Friday, 30 November 2012

Gaining traction

Back in April, I wrote about the painfully slow progress of the e-petition opposing minimum alcohol pricing. At the beginning of this week, it had still only gained just over 200 supporters. However, following the government announcement, the pace has suddenly quickened, and in the space of a couple of days the number of signatories has tripled to not far off 700 when I last looked.

So please sign it yourself, if you haven’t already, and encourage your friends to do likewise. Also see here if you want to get the widget for your blog or website seen in the left-hand sidebar.

Multiple malaise

In a sense, the government have been quite clever in settling on 45p/unit as their proposed minimum alcohol price. 40p would have brought about a terrible howling and gnashing of teeth from the anti-drink lobby, whereas 50p would have looked like slavish copying of the Jocks and also would have impacted on enough popular drinks to fan popular discontent.

But 45p is cunningly around or just above the price at which most mainstream alcohol brands currently sell. Yesterday I had a nose around my local Tesco at categories of drink that I don’t normally buy. All the three top-selling cooking lager brands – Carling, Carlsberg and Fosters – were a full £4 for 4x440ml cans, which is well above 55p. Oddly, the supposedly premium Stella 4% and Beck’s Vier were only £3.40, although that is still comfortably above 45p. Does that suggest “premium mainstream” has had its day? Four cans of 5% Strongbow were £3.99, pretty much spot on the minimum price.

Of the top Scotches, Bell’s and Teacher’s were both £12 a bottle, a bit below the £12.60 minimum price, but I think only a short-term seasonal offer. During the year they’re normally at least £13, often more. And Grouse was £13 anyway. There was very little on the wine shelves below £4.39, which would be the minimum price for a 13% bottle. While there were a number of German wines at £3.99, those are mostly only 11% or so, and would still be OK.

Yes, if you’re buying economy brands, or discounted slabs, you will suffer. But Joe and Joanne Moderate-Drinker could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about.

On the other hand, the store was brimming with multibuy offers – 4 premium bottled ales for £6, various world beers at 3 for 2, 25% off any 6 bottles of wine. Probably very little, if any, of these would take you below 45p/unit, but they will be outlawed just as surely as lower-priced drinks. And that is where the typical aspirational C1C2 voter filling up their car boot will really feel the pain. They might imagine from the media discussion that the proposals will only affect tramps and chavs, but they would be very wrong.

The argument for banning multibuy discounts is that they encourage people to drink more than they otherwise would. However, I would have thought that in general they tend to be used by organised people to do their drink buying in the most cost-effective way. Almost by definition, problem drinkers aren’t going to be laying it in weeks in advance. Plus banning multibuys in Scotland has had no effect on overall sales levels. If the discounted price is already well above the minimum price, what is the point of banning the discount? Will offering malt whiskies at £25 a bottle, or £40 for two, really lead to an increase in binge-drinking?

If there is no minimum price, then arguably it makes a bit of sense, but with a minimum price it is utterly pointless, just another small, irritating, niggly restriction on the responsible drinker, just another notch on the denormalisation of alcohol.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Tasting notes

Which well-known British beer is this?

“But the joy of ***** is in the delicate aroma. It’s subtly autumnal with a woody undercurrent, so evocative.

“Flavourwise it is a mass of delicate complexity. So many different notes coming through – a hint of peach there, perhaps the subtlest whiff of – could that be cinnamon?”

Click here to find out.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Let them drink Chablis

Well, it’s all kicked off today with the government announcing a consultation on a 45p per unit minimum alcohol price. There’s little to say that hasn’t been said before, but if you read nothing else, read this article by Chris Snowdon on Six reasons to reject minimum alcohol pricing.

Also well worth reading is this post on Heresy Corner in which the author sees it as a personal obsession of Cameron’s even though he knows it is bad politics. This quotation is a classic.

The Minimum Price, while long demanded by the health lobby (which seems to believe that reducing the chance of early death is the only goal worth striving for in life) is only being forced on England because it is Cameron's personal obsession. Cameron has a regrettable tendency - it's the most irritating thing about him - to go off on moral crusades. He likes to ride a high horse, even though it usually turns out to have been lent to him by the husband of Rebekah Brooks.
And see this from Jackart too.

You might think this offered an open goal to the Labour Party who could portray it as a snobbish move by public school toffs to curb the pleasures of the working man. But the problem is that Labour are just as keen on it as the Tories, if not more so. It has been said that the British Labour Party owes more to Methodism than to Marx, and in the sense of their general puritanical tendencies there is much truth in that. They have always seemed to think that the working man would be much better off attending an improving lecture at the Mechanics’ Institute than down the pub or the bookie’s, or on the beach at Benidorm.

Labour now seems to be dominated by privileged Hampstead socialists who look down on the actual working classes of this country with profound contempt. As someone brilliantly put it, within one generation in the eyes of the Labour Party the working class went from "the salt of the Earth to the scum of the Earth". Whereas once you had the noble Stakhanovite coal miner, now you have white van man. So not much hope of any effective opposition from that quarter.

