Monday, 14 August 2017

Nobody else has complained

Cask beer is a natural, living, variable product and, as such, with the best will in the world, it’s inevitable that very occasionally you’ll be served with a sub-standard pint. What matters is not that it’s happened in the first place, but that the pub deals with the issue swiftly, politely and without quibble. Unfortunately, though, as Martin Taylor recently experienced, it doesn’t always work out that way, and an ill-mannered and unhelpful response can easily put a dampener on an enjoyable evening. Indeed, the whole business of returning beer to the bar can be something of a minefield.

The first thing is to be specific as to exactly what it is you’re complaining about. If the beer is obviously cloudy or vinegary, then you should have a cast-iron case, although opinions will vary on what degree of haziness is acceptable. Personally, unless it’s declared as a beer that is intentionally hazy, I’m pretty dogmatic on the issue, and will reject anything with more than a slight cast. But, of course, if it is a deliberately hazy beer, how do you or the bar staff know how much haze is too much?

However, there are other faults that are not so clear-cut, for example being served far too warm, lacking in condition, having a noticeable off-flavour such as diacetyl, or simply being generally tired and end-of-barrel-ish. If you’re in a pub where you’re a regular and are known to the licensee and bar staff, such a complaint might be taken seriously, but in a strange pub you could well feel that you are chancing your arm.

It’s also important to clear about your objective when making a complaint. Obviously the best solution is to be given an acceptable replacement, either the same beer which has been pulled through, or a new cask tapped, or a suitable alternative. Failing that, the aim should be to be given a refund, which you may well prefer if it’s the only cask beer on sale and you don’t fancy a Carling as a replacement. Or, in some cases, just venting your spleen will leave you with a sense of moral satisfaction.

The last two outcomes, though, imply that you’ll be bringing your visit to an end. If you’re in the middle of a pub crawl, or there’s an alternative pub nearby, or you’ve just popped in for a swift pint, that might be entirely acceptable. But in other situations, for example having a meal or social evening with a group, or watching a football match or live music performance, you might not want to do that, and thus be reluctant to create a fuss. You’ll just quietly leave the sub-standard pint, and put up with Guinness or Diet Coke for the rest of the proceedings. The point has also been made in the past by Tandleman that you’re going out for a pleasant social evening, and creating a confrontational situation may end up leaving a sour taste in the mouth even if you gain a moral victory.

I’d say in general that attitudes to changing sub-standard beer have improved over the years, although it may simply be that as a more mature chap I command more respect than a pimply youth. The days of “everyone else is drinking it” or “real ale’s meant to look like soup/taste like vinegar” are largely a thing of the past. One of the worst responses I recall was “but you’ve drunk some of it!” Well, if I hadn’t drunk any, how would I know it was foul?

However, as Martin and his friends found out, that kind of quibbling hasn’t entirely disappeared. In that case, although they had spent £60 in the pub, they would now think twice about going back and he has disseminated his experience over the Internet. Given the amount of goodwill at risk, compared with the gross profit on a pint, it’s hard to see why pubs continue to argue the toss about changing beer if customers present a reasonable case. After all, I don’t think anyone beyond a handful of troublemakers deliberately sets out to wind pubs up by returning perfectly good pints.

To their credit, Wetherspoon’s seem to have adopted a no-quibble policy when it comes to exchanging cask beer. Bar staff who are not beer experts will be in no position to decide whether or not a complaint is valid, and they must recognise how much goodwill they stand to lose. If any customer established a reputation as a “vexatious complainant”, I’m sure it would be brought to management’s attention.

No doubt someone will point out that that, if you stick to mass-market lagers and smooth beers, you won’t have any of this problem with variability. However, the point about cask beer is that, when it’s good, it’s much superior to kegs and lagers, and the occasional duff pint is a price worth paying for that. If you stick to pubs in the Good Beer Guide, or ones with a decent reputation locally, you’re unlikely to have much problem. The only returnable pints I’ve had in recent months have been when drinking off-grid in pubs that I happened to like the look of, but came with no recommendation. And keg beers, especially small-batch “craft” ones, are by no means immune from faults either.

But, if you go into a food- or sports-oriented pub with a solitary Doom Bar handpump at the end of a long line of kegs, it’s entirely understandable if you decide to give it a swerve. And, at least once, we’ve all been there with that pint of slightly warm, slightly flat, slightly stale, slightly hazy beer, where no one fault really makes a convincing case for taking it back, but we conclude the best solution is just to leave it unfinished on the table...

Edit: I’ve added a poll on taking beer back in the sidebar, which mobile users won’t see.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Hooked on Hooky

In the late Seventies, when I was at university in Birmingham, one of the most common beers to be found in the handful of free houses that had started to relieve the duopoly of Ansells and M&B was Hook Norton Bitter from Oxfordshire. It was a classic “country bitter” – distinctive, well-rounded, bittersweet, with a slight earthy note, which offered a very welcome contrast to our usual big brewery fare.

