Friday, 31 January 2014

Losing the last of England

Here’s another trenchant article by David Atherton about the decline of the pub, and its causes: Pub closures mean we’re losing the last of England. This comment is especially telling:
But the smoking ban was Labour’s idea, and they prosecuted it with a vigour that would make a Mormon knocking at your door asking about Jesus look apathetic. It was quite clear that the average Fabian, middle class Labour apparatchik never goes to the pub, or has the slightest level of empathy for working class people whose pleasure they killed. The contempt for their core vote is limitless.
It will be interesting to see whether that contempt is thrown back in their faces at the forthcoming Wythenshawe by-election.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Barfly or corner bug?

Rather gratifying results from this poll following on from my post here. 90% of respondents don’t see sitting or standing at the bar as their favoured position in a pub, and 65% either never see it as their preferred option, or will only occasionally do so.

For me, the ideal location is sitting down on a bench seat with a window behind me and with a clear view of both the door and the bar counter so I can see what’s happening. The only times I’ve stood or sat at the bar are when there’s either been no alternative or when I’ve been buttonholed by someone who was already there.

Never enough

Martyn Cornell has done an excellent blogpost entitled Moral panics, Tim Martin and motorways about the hysterical overreaction to the news that Wetherspoon’s had opened a pub that was actually quite near a motorway. He also makes a wider point about whether the drinks industry should be so willing to pander to the agenda of the anti-drink lobby.

What is even more frustrating than the illogicality of these arguments, and the willingness of newspapers, TV and radio programmes to give people space to promote these ridiculous claims, instead of slapping them about the head and telling them not to react as if drivers are like toddlers at a supermarket check-out, who can’t resist grabbing for the bad-for-you goods on display, is the framing of the debate about the availability of drink once again as an argument solely about intoxication and its evils. It’s something the whole drinks industry, from producers to retailers, colludes in, and it’s why personally I believe setting up the Portman Group was an extremely bad idea, because its existence plays to the anti-alcohol lobby’s agenda-setting. By banging on about “responsible” drinking, the drinks industry’s own warrior in the “alcohol awareness” wars destroys the main argument for drinking: that it’s fun. No one is ever allowed to say that drinking is fun, because fun and responsibility don’t mix.
It has to be said that the very term “responsible drinking” conjures up a joyless vision of sipping carefully at a half-pint of 2.8% pisswater while nibbling at an organic tofu salad. As he says, drinking should be about enjoying yourself, and there’s precious little enjoyment if you’re too responsible about it. This is also a case where the industry seems happy to go along with the definition put forward by the anti-drink lobby which basically means losing the argument before you’ve even started.

Basically, the drinks industry can never win, because however much ground they concede, the anti-drink lobby will always demand more. There is no defined end-point – it’s all about “direction of travel”. It sometimes seems disappointing that they are so reluctant to speak out in their own defence, but it has to be recognised that business is about making a profit, not conducting a moral crusade, and it may make sense to keep your head down, playing along with the official agenda while dragging your feet a bit, and hoping that in time the storm will pass.

Indeed, there is a good historical precedent for this, as the Temperance campaigns of the late Victorian and Edwardian period had largely blown themselves out by about 1930, and from 1960 to about 1995 the drinks industry enjoyed a remarkable period of steady growth with little public censure. Meanwhile, of course, the task of defending them is left to private individuals such as myself who then get unjustly accused of being paid industry shills. I did once get given some free beer by Wells & Youngs – does that count?

It is depressing, though, how willing the industry seems to be to allow itself to have its arm twisted by the government to in effect emasculate itself. It has signed up to the “Responsibility Deal” which has led to many of the best-selling beers and ciders having their strength reduced, with yet more certain to come. And recently the Drinkaware charity, which is funded by the drinks industry, was criticised for being too closely linked with them and not putting across a sufficiently independent anti-drink message.

It is impossible to engage in any kind of constructive dialogue when your opponents, at heart, believe that you represent an illegitimate and toxic trade. So maybe it would make sense for the industry to adopt a more robust line and take the stance that, while they will obviously comply with all legal requirements, they do not believe they have anything to be ashamed of and will not have a hand in undermining their own business. Tim Martin of Wetherspoon’s, while he certainly isn’t right about everything, deserves much credit for being one of the few industry leaders actually prepared to speak out directly against the wave of miserablist anti-alcohol sentiment and to promote the positive benefits of pubs and drinking.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Turn of the tide?

Some surprisingly positive figures from the latest BBPA Quarterly Beer Barometer, which shows a growth in overall beer sales for two consecutive quarters, the first time this has happened since 2004. However, within these figures there is strong growth for the off-trade set against a continued, albeit slower, decline for the on-trade. The off-trade has historically been more price-sensitive and more susceptible to changes in general economic sentiment, and it would seem that it has reaped most of the benefits of the cut in beer duty, combined with a rise in consumer confidence. While the price of beer has not in general fallen, a whole swathe of price increases has been skipped, which would probably have increased the price of a single PBA by 10p and a four-pack of Stella by 30p.

Looking at the figures on an annual basis, the total beer market is down by only 0.4%, the best figure since 2006, with the off-trade up by 3.2% and the on-trade down by 3.6%. For the past two quarters, off-trade sales have exceeded the on-trade, so it looks as though the tipping point when the balance of the market decisively swings is nearly upon us, after a period of a few years when the momentum had almost ground to a halt. In 1998, the off-trade accounted for 71% of the total market, compared with 51% over the whole of 2013 and 49% in the second half of the year.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Oak to be felled?

Rather depressing, but not entirely surprising, news that Holt’s brewery have put the Royal Oak in Eccles up for sale at a mere £170,000. It’s an impressive Grade II listed Edwardian pub that features on CAMRA’s National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors. The webpage gives a good impression of its magnificent, unspoilt interior.

However, the comment that it “may close early if no customers” tells its own story. It has been left high and dry by the dramatic shifts and contraction in the pub market in recent years. It has always been somewhat overshadowed by Holt’s two other impressive Edwardian pubs in Eccles – the Grapes and the Lamb.

If you listen to some people, the pubcos are constantly closing thriving pubs down to redevelop them as flats or convenience stores. But somehow I doubt whether potential free-trade buyers will be queueing up for this one, as they weren’t for this Cheshire pub I highlighted a while back.