Edit: and here’s a blogpost on Why Labour should oppose minimum alcohol pricing. I’d be very surprised if they did, though.

I tend to think Jackart’s prediction in the post linked to above is very likely:

This policy will be declared illegal under European law as the Scottish experiment is shot down. Cameron will use that as a pretext to drop a policy in which he's invested, but on which the rest of the Cabinet is less less keen. He will use it, like the votes for prisoners, as something on which he will "stand up to Europe". We will still hear the confident assertions medical/political complex go unchallenged on the Today program.
And the risk is then that they will seek to replicate the policy through the duty system, which would at least be legally watertight. All you self-proclaimed pub-lovers who signed the duty escalator position, but still think minimum pricing might have something to be said for it, be very careful what you wish for.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Cause or effect?

There’s yet more common sense in the letters column of December’s What’s Brewing in the form of no less than three letters pointing out that the widespread conversion of pubs to supermarkets is largely a symptom of the decline of the pub trade, not a cause.

First up is no less than Tim Martin of Wetherspoon’s, who peddles his favourite bizarre hobby-horse that food in shops does not bear VAT, while that in pubs and restaurants does, but is spot-on with this statement:

Once pubs become loss-making, or otherwise unviable, a change in the planning laws to prohibit their use as supermarkets is a pyrrhic victory, since an empty building is often worse for a local community than a mini-supermarket.
Next is Reg Newcombe of Derby, who says:
There has been a gradual process of attrition, until only the better pubs remain. It’s what the pre-Darwinian evolutionist Herbert Spencer called survival of the fittest.

If an unfrequented pub falls into disuse, it will not be because the shadow of a supermarket has fallen across its path. It will be because it was not one of the better pubs – not one of the fittest. Perhaps it was uninviting or inconveniently located. Perhaps the beer was poorly kept or overpriced.

And Keith Morgan of Appleby-in-Westmorland:
I am no lover of supermarkets, but wonder whether CAMRA should emphasise the threat to pubs of conversion to supermarkets. While we all regret the loss of any pub, the industry is an organic one which is constantly changing to meet consumer demand. I do not recall outrage expressed by the financial services sector when Wetherspoons was converting redundant banks to pubs.
As I’ve often said before, in most parts of the country there’s no shortage of recently-closed pubs, often attractive buildings in prominent locations, in many cases still closed and boarded up. If the pub trade was thriving, surely they would be snapped up, but they’re not. And even if beer was £1 a pint, and you had to buy bottles from a dingy offie, pubs wouldn’t be doing anything like the business they were thirty years ago because society has changed. And, of course, an elephant has come along and sat in the middle of the saloon bar.

There’s also a letter from John Payne of Warrington who wonders whether it will even get published and says:

I am fed up of coming across rows and rows of pumps selling mediocre microbrewery ales – golden, or blonde ales...

...Good pubs don’t shut down, poor ones do. I do not have a problem going to Tescos and picking up four bottles of Fullers 1845, or similar, for £6.

Is there maybe a need to recognise the realities of the modern drinks marketplace and rethink the objectives and strategy of the organisation rather than fighting a battle to stop the tide from coming in?

Mind you, last month there was a letter from a guy complaining about cask beer often being too cold and suggesting that ideally it should be served at room temperature...

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Light begins to dawn?

Over the past few years I have often been critical of the great and good of CAMRA for naively refusing to acknowledge the glaring parallels between the campaigns against tobacco and alcohol. However, in the December issue of the CAMRA newspaper What’s Brewing (not online, but available for download to members) there is a perhaps surprising outbreak of common sense in the form of an opinion piece by Denzil Vallance of Great Heck Brewery entitled Packaging Legislation Plain Wrong.

This is a clear warning that the proposed legislation for plain packaging of tobacco contains a very clear potential risk for the brewing industry, which explicitly recognises the principle of the “slippery slope”:

It has now started with cigarettes, where the government is considering removing branding through so-called standardised packaging. But this opens a door, which could lead to alcohol and fast food.
Well said that man – if I ever see his beer on the bar of a pub I’ll definitely give it a try.

For many years CAMRA has had an official policy opposing the “mass-media” advertising of alcoholic drinks, which most members tended to hold their nose and ignore in the same way as Labour Party members and Clause Four. But what they don’t seem to realise is that, far from helping small producers at the expense of the big boys, restrictions on advertising and promotion inevitably tend to favour established, familiar brands over small players and new entrants. In a world where there is no advertising and no distinctive packaging, in effect there can be no new products, and the only marketing tool that remains is price.

Of course plain packaging for alcohol is still some way away, but it is already being touted by anti-drink activists as a logical next step from tobacco.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Cherry Tree to be chopped?

