Saturday, 30 November 2013

A whiff of anxiety

Fuller’s have recently become the latest recruit to the list of pub operators – most notably including Wetherspoon’s – to impose a blanket ban on the indoor use of e-cigarettes in their estate. The reasons given are twofold, that it can be difficult for staff to manage, and that it causes “anxiety” amongst customers. The first may have some validity, especially in a busy pub, but it’s nowhere near as difficult as they suggest, especially given that the ban on smoking real cigarettes is pretty much self-enforcing anyway. The second, on the other hand, just seems to be pandering to the kind of hysterical anti-smokers who, before the ban would say “Oh noes! There’s someone smoking on the other side of the room! I’m going to DIE!!!” and might go into a paroxysm if they saw someone who appeared to be smoking. Indeed, much of the opposition to e-cigs seems to stem simply from the fact that they somewhat resemble real cigarettes rather than from any kind of rational assessment of the risks.

Of course, pub operators are entirely within their rights to ban the use of e-cigs if they choose to do so, and I would strongly defend the principle of “my gaff, my rules”. But there is certainly no law against using them indoors, and they are becoming increasingly popular. There must be a growing number of pub customers who regard using an e-cig inside as much preferable to going out into the cold to smoke a real one. Given that they are often used as a means of helping people stop smoking, pubs banning them could also be seen as standing in the way of reducing smoking prevalence.

Rather than taking the easy way out and imposing a blanket ban, would it not make sense for pubs to make an effort to manage the issue, which is not in practice the impossible task that the likes of Fuller’s claim? They might even find they gain business by making a point of advertising themselves as “e-cig friendly”. And, if some customers still found it objectionable, there’s no reason why pubs can’t have an area where e-cigs are permitted, and an area where they’re not. That sounds like a very sensible idea – I wonder where I’ve heard it before...

Thursday, 28 November 2013

As plain as red and white

Worthington’s bottle-conditioned White Shield is one of the classic British beers and one that I will often go back to despite experiences of variable quality that I have reported previously.

A few years ago, the 4.2% ABV Red Shield was launched as a kind of little brother to White Shield. Although it was also made available in bottle, the main motivation was to provide a beer to offer in cask form, as the 5.6% White Shield is too strong to find many takers in the pub. However, it’s not, as you might expect, a weaker beer of the same general style, but in fact a distinctly different brew in the contemporary blonde beer idiom.

As far as I can see, it hasn’t exactly been a roaring success in either form and I’ve rarely seen them available, although I think I have sampled both on occasion. However, I was interested to spot a large supply of the bottles on sale in my local Home Bargains store at a mere £1 – which does hint at a level of surplus stock. So I had to give it another go.

It comes in the same dark-brown, round-shouldered bottle as its stronger stablemate. Despite being bottle-conditioned, the yeast sticks firmly to the bottom of the bottle so it’s easy to pour. It’s a bright pale gold colour in the glass, with a dense, rocky head and visible spires of carbonation rising through the beer, just as a good bottle-conditioned beer should be. So top marks for presentation and condition.

The actual flavour is less impressive, though. The whole thing is fairly subdued, light-bodied, basically dry with a malt underpinning and a hint of citrussy hops. It’s a good beer for refreshment, but not particularly distinctive, and overall too subtle for its own good, rather like Young’s London Gold which I reviewed a couple of years ago. So by all means snap up a few at £1 a bottle, but if paying full whack there are plenty of other beers I would prefer.

The bottle says, as with White Shield, that it is “closer to cask”, which is really a pretty inaccurate and misleading statement. While both bottle- and cask-conditioned beers undergo a secondary fermentation, they emerge as distinctly different products. It’s also interesting to see that, in the latest redesign, Molson Coors have adopted the same overall look for canned Worthington Creamflow as well as White and Red Shield. I doubt whether there is much overlap between the target markets, though.

Incidentally, if you’re not too concerned about the overall breadth of range, Home Bargains is a good place to stock up on premium bottled ales at notably lower prices than the major supermarkets, even taking their multibuy offers into account. Much of the selection comes from the Marston’s and Thwaites stables, but you can find other rarities and one-offs as well. (And before someone pipes up and says “B&M Bargains is just as good” – yes, I know, but their branch in Stockport isn’t licensed)

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Which side are you on?

The great American science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein once observed that “The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire.” Sadly, in the past couple of decades, the first tendency very much seems to have got the upper hand, especially in the area of seeking to influence what people put in their bodies, in terms of tobacco, alcohol and food. The concept of self-ownership which was fundamental to the values of the Enlightenment has been forced to take a back seat.

It’s not easy to fathom the motivation for all of this. The idea that we need a healthy, efficient population to fulfil some kind of national destiny has disturbingly totalitarian overtones. And the argument that unhealthy lifestyles place a greater burden on state-funded health services does not stand up to analysis – while it is possible to point to individual horror stories, on average it is the healthy people who survive into extreme old age who eventually end up costing more. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that ultimately it stems from a simple desire to tell others how to run their lives and impose your values on them.

The controlling tendency have also been able to forge an unholy alliance with those promoting quality in food and drink. The root of the two ideas is different, but it is all too easy for advocacy of good food to slip into support for measures to deter people eating what you perceive as poor food. Thus we have supporters of “good food” hanging on Jamie Oliver’s every word, tut-tutting at the idea that McDonalds and Burger King might be valuable additions to the High Street, and seeking to lock children in school at lunchtime to stop them going to the chippy. It also has to be said that there is a strong element of patronising snobbery in all of this, the belief that the thick plebs can’t be trusted to look after themselves and therefore have to be told what to do by their betters.

Much the same happens in the field of drink, where those who celebrate fine wines, malt whiskies and craft ales find it all too easy to look down their noses at the hoi polloi lugging slabs of Carling home from ASDA and happily swilling cheap Spanish white and Glen’s vodka. We are discerning connoisseurs, they are irresponsible binge-drinkers. And the health argument, which may have some limited validity in the area of food (although less than often supposed), does not apply here – a pint of Carling will be no worse for you than the equivalent amount of alcohol in Weasel Piss Imperial Triple IPA.

