Friday, 30 March 2012

Hazy thinking

In the late Seventies and Eighties, I had too many experiences where I was served a pint of soup masquerading as beer and, on taking it back to the bar, was told “it’s real ale, Sir, it’s meant to be like that.” On a couple of occasions the barperson even said “and you’ve had a drink out of it!” as a reason not to change it. And there were a handful of times when I was handed a pint with obvious bits of white stuff floating in it. At that time, the perception that it was frequently cloudy was a major disincentive to many drinkers trying cask beer.

Fortunately, things have greatly improved now. Many brewers have started cellar quality initiatives, and the Cask Marque scheme has done much to drive up the quality of beer handed over the bar. It’s now generally accepted that cask beer should be crystal clear, 100% of the time, and any failure of clarity is sufficient grounds for a refund or exchange, no questions asked.

However, I’ve seen a growth in mutterings that demanding clear beer is a bit pass√© and 20th century, and drinkers should be willing to embrace a new wave of funky, artisanal cloudy beer. Moor Brewery in Somerset put forward a motion to the 2012 AGM of SIBA that the organisation should remove clarity as a requirement for beer competitions. Whether the motion succeeded I don’t know.

It’s important to draw a distinction here. There are plenty of beer styles around the world such as Belgian witbier and German Hefeweizen which are traditionally and authentically cloudy. If British brewers wish to take up these styles, or brew other types of beer that are intentionally cloudy, then fair enough, so long as the customer is told what to expect at the point of sale. Cloudy beers can stand or fall on their own merits in the marketplace.

But this movement seems to go beyond that to suggest that the importance of clarity in normal cask beers is greatly overstated. It seems to be a case of “look at me, I'm a really serious, sophisticated beer enthusiast, I don't need to conform to such tedious mass-market norms as clarity.” It's a bit like a car buff saying that reliability is so bourgeois.

In the comments on this post, Tandleman pithily says “I think this is becoming some kind of artisanal snobbery whereby beer is sent out cloudy as some silly dick waving exercise.” There is a real risk of undoing twenty years of promoting good cellar practice and putting a whole new generation off cask beer.

With vanishingly few exceptions, a cloudy pint is a sign of poor cellarmanship – either serving green beer that hasn’t yet had chance to settle properly, or a cask having been disturbed in the cellar, or trying to eke out the last dregs and sucking up some sediment. You don’t need to taste it – it’s a glaring fault, and should be sent straight back.

Some may criticise this as “drinking with your eyes”, but I make no apology for expecting beer to appeal to the sense of sight as well as taste, and to be well-presented and look good in the glass. Food is all the better for being carefully arranged rather than just flung on the plate, and so is beer. And that attitude is not all that far from suggesting you shouldn’t be that bothered about the taste so long as it gets you pissed.

I’m sure many of you will have been in the position where you order a pint in an unfamiliar pub, and it comes out just borderline hazy, with a thin, scummy head, and a glass that is warm to the touch, and you just know before a drop passes your lips that it’s going to be crap. Clarity doesn’t guarantee a good pint, but for the general run of British ales, a lack of it is a sure sign of a poor one.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Breaking the barrier

I’ve been in a growing number of pubs recently where I’ve been charged over £3 for cask beers of ordinary strength, around 4% ABV. That included one occasion when the price was a ludicrous £3.01. After the duty rise in the Budget, the £3 pint will become much more common.

I’m old enough to remember when people said “drinkers will never stand for paying a pound a pint”, and then the same was said for two pounds. Of course they did, but each time in somewhat smaller numbers.

I’ve seen a few posts in the blogosphere where price has been dismissed as something of little importance, and comments have been made along the lines of “it’s worth paying more for really good beer.” However, unless you’re rolling in it, or only drink a couple of pints a week in the pub, price is not something that can be ignored. Most people have, to a greater or lesser extent, a limited budget and have to juggle and trade off various priorities in their lives.

I have to say £3 rather sticks in my craw and makes me think whether I should have a half or a pint less than I really wanted. I also have to question whether I can justify paying that, or nearly that, in a Robinson’s or a pub company pub, when in the local area I can be paying £2.15 for Holts, £1.99 in Spoons or a mere £1.60 for Sam Smith’s. (Those are pre-budget prices, but they’re unlikely to be more than 10p higher now).

