Friday, 30 December 2016

Dutch Punch

I recently reported on the news that Heineken had agreed to acquire most of the Punch Taverns pub estate, something that very much came out of the blue. Some felt it might be a positive development to have pubs run by a brewer rather than a heavily-indebted property company, but others were worried it might be a case of “out of the frying pan, into the fire” and that consumer choice could be restricted.

So I thought it would be interesting to run a poll on what blog readers thought of the deal. It was deliberately couched as a straight binary choice with no option for a cop-out that wasn’t on the table anyway. And the result was pretty conclusive, with 84% plumping for Heineken over Punch.

I have to say I tend to agree – surely it must be better for pubs to be run by a company with a direct interest in promoting beer sales in them. The combined company will still have only about 6% of the pubs in the country, and probably a lower total beer volume than Wetherspoon’s, so it’s still well below the level at which monopoly concerns start to rear their head. And I’m not remotely convinced by the argument that competition is impaired because a licensee can only choose from 50 different cask beers rather than 300.

I expect to see more of the re-tying of the British pub stock over the next few years, and the end of the giant leased pub companies. But, as ever, I could be entirely wrong.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Too much Christmas spirit?

I recently encountered an intriguing little moral dilemma. On Christmas Eve, I was in a Sam Smith’s pub. Feeling a rush of seasonal goodwill, I decided to offer the barman a tip, so when I proferred a fiver for my £1.90 pint of Old Brewery Bitter, I said “and your own”, expecting him to take maybe 20 or 30p.

However, on inspecting my change, I found I had been given just £1.80, indicating that £1.30 had been deducted. Now, I’m sure this was an honest error, and the difference would end up in the till and thus in Humphrey Smith’s pocket, not the barman’s. But, especially given the season, would you quibble about that?

I did, being a notorious tightwad, and the mistake was rectified. But I have to admit to feeling a slight twinge of guilt.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Highlights of 2016

As seems to have become an annual tradition, I’ll offer a few highs and lows of 2016. Not really “Golden Pints”, as it’s much more about pub experiences. Here is last year’s. And I’ve done more than twice as many blog posts in 2016 as I did in 2015.

Best new pub visited – Queen’s Head, Newton, Cambridgeshire. This is one of only five pubs remaining that have been in every edition of the Good Beer Guide. It doesn’t immediately strike you as being that special, but it’s a good example of a village pub that successfully manages to combine a modest food offer with a thriving drinks trade, and had a very congenial atmosphere. For some reason, the middle-class, mostly wet-led pub is something often encountered in the South of England, but very rarely around here.

Honourable runner up – The Vaults, Uttoxeter. A long, thin pub with a highly characterful interior that stretches a long way back from the Market Place along the original burgage plot. And a shrine to Draught Bass.

I also at last managed to visit the famous Vine (aka Bull & Bladder) in Brierley Hill, Batham’s brewery tap, which did not disappoint. But that’s more a pilgrimage than a discovery.

Best pub revisit – Black Horse, Clapton-in-Gordano. A highly characterful, ancient pub that manages to combine good beer, high-quality, but not over-obtrusive food, and a very congenial, genteel atmosphere.

Pub photo of the year – Hare & Hounds, Shudehill, Manchester. A proper old-school boozer.

Best pub cat – Porter in the Swan, Holmes Chapel, who “likes his dinner”. See separate post. However, unfortunately local resident Michael Harris inquired about his whereabouts and was told that he hasn’t been seen for four months. Still, it was a privilege to have met him.

CAMRA event – awarding the local branch Pub of the Year to the Boar’s Head in Stockport. This is a superb, characterful pub that is everything a “proper pub” should be. But it’s a Sam Smith’s pub, with only the one cask beer, and that not to many people’s taste. There was predictable outrage on FaceBook.

Beery event – meeting up for the first time with various people from the blogosphere at the trade session of Manchester Beer Festival including Jeff Bell (aka Stonch), Nick aus Erlangen, Matthew Lawrenson of Seeingthelizards and “Arthur Scargill” from Knutsford.

New beer – during the course of a year, I drink lots of new beers once, and honestly they rarely stick in the mind. But one bottled beer that made an impression was McEwan’s Champion Whisky Edition. The standard McEwan’s Champion is hailed as a surviving example of the classic Burton style, but it’s a little too heavy and sweet for my taste. However, at 5.8% the Whisky Edition is a notably lighter and drier beer with a distinct hint of spirit that makes an ideal winter warmer.

Best Pub refurbishment – Swan, Holmes Chapel. Sam Smith’s have spent a lot of money returning what had become a rather tired and shabby pub to being a warren of small rooms, each with its own character. And they restored cask Old Brewery Bitter. Robinson’s please note when you’re “removing obstructing internal walls”.

Worst Pub refurbishment – Holly Bush, Bollington. This was a National Inventory pub with a classic original bar with sliding glass screens, which Robinson’s completely removed to open it out. Yes, the pub had been closed for a while and needed some freshening up, but surely this could have been done without such an act of architectural vandalism.

Best Pub(ish) Food – Friends of Ham, Leeds. A bar that really sets out to do something individual and distinctive on the food front rather than just offering the same identikit menu. Absolutely superb meat and cheese. Not cheap, but definitely worth paying for the quality.

Best Ploughmans – Prince Albert, Broadstairs. Yes, it was served on a slate, but it included three different cheeses, plenty of bread and a full range of pickles including brown, mustard, pickled onions and gherkins. I left a bit of cheese and was asked whether I would like more bread.

Best pub banter – The Talbot, Muck Wenlock, where there were a group of young mothers with (fairly) well-behaved offspring. One, talking of her dieting plans, said "I'm back on the shakes next week", in response to which an old boy piped up "I 'as them ev'ry mornin!"

Saddest pub loss – the Waterloo just off Hillgate in Stockport, where I spotted this pub dog on last year’s Hillgate Stagger. Another decent traditional local that has fallen victim to Robinson’s savage pub cull and drive upmarket. As I’ve said during the year, Robinsons seem to have little interest in offering their urban tenants a package that allows them to be remotely price-competitive.

Beer and Pub Blogger – Simon Everitt of BRAPA. I’d come across Simon’s blog before before, but it’s only this year I’ve really followed his GBG-ticking exploits closely. If you’re doing all the pubs in the GBG, you have to take the rough with the smooth, and he certainly doesn’t pull his punches when it comes to the rough. I wonder how many of them ever let him back. Do you know what a P.I.S.S barmaid means? I let him have all my Spoons tokens, which I normally struggle to use anyway, as I’m sure he’ll make better use of them.

Also an honourable mention to Deeekos of Boozy Procrastinator who is prepared to tackle difficult topics that many other bloggers shy away from, for example this one about deserting your locals for the beery delights of the big city.

Best political event – the Brexit vote in June. In fact, probably the best political event of my entire lifetime, not just 2016. And, joyously, the results were announced on my birthday. The British people at last rose up, told the arrogant, sneering political élite where to stick it, and freed themselves from the vile, corrupt, undemocratic, sclerotic European Union. As I suggested back then, resentment of the smoking ban and similar infractions may well have had a part to play.

Sadly, some pathetic sore losers are still skriking about it six months later. If you’re one of them, there are plenty of other places on the Internet to vent your spleen. But you won’t be doing it here.

Best tourist attraction – SS Great Britain, in Bristol, an absolutely unique original historical artefact that genuinely changed the world. Unfortunately, lack of time meant I wasn’t able to get to the famous “cat pub”, the Bag O’Nails, which is only just over the river.

A close second was Walmer Castle near Deal in Kent, originally an artillery fort built by Henry VIII which was converted into a cosy residence for the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and has close associations with the Duke of Wellington and Churchill.

Saturday, 24 December 2016

Appy Christmas!

In many older pubs, you will still see a line of redundant bell-pushes around the walls in the lounge. They date back to the days of waiter service, but that largely died the death in the 1960s and 70s due to rising labour costs. It was simply no longer economic.

