some way below that of a “living wage” which allows someone to live independently. Well, people have always had to make their first steps into the job market when living at home or sharing houses. It’s also not widely appreciated that many minimum wage earners are second earners in a household, or people such as the partially retired who already have another source of income. For people in that position, earning £6 an hour for 16 hours a week in an undemanding job may be an entirely rational decision. It’s estimated that well over half the benefits of an increased minimum wage would accrue to households in the top half of income distribution.

As I said, it may well be that raising the minimum wage brings benefits across the whole economy. But it can’t be denied that it would have a detrimental effect on labour-intensive businesses such as pubs. It’s not a pain-free policy. There must be some way that Osborne could relax or delay it to help small businesses.

Friday, 11 September 2015

Dinorben dreams

Regular readers will be familiar with my other blog of Closed Pubs, where I take advantage of the views offered by Google StreetView to highlight pubs in a sad, derelict state, whether ones I know personally or suggested by others. An increasing proportion of the images are actually photos taken by myself or other contributors, those of pubs in and around Burton-upon-Trent taken by Dan Bishop being particularly noteworthy.

Of all the 500 plus pubs I’ve featured, by far the most comments have been made about the Dinorben Arms at Bodfari in North Wales, which obviously occupied a special place in many people’s memories. It started off as a small village pub next to the church, but steadily grew into an Alpine chalet-style extension, with a balcony giving dramatic views over the Clwydian Range. To accommodate its customers, a multi-tiered car park was carved out, which can still be discerned on Google Maps.

Its speciality was a lavish Scandinavian-style smorgasbord menu, which drew customers from many miles around. It was one of those special pubs whose reputation for food led to people driving fifty miles to get there, not least from Liverpool. I have to say I never actually visited it – I once parked up and took a look, but decided it was far too upmarket for me, and repaired to the ordinary pub down the hill on the main road.

From the comments, it seems to have steadily declined over the years, and one commenter reports it serving cold baked beans as part of the buffet. Nevertheless, this review from 2003 is still pretty favourable, and it features as a “lucky dip” in my 2006 edition of the Good Pub Guide - although that publication has been known to list pubs that have been closed for several years. However, it eventually closed in 2007, with a food hygiene prosecution, foot and mouth disease, and a poor summer being listed as causes.

That looked rather final, and indeed the 2009 StreetView image (above) shows it in a pretty derelict state. But all is not lost, as upmarket dining pub operator Brunning & Price have decided to take it on and are in the process of renovating it. B&P have a distinctive formula that puts local produce and local cask beers high on the agenda, and I wish them luck in bringing the Dinorben Arms back to its former glory.

Although, to be honest, any pub chain that offers "Braised shoulder of lamb served with dauphinoise potatoes, mixed vegetables and rosemary gravy" for £16.95 - as appears on one of their menus - cannot really be regarded as appealing to the ordinary punter. Cheese and onion cob, anyone? And I’d expect their beer prices are now nudging £4 a pint even for ordinary bitters.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Last in, first out?

Boak & Bailey have posted a fascinating gallery of pictures of 1960s Watneys pubs taken from the back of matchboxes. Only one out of the six is still in operation as a pub.

It’s very noticeable how few of these modern pubs that the brewers were so proud of have lasted the course. Even where they survive, they tend to be condemned as irredeemably naff. I wonder whether the wheel will turn and they come back into fashion as inter-wars pubs have done. Or maybe 1960s architecture is something that will forever be consigned to the dustbin of history.

The point is made in the comments that many post-war pubs may initially have had conventional two-bar layouts with plenty of seating, but ended up being turned into single rooms where TV sport dominated.

The thought also occurred to me that pubs built after WW1 have, in the last 20 years, probably suffered a much greater attrition rate than those built before. The classic estate pub is fast becoming an endangered species, and the roadhouse only survives where it has become a Brewer’s Fayre or Hungry Horse.

And you don’t see matchboxes much any more, do you?