I remember when I first moved into this area at the end of 1984 that a pint of bitter tended to be around 60p. Between February 1985 and February 2012, the Retail Prices Index has increased by 161%. So the 60p pint, had it gone up in proportion to the RPI, would now be £1.57. However, in fact it’s more like £2.80, a rise of 367% rather than 161%. It’s not that off-trade alcohol has become cheaper in real terms, but that the on-trade has become much dearer.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

An undiluted success?

Good news from the Scotch whisky industry where exports broke new records in 2011, increasing in value by 23% to £4.23 billion. This was praised by Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead, who said:
“Scotland is rightly hailed as a land of food and drink, which is underpinned by the record exports achieved in 2011.

“This demonstrates that people around the world are appreciating the high quality and delicious products that Scotland's larder has to offer.

“With exports increasing by more than a fifth, the whisky industry has seen hugely impressive year-on-year growth, while Scotland's iconic seafood remains at the heart of our food exports offering.”
It must be said that is more than a touch hypocritical coming from an administration that refuses to regard the whisky industry as a legitimate consultee when considering domestic policy, and is intent on introducing a minimum pricing policy that domestically will administer a severe blow to it.

Maybe some of these self-important administrators should remember who ultimately pays their salaries.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Strike at the root

So, all those entreaties from CAMRA, SIBA and the BBPA fell on deaf ears, and Osborne put up beer duties by RPI + 2%, just as he had said he would. He gave no indication that he had even considered the case against. This is just what I forecast – the campaign, while laudable in motivation, was just so much pissing in the wind.

Where do we go from here, then? Will “one more heave” do the trick, or is a radically different approach needed?

Realistically, I would predict that exactly the same is going to happen in 2013, and 2014, and 2015, and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. If you run your own pub, or a pub chain, or a brewery, accept that and plan for it.

It also must be recognised that, despite all their weasel words, the political class couldn’t give a shit about either pubs or the brewing industry. They see pubs as a blight on the environment and a cause of disorder and alcohol abuse, and brewing as a “toxic trade”. Any talk of pubs being “an essential part of the social fabric” will cut no ice with them. So attempting to appeal to their better nature and paint pubs as a positive force will inevitably prove fruitless.

Realistically, if you wish to defend pubs and the brewing industry, and stand up for the right of adults to enjoy a few drinks if that is their choice, you need to take a deep breath, step back and look at the wider picture.

This policy will ultimately only be stopped by defeating, or at least marginalising, the growing trend to regard even the moderate consumption of alcohol as an entirely negative and harmful activity, especially when done outside the house. Even if you cut off a head of the hydra by arguing on their own terms, it will still grow back from the root. So the key to stopping the duty escalator is to counter the entire premise of the anti-drink lobby.

No opportunity must be missed to rebut their lies and exaggerations, point out the lack of scientific basis for their claims (particularly the absurd official drinking guidelines) and stress the positive benefits alcoholic drinks bring for the vast majority of people who consume them. No accommodation or compromise must ever be sought with them, however reasonable it may seem, and no quarter ever given.

Any temptation to open up artificial divisions between different sections of the alcohol market should be avoided, and the campaign against alcohol should not be regarded as a special case but rather just one more example of the way governments to seek to exercise ever-growing control over how individuals live their lives.

If you do that, you might stand a chance of success. If you don’t, you will surely fail. It’s up to you.

Monday, 26 March 2012

200% proof positive

There’s a wonderfully splenetic attack on minimum alcohol pricing by Tim Worstall on the website of the Adam Smith Institute:

Minimum alcohol pricing is doing something that almost certainly shouldn't be done and then compounding the error by doing it in the most cackhanded way possible and illegally to boot. Just what is it that they teach in PPE these days?
Thinking about it further, it’s clear that the biggest losers from this will be the producers and drinkers of cheap cider. Personally I won’t miss the 3-litre bottle of 5.3% stuff for £3.49 on the shelves of Tesco and ASDA, but if the price goes up to £6.36 then some poor sods will be out of a job, and some other poor sods deprived of a cheap soothing tipple.

And how much does scrumpy sell for at the farm gate in the West Country nowadays? Indeed, does the farmer even know how strong it is? If it’s 8%, a pint will cost £1.82, which I suspect is rather more than the current price.

There will be an interesting relationship between minimum price, duty and production cost, the precise implications of which are rather difficult to even guess at, and which may vary each time the duty escalator is applied.

