Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Doctoring the figures

Last year, eyebrows were raised when the Chief Medical Officer for England, Dame Sally Davies, announced that the alcohol guidelines for men were being reduced to a mere 14 units a week, the same as those for women. This is the equivalent of just six pints of ordinary-strength beer. This gave us one of the lowest maximum recommended figures in the developed world, and also made us one of the few countries not to set differential figures for men and women.

At the time, many people smelled a bit of a rat, and suspected that this was an example of “policy-based evidence-making” that rested on shaky scientific foundations. Now, after having used the Freedom of Information Act to do some digging around, Christopher Snowdon has uncovered the whole sorry saga of chicanery and arm-twisting that lies behind it.

You can read the full details here

Given such a tale of data being manipulated to suit a particular agenda, it is hardly surprising that more and more people have come to regard any official health advice with a huge amount of scepticism.

Of course, as Snowdon says in the article, many people will cheerfully ignore such guidelines. But the problem is that they will be used by government in policy-making, with one of the obvious results being to artificially inflate the number of “problem drinkers”. Plus it is highly misleading how they are so often described as “limits”, not just guidelines, and portrayed as a cliff-edge of risk rather than just a gentle uptick in the curve, if that.

Surely, in the light of such blatant massaging of the figures, it is time that Public Health England was seriously reined in, if not disbanded entirely. And I thought this would be a suitable expression of remorse from Dame Sally. Preferably using Old Tom.

Monday, 30 October 2017

A taxing differential

Tomorrow, a debate is being held in Parliament on the subject of the crippling level of beer taxation. This is an issue that has been adopted as a key campaign by CAMRA. The figures are certainly pretty damning. The UK only accounts for 12% of beer consumption in the EU, but pays 40% of the total of beer duty and, as shown by the graphic above, our duty level is more than three times higher than that of any other major brewing nation.

The Taxpayers’ Alliance has carried out an analysis which shows that the impact of beer duty falls disproportionately on lower income groups, even though they on average drink less. It is a highly regressive form of taxation.

However, while this is often presented as an issue that has a particular impact on the pub trade, it has to be remembered that exactly the same level of duty applies to the on and off-trades. If beer in the on-trade bears more tax per pint, that’s because the higher markup applied makes the total VAT figure higher.

And, looking into the detail, the proportionate burden of duty is much higher for beer sold in the off-trade. The main rate of beer duty is £19.08 per 1% per hectolitre. A pint of Carling (declared at 4.0% ABV) typically sells in a pub for £3.50, for which price you can get a pack of 4x440ml cans in the supermarket. If you break these prices down, you get the following:

1 x pint:
Duty 43.3p
VAT on Duty 8.7p
Other costs 248.3p
VAT on other costs 49.7p

Duty + VAT on duty 14.9%, total tax 29.1%

4 x 440ml cans:
Duty 134.3pp
VAT on Duty 26.9p
Other costs 157.3p
VAT on other costs 31.5p

Duty + VAT on duty 46.1%, total tax 55.1%

So, from this, it is clear that any movement in duty, either up or down, will have much more effect on the final price of beer sold in the off-trade than in the on-trade. You can see this in the way prices moved during the period of three years when duty was either slightly cut or frozen. Those in the off-trade remained fairly flat, while those in the on-trade continued to ratchet upwards, albeit at a slower rate than before, because of the impact of cost increases in other areas.

Of course the rate of beer duty is far too high, and it should be brought down if resources permit, or at the very least frozen. It’s something that affects all drinkers, and at current levels there is already a serious problem with smuggling and illegal distilling, the latter of which can have fatal consequences. But nobody should imagine that this would do anything to change the relative competitiveness of the on and off trades.

And it is also the case that two of the countries with the highest proportion of on-trade beer sales, the UK and Ireland, are also those with some of the highest rates of duty.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Horses for courses

Whenever the Good Beer Guide is discussed, someone inevitably pipes up with a comment that surely WhatPub now makes it largely redundant. This is something I thought of mentioning in my earlier post on unconventional outlets in the GBG, but felt it deserved a post of its own.

For those not familiar with it, WhatPub is CAMRA’s online pub database and guide, which represents a major achievement of volunteer effort. There’s scarcely a real ale pub that isn’t on it, and in most areas it also provides a full listing of all licensed premises open to the public, including those that only serve keg beers*. It’s probably more comprehensive than any other online pub guide. However, for various reasons it doesn’t really compete with or replace the Good Beer Guide, as it’s a completely different animal.

