Sunday, 22 November 2015

The top and bottom of it

For many years, pubs have had items on their menus that are described as “pies”, but which in fact are stews or casseroles with a pastry lid. A growing number of people have been concerned that these dishes do not really qualify as pies. Indeed, a petition to Parliament was created on the subject, which only fell because of the general election. Obviously this was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it’s clearly something that people have strong feelings about.

Make wrongly describing a casserole with a pastry lid as a pie a criminal offence.

For too long customers in pubs and restaurants have ordered what is described on the menu as a pie only to be served with casserole in a pot covered by a puff pastry lid. This is not a pie and is also curiously difficult to consume. A pie is defined by the OED as "A baked dish of fruit, or meat and vegetables, typically with a top and base of pastry." This petition urges the implementation of criminal sanctions upon the owners of food outlets that serve items described as pies without a pastry base. Exemptions will apply for Shepherds, Cottage and Fish Pies.

A week or so ago, there was an article on the Morning Advertiser website celebrating the rise of pie sales in pubs, on which I commented that the illustration wasn’t actually a pie. This reignited the debate on Twitter, with Boak & Bailey pointing out that many of Mrs Beeton’s pie recipes did not specify a bottom layer of pastry Those layers of fowl, ham, forcemeat and hard-boiled eggs sound really appetising.

So, in conjunction with Mark Wadsworth, I decided to create a poll on the subject. With an impressive 146 votes, the results show just over three-quarters in favour of the proposition that a pie needs a pastry base as well as a top, but on the other hand a significant minority taking the opposite view.

Personally, I’m not really bothered, as I don’t like “gravy pies” anyway, although I love a proper solid pork pie, preferably with jelly. But it obviously grinds many other people’s gears.

The original poll results can be seen here, which also shows some interesting comments.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

History and myth

It’s become part of the folklore of CAMRA that, at the time it was formed, real ale had virtually disappeared in the UK, and was just kept going by a handful of small, fuddy-duddy breweries. Through its campaigning efforts, CAMRA succeeded in turning this situation around, resulting in a dramatic increase over a few years of both real ale production and availability.

However, this is basically a myth that has somehow ended up being the received wisdom. To be fair, I wouldn't say that Roger Protz or any other beer writers have ever claimed it to be true, but nevertheless it is now generally believed. The key thing that CAMRA has done is to stimulate an unprecedented boom in interest in beer, the number of breweries and the variety of styles produced. But, because of the decline of pubs and the switch to lager, there's a lot less real ale being brewed now than in 1973, even though it's in a higher proportion of pubs. There are probably very few years between 1973 and 2015 that have seen an absolute increase in the volume of real ale brewed, although 2014 was one of them.

While not belittling CAMRA's efforts in the 1970s, it was to some extent pushing at an open door. There was already a reaction against giant, faceless corporations and bland, homogenous products towards something more small-scale and individual, and some kind of return to popularity of "traditional" beer was always likely. Most successful campaigns of any kind are tapping in to a public sentiment that already exists.

Plus, once they looked into it more deeply, the Founding Four discovered that, across the country, there was a lot more real ale being sold than they thought from their experience in London, albeit much of it in the Midlands and North and dispensed from electric pumps. Real ale wasn't in any imminent danger of disappearing and many of the breweries producing it were well-run, forward-looking companies who had reached the conclusion that that way of brewing, distributing and serving their beer made business sense.

“What?” you may well ask. “There was really more real ale in 1973 than there is now?”

Yes, absolutely, and by a huge margin. The thing people forget is the rise of lager - 10% of the on-trade beer market in 1973, 70% now.

In 1973, the British brewing industry produced 34.7 million bulk barrels. Assume 10% of that is off-trade, and 10% lager, it leaves 27.8 million for on-trade ale. At a very rough guess, about 30% of that was real ale, with maybe another 10% being beer that started off as real ale but ended up being served under top pressure. So the amount of real ale served as such was 8.3 million barrels. If anything, I feel that may be an understatement.

Compare that with 2014, when total on-trade beer sales were 13.5 million barrels, of which real ale accounted for about 2.2 million barrels. So it's only around quarter of the 1973 figure.

Looking at the brewery section of the 1977 Good Beer Guide, which for most brewers won't represent a huge change since 1973, we find:

  • Banks's - 800 tied houses, the vast majority of which sell unpressurised beer
  • Bass Worthington - thousands of pubs across the country sell Bass Worthington products, often in true draught form
  • Boddingtons - All 270 tied houses sell real ale
  • Home - 380 out of 400 tied houses sell real ale
  • Robinsons - 317 out of 318 tied houses serve the beer without pressure
  • Shepherd Neame - 210 of the 220 tied house sell real ale
  • Tetley - real ale is available in many of the 2,200 tied houses on both sides of the Pennines
plus plenty of others.

The big beer desert had been London and parts of the Home Counties dominated by the Big Six. Across the country, availability was far more patchy than today, but plenty of areas were teeming with it. Many of those Banks’s and Home pubs would have been big, busy, working-class boozers with the diaphragms in the pumps constantly shuttling to and fro dispensing vast quantities of mild and bitter. You just don’t see pubs like that any more.

I grew up in Greenall Whitley Land, but south of the Ship Canal the majority of their Cheshire pubs sold real ale, plus all the Wem ones. And at university in Birmingham in the late 70s, most of the M&B pubs had real ale, albeit usually dispensed from freeflow electric pumps that were hard to tell from keg dispensers. You wouldn't really go out of your way to drink Brew XI and M&B Mild, though.

(This is a slightly expanded version of comments I made on Paul Bailey’s blog on his post Revitalising the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale. The whole thing is well worth reading)

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Chairs, chairs, everywhere...

