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.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

At the sign of the Good Companions

I’ve discussed in the past the key role pubs can play in alleviating loneliness and social isolation, especially amongst older men. This is a theme that has now been taken by a research project carried out by Bristol University, which reinforces what I have said:
A key finding was men's reasons for going to the pub were much broader than just drinking alcohol.

It found they wanted to interact with other people, get out of the house and break their daily routine (for those living on their own), to enjoy live music with others, and as a reward in the working week.

The changing nature of pubs was also outlined, with higher prices, fewer social activities and louder music making it harder for older men to access pubs. Men felt it was no longer acceptable to 'nurse a pint' if you were unable to afford multiple drinks.

Landlords and pub owners were identified as having an important role to play in creating a social space where people felt welcome. The men's group felt that it was the role of the landlord to get to know their frequent customers and provide a point of regular social interaction, particularly for pub-goers who may be experiencing loneliness.

It also highlighted how large pubcos can be damaging, as they can result in "frequent changes of staff who do not know their clientele on first name basis".

The changing nature of pubs is an important factor that erodes the way they can fulfil this function. To the aspects listed I would add the smoking ban, uncomfortable seating, dim lighting, abandonment of lunchtime opening and the feeling in many food-oriented pubs that customers who just want a drink and a chat aren’t really welcome.

As the report recognises, very often social interaction takes a very inconsequential form. For many people, it is the simple act of getting out of the house, going into a different environment and saying hello to another human being that makes all the difference. It certainly doesn’t require any kind of organised activities, which indeed in themselves can be offputting to many people. This kind of thing is brilliantly summed up in this vignette from “Stanley Blenkinsop” in the comments on my blog:

My moments of peak frisson usually occur when I walk into rather plain pubs, often in market towns that are a little rough at the edges and find myself in a proper no-nonsense boozer. Just after midday is a favourite time. If Radio 2 is on the wireless I know I've hit the motherlode. The landlord is often overweight and a bit pasty, wheezing from the half packet of John Player Blue that has got him through a late breakfast after last night's heavy session, shifting some barrels in the cellar and sending the missus off to the cash and carry for the nuts and crisps.

His hand is a little unsteady holding the glass underneath the local best bitter tap as my pint goes in but I cut him some slack as I reach for the unread newspaper on the bar. It's always the Daily Mail. He and I care little for conversation but that's fine by me. If I want a chat about inconsequential bollocks I'll start on the second person coming into the bar. He's always an old feller with a scraggy dog. He always smokes roll-ups.

I can while away a couple of hours watching this theatre of mediocre normality. The players arrive at their usual times and go through their usual performance - joshing the landlord, complaining of their aches and pains or some slight from a neighbour. Anything that justifies them getting out of the house and socialising with fellow humans. I know the same thing is happening in pubs up and down the land at that time. It makes me feel comfortable. And I really don't want much more than that at my stage of life.

The photo above shows a group of codgers enjoying a pint in the Old Blue Bell in Hull. I’d bet most of them probably don’t have any contact with each other beyond their regular meet-ups in the pub to share a bit of banter. One of them cheerfully said to his companions “If it wasn’t for all these medical treatments they have today, we’d all be dead!”

Some people have responded to this by saying “Well, it’s not just older men, is it? Loneliness can affect everyone. What about women? What about younger folks?” And that’s certainly true. But it doesn’t affect every category of society in the same way, and it’s important to recognise that different groups have varying experiences. Pubs have a particular relevance for older men as they are often the first place they look to for companionship.

People often speak of pubs in misty-eyed terms as hubs of the community and centres of warmth and sociability. At their best, this is still true. But there are fewer and fewer of them around where you can just walk in, order a pint, sit yourself down on a bench or a bar stool, and exchange a few words about the weather with a total stranger. The reality is often very different from the rose-tinted idyll.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Lost local

I have a local pub, and indeed an architecturally distinguished one. Five years ago, I wrote about how the Sunday lunchtime drinking experience had been affected by the tides of change through the years. I used to go in there most weeks, at least once, sometimes more. Yet now I hardly ever visit it apart from delivering the local CAMRA magazine. I can’t really call it my “local” in any meaningful sense.

So what has gone wrong? It’s really a steady accretion of different changes, maybe small in themselves, although one or two stand out, that over a period of time have made a very substantial difference to the customer experience. I’m not going to name it, but those who know me will know which pub I’m talking about.

  • The main lounge was converted to a designated dining room, with place settings on every table and drinkers relegated to the rear smoke room. When football is being shown, there is literally nowhere to go for a quiet drink.

  • TV football was extended from the vault into the “best” side of the pub. At first this was only a big pull-down screen for United and City matches, but now there are two massive permanent screens on either side of the smoke room, which is totally out of keeping with the historic interior.

  • After many years as a quiet pub, piped music was introduced, all too often in the form of 21st century R&B which can’t remotely be to the tastes of the typical clientele.

  • It was sensitively refurbished in a way that respected the original fabric, but unfortunately this was accompanied by installing extremely dim lighting, so at night you’re sitting in Stygian gloom.

  • Over the past five years there has been a revolving door of licensees, only one of whom really seems to have got a grip on the pub and imposed their stamp on it. The exception was an experienced management couple who came in immediately after the refurbishment, but then left suddenly within nine months, possibly because they didn’t see eye-to-eye with the brewery.