The Cherry Tree is a former Greenall’s pub on the Grange estate in Runcorn, Cheshire. Despite having grown up within a mile of it, and regarding it as a familiar landmark, I have never actually set foot inside the place. It has probably never sold cask beer. It’s now up for sale by Orchid Group for £400,000, presumably because they don’t see it as fitting their core strategy.

Other pubs available as part of the same batch are:

  • The Boar’s Head, Marton, Blackpool (£400k)
  • The Farmer’s Arms, Walton, Liverpool (£450k)
  • The Priory, Litherland, Liverpool (£450k)
  • The Red Lion, Worsley, Salford (£575k)
To be honest, looking at those other prices, I would say £400k was a bit steep for an estate pub like the Cherry Tree.

Although Runcorn could probably do with a Tesco Express, that’s not the ideal location for one as it isn’t on a main road and all the approach roads are bedevilled by humps. It would be interesting to learn how the commenters here who are always telling us that pubs only close because they are badly run would set about reviving the fortunes of it and similar pubs if they had that kind of money to spend.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Agent provocateur?

Shadow pubs minister Toby Perkins (good Labour name, that) has accused a local council of deliberately trying to trick licensees through test purchase operations. “The British pub trade is being targeted by over-zealous people,” he says.

He has a good point, as in many cases these stings will end up creating an offence out of thin air. Surely test purchasing, if justifiable at all, should only be done where there is strong evidence that underage sales are already being made. However, given Labour MPs’ usual frothing hysteria about underage drinking, you can’t help thinking he’s being a tad hypocritical.

Another aspect is that constantly being asked for ID even if you’re well over 18 must be a significant deterrent to young people drinking in pubs and bars.

Incidentally, the other day I was behind a lad in the queue for the till at a petrol station, and he was asked for ID for a packet of fags, which he couldn’t produce, so the sale was refused. He said he was 22, and to be honest looked it too, but took it with good grace.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Mote and beam

More complaints from the usual suspects about how supermarkets are killing pubs. But, as I’ve written before, surely if the pubs were successful in the first place there would be no pressure to convert them to alternative use. And, in most parts of the country, there’s no shortage of pubs for sale, so if there is a demand for pubs such premises will be snapped up, won’t they, even if others have closed?

Perhaps rather than whingeing about the results of the decline of pubs, those pointing the finger at Tesco should be looking at the causes. No amount of tinkering with planning law will save a single pub if the underlying demand is no longer there.

Monday, 19 November 2012

More minimum mutterings

So all the debate and speculation about minimum pricing continues to go round and round in circles. The latest report is that:

David Cameron's plans to increase the price of cheap alcohol are in turmoil as senior ministers warn they risk penalising responsible drinkers and depriving the Treasury of vital tax revenue.

Separately, other ministers are warning Number Ten that the proposed legislation risks punishing both working and middle class families unfairly, triggering a dangerous backlash against the Government among key groups who will determine the result of the next election.

Senior figures in the Home Office believe those who will be hardest hit are the 'honest working classes' who enjoy an occasional tipple but have to watch every penny they spend.

'It's the guy who buys a multi-pack of lager each week and enjoys one or two after work who is going to be hammered,' said one source.

Precisely. While often perceived as a way to “to reduce the consumption of super-strength ciders, cheap vodka and special brew lagers”, and something that would only affect alkies and “problem drinkers”, in reality most of the people hit would be Joe and Joanna Bloggs sitting in front of the telly. I would guess that buying a discounted slab of Carling, Guinness or JS Extra Smooth on a Friday and steadily drinking it through the week is actually a pretty common pattern of consumption.

Wouldn’t it make sense for the government to get a definitive opinion from the EU competition authorities as to whether it is legal before going any further? If it wasn’t legal (which it pretty definitely isn’t), then they could just forget it and tell Ian Gilmore and the rest of his crew to STFU. If it was, then it would still be utterly wrong and counterproductive, but they could press on knowing that they could actually implement it and face the political consequences.

Chateau Chunder

I have to say that wine in general rather passes me by, but even so I found last week’s BBC4 documentary Chateau Chunder on the rise of the Australian wine industry extremely interesting. It was also refreshing to come across a TV programme about alcohol that made no reference whatsoever to the evils of drink, and put it across in a wholly positive light.

Australian wine made its reputation by portraying itself as “Sunshine in a Bottle”, and undermining the mystique and stuffiness of the established wine trade by offering bold, bright wines with distinctive yet accessible flavours. When the European winemakers complained about descriptions such as “Australian Claret”, they responded by instead using the name of the vine type, which sounds much classier anyway and has now become established practice in the wine trade.

What a pity, then, that Australia, once seen as a relaxed, happy-go-lucky country, now seems to have been pretty much completely taken over by joyless wowsers. How long before a bottle of Penfold’s sold in its native land will have to have a plain label dominated by a picture of a diseased liver?