This may help explain why many beer enthusiasts seem strangely reluctant to acknowledge the threat from the anti-drink lobby, and indeed in some cases may imagine that some kind of accommodation can be made with them to promote quality and responsibility. All credit to beer writer Pete Brown for recently pointing out the lies of the anti-drink lobby, and in the past he has done a series on debunking myths about alcohol. But, despite more than one Conference motion, you will still see nothing of this kind in the CAMRA newspaper What’s Brewing. Many activists, in their hearts, identify more with those pointing out the evils of (other people’s) drink than with Diageo and Molson Coors.

Of course, at the end of the day, this is a dangerous delusion. When push comes to shove, the anti-drink lobby have no interest in separating out the good and bad drinkers. It’s all just booze to them. And it has to be recognised that, in recent years, the increasing denormalisation of moderate drinking and the negative image attached to alcohol have been amongst the main factors contributing to the decline of the pub trade. It’s no good standing up for pubs if at the same time you’re happy to stigmatise most of their customers.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The root of all evil?

This blogpost from Martyn Cornell: In praise of Ted Tuppen is a valuable antidote to some of the more hysterical anti-pubco tirades we have been seeing in the media recently. The whole thing is well worth reading, but the following paragraphs particularly stand out:
The call has been made for a mandatory free-of-tie option to be offered to pubco tenants. I can tell you what will happen if that is brought in: large numbers of the best currently tenanted/leased pubs will be turned into managed houses, and those pubs not suitable for a managed operation that look as if they will not bring in an adequate return to their pubco owner as free-of-tie operations will be sold to the highest bidder – likely to be Tesco, Sainsbury’s or Morrisons...

...There’s a good argument for saying that if it wasn’t for the pubco model and the support it provides licensees, even more pubs would have gone under in Britain than have so far. As one of the longest-lasting and most-successful pubco chief executives, having outlasted at the wicket most or all of his rivals from the early 1990s, Ted Tuppen can walk away from the crease, pulling off his batting gloves, with plenty of satisfaction.

If the tie was completely abolished, then what incentive would there be for a pubco to lease out a tenanted pub without any “wet rent”? It would become a pure property operation, and it might as well rent the premises out as a supermarket or a nail parlour. The pub market would polarise between high-profile, heavily-invested managed houses, and a long tail of often struggling, tatty and underinvested free houses. If a free house did well, it would be attractive to the managed house operators; if it didn’t, it would be even more vulnerable to conversion to alternative use than pub company pubs are at present. A few successful independent free houses with committed owners would thrive, as they do at present, but that would be far from general.

As I said in the comments, the anti-pubco campaigners never come up with any realistic alternative ownership structure for the industry. To imagine all pubs as stand-alone free-trade operations is pie-in-the-sky, to see them as council-owned “community assets” even more so. If property owners do not stand to gain from the business success of their properties, then what is in it for them?

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Culling the stragglers

Until a few years ago, I would always have said that the family brewers were more committed to holding on to their pubs than the pub companies were. Yes, the occasional no-hoper would be let go, such as Robinson’s Church in Edgeley, but often you would see tied houses still in business when around them several pub company properties were closed and boarded.

However, recently things seem to have changed, as a new, more commercially-minded generation comes to the fore and the cold winds of the recession and the general decline of the pub trade have started to bite. I know that to varying degrees Holts, Hydes and Lees have all become keener to dispose of under-performing pubs, but it is Robinson’s cull that is most obvious as they had more pubs to start with, and a large concentration in and around Stockport. Over the past two or three years I would say they have sold off at least an eighth of the pubs they had before.

I recently mentioned the Wanted Inn at Sparrowpit which is typical of quite a few pubs in their rural estate. In central Stockport, we have lost the Royal Oak near the brewery, the Grapes in Edgeley, the Bull’s Head on the Market Place, the Flying Dutchman on Hillgate and Cobdens and the Unity on Wellington Road South. The much-loved Tiviot closed only last weekend. In the suburbs, pubs like the Horsfield Arms outside the Robinson’s packaging plant, the Pineapple in Marple, the Lowes Arms in Woodley and the Grove, Royal Oak and Woodman in Hazel Grove have gone. Macclesfield has seen a similar cull to central Stockport. And I could (but won’t) name at least three more within a mile of the town centre which, on recent evidence, do not look long for this world.

I also recently spotted that the Masons Arms in Denton (pictured) had been de-signed. This is a pub on a prominent main road site, with a car park, and plenty of nearby housing, much of it owner-occupied, so on the face of it would not obviously appear to be unviable.

In the past, many family brewers felt a sense of responsibility towards their community which led them to keep pubs open that were of only marginal viability. However, at the end of the day they are businesses, not charities, and the new generation of Robinsons have taken a long hard look at the company and how it can be taken forward into the future, which has borne fruit in the rebranding of their beers and initiatives like the brewing of Trooper. On the other hand, they have identified that a lot of their pubs were not sufficiently differentiated from each other, and that their estate did have a long tail of nondescript, underperforming pubs that didn’t contribute much to the business overall and in some cases were proving difficult to find tenants for.

It’s sad to see them go, and some have been cracking boozers in their time – particularly the Grapes in Edgeley which was an archetypal street-corner local and for many years a Good Beer Guide stalwart. However, nobody can be unaware of the multiple pressures on the pub trade and you can’t really blame Robinson’s for biting the bullet.

To their credit, I understand that none of these pubs have been sold with restrictive covenants. Some, such as the former Flying Dutchman, now the Fairway, have been bought by new free trade owners, but the majority have either been converted to alternative uses or still stand in a closed and boarded state. I understand there may be moves in the pipeline to bring more of them back to life, which would be a welcome development, but it would be naive to imagine that it’s possible to revive every closed pub with a new management and approach.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Who’d ha’ thought it?

In October 2011, the Scottish government introduced a ban on multi-buy discounts for alcoholic drinks purchased in the off-trade. The thinking behind this is that these deals tempted people to buy more than they otherwise would have done and thus they ended up drinking more.

However, two years later, an in-depth study funded by the Department of Health Policy Research Programme has shown the measure has had no significant effect on levels of alcohol purchasing. People were buying alcohol more frequently, but buy less on each occasion. This clearly indicates that multibuy deals tended to be used by the more organised consumers to buy a set level of drinks at the most advantageous price rather than increasing overall consumption.