Another chapter in the long, slow, sad decline of the British pub. If someone buys it and makes a go of it I’ll be gobsmacked. I don’t really expect Holt’s to apply a restrictive covenant.

Obscured by clouds

The increased promotion of intentionally cloudy/hazy* beer (*from here on I use the term “cloudy”) in the craft ale sector has been much discussed recently and has been the subject of blogposts by Tandleman, Paul Bailey and Phil on Oh Good Ale. There are various issues involved here, but I thought I would create a poll on one specific point. The results are shown on the right. While this is a clear vote in favour of declaring intentional cloudiness at the point of sale, it isn’t by any means an overwhelming one. The poll results and associated comments are here.

Let me make it quite clear that I don’t believe that cloudy beer is intrinsically bad. There are various styles of beer around the world such as Belgian Witbier and Bavarian Hefeweizen that are cloudy by definition, and if British or American brewers want to try to develop new beers in these styles, or to produce brand-new cloudy beers, then good luck to them.

However, it has to be recognised that, for several generations, it has been taken as given that British draught beer, whether cask or keg, should be crystal clear. Any deviation from that, except in extremely rare and unlikely circumstances, indicates a fault either in brewing or cellaring. It means that nasty stuff you don’t want to drink is suspended in the beer. The guff you occasionally hear about “layering” and thunderstorms turning casks cloudy is, in the vast majority of situations, complete bullshit.

It seems that some brewers now want to tear up this received wisdom and brew beers in the British style that they expect to be cloudy. Fair enough, but the customer has a right to be informed what he or she is getting. Let us say we follow the views of those who say “it’s not a concern to me”. I go into a pub and order a beer that I’ve never heard of before. It comes out looking like a pint of soup. I take it back to the bar and complain, but am told “oh, it’s meant to look like that”. So I respond “why didn’t you tell me before I ordered it, then?” If they won’t change it for a clear one, then I’ll think twice about going back to that pub again and warn others against it.

In the bad old days I have taken several pints back to the bar only to be told “it’s real ale, it’s meant to look like that.” It wasn’t then, and neither is it now. In general I stood my ground and got an exchange or a refund. I thought those days were behind us, but some people seem to want to bring them back. And how am I to know it’s an intentionally cloudy beer, or one that is supposed to be clear but just happens to have turned out looking like Amazon river water?

If you serve up cloudy beer to your customers without telling them, you are harming the reputation both of your particular venue and of cask beer in general. If brewers want to promote the idea that British-style beers can be produced in an unfined form and be cloudy at the point of sale, then surely it is in their interest to make it clear to customers that is what they’re going to get. Some will try it, some might even like it, others will choose to avoid it. Maybe specialist alehouses need to start showing on their blackboards, as well as the % ABV and the colour, whether a beer is cloudy or crystal.

As Cooking Lager says here, it is all too easy for a defect to masquerade as a feature. And it’s hard to avoid the thought that promoting the virtues of cloudy beer is another way to create a divide between the crafterati and the general public. It’s said that Picasso mastered the art of producing conventional paintings before venturing on to distorted avant-garde ones. Perhaps that is a lesson that needs to be learned by the modern crop of railway arch brewers. Brew a classic clear amber bitter first, and then go on to the weird stuff.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Geezers at the bar

On Oh Good Ale, Phil wrote of his experience in calling in to the Cocked Hat (ex Pack Horse) on Stockport Market Place:
It struck me as one of those pubs which would be written up as warm, friendly and welcoming, but only by its regulars. Put it this way, there were five or six punters stood in front of the bar, and every one of them looked round as I came in. The last time that happened to me the punters were speaking Welsh. As for the beer, there were five or six hand pumps, but it was actually quite hard to see all the pump clips, what with the discussion group parked in front of the bar...
This prompted me to do a blogpost on a subject I had been mulling over for a while. Very often a group of geezers chatting at the bar is a positive sign that you’ve walked in to somewhere that still functions as a pub as opposed to a dining venue. But, on the other hand, if they are the only customers, it’s a bad sign. And I can’t help thinking that the buggers would be better off sitting down to continue their conversation once they’ve got their drinks, or at the very least moving away from the counter.

In many cases a group of voluble barflies encountered immediately you walk in through the door can be seriously offputting. Ideally, they should be in the vault, but in general they aren’t, even if the pub still has one. If they’re standing at the bar in a line it can make it difficult to get served or to see what beers are available, even more so if they’re sitting on barstools. And as for barstools with backs, what an abomination!

There’s one pub where I deliver the local CAMRA magazine where in my view a cluster of regulars chatting around the apex of the bar just inside the entrance gives a very poor initial impression, and a Wetherspoon’s where a group gather and block the view of the handpumps. They also very often seem to be the kind of guys (and you’ll know what I mean) who have a bunch of keys attached to the waistband of their trousers.

If I ran a pub there would be no barstools, let alone barstools with backs. What’s that I hear? “If you ran a pub there would be no customers!”?

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Outbreak of reality

There was a rare eruption of home truth in the Daily Telegraph earlier this week in a piece by Peter Oborne entitled The smoking ban killed the British pub. This vandalism is Labour's defining legacy He wrote:

Some people believe Labour’s defining legacy is Iraq. Others think it is the hunting ban. But the issue which has affected most people and which has damaged the fabric and appearance of British community more than anything else is the loss of the local pub.

The British pub is internationally famous. It is entirely bound with the nation's history. Yet 26 are closing per week – more than 1,000 a year – changing the look of the nation. Town and countryside are littered with pub corpses, boarded up and often awaiting permission for conversion to flats or houses.

And it is not as if something else has come along to bring communities together. Instead, people sit in front of their televisions. This terrible process started with the ban on smoking. Labour was warned that it would result in pub closures, but went ahead regardless. The people it was supposed to protect – the bar staff – have suffered catastrophic job losses as a result (though this is rarely noticed, as so many bar staff are non-unionised, cash-in-hand foreigners). Labour knew this would happen, as the state of British Columbia in Canada had introduced a similar ban a couple of years earlier and the immediate result had been bar closures and (I have been told) one third of bar jobs lost.

