Sunday, 27 February 2011

Crystal ball gazing

Following my predictions for what would happen to the beer and pub industry in the next 20 years, I asked the question “What will happen to UK on-trade beer sales in 2011?” There were 59 responses, broken down as follows:

Grow slightly: 2 (3%)
Stay about flat: 11 (19%)
Fall by up to 5%: 12 (20%)
Fall by 5-10%: 20 (34%)
Fall by over 10%: 14 (24%)

On-trade beer sales fell by an average of 7.3% over the past three years, and I can’t see anything much different happening this year. Over half of all respondents thought it would be at least as bad, if not worse.

But, as I said in the comments to the previous post, the fact that the overall market is contracting doesn’t mean there aren’t still opportunities for specialist pubs appealing to enthusiasts. The closure of the Four Heatons has no relevance to the opening of the Port Street Beer House. The risk is, of course, that the general contraction ultimately bites the specialist operators on the bum. You can only sustain a strategy of a rising share of a shrinking market for so long.

Who’d have thought it?

Cue howls of Righteous indignation at the news that pregnant women have used NHS fruit and vegetable vouchers to buy cigarettes and alcohol. I can’t say it remotely surprises me that, given a near-cash equivalent, people will seek to turn it into the most readily saleable commodities. And it shows that ordinary people remain very resourceful at evading the tentacles of political correctness.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Who wants customers?

A few weeks I reported on the massive decline in on-trade beer sales over the past thirty years. Now, it is my belief that this is overwhelmingly due to social and legislative changes affecting the pub trade, and that indeed the average standard of service, food and drink in pubs is considerably higher now than it was thirty years ago. When pubs were thriving, there were plenty of poor pubs about.

But, the other night in the pub, this subject was being discussed and the point was made that maybe a substantial part of the decline was due to the fact that pubs had failed to move with the times and weren’t giving customers what they wanted. You can point to the example of Wetherspoon’s, who are doing very well and opening new pubs in an overall declining market. That’s undoubtedly true, and maybe without Spoons the trade as a whole would be in even more difficulty. But the Wetherspoon formula only works in particular urban locations with heavy footfall, and wouldn’t be appropriate for the vast majority of closed sites. The Four Heatons, for example, would never work as a Spoons. Wetherspoons have also burnt their fingers in a number of locations where they have misjudged the local market, so it’s clearly not a magic formula for all pubs.

A slightly different example is The Greystones, an inter-wars Enterprise Inns pub in suburban Sheffield where the lease has been taken over by up-and-coming microbrewery Thornbridge. Looking at it on Google StreetView, in its previous incarnation as The Highcliffe, it looks like any number of pubs up and down the country that have closed. The surrounding area looks like typical C1C2 mixed suburbia, not some yuppie enclave. Yet, apparently, having been taken on by people who really care about what they’re doing, it’s now going great guns. Read about it on Pete Brown’s blog here.

I’ve never been there, so can’t offer my own judgment, but from the sound of it I’d be more than happy to have it as my local. But, on the other hand, there are large sections of the pubgoing community that it probably wouldn’t appeal to. I’d like to think that pubs like our recently-demolished Greyhound could have been revitalised by the Greystones treatment. But to what extent is it really generating new business, as opposed to simply redistributing it from other pubs?

At the end of the day, a pub is still a pub, and its fundamental raison d’ être remains the same. It can’t “move with the times” by turning itself into something else. If people no longer want to go to pubs, no amount of wine dispensers, crèches, coffee-makers and wi-fi hotspots will make any difference. Even if every pub in an area was a Spoons or a Greystones, I doubt whether overall trade would increase by more than a couple of percentage points. And one of the oft-advanced examples of “moving with the times” – the general admission of children – is to many longstanding pubgoers excruciatingly offputting.

Oh, and what a pity they had to take the pic of the Greystones while it was still in primer...

I told you so

Shown to the right are four pictures of the Four Heatons (the former Moss Rose) in its current sorry closed and boarded state. This was the second-nearest pub to me and, while I never thought it was the best pub in Stockport, or even the best of the two, over the years I have spent a fair bit of time in there and drunk plenty of beer. I also carried out the surveys for its inclusion in the Good Beer Guide for six consecutive years from 1995 to 2000, although it didn’t go in solely, or even primarily, on my say-so.

And now, it’s gone for ever, obviously battered by the general long-term decline in pubgoing, but undoubtedly to my mind kicked over the edge by the smoking ban. For a while in the mid-2000s, after its refurbishment, it seemed to do OK, but since July 2007 it has clearly been in a downward spiral. It may not look at all promising now, but in its day it was a very decent pub with a healthy trade and a strong community following.