To a large extent, retailers have replaced these offers by price reductions on individual items and packs, which ironically leads to a lower price point for less well-off drinkers who may not have been able to take advantage of the multibuys. This kind of deal seems to have spread south of the border too – while I haven’t carried out thorough research, and I don’t buy them myself, I get the impression that discounts on individual beer and cider multipacks have grown in popularity in comparison with “3 for £22” offers.

Inevitably, given that this policy has been ineffective, the call comes for more to be done. But even that may not work. “Banning all forms of price promotion of alcohol may be considered a more effective option, yet, such a policy may still be compromised by reductions in the standard price of alcohol products, thereby making alcohol more affordable.” Indeed, I would expect an ALDI-style policy of permanent low prices without any promotions wouldn’t cut consumption either, and indeed may be preferred by many consumers. It should be remembered that price promotions of all kinds are primarily intended to benefit retailers and manufacturers. Canny consumers may gain, but more dim or time-pressed ones will lose out.

In the end, the conclusion is “More encompassing regulation of price promotion and price is likely required, in order to reduce alcohol purchasing and in turn consumption and related harms.” So despite us having about the second highest alcohol duties in the EU, drink is still too cheap!

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Sorting the sheep from the goats

I was recently sent a link to an interesting academic research paper. It’s worth reproducing the summary in full:

Could saving the traditional pub be the answer to Britain’s binge drinking problem?

A research study finds evidence for the traditional pub as a site for restrained and responsible social interaction for young adults. The UK government wants further controls to restrict high street bars but on the other hand is concerned about the decline in the number of traditional public houses or pubs. A recent article published in Planning Theory & Practice, Young adults and the decline of the urban English pub: issues for planning, by Marion Roberts (University of Westminster) & Tim Townshend (Newcastle University), discusses whether the English Planning System should distinguish between pubs for the ‘public good’ and licensed premises associated with ‘social ills’?

Roberts and Townshend bring together two issues that have pre-occupied the British government; the decline of the British pub and young people’s drinking. The number of public houses in the UK has fallen by nearly one quarter in the space of three decades. Meanwhile alcohol consumption amongst young adults remains a key policy concern. The authors discuss evidence from research into local variations in youth drinking cultures in England*, which found that young people reported drinking in a restrained and responsible manner in ‘traditional’ pubs. Young adults in their study reported having one or two drinks on a weekday evening or sometimes not drinking alcohol at all. Such behaviour could be contrasted with heavy drinking at high street bars or at house parties.

“I’ve got one group of friends who I would go out clubbing with and they like to get completely wrecked… My other group of friends are more like me and like to go down the pub and have a glass of wine and stick to soft drinks after that. It depends who I am out with.”

While recognising the adverse effects of excessive alcohol consumption, the authors point out that going to pubs reinforces social ties and networks. This evidence lends support to arguments for the contribution of pubs to social sustainability and paradoxically, to health, or at least a healthier mode of alcohol consumption.

The article explores the difficulties the English planning system faces in seeking to distinguish pubs that might be identified with a ‘public good’ from other types of licensed premises more associated with ‘social ills’. The Use Class Order in the English planning system does not provide an adequate distinction between different types of drinking establishment. The authors suggest a new use class established for traditional pubs where the majority of patrons are seated. The UK government is already providing special support to ‘community pubs’, through the Localism Act 2011 and the Community Services Grants. The study found that its sample of young adults were prepared to travel to meet friends and that their pub going routines were rarely confined to their ‘local’. This suggests that while the Localism Act may be effective in supporting well-organised community groups, it does not meet the needs of a younger, mobile demographic.

“It may seem paradoxical to support going to pubs as part of a healthier lifestyle”, says Marion Roberts, “and it is important not to romanticise pubs as there are issues about the extent to which young women feel welcome or comfortable in them and that applies to other groups. Nevertheless, the planning system has been called on by politicians to help local pubs to survive and it does seem that this issue should be taken seriously.”

This sounds all well and good in a motherhood-and-apple pie kind of way, but it’s extremely questionable whether it’s achievable in practice. For a start, many of the traditional pubs have gone already, so it would be a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. And, while the planning system certainly can effectively stop certain types of business from opening up, it can’t magic desirable ones into existence in the absence of customer demand and willingness of businesses to invest.

It would also in practice be very difficult to come up with a watertight definition to distinguish “good” from “bad” businesses and, in reality, the character of a pub is often determined by its clientele rather than the other way round. People might not normally regard Wetherspoon’s, specialist beer bars or upmarket dining pubs as sources of trouble and social ills, but they certainly don’t conform to the classic image of the traditional local. It would be like trying to separate out healthy and unhealthy takeaways through planning law. Qualitative planning criteria are very unlikely to be workable.

A further important point is that the relationship between young people and pubs has been severely eroded by the much greater efforts made in recent years to combat underage drinking. A generation ago, underage drinking in pubs was widely tolerated so long as no trouble was caused. This taught young people how to drink responsibly, and also got them used to the habit of pubgoing. Now, when they will not get served until they are indubitably 18, and even then are constantly harassed to provide proof of age, it is hardly surprising that they go much less and feel more negatively about pubs than they once did. Yet I doubt whether a deliberate policy of turning a blind eye to well-behaved under-18s in pubs is going to find much favour in official circles.

As so often, while politicians spout weasel words about the virtues of pubs, the reality on the ground is that they continue to encourage the policies that have harmed them. They like them in theory, but not in practice. The report is, like many academic publications, bizarrely silent on the factor that in recent years has done more damage to traditional pubs than any other.

It is also very doubtful whether the widespread view that pub drinking is somehow more responsible than at-home drinking has any validity except in the context of socialising the under-25 age group. On average, adults drinking at home will drink less per sitting than those in pubs and are less exposed to risk. Plus, forty years ago, when at-home drinking was largely irrelevant, pubs were by no means all calm, well-behaved establishments – rowdy and even violent behaviour were far from unknown and, back then, if you wanted to see drunks, you found them in pubs.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

The world is your apple

In 1977, Michael Jackson produced the World Guide to Beer, which was the first attempt to look at beer on a global basis, identify the various styles in a systematic way and examine how different countries’ brewing traditions fitted together. It went through various editions and arguably has proved the most influential book on beer ever written and a cornerstone of the modern beer enthusiast movement.