  • Guest beers from other breweries have been dropped, so the beer range is limited to the products of the owning brewery. This isn’t in itself a bad thing, but it reflects something of a drawing in of horns. And, perhaps due to falling trade, the quality of those is often very variable.
None of these are in themselves showstoppers, except when United or City are on the telly, but added together they make it a pub that I find much less congenial than it once was. If I was showing someone around the area, I’d take them in there for a pint, not least to show them the largely unspoilt interior, but I don’t personally care to drink in there. And it’s not as though it’s busy accommodating a clientele who want different things from me – indeed often it’s embarrassingly quiet. I know pubs in general have suffered, especially ones in residential areas that aren’t part of nightlife hubs, but the owning brewery seem to have little clue how to make it work and have alienated several different categories of customers. Given that the only other pub within reasonable walking distance has been turned into a craft/gastro extravaganza, this is something of a limitation on my drinking habits.

This may come across as wanting the world to burn, but from a personal perspective I’d go in there a lot more if it was taken over by Sam Smith’s and the TV football, piped music and place settings were banished to oblivion. Even if it didn’t serve cask beer. It doesn’t fit the Wetherspoon’s business model in terms of needing a lot of casual footfall past the door, so that just isn’t going to happen.

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Something’s got to give

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about declining cask beer sales, and the vicious circle of falling turnover and lower quality across the bar that it can so easily lead to. Inevitably, if volumes continue to drop, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of the total on-trade beer market, there will be repercussions in terms of range and availability. But exactly what those will be is hard to say. I should stress that what follows is merely some musings on the subject, and is not intended as either a prediction or a statement of what I would personally like to see.

One outcome that is often suggested is that sales will increasingly be confined to pubs specialising in cask beer, as seen in this tweet from Gary Gillman.

However, the market doesn’t quite work like that. If cask beer sales fell evenly across the board, it would obviously be those with a higher proportion of cask in their mix that would continue to sell it. But there are plenty of generalist pubs that continue to sell a lot of cask and where it is in no sense under threat. Often it is these pubs that consistently provide the best beer quality. But their customers value them for other aspects too, and wouldn’t necessarily desert them for an alternative if cask ceased to be available. It must be remembered that pubs depend for their trade on a very specific combination of time and place. People tend to drink in mixed groups and don’t choose pubs on one single factor.

Such a move would reduce the overall visibility of cask in the marketplace and thus possibly intensify the vicious circle. And the archetypal specialist cask pubs are by no means blameless on the quality front. For example, I’ve been in one perennial GBG favourite where three beers sampled on a Tuesday lunchtime, that may have been fine the previous Saturday night, were all distinctly iffy. Indeed, those pubs that imagine they have to put on a wide cask range to compete, but don’t have the turnover to sustain it, often produce the worst beer of all.

There is another kind of specialist pub that might stand a better chance of solving the turnover problem – those that effectively specialise in one beer. In the old days, this was the case with the legendary Athletic Arms or “Diggers” in Edinburgh, which sold prodigious quantities of McEwan’s 80/-, and very little else, and managed to coax something special out of it that few other pubs could achieve. There used to be some pubs serving Draught Bass that were much like this. Even today, I’d bet that in some Batham’s pubs, at least three-quarters of all draught sales are their peerless Best Bitter. It’s the model followed by the famous Zum Uerige in Dusseldorf, where the main attraction is their own highly-esteemed Altbier.

But this again represents cask drawing in its horns and limiting itself to a specialist appeal. Such establishments, by definition, are only going to thrive in larger urban areas where there is a critical mass of customers interested in that particular experience. For many, it might be a once-a-month treat rather than something used several times a week. While people who didn’t drink that particular beer, or indeed beer at all, would still be catered for, they would feel like second-class citizens, like non-gamblers at a racecourse. And it goes against the established British tradition of pubs providing something for all-comers.

A different kind of consequence could be a growing realisation that, if people want a wider range, it needs to be offered on keg, not cask. In its early days, CAMRA was driven by two different motivations – championing real ale in preference to keg or pressurised dispense, and fighting the erosion of choice and distinctive local beers. At the time, overall beer sales in pubs were growing, and the market share of lager was still relatively insignificant, so the two weren’t in conflict. It was so much better just to offer the same beer range in cask form, and you could be pretty confident you’d shift it. It must be remembered that, although it is sometimes described as such, “cask” is not a style of beer, it is a system of conditioning, storage and dispense. Bitter is a style, cask isn’t, and can encompass a wide variety of different styles.

However, nowadays, with declining volumes, there’s a growing conflict between range and quality. But the remaining pub-owning breweries don’t seem to have responded to that by switching slower-selling lines from cask to keg. At one time, it was common to go in pubs owned by the same brewer and find some selling their beers on keg or top pressure, and others having the same beers on cask. Today, you only really find that kind of wide range of mainstream keg ales in Sam Smith’s pubs, which can theoretically offer up to two milds, three bitters, an IPA and a stout. Go in the archetypal “keg boozer” and the bitter will be one or more of John Smith’s, Tetley’s, Boddington’s and Worthington smooth, there will be no premium bitter and the mild, if there is one, will be some obscure survivor like M&B Mild or John Smith’s Chestnut Mild, brewed who knows where.

But, in an age where keg beer has regained a certain amount of respectability, even with many in CAMRA, might it make sense for established ale brewers, and indeed some of their newer brethren, to offer a wider range of ales in keg form? Surely it would be better for a pub to have a keg mild or strong bitter, than to either have none at all or dispense pints of vinegar. Realistically, how much sales would they lose by this? A few years ago, our local brewer Robinson’s decided to drop their 1892 Mild, once their best seller, entirely on the grounds of declining sales, but might it not have made more sense to keep it on as a keg beer?