Fortunately, while many other of the family brewers of that era have fallen by the wayside, Hook Norton is still very much with us. It stands in the extreme north-west of the county, in the village of the same name a few miles west of Banbury. While it claims to offer “beer from the Cotswolds”, in fact it’s just outside the area generally regarded as bearing that name, and in fact is more in ironstone country, distinguished by the notably darker and redder hue of the local stone.

Hook Norton is a long, straggling village that is pretty quiet compared with some of the nearby Cotswold honeypots. At the west end is the area known as Scotland End, and at the side of the attractive Pear Tree Inn is a lane leading to the handsome Victorian tower brewery, dating from 1899. It’s a resolutely traditional affair, retaining a steam engine dating from the time of its construction that can still be used to power the brewery, and still using shire horses to deliver beer to local pubs.

Even if you’re not going on a tour, the brewery’s visitor centre is still well worth a visit. It includes a small museum covering both the history of the brewery itself and of the village and the surrounding area. I was interested to learn that the village used to by a major centre of ironstone quarrying and processing, served by a number of narrow-gauge railways, and that, before the introduction of mains water in the 1950s, the deficiency of iodine in the local water led to a disproportionate number of people in the area suffering from goitres. There’s also a café and a shop where you can pick up the full range of bottled beers together with other merchandise.

The current beer range comprises Mild, Hooky Bitter and the stronger Old Hooky as permanent beers, as well as a number of seasonals, of which Haymaker is perhaps the best known. Old Hooky was introduced in the late 1970s as a traditional dark old ale, and is listed as such in the Good Beer Guides of that time, but at some point in the intervening period was repositioned as a premium bitter, albeit definitely at the darker and sweeter end of the range. The company history recounts how the brewery used to enjoy a strong trade for their dark mild in working men’s clubs in Coventry and North Warwickshire which only eventually came to an end in 2000. Hooky Bitter remains one of the finest British balanced “ordinary” bitters, and indeed reached the final of my recent Twitter poll on the best of the breed.

The 1977 Good Beer Guide shows Hook Norton as having 34 tied houses, but the number grew slightly in subsequent years through the occasional purchase of additional pubs. Wikipedia says it currently has 47, but the brewery’s own website states 40, which is probably a more accurate figure. Some of the smaller wet-led pubs will have been lost, in towns as much as in the countryside, but this has been offset by buying up pubs in towns where there is likely to be more trade on offer. Both Hook Norton and Donnington now have pubs in the small South Warwickshire town of Shipston-on-Stour, as, indeed, do Brakspear.

In Banbury, they have two pubs. One is the Olde Reine Deer (pictured right), historically a coaching inn, which retains the octagonal 17th century wood-panelled “Globe Room”, and has recently received a sympathetic refurbishment incorporating much dark wood and bench seating. The nearby Coach & Horses forms a sharp contrast as, while outwardly traditional, the interior has been remodelled in a rather stark modernistic scheme with loose seating and posing tables. Significantly, this was the only pub on my recent visit to the area where I had to return a cloudy pint. In another pub, I overheard some locals saying that what it needed to do was to concentrate on “basic food and basic beer”, which is very much what it doesn’t do.

Another noteworthy pub is the Elephant & Castle in the nearby village of Bloxham. This presents a rather forbidding, cliff-like aspect to the street, but once you pass through the archway you come to the main frontage of a very comfortable and welcoming two-bar pub. While in Banbury, I also visited the Wine Vaults, almost opposite the Olde Reine Deer. I remember this from a train trip while at University as a free house serving Marston’s, which was a long, narrow pub of great character with a stone-flagged floor and odd little wood-panelled snugs. Since then, it has fallen into the hands of Greene King and been dramatically remodelled. You can still see a faint echo of its original character around the bar, but otherwise it’s just another identikit pub.

Hook Norton makes an interesting pair with Donnington, another family brewer survivor, which genuinely is right in the heart of the Cotswolds. Donnington’s location and brewery buildings are arguably even prettier, and it has an estate of, externally at least, very handsome pubs in the distinctive local stone. However, few would deny that Hook Norton brew by some margin the better beers. They, and the brewery’s pubs, are well worth seeking out.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Sugaring the pill

It has been recently reported that moderate alcohol consumption reduces the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. This is yet another contribution to the huge body of research suggesting that moderate drinking is beneficial to health, and further undermines the Public Health objective of being able to claim that any level of alcohol consumption is harmful.

As those of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook may be aware, I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes earlier this year. Obviously such news takes you back a bit but, given that my father had the condition, and, in hindsight, I recognise that I had been experiencing some of the symptoms, it wasn’t a total bolt from the blue.

Well, Mudgie, you may say, you have spent forty years living on a diet mainly consisting of beer, pork scratchings and pizza, so you shouldn’t be too surprised, and really only have yourself to blame. However, risk factors are not direct causes. General lifestyle factors in society have raised the likelihood of people developing diabetes, plus diagnosis is now more likely than it once was, and people are living longer.