Now, well-known beer writer Pete Brown, in conjuction with photographer Bill Bradshaw, has attempted to do the same for cider with his new book The World’s Best Cider. It’s a substantial large-format volume of 256 pages, lavishly illustrated throughout with many of Bill’s photographs which can also be seem on his IamCider blog. It begins with sections defining what cider is and running through its often rather imprecise history, before moving on to look at each cider-producing country in more detail, with descriptions of each region, features on a variety of cidermaking personalities and listings of selected ciders that can be ranked amongst the world’s best.

Although the large-scale industrial cidermakers are not ignored, it is made clear that this is a book celebrating the more distinctive and artisanal end of the spectrum. On the other hand, there is a certain amount of criticism of CAMRA’s narrow-minded definition of “real cider” which excludes many high-quality products and makes the definition of “real beer” seem broad and inclusive.

Cider has a long and honourable tradition in various countries including the UK and Ireland, France, Germany and Spain, but for various reasons has always had to play second fiddle to the major drinks categories of beer, wine and spirits, and therefore often ends up being misunderstood. It is also notable that there has been considerably less cross-fertilisation of styles and methods than there has been with beer, resulting in wide differences between the various countries’ cider cultures. However, as with beer, there is now a growing movement of new-wave “craft” cidermaking to build on the established traditions and look towards other countries’ practices.

I make no claim to be an expert on cider, and I certainly learned a great deal from the book that was new to me. For example, it isn’t widely realised that the UK and Ireland drink more cider than the rest of the world combined, even if much of it is Magners and Strongbow, and that the second largest market is South Africa. While I had vaguely heard of it, I certainly hadn’t appreciated what the strange fermentation technique of “keeving” actually involved, and nor had I realised that the agricultural heartland of Austria had a strong and locally celebrated cider and perry tradition. And I had never heard of the unique Quebec method of producing “ice cider”, which involves freezing the apples to separate out juice from water and results in a strong, sweet yet never cloying beverage that has been described as “like drinking starlight”.

It seems churlish to criticise, but perhaps more could have been said (as Rhys Jones mentioned in a review in Opening Times) about where these various ciders can actually be purchased and, while there is a page on traditional cider houses, the West Country pub cider-drinking culture is underplayed. There are also a few examples of black text on a brown mottled background that is a little hard to read, even before any cider has been consumed.

But, in summary, it’s an attractive, well-written, accessible yet authoritative book that is essential reading for anyone whose interest in cider has progressed beyond Strongbow and Magners. The cover price is £25, but it is available from Amazon at £13.85, and if you follow the links on that page can be obtained for as little as £10.79 including P&P. I have to admit to feeling a slight twinge of guilt for getting it so cheaply, but I’m sure Pete Brown’s wallet can stand it and at least I paid for it rather than getting a free review copy.

Another cider book that is well worth reading is Ciderland by James Crowden which very much concentrates on the West Country and does a good job of getting to the heart of the indefinable atmosphere of “cider country”. And I paid full whack for that!

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Unwanted Inn

Here’s another in my occasional series of landmark pubs that have called time forever. This is the Wanted Inn at Sparrowpit in the Peak District, on a notoriously sharp bend on the scenic A623 road between Chapel-en-le-Frith and Baslow. Originally called the Duke of Devonshire, it gained its more recent name because in the 1950s the Devonshire Estate decided to dispose of it, and it took nearly two years before it found a buyer who “wanted” it. This may have been Robinson’s brewery, as for many years it was one of their tied houses before it fell victim, along with plenty of others, to their recent pub cull. The StreetView image from November 2012 shows that it survived long enough to gain Robinson’s new livery. The hamlet of Sparrowpit has thirty or so houses, so some people will no longer have a local pub within walking distance.

Only about three miles away, Robinson’s have also recently closed the handsome Crown & Mitre at Chinley, but as the forecourt seems to be being used as an extension of the used car dealership opposite it wasn’t possible to get a decent photo. I recall many years ago listening to a female customer in this pub going on at great and tedious length about the quality of own-label groceries sold by ALDI.

Incidentally, it is my understanding that Robinson’s are not applying restrictive covenants to any of these pubs, so if you fancy taking one on the opportunity is there. Don’t all rush at once.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Blogging blight

So far this year I have made 140 posts on this blog, which equates to about 160 in the full year. However, over the previous four years, the average has been 274. There has been a similar reduction in activity in the beer blogosphere in general, with some established bloggers giving up entirely and others going very quiet. For example, Tandleman has made 80 posts so far this year, or 91 in a full year, compared with an average in the past four years of 179.

For me, this year has been marred by a sad personal event, but I don’t think that has really stemmed the flow of blogging. The key reason, to be honest, is joining Twitter. In the past, there were many instances where I would make a blogpost linking to an interesting article with a few additional comments, which now I would just put on Twitter, saving the blog for the longer and more reflective articles.

However, the problem with Twitter is that it is totally ephemeral. Miss it and it’s gone, whereas on the blog pretty much everything attracts at least a few comments, and the discussion can still be read years later. So, while not planning to forsake Twitter, I will aim to post a few more links and brief comments on here where they may encourage more thoughtful and long-lasting discussion.

Taking flight

Last week I referred to the imminent opening of the Flying Horse, Greene King’s new Hungry Horse pub in Heald Green. As new-build pubs in and around Stockport are as rare as hen’s teeth (what was the last one? Three Bears? Micker Brook?) I thought I should go along and take a look.

It’s an impressively large building, mostly of red brick, with some white-painted facings and contrasting mock-quoin detailing on the corners. There’s a large car park at the back, but unusually you have to walk round to the front to get to the main entrance. I spotted later that there was a small back door, but it isn’t at all conspicuous. There are signs saying that there is a two-hour time limit in the car park. It’s questionable how enforceable this is, as all they can do is send out an imitation “fine” which you can probably safely ignore. Proximity to the airport is obviously the reason for this, but even so it’s easy to see a celebration meal with a large party extending for more than two hours, so I would have thought three more reasonable.