Incidentally, the script of the Monty Python sketch about Australian wines that popularised the term “Chateau Chunder” can be seen here:

Quite the reverse is true of Château Chunder, which is an appellation contrôlée, specially grown for those keen on regurgitation; a fine wine which really opens up the sluices at both ends.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Unspoilt Cheshire

There has recently been some discussion on the blogs of Paul Bailey and Wee Beefy about Rodney Wolfe Coe’s list of the “Classic Basic Unspoilt Pubs of Great Britain”. Most of these are (or were) in remote rural locations, and the county of Cheshire is, by and large, too close to the major conurbations to give truly unspoilt pubs much chance of avoiding gentrification or being turned into commuter residences.

However, a couple did survive into the CAMRA era that would probably have qualified had they hung around for a bit longer. Both are in the 1977 Good Beer Guide but are missing from the 1979 edition.

The first was the Bird in the Hand at Kent Green, just off the A34 south of Congleton. This is described as “unspoilt, simple and homely canalside pub with a beer-only licence”, and served Burton-brewed Worthington Best Bitter on gravity. I believe this one closed in the late 70s.

The second was the Crown, situated here on the junction of the A49 and A51 at Four Lane Ends just south of Tarporley, a surprisingly prominent location for a basic unspoilt pub. This is described as “a fine, unspoilt old pub” and served McEwan’s 70/-, also on gravity. The Guide says “usually closed at lunchtime: closed all day Sunday” which hints at a slightly shambolic operation. This later was gutted and extended and became an identikit dining pub called the Red Fox; it is now an Indian restaurant as shown on the picture.

Unfortunately, I was too late on the scene to be able to experience either of these, although I did once turn up at the Crown one evening with a group of friends only to find it closed.

There were two other largely unspoilt pubs in Cheshire that I did get the chance to visit. One was the Boot at Boothsdale near Kelsall, which I wrote about here. This was a tiny, basic two-roomer in the middle of a terrace of cottages up a cul-de-sac, serving Greenall’s beer on gravity. Now, sadly but inevitably, extended, knocked-through and given over to dining.

The other was the Holly Bush at Little Leigh on the A49 south of Warrington, an ancient half-timbered cottage pub with a basic interior featuring plain wooden wall benches and quarry-tiled floors. There was no bar as such; the handpumps (dispensing Greenall’s again) were against the wall in a small room next to the main parlour, and beer was served through the top half of a door that opened separately. This had the kind of boisterous rustic atmosphere rarely encountered nowadays – I remember going in one Sunday lunchtime and one customer announcing to the assembled throng that he had been “shittin’ yeller” that morning. After being threatened with closure, ownership changed hands and again it went over to food in a big way and was extended at the rear. Much of the original fabric is still there, but it feels like a museum piece rather than a living pub. Note the sign advertising “ensuite rooms”.

Cheshire still has a couple of pubs featuring on CAMRA’s National Inventory that, while remodelled at some time during the 20th century, still give the feeling of stepping back into a bygone era – the Traveller’s Rest at Alpraham and the Commercial at Wheelock. And there are two more (also on the NI) that retain their historic fabric largely intact, but again have now largely embraced a dining format – the White Lion at Barthomley and the Harrington Arms at Gawsworth. The latter has now been extended at the rear into former living accommodation and, while it still retains a highly characterful parlour with quarry-tiled floor and long tables and settles, I once witnessed a group come into the pub and a young woman say that she didn’t want to sit there because it was “grotty”.

To my mind, a pub only truly qualifies as unspoilt in Mr Wolfe Coe’s terms if it continues to be run with something of a disregard for the commercial realities of the modern age. Sadly, that is becoming more and more difficult and rare.

Incidentally, while I was researching this post I came across this site of Olde Worlde Pubs in Cheshire. It’s a bit out of date (for example still showing the late lamented Railway at Heatley), and has one or two surprising omissions, such as the aforementioned Traveller’s Rest and the Hatton Arms at Hatton, but is still well worth a nose round. Strangely, however, it doesn’t make any mention of the beers sold.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Ring any bells?

As posted on Twatter by @fleetstreetfox:

Let me tell you about the worst actors I ever met. It was in a south London pub not far from the Globe which was supposed to be like Shakespeare's only the real one is under an office block. Lots of actors came in. They all had beards. They all ordered halves, sat around chin-scratching and saying things like "well on the original Greek text" and then...

THEN... they started singing Tudor pub songs. In HARMONIES. Waving their halves like wassailing merry men expecting Errol Flynn to turn up. I vomited, then left. Twats.

I've avoided pubs near theatres ever since. Easier that way.