Monday, 7 September 2015

Limelight and shadow

I recently wrote about how some in the contemporary “craft beer movement” had set themselves up in opposition to the achievements of CAMRA and British microbreweries between about 1973 and 2005. Obviously in reality things are more nuanced, and it’s very noticeable how it’s difficult to find even the most hardline crafty who will say a bad word against Harveys of Lewes, a classic example of the traditional family brewer.

In the early 1980s, I had a spell living in the South-East, and at that time Harveys were very much considered also-rans. The star independent breweries were King & Barnes, Gales and Brakspears, plus of course Fullers and Youngs in London. Harveys brewed some decent beer, but they were an obscure company with a very small tied estate and a bizarre co-brewing arrangement with Beards. Since then, they haven’t really done anything different – they’ve stuck to the knitting, slowly expanded their pub estate, avoided any risky forays into trendy urban bars or wacky craft sub-branding and, lo and behold, Sussex Best is rightly celebrated as perhaps the archetype of the classic English “brown bitter”.

Another brewery that seems to have emerged blinking into the spotlight is Bathams, who brew the same beers they did forty years ago and have a small tied estate of resolutely traditional boozers. They may not tick any of the current “craft” boxes but they are genuinely artisanal in the proper sense of the word. To be honest, if I was marooned on a desert island, if my beer supply was limited to Harveys Sussex Best and Bathams Best I wouldn’t be too unhappy.

Their near neighbours Holdens are another small Black Country concern that has recently been gaining a lot of love, maybe to some extent on Bathams’ coat-tails, although their beer and pubs stand up in their own right. Timothy Taylors continue to be very highly regarded, even if Landlord is widely distributed and often not served in optimum condition. Their own tied estate is mostly ordinary little pubs in and around Keighley. And breweries like St Austell, Fullers and Adnams gain a lot of respect both for the standard of their core range and their willingness to experiment with bottled and seasonal beers. St Austell Proper Job and Adnams Ghost Ship are arguably the best examples of “new-style” beers produced by established companies.

Not surprisingly, the beers produced by the giants of independent brewing, Marstons and Greene King, are often dismissed as dull and bland, although there is a definite element of “tall poppy syndrome” at work here. Charles Wells don’t seem to attract the same opprobrium, possibly because their pub estate is much less prominent. Bombardier is also one of those beers that many people think they won’t like but are pleasantly surprised when they actually taste it. While they have produced some excellent special bottled beers, many people don’t seem to have much good to say about Shepheard Neame’s regular range. And local Stockport brewers Robinsons, in terms of size of tied estate still one of the biggest, are often (in my view unjustly) dismissed as brewers of bland, samey beer.

In the past, there were a number of family breweries that may have had their local fans, but rarely got much national attention. Obvious examples include the pre-Michael Cannon Devenish, Buckleys, Border, Burtonwood, Mitchells of Lancaster, Morrells, Ridleys and North Country Breweries of Hull. All gone now, and don’t really have grown men crying into their beer. Probably the only one where beer lovers genuinely muttered “good riddance” was Gibbs Mew of Salisbury whose beer was notoriously dull.

However, there remains a stratum of breweries that seem happy to plough their own furrow and get little wider recognition. A couple of years ago, a contributor to the CAMRA forum called curMUDGEon did an analysis of Good Beer Guide entries which showed many of them coming off very poorly. Felinfoel had no entries whatsoever, Arkells of Swindon only 3 out of 78, Mc Mullen none in Hertfordshire, and Donnington one one out of 17. Others that come into this category include Palmers of Bridport and Elgoods of Wisbech. Everards Tiger continues to be widely available in the free trade, but as a brewery and pub-owner they have a very low profile, and while Badger beers are big-sellers in bottle, Hall & Woodhouse have stopped selling them in draught form outside their own tied estate.

Some people said at the time that a reason for this could be that they brewed lacklustre beer, something that specifically applied to Felinfoel and Arkells, although I don’t really have enough experience of either to comment. Donnington in particular seem to have fallen from grace, as they have a very picturesque and again truly artisanal brewery in the Gloucestershire countryside, and going back a few decades their estate of characterful Cotswold pubs featured heavily in the Good Beer Guide.

