Friday, 19 December 2014

A little of what you fancy does you good

The "Star Letter" in January's edition of the CAMRA newspaper What's Brewing comes from one Peter Edwardson of Stockport, and reads as follows:

Pete Black (What's Brewing, December) is very wide of the mark when he says "it seems extremely unlikely that there are any dangers of abstaining completely from alcohol".

In fact, there is an overwhelming weight of research evidence indicating that, even excluding those who have had to give up alcohol for specific health reasons, moderate drinkers have a lower mortality rate than total abstainers.

To give just one example, in 2006, the Archives of Internal Medicine, an American Medical Association journal, published an analysis based on 34 well-designed prospective studies and incorporating a million individual subjects, which found that "one to two drinks per day for women and two to four drinks per day for men are inversely associated with total mortality."

What is more, these benefits persist to some extent even if people drink significantly more than the offical guidelines, which in effect represent the bottom point of the risk curve.

While obviously it has to tread carefully, there is plenty of opportunity for CAMRA to take a more robust line in countering the misinformation of the anti-drink lobby.

Sounds like a sensible and well-informed chap. I'll buy him a pint if our paths ever cross...

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Who’s killing the British pub?

Christopher Snowdon of the Institute of Economic Affairs has produced a new paper called Closing Time? which looks at the reasons for the sharp decline in the pub trade in recent years and considers possible remedies. There’s a summary here and the full document can be downloaded here.

He points out that, since 1980, Britain has lost 21,000 pubs, with half of that coming since 2006. While some of that has been due to long-term social changes, more than half is the result of excessive taxation, unnecessary regulation and government meddling. Beer, and especially beer in pubs, has borne the brunt of the fall in per capita alcohol consumption. He argues that, while the pubcos may not represent a sound business model, their role in pub closures has been much exaggerated.

To claim that people are not going to the pub because PubCos are closing them down is to confuse cause with effect. In truth, pubs in every part of the sector are struggling from a fundamental lack of demand.
This point is reinforced by his blogpost How not to lie with pub closure statistics.

In conclusion, he says

Pubs are struggling from a lack of demand for pubs which has been largely due to government policy. The government cannot - and should not - undo the cultural changes that have led to people choosing alternative leisure activities, but it can undo the damage it has caused through taxation and regulation. If it is genuinely concerned about the future of the pub trade, it should significantly reduce alcohol duty, relax the smoking ban, reduce VAT to 15 per cent (and lower it further for food sales), abolish cumulative impact zones and scrap the late night levy.
Even if you don’t agree with everything he says, it’s well worth downloading and reading. And no doubt it will raise a few hackles amongst those who can’t see any cause of pub decline beyond the evil pubcos.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Give me strength

Once it has emerged from the still, Scotch whisky is put into oak casks to mature for a minimum of three years, often much more. When it is ready for bottling, it has an alcoholic strength of around 60% ABV, but is typically watered down to 40% (sometimes a little higher) for public sale. Occasionally, limited edition bottlings are made of undiluted whiskies at cask strength, which are obviously much more expensive than the standard product, and are much prized by connoisseurs.

I recently spotted that Jennings had sneakily reduced the strength of bottled Cumberland Ale from 4.7% to 4.0%, to bring it into line with the cask version, and now describe it on the bottle as “cask strength”. Likewise, bottled Marston’s Pedigree, from the same brewing group, which was increased from 4.5% to 5.0% and then reduced again, has “Brewed to cask strength” on the label. While this isn’t untrue as such, it comes across as distinctly disingenuous, given that a cask strength whisky is much stronger than the norm, but a cask strength bottled beer seems to be one that is weaker than it used to be.

Needless to say, there’s no price reduction, even though there’s a saving of about 8p per bottle duty plus VAT on duty. Given that this seems to be happening with more and more beers, isn’t it perhaps time for a two-tier pricing structure to be brought in for premium bottled ales? There’s nothing wrong as such with beers of 4.0% or less, but at present there tends to be no benefit in choosing one in preference to one of 5.0% or more. I would also say that, subjectively, sub-4% beers often taste a bit watery in bottle whereas they are fine on cask, which is maybe a reason why the bottled versions were made a bit stronger in the first place.

I wonder if we’ll see the same happening with other beers like Bombardier, London Pride and Spitfire where the bottled version is currently significantly stronger than the cask.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Culture shift

Over the years, I’ve sometimes listed a change in ethnic make-up as a cause of pub decline in inner-urban working-class areas. Now Tory peer Lord Hodgson has acknowledged this trend, but has rather inevitably been accused of “scapegoating Muslims”.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, who was previously a director at one of Britain's biggest brewers, said that the "tides of history" have led to large numbers of Muslims in Britain's cities who do not drink.

