Saturday, 30 April 2016

Obscured by clouds

The past decade has seen a dramatic rise in the popularity of vaping, i.e. using a non tobacco-based nicotine delivery system, often somewhat misleadingly described as “e-cigarettes”. From the outset, it was clear that this had the potential to bring about major health benefits if large numbers of people switched from tobacco. It could be the long-sought game-changer in reducing tobacco use worldwide.

However, vaping has never been welcomed by the public health lobby, for a variety of generally spurious reasons:

  • It wasn’t invented here, i.e. by Big Pharma
  • To some extent it mimics tobacco smoking, so it must be bad
  • Some people may view it as a recreational activity, because of course any human pleasure has to be discouraged
  • It acts as a gateway to “proper” smoking
  • It may involve a small level of health risk
But there’s a growing body of evidence that the health risks involved in vaping are hugely less than those of tobacco. Even if the risk is greater than zero, then discouraging people from vaping is in effect encouraging them to continue smoking tobacco. We often hear of “harm reduction” in relation to drug policy, so why shouldn’t it apply here too?

Last week a report was published by the respected Royal College of Physicians arguing that there was no proof that vaping acted as a gateway to tobacco, and that the evidence that it was safer than tobacco by several orders of magnitude was overwhelming. Given this, the correct response should be to encourage it, or at least facilitate it, not demonise it.

"The ideal is for people to use nothing," said Linda Bauld, a professor at Stirling University, deputy director of the U.K. Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies and a co-author of the RCP report. But when the alternative is smoking, people should be encouraged to use nicotine "delivered in a cleaner form than in deadly cigarettes."

"This is what tobacco harm reduction is — it reduces the harm from tobacco while recognizing that some people will still use nicotine in other safer forms."

The anti-smoking group ASH UK welcomed the report, saying it showed "that switching to vaping is a positive and sensible life choice" for smokers.

"Electronic cigarette vapour does not contain smoke, which is why vaping is much less harmful," said Deborah Arnott, ASH's chief executive.

Ooh, I bet saying that stuck in a few craws, but if such militant anti-smokers are saying it, you have to assume the case is pretty overwhelming.

I wrote here about how many major pub operators, particularly Wetherspoons, had decided to impose a blanket ban on vaping inside all of their venues. The reasons given were that it could be difficult for staff to distinguish vapour from tobacco smoke, and that the sight of vapour might cause some customers to feel uneasy, but really those are just excuses. With a bit of thought, it shouldn't be difficult to manage it, and why couldn’t pubs have distinct vaping and non-vaping zones? Now, where have I heard of that kind of idea before?

In the light of these research findings, isn’t it time these pub companies reviewed their stance to started to take a more accommodating line. As it stands, by forcing vapers out into the cold with the smokers, they could be seen as standing in the way of improving public health. And they might even find that their business benefited too.

Let us hope it also means that the Welsh Assembly Government’s draconian plans for indoor vaping bans, including all food-serving pubs, which were recently narrowly defeated, are now dead in the water. In any case, after next week’s elections, the Welsh Assembly may have a rather different political complexion and include more supporters of individual choice.

(For the avoidance of doubt, I haven’t smoked tobacco this century, and have never vaped, although I know a lager drinker who has)

Friday, 29 April 2016

Dog eat dog

For several years, many people have been pointing out that the ever-growing number of breweries in Britain seems to be on a collision course with the ever-diminishing number of pubs. If trends continued unabated, breweries would outnumber pubs by about 2035. At some point, surely the bubble has to burst.

So far, however, it hasn’t. But there appear to be a growing number of straws in the wind. I‘m hearing reports of brewers trying to undercut others with what appear to be suicidal discounts. Some are even apparently willing to sell “off-invoice” and thus incur no VAT or duty. It’s becoming increasingly clear that some are feeling the pressure.

Another factor is that not all brewers have the same expectation of their business. I was recently taken to task in the comments on another blog for referring to “hobby brewers”, but it’s an entirely legitimate term. Some microbrewers are retired and thus already have a source of income. Others have taken up brewing while continuing to do a “day job”, although they might hope to turn full-time eventually. And a few give the impression of doing it with daddy’s money.