Obviously sad news, but am I entitled to feel a twinge of self-satisfaction in saying “See? I told you this was going to happen, and you wouldn’t believe me!”?

The banner on the third picture advertises “Kält Lager £1.99 all day every day; Hydes Original Bitter £1.99 Mon-Thu”.

The fourth picture, taken through the fence, shows the abandoned smoking shelter.

A bolt from the blue

Following my somewhat underwhelming experience of bottle-conditioned ales from local micro-breweries, as a contrast I thought I would sample one of the long-established favourites of the genre.

Brewed by the long-established Hop Back micro brewery in Salisbury, Summer Lightning was one of the first of the new wave of “golden ales”. It is now, I think, the only bottle-conditioned beer available in Morrisons’ 4 for £5.50 offer.

It comes in a square-shouldered brown bottle with a distinctive label featuring a carved head from the brewery’s original pub, the Wyndham Arms in Salisbury. I always think square-shouldered bottles are not the best for BCAs as they tend to create an airlock when pouring which can disturb the yeast. The ideal shape is the smooth, tapered one used for Taylor’s Landlord and many German beers.

However, this sample poured crystal clear without any difficulty after having been stored for about 48 hours. I left a few drops of beer in the bottom of the bottle but it gave the impression of now using “sticky” yeast so I didn’t really need to.

It forms a solid but not excessive head that persists to some extent all the way down the glass, and shows the distinctive rising spires of carbonation associated with bottle conditioning. The colour is a bright pale gold, maybe towards the darker end of the lager spectrum.

It’s fairly light to drink and doesn’t really give the impression of being 5.0% ABV. Side by side, you would not think it was any stronger than the 4.4% Hawkshead Lakeland Gold. The hop certainly dominates over the malt, but it’s a soft, restrained hoppiness overlaying a sweet note coming from the malt. It’s an earthy, Southern English hoppiness, though, not an insipid floral one.

In summary, this is a well-made beer that would make an ideal refreshing summer ale. It meets the three basic requirements of BCAs – clarity, condition and pourability. It’s much more distinctive than the broadly similar Young’s London Gold, but perhaps in the years since it was launched the spread of more assertively hoppy golden ales has, relatively speaking, made it seem more subtle than it once was. Nevertheless, it’s still something I’d happily drink a few of.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The Emperor’s new beer

I’ve argued before that bottled ales of sub-5% strength gain nothing in practice from bottle-conditioning, and that the quality control of those produced by micro-breweries is so inconsistent that buying them is an unacceptable lottery. This was certainly the recent experience reported by Paul Bailey here. A couple of years ago I won a bottle of Marble Lagonda IPA at a CAMRA raffle which hadn’t cleared after two weeks’ storage and ended up being poured down the sink, which rather illustrates the problem.

To put this to the test, I recently bought three bottle-conditioned beers from local micro-breweries for sampling. I thought I should give the Lagonda IPA (5.0% ABV) another chance, and also went for Bollington Best and Wincle Sir Philip (both 4.2%).

Now, it must be said that none of these proved to be a disaster – they didn’t fob uncontrollably, and I was able to pour all three and get the beer in the glass either crystal clear or with only a slight haze. However, none exhibited the lively natural carbonation that I would expect if a beer had actually conditioned in the bottle, and all had a somewhat yeasty flavour that I find offputting in a beer. Although the haziest of the three, the Lagonda IPA was the best, with a strong hop flavour trying to get out as well, whereas the Sir Philip was very lacklustre and forgettable.

So personally, the idea of getting a bottle of flattish, slightly murky beer with a yeasty flavour that I have to be very careful pouring doesn’t really appeal, and so to me such beers are actually inferior to the better brewery-conditioned ones. This reinforces my view that, in seeking to promote bottle-conditioning as a superior option for everyday drinking beers, CAMRA is very much barking up the wrong tree. Even to the discerning customer, it’s just not worthwhile. It’s a case of the Emperor’s new clothes. It does, though, work better for stronger special beers over 5%.

In comparison, I recently had a bottle of Worthington White Shield which, while still a bit sweeter than I would like, had the yeast stay stuck to the bottom of the bottle and demonstrated good carbonation and a dense, rocky head. The same was true of the two from Wells & Youngs that I tried last year, although regrettably I’ve not seen the Special London Ale in local outlets recently.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Old Mudge’s Almanack