The survival of any family brewery is ultimately down to whether the family want to keep it going. Many have understandably cashed in due to a lack of heirs or a lack of interest. I’m sure many will point out that all of these breweries are very enterprising in their local areas and are certainly not just going through the motions. Donnington, for example, now have a website, and have started buying one or two new pubs on the fringes of their trading area. But it’s interesting how these companies continue to operate with so little attention from beer writers or the media in general.

(By the way, Sam Smith’s don’t count, as they have a high-profile London estate, are so much out of line that it’s noteworthy, and also have a wide and well-respected range of bottled beers)

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Told you so!

For several years I’ve been arguing that minimum alcohol pricing would not only be ineffective and disproportionately affect the poor, but was also illegal anyway under EU competition law.

And it seems that the European Court of Justice agrees with me.

Nicola Sturgeon’s plans to fix a minimum price for alcohol has suffered a huge blow after the European court’s top lawyer ruled it would infringe EU law on free trade.

In a formal opinion on Sturgeon’s flagship policy, the advocate general to the European court of justice, Yves Bot, has said fixing a legal price for all alcoholic drinks could only be justified to protect public health if no other mechanism, such as tax increases, could be found.

Bot’s opinion is expected to mean a final defeat for the Scottish government’s efforts to be the first in Europe to introduce minimum pricing – supported by leading figures in the medical profession and the police, after several years of legal battles.

Let’s hope that nails the idea once and for all. Nicola Sturgeon must be looking like she’s swallowed a wasp this morning. Maybe Cameron should now throw down the gauntlet and propose devolving alcohol duty to Scotland.

Another group who won’t be happy are the prohibitionists’ useful idiots in CAMRA who deluded themselves that increasing the price of cheap lager in Tesco would bring customers flooding back to pubs to still pay four times as much. To be fair, CAMRA did drop its official support for minimum pricing a couple of years ago following a motion (co-proposed by Tandleman) rightly making the point that it put them on the wrong side of the argument.

In general, I’m no fan of the EU, but it does have its uses in standing up for free trade and fair competition.

Monday, 31 August 2015

Hit and miss

In recent years, we have seen a huge expansion of the German discount supermarket chains ALDI and Lidl. Before acquiring any new site, I’m sure they study very carefully the demographics of the local area, the prominence of the location and the ease of access to it. No doubt Greene King and Marstons do the same when looking at building new dining pubs, and likewise BrewDog and Wetherspoons. Spoons sometimes get it wrong, but they generally don’t, and their failures generally result from going a little outside their comfort zone.

But pub operators in general don’t have that luxury, and are in effect saddled with the estate they’ve already got, which will generally have been established in times when the pattern of demand was very different. Most of our pubs are still on sites that were pubs before 1914, and something that is often forgotten is that, in the days before buses and electric trams, many men would regularly walk two, three or four miles to and from work, and thus had plenty of opportunity to call in for a pint or six on their way home. This helps to account for the way pubs are (or were) strung out along all the main radial routes from cities and large towns, but clearly it is something that no longer applies.

The distinctive trade of many pubs has developed over the years in a kind of hit-and-miss fashion – this one a music pub, this one a sports pub, this one a codgers’ pub, this one a young folks’ pub. But any pub operator investing substantial money in a refurbishment scheme needs to consider the potential market very carefully. It’s no longer a matter of “if you build it, they will come”, if it ever was. In the past, pub operators have been guilty of many ludicrous flights of fancy that might have seemed a good idea after a long lunch but were based on no market research whatsoever – who ever imagined that doing a pub up as a smugglers’ cave would boost trade in the long term?

I still get the impression, though, that many modern-day refurbishments are done on a kind of seat-of-the-pants basis without any in-depth research. Pub operators really need to consider:

  • Who is going to come here?
  • Will they be people already in the area, or will they make a special journey?
  • How are they going to get here, and back again?
  • At what times of the day will they come?
  • What beers and other drinks will they want to buy?
  • Will they want food and, if so, of what kind?
  • What is the key factor that will make them visit this pub as opposed to another?
But I’m not sure whether they really think this through, or just take the view that, if it’s a bit smarter than it was before, the customers will flock in. Recently, Robinsons have carried out quite an expensive refurb on a pub in one of Stockpiort’s satellite towns. It’s quite sympathetic, but it’s all a bit pastel, the beer offering verges towards the “crafty”, and the lunchtime snacks are a touch “gastro” and a long way from basic butties. I can’t help wondering who they think they are targeting, and that any idea this will become the trendy go-to meeting place in the locality is surely misguided.