This does not mean in any sense that they take their beer less seriously, and indeed in some cases it may give them the opportunity to brew more interesting beers with unusual and expensive ingredients. But it does mean that they’re not necessarily driven by the need to make a living out of their business, and at times can afford to undercut their competitors. This competition may be understandably galling for brewers who are looking to make a living out of it.

Eventually the bubble will burst, as there’s only so long anyone can put up with brewing being an unremunerative labour of love. The fallout may be messy, but at least it will give the serious brewers a better chance of long-term viability. And the objective of any brewer must be to get their beers into pubs and bars as a regular fixture, rather than depending on fickle trade from guest spots and beer festivals.

Likewise, buying lower-quality beer just because it’s cheap is not a good business strategy for pubs. Drinkers don’t want to be ripped off, but neither are they willing to sacrifice quality for price. People aren’t going to continue drinking indifferent beer solely because it’s cheap. Small-scale brewing will always be highly competitive, but there’s no reason why it can’t provide good brewers who also have a knack for business with a reasonable living.

Possibly, of course, this tendency is also a consequence of many independently-run pubs finding life a struggle and thus doing everything they can to reduce their costs.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Drinking by county

The two scans below are of an article entitled 31 Beers, 31 Days, 31 Counties by Peter Maskell, which appears in the annual magazine of the Association of British Counties. This is a very worthwhile organisation that campaigns for greater recognition of Britain’s traditional counties as an important part of our national heritage and identity. I’ve blogged about it in the past here.

Obviously it’s not written from a beer enthusiast point of view, but it still makes interesting reading and the list of beers certainly contains plenty of good stuff. Given the growth of microbreweries in recent years, I doubt whether there’s a single traditional county in England and Wales that lacks at least one, although some of the smaller and more remote Scottish counties may still not have any. On the other hand, the smallest county of all – Clackmannanshire – is home to both Harviestoun and Williams Brothers.

(Click to enlarge)

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Licking our wounds?

CAMRA’s current Revitalisation Project makes a lot of sense, but unfortunately much of the publicity surrounding it has given a completely misleading impression. The idea put across is that CAMRA has been forced to review its purpose because “real ale” has been knocked into a cocked hat by “craft beer”. One of the worst examples is the recent article in the Guardian entitled Craft beer: is it closing time for the Campaign for Real Ale?

The subtitle reads “The craft beer revolution has delivered quality ales to the masses, and created a crisis for Camra and its supporters”, which is about as far from the truth as it is possible to imagine. The juxtaposition of “craft beer” and “the masses” in the same sentence is particularly absurd.

Of course in the past fifteen or so years there has been a dramatic rise in beer enthusiasm outside the auspices of CAMRA, which has given many long-standing members cause for thought. “Is this good beer, even if it isn’t real ale?” But the extent of this “craft beer revolution” has been greatly overstated. It’s maybe not surprising coming from journalists who spend most of their time in Inner London, and only visit other parts of the country through excursions by train or plane to other big city centres.

Even within the North, I’ve written before of people “wending their merry way from the Port Street Beer House via the Grove to North Bar without apparently caring that the main A62 road linking those three points is lined with closed and boarded pubs.” It’s still the case that the reach of that revolution is very limited. Get out of the city centres and go into normal community locals and family dining pubs in suburbs, medium-sized and small towns, villages and the countryside, and you will see little or no sign of it.

Some cask beers can be regarded as “craft”, but “craft keg” is the epitomy of the movement on draught. And how many pubs offer anything on keg that isn’t either lager or nitro ale or stout? Even Spoons only have Devil’s Backbone and Shipyard Pale Ale, both brewed under licence by those notorious check-shirted upstarts Marston’s. I’d bet that “craft keg”, as defined above, accounts for well under 1% of the total draught beer market.