Following Pete Robinson’s gloomy but all-too-realistic prognostications I thought I would peer into my own crystal ball and see what it revealed for the British pub and beer scene in twenty years’ time…
  • In 2010 there were 14.2 million on-trade barrels sold in the UK, and 12.7 million off-trade barrels. By 2030 that has declined to 5 million on-trade barrels, whereas the off-trade has increased to 15 million barrels, an overall decline in beer volume of about 25%.
  • The pub stock has not quite halved, from 50,000 to 26,000, but many of those that remain concentrate overwhelmingly on food and in practice sell little beer. (Pete Robinson underestimates the ability of pubs to metamorphose into things that aren’t really pubs)
  • Most traditional “all-purpose” pubs in suburbs, small towns, villages and the countryside have disappeared. The “pubs” that remain are mostly town centre canteens of the Wetherspoon type, urban style bars and suburban and rural dining pubs that are restaurants in all but name.
  • Specialist beer pubs continue to do well in some locations, but there aren’t really many more than there are today, and attempts to jump on that particular bandwagon by chain operators usually end in failure.
  • Pubs continue to do quite well in central London and middle-class urban enclaves, which means that the catastrophic decline across the country at large remains largely unheeded by journalists.
  • Wetherspoons have 2,000 pubs in the UK, and account for almost 20% of total on-trade drink sales. They are hailed as one of the great continuing success stories of British business.
  • The smoking ban is never rescinded, and indeed further restrictions are imposed which prevent smoking within 20 feet of external doors, and ban roofs on smoking areas. This effectively makes pubs complete no-go areas for smokers except when they need to eat a meal when out of the house.
  • A few years into the future, although not immediately, a 50mg drink-driving limit is introduced. Although widely predicted to only have a marginal effect, this results in a one-off 10% fall in the wet sales of pubs outside central London.
  • At some stage, something approximating to a 50p/unit minimum alcohol price is introduced. This causes a short-term 2% downward blip in off-trade sales, but no discernible increase in sales in pubs. In the following years, there is a marked increase in the involvement of organised crime in the alcohol trade. High-profile government “crackdowns” have no effect.
  • A “progressive beer tax” is brought in that increases duty per alcohol unit for every 1% strength increment above 3.5% ABV. This means there is very little beer sold above 4.5% ABV. All of the recognised “premium brands” from Abbot to Stella have been reformulated at 4.5%.
  • Half of the current regional and family brewers have left the business, and those that remain concentrate on premium packaged ales (usually, for environmental reasons, now sold in cans) with small pub estates as a sideline and showcase.
  • The international brewers still have no significant stake in cask or premium packaged ales.
  • The sheer scale of the decline of pub beer sales reverses the growth of micro breweries, but some of the stronger new/micro breweries become successful, enduring businesses and account for a third of remaining cask sales.
  • CAMRA has recently recruited its 200,000th member. Within the total of 5 million on-trade barrels, cask ale has exceeded a 20% market share for the first time in a generation. This is hailed as a great success.
A gloomy forecast? Undoubtedly, and I sincerely hope I’m wrong. But if you think I’m being far too pessimistic, then tell me what you think will happen, and let’s see who’s proved right. You could start by having a go at the current poll on what will happen to on-trade beer sales in 2011.

Of course, it should also be noted that forecasts based on an extrapolation of current trends invariably fall foul of a flock of black swans.

A crafty pint

Well, my not entirely serious poll asking what people thought of “craft beer” has come to an end. There were 68 responses, broken down as follows:

A useful term for quality beer made with care: 22 (32%)
A pretentious concept invented by beer snobs: 46 (68%)

So pretty much a 2:1 split there. The subject has been done to death on various blogs, so all I’ll add is my definition given in the comments to a previous post that craft beer is “beer brewed with the deliberate intention of appealing to beer enthusiasts.” And, putting my traditionalist hat on, “craft beer” as currently understood excludes pretty much everything that CAMRA was set up to defend in 1971.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Decline and fall

As usual, Pete Robinson, writing in The Publican, pulls no punches in a trenchant and sadly all too realistic analysis of the parlous state of the British pub trade.

There never was any demand for non-smoking pubs so the industry will never find it possible to replace it's dwindling customer base. Nor is there sufficient demand to support 40-odd thousand food-led pubs. It's market forces, plain as.

So with the trade not even campaigning for any amendment to the law we'll see our once-great pub culture wither and die over the next 10 years. At best we'll be left with a few chains of managed, town-centre food pubs-come-coffee-houses, basically Wetherspoon-clones, totaling around 12,000 in all.

Sure we'll attempt to rebuild and one day in the distant future new pubs will again be built and old one's converted back from flats, shops and Indian restaurants. But they'll just be bars and food halls, a mere parody of what once was, like those 'English Pubs' that litter the streets of Benedorm.

We'll never recapture that quintessential time-honoured character that made British pubs unique - the envy of the world. Much of that's already gone, ever since we threw open our doors to the forces of political correctness. We lost something very special the day when we allowed the State behind the bar. It's one reason why the customers have been drifting away.

