Thursday, 31 October 2013


Some surprisingly positive figures in the latest BBPA British Beer Barometer. The statistics for the third quarter of 2013 show a 5.2% rise in beer sales compared with the same quarter last year, no doubt boosted by the prolonged spell of hot weather. This is the best quarter-on-quarter figure for the whole series of statistics dating back to 1997. However, the overall figure conceals a 12.5% rise in off-trade sales, balanced by a 1.2% fall in the on-trade, which maybe was not quite what CAMRA were looking for when they campaigned for the end of the duty escalator.

As always, the annualised figures give a better view of overall trends. Overall sales are 2.2% down year-on-year, with the off-trade only 0.1% lower, but the on-trade showing a fall of 4.2%, which in fact is higher than last year. So actually little change from the existing trend there, and no evidence that the duty cut has actually delivered any boost to pubs. Indeed, it looks as though the long-term movement from on- to off-trade, which seemed to have stalled for a while, has now resumed.

Too much eye of newt?

Pendle Witches Brew, from Moorhouse’s in Burnley, was one of the flagship beers of the early microbrewery revolution. Weighing in at a powerful 5.1% ABV, it was a dangerously drinkable strong pale ale of a type not seen before in Britain. Perhaps the beer closest in general style was Hall & Woodhouse Tanglefoot.

It’s not an especially hoppy beer in the modern IPA style, instead being relatively light-bodied with a balance of malt and hop, a slight honey note and a noticeable alcohol kick. It doesn’t tend to be stocked in the supermarkets I regularly visit but I often like to pick up a bottle when I do see it. So I was pleased to see in appearing at a very reasonable £1.50 a bottle as part of Morrison’s recent Halloween promotion.

However, the first bottle I had threw a distinct haze and didn’t taste quite right either. Thinking it might just be an unusual susceptibility to fridge chill, I just kept the second in a cool cupboard, but that was hazy too. Matthew Lawrenson of Seeing the Lizards fame has reported similar problems on Twitter.

So I sent a complaint off to Moorhouse’s and, to their credit, they sent me a tray of eight bottles. These had a later best before date and were just as good as I would have expected them to be. So, a beer well worth a try if you see it, but avoid bottles with a Best Before of July 2014.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The captive market fallacy

If I had a pint for every time I’ve heard someone say “you’d have to be an idiot to fail with that pub, it’s the only one for the best part of a mile in any direction”, then I would be very drunk indeed. But, while it might seem an obvious conclusion to draw, in practice the pub trade just doesn’t work like that, and in fact in recent years isolated pubs in the middle of residential areas, whether council estate or owner-occupied, have often seemed unusually vulnerable to closure.

For example, we have lost the Reddish Vale in Reddish, the Bromale in Bramhall, the Cotton Tree in Withington, the Fallowfield in Fallowfield and the Sylvan Inn in Timperley (illustrated). No doubt you can think of plenty more in and around your local area. Places like Edgeley and Hazel Grove have seen the closure of pubs in the backstreets like the Hollywood, the Gardeners Arms and the Royal Oak, while they continue in business in significant numbers on their main streets. For each individual pub you might say that it wasn’t well run, or didn’t receive any investment, or the area went downhill, or the ethnic mix changed, but across the board there’s a consistent pattern.

I’ve written in the past that coming home from work, having your tea and then going out to the local has never been quite such a universal pattern of pubgoing as often imagined. And, while I make no claim for this poll being scientific, the respondents seemed to favour after-work drinking which doesn’t tend to take place in residential locals. Even if people are going out for a drink later in the evening, they will often favour village and town centres where there is a choice of venues and a bit of a buzz. How many of the drinkers in the Crown and the Magnet in Stockport will have passed numerous pubs nearer to their houses to get there? All the cluster of new bars in Chorlton are on the main shopping streets, not tucked away in isolation in backwoods shopping parades.

