Monday, 14 January 2019

Craft will eat itself

Over the weekend, my attention was drawn to this blogpost entitled Is Craft Beer Burning Out? The opening paragraph immediately grabs your attention:
IPAs so cloudy they look like radioactive pond water, double mocha-wocha choco-vanilla fudgy wudgy pastry stouts, DDH fruit smoothies (that’s Double Dry Hopped for the uninitiated) and salty goses that taste like gym instructor sweat. Is craft beer trying so hard these days it’s in danger of burning itself out?
This trend is perhaps more pronounced on the other side of the Atlantic, but the constant pursuit of the new has certainly spread over here too. It ends up going in ever-decreasing circles as brewers and drinkers hare after increasingly outlandish novelties. Of course there is a place for innovation in beer, but if people never want to drink anything twice it ultimately becomes self-defeating.

It also detracts from quality. If you’re never going to get the chance to drink a beer twice, then the incentive to make a product where drinkers will want to make repeat purchases disappears, and there’s no opportunity to tweak recipes in response to customer feedback. And, as the author points out, whereas in the past brewers would make small-scale test batches to develop and refine any new product, now they just put anything out without testing in the knowledge that drinkers will be moving on to something else anyway.

There’s a story that one particular brewer once had a batch that was badly affected by the common brewing fault known as diacetyl, but instead of pouring it down the drain they decided to rebrand it as “Butterscotch Porter”. That kind of thing now seems to be par for the course – however it turns out, someone will regard it as “interesting”.

I’ve argued in the past that one of the things undermining cask beer is the culture of ever-changing guest beers, which presents it as a disposable, interchangeable product and prevents the development of brand loyalty. The constant pursuit of novelty also serves to further widen the gulf between the enthusiast and the ordinary drinker in the pub with his or her regular pint of Pedigree or Carling.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Style or substance?

There have been quite a few articles in recent months asking the question of “how to save cask?” Some of these, especially those from across the Atlantic, refer to cask beer as a “style”. But, as I have pointed out in the past, that is incorrect. Bitter is a style; IPA is a style, but cask is rather a whole system of storage, maturation and dispense that can encompass a wide variety of different styles, but is critically dependent on sales volume to be viable.

However, it has come to be established as a beer category in its own right that commands a great deal of loyalty. In the 1970s, many people would identify themselves as “a bitter drinker” or “a mild drinker”, which could include both cask and keg, but that has virtually disappeared now. Cask is not just a delivery mechanism for various styles, and indeed people are much more likely to identify themselves as “a real ale drinker”. That doesn’t mean they will never touch beers that aren’t real, but that if there is no real bitter available they don’t immediately turn to a keg bitter as a substitute. The handpump has become clearly established as a distinctive symbol of a particular generic kind of beer.

The loyalty goes go the other way too, though. Some people identify as “smooth drinkers”, and I have seen people come in to pubs and ask whether they have any smooth. Likewise, the typical Guinness drinker would not see a cask stout as an acceptable alternative – they identify with Guinness as a brand, not with stout as a style.

I recently ran the Twitter poll shown above. Presumably most of my followers, or at least the ones who would answer this poll, are cask ale drinkers, and the results show that, while some do drink non-craft keg ales, for most it is something they do rarely or never. Personally I can only recall a handful of occasions in the past year, a couple in Sam Smith’s pubs, and one in a keg-only free house in a small town in Wales where I had a half of Banks’s Mild. I don’t dogmatically avoid keg beers, but if I find myself in a pub where there is no cask available I will generally switch to lager or perhaps Guinness rather than smooth ales.

It’s noticeable how little cask and keg actually tread on each other’s toes in the marketplace. Forty years ago, many brewers had a mixture of both versions of the same underlying product in their pubs, but nowadays the only ones I can think of are Felinfoel and Sam Smith’s. The vast majority of the remaining family breweries, at least in their own pubs, are all-cask. About a third of the pubs in the country still have no cask beer, but in most areas they tend not to be the ones the casual pubgoer would go into, leading some people to overestimate the dominance of cask. And a lot of keg beers are sold in clubs, which by definition tend to be used by regulars rather than casual customers. Very few of the new generation of breweries produce keg versions of their best-selling cask ales.

Much the same is true in the sphere of craft keg. Most craft kegs tend to occupy niches where cask is absent, typically American-style IPAs and very strong or speciality beers that by definition are not going to sell in the quantities needed for cask. There is some overlap, but not all that much. However, it is not difficult to foresee in the future that a keg American-style IPA, albeit at a moderate, sessionable strength, will become a regular fixture in mainstream pubs, no doubt to the detriment of cask. For some drinkers now, the fact that these beers are on keg is a selling point in itself.