Countless previous generations have cherished this trade before handing it safely down to the next. To our shame we may be the last generation to remember what a real pub was like. In years to come your own son may be writing a dissertation on how the Great British pub disappeared into the pages of history.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Another one bites the dust

I was taken aback, although not entirely surprised, to see the Four Heatons pub on Didsbury Road in Heaton Norris boarded up during the course of yesterday. In the morning, going to work, it still looked open. In the evening, returning home, the boards had gone up.

It is (or was) one of two pubs within easy walking distance of my house, although not the one I tended to frequent. It was built in 1971 as the Moss Rose to replace an old pub of the same name further down towards Stockport town centre. Despite the unprepossessing modernist exterior inside it was more congenial and comfortable than you might have expected.

It was built with separate cellars for mild and bitter, and I remember many years ago being taken down into the cellars by the licensee and being shown the impressive rows of barrels (and I mean barrels) on the stillages. Twenty years ago it was thriving and shifting large quantities of Hydes Light and Bitter through electric meters. More Light than Bitter too in those days. Unfortunately after that it started to go downhill, not helped by one or two licensees who struggled to get a grip on it.

In the early 2000s, in an attempt to revitalise its fortunes, it was renamed the Four Heatons and given a surprisingly smart refurbishment, although the exterior still didn’t give a proper impression of what was inside. However, this didn’t seem to do much to stem its long-term decline, and recently it always seemed very quiet, so its final closure in hindsight looks inevitable. There comes a point where you start to sense the “smell of death” about a pub. Note the smoking shelter on the right-hand side which was added post-2007.

Apparently the site is now to be redeveloped as flats. This now means that for a substantial area of housing, much of which is quite prosperous, there is now no pub within half a mile.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Going out in a blaze of glory

A big local pub, the Ash Hotel on Manchester Road in Heaton Norris, closed its doors for the last time on Sunday 16 January. I’m reliably informed that on the final night the air inside was thick with tobacco smoke. Good to see such an act of defiance, and it shows the demand is still there. And I bet more than half the customers were non-smokers who weren’t bothered by it. Hopefully the local Tobacco Control Officer wouldn’t be so vindictive as to attempt a prosecution, but if he had no doubt the former licensee could have snapped back “and what are you going to do about it? Close me down?”

Indeed, given the current local council cutbacks, shouldn’t all the Tobacco Control Officers be signing on by now? Is that really more important than libraries, swimming pools and public toilets?

Fake fury

The BBC reports that there is a growing problem of “fake alcohol” being sold in off-licences. Apparently up to a quarter of licensed premises in some parts of the UK have been found to have counterfeit alcohol for sale. It rather jars, though, to hear this described as “fake alcohol”, when in reality it is mostly fake vodka, with some fake whisky and wine. Nobody ever goes into a shop and asks for “alcohol” – is this an example of a subtle campaign to paint alcohol as a generic drug rather than a vast spectrum of different beverages?

The report also ignores a rather large elephant in the room – why, do you think, is it so lucrative to sell fake alcoholic drinks in the UK? Here’s a clue: “Alcohol fraud costs the UK around £1bn a year in lost revenue, according to government estimates.” High taxes inevitably create an incentive for fraud.

And I heard someone saying on the radio this morning that one of the main problems with fake vodka was that it had a higher ethanol level than normal vodka. Given that ethanol=alcohol, it’s not really a problem for the purchaser. Anyway, if you want to avoid being hoodwinked, maybe the best way is to stick to beer. Or just don’t buy any wine or spirits from dodgy corner shops.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Race to the bottom

Yesterday, the Manchester football Derby was screened on Sky TV at 12.45 pm. So I avoided going to the pub at all that lunchtime, as I expected them all to be full of raucous football supporters. I actually poked my nose around the door of one local pub at about 3.45, and it still was.

I have written before about how so many local pubs seem to be competing with each other in promoting live football and karaoke. I don’t deny that televised football has a strong following and draws many customers in, but on the other hand plenty of others have little or no interest in it. Licensees seem to take the view that if they don’t have it, they will lose trade, but across pubs as a whole many potential customers will be deterred, and of course Sky Sports costs pubs a huge amount of money. It’s a case of waiting for the other guy to blink first. As with many other things, surely a diversity in offer is in the interests of the pub trade as a whole, rather than everyone trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

It’s also very noticeable that most of the pubs that have closed recently have made increasingly desperate attempts to draw in customers by promoting cheap meals, karaoke and live footie.

Going to the pub is expensive compared with drinking at home, and if anything that differential is going to widen in the future. So, while it might seem a good idea in the short term, in the long run pitching your appeal at downmarket customers doesn’t look like a very sound business strategy.