Realistically, none of these things is going to happen as I have described. It is more likely that the same kind of gradual erosion of range and quality will continue. But, looking at the overall market, inevitably at one point something’s got to give. And the likelihood is that it will be some kind of “black swan” event that nobody has foreseen. In the early and mid-1990s, a whole swathe of lower-end pubs that had passed from the ownership of the Big Six brewers to pubcos lost their cask beer, because it was no longer seen as something essential either to draw in punters or to maintain the owning company’s reputation. Nobody saw that coming. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that one of the main factors keeping cask relatively buoyant is that the biggest developers of new pubs are Wetherspoon’s, for whom cask is a key aspect of their business proposition, and Greene King and Marston’s, who are our major cask ale brewers. But it need not always be so.

Friday, 19 October 2018

Ale Britannia

Regular readers will be aware that I’ve not always seen eye to eye with beer writer Pete Brown. He can talk a lot of sense when he sticks to the subject, but unfortunately too often he can’t help bringing in his own political agenda. However, he’s recently made an important point in asking why this country has such a downer on its indigenous brewing tradition. The UK, along with Germany, Belgium and the Czech Republic, is one of the world’s four great traditional brewing nations. Our beers have influenced brewers all over the world, and were the inspiration behind the original microbrewery revolution in the USA. And yet, all too often, both in popular culture and amongst beer enthusiasts, we tend to either ignore or disparage them.

It’s very common to see British beer styles dismissed as “boring brown bitters”, “twiggy” or “old man beers”. If pressed, a beer enthusiast will sometimes grudgingly say “Well, there are some really good traditional beers. Harvey’s, example. And Adnams are pretty good.” But the trail goes cold there, and it’s not long before they have returned to gushing over mega-hoppy US-style IPAs and salted caramel stouts. To be honest, it all comes across as a bit “some of my best friends are Jews”. And most of the beers that were championed by the original 1970s real ale movement are now dismissed out of hand and considered to be no longer of much interest.

Pete wonders whether this is part of the general British tendency to downgrade our own achievements. After all, self-effacing understatement is one of our national traits. He writes, slightly uncomfortably:

And I know of no other nation of people who are so quick to agree that their national cuisine is the worst in the world, when it patently isn’t. The problem is, even if we wanted to stand up for our national food and drink, being proud of what we do is undoubtedly one thing that we Brits are genuinely terrible at.

Anyone who dares to say they’re proud to be British, or of British achievements, faces the danger of being lumped in with Nigel Farage. A majority may have voted for Brexit, but even most Leave voters rankle at being compared to red-faced, racist ‘gammons’.

And what drink do you associate with Nigel Farage…?

Exactly.

Is it just another manifestation of the tendency described by George Orwell that “England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality”?

However, I’m not too convinced that the answer really lies within “culture wars”. After all, the archetypal “gammon” sneered at so condescendingly by the Woke drinks lager, not traditional bitter. And the modern beer enthusiasts are keen to embrace every trend emanating from the land of Trump.

Partly it is a result of changes in fashion. The original real ale revival came in the 1970s, when there was a general tendency to embrace the old-fashioned, quirky and traditional as a response to the modernising spirit of the 1960s. The current zeitgeist, which is very much in favour of the new, shiny and innovative, runs right against that, so anything that was around in 1978 is just dull, stodgy and out-of-date.

And much of it stems from the beer world itself. After all, we don’t take the same attitude to many other aspects of our heritage from Scotch malt whisky to Shakespeare and Dickens. Pretty much every major country has adopted pale lager as its dominant beer style. The UK, with its long and honourable tradition of ale brewing, was late to that party, only really arriving at that position in the 1980s. There is still a tendency, even when many who have drunk lager from adolescence have now retired, to see traditional British ales as old-fashioned.

Within the beer community, there is a general desire to seek out the novel and experimental, which goes back to the beer ticking trend of the 1990s and long predates “craft”. Anything that is a permanent fixture on the bar, and has been for years, is just one of the “usual suspects”. And, when the craft beer movement crossed the Atlantic back from the USA in the current century, rather than taking aim at the global brewers, it set itself up in opposition the established real ale culture and the beers associated with it. Punk IPA is not so much the antidote to Carling and Stella as to Pedigree and London Pride.

But beers in traditional British styles, from the huge variety of pale ales and bitters, through milds, stouts and old ales, are one of the great glories of the beer world, and something entirely unique. Whatever your political standpoint, they are well worth celebrating and enjoying in their own right. As Pete concludes,

If we turn away from and deny our own tradition, we turn off a big flow that’s been going into the global creative mash tun. And if that happens, the whole global brewing scene is diminished.
And Marston’s have now removed the St George’s flag from Bombardier pumpclips and bottle labels!

Friday, 12 October 2018

What goes around, comes around

Going back sixty years, most pubs in the UK apart from the very smallest had a compartmentalised interior layout. Typically, they would have the standard demarcation between public bar and “best room” – the term “lounge” was not yet in general use. Some had a three-level division between public, saloon and lounge, with subtle gradations in clientele and ambiance between the three. Plus, as documented in Basil Oliver’s book The Renaissance of the English Public House, there could be a whole variety of other rooms such as news rooms, tea rooms, games rooms and, at the time, ladies’ rooms.

But, in the intervening period, pretty much all this has been swept away by knocking pubs through into a single-bar layout. The only pubs that still have two “sides” are the few survivors from a past era – the last one I know of that was built in that way was Holt’s Sidings in Levenshulme about thirty years ago. The main reason always advanced for this was that it reflected a more democratic and egalitarian society in which the old class divisions no longer applied, and there’s certainly some truth in that. But it also made pubs easier to manage and supervise, and in the 1960s and early 70s there was also the factor that public bar prices were subject to government price control, which could be circumvented by turning the entire pub into a lounge bar.