In the past, given that the immediate symptoms can be far from obvious, many people will have gone to their graves without it being spotted. My father wasn’t diagnosed until his late seventies. Whether you develop it has far more to do with heredity and chance than the actual lifestyle you live, and I know plenty of people who have drunk deeper and gorged more yet have remained immune. While I make no claim to have rigidly adhered to healthy living guidelines, I have for many years tried to make sure my alcohol consumption is kept under control, and have never been more than moderately overweight. Indeed, my current BMI is about 26, which I don’t think is anything to get too worried about.

As the news report indicates, drinking alcohol isn’t incompatible with diabetes, despite what some may imagine. However, obviously a bit of care is needed, and I’ve set myself a target of reducing my consumption by 25% compared with previously. On reflection, I was often going for “oh, let’s just have one more” when it added little to the experience. Over five months, I’ve achieved 23%, which isn’t too bad going. But that doesn’t in the slightest deter me from seeking out new pubs and drinking experiences.

In the past, the view was often taken that people with diabetes should completely avoid certain foods, especially those with a high sugar content. However, the current line is that nothing should be considered completely off limits, and that diabetics should basically just adhere to the dietary recommendations for the general population. But I’m a bit sceptical about that. The key factor triggering diabetes is sugar, and the sugar contained within carbohydrates, while fat, while it may not do you much good overall, has no particular implications. So it might make sense to go easy on bread and cakes, but there’s no problem with milk, butter and cheese. Indeed, in recent decades, the general dietary advice has been to eat a low-fat diet with plenty of wholegrain carbohydrates, which has been accompanied by a marked rise in cases of diabetes.

Not surprisingly, the subject is a magnet for various kinds of dietary cranks and single-issue obsessives, especially the zealots advocating a zero-carbohydrate diet. The forum at diabetes.co.uk is so infested with them as to be virtually unusable. And some people seem to have become “professional diabetics”, endlessly analysing their diet and blood sugar readings.

I certainly take the subject seriously, and I would be a fool not to. But my objective is to aim to manage it with the least amount of intrusion into my daily life, not to allow it to become an all-consuming fixation.

And pork scratchings, which contain no sugar or carbs, are in a sense the ideal diabetic food.

As a total aside, this subject gives an opportunity to listen again to this unforgettable classic of Sixties bubblegum:

Friday, 4 August 2017

Two-thirds of the way there

Alec Latham was recently musing on the subject of the two-thirds pint measure, which became legal in British pubs nearly six years ago, on 1 October 2011. At the time, I asked the question as to whether the “schooner” would float or sink. In practice, it seems to have been very much the latter. While they have gained some traction in specialist craft beer bars, they’re virtually never seen in the wider pub trade. I can only remember seeing one mainstream pub advertising their availability, and that was four years ago. Significantly, Wetherspoons, who are often seen as a bellwether for the trade in general, haven’t adopted them. In most pubs, if you asked for two-thirds, you would get a funny look and a pained explanation that they didn’t serve them.

Alec is quite right to make the point that a half never seems to quite give half as much satisfaction as a pint, and is often gone in much less than half the time. It’s just not a very appealing measure and, unless they’re doing it specifically so that they can taste more different beers, it’s rare to see blokes drinking halves in pubs. If they are, it’s usually something of a distress purchase triggered by lack of funds, lack of time or the fact they are driving. Ideally, they would prefer a pint. To put it in a blunt and politically incorrect manner, basically real men just don’t drink halves. They might be more attractive if they were served in oversize glasses, but that’s another story.

Obviously two-thirds measures make sense for the stronger beers that often feature in craft bars, where a pint may simply be too much. They are roughly in line with the 330 or 355ml bottles and cans that are popular for craft beers. But they also make sense for beers of more ordinary strength, where you just want “a glass of beer”, but a pint seems a bit too much, whereas a half comes across as a bit footling. On several occasions, I’ve ordered a pint only to find it was a bit lacklustre, and felt that I’d rather not have to drink it all. But ordering a half from the outset seems like an admission of defeat. However, as the measure has failed to take off in the general run of pubs, the option simply isn’t available. Maybe something of a pity, but a fact of life.

One deterrent, of course, is that in order to serve two-thirds measures, you have to have the appropriate glassware – either dedicated brim-measure or lined oversize two-thirds glasses, or pint glasses with a two-thirds line, or possibly specific measuring vessels. It’s not lawful to pour what you think is an approximation of two-thirds into a normal pint glass. And, given the investment needed to cater for something for which there doesn’t seem to be much demand, most pubs understandably have chosen not to bother.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Join the queue

Martin Taylor has recently reported on encountering a Post Office-style queuing system in operation in Wetherspoon’s in Cheltenham, something I have never actually seen myself, but have heard about in other locations. At first sight, this seems like an unwelcome development that subverts the usual interaction between customers and staff across the bar, and certainly my Twitter followers weren’t very keen on the idea. However, if you think about it, it does start to make sense in an establishment like Spoons. A bar counter is fine for getting your drinks handed to you immediately, and allows the customers to chat both to the staff and each other. However, in Spoons I’d guess that well over half of all orders include food, especially when you consider that many drinks will come as part of meal deals. As you don’t collect your food at the same time as ordering, the benefit of a service counter is much less, and it’s hardly surprising that cafés and restaurants in general take orders at tables. In the past, although it’s less common now, many pubs had a separate dedicated counter to order food so it didn’t get in drinkers’ way.