As you enter through the front door, the long main bar is in front of you. On the right is a lounge-type area with extensive bench seating and a “public bar” with large-screen TV and pool table where there is a sign saying “Over 18s only”. To the left, extending up to the conservatory, it is more restaurant-like with free-standing tables and seating booths. The decor makes extensive use of wood and dark blues and reds, and the overall impression is much more pub-like than many of Wetherspoon’s recent efforts such as the Kingfisher at Poynton. There is a large outdoor seating area that is ideal for watching planes coming in to the airport, but the covered smoking area at the rear is small and apologetic. For a midweek lunchtime only a few days after opening it was remarkably busy, with probably at least 75% of tables occupied in a very large pub.

There are two banks of handpumps dispensing Greene King IPA, Old Speckled Hen and Abbot Ale, but they are at each end of the bar and so not immediately obvious on walking in. The IPA is £2.95 a pint and the others £3.05 – par for the course for the area and type of pub. All are served in branded glasses, with the one for IPA being a dumpy, smooth-sided tankard which won’t be to everyone’s taste. The IPA I tried was in perfectly good condition but, as usual with this beer, rather bland. There’s a wide range of kegs and lagers, none of which, interestingly, are Greene King products – even the smooth ale is John Smith’s. World lager fans will note the availability of Brahma on tap.

Obviously there is an extensive food menu of a fairly cheap and cheerful kind, majoring on burgers, steaks and pub favourites. The prices and quality are similar to Wetherspoon’s, although with rather more choice overall. Most main courses are in the £6-£7 range. Only wanting a snack, I went for a “Big Burrito” which seemed to rather miss the point by mixing the rice, sour cream and guacamole in with the beef chilli filling rather than serving them separately. It’s a long way from fine dining and I can’t help thinking that pubs of this type often rather underestimate the food tastes of their target market, but presumably Greene King have done their research thoroughly.

In summary, it’s obviously a chain dining pub and has to be accepted for what it is. It’s not going to win any awards for an innovative beer range, gourmet food or pub atmosphere. But it actually feels more like a pub than many of the genre and is actually somewhere you would not feel out of place just going for a drink. It could be a lot worse.

The location is here at the junction of the B5166 Styal Road and Longstone Road. While most people would consider it to be Heald Green, it is actually just over the boundary into the City of Manchester and so would more properly be described as Moss Nook. It will be interesting to see what effect it has on the business of the nearby – and much more characterful – Tatton Arms, which Robinson’s refurbished a couple of years ago.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Seize the day

Pete Brown is always worth reading, but I can’t help getting the impression that in this piece for the Morning Advertiser he meanders round a number of points without ever really managing to hit the nail on the head.

The basic premise is reasonable enough, that pubs need to look at what people actually want rather than just trying to find ways to market their existing offer more effectively. However, on a number of points he’s guilty of somewhat muddled thinking.

For a start, I don’t really get the point that pubs in locations which can support coffee shops are not opening until 4 or 5 pm. Yes, a lot of pubs do that during the week, but generally in locations where there is little or no passing trade. If a High Street can generate the trade for Starbucks or CaffĂ© Nero, then it can do the same for pubs. Certainly round here the vast majority of town and city centre pubs open all day. It may be a London thing, but flicking through the London pages of the Good Beer Guide I can’t find many pubs that don’t open at least from noon. Perhaps it’s just a generalisation based on one particular pub that annoys him.

He then argues that pubs need to look at reinventing themselves to appeal to the type of customers who are using coffee shops. In fact, many have to some extent – how many town centre pubs now have clear plate-glass windows, sofas and pastel colours? The still pervasive idea that pubs are gloomy dives hidden behind frosted glass containing hacking old drunks ranting on about the Four Canals is now far more myth than reality. And, as Steve Wilson says in the comments, if you try to appeal to new customers, you have to be very careful that you don’t just end up alienating your existing ones. Plus, for various reasons, the trade derived from people “just popping in for a quick one” is now much diminished from what it once was.

He also comes up with the familiar canard about pubs overcharging for soft drinks. As I argued here, nobody goes to pubs primarily because of their choice of soft drinks, the demand is highly inelastic and in any case pub soft drink prices are broadly comparable with “family restaurants”. It may well be in pubs’ interest to offer a better range of soft drinks (or anything else), and it may also be a good idea to avoid prices so high they give the impression of ripping customers off. But cheaper soft drinks won’t bring floods of new customers into pubs, and if you cut soft drink prices, what are you going to charge more for? Beer?

I get the impression from this piece that Pete is drawing lessons from the Inner London pub market and seeking to apply them to the rest of the country, whereas in reality the way the two work is becoming increasingly divorced.

The fightback begins

Off Licence News reports that alcohol producers are looking at taking legal action against local councils imposing “voluntary” bans on selling higher strength beer and cider in the off-trade.

Nigel McNally, managing director of Brookfield Drinks, which markets 9% abv Kestrel Super lager and 7.5% Diamond White cider, said local authorities could be bankrupted by the compensation they would be forced to pay out if they lost. Hundreds of off-licences, including the East of England Co-operative, have taken beers and ciders as low as 5.5% abv off their shelves as part of a drive to tackle street drinking, and in some cases the ban has been enshrined in premises licences.

But producers believe the schemes are illegal. McNally said: “People are being affected commercially, and when that happens companies will respond, probably collectively. Councils will be challenged and claims brought. Some councils could potentially go bust if it’s demonstrated it’s illegal, and that’s been our advice.”

Gordon Johncox, managing director of Aston Manor Brewery, which produces 7.5% Frosty Jack’s cider, added: “According to our advice super-strength bans could be breaking competition law if there is a concerted agreement between competing parties. If the local authority facilitated a dialogue it could be seen as illegal.

“A bigger issue is we’re hearing retailers feel coerced into participating, fearing they may jeopardise licences if they don’t.”

It’s also good to see producers of premium products like Henry Chevallier Guild of Aspall Cider getting involved, as they have just as much to lose, if not more, and should not deceive themselves that somehow they can avoid being tarred with the same brush.

Let us hope that the courts move swiftly to reinforce the point that councils have no right to prevent the sale of entirely legal products within their areas.