Taking the post-budget duty rates, the current level of duty+VAT for one unit of alcohol for each product category is:
  • Spirits 32.2p
  • Beer (normal strength) 23.4p
  • Wine (13% ABV) 23.4p
  • Cider (5.3% ABV) 8.5p
(Wine and cider are taxed at a flat rate over the main strength band, not per unit of alcohol)

So, in a sense, there’s more “headroom” to build in production quality in cider than for any other drink.

Edit: there’s a petition against minimum alcohol pricing here.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Screw the poor

Well, pretty much everything that could be said about the government’s minimum alcohol pricing plans has already been said, for example by Chris Snowdon and Brew Wales. 40p a unit may not seem all that much, when 4x440ml cans of Carling are already £4.29 in Tesco (61p a unit), but inevitably, once the principle has been established, there will be a constant clamour from the anti-drink lobby for further increases. How long before we see a “minimum price escalator”?

You might think that the political party that purports to stand up for the working classes would see a golden opportunity to attack this patronising, élitist assault on the lifestyles of the poor by a bunch of public school toffs, but sadly nowadays Labour seems to have been taken over by a bunch of Islington champagne socialists who give every impression of holding the actual working classes in deep contempt. On this, and similar issues, there is nothing to choose between the major political parties, as indeed I said before the election a couple of years ago.

It also doesn’t seem to have gone down too well with many of Cameron’s natural supporters – for example this article by Graeme Archer in today’s Daily Telegraph:
Government-controlled pricing for alcohol is similarly stupid, and how depressing to see a Tory-led government introducing it. This is classic policy misdirection, from the school of Paul Daniels. There is a town-centre, Friday-night problem with drunks; it’s not a media fiction. But increasing the cost of a bottle of wine and strong-arming supermarkets to make drink more expensive for Polish builders is not going to achieve anything, other than – perish the cynical thought in my head – to increase the income of the Exchequer. Every little does not always help, Prime Minister, and I’m willing to bet a tank of petrol that after five years of making wine more expensive, the newspapers will still be able to produce photographs of drunk women in sticky heaps at the end of a night out, “having it large” in Gin Lane.
And it would be richly ironic if the plan ended up being scuppered by EU competition law, as suggested in the lead story in today’s Daily Mail. Would Cameron really want to play the Eurosceptic card over minimum pricing?

A further thought that occurs to me is that, if we’re going to have minimum pricing, what is the point of High Strength Beer Duty? And what benefit will be gained from low strength relief, when even weak beer will still have to adhere to the minimum price?

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Start of the rot

It was clear well before July 2007 that the British pub was already in a long-term structural decline. Between 1997 (when the BBPA statistical series starts) and the year to June 2007, beer sales in pubs had fallen by 27%, and a lot of prominent pubs had closed. (For comparison, in the four and a half years since June 2007, sales have fallen by a further 26%)

But when did it start to become clear that this was happening, that a few isolated closures actually added up to a significant trend? Pubs certainly did close in the 1980s, especially in areas of inner-urban decline, but there was generally a feeling that this was just an adjustment to population movements, and at this time new pubs were still being opened in built-up areas, such as the Hind’s Head in Heaton Chapel and the Four in Hand in Didsbury. Some of which, such as the Milestone/Rising Sun in Burnage, were closed again within twenty years.

However, around the turn of the decade, something seemed to begin to change. Maybe it was linked with the go-getting, yuppie culture of the time, but somehow just going to the pub for a drink started to seem less of a default way of spending your leisure time. This coincided with the Beer Orders which led to the transfer of over half the pubs in Britain from the major brewers to pub companies which took a more calculating and dispassionate view of their estates. Owning 10,000 pubs became less a sign of strength and more of a burden.

The first major sign that somewhat was afoot came not with mass closures, but with the large-scale removal of cask beer in the mid-Nineties from many of the less prominent and more downmarket pubs. This started to become apparent around 1996. Of course, many of the pubs to which that happened ended up closing ten years later.

I have written before of the variety of changes in society that have led to people being less inclined to drink in pubs, and most of these trends (excepting the smoking ban) were clearly gathering pace by 2000. But it was only after that date that the high-profile pub closures became impossible to ignore.

In hindsight, what probably brought it home to me was a pub called The Salter in Weaverham in Cheshire, which closed its doors in about 2001. It was a 1950s estate-type pub, but in a reasonably pleasant and prosperous area, and well-sited on a main road. Nobody could claim its location made it unviable. It’s now this little housing development. And it has proved to be the precursor of many, many more.

80 not out

This weekend, the Davenport Arms in Woodford will be celebrating eighty years under the stewardship of four generations of the Hallworth family, as announced in this press release from Robinson’s brewery.