However, Wetherspoon’s are now reviving the idea by introducing an app to allow customers to order food and drink and have them brought to their table. Now, I’m the last person to judge whether new technology innovations are likely to succeed, so I won’t dismiss it out of hand. And if you restrict it to card payments you eliminate all the cash handling that used to make up a large part of the waiter’s job.

However, there are some obvious problems. For a start, it makes checking that customers aren’t underage or drunk that bit more difficult. And I can’t see the app listing all the guest ales that are on at a particular time, creating a further disincentive to order them. What happens if you’re given short measure or a cloudy pint? And, knowing the usual speed of service in Wetherspoon’s, you can just see the wait times stretching endlessly out, resulting in some very irate customers.

You can see the reasoning when it comes to food, which has to be brought to the table anyway. Indeed, companies like McDonalds have already been experimenting with computerised order points. But I expect Wetherspoon’s to learn the hard way that table service for drinks, as opposed to customers ordering and collecting them at the bar, costs money. At a time when the minimum wage is rising much faster than general inflation, can they afford to make their pub operations more labour-intensive?

Friday, 23 December 2016

Stocking filler

The government’s new Pubs Code includes provision for the tenants of large pub companies to exercise a Market Rent Option, under which they are free to purchase beer and other products on the open market rather than from the pubco, in return for accepting a higher “market” rent. When this was proposed, I’m sure that its supporters mainly had in mind the non-brewing pubcos such as Punch and Enterprise. However, it turns out that three of the six companies to which it applies – Greene King, Marston’s and Heineken (via Star Pubs and Bars) – are actually breweries.

If you are a brewer, you will naturally see your pub estate as a distribution channel and a showcase for your own products, even if they also sell other brands alongside them. If a pub says Greene King above the door, you would naturally expect it to stock Greene King beers, just as a Ford dealership would sell Fords. Therefore the brewers have insisted that, even under MRO, they still retain stocking rights. A tenant who exercises MRO would still have to stock a certain proportion of the owning brewery’s products, although he would be able to buy them on the open market, possibly at a lower price. The brewers are understandably concerned that this right, while enshrined in the legislation, hasn’t been made clear in the Pubs Code itself. And it’s hard to see that the exercise of MRO by a brewery tenant wouldn’t lead to a strained relationship.

The situation is different with a non-brewing pubco, as MRO wouldn’t lead to any obvious change in the pub’s offer to its customers. It isn’t an inherent part of the appeal of a Punch or Enterprise pub that it sells a certain range of beers. And there have certainly been widespread complaints that tenants were expected to pay well over the odds for beers they could buy much more cheaply on the open market, while receiving very little in return.

However, for any form of contractual arrangement to be a success, it’s essential that it offers some benefit to both parties and, while clearly MRO may be good for tenants, it’s hard to see what it brings for the pubco. Yes, they may get a higher rent, but they lose any interest in the operation of the property as a pub. Their business is running pubs, not acting as a property company, but MRO just turns them into the latter. Nobody in their right mind would set up an estate of MRO pubs from scratch. It also, by removing any financial stake in the pub’s success, may make the owning pubco more willing to sell up for redevelopment. For these reasons I would expect pubcos to take whatever steps they can to prevent any of their pubs falling under MRO – by converting the best ones to management, reducing lease terms and looking at franchise-type agreements that fall outside the scope of the legislation.

The growth of the large leased pubcos was a specific mechanism to enable the traditional tenanted pub model to be maintained under the changed environment resulting from the Beer Orders. Now the Beer Orders are gone, is there any need for them at all? I can see the partial takeover of Punch Taverns by Heineken as the first step in a process whereby ownership of many of the bigger, more successful pubs is taken back by the major brewers, with the remainder passing either to family brewers or to smaller, more nimble pubcos. It wouldn’t surprise me if, within a few years, the large non-brewing pubcos had entirely disappeared. And MRO starts to look much less appealing if the owning brewer can still enforce stocking rights.

I expect history to judge MRO in the same category as the Beer Orders, as an ill-conceived response to a specific issue that ended up causing more problems than it solved and eventually died an obscure and unlamented death.

For those reading the blog on a phone, it's worth pointing out the current poll in the sidebar on whether Heineken or Punch Taverns would make better custodians of pubs.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Feline good about 2016

I was drafting out a “Highlights of 2016” post, for which you will have to wait until next week. One of the categories was obviously going to be Best Pub Cat. However, while there is a clear winner, there’s enough material to justify a blogpost all of its own.

Pub Cat of the Year – Porter in the Swan at Holmes Chapel in Cheshire. This is a pub that has been expensively refurbished by Sam Smith’s to return it to being a warren of tiny rooms. I was sitting in one of these, minding my own business, when I heard a gentle chirrup and then found a large mass of black fur doing its best to sit on my lap. He was so keen on being fussed and petted that it was difficult to push him away far enough to take a picture.

On leaving the pub, I asked what their cat was called. “Which one?” was the reply, always a good sign. “Oh, the big black one.” “Ah yes, his name is Porter. He likes his dinner.” He looked like he did, to be honest.

Runner-up #1 – Bob in the Magnet in Stockport. Undoubtedly a tortie in appearance, but allegedly male nonetheless. Here I am captured by Erlangernick in full “Mudgie sees pub cat” mode.

Runner-up #2 – Felix in the Boar’s Head in Stockport, the unexpected but deserved winner of our local CAMRA Pub of the Year award. A big old black-and-white fellow who, according to the regulars, can be a bit snappy, but has always seemed laid-back when I’ve encountered him. Here he is gesturing as if to say “leave me alone, I just want to snooze”.

Not a pubcat as such, but this handsome fellow was spotted by both me and Martin Taylor patrolling the street outside the Three Tuns in Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire. I recall we also unearthed another blog from a couple of years back that mentioned him.

And I came across this friendly old chap in the churchyard in Hartington in Derbyshire. He chirruped loudly and followed me around demanding fussing and belly-rubs.

I’m not in a position to have a cat myself, as there’s nobody to look after it when I’m away, but there is a varied selection of local mogs to be spotted on my street, including this little cutie who I pictured on my back step.

Plus of course this year pub cats (or at least metropolitan ones) have got their very own book in the form of London Pubcats. It’s a charming book for cat-lovers which also has a very positive story to tell about the social function of pubs.

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

When is too much not enough?

The most recent set of government anti-smoking measures includes a ban on selling cigarettes in packets of less than 20. At first glance, this may seem counter-intuitive, as it encourages people to buy more, but the reasoning is presumably that it slightly “raises the bar” at which people may contemplate purchasing cigarettes at all. In reality it is simply yet another way of making smokers’ lives that little bit more difficult and unpleasant.

It’s comparable with the longstanding unwillingness of major off-sales retailers to sell individual cans of beer. The thinking behind this is to act as a deterrent to those who just want a can of Alcoholic Lager Beer – it’s a four-pack, or nothing. Yes, many corner shops will happily sell individual cans, but the big supermarkets and other large chains won’t. On the other hand, I’ve reported in the past anti-drink campaigners complaining about multipacks encouraging excessive consumption, so it seems that you can’t win either way.

However, and apologies for the topic swerve, the rise of the “craft can” is starting to undermine this situation. The likes of Tesco are increasingly selling single cans alongside bottles and including them in mix-and-match multibuy offers. In general, the bangs-per-buck ratio of craft cans is pretty low, so they’re unlikely to be of much interest to drunks, but even so a principle has been breached.

Cans still suffer something of a stigma, partly because at one time they had a tendency to impart a metallic flavour to beer, and partly because they were once only used for the cheaper, mass-market beers. But the flavour issue has long since been resolved, and many high-quality, premium products are now found in cans. They also have significant advantages over bottles in being easier to recycle, taking up less shelf space, being lighter and thus cheaper to transport, chilling quicker in the fridge, and protecting the contents from off-flavours due to light strike.