It’s also very noticeable how councils who are constantly pleading poverty and unable to provide basic services properly still seem to have money to burn on things that are none of their business. And surely, if there really is a problem with street drinking, the answer is to pass a local by-law to prohibit it (although there are concerns that can be applied in a heavy-handed manner) and then actively enforce it, rather than penalising responsible consumers as well.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

No fun any more

Discussion of changing pub names reminded me of a category of pub that seems to have largely vanished from the face of the earth – the “Fun Pub”, or “Young People’s Pub”, or, as often dismissively referred to by CAMRA members, the “Kiddy Pub”.

At one time during the 80s, this was all the rage. Take one struggling pub, preferably one on a prominent site, give it a makeover including pool tables, wall-to-wall TV screens, bright lights, loud music and garish decor majoring on white and bright pink, strip out bench seating in favour of high-level stools, give it a new name with an S on the end such as Chaplins or Bogarts, and there you go. The picture shows one in Brownhills near Walsall which was changed from the George and Dragon to “Georgies” – and, of course, is now long since closed.

Around here the Pennine Hosts managed pub arm of Grand Metropolitan seemed to be the worst offenders, but they weren’t alone. We even had the former Golden Hind in Offerton renamed as “Drakes”. Very often, any cask beer was removed, but sometimes an apologetic handpull remained dispensing ill-kept Webster’s Yorkshire Bitter so it could be criticised on CAMRA pub crawls.

The whole thing was very typical of the 80s boom, redolent of Loadsamoney, Stock, Aitken and Waterman and the Escort XR3i, and gave the impression that the designers had been watching too many Brat Pack movies and re-runs of Tom Cruise in Cocktail. I’m not sure that these pubs ever did the hoped-for business, as for every customer who was attracted at least one other would be deterred. Added to this, the redecoration schemes were very much done on the cheap and it wasn’t too long before they started to look decidedly frayed at the edges.

So, as we moved into the 90s, the concept withered on the vine. The pubs began to be converted back into something rather more mainstream, with a bit more food and a bit more seating, or, increasingly, they ended up being declared unviable and closed altogether. While you do get youth-oriented bars in the nightlife sections of major towns and cities, outside of those areas pubs specifically targeted at that market seem to have largely disappeared.

It’s not something I personally miss, but it’s an interesting example of how the pub scene has changed over the years. I also get the impression that the drinking and socialising patterns amongst the younger age group that once sustained these pubs, to a greater or lesser degree, twenty-five years ago have largely vanished.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

What’s in a name?

In the past few years, a number of local pubs have been sold off into the free trade by the pub companies and family brewers. In many cases, with the aim of demonstrating a fresh start, the new owners have decided to change the name. Thus the Railway in Romiley became Platform One, the Board in Whaley Bridge the Drum and Monkey, the Flying Dutchman on Hillgate the Fairway and now the Pack Horse on Stockport Market Place the Cocked Hat.

This has divided opinion, with some people seeing it as a betrayal of tradition. However, I can’t really get too worked up about it. I can understand why the new owners want to draw a line under its former reputation, and the new name is at least an established pub name with a link to Stockport’s past association with the hatting industry. There is perhaps a better argument in favour of retaining unusual and distinctive names such as the Flying Dutchman. There was another example of this in Widnes a few years back where the possibly unique Angel & Elephant became the depressingly mundane Appleton Arms (and is now closed anyway).

At least the once commonplace fad of giving old pubs new “trendy” names such as Sippers, Jesters or Marilyns now seems to have died the death – along, sadly, with many of the pubs given this treatment, like the old Manchester Arms in Stockport which eventually ended up as Cobdens.

And, if you do rename your pub, you run the risk that for decades people will continue to refer to it as “you know, what used to be the Pack Horse”. Plus, sometimes new names simply do not stick, so a few years later the pub quietly reverts to its original identity, as we saw with the Dog & Partridge in Heaton Mersey which had a spell as the Mersey Vale.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

The British Pub Corporation

Occasionally, campaigners against pub closures have suggested that threatened pubs should be taken into local authority ownership and run as “community resources”. Realistically, I doubt whether many people nowadays would consider running pubs to be an appropriate activity for councils and, even if they tried to, the enterprise would be on a pretty certain road to disaster. Just imagine going to your local pub and being bombarded with posters about the evils of binge-drinking!

But many of today’s pubgoers won’t be aware that, within the drinking career of many older pub customers, something along similar lines existed in Britain in the form of the Carlisle State Management Scheme. This was originally set up during the First World War when Carlisle and the surrounding area were a centre of munitions manufacture and concern was expressed that widespread drunkenness amongst the workers was harming the war effort. So all the pubs in the area, together with four small breweries, were taken into State ownership. Three of the breweries were closed down and production concentrated on the fourth. Opening hours were curtailed and instructions given that the pubs should be run with the aim of discouraging excessive consumption, for example by banning the buying of rounds.

Some would argue that the ulterior motive was actually for Lloyd George – a noted temperance campaigner – to run an experiment with State control of the liquor trade which, if successful, could be extended to the rest of the country. In the end, this never happened but, somewhat surprisingly, after the war the scheme was allowed to continue, and the pubs and brewery were not returned to private ownership. The beers were sold at notably reasonable prices, as the aim was not to make profits from alcohol sales, and there was no advertising or brewery branding on the pubs. During the inter-war period, a number of the pubs were tastefully rebuilt on “improved” lines according to designs by architect Harry Redfern, who is commemorated by the handsome Redfern Inn at Etterby, complete with its own bowling green. It almost sounds like a nationalised version of Sam Smith’s without the feudal employment practices. The photo above shows the Jester (formerly the Earl Grey) on Botchergate, a rare design by Redfern in an Art Deco style rather than his usual more traditional Arts and Crafts idiom. It is now a Taekwon-do school.

The scheme seems to have been pretty much forgotten by officialdom and continued in operation well after the Second World War. However, it was eventually wound up by the Heath government in 1971. In The Beer Drinker’s Companion, published shortly afterwards, Frank Baillie says that it brewed “a well-flavoured draught bitter with a good hop rate, and a dark mild” and also mentions that its pubs also stocked over twenty brands of beer from other brewers, draught keg and bottled. It seems that it was regarded locally with considerable affection, but in reality it had become an indefensible anachronism. I don’t know from my reading to what extent it exercised a monopoly within its trading area that prevented outside brewers from opening new pubs – I assume that effectively it did.