The same is true in the field of packaged beer. Yes, go in your average supermarket and you’ll probably see a shelf or two of Brewdog bottles and garishly coloured cans. But the volume they’re shifting is trivial compared with all the mass-market lagers and premium bottled ales. And punters may after a while get tired of paying more for less. Again I’d go for a market share of less than 1%.

Craft in the UK may have made a lot of noise, but it hasn’t remotely revolutionised the beer market in the way that its champions claim. Much of this comes from an inappropriate read-across from the US market to the UK. In the mid-70s, the US had effectively lost all its independent brewers, and the territory occupied by the current American craft brewers is very similar to that held by the UK’s regional, family and established new breweries.

CAMRA hasn’t lost any kind of battle against craft beer, and indeed in recent years cask has been about the only section of the on-trade beer market bucking the general trend of decline. It makes sense to take stock and review the organisation’s values and aims, but it’s certainly not being done from a position of defeat.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Fear of the dark

A recent beer list at the
Magnet freehouse, Stockport


In recent years I’ve heard a few reports of people going into pubs, scanning the row of pumps on the bar, and then asking “have you got anything that isn’t pale’n’hoppy?” I recently found myself on the point of asking that at the local CAMRA branch meeting in the Magnet in Stockport. I’m not for a minute knocking the pub – it’s a beer-focused pub that does extremely well by giving its customers what they want. And that is, overwhelmingly, new and unfamiliar beers at the pale and hoppy end of the spectrum.

So I’m confronted with a long list of cask beers, most of which are marked as “pale”, and virtually none of which I’ve drunk before. So I have a Fernandes Session IPA, which I suppose does what it says on the pumpclip, but turns out to be so enamel-strippingly bitter that it’s hard work to finish. Someone recommends another beer which turns out to be more mellow but not at all memorable.

Then I look again at the beer list and choose about the only beer shown as “medium” – Kennet and Avon Dundas – which turns out to be a pleasant enough traditional best bitter, although not that different from many others. And I’m left wondering why an evening out in the pub has to be a game of Russian roulette, why there are so many beers but so little stylistic choice, and why there’s nothing available that I’ve ever had before.

The picture of the beer list, taken I think a few days later illustrates the point – of 13 cask beers, 11 come into the “pale” category. As I said, this is absolutely not a criticism of the pub – it’s a very well-run, successful establishment that offers a wide range of well-kept beers at reasonable prices, with plenty under £3 a pint. It’s more a lament for the state of our beer culture. Actually, from that particular beer list, I’d probably have settled for the Bradfield Farmers Blonde, and the Welbeck Abbey 100% British Bitter certainly sounds worth trying too.

I’m certainly not averse to pale and hoppy beers as such, and a Marble Manchester Bitter or Kelham Island Pale Rider would have leapt off the bar in my direction. And I’m quite happy to try new beers in moderation. But I might have felt happier if I’d also encountered a Caledonian Edinburgh Castle, Hop Back Summer Lightning or Brains SA. So I ended up with a pint of Paulaner Hefeweizen and a very nice half of some craft keg that I don’t remember the name of (although John Clarke might remind me). It may have been the Thornbridge Halcyon with Belgian yeast shown on the board.

“Why didn’t you ask for a taster?” someone will inevitably ask. Well, as a rule I’m happy to take pot luck. If I don’t like it, I’ve lost nothing more than the price of a pint. And anyone asking for tasters when they’re three deep at the bar is, to be honest, a bit of a knob.

So, from a personal point of view, it would be nice to be offered a wider choice of beer styles by beer-focused pubs, and also sometimes to see beers that I’m actually likely to have drunk before. If I have to choose from unfamiliar beers, then an indication of colour is always helpful, and rather than being a 3-point scale it should be a five-point one of Straw – Gold – Copper – Chestnut – Ebony. It would also be useful to provide a similar bitter-sweet scale.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Quality must always trump choice

I’ve written before about how a simple statistical analysis demonstrates that pubs really aren’t turning over their cask beers quickly enough, with the inevitable impact on quality.