However, it didn’t always work out quite as intended. In many cases, rather than everyone happily mixing together in the same pub, the class division moved from one between different bars to one between different pubs. The middle classes used one pub, the working classes another. Near me, there’s a location where a modern craft bar faces a big old sports TV and karaoke boozer on the opposite side of a crossroads. I doubt whether the two share many, if any, customers.

But now, as the Morning Advertiser reports, a growing number of pub operators are realising that there is a need to cater for different audiences within a single venue, and are thus returning to the concept of pub “zoning”. It’s all too easy if you’re not careful for one aspect of a pub to take over the whole place and alienate many potential customers. The comment that “our elderly crowd... wouldn't necessarily want to be sat in a café-style place full of kids” particularly resonated with me.

There are two obvious divisions between different customer groups that often rankle in pubs today. One is showing big-screen TV sport, which brings in a specific crowd who may well put a lot of money across the bar, but which deters those who just want a quiet drink. And allowing children, while key to the concept of family dining, is something that that those who prefer an adults-only environment feel uncomfortable with. Plus, of course, in a more tolerant society there would be a strong argument for a division in pubs between smoking and non-smoking areas.

My suggestion that this meant the wheel turning full circle met with much approval on Twitter – so far gaining no less than 61 likes.

It’s a classic example of the principle of Chesterton’s fence – that you should never get rid of anything in the interest of “improvement” without understanding why it had been put there in the first place.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

It doesn’t add up

I’ve done an analysis like this before, but it’s worth repeating in the light of the recent highlighting of the widespread quality issues with cask beer. The latest edition of the Cask Report states than one in seven pints sold in British pubs is now cask. According to the British Beer & Pub Association, total on-trade beer sales in the year to the end of June 2018 were 12.549 million bulk barrels. One-seventh of that is 1.793 million barrels. CAMRA’s WhatPub website states that there are 35,777 pubs in the country serving cask ale.

Even if we ignore sales to clubs and beer festivals, that means that the average pub sells 50 barrels a year, or just under one a week. That’s 276 pints a week, or a mere 40 per day. Assuming that beer is generally sold in 9-gallon firkins, that means the average pub can only have two cask lines if it wants to make sure it empties a cask within three or four days. Yet how many handpumps does the typical cask pub you go in have? Considerably more than two. And we wonder why so much beer ends up in poor condition.

Monday, 8 October 2018

On the sauce in Worcester - Part 2

We pick up the story of our day out in Worcester having just left the Plough, which I wrote about in Part 1. Crossing over the High Street, we reached the Eagle Vaults, a street-corner pub with an impressive tiled facade advertising Mitchells & Butlers’ Gold Medal Ales. It’s one of three pubs on this crawl that appears in the 1978 Good Beer Guide, where it’s described as “A friendly pub with an unspoilt Victorian bar” and sells M&B Brew XI and Mild. It’s now a Banks’s/Marston’s pub, with Banks’s Amber Bitter, Sunbeam, Boondoggle and Eagle IPA. I had a pretty good pint of Amber, although others weren’t so impressed with the Sunbeam.

It still has the impressive, unspoilt bar and, although presumably knocked through a little, still qualifies for a regional entry on CAMRA’s National Inventory. The lounge side had a selection of traditional pub games including quoits and table skittles. We caught up here with the stragglers whose journey from Cambridge had presumably been delayed by being bogged down in the Fens. It was now mid-afternoon, and groups of traditional drinking customers were starting to drift in.

Now came the division in the camp that Martin refers to here. So far we’d successfully been relying on navigation by seat of the pants based on vague memories – “I think it’s somewhere down here.” However, this method now came unstuck. The Eagle Vaults is on Friar Street, a long historic street running parallel to the High Street, which further north morphs into New Street. Consensus was that the next pub, the Cardinal’s Hat, was somewhere to the north on the right. However, after we’d walked for five minutes and reached the next pub after that, it dawned on us that we should have been going the other way. This resulted in a breakaway group muttering “sod that for a game of soldiers” and deciding to decamp to the new craft bar, the Oil Basin Brewhouse, to rejoin us later.

However, a party of committed stalwarts were determined to stick to the script and retraced our steps back past the Eagle Vaults to the Cardinal’s Hat. This has an impressive Tudor timbered facade, with a high-quality 1930s internal refit that qualifies it for a regional entry on the National Inventory. It was once a Davenport’s pub, and featured in the 1978 Good Beer Guide, described tersely as “Timbered pub in a back street”, with Davenports Bitter on the bar. I remember coming in here on a visit in 1992 when they were playing tracks from Jethro Tull’s then-new album “Catfish Rising”.

Spotted on the wall of the gents' in the Cardinal's Hat

However, first impressions were not favourable, as the front bar had incongruously been fitted out with high-level posing tables. We retreated to the more comfortable surroundings of the wood-panelled snug at the rear, but noted that we were the only customers. The beer range was Salopian Lemon Dream, Prescott Hill Climb and Autumn, North Cotswold The Tempest and Purity Mad Goose, none of which struck us as particularly memorable. There were some amusing pictures on the wall of the gents’, but the overall impression was one of unfulfilled potential. It sounded like they had more fun in the Oil Basin.

Heading up New Street for the third time we were eventually able to pay our visit to the King Charles II. Right next door to the Georgian Swan With Two Nicks, this is another ancient half-timbered building that claims the eponymous king escaped from it following the Battle of Worcester in 1651. Internally it has been more opened out than the Cardinal’s Hat, but retains plenty of dark wood and an impressive historic fireplace. There were a reasonable number of customers in, but we were able to find seats at a table by the window, where one of my companions rescued me from a beetle that was advancing menacingly up my shirt front.