He said that "socioeconomic change" is more responsible for the decline of pubs than "rapacious" pub chains.

He said: "I identify three fundamental features behind this. The first is the rapid rate of socioeconomic change in Britain. Twenty-five years ago, the company of which I was a director would have operated probably a dozen pubs in Kidderminster, the home of the carpet trade.

"The carpet trade has gone and there are three pubs left. In areas of Nottingham, Leicester, Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham the increase in the Muslim population, who do not drink, leads to many pub closures. It is exceptionally hard for a publican who has put 10 years of his life into trying to build up a business to accept the inevitabilities of these tides of history."

But surely it’s simply stating a fact of life, not a case of “look at these bloody Muslims coming over here and shutting our pubs”. If an area becomes largely populated by people who for cultural reasons do not drink alcohol, then inevitably the potential customer base for its pubs will reduce. It’s not a uniform nationwide effect, but it is very obvious that this factor has led to large inner-urban areas of places like Oldham, Rochdale, Blackburn and Bradford losing most, if not all, of their pubs. In the comments to my blogpost, Simon Cooke says:
In sunny Bradford - and I suspect some other areas too - there's a further factor. Bradford's working class is now overwhelmingly Muslim and they don't drink (or rather they don't drink in pubs - almost all the Asians I know drink).
It has also been mentioned in relation to the Gateway in East Didsbury, where it’s not so much Muslims but middle-class Hindus moving in locally.

I wonder which bright spark will be the first to come up with the idea that pubs need to “broaden their appeal” by stopping selling alcohol. And it’s interesting that comments have been disabled on the news article.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Taking the low road

Today sees the implementation of the lower drive-drive limit in Scotland. I’ve discussed the rights and wrongs of this at length in the past, so don’t propose to revisit that now. What is done is done. But here are some miscellaneous reflections on the topic.

Scotland has a distinctively different and more urban pub landscape than England and Wales. It doesn’t really have the characteristic village and country pubs that are commonplace south of the Border. For many people, the archetypal English pub is a thatched and half-timbered rural inn, whereas in Scotland it’s more likely to be a wood-and-mirrors city gin palace or a grim stand-up bar in the ground floor of a tenement block.

I can think of numerous pubs in England and Wales that it would be very hard to see surviving a limit cut, but there are proportionately fewer in Scotland. Having said that, outside the Central Belt it is a far-flung and sparsely-populated country, and a lot of drink-driving of both legal and illegal varieties takes place. Trade is unlikely to suddenly fall off a cliff, but outside the big cities there’s likely to be a slow but steady fall-off.

Many of those who pontificate on this subject seem to do so from inside a London (or Edinburgh) bubble and fail to appreciate that, across large swathes of the country, there are plenty of pubs where most, if not practically all, the customers travel by car. There must be hundreds of thousands of people who scarcely ever visit a pub unless they have driven there themselves. The politically correct may be reluctant to admit it, but very often that is the reality of the pub trade.

This is an interesting perspective on the issue from New Zealand, where a similar limit reduction has recently been implemented. The author suggests that those modelling the effects have significantly underestimated the extent to which it is likely to change behaviour. If you’re going out for a meal, it probably won’t put you off, but if you’re just calling in for a drink and a chat, you may very well conclude that if you can only have one pint rather than two, it isn’t really worth bothering at all.

The effects may well be like those of the smoking ban – a slow erosion of the customer base and camaraderie of pubs as people one by one drop out from the group and their friends increasingly follow suit. And, just like the smoker exiled to a draughty outside shelter, the drinker nursing his solitary pint where for twenty or thirty years he legally enjoyed a couple is going to feel that his pubgoing experience is forever diminished. People may put up with it – indeed a higher proportion of smokers than non-smokers still visit pubs – but they will never become entirely reconciled to it and it will create an abiding legacy of bitterness.

The point is often made that, following cuts in traffic policing, the chances of getting caught are very small. There’s undoubtedly much truth in this, but if people were willing to take the chance surely they would have been doing so already with the higher limit. The vast majority of the pub customers who currently believe they are keeping within the 80mg limit will adjust their behaviour to keep within 50mg, as they fundamentally wish to abide by the law and also don’t want to be seen breaking it by others. And, even if the chances of being stopped are negligible, the potential consequences are severe and in some cases could result in loss of livelihood and home and marital breakdown. Plus police attending accidents will now routinely breathalyse all drivers involved, even if obviously not at fault, so you can end up being tested due to circumstances entirely beyond your control. And no licensee should feel happy to be depending on customers who are taking a chance on breaking the law.