Going back a couple of decades, there was a trend for the major brewers to convert pubs to the then-trendy “alehouse” theme regardless of any consideration whether there would be a demand for it in that location – the Chapel House in Heaton Chapel being a prime example. Over the years, I’ve seen several examples of pub operators trying to introduce an up-market food format in obviously unsuitable locations, and indeed a smaller number of cheap’n’cheerful food operations in prosperous middle-class areas. There are obvious examples of thriving pubs of various kinds, but it shouldn’t be assumed that a winning formula will translate to another location, especially if done in a half-hearted, by-numbers way.

Locally, Holts’ attempts to turn the Griffin in Heaton Mersey into a smart dining pub particularly stand out. They carried out a thorough refurbishment to make it look posher and introduced an ambitious, expensive menu, promoted by prominent on-street A-boards. But it clearly didn’t work, and the food offer has been repeatedly reduced and made more affordable. Unlike some other Holts’ pubs, it’s not really a good location for a dining pub, and its general appearance and layout still shout “boozer”. It seems they have lost the lunchtime clientele who used to have a couple of pints and a bacon roll without attracting any replacements who fancy a pan-fried lamb shank.

Monday, 24 August 2015

A Year in the Drink

My recent visit to West Wales prompted me to dig out my copy of A Year in the Drink, a book written by Martin Green and published in 1982, which describes the author’s experiences of running a pub in a small Welsh market town. By coincidence, a few weeks later, Boak & Bailey posted about a book called We Ran a Cornish Pub which had fallen into their hands, and it seems that this is a niche literary genre of its own.

It turns out that Martin Green only died earlier this year, and was in fact born in Stockport in 1932. He led a varied and nomadic life, much of it spent in the publishing industry, and was the co-author of a couple of guides to London pubs in the 1960s. He sounds like someone I might have found a kindred spirit:

Green always looked at least 10 years younger than his actual age, while his attitudes toward anything new in the world were those of a curmudgeonly dotard. His friends used to tease him about the way he would become old. He would be grumpy, always occupying the same seat in his local at the same times, criticising the young, sipping pint after pint, seldom laughing. “I can’t wait,” he replied.
The book is set in the fictional Welsh market town of Llandampness, which is in fact is a thinly-veiled version of Llandeilo, on the River Towy about ten miles east of Carmarthen. In the book, his pub is called the Black Lion, but in fact I think it was actually the now-closed Three Tuns, which is listed in the 1980 Good Beer Guide as selling the same beers he said he’d sold. It is now the Olive Branch Delicatessen. Llandeilo is a rather slight little town, with a population of under 2,000. It has some attractive buildings, but isn’t really a tourist magnet. In the book, Green says the town had twelve pubs, whereas now I can only find five, plus a couple in the village of Ffairfach across the river, which he may or may not have included. And a boutique hotel!

Green and his wife – Stella in the book, Judy in real life – take over the lease of the closed pub early in the year, and then do it up and open at the beginning of April. Given references to the forthcoming devolution referendum, I guess that the year in question is 1978. They quickly come across the tendency of the locals to order a “bitterlemontop”, which was the staple drink in that part of the world. They have to deal with a variety of local characters including The Major, Clem-Band-of-Hope, Myra the Lady of Disaster, Ewan the Poet and Mad Dai Plumber, and their biggest challenge is handling the influx of tepee-dwelling hippies when they come into town to collect their benefit cheques. They’re quite relieved when summer comes and they start to welcome some more polite and well-behaved tourists.

They make friends with some of the other licensees in the town and form a common front against the local troublemakers. They also put on real ale, which only one other pub in the town served, in the form of Marston’s and Felinfoel, and attract the attention of the local CAMRA representatives, which gets the pub more widely known. Green praises CAMRA’s role in reviving interest in traditional beer, but says that from his experience in London he found some of them in person rather joyless and po-faced. The Owd Rodger certainly goes down well over the Christmas period!