For the Labour Party to have initiated a Parliamentary debate on the future of pubs when they have done so much to destroy them really is an act of contemptible hypocrisy. It is bizarre that a party that claims to stand up for the working class will leave as one of its most lasting achievements the destruction of the pubs and clubs that helped bind working-class communities together. In a hundred years’ time it is what they will be remembered for when so much else has been forgotten, just as the implementation and repeal of Prohibition are about the only legislative acts most people remember about the USA in the twenties and thirties.

Mind you, nowadays they seem to represent the interests of benefit claimants and public sector professionals rather than anyone who actually works with their hands for a living. About the only worthwhile thing that Stockport native Owen Jones has ever said is that, in a couple of generations, the English working class have “gone from being the salt of the earth to the scum of the earth”. From the noble Stakhanovite coal miner to White Van Man with fag in mouth and copy of the Sun on the dashboard.

This chimes with the comments made in this blogpost by Russell Taylor about how modern-day metropolitan liberals hate the poor:

When the deprived masses favour things that liberals can’t comprehend…well, forget it. Their fondness for smoking cigarettes, eating junk food, and frequenting pubs that aren’t disinfected gastro eateries, is inexplicable to the liberal elite. It’s not that they want the poor to adopt their interests, or to join them at the top table – God, no – they just don’t want them acting in ways that offend their delicate sensibilities, or getting so cocksure that they think they can get by without liberal help. Ultimately, it’s about power. They want to exert their moral and social authority over the poor, while keeping them in their place. Liberals don’t mind addressing them from a soapbox or pledging their support in a Guardian article, but the last thing they want to do is actually mingle with them or befriend them.

Out of control?

A phrase you often near nowadays in relation to pubs is that they represent a “controlled drinking environment”. The implication is that the restraint imposed by the presence of the licensee and other customers leads people to drink in a more responsible manner than they would if they had bought a load of booze from Tesco and were drinking it at home.

This is a concept that has only really appeared in the past fifteen or so years. Back in the 1970s, when pubs accommodated the vast majority of drinking, whether responsible or irresponsible, such an idea would have been unheard of, except perhaps to distinguish well-run pubs from poorly-run ones. It’s only in recent years when on-trade consumption has been clearly losing ground to the off-trade that it’s become popularised as an attempt to distinguish the two.

The idea has some validity in the context of socialising young people into drinking in a restrained and moderate way. They’re much more likely to do that in pubs under the watchful eye of the licensee and older customers than experimenting on their own on a park bench. But, as a concept applied to general adult drinking, it’s basically special pleading that bears little relation to reality.

People drinking in pubs are likely to consume considerably more per session than those doing it at home, and are also more likely to be involved in drink-related disorder, whether as victims or perpetrators, and also to be the innocent victims of traffic accidents. For many people, a weekly pub night is an opportunity to cut loose a bit, whereas at home even if they drank anything it would just be a glass of wine or a single bottle or can of beer.

Even in the best-run community pub (and how many of those are left?) you will find customers towards the end of Friday or Saturday night very much the worse for wear, if not actually drunk, and certainly guilty of binge-drinking as defined by the anti-drink lobby. You won’t be told that you’ve had enough until you’re staggering and slurring your words. If you’re in there every night you’ll be a loyal customer, not someone with a drink problem.

The alcohol-fuelled disorder that we see in some of our larger towns and cities is often laid at the door of “pre-loading” on cheap off-trade spirits before going out on the town. However, it seems somewhat perverse to blame the state people end up in on the first drink they had rather than the last, and people wouldn’t be pre-loading in the first place if the intention wasn’t to go out afterwards. If you’ve just been drinking at home or at a private party all evening you’re more likely to end up passed out on the sofa than throwing up in the middle of the High Street at 3 am. And someone in the on-trade has sold them that last drink that has put them in that state.

The point is also made that most of the people referred to hospitals with chronic alcoholism have been mainly drinking alcohol bought in the off-trade. No doubt that’s true, not least because it’s much cheaper, but it doesn’t mean cracking open a bottle of wine with Sunday lunch or a beer in front of the telly when watching Midsomer Murders is automatically going to set you on the road to rack and ruin. Going back a generation, many alcoholics were predominantly pub drinkers and, even now, there are a surprising number of people who are mainly drinking in pubs and clubs, but where the regularity and scale of their consumption must put them in the problem category. In fact a common pattern of alcoholism is people who give the appearance of engaging in enthusiastic but not abnormal social drinking in pubs but then secretly top it up at other times.

You sometimes hear anti-drink campaigners like Don Shenker and Sir Ian Gilmore praising the role of pubs and expressing regret that they have been allowed to decline. But this really comes across as breathtaking hypocrisy when over the years they have consistently opposed the liberalisation of licensing hours and supported every anti-pub measure and proposal such as the smoking ban, the duty escalator and cutting the drink-drive limit, not to mention encouraging a general anti-drink climate in society that has deterred responsible people from using pubs. They’re no more friends of pubs than the Faroe Islanders are friends of whales. They’re only expressing sympathy for pubs as a kind of divide-and-rule tactic because they can see they are on the slide. It wouldn’t surprise me if their equivalents of fifty years ago had been advocating a move to more at-home drinking with the family and with meals, as opposed to men boozing together in the pub, as a way of encouraging a more responsible approach.

Nobody who reads this blog could be left in any doubt that I see pubs as a valuable British tradition that has an important role to play in bringing people together and encouraging a sense of community, and at their best are havens of conviviality that bring pleasure to millions. It is very regrettable that, over the years, legislators and opinion-formers have done so much to undermine them. But to claim that, in comparison with at-home drinking, they have some kind of privileged moral status is frankly just silly and, in a wider context, distinctly unhelpful.

Over the years, for a variety of reasons, most of which fall under the category of “the tide of history”, there has been a marked shift away from on-trade drinking, and for most people their drinking is now a balance between the two depending on the context. Plenty of people probably never drink in a pub from one month to the next. The attitude of “we never have drink in the house” now comes across as distinctly old-fashioned. And it has to be pointed out that there’s a slight inconsistency in self-proclaimed beer lovers bewailing the plight of pubs while at the same time stocking up on obscure American and Belgian imported bottles from specialist off-licences.