It’s also important to remember that much of the change in market share amongst the various segments is due to customer churn rather than direct switching from one to another. Of course some drinkers have transferred their allegiance from cask to craft keg, at least on some occasions if not all the time, but that isn’t the prime reason for the apparent rise of one at the expense of the other.

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Don’t let the facts get in the way

For some years now, we have often seen assertions from sections of the beer commentariat that one of the main causes of the decline of the pub trade in recent years has been the policies of the large tied pubcos. However, as I argued here, there really is very little substance in this. Yes, in many respects the pubcos have been less than ideal custodians of their estates, but the decline of pubs has been due to a lethal cocktail of social change and legislative restriction. Running them in a somewhat different manner would not, overall, have made much difference.

The British pub trade today comprises a wide variety of different ownership models, including large and small pubcos, managed pub chains, family brewers and independent operators. If the pubcos really did have a particularly negative influence, then surely the other sectors would be doing markedly better. But, in fact, as Pete Brown points out in this article, over the past ten years it has in fact been the major operators who have done much better than the independents.

While everyone can point to examples of independently-run pubs that have prospered, there are plenty of others that have quietly fallen by the wayside, not to mention the huge numbers of pub disposals that nobody else has even sniffed at. Can anyone seriously argue that, under different ownership, all those beached-whale estate pubs and street-corner locals in run-down urban areas would have thrived? The reasons why one pub succeeds over another are completely different from those behind the wider decline of the trade as a whole.

The whole argument is just a convenient distraction from the true underlying issues. And it should always be remembered that, in the 1970s, the beer tie saved real ale in this country.

I also can’t help thinking that, in surveying the courses of pub decline over the past ten or so years, Pete as usual totally ignores the familiar elephant in the room...

Friday, 4 January 2019

Why can’t they just leave us alone?

Between Christmas and New Year, the Daily Telegraph reported how Public Health England were urging the government to impose strict maximum calorie limits on a huge range of common dishes eaten out of the home. Now, as I have argued before, while there may be practical difficulties in achieving it, there isn’t really any objection in principle to providing calorie information. However, this goes far beyond that to represent an unprecedented intrusion into the minutiae of people’s everyday actions, and something that is not mirrored in any other country.

There’s a huge list of practical problems with this. For a start, it’s a blanket, one size fits all solution that does not take account of people’s hugely different dietary requirements. Someone doing hard manual work (and there are still a few about) will need far more calories than a sparrow-like maiden aunt. There’s nothing to stop people ordering two meals if they don’t think that one is enough. And how does it deal with self-service buffets, or the growing trend for tapas-style menus with a variety of “small plate” dishes?

It must also be remembered that, in recent years, there has been a marked reduction in the average amount of calories consumed per person. If we are indeed as a society becoming more obese (which is less clear-cut than often supposed), then it is due to doing less, not eating more.

Not surprisingly, there was a chorus of protest in response to this news. Surely, you might think, there would be tremendous political mileage for any party prepared to call a halt on the ever-growing tendency to want to micromanage every aspect of people’s daily lives. Why can’t people be treated like responsible adults and left alone to make their own decisions?

But the problem is, as I have often said, that people in general do not identify any commonality of interest with others whose freedom is being infringed. I may be outraged that my ability to do this is being curbed, but I will cheer on when whatever that other dirty, irresponsible scumbag does is banned. As long as people to continue to view things within their own particular silo, it will continue happening.

It all started, of course, with the campaign against tobacco. And how many people welcomed that, and flatly denied that it represented the start of a slippery slope?

Friday, 28 December 2018

Replacing apples with oranges

The Manchester Evening News has recently published figures showing the shocking extent of pub closures across the region since 2001, as shown in the table below. Seven of the ten local authority areas in Greater Manchester have lost a third or more of their pubs, with Stockport, which has lost 36%, actually doing slightly better than average.

Top of the list is Rochdale, where an astonishing 45% of pubs have closed their doors. This does have to be seen, however, in the context of what might be described as “changing ethnic mix”, which must surely also be a major factor in Accrington, which the Guardian recently reported on as The town where half the pubs have vanished. This also applies to a lesser extent in many of the other areas.

Neither does the decline apply evenly across areas. Tameside may had fared less badly than most other boroughs, but even so the area on its south-eastern fringe around Mottram and Hattersley must have lost at least 80% of its pubs.

Of course this trend has to be seen in the context of the overall decline in the pub trade. Over the period from 2001 to the present day, according to the statistics produced by the British Beer and Pub Association, the amount of beer sold in the on-trade has fallen by 45%. Sometimes it seems surprising, not that so many pubs have closed, but that so many remain open, although it has to be said that some of those that remain exist on very slim pickings for much of the week.

