Sunday, 28 June 2015

Action not words

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Tales from the front line

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Shunning strength

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Liquid lunch

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

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

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

Thursday, 11 June 2015

First come, first served

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Lager in the doghouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

It’s the taste, innit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 25 May 2015

The monkey’s paw strikes again

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Wizard brew

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Back to when pubs were pubs

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Pride before a fall?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 15 May 2015

Bipolar beer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Polling station, then pub

Well, here are the results of the Mudgie opinion poll for the 2015 General Election. I made a point of not sharing or promoting this anywhere else and so the results are more representative than the last one.

As I said in the comments, there’s a clear dichotomy between the two contrasting demographics that the blog appeals to:

  1. Smoking ban opponents and general advocates of “lifestyle liberty”, who are likely to be predominantly UKIP

  2. The CAMRA/beer blogging community, who mainly have left-wing sympathies, either Labour or Green
There does seem to be a something of a cognitive dissonance on the last point, given Labour’s support for various anti-pub and anti-drink measures, such as the smoking ban and the duty escalator, and the Greens’ expressed desire to considerably increase alcohol duty. Obviously it’s a rather narrow view to cast your vote purely on the basis of the interests of the beer industry, but I do wonder how many genuinely believe that a Labour government would improve its prospects, and how many still vote Labour for other reasons despite that.

I’m not going to launch into a lengthy political diatribe, but I’m sure it will come as no surprise that locally I will be voting for this chap, who is an excellent candidate. I will make a couple of further points, though:

A survey shows that the key feature distinguishing UKIP supporters from those of other parties is opposition to “lifestyle regulation”, something that goes much further than the smoking ban and represents a genuine undercurrent of anger and frustration at the ever-growing encroachment of the Nanny Bully State.

Last month, the Morning Advertiser carried out a Q & A session with Pubs Minister Kris Hopkins and his shadow Toby Perkins. Read it and see what you think. But it takes a bit of brass neck for Perkins to say “we want to see a higher proportion of Britain’s alcohol drunk in pubs” when the last Labour government did more than any since Lloyd George to achieve the opposite.

As a general rule, most of what politicians say about pubs is self-serving, hypocritical bollocks. The best thing they could do is just to leave them alone, rather than indulge in misguided attempts to “save” them which may well end up having the opposite effect.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

CAMRA – what is it good for?

Yesterday, Boak and Bailey wrote an interesting blogpost entitled Things we Love About CAMRA. Their conclusion was that, “despite its oddities, frustrations and occasional missteps”, overall it did far more good than harm. I made a similar point in a piece called Only Here for the Beer which I wrote ten years ago, before blogs and Twitter had been invented.

Recently, there have been thoughtful posts covering much of the same ground from Paul Bailey and Tandleman. Yes, CAMRA can sometimes come across as irritating, dogmatic and misguided, although very often that is more the fault of individual members rather than the organisation as a whole. At its most recent AGM a number of motions were passed indicating a desire to take a more inclusive and less narrow-minded view of the beer (and cider) world. It’s interesting how in recent years some of the strongest criticism has come from the “craft beer” community, while most of the general public would at worst dismiss CAMRA as well-meaning fuddy-duddies.

In my view, two of its greatest achievements are creating the National Inventory of historic pub interiors, and campaigning successfully to scrap the beer duty escalator and indeed get three years of small duty cuts. This, probably the biggest victory scored against the neo-Prohibitionists in recent years, was achieved through a broad-based campaign that mobilised all beer drinkers and pubgoers, not just real ale lovers.

I still feel that CAMRA could and should do more at a national level to combat the anti-drink lobby, and that it has devoted far too much effort to pubco and planning reform, which are issues that fail to resonate with most members on the ground, and are greatly overstated as reasons for pub decline. There’s also a question mark about what, in the present day, its objectives should actually be. But visit any of the many beer festivals it organises around the country and you will see happiness being spread and interest in beer being stimulated, which can’t be bad.

B&B disabled comments on their blogpost for fear of provoking an almighty row, but feel free to comment here.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

How are the mighty fallen

Last week, Tesco posted one of the largest corporate losses ever seen in the UK, at £6.4 billion. It has to be said that most of this is due to property write-offs, and they still made a trading profit, but even so it represents a spectacular example of corporate over-ambition and mismanagement.