The typical Spoons has a very long bar counter and never quite seems to have enough staff, so with the best will in the world you can easily end up being served out of turn, and when it’s busy you may be in for a long wait. A queuing system makes sure everyone is served in order, and while it might not necessarily shorten the waiting time, it will make it more bearable, as you will be able to see clearly how long it’s likely to be before your turn comes. It will mean you won’t get stuck behind someone ordering coffees, as you’ll go to the first available member of staff, and it eliminates the problem of barflies hanging about and blocking the view of the pumps.

No, it’s not how a traditional pub works, and you do lose the contribution to pub atmosphere of interaction between staff and customers. But Wetherspoon’s aren’t really traditional pubs anyway, and in terms of how their business operates, queuing is likely to make things more efficient when it’s busy. If it takes off, you could even see the interiors of their pubs being redesigned with shorter bar counters divided into identifiable serving points, and display boards alongside the queue showing the food and drink menus. Maybe you could even separate ordering and collecting drinks, as in a McDonald’s drive-thru, so your drinks are ready when you actually reach the bar.

If anything, the Spoons smartphone app, which Boak and Bailey have written about here, undermines the traditional working of pubs considerably more than expecting customers to queue at the bar.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Gone over to food

One of the most marked changes in the pub trade over the forty years of my drinking career has been the ever-growing prominence of food. In practice, there was a lot more pub food around in the 70s than the decade is often given credit for, but even so it has steadily increased in importance such that, for many pubs, it now forms the core of their business. It has become a truism to say that, outside urban centres, most pubs now could not survive without food.

The situation where this is perhaps most obvious is when away on holiday. For most people, going on holiday is about the only opportunity they get to experience pubs outside their own area in the evenings, when they are busiest, and the balance of trade is most representative. I remember in the 80s, when visiting pubs on holiday, that there tended to be a mixed economy. Yes, many now served evening meals, but there was also a good leavening of drinking customers too. Fast forward thirty years, and all too often they’re given over entirely to dining. For example, last month I visited a pub on the Isle of Wight on a Monday night. It didn’t obviously present itself as a “dining pub”, but I rapidly became conscious that I was the sole customer who wasn’t eating.

Obviously the main driver of this is changing social trends and mores, and pub operators can’t be blamed for adjusting their business model to suit the shifting winds of fashion. It may be a matter of regret, but there’s nothing really that can be done to reverse the trend. But you do have to wonder whether it has, slowly but surely, led to pubs metamorphosing into something entirely different from what they once were. Certainly, the new-build “family dining pub” that is becoming increasingly common would be unrecognisable from the perspective of 1977.

Back in the early days of this blog, I described this as “a strange hybrid kind of business that may superficially resemble a pub but in reality is just a second-rate dining outlet.” I know that particular boat has long since sailed, but I still can’t help thinking that we would have both better drinking and better eating if the two hadn’t merged into one.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

The Brexit Arms

It’s taken as read amongst the beer writing fraternity that pubs, while they may be criticised for this or that, are unequivocally a Good Thing. However, out there in the wider world, this view isn’t necessarily shared by everyone, and over the years I’ve read a fair few articles by bien-pensant journalists arguing that pubs are, basically, well, a bit rubbish.

The latest effort is one by Marina O’Loughlin in London Eater magazine entitled Each to their Own, which was drawn to my attention by Boak & Bailey. This is a strangely schizophrenic piece in which, on the one hand, she accepts that pubs are just not for her, saying “Just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean there’s anything inherently wrong with it, just that it doesn’t work for me” , but then going on to level a list of criticisms against them.

Top of the list is that they “don’t serve good wine”, which comes across as spectacularly missing the point. As I said on Twitter, that’s rather like complaining about the lack of guitar solos in opera – it’s just not what pubs are about. Indeed, it could be argued that many, if not most, pubs don’t even serve good beer!

She goes on to describe pubs, with a metropolitan sneer, as being “offputtingly Brexity”. Well, I suppose you can sort of see what she means – pubs have always been a bit anarchic, rumbustious and politically incorrect, and you can understand why fastidious people might turn their noses up at them. I’ve said before that pubs, at heart, are more Sun reader than Guardian reader kinds of places.