It’s leased by Craddocks Brewery and offers a somewhat jawdropping array of their ales on about nine handpumps ranged around the bar. This brought to mind my visit to their other pub, the Talbot in Drotiwich, last year, where I questioned whether they were spreading themselves too thinly. Many of the beers appear to be very similar to others, and did the pub really have the turnover to keep every single one in good condition? We tried three – Saxon Gold, King’s Escape and North Star – none of which were particularly impressive, with the last-mentioned, described as an American IPA, perhaps shading it. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that a bit more focus in the beer range would be desirable.

The splinter group arrived just as we were drinking up, so we followed an initially dubious-looking short cut through ASDA’s car park to reach the Firefly on Lowesmoor. This is a pub housed in an impressive Georgian building that apparently was once the residence of the manager of the adjoining vinegar works. We hoped that wouldn’t be an augury for the quality of the beer. Reached via a short flight of steps, the interior is very much in modern craft bar style and rather belies the external appearance. The handpumps are rather oddly located, well set back from the front of the bar at a lower level, which makes them a little difficult to see. They dispensed the distinctly murky Siren Suspended in Rainbows, Mallinsons Dreaming, New Bristol Pineapple Pale and Enville White. I had at least heard of the Enville White, which was decent enough, but the others very much fell into the category of “OK if you like that sort of thing”. One person ended up with the Pineapple Pale after failing to spot the Enville, possibly because the pumpclips were a bit hard to see.

The Tything is a long Georgian street leading north from Foregate Street station away from the city centre, featuring several pubs. Our initial intention had been to make the final call the Dragon, run by Church End Brewery, but a late change of plan resulted from the Lamb & Flag, a few doors further up, appearing as a new entry in the 2019 Good Beer Guide. This was another entry in the 1978 edition, when it was a Marston’s pub serving Pedigree and Burton Bitter, described as “Lively, friendly city pub.” I vaguely recalled coming here on a train trip from university in the late 1970s.

Now it’s run by Two Crafty Brewers, and offered their American Pale and Golden Beast alongside Wye Valley HPA, which was OK, and Greene King Yardbird – I think there was some kind of partial tie with GK. It’s a long, thin pub running well back from the narrow street frontage, although the interior has been much modernised. We were able to find some seats around a table towards the rear. The soundtrack included “Horse With No Name” by America, which brought back more memories of the 1970s, but to be honest was regarded as a poor Neil Young pastiche even when originally released. From here it was a ten minute walk back to the station for the train home, which turned out to be ten minutes late, so I could have had more time in the pub. Some of those who were staying overnight called in to the Dragon afterwards.

So another highly enjoyable day out, with the quality and variety of the company as always being one of the best aspects. The pub of the day was the Plough, something on which I think all of us who visited it agreed, while the biggest disappointment was the Paul Pry, a lovely pub that let itself down by the poorest beer we had all day. Hopefully those who run it will read this, and the other blogs about it, and take note. This underlines that the Good Beer Guide is by no means infallible in terms of leading you to a consistently good pint, and the fact that it was Wednesday lunchtime and afternoon shouldn’t really be put forward as an excuse. Looking around, there were plenty of other pubs in Worcester that would merit further investigation.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

On the sauce in Worcester – Part 1

Our latest Beer and Pubs Forum Proper Day Out took place in the last week of September with a visit to the cathedral city of Worcester. It’s easily reachable in 2¼ hours on the train from Stockport, changing at Birmingham, and once again I was able to get a good discount on the fare by using the services of trainsplit.com. After several visits I still struggle with the layout of the revamped New Street station, though. I had been to Worcester before, but not for the past twenty years, so much of it would be new to me. One thing I remember from my university days is that it was one of the select band of towns and cities that suffered the very restrictive 2 pm afternoon closing, along with Northampton which we visited earlier in the year. Of course this isn’t a problem now, but a sign of the times was that some of the pubs, even on the fringes of the city centre, didn’t open until 4 pm on weekdays. It was a typical fine early Autumn day that started off rather chilly, but became pleasantly warm once the sun had got to work. Apologies for the hackneyed blog title, by the way, but it does rather write itself.

We met up at Wetherspoon’s Postal Order, which is handily situated just a stone’s throw from Foregate Street station. I had been here before in 1998 – it’s a typical old-school Spoons conversion, surprisngly enough, from a former post office, with plenty of dark wood in the decor and bench seating around the walls of the large single room. It had a fair number of customers at 11.30am, including a guy at the bar on a mobility scooter. There were about ten cask beers on the bar, with the usual mixture of regulars and guests. Amongst the guests were Woods Shropshire Lad, Acorn Old Moor Porter, Hop Farm Frizzle, Man in a Hat American Pale Ale and Boss Brave AIPA. I had the Shropshire Lad, which was pretty good, and all the others were well-received too, with the Frizzle being particularly appreciated. It claims to have one of the largest cask beer sales of any Wetherspoon’s in the West Midlands area, and is definitely in the top of the Spoons drawer.

Counter and bar back in the Paul Pry
A short walk took us to the Paul Pry, a distinctive late Victorian or Edwardian pub in the angle of two streets. After a somewhat chequered history, including a spell as a restaurant, it reopened in 2017 as a free house and in fact is a new entry in the 2019 Good Beer Guide. It features on CAMRA’s National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors, and pride of place goes to the magnificently unspoilt public bar in the apex, with impressive carved wooden counter and mosaic floor. There’s more mosaic and tilework in the central passageway leading to the toilets, and another room on the opposite side of the entrance which retains original wall detailing but has lost its fixed seating.