It’s a characterful redbrick farmhouse-style pub which is almost certainly the nearest thing to a proper country pub within the boundaries of Stockport MBC. See here for a more detailed description.

Let’s hope they can keep going through the next eighty years.

The picture shows the presentation last December for twenty-five consecutive years in the Good Beer Guide.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Heads we win, tails you lose

Some sections of the media – although fewer than last year – were misled by the statement in the Budget that there would be no change to already announced plans for alcohol duties, and wrongly claimed that duties were being “frozen”. In fact, of course, they’re going up by an eye-watering 5%, which means that a pint of 4% beer will bear duty plus VAT on duty of 53p.

There had been fears that further nasties might be lurking in the Budget, such as an increase in High Strength Beer Duty, or higher cider duties, but in the event nothing materialised. However, it must be likely that further punitive increases will emerge from the government’s Alcohol Strategy review.

One little wrinkle that has been sneaked through is that duties are being increased each year by the RPI (plus the 2% “escalator”), while pensions and benefits are only uprated by the generally lower CPI figure. The result of this is that duties will steadily outpace the incomes of poorer people. It seems that the government choose whichever figure they get the best deal from.

Anyway, look forward to more closed pubs, more struggling breweries and more happy alcohol smugglers in the coming year. Will this also sound the death knell for Morrisons’ 4 for £5.50 deal?

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Pass the sick bag!

In the sidebar there’s the following quotation from Chris Snowdon, author of the Velvet Glove, Iron Fist blog: “If I see one more politician who voted for the smoking ban crying crocodile tears about the state of the pub industry, I may throw up.”

An Early Day Motion has recently been tabled in the House of Commons to suspend the beer duty escalator to help reduce pub closures. So far, it has been signed by 97 MPs, of whom the following 47 voted in favour of banning smoking in pubs:

Peter Bottomley (Con), James Clappison (Con), David Anderson (Lab), Adrian Bailey (Lab), Kevin Barron (Lab), Clive Betts (Lab), Tom Brake (LD), Annette Brooke (LD), Lorely Burt (LD), Menzies Campbell (LD), Martin Caton (Lab), Tom Clarke (Lab), Rosie Cooper (Lab), Jim Dobbin (Lab), Frank Doran (Lab), Jim Dowd (Lab), Louise Ellman (Lab), Paul Flynn (Lab), Don Foster (LD), Mike Gapes (Lab), Andrew George (LD), Mike Hancock (LD), Stephen Hepburn (Lab), David Heyes (Lab), Jimmy Hood (Lab), Martin Horwood (LD), George Howarth (Lab), Gerald Kaufman (Lab), John Leech (LD), Tony Lloyd (Lab), Steve McCabe (Lab), John McDonnell (Lab), Alan Meale (Lab), Austin Mitchell (Lab), John Pugh (LD), Linda Riordan (Lab), John Robertson (Lab), Dan Rogerson (LD), Bob Russell (LD), Dennis Skinner (Lab), Gerry Sutcliffe (Lab), Mark Tami (Lab), Joan Walley (Lab), Robert Walter (Con), Hywel Williams (PC), Mark Williams (LD), Mike Wood (Lab)
What a contemptible bunch of hypocrites! If any of them have since publicly recanted their support for the ban, then they may be partially excused, but I’m not aware any have.

Hopefully Chris isn’t feeling too queasy this weekend.

(h/t to Simon Cooke)

Slow food

On a few occasions recently I have been having a meal in a pub with friends or relatives, and noticed the clock ticking up over 25 minutes from placing the order, and no food having appeared. On one occasion we asked a waitress and were assured that it was “just on its way”, finally arriving about five minutes later. But there comes a point when you start to wonder whether your order has been forgotten, which I have experienced more than once.

So I thought I would ask what was the maximum waiting time people thought was acceptable for a food order in a pub. There’s a fairly wide spread of answers, but there seems to be a general consensus that it shouldn’t go beyond half an hour. The person who wouldn’t mind waiting more than an hour must either be extremely patient or have nothing better to do.

Obviously there has to be a bit of horses for courses here – you would reasonably expect to have to wait longer for a main meal cooked from scratch than for a lunchtime snack.

One local pub in the past offered a guarantee that your food would appear within 20 minutes of placing the order but ended up having to withdraw it after failing too often.

I would also say that, in my experience, while Wetherspoon’s bar service is often somewhat lacking, once you’ve actually placed your order the food tends to arrive fairly promptly. Obviously it’s only microwave cooking, but even so you need to get your kitchen procedures right.