It would be perfectly reasonable to argue that the rose-tinted view of pubs as cheerful, welcoming centres of community life is all too often not matched by the reality. But, if you basically see no appeal in pubs, then wouldn’t it be better just to keep quiet rather than moaning that they aren’t something they never set out to be in the first place? After all, I don’t much care for gyms or dance music clubs, but I don’t complain that you can’t get a good pint of bitter in them, I just ignore them.

Friday, 21 July 2017

A fit of the vapers

I spotted the sign on the right in the Prince Rupert in Newark, Nottinghamshire, which belongs to a small pubco called Knead Pubs. Similar blanket bans on e-cigarettes are commonplace, most notably in Wetherspoon’s, but the the faux-politeness of this one is particularly grating. It’s not much consolation to vapers that using e-cigarettes indoors is legal if the pub behaves as though it isn’t.

However, it illustrates a wider issue confronting public health policy. Despite indoor smoking bans and punitive taxation, smoking prevalence in society remains stubbornly reluctant to fall. In the past few years, though, there has been more sign of movement, which has been mainly due to the rise of e-cigarettes, or vaping. While many vaping devices do mimic conventional cigarettes, it is in fact somewhat misleading to describe them as such, as they don’t involve tobacco or combustion in any way.

It is clear that simply wielding a big stick is not an effective way of reducing smoking, and smokers need to be provided with an attractive alternative. However, the public health lobby has a big problem with vaping, not only because it falls into the category of “not invented here”, but also because it can be an enjoyable activity in its own right, not just a joyless smoking cessation therapy. The result is that they have been reluctant to endorse vaping, and indeed by going on about how its risks still need further investigation are in effect telling people to continue smoking, which comes across as an extremely callous attitude. No activity is entirely without risk, but it is pretty self-evident that the health risks of vaping are lower than those of smoking tobacco by several orders of magnitude.

It seems, though, that at last the public authorities are realising that encouraging vaping is likely to be the most productive way of cutting smoking rates, and this has been recognised in the government’s latest anti-smoking campaign, which is reported to involve urging millions to switch to e-cigarettes. But there is a lot of prejudice to be overcome from organisations, both public and private, that have found it all too convenient to treat vaping in exactly the same way as smoking. For example, I recently travelled on the Isle of Wight ferry, where both smoking and vaping had been banned completely on any part of the vessel, even outdoor deck areas.

Government, both national and local, and public bodies such as the education sector and the NHS, need to set an example by ensuring that the blanket prohibition of indoor smoking is not extended to vaping. If vaping is made no more convenient than smoking, then where is the encouragement to switch? And, while the principle of “my gaff, my rules” must always prevail, it should be made clear to commercial organisations such as pub operators that imposing blanket bans is distinctly unhelpful in terms of public health and, in effect, is indirectly killing people. The Welsh government’s plans for a ban on indoor vaping identical to that on smoking must be consigned to the scrapheap.

But the idea of vaping as a valid recreational pursuit is likely to be very difficult for many in authority to accept...

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Best of the rest

Last week, to mark the tenth anniversary of this blog, I posted a list of what I considered to have been some of my best posts over that period. Obviously such a selection can only be a snapshot, so I thought I would offer a second ten which further illustrate my key themes:
  • August 2009: Happy Days – a journey of discovery of adolescent drinking.

  • April 2010: Wooden wombs – at heart I have to conclude I’m more fascinated by pubs than beer.

  • October 2010: Premiumisation – why keg beers continue to sell for more than cask.

  • January 2011: Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll...and going to the pub – we don’t see the 1960s as a boom time for the pub trade, but they were.

  • August 2011: Drip, drip, drip... – the effect of the smoking ban on the pub trade has been a slow erosion of sociability, not a one-off hit.

  • November 2013: Craft vs Premium – how craft beer challenges the conventional concept of a premium product.

  • December 2013 - A brief history of electricity – it has now been airbrushed from history, but getting on for half of all cask beer was once sold through electric pumps. And, in several respects, they were preferable to handpumps.

  • October 2016: Getting out of the house – the simple act of going to the pub can provide a social outlet for the depressed and lonely.

  • January 2017: A campaign designed by a committee – will CAMRA’s “revitalisation project” end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

  • January 2017: The Sam’s factor – despite their sometimes high-handed and eccentric business practices, Samuel Smith’s continue to run an estate of proper pubs to a greater degree than any other substantial pub operator.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Craft corner

You would imagine that craft beer, with all its ebullience and self-confidence, would want to take on its competitors head-to-head in the market place. But, in reality, it chooses to differentiate itself so that side-by-side comparison is different.

On the draught side, it was always a cause of some discomfort amongst craft brewers that their products, in cask form, were dispensed by handpumps alongside the likes of Old Tosspot which exemplified the stuffy “real ale culture” they were seeking to challenge. So it was hardly surprising that they were keen to adopt “craft keg”, not just because they thought it was better, but also as a form of differentiation.