Whenever this subject comes up, inevitably some Pollyannas will pipe up saying that, while we may have lost a lot of pubs, plenty of new bars have sprung up in their place. There is undoubtedly some truth in this, and I’m sure if you took into account the total movement in establishments with a full on-licence, it wouldn’t show anything like a 36% fall in Stockport. The liberalisation of the restrictions on opening new licensed premises has led to a more fluid market that is more capable of responding to changes in customer demand.

However, the overall figures on the decline of the trade do not lie, just as you can’t point to the rise in the number of breweries as an indicator of the general health of the brewing industry. These new places cannot really be considered a like-for-like replacement for the pubs we have lost. They are typically much smaller, for a start, appeal to a narrower customer base, and tend to be in entirely different locations. As I wrote back in 2011, “How can a small, boxy converted shop be regarded as any kind of acceptable substitute for an impressive Victorian or inter-wars building that was full of character and had served its community over several generations through a succession of licensees?”

This also raises a question mark about these statistics and how they are compiled. On the face of it, they don’t appear to take full account of new bar openings. But, on the other hand, neither are they simply gross figures of pubs lost that were in existence in 2001, as otherwise Manchester would surely record a much higher figure than 7%. Outside the inner ring road, Chorlton and the Wilmslow Road corridor, large parts of the city have become virtual pub deserts. So it would be interesting to know exactly what these figures are showing. Are they including some new openings, but not others, and how is the distinction drawn?

Thursday, 20 December 2018

When is a pub not a pub?

When it’s a bar, of course. While there’s no specific legal distinction, the two carry very different connotations. However, it’s notoriously difficult to come up with a hard-and-fast definition separating one from the other. Now Martyn Cornell has had another stab at it on his Zythophile blog. He suggests that a key distinction is that pubs tend to have a bar at right angles to the entrance door, whereas bars have their counter running along a side wall. Often, this is indeed the case, but it rather breaks down when you have a multi-roomed interior with different entrances. But perhaps bars don’t tend to have multi-roomed interiors anyway.

In general, while you can point to various characteristics that pubs usually have, and bars don’t, it’s always possible to come up with exceptions to the role. Overall, it’s often a case of “you know one when you see one”. I’ve suggested in the past that pubs are often specific buildings designed for the purpose, while bars tend to be part of a larger building. Pubs make use of the upper floors of the building, while a bar may be underneath something entirely different. The licensees of a pub are likely to live on the premises, but with a bar they hardly ever do. And, at least outside urban centres, pubs often have car parks, but I can’t think of a single bar that does. A pub retains its identity through various changes of ownership, while that of a bar is very much tied up with its current trading format.

Sometimes it’s less a question of physical aspects but how businesses choose to define themselves. On Stockport Market Place there are two recently-opened establishments right next door to each other – the Angel and Project 53. Both have a somewhat “crafty” ethos, but the Angel definitely comes across as a pub, whereas Project 53 is unquestionably a bar. With a new name and a different paint scheme, the Angel could be considered a bar, though.

Some Wetherspoon’s, particularly those in their more modern design idiom that are conversions of former retail units, do very much say “bar” rather than “pub”, whereas others than are in existing pub premises, such as the Gateway in East Didsbury, are definitely pubs. And, while their name says otherwise, I’d say that the vast majority of micropubs, going by the criteria set out above, are in reality small bars little different from the keg-only “box bars” often found in similar premises.

At the other end of the scale, there’s also the vexed question of when a pub actually turns into a restaurant. Most restaurants obviously aren’t pubs, but quite a few have the outward appearance of pubs and indeed might once have been one. Strictly speaking, if anyone can come in and have a drink without needing to buy a meal, it doesn’t qualify as just being a restaurant. However, I’d say there also needs to be a test of whether any meaningful number of people actually do.

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

A costly and futile gesture

This month sees the fourth anniversary of the reduction of the drink-driving limit in Scotland, which I wrote about here. The University of Glasgow have carried out some research on the impact, which has revealed no reduction in the number of road traffic accidents.

I have to say this doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. The additional level of risk involved in driving with alcohol levels between 50 and 80mg varies between pretty small and non-existent, so even if the vast majority of people who previously believed they were adhering to 80mg change their behaviour, it’s unlikely to make much difference to the overall numbers. Add to this the slow rate of absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream, and the fact that the conventional wisdom about the “legal limit” does actually include a significant amount of headroom, and it’s highly likely that, even before, they weren’t actually exceeding 50mg.

On the other hand, why should those who had no compunctions about exceeding the previous limit – who accounted for the vast majority of drink-related casualties – be any more likely to adhere to the new one? The UK government’s consultation document on cutting the limit from twenty years ago claimed that it would exert a moderating influence on people in this group, but it’s hard to see how this mechanism actually works.