However, by the time of the summer holidays, Martin and Stella decide that the pub trade really isn’t for them, and start making plans to sell up, which they manage to achieve by early January. It seems to be a feature of these pub memoirs that the authors only stick at it for a year. The book is a good read, and contains plenty of insights into the pub trade at that time, particularly the relationship between licensees and customers. However, it’s never laugh-out-loud funny in the manner of James Herriot’s vet books, and indeed has a generally slightly wistful and melancholy feel reminiscent of John Moore’s Brensham Trilogy. A minor irritation is that several mysteries are left up in the air – for example, he mentions a pair of well-dressed chaps he calls Tom and Jerry who come into the pub and start buying everyone drinks, but never explains who they were or what they were doing.

Llandampness is, to be honest, very much a backwater, and is described as somewhere you have to leave to make anything of your life, and where you come back to die. Drinking seems to be the principal entertainment of the local population. People wax lyrical about “community pubs” and regular customers, but in reality many pub regulars are somewhat sad individuals who have little else to do. On the other hand, the book does portray an era when pubs were much busier and more numerous than they are now, and where you could see a wide cross-section of society coming in at different times through the day and rub shoulders with each other.

All of the characters and the other pubs in the town are given fictional names, but I’m sure most would have been recognisable to locals and, given that some are portrayed in distinctly uncomplimentary terms, I wonder whether Martin Green ever received any negative feedback.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Bring your own

The White Swan in North Walsham, Norfolk, has recently been in the news for stopping selling food and suggesting that customers bring their own. The licensee cited the new allergen regulations – which carry potentially unlimited fines – for no longer making it viable. In recent years, increased red tape has caused many pubs to question whether serving food is worthwhile, which may well be the reason behind the disappearance of lunchtime pub food in many smaller towns. Another rule which is likely to put pubs off knocking up a few sandwiches is the requirement to have a commercial kitchen entirely separate from your domestic one.

Pete Edge at the White Swan has put menus from local cafés and takeaways on display and is happy for customers to order food from them and eat it in the pub, so long as they buy a drink. There are already plenty of pubs across the country doing that, the Wellington in Birmingham being a well-known example. However, it’s essentially just a convenience for existing customers. People aren’t really going to see a pub where you can order a takeaway as a destination dining venue, and pubs also forgo the revenue from food, which can command a much higher margin than drinks.

There must be scope, though, for pubs to consider more innovative ways of providing food for their customers without taking on the overhead of doing it themselves. Maybe they could enter into a more formal partnership with takeaways, where the pub effectively becomes the takeaway’s own restaurant, and food is delivered rather than collected by customers. I would have thought too that pubs could similarly link up with local sandwich shops to provide a menu of straightforward lunchtime snacks which must be far better for trade than serving no food at all. If done right it could benefit the business of both pubs and food outlets.

Of course, it remains far more common for pubs to insist that you only eat food purchased on the premises, something an elderly Wetherspoons regular found to his cost – although I believe there was more to that than meets the eye.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Make your minds up!

Go back a few years, and it was common for a man ordering a round of drinks in a pub including a half-pint to be asked by the bar staff “and is that half for a lady, Sir?” If you said No, you would get a smaller version of the pub’s standard glass, probably a Nonik or tulip. If you said Yes, you would get a stemmed beer glass of various designs, or at least one with a thick, splayed base. Understandably, this was widely seen as patronising and sexist, and you don’t tend to hear it any more. Surely there is no reason why the glasses used by men and women should not be identical.

But, on the other hand, you often see articles such as this and this arguing that pint glasses put women off drinking beer, which seem to imply that women actually do have different tastes in glassware from men. I think there are several things going on here, including a dislike of traditional macho pint-drinking culture, and not really wanting to drink beer in that kind of volume. It’s not simply a dislike of Noniks and dimpled mugs.