And, while craft keg facings may fit into the common T-bar dispenser, you’ll never find any craft kegs served through the towering, illuminated bar mountings that characterise Carling, Stella and the rest. Instead, the past few years have seen the rise of the “keg wall”, which is used to showcase a rotating range of craft products. In more and more recently-refurbished pubs, the draught beers are rigidly divided into three sections – real ales on handpump, macro kegs and lagers on tall fonts or T-bars, and craft kegs on a wall at the back of the bar. Many drinkers will look exclusively at one section and mentally blank out the others.

In the take-home trade, the craft sector has very much taken the 330ml bottle (and, increasingly, can) to its heart, in contrast to the 500ml bottle characteristic of Premium Bottled Ales and the 440ml cans in four-packs or slabs favoured by mass-market lagers. While many mainstream lagers are available in packs of smaller bottles, you never see them sold singly, and 330ml mainstream cans are virtually unknown. This makes direct comparison in terms of price per unit of volume, or indeed per unit of alcohol, much more difficult.

(As an aside, mainstream lagers seem to be sold in a bewildering variety of pack sizes, which seems to be a classic example of “confusion marketing”. How different from Germany, where pretty much everything seems to be in 500ml bottles and cans)

I’ve never been to the USA, so can’t comment directly, but I get the impression that craft beers there tend to be sold in the same package sizes and formats as mainstream ones, making direct comparison much easier. This article, for example, takes it as read that six-packs are the norm for both craft and macro beers. Yes, the craft costs more, but it’s very clear what the premium for higher perceived quality is. I can’t help thinking this may have been a key factor in its success.

It may come across as clever marketing that craft beer in the UK defines its own niche in terms of presentation and packaging. It’s not the same as macro lagers or BBBs, so why should it be sold the same way? But does it rather represent a shortage of ambition and a reluctance to take the fight directly to the enemy?

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Not going out

Even such a dedicated pub man as Tandleman recently reported that, on one occasion in London, the combination of high prices and probably indifferent beer meant that he and his other half decided that staying in with a bottle of red from Tesco looked like a better option.

Ever since I left the parental home, I’ve been regularly going to the pub on various occasions during the week. Not any particular pub, just pubs in general. And not for any specific reason – just to get a change of scene, relax, chill a bit, do some peoplewatching, get some mental stimulation. But, sometimes you do start to question whether you just end up doing it through force of habit.

Is it really worth forking out in excess of three quid for a pint that may well turn out to be a bit lacklustre, especially if you have to drink it listening to screaming children and thumping R&B music chosen for the benefit of the staff? Or feel that you’re the only drinker in a sea of people chomping their way through mounds of chips? Or conversely, while there’s nothing wrong with a bit of peace and quiet in pubs, sometimes the place is so deserted that you feel uncomfortable.

Don’t get me wrong, the experience in plenty of pubs is still good, but it can’t be denied that all too often it leaves much to be desired. And it’s not so much a case of pubs needing to do more to attract customers, but to do less to deter them.

Or is just going to the pub for a pint or two itself becoming a thing of the past?

Friday, 14 July 2017

Declaration of independence

A key element of the craft beer movement, starting in the USA, and now transplanted across to this country, has been championing small, independent brewers against the multinational giants. Not surprisingly, the news of craft brewers being bought out by those same mega-brewers has been met with much wailing and gnashing of teeth and claims of a sell-out. In response to this, SIBA (the Society of Independent Brewers) has begun a fightback by launching a scheme to indicate which beers come from genuinely independent breweries.

Now, I'm all in favour of transparency in terms of who brews what, and of standing up for independent producers. But it must be pointed out that all this will do is to show whether a brewery is a member of SIBA. Many independent brewers of both the family and tiny micro varieties aren't, but that doesn’t make them any less independent, or their beer any less good. It’s just a membership badge for a trade association.

It also has to be questioned how many drinkers are really that concerned about who brews their beer, as opposed to what it tastes like. Consumers are more sophisticated that they’re often given credit for, and I don’t believe that they’re genuinely being deceived into thinking that Camden or Goose Island come from independent producers. They’re entirely comfortable with the fact that big companies have lower-volume, specialist offshoots. Most of the finest Scotch malt whiskies come from distilleries owned by multinational drinks companies, but that doesn’t make them inferior, or deter people from drinking them.

In the early years of CAMRA, while it stuck up for the independent brewers who had kept the real ale flag flying, it always acknowledged that plenty of real ale, some of it very good, was brewed by the Big Six. Any kind of precise definition of “craft beer” is notoriously elusive, but are SIBA really saying that it cannot be produced by a multinational company, full stop? Not to mention the fact that there’s no shortage of low-quality slop made by small, artisanal brewers. Small isn’t always beautfiful.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Now we are ten

Today marks the tenth anniversary of this blog, the creation of which was prompted by a certain event that had occurred eleven days previously. The very first post, which set the tone for the next ten years, was on the subject of Bansturbation. This is post number 1907, so I have made an average of 190.7 posts per year.