The New Zealand article also makes the point that those drivers who want to make sure they don’t fall foul of the law tend to keep well below the limit rather than possibly nudging up against it. With a lower limit, they will do the same. I also get the impression that New Zealand, and Australia, are much more willing to publicise the potential effect on blood-alcohol levels of various types and quantities of drinks, while in this country we continue to parrot the head-in-sand mantra of “don’t touch a drop” which doesn’t reflect the reality of real-world behaviour and also fails to take account of the morning-after issue.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

A middle-class embrace

Here’s a perceptive and entertaining article by Peter Robins in which he looks at how the metropolitan middle classes have finally taken beer snobbery to their hearts.

Unlike many such media pieces, it’s pretty well-informed, with the rise of the railway arch brewer nailed and saisons accurately described as “what a brewer makes to show they can do something subtler than their big IPA”. The one slightly false note is where he refers to “Relatively low alcohol content (most of the time) makes it possible to complete a wine-tasting-style ‘flight’ without either spitting out or reducing yourself to a Sideways-style mess.” Well, it may have a low alcohol content compared to wine, but much “craft” beer is actually stronger than mainstream brews.

In the conclusion he looks at what the future may hold:

I’ve begun to wonder whether anything could pop this bubble, and what I think about is the force that held back middle-class beer snobbery to begin with: the fixed prejudice against real ale. No matter how many demographic surveys Cask Marque produced, no matter how many Sumerian wheat goddesses Camra dug up for its marketing, for most people real ale still meant nerdy old men with beards. Craft beer, by contrast, means nerdy young men with beards. And while nerds have a great deal more cultural capital than they used to, young men continue to grow old. Within a few years, the craft beer boom may seem as difficult to separate from the ridiculous fashions of the 2010s as the real ale boom was from the fashions of the 1970s. If we’re lucky, it will leave as many enjoyable new flavours behind.
There was a brief period in the early days of CAMRA when beer snobbery did raise its head with the middle-class gent in the saloon bar holding a dimpled mug of Ruddles County or Wadworths 6X and pontificating about its virtues, but by the 1980s it had become the opposite of aspirational.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Hiding your smoke

Last Thursday, the local CAMRA branch presented its Pub of the Month award to the Fletcher Moss in Didsbury. It’s an excellent pub well deserving of the accolade, and a good time was had by all on the night. I noticed that at the back it had a particularly well-designed outside smoking shelter, with plenty of seating and enclosed on two sides. But is that something I’m really allowed to tell people about?

As Simon Clark recounts here, Imperial Tobacco has set up a website and app called Smoke Spots which aims to show people the locations of smoker-friendly pubs, clubs and restaurants. He doesn’t actually think it makes a very good job of it, and certainly there’s very little listed in my local area.

However, the Advertising Standards Authority has ruled against an advert for Smoke Spots on the grounds that it is allegedly promoting smoking and showing it in a positive light. However, even within a context of the tobacco advertising ban, a website clearly isn’t a tobacco product, and this ruling seems to stray into the territory of restricting freedom of speech.

As Simon says, “Smoke Spots provides legitimate information for consumers of a legal product, advising them where they can light up in relative comfort without inconveniencing non-smokers.” The existence of smoking shelters is a matter of observable fact, but in our censorious, politically correct society it is apparently unacceptable to tell anyone else about in a form that is visible to the public.

So, bear in mind, when the alcohol advertising ban comes in, you won’t even be allowed to publicise that beer is available in a particular pub, let alone which beers.

Oh, and off the top of my head I would say that the Armoury and Royal Oak in Edgeley, the Arden Arms in Stockport town centre and the Railway in Marple all have pretty decent covered smoking areas within what the law allows. So come on, make that complaint!

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Spoonfuls of character

Over the years, the subject of Wetherspoons has been extensively discussed on here, and in general the conclusion has been that, while they may tick a number of boxes for what you’re looking for in a pub, their establishments are so devoid of pub atmosphere that it’s hardly surprising many of them have “Moon” in their name.

On the other hand, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that, outside the obvious busy times, many pubs are now embarrassingly devoid of customers, where once they would have been at least ticking over nicely. Nobody wants to sit in a pub in solitary splendour.