To parrot the mantras of the anti-drink lobby about preloading on cheap vodka, the evils of white cider and drink being available at pocket-money prices does the wider cause of defending pubs, the brewing industry and responsible drinking no good. It is the mirror-image of the press hysteria about “binge-drink Britain” and weekend town-centre disorder. Each form of drinking can be done either responsibly or irresponsibly, and the vast majority of drinkers fall into the first category. Neither on- nor off-trade has a unique claim to the moral high ground.

If the anti-drink lobby is to be countered effectively it is essential to stop the pointless squabbling, accept that all forms of drinking have their positives and negatives, and present a united front. That is the lesson that needs to be learned from the successful campaign to scrap the beer duty escalator.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

A house for the public

The pub has a unique legal and psychological status. In one sense it’s a private house, but in another it is open to the public. It’s something quite distinct from a shop or a cafĂ©.

Across the country, although pubs vary dramatically, their “body language” is always clear. Wherever you are, you can enter a pub, order a drink and – if available – food and not have your purpose or presence questioned. It is a public house, you are a member of the public, thus you are welcome. Yes, there are the occasional inner-city or estate pubs where regulars will remark on the presence of strangers, but that is extremely rare and even less common now than it once was. I find it very impressive that, over many years of legal drinking, I have so rarely encountered any signs of hostility or adverse comment in pubs.

But what of establishments that, while they may have a full on-licence, do not identify themselves as pubs? Are they as welcoming and inclusive? Would you be as keen to nip in to Frotters Bar for a swift half as the Red Lion? Or, for that matter, an Indian with a full on-licence that describes itself as “restaurant and bar”? Some “bars” come across as quite inclusive and generally welcoming, but others certainly don’t. I would imagine, for example, that many casual pubgoers would feel seriously out of place if they happened to wander into a BrewDog bar. Is the spread of bars as opposed to pubs perhaps undermining the traditional universal welcome of licensed premises?

Of course that isn’t a problem with Wetherspoon’s where nobody is made to feel that they don’t belong.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

How much?!

My latest poll collaboration with Mark Wadsworth has attracted an impressive response of over 300 people. For once, the results show a fairly normal distribution, with a substantial number who don’t drink at all (presumably mostly Mark’s readers) and then, amongst those who do drink, a peak in the 21-30 units range which tails off in each direction. Nine people, though, are willing to admit that they routinely drink over 100 units a week. The original poll and associated comments can be seen here.

Given that the official guidelines lay down a maximum of 21 units a week as consistent with a healthy lifestyle, this will no doubt be disappointing to the anti-drink lobby.

I deliberately included the “none of your business” option as people are fully entitled to take the view that questions of this kind are unnecessarily intrusive. Recently, I was asked to complete a health questionnaire by my dentist which included a question on alcohol consumption. While recognising that heavy drinking can be a risk factor for mouth cancer, I took the view that was nothing to do with him, so handed it back with that part left blank.

Decline of the all-purpose pub

In the early years of my drinking career, it was noticeable how a lot of pubs managed to strike a good balance between drinkers and eaters. They would have a menu of food, very likely placed on each table in the lounge in a PVC binder, and possibly an A-board outside advertising their food offer, but would avoid having table reservations, place-settings or areas for diners only. You would be more than welcome if you wanted to eat, but they would still retain a strong core of customers just there for a drink. In many ways this mixture of regular and casual customers led to a vibrant pub atmosphere.

Although obviously not found in the inner-city backstreets, this model of pub was very common in town and city centres, suburbs, small towns, villages and rural locations. But, over the years, it has steadily been eroded. Many of the more successful ones have been converted to an entirely food-led format where drinkers are made to feel like second-class citizens. Some, while ostensibly still laid out in pub style, have effectively achieved the same result. Others have closed down entirely, while some have retreated to a mainly wet-led model and stopped opening on weekday lunchtimes. I have had meals in several pubs that are still open but which no longer serve food.

They still exist, albeit in dwindling numbers, and I continue to feel that, because of the wide customer mix, they are places that, more than many others, generate a good buzz of welcoming pubbiness. The Davenport Arms at Woodford is a good example. A good pub shouldn’t be a monoculture where everyone is after the same thing, whether it be food or beer.

Maybe now it is Wetherspoon’s who are foremost in championing the mixed-use pub used by people with a range of different objectives.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Roadhouse and Bar Parlour

In my last post I mentioned Portrait of Elmbury by John Moore. The section about pubs is one of the best pieces of writing on the subject I’ve ever come across. Entitled Roadhouse and Bar Parlour, it can be read via this link – you may need to scroll up a bit to the start.

A lost world of pubs

Boak and Bailey recently did a fascinating blogpost revolving around a book called The Renaissance of the English Public House, written by architect Basil Oliver and originally published in 1947. This sparked my interest sufficiently to acquire my own copy of the book. I paid a little more than they did but have got one in excellent condition complete with original dust jacket.

The book is basically a hymn of praise to the “improved public house” movement of the inter-war period which sought to give pubgoing a more responsible and respectable image as compared with the old concept of single-minded perpendicular boozing. The vast expansion of new housing, both private and council owned, saw large numbers of new pubs – often very large and architecturally ambitious – constructed along “improved” lines and many existing pubs extended and refitted along the same principles.

It includes 114 black-and-white colour plates and 51 plans of pub layouts, a very lavish level of illustration for a book of that era. One thing that is very evident from the plans is the elaborate compartmentalisation of interior layouts, with numerous different rooms and bars serving different functions. Apart from the usual public and lounge bars there are men’s, women’s and mixed smoke rooms, games rooms, tea rooms, snack bars, dining rooms, restaurants, ballrooms and assembly halls. A number of pubs in the south-east have a distinct private or saloon bar in between the public and the lounge. It is also evident that great care has been taken by the architects in balancing the different elements of the pub so that they all fit together, in particular the issue of access to toilets. One of the most intricate plans is that of the Earl Grey (later Jester) in Carlisle on an awkward urban corner site, which managed to incorporate a women’s room with its own dedicated toilet.