Plenty of people will still see ease of access as a good reason for visiting a pub, but it has to have something else going for it as well. If your local pub actually is good, then why not? But if the only reason you’re going there is because it’s on your doorstep, then it’s already lost the battle. In some cases, pubs of this type that are situated on main roads have been able to survive by adding a substantial food trade to their mix, but that doesn’t work for all and is very much dependent on the area. But it should not be underestimated how much sheer visibility adds to a pub’s prospects – the simple act of regularly passing it in a car, or on a bus, makes it much more likely you will consider visiting it on another occasion.

The wrong kind of business?

Brandon Lewis, the “Minister for High Streets”, recently attracted a lot of criticism when he said that popular fast food outlets such as McDonalds and Burger King were “massively important” to the success of Britain’s high streets. One person on Twitter even went so far as to refer to it as a “Gerald Ratner moment”.

However, surely he has a point that the success of high streets is crucially dependent on them containing businesses that people actually want to visit, and you can’t be too sniffy about what kinds of businesses they actually are. You could easily add Wetherspoon’s to that list. Much of the criticism seems to be driven less by a concern for standards of nutrition than by rank snobbery – you have to wonder whether there would have been the same reaction had he referred to Prezzo and the Gourmet Burger Kitchen.

Many so-called “High Street Campaigners” seem to have an unrealistic, dewy-eyed vision of them filled with hand-made toy shops, organic cafés, ethnic delicatessens and craft beer micropubs which is a world away from the reality of betting shops, pound shops and nail parlours. It is the kind of attitude satirised (I assume) by Lawrence Hennigan when he said that if Levenshulme won a “Portas pilot” bid, “the government grant would be used to spruce up empty shops, which would then be filled by start-up businesses selling art, crochet knitting and cupcakes.”

In truth, a lot of those who in theory profess their support for High Streets – and for pubs – in practice seem to want to do their best to ensure those institutions fail. Councils often seem to do far more to deter particular kinds of businesses from opening up than encouraging business in general.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

The disease of “Public Health”

More excellent stuff from Chris Snowdon in this must-read extended essay on how the tyranny of “Public Health” is seeking to extend ever closer control over people’s lifestyles.
The slippery slope was both predictable and predicted. The only surprise is how little time it took for the British public to taken in, when only a few years earlier they would have scoffed at the idea of drinkers and salad-dodgers being next in line. Once again, all it took was a change in terminology. A ‘binge-drinker’ had traditionally been someone who went on a session lasting several days. Now it means anyone who consumes more than three drinks in an evening. Similarly, the crude and arbitrary nineteenth century measure of body mass index (BMI) has been used to categorise the chubby as ‘obese’ and the fat as ‘morbidly obese’. Sugar is ‘addictive’ now - and ‘toxic’. ‘Big Food’ is the new ‘Big Tobacco’. The anti-smoking blueprint of advertising bans, tax rises and ‘denormalisation’ provides the roadmap for action. At this stage, there is nothing to be gained from saying we told you this would happen, but we told you this would happen.
And he concludes:
The issue of risk should also be viewed from the right end of the telescope. In a society in which almost everybody willingly puts themselves at risk, those who attempt to lead lives of ascetic self-denial should be regarded as curious outliers. They have every right to pursue extreme longevity if that is their wish, but they have no right to bully and cajole those of us who prefer the good life into emulating them. Whether they are well-intentioned do-gooders, sly charlatans or malevolent bigots, they must be tolerated in a civilised society, but they do not have to be suffered gladly and they should never be given the reins of power. It is time to denormalise the demagogues of ‘public health’.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Assets of dubious value

The 2011 Localism Act allowed local authorities to designate non-residential buildings as “assets of community value”:
Nominations for community assets can be made by parish councils or by groups with a connection with the community. Individuals cannot nominate community assets. If the nomination is accepted, the group will be given time to come up with a bid for the asset when it is sold.

The right to bid only applies when an asset’s owner decides to dispose of it. There is no compulsion on the owner of that asset to sell it. The scheme does not give first refusal to the community group, unlike the equivalent scheme in Scotland; and it is not a community right to buy the asset, just to bid. This means that the local community bid may not be the successful one.