Friday, 16 March 2012

The hour

Boak and Bailey recently referred here to meeting up in the pub for a drink immediately after work. There’s a long tradition of having a couple of drinks in the time between finishing work and your tea/dinner/evening meal/supper. It was celebrated by Bernard DeVoto in his classic book The Hour from 1948, described as “a paean to the restorative powers of a quiet drink at the end of the working day”. And the after-work trade is something that, historically, many pubs have thrived on.

But it’s something I’ve never taken to. I’m not averse to a lunchtime drink, but in the evenings I’ve always much preferred to come home, eat my tea, and then go out later. On the times I’ve done it, generally some work-related occasion, I’ve always felt it threw me off my stride for the rest of the evening. And I get the impression that, outside city centres, it’s a pattern of drinking that is now fast withering on the vine.

I have known some people, though, for whom finishing work often tended to mean the start of a five and a half hour session through to closing time.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Jump on board

A strapping, healthy-looking man walks into a pub, and orders a half-pint. You immediately raise an eyebrow and think “hmm, something’s up here.” There must be some reason why he’s done that, because you’re sure he’d rather have a pint. Either he’s short of time, or short of money, or he’s driving and getting close to his personal limit.

The only reason that stands up as not being something of a distress purchase is if he’s a beer enthusiast/ticker who wants to try as many beers as possible. But that doesn’t apply if it’s a half of Carling or Bombardier.

Even the excuse that he wants to impress his boss or girlfriend with his sobriety doesn’t hold true nowadays – if that was his motivation he’d stick to soft drinks. Let’s face it, unless they’re beer geeks, men just don’t willingly drink halves.

This wasn’t always so, and I understand that in the first couple of postwar decades it was common for men of the more mature or genteel sort to drink half-pints of beer. But, by the time I started drinking in pubs in the mid-Seventies, that had largely vanished. Halves were for old codgers and the limp-wristed.

However, people seem quite happy to drink bottled beers of 330ml or even just 275ml, which is no more than a half of Stella, without any fear of being dismissed as wimps. Could it be that the two-thirds pint “schooner” measure, legal from last October, will be the way of “decontaminating” lower-volume drinking of draught beer?

A survey by Molson Coors says that two out of five British consumers would order two-third pint glasses if they were on offer, although just one in 10 are aware that the ‘schooner’ option exists.

I have to say I haven’t been in a pub so far showing any evidence of offering them. There would certainly be occasions I’d try them if they were available.

If they eventually take off, I can actually see them superseding halves much more than pints.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

More invertebrates spotted in Scotland

The Scottish Conservative Party has dropped its opposition to minimum unit pricing for alcohol, in a deal that would see it scrapped in five years if it fails to work. Now, it may be argued that north of the Border the Tories have become pretty much a political irrelevance, but it is hard to see how spineless me-too-ism will do anything to improve their electoral prospects. Maybe they would do better to make a stand against the tide of joyless neo-Prohibitionism that seems to run through the veins of Salmond’s administration.

And how will we be able to tell if minimum pricing has proved a “success” anyway? If alcohol problems in society have declined, then obviously it will receive the credit, even if many other factors have been at work. If they haven’t declined, then the call is bound to come, not for it to be scrapped, but to be intensified. For so many of today’s problems in society, the call comes “Doctor, doctor, the medicine isn’t working!” to which the response is always “Increase the dose, then, Nurse.”

Monday, 12 March 2012

Travel sickness

Here’s a sad picture taken yesterday of the closed and boarded Traveller’s Rest in Runcorn, better known locally as “The Tup”. A former Greenall’s pub, it’s a handsome brick building with sandstone mullions, by the look of it dating from the Edwardian period or the 1920s. It’s in a leafy setting at one of the highest points in the town, commanding impressive views. Although approached by its own driveway, it’s within easy walking distance of some quite salubrious residential areas (yes, there are, even in Runcorn). At one time it was unquestionably the smartest pub in the town, but sadly no longer. If you think you could make a go of it, it’s yours freehold for £175,000.

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

It’s always fun when two facets of politically correct nannying come into conflict with each other. And the best laugh I had all week came when I read that dentists were complaining that making children eat “five-a-day” (which is a made-up guideline anyway, just like the alcohol guidelines) was leading to an explosion in childhood tooth decay. Sugar is bad for you. Fruit is full of sugar. Doh! Looks like we’ll just have to force feed the kiddies sprouts and turnips.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Last days of the Pub(lican)

Must-read piece here by Pete Robinson on the demise of The Publican magazine. His forthright, no-punches-pulled blogs in that publication are sorely missed. And he has been proved right, of course.