All of this has been pretty much entirely swept away now, and very few of these pubs survive with anything like their original plan. This trend was well under way in the more lively and brash atmosphere of the 1960s when internal remodelling was often seen by brewers as a way of attracting a younger clientele. Now, many of these big pubs have been demolished and their sites redeveloped for alternative use. A lot of those remain have been converted to a dining format and their interiors completely changed. A few have even been bought by Wetherspoon’s. Some linger on as rather down-at-heel locals which rather give the impression of barbarians playing amongst the awesome ruins of Ancient Rome.

In contrast, the layouts of modern open-plan pubs often come across as rather haphazard and ill-thought-out, with a lack of appreciation of how customers flow round the pub and use different areas, with the result that inconvenient pinch-points and dead zones are created. Wetherspoon’s often seem guilty of this, although that may be because they are currently about the only pub-owner engaged in opening significant numbers of new pubs and remodelling existing ones. An example of this is that I can think of two non-Wetherspoons food-oriented pubs, one a new-build and one a conversion, where the gents’ toilet can only be reached by walking right through the dining area, something no 1930s architect would have contemplated.

An entire chapter is devoted to pubs in the West Midlands, where the massive “Brewer’s Tudor” roadhouse or estate pub, often built by local brewers Mitchells & Butlers is, or was, a distinctive feature of the local scene. I was at university in Birmingham in the late 70s, but have to say that this aspect of pub design rather passed me by then. Pubgoing trips usually involved venturing outside the city boundaries to find a wider selection of beer. In those days, 1930s architecture was widely felt to be dull and old hat, and even then many of these pubs had already been knocked through and lost their original layouts. I do remember once going in the Black Horse in Northfield, externally maybe the most magnificent of all, which seemed rather tatty and run-down and gave the impression of being something of a reverse Tardis, with a much more cramped interior than the exterior suggested. The plan in the book rather bears this out as, although a very long building, it is in fact quite shallow, and surprisingly little of the floor area is given over to bars.

Apart from forays into the West Midlands and the Carlisle State Management Scheme, the book largely concentrates on London and the South-East. That is not to say, though, that “improved” pubs were not built in other parts of the country and, if you look, there are, or were, plenty in the Greater Manchester area. A classic example was the now-demolished Oakwood in Salford which would not have looked out of place in the Birmingham suburbs. Still with us are Holt’s Melville in Stretford and the Gateway in East Didsbury which has now been taken over by Wetherspoon’s.

Looking round Stockport, off the top of my head I can think of at least seven major inter-wars new-builds – the now-demolished Greyhound in Cheadle Hulme and Wembley in Adswood, the now-closed Royal Oak and still-open FiveWays in Hazel Grove, the Heald Green Hotel, the massive, Birmingham-style Ladybrook in Bramhall (pictured) and the Nursery in Heaton Norris, which is a rarity that still largely retains its original layout. Without wishing to bore non-locals, there are several other smaller pubs or major remodellings. Robinson’s also built a number of new pubs in the improved style outside the Stockport area such as the Broadoak in Ashton-under-Lyne and the Bleeding Wolf at Scholar Green in Cheshire.

From the perspective of 80 years later it is difficult to visualise the social conditions that lay behind this style of pub. Class divisions in society were more sharply defined, so there was a clear divide between public and lounge bars. Women were still widely regarded as second-class citizens, and much of the pub was a male preserve, but encouraging women in for a drink with their husbands or boyfriends, especially at weekends, was something that these pubs aimed to do. Pub-based activities such as darts and bowls were growing in popularity, and many improved pubs featured a bowling green where space permitted. There was no television, so for many people just going to the pub to chew the fat with your friends was a common activity several nights a week. But beer consumption had fallen dramatically since the days before the First World War, so customers were generally just having a modest two, three or four pints rather than getting sloshed.

The question must be asked, though, whether these pubs ever really achieved the popularity their designers hoped for. Were they perhaps a slightly patronising architect’s vision of the ideal pub, imposed from above on ordinary people who actually preferred something more small-scale and homely? John Betjeman is very critical of the “improved pub” in his poem The Village Inn:

Ah, where's the inn that once I knew
With brick and chalky wall
Up which the knobbly pear-tree grew
For fear the place would fall?

Oh, that old pot-house isn't there,
It wasn't worth our while;
You'll find we have rebuilt "The Bear"
In Early Georgian style.

In his novel-cum-memoir Portrait of Elmbury, published in 1945, John Moore writes:
...the majority of the population, it seems, likes the little pubs also, and people from the cities drive twenty miles on Sunday morning to crowd us out of our local because they hate the big roadhouses too. A pub, after all, is not just a place for convenient drinking; if it were these modern palaces with their ceaseless fountains of beer would serve the purpose very well. But a pub is primarily a meeting-place for friends; where friends as well as drinking may talk, argue, play game, or just sit and think according to their mood.
John Moore’s Brensham Trilogy remains well worth reading – well-written, well-observed, affectionate and humorous books that encapsulate the spirit of rural and small-town England. The whole section about pubs is wonderful – I love the description of the Coventry Arms in Elmbury “which has a little back parlour where grave old citizens like to sit in semi-darkness and sip their beer and talk of old times while the shadows close in upon them.” Mudgie heaven, I hear you say.

You have to wonder whether many of these improved pubs were ever really busy except on weekend evenings and special occasions. I only encountered them when they were already in steep decline, but I remember going in to the Gateway shortly after I moved into this area in 1985 and finding it a shabby, virtually deserted, barn-like place that wasn’t remotely congenial. Having said that, where the architecture is on a more modest scale, as with the Nursery, and the pubs have been looked after, the 1930s style can actually provide a pleasant, cosy pub atmosphere where you can easily feel at home.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Kick a man when he’s down

In recent years I’ve seen a few slightly exasperated comments from those opposing anti-drink proposals that “it’s claimed that this will bring about a reduction in alcohol consumption of X % - well we’ve already had more than that in the past five years without it!” On the face of it, such arguments might seem to undermine the case for stricter curbs, but in reality declining consumption makes them more likely. This is a point that my friend Cooking Lager has occasionally made in the comments here when he cares to take off his baseball cap.