The major supermarkets will now sell a range of four-packs of well-known ales in cans, alongside the single-bottle premium bottled ales, typically at a discount of around a pound for four - £5 against £6. There’s no noticeable taste difference, and if you happen to like one of the beers that’s in cans you can make a worthwhile saving. But the stigma against cans will only be fully eliminated once retailers are happy to sell in single cans anything they will in single bottles.

Might it be that in ten years’ time only a small minority of top-end and bottle-conditioned beers are still sold in bottles, and everything else is in more eco-friendly cans? Only time will tell.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Not last orders after all

Last week a giant claw unexpectedly reached out from the 1980s and grabbed control of a substantial chunk of the British pub trade, in the form of Heineken’s agreed takeover bid for the greater part of Punch Taverns.

Back then, the British pub market was dominated by the “Big Six” national brewers, who owned getting on for half of all the pubs and controlled many local monopolies or near-monopolies. To address this situation, the government of the day brought in the notorious Beer Orders which have resulted in a situation where getting on for half of all the pubs in the country now sell Doom Bar.

While this legislation was well-intentioned, it is clear with hindsight that nobody really had a clear idea what the results would be. In practice, what happened is that the “Big Six” sold their brewing interests to the giant international brewers, while most of their pub estates ended up in the hands of pub companies such as Punch Taverns and Enterprise Inns. Their prime raison d’etre was to replicate the tied house model that the big brewers had enjoyed, and it is hard to argue that, over the years, they haven’t had a negative effect on the pub trade.

They took on large quantities of debt in order to expand their estates, and were then caught out by the double whammy of the smoking ban and the worldwide recession and left teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Both Punch and Enterprise have only been able to survive through emergency debt restructuring. This left them woefully short of money to invest in their estates, and they have been forced to sell off many of their best properties to family brewers or managed house operators.

The Beer Orders were revoked in 2003, so since then there was been nothing to prevent the major international brewers rebuilding tied estates in the UK. However, the dire state of pub company finances has probably put them off until now. Heineken retained the rump of the former Scottish & Newcastle pub operation under the banner of Star Pubs and Bars, and so were always the best placed to make a move. Selling out to a brewer with deep pockets is probably going to be the best exit strategy for long-suffering pubco investors.

One inevitable result, though, is that the old issues about restricting supply of certain products will reappear, with the Sunday Times reporting that the move may threaten the availability of Carling, the UK’s best-selling beer, in the former Punch estate. This could prompt the brand owners Molson Coors (who also own Doom Bar) to take steps to protect their own position. I would expect pub operators to recognise, though, that restricting the range of products too far doesn’t help business.

On balance, I would say it is preferable for breweries to be running pubs than pubcos, as they will have more of an interest in actually growing trade rather than just looking at the estate as a property portfolio, and will also have more money to invest. Many pubco leased pubs are now looking distinctly shabby compared with those owned by the family brewers. However, it will be important for the competition authorities to keep a close eye on the market to ensure that the old problems of oligopoly of supply and local dominance do not resurface. It would certainly not be good news if we saw one of the international brewers bidding for Marston’s or Greene King, or indeed for Wetherspoon’s.

But, within a few years, will we have seen the end of the large non-brewing leased pub company, something that only sprang into being in the first place as a response to the Beer Orders?

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Quality time

CAMRA is, not unreasonably, carrying out a review of the scope and content of its flagship publication, the Good Beer Guide, with a view to implementing any changes in the 2020 edition, published in September 2019. However, one phrase in the information document about this, included almost in throwaway fashion, rather jumped out at me:

Recently, with the increase in pub quality, branches in some parts of the country are finding it more difficult to select just a few pubs for their allocation.
Now, with the rise of micropubs and craft beer bars, there has certainly been an increase in the number of pubs specifically setting out to provide a beer offer of interest to enthusiasts. But it struck me as a drastic leap of the imagination to extrapolate that into a general “increase in pub quality”, however defined.

We have continued to see a steady stream of insensitive refurbishments and conversions to a food-dominated format, plus of course a pub that has closed can never be as good as it was before. And increased beer ranges all too often work against beer quality, with slow turnover and tired beer becoming a growing problem.

So, I thought I would ask the question of the blog readership. While on balance they did tend to feel that pubs had got better, by 41% to 36%, it certainly wasn’t the obvious given that the CAMRA document lazily assumed. And nearly twice as many felt that pubs had got “much worse” than “much better”.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Are you sure that's wise, Sir?

The issue of drink-driving always rears its ugly head over the Christmas period, and BBPA chief executive Brigid Simmons has urged pubs to play their part in spreading the message. However, despite her good intentions, it’s hard to see how this can actually be put into effect on the ground.

The comments seem to be aimed mainly at making the point about still being over the limit on the morning after, but I’m sure that pubgoers won’t appreciate being asked whether they’re driving the next day when getting another round in. And the authorities are notoriously reluctant to provide accurate information on alcohol units and “counting back”, which could be genuinely helpful, on the grounds that it might encourage people to “drink up to the limit”.

If the message is extended to attempting to deter potential offenders “in the act” it becomes even more problematical. How are bar staff meant to know how someone has travelled to the pub anyway? And, even if it is pretty obvious that a customer has driven there, it has to be remembered that the law represents a limit, not a prohibition. Being told “be careful you don’t have too many of those, Sir” is likely to cause customers to take their business somewhere else where they won’t be given a patronising lecture.

Any responsible licensee will keep an eye on his customers and, for example, suggest that someone who has drunk well over their normal quota should consider getting a cab home. And, if a customer is routinely jugging it back and driving home, then a polite word in the ear would be appropriate. But it’s hard to see how they can take it further without coming across as intrusive.

And, as ever, pubs seem to be held uniquely to blame for drink-drive offending, when this was never more than part of the story, and is even less so now.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Closed for you

At the local CAMRA branch meeting the other day, one member expressed his disappointment on having visited Glossop on a weekday lunchtime, only to find the highly-regarded Star Inn firmly closed. This is despite it being situated right opposite the station in the centre of a busy town. A couple of weeks ago, I was in Stockport town centre at lunchtime, and thought I would pay a call in the Petersgate Tap, which I hadn’t yet been in. But, again, the shutters were firmly down, so I still haven’t. This illustrates the problem, which I have written about in this month’s Opening Times column, of never knowing when pubs are going to be open.

In the first eleven years of my drinking career, pubs adhered to specified hours, with a mandatory afternoon break. Sometimes they didn’t open for every single permitted hour, in particular often opening later on Saturday evenings, and in the South, where the official hours allowed opening at 10 or 10.30 in the morning, often leaving it for another hour. But it was so rare as to be noteworthy that a pub didn’t open for any one of the fourteen sessions each week. If you wanted to visit a pub, you could be pretty confident it would be open when it was supposed to be. I remember doing a Good Beer Guide survey of one Bass Charrington pub in Surrey where the manager made a point of saying that he was open “all permitted hours”.

In the early years of all-day opening, from 1988 onwards, it could often be difficult to find pubs open during the afternoon. But, maybe prompted by the rise of Wetherspoons and other national chains, all-day opening steadily became more commonplace from the early 90s onwards, to the extent that in the centres of big towns and cities it is now the norm.

However, in areas with more of a local clientele and less footfall, it was hard to justify the extra staff and utility costs, and the trend began to turn the other way, with lunchtime opening being steadily curtailed. Often this is just Monday to Thursday or Friday, but sometimes seven days a week. For example, in the Derbyshire town of Whaley Bridge, only two of the six pubs are open at lunchtimes Monday to Friday, and three of the remaining four do not open before 2 pm on any day of the week. This kind of pattern of opening is now commonplace across large swatches of the country. I would say, though, that it is largely a phenomenon of the present century, and in particular the past ten years. In the earlier days of relaxed licensing hours it remained rare.

Now, I don’t for a minute wish to criticise any pub that chooses to open restricted hours, so long as they take reasonable steps to make it clear what their hours actually are. There’s no point in opening when there is negligible custom, and every extra hour of opening represents a significant increase in staff costs. It’s entirely understandable why many micropubs choose very limited hours, so that they can effectively be run by one person or a couple.

But I can’t help thinking that the pub trade has lost something from opening hours no longer being at all predictable. It’s still the case that you can normally expect shops to be open, roughly speaking, from about 9.30 am to 5.30 pm, Monday to Saturday. They may vary it a little, and some independent shops may close one day a week, but you don’t tend to come across shops that open at two in the afternoon.

Obviously pubs are different from shops, and rely much more on regular trade, but even so you often have no idea when they are going to be open unless you check first. By definition, anyone aiming to explore pubs outside their local area will generally tend to be doing so at lunchtimes or in the afternoon, when they are increasingly likely to be shut. And I’d say that casual drinking, by members of the general public, as opposed to beer geeks, has greatly diminished over the past few decades. Across the country, most pubs are much less likely to see unfamiliar drinking customers than they once were. It must also be said that closing at lunchtimes because there’s no trade all too easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I fully understand the economic reasons behind it. But the loss of predictable opening hours is, overall, a significant detriment to the pub trade.

A related point is how the traditional afternoon closure seems to have persisted much more in the South than the North. Looking in the Good Beer Guide, none of the first twenty entries for Greater Manchester follow this pattern, either opening all day, or from 4 or 5 in the afternoon. I can’t think of a single pub in my area that opens at lunchtime but closes in the afternoon. But quite a number in Somerset do, including the second in the listings, the Ring o’Bells at Ashcott.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Hamming it up in Leeds

A friend of mine is a university lecturer and has recently taken up a new position in Leeds. As he knows I have an interest in pubs and beer, he invited me to pop over for a tour of some of the city’s hostelries. Although he does enjoy a pint, he’s not a CAMRA member or beer geek, and so this was more a broad cross-section than an exercise in seeking out obscure brews. I’d asked for suggestions on Twitter, which drew a very wide response. I boiled this down to a list of nine pubs, all on the south-east side of the city centre, but in the end we only managed six.

The train service between Manchester and Leeds now manages an impressive frequency of four trains an hour, which almost makes it “turn up and go”. It was a cold, misty winter day which made the former mill villages of Saddleworth and the Colne Valley look particularly grim.

We met up in the Scarbrough Hotel opposite the station, where I joined Owain in a pint of Leeds Pale, which almost seems to have become the city’s national beer. While the pub’s name may look like a misspelling, it actually comes from its original owner Henry Scarbrough rather than the seaside resort. Note the “Ind Coope’s Ales” lettering on the frontage – while it may have ended up in the Tetley estate, this wasn’t an original Tetley’s pub. The photo obviously is a stock image and not one taken on the day.

I remember it from years back as being a bit tatty, but it’s now part of M&B’s Nicholsons chain and has been smartly refurbished. There’s a long bar facing you as you walk in through the door with more intimate seating areas at either end. There were about eight real ales on sale, including Tetley Bitter and Nicholsons’ own-brand Pale Ale brewed by St Austell, alongside the Leeds Pale. The cheerful chap pictured below was clearly getting into the Christmas spirit with some comedy headgear.

A short walk round the corner took us to Friends of Ham, about which I’d heard many glowing reports. It’s an unusual combination of craft beer bar and charcuterie and cheese delicatessen, specialising in sharing platters, which made it an ideal venue for lunch. It offers four cask beers and ten craft kegs, although the latter are listed on the beer menu in an initially confusing way where each beer is ticked off as it goes off and the next one comes on, so it can be difficult to match the list with what is actually on the bar. We began with a couple of halves of the relatively easy-drinking Summer Wine Pacer Session IPA on keg. I followed this up with a Magic Rock The Big Top India Red Ale, weighing in at a hefty 7.0% ABV, while Owain went for the similarly-coloured Credence Red from the cask range, which he was amused to see served in a half-pint dimpled mug. The photo below shows the mural illustrating the sources of ham in Spain, France and Italy.

As Owain is an Italophile, it seemed appropriate to go for the Italian Meat Plate, which comprised one variety of ham and two of salami, together with bread. This was absolutely delicious, but it must be said not hugely filling, so there was plenty of room left for a platter of three cheeses – Kirkhams Lancashire, Gubbeen, an Irish washed-rind cheese, and Stilton-style Stichelton. Again all excellent, with the tangy Lancashire being to my tastebuds the pick of the bunch. All in all, some of the best food I’ve eaten all year, and somewhere I would definitely return to. The two platters together, plus some extra bread, came to £27, which I don’t think is bad at all.

We then headed up Briggate, the main shopping street, which unusually retains a number of pubs accessed down alleyways on the western side. I was tickled to see Owain enjoying a swift fag during the walk between pubs. Our next call was what is probably the jewel in the crown of Leeds pubs, Whitelock’s, the first of the alleyway pubs. The long, narrow interior is a feast of mirrors, stained glass, brasswork and ornamental tiling. The upper end is reserved for dining, leaving it standing room only in the remainder as all the wall benches were occupied. There are about ten different cask beers available – I went for a Taylor’s Landlord, while Owain had an Ilkley Mary Jane, which has become another modern-day Yorkshire signature beer.

No visit to Yorkshire is complete without calling in a Sam Smith’s pub. There are three in Leeds city centre, but I had been advised that the keg-only Duncan and General Eliott were really only of sociological interest, so we went to the Angel, which is the next alleyway pub up Briggate, and hard to spot from the street. The approach is a little confusing as it passes through a courtyard onto which the windows of a neighbouring pub, I think the Pack Horse, also open. While the Angel looks like an old pub, it is in fact a relatively modern conversion. The ground floor has a small bar and a larger, plain room with bench seating around the walls, while there’s also an upstairs lounge which we didn’t try. Two pints of cask OBB at the usual Sam’s bargain prices, and a much more down-to-earth atmosphere than Whitelock’s.

A walk through the fascinating Kirkgate indoor market, with its rows of butchers’ and fishmongers’ stalls, brought us to the Lamb & Flag in the shadow of Leeds Minster. This is another new pub in an old building, brought back to life last year by Leeds Brewery, although sold this year to Camerons along with the rest of their pub estate. It has become a favourite stopping-off point for Owain on the walk between the university and his flat, and apparently there’s a very pleasant suntrap courtyard, although dusk on a cold, foggy day is not the best time to appreciate it.

It has a smart, modern interior on two levels, but has a relaxing atmosphere rather than being a forest of posing tables. From a range of about eight, we both went for Thornbridge Beers, Owain having Beadeca’s Well smoked porter, while I had the Hopper IPA, which is not the same beer as the much stronger Pond Hopper listed on their website. A sign of Camerons ownership was the presence of Camerons Bitter on the bar.

For our final call, we crossed the Aire by a stylish modern footbridge to reach the Adelphi, which is another of Leeds’ classic unspoilt pub interiors. Some people had warned that this was a bit of an ordinary pub in an impressive building, but there was nothing wrong with it on this occasion, with a decent range of beers and a lively mixed-aged clientele occupying most of the seats. It’s a magnificent gin-palace style place, with a variety of separate rooms around the central bar. We managed to find a cosy corner next to the fire.

Seeing Robinson’s Trooper Red and Black Porter on the bar, I had to go for that, and a couple of pints are shown on the photo above. I then finished off with another Thornbridge beer, the dark Wild Holly, while Owain, who perhaps felt in need of a change after a run of rich beers, went for a Peroni. From here it was only a short walk back to the station and I was home in Stockport before ten.

So an excellent day out with a good contrast of pub and beer styles. I haven’t commented on beer quality, as I didn’t have anything less than good all day, but apart from the Angel it must be said it wasn’t cheap drinking. The two pints of Red and Black in the Adelphi, for example, came to £8.30. I didn’t have a single drop of Tetley’s, which once would have been unthinkable in Leeds. Needless to say, there was plenty of stimulating conversation too. It’s not every day you get to discuss Garibaldi’s crossing of the Strait of Messina in 1860 (in which he was helped by the British Royal Navy) in the pub. And the food in Friends of Ham was truly memorable.

The other pubs I had on my list which we didn’t have time to get to were the Templar on the north side of the city centre, and the Grove and Cross Keys round the back of the station. The Victoria Family & Commercial was another recommendation, although that’s some distance away on the other side of the city centre. And that’s without venturing into any of Leeds’ more crafty delights such as North Bar, so I’m sure another trip will have to be arranged some time.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Welcome to the Scrooge Arms

You must have been living in a cave if you hadn’t noticed that alcohol prices in the off-trade tend to be considerably cheaper than those in the on-trade. This has been the case for decades, and realistically is just a fact of life. Yes, over the years the differential has widened, but that has been as much due to pub prices rising above inflation than off-trade prices dropping. And obviously, as the off-trade accounts for a steadily growing share of consumption, the gap has loomed larger as a factor in the market.

Now parts of the licensed trade seem to have suddenly woken up to this fact and are having a good whinge about it. “They’re selling Carling for 64p a pint! How can I possibly compete with that?” The answer, of course, is that you can’t, you never have been able to, and you don’t have to. A pub is far more than just an alcohol shop, and to suggest that pubs are in direct competition with supermarket drinks is no more realistic that claiming that restaurants are threatened by cheap ready meals. As Cooking Lager rightly points out:

In reality, very little off-trade alcohol consumption is readily transferable to pubs anyway. It’s rarely a simple either-or decision. And to claim that raising off-trade prices would make people any more likely to visit pubs is delusional. Even if a 50p/unit minimum price was applied, that 64p pint of Carling would still be only £1.13, or a third the price in a pub. There’s still a massive saving to be had.

The Christmas and New Year season is also one where, more than any other, people will be looking to entertain at home, and to get the keenest prices on the food and drink they buy. If they go in a pub to find the owner bemoaning the fact that they’ve been able to get some bargains, they’re likely to see that as a distinctly Scrooge-like attitude. And how many pubs are open on Christmas Day evening anyway?

It’s also very wide of the mark to claim that such offers amount to “loss-leading”. Yes, profit margins for both brewer and retailer will have been pared to the bone but, as I’ve explained before, loss-leading just doesn’t work like that. To sell something that can account for a substantial proportion of a typical trolley-load at an actual loss is commercial suicide. John Ellis of the Crown Inn at Oakengates makes this dubious assertion without a shred of hard evidence.

As I’ve said many times over the years, if you seek to make common cause with the anti-drink lobby to gain a short-term commercial advantage, you are on a hiding to nothing. In the wise words of Churchill, “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

A different world

The photograph below was taken in the Reddish Working Men’s Club in Stockport in 1977. I have copied it from a Stockport-related Facebook group and I apologise if anyone’s copyright has been infringed.

In many ways it’s a fascinating historical document that seems a world away from the present-day drinking experience. The beaten copper tables, the all-male company, the preponderance of handle glasses (and oversize ones at that), the girlie calendar and, last but certainly not least, the ashtrays.

Indeed it would be rare today to come across any social gathering where everyone was drinking beer, and the sight of pub or club tables groaning with pint glasses is increasingly rare.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Am I bovvered?

Readers sometimes confuse a tone of nostalgic regret for one of anger on this blog, and I think that may have been the case with my recent post about how real ale and downmarket pubs had parted company. Now, I find it distinctly sad that real ale has disappeared from large swathes of working-class Britain where once it was commonplace, but I understand the reasons why this has happened, and accept that trying to reverse the trend is largely an exercise in flogging a dead horse.

I decided I would put the question to the readership in a poll, and the results indicate that, while there is a spread of opinion, the majority aren’t too concerned that real ale has lost its mass appeal. While this may be no more than a reflection of reality, it has to be recognised that it represents a major shift from the position in the early days of CAMRA where it was seen as reasonable to expect the vast majority of pubs to stock it. And the reasons behind this are mainly cultural, not a matter of price.

But, if you take it as read that it simply isn’t realistic for many pubs to sell real ale, you need to stop keeping a score of real ale “gains” and “losses”, and stop badgering pubs to put real ale on and criticising them when they don’t. If it’s not for everybody, then it doesn’t belong in all pubs. Just let it go.

The trend could be reversed, of course, and virtually all pub-owning breweries still have real ale in the majority of their tied houses, including ones in working-class areas. The only exception I can think of nowadays is Felinfoel. It’s not exactly difficult – simply position your best-selling ordinary bitter as the default beer in your pubs, and if you offer a keg alternative at all, price it significantly higher. But if you’re just a pub company, you have no interest in your pub estate being a showcase for your products, and so you put on the bar what sells, and make no attempt to influence customer tastes.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

A pub crawl down Memory Lane

On his recent visit to Stockport, Paul Mudge lent me a vintage pub guide he owned entitled The Greater Manchester Good Beer Guide. It isn’t dated but, from some of the long-defunct pubs it features such as the Club House and Grove in Stockport, I’d say it probably dates from around 1976.

I’ve done a few scans of my local areas which I’ve put up on my website for your perusal. Bear in mind that it’s a selective, not a comprehensive, guide, and some very familiar and highly-regarded pubs are conspicuous by their absence, such as Sam Smith’s Boar’s Head in Stockport, which was one of the highlights of our pub-crawl. From the comments on other pubs it may be that Sam’s were just emerging from a flirtation with keg beer. No Armoury, Davenport Arms or Nursery either.

The high proportion of real ale dispensed by electric pump is also very evident.

Manchester City Centre

Manchester Suburbs Part 1

Manchester Suburbs Part 2

Stockport Suburbs

Stockport Town Centre and Tameside Part 1

Tameside Part 2

Tameside Part 3 and Trafford

As with many early pub guides, the descriptions often vary from terse to non-existent, but they include some gems such as:

“Quiet, well-kept pub for animal lovers”

“Imposing pub maintains cool pint in summer – rattles your teeth in winter”

“Haunt of the chunky sweater brigade”

“Good beer in odd atmosphere”

Sunday, 20 November 2016

No pub left behind

It didn’t take long for someone to win the Keg Pub Challenge, when blog reader Matt found that the North Manchester district of Collyhurst recorded a perfect 10 of pubs with No Real Ale. The distinguishing feature of all those pubs is that they unashamedly cater for a local, working-class clientele, although I can remember maybe twenty-five years ago when the Queen’s Arms on Honey Street was briefly something of a real ale shrine. The photo shows the Valley on Glendower Drive, the first result of the search.

It seems to be taken as read that, nowadays, “estate pubs” are keg pubs, but it wasn’t always so. I’m not familiar with those particular pubs, as it’s not my patch, but I’d bet that thirty or forty years ago, some, if not most, of them sold cask beer. I remember in the late 80s my local branch of CAMRA mounting a series of campaigns to encourage breweries to put real ale into some of the few remaining keg pubs. One where we had no success was the Garibaldi in Abbey Hey, Manchester, which was then a Tetley’s pub. Ironically, it recently did start serving real ale before, as reported by WhatPub, being closed on the orders of police. So what happened to cause real ale and the ordinary, down-to-earth boozer to part company?

I’d say the key reason is the shift from saying “the beer in this pub is real” to “this pub sells real beer”. There’s a subtle, but vital difference. In the early days of CAMRA, pubs just sold Mild and Bitter, or two bitters, and the customers didn’t identify it as being real ale or not, although they might notice that the real beer was better. If a pub “went real” it involved changing a keg or top pressure beer over to cask, not adding another pump. Across large swathes of the Midlands and North of England, real ale was more often than not dispensed through electric pumps, so there was no obvious difference at the point of sale.

Not unreasonably, CAMRA took the view that, if real ale was to be promoted, greater differentiation was needed. Most of the well-known beers associated with the initial “real ale revival”, such as Ruddles County and Ind Coope Burton Ale, were cask-only, and CAMRA began to press for separate branding for real and keg beers to avoid confusion.

But I’d say the key changes happened in the early 90s. The transfer of pubs from breweries to pub companies took away a lot of the kudos of being able to say “85% of our pubs serve real ale”, and the pubcos found that stripping it out made life easier for licensees without any loss of trade. Plus the rise of nitrokeg created a distinctive keg product for which there was no direct real equivalent, and which, at least initially, was something that many drinkers would make a point of ordering. I wrote here in 1997 how John Smith’s Extra Smooth was increasingly taking the place of cask bitter as the default choice in many Levenshulme pubs.

Another factor was the ongoing replacement of electric pumps with handpumps, which may have provided a clear and unambiguous symbol of real ale, but at the same time marked it out as a beer apart. If you wanted to avoid something that was inconsistent, potentially cloudy or vinegary, might involve challenging flavours, and tended to be favoured by Polytechnic lecturers with woolly jumpers and beards, you knew not to touch anything that came from a handpump.

In the North-West, we still have substantial numbers of family brewer pubs – Holts, Hydes, Lees, Robinsons and Sam Smiths – where the cask bitter remains the normal ale choice, and is consumed by large numbers of working-class drinkers. But, across the country as a whole, as I wrote here, real ale is increasingly seen as a middle-class drink, and is conspicuously avoided by working-class drinkers, especially the younger ones. Would a working-class bloke under 40 ever even contemplate ordering a pint of cask? And as for “craft beer”… Some might say that just displays how thick they are, but in reality working-class people have a pretty sound nose for pseudery and pretension of all kinds.

The Bobby Peel on Castle Street in Edgeley, Stockport, received an expensive refurbishment from Punch Taverns earlier this year, which also involved restoring real ale in the form of Doom Bar. But, when John Smith’s is available at £2 a pint, all day, every day, who on earth is going to pay £2.95 for a pint? It fell victim to the inevitable vicious circle of lower demand leading to lower quality, and has now, entirely predictably, disappeared from the bar. And it seems to be very common, as for example reported by Martin Taylor here, that pubs have a token real ale, but the locals just don’t drink it. “I can’t say I saw anyone else buy it, but at least I didn’t get asked if I was CAMRA.”

The question is, if you want to “campaign for real ale”, does it really matter that pubs like the Valley don’t sell it, and realistically are highly unlikely to do so? Indeed, some hardliners might enjoy a touch of Schadenfreude when keg-only pubs close down. To be honest, real ale is only going to succeed in pubs of that kind if it becomes the default ale option, not an expensive speciality. And I don’t really see that happening.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Mudging around Manchester

Manchester has become well-known for its cutting-edge beer scene, and its craft beer shrines such as Port Street Beer House and Café Beermoth. However, the city centre still has its fair share of “proper pubs” and, on a mild, sunny autumn day, I thought I’d have a stroll round a few of them. It isn’t by any means all bright young things gaily supping overpriced craft beers.

The Old Wellington (left) and Sinclair's in Shambles Square

Keg as far as the eye can see

I started off at the well-known historic landmark of Sinclair’s Oyster Bar, relocated from its former location in Shambles Square following the IRA bomb. This is a Sam Smith’s pub but, unusually, offers no real ale. I had a pint of keg Old Brewery Bitter which wasn’t too bad – not nitrokeg soapy, but not too fizzy either. If all keg beer was like this, real ale might well have have disappeared. It has a rambling interior on two levels with plenty of dark wood. I overhead a fascinating conversation from a group of off-duty police officers. In hindsight perhaps I should have tried the 5% keg India Ale which isn’t available in the Sam’s pubs I usually frequent.

Codger central in the Hare & Hounds

I then headed up Withy Grove to the Hare & Hounds on Shudehill, which stands in one of those rows of old buildings that survive amongst all the modern architecture. Formerly a Tetley’s house, this is a small National Inventory-listed pub with the classic “West Yorkshire” layout of central bar, front vault, rear lounge and drinking corridor. It clearly appeals to an overwhelmingly older male clientele, as the photo shows, although there was a blackboard advertising bottles of Prosecco. I hope the two gents featured don’t mind. Three real ales were available – Doom Bar, Robinson’s Dizzy Blonde, and Holts Bitter, which was on very good form and came at the bargain price of £2.20.

The next pub, the Unicorn on Church Street, was another that attracted an older customer base, although the sound system was incongruously playing punk and nu-metal, presumably chosen by the bar staff. It’s a handsome building with a characterful interior featuring extensive light oak panelling, but sadly looking a little run-down nowadays, although the toilets appeared to have been recently refurbished. Tandleman has written about a recent visit here. It is known for being possibly the only pub in central Manchester offering Draught Bass, but unfortunately on this occasion it was not available, leaving me with a choice of Dizzy Blonde and Bradfield Farmer’s Blonde. The latter was OK but seemed a little tired – probably the least impressive real ale of the day.

I crossed Piccadilly Gardens and headed down Portland Street to a group of three pubs situated very close together in another small surviving group of modest Victorian buildings. First was the Circus Tavern, billed outside as “The smallest bar in Europe – the biggest welcome in the World”. The bar is indeed tiny - a minuscule quadrant tucked in to the corridor, that still manages to accommodate two handpumps for Tetley Bitter and, yet again, Dizzy Blonde. Opposite this are two small, cosy snugs, in one of which I spotted the pub dog enjoying a snooze on some of the bench seating. I don’t think I’d had cask Tetleys for a couple of years. Now brewed in Wolverhampton, it does retain a hint of the “Tetley tang” but certainly isn’t the beer it once was, although it was in good condition here. This, like the Hare & Hounds, was originally a Tetley’s tied house.

Almost next door is Hydes’ Grey Horse, which is only slightly bigger than the Circus Tavern, but has been opened up a little more, although still retaining plenty of bench seating. A half-moon bar dispensed five Hydes beers, including the staple Old Indie and Original, and the latest from their Beer Studio sub-brand, Tomahawk Challenger, which was surprisingly rich and full-flavoured for a modest 3.9% ABV. It’s worth noting that both of these very small pubs manage to provide proper separate ladies’ and gents’ toilets, in contrast to most of the latest generation of micropubs.

My final call was at Holts’ Old Monkey, on the corner of Portland Street and Princess Street. This has the feel of a Manchester institution, but in fact is a new-build pub dating, I think, from the late 80s, which explains the location of the toilets in the basement. The basic ground-floor bar dispenses a range of Holts’ beers including some from their Bootleg offshoot, although I stuck to the standard Bitter, which again was pretty good. This bar was very dimly-lit, so I headed upstairs, which I vaguely remember from years ago as being fitted out as a lounge bar with bench seating, but now has only loose chairs and tables, plus a pool table. I didn’t much appreciate the hip-hop music being played, though. From here it was only a short walk back to Piccadilly Station for my train home.

So, an interesting encounter with the more traditional side of the city centre’s pub life, most of which I hadn’t been in for years. None of the pubs I visited are in the current Good Beer Guide, although the Grey Horse was last year, and the Hare & Hounds, Circus Tavern and Old Monkey all have been in the fairly recent past. The current edition does still feature some classic pubs like the Britons’ Protection, City Arms and Castle, so it’s certainly not wall-to-wall trendy craft emporiums.

It’s interesting that I was recently musing about local allegiance and the distinct identities of Stockport and Manchester. As befits its function as a regional capital, Manchester feels a much bigger place than Stockport than their relative populations would suggest. A couple of weeks ago, I enjoyed a pub crawl of Stockport town centre with Paul Mudge, and I can’t help feeling that, while Stockport fits me like a cosy, familiar pair of slippers, Manchester does have a distinct metropolitan edge to it.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Sense of place

Matthew Curtis recently wrote an article on the Manchester beer scene entitled The City with a Thorn in its Side. Now, in general, it’s a good piece of journalism. He made the effort to get the train up here, get the feel of things on the ground, and interview several key players, including CAMRA stalwart Peter Alexander (aka Tandleman). For readers in Canada and the US, it does its job just fine. However, he repeated one common error that, whenever I see it, makes my hackles rise. He said that Stockport, home of Robinson’s Brewery, was in Manchester.

Yes, Stockport is part of the same conurbation, but it is a town in its own right with a long and honourable history going back to mediaeval times, and has its own very distinct identity. It also retains its own status as a Metropolitan Borough entirely separate from the City of Manchester. Yes, it’s an easy mistake to make, but that doesn’t make it any less wrong.

Part of the problem arises from the naming of Metropolitan Counties in the 1970s. Six of these were set up, but only one of them took the name of its major city. The other five – Merseyside, West Midlands, Tyne and Wear and South and West Yorkshire – didn’t. The area was originally referred to as SELNEC – South East Lancashire, North East Cheshire – but that didn’t trip off the tongue, so the present name was adopted.

However, all too often that tends to lead people to refer to the other major towns in the area as being part of Manchester, when they aren’t. I know someone from Wolverhampton who would go ballistic if anyone suggested that his city was part of Birmingham, even though they are both within the same West Midlands Metropolitan County. Likewise try telling someone from Bradford that it was part of Leeds, or someone from Sunderland that it was part of Newcastle.

Local pride and allegiance remain very important, and anyone writing about areas should be careful to get these things right. Stockport, and other major towns such as Ashton-under-Lyne, Oldham, Rochdale, Bury and Bolton, may be referred to as being within Greater Manchester, or being part of the Manchester region. But they are not, never have been, and never will be, part of Manchester itself. This page helps explain the situation.

Another glaring error in the article, albeit one of limited relevance to a Transatlantic audience – is the statement that “You don’t have to wander far down a Manchester street to come across one.” Again, this is just plain wrong.

When I moved into this area in 1985, the family brewer pubs were extremely scarce in the centre of Manchester. Lees and Hydes both had just two (and arguably Hydes’ Jolly Angler isn’t really in the centre), Robinson’s one, and Holts precisely zero. Lees, Hydes and Holts have all acquired one or two more, but they’re still far from thick on the ground. And, in the wider city of Manchester, Holts and Hydes have a few scattered pubs, but Robinsons’ and Lees’ pub holdings remain minimal. The nearest thing to a concentration is the string of Hydes pubs along the Wilmslow Road corridor in Rusholme, Fallowfield, Withington and Didsbury. Historically, by far the biggest holders of pubs in Manchester were Wilsons, part of the Watney/Grand Met empire, followed by other members of the erstwhile “Big Six” Whitbread, Bass and Tetley.

These are innocent mistakes, but when it comes to local identities, you do need to be careful not to tread on people’s toes.

Monday, 14 November 2016

The keg pub challenge

I recently wrote about how keg pubs sail under the radar of CAMRA and beer writing. Several people responded on Twitter to say that I was exaggerating and there weren’t anything like that number of keg-only pubs in the country.

My response was that he was looking at a tourist area, and that if you looked at more down-at-heel areas away from the tourist trail, the proportion would be very different. For example, if you searched on WhatPub for Clay Cross, on the fringes of the Peak District, 4/10 of the results are No Real Ale.

This led me to wonder what was the highest proportion of keg pubs you could find doing a similar search. Considering places in my general neck of the woods, Leigh in South Lancs scored 7/10, and Widnes, birthplace of both my parents, an impressive 9/10, although some of the pubs listed are actually south of the Mersey in Runcorn.

I couldn’t, however, find anywhere with the magic 10/10. I suspect that is most likely in Scotland, but a problem is that, north of the Border, CAMRA branches don’t seem to have listed all of their pubs, keg or real, on WhatPub? Understandable, I suppose, if you have two real and two hundred keg pubs in your area. It’s possible that somewhere in the South Wales Valleys might make it – for example, chosen at random, Abertillery scores 8/10.

So, here’s the challenge - can anyone find a 10/10 keg pub location on WhatPub? The rules of the game are that you search under a particular location, then uncheck the “Real Ale Available” box. But it’s cheating if you also uncheck “Pubs Only”.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

A proper curmudgeonly crawl

Readers of the CAMRA newspaper What’s Brewing will be familiar with the name of Paul Mudge from Stafford, who is a frequent and outspoken contributor to the letters page. He’s a long-standing CAMRA activist and served for many years on the What’s Brewing editorial board. Because of his surname, he’s sometimes confused with me, especially because he posts on the soon-to-be-closed CAMRA forum under the name of “curMUDGEon”, and in the past I have myself used the name of “Mudge” as a handle on Usenet and web forums.

Although we’d often engaged in discussions over the Internet, we’d never actually met, but last week we remedied this by meeting up for a crawl of some of the “proper pubs” of central Stockport, which is easily reached by train from Stafford in less than an hour. The term “proper pub” has been a bone of contention on the forum, as Paul and I tend to take the view that it’s a common figure of speech that is self-explanatory, whereas Sussex-based contributor Richard English is continually aggrieved that we don’t consider that it encompasses Wetherspoon’s, and demands a precise definition.

Sometimes meeting people in the flesh with whom you’ve only previously engaged in discussions over the Internet can be something of a surprise, but I can’t say Paul varied much from my expectations, although, as with most of us, in person he’s much more affable and softly-spoken than his Internet persona might suggest. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that we agree, pub-wise, on the vast majority of things.

It was a fine, sunny Autumn day which showed off Stockport’s historic town centre at its best. We kicked off at the Calvert’s Court just after 11 am, where Paul had already enjoyed a Wetherspoon breakfast. Wetherspoon’s is a frequent bone of contention on the forum, as both Paul and I recognise their merits as a good-value, predictable pub chain that can often be the best bet for decent beer and food in a strange time, but never scales the heights of pub character, whereas Richard English tends to believe the sun shines out of their backside and bristles at any hint of criticism. I had a pretty decent drop of Howard Town Wren’s Nest, but then we moved on to the first of the town’s unquestionably Proper Pubs.

The steep flight of steps down to Little Underbank brought us to Samuel Smith’s Queens’s Head (also known as Turner’s Vaults), in the shadow of the bridge carrying St Petersgate over that street. This National Inventory listed pub has a long, narrow interior including front bar area, central “horsebox” snug and cosy rear lounge. It also features the “Compacto”, billed as “the world’s smallest gents’”, which unfortunately is far too narrow for tubby modern blokes and so is permanently locked shut. We managed to find a berth on the benches in the window in front of the bar to enjoy some very good Old Brewery Bitter.

We then went back up the steps on the other side of the road to the Boar’s Head, Samual Smith’s other pub in Stockport. It’s a handsome brick-and-stone building dominating its corner of the Market Place, and earlier this year was somewhat surprisingly, but entirely deservedly, voted Pub of the Year by Stockport & South Manchester CAMRA. In a refurbishment a few years ago the brewery took the very unusual step of actually reinstating some internal walls, giving it a cosy, multi-roomed feel. The Old Brewery Bitter was on particularly fine form here. We were joined for a fleeting visit by Rob Nicholson (aka “munrobasher”) from Macclesfield Branch. The pub was already pretty busy when we arrived, and by the time we left just after one o’clock it was virtually standing room only, despite not serving any food, and it not being market day, which underlines how good beer, good atmosphere and good value create their own success.

Just across the way is the Baker’s Vaults, which couldn’t offer more of a contrast with the Boar’s Head. Now, I’ve been critical of Robinson’s refurbishment of this pub, but basically on the grounds of the quite remarkable dearth of any seating at all, let alone comfortable seating, which still holds true. But, at a quiet time when you can get a seat, it does offer a striking, high-ceilinged drinking space, and the beer and food offer both have much to be said for them.

I started off with a Titanic Plum Porter, which was in good condition but a little too sweet and cloying for my taste, but Paul was disappointed to be refused a pint of Old Tom, and had to settle for a half. I’m sure mayhem in the Market Place was prevented by this move. The three dark beers in the picture are, from left, Old Tom, Trooper Red and Black and Plum Porter.