Not surprisingly, there have been claims that it has only failed because of a lack of enforcement, but that rather suggests that reducing the limit was, in itself, a pointless gesture. If more enforcement was needed, then wouldn’t it have achieved the same benefits without a limit cut? The linked article quotes a statistic that of 195 found over the limit, only 17 were between the old and new limits, which suggests there isn’t a large population of drivers who are just chancing their arm a bit or have made a miscalculation. Either people adhere to the law, even if they disagree with it, or they couldn’t care less.

It also must be remembered that, according to the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, the effects on the pub trade have been catastrophic. Apparently, in the first few months, the reduction in trade caused a small but noticable downward blip in Scotland’s headline GDP. It’s hard to see how any pub in Scotland can now be viable outside urban centres unless it effectively turns itself into a restaurant. And, given the different pub landscape in England and Wales, the results would probably be even more severe if it were ever to be implemented south of the Border. Considering that the first assessment of the impact of minimum alcohol pricing has shown a surprising increase in off-trade purchases, it seems that the Scottish government has a spectacular talent for shooting itself in the foot when it comes to anti-drink measures.

While this is ostensibly touted as a road safety measure, it’s hard to believe that, at least subconsciously, part of the motivation behind it isn’t to increase the denormalisation of alcohol consumption in society. In this respect it’s rather like the smoking ban, in that it has been ineffective in achieving its stated aim, but highly effective in undermining the pub trade. In fact, this is even worse. It was possible to argue that the smoking ban would bring new non-smoking customers into pubs, although in practice it was more a trickle than a flood. But there is no upside whatsoever for pubs in cutting the drink-drive limit. It’s easy to imagine, though, the same useful idiots who argued that pubs would take the smoking ban in their stride being in favour of it, or at least pretty relaxed.

The whole thing has been pretty effectively filleted in his usual style by Christopher Snowdon:

Drunk driving isn't a very popular cause, and rightly so. It is obviously wrong to risk the lives of others by driving while inebriated. By contrast, driving after consuming a small quantity of alcohol poses no threat to others and is fine, but it is this that the temperance lobby is going after. It's so much easier to hassle normal people for having a pint after work than to clamp down on the dwindling number of habitual drunk-drivers.

Friday, 14 December 2018

Heritage brew

If you had said to the people who were in at the birth of CAMRA that, forty-five years later, the organisation would be promoting keg beer, cans and trendy bars, they would have laughed in your face. Yet so it has proved. What was once essentially a campaign to preserve a unique and endangered British tradition has, over time, metamorphosed into much more of an organisation that supposedly champions all good beer, however, defined, and has also in recent years introduced a much greater note of outright snobbery.

It’s often said that CAMRA is a broad church, but it has to be said that those whose interest is mainly in the traditional side get very slim pickings at present, and are often the subjects of sneering and derision. There are people who contribute to CAMRA’s Discourse discussion forum with whom I struggle to identify any commonality of interest whatsoever.

So maybe the time has come for a new organisation to cater for those whose interest in the sphere of beer and pubs is primarily in the preservationist arena, which we could perhaps call “Heritage Brew”. This would not be a rival to CAMRA so much as being complementary. Nor would it campaign in any active sense, except perhaps for the listing of heritage pubs, and to urge breweries not to discontinue traditional beer brands. It would essentially be a vehicle for people to share and pursue their particular enthusiasm. It would certainly never seek to divide anything into hard and fast categories.

As I wrote here, there is a big difference between what people buy as consumers and what they pursue as a leisure interest. Being interested in historic breweries doesn’t mean that you can’t drink craft beer, or that you’re against in any sense, just that it is essentially a consumer product to you, like cheese or washing up liquid. And the claim that some will raise that they’re equally interested in everything just doesn’t hold water, and will be contradicted by their own actions.

In terms of beer, the focus would be on the traditional British styles – light and dark mild, bitter, pale ale, stout, porter, old ale, barley wine and so forth. Much of this is produced today in cask form, but it certainly wouldn’t exclude keg beers, and indeed a surprising number of once well-known beers only live on today in keg form, especially milds. It would also encompass bottled and canned beers, where again many survivors from light ales to barley wines linger on in obscure corners of the market. And it would cover the premium bottled ale sector, which receives little attention from beer enthusiasts gushing over the latest 330ml can of American-style hop soup. Most of the beers in this category are bang in the middle of the British tradition, and often are only rarely seen on draught, or have no draught equivalent at all. And the sector does contain some underappreciated hidden gems, such as McEwan’s Special, a rare survivor of the classic Burton style. Things such as surviving old-fashioned pumpclips, keg fonts and electric meters would also come within its purview.