No doubt many CAMRA activists will be experiencing a profound sense of Schadenfreude, given how they have argued over the years that Tesco has been highly destructive of the pub trade through selling beer at rock-bottom prices and buying up entirely viable pubs to convert to Tesco Express stores. Now, in my view these two issues are greatly exaggerated as reasons for pub decline. But it does underline a far more important point.

No institution, however dominant and established it may appear, is ever secure. The free market, ultimately, will wreak its revenge. History is littered with examples of apparently all-conquering businesses – General Motors, ICI, IBM, Microsoft – that have been brought down to size. The once all-powerful “Big Six” of British brewing have all either disappeared, been taken over, or turned in to companies with little interest in brewing and pubs.

Large organisations almost inevitably fall victim to a sense of arrogance and complacency, A variety of competitors have sprung up to challenge the dominance of the big supermarkets – obviously the discounters such as ALDI and Lidl, but also pound shops and value retailers such as Home Bargains and B&M. People may still go to the big stores, but they’re giving them a lower proportion of their overall spending. Clearly there’s a trade-off of time vs money, but personally I’m spending around a tenner a week at Home Bargains that otherwise would have been spent – at much higher prices – in Tesco or Morrisons.

I am the in fortunate position where all four of the major supermarkets are within a couple of miles, but I tend to favour Tesco and Morrisons – Sainsbury’s being noticeably more expensive on many everyday purchases, and ASDA giving the impression of going for the mums’ market and failing to provide smaller packs. Each has one or two things the other doesn’t, so it’s worth dividing my attention.

Perhaps the most irritating thing about supermarkets is the constantly changing offers, so that you never quite know where you are. This has got to the point where it is now being investigated by the Competition Commission. Personally, constant, steady low prices would be much more of a draw, and Tesco are far more guilty of this than Morrisons.

The price war at last seems to have got through to the realm of Premium Bottled Ales. For quite a while, they stood against the tide, but recently Morrisons have dropped their £1.89 a bottle; £5 for three offer in favour of £1.65 a bottle; £6 for four. This offer also includes various craft beers, such as Thwaites 13 Guns and three from Hardknott in 330ml bottles or cans.

Tesco have gone one step further, for a while selling quite a few PBAs for £1.25, and most of the rest for £1.50, including those such as Old Crafty Hen that normally sell for well above £2. They’ve now reverted to a general £6 for four offer, with individual bottles at £1.99 (although a few still at £1.25), but the general trend towards price-cutting remains. When you consider that they can sell 440ml cans of Carlsberg for about 55p each without making a loss, there’s obviously a lot of margin in PBAs

For many people, the PBA offer will be a major factor in choosing which supermarket to patronise, and I expect we’ll see a lot more price competition in the future.

The day will also come, although I won’t predict when, that Wetherspoon’s find out that they’ve attempted an expansion too far.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Careful cultivation

Whenever you hear that a pub is going be closed for refurbishment, there’s always a slight feeling of unease. OK, if it’s just a case of repainting and reupholstering and improving the toilets, then there’s nothing to worry about, but anything more than that and you sort of know it’s going to end up worse. Smarter, brighter, cleaner maybe, but inevitably opened out a little more, lacking a few more original features and a bit less cosy and comfortable. It will be praised in the local CAMRA magazine for being “sensitive” and “widening the pub’s appeal”, but some of what gave it character before will have gone. You can see this in some local pubs – the Spread Eagle in Bredbury particularly springs to mind – where, over the years, multiple revamps have transformed what was once an unspoilt traditional interior into an open-plan space that could be any of a hundred pubs.

It’s even more worrying when you hear rumours of work being planned at a much-loved pub that features on CAMRA’s National Inventory of historic pub interiors. For quite a while there has been talk of changes at the Nursery in Heaton Norris, Stockport, and Hydes Brewery have now formally lodged their plans with the local council. However, having had a good look at them, it appears that there’s nothing to be concerned about. The pub, a rare original example of a 1930s design scheme, is now a listed building, which restricts the scope to make structural changes, and the fact that Stockport’s chief conservation officer lives just a few doors down the road will have ensured that the plans received careful scrutiny. The documents attached to the planning application include a large number of interior photographs and before-and-after floorplans.