Curmudgeon distilled

Some years ago I came up with a list of bullet points that could be said to sum up the key themes of my Opening Times column.
  1. Who let those bloody kids in here?
  2. Never mind the quality, look at the number of handpumps
  3. Electric meters deliver full measures and a consistent pint
  4. This expanse of carpet used to be a wonderful little snug
  5. Two pints bad, ten pints good
  6. Chips with everything
  7. The family have been brewing good beer on this site since 1842
  8. I may dislike what you do, but I will defend your right to do it
  9. Why are there no sodding beermats?
  10. Haven’t you got anything better to do, officer?
All should be pretty self-explanatory.

This dates back to around 2000, before the blanket smoking ban was even a cloud on the horizon – remember that it was not a Labour manifesto commitment even in the 2005 General Election campaign.

Nowadays, apart from that, I don’t think it’s very different, although either #8 needs to be replaced with a more specific “First they came for the smokers...” or that added as a separate point.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Emperor of India

A decade or more ago, beers from the Caledonian Brewery in Edinburgh were a common sight in the off-trade. However, more recently they seem to have largely disappeared from view, at least around here, and when they do crop up they are often in unlikely outlets. This was the case on my latest visit to Home Bargains (no poncey Waitrose for me) where I came across 500ml bottles of Deuchar’s Imperial at a very reasonable £1.39.

It’s a 5.2% beer described on the bottle as “brewed to commemorate 21 years of Robert Deuchar’s Insirational Pale Ale being reborn at the Caledonian Brewery”. Indeed, it comes across very much as a big brother of the standard Deuchar’s IPA which is 4.4% in bottle.

In the 1990s, the cask version of Deuchar’s IPA became something of a cult beer, but as with many others seemed to become too popular for its own good and eventually appeared to lose a lot of its character. Whether this resulted from a dumbing-down of the recipe, or simply from being put into pubs that didn’t look after their beer well, is hard to say, but nowadays it’s certainly not a beer that would leap out at me from the bar.

The Imperial is fairly pale in colour, with good head retention. It has the unmistakeable Caledonian flavour, but within that taste palette is quite hoppy and well-attenuated. It is fairly light-bodied, so you could easily down more than one, but does have a noticeable alcohol kick

All Caledonian beers have a distinctive character with full, soft mouthfeel and notes of vanilla and butterscotch, which isn’t necessarily to everyone’s liking. But it certainly appeals to my tastebuds and surely it is a good thing that the products of a brewery have their own “signature”. Definitely a beer I will buy again if there’s any left in stock.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

History in a beer glass

Britain now has more breweries producing more different beers than at any time since the Second World War. Yet, over the past fifty years, we have lost most of the substantial breweries that were in existence in 1960. Often these were major enterprises employing large numbers of people and to some extent defining the character of the places they operated in. Unusually for large industrial plants, they tended to be situated right in the middle of towns and cities and the distinctive aroma of brewing often percolated across built-up areas.

In a new book entitled Britain’s Lost Breweries and Beers, published by Aurum Press, Chris Arnot tells the story of thirty breweries from Devenish on the South coast through Buckley’s in West Wales to Campbell, Hope and King in Edinburgh, on the way visiting onetime local institution Boddington’s and Tetley’s and Webster’s which were both major influences on our local pub scene. In a sense, the central theme of the book is the connection between brewery and community. As the description says,

This is a story of more than the disappearance of Tolly Cobbold bitter or King & Barnes’ winter ale: all too often it is part of the heart of a town like Ipswich or Nottingham dying with the brewery – something no microbrewery’s resurrection of a hallowed ale can ever restore.
It’s a handsome large-format volume extensively illustrated with old pictures of brewery buildings, workers, delivery vehicles, pubs and advertising material. Rather than just relying on secondary sources, the author has travelled to view the sites of all the breweries and interview former employees and managers. The rather spiky interview with the 85-year-old Ewart Boddington is well worth reading. There’s a wealth of fascinating anecdotes taken from the various companies’ histories. However, it isn’t just a case of looking at the past through a rose-tinted glass – he recognises that not all of these breweries produced first-class beer (although most did), and even when they did it wasn’t always served in their pubs in the best of condition.

In summary, it’s an absorbing, well-produced book that will probably be picked up again and again rather than just left on the shelf. It would be an ideal Christmas gift for anyone interested in beer and history. The cover price is a not inconsiderable £25, but you should be able to get a discount at Amazon.

We are fortunate of course in Stockport that we still have a substantial long-established brewery in the shape of Robinson’s, whose beer and pubs are important elements defining the character of the town. Long may that continue.

(And yes, I was kindly sent a review copy of this book by Aurum Press. But I certainly haven’t been entirely complimentary about everything I’ve got for free – see here and here)

Monday, 12 November 2012

We’re not being killjoys

The natural follow-on from the, er, resounding success of Stoptober, is a call from Alcohol Concern for people to abstain totally from alcohol during January. Obviously many people will be forced to cut down simply because of being skint after the festive season, but this is taking things to another level.