When it comes to breweries, at the core would undoubtedly be the surviving independent breweries who were in existence in 1972 and have kept the flag of traditional British beer styles flying ever since. There is still some traditional beer being produced in the remaining British plants of the international brewers, but that isn’t their primary focus. To these must be added the new breweries that have been established in the succeeding years and who have mainly concentrated on British styles, such as Black Sheep, Wye Valley, Butcombe and Joules. There are some breweries such as Hawkshead who successfully straddle both camps, but obviously other well-known names of the craft beer movement concentrate on constant innovation and American-influenced styles. And it certainly helps if your operation is in a magnificent historic brewhouse such as that of Hook Norton shown above.

For traditional pubs, the best place to start must be CAMRA’s National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors, which to my mind is one of the most important things the organisation has done. However, amongst the wave of enthusiasm for craft bars and brewery taps it seems to have slipped down the priority list recently, and its website has now been offline for “upgrading” for several months. Together with the various regional inventories, the total of listed pubs must come to over a thousand, but there are plenty more that may not be so unspoilt, but which still retain a broadly traditional character in terms of their layout, fittings and customer dynamics. It’s hard to define, but you know it when you see it. And, to widen the scope, there are plenty of pubs that may have been much modernised internally, but are still located in impressive historic buildings, something that is outside the remit of the National Inventory. Maybe there would be scope to publish a guidebook of “Britain’s Finest Traditional Pubs.”

Initially I just came up with this idea as a kind of thought experiment. But maybe there may be rather more to it than that. So who’s with me for a pint of keg M&B Mild in that unsung 1930s West Midlands boozer that didn’t quite make it on to the regional inventory, but still has red dralon bench seating, a meat raffle and little bags of Ploughman’s Lunch pinned to a card on the bar back?

Monday, 10 December 2018

The last pint

For a number of years, something called “The Session” has been run on a monthly basis amongst beer bloggers. This is basically asking the various bloggers to write their own take on a common subject. While the results have often been interesting, I have never participated, because I don’t really see this as a “beer blog” as such. It is more a blog on the general subject of lifestyle freedom, but centred around beer and pubs. And, as a political conservative, a craft beer sceptic, and a passionate and unrepentant opponent of the smoking ban, I have never felt part of that community.

However, it was a coincidence too poignant to miss that the last outing of “The Session” came last Friday, on the subject of which beer you feel would be most appropriate for a funeral. This happened to be the day on which my dad would have been a hundred years old, had he lived. He was born on 7 December 1918, and died on 2 March 2010.

I loved him dearly, and scarcely a day goes by on which I don’t miss him. Yes, in some ways he could be a very annoying man, and I’m sure in other ways he also found me something of a disappointment. But that is probably common to most father and son relationships, and ever since I came within a year or so of legal drinking age we would regularly share a pint or two in the pub. It was where we had our best and most open conversations. I can recognise in him many of my own character traits, in particular his refusal to tug the forelock to authority, which undoubtedly hindered his career, and also probably did the same to mine. But would he – or I – really have enjoyed the advancement that came from brown-nosing? In summary, we were both awkward buggers.

In his last years, especially since he had to give up driving, I would often take him out for a pint, latterly generally to the Golden Lion * in Frodsham, a Sam Smith’s pub. Indeed, this was the pub in which he enjoyed his last ever pint, in the Autumn of 2009. Of all the pubs in the area, this was the one he felt most at home in, for all the usual reasons for which Sam’s pubs stand out from the crowd. He was a firm believer in the virtues of bench seating, and we always had the same corner in which we would sit. Ironically, while I was driving, I would have a couple of pints, while he would just have one and a half or, towards, the end, just the one.

He always enjoyed a pint, and I have shared many hundreds with him, but I never saw him drunk, or anything beyond mildly tipsy at Christmas. I converted him to the idea of real ale, and for many years, Good Beer Guide in hand, he would seek out real ale pubs when on holiday with my mum. But, in his later years, he always enjoyed a pre-lunch can of Tetley Bitter at home. He never lost his intelligence, although towards the end it could become a bit vague and sporadic. In my experience, what tends to go with your parents is more their capacity to make decisions.

I miss you, dad, but I’m glad I shared a final pint of real ale with you in a proper pub.

* The Golden Lion always had cask beer when we went there, although sadly I see it has now gone keg, like many other Sam Smith’s pubs. But, even had that been the case when my dad was alive, I suspect we would still have gone there.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

The Gradgrind Arms

Regular readers will know that I have often praised the cheap prices, unspoilt character and congenial atmosphere of many Sam Smith’s pubs. However, I have certainly not been blind to the capricious and often high-handed way in which the company is run. This was starkly highlighted by this recent employment tribunal case in which a couple who had run the Roebuck in the centre of Rochdale for many years successfully made a claim against the company for constructive dismissal.

I have heard similar stories of unrealistic targets being set and a total disregard for the realities of the pub business across the bar of more than one Sam Smith’s pub. Reading the above report, it’s hardly surprising that Sam’s are struggling to recruit pub managers, with a number of their pubs currently being shut that on the face of it do not appear to be unviable.