Saturday, 10 March 2012

The daily vice

Some shock findings here from the Institute of the Bleeding Obvious that young people are more likely to binge-drink, but the middle-aged and elderly are more likely to drink every day. No surprise there, then – anyone with any experience of life could have told them that the young are more keen on the big weekend night out, but once they get a bit older they will settle down into a regular routine of moderate drinking.

But what is concerning about this report is the evidence of the growing demonisation of daily drinking.

When it comes to men of pensionable age, more than one in five opens a can or bottle of beer, wine or spirits every day.

The figures shift the focus away from young people when it comes to the abuse of alcohol.
Sorry, but in what way is having one or two drinks every day “the abuse of alcohol”? As I’ve said before, if you’re regularly having heavy sessions at the weekend, it may make sense to have a day or two off to allow your liver to recover, but, given the same overall level of consumption, I fail to see how having a drink every day is going to result in any worse health outcomes than staying off it for two days a week and having a bit more on the other five days. Indeed, very often the ritual and routine of drinking is the means by which people keep it under control.

How long will it be before some granddad is stigmatised as a “problem drinker” because he has a single daily Scotch as a nightcap?

It’s also worth repeating the classic quotation from Kingsley Amis that “no pleasure is worth giving up for the sake of two more years in a geriatric home at Weston-super-Mare.”

Friday, 9 March 2012

Hydes update

Last night the local branch of CAMRA had a talk from Paul Jefferies, the Production Director of Hydes Brewery, about their relocation plans. During the course of 2012, they are planning to move from their existing Victorian Queens Brewery in Moss Side, Manchester (pictured), to a new site in a former Greenalls distribution depot near Media City in Salford. This will involve a dramatic reduction in production volumes from around 60,000 barrels in 2011 to a mere 5,000 a year.

Paul is a fluent speaker who was in full command of his brief. While some of the audience may have had reservations about the move, you can’t say Hydes haven’t thought it through carefully.

The real driver for the move is the ending of their InBev brewing contracts, which makes the current brewery, with its heavy overheads, uneconomic. In the short term at least, cask Boddingtons will be allowed to die, although he suggested InBev may look to revive it in the future.

5,000 barrels a year is a realistic assessment of the volume of their own beers Hydes are currently putting through their pubs. Original Bitter makes up over two-thirds of this. With more intensive use there will, however, be the opportunity to increase production well above that level.

They are going to concentrate entirely on cask beers - their smooth beers will be discontinued and third party alternatives brought in. They will also cease brewing Harp Irish Lager which even now is a strong seller in many of their pubs, and buy in a new portfolio of lager brands. They will continue to brew Owd Oak, 1863, Original Bitter, Manchester’s Finest and a range of seasonal beers.

They are also considering introducing a separate range of beers under a different branding.

As an all-cask brewery, obviously they will stand or fall on the quality of their cask offering, giving a strong incentive to get it right, but on the other hand it could be argued it involves putting all their eggs in one basket.

They plan to buy their new site outright rather than leasing it, which is a sign of commitment to the future.

While they have abandoned direct selling to free trade accounts, they are still looking at doing wholesale business with companies like Wetherspoons and Punch.

He pointed out that Robinson's new brewhouse has a brew length of 90 barrels, as opposed to 360 in the old one, so represents a similar although less obvious reduction in capacity.

Given the business situation they found themselves in, doing nothing and staying with the old brewery wasn’t really a viable option, so it is good that they have decided to stick with brewing rather than simply selling up. Only time will tell whether or not it proves to be a sound move.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Other room!

The results of the public bar poll are pretty conclusive.

I didn’t vote in this poll, and I’m a touch ambivalent about the result. I’m all in favour of pubs having multiple spaces to accommodate multiple pursuits, and possibly that’s how people interpreted the question. But I’m not convinced about the old-fashioned public bar, a Spartan space intended to encourage male working-class perpendicular volume drinking. That kind of segregation by class and sex is largely a thing of the past now.

And, even when pubs provide the design cues to direct the “vault trade” to a particular part of the pub, they often cheerfully ignore it. Well-designed pubs segregate customers without them even knowing it. Compartmentalisation is great, but the designated public bar is, to be honest, something from a vanished era.