(awaits tirade of faux laddery from Cooking Lager...)

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Fancy a can?

Well, it seems that most readers don’t very much. I asked the question “Do you drink canned beer?” and the 76 responses broke down as follows:

No, never: 16 (21%)
Only when it's free: 18 (24%)
Yes, occasionally: 32 (42%)
Yes, regularly: 10 (13%)

Not a huge wave of enthusiasm there, although 55% were at least occasionally willing to fork out their own money for canned beer, and only 21% would refuse a can if offered one at a friend’s house or party.

I’m not trying to be a cheerleader for cans – and my answer was “occasionally” – but it is worth pointing out that cans do have advantages over bottles in terms of better recyclability, lower weight (thus reducing transport costs), more space-efficient storage and protecting beer from light.

If the taste issue can be overcome, which my recent sampling of Courage Directors suggests is possible, then I can see an increasing number of “quality” beers appearing in can in the future, although there are still a lot of preconceptions to overcome. As on other issues, BrewDog are putting their nose out in front – it will be interesting to see how many readers will be trying canned Punk IPA once it hits the shops.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Market daze

A feature of the old-style licensing laws was that they gave leeway for towns to permit extended lunchtime opening on market days. Leafing through the 1979 edition of the Good Beer Guide, I found a number of examples of this – all in the South Midlands, with a particular concentration in Herefordshire. In Banbury, Kington and Ross-on-Wye, pubs could open until 4 pm instead of 2.30 on Thursdays, in Ledbury until 4 pm on Tuesdays, in Leominster until 5 pm on Fridays, and in sleepy Bromyard all day on Thursdays. I remember as a student in Birmingham making a Thursday expedition by train to Banbury to take advantage of their extended hours, but I wonder to what extent these extensions were really used back then, as opposed to being a hangover from a bygone age. I doubt whether the streets of Bromyard were full of drunks at 6 pm on a Thursday.

It’s also interesting that – broadly speaking – lunchtime closing was 2.30 pm in the South and Midlands, and 3.00 pm in London and the North. A few towns such as Northampton and Worcester even had 2 pm lunchtime closing. Around here, Rochdale was unusual in still having 2.30 pm closing, whereas a few places in the South Lancs coalfield such as Atherton and Westhoughton were 3.30 pm. 3.30 or 4 pm closing seems to have been common in South Wales. Across much of the South and West of England, morning opening was 10 pm. Nowadays, few people would contemplate going in a pub for a drink before 11.30, and many pubs don’t open until noon, if that. So what was the difference in social conditions ninety years ago that meant 10 am opening would be considered reasonable or necessary as part of a measure whose overall effect was to restrict access to alcohol?

Craft beer

“Craft beer” is a label given by beer snobs to beer that they feel entitled to be snobbish about. Discuss...

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

It’s the smell I can’t stand

But, of course, since dogs were banned from public places in 2007, you no longer have to come home from the pub covered in a vile canine stench.

Of course, I have nothing against dog addicts! I am a tolerant person. If they want to roll around in dog hair in their stinking homes, then good luck to them. Unless, of course, there are children present, in which case the dogs should be forcibly removed and shot. Likewise if the dog addict’s flat adjoins another. The same, naturally, goes for their cars.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Can the directors

Given all this talk of cans, I thought I would try the canned version of one of the premium bottled ales I had enjoyed – Courage Directors. Many canned premium ales have a softer carbonation than the bottled version in an attempt to replicate a “draught experience”, which to my mind doesn’t really work and just tends to leave them seeming a bit flat, but this wasn’t the case here. It formed a tight, lasting head and there were obvious spires of bubbles rising in the body. The general experience was very similar to the bottles, a good robust English strong bitter, malty yet dry, and you would be hard pressed to tell the two apart.

However, you don’t really save much compared with the bottles. Morrisons have a long-running offer of four premium bottled ales, including Directors, selling at £1.75 each, for £5.50, whereas the four cans were £5.19. This is 54p a unit, so Don Shenker will be happy. Oddly, some of the four-packs of cans were actually dearer than four bottles. Abbot was £5.60 and Hobgoblin was over £6 – both beers included in the offer. It’s noteworthy just how many of the best-selling PBAs are now also available in cans, such as Pedigree, Tanglefoot, Old Speckled Hen, Bombardier and London Pride.

Another interesting piece of psychology is how people are quite happy to buy four-packs of cans (or even 15-packs) but when buying PBAs they will generally get a variety. And someone buying a single PBA is a moderate, discerning drinker, but someone buying a single can (which are only sold by corner shops, not supermarkets) gives the impression of being one or both of poverty-stricken and an alcoholic.

I couldn't eat a whole one...

Mellorview is a local blog that from time to time touches on subjects related to pubs and eating out. I strongly identified with his recent rant laying out suggested guidelines for parents thinking of taking their children in pubs and restaurants:
Not everyone feels the same way about your children as you do. They may even have had some of their own. Perhaps they are enjoying a well earned rest from their children or have spent good money on a baby sitter.

There are any number of eating places in the UK that positively welcome children , even pre schoolers. You can easily identify them as they often use bright colours, give away toys, have playgrounds in them and their names may contain Wacky, Mac or Pizza.

Choose eating out times with care, the sun can help you with this. If it has gone bobos in the summer then perhaps it’s too late. Best to take them before the little hand is on seven and the big hand on thirty.

When they are big boys/girls and can tie their own ties or shoelaces you can try somewhere else where they must be good for almost an hour.

When your treasures get to Big School, they can stay out a little longer as long as they can remember not to throw food on the floor. That way, the nasty middle aged man who has been scowling at you since the darlings were two years old will suppress the urge to take revenge by boring you to death with a twenty minute monologue on his last round of golf or the nuances of undertaking a 20,000 mile service on a Mark 3 Ford Cortina.
I have to say that the experience of walking into a pub and finding one room dominated by parents and wailing baby, kiddie paraphernalia strewn all about, and other customers conspicuous by their absence, is a profoundly dispiriting one. It’s hardly surprising that many adult pubgoers decide they’d be better off down the road in the Volestranglers’ Arms, or even back home with a nice bottle of ale from Tesco. I’m convinced that any pub that gives young children unrestricted access into areas not exclusively used for dining is losing a lot of business.

Incidentally, many years ago I was in the Malt Shovel at Oswaldkirk in Yorkshire and recall a sign saying “We are happy to serve children – roast, grilled or fried.”

Diverging tracks

When CAMRA was founded forty years ago, the UK beer landscape was very different from today. Off-trade sales accounted for less than ten per cent of the total, imports were virtually unknown and in pubs the choice was between cask, inferior pressurised versions of the same thing, and weak, ersatz keg lagers. An interest in real ale was pretty much synonymous with an interest in beer, at least within the confines of the British Isles.

Nowadays, of course, things are very different. The proportion of beer sold in the off-trade has steadily grown and is poised to overtake the on- trade within a couple of years. Within this market, CAMRA’s campaign for bottle-conditioned ales has signally failed to gain traction with the general drinking public in the way cask vs keg did. The quantity and variety of imported beers has steadily grown too, and many of the beers most celebrated by enthusiasts are imports. And the draught landscape in the pub is increasingly being transformed by premium and “craft” keg beers – Krombacher, Hoegaarden, Leffe, Duvel Green, Innis & Gunn, BrewDog – which may not be at the cutting edge as far as the beer geek is concerned, but are symptomatic of a much more adventurous and eclectic approach to beer drinking. The idea that a typical pub sells cask mild and bitter, John Smith’s Extra Smooth, Carling, Stella, Guinness and Strongbow is increasingly outdated.

There has been a recent series of postings on various beer blogs on the issue of cask vs keg vs bottles vs cans, and the general view on what makes for good beer has been a long way from the received wisdom of CAMRA. See, for example, this posting by award-winning blogger Mark Dredge, in which he says “Keg beer. Oooh, sexy keg beer, Craft Beer in a Keg. It's the Future!” and “I don't need to start on cans. We all know how I feel about them. GIVE ME GOOD BEER IN CANS! Yippee. THAT’S the future. Maybe.” Of course he’s laying it on with a trowel for effect, but you get the point.

The result is that there is a large and growing territory in which CAMRA and “beer enthusiasm in Britain” no longer overlap. This in future may well become a problem if potential recruits with a wide-ranging interest in beer are put off by the fact that the organisation ignores and indeed sometimes denigrates many of the brews they appreciate and enjoy drinking. In the beer landscape of twenty years hence, CAMRA could have become an irrelevance.

This is not a suggestion that CAMRA should reinvent itself as a “campaign for craft beer” (however that is defined) or suddenly decide that keg beers are part of its remit after all. But anyone responsible in any way for the public face of CAMRA would do well to reflect on the wise words of founder member Michael Hardman in a recent Financial Times article:

“I must point out that we’re not fighting against anything, we’re fighting for something,” he says, as measured as a well-poured pint. “There may be some members who give a different impression and I apologise to the general drinking public for the fact that we’ve recruited those people.”
The future of CAMRA must lie in accentuating the positive, not waging a war over a line in the sand. Many thoughtful members of the organisation already take this on board, but, unfortunately, all too often its public image and pronouncements still don’t.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

The bottle premium

Recently, in the comments, Ghost Drinker mentioned that in his shop he was selling canned Grolsch alongside the bottled version at a considerably lower price, and wondered why anyone would choose to buy the bottles. So I asked the question “How much would you pay for a bottled version of a 5% beer selling at £1.25 for a 500ml can?” There were 75 responses, broken down as follows:

No more than £1.25: 27 (36%)
£1.40: 13 (17%)
£1.50: 22 (29%)
£1.75: 5 (7%)
£2.00: 2 (3%)
More than £2.00: 6 (8%)

Given the wide range of responses, it’s clear that some people are prepared to pay substantially more for bottles than cans, while others aren’t that bothered. It’s certainly true that there remains a widespread view that canned beer is inferior to bottled, which may stem back to the 60s and 70s when can technology was less developed and canned beer was often felt to have a metallic taste. For some CAMRA members, a can defines all that is bad in beer, and they wouldn’t be seen dead with one in their hands. Presumably even if it contained Budweiser Budvar or BrewDog Punk IPA.

While I don’t avoid them on principle, I can’t say I’ve bought very many cans, and never really tried to do a direct comparison between two beers that purport to be the same. It remains my perception that beer doesn’t taste as good from a can as from a bottle and so, while I might find a can of decent lager refreshing on a hot day, if I really wanted to appreciate a beer I’d go for a bottle. But I don’t know whether that’s just a perception, or does still reflect a genuine difference in taste. Some canned premium ales have a distinctly different, softer carbonation from the equivalent bottles, which is an attempt to give them something of a “draught “ character, but can come across as merely a bit flat. (Incidentally, for what it is worth, I would never drink beer directly from either a bottle or a can)

It’s also the case that, with few exceptions, “premium” products come in bottles, not in cans. Even when effectively the same beer is sold in side-by-side in both forms, bottles are priced considerably higher than cans. Bottles are for savouring, cans are for indiscriminate guzzling.

You can actually see this in action at the Bottle Stop, a specialist off-licence in Bramhall, a prosperous suburb of Stockport. This sells a range of imported German bottled beers, many from Bavaria, typically at prices between £2.00 and £2.40 a bottle. It also sells some imported German beers in cans, not necessarily the same ones, but with an overlap in terms of style and strength, typically for between £1.25 and £1.50. So it seems that, in practice, enough people think it is worth paying a premium of 75p or more to make it worthwhile for the shop to stock the bottles.

There has been a lot of discussion on beer blogs in the past few days on the questions of cask vs keg vs bottle vs can, with by no means a universal condemnation of cans, so you will notice that I have started a new poll asking whether or not you drink canned beer.

A whiff of intolerance

New York has now extended its smoking ban outside to parks, public squares and beaches, but that’s nothing compared with Malawi, which has now apparently banned public flatulence. If introduced in the UK that would make every CAMRA beer festival unviable – who hasn’t been standing there in the crowd when someone has suddenly dropped one? “Then they came for the farters” – you read it here first!

Friday, 4 February 2011

Bargain of the week

My local Tesco are currently selling Tesco Finest American Double IPA at just £1 for a 330ml bottle (usually £1.99). This 9.2% ABV beer is believed to be a rebadged version of BrewDog Hardcore IPA. It’s an unflinchingly bitter beer, but there’s plenty in the flavour mix as well as vast quantities of hops. It could be said to be the beer world’s equivalent of Islay malt whiskies like Laphroiag. To be honest, to me it’s more a beer to be respected than enjoyed, but even so at that price it can’t be resisted. It’s a mere 33p a unit, which will make Don Shenker splutter into his sarsaparilla, but I can’t see many tramps swapping it for their Tennent’s Special. You have to wonder whether its uncompromising character has put many drinkers off and led to Tesco discounting it.

A small tincture

Although alcohol consumption has been falling in recent years, it’s often said that in Britain we have lost much of our ability to drink in a moderate and controlled manner. An “all or nothing” approach is increasingly commonplace, and people are heard to express the sentiment “there’s no point in starting if you’re not going to finish.”

Now, I’m not saying that people shouldn’t get bladdered once in a while, but surely the best way to appreciate alcoholic drinks, and to consume them responsibly, is to drink them in such a manner that you feel no more than a warm glow or a mild buzz. We all know that, with the best will in the world, one drink can easily tempt you to have another, and another. In the past it was very common for people’s drinking to be controlled by adopting a routine pattern of consumption, or by surrounding it with little rituals.

People would get into the habit of having a couple of pints with their lunch, or on the way home from work, or before their Sunday dinner. They would have a glass of wine with their evening meal, or a sherry before it, or a tot of whisky before going to bed. And they would often engage in social rituals like saying “Cheers,” or “Bottoms up,” or “Good health,” phrases you rarely hear nowadays.

It used to often be the case that you would see older regulars come into pubs, have what they regarded as “their ration” and then leave again, something that is much less common nowadays. Sometimes, of course, this was in effect forced on people by driving, but very often it wasn’t. I remember one old boy who used to come in a pub on Sunday lunchtimes, buy two pints of bitter and a half-pint bottle of lemonade (all at once), consume them over a period of about an hour and a half and then go home again.

Also, to some extent, the traditional licensing hours with the afternoon closure had an effect on limiting people’s drinking, especially when the 10.30pm closure applied from Monday to Thursday and there were only two hours on Sunday lunchtime.

Obviously there can be no going back to the restricted and hidebound world of the 1950s, but there can be no doubt that we as a society would have a more responsible attitude to alcohol, and that people would appreciate alcoholic drinks more, if they introduced more ritual and routine into their drinking and weren’t so willing to abandon all restraint.

Thursday, 3 February 2011


Much has been said on Pete Brown’s blog about Molson Coors taking over Cornish brewer Sharp’s, producers of the rapidly growing (although in the eyes of many rather dull) Doom Bar Bitter. At a time when mass-market lager is a declining and increasingly commoditised business subject to severe price competition, it makes sense for a major brewer to seek to get into the higher-margin section of the market aimed at the more discerning and generally better off consumer. Very often, it is much easier to do this by acquiring existing businesses operating in that segment rather than building your own brands from scratch. You can see parallels with Cadbury buying Green & Blacks, and Coca-Cola acquiring a stake in Innocent Smoothies. But you have to be careful that you don’t kill the golden goose by eroding the qualities that made the brand a success in the first place.

Beer overall would benefit from Molson-Coors and the other international brewers becoming strong competitors in the cask and premium bottled markets. But somehow I don’t think they will. The precedent of what happened to Ruddles after being taken over by Grand Metropolitan is not exactly encouraging, and nor is that of Theakston’s or Boddington’s.

I’m certainly not a subscriber to the “tall poppies” school of beer appreciation, and I’m not saying that it is impossible for large corporations to be conscientious stewards of respected “authentic” premium drinks brands – this has been the case with Scotch malt whisky distilleries. But it never seems to happen with beer.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

I don’t like the taste

You expect to read some drivel on the Guardian comment pages, but this article from Anna Louie Sussman on why she doesn’t drink really does deserve a prize for self-righteousness. She is justly taken to task in the comments. But one thing that gets me is her claim that she doesn’t drink because she doesn’t like the taste of alcohol. If people choose not to drink because they are concerned about the potential effects, then fair enough. They are entitled to their view and I would not criticise them for it, although I would expect the same tolerance to be extended to those who do drink provided they don’t make fools of themselves. If non-drinkers start giving me sanctimonious lectures then I will actively shun their company.

But “I don’t like the taste” – oh, come on, that’s just a feeble rationalisation, although one surprisingly often heard. Alcoholic drinks cover a huge spectrum of different tastes, and many don’t really taste “of alcohol” at all. Have they really tried them all from Liebfraumilch to cask-strength Laphroaig and decided that none appeal? Would anyone say “I don’t eat meat - any meat - because I don’t like the taste?” Non-drinkers would be respected more if they were honest about their motivations.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

A fat-headed tax

In their latest piece of gratuitous nannying, Oldham Council have announced plans to impose a “fat tax” of up to £1,000 a year on takeaways serving “unhealthy” food. The first question, of course, is “what business is it of theirs anyway?” And the second one is “under what powers would they be able to levy such a tax?” A council can’t just arbitrarily decide it doesn’t like some businesses operating in its area and charge them extra.

The article also suggests that there might be opportunities for businesses to get round the tax by installing more seating, or by tweaking their menus. After all, you can offer a huge range of salads and other unappetising, politically correct dreck, but you can’t force anyone to actually eat it. And you can imagine lawyers sharpening their pencils for a judicial review of the way the council was sorting businesses into sheep and goats (or should that be lettuces and goats?). Would, say, Subway avoid the tax because they offer some low-fat options, when depending on your choice of ingredients and sauces you can eat just as “unhealthily” there as you can anywhere else?

Of course, they have form on things like this. A year so ago they announced plans to impose severe restrictions on any off-licences selling alcohol at below 50p a unit. Funnily, nothing has ever come of that. In reality, it’s just empty political grandstanding that will do nothing to solve Oldham’s genuine problems. If Oldham Council want even more empty shops in their streets, this sounds like a brilliant way of achieving it. Needless to say, some of the comments are highly amusing, particularly that by JayB at 09:37.