It is noticeable how many of the early posts were brief bullet points that nowadays would probably be reserved for Twitter. It was a couple of years before the blog started to attract any significant number of comments, or that I became aware of the wider existence of something called the “blogosphere”.

So here’s a personal selection of ten of my most significant posts broadly spread over the past ten years. It’s odd how some of my most serious and thoughtful posts have been the ones attracting fewest comments.

  • February 2009: Winds of change – the reasons for the decline of the pub trade in favour of home drinking go far beyond just relative price.

  • December 2009: Don’t call me stupid – drinkers of mainstream beers aren’t ill-informed, they just have different priorities from the enthusiast.

  • February 2011: Who wants customers? – would the pub trade as a whole really be much more successful if it did more to meet customer tastes? Strangely, despite making a very important point, this one drew no comments whatsoever.

  • September 2011: Taste the difference – contrary to received wisdom, pub food was often more diverse and of better quality thirty years ago.

  • July 2012: Whatever happened to pubs? – how did regular pubgoing stop being an integral part of ordinary people’s lives?

  • August 2012: The real reason why – changing attitudes to drink-driving within the law are one of the biggest factors behind the decline in the pub trade, especially outside major urban centres. And possibly a major part of the answer to the question posed in the previous post.

  • January 2014: Out of control – claiming that on-trade drinking is somehow more responsible than the off-trade is divisive special pleading that simply helps the anti-drink lobby.

  • March 2015: Last pub standing – in some less prosperous areas, pub decline has been devastating, yet beer bubble denizens just don’t see it.

  • May 2016: A taste of tradition – there’s a gulf between what you buy as a consumer and what you follow as a leisure interest.

  • November 2016: False equivalence – It is wrong and unhelpful to regard bottle-conditioned beers as the direct packaged equivalent of cask.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

The old man and the pub

A phrase you often hear bandied about nowadays in a rather disparaging sense is “old man pub”. It refers not just to the clientele, but to a particular style of pub – broadly traditional, mainly wet-led, with dark wood in the décor, abundant, often fixed, seating and a compartmentalised layout.

However, it’s important to remember that there has always been an age divide in the customer base of particular pubs. The idea that there was a golden age when all ages mingled happily in the same pub is something of a myth. For long, there has been a general pattern that people use pubs frequently when they are young adults, but then start doing so a lot less once they settle down, start a family and try to climb the career ladder. However, once the children are off their hands, they have more time and fewer financial commitments, and the greasy pole no longer holds such attraction, they get back into the habit once more.

So, at any time over the past century, you would have found a divide between pubs with a predominantly young clientele, and those whose customers were more middle-aged and elderly. In Portrait of Elmbury, published in 1945, John Moore describes a classic “old man pub” in the Coventry Arms in his lightly fictionalised version of Tewkesbury, “which has a little back parlour where grave old citizens like to sit in semi-darkness and sip their beer and talk of old times while the shadows close in upon them.” And, while such pubs may not be to the taste of boisterous youngsters, is it such a bad thing that they exist?

Thirty years ago, the fun pub, primarily targeted at younger customers, was an established feature in most towns of any size, but as young people have tended to drink less, and in a different pattern, these establishments have largely bitten the dust. And what, nowadays, is the alternative to the “old man pub”? The gastro dining pub, which is mainly used by well-heeled older customers anyway? Or the family dining venue, which will certainly have some younger customers, but which footloose young single adults will do their best to avoid? Or the sports bar, where the lads might come in to watch the footy, but at other times be conspicuous by their absence?

While we’re seeing trendy “craft” bars springing up in many towns, their customer base is only a small subset of the whole age group, and only materialises at very limited times. Try going to Stockport Market Place on a weekday lunchtime and comparing the number of customers in the “old man” Boar’s Head with those in the Baker’s Vaults and Remedy Bar. Plus, it could be said that the micropub, given its typical clientele, is a modern recreation of the “old man pub.”

Surely all that an “old man pub” is, is a pub that has survived through the generations without bowing to every fickle wind of fashion. Obviously not every pub will appeal to everyone, but if you have a problem with them as a species, then it’s probably fair to say you don’t really care much for pubs at all.

The photo shows codgers chewing the fat in the Olde Blue Bell in Hull in May this year. “If it weren’t all for these medical treatments they have today, most of us’d be dead”, one said.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Beer from somewhere, or from anywhere?

People often draw a connection between the modern craft beer movement and the birth of CAMRA forty-odd years ago – championing small producers against big, bullying corporations and promoting choice, quality, innovation and diversity. However, I would argue that the two arise from very different roots, and that the apparent similarities are a lot less than is often supposed.

The 1960s were a period of dramatic change, where progress and modernity were the watchwords, and anyone who sought to stand in the way was condemned as negative and fuddy-duddy. It was the era of the New Britain that was to be forged in the white heat of the scientific revolution, and this spirit was keenly embraced by both of the major political parties.