This view has now been backed up by an in-depth survey carried out by Vianet and Cask Marque which has revealed that:

  • 87% of handpumps dispense fewer than 144 pints per week

  • 30% of handpumps dispense fewer than 20 pints per week

  • 80% of keg taps dispense fewer than 144 pints per week

  • The majority of beer in most pubs is sold through 20% of the pumps/taps

  • The average pub cellar is too warm on 4 days in each month
I shudder to think what the cask beer is like dispensed from the handpumps doing less than 20 pints per week!*

The report concludes that most pubs have far too many draught pumps and taps, and that, to ensure better and more consistent beer quality, the number should be reduced, on average, to eleven.

I suspect most regular pubgoers know this in their hearts anyway, but it’s all too easy to be seduced by the lure of more choice. However, as Tandleman has said in the past, both choice and quality are desirable, but quality must always trump choice.

This applies to keg beers just as much as to cask. Keg isn’t a fit-and-forget option, and quality will suffer if it doesn’t turn over quickly enough. The failure of BrewDog’s This.Is.Lager in Wetherspoon’s was a prime example of this and, over the years, I’ve certainly had a few pints of keg lager and Guinness that tasted distinctly stale.

The biggest problem is not in the dedicated multi-beer alehouses, which tend to attract a mainly beer-drinking clientele who ensure that all the pumps do reasonable business, but in more mainstream pubs that put on five or six beers to provide an impression of choice, but really can’t sell enough to justify more than a couple.

It should also be remembered that a large majority of beer drinkers tend to stick to one favoured beer in the pub. Remind me of the last time you saw a lager drinker “go along the pumps”.

* For grammar pedants, I reckon this is an instance where less, rather than fewer, is appropriate. A pub might offer fewer than ten different beers, but sell less than 10 pints a day

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Keys to the kegdom

These are the results of my poll on CAMRA and keg beers. As you can see, the voting is far from conclusive, with a pretty much even split between those supporting and opposing some kind of embrace of keg. I’ve already extensively discussed this issue here, but feel free to comment further...

It’s been claimed in some quarters that CAMRA has now officially accepted keg-conditioned beers as “real ale”, but I don’t see that things have gone anywhere near that far. What has been done is to give CAMRA-run beer festivals sanction to serve keg-conditioned keykeg beers if they so choose. I think the Technical Committee has still to make a definitive pronouncement.

And to fully accept it as real ale would need quite a few more steps to be taken, such as (in no particular order):

  • Allow the inclusion of keg-conditioned beers (KCBs, maybe?) in pub listings in the Good Beer Guide and on What Pub?

  • List permanent KCBs in the brewery section of the Good Beer Guide

  • Allow pubs serving only KCBs and no cask to be included in the Good Beer Guide

  • Provide a distinctive dispense symbol for KCBs – K, maybe?

  • Agree with the industry a clear method of indicating at the point of sale that a keg beer is a KCB

  • Encourage the industry to develop a unique form of bar mounting to identify KCBs
All of that would need an AGM motion, possibly several. Which I imagine would only be passed over a sea of dead bodies.

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Bushwhacked

The Holly Bush in Bollington is (or was) a modest 1930s Brewer’s Tudor pub with a wonderful, unspoilt interior including small separate rooms, extensive wood panelling, and a distinctive bar with glass shutters. It rightly featured on CAMRA’s National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors.

However, in a small town/large village with plenty of pubs and little passing trade, it struggled, and ended up being closed for a couple of years. To their credit, the owners, Robinson’s Brewery, rather than just selling it off, decided to spend a lot of money refurbishing it, and it opened again for business on Friday 1 April.

The problem is that, in doing so, they’ve greatly eroded its previous unspoilt character. The key change is that the original bar – surely the core feature of the pub – has been replaced by a modern, curved effort, and it has been opened up in to the front left tap room. Apart from this, the tap room and the “smoke room” opposite the bar are largely untouched. Yes, I would prefer velour seating and carpet to leatherette and parquet, but that doesn’t affect its historic character, and nor do the inevitable scatter cushions.