...but not a place to sit. I think it was on Martin Taylor’s blog that he made a comment that he had gone into a pub and, despite a plethora of seating, couldn’t find anywhere he felt comfortable actually sitting. This very much resonated with me. In the old days, most pubs had extensive bench seating, so effectively you could sit anywhere and it was much the same. My ideal perch has always been with my back to the window and a clear view of the bar, although that hasn’t always been achieved.

But, more recently, this has been undermined, with priority being given to individual tables and loose chairs more typical of a restaurant. So, often there is a confusing mix of high-level posing tables, raised benches, large round tables, seating booths and bijou dining tables for two. I go in and feel that there’s nowhere I really fancy sitting.

A prime example of this is Robinsons’ recent refurbishment of the Bull’s Head in Hale Barns. The two south-facing, bay-windowed rooms used to be great places to sit and have a drink, but now all the fixed seating has been ripped out and replaced with vintage-style armchairs and steamer trunks in place of tables. “This is a pub full of theatre and intrigue.” Err, no. The phrase “Get in the Sea!” comes to mind.

Earlier this year I also visited a large local pub that had recently received a thorough refurbishment. A previous line of bench seating had been stripped out, and I found it difficult to choose anywhere amongst the mixture of different, edgy seating that I would feel at home.

As so often, trendy marketing bullshit from people who scarcely use pubs trumps experience and common sense. If you make drinkers feel uncomfortable, they won’t come.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Money for old ropey pubs

The High Grove is a Hydes pub in the middle of a housing estate in Gatley, one of Stockport’s satellite villages. Apparently Hydes want to sell it off for residential development, which has resulted in a successful campaign by the locals to have it registered as an Asset of Community Value.

However, I would say it is unlikely either that another pub operator will come in to bid for it, or that the locals will be able to raise enough money to buy it. Hydes have made an effort with it over the years, and I’ve been in a few times and found it pleasant enough. But there’s a general problem that pubs in the middle of residential areas, with no passing trade, just seem to be dead ducks. The widespread belief that such pubs have a guaranteed trade is what I call the “chimneypots fallacy”.

A further factor here is that the approach roads in both directions have been given a particularly savage set of road humps. That will deter all but the most determined out-of-area person from visiting, whereas Holts’ Griffin a mile away on a major road junction has no such constraints. It has to be recognised that, in suburban areas, a high proportion of pub customers arrive by car, and with few exceptions are not breaking the law by doing so.

I’ve long since learned that I have a very poor crystal ball when it comes to predicting the future of individual pubs. But, unless Hydes change their minds, I’d be amazed if the High Grove was still trading in a year’s time. ACVs give pubs a breathing space, but they are no guarantee of survival, and in some cases may simply lead to planning blight. A micropub or box bar might succeed in that location, but a big pub with all the associated overheads is going to struggle.

It would be ironic if, across the country, community groups ended up paying pubcos large sums of money to buy “threatened” pubs that in a few years’ time proved not to be viable after all. It can work for some pubs (and I speak as a shareholder in a community-owned pub), but it won’t work for all, especially the bigger ones.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Getting down wiv da kidz

Over the years, brewers have perceived many threats to the viability of their business, often associated with younger customers shunning pubs for more attractive alternatives. There have been the talkies in the 1930s, the rock’n’roll coffee bars in the 1950s, the 1960s counter-culture and the 1990s rave movement..

At times, they’ve tried to fight back, as with the late 60s “trendy” renamings and refurbishments, and the mid-80s vogue for “fun pubs”. However, these things have never stood the test of time, illustrating the point that if you go along with one short-term fad, it won’t be long before the next one comes along. I always associate the fun pub with rolled-up jacket sleeves and the Escort XR3i.

More recently, it has been widely observed that there has been a general decline in alcohol consumption, most notably amongst the younger age group, and that the growth of social media has reduced their interest in socialising in pubs. Clearly this is a concern to pub operators, and Marston’s have been conducting a Pub of the Future project to work out how they can respond to it.

Some of the responses aren’t exactly surprising:

  • “the restrictive nature of pubs puts me off”
  • “the traditional food served doesn’t appeal to me”
  • “light and airy is definitely the way forward” (I can see where this is heading - Ed)
  • “the addition of relevant technology into the pub will entice and engage a younger customer”
However, a major note of caution must be sounded over this. There is always a risk that deliberately setting out to appeal to younger customers will alienate older age groups, while coming across as patronising to the target market. And asking people “what would you like to see in pubs?” is very different from “what would actually make you go to the pub more often?” and is often more virtue-signalling than genuine market research.

Appealing to the young is a real challenge for pub operators, but history suggests that a conscious attempt to attract them is doomed to failure. It is better to see what actually works on the ground and try to replicate that.

It doesn’t necessarily follow that pubs have to be modern to attract younger customers. In my student days in Birmingham, the Great Stone was the most olde-worlde pub in Northfield, but had the youngest clientele. And recently in Durham I was struck by the sight of groups of students participating a a pub quiz in Sam Smith’s resolutely traditional Colpitts Hotel. They even might find it a novelty to visit a pub that doesn’t have wi-fi.

Does any “modern” pub interior from the 1960s still survive? But plenty do that were already old-fashioned then.

Monday, 9 November 2015

The end of civilisation is nigh

Burger King have recently announced that they are going to apply for an alcohol licence for four of their outlets on an experimental basis. Apparently all they are going to sell is plastic bottles of “American Beer”, which I assume will be British-brewed Bud or Coors Light, not Lagunitas IPA.

Normally my reaction to this would have been “so what?” but I was struck by the ludicrously hyperbolic reactions from people in Hull on hearing the news. Apparently it will threaten the city’s hard-pressed pubs even more, it will make Burger King an unsuitable place to take children, and the country doesn’t need yet another place where adults can get drunk in front of children.

This ignores the fact the adults seem happy to take their children into pubs, where they might actually encounter real drunk people, and that pretty much every table-service fast food restaurant such as Nando’s and Pizza Hut already serves alcoholic drinks. Plus Burger King and McDonalds have served alcohol in their outlets on the Continent for decades without the world falling about their ears.