And the thought occurs to me that much of the traditional “all human life is there” pub trade has now gravitated into Spoons. You’ll probably find a greater variety of customers there than anywhere else, from genteel pensioners having a bit of lunch to weirdos holding forth at the bar. It’s there that the pub buzz is most likely to be found, and also where nowadays you may still come across the archetypal pub “characters”, who may be annoying, but add to the interest of life. And, whatever the time of day, you’re unlikely to find Spoons deserted.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Supermarket swoop

On the right is a photo of the new Morrisons M-Local store that opened this week on the site of the former Four Heatons pub (originally the Moss Ross), shown below. There are also eight flats above the shop. I have previously written about the Four Heatons here when it originally closed almost four years ago.

In a sense it’s sad when any pub closes, but the Moss Rose was always an unappealing building from the start, and, as a wet-led, working class boozer, it’s probably fair to say it was given the ultimate coup de grâce by the smoking ban. By the end it had become very dingy and run-down, and largely devoid of customers, and to be honest a convenience store will be a useful facility for a lot more of the local population.

It also has a rather better beer selection than the average Tesco Express, including bottled ales at the same 3 for £5 offer as the main stores.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

A Pyrrhic victory?

In 1989, after strenuous lobbying by CAMRA, the government of the day brought in the Beer Orders, which were widely expected to usher in a new era of competition and diversity in the pub trade. In one sense that has happened, with more breweries producing more beers in more styles than at any time in living memory. But, on the other hand, they precipitated a drastic restructuring of the industry and led to the rise of the giant, debt-fuelled pub companies, which are widely felt to exert a negative influence on the market. So the eventual outcome was very much a mixed blessing, and probably one that nobody foresaw at the time.

This week there was a vote in Parliament as part of the discussion of the government’s planned code for regulating pub companies to allow tenants and lessees of major brewers and pubcos to have a mandatory free-of-tie option at an independently assessed market rent. This was celebrated by CAMRA and others as a major step forward to free up the market and give tenants a fair deal. But will it really make all that much difference, and is there a danger there will end up being more downsides than upsides? Christopher Snowdon and Allister Heath certainly think there might be.

The pubco business model is based on charging tenants more than the market price for beer and other drinks bought from the pubco – the “wet rent”, in return for a lower than market “dry rent” for the property, and general support and advice about how to run the business. It gives people a relatively easy and low-cost route into self-employment and spreads the risks and rewards between landlord and tenant. For many people, this works well enough, but others have felt that they have been badly treated by the pubcos, subject to unreasonable rent increases, and that the support they’re given isn’t remotely worth the implicit price they pay.

So for some the market rent option may well seem attractive. However, it is inevitably going to be considerably higher than a tied rent, so it won’t necessarily suit everyone, especially those with low beer volumes or little confidence about buying on the open market. It also transfers all the risk of running the business from pubco to tenant, so all the pubco is interested in is whether the rent is paid. This means that the pubco has effectively moved from the pubs business to the property business, and it wouldn’t really matter to them if the pub was converted to a supermarket or a block of flats, as they no longer have a financial stake in it remaining as a pub.

Given that they campaigned against it, it is fair to assume that the large pubcos believe that the market rent option will damage their business, so it is inevitable that they will seek to take steps to mitigate the impact. An obvious one is to transfer more of the high-performing pubs – which would be most attractive to run under an MRO – to direct management. They could investigate other kinds of business arrangement such as franchise agreements, and sub-letting groups of pubs to multiple operators. Or they could break themselves up into smaller units that would no longer come within the scope of the code.

The plans also involve giving the responsibility for setting market rents to independent assessors, which is almost guaranteed to end up being a source of argument and ill-feeling. It’s also generally the case that if rents are set by tribunals rather than the market it tends to reduce the supply of available property. Property owners may not wish to run the risk of getting involved in time-consuming disputes. Another aspect of the proposals is that pub companies that are also brewers, such as Greene King and Marston’s, will still be able to insist that tenants stock their products, but they will be able to buy them on the open market. You can’t really see that ending well.

Now I can’t say I’ve read every single detail of the proposals, and they’re still a long way from reaching the statute book, so I may not have got everything right. But I think it’s fair to say that they won’t bring about the dramatic liberalisation of the market that some seem to believe, and the takeup of the market rent option may be fairly slow. It might give an attractive opportunity to confident and enterprising lessees, but it’s hard to see the ownership of chains of unbranded free-of-tie rented pubs making much sense as a long-term business model, and there must be a major risk that the various issues I’ve outlined above will overall make owning and running pubs a less attractive business to be in.