The small snug on the right of the front door apparently never had fixed seating, so it’s not a case of having removed it. The interior has been extended at the rear to create two new drinking spaces, but that doesn’t on its own detract from the original parts.

This is the previous bar, as shown on the National Inventory website:

And this is its replacement, creating a very different and much more open-plan feel:

If you came upon the Holly Bush out of the blue, you would probably still think it was a pleasant, cosy pub with a number of original features. But it’s now basically an open-plan pub with separate areas, not a multi-roomed pub. And it must be said that Robinsons are being rather cheeky in their press release in referring to its National Inventory status, which will almost certainly be lost as a result of their changes. The question has to be asked whether there is a straightforward trade-off between heritage and viability, and if the same improvements could have been achieved while showing more respect for the original layout and fittings.

When I called there were five cask beers available – Unicorn, Dizzy Blonde and Trooper, plus the seasonals Jester and Beerdo. There’s also an extensive and fairly reasonably-priced food menu. I’m not sure whether it served food in the past, but it certainly didn’t in its last few years.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Open for you?

This poll on what times people go to the pub was inspired by various comments in the blogosphere about pubs adopting ever more limited opening hours and failing to advertise them, specifically this post by Simon Everitt.

The results don’t really tell us much we didn’t know already. It might have been more meaningful to break down “weekdays” to individual days, or maybe Mon-Wed and Thu-Fri, but that would have made it too long-winded.

Two possibly significant indications are that people seem much keener on pubgoing at weekday lunchtimes than many pubs seem to imagine, and Sunday seems to be the slackest pubgoing day of the week. A good turnout of respondents, though.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Live and Let Live

A few years ago, a guy who was a long-standing inactive member of CAMRA decided to put his toe in the water and come along on one of our regular monthly Staggers. We called in a couple of pubs where he happily drank the real ale. But then we went in a Robinson’s pub, where he ordered a half of Guinness. “Why are you drinking that? It’s keg!” came the inevitable chorus. “But I don’t like Robinson’s beer,” he replied. I think he stuck it until the end of the pub-crawl, but we haven’t seen him much since.

And I think this illustrates CAMRA’s biggest problem, namely “cask exceptionalism”. Founder member Michael Hardman has said “I must point out that we’re not fighting against anything, we’re fighting for something.”, and the national AGM has passed a motion against “anti-campaigns”, but this kind of thing still happens at ground level.

Those who are sceptical about CAMRA widening its remit are sometimes portrayed as blinkered, out-of-touch dinosaurs, but in reality I personally have always recognised merit in many non-real beers and taken the view that CAMRA was being too dogmatic in dividing the beer world into black and white. Much the same applies to Phil of Oh Good Ale and, as Tandleman says in this excellent blogpost:

Crikey, even I drink lager and craft beer from time to time and apart from a small minority, I reckon most CAMRA members do. It can't really be a hatred of keg then surely? Or non real ale - I repeat our members by and large drink it.
I don’t see any fundamental inconsistency in campaigning to support and preserve a unique and distinctive British beer tradition, and the pub culture that surrounds it, while at the same time being happy to recognise merit in other types of beer. There is still the view that CAMRA cannot be seen to refer positively to any non-real beers in national and local publications, for fear that it might undermine real ale. But surely it can afford to be much more relaxed about this, and that could reap benefits in terms of a more positive public imagine which could reinforce the position of real ale. For example, as someone who enjoys the odd drop of good lager, I would really like to see a feature on British craft lagers in BEER magazine.

I’ve also often argued that it is wrong to treat bottle-conditioned beer as the direct bottled equivalent of cask. This attitude is historically ignorant, as bottle-conditioning had largely died out decades before cask became endangered, and was never such a core part of our brewing tradition. Nowadays it only serves to hinder the development of a thriving and innovative bottled beer market. In my cupboard I currently have next to each other bottles of White Shield and Thornbridge Jaipur. Both great beers, but CAMRA approves of one but not the other, which is simply daft.