And is anyone going to drink enough in a Burger King to get drunk in any meaningful sense anyway? I’d also expect that the that the basic Beer and Burger deal in Spoons will still be cheaper.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Loving the lout

In a recent blogpost, Tandleman described a trip round Lees Brewery, in which the tour guide said "Of course, you won't approve of lager." His response was “He seemed surprised when I advised him that I'm a huge fan of lager and of Lees Original and that I regularly drink lager home and abroad.” He goes on to state that “most of us certainly drink lager to some extent.” Now, I certainly do, but I think he may be underestimating the dislike of lager amongst CAMRA stalwarts. I can think of several who will never touch the stuff in the UK, and if they go on holiday to somewhere hot will report back that “the only beer available was crap”.

Apparently over 90% of all beer drunk in the world is pale lager, and it probably accounts for a considerably higher proportion of dull, bland, industrial beer. But that shouldn’t blind beer enthusiasts to the recognition that it is one of the world’s classic beer styles and, when done well, is up there amongst the greats. Possibly the existence of Fosters and Sol leads people to subsconsciously devalue Pilsner Urquell, Jever and Augustiner Helles. It’s a bit like downgrading Harveys Sussex Best because John Smith’s Extra Smooth is also a “bitter”.

So I created a poll on whether blog readers drank lager. There was actually quite a negative response, with 42% overall saying either “Very rarely” or “Never”. So the anti-lager view seems to be more prevalent than Tandleman believes. But, as he says, “Well made lager is an absolute delight and those that sniff at lager are missing out in a big way.” And I’ll drink a Helles or a Pilsner to that.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Psst, wanna buy a few spoons?

A rough Wetherspoon's pub in a
poor, run-down neighbourhood

Back in July, I reported that Wetherspoons were planning to sell twenty of their pubs. Most of them gave the impression of either being in unsuitable locations, or close to other, busier branches, so as a whole it looked like a sensible bit of rationalisation. However, they’ve now come back with a further thirty-four planned disposals. Some of these fit into the same category, but others are apparently successful operations with no other Spoons nearby.

Locally, they include two current Good Beer Guide entries, the Milson Rhodes in Didsbury and the Bollin Fee in Wilmslow, neither of which is close to another one, and both in prosperous, busy locations. Yes, the Milson Rhodes is within a mile of the Gateway, but I don’t think by and large they compete for the same trade. On the other hand, some of them such as the Red Lion in Heanor have a poor reputation and don’t seem to have worked out. They also include the premises at 43-51 King Street, Stirling, where they fought a long licensing battle against the objections of Greene King, but have not so far got round to actually opening as a pub.

Is this a sign that the company is now struggling financially and needing to sell off some more of the family silver? Or are they cashing in some of their more valuable freeholds at the top of the market?

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

I remember when this were all craft

A small, artisanal craft brewery
Last month, Reuben Gray of The Tale of the Ale complained about lazy journalists making a connection between the Irish craft beer sector and “hipsters”. A very fair point, although perhaps they are just doing a read-across from the English craft beer scene, which in parts, especially in London, is distinctly hipsterish. This fails to recognise that Irish craft beer actually has much more in common with the USA.

Within the post, he also makes this important point:

Before the industrial revolution, all beer was craft beer. It was produced locally using local ingredients and sold to local people. After industrialisation and the amalgamation of most breweries in to large brewing conglomerates, craft beer persisted in a small regional way in some countries but was wiped out entirely in most. Ireland was one of those countries. By the 1980s, only the big three remained and it wasn't until the late 90s that we saw our first independent breweries start to open again.

Since big beer only started a few hundred years ago, but humans have been brewing beer for at least 5000 years and probably longer, which brewing process do you think is actually the fad? The 5000+ year old small scale, small batch, independent brewing or the 200 year old industrial scale brewing? Getting back to the infographic: Compressing the earth’s history in to 46 hours shows commercial beer is 1 minute old and craft beer is a few hours.

Actually, brewing was one of the earliest processes to be industrialised, as it doesn’t really need complex machinery or much mechanical power. You simply need to hoist malt and pump water up to the top, and then gravity will do the rest. The Great London Beer Flood of 1814 clearly shows that by then beer was being produced on a truly industrial scale.

Over the years, more and more beer was produced in big industrial plants, but small-scale brewing did linger on. The period from the end of the Second World War to 1970 saw a huge attrition of both home-brew pubs and small, independent commercial brewers, but there were still a fair number around at the birth of CAMRA. By any standards, the four surviving home-brew pubs and small operations like Paine’s, Donnington and Batham’s would surely qualify as “craft”.

The normal sense of the word “craft” in British English is reflected in the terms “handcrafted” and “craftsman”. It implies small-scale production, individual skill, an absence of automation and a high level of hands-on human involvement. It will probably use mostly locally-produced raw materials, with a minimum of intermediate processing. It doesn’t have to be rooted in tradition, although it may well be. It’s E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful in practice. It is artisanal in the proper sense of the word, although I hesitate to describe it as such, given that the term is generally used nowadays to describe “a job now done by a middle-class person that used to be done by a working-class person”.

But we now have a situation where “craft beer” is used to mean something entirely different – brewers who are knowing and self-aware, and who brew beer that is deliberately iconoclastic and innovative in terms of style, strength and ingredients. BrewDog has grown into a substantial industrial brewery, but it is still widely regarded as the acme of “craft”, whereas long-established micro-breweries like Cotleigh and Banks & Taylor, and the surviving small family breweries, are dismissed as old hat, boring and nothing to do with craft. And hops flown half-way around the world are seen as essential ingredients.

The term “craft beer” was only brought into general use because many new breweries in the US had become far too big to credibly call themselves “microbreweries”. Applied to the very different brewery scene here, it’s strange how its meaning has come to be pretty much entirely turned on its head. Maybe it would be more honest if it was called something else entirely, like “new-wave beer”.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Britain, one pub at a time

One of the most prolific commenters on this blog has been Martin Taylor of Cambridge, who has seemed to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of British pubs and, wherever I’ve been, would always comment on his own experiences. He enjoys new-wave bars and craft beers, but he’s always shown a strong appreciation of traditional British beer styles and old-fashioned pubs. While not a dyed-in-the-wool opponent, he recognises the damage the smoking ban has done to wet-led pubs.

He’s now started his own blog called retiredmartin, which details his generally pub-focused travels around the country. He describes it as “Retired NHS, on permanent walk (15 miles a day) around UK and the world to record the great bits. Focus on pubs and live music.” He also says that, each year, he aims to get to as many of the new entries in the Good Beer Guide as he can. You have to admire his commitment!

The blog provides an honest assessment of the beer quality in each pub he visits, and also conveys a “sense of place” about both the pubs and their location, something that is missing in many other blogs which concentrate on the beer to the exclusion of all else. I haven’t met him so far, but hopefully that can be sorted out, although maybe we should steer clear of politics. Anyway, put him in your blog list and enjoy...

His criteria for a visit to the North-West are very interesting:

  • Travelodge for under £30
  • Short train/metro into Manchester
  • Access to new bit of UK to explore
  • At least 1 new Beer Guide pub in walking distance
  • Holts, Robinsons or Sam Smiths pub nearby
  • Live music – any quality
  • Hills of any size
  • Good Chinese takeaway
  • Likelihood southerners couldn’t place it on the map

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Standing out from the crowd

I don’t usually go in for pub reviews on here, but I am going to make an exception to underline a point about the Good Beer Guide. It’s often claimed that the GBG has been rendered obsolete by the proliferation of online pub databases. However, a major problem with these is that they just offer an indiscriminate list, and it’s up to you to work out which pubs are actually worth a visit. The great value of the GBG – and publications such as the Good Pub Guide – is that someone else has done the work for you to come up with a selection of pubs that they recommend. It won’t necessarily accord with your own view, but you sort of learn to read between the lines, and the GBG will certainly take you to many excellent pubs that otherwise you might not have found. This is not an argument in favour of retaining a printed book, as the principle of selectiveness applies equally to apps and websites.

In the past, I’ve made the point is that the GBG isn’t aimed at hardcore beer obsessives, but at people who enjoy a drop of real ale and want to find decent pubs when away from home, in particular nice places to eat when on holiday. I’ve recently spent a few days in the North-East, where the GBG took me to the King’s Arms at Seaton Sluice. If I search WhatPub for Tynemouth, which is where I had been, it comes up as #95 out of 118 pubs, so it’s unlikely I would have found it. But a quick look at the map in the GBG indicated that there were pub(s) in Seaton Sluice, a few miles up the coast, and flicking the page led me to the King’s Arms. It’s described as follows:

Traditional pub dating from the 1700s, sitting majestically next to the man-made harbour, constructed by the famous Delaval family.The pub is set back from the road, with extensive views of the beautiful beach at Seaton Sluice. It has an excellent reputation for good food using local ingredients (booking is advised). There are five handpulls dispensing a range of nationally sourced ales. Live bands play on Sunday evening.
While often dismissed as an uncompromisingly industrial area, the North-East actually has a surprisingly scenic coast. The King’s Arms is a substantial, four-square pub situated on a headland overlooking the small harbour at Seaton Sluice, with a magnificent view to the north towards Blyth. It’s essentially a food-led pub, but certainly isn’t somewhere you’d feel uncomfortable just having a drink. The L-shaped interior comprises a congenial bar area along the front of the pub, with extensive bench seating, and a more contemporary dining area to the rear with views over the coast. There are no TVs or piped music.

There’s a wide-ranging food menu of fairly standard pub grub, stretching from sandwiches to steaks, at pretty reasonable prices. A welcome feature is offering smaller portions for many dishes, which must appeal to pensioners and others who are overfaced by big meals. It’s a Star Pubs & Bars leasehold, which may somewhat restrict the available beer range. On my visit it was Greene King Abbot Ale, Ruddles County, Bombardier Burning Gold and Caledonian Deuchars IPA and Autumn Red. Not the most enterprising range in the world, and it would be nice to see at least one local beer, but my pint of Burning Gold was fine.

It’s by no means an ideal pub – the prominent, officious notice banning vaping particularly jarred. But it’s obvious that the family running it have a huge amount of commitment and attention to detail. For example, the menu folder includes a list of local food suppliers they use, a potted history of their involvement with the pub, and an update on recent developments. I was also served by a notably friendly and polite barmaid. And I probably wouldn’t have found it at all without the Good Beer Guide.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

English as she is spoke

Traditionalists such as myself are often heard to complain about the changing meaning of English words, which usually seems to result in a loss of clarity and precision in the language. However, any student of linguistics has to recognise that language does evolve over time, and that dictionaries have to reflect how people actually use words, not how someone else thinks they should.

The concept of “real ale” was invented by CAMRA, and before too long they succeeded in having it defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as

Real Ale: a name for draught (or bottled) beer brewed from traditional ingredients, matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide.
However, in recent years I’ve increasingly begun to hear other people, especially work colleagues, say “I’ve got a few of those real ales in from ASDA.” Clearly, they’re referring to brewery-conditioned Premium Bottled Ales such as Pedigree and Abbot Ale, which aren’t real ales by the official definition. However, they see them as the bottle equivalent of real ales that you might get in the pub, and so there’s some sense in making the link.

My local branch of Morrisons has recently revamped its beer aisle, and there’s a prominent sign above the Premium Bottled Ales section saying “Real Ales”. Probably one or two pedants will write to them pointing out their error, but in reality that’s how customers define that beer category. In twenty years’ time, might we be seeing “real ale” redefined as any British top-fermented beer in a traditional style?

Next to “Real Ales” is “Craft Beers”, which seems to encompass a wide variety of British, American, Belgian and Swedish beers, but all in 330ml or 355ml bottles or cans, whereas the PBAs are in 500ml bottles. The definition of “craft beer” has been endlessly wrangled over in the beer blogosphere, but in the actual marketplace it seems to be resolving itself.

In the off-trade, it’s beers in smaller bottles that may be stronger and more diverse and experimental in style than the boring old brown PBAs in their big bottles. Probably more expensive too. And, in the on-trade draught beer market, “craft beer” increasingly means “craft keg”. You can argue until you’re blue in the face that, by any rational standard, virtually all microbrewed real ale is craft beer, but the market is saying otherwise.

Long gone are the days when a small, traditional, quirky, long-established, undeniably “artisanal” brewery such as Bathams or Hook Norton could be described as “craft”. Although eventually that moment of discovery is bound to happen when trendsetters say “Wow, these guys have been doing it for 150 years!”

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Turning the Page

Last year, Mike Benner left his post as Chief Executive of CAMRA to move across to SIBA. Mike was (and is) a very able and articulate chap and a compelling speaker. To replace him, CAMRA appointed Tim Page, a former Army officer who had extensive experience in other not-for-profit organisations, but wasn’t a beer industry veteran. He’s a rather avuncular-looking, middle-aged chap, and many people’s expectations were that he’d be someone who would keep things ticking over without unduly rocking the boat.

However, he seems to be made of sterner stuff, and has launched a “Revitalisation Project” which aims to take a root-and-branch review of CAMRA’s strategies, structures and organisation. A few years ago, there was a “Fit for Purpose Review” following a conference motion by two Greater Manchester members, but unfortunately this ended up just looking at internal processes and did not address the wider issues.

CAMRA now has a record number of members, but is assailed by doubts as to what its purpose is in the current beer world, and concerns about the ageing profile of active members, and lack of engagement of younger ones. I’ve been a member for 34 years, and a life member for most of that time, so obviously it’s something I’m concerned about, even if at times I have been critical of some of its stances.

So here are my thoughts as to what Tim’s review should address:

  • Produce a clear definition of what CAMRA actually stands for in 2015. “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.” Doesn’t trip off the tongue, but that’s basically what it’s about.

  • Lance the boil of the cask vs keg dichotomy. There isn’t really a Manichean divide between good and bad beer, and most members recognise this. While accepting the primacy of cask-conditioned draught beer, CAMRA spokespeople and publications should be permitted to recognise merit in “non-real” beers. The motion against banning “anti-campaigns” was a start, but doesn’t go anywhere near far enough.

  • Scrap the dogmatic championing of bottle-conditioned beers. When this policy was originated, bottle-conditioned beers were a tiny, irrelevant market sector. But drawing a direct parallel with cask vs keg is completely inappropriate. Yes, for the best, high-quality, strong bottled beers, bottle-conditioning is preferable, but for ordinary quaffing beers it just introduces uncertainty. This policy is a significant deterrent to the development of a thriving British bottled beer sector.

  • Return to putting more emphasis on pubs and pub preservation. This was a key plank of the original CAMRA, but seems to have been left behind in the current craze for new breweries and bars. But the National Inventory is one of CAMRA’s greatest achievements, and will endure when all the railway arch brewers have gone to the great mash tun in the sky. Create a spin-off organisation of “Friends of Historic Pubs”, possibly in conjunction with the National Trust. Also set up a register of the “next 5000” which still retain a broadly traditional layout and character.

  • But, on the other hand, accept that greedy pubcos and lax planning controls are not major causes of pub decline – it’s basically a matter of demand. This is a false narrative that allows people to hide behind a smokescreen, and in reality is damaging to the cause of pubs. Market Rent Option won’t remotely save the pub trade, and things like ACVs, while they may be useful in a local context, will make scarcely any difference to the overall picture.

  • Mount a much stronger challenge to the anti-drink lobby. This has been agreed at Conference in the past, but little seems to have happened. Going forward, this is far more of a threat than the big brewers and pubcos. But a problem is that many CAMRA members, despite campaigning for a “fun” product, are instinctively puritanical. The people who advocate banning McDonalds and taxing sugar are really not on your side. Unfortunately this may involve making common cause with campaigners who have been vocal opponents of the s*****g b*n.

  • Place a much higher emphasis on beer quality in pubs. This may seem obvious, but in recent years CAMRA seems to have been far keener to cheer on the expansion of handpump numbers in pubs and the ever-burgeoning number of breweries. Quality and quantity aren’t mutually exclusive, but if you have to choose one, it must always be quality. Too many pubs are serving up tired beer because they are stocking too many. There also seem to be more novice licensees who don’t seem to understand the basics. Maybe there needs to be a big roll-out of basic beer tasting courses amongst regular NBSS scorers.

  • Sort out CAMRA’s relationship with cider. I’m not suggesting CAMRA should turn its back on cider, but APPLE often seem to be ploughing their own furrow with no reference to CAMRA’s wider aims. Cider is an entirely different drink from beer, and the definition of “real cider” is far more picky and obscurantist than that for “real beer”. And real cider never seems to have gained much traction in pubs. Every new family dining pub has three or four handpumps for cask beer, but none for real cider.

  • Take a serious review of membership activation, going back to basic principles. While CAMRA has a record membership, there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in active local members, and many branches report a dwindling number of ageing activists. The way many branches operate still seems to be rooted in the 1970s, so could things be improved by a reshaping? Or do younger members simply not like any kind of organised events? Given its current membership level, CAMRA isn’t going to disappear any day soon, but at the end of the day it may need to look at becoming primarily a national campaigning organisation supported by local branches where they exist, as opposed to something that is essentially based on its branch structure.
There’s a huge amount of enthusiasm out there for beer and pubs, and the challenge for CAMRA is to harness that without unnecessarily alienating people. It also has to be recognised that different people will have different priorities within the overall organisation.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

I went in seeking clarity

The debate about clarity and murkiness in beer has recently burst into flames again in the response to a post by Quinno on Stonch’s blog entitled #Murkshaming. While I firmly come down on one side of the debate, I can’t thinking that to a large extent it’s arguing at cross purposes. One point that has been made more than once is that defence of clear beer is very much a CAMRA position, and that craft brewers producing murky beer is at least partly an exercise in cocking a snook at the CAMRA orthodoxy.

In the early days, CAMRA members were often characterised as humourless types who went into pubs, ordered halves and then held them up to the light. I’m sure there was a bit of truth in that, but in reality I think CAMRA tried to take a less absolutist approach to beer clarity. It has to be remembered that, in the Fifties and early Sixties, there were still plenty of small, rather moribund family breweries with poor quality control procedures who seemed to find it difficult to produce consistently (or indeed ever) clear beer. The rise of keg beer was to some extent a reaction to this.

My recollection is that CAMRA tried to promote a more nuanced view of beer clarity, pointing out that just because a beer was crystal clear, it didn’t mean it was any good, and that there were circumstances such as thunderstorms and “layering” which could turn clear beer cloudy. These last two always seemed to me rather like old wives’ tales, but they underline the point that CAMRA didn’t dismiss any kind of hazy beer out of hand, and I’ve heard members say that a bit of haze might add more character.

However, as the “real ale revolution” started taking it into pubs where it hadn’t been served for fifteen years, we increasingly saw incompetent licensees trying to hide behind real ale’s rustic image. The cry of “it’s real ale, it’s meant to be like that” was heard up and down the land, and its image was tarnished. Many drinkers reached the conclusion of once bitten, twice shy, and understandably started to view anything short of crystal with suspicion.

I would say, though, that, both officially and individually, CAMRA has never taken a dogmatic stance that all cloudy beer is inherently bad, and has been sympathetic to the idea that unfined beer might result in more depth of flavour, so long as drinkers are informed what to expect. Some other members seem to be more tolerant than I am of moderate cloudiness. But it is not unrealistic to point out that the vast majority of cask beer brewed and sold in the UK is intended to be served clear, that drinkers have a reasonable expectation that it will be clear, and if it isn’t, it’s almost always an indication of a flaw in brewing or cellaring.

(acknowledgements to Tandleman for the photo)

Friday, 2 October 2015

Every little less never helps

Four years ago, I wrote about how the ever-increasing beer choice in supermarkets was cutting into the market of independent off-licences. At the time, it was a valid point but, as often happens, subsequent events have gone in the opposite direction. The craft beer sector has expanded into ever more obscure sectors, most of which the supermarkets will never touch with a bargepole, even if they stock Punk IPA and Hardknott Azimuth. And there has been a big growth in independent beer-focused off-licences, often in city-centre locations, which appeal to high-spending young hipsters professionals who probably never get in to Tesco Extra.

My local Stockport branch of that particular chain was notable for its impressively wide beer and cider selection, something that twenty years ago would not have disgraced a specialist off-licence. However times have changed and, in response to the challenge from discounters like Aldi and Lidl, the major supermarkets have been looking at streamlining their operations and rationalising their ranges. Apparently 20% of all products stocked sell either one item a week, or none.

So Tesco have decided to take the axe to their beer range. One of the most high-profile casualties has been Carlsberg, as Stonch reports here, but their more specialist ranges have been drastically reduced too. Imported German and Czech lagers, Belgian beers, premium ciders, British craft beers, all have suffered. The Premium Bottled Ale range doesn’t seem to have been too badly affected, and is always subject to churn anyway, but one of my favourites, the bottle-conditioned Shepherd Neame 1698, has disappeared. Some of the shelf space seems to have been reallocated to PBA multipacks.

Regular blog readers may have noticed that I have a fondness for authentic imported German lagers. Tesco used to sell three – Bitburger, Krombacher and Warsteiner – which were usually included in multibuy deals. Not maybe Augustiner Helles or Jever Pilsner, but all very decent, palatable beers. Now all gone, along with similar beers like Baltika 7 and Pilsner Urquell. Surely a range rationalisation should have reduced the three to one, rather than scrapping the category entirely.

Obviously supermarkets have an interest in selling whatever they can sell, whether beer or bread. But the beer category has wider implications, as it is one of the factors that people will use to choose one supermarket above another (rather like cask drinkers choosing which pub to go to) and also an area where supermarkets can reclaim market share from independents. They will never remotely match the range of the specialists, but there’s a substantial proportion of customers who might think if they can get Punk IPA in Tesco for £1.50, there’s no point in making an effort to trek to the independent to pay £2.80 for Beavertown Gamma Ray.

If customers think “oh well, I’ll manage with what’s left”, then Tesco have won. But if they think “I’ll now have to go somewhere else for that”, it may seriously undermine their business. The key USP of the conventional big supermarkets is that they offer a much wider ranger than the discounters. If they cease to do that, what’s the point? Tesco have also recently annoyed me with several delistings of non-beer products.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The man who...

Earlier this year, I was in one of Sam Smith’s Cheshire pubs, which can fairly be said to attract a wide range of customers from regular boozers to National Trust visitors. A group of fairly ordinary-looking people came in, not in any way rough or chavvy, settled themselves down, and one was heard to say “Now this is more like it, isn’t it?” I didn’t catch every word of their conversation, but the gist was that they had poked their noses through the door of a pub up the road – a rather smart dining pub owned by one of the local family brewers – and felt they had been looked upon like something the cat dragged in.

It seems to be a growing phenomenon that pubs are deliberately pitching their appeal at a point so upmarket that many potential customers in the C1C2 social group will not remotely feel at home. Yes, there have always been snobby pubs, but in the past many of them still retained a public bar, and my recollection is that thirty years ago there wasn’t anything like the obvious stratification of pub menus that we have now. Also, much more smart dining was done in formal restaurants, not pubs.

Obviously this has its spiritual home in the archetypal “country dining pub”, but it has also spread into historic towns and the more prosperous suburbs of major cities. As we know, class remains a sensitive subject in this country, and has infinite subtle gradations. Now, I am unequivocally a middle-class person, but, along with Neil Kinnock and Joe Biden, I fall into the category of “the first Mudgie in a thousand generations to go to university”, so I have a foot in both camps. While I can manage it without difficulty, I have to admit feeling somewhat uneasy if I venture into one of these airy, pastel-shaded eateries with their separate tables arranged in an artfully irregular pattern. I can’t help thinking I’d be far happier somewhere with dark wood and wall benches.

Clearly this formula is making money for many pub operators, but it is opening up an unprecedented divide in the pub trade. Back in the 1950s, people would have laughed if someone had suggested that in 2015 many pubs would be too posh for a huge number of potential customers. In the past, if on holiday, or out on a day trip, or breaking a journey, you could rely on most food-serving pubs to offer some some reasonable, not too expensive pub grub. But now, unless there’s a Spoons in the vicinity, you can see many people looking at cafés or casual dining chains rather than some pub trying to charge you 8 for a fish finger sandwich on a brioche bun.

The worst thing is the greeter who asks you when you walk through the door “and will you be dining with us today, Sir?” There’s nothing so calculated to make the common folk feel ill at ease. And should you reply that you’re just after a drink, you will be made to feel like the subject of an H. M. Bateman cartoon entitled “The man who walked into a dining pub and asked for a pint of bitter”. Or maybe the character in the Fast Show played by Mark Williams who looks at the menu in a high-class restaurant and asks “So which are the turkey Kievs?” then, after a painful silence, says “I’ll get me coat”.

Edit: although the above was prompted by a particular overheard conversation, and essentially relates to food-serving pubs, possibly much the same divide is growing between craft beer bars and traditional boozers. I would doubt whether many of the customers of the George & Dragon and Heaton Hops, which are across the road from each other in Heaton Chapel, would seriously consider going to the other one.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Glass half full

Pete Brown (again) has recently produced the latest edition of the annual Cask Report, which in fact will be the last one he writes. Obviously the purpose of this publication is to take a positive view of cask beer, and encourage pubs to stock and promote it, but it does make some important points:

  • Cask is the only section of the on-trade beer market that is in growth
  • Cask is a significant driver of trade to pubs, as the cask drinker is the most likely to want to avoid pubs that don’t sell his favoured tipple
  • Cask is unique to pubs – it can’t be replicated at home in the way that most other drinks can
This has been extensively discussed on blogs and in social media, notably in this post on Stonch’s blog, so I won’t attempt any kind of general summary. However, there are a few notes of caution that need to be sounded.

Firstly, cask now appeals predominantly to an ABC1 customer base, which is a striking turnaround from the situation at the birth of CAMRA, when cask beer (albeit often served under top pressure) was the ordinary beer in pubs, and lager and keg were premium products. In a sense this is a good thing, as it attracts better-off customers into pubs, but there are risks associated with too much of an upmarket, élite image, and of course cask more than any other pub drink is critically dependent on throughput. It can’t survive as a low-volume niche product. It would be interesting to ask the C2DE drinkers why they shun cask - it certainly isn’t on price grounds.

Allied to this, there is the repeated call for cask to be regarded as a “premium” product, something that is often echoed by brewers and pub operators. However, for historical reasons, cask has always sold at a discount to other beers, because it was originally the basic, staple beer sold in pubs, and there’s little sign of that changing. There’s also a “risk premium” associated with cask as, unlike other beers, there’s a small but significant chance of getting a dud pint. In most markets, the concept of “premium” is associated not just with higher quality, but with greater consistency and reliability.

This leads on to another issue – that of choice. The report urges that pubs should offer a “broad range of styles”, but only tangentially adds that “stocking too many ales can have an adverse effect on quality”. But, as often said, the worst enemy of cask beer is a bad pint of cask beer, and in recent years the quality vs quantity trade-off has veered far too much towards quantity. The good pubs still provide a reliably good pint, but in the general pub trade I’d say the chances of getting a poor one have significantly increased. CAMRA spokespeople and magazines continue to promote the idea that more choice is desirable, but we have long passed the point where it has a negative impact on beer quality. This really is an elephant in the room that CAMRA needs to confront.

The report also seems to make a lot of assumptions that may be relevant to a certain category of middle-class, cask-focused London pub, but don’t really apply elsewhere. Apparently having bar staff knowledgeable about beer, and offering tasters, are key points in encouraging cask sales. This may be true in specialist pubs, but in reality many bar staff are students and others just doing it for a short time, and it’s unreasonable to expect them to have a knowledge of the beers on sale, let alone the wines or whiskies. It’s still the case that most cask drinkers see it as their regular tipple, and to ask for a taster of Old Brewery Bitter in the Boar’s Head, or Unicorn in the Armoury, would be greeted with incomprehension.

Yes, in recent years cask beer has enjoyed a moderate success story, and when it’s on top form it trounces everything else on the bar. But there is no room for complacency, and there are serious issues its champions need to address – in particular beer quality.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

If only you could bottle it

When he’s not engaging in juvenile rants against the Ebil Toriez, or claiming that a big brewery merger spells apocalyptic disaster, leftie beer writer Pete Brown can actually come up with some sensible stuff when he sticks to the knitting of beer and pubs*. Recently, he’s written an excellent piece for the Morning Advertiser about how atmosphere in pubs is arguably more important than either beer or food.

And he’s quite right, of course. No matter how good the beer or food, if you don’t feel at home in a pub you may not be inclined to linger, or to visit again. It can be very small or subtle things that deter people, or indeed make them feel welcome. He gives a couple of examples – 80s power ballads being played, and a massive plasma screen showing daytime TV. Now personally I’m more than happy for Ann Wilson to sing to me “how do I get you alone?” but I fully recognise that music needs to be tailored to the clientele. Indeed, I’ve often come across contemporary R&B/hip-hop music being played to customers with an average age well north of 50.

Clearly, “atmosphere” doesn’t just mean things I might personally like. A pub crammed with football or rugby fans watching the match will undoubtedly have atmosphere, as may one with a stand-up throng playing kickin’ music at top volume. It’s also generally the case that, regardless of the style of pub, more customers generate more atmosphere.

A while back, I tried to define Pubbiness, but it’s always something that is very difficult to nail. We all know when a pub has atmosphere, but it’s something that simply cannot be bottled. You certainly can’t easily transfer the winning formula of one pub to another, although pub operators often try. I could try to attempt a definition based on factors such as landlord involvement and interaction between customers, but that would probably fall flat on its face. It’s often the case that there’s a close correlation between atmosphere and popularity, but it doesn’t always follow. I’ve also noticed how some CAMRA members seem completely impervious to any question of pub atmosphere so long as they like the beer. I don’t think pubbiness is quite the same as atmosphere, although there is a substantial overlap.

I regularly visit a handful of Sam Smith’s pubs, mainly because they have an atmosphere that suits me. I know I can get a wider choice elsewhere, and maybe better beer too (albeit at a price), but the alternatives just don’t seem so congenial. If those pubs dropped cask OBB in favour of keg, which many Sam’s pubs have done, then, probably I’d keep going there. Because of the atmosphere.

And it can’t be a coincidence that Tim Martin has included “Moon” in so many of his Wetherspoon pub names, given that particular celestial body’s well-known lack of atmosphere.

* I created a second Twitter account to express my more general political views, recognising that introducing too much of a political element might alienate many of my beery followers. Perhaps Pete Brown would help his cause by doing the same.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Suffer the little children

I’m not a huge fan of the Good Pub Guide, but its most recent launch highlighted the issue of children in pubs, something that has long been something of a hobbyhorse of mine. Phil Mellows, on the other hand (whose opinions I generally respect), doesn’t see what the fuss is all about. However, the fact that Good Pub Guide readers consider it their most important issue shows that it is far from being resolved. Clearly, the days of kids being left outside in the car with a packet of crisps and a bottle of pop are long gone, and that in itself is a very dated stereotype. But nowadays the boot seems to be on the other foot, with children being allowed free rein throughout pubs.

But you don’t have to be a child-hater to think that you should be allowed to enjoy a quiet pint, coffee or sandwich without the constant refrain of their happy laughter. One family dining pub I know has a clear delineation down the middle – under-11s are not allowed on one side. That seems to be a sensible model that others should follow. Also, my local pub, which has a strong emphasis on food, has taken the view that children should not be admitted into one of its three rooms. Recently, the Waterfront pub in Burton-on-Trent gained many plaudits on social media, and increased its business, by banning children under five.

Another problem is that, because of the Mumsnet lobby, licensees are extremely reluctant to confront parents over bad behaviour by children, as it will make them seem, er, curmudgeonly, and may lead to them being severely criticised on social media. So plenty of adult customers quietly make the decision to go elsewhere in future. Clearly this is not something that is just going to go away, and remains a serious issue for many pubgoers. Licensees really need to sit down and consider their policy on children, and recognise that a free-for-all is something that increasingly turns potential customers off. Not to ban children entirely, but to create a clear distinction between child-friendly and adult-only areas. As with so many other things, a one size fits all policy is not the way to go.

The late CAMRA stalwart Humphrey Higgins once found himself sitting next to a mother and baby in a pub. The mother said to him “do you mind putting out that cigarette – it’s annoying my baby?” He replied “do you mind shutting up that baby, it’s annoying me?” Needless to say, it was him who ended up being asked to leave...

Friday, 18 September 2015

Keeping it regular

For many years, I’ve regularly distributed the local CAMRA magazine to a varying selection of pubs. One thing that always struck me was that, in some pubs, whatever the time or day I called in, there were always a few customers who could be relied on to be there.

The “pub regular” is often lionised as the backbone of the trade, but is he really the ideal customer? I recently wrote about the book A Year in the Drink by Martin Green. In this, he describes pub life in a small Welsh market town where, frankly, there was little else to do but go to the pub. And he makes the point that many of his regular customers were rather sad individuals who had no other social life, not cheery stalwarts.

We all want pubs to succeed, and most of us will have been regulars in some pub or other over the years, whether it is meeting up with mates on a Friday night, reading the paper on Sunday lunchtime or calling in for a couple a few nights a week on the way home from work. When I was at university, a mate and I in the same house would go down to the local (rather crappy) pub two or three nights a week.

But it has to be admitted – and most licensees will know this – that, for some people, being in the pub every night is a symptom of a sad and broken life, and there’s simply nothing else for them to do. Stonch nails it in this blogpost, where a commenter says that “the thought of listening to the bollocks that tsunamis over the bar on an average night for the rest of his life was too much for any half-intelligent person to put up with.” If you think you’re going into the pub trade to be the centre of cheery bonhomie and witty banter, you’re sadly mistaken.

This is, of course, not to say that pub companionship and conviviality isn’t generally a very good thing but, as with many other things, once it becomes your sole focus in life, it has its dark side. You do see this rather less now – the foodification of many pubs, the smoking ban, and the ever-rising price of on-trade beer must be factors. But you wonder how many of the former barstool raconteurs are now sitting at home with a packet of Bensons and a four-pack of Special Brew swearing at the telly.

I once remember overhearing a conversation in a remote pub in the Yorkshire Dales about a character called Rodney who ran a chip van on Blubberhouses Moor. When not doing this, he spent every night in the pub. Whether or not he was married I do not know. Someone once asked him “Rodney, have you ever tried staying in just for one night?” “Aye,” he replied. “It were ten year ago. Didn’t like it.” Funny, yes, but at the same time rather sad.