Few pubs outside of specialist bars have taken up the recently introduced two-third pint measures, but every pub serves halves, and I’m sure most, if asked, would produce a stemmed half-pint glass of some kind. Maybe pubs should make more effort to stock stylish half-pint glasses, but other customers would object if they were offered as the default, and is that going to make much difference in the overall scheme of things anyway?

This kind of thing is easy to say, but it’s more difficult to define exactly what pubs are expected to do about it. Recently we have seen a large rise in the number of distinctive brand-specific glasses used, although they normally only come in pint sizes and are usually just for keg beers and lagers. This is a conscious attempt to make glassware more appealing, although personally I find many of the designs unattractive and over-tall, and the stemmed ones, such as the Stella goblet, are particularly horrible. I don’t think stemmed pints are really what is being requested.

I don’t believe, though, that it’s in any sense sexist or discriminatory to say that women have different tastes in glassware from men, as they do in many other spheres. And, deep down, I suspect one of the things women dislike more than men about pub glasses of any kind is that they are brim measures with the attendant risk of spillage. But that isn’t going to change any day soon, and neither is the position of the pint as the predominant beer measure.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Craft Beer: Evolution or Revolution?

I was originally going to do a rather light-hearted post on “why I don’t like craft beer”. However, in view of this post by Arthur Scargill saying Craft beer? The bubble has burst, and these from Beer Battered and Fuggled suggesting that, even for an enthusiast, innovation has become an end in itself, I felt I ought to take it a bit more seriously.

Who knows what is craft beer, and what isn’t? I’ve certainly enjoyed plenty of beer in the past few years that qualifies by one definition or another. But I have to say that introducing the concept into the British beer market has been counter-productive, provoking divisiveness and encouraging elitism. There you go, I’ve said it.

It’s easy to poke fun at the craft beer movement – the hipsters with their skinny jeans and ironic facial hair, the achingly trendy bars devoid of comfortable seating, the eye-watering prices, the insistence on child-sized measures, the conflation of strength and quality, the existential terror on entering a pub in a provincial market town, and the relentless pursuit of ever more bizarre ingredients. A pint of bitter in your local it isn’t. But the problem goes deeper than that.

I was recently involved in an Internet discussion about beers of the 1970s, in which someone said “well, we didn’t know any better then”. Obviously we didn’t have foreknowledge of 2015, but my recollection is that we had a huge range of excellent, distinctive beers, and plenty of busy, characterful pubs to drink them in. The belief that one generation has discovered something new and wonderful is very characteristic of youthful enthusiasm. It’s depressingly common to read comments like “twenty years ago it was virtually impossible to find any decent beer.”

Over time, the beer market has evolved, as I have described here. We have had golden ales, pale hop-forward beers and then beers using New World hops. I enjoy Summer Lightning and Wye Valley HPA, I regard Hawkshead and Dark Star as go-to breweries if I see them on the bar, and when it was first introduced I found Jaipur IPA a revelation. Despite the stereotype, I’m no stick-in-the-mud devotee of boring brown bitter, although I would argue that many beers in that category are seriously undervalued. But it has to be admitted that within those new styles there are many lacklustre golden ales, one-dimensional hop syrups and ridiculous grapefruit-flavoured so-called IPAs.

In the mid-1970s, there were only 44 brewing companies left in the whole of the USA, and the beer market was dominated by bland, light lager. So the conditions were ripe for the development of an “alternative beer” movement, initially referred to as microbreweries, but more recently morphing into craft breweries. They were able to draw on a wide range of brewing traditions from all around the world, including a substantial influence from British real ale, to produce a huge variety of interesting, characterful beers, and even developing their own entirely new styles. Their most distinctive contribution to the beer world has been the strong, highly-hopped American IPA which, despite the name, is really unlike any other IPA that has gone before. The craft beer sector in the US has gone from strength to strength and now accounts for 11% of the beer market by volume and a staggering 22% by value.

Not surprisingly, beer enthusiasts looked at this and thought there was a golden opportunity to extend that buzz over to this side of the pond. However, there was a little problem. Britain already had a thriving craft beer scene, comprising both the established independent breweries that CAMRA had originally been created to champion, and hundreds of micro breweries that had sprung up since then in a similar way to the US. Yes, some of it could be conservative and stick-in-the-mud, but there was a huge amount of innovation and variety in beer styles.