Alcohol Concern spokeswoman Emily Robinson said: “Many of us think the way we drink isn't a problem, but even having just a few beers after work or a few glasses of wine at home too often can take you over safe limits and store up problems for the future.

“We're challenging people to take part in Dry January and try giving up booze for 31 days, and if it sounds like a big ask you're exactly the person we want to join us and have a go.

“We're not being killjoys or telling people to never drink again. We just think this provides the perfect opportunity for all of us to take a breather and get thinking about our drinking.”

Er, surely killjoys is exactly what you are being, and what you are paid to be by the government. And those so-called “safe limits” are a load of nonsense made up by you and your Prohibitionist pals.

Of course, if every drinker took them at their word, most of the pubs in the country would be out of business by the end of the month. What a result that would be!

Sunday, 11 November 2012


I recently opened a bottle of Oktoberfestbier bought from an independent off-licence where I have been a regular customer for many years. It was as flat as a fluke – absolutely zero carbonation – and so went straight down the sink. The lack of that tell-tale hiss when levering off the cap was an obvious giveaway before I even started pouring. So should I take the empty back and complain, or just write it off to experience?

Club not conserved

Making a change from closed and boarded pubs, here’s a photo taken this morning of the Heaton Norris Conservative Club in Heaton Norris, Stockport, an area that has also seen more than its fair share of pub closures. Note the entrance to the “Casino Lounge” on the right. While this may not seem promising territory for a Conservative Club, in fact Lancashire had a strong tradition of working-class Toryism, and there were plenty in similar areas.

Danes see sense

Just over a year ago, Denmark introduced a “fat tax” on all foods with over 2.3% saturated fat. I doubted at the time whether it would actually lead to people smuggling crisps, but such is the price differential it has created that people have been popping over the border to Germany to buy butter – ironic when Lurpak is one of Denmark’s most famous exports. I also pointed out that “it goes completely against common sense to stigmatise such natural, traditional and wholesome foods as butter and cheese.”

Now, fortunately, the Danes have come to their senses and decided to scrap the tax, and have also abandoned plans to introduce a similar tax on sugar.

Maybe fatty Salmond will see the irony if he introduces his lunatic minimum alcohol pricing scheme and sees people popping over the border to England to buy Scotland’s most famous export. Or maybe he won’t.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

We want Cookie!

Back in July 2009, Cooking Lager burst onto the beer blogging scene like a fart in a lift. Beneath the laddish veneer, he in fact succeeded in puncturing many of the pretensions of the genre in an amusing and inconoclastic way. Some of the terms he popularised, such as “lout”, “pong” and “the beard club”, entered into the beer blogging vocabulary. All good things come to an end, though, and he seemed to start suffering from Stockholm Syndrome and going native a bit. So in October last year, he brought his blog to an abrupt end.

Yet he’s still around and recently seems to have posted more words in the comments on mine and Tandleman’s blogs than were included in the original posts. He’s also active on Twitter as @CarpeZytha. (Incidentally, that’s one fit German bird on his profile).

So I thought I would run a poll as to whether it’s time for him to resume his blogging activities. Out of an impressive 70 responses, 55, or just short of 80%, said yes. And who can say that the other 15 don’t simply prove that he knows how to delete, er, cookies on his computer?

So come back Cookie, all is forgiven! Give us the benefit of your piercing insights once again!

Some may wonder whether I know his true identity. Maybe this Kursaal Flyers song from the 1970s will give you a clue.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Lunchtime O’Booze

A point I’ve made in the past is that “a problem with understanding why pubs succeed or fail is that everyone tends to assume that other people’s patterns of pubgoing are much the same as their own, whereas in fact they will in many cases be radically different.”

There was an example of this recently where one commenter was struggling to understand what trade there would be for suburban pubs on weekday lunchtimes. While lunchtimes are never going to be as busy as weekend evenings, in the past many pubs did a healthy lunchtime trade. Food obviously is an important element, and would appeal to retired people (many of whom have a healthy disposable income), parties from offices and other workplaces, “ladies who lunch” and even (bites lip), “yummy mummies” and their offspring. Plus, on any given day, many working people will be off work but not away on holiday, and so might fancy a bite to eat down the pub too. Suburban shops aren’t deserted during the day on weekdays, far from it, so why should pubs be? There are plenty of people out and about for a huge variety of reasons.

There was also historically a significant wet trade from most of the above categories, especially the retired. In the years immediately after the introduction of all-day opening, some pubs could be like a pensioners’ social club in the afternoons. It has often been remarked how daytime drinking appeals much more to the over-65s than the evenings do. Many suburban pubs adjoin local shopping centres, so people would call in for a pint or two on the way back from buying their loaf of bread and pint of milk. Some pubs, especially those near betting shops, attract an audience for televised racing. And, when prices were not as steep as they are now, it was far from unknown for the unemployed to spend a fair bit of time in pubs.