It’s also notable how most of the anti-pubco campaigners are strangely reluctant to put forward any alternative vision for the structure of the pub trade. They seem to have a kind of naive, nostalgic vision of pubs being run by stand-alone freetraders, which is about as realistic as harking back to the days of the independent corner shop. Some of the lunatic fringe even talk of pubs being taken over by the State and run as community facilities.

And it would be interesting to know how many of the self-proclaimed champions of pubs who have been crowing about this were silent when the smoking ban was being debated.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The morning after the night before

It’s a characteristic of alcohol that if you enjoy it a bit too much you will be made to pay later on in the form of a hangover. Different individuals are affected to different degrees of severity, which is what I was rather imperfectly trying to get at with this poll. Several people made the comment “it depends how much I drink”, which is a statement of the obvious really, but the same amount will affect some much worse than others, even if they are both experienced drinkers.

I’ve heard it suggested that being immune to hangovers can be a factor leading people to alcoholism as they are never made to pay for over-indulgence. There’s certainly a drinker of my acquaintance noted for his heroic consumption over many years who claimed that he never got hangovers. On the other side of the coin, if you suffer particularly badly it may lead you not to bother much with alcohol at all.

The results of the poll seem to bear this out, with a heavy weighting towards the “only slightly” category. As you grow older, you tend to learn what is enough, and what too much, but even then you might occasionally be inclined to say “oh, sod it” in full knowledge of what the following morning will bring.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

The gestation of intolerance

This week there has been a sad story in the media about a case in which the Court of Appeal has been asked to rule whether a woman who drank heavily during pregnancy, causing her child to suffer from Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, has committed a criminal act. The motivation seems be that the local council is trying to pass on the care costs to the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority, but it seems to involve the unnecessary stigmatisation of an unfortunate person. The woman in question was apparently drinking half a bottle of vodka and eight cans of “strong” lager a day, which makes her a full-blown alcoholic. Someone in that position is an addict who is no position to make a rational decision as to whether to drink or not, and surely they need help rather than prosecution.

The case also has wider implications. It has long been recognised that excessive alcohol consumption in pregnancy is likely to be damaging to unborn children, but medical experts have accepted that a couple of drinks a week is not going to be harmful. And that figure is probably erring very much on the side of caution. That always used to be the official advice, but a few years ago it was changed to drink nothing during pregnancy, not because the science had changed, but because that was felt to be a more simple and unequivocal message. This was strongly attacked by Guardian columnist Zoe Williams (not someone I usually find much to agree with):

To think this government has the brass neck to lecture women about their gestational behaviour. It is an outrage against women; against the relationship between the state and the individual; and, without wishing to be mawkish, against babies.
(By the way, she is referring to the last government, not the present one)

If the case succeeds it has been widely suggested that the principle will be enshrined in law that expectant mothers should not consume anything potentially harmful to their unborn babies. So they won’t be able to drink at all. Or to smoke, or to eat “unhealthy” foods. Now doing all of these things while pregnant may not be a good idea, but is it really appropriate for government to take away all personal responsibility on the matter and legislate to take control of women’s bodies?

This tendency is attacked by Simon Jenkins in this article in which he criticises “the mob craving to bring coercive law into every realm of human behaviour”. Some years ago the same author made the point in an article (now behind the Murdoch paywall) that the gap between the ideal and the illegal was steadily narrowing.

Voltaire and John Stuart Mill insisted there should be an ideological chasm between disapproving an act and wanting it halted. In modern Britain this chasm has become a skip and a jump. Whatever we dislike we require the government to ban...

...There is a case for educating the public to eat, drink and smoke less, drive more carefully and not to rampage through town centres at night. But there must be a limit to the translation of disapproval into repression.

And possibly all those so-called defenders of women’s rights who have been getting their knickers in a twist over a laddish marketing campaign by Lees Brewery would be better employed speaking up against such a gross invasion of female self-ownership.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Full measure revisited

The thorny subject of short measures in pubs, and whether we need legislation to ensure a full liquid pint, has once again reared its head on the CAMRA web forum (registration required, but not CAMRA membership). In the past this is something I have strongly supported but, as I warned here, the fact that it was included in Labour’s 2001 election manifesto didn’t mean it was going to happen. If it had been brought in back then, we would have got used to it and would wonder now what all the fuss was about.

But it wasn’t and, while I remain in principle in favour, its moment has now passed. There are no endemic complaints from drinkers and no appetite in government to revive the issue, added to which there is no longer – as there once was – a substantial number of pubs using oversize glasses that could be held up as examples of good practice. It’s just not going to happen, and I really struggle to summon up much indignation about it. About the only places you will now see oversize glasses are at CAMRA beer festivals.