In hindsight, it would probably have made more sense to sell off the brewery together with a good chunk of the tied houses as a going concern. As it was, most of the pubs were acquired by either Scottish & Newcastle or Greenalls, and the latter attracted considerable criticism by refusing to sell cask beer in any of them. The brewery ended up in the hands of Theakston’s, who had outgrown their original Masham premises, but it seems they always struggled to make a go of it, especially as it was a considerable distance from their main trading area in the Yorkshire Dales. Eventually it closed in 1987 after Matthew Brown – who had previously acquired Theakston’s – were themselves taken over by Scottish & Newcastle.

Even had it lasted through the 1970s, it is unthinkable that the State Management Scheme would have survived the privatisation boom of the 1980s. It was created in an age when the demand for pubs was very much a given, and in the much more fickle and competitive marketplace of the modern age it would surely have struggled. It is always a feature of publicly-owned enterprises of any kind that they are much more concerned to defend the past rather than innovate, and you can see it attracting criticism for failing to meet the demand for trendy city-centre bars and food houses, while being engaged in a constant running battle over attempts to rationalise the peripheral estate and rural pubs that had experienced declining trade. There would inevitably be an expectation that it would keep open such establishments for social reasons even if they had become unprofitable.

Even now, there are a couple of examples of this kind of thinking in these recent local newspaper reports about the future prospects of two Redfern estate pubs – the Rose & Crown and the Magpie. Indeed,

Councillor Robert Betton, who represents the Botcherby ward, launched a petition to try and save the Magpie. He is trying to persuade Carlisle City Council to run it as a going concern.
I wish him luck with that. Whereas, re the Rose & Crown,
Philip Tuer, the pub’s liaison for the Solway branch of CAMRA, said: “It’s one of the Redfern pubs and it will be a sad loss but unfortunately the last couple of licensees haven’t been able to make it pay.

“If you can’t get the customers through the door no matter how much you spend you are flogging a dead horse.”

He added: “With its bowling green, by knocking it down you triple the size of the land you have available.

“Financially it is worth a lot more that way. It is a difficult time.”

I understand that the Rose & Crown has now been demolished.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Pubs we have loved and lost

Here’s an interesting piece of nostalgia from the Shropshire Star about pubs that have been lost in the county in recent years. The comments about pubs being caught in “planning limbo” are particularly pertinent.
A particularly agonising possibility for failed pubs is that they will be in planning limbo land. In this set of circumstances local people tend to be vociferous in wanting to keep the pub, even if they don’t often drink there themselves, and the local council supports them by refusing to give planning permission for conversion into homes, or whatever. The publican or pub company argues that the pub is not viable and that nobody wants to buy it as a pub.

And so there is a standoff. The building is in the worst of all worlds, a pub that is not a pub, and not really anything else either. If it is not occupied, it will deteriorate, with every day an incremental decrease in the chances of bringing it back to life successfully.

Empty buildings are vulnerable buildings, and a few closed pubs have been burned down.

But it’s very hard to deny that, sad though this toll of closures may be, the underlying cause is a long-term fall in demand that has rendered more and more pubs unviable.

The picture is of the interestingly-named All Labour in Vain at Horsehay in Telford.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

We are all binge drinkers now

Or so someone said to me the other day. While he was referring to the modern Newspeak definition of “binge drinking”, that is, having more than three drinks in one session, rather than the original meaning of “drunk for days”, I could see what he meant. Drinking, at least in pubs, has become a specific leisure pursuit to be indulged on weekend evenings, and no longer something that is woven into the fabric of everyday life. Gone are the couple of pints on Friday lunchtime, the pre Sunday lunch appetiser, the swift call on your way home from work, the quick pub visit after the cinema or the football match.

This is reinforced by the increasingly widespread belief, which I have seen reflected in the comments on here, that as soon as a so much as a half of mild has crossed your lips, then the rest of the day has to be written off. Many pubs report business holding up well on Friday and Saturday nights, but for the rest of the week find themselves increasingly empty. And this is all part of the process of the insidious denormalisation of regular, moderate alcohol consumption which surely is the key to responsible drinking.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Well, someone believes in pubs

For once, here’s a story of pub advance rather than pub retreat. The two pictures to the right show the Flying Horse, an impressively large, brand new pub close to Manchester Airport which is due to open next Monday. The specific location is here. Many people would think of this as Heald Green, but in fact it’s just over the border into Manchester.

However, leaps of joy may be cut short for some on learning that it’s the latest branch of Greene King’s Hungry Horse chain.

Don’t say you weren’t warned

Spotted on Twitter:

Sunday, 3 November 2013

An unpalatable truth

This post is to a large extent a rehash of others I have made in the past. Some people aren’t going to like it, but it needs to be said.

I can well understand how people who have suffered at the hands of the pub companies feel very aggrieved about it, and are thus motivated to campaign against the companies’ policies. But, as with single-issue campaigners of all kinds, it is all too easy to allow it to expand into an over-arching narrative that explains everything. To listen to some of them, you would get the impression that the primary reason for the decline of the pub trade in the past twenty years has been greedy, incompetent pub companies acting in association with rapacious supermarkets and property developers and bungling local authorities. However, this, whether through simple ignorance or a blinkered refusal to confront the facts, completely fails to recognise the wider picture.

In the period since 1979, beer sales in pubs have declined by over 60%, and around a third of the pubs in the country have closed. There has been a marked long-term secular decline in the demand for pubs which goes far beyond the specifics of individual businesses. Obviously, in an overall declining market, it will tend to be the better-run pubs that survive, and the worse-run ones that go to the wall, but the underlying reason for pubs closing en masse is not that they have been sold off in large number for alternative use despite being profitable, nor that they have been allowed to become tatty, unwelcoming, badly-managed dumps. Indeed, the average pub now is much better run and more welcoming that it was in 1979.

Are those who are mainly laying it at the door of the pubcos really denying there’s been much impact from the decline of heavy industry, inner-city depopulation, influx of people from cultures with no pubgoing tradition, changing gender roles, discouragement of lunchtime drinking at work, denormalisation of drink-driving within the legal limit or the smoking ban?