The first comes from its very comprehensiveness. If you look at Chester in the GBG, it lists nine pubs in a variety of styles from micropub through traditional boozer to upmarket eaterie. There should be something to suit every taste. In contrast, enter “Chester” into the WhatPub search box, and you will be presented with no less than 269 results. It’s going to be hard work to search through them to find something that appeals. With the GBG, someone has already done the work for you to produce what I suppose must be called a “curated” selection.

The second is again a feature rather than a bug, in that WhatPub aims to describe pubs honestly rather than criticising them. This is understandable, as it doesn’t want to needlessly antagonise licensees, and in general you do get a reasonable idea of what pubs are like. Reading between the lines, you can distinguish between those given fulsome praise, and those described in terse, neutral terms. But it’s not necessarily easy to sort the wheat from the chaff, and sometimes the WhatPub descriptions can be misleading even if not inaccurate as such. I remember once visiting an externally attractive pub that sounded reasonably appealing, only to find it entirely given over to Sunday diners and stinking of gravy.

If you were in Christchurch, Dorset, the description of the Ship says “Low ceilings, exposed beams and leaded windows combine to produce a pleasant pub. At the rear there is an enclosed garden.” From that, you would get the impression of a very traditional interior, whereas in fact, although nothing is untrue as such, it’s actually thoroughly knocked through and very modernistic in style. The GBG would have rightly directed you instead to the Thomas Tripp, which is much more pubby.

The way many people use the GBG is not so much to search for pubs in a specific location, but to look for ones that sound interesting across a wider area, or along a particular route, something that its maps make easy to do. WhatPub does offer a facility to show listed pubs on a map, but once you zoom out a bit, the sheer numbers become a bit overwhelming. If you wanted to, say, find worthwhile pubs between Shrewsbury and Hereford, the map search would be of little use.

WhatPub? is obviously still a work in progress, and I’m not proposing to list things that could be improved. Perhaps I’d give priority to making the descriptions more consistent in style, and providing at least some facility for user input without opening it up to free-for-all comments in the manner of Beer in the Evening, maybe by allowing registered CAMRA members to leave star ratings. I’d also like a search facility for National Inventory entries. It’s an extremely useful and worthwhile enterprise. But it complements the GBG rather than replacing it.

* As an aside, in most areas in England and Wales, it lists all keg pubs as well as real ale ones, and I used it last year for my Keg Pub Challenge where I asked people to find a location where none of the first ten search results returned had real ale. But in Scotland it tends not to, possibly because the real ale outlets are so thin on the ground that the task may understandably prove dispiriting.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Limited appeal

The Good Beer Guide is including ever more unconventional outlets such as brewery taps and micropubs that fall well outside the general understanding of a “pub”. Some of them are open for quite startlingly limited hours. Two that have already been visited by Martin Taylor on his GBG-ticking quest are the Rock & Roll Brewhouse in Hockley, Birmingham, and the Well in Mansfield Woodhouse, Nottinghamshire (shown), both of which are open for the grand total of ten hours a week. In fact, since the 2018 edition was published, the former has already changed its name from the Rock & Roll Tap House and reduced its hours from thirteen to ten.

It may well be the case that these are absolutely essential beer destinations that any enthusiast would be a fool to miss, but it has to be questioned exactly how much value they bring to the users of the guide. Its prime purpose is, at the end of the day, as a service to its readers, not as an award scheme to licensees, and you have to consider what people are actually looking for in it. As I said in this blogpost:

Many people use the GBG as a kind of woolly-jumpered version of the Good Pub Guide, and the food-serving pubs in the National Parks and other heavily touristed areas are likely to gain the most benefit. Likewise pubs in the centres of tourist-friendly towns like York and Stratford that don’t tend to be so well represented in the GPG.
I’m a regular buyer of the Guide, and the main purpose for which I use it is to find interesting pubs to visit when I’m away on holiday or out on day trips. One of the key things I’m looking for is pubs to have lunch when out and about. It can be very valuable in taking me to pubs that I wouldn’t otherwise have found. For example, nobody would ever come across the Crown at Churchill in Somerset by chance, but it’s a very worthwhile pub if you do find it. And, last month, it led me to the Anchor in Sevenoaks, Kent, which is a splendid little basic boozer that did me a perfectly serviceable Ploughman’s for just a fiver. Yes, as it’s on a main street, I might have chanced upon it anyway, but the GBG took me straight there.

I will look with interest at the more local entries, and sometimes they might prompt me to revisit a pub I had previously discounted, or to go somewhere that has appeared out of nowhere, but they are generally of less use to me – I already know which are the better pubs in my own area. But a pub that is only open for limited and inconvenient hours, serves no food and has no historic interest is unlikely to tempt me.