However, it must be said that much of the company’s unique appeal does stem from their pig-headed refusal to follow the fickle winds of fashion in the pub trade. The managers of the Roebuck complained that their inability to offer piped music and TV sport made it harder for them to compete with other pubs, but for many pubgoers the absence of those features is an attraction in itself. And in some locations the formula certainly works. I’ve mentioned before how you will often find the Boar’s Head on Stockport Market Place standing room only at lunchtime on a non-market day, while the Roebuck was reported to be taking nearly £6,000 a week, which is pretty good going.

Could it be the case that, when the notorious Humphrey Smith is finally put out to pasture, Sam’s will end up losing their USP by trying to become more like other pub operators? After all, you once knew exactly what to expect in a Holt’s pub, whereas now it would be very difficult to say what defined them. And the biggest managed pub operator of all doesn’t have music or sports TV either, and is also known for its keen prices.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Who’d ha’ thought it?

Minimum alcohol pricing has now been in effect in Scotland for six months. I wrote about this at the time. Given that nothing of this kind has ever been tried before, obviously it was hard to predict the results, but it was a reasonable assumption that overall off-trade alcohol sales would show a small decline, but the value of those sales increase.

However, it hasn’t turned out quite that way. According to a study commissioned by cider maker Aston Manor, the total volume of alcohol sales has actually increased by 4%, while the value has gone up by no less than 11%. That certainly isn’t what was meant to happen.

Obviously it’s early days yet, and this is only a survey, not a detailed analysis of actual sales. It follows a general pattern, with sales south of the border in fact rising by 7%, encouraged by the long hot summer and England’s good run in the World Cup. We will have to wait and see what the official figures show, and how cross-border sales are affecting alcohol consumption in Scotland, but it does call into question how effective a policy this is likely to be.

Not surprisingly, sales of the notorious Buckfast tonic wine have shown a marked increase. Contrary to widespread belief, this has never been particularly cheap in terms of price per alcohol unit, and its appeal is down to its high caffeine content. It no longer commands such a price premium over other drinks. In contrast, sales of white ciders have plummeted, as they had little to recommend them apart from the high “bangs-per-buck” ratio. Frankly, it’s surprising anyone is continuing to buy them when they can get far more palatable drinks at the same price.

Convenience stores have gained market share over supermarkets, as the big stores no longer enjoy the price advantage they once did. In fact, the whole thing can be regarded as a price-fixing sceheme in favour of retailers. It’s rather ironic that the useful idiots of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association were so keen to support it, when it has given such a shot in the arm to the financial health of the off-trade. Given that household incomes haven’t increased by 11% or anything like it, some other area of expenditure must have suffered, and it could well be that pubs are included within that.

What seems to be happening is that, given that all categories of drink at the lower end of market now have a level playing field in terms of price, consumers are being more discerning over their preferred method of getting their desired alcohol kick. It’s the most enjoyable way, not simply the cheapest. This helps explain the rise in sales of fortified wines. There’s no longer any place in the market for the £3.49 bottle of gutrot wine or the £9.99 bottle of paintstripper vodka.

It will take a lot longer before we really have a full picture of the impact, especially in terms of the effect it has on “problem drinkers”, who are supposedly the group being targeted. But it doesn’t take a great deal of insight to realise that, if it isn’t felt to be “working”, however that is defined, the inevitable reaction will be to increase the dose and jack up the minimum price yet further.

Friday, 30 November 2018

Dancing on a pin

One of the motivations behind CAMRA’s Revitalisation Project was a widespread feeling that the organisation too often insisted on a nitpicking, pedantic definition of “real ale” that bore little relation to whether or not a beer was actually any good. Surely reform would usher in a new era of much greater acceptance and tolerance of other forms of beer. Everything would be considered without prejudice on its own merits. But things don’t seem to have worked out quite that way.

I’ve long argued that CAMRA made something of a shibboleth of bottle-conditioned beer, by drawing an exact parallel with the relationship between cask and keg. But bottle-conditioning was no longer really a live tradition when CAMRA was formed, and delivers little perceptible benefit to the drinker. Despite years of plugging away, it has never really gained much traction with the drinking public. Most people with much knowledge of beer accepted that there were many excellent bottled beers that weren’t bottle-conditioned and, for any given beer, all it often brought to the party was introducing wild inconsistency. Yet we still see regret being expressed that bottled beers aren’t bottle-conditioned, even though in the real world that is going to limit their sales prospects, and microbrewers being badgered to make their beers available in bottle-conditioned form even though that turns drinking them into a lottery. Any praise for a beer that doesn’t qualify has to be tempered with a dismissive “but it’s a pity it isn’t bottle-conditioned”.