The menu centres on hot dogs and burgers – I had the standard hot dog, which was excellent and very filling, but Paul, who doesn’t eat dairy produce, was disappointed to find his burger served with a cheesy sauce, despite asking for it without any butter or cheese. It was duly removed, but I suspect it wouldn’t go down as his favourite pub of the crawl. We then washed our food down with a couple of halves of Robinson’s Trooper Red and Black Porter, which was very drinkable and belied its 5.8% strength.

Having sorted out all the problems of the beer world, we parted company with Rob and headed up the Market Place to the Cocked Hat. This is a small pub opposite the parish church with an inter-wars Brewer’s Tudor frontage, which was formerly the Pack Horse but was renamed when it was taken over and revived by the Atwill Pub Company. The interior comprises a standing area on the left around the bar, and two partially knocked-through rooms on the right which retain plenty of comfortable bench seating. There were six real ales on sale, but we both plumped for the house beer – which I think is called Old & Disreputable – which we were told had been the best seller that session. It was indeed in good condition but, as with most beers from Blakemere Brewery, perhaps not the world’s most distinctive.

A short walk down Millgate brought us to the Arden Arms, a National Inventory pub which is one of the true classics of unspoilt pub architecture. As lunchtime food service had finished, there was no problem about finding a seat, and we were able to settle ourselves in the wonderful snug that can only be reached by walking through the server – one of only three remaining in the entire country. This is somewhere we could happily have lingered for hours. Six real ales are dispensed from handpumps attacked to the back of the servery, not the counter, and my Wizard was certainly in good nick.

Our next call was another of Stockport’s National Inventory entries, the Swan With Two Necks on Princes Street. This is a long, narrow pub on a main shopping street that is currently having to contend with construction works for the nearby RedRock shopping and leisure complex which have disrupted pedestrian footfall. Its crowning glory is the central wood-panelled, toplit snug which really is somewhere you can retreat to set the world to rights. The only real ale available was Unicorn (alongside Westons’ Old Rosie Cider) which again was in good form. A group of regulars were enjoying some lively conversation in the corridor opposite the bar counter.

We finished up in the Crown, the well-known free house in the shadow of Stockport’s famous viaduct, where we met up with local CAMRA member Stuart Ballantyne. Once a Boddingtons’ pub, this has a central bar surrounded by a pool room and three comfortable lounge/snug areas. Its main attraction is the range of up to sixteen different cask beers, many from local micro-breweries. It is a perennial Good Beer Guide entry and a former local Pub of the Year. I wasn’t taking notes, but I did have a good drop of Oakham Inferno.

The Crown was conveniently placed for Paul to make the short walk up the hill to Stockport station for his train home. It’s hard to think of a better way of spending a lunchtime and afternoon than setting the world to rights over a few pints in some of Stockport’s great proper pubs. You should try it some time! And it wouldn’t be difficult to map out another crawl in the town of equal quality, although perhaps involving a little more walking between pubs.


(For the avoidance of doubt, pints were not consumed in all of these pubs. What do you think we are, irresponsible binge drinkers? But they were in some)

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

False equivalence

An argument that I’ve made more than once in the past is that CAMRA made a major strategic error by deciding that the relationship between bottle- and brewery-conditioned packaged beers was an exact mirror image of that between cask- and brewery-conditioned draught beers. But, you may say, in each case one conditions in the container and the other doesn’t, so the principle is just the same. However, it’s not quite as simple as that.

An important point to remember is that CAMRA didn’t come into being to stand up for something already recognised as “real ale”. It identified that something was going badly wrong with British beer, and then came up with the definition of real ale as a means of sorting out the sheep from the goats. However, it involved more than just undergoing a secondary fermentation in the cask – real ale should also be unfiltered, unpasteurised, not artificially carbonated, and pumped or gravity dispensed rather than being forced to the bar by CO2 pressure. And, as Martyn Cornell points out in his book Amber, Gold and Black, Mild, which as late as 1960 accounted for most draught beer sold in Britain, had traditionally been regarded as a “running beer” to be sold as quickly as possible and experiencing minimal secondary fermentation. Cask-conditioning was basically something that happened to Bitter.

At the time, the definition of real ale was a pretty effective way of defining what was good, at least in terms of British draught beer. Yes, there were some awkward cases that didn’t quite fit, such as the Scottish air pressure system, which was accepted, and the Hull Brewery ceramic cellar jars, which weren’t, but broadly speaking it worked. In the early 1970s, bottled and canned beer accounted for less than 10% of the overall market, and it didn’t really matter that filtration and pasteurisation had been adopted as the norm for decades. There were a tiny handful of beers that still fermented in the bottle, and so CAMRA was able to say that these were “good”, whereas all the others were “bad”, but it was just a token gesture that made little difference in the overall scheme of things. Brewery-conditioned bottles could simply be dismissed as “keg in a bottle”.

However, over the years, the off-trade beer sector steadily grew at the expense of the on-trade, and therefore assumed more significance in drinkers’ buying habits. Much of this was canned beer, but the brewers started producing “Premium Bottled Ales” which, although brewery-conditioned, were presented and perceived as the equivalent of the cask beers such as Pedigree and London Pride drunk in the pub. Indeed, although strictly speaking it is wrong, many drinkers routinely refer to them as “real ales”.

CAMRA launched the “CAMRA Says This is Real Ale” accreditation for bottle-conditioned beers, and encouraged many of the new wave of microbreweries to produce them. However, they have never taken off in the same way as draught real ale, and only account for a tiny proportion of bottled beer sales in major retailers. This is not because they have failed to stock them, but that too often they have tried and failed. The general consumer simply does not want them, perceiving little or no benefit in terms of flavour and character, but a major downside in terms of inconsistency and the risk of cloudiness. Meanwhile, CAMRA continues, at least officially, to refuse to recognise any merit in high-quality brewery-conditioned bottles such as Thornbridge Jaipur, Hawkshead Lakeland Gold and Robinsons Old Tom. It’s noticeable how all the new-wave breweries who have broken through in the bottled beer market have done so with filtered beers.

Essentially, though, the read-across from draught to bottled is far more tenuous than CAMRA likes to believe. For a start, drinking real ale involves no more effort from the customer in the pub than drinking keg, whereas bottle-conditioned beers require considerable care in storage and pouring, and are obviously unsuited to immediate consumption. And, if done properly, a bottle-conditioned beer will come out “fizzy”, albeit in a slightly different way from an artificially carbonated one. The difference, as perceived by the drinker, is much less.

It’s possible to argue that, apart from reasons of turnover, all ale served in pubs could be cask-conditioned, whereas realistically you can’t argue that all packaged ale, for all situations, should condition in the container. A further factor is that lager, by definition, can never be cask- or bottle-conditioned because the nature of the process means the beer is stabilised before being put into the container. But that shouldn’t mean dismissing all bottled lagers out of hand.

I’ve argued before that a key part of CAMRA’s mission was defending a unique British tradition that, in the early 70s, while under threat, was still very much alive and kicking. It was “a people-powered cultural heritage movement”. But it wasn’t bringing something back from the dead. Bottle-conditioned beers, on the other hand, had largely vanished from the scene decades before, and, to be honest, had never been greatly celebrated and weren’t much mourned when they were replaced by bright beers which were clear, consistent and didn’t have bits in. It’s also very questionable how much bottle-conditioning actually took place in bottled Guinness which for long was held up by CAMRA as a totem.

Yes, at the end of the day, bottle-conditioning, if done well, does add something to a beer. Bottle-conditioned beers can be regarded as the crème de la crème. But, because of the practical difficulties involved, and the fact that the process adds very little to lower-strength quaffing beers, it is best reserved for higher-strength specialities. Now that the off-trade accounts for over half of all beer sold in Britian, it is high time that CAMRA abandoned the narrow dogmatism of insisting that it is the only proper way of presenting any packaged beers.