It also seems to be the case that British drinkers have an attachment to the concept of a brimming pint glass. Back in the days when oversize glasses were commonplace, a lot of drinkers didn't actually like them because of the air space left at the top of the glass, and described them as “glass buckets”. Somehow it doesn’t look right. I remember one or two members of the local CAMRA branch repeatedly moaning about short measure in pubs that used them, even though they must have known it wasn’t.

If you fill your car up with petrol, and the pump is dispensing less than it claims, you will be out of pocket and need to buy more at a later date. But, in a pub, if you get a “pint” of 19 fluid ounces, you won’t suffer any financial loss and indeed you might end up with a slightly less sore head the following morning. Being too pernickety about the exact quantities of food and drink consumed at the point of sale seems pretty pointless as small variations make no practical difference. In effect, what people are doing is going in a pub and asking for “a large glass of beer” which just happens to be denominated as a pint. If (heaven forbid) we were to go metric and a half-litre became the standard pub measure, pretty much everyone would be happy with one of those on the occasions where they would now ask for a pint.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Beer vs pubs

In the early years of CAMRA, it was recognised that pubs and real ale were inextricably linked. Without pubs, there would be no real ale. It was an era when the pub trade was booming, so pubs were not in general under threat as such, and one of the main campaigning priorities was increasing the proportion of pubs that sold real ale. Much effort was put into producing pub guides for the various areas of the country showing people where real ale was available.

Beer festivals steadily assumed a greater importance, but their general aim remained to highlight beers that people might want to look out for in pubs. A change started to happen in the late 1980s with the rise of multi-beer free houses, where many beer enthusiasts started to drink in preference to tied houses with only one or two beers. Another change in the marketplace was the growth in new microbreweries, which found a ready market in the multi-beer pubs, and also got a foothold in more mainstream pubs through the guest beer clause in the Beer Orders. However, at this stage they were still in general only producing their own take on the beer styles already offered by the established breweries.

Then, beginning with the development of American-influenced intensely hoppy beers, things began to change, and this led to the current explosion of different styles and flavours associated with the “craft beer revolution”. More and more, the cutting-edge beer enthusiast would find little of interest in the general run of pubs, and a growing number of specialist bars and even beer festivals have sprung up to cater for the demand.

Although it tends to grasp the wrong end of the stick when it comes to the reasons for pub decline, CAMRA has in recent years devoted a lot of effort to pub campaigning. But the new-wave beer geek may well ask what is the point of trying to stop a run-down estate boozer being converted into a Tesco Express when there are cool new bars in the centre of town offering a greater range of beers than anyone’s ever seen before. They will fail to see any attraction in spending the evening in a pub full of old blokes drinking one or two regular beers from a fuddy-duddy family brewery and, from reading some blogs, they regard a trip away from the big city into one of the more far-flung parts of the country as something akin to a journey into Darkest Africa where they might have no alternative but to drink Wainwright or some boring brown bitter from a local farmhouse brewery.

Now obviously people have the right to pursue their own interests as they see fit. It’s not really something that floats my boat – as I said here, while I’m far from uninterested in beer, ultimately I’m more interested in pubs. But it must be a cause for concern that enthusiasm for beer is becoming increasingly detached from the everyday pubgoing experience of ordinary people.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Stairway to heaven

The other week I called in to the Ship at Styal, an attractive Cheshire country pub that has recently been refurbished by multiple operators Kalton & Barlow after having become rather tired under pub company ownership. It’s been smartly done up in gastro-style, and I had quite a reasonable pint of Timothy Taylor’s Boltmaker. However, one thing I noticed is that the toilets had been moved upstairs to make more room on the ground floor.

This is a familiar feature of Wetherspoons, but more recently it’s been spreading to other pubs as well. I wrote recently how pubs seemed to be increasingly turning a cold shoulder to older drinkers and, while Spoons do seem to be popular with the grey market, this is something that is far from ideal for them. There are many elderly people who are not disabled as such, but would struggle with long flights of stairs, especially if their bladder capacity is not what it was. I’ve heard it said of some Spoons that “it’s so far to the bogs, once you’ve been and come back you want to go again.”

In some Spoons I’ve seen people who struggle a bit to walk using the disabled toilet, often with the tacit approval of the staff, but to feel forced to do so involves something of a loss of dignity. So maybe, with an increasingly ageing population, this is one example of how pubs could to take the concept of being pensioner-friendly seriously.

Incidentally, I’ve never come across upstairs or basement toilets in any of the new Greene King and Marston’s dining pubs, which suggests they have a keen eye on where much of their trade comes from.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Show your colours

I happened to come across this graphic on Twitter the other day, and thought it would be worthy of a retweet.