Yet it was this “real ale scene” that the new evangelists of craft chose to tilt against. The international mega-brewers were so far over the horizon that they weren’t worth bothering with. The first sign of this was in the “pale and hoppy” movement around the turn of the millennium, which came up with the phrase “boring brown beer”, but at least this was generally real ale and something that fell within the broad category of “bitter”.

Then it intensified with the more recent wave of explicitly US-themed craft beer, which really goes back no more than seven or eight years. If the US had mega-strong triple IPAs, then so should we. If the US universally used 355ml bottles, then we should use 330s. If the US put craft beer in cans, then why not? If the US used all kinds of weird and wonderful flavours, then we should stop being so conservative. If the US sold draught craft beer on keg, then so should we rather than that warm, flat, twiggy stuff. And if US craft brewers had check shirts and fancy beards, then surely that will make British beer taste better too.

The real tipping point was when BrewDog stopped producing cask beer entirely and deliberately portrayed themselves as standing up against everything CAMRA represented. It was them and us, it was new vs old, it was crafties vs beardies (even though the crafties were more likely to have facial hair). Now, over the years I’ve often been critical of CAMRA, not least over its dogmatic refusal to recognise merit in any beers that are not cask- or bottle-conditioned. But it’s a broad church, and has come to encompass the vast bulk of British beer enthusiasm and knowledge. By rejecting that, the craft beer movement is being unnecessarily antagonistic and dismissive of history and tradition. Of course that’s a bit simplistic, and there are many beer lovers who happily straddle both horses, but it remains a very common viewpoint, such as here.

I’ve been drinking legally in pubs for not far off forty years, and have had enough time to work out what I like and what I don’t. This is not to say I’m resistant to trying new things, but if offered something well outside my comfort zone like a 7.3% greengage and liquorice stout, I will know that, even if it’s palatable, it’s not something I would want to drink regularly, or probably ever again. I really enjoy many of the classic Belgian strong ales, but again they are just an occasional treat amongst a diet of more sessionable brews.

As I said above, I’m no single-minded devotee of boring brown bitter, and indeed my ideal pub session beer might well be something pale and hoppy (although not grapefruity) like the old Yates & Jackson Bitter or Marble Manchester Bitter. But I would have no problem spending an evening in good company on well-kept Holts or Lees Bitter or Sam Smiths OBB, whereas many crafties would be climbing the walls. I enjoy the odd drop of Punk IPA and similar hop-bombs, but I see them as something akin to peaty Islay malt whiskies, good to have occasionally but a bit extreme for everyday supping.

A lot of excellent beer has been produced under the banner of “craft” But I could say that, to a large extent, “craft” represents to me beers with weird flavours, at offputting strengths, in measures I find too small, and prices too steep, sold in bars where I don’t feel comfortable to people I have little in common with. Surely championing the cause of good beer should involve making better beer more widely available in a form many people will find appealing, not deliberately cutting yourself off from the experience of the vast majority of beer drinkers. To be frank, that vast majority don’t want to chop and change beers within the pub. Have you ever seen a lager drinker go into Spoons and go round the pumps from Carlsberg to Heineken? No, me neither.

Very few are ever going to see a good night out as drinking your way through six beers of wildly different styles at strengths up to 10%. But maybe that’s the way the craft evangelists want it.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

It just doesn’t stop

Last week, the Royal Society for Public Health came up with a set of proposals to further restrict smoking in public places, including a ban in pub beer gardens and outdoor eating areas. In the past, indoor smoking bans have been justified on the somewhat spurious grounds of protecting workers’ health, but this throws away that figleaf and openly admits that the objective is not health but is explicitly the denormalisation of smoking.

Not surprisingly, this plan immediately drew condemnation from various quarters, amongst which my favourite was this impassioned rant from beer blogger Mark N. Johnson, and the government was quick to make it clear it had no plans to bring in such a restriction.