Often, you could encounter a very congenial atmosphere, with the pub ticking over nicely, a good mix of drinkers and diners and a wide variety of people coming and going throughout the session. Most lunchtime pubgoers have tacked their visit on to something else rather than just going to the pub as an end in itself. Far more interesting from the peoplewatching point of view than the evening session.

Clearly, with the increasing reluctance to mix even very light alcohol consumption with work, and the general rise of political correctness and anti-drink sentiment (not to mention that big grey thing in the corner), this kind of trade has noticeably diminished over the past couple of decades. But it’s still there to some extent – many overtly food-led pubs continue to do good business, and if you went in a suburban Wetherspoons like the Wilfred Wood in Hazel Grove on a Tuesday lunchtime you would find it reasonably busy with a mix of customers. Even today it’s an eyebrow-raiser to find a well-situated pub with an apparently reasonable food offer totally devoid of customers. However, you’ll now find far fewer wholly wet-led pubs opening at lunchtimes (at least Monday to Thursday) outside of town and city centres.

While it is referring to pubs in or near the City Centre, it is also interesting that a Central Manchester pub guide I have from the early 1970s comments on the fact that many pubs were busier at lunchtimes than in the evenings.

(Pictured is the Nursery, Heaton Norris, Stockport, CAMRA’s National Pub of the Year in 2001, a quintessential suburban pub that in fact opens all day, every day)

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Pricing customers into the pub?

It seems to be believed in some quarters that introducing minimum alcohol pricing would be a way of redressing the balance between on- and off-trade consumption and encouraging people back into pubs. However, I really fail to see how in practice that is going to work. It’s hard to see how it would generate a single extra customer for pubs.

For a start, it’s fairly obvious that if you increase the price of A, but leave B the same, it doesn’t make B any cheaper, or give people any more money to spend on it. Perhaps it might lead the odd person to go back to B because A is no longer such an irresistible bargain, but on the other hand it will increase costs overall and potentially lead people to cut back on B.

Much of the rhetoric surrounding minimum pricing concerns problem drinkers downing dirt-cheap white cider, super lagers, budget vodka and the like. While it would undoubtedly raise the price of their favoured tipple, is it really going to persuade them to start using pubs instead? And would the pubs want them anyway? On the other hand, before discounting, the price of most mainstream branded alcoholic drinks is already 50p or more a unit anyway, so it will make no difference whatsoever.

Obviously it would affect the price of some products, particularly those being discounted, but even so they would still be markedly cheaper than the equivalent in pubs. No doubt it would to a small extent cut overall consumption, but folks aren’t suddenly going to stop “pre-loading” because the price of Glen’s Vodka has gone up to £14 a bottle.

As I’ve posted before, the reasons for the rise of the off-trade relative to the on-trade lie in a variety of social changes over the years that go well beyond price alone. It isn’t a simple either-or choice as to whether to drink at home or in the pub – you need an actual occasion to prompt you to go to the pub. Even if beer was £1 a pint, pubs wouldn’t be doing anything like the trade they were in their heyday of the late 70s and early 80s. Plus, as someone once said in the comments here, “I don’t care if they’re giving the beer away if I have to stand out in the street to drink it”.

It’s also often hinted that all this is something that has been brought about as part of a deliberate policy by the major supermarkets. However, in reality, while they may be able to tweak customer preferences to a limited extent, supermarkets can only sell what people want to buy. They are, by and large, responding to consumer demand, not creating it out of thin air. If they really could manipulate the market to the extent that is suggested, then they would have discovered the Holy Grail of business. As the market for off-trade drinks has grown over the years, supermarkets have, understandably, devoted more shelf space to them and come up with more varied and innovative offers to attract business from their competitors.

And to claim that ordinary people are such dupes that they are wide open to manipulation of this kind is the kind of grossly patronising, élitist attitude all too typical of the anti-drink lobby and all their Righteous brethren. The stupid plebs need to be told what to eat and drink by their betters.

It’s also worth adding that, within the past week or so, I’ve had the opportunity to drink cask beer in a pub at less than 50p/unit, although I didn’t avail myself of it.

Incidentally, here’s another sceptical article about minimum pricing from licensing law expert Peter Coulson.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Punched out

The Burton Mail reports that Punch Taverns has recorded an unwanted achievement:
A Burton pub giant has seen an astonishing 99 per cent wiped off its value in the last five years.

Punch Taverns, based on Centrum 100, posted the single biggest loss of 13 firms who have the misfortune of being part of a group dubbed the ‘90 per cent’ club.

It is an exclusive society UK companies are not in a hurry to join as it consists of those who are still part of the FTSE All Share Index but have lost more than 90 per cent of their value over the last five years.

Of course, in the meantime there has been a recession, but they made a catastrophic wrong-way bet on the way the pub trade would go after July 2007, which has proved to be their undoing.
Oren Laurent, chief executive of trading firm Banc De Binary, said: “The pub industry in the UK has been devastated by the recession — it was reported earlier in the year that 12 pubs close every week in the UK.