Pub dog in the Paul Pry
First impressions were good, with a friendly, helpful barman, an endearing pub dog and a number of proper pub customers including a pair of codgers sitting in a corner with pint tankards. However, unfortunately it was let down by the beer. The range was sensibly limited to three – their own Paul Pry ale brewed by Teme Valley, Salopian Picc and Animal London Porter, together with Lily the Pink cider. However, all of them were to a greater or lesser degree a touch tired, flat and tepid, which really isn’t what you expect in a GBG pub. Some of the latecomers who visited the pub in the evening had a similar experience. For me, my beer in the Paul Pry was the least good of the day.

Just around the corner on a main shopping street was the Cricketers, our scheduled lunch stop. This is a regional entry on the National Inventory, and is perhaps a little smaller inside than it looks from the street, with two areas on either side of a curved wooden bar. It was pretty busy, and we had to squeeze on to a corner table and pull a couple of extra chairs up. There was a high quality of banter from some of the other customers. The beer range was more familiar than in the Paul Pry, comprising Doom Bar, Wadworth Horizon, Sadler’s Peaky Blinder and Prescott Hill Climb. I, perhaps foolishly, went for the Doom Bar in the interests of research, which was well enough kept, but still lacking in much distinctive flavour. The other beers were all judged pretty decent. The pub has an extensive menu of good-value food – my £6.25 Ploughman’s couldn’t be faulted at the price, and the £5.95 Faggots, Chips and Peas also went down well. Upstairs, in keeping with the name, is a fascinating little museum of cricket memorabilia, which is well worth a visit.

The Plough - a Sooty charity box is always a good sign in a pub
We now had a longer walk down the busy pedestrianised High Street to reach the Plough on Fish Street near the cathedral. Worcester has a general air of prosperity about it, with very few vacant shop units in the city centre. The Plough is one of two historic pubs on this short street, being almost next door to the Farriers Arms, which also looks very inviting. Entering up a short flight of stairs, you’re immediately confronted by the short bar counter, with cosy rooms on either side with bench seating, together with a surprising suntrap beer garden, although you do find yourself sitting right next to a busy street. Meals are served from Friday to Sunday, but weren’t today. The beer range, concentrating on West Midlands beers, was Ledbury Bitter, Hobson’s Best, Swan Brewery Green Swan Green Hop, Black Pear MHB and Beowulf Finns Hall Porter. All those sampled, including my Hobson’s, were good. In terms of general atmosphere, this was my pub of the day.

...to be continued...

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

All too difficult

Back in August, I attracted a lot of attention for my post on The Cask Crisis, which looked at the reasons behind the decline in cask’s sales and public image, and put forward some suggestions for addressing the issue. Many of the points I made have been amplified in this post by Martyn Cornell on his Zythophile blog, which sets out in brutally honest terms just how much of a problem slow turnover and stale, tired beer has become.

Last week, the latest version of the annual Cask Report was published, which put some flesh on the bones by stating that, in the past five years, cask ale sales have dropped by 20 per cent, while the overall beer market in pubs has fallen by just nine per cent. It makes the usual worthy noises about making sure your beer range is properly matched to your turnover, although if anything it underplays that issue. It also, quite rightly, makes the point that far too much cask beer is dispensed well above the recommended serving temperature. However, to some extent that’s a consequence of lack of throughput, and a cool pint of stale beer is still a pint of stale beer.

It urges pubs to do more to tell cask’s story by providing tasting notes, offering samples, putting jam jars of beer in front of the pumps to show the colour, and training staff so they know something about the beers they’re selling. However, I can’t help thinking that this may be part of the problem rather than a solution. Arguably, it surrounds cask with a layer of mystique and obscurantism, and makes it harder to get to grips with, not easier. Most people go to the pub for a relaxing drink with friends, not for a beer-tasting tutorial.

Over the past few years, cask has declined from one-sixth to one-seventh of the beer sold in pubs. The biggest category, by far, is lager. But did anyone ever go into a pub and ask “what’s that Fosters like, then?” or ask for a sample of Stella? And fast coming up on the rails is “craft keg” (however defined) which apparently now accounts for 6% of the market. By far the biggest chunk of that must be Punk IPA, which is something that now commands instant brand recognition.

Yet go into so many pubs nowadays and you’re confronted with a line of cask beers that the typical drinker has never heard of. It’s all too easy to decide it’s all just too complicated and unpredictable and plump for a John Smith’s or a Peroni instead. The importance to any category of well-known, instantly recognisable brands cannot be overstated, and indeed the Cask Report itself reports that “84% of ale drinkers want to see at least one nationally recognised ale brand on the bar.” They also want guest beers to be on for two weeks (hopefully with multiple casks) so they get the chance to try them more than once. But most of the familiar big-selling cask beer brands are ones that many CAMRA members dismiss as “the usual suspects”. It’s an odd sort of organisation that denigrates most of what constitutes what it is supposed to be campaigning for.

Maybe it is also time to question whether handpumps can be more of a hindrance than a help. Younger beer drinkers may not be aware that, in the early days of CAMRA, a substantial proportion of cask beer was sold through electric dispense of various kinds. In some areas it was the norm. People just saw it as Mild or Bitter. not “real ale” as such. But handpumps steadily spread as they gave an unequivocal symbol of real ale, and have now become pretty much universal.