When the indoor smoking ban was introduced in 2007, many of its supporters made the point that pubs would still be able to accommodate smokers, but they would have to smoke outside. This may have seemed to smokers like putting them in the open carriage with hard seats at the back of the train, but at least they were still allowed on board, and in the intervening years some pubs have made the effort to provide welcoming smoking areas as far as the law allows. Indeed, smokers continue to make up a considerably higher proportion of pubgoers than of the general population.

However, if smoking was prohibited in any outdoor areas of pubs too, then they would not be able to cater for smokers in any way. A smoker might occasionally go to a pub for a meal but, as for socialising, forget it. This could well have an even more catastrophic effect on the pub trade than the current indoor ban. There are plenty of wet-led pubs where half the customers seem to spend most of their time outside, even in bad weather. And it’s very noticeable how, when the sun shines, a good outdoor smoking area can really bring in the customers. A few years back, I remember visiting the Barrels pub in Hereford on a sunny Monday evening and seeing its extensive rear yard-cum-patio, which has plenty of seating, much under cover, absolutely rammed with groups of smokers and their friends.

There is one positive aspect to the report, though, in that the public health establishment is at last grudgingly recognising that e-cigarettes can make a significant contribution to cutting smoking rates. Initially, they were highly sceptical, viewing them as something “not invented here” that mimicked the act of smoking and could be a gateway to tobacco. This problem is well described by Christopher Snowdon as The Prohibitionist’s Dilemma. However, as the evidence mounts that existing smokers are turning to e-cigs, their stance is gradually softening. If the authorities don’t stand in their way, e-cigs have the potential to reduce tobacco smoking to a small rump in a generation.

Rather than calling for further restrictions on smoking, surely the public health lobby should now be strongly opposing moves by bodies such as the Welsh Government to impose the same curbs on e-cigs as on tobacco. But, even though it’s recognised that nicotine on its own is no more harmful than caffeine, they still have a big problem in accepting e-cigs as a recreational product that people actually enjoy, rather than simply a medical aid to stopping smoking.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Dull metal?

I recently came across a post on a US heavy metal website asking Does Anybody Actually Like IRON MAIDEN's Trooper Beer? It’s over a year old, but still makes interesting reading. The author didn’t like it at all, saying it was “incredibly bitter”, a verdict that most British readers will find surprising. There are a lot more favourable views in the comments below, and in the poll 80% of those who had tried it said they liked it.

When it was first launched a couple of years ago, my initial verdict was that it was a bit lacklustre, and several tastings since in both cask and bottle haven’t really changed that opinion. It’s important to remember, though, that Iron Maiden are one of the few rock bands to make a big point of their British identity, and it was Bruce Dickinson’s intention to produce a classic British-style ale like those he enjoyed around 1980, not an international lager or a US-style hop-bomb IPA. Incidentally, Bruce Dickinson is about a year older than me, and has certainly flown more aeroplanes, although probably driven fewer Morris Marinas.

Trooper has certainly been a great success for Robinsons, with the ten millionth pint mark recently being passed, and contributing to the brewery recording its highest production level for fifteen years. It’s good to see a long-established family brewery enjoying such success and exporting beer all round the world.

Unlike some others, I really like Robinsons beers in general. When well kept, Wizard, Dizzy Blonde, Unicorn and most of their seasonals, are some of the most palatable beers around. But Trooper just seems to fall between two stools. It’s not an old-fashioned, rich, chestnut English ale, in the way that Wychwood’s Status Quo beer Piledriver was. But, on the other hand, neither is it a modern, pale, hoppy beer. In the past, Robinsons have brewed an excellent rich “winter bitter” called Robin, which could have made the basis for an English heavy metal beer to rival Hobgoblin. Or they could have made a version of Dizzy Blonde turned up to 11 – light, with distinct hop character, but not overwhelmingly so. But Trooper just seems to be neither one thing nor the other.

It will be interesting to see how the limited edition celebration version, the 6.6% ABV Trooper 666, turns out. Unfortunately Robinsons have said it will only be available as a bottled beer, but it would be nice if they could put some into casks, maybe as part of their White Label series. Also hopefully it will be sold in 500ml bottles, not just 330ml ones.