CAMRA have produced an internal document reviewing selection policy for the guide, which makes some important points:

  • Users first - not the preferences/politics of CAMRA individuals/branches
  • The range of pubs chosen for the guide has to appeal to a broad spectrum of pub goers, the majority of whom want to visit pubs with not only good beer but a good atmosphere, a warm welcome, good food, family facilities, clean toilets and comfortable surroundings.
  • Beer quality remains the cornerstone of the guide but it cannot be the only consideration in the modern and intensely competitive “leisure industry”.
Clearly, achieving a good standard of beer quality must be the starting point, but beyond that other factors also need to be taken into account. The guide should list the pubs that, if you were welcoming visitors to your area, you would say “You really need to visit the Dog & Duck”. A pub may well justify its entry in terms of being very special in one particular respect, and that’s certainly the case for some of the unspoilt heritage pubs. I certainly wouldn’t want, for example, to impose standards for minimum opening hours. But if the guide has too many entries that are very limited in terms of either their hours or their general offer, it reduces its usefulness to the people who are buying it.

CAMRA branches also should not be including pubs in the Guide as a reward for “showing commitment”. The sole criterion should be whether the entry is of benefit to the people who buy and read it, and there is no room for sentimentality or favouritism – as it says above, “Users first”. And, in my experience, if you argue that a pub should be included in recognition of making an effort, it’s generally a good sign that it shouldn’t be.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Love pubs, hate beer?

Beer writer Des de Moor has recently written a deliberately provocative article entitled Love beer hate pubs, in which he looks at the apparent contradiction between the unprecedented number of breweries and types of beer in the UK, and the seemingly inexorable contraction and retrenchment of the pub trade.

He is quite right to criticise the tendency in some quarters to make a shibboleth of pub drinking and treat at as in some way morally superior, and also to point out that the vision of pubs of the past as inclusive community spaces where everyone was welcome is often a case of seeing things through rose-tinted spectacles.

He has also invoked the ire of the fanatical anti-pubco campaigners by pointing out that social change has rendered many pubs unviable, and to try and keep every pub open is a pointless exercise in flogging dead horses.

As an aside, he says “evidence of the impact of the smoking ban either way is inconclusive”, which is an example of the denialism that still flourishes in some quarters when it’s obvious to anyone who knows much about pubs that the ban has absolutely ripped the guts out of the lower end of the pub trade.

However, the main reason for me mentioning it is that it goes against what I said in this blogpost that “At heart I have to conclude I’m more fascinated by pubs than beer.” That doesn’t mean that I’m not interested in beer, but it’s essentially a component of enjoying drinking in pubs. Yes, there may be all these oddly-flavoured and mega-strong beers around, but I’m not constantly haring after them to try them. I also like driving, but that doesn’t mean I’m slavering over the specifications of the latest Porsches and Ferraris.

I don’t regard every drinking occasion as a voyage of discovery and, while not averse to trying new beers, feel a touch dismayed if I walk into a pub and see nothing on the bar I recognise. As I said, “I don’t feel short-changed if I spend all evening drinking the same beer, or regularly go into pubs that offer nothing I haven’t had before.” It’s the pub that matters more than the beer. While I don’t want to drink bad beer, in the sense of being in poor condition, I’d be much happier with a pint of Doom Bar or keg OBB in a pub where I feel at home than the finest beer in the world in an atmosphere that I find uncongenial. I do drink to some extent at home, typically when settling down in front of the telly to watch Endeavour or a documentary about the First World War, but I’m no more seeking out the rare, weird stuff there than I am in the pub.

Basically, take away pubs, and you take away much of my interest in beer. And, to my eye, brewery taps, specialist craft bars and micropubs are a very poor substitute for proper pubs.

He’s also wrong to disparage the widespread affection for pubs and pub culture, even amongst people who don’t visit them very much. They are a unique and defining aspect of British, or perhaps rather specifically English, identity, and Hilaire Belloc wasn’t entirely wrong when he said:

When you have lost your inns, drown your empty selves,
For you will have lost the last of England.
There may not be all that much you can do in terms of public policy to slow the decline (although there certainly isn’t nothing), but that doesn’t mean it’s not a matter of regret.