“However, Punch Taverns has been hit the hardest as, in my opinion, they made the mistake of loading themselves with billions of debt just as their core markets started to shrink.”

Anyone who actually understood the pub trade had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen, but they knew better and have been found out. It’s not as if nobody warned them.

I can’t say I’ll be shedding any tears. Sadly, though, if the company goes to the wall and is broken up, we are likely to see the loss of many still potentially viable pubs.

(h/t to Arfur Daley on Facebook)

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Empty rooms

Externally attractive pub in a prominent suburban location on a busy main road. It’s been in the Good Beer Guide in recent years, although not in the current edition. Food advertised on A-boards outside, a decent range of beers, although all from the Marston’s stable. Yet, on a sunny Friday lunchtime at about 12.45 pm, it was completely deserted. Not a single customer.

Twenty years ago, I would have expected that pub, while probably not heaving, to be nicely ticking over on a Friday lunchtime. A few working men propping up the bar, or maybe playing a quick game of pool, a couple of groups from local businesses or maybe even schoolteachers, a handful of retired people having some lunch. Traditionally, workers would often go to the pub on Fridays even if they didn’t on other days of the week. Yet now it is completely deserted, and if it can’t even attract any customers at that time on a Friday you have to wonder whether there’s any point in opening at all on weekday lunchtimes. And does that suggest the pub isn’t really viable full stop?

There was nothing obviously amiss with this pub; indeed, to all outward appearances, it was clean, pleasant and congenial. But its emptiness stood as a sad reflection of how far the pub trade has declined.

This isn’t an inner-city area, and actually has seen zero pub closures in the past thirty years. But I would be surprised if any of the five nearby pubs were busy or anything like it, either. Indeed one was not open at all.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Of tweets, and twits, and tw@ts

Well, I’ve finally succumbed and created a Twitter account at @oldmudgie – mainly because I wondered what all the fuss was about and was curious what crap other people were posting on there. I make no promises about how frequently I will tweet, if at all, but feel free to follow me. Will too many tweets make a tw@t? That’s up to you to decide...

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Not going to happen

Well, the House of Commons debate on the beer duty escalator has come and gone, and the House voted unanimously (or should that be unopposed?) in favour of the motion that the government should set up an inquiry to examine its effects before the 2013 Budget.

I can’t help thinking, though, that the anti-drink lobby kept their powder dry, and didn’t bother putting their case at all. The full debate can be seen here, but I don’t see any contributions from the likes of Kerry McCarthy or Anne Milton. There were also a lot of weasel words spoken by people who labour under the illusion that the fate of pubs can somehow be detached from the general role of alcohol in society.

Frankly, I would be utterly amazed if the escalator was scrapped in the 2013 Budget, given that it is such a central plank of the government’s general anti-drink strategy, especially given that minimum pricing seems to have been kicked into the long grass of 2014 or later. If it was, the anti-drink lobby would be provoked into howls of outrage. And would it be a credible policy to scrap the escalator on beer and still keep it in place for cider, wine and spirits? Cider and whisky are significant British industries as well as brewing.

While the escalator is widely portrayed as a major threat to pubs, has it in isolation really made that much difference? It has been in operation for five years now, so the rate of duty is maybe 10% more than it otherwise would have been. That translates into a difference of about 10p a pint at the bar. Of course it doesn’t help, but that can’t really be a make-or-break factor for many pubs. And, when I can still get a decent pint of real ale for less than £2 in several pubs within a couple of miles of my house, when others are charging £3.20, it suggests that the trade needs to take a long hard look at its own pricing model before pointing the finger at the government.

Price does have a part to play, but most of the reasons for the long-term decline of pubs relate to wider changes in society, as I outlined here. I would say the smoking ban, the denormalisation of “one-drink driving” and the erosion of the acceptability of alcohol consumption in general social settings are the main factors. Even if town-centre pubs were selling beer at £1 a pint, they wouldn’t be full of office workers at lunchtime the way they were in 1982. In reality, the most important reason for scrapping the escalator (and indeed reducing alcohol duties across the board) is the encouragement that high duties give to smuggling and organised crime.

And to support scrapping the escalator while at the same time advocating minimum alcohol pricing really is the most breathtaking hypocrisy.

Crafty Spoons

Well, the poll recorded a generally positive expectation that we would be seeing craft keg in Wetherspoon’s before the end of next year. And, given rumours that they may be taking Punk IPA once the new BrewDog brewery is up and running, it may well happen. Only time will tell.

However, surely the two key benefits of keg are:

  1. It ensures greater consistency, and
  2. It allows more choice to be provided with the same turnover
Neither of which are really going to be important factors in Spoons, unless they go for rotating guest kegs. Is that a cry of “slippery slope” I hear in the background?