So the conclusion is clear – campaign for real ale (and maybe just cask beer), but be happy to enjoy and accept other quality beers that don’t qualify. And nobody should be criticised for coming along to a CAMRA social event and having a half of Guinness.

It’s also interesting to see that I was making much the same argument five years ago.

(The pub sign in the photo is from the Live and Let Live at Bringsty Common in Herefordshire. I just happened to come across it when Googling for a suitable image, but obviously it’s right up my street. I’ve never visited the pub personally, but apparently it was an unspoilt, basic gem that was saved from closure, but only by going rather “gastro”)

Thursday, 7 April 2016

Anything goes

The announcement of CAMRA’s Revitalisation Project resulted in all kinds of misleading newspaper headlines, of which this was one of the worst: Thanks to the hipsters, has the Campaign for Real Ale pulled its last pint? Err, no. CAMRA has not been defeated by hipsters, and it is not going to wind itself up.

There seems to be an expectation in some quarters that this will result in a dramatic upheaval of CAMRA’s priorities, and a sudden embrace of all kinds of beers, whether real or not. One of the worst examples is this response by Chorlton Brewing Co. to the CAMRA consultation. So CAMRA is hurting your business by its championing of real ale? What is it in the name that you didn’t understand? It’s on a par with moaning that the Kennel Club woudn’t allow you to enter your cat in a dog show. And there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of opportunities to sell craft keg beer at the moment anyway.

The wider view is expressed by the Campaign for Really Good Beer. Their argument is that CAMRA should drop its rigid insistence on cask- or bottle-conditioning and judge every beer on its own merits.

We should be allowing our brewers to make the beer that they want to make in the manner that they think best suits their product, and that we should be judging them solely on whether the beer that they make tastes good. If a brewer uses finings and you don’t like that method then stop using that brewer. If that brewer pasteurises their beer but it still tastes good to drink, then keep drinking it. It’s not for a small group of people to lay down laws.
But the problem is that, once you abandon an objective standard, even if an imperfect one, then what are you left with apart from “beers I happen to like”? G. K. Chesterton once said “When a man stops believing in God, he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything,” and that is something that can easily be paraphrased to refer to beer.

I asked the question of Des de Moor on Twitter and he started going on about “brewing process, character, complexity, length of finish” etc, which are all very well, but largely subjective, and even if they can be defined by quasi-objective standards, are obscure criteria that aren’t remotely obvious to the general drinking public.

If you are going to draw a line at all, you have to define it. If you don’t, then you’re implying that CAMRA should support Carling. There’s nothing wrong with Carling, but I don’t think that’s what anyone is advocating. And if, for whatever reason, you end up excluding some of the more popular cask beers like, say, Doom Bar, then it starts to come across simply as an exercise in beer snobbery. Some real ale may be a bit dull, but at least it’s drunk by ordinary people in ordinary pubs.

I’m still mulling all this over and haven’t arrived at any firm conclusions, but I have a lot of sympathy for the view expressed by Phil of Oh Good Ale that CAMRA should concentrate on being a Campaign for Real Ale (and even maybe just a campaign for cask beer) rather than a campaign for everything. At the same time, though, it needs to accept that real ale is not inherently superior to all other forms of beer, and be prepared to recognise other styles and methods as worthy of praise, although ancillary to its core purpose.

I was also much struck by this comment by Ian H on Boak & Bailey’s blog.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, CAMRA is a people-powered cultural heritage organisation in all but name. Traditional drinking culture is what links real ale, real cider/perry, historic pub interiors and community pubs. Embrace it! By all means show craft more respect (the same respect shown to Belgian beers and quality German and Czech lagers, for instance), but don’t water down the central purpose of CAMRA.
I really like the idea of CAMRA as a “people-powered cultural heritage organisation.” For me, its core character has always been primarily that of a preservationist body. Far from leading to a Clause Four moment and a bold march onwards to the sunlit uplands, I can see the outcome of this review being deeply divisive. I honestly can’t see CAMRA reinventing itself as a generalised campaign for all good beer, because that’s never what it was meant to be in the first place.