And it can’t be denied that some so-called “beer enthusiasts” give the impression of finding the rumbustious, politically incorrect reality of pubs, especially working-class pubs, a touch uncomfortable, and that they would much prefer to be sipping their barrel-aged DIPA in the comfort and safety of their own home.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Loafing around Leicester

Last month, Richard Coldwell of Beer Leeds suggested that he, Martin Taylor and I get together for a day out which we could all write up on our respective blogs and compare our different perspectives. We settled on Leicester as somewhere fairly equidistant from the three of us, that none of us knew particularly well, and which offered Martin the opportunity of a few new GBG ticks. We also invited CAMRA veteran and prolific letter-writer to What’s Brewing Paul Mudge (no relation) for whom it’s a fairly easy train trip from Stafford via Nuneaton. The date was set for Tuesday 17th October.

After a strange day of storms, yellow sky and hazy orange sun, it dawned bright and clear and markedly fresher, and I enjoyed the beautiful scenery of the Vale of Edale on the train ride between Stockport and Sheffield. One tweeter made a rather mischievous suggestion as to what the assembled company might look like:

We met at the Ale Wagon on Rutland Street, a rather plain-looking 1930s street-corner pub on the south-eastern fringe of the city centre near the station. It has a largely unspoilt interior, with a long room down the left-hand side featuring a mixture of parquet and tiled flooring, and a smaller snug to the right. Owned by Hoskins Brewery, it features several of their beers, amongst which HOB Bitter and IPA were both extremely good, and a number of guests. We chatted to an old boy who had a wealth of recollections about the city’s pubs from the 1950s and 60s.

Skirting the southern edge of the city centre brought us to the Bowling Green on Oxford Street, an outwardly small 18th century pub incongruously situated between much taller modern buildings. Inside it’s surprisingly spacious and goes a long way back towards the rear. Posing tables predominated in an interior that seemed to be aimed at a student clientele, but we were able to find some comfortable seats at the front.

There were five beers available, out of which we had Robinson’s Dark Vader, York Guzzler and Adnams Broadside, the others being Hobgoblin and Lancaster Bomber. All the ones we tasted were pretty decent, and this was in fact the busiest pub of the day. It’s owned by Stonegate, and has an extensive menu of straightforward, good-value food. While not fine dining, everybody considered themselves well fed, and it was difficult to fault my 8 oz steak and chips (£7.29 plus 50p for spiral fries), which is something that is easy for pubs to get wrong.

Heading back into the heart of the city, we reached the Blue Boar on Millstone Lane, which outwardly looks as though it is an old pub, but in fact was converted from a solicitor’s offices only a year ago. It is owned by Kieran Lyons, who sometimes comments on this blog, although he wasn’t in today. While described as a micropub, it’s really more of a small conventional pub, with a single square room featuring Joules-style decor with wooden floors and panelling, and comfortable benches around two of the walls. There were eight beers on handpump, including their own Blue Boar Bitter brewed by Leatherbritches, and Titanic Kölsch, which obviously caught our eye as we all plumped for it. This proved to be a wise decision as it was on excellent form. A plus point was that all the beers were served in oversize glasses. The doorstep fillings of the selection of cobs in a case on the bar looked very mouthwatering.

A short walk took us to the Globe on Silver Street, which I remembered as the first pub in Leicester I had ever visited on a train trip out from university in Birmingham almost forty years ago. I also remembered that on one of these visits I had ventured in to a Shipstone’s pub on the market place (long since gone, I think) where I found myself to be the only customer under 50. Feeling distinctly out of place, I drank up swiftly and went on my way.

The Globe is a handsome redbrick pub on the corner of two pedestrianised shopping streets. Internally it retains a traditional, rambling interior with a variety of spaces including a cosy snug at the front where we managed to find a berth after dumping several scatter cushions on the floor. It offers the usual range of Everards beers – Beacon Hill, Tiger, Sunchaser and Old Original, plus a couple of guests including Oakham Bishop’s Farewell. Unfortunately the Old Original proved to be vinegary and, while it was changed without demur, you have to wonder how long it had been lingering around in that condition. The other Everards beers were in decent nick, but we were agreed that they always seemed a little nondescript compared with many of their competitors.

A quiet corner of historic Leicester

We then headed through Leicester’s historic quarter, past the church of St Mary de Castro and the site of the castle, before crossing the two channels of the River Soar to reach Braunstone Gate, which would appear to be the city’s “student strip”. Here we found Everards’ Black Horse, a street-corner pub painted in a striking shade of blue. It has two bars, with the public at the front being particularly congenial. The beer range comprised the four Everards’ usual suspects, plus Heritage Masterpiece. We all went for the Old Original, which was in good condition, but very much an example of the heavy, malty special bitters that were to the fore in the original real ale revival. A couple of the others spotted Edna, the hopefully non-inebriate cat, when going out to the gents’ at the back, but when I went to look for her she made a rapid exit through the catflap.