I scarcely expected the volume of anti-smoking and anti-pub abuse I would be subjected to, which has resulted in a number of intolerant pub-hating individuals either unfollowing me or being unfollowed.

Maybe the message is a touch strident and invites accusations of Godwin’s Law. But intolerance was a key feature of Naziism, and the Nazis can be said to have begun the modern-day anti-smoking mania. Surely, since the smoking ban has been so devastating to the pub trade, pubs should be fully entitled to declare their disagreement with the law – even though they are forced to comply with it – and many would see that as a welcome manifestation of an independent, rebellious spirit.

Sowing paranoia

My last post referred to the imminent reduction of the drink-drive limit in Scotland. On a non-beer-related forum I frequent, this led to a remarkable outbreak of paranoia, with ludicrous speculation about the Scottish police carrying out “hot pursuit” of suspected offenders across the border, and people wondering when they would ever be safe to have a drink, and asking whether they needed to buy a personal breathalyser if they sometimes enjoyed a few midweek pints and drove to work the following morning.

While I yield to no-one in my opposition to this law, in fact there are well-established rules of thumb that should help to set their minds at rest, but don’t tend to have the currency they once enjoyed. When I learned to drive in the 1970s, it was drummed in to me by my father and other adults that, to avoid falling foul of the law, I should drink no more than two pints of ordinary-strength beer when driving. Of course, in those days there wasn’t much else around other than ordinary-strength beer. And two pints was a figure that would keep you comfortably below the limit, not end up nudging against it.

This is borne out by this 1986 leaflet produced by the Transport and Road Research Laboratory which states clearly that if an 11-stone man drinks two pints of ordinary-strength beer, his blood-alcohol level would reach a maximum of 60 mg. Given this, it follows that drinking just one pint should not take you anywhere near a 50mg limit, and one and a half may well be OK for gentlemen of more substantial build. Of course nowadays the picture is clouded by the availability of many stronger beers, but if you’ve lost count of how much you’ve had it’s probably fair to say you’re not fit to drive the following morning. Whether you would think it worthwhile to go to the pub just to drink one pint is another matter.

The other point is that, regardless of how much you’ve had in the first place, alcohol is cleared from the system at the rate of about one unit an hour. This explains why people who’ve had a skinful can still be over the limit the following tea-time but, on the other hand, if you’ve had four pints and stopped drinking at 11 pm, you’ll probably have a blood-alcohol level of zero by 8 am the following morning, and are vanishingly unlikely to still be over the limit. It’s also important to remember that, while various factors such as the type of drink and whether or not you’ve eaten at the same time will affect how swiftly alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream, the maximum potential blood alcohol level that any particular drink will produce remains unchanged. There’s no way that a half of lager, even if drunk on an empty stomach, is going to take you anywhere near.

But this reaction underlines the point that the key motivation behind this legislation is to make normal, responsible people think twice about drinking alcohol, not just immediately before driving, but most of the time. If the real objective was improving road safety, then an honest publicity campaign about how to keep within the law, including a much greater focus on the morning after, combined with an increase in targeted enforcement activity, would be much more effective. Knowing someone who has been breathalysed, even if they passed, is the best deterrent. But reducing the limit without any increase in enforcement will do nothing to deter those who are already breaking the current limit, and indeed may be perceived as legitimising their behaviour.

At the end of the day, it’s not about safety, it’s about denormalisation, and it certainly seems to be working.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Merry Christmas Scotland!

Scotland’s Justice Secretary Kenny McAskill has put a dampener on Scotland’s upcoming Christmas and New Year celebrations by promising to cut the country’s drink-drive limit on 5 December. I’m sure all Scots will welcome him throwing a dark blanket of prohibitionist gloom over them.

I’ve written on this before, and there’s not much more I can add. The idea that English drivers could be banned from driving in England for doing something in Scotland that is entirely legal south of the Border is utterly disgraceful. And I continue to believe that this is essentially an anti-drink and anti-pub measure, not a road safety one.

The Scottish pub scene is distinctively different, and the country doesn’t really have the characterful rural and village pubs that are such a distinctive feature of England. However, this move will have a negative effect across the whole pub trade, and inevitably lead to renewed calls for a limit cut south of the Border.

And I don’t believe it will save a single life.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Such a nice little pub

Tandleman writes here about his very positive experience of drinking in the Mill Road area of Cambridge. This is an area of densely-packed Victorian terraced housing that has now been largely taken-over by middle-class residents, but has retained its corner pubs, although they have very much changed in character. He suggests that a large proportion of the population is students, but I would guess that many residents are professional people working in the University and the city’s booming science-based industries.