When it comes to draught beer, the same black-and-white attitude still seems to prevail. There are beers that, in cask form, will get a pub into the Good Beer Guide. Yet, with the same beer in keg form, they are consigned to outer darkness, omitted from the branch pub crawl and failing to appear on the default search on CAMRA’s online WhatPub guide. Yes, if you are still applying the traditional binary cask vs keg dichotomy, this is fair enough. But if we want the organisation to be less “hung up about dispense”, it shouldn’t be happening. Many “modern” keg beers are praised to the rafters, so why not these? If a beer is good enough for the GBG in cask form, then putting it into kegs doesn’t immediately turn it into a bad beer.

Or maybe it’s just the wrong kind of keg. We’re often told that modern “craft” keg beers are nothing like the Watney’s Red Barrel of old. Well, neither were most of the non-real beers of that era either. It’s also pointed out that many are unpasteurised and only rough-filtered. So was much of the “bright” beer of the 1970s. And now we have keg beer that is claimed to actually qualify as real ale. But, as I argued a couple of years ago, this very much comes across as a solution looking for a problem. It’s almost as if someone has played a practical joke on CAMRA by coming up with a beer that, to all intents and purposes, presents as keg, but in fact is, technically speaking, real ale.

However, the concept of “real ale”, as developed in the 1970s, depended on a combination of several different characteristics. It just happened that undergoing a secondary fermentation in the container from which it was dispensed became the touchstone by which it was defined. The only practical benefit I can see of this is allowing keg beers to be served at CAMRA beer festivals, and even that limitation was removed by a motion at this year’s National Conference.

It’s virtually never identified as “real ale in a keg” at the point of sale, and in practice is impossible to distinguish from rough-filtered but non keg-conditioning beers of similar type. How many consumers of craft keg beers are remotely bothered, apart from a small subset of people who are keen keg drinkers but at the same time still hold to the CAMRA definition of real ale? I have to say I rarely drink craft kegs, not because I’m ideologically opposed to them, but because most of them are one or more of very strong, very expensive and having unusual and offputting flavours. I did have a pint of Punk IPA on a Spoons meal deal the other day, though. And, when I do, like that Punk IPA, I expect it to be consistent and clear, which “real ale in a keg” makes less likely on both counts.

And then we have the utter nonsense that is “real ale in a can”. This really is “real ale in a keg” with knobs on. At least with a bottle-conditioned beer, you can see that the sediment has settled to the bottom and, if you want to, pour carefully to ensure that it all remains in the bottle, giving you a clear glass of bear. Obviously you can’t do that with an opaque container, and there’s a question mark as to what extent it actually does experience any meaningful secondary fermentation. What you’re getting is more likely to be just a can of murky beer with some yeast in suspension. Again you have to ask what is the point, apart from to circumvent the CAMRA definition. As with keg beers, if I do choose to drink cans, I expect them to deliver the benefits of clarity and consistency, which this fails to do.

We were told that Revitalisation, or the sentiment behind it, would usher in a more relaxed, inclusive and tolerant environment in the world of beer. But, in fact, all it seems to have done is to expand the nitpicking pedantry for which “Old CAMRA” was criticised into new areas, and introduce an added note of snobbery.

Medieval scholars were often ridiculed for debating how many angels could stand on the head of a pin. Their modern-day equivalents seem to have transferred the focus of their attention to the 4½-gallon cask of that name.

Wednesday, 21 November 2018

Craft marches on

In the wake of the latest Cask Report, Pete Brown (yes, him again) has recently made some interesting observations on The Market for Flavourful Beer. He points out that, if you combine the market shares of cask ale and craft keg, together they have risen from 18.9% to 23.5% over the past four years. All of this increase has come from the craft sector, with cask showing an overall decline.

However, before the crafterati start drooling into their thirds of murky DIPA, it’s important to consider exactly what makes up this market segment. The Morning Advertiser has produced a listing of the top ten “craft” brands in the on-trade. Not surprisingly, BrewDog Punk IPA is at the top of the table, no doubt helped by being available as part of meal deals in Wetherspoon’s.

But the remainder aren’t a diet of Beavertown and Tiny Rebel, and include such noted stars of the craft firmament as Shipyard and Blue Moon. In fact, five of the ten beers on the list are from offshoots of the major international brewers, with two from long-established British family brewers, two from newer British brewers (one of which, Innis & Gunn, is often only grudgingly accepted as craft) and one from a large US independent, Brooklyn, which presumably has a UK distribution deal with one of the majors. It’s a considerably greater presence for the international brewers than on the equivalent cask list, where they only have one representative.

This underlines what I’ve said about the craft beer movement in the past, that eventually it will be assimilated into the mainstream. Some aspects of it will be taken on board by the major brewers, with US-style IPAs and “craft lagers” currently being the main beneficiaries. Some will continue at a lower, niche level, without ever troubling the top of the sales charts, while others will fade away over time. One major new challenger may appear to challenge the market dominance of the established players, but would you really put any money on BrewDog still being an independent company in twenty years’ time?