I asked the question here what difference it would may to the overall pub market if the average pub was run as well as the best. The conclusion was that overall trade would be unlikely to increase by more than a few percentage points. To suggest that pubs could have held on to most of the lost trade by being run differently is frankly ludicrous. It’s on a par with arguing that the collapse of transatlantic passenger shipping in the 1960s was mainly due to badly-run shipping lines. In mature markets, variations in the quality of what is on offer play a relatively minor role in determining the overall level of demand. I regularly visit a number of well-run, appealing family brewery tied houses that have certainly not been allowed to decay and can demonstrate long-term continuity in management and general offer. But they have haemorrhaged trade too, just as surely as the most inconsistently-run pubco outlet, even if not quite to the same degree.

Equally, while I’m sure there have been cases of profitable pubs being sold off for redevelopment as flats or convenience stores, there are few areas of the country where there aren’t plenty of recently-closed pubs in all kinds of locations that would be available on a freehold basis to anyone wanting an entry into the trade. There must be at least half a dozen in central Stockport alone. The fact that would-be pub entrepreneurs haven’t snapped these sites up suggests that they don’t see a potential market there, and those who whine that “pubs only close because they’re shit” always seem strangely reluctant to put their money where their mouth is. While matters may be different in some parts of inner London subject to intense development pressures, I’m not aware of a single pub around here sold for conversion to alternative use that previously could have been said to be thriving.

I do not for a minute seek to defend the policies of the pubcos, but they are essentially a desperate 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 current “pub crisis” is essentially a crisis of demand, not supply. All the planning controls and development restrictions in the world won’t save a single pub if the underlying demand isn’t there in the first place. While it may be 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. For plenty of closed pubs, it is possible to come up with a narrative that might have allowed it to do better. For the overall market, it is much more difficult, unless you’re suggesting rewinding thirty years of social and economic change.

If you fail to understand the true nature of the problem, whether through ignorance or choice, you are never going to come up with a solution. Indeed it does the pub trade as a whole a disservice for people to insist on peddling a narrative for its decline which at best is exaggerated and at worst utterly delusional. Quite frankly, some of the more strident anti-pubco campaigners end up being simply anti-pub.

Some have accused me of not really supporting pubs, but any lasting acquaintance with this blog will disabuse you of that notion. But I acknowledge that social changes have made huge swathes of pubs unviable, regrettable as it may be in many cases, and don’t go about flogging dead horses. You can still be a railway enthusiast while admitting there isn’t really a case for reopening the Cleobury Mortimer branch. I recognise that every pub is a business too, which some seem not to, and they cannot be kept alive by fossilising the trading patterns of the past through the planning system. Nor is it desirable to try to help business sectors you feel sentimental about by artificially skewing the market in their favour – all that will do is postpone the evil day and very likely in the end result in a worse outcome.

Spreading your favours

This wasn’t trying to prove any point, just aiming to find out to what extent people on a weekend night out confine their custom to a single pub or spread it around a number of different ones. The results show a wide variety of choices , with roughly equal numbers preferring just the one, or two, or not going in for that kind of thing anyway, and slightly more tending to go to three or more.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Craft vs Premium

I think it was Boak and Bailey who pointed out this article entitled Is Craft Killing Big Beer – Not Through Sales, But Brand Status Erosion? It’s about the US beer market, and what is very interesting is how different it is from the situation in this country. For a start, if you try to extrapolate the US definition of “craft beer” to the UK it would undoubtedly include all cask beer and all premium bottled ales, which is certainly not how it is perceived here.

We have also never seen any consistent efforts by brewers to develop “premium” beer brands. As I argued here, premium prices tend to apply to one beer category over another, and between upmarket and downmarket pubs, but not to any great extent within individual categories. In recent years, of course, one of the greatest successes of premium beer branding was “reassuringly expensive” Stella Artois, but the brand owners destroyed that image by being too keen to pursue the mass market (not to mention cheapening the recipe) and it has now just become another commodity product. Nowadays, the beer that seems to have acquired that cachet is Peroni, which significantly is not available in cans and never seen on discount at ASDA. Over the years, Guinness has also successfully maintained a premium position, to some extent because it defines its own category and has no effective challengers.

In the past, the national brewers managed to secure something of a price premium in the market because their beers were widely known and advertised, and therefore perceived as superior to the artisanal products of the local independent brewers. I have an early edition of CAMRA’s guide to Derbyshire Ale which displays an obvious preference for Burton beers – Bass, Ind Coope and Marston’s – over the more plebeian output of the Nottingham brewers. That’s largely gone now, as are many of the beers, but it’s still noticeable that pub company pubs, which in many cases have been inherited from the Big Six, tend to charge more than the remaining family brewers.

At least in UK terms, craft beer is perceived as one or more of unusual, extreme, challenging, an acquired taste, something that appeals to geeks, enthusiasts and aficidionados. This isn’t the case in the US, where much of the volume classed under craft is beers like Samuel Adams and Brooklyn Lager which, although coming across as better and more characterful than Budweiser or Miller Lite, are not so much so as to challenge the consumer. Therefore, a drinker who sees himself as discerning, and wants to be seen as such, could happily order one in a bar in a way that his British counterpart would never dream of ordering something described as a “craft beer”.

The key to the marketing concept of “premium” is that it is something that is a clear step up from the mainstream, in the quality and authenticity of ingredients and also, crucially, in how others perceive it. By choosing a premium product, you may well feel more satisfied with your purchase, but you will also make a point to other people that you are a person of discernment, and that you can afford it. But it still retains a link to the mainstream; it is not something that is different to the point of being offputting. It is Tesco Finest over Tesco standard, Audi over Volkswagen.

If you are a business person, staying in a hotel overnight with colleagues and charging your bill to expenses, and you go into the bar, what beer do you order to suggest you are someone of taste and discernment, but not some obscurantist geek? That is the question that “premium” has to answer. The true connoisseur, of course, would say with some justification, that it is largely a marketing construct anyway.

The wine and spirit markets operate rather differently, as in general as you progress up the price scale you will encounter products that are “more so” rather than dramatically different from the mainstream ones. But beer, at least in the UK, doesn’t really work like that.