Incidentally, “Other room!” is what I once heard an old-school licensee bark when some scruffy customers wandered into the lounge of his pub.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

The ups and downs of Hillgate

Yet more of my deathless prose in March’s Opening Times about the famous Hillgate Stagger (scroll down to Page 6). Since the article was written, the Royal Oak has closed, and it is believed that the Flying Dutchman is likely to go the same way (despite the winsome ladies suggesting I looked like Ronnie Barker). So what was once a 16 or 17 pub crawl will be reduced to a mere 7. Such are the times we live in.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

It’s your duty

I seem to have annoyed a few people by suggesting that the prospects of persuading George Osborne that scrapping the planned beer duty rise in the coming Budget were approximately zero. Which, of course, they are.

But that doesn’t mean that the current ever-escalating beer duty regime isn’t a thoroughly bad thing. Which, of course, it is, as explained passionately but somewhat unarithmetically by Pete Brown.

So please sign the petition which I have linked to on the left. If you’d like the HTML for the sidebar widget, send me an e-mail. It won’t happen this year, but one day it will.

As will the repeal of the smoking ban, so sign that one too, if you haven’t already.

If you believe something is wrong, go on and on and on about it, even if the prospects of immediate success are zero. In the words of former US President John Quincy Adams, “Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.”

You may lose the argument for a hundred years, but one day your descendents will win.

The sad thing is that a wide range of arguments that seemed to have been won in 1967 now appear to have been lost again. See this brilliant post by Simon Cooke.

A taste of the Lakes

Interesting news from Robinson’s that they have reached an agreement with Hawkshead Brewery to put Hawkshead’s highly-regarded Lakeland Lager into some of their Cumbrian pubs as a “premium niche product”. This further underlines the quiet revolution that is taking place in the lager market, with the traditional staples of Foster’s, Carling and Stella, with their laddish image, increasingly losing sales to products that are seen as more distinctive, authentic and upmarket. It reinforces the point I have made in the past that the big opportunity for smaller craft brewers to expand their keg sales is in lager, not in ale. Given that lager still accounts for two-thirds of the draught beer market (and even more of the packaged market) that offers huge scope for brewers such as Hawkshead.

It would also be good to see beers such as Windermere Pale and Lakeland Gold appearing as guests in Robinson’s pubs around here.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

One size doesn’t fit all

Nobody with an interest in pubs and beer can afford to ignore the issue of alcoholism, an affliction that unfortunately takes hold of a minority who go well beyond just liking a drink. But it was interesting to see, the other week, a Panorama documentary (whose general message was frothing at the mouth about supposed “hidden” middle-class problem drinking) presented by former New Labour spin-doctor Alastair Campbell, who claimed that he had been an alcoholic, but had now managed to revert to being a moderate, social drinker.

This, of course, goes right against the core message of Alcoholics Anonymous, who have always held that the only salvation for the alcoholic is total abstinence, for life. For some people, that may be the cure, but I’ve always believed that, for others, it was possible to change from being a problem drinker to someone who kept it under control. This is a view echoed by Phil Mellows in this very perceptive blogpost.

If you look at the statistics on alcohol consumption by how rich you are, the wealthiest fifth of the population do indeed drink slightly more than the poorest fifth. Yet the poorest fifth are six or seven times more likely to die an alcohol-related death than the wealthiest fifth.

This is because dying of drink is over determined by other factors such as depression, obesity, nutrition and social conditions in general. It would be reasonable to say that it's not the alcohol that kills poor people, it's the poverty.

Of course, middle class people die, too. But they have a much better chance of survival. And it explains, too, why they are better at 'functioning'. They also present well on television documentaries.
Everyone who has a problem with drink has to find their own personal salvation, and it is dishonest to insist there is a single, one size fits all, cure.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Your freedom is at stake

Here’s an excellent article from Rob Lyons on how plain packaging for tobacco products needs to be resisted. He is spot-on on the reasons why normal people should reject prohibitionism:

It may come as a shock to those who want to micromanage our lifestyles, but drinkers, smokers and lovers of fast food are not stupid. We’ve got the message that fags, booze and all the other wicked little pleasures are bad for us. The real reason that people engage in moderately unhealthy behaviours like these – so mildly unhealthy that we have to do them often and regularly over the course of decades to cause us serious harm – is that we enjoy them. We balance the long-term risks against short-term pleasure. That’s a far more sophisticated understanding of what it means to live life well than these grey and miserable latter-day Puritans could ever manage.
There is far more to life than just minimising every perceived risk. And the Puritans are surprisingly quiet when it comes to sport, most forms of which involve entirely avoidable risks to life and limb.