The only structural alterations are to convert the disused off-sales department into a ladies’ toilet to serve the vault (which previously only had a gents’), close off a serving hatch that wasn’t an original feature anyway, and replace the modern back bar fitting. All the fixed seating and original period decorations including the stained glass windows depicting plants and garden implements are to be retained, while the decorative designs make extensive use of Thirties motifs. So all credit to Hydes for coming up with a very sympathetic scheme that if anything will improve the pub. As the planning assessment concludes:
The impact of the redecoration will therefore be to enhance the existing character and internal building features, reinforcing the separate room layout of the plan form with reference to the 1930’s in the finishes without attempting to create a museum or stage set.

The proposed refurbishment of the Nursery Inn in Heaton Norris represents a faith in the future of this public house by the brewery and will help to secure its long term future and use.

The character of the Listed Building will be enhanced internally and the fabric of the building given a new lease of life.

If only they’d take the TV screens out of the rear smoke room, though!

Hydes are also planning to refurbish the Horse & Farrier in Gatley in the coming months. This doesn’t have an original interior like the Nursery, but maybe fifteen or twenty years ago it was renovated to become a “Heritage Inn” with much dark wood and a rambling layout of several cosy areas around the central bar. To my eye it's one of the most congenial non-original pub interiors in Stockport. No plans have been published yet, so let’s hope they’re not too drastic.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Of Irish gold and gamma rays

Back in the 1990s, following the success of Guinness Draught in a can, Guinness launched “Guinness Bitter”, using the same widget technology. I remember it being advertised showing a fisherman putting his four-pack in the river to keep the cans cool, but it never seems to have been a great success and has long since disappeared from the market. To this day I still have a Guinness Bitter fridge magnet, though.

Now, as part of the initiative that has led to the introduction of Dublin Porter and West Indies Porter, Guinness have re-entered the ale market with the launch of Guinness Golden Ale. As it was on sale at £1.50 a bottle in my local Tesco, I thought I would give it a try. The first thing that strikes you is that, as Beer Viking reports here, it isn’t actually a golden ale. In colour, it’s more mid-amber, a similar hue to, say, Marston’s Pedigree, and certainly nowhere near as pale as the likes of Thwaites Wainwright. I’d broadly agree with his review that it’s a perfectly decent beer, fairly rich and “beery”, with subdued caramel notes, whereas some so-called “golden ales” have a rather insipid, lemony flavour. But I can’t see it winning many converts from lager, and the name is frankly misleading.

Locally, we’ve recently seen the opening of a new combined bottle shop and bar called Bottle Heaton Moor. The owner Corin Bland is someone who is really enthusiastic about his beer, and I’m confident it will prove a successful venture for which there’s a strong demand in the area. There’s a detailed review here on Beers Manchester. My only caveat is that it’s not exactly a comfortable place to sit and have a drink, as the picture above shows. But it’s not really aimed at me anyway.

When I called in, I spotted cans of Beavertown Gamma Ray on sale and bought one out of curiosity. Don’t worry, this isn’t “Mudgie goes Craft!” When they first launched a few years ago, Beavertown were so achingly craaaaaffft that they almost came across as a parody, but they have gone from strength to strength, and Gamma Ray seems to be regarded as one of the defining beers of the current “craft beer revolution”.

It was a distinctly steep £2.60 for a 330ml can of a 5.4% beer. The can has a striking science-fiction design showing an alien with a ray gun. Incidentally, why do “craft cans” tend to have a slightly rougher surface texture than soft drink ones? It pours a bright, almost orangey colour, with vigorous carbonation and a thick white head. The taste is that classic piney, resiny American hop flavour in spades. If you like that sort of thing, it will be right up your street, but I have to say that I see beers of this kind in the same way as highly peated Islay malts – you respect them, but they’re not something you’d like to drink a lot of. Personally I also find it offputting that it’s hazy verging on cloudy. I’m sure they have the technical expertise to brew a clear beer, so it has to be assumed that they are deliberately brewing a “London murky” as a sign of just how craft they are. If I wanted to drink a beer of that type, I’d much prefer either BrewDog Punk IPA or Thwaites 13 Guns.