While politicians are allegedly guided by principle, they always have to take into account the electoral consequences of any proposed policy. As Bismarck once said, “politics is the art of the possible”. Attacking any activity pursued by the majority of the population is unlikely to prove popular, whereas identifying minority “out-groups” who need to be clamped down on may well prove a winner at the ballot box. In the words of the great H. L. Mencken, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed - and hence clamorous to be led to safety - by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” Two of the last Labour government’s best-known bans, those on handguns and hunting with dogs, got through Parliament comfortably because they only affected a relatively small minority of the population. Even there the hunting ban brought half a million people on to the streets of London to protest. And we still have gun crime, and we still (it would seem) have widespread foxhunting.

When over half of all adults were smokers, nothing very significant was done to restrict smoking, apart from a symbolic ban on TV advertising which in practice made little or no difference to consumption. Looking back, it’s salutary to remember that, seventeen years ago, tobacco advertising and sports sponsorship remained legal and commonplace, there was no ban on smoking in pubs and other indoor public places, nor on the display of cigarette packets behind supermarket counters. By the time of the advertising ban, smoking prevalence had dropped below 30%, and when the indoor ban came in it was little more than 20%. Furthermore, the constant barrage of official anti-smoking messages had produced a sense of guilt and self-loathing amongst many smokers which led them to feel that such measures might be for their own good. However, in the face of such severe curbs, the rate of decline has now effectively stalled, suggesting that political grandstanding rather than bringing about genuine health improvements might be the key motivation.

In reality, while the general tone of official rhetoric and media comment has become ever more negative, nothing very major has been done to curb the availability of alcohol or significantly increase its price. The duty escalator and high strength beer duty were just tinkering at the edges, and indeed we now have a more liberal licensing regime than at any time since before the First World War. There haven’t been any meaningful restrictions on advertising and publicity at all, which you might have thought would be an easy target – possibly because legislators know that it would scarcely affect total consumption. Ironically, the most effective anti-alcohol measure, at least in terms of on-trade drinking, has been one ostensibly aimed at an entirely different target. But things may well start to change in future.

The most recent government survey showed that less than half of 18-24 year olds had had an alcoholic drink in the past week. As they grow older and this trend spreads through the population, it’s very likely that within the coming decades drinking will become a minority activity, as smoking did. Then the time will be ripe for bringing in more severe restrictions. It’s hard to legislate against something Joe Public does, but much easier if it is done by those irresponsible “other people”. But, as we have seen with smoking, the net result may well be to make people identify themselves much more clearly as “drinkers” and the natural rate of decline may be curbed or even reversed.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Collision course

If you listen to some people, we are enjoying a golden age of beer drinking in the UK. There are more breweries than there have been for a hundred years, an unprecedented range of styles and flavours, a growth in specialist beer bars across the country and a real buzz of interest and enthusiasm around the subject.

But, taking a few steps back, things don’t look anywhere near so rosy. Alcohol consumption has been steadily falling for ten years, and over 50% of the 18-24 age group now say they haven’t had a single drink in the past week. From the peak, about a third of the pubs in Britain have closed down, 10,000 of those in the past six years alone. Over the past ten years, total beer consumption has fallen by 24%, that in pubs and bars by 37%. From a wider perspective, we look like a country steadily falling out of love with beer.

So I can’t help thinking that, in the not-too-distant future, there’s going to be a collision between these two trends, in which there can only be one winner. It’s like the Beer Eloi happily frolicking with their saisons and double IPAs, in blissful unawareness that outside in the wider world the Morlocks of prohibition are steadily gathering their forces ready to prick their bubble.

In the words of the song (bonus point if you remember it),

The future train's coming down the hill
And we're tied to the track

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Outbreak of sobriety

Something I was discussing the other night was how CAMRA meetings and events have become markedly less boozy over the years. I’ve been an active member to a greater or lesser degree of the local CAMRA branch for nearly thirty years now. In the early days, there were at least a couple of active members who were what might be described as “functioning alcoholics”, and another who was more of a “barely functioning alcoholic”, and is probably no longer with us, poor sod. Several more, while not falling into that category, could certainly put it back in large quantities. Meetings would often drag on until chucking-out time and be punctuated with passionate, alcohol-fuelled arguments, while doubling-up was far from uncommon at last orders.

Nowadays, it’s all different. Halves are much more in evidence, and once the formal business of a meeting has been completed (often now before 10 pm), or an award presented, people start drifting off well before closing time. The level of acrimony is much reduced, and obvious inebriation is far rarer. Where once a twelve-pub crawl was par for the course, now people complain that more than six is a bit daunting - and that’s mostly on halves.

Partly it’s because the average age has considerably increased, so people are naturally less inclined to overdo it. But it also reflects the change in society where the man who in 1984 could hold his beer has become 2014’s pisshead. Jugging it back, even on rare occasions, is far less socially acceptable than it once was.

Of course it could be argued that it shows how positively CAMRA has embraced the culture of responsible drinking.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Gratuitous advice?

Well, the health lobby aren’t going to be too happy about the results of the poll on eating “five-a-day”. This was another one run jointly with Mark Wadsworth, and achieved an impressive 160 responses. A mere 19% of respondents actually succeeded in eating five a day, while 56% - over half – only managed two or less, and 14% said they didn’t have any at all. There might be some element of making a point in that voting, but even so the conclusion is pretty telling. The original poll results can be seen here – the comments are worth reading.

As I’ve said before, while this isn’t bad advice as such, it is something that was plucked out of the air and has no scientific basis. It tends to be presented as something that is essential to healthy living rather than a nice-to-have ideal, and the consequences of not adhering to it are greatly exaggerated. Also, made-up “rules” of this kind are likely to undermine the credibility of all health messages, however sound their scientific backing. When you were a small child, if you were told not to do something, but given no better reason than “because mummy says so”, you would never have found it very convincing.

I have also reported in the past that a large-scale study found that adhering to this guideline only reduced cancer risk by 2.5%, which is statistically insignificant.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Market forces at work

Not far from me there’s a branch of ALDI which has become so popular that at busy times they’re queueing to get into the car park. This demonstrates the widely-reported trend that discount supermarkets have been booming while their mainstream competitors such as Morrisons and Tesco have seen a decline in sales. MP Douglas Carswell argues here that this is a good example of the free market at work, with new competitors coming in and challenging the established players.