However, as the 60s turned into the 70s, the downsides in terms of the destruction of the traditional and familiar became increasingly apparent, and there was a backlash in popular sentiment. E. F. Schumacher’s bestselling book Small is Beautiful is often seen as epitomising this trend, and it gained wide public recognition in the TV sitcom The Good Life. This was also reflected in greater concern for environmental issues, more interest in preserving old buildings rather than sweeping them away, the rise of railway preservation, and of course the real ale movement spearheaded by CAMRA. This movement had the virtue of spanning the political spectrum, by appealing both to left-wingers wanting to fight big corporations, and conservatives nostalgic for vanishing traditions.

But, at the time, CAMRA was entirely seen as trying to support something that was in danger of dying out. Real ale was something produced by small, stick-in-the-mud family breweries that had escaped the takeover frenzy, or by neglected backwaters of the Big Six, and sold in unmodernised locals to a predominantly middle-aged and elderly customer base. At this time, microbreweries scarcely figured on the agenda, and there was no product innovation, merely an attempt to keep what we already had.

Of course, as we know, this touched a wider chord, and the big brewers started reintroducing real ale to many pubs, and introducing new brands such as Ind Coope Burton Ale to meet the demand. But this wasn’t something groundbreaking – it was merely a recreation of an old recipe. It could be argued that there wasn’t really any innovation in the cask sector until the appearance of golden ales in the late 1980s.

Likewise, microbreweries didn’t really appear on the scene in any significant numbers until well after the birth of CAMRA, and when they did they were generally just brewing beers in the established styles. The appeal was that they were small-scale and local, not that they were any different. If there was any innovation, it was in reviving old styles such as cask stout and porter. And the first wave of beer exhibition pubs were just showcasing a variety of brews from around the country that hadn’t previously been available locally.

In its early days, CAMRA was basically about enjoying and championing something that already existed. The self-referential aspect of beer enthusiasm, whereby beers were brewed and pubs opened specifically to please aficionados rather than the general drinking public, was some way in the future. The multi-beer free house was a fairly early development, but in terms of beer styles I’d say it didn’t really happen until the “pale’n’hoppy” movement of the 1990s. Even golden ales were an attempt to produce a cask beer for mainstream drinkers with some of the appeal of lager.

In the USA, the rise of the large corporate brewers had pretty much entirely wiped out the independent sector, and also most stylistic variety, so the beer revival had to start from a much lower base. Prohibition had been a major contributory factor, of course – surely something similar in the UK would have seen the end of the likes of Hook Norton and Bateman’s. While it took a lot of inspiration from CAMRA, at least in its early days, I’m sure something similar would have happened in the USA anyway.

But, without any established framework of traditional styles, American brewers were much freer to experiment, with the result that there was incredible outpouring of stylistic variety. There also wasn’t the aspect of defending tradition that was a key element in this country. Eventually, of course, they came up with their own defining national style – the heavily-hopped American-style IPA. Over time “microbrewing” metamorphosed into “craft beer”, and then made it back over the Atlantic to inspire the current British craft beer movement.

Significantly, a major theme of this was kicking against not the giant international brewers, but Britain’s established real ale culture. It is very well summed up by Bailey of Boak & Bailey here:

“In the UK, used to describe a ‘movement’ arising from c.1997 onwards which rejected not only ‘mass-produced’ beer but also the trappings of established ‘real ale’ culture. Brewers aligned with this ‘movement’ will probably produce kegged beers, and may even dismiss cask-conditioned beer altogether. As much about presentation, packing and ‘lifestyle’ as the qualities of the product.”
And this is something that is very different from what is generally understood as “real ale culture”. It is heavily focused on innovation and pushing the boundaries of style, taste and strength. It broadly rejects the traditional and established. It is overwhelmingly urban - the archetypal craft brewery is in a railway arch, its real ale counterpart in a small market town or in farm outbuildings. It celebrates technological innovation such as kegging and canning. It is avowedly internationalist and, while it may sometimes claim “green” credentials, it rejects a locally-focused, “back to the land” approach in favour of sourcing both ingredients, especially hops, and inspiration, from all round the world.

As you will have gathered from reading this blog, this kind of thing doesn’t strike a chord with me at all. I’m not against it, and indeed have enjoyed many beers produced under the craft umbrella, but, as I argued here, there’s a big difference between what you like as a consumer and what you pursue as a leisure interest. There’s obviously a big area of overlap, as after all both are broadly about “quality beer”, but the wellsprings of sentiment from which real ale and craft grow are essentially different things. One is, at heart, about tradition and roots, the other about modernity and innovation. It’s basically the Somewhere versus Anywhere division expressed in beer.

It’s very difficult to put your finger on the modern “craft” movement, and I certainly make no pretence to being a general social commentator. I blog about what I like, value and understand. But Boak & Bailey tried to grasp it in this post about The craftification of everything. It’s a complete departure from the established concept of “premium” products as an expression of good taste and status, and is more a case of trying to express your personality and values through your choice of consumer goods. If you choose a craft beer, it says something about you, or you hope it does.