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

That’ll show ’em!

Tucked away at the end of the order paper at last weekend’s CAMRA AGM in Liverpool was a motion calling for CAMRA not to “promote, advertise or accept sponsorship from supermarkets”. This ended up being passed, although by that stage in the proceedings I suspect the key priority for many delegates was getting out of the hall for a pint. No doubt some of the activists felt a warm sense of achievement having struck a blow against The Man, but in reality it is just the kind of futile, anti-business, student gesture politics that causes many not to take the organisation seriously. I can’t imagine that the directors of Tesco and ASDA will be exactly quaking in their boots.

Supermarkets are often viewed as the enemies of pubs in terms of closing them down and turning them into convenience stores, and selling beer at rock-bottom prices. However, this is a simplistic and misleading analysis. What has really happened is more that various social and legislative changes have cut the demand for pubgoing, and to a large extent supermarkets have stepped into the breach. And selling stuff that people want to buy at keen prices – how appalling!

I’d guess that the vast majority of blog readers who do buy beer for consumption at home at least occasionally buy some from a supermarket. It’s also probably the case that each of the Big Four alone sells more beer brewed by British independent breweries than the whole of the independent off-licence sector combined. So it’s little more than an exercise in cutting off your nose to spite your face. Might it not make more sense to work with supermarkets to encourage them to stock a wider and better beer range rather than just hoping they’ll go away?

It also raises the question of how you define a supermarket. Would it cover Booths, who have a mere 28 stores in and around the North-West, and have a very impressive beer range with particular emphasis on smaller local breweries? Or indeed individual franchisees of umbrella brands such as Nisa and Spar?

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Rediscovering the spark

Last week, CAMRA formally launched its Revitalisation Project. The consultation document that is being sent out to all members can be downloaded here, and there’s also a short online survey that both members and non-members can complete.

This project has been sometimes viewed as a response to the rise of “craft keg”, but in reality it goes much wider than this. While CAMRA has a record number of members, it can be argued that its original objective of saving cask beer has largely been achieved. Probably a higher proportion of pubs now stock it than at any time during CAMRA’s existence. But the brewing industry and pub trade are faced with many other threats, such as high duty levels, the overall decline in pubgoing, the rise of the anti-drink lobby and the asset-stripping approach of the pubcos. Given this, it makes sense for CAMRA to do some soul-searching and seek to redefine what it is actually FOR.

So I created a poll on what CAMRA’s main priority should be. I deliberately chose to make this “one option only” to force people to say what was most important to them. The results are pretty clear-cut, with “Do more to protect pubs” in the lead, “Oppose the anti-drink lobby” a strong second. “Stick to core principles” a good third, and “Promote quality keg beers” lagging in fourth. The original poll and the comments can be seen here. It’s important to remember, though, that doing more to protect pubs will be pissing in the wind unless enough people can be encouraged to use them to keep them viable.

I’ve given my own views on how CAMRA should reposition itself here, a post that has gained a lot of agreement. To sum up, although it doesn’t trip off the tongue, “An organisation that campaigns for quality beer, consumer rights, pubgoing and the preservation of our pub heritage, with particular reference to the unique British tradition of cask-conditioning.”

I think it would be unrealistic to expect any kind of major shift in direction from this exercise, and some people are inevitably going to be disappointed. However, maybe a change in emphasis and a greater degree of inclusiveness would be desirable.

In my view the single most important thing that CAMRA should do is to drop its dogmatic refusal to recognise merit in non-real draught and bottled beers. That is absolutely not to say they should be put on the same footing as cask beer, but that it should be accepted that many are excellent products that should not be ignored or disparaged. It’s utterly ridiculous that I should be told, if drinking a bottle of Hawkshead Lakeland Gold, one of my favourite bottled beers, that “it’s a product we don’t support”. But obviously that alone isn’t going to drive many people to man the barricades.