Compare this with the situation of cask ale. Above is an interesting graphic from Pete Brown’s post that illustrates the difference in perception between cask and craft. Yes, there is a substantial area of overlap, but there are also major distinguishing factors, and in some ways the two are poles apart. Cask is not an innovation in the beer market; indeed its continued existence as a system represents a reaction against innovation. And it is something pretty much entirely confined to the UK, and a market segment from which the international brewers have mostly withdrawn.

It is all very well to say that everyone interested in “good beer” should recognise a common interest but, as I wrote here, the two sectors of cask and craft carry starkly contrasting cultural associations and arise from essentially different wellsprings of sentiment.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Should I stay, or should I go?

“Are we having another one here, or do you want to move on?” is a familiar question asked in pubs on countless days and nights out. But it’s something that can produce quite a divergence of opinion. I was reminded of this subject by a post entitled The Enduring Appeal of the Pub Crawl from relatively new beer blogger Pete Drinks a Beer. In this he says:
But what of those times that lack this spur of the moment quality? Those sessions that have been meticulously planned in advance, with lists of pubs written, maps of streets scribbled, Good Beer Guides consulted? I refer, of course, to the phenomenon of the pub crawl.

Some of my favourite drinking experiences have been of this kind. Sometimes they are in a new place, a pub crawl pieced together via Google Maps and internet forums. Others are old, comfortable, routes that I've walked hundreds of times, with different pub stops being added and removed as if to a patchwork quilt.

I fully identify with what he’s talking about, and for me that’s often what pubgoing is all about. However, others don’t see it that way, and are much more in favour of staying put. My recent Twitter poll showed them to be in a clear majority.
Now, I can understand that point of view. If you know a pub where the beer, atmosphere and company are to your taste, why move on to somewhere else that may not be as good? As Cooking Lager says:
My local CAMRA branch organises regular monthly “Staggers” – organised pub-crawls around different parts of the branch area. For me, as I said here, these are one of the most interesting and enjoyable things we do, but for some who are happy enough to attend other events they are a “route march” or “a soulless trudge”. And the general public are much less likely to spend their Friday or Saturday night wandering around some of their local pubs than they once were, possibly because individual pubs have become much more segmentalised in their appeal.

Of course, a lot depends on what you’re actually looking for. If your prime objective is just to go out drinking, then there’s little point in doing it in several pubs rather than just one. And if you’re solely interested in seeking out novel beers, then you won’t have much interest in going in the Robbies’ or Holt’s pub with just their standard offer. However, for me, pubs in themselves are a subject of interest. If you’re interested in castles, you don’t just go to the one on the grounds, if you’ve seen one portcullis, you’re seen them all. As I wrote here:

At heart I have to conclude I’m more fascinated by pubs than beer – by the variation in layout and architecture, the fittings from many different eras, the ebb and flow of trade, the little rituals and quirks of pub life, the mix of customers, their interaction with the bar staff and each other, the way their clientele and atmosphere reflect the varied strands of society. Every pub is different and has its own character and its own story to tell.
There are times when it may make sense just to stay in the same pub, especially in the context of a meet-up with people who have come from different directions. But ultimately, for me, the best pubgoing experience, if I’m having more than just a couple of pints, is to revisit a selection of old favourites or explore somewhere new.

Of course I’m not just aiming to go to pubs at random. Locally, there are some pubs that I know are reliably worth visiting, while others may be new, or have changed in a way that merits investigation. On the other hand, there are several pubs in the Heatons and in Stockport town centre that I know are unlikely to appeal in terms of beer offer or ambiance. If I’m visiting another part of the country I will remember pubs I’ve enjoyed before, and also do some research in the Good Beer Guide and via the collective wisdom of the Internet.

The local CAMRA Staggers have become more manageable than they once were, due to pub closures and the conversion of some of the historically less appealing pubs to keg, meaning that they’re now typically a leisurely saunter around maybe about six pubs that are generally of decent quality. And I’m fortunate in knowing a group of people who share an interest in exploring the pubs of towns and cities around the country.

Monday, 12 November 2018

The joys of the countryside

I was recently looking at one or two lists people had compiled of their favourite pubs, or ones that had impressed them recently. One thing that struck me was how the pubs chosen were exclusively in urban locations. Now, people can only report on what they’ve personally experienced, and that tends to be where the action is in terms of beer innovation. However, it is a somewhat partial view of the overall pub landscape, so to redress the balance here’s a list of fifteen pubs in rural or village locations that I have enjoyed visiting in the current century. I’m sure you will have your own suggestions to add to the list.