And plain packaging, and display bans, will never be applied to alcoholic drinks, of course. Or will they?

Too much bottle

A while back I won a prize of a 750 ml bottle of Marble Saison Special, weighing in at a hefty 9% ABV. There seems to be a vogue for these big bottles, but surely they’re a most inappropriate form of packaging, especially for beers of that kind of strength. They’re not screw-caps, so you can’t drink half and keep the rest for later, meaning you’re faced with having to consume what is effectively the equivalent of a full bottle of wine at a sitting. And, given that it’s bottle-conditioned, you can’t even pour out one glass and stick the bottle back in the fridge, you have to find a vessel into which you can decant the whole lot. A 330 ml or 375 ml bottle would make a lot more sense, and also be more affordable.

Although I had let it stand for a couple of months, and the beer appearing clear from outside, removing the cork caused some fobbing and disturbed the sediment, so I ended up with some very murky beer in spite of careful pouring. A good thing I’m well-stocked with bogroll. This seems to be my fate with any bottle-conditioned beer produced by micro-breweries. I can’t comment on the taste – it was an overpowering mixture of yeast and alcohol. Sadly, not a beer I would spend my own money on.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Reservations about reservations

I’m always slightly annoyed when I see tables in pubs with “Reserved” signs on them. It suggests both an excessive concentration on food and a somewhat snooty, exclusive attitude. Surely a “public house” should be just that – open to all comers, and first come, first served for the available seating.

If pubs want to reserve tables for diners, then it’s quite simple, they should have a separate restaurant, distinct from their public bars. Indeed, twenty years ago there was quite a vogue for pubs opening up restaurants, as it was seen as something bringing a bit of extra cachet. I can think of at least one where the former public bar was turned into a restaurant.

But more recently the tide has been running the other way, with the separate restaurants being stripped out and in effect colonising the rest of the pub with their place settings, pricey food and table reservations. It is more true than ever before that many pubs have, to all intents and purposes, turned themselves into restaurants and left behind their original purpose in life. Very often, there isn’t any attempt at providing even a small area with the “feel” of a drinkers’ bar.

And “Please Wait Here to be Seated” is a notice that really should never be seen in anywhere that lays claim to the title of “pub”.

Estate of disappointment

There’s a newish blog from the creators of Pubs of Manchester called Manchester Estate Pubs, which is basically a collection of photos of post-war pubs (not all estate pubs as such) in Greater Manchester and its environs. Probably well over half of the pubs pictured are now closed, although a few continue to thrive.

It’s also noticeable how frankly unappealing they all look. Indeed, while some licensees manage to do a good job with what they have to offer, it’s difficult to think of a single purpose-built, free-standing pub from the post-war era that you would actually want to go out of your way to visit for its ambiance. (Some modern pubs that were converted from other uses, or which form part of larger developments, do rather better) If they are “good pubs”, it is despite their architectural qualities.

In fact, these pubs were often designed with considerable care as to the decorative materials used, and how the different spaces were meant to work and related to each other, but somehow the soul seemed to be left out. Social changes over the years and insensitive refurbishments, in particular knocking them through into one massive antiseptic room, have steadily eroded both their function and character.

Most of the surviving inter-wars pubs which retain their original layout and fittings do considerably better on the atmosphere front but, as with their post-war counterparts, most of the bigger and more soulless ones have long since been demolished or gutted beyond recognition.

(The photo is of the Roundhouse in Heaton Norris, only just over a mile from me, which was demolished a couple of years ago and is still a patch of waste ground)

Thursday, 1 March 2012

More Blogger problems

Last week Blogger introduced a new word verification “captcha” which is much harder to decipher than the previous one, and which produced a number of complaints. Personally I was quite happy with the previous one, which as far as this blog is concerned had succeeded in pretty much eliminating spam. I ran a poll which concluded that the new captcha, while not ideal, was the least bad option.

However, now they have changed the appearance of the comment form, and in doing so seem to have lost the button to subscribe to further comments, which I would have thought was pretty vital. There have been a lot of complaints on the Blogger forums, but nothing has been done so far.

So I’ve switched the format of the comment window so it is now embedded below posts, which still gives you the option to subscribe to comments, and even lets you do so without having made a comment yourself, which the previous one didn’t. Let’s see how long that lasts before Blogger cock it up.