However, what allows you to clearly identify something also allows people to instantly reject it as something not for them. In many pubs, there’s a binary division between stuff on T-bar taps (including craft kegs) and stuff on handpumps, and many drinkers just won’t consider the beers on handpumps. So, just a thought, but might it be an idea to try dispensing cask beer though the T-bar taps (obviously with the word “cask” on the label) so it is not immediately marked out as something “other”. There’s no technical reason why it can’t be done as, in the past, many cask beers were sold using freeflow electric dispense.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Cashing up

A Suffolk pub has claimed to be the first in Britain to go entirely cashless and stop accepting any payments in cash. This seems to be a rather dubious assertion, as I know that Sandbar in Manchester has been entirely cashless for some time, and Martin Taylor has recently encountered the same in the Cloudwater brewery tap. However, it’s undoubtedly a trend that is only going to grow.

It needs to be made clear we are not discussing cashless payments per se. They are a growing feature of the financial landscape, and obviously it makes business sense for many pubs to accept them. But to refuse to accept cash entirely is something entirely different, and comes across very much as an attempt to practice social selection of your clientele.

This may not be a problem in a rural gastropub, but in inner-city boozers it’s a common sight to see the pound coins being counted out on to the bar to pay for a pint. It is estimated that there are 1.6 million unbanked workers in the UK, and there must be many more pensioners and benefit claimants, not to mention people who prefer to avoid using cards for routine transactions. It’s effectively saying that you’re not interested in the business of the poor or the old. And it seems particularly ironic that it is being practiced by a standard-bearer of the craft beer movement that supposedly prides itself on its “inclusiveness”.

There are other reasons to justify caution in adopting cashless payments, some of which are set out in this Guardian article and this blogpost by Boozy Procrastinator. One obvious point is that they make budgeting more difficult, both in terms of controlling your spending on a night out, and also in a more general sense of creating a disconnect with the whole concept of money. It’s hardly surprising that so many people seem to get into unmanageable debt when they hardly ever see the stuff.

You are making yourself vulnerable to power cuts and to the breakdowns of banking computer systems which seem all too common nowadays. You are also willingly putting yourself in the hands of giant, faceless corporations that may not have your best interests at heart. And someone is able to track exactly where you have been and what you have spent your money on. You don’t have to be a tinfoil hatter to see how that could potentially be abused.

Yes, by all means use cashless payments where they are convenient, and allow them in your pubs, but there are dangers in the headlong rush to embrace them and relegate cash to history. And, if you really want to be a rebel, stick to cash as much as you can.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Another morsel for the crocodile

The industry-funded alcohol education body Drinkaware have recently teamed up with Public Health England to launch a campaign to encourage people to have alcohol-free days. Some of us may enjoy a touch of Schadenfreude at the news that this has led to the resignations of several prominent figures such as Sir Ian Gilmore on the grounds that health campaigners should not have any association with the drinks industry.

However, that should not lead us to conclude that it is anything other than an act of appeasement of the anti-drink lobby. It takes as read the unscientific 14 units a week consumption guideline, something that if generally adopted by the population would probably render most of the pubs in the country unviable. It is worth noting that the equivalent guidelines in Italy are 35 units for men and 26 for women.

Plus, as often happens with such initiatives, the effect is likely to be more to encourage the already prudent to even more unnecessary over-caution, while being cheerfully ignored by the irresponsible. The objective often seems to be less to change behaviour than to further denormalise alcohol consumption per se. And, intuitively, it seems to me that drinking one pint every day of the week is likely to do you less harm than drinking seven pints on one day.

Accepting this guideline may give the industry a figleaf of respectability, but it’s an ever-shrinking one. Not so long ago, the figure was 28 units a week for men. It was then cut to 21, and now to 14. Will they still parrot it when it’s further reduced to 7, and then to 2? And how about when the official line becomes that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption, something that has been claimed in a recent study? If drinks producers and retailers want to see where they will stand in the eyes of officialdom in twenty years’ time, they have only to look at the tobacco industry. They will have become a “toxic trade”.

It’s often a source of disappointment that industry bodies are so reluctant to speak out in their own defence, and just tag along with the official message. However, it has to be recognised that business is about making a profit, not conducting a moral crusade, and it may well make sense to keep your head down, playing along with the official agenda while dragging your feet a bit, and hoping that in time the storm will pass, which of course the previous temperance crusade of the 1870-1930 period eventually did.

On this note, it’s disappointing to see that the Drinkers’ Voice campaign, which I enthusiastically welcomed last year, seems to have become moribund. They haven’t updated their Twitter account for two months, and nor do they seem to have issued any press releases. It’s not exactly difficult for a pressure group to keep up the illusion of activity without actually doing very much, but they haven’t even been able to manage this, despite having received a substantial amount of seedcorn funding from CAMRA.

It’s always been difficult to get private citizens to come together in defence of their liberties as consumers and users of public services, as there’s an assumption that somebody else is going to do it for them. But if industry isn’t prepared to, then who else will? Of course there are individual bloggers and commenters who are prepared to speak out, but even they often come under suspicion, however unjustified, of being paid shills. Incidentally, CAMRA doesn’t really qualify as its original raison d’ être was to campaign against the policies of the brewing industry, not government, and it’s not really its role to become a generalised defender of drinkers’ interests.

There’s no body to champion the rights of all drinkers of alcohol, or of soft drinks, or of consumers of food. It’s all too easy just to chuckle when the other lot get it in the neck from government. But, at the end of the day, everyone will. United we stand, divided we fall.

