Sunday, 28 June 2015

Action not words

Market research organisation Mintel has recently published an interesting report on pubgoing in Britain. Amongst the results are that one in five people visit a pub each week, which raises the obvious question why four in five don’t. It would be illuminating to compare this with the situation thirty years ago.

It also stated that 20% would be more likely to visit pubs if drinks were cheaper, while 54% could be encouraged if pubs offered more appealing food. 72% of those dining in pubs opted for homemade dishes, and 54% preferred dishes with locally sourced ingredients, with 38% picking those with seasonal components.

But all of this has to be taken with a large pinch of salt. Asking people what they would like to see in a pub is very different from what would actually motivate them to go to pubs more. As I argued here, these surveys often give disproportionate weight to the opinions of those who rarely visit pubs anyway. Before the smoking ban, large numbers of people said in surveys that they would go to pubs more often if smoking was prohibited, but in practice virtually none did. And going every three months rather than every six is unlikely to do much to help the pub trade.

There’s a well-known case study where McDonalds introduced a range of “healthier” menu options in response to customer research, only to find that sales fell well below projections. It seems that many people are happy to say what they would like to see in pubs, but that doesn’t mean they would actually consume these products, or that their availability would make them visit more often. “I think pubs should stock more alcohol free beers, but that doesn’t mean I will actually drink them.”

In market research it is far more important to track how people actually behave rather than what they say they will do viewed through a filter of political correctness. Most people surveyed would probably say that pubs should offer a wider range of soft drinks, and charge less for them, but it’s very doubtful whether that would make much difference to whether or not they chose to visit.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Tales from the front line

Last week I’ve been away for a few days in West Wales. Contrary to popular myth, a Mudgie holiday doesn’t mean an epic pub-crawl that isn’t complete without a night in the cells, but it does give the opportunity to visit a few unfamiliar pubs out there in the real world. I’ve written before how some beer bloggers seem to exist in an urban craft bubble and find their heads exploding when they find themselves in an ordinary pub out in the sticks used by non-enthusiast customers and have to cope with the dilemma of whether to drink Doom Bar or Draught Bass. This is never going to be a “what I did on my holidays” kind of blog, but I thought a couple of experiences were worth retelling.

I’ve often tended to regard CAMRA’s National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors as a kind of informal Mudgie pub guide, that at best will lead me to unspoilt gems where the only sound is the chatter of a few old boys setting the world to rights, and in general to respectable, well-behaved pubs where I don’t feel unwelcome. But I have to say I was disappointed by the Plume of Feathers in Carmarthen. Yes, everything it says about the fabric of the place is true, plus there are the historical associations with heroes of boozing such as Oliver Reed, Richard Harris and Richard Burton. But, as a pub, it’s a serious let-down. No real ale (and no proper keg either, just smooth), deafening piped music and a clientele that seemed to consist mostly of barely-legal teenagers and local deadlegs. Given its situation right in the centre of the town, surely it has the potential to become something of a showpiece for Brain’s brewery.

Then, a couple of days later in Haverfordwest, a perusal of WhatPub? suggested that the Pembroke Yeoman, which was quite close to where i was staying, might be worth a visit. It is featured in the 2014 Good Beer Guide and had a previous local CAMRA Pub of the Year plaque on display. It seemed OK as I walked in, and I was pleased to see Hopback Summer Lightning on the bar. I ordered a pint, but my expectations immediately plummeted when I saw the barmaid plonk the glass on the drip tray and pull the pump with one hand to fill it. It must have taken at least fifteen pulls, during which she was distracted at several points by chatting to the customers. As I feared, it was hazy and totally devoid of condition, but not vinegary as such. In some pubs, you would take it back, but in a place that you’re unlikely to every visit again, it seems a bit pointless to cause a scene. And yes, I would have been far better going to Spoons, as I did the next night.

Having said that, I had my fair share of good pub experiences too. The Good Beer Guide listed Queens in Carmarthen, just round the corner from the Plume of Feathers, was a good, solid, traditional, wood-panelled pub where I would be happy to spend a lot of time. And I managed to fit in a visit to the legendary Dyffryn Arms at Pontfaen, which is really special and everything I had hoped it would be. It was rather amusing to see a party of normal tourists venture in and be totally fazed by the experience.

In one pub, there was a cardboard box on the bar of the kind normally used to hold charity sweets, but which happened to be occupied by a small dark tortoiseshell cat curled up and fast asleep. At first I thought it was a soft toy until it moved an ear. Now that’s the sort of thing you really remember about pubs.

And in another pub a local wag suggested that I looked like Inspector Morse, which I suppose is a kind of compliment. Far better than comparing me to Ronnie Barker or Elton John.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Shunning strength

Boak & Bailey have recently been reporting on their holiday in the wonderful Yorkshire Dales. In Settle, they were taken by the Talbot Inn, where they came across the beer list shown to the right. It’s a good mix of styles, and small vs established breweries, but it’s notable that nothing is above 4.0%, something that one commenter pointed out.

It’s an obvious trend of recent years that the average strength of cask beers in pubs offering a varied range has fallen. Going back to the days before CAMRA, most draught beers in the UK were of “ordinary bitter” strength or only a little above. The popular premium kegs such as Red Barrel and Double Diamond were only about 4%, and little on draught was much stronger than that.

In the early days of CAMRA, many of the poster boys of the “real ale revolution” were beers around OG 1050 such as Ruddles County, Abbot Ale, Royal Oak and Gales HSB. Going to the real ale freehouse meant not just drinking different beers, but drinking much stronger beers that weren’t available in the general run of pubs.

Then in the 1980s came the rise of the premium lagers, with Stella to the fore, which were seen as something better than the normal Heineken or Skol, but which many used to drink as if they were session beers. By the 1990s, with many pubs in the post-Beer Orders landscape aiming to stock a wider range of cask beers, it could be difficult to find anything much below 4.5%, as I reported here.

However, things then began to change, and possibly the Beer Orders were partially responsible. Whereas before you had a choice of beers of varying strength from the same brewery, increasingly you had instead a choice of beers of similar strength from different breweries. A beer that was an outlier – either too strong or too weak – simply wouldn’t sell as much. We have also seen the rise of a number of widely-distributed premium ale brands such as London Pride, Bombardier, Doom Bar and Wainwright, which are all around 4.0–4.2% ABV, so as not to frighten the horses too much.

Some beers such as Old Speckled Hen and Batemans XXXB have had their strength cut to bring them down to 4.5%. This may be seen as a way of saving duty, or appeasing the government initiative to take units out of the alcohol market, but in reality the main reason was that they simply weren’t selling at the higher strength. Robinson’s of Stockport brew a 5.0% ABV beer called Double Hop which is rarely seen in their pubs because people won’t buy it. Of course with cask beers their perishability is a limiting factor – once you start having to throw beer away it becomes unviable.

Most of the well-known premium lagers like Stella and Carlsberg Export have been cut to 4.8% (which may have more to do with government arm-twisting) and draught Budweiser was even cut from 5.0 to 4.3%. Plus there has been a switch back to the 4.0% cooking lager category with new products like Beck’s Vier and Amstel.

So we are now in the situation where the beer list shown above is very typical of what will be found in many pubs. I would say most people are more sober and responsible now and there is much more social pressure not to lose control. Even students prefer 4% fruit ciders to Old Rosie. People with money to spend are more fitness-oriented and there is less tolerance of those who are sometimes a bit “blurred at the edges”. Plus those who are still prepared to drink and drive within the legal limit are less willing to take any kind of risk and largely stick to beers of 4.0% or less, which is a significant factor outside large towns and cities.

Yes, there are still many stronger beers produced and you’ll see plenty of them at beer festivals and in beer-focused pubs in urban areas. Indeed the new wave of craft keg ales are often notably strong. But, across the country, in the more mainstream pubs, you’ll be lucky to find them, or in fact anything above the low four percents. And it’s down to good old supply and demand, not any kind of hidden anti-drink agenda.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Liquid lunch

On his Oh Good Ale blog, Phil has been recounting his experiences doing the local CAMRA Mild Magic trail, which makes interesting reading. One particular point he makes is that, in many of Manchester’s satellite towns, lunchtime pub food has largely become a thing of the past.
Lastly, I made the surprising – but perhaps predictable – discovery that pub lunches are basically a thing of the past: there are Spoons and there are high-end bars serving equally high-end food, but in between, and outside the city centre, there’s pretty much nothing. I guess that workplace puritanism has grown, and lunchtime drinking declined, to the point where serving actual lunches no longer makes sense for most places; the cheap and cheerful pub meal has gone the way of the cloche of curling sandwiches or the jar of pickled eggs.
For decades, we’ve constantly been told that food is the future of the pub, and in many of the more prosperous suburban and rural areas this has proved to be true, with it becoming increasingly difficult to find any pub that isn’t to all intents and purposes a restaurant. But, as I’ve remarked before, in urban areas, especially the less prosperous ones, the tide has flowed the other way, with many pubs that served cheap’n’cheerful food in 1985 having stopped doing so entirely, and many too having stopped opening at lunchtimes Monday to Thursday, even in shopping centres. Thirty years ago, plenty of pubs would offer a straightforward menu of sandwiches, toasties, burgers, ham, egg and chips, maybe a pot of chilli. That kind of basic food offer is now largely a thing of the past and, if shoppers want a bite to eat, they will increasingly turn to caf├ęs, which seem to have enjoyed a surprising renaissance.

In places like Stalybridge, Hyde and Denton, you will now struggle to find any lunchtime pub food at all outside of Wetherspoon’s, if there is one. One popular and well-regarded Stockport pub just outside the town centre recently tried serving lunchtime meals, but stopped after a few months due to lack of demand. Even in Stockport town centre, while there are five or six non-Wetherspoon’s pubs offering a reasonably broad menu, there’s nothing like the choice there was thirty years ago.

The reasons behind this are all the usual suspects – the general decline of the pub trade, the reduced tolerance of employers for their workers to go to the pub at lunchtimes, and the fall-off in footfall in many of the smaller town centres. Very often, only Wetherspoon's are still flying the flag for lunchtime pub food. In recent years, I’ve been in towns which are not obvious tourist magnets where the only place I could find any reasonable-looking pub food was Spoons, which indeed was often the most upmarket-seeming venue. And, in some locations, you have to wonder how often they sell many of items on their extensive, standardised menu.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

First come, first served

It’s now almost forty years since CAMRA held its first national beer festival at Covent Garden in London. Since then, the number of beer festivals has mushroomed and, alongside the Good Beer Guide, they are the aspect of CAMRA’s activities most visible to the general public. From being an opportunity to showcase beers you might want to seek out in the pub, they have become an attraction in their own right, often featuring new and rare beers you would be lucky to find anywhere else.

In the early days of beer festivals, it made sense to stagger putting the various beers on sale, as there was always a risk of not selling out, so you might want to sell unbroached casks on to local free trade pubs. This also had the advantages that, if the festival lasted more than one day, choice would be maintained throughout and the chance of getting tired beer towards the end would be much reduced.

However, in more recent years, this approach has attracted growing criticism, partly, although not entirely, from the beer-ticking fraternity. You never know when each beer is going to be on sale, and it seems unreasonable to withhold a beer when it’s perfectly read to be served. So the preference is increasingly to put all beers on sale at the beginning of the festival, and when they run out, they run out. At one time, customers were happy that a beer festival simply a provided a decent choice of unfamiliar beers, but now some are much more insistent on being able to sample a particular new or rare beer. This way, at least they know they will be able to find it on at the start.

Obvious drawbacks are that, with the best will in the world, beer stillaged in a beer festival is likely to lose its sparkle more quickly than in a pub cellar, and the choice towards the end of the festival will be limited, with all the more appealing or unusual beers having run out. On the other hand, it has to be recognised that a beer festival is run in the interest of the customers, not for the convenience of the staff, and if there’s a strong demand for something then it makes sense to respond to it. In effect, first night punters are being favoured at the expense of final session ones.

Last month, following years of grumbling, it was finally decided to adopt this approach at the Stockport Beer & Cider Festival. The results were entirely as expected, with a magnificent range of fresh, lively brews available at Thursday teatime, but by Saturday evening many of those remaining being distinctly tired, and some customers complaining of lack of choice – although that is always going to be an issue on the final session. The festival overall showed a substantial increase in attendance over the previous year, and virtually sold out, so the punters didn’t seem to be too concerned.

Realistically, it’s an approach you can’t follow if your beer festival lasts more than three days, and even that to my mind is stretching it a bit. Quality should never be sacrificed for maximising choice. If managing beer availability is seen as a major negative factor by customers, then the only way round the issue is to have fewer individual beers but buy two or more casks of those that are expected to be more popular. In a sense, this was what was done at Stockport with the “Bar Nouveau” (pictured) which highlighted beers released for public sale for the first time. There were around ten different beers, with three firkins being ordered of each. They all went on at the start, with the last cask being emptied late on Saturday evening. That way, the principle of free choice was maintained, but the customers knew they were always getting a pint from a cask that had been tapped less than a day before.

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Lager in the doghouse

Last autumn, as reported here by Boak & Bailey, Wetherspoon’s with a great fanfare introduced keg Devil’s Backbone IPA and BrewDog This.Is.Lager into their pubs, and added both to the list of drinks allowed in their inclusive meal deals. This was seen at the time as a major step forward in the march of “craft keg” into the mainstream.

However, not everything seems to be going according to plan. Tandleman reports here how his experiences of This.Is.Lager have been inconsistent and lacklustre, something with which, having tried it a few times, I have to agree. It doesn’t seem to represent any notable improvement over the mainstream brands and isn’t a patch on the best German and Czech imports.

One theory that occurred to me is that, like many British-brewed “craft” lagers, it uses the wrong type of hops and thus fails to achieve that distinctive grassy note characteristic of authentic Continental lagers. However, others in the comments have suggested that it’s simply not turning over quickly enough and thus becoming stale. It’s probably a beer that needs to be served fresh for the hop character to emerge.

But its days seem to be numbered. On a visit to my local Spoons yesterday, it had been discounted to £1.99 a pint, and the barman said it was being dropped. If you think about it, it can only have ever appealed to a small segment of beer-savvy customers who weren’t single-minded cask drinkers. Unless it’s part of a meal deal, paying £3.10 a pint when cask is £2.30 is a large jump, and the “normal” lager drinker won’t see the point when they can get Stella, Kronenbourg or Carlsberg Export for a similar price.

Likewise, I can’t see them selling much Devil’s Backbone, and apparently in many branches that has already been withdrawn. The Wetherspoon’s “craft revolution” may have been a cunning plan to blunt the appeal of trendy craft beer bars in major cities*, but in Northern industrial towns I doubt whether it’s even caused a ripple, with all those bottles of Lagunitas IPA remaining in the fridge unsold. I was told that many branches only started shifting the cans of Sixpoint Bengali Tiger once they were discounted to 99p and thus started to score on the “bangs per buck” front.

Maybe this is another indication that Spoons need to differentiate their beer offer more between branches with markedly varying customer bases, rather than following a one size fits all approach. If “craft keg” really is to break out into the mainstream, it needs an instantly recognisable brand to lead the way and give a strong reason to visit. “We must go to the Aardvark & Artichoke, they have Frobble’s Funky Fizz on there!” Even Punk IPA may not cut the mustard as it is too strong. Or is this a sign that, as far as mainstream pubs go, we have now reached the high tide of “craft keg”?

Incidentally, on this visit to Spoons, a mixed-sex group of young people of somewhat studenty appearance came in. Their favoured tipple seemed to be some variety of purple-coloured fruit cider, and the craft beer taps and fridge remained firmly untouched.

* Spoons were never going to be a craft beer destination of choice, but amongst mixed groups the argument that “we’re not going there, they have no craft beer” would no longer wash, just as many pubs in the 1970s were persuaded to put real ale on again.