I was musing to what extent the rise of Wetherspoon’s is a parallel in the pub market. To some degree it is, with them have come from nowhere to be a powerful force, and putting value for money at the forefront of their offer. However, on further consideration I would say it is really more like the original growth of the big supermarket chains – applying a consistent format to all their stores and using bulk buying power to drive down prices and undercut a miscellany of independent competitors.

While the erstwhile Big Six brewers acquired massive tied estates and often applied insensitive corporate design identities, they never did anything like the same standardisation of how their pubs were actually run. Most, of course, remained tenancies which are essentially independent businesses, but even in their managed divisions they never really sought to roll out a single formula across huge numbers of pubs. In general, they promoted their beer, not their pubs. The one exception was in dining chains like Beefeater and Brewer’s Fayre, but even the biggest of these never got beyond the low hundreds.

Indeed, Wetherspoon’s formula of applying basically the same trading format to what is now nearly 1000 pubs from Penzance to Wick is an entirely new innovation in the pub business, and one that has so far proved extremely successful. They don’t tend to do mass-media advertising, but by now pretty much every pubgoer must know what to expect from a Spoons. Yet nobody has come remotely close to copying them – the Goose chain originally started by Bass being the best-known attempt – and they have now become so large that any me-too competition would stand little chance of success.

It’s interesting to reflect, though, that the current Wetherspoon template didn’t emerge fully-formed from the outset. Initially, they were very much London and South-East based, and it wasn’t really until the mid-90s that they began to expand outside that area. The very first Spoons I encountered was the Bell in Norwich in the Spring of 1995, and their first pub in the Greater Manchester area, the Moon Under Water on Deansgate, opened later that year.

In the early years, while always offering decent value, I don’t recall them having the reputation for cutting-edge prices that they later acquired. And it’s only relatively recently that they have turned themselves into mini beer exhibitions. In the early days their beer range tended very much to major on the usual suspects from the bigger independent brewers, and initially the staple cask beer was Younger’s Scotch Bitter. They key selling points at first were that they were clean, served real ale, had no music, were open all day and served food all day – a combination that in those days was very hard to find, especially in London where the Big Six had large numbers of pubs that seemed to be run with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Flippin’ heck!

The local CAMRA magazine Opening Times has now been made available online in “flippable” form – you can see the January 2014 issue here. You can read my deathless prose on Page 5; other highlights are the write-up of the rather disappointing Didsbury stagger on Page 7 by some bloke who may or may not be connected with me, and the rather poignant description of the history and closure of the Tiviot in Stockport on Page 15.

While obviously I have a vested interest, I think it’s a very good publication as such magazines go, with a clean, uncluttered layout, a range of voices from a wide variety of contributors, and a welcome absence of a strident, hectoring tone (looks in the general direction of Preston).

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Under the influence?

In the past few days, there has been considerable discussion in the media over claims by the British Medical Association and other anti-drink campaigners that the government were unduly influenced by industry lobbyists in rejecting proposals for minimum alcohol pricing. To some extent this just looks like a case of sour grapes that they didn’t get their way – and weren’t they engaged in vigorous lobbying too for their pet project? But the whole thing rests on two very questionable assumptions.

The first is that any kind of industry lobbying is somehow illegitimate in the first place. Obviously it is the role of government to try to balance conflicting interests and it certainly should not allow policy to be dictated by industry or indeed any other interest group. But to say that an industry that employs a million people, gives pleasure to millions more and contributes billions every year to the Exchequer has no right even to be heard when there are legislative proposals that are likely to severely affect it is a singularly extreme view. It seems to assume that industry per se is some kind of exploitative parasite on the body politic rather than what actually makes up the economy and funds government in the first place.

Second, as argued in this particularly appalling piece in the Guardian, minimum pricing was some kind of no-brainer policy that enjoyed overwhelming public support until it was derailed by the big bad brewers and distillers. However, in fact it never gained more than a relatively small minority of support in opinion polls, and it is too often lazily assumed that anyone opposing any kind of regulatory proposal – in many other fields beyond alcohol policy – is actually a paid industry shill rather than someone who has examined the issues for themselves and reached a different conclusion.

In reality, rather than rolling over as claimed in the face of industry bullying, surely the government took a long hard look at the plan and decided it was simply bad policy. It did not command public support, it would be ineffective in achieving its claimed objectives, it would unfairly target the less well off, it would lead to an increase in alcohol smuggling and illegal distilling and, at the end of the day, it was almost certainly illegal anyway under EU law.

The whole thing is very effectively deconstructed by Chris Snowdon here.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Unhappy returns

There have been a number of posts in the blogosphere recently on the subject of returning beer to the bar. I’ve always been of the view that if beer is obviously cloudy or vinegary it should automatically be taken back and a refund or replacement provided without question. I’ve rarely had any problems with this in recent years although in the past I have had more than one “it’s real ale, it’s meant to be like that”.

On the other hand, Boak & Bailey raised the question here of whether it is acceptable to return a beer if it simply isn’t to your taste. My answer is a firm “no” – if you are going to order beer that is in some way weird, odd, experimental, boundary-pushing, you have to be prepared to take the rough with the smooth and accept you may encounter the odd turd in pursuit of the truffle. If in doubt, ask for a sample first, and any pub or bar selling cutting-edge beers should offer them as a matter of course. Nobody would buy some unusual foodstuff from Tesco and then ask for a refund simply because they didn’t like it, so why should pubs be any different?

But there’s a third category, of beer that isn’t blatantly “off”, but is just downright poor. Over the past few months I’ve had more examples than I would have liked, often in well-regarded pubs, that have simply been flat, tired and stale. Not obviously cloudy or sour, though, so you need the courage of your convictions to take them back. Maybe in a pub where you know the licensee well you might stick your neck out, but in general discretion is the best part of valour, and you just struggle through it (or leave it) and move on to another pub. As has been said in the past, you’re going out for a relaxing drink, not a confrontation. In one pub, the licensee, who knows me, did ask “how was the ****?” and I replied “a bit past its best, I think”. Hopefully the point was taken and acted upon.

Given that the British are noted for their reluctance to complain, perhaps what is needed is a mechanism to allow customers to give anonymous feedback.

The point must also be made that any business that cares about its reputation with customers should aim to arrange its affairs so that occasions where customers feel the need to return sub-standard products are minimised.