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Counting the calories

We now take it for granted that the alcoholic strength of beers and other alcoholic drinks is declared on packaging and at point of sale. It’s hard to believe that, forty years ago, the brewers were extremely unwilling to release this information, and CAMRA paved the way in working out the original gravity of all the real ales in the country where the brewers were unwilling to divulge it themselves. The brewers’ argument was that people would judge beers purely on the basis of strength, but in reality were probably more worried about having it exposed just how weak many of their beers were. Experience has shown that the concern about “drinking on strength” was largely unfounded – people continue to choose beer of a wide range of strengths based on taste and occasion, and indeed in the current century the general trend has been towards lower strengths.

So, on the face of it, it would seem uncontroversial that we should be given the same information about the calorie content of the food we eat. This is already the case with pretty much all packaged food you buy in shops, but it doesn’t apply to fresh food or to most of the food sold for out-of-home eating in pubs, restaurants and cafes. There are, of course, a few exceptions to this, such as Wetherspoon’s, who also declare the calorie content of their alcoholic drinks.

So the government have now decided to put this into action. While I’ve been sceptical of many other so-called “health” initiatives, this can’t be criticised as an example of nannying, as all it is doing is to give people the information on which to make informed decisions. However, it poses a number of practical problems. Working out calorie content is by no means as straightforward as alcohol content, and the range of different food items is far greater. It’s likely to impose significant costs on small businesses, which may cause them to discontinue providing food at all, and also deter food businesses of all sizes from offering one-off daily specials. So inevitably there are calls for smaller business to be excluded.

However, simply exempting them seems like something of a cop-out that will undermine the objectives of the scheme. I’m no expert in the field, but wouldn’t it be possible to come up with something like providing official indicative figures for a range of food items that could be used if providers aren’t in a position to make a detailed analysis? Even if somewhat inaccurate, that would surely be better than nothing. An ounce of fried rice is an ounce of fried rice, regardless of which venue is serving it. The industry should be looking at realistic solutions rather than pooh-poohing the whole idea.

It can’t be denied that there is a serious issue here. Eating out of the house has boomed in recent decades, and accounts for an ever-growing proportion of our food intake. Not only do many businesses provide no calorie information, but they also offer standard portions that are way above what is regarded as compatible with a healthy diet. The typical portions served up by takeaways are easily half as much again as what a normal person would regard as a filling meal, and could often provide two slightly frugal meals. Even when calories are declared, the size of meals is often pretty overfacing. For example, Wetherspoon’s Ultimate Burger with chips is 1516 calories, while their Pepperoni Pizza is 1170, when the recommended daily intake for an adult male is 2,500. That may be OK for an occasional treat, but if you’re eating meals of that kind on a regular basis you’re going to have a problem.

Like many of those whose parents lived through the Second World War, I was brought up to finish everything on my plate, accompanied by exhortations to think of the starving children in Africa. I still feel a touch of guilt about leaving food on the plate in pubs and restaurants, and see it as something of an insult to the chef. Yet I find myself increasingly ending up leaving a quarter or a third of a meal uneaten, and having to apologise, saying “The food was fine, it was just a very big portion.” I still gag at the thought of the pub offering a “belly-busting pound of chips” on its menu. Calorie labelling would at least expose the true size of portions. And the risk is that, if the food industry doesn’t act to provide information and offer the choice of smaller portions, the government will end up enforcing them.

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

HOW much a pint?

Last month, CAMRA reported the results of a survey revealing that a majority of people in the UK now considered the price of a pint in the pub to be unaffordable. So it’s hardly surprising that eyebrows were raised when it was reported that a London branch of the Craft Beer Co. was selling AleSmith Speedway Stout Hawaiian Special Edition for no less than £22.50 a pint.

As is often the case, the issue is rather clouded by the question of strength. Unlike wines and spirits, there is a wide variation in strength between different beers. This particular brew is 12% ABV, and thus is not directly comparable with a pint of 4% standard bitter or lager that even in London would sell for no more than £4.50. However, even if you make a strict bangs-per-buck comparison, it still seems pretty poor value.

It’s generally accepted in the fields of wine and spirits that some rare and prized examples will sell for vastly more than the norm – for example a bottle of whisky was recently sold for almost £43,000. However, beer is much more considered to be a drink for ordinary people, and this wasn’t some scarce vintage brew of which there was a finite supply, it was one brewed for current consumption and sold on draught just like a normal pint of bitter. Of course there’s nothing wrong with some specialist beers selling for eyewatering prices, as after all nobody is forced to buy them. But it’s understandable that it makes headlines.

Inevitably, there was a rather defensive reaction from some quarters saying “why quote a price per pint when it isn’t drunk in pints?” but that’s rather missing the point. Price per pint is a straightforward and generally understood yardstick for comparing the cost of beers. Whether or not it is actually drunk in pints is irrelevant. Fine wines and spirits are generally priced per bottle, but that doesn’t mean that a bottle is the usual measure in which they’re served. And whatever unit was chosen, the relative disparity would be just the same.

In response to this, the Sun newspaper ran a feature in which members of the public were invited to taste a range of expensive craft beers. Fairly predictably, they weren’t particularly impressed - see the image above. Of course there is a tongue-in-cheek aspect to any such piece, but inevitably it touched a few raw nerves and provoked accusations of “reverse snobbery”. However, surely it is the job of the media to prick balloons of pretentiousness and self-importance.

It wasn’t long before the mask slipped, with comments being made that many of the drinkers pictured looked like “gammon”, and one well-known beer journalist who really should have known better tweeting that most of them were probably Brexit voters. He later had second thoughts and deleted it, so I can’t link to it here. So much for an inclusive beer community – obviously that’s the wrong kind of inclusiveness.

I’ll leave the final word to this Twitter commenter: