Monday, 30 May 2016

What did I tell you?

I can’t say the news on the front page of today’s Times is exactly surprising, but it’s good to see it in such a prominent spot in a national newspaper.

The article itself is of course behind the dreaded Murdoch paywall here.

I have made some suggestions before about some more sensible official alcohol guidelines. And it’s important to stress that exceeding them doesn’t immediately tip you off a cliff of risk.

These so-called “limits” are unscientific bollocks. And the more people who say so, the better.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Squeak up!

A few years ago, I posted about the growing problem of walking into a pub, finding nobody behind the bar, and having no means of summoning any service. Sadly, this phenomenon, if anything, seems to have got worse in the intervening years. Of course I appreciate that, at times, pub staff can be struggling to do three things at once. But, whatever the pressures, leaving the bar without service for five minutes or more is rank bad practice. I have on occasions walked out of pubs because of that. Even if staff are rushed off their feet, a quick acknowledgement of your presence and saying “I’ll be with you in a minute” works wonders.

The obvious answer would be to provide a service bell, as I proposed at the time. However, in British culture, that can come across as a touch aggressive and peremptory, rather like sounding a car horn. So surely the ideal solution, as one of my twitter followers has suggested, is to have a squeaky toy rubber duck on the bar. Friendly, humorous and completely non-confrontational.

Happy hours

A while back, I did a poll about what times people went to the pub. The results were really just a confirmation of the obvious so, as suggested in the comments, I created a more in-depth survey of people’s weekday pubgoing habits from Monday to Friday. I have to admit to letting this drift a bit over a few weeks, but, even so, there have been 55 responses in total.

Again it shows that people are going to pubs more often at lunchtimes from Monday to Thursday than is often supposed. Friday teatime was the most popular session of all, and beat any evening. Thursday evening was, perhaps surprisingly, slightly busier than Friday. The least popular session was Monday teatime. Teatimes and evenings built up steadily through the week, while lunchtimes showed more fluctuation.

In total, 49% of respondents had visited a pub at lunchtime, 64% at teatime and 76% in the evening.

Anyway, here are the figures in detail for you to mull over. The percentages shown in the graph are a touch misleading, as they are percentages of the number of people responding to that category rather than to the survey as a whole.

Friday, 27 May 2016

Blame the Jooz

Ever since I first encountered anti-pubco campaigner J. Mark Dodds on the internet, he’s come across to me as a bit of a wrong ‘un. For a start, he’s never shown the slightest sign of possessing a sense of humour. And he gives the impression of having an obsessive hatred of the pubcos which goes far beyond the rational. To him, everything that has gone wrong with the pub industry over the past couple of decades has to be laid at their door. If he’s that concerned about pubs, you have to wonder why he didn’t campaign vigorously against the smoking ban.

In many ways, the pubcos have proved to be highly unsatisfactory and badly-run businesses. But to claim that all those pubs have been turned into supermarkets out of sheer malice rather than because, in general, they were no longer viable, flies in the face of reality. It’s the stance of a blinkered, single-issue zealot.

And I can’t say I was entirely surprised to see this Tweet from him this morning which comes across as blatantly anti-Semitic.

Many people might have phrased that as “hard-right businessmen”, which in itself can be a veiled anti-Semitic trope, but no, he’s come straight out with it. This is nothing to do with one’s view of Trump, but he is identifying some shadowy conspiracy behind him, which of course, as usual, has to involve the Jews. Does he believe that “the Jews” are behind the so-called “Great British Pubco Scandal”, I wonder.

On the face of it, he gives every appearance of being a delusional, obsessive conspiracy theorist. To have him on board really does the pubco campaigners no favours.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

You can lead a horse to water...

Wetherspoon’s have always put cask beer at the centre of their offering, and their recent expansion into medium-sized towns in Scotland and Northern Ireland has brought cask to places that have scarcely seen it for decades. I recently saw a comment along the lines of “Why keep knocking Wetherspoon’s? No other pub in my town sells cask, full stop.”

So, full marks for effort and, in my experience, Spoons also do a good job of promoting cask beer at the point of sale. But the problem is that, while you can make it available, you can’t force people to drink it. Tandleman has recently been to Dumbarton in Scotland to visit his elderly mother, and reports a very dismal experience in the Captain James Lang, which WhatPub says is the only cask outlet in a town of 20,000 people.

Martin Taylor backs this up with a more general comment about Spoons:

Inevitably, this leads to a vicious circle of declining sales leading to declining quality which just serves to put more people off. Cask, more than anything else sold in pubs, is critically dependent on volume. You can’t stock it as a niche product selling five pints a day. I’ve long said that, if a pub can’t turn over enough cask beer to keep it in good condition, it shouldn’t stock it at all, and CAMRA should accept that rather than complaining. On too many occasions, I’ve had a pint of soup or vinegar from that solo apologetic handpump at the end of the bar, with the result that in unfamiliar pubs I now often think twice before ordering it. While it may not please many in CAMRA, maybe Wetherspoons need to recognise that cask simply isn’t a viable product in some of their Scottish and Northern Irish branches.

Some inhabitants of the beer bubble (not Tandleman) often fail to appreciate how, for large swathes of the pubgoing population, cask is something they simply won’t consider. On a recent Sunday lunchtime, I was in my local pub, where there were a mixed group of people in their twenties and thirties, plus a couple of reasonably well-behaved children. Quite respectable, not at all chavvy, indeed the kind of customers pubs want to encourage for the future. Yet the drinks were a mixture of lager, fruit cider and soft drinks. If any of them had had a pint of cask, it would have raised eyebrows. There were more cask beers on sale in the pub than there were people drinking it, with the not entirely surprising result that my pint, while acceptable, was a bit dull and tired.

You sometimes have to wonder how often some of the people who pontificate about beer on the internet ever actually go in pubs used by “norms”.

(NB: I got the OK from Tandleman before posting this)

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

The pub of the future

Let’s fast forward twenty-five years to 2041, and see what the typical pub looks like then. One immediately obvious difference is that, because all alcohol advertising and promotion has been banned, it is not allowed to display a brewer’s name or even state that it is a public house. Some describe themselves as “dining rooms”, while others rely on the lingering memory that something called the Red Lion is a pub.

Since 2016, the number of pubs has declined from 50,000 to around 18,000, with reducing the drink-drive limit and banning smoking in all outdoor public places being major factors. The only place it is now legal to smoke – or vape – is within a private dwelling where there are no under-18s present.

The appearance of the inside of the pub has dramatically changed, as most of the bar counter has been shuttered off, leaving only a small section for service. No drinks – not even soft drinks – are on display, and all must be dispensed out of sight of the customer. Drinks are ordered from an A4 price list in small type, either at the service counter or from electronic terminals at tables. You’re not even allowed to use your own smartphone, as you would be able to save the list and circulate it.

Most drinks, especially in establishments serving food, are now brought to your table, although in some more downmarket wet-led pubs you have to queue up at the servery. The only bottles you are likely to see brought out to tables are sharing bottles of wine, which, as with all bottles, are in standardised packaging with prominent health warnings. Producers do not even have any discretion over the bottle design. There are prominent posters on the walls warning of the health risks of alcohol and making it clear there is no safe level of consumption.

Although some pubs brew their own beer, as it brings some tax advantages, they are not allowed to advertise the fact. Apart from this, the ban on advertising and promotion has effectively killed the microbrewery sector and all innovation in brewing, as you simply cannot promote your products. Some familiar brands of beer, such as Landlord and Pedigree, are still available, but they basically depend on a fading folk memory that these were once popular and widely advertised products. It’s now very difficult to establish where they are brewed, or by whom, and few consumers are bothered. It is increasingly common for customers to ignore the stock list and just order a generic “bitter”, “white wine” or “Scotch”.

CAMRA lingers on as a small and ineffectual lobby group, but it has had to largely terminate its operations. Any organised publication, in print or on the internet, of where particular beers can be obtained is now regarded as alcohol promotion and is illegal, while it is completely impossible to run beer festivals as you’re not allowed to advertise the fact that you’re selling beer. People can still discuss it in private conversation, but even a reference in passing to “The Pride was drinking well in the Dog & Duck last week” in a blog or newspaper column will attract the attention of the authorities.

Needless to say, alcohol smuggling, shebeens, smoky-drinkies and illicit brewing and distilling are all flourishing, and give great opportunities to organised crime.

Far fetched? Never going to happen? Well, that’s pretty much the situation that applies to retailers and consumers of tobacco products right now.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Digging for gold

When CAMRA was formed, it already knew of all the traditional breweries and beers still in existence in the UK, partly due to the pioneering work of Frank Baillie and his Beer Drinker’s Companion. There were no obscure little backwoods producers with a handful of tied pubs still to be discovered. However, despite the emphasis put on the destruction of pub interiors in Christopher Hutt’s The Death of the English Pub, the same could not be said of our pub stock.

CAMRA was quick to establish a Pub Preservation Group, and there were a number of high-profile campaigns where historic pubs were threatened by the bulldozer. It soon became clear that many of the classic inns well-known for their distinguished exteriors had in fact been thoroughly gutted inside, and that true untouched interiors were often to be found in outwardly plain and little-known pubs.

In the 1980s, a more systematic approach was adopted, with the PPG morphing into the Pub Heritage Group, and the National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors being formally ebtablished. This was quite clear that the prime consideration for inclusion was the intactness of the original pub interior, however plain and humble it might be, and the architectural quality of the exterior alone was irrelevant.

Surveying was very much a case of following up suggestions that “Pub X is very traditional – why not go and take a look?” I remember doing a number of pub exploring trips with John Clarke from which we can certainly claim credit for verifying the credentials of the Duke of York at Elton in Derbyshire (pictured at top) and the Vine at Pittshill, Stoke-on-Trent. Both of these very special pubs are fortunately still with us. On the other hand, some leads turned out to be completely worthless, with us wondering what on earth possessed someone to suggest them in the first place.

The National Inventory has expanded to include a “second division” of pubs that retain significant original features, although far from entirely intact, and Regional Inventories of pubs that, while broadly unspoilt, don’t quite achieve the exacting standards of the main list. Even so, it’s a sobering thought that only around a thousand pubs are covered, about 2% of the total in the country. 98% of pubs have been so altered over the years that little of their original character remains, or are modern creations that never had any in the first place.

In recent years, there have been a number of new additions in Scotland, which have typically been long-standing keg-only pubs that people from CAMRA rarely even visited, let alone realised their architectural significance. There are probably now very few left to be discovered, but it can’t be ruled out entirely. Typically they would be pubs in rather off-the-beaten track locations, in suburban backwoods, small non-tourist towns or the deep countryside, that have rarely if ever sold real ale, and which have never caught the eye of someone with a feel for pub interiors.

One relatively recent addition is Sam Smith’s Turnpike in Withington, which has a remarkably intact early 1960s internal refit, and for long was keg-only. When CAMRA was formed, it would probably have been considered modernistic and worthless.

CAMRA have produced an attractive and lavishly-illustrated book of Britain’s Real Heritage Pubs, available at a very reasonable £9.99. It was published in 2011, but dates a lot more slowly than the Good Beer Guide. I’d say it’s an essential for any pub-lover’s bookshelf. To me, the whole project is one of the most interesting and worthwhile things CAMRA has achieved. Determined neophytes may of course find it of little interest, which of course is their right.

The National Inventory is something that could also set a challenge for completists. It currently comprises 270 pubs, spread across the country, some in remote rural locations, but most in urban areas and readily accessible by public transport. Not easy, but quite doable. I’ve never had the “spotter” motivation, but I have always aimed to seek out National Inventory pubs if in the vicinity, and have rarely been disappointed. In a sense, I’ve almost used it as a guide to proper, traditional pubs that I might like, although inclusion is no guarantee of quality, and I was very disappointed last year by the Plume of Feathers in Carmarthen, a terrible pub in a characterful building.

I was perhaps surprised to find out I had only done 55 of the 270, but that does include the Bush House in Bushmills, County Antrim, which I bet you’ve never been to! I’d also be surprised if there are many people beyond those involved in its creation who have visited more.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Pushed to the limit

Earlier this year, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer lowered the maximum “safe drinking” alcohol guideline for men from 21 units a week to 14, to bring it into line with that for women. That’s a mere six pints of Robinsons’ Unicorn, folks. I didn’t post anything about this at the time because it’s all been said before, and you eventually start suffering from “outrage fatigue”. The case against is well summed up here by Christopher Snowdon in his usual forthright manner.

A key point about this is that, while most existing drinkers were unlikely to pay much attention, by restricting the definition of “safe drinking” it immediately created a huge new population of problem drinkers, thus helping to keep the public health lobby in business without any increase in actual consumption. And, not surprisingly, “experts” have now expressed shock that millions of middle-aged men are drinking above government guidelines and do not believe it does them any harm. That could possibly be because they know the guidelines have been effectively plucked out of thin air, and it really doesn’t do them any harm.

The trade now seems at last to be waking up to the threat this poses. Paul Chase, director of drnks industry training consultancy CPL, has said that the trade cannot allow these overprotective new guidelines to stand and described them as “the opposite of science”, while CAMRA national director Nick Boley has rightly pointed out in a letter to the Guardian:

It is very easy to detect the joyless hand of the anti-alcohol lobby behind these guidelines. Indeed, one could surmise that they will only be content when every brewer, cider-maker, wine-maker, distiller and publican has been driven out of business, and a significant plank of our culture has been destroyed.
This letter is one of the most robust counters to the New Puritanism that I have yet seen from an official CAMRA spokesperson. I look forward to seeing more of the same. Hopefully the days are long gone when Mike Benner and others thought CAMRA should join forces with Alcohol Concern to fight the evil supermarkets.

There’s only so far you can go in appeasing the public health lobby when it is clear that their ultimate aim is your complete destruction. If you want to see the future, you need look no further than the current situation of the tobacco industry and its consumers.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Well, I’d certainly leave

Last night, on the local CAMRA “Stagger” of Offerton, in the Emigration Inn, we had probably the worst experience I can remember in thirty years of these events. It really needed the pen of Simon Everitt to do it justice, although I can’t see it featuring in the Good Beer Guide any time soon.

The licensee gave the impression of being somewhat the worse for wear, and called one of the party “a twat”, although I didn't hear this myself. He also referred to called Robinson's Brewery using the same term.

Obviously a sequence of people walking up to the bar and individually ordering halves of bitter might give rise to a bit of gentle joshing, but he seemed to take great exception to this. To each person he said “And what do you want? Oh, a half of bitter!” and then shouted “Roll with it!”

He proceeded to fetch some kind of cellar award plaque out of the back and angrily plonked it on the bar in front of the handpumps. The beer wasn’t much cop either, although I would say not quite as bad as some people judged it.

Otherwise, it was a good, convivial evening. If I lived in Offerton I’d certainly take my custom to the Victoria, Gardener’s Arms or Fingerpost, while steering well clear of the Emigration. According to WhatPub it has a “pleasant and welcoming atmosphere”. I don’t think so!

Edit: This brings to mind an anecdote from another Offerton stagger many years ago. The CAMRA posse were approaching the pub, led by the late Rhys Jones in full cry. One wag sitting outside piped up “Here we go! Save the fucking wallaby!”

Friday, 20 May 2016

Fizz for free

I recently received en e-mail from Punch Taverns inviting me to try a free pint of Carling or Stella in one of their pubs. Some might have turned their noses up at this, but, as you all know, I will drink owt never look a gift horse in the mouth. The selection of local Punch pubs on their website was very much a list of those I tend to avoid, but eventually I plumped for the Sir Robert Peel on Castle Street, Edgeley.

Originally a Greenalls house, the “Bobby Peel” is outwardly the most attractive of the five remaining on the street. The photo at the right is pre-refurb. It has flirted with real ale in the past, but on a Stagger a few years ago we ended up being refunded for undrinkable beer which they were in no position to change, and on the next one it had reverted to keg. It has recently been given a major refurbishment by Punch, and so I thought it would worth be popping in to check it out.

Previously a two-roomer, it has basically been converted to a single bar layout, although the old vault side, containing the pool table, is still fairly distinct. The general style of decor is very much “Amber Taverns” contemporary wet-led boozer, with bare boards, plenty of posing tables, little fixed seating, a multiplicity of TV screens and loud(ish) music, on this occasion Oasis. Even on a Wednesday lunchtime it was fairly busy, the all-day offer of Fosters and John Smith’s for £2 a pint possibly helping.

Although the promotion had been running since Monday, this was the first voucher the barmaid had encountered, but she rapidly dug out the relevant documentation. It’s a smartphone voucher, not a paper one. Several other customers were asking how they could get hold of one themselves. Stella obviously isn’t the world’s greatest lager, but it’s drinkable enough, especially when free. I was pleased to get a branded chalice without a gold rim, which is something I find oddly offputting on a beer glass. There’s now one cask beer in the form of Doom Bar, but I didn’t see anyone drinking it.

Punch have also installed this smoking shelter in the beer garden, which strictly conforms to the regulations, but at least shows they’re making an effort, with heaters, lighting, seats and bins provided. Many pubs do a lot worse. The beer garden also features a nice green expanse of Astroturf.

So an interesting bit of pub exploration but, except for the free pint, in pretty much every other respect I was happy to adjourn to the nearby Armoury. Carpet, beermats, cloth-covered bench seating, frosted windows and a brass fireplace topped with a Pub of the Year runner-up certificate and a Cheshire Regiment poster. What more could you ask for? It also has a more commodious smoking shelter. All that’s missing is a pub cat.

You might be able to get yourself a free pint by following the link in this tweet:

And no, I didn’t really think it was “fab”, although the price was.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

No worlds left to conquer

This was originally going to be part of my Taste of Tradition post, but it developed a life of its own. Back in the early days of CAMRA, there were around a hundred independent breweries in the UK, plus perhaps thirty-five run by the Big Six. Between them they produced no more than a thousand brands of beer in total, and no more than four hundred in cask form. The launch of a new cask beer was unknown, and the withdrawal of brands was a regular event.

Compared with the current situation, when we have over a thousand breweries and ten thousand regularly-produced beer brands, this may on the face of it look like a very poor choice. However, in practice, choice is as much about availability and market concentration as the sheer number of products. It’s arguable that, for the customer, a market with 100 breweries and the Top 10 enjoying an 80% market share offers more meaningful choice than one with 1000 breweries, but the Top 10 enjoying a 95% market share.

The number of cask beers was such that you coulkd reasonably aim to tick them all off, as Frank Baillie, the author of the classic Beer Drinker’s Companion, claimed to have done. Contrary to popular myth, there was a great variety of different flavours and characters amongst the beers available, and there is some truth in the view that, over the years, some of the stronger and more distinctive tastes have been dumbed down. Seeking out different beers also involved a lot of exploration, as most were only available in their home territory, which often was very restricted. That, to my mind, only added to the interest. The multi-beer free house had scarcely begun to exist.

My legal drinking career didn’t start until 1977, a few years after CAMRA was formed but, armed with a student railcard, I managed to do a lot of beer and pub exploring in the late 70s. I managed to visit tied houses of the vast majority of the independent breweries that had survived into the CAMRA era, including long-gone rareties such as Burts, Eldridge Pope, Morrells, Border, Hull Brewery and Yates & Jackson, plus the “famous four” surviving home-brew pubs, all of which are fortunately still with us.

The only ones I missed of those still trading in 1977 tended to be fairly small and geographically remote from me. I think the list is confined to Belhaven, Paines of St Neots, Hoskins, Ridleys and Darleys. I never went in an Oldham Brewery pub until the day of the protest march over its closure in 1988. I’ve done both the Isle of Man ones, although none in the Channel Islands, which of course are not strictly speaking part of the UK.

Darleys is perhaps a particular regret, as the brewery did not close until 1986, although I did not live in the North between 1977 and late 1984. Their tied estate was also rather oddly distributed, with a concentraton of pubs in and arouhd Hull, and none in the centres of the major Yorkshire towns and cities. Had there been a Darleys pub in York I would certainly have ticked them off. The picture at the top is of Darley’s brewery gate in Thorne, Yorkshire, and below is a classic image of the brewery taken in 1975, from this website. That’s an interesting touchstone of people’s attitude to brewery heritage – some will say “Wow!” while others will say “Yawn!” Not entirely surprisingly, the pub on the corner – The North Eastern/Corner Pin – is now an ex-pub.

Clearly the rise of micro-breweries in the subsequent years has complete altered the situation, and “bagging them all” has long ceased to be a realistic aim. One of the criticisms levelled at beer tickers is that they never were going to get every single beer, as a train or bus spotter could potentially do, although, unless you are an obsessive completist, I don’t really see that as a problem with something that for many is an interesting hobby. It also should be remembered that established breweries never produced seasonal ales until after the Beer Orders – that was very much something that started in the 1990s.

While I don’t claim to be any kind of pub or beer ticker, I’ve certainly drunk in tied houses of all the remaining regional and family brewers, plus the “famous four” home-brew survivors. For someone who’s got into modern craft beer but wants to explore the traditional side a bit more, that would be an interesting and achievable exercise. Not too hard, but would involve a fair bit of travelling, as most of the smaller tied estates are very concentrated. Sadly, nowadays, you wouldn’t need to venture over the border into Scotland, and there are even Okells pubs on the mainland.

Then, if you wanted a bit more of a challenge, you could start ticking off all the pubs belonging to specific breweries. Given their small estates and concentration in and around the urban Black Country, Batham’s and Holden’s would be fairly easy to do, and then for a complete contrast you could move on to Donnington in the Cotswolds and Elgood’s in the Fens. “Curt Mattis does Donnington”¶ - now that would be worth reading!

The ultimate achievement for the tied house ticker must be to do Felinfoel. I don’t think any appear in the current Good Beer Guide. All are well off the beaten track in West Wales, plenty are a bit grotty and unappealing, and many only offer keg beers. But keg is cool now, right?

¶ for the avoidance of doubt, “Curt Mattis” is a fictional stereotype of an excitable crafty, just as “Mudgie Mudgington” is a fictional stereotype of a grumpy ailurophile brown beer drinker. Both exist only in the mind of Matthew Lawrenson, and any resemblance to actual persons, either living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Well hellooo!

In recent years, it has become common for staff in supermarkets and other shops to be required to wear badges showing their first name. I don’t really see a problem with this, as it encourages a connection between the shopper and the person serving them. And, after all, this is likely to just be a one-off encounter.

However, it has now spread into the world of pubs, appearing in many managed house chains, in particular Wetherspoon’s. The situation in pubs is rather different, as customers will have a more prolonged interaction with the serving staff, and they might be more inclined to abuse it, especially after having consumed a few drinks.

The Pride’s drinking well tonight!

Regular readers of the CAMRA Forum will be familiar with the egregious Richard English, the retired travel industry trainer who is happy to pontificate on all beer and pub-related issues from a position of profound ignorance. He seems to think that addressing bar staff by their first names, even if you’ve never met them before, represents a friendly attitude that builds up a good relationship. Others, however, have differed, so I thought I would create a poll on the subject.

The results are pretty conclusive, with 79% reckoning it’s over-familiar. Imagine, in a pub situation, a young female member of staff is on sole duty behind the bar. An elderly, white-bearded gent comes in, peers myopically at her left breast, where her name badge is pinned, and says “Good evening, Kirsty. Is the Pride drinking well tonight?” Friendly? More like creepy. She will keep schtumm at the time, because she knows not to upset the customers, but later on will have a good moan to her colleagues about “that lechy old guy”. Inevitably, in pubs, it is likely to encourage uncomfortable encounters between older customers and young staff of either sex.

I would never dream of addressing a member of bar staff by their first name purely on the basis of it being displayed on a badge. To my mind, it comes across as rude and over-familiar. There are plenty of bar staff and licensees who I do call by their first name, but only because I’ve come to know them over multiple visits.

To be honest, it’s redolent of the old master-servant relationship. In Downton Abbey, the senior staff were always spoken to as Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes, but the juniors were Alfred and Daisy. It isn’t friendly, it’s patronising, and demonstrates a sense of superiority and entitlement. I was always brought up to treat people serving me in shops and pubs as equals, not lackeys. But maybe that’s because I don’t come from the servant-keeping class.