Areas – and pubs – like this can be found in many of the cathedral cities and university towns across the South and East of England. I was recently in St Albans where the Sopwell district just across the road from the Cathedral is very much like this, with pubs like the Garibaldi and White Hart Tap (pictured). They’re essentially locals, not destination ale shrines, but will offer a variety of beers and are likely to be doing good business even on evenings early in the week. They’ll serve evening meals, provide newspapers and magazines for customers to read, and host a variety of activities such as pub quizzes, folk music and themed food nights.

You don’t really find that kind of thing around here, as the historic pattern of development is different and pubs tend to cluster in local centres rather than in the back streets. Where extensive areas of Victorian terraces do survive, they’re often now largely devoid of pubs. Probably the nearest thing I can think of locally is the Olde Vic in Edgeley, which isn’t really the same, but does have a very different atmosphere from the Castle Street pubs and attracts some of Edgeley’s growing number of middle-class residents.

When done well, this can to my taste provide a very congenial style of pub. But, to those who are used to drinking in that kind of area, it would be a mistake to imagine it is representative of much of the rest of the country.

Monday, 20 October 2014

In the air tonight

With an impressive 119 votes, the poll on wi-fi in pubs shows almost two-thirds (64%) either being indifferent or seeing its absence as a positive, and only 36% considering it a must-have or highly desirable feature. The point of asking this question is not to criticise its presence as, after all, unlike such things as loud music or screaming children, it scarcely impinges on other customers, but rather those who see pubs as simply a list of “facilities” and feel aggrieved if one lacks the particular feature that interests them. Surely it’s a good thing that pubs aren’t all the same.

On a recent pub-crawl of Edgeley, one of the more down-to-earth parts of Stockport, one fairly traditional pub was advertising free wi-fi as you went in through to door, so obviously it’s becoming pretty commonplace. However, I have to say that (perhaps because I am short-sighted) that browsing the internet on a smartphone cuts you off much more from what is going on in the rest of the pub than reading a newspaper, so possibly to some extent it might promote disconnection and social isolation.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Some more equal than others?

Some years ago, it was not uncommon for pubs to employ people with mild learning disabilities as potmen to collect empty glasses. They may not have been paid very much, but it gave them something purposeful to do and increased their sense of self-worth. This is something you don’t seem to see any more. Partly, no doubt, because pub tables are no longer groaning with empty pint glasses the way they used to be, but also, I suspect, because the introduction of the national minimum wage meant that licensees felt it was no longer economic to employ them.

This was brought to mind by the recent furore over Lord Freud’s comments that it might be preferable to allow some disabled people to work for less than the minimum wage than for them not to work at all. Many of his critics seem to have missed the point that personal worth is not the same as economic worth. Of course people are all equally valuable as individuals, but it’s a fact of life in every society that some people are paid more than others because their economic contribution is greater. Wayne Rooney earns more in a day than most of us do in a year, but that doesn’t mean he works any harder or is any better a person.

The comment was also not directed at disabled people in general. Although it was not always the case in the past, it is universally acknowledged now that people with physical disabilities lack nothing in mental acuity compared to the able-bodied. But few would deny that there are people with learning disabilities who may be capable of a limited amount of straightforward work under close supervision, but whose capability falls well short of that of a non-disabled person. Given that, to employ them and pay them the full minimum wage would be an act of charity, not a rational business decision.

This point was recognised by Mencap when the minimum wage was originally introduced in 2000, when they argued that that a special category of therapeutic placements should be introduced for people whose capability was well below that of non-disabled staff. If the government wanted to preserve the principle of the minimum wage, they could top up their payments to that level, which would probably be offset anyway by a reduction in benefit payouts.

This would help in giving disabled people more of a sense of purpose and self-esteem, and it may be that experience of work would improve their abilities and self-confidence and allow them to earn more. That is surely preferable to leaving them languishing on benefits because you think they’re not just good enough to work at all. The very fact that people are paid gives them more incentive and motivation than unpaid activity. As the article says,

Steve Beyer, deputy director of the Welsh centre for learning disabilities at the University of Wales, said studies showed that people with severe disabilities could benefit "very considerably" from work in terms of motivation and skills development.

He said: "For many people, the alternative is going to a local authority day centre. Although good examples do exist, there is plenty of research around to show that day centres are generally segregated and that they provide at worst a lower level of activity, a lower level of development and a lower level of interest."