So far, over 170 pubs across the country have been granted this status. However, it’s important to note that it is no more than a means of buying time for threatened pubs. And, while it may work in well-off villages in National Parks, it’s unlikely to be of much value to urban pubs in transient communities with other nearby alternatives. The most likely result is pubs remaining closed and blighted for months with no realistic prospect of ever coming back to life. It stems from a misty-eyed view of “community pubs” when, in reality, most local residents will never go in their nearest pub from one year to the next and many will see a pub not as a cherished local hub but as a source of nuisance and late-night noise.

There’s a classic example of this in the campaign to save the Chesham Arms (pictured) in Hackney in East London, where the owner has failed in an attempt to have its status as an ACV rescinded. It’s a nice-looking building, but it is right in the middle of a residential area, and the name of the owner perhaps gives an indication as to why its prospects are uncertain. All this is likely to do is to delay its conversion to flats. Incredibly, the campaigners even want the council to compulsorily purchase it to maintain its status as a pub, which surely is taking socialism a bit too far.

This whole approach exemplifies the misguided view that I referred to here that the recent decline of pubs is mainly due to a combination of pubs being poorly run, and being sold off by greedy pub companies acting in association with rapacious supermarkets and property developers. I do not for a minute seek to defend the policies of the pubcos, but they are essentially a reaction to declining demand, not a cause. The pubcos borrowed up to the hilt to bet the farm on a projected outcome that just didn’t happen, and are now counting the cost.

The fact is that there has been a long-term secular decline in the overall demand for pubs which no amount of good management and enlightened corporate governance can do much to reverse. I wrote about the reasons behind this here. The current “pub crisis” is essentially a crisis of demand, not supply. All the planning controls in the world won’t save a single pub if the underlying demand isn’t there in the first place. While it is possible to turn round a failing, badly-run pub, for the most part that will simply be at the expense of others appealing to the same population of potential customers. It does little or nothing to affect the overall size of the market.

And it really does the pub trade no favours for people to insist on peddling a narrative for their decline which at best is exaggerated and at worst utterly delusional.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

What pubs get wrong

The Guardian recently published an interesting article on Ten things that bad boozers get wrong. Some of them I agree with, some I’m not too bothered about. The comments also make enjoyable reading – a bit like all the comments on beer blogs distilled into one place. See if you can spot me! The issue of dogs seems to come up rather a lot.

I thought I should make my own list, but concluded that, rather than just regurgitating the familiar moans about children, TV football, bench seating and lack of beermats, I should concentrate on those areas that genuinely are within the control of those running pubs and make a real difference to the customer experience.

  • A poor impression when walking through the door, such as a group of regulars blocking the way to the bar
  • Failure to display a menu outside (and sometimes not displaying menus inside when food is being served)
  • Music played by default without regard to tastes of customers
  • Bar staff not committed to customer service (which covers a variety of sins, such as not serving people in the right order and messing around doing non-urgent tasks rather than actually serving)
  • A thoughtless approach to temperature and ventilation, such as doors flung open on cool days and heating on full blast on warm days
  • Uncollected glasses and plates piled up on tables
  • Poor use of the Internet – not every pub needs a website, but if you have one, keep it updated, display your current menu and, if you offer varying guest beers, your current beer selection
One that is less of a problem in these days of the knocked-through pub, but which in the past I often found an irritation, is failing to make it clear which door the casual customer should use – which isn’t by any means always the lounge.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

A breath of controversy

My recent post about the under-representation of family brewers in the Good Beer Guide made the point that some of them had been effectively excluded because they had a declared policy of using cask breathers in their pubs. So I thought I would ask blog readers whether this was an issue that concerned them.

As you can see, for the vast majority either it would make no difference to whether they visited a pub, or they simply couldn’t care less. And a rather larger handful said it would make them more likely to use a pub than those who said less likely.

For those not familiar with the device, a cask breather is a demand valve that is attached to the spile hole of a cask and, when beer is drawn off, replaces it with the same volume of CO2 at atmospheric pressure. The image to the right shows how it works. Properly set up, it should not result in the beer becoming over-carbonated and will prolong its shelf-life by preventing air getting to the beer. CAMRA’s guide to cellarmanship suggests it may be used as a way of serving cask beer in outlets with low or erratic turnover where otherwise the only alternative would be keg.

Despite repeated calls for a change in policy, CAMRA has always set its face against any official acceptance of cask breathers on the grounds that it could be the thin end of the wedge – once allowed for marginal outlets, it would soon become the norm across whole estates. Indeed, this seems to be what has happened with some of the “excluded” breweries. Many Sam Smith’s pubs will empty a cask of Old Brewery Bitter – their sole cask beer – in less than a day, and therefore using a cask breather would appear pointless.

However, extensive taste tests have failed to establish that even experienced and knowledgeable drinkers can tell the difference between beer kept under a cask breather and without one. Plus, in an age when we have the strange combination of declining beer sales and increasing numbers of beers on the bar, stopping beer going off has become an issue for very many pubs, not just a few low-volume ones. I’ve certainly had plenty of flat, tired pints in recent years that might well have benefited from the use of a cask breather. As the poll shows, few beer drinkers seem to be remotely bothered.

There are some interesting comments on Pete Brown’s blog here from Jeff Rosenmeier (who admittedly has an axe to grind as the boss of keg-only brewery Lovibonds) who says “The ONLY way you would KNOW if a pub was using a cask breather would be that you no longer get rancid pints.”

Is this perhaps a case of “the best being the enemy of the good” and, faced with a choice of either drinkable cask beer kept under a cask breather, cask beer that has gone off, or keg beer, isn’t the first realistically the best option? It’s another example where some flexibility might be desirable rather than adopting a strict black and white approach.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Making the poor poorer

Chris Snowdon has received a number of honourable mentions on this blog, in particular for his role in marshalling the arguments against minimum alcohol pricing. He has now produced a paper for the Institute of Economic Affairs called Aggressively Regressive which sets out in stark terms how poor people pay a much higher proportion of their incomes in so-called “sin taxes” – i.e., alcohol, tobacco and fuel duties – than those who are better off.

The worst of all is tobacco duty, which not only is the highest in comparison with the base price of the product, but also where, unlike fuel and alcohol, the poorer sections of society tend to consume more. But he also has some pretty pointed things to say about alcohol duty:

...despite the rich consuming more alcohol than the poor, alcohol taxes remain regressive. Alcohol duty (and the VAT levied on the duty) accounts for two per cent of the disposable income of Britain’s bottom quintile, but only 0.6 per cent of the income of the top quintile. There is little argument in the academic literature about the regressivity of taxes on alcohol. Even if measured over the life-cycle, the poorest spend considerably more than the rich on alcohol taxes as a proportion of their income.
He also makes the often-overlooked point that average figures conceal a wide variation between individuals. Setting aside the proportion of non-drinkers, people in the bottom income quintile who actually do drink spend an average of £278 per year on alcohol duty plus the VAT on the duty. And, despite the beer duty cut,
Nearly all EU countries have much lower alcohol taxes than Britain. Most of them, including Spain, Italy and Germany do not charge any duty on wine at all (European Commission, 2013: 15) and the vast majority have beer duty that is less than half of the current British rate (Ireland, Sweden and Finland are the only exceptions). Indeed, most EU countries levy beer duty at less than twenty per cent of the current British rate.
Even VAT is regressive to some extent, as people tend to save more money the higher up the income scale they are, so poor people spend a higher proportion of their income on VAT than well-off ones.

It’s easy to say that if people on low incomes choose to drink and smoke that it’s their decision, and you have no sympathy. But that line comes across as patronising and sanctimonious. In the real world, people do drink and smoke, and it is generally recognised that the price elasticity of these products is relatively low. So, in reality, setting aside the moralising, the actual effect of these taxes is highly regressive, and any increases in them even more so. And who is to say people on low incomes shouldn’t be allowed a little pleasure in their lives once in a while?

It’s also interesting how those who bleat on about a “cost of living crisis” remain strangely quiet when it comes to the taxes that in practice take the biggest chunk out of poor people’s incomes.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Families not welcome?

I’ve made the point in the past that pub selections for CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide seem to concentrate more and more on those offering a range of rotating guest beers, with the effect that the tied houses of the independent family brewers are increasingly squeezed out.

A contributor to the CAMRA forum who goes by the name of “curMUDGEon” (although it’s not me, it’s actually a chap from Stafford whose real name is Paul Mudge) has now produced a very interesting analysis of the representation of some of the small established breweries:

The 2014 GBG listings of Independent brewers owning less than thirty pubs are:
Bathams – 8 of 11 pubs (72%)
Holdens – 7 of 20 pubs (35%)
Timothy Taylor – 2 of 19 pubs (11%)
Donnington – 1 of 17 pubs (6%).
Looking at the larger Independent brewers, Harvey’s, quite deservedly, probably has the highest proportion of their pubs as 2014 GBG entries, 20 of their 47 pubs (which is about 43%).
A few larger Independent brewers have though fared as badly as, or worse than, Donnington, namely:
Felinfoel – None of their 84 tied houses included in the 325 pubs listed for Wales,
McMullen – None of their tied houses included in the 66 Hertfordshire pubs listed,
Hall & Woodhouse – Only one of their tied houses included in the 66 Dorset pubs listed,
Arkells – Only 3 of their 99 pubs listed (3%),
Sam Smiths – Only two of their tied houses included in the 394 Yorkshire pubs listed, this despite beer from the wood at “very competitive” prices, and with this year paying £1.80 in their Yorkshire pubs and £2.90 in London I well realise such a company doesn’t need 50p vouchers.
(there is actually one factual error in this – according to the 2014 GBG, Timothy Taylor’s actually have 26 pubs, reducing their proportion to 8%)

Looking through the 73 entries for Cheshire, there are only two family brewer tied houses, both White Lions, Robinson’s at Alvanley and Thwaites’ at Childer Thornton. There are two Marston’s, three Wetherspoon’s and four Brunning & Price. There’s even one with a declared beer range of Bombardier and Old Speckled Hen, and no mention of guests at all. In contrast, if we go back to 1984, there are seven Donnington pubs listed in Gloucestershire alone, and 13 Robinson’s in Cheshire, which illustrates just how far the balance has shifted. To be fair, the family brewers are considerably better represented in my local area.

The point was made in reply that some brewers’ pubs are excluded because they have a declared policy of using cask breathers, but is anyone really bothered about that apart from a handful of pedants? And, given that the vast majority of GBG entries are decided upon without a cellar inspection, can we be sure that none of the multi-beer pubs are using them too but just keeping quiet about it?

Obviously I am not privy to the precise factors behind the selection of every single pub, but the very low representation of many well-respected family brewers suggests systematic bias, not just a random outcome. More and more, local branches are going for an approach of quantity over quality, and making the publication essentially a Guest Beer Guide, not a Good Beer Guide.

In 1984, it overall gave a pretty decent representation of the best cask ale pubs in each county. That is no longer the case now, and thus makes the publication much less useful to the general pubgoer, many of whom, as I said in the earlier post, will be primarily looking for a good pint, combined with decent food and/or congenial surroundings, rather than the widest absolute choice of beer. I have a mental map of what to me are the best pubs across large swathes of Cheshire which bears little relation to those that appear in the GBG.

You also have to wonder whether some of the family brewers will start to question whether there is much point in cultivating good relations with CAMRA when they get so little support in return.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Renewing your acquaintance with Sam

Interesting results in my poll on when people last visited a Sam Smith’s pub. 11% (including myself) had done so within the past week, while 54% had during the past year. However, 33% had done so at some time in the past, but longer than a year ago, suggesting it is high time they made another visit to their distinctive, characterful and keenly-priced pubs. Only 13% had never been in one at all.

One commenter suggested that many people wouldn’t have been to one through simple reasons of geography, but Sam’s pubs are fairly widespread, with concentrations in Yorkshire, the North-West and London, and a scattering through the Midlands stretching down as far as Bristol and Cardiff. Plus it’s very unlikely that anyone of drinking age has lived such a limited life that they have never travelled to within reach of one. Here’s a map of their pub locations.

And, for those who complain about Sam’s limited and unadventurous beer range, John Clarke has provided me with a number of examples of their brewing innovations over the past thirty years:

  • First to seriously introduce revivalist oatmeal stout, (Taddy) porter and imperial stout in the 1980s
  • Exported these to the USA and arguably played a part in the revival of interest in those styles there
  • Produced strong bottle-conditioned Yorkshire Stingo - another revival of an old style
  • Continue to innovate, e.g. Organic Chocolate Stout
  • Make authentic German wheat beer in house in the UK
  • Run the only UK lambic brewery at Stamford - brew house had been sprayed with yeast from De Troch lambic brewery in Belgium (shame all goes into sweet fruit beers)

It all blurs into one

On the recent CAMRA pub crawl of Didsbury which I mentioned here, it was noticeable that there was a certain saminess to the beer range in all of the pub company pubs, and even to some extent in the Greene King tied house. While there might have been one or two other beers, the core of the range in all seemed to be a choice of four or five from a list of familiar favourities such as Taylor’s Landlord, Thwaites Wainwright, Fuller’s London Pride, Everard’s Tiger, Sharp’s Doom Bar, Wells Bombardier, Jennings Cumberland Ale, Black Sheep Best Bitter, Adnams Southwold Bitter, Morland Old Speckled Hen and Wadworth’s 6X.

Most of these beers are well worth drinking when in good condition, although I can rarely find much character in Doom Bar, but it’s got to the point where there’s little to distinguish one pub from another, and there’s no sense of local distinctiveness whatsoever. Didsbury was never a stronghold of the Greater Manchester independent family brewers, but twenty-five years ago, while there was undoubtedly less choice overall, there would have been a clear contrast between the beer offerings in the various pubs.

Would it not be an idea for some of these pubs to seek to develop a unique selling proposition on the beer front that would set them apart from their competitors and give people a specific reason to visit them beyond “this pub sells a range of beers”? For example, they could offer a core range of beers from one of the well-regarded local micro breweries such as Marble or Phoenix – a whole category that was conspicuous by its absence. And I can’t help feeling that the way to get the best out of any real ale is to stock it regularly so you learn how it matures in the cask and when to tap and serve it.

Ironically, on this particular occasion, by some way both the most interesting beer range and the best-kept beer were in the Wetherspoon’s pub, the Gateway.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Slumming it

In the comments on my recent post about Sam Smith’s pubs, John Clarke writes “go into one of their Stockport pubs late afternoon and it's usually full of elderly drunks, and not all that welcoming.” Now, this is true enough, and over the years I’ve been in a number of pubs, and not all Sam’s or Holt’s, where the same kind of seedy atmosphere and unsavoury language prevails. Indeed many Wetherspoons can be like that at some times of the day. Obviously this isn’t to everyone’s taste, and isn’t my preferred kind of pub environment either, but I don’t personally find it threatening and in its way it can be quite entertaining. It also seems a touch prissy to criticise pubs for accommodating a group of working-class blokes who have consumed a few beers and are having a good time. You’re often lucky to find a busy pub, full stop, and if you don’t like it, just go somewhere else.

On the other hand, it’s very common for people writing about pubs to look at them through rose-tinted spectacles, and talk of raucous singalongs arond the old Joanna and old yokels sitting in their favourite corner with a wealth of tales to tell. The self-proclaimed beer and pub enthusiast often finds himself more a spectator than a participant in pub life, and it can be difficult to avoid a somewhat patronising tone when talking about “the friendly locals”. At times this is more honoured in the breach than the observance, such as in the Real Ale Twats cartoon from which I have posted an extract above, where the “wide range of fascinating characters” actually turn out to be a pubful of people just like themselves. Could it be that the “specialist beer bar” has become the 2010s urban equivalent of the old, socially exclusive “up-market pub”?

Surely one of the major positive points of a good pub is that it isn’t a monoculture, and it does bring a spectrum of people together and enable you to “see life” in a way you never will just by going to restaurants, shops or the cinema.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Fanboys in the bubble

The beer blogosphere regularly runs a feature called “The Session”, in which bloggers are invited to give their thoughts on a particular topic. I have always stood clear of this as I regard this not as a beer blog as such but as a beer- and pub-themed political blog. However, the latest is “Is Craft Beer a Bubble?” which chimes with many things I’ve said on here in the past.

While I've often referred to the “urban beer bubble”, I'm not suggesting that it's a bubble that is about to burst, but rather one that largely isolates the craft beer enthusiast from the wider pub world. Very often, far too much significance is ascribed to events within this bubble than they actually deserve, such as blogs gushing that "triple-hopped Imperial black IPAs are everywhere now!!" I commented on this here, where I referred to people “wending their merry way from the Port Street Beer House via the Grove to North Bar without apparently caring that the main A62 road linking those three points is lined with closed and boarded pubs.”

The recent opening of the RedWillow bar in Macclesfield can be regarded not as a move outside of the bubble but just an extension of that bubble to another town. You have to wonder how many of its customers ever visit their suburban Robbies’ locals in other parts of Macclesfield.

But take one of the crafterati out of that bubble and plonk him down in an average pub in an average town or village in England and he won't find any sign of the "craft beer revolution". Indeed, it's probably been some time since he's actually crossed the threshold of an average pub, and he might feel rather uncomfortable if he actually did. “Eww, do I actually have to drink Draught Bass?” The current poll on when people last visited a Sam Smith’s boozer will shine some light on that question.

I once suggested to one Cambridge-based commenter that he get himself on the train and travel up the line to sample the delights of the pubs of Thetford. He reacted almost with horror, as if to say “why on earth should I do that?” I seriously reckon some of these craft beer obsessives need to get out more. Looking through some recent issues of the excellent Doghouse magazine, I came across such classic pubs as the Nelson at Rocks Green and the Bennetts End Inn at Hope Bagot – I wonder if any crafterati would even see the attraction.

To its credit, my local branch of CAMRA organises regular monthly “Staggers” which give members the opportunity to try all the real ale pubs in a particular area. This gets people into pubs they wouldn’t normally visit and is a useful connection with mainstream pubs and pubgoers. Being a largely urban branch, it is easier to do, but there’s no reason why rural branches can’t organise regular minibus trips to their more far-flung pubs. Sadly, though, this activity doesn’t seem to appeal to a lot of members who would prefer to be scoring ticks along the bar of their favourite multi-beer pub.

Of course people are entitled to pursue their enthusiasm in any way they see fit, but this seems to be a beer enthusiasm that deliberately sets out to be narrow and élitist and avoids engaging with the wider pub and beer world.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Ever decreasing circles

  • 1973: All keg beer is crap
  • 1983: All real ale produced by the national brewers is crap
  • 1993: All real ale produced by the bigger independent brewers is crap
  • 2003: All real ale produced by any independent family brewer is crap
  • 2008: All real ale produced by long-established micro brewers is crap
  • 2013: All real ale not produced under a railway arch by a man with an ironic moustache is crap

Friday, 4 October 2013

The warm, brown embrace of Samuel Smith

There’s an interesting article in the Telegraph entitled In praise of Samuel Smith pubs.

While the author does allude to the notorious Royton New Year’s Eve sacking story, he does perhaps gloss over some of the heavy-handed and almost feudal management practices of chairman Humphrey Smith.

However, I think he gets the essence of Sams’ pubs spot-on, especially the “warm, brown embrace”:

Some of the above might suggest that Sam Smith pubs are not a very female-friendly domain. But I know numerous women who are more than comfortable within Sam’s warm, brown embrace, knowing that these are places inhabited, for the most part, by gentlemen. They attract precious few "blokes", only the occasional "guy" and, god forbid, no "lads".
By and large, as I wrote here, Sams’ pubs are still proper, traditional boozers, where beer is to the fore, drink and chat predominate, banter passes round the room and extraneous distractions are kept to a minimum. At their best they can be busy and boisterous in a way that many Holt’s pubs once were, but which is increasingly rarely seen nowadays. I wouldn’t want every pub to be like a Sams’ pub, but they add much needed variety and distinctiveness to the pub scene. Their pubs seem to have been largely immune from the wave of closures that has blighted the pub industry in recent years – there may have been a few in their Yorkshire heartland, but I can’t think of a single Sams’ pub around here that has closed its doors for the last time.

Sams’ are also respectful custodians of their pub estate, rarely carrying out insensitive knock-throughs, and indeed a few years back they actually reinstated some internal walls when refurbishing the Boar’s Head on Stockport Market Place. The Blue Bell in Levenshulme, which the local branch of CAMRA voted as Pub of the Month earlier this year, received a very smart and tasteful makeover a couple of years ago.

Because it doesn’t fit in to the modern trend towards ultra-hoppy beers, some drinkers can be rather dismissive of Old Brewery Bitter, but in fact it is a well-made, high-quality beer in a distinctive Yorkshire style. The same is true of Sams’ keg range, and of the bottled beers which are highly regarded as exports in the USA. There are also few other tied estates where you will routinely come across a cloudy German-style wheat beer on keg. But don’t make the mistake in a Sams’ pub of thinking the bottles will be as cheap as the draught – they’re not by a long chalk.

Today Sam Smith’s have a reputation for remarkably cheap prices, but this was not always the case. My recollection is that, twenty years ago, their prices were fairly typical of the general range of independent family breweries. If anyone was cheap, it was Holt’s. However, one year Humphrey Smith decided to freeze his prices with the exception of passing on duty increases, and kept this up for about ten years, only eventually relenting a couple of years ago. The blogpost I linked to mentioned OBB being £1.43 a pint in the Boar’s Head – it is now £1.80, which is still cheaper than anywhere else in Stockport, but showing a 26% increase in less than three years.

Over the years, Sams’ have acquired a number of high-profile properties, including many in London and the Boot and Falcon in Chester and, a few decades ago, many of their pubs had a slightly genteel atmosphere. You can still detect signs of this in some of their more rural estate but by and large it has been very much eroded by their low-price policy. It’s also a pity that they don’t seem to be actively looking for new pubs to add to their estate, as I can think of quite a few locations, for example Hazel Grove near Stockport, where a Sams’ pub would probably work very well.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Grow your own

Although they sell large quantities of generic own-brand canned lagers and bitters, the major supermarkets have always struggled to make an impact with own-label products at the more premium end of the beer market. However, Morrison’s have now made a major investment in the category with the launch of a range of five new British premium bottled ales, all of which declare the brewery of origin.

These are as follows:

  • Golden Ale – oddly coming in two versions, 4.2% brewed by Black Sheep, and 4.5% brewed by Titanic. “A light and refreshing hidden treasure.”
  • Amber Ale (4.5%) brewed by Black Sheep. “A smooth, fruity brew with a bitter finish”.
  • American Red Ale (4.5%), brewed by Titanic. “A rich and warming British brew”.
  • Dark Ale (5.0%), brewed by Everards. “A rich, silky ale to rival red wine”.
  • IPA (5.8%), brewed by Marston’s. “A smooth and floral British classic”.

The American Red is undoubtedly the pick of the bunch, a robust, full-flavoured beer with a strong malt underpinning but avoiding any sense of sweetness and with a distinct hop overlay. The Dark Ale, which is more of a ruby ale than a black one in the style of Old Peculier, is surprisingly good too. The Golden Ale is pleasant enough in a soft, easy-drinking style, the Titanic version being better than the Black Sheep. The IPA is a bit underwhelming given its strength and claims of hoppiness, while the Amber Ale, while not a bad beer as such, has that slight muddiness of flavour characteristic of Black Sheep products.

Nevertheless, all are creditable additions to the PBA category and none are attempting to be obvious clones of something else as you often find with own-label products. Pricing may be an issue, though. Currently all are on offer at an introductory £1.50 per bottle, but the official sticker price is £1.79, which doesn’t look too good when Morrison’s will sell you three bottles from their extensive standard branded PBA range for £4.50.

There’s also always a nagging doubt with own-branded beers that you are basically drinking something brewed to a specification rather than an authentic product with its own distinctive character. It may be entirely psychological, but it’s hard to avoid the thought that these beers might be better perceived if sold under the breweries’ own labels.