Apologies for lack of blogging in recent weeks – I’ve just not had my interest sparked by anything. Now that the general election is less than a month away, I’ve reinstated the voting intentions poll in the sidebar – mobile users can access it here. I’d be grateful if readers didn’t share this elsewhere on social media, as last time some did this rather over-enthusiastically, which distorted the results to the extent that they were pretty meaningless.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Glass half empty?

Well done to George Osborne for making a small cut to beer duty for the third year running, something without precedent in living memory. But inevitably some have given this a grudging reception, saying that a penny a pint duty cut is neither here nor there, and most pub operators won’t apply it anyway. I suspect many dislike Osborne so much that they would still whinge even if he totally abolished beer duty and gave everyone a flying horse to transport them to and from the pub.

In reality the comparison is not with a duty freeze, but with the continued application of the beer duty escalator, which would have resulted in a pint in the pub being 30 or 40p dearer by now. If you can’t see, or acknowledge, that, you’re either an idiot or someone who allows political partisanship to override a rational consideration of the interests of the brewing industry and pub trade. The Centre for Economic and Business Research has calculated that the beer duty reductions have already saved over 1,000 pubs from closure. Surely that’s something we can all celebrate regardless of political affiliation?

Friday, 20 March 2015

Knotty solution

When I first started going in pubs, I rapidly picked up the habit – possibly from my dad – of tying empty crisp packets into a little knot so they took up less space and so could easily be placed into an ashtray. Yes, kids, in those days every pub table had an ashtray.

A few years later, I remember doing this in a remote country pub in Sussex and the grumpy landlord saying “I bet you used to make model aeroplanes when you were younger”. Which I actually didn’t, but you understand the point. I still do it, and friends view me seizing on a stray crisp packet as a form of OCD. I never embraced folding the packets into little triangles, though.

I recently came across this article on How to Eat Crisps* and was rather gratified to read the following, which confirms my view:

In public, where you might not bin it immediately, fold the packet lengthways into a narrow strip and then tie a knot in it. People who fold the packet into a tight, precise triangle are psychopaths.
Apparently, the UK consumes more crisps than the rest of the EU put together. And, the question of what you do with your rubbish in the pub following the demise of the ashtray, which I mentioned here, has still not been solved. It seems that you just leave it on the table and wait for a member of staff to clear it away.

* what next? “How to wipe your arse”?

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Plates are so last century

Go in any pub or restaurant nowadays that has the slightest aspiration to be fashionable, and the odds are that you will have your meal served, not on a plate, but on a roofing slate, a chopping board, a baking tray or even just a plank of wood. Your chips may be stacked on their end in a mug, salad under an upturned wine glass and vegetables in a flowerpot.

Some of the worst examples are shown on this page, including bread in slippers, chips in a miniature shopping trolley and steak on a meat cleaver. The picture on the right shows fish on a rectangular piece of wood, with chips in a little stainless steel bucket and mushy peas in a latté glass.

Not too long ago, people were complaining about square plates replacing round ones, but this is taking things to a whole new level. There are obvious practical objections, in that an entirely flat surface does nothing to stop food sliding or dripping off the edge, and you have to wonder how thoroughly chunks of wood are washed, especially those with cracks in them. Some types of containers may make it physically difficult to actually eat the food from them.

But ultimately this is just a rather pathetic attempt to come across as funky, artisanal and cutting-edge. Anything, no matter how absurd, is better than a boring old round plate. Come on, we all know the food’s just popped out of a microwave and they’re not actually slaughtering pigs round the back. There’s even a Twitter account @WeWantPlates to highlight some of its more laughable excesses.

However, Wetherspoons are bucking the trend – not so long ago they replaced plain square plates with very retro-looking round ones with blue and white patterns. It might be a good idea for more pubs to follow suit and stop opening themselves up to ridicule.