It’s also worth repeating what Boozy Procrastinator said yesterday in this excellent blogpost:

The nature of drinking, in the home or on the town, is changing. People don’t go to the same places and are unlikely to be coaxed back into them. It is all about trend and maybe in that respect CAMRA and pubs should consider themselves to be like heavy metal.

There are off-shoots and little cliques that raise the profile once in a while but once these are spun off there is always a faithful core that remains, always open and welcoming to both the original purpose and future evolution.

It won’t ever go out of fashion because it has never been in fashion.

Friday, 1 April 2016

A place where no-one knows your name

Pubs are typically viewed as places of raucous ribaldry, or at least of cheerful conviviality. However, there is another side to them, as wooden wombs, a third space where people, couples and groups as well as individuals can seek temporary refuge from the stresses of home or work.

A pub is, of course, a “public house”, a hybrid of the two where anyone can walk in off the street and spend some time there provided they put a bit of money across the bar. If you behave yourself, nobody will question your purpose or your right to be there. It’s generally accepted that it’s up to you whether you engage with other customers or not, and the only people who break that principle are those like Archie the pub bore from The Fast Show with his catchphrase “Hardest game in the world”. This applies even in pretty small and cosy pubs.

However, that kind of privacy is difficult to achieve in the new generation of micropubs, where everyone is put together into a small common space and intimacy is hard to avoid. Many customers will welcome that atmosphere of companionship, but others may feel it’s something they prefer to avoid. And there’s sometimes the feeling of intruding into a private clique.

Matthew Lawrenson of Seeing the Lizards is, by his own admission, not the most gregarious person in the world, and he feels uncomfortable in micropubs for this very reason:

Personally, micropubs do little for me. I find them like drinking in a Panopticon. Everyone can see and hear everything you do. They don't provide even the modicum of privacy that a regular pub or even a Wetherspoons can give you.
Obviously strangers do talk to each other in pubs, and often it’s something you welcome. However, it’s usually recognised that if customers don’t want to engage, you leave them alone. There’s also an art to making conversation without appearing unduly inquisitive or prying. “What are you doing here?” or “Where have you come from?” are questions that I see as my own business unless I choose to open up about them.

And, of course Wetherspoons are amongst the best places for maintaining your anonymity, something that has been observed before, although not as a positive feature.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Cash is still king

The death of cash has often been foretold, but it still seems a very long way off happening. Much the same is true of print publications. The digital age may encroach on the territory of its analogue predecessors, but in many spheres it seems incapable of dealing the final blow.

Mark Wadsworth recently created a poll on people’s use of cash, which I was happy to share as it is a subject relevant to readers of this blog. This helps to explain the large number of respondents. I’ve shared a few other polls with Mark in the past. The results are pretty conclusive – that 96% of respondents use cash at least once a week, and 44% every day. I answered “most days” simply because I don’t necessarily spend any money every single day. The original poll and comments can be seen here.

We are constantly being urged to use credit and debit cards, especially since the introduction of contactless cards, but it seems that cash is proving very resilient. And one of its prime strongholds remains the pub trade. The kind of people who are happy to flash a card in the pub are generally those who don’t really buy many individual drinks.

Personally, I tend to use cash for all routine regular transactions, as it makes it far easier to budget and control my expenditure. I use cards for buying petrol, typically two or three times a month, internet purchases and big-ticket items such as clothes and electronics.

It’s been widely pointed out that using a contactless card rather than cash exposes you to the risk of unwise spending on a night out where your judgment might be impaired by a pint or two.

If you depend entirely on cards, you’re left at the mercy of bank computers, which recent events have shown can all too easily fail. Most of the extensive grey and black economy runs on cash, which isn’t going to disappear overnight. The same is true of most ordinary local pubs, and CAMRA beer festivals. Cash isn’t going anywhere any day soon.

There is also the point that surrendering all control of your cash to banks gives the government the opportunity to control it and, in extremis, confiscate some of it. Keeping some of your money in cash is a good way of safeguarding it.