As an aside, a while back I was in a Robinson’s pub and ordered a pint of Dizzy Blonde. It was very slightly hazy, and obviously past its best, but I took the view that it wasn’t really bad enough to take back and next time I’d have a Unicorn. However, obviously I had been looking at it rather quizzically as, when I had drunk about two-thirds, the barmaid came over and replaced it with a crystal-clear pint from a new cask. That’s the kind of customer service that sticks in the mind, like this one reported by Tandleman.

Yeuk!

Not entirely surprising results from the poll on whether people couldn’t stomach certain types of food. It should be noted that this poll has been run jointly with Mark Wadsworth, and so has responses from both his blog and mine. He also suggested that the question should be changed to “types of normal food” (which doesn’t show on the results) because the intention was to ask whether there was some commonplace food category such as eggs, dairy, fish or chicken that people couldn’t stand, not whether they didn’t fancy the odd rarity like frog’s legs, calamari or tripe.

Exactly 50% reckoned they would eat anything while, of the remainder, 39% reckoned there were a few food categories that they couldn’t handle, and 11% quite a lot. Mind you, that 11% is a substantial chunk of the market, and surely pubs and restaurants could do more to cater for it by taking a more flexible approach to what goes with what. It’s no good saying “you can always ask” as that in itself is a deterrent and makes the person asking appear awkward. “Eeh, we’ve got a fussy bugger here!”

People have many odd dietary foibles – for example, one former work colleague, although she had quite an eclectic diet, simply could not stand it if different items on a plate had been allowed to run into each other.

The poll results can be seen here as there are some interesting comments. There may have been one or two further votes after I took the snapshot.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

A wail of intolerance

The Daily Mail* is often derided for its liking for hysterical scare stories about the dangers of alcohol (although these are occasionally leavened with pieces about the health benefits of the odd glass of red wine). However, it has exceeded even its own standards with this article.

It purports to be a review of a book entitled Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol by Ann Dowsett Johnston. Now, the author admits to being a former alcoholic, so that doesn’t augur well. But the reviewer – Roger Lewis – falls into the same category, and ends up regurgitating pretty much every anti-drink clichĂ© ever invented.

For a start, we are told that “drink is 44 per cent more affordable in real terms than it was in 1980”, which is basically completely untrue unless you use a perverse interpretation of statistics that isn’t applied in any other sphere.

He then goes on to say:

I also concur with her that ‘alcohol is where tobacco was 40 years ago’ and that when at last we fully accept the links between booze and breast, oesophageal and colorectal cancers, we can start applying to the drinks industry the lessons learned on tobacco control, concerning price, advertising and access.
Smoking-ban supporting beer lovers, have you read that?

Even worse, he then bizarrely quotes himself to say:

In the long run, it will be to everyone’s benefit if Prohibition comes back - says Roger Lewis, now teetotal but hitherto a proud drinker in the W. C. Fields class.
His blanket statement that “It is particularly abhorrent that women are encouraged to drink” demonstrates a remarkably sexist and patronising attitude. And there is a general implication that we are seeing an out-of-control tide of alcohol consumption, whereas in reality it has been consistently falling for the past decade. A worse piece of journalism is hard to imagine.

* People are always eager to demonise the Daily Mail, but it’s by no means unique in its negative attitude to alcohol. Over the years, I’ve linked to several nasty, dishonest articles in the Independent and the Guardian, and only recently the Times had a particularly intolerant piece from Alice Thomson praising lifestyle fascism, fortunately hidden behind the Murdoch paywall. As far as I can see, the only newspapers that seem willing to regularly publish pieces taking a positive attitude to alcohol and pubs are the Daily Telegraph and the Sun. Draw from that whatever conclusion you wish.

Don’t turn your back on your local

I thought this graphic which was posted to Twitter by Shane Swindells of The Cheshire Brewhouse was well worth repeating here.

For the second year running, we are seeing various “charities” encouraging people to abstain from alcohol completely during January under the “Dry January” banner. What anyone chooses to do as an individual is up to them, and you would be deluding yourself if you thought your local pub would stand or fall on your custom alone.

However, by turning this into an organised campaign and actively encouraging as many people as possible to take part, it is effectively promoting a boycott of pubs at a traditionally slack time of year when they need as much support as possible. Which, of course, is the intention. The personal has been turned into the political.

One of the best things I have seen written on the subject is this article by Tom Sykes in which he argues, quite correctly, that staying off the booze for a month has its roots in guilt, not science, and a month of pub-friendly moderation would be far more of a genuine challenge.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Crystal bollocks

The New Year is often a time for looking forward to what the next twelve months are likely to bring. Now, I have to say I have a rather mixed record on predictions having, for example, greatly overstated the extent to which brewers would re-jig their beer ranges in response to the 2.8% and 7.5% duty thresholds introduced a couple of years ago, and believing that two-thirds-pint “schooners” had actually more than zero chance of being widely adopted.

However, I did get it right with the strength of Old Speckled Hen, as it has recently been cut to 5.0%, if not to 4.8%. And a couple of years ago I indulged in some wishful thinking, none of which of course came to pass.

So, taking inspiration from Archbishop Cranmer, here are a few random but rather dull thoughts about what we are likely to see during 2014:

  • Beer duty will rise by the rate of inflation. The duty escalator will continue to apply to all other drinks categories

  • Craft keg ales will not make a significant breakthrough into mainstream pubs, but there will be a modest expansion of British-brewed “craft lager”

  • Beer sales in the on-trade will decline by about 5%, those in the off-trade by slightly less, but still showing a negative figure

  • Overall per capita alcohol consumption will continue to fall

  • There will be more breweries in the UK at the end of the year than at the beginning

  • At least one popular beer brand currently sold at 4.8% ABV will have its strength reduced to 4.5%. “The taste will be unaffected”, its makers will claim

  • A prominent pub in the Stockport MBC area that nobody had imagined was vulnerable will close its doors for the last time

  • Some bizarre concept of which I cannot even dream will become the “next big thing” amongst railway arch brewers and gushing bloggers will claim that “everyone is brewing XXXX”

  • England will not progress beyond the quarter-finals of the World Cup (if that), thus denying a boost to the brewing industry and pub trade