A couple of blocks further along is the West End Brewery, one of Martin’s new GBG ticks, which in a sense was the ultimate objective of the itinerary as it didn’t open until 5 pm. This had a characteristic distressed modern brewpub interior, but did at least have a fair amount of comfortable seating and an abundance of beermats. It also had an impressive wall-mounted Bass sign. They had four of their own beers on the bar – IPA, Copper Ale, Stout and Pale – of which we had one each. They were all in good condition, and the prices at £3 or £3.10 a pint were very reasonable. They were busy setting up their own cider press with the intention of pressing juice from a variety of local apples, with the finished product available next year.

A few doors down we spotted an achingly craft “pop-up bar” called Très Bien, which was only open Thursday to Sunday, and looked extremely Spartan inside. We also noticed a sign saying that they only took cards, not cash.

Heading back towards the city centre, we came to the Criterion, also on Millstone Lane not far from the Blue Boar. This is a modern pub with a tiled facade, built in 1960 by Bass and after a number of changes of ownership now leased to Market Harborough Brewery. The front bar was closed, with all the activity taking place in the long bar toward the rear of the pub. There were maybe six cask beers on the bar, amongst which we tried MHB Best Bitter and Très Bien Come to the Sabbat, both of which were good. Some members of the party, although not maybe all, were pleased to hear Jethro Tull’s “Living in the Past” being played.

Our final call on the official programme was the King’s Head on King Street, which is now owned by Black Country Ales. It’s always good to venture in to the warm, brightly lit interior of a pub just as darkness is falling. It’s a long, narrow pub with a number of cosy seating areas on two levels. The beer range comprised BCA’s three regulars – BFG, Pig on the Wall and Fireside – together with seven guests, from which three of us chose Oakham Bishop’s Farewell. Martin instead went for the Brewheadz Electro Beat APA on keg. It must be said that this was a pub where the beer range seemed rather ambitious when compared with its size and level of trade, although it was the local CAMRA branch’s Pub of the Year for 2016. We spotted a handsome ginger chap called Chairman Meow sashaying through the pub on the way to eat his dinner at the end of the bar.

Martin and Richard then parted company with us, as they were staying overnight and wanted to sample the perhaps questionable delights of the Real Ale Classroom micropub in the suburbs, while Paul and I headed back to the station along the New Walk, an attractive, tree-lined pedestrian route that runs right into the heart of the city. Because of the way the train times fell, I travelled back via Birmingham rather than Sheffield, but unfortunately my train from Leicester was delayed, resulting in a rather later arrival back home than I had hoped.

In summary, an excellent day out, with good pubs, good company and good weather. It’s just a slight pity that, while all the beer was pretty decent, little stood out as being outstanding, despite all eight pubs being in the current Good Beer Guide. For me, the HOB Bitter in the Ale Wagon, and the Titanic Kölsch in the Blue Boar, were the standout beers of the day. Leicester itself, while like any other city subject to much modern redevelopment, retains a good number of streets lined by handsome Victorian, Edwardian and inter-wars buildings, together with a handful of historic remnants.

And, late in the day, the news came through that Leicester City had sacked manager Craig Shakespeare. I hope it wasn’t anything we said...

Martin’s blogpost can be read here, and Richard’s here. It’s rather like the Three Gospels, seeing the same events from differing perspectives.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Waiting for the other guy to blink first

There scarcely seems to be a week that goes by when GBG ticker Martin Taylor doesn’t go into a smart dining pub in some leafy part of the country on a weekday lunchtime, spot more cask beers on the bar than there are people drinking them, and end up with a glass that varies between mediocre and undrinkable. It’s generally acknowledged that there is a widespread problem with pubs stocking more beers than their turnover justifies, with the inevitable knock-on effect on quality. Indeed, this was acknowledged in the recent Cask Report:

Five years ago, I wrote how a simple mathematical exercise shows that the average pub serving cask beer does not have the turnover to justify more than two lines, yet the simple evidence of one’s eyes shows that the actual average number is considerably more. Matters have certainly not improved in the intervening years. On yesterday’s trip to Leicester (full report to come) we visited eight pubs, by no means all specialist alehouses, where the average number of different beers on sale was seven. Only one of them could have been called busy, and that was one with the second lowest number of pumps. We only actually encountered one returnable beer, which was changed without demur, but that had clearly been lingering in the pipes for days.

This issue seems to be generally acknowledged within the trade, yet there is a strange reluctance to actually do anything about it. I’m sure a lot of it comes from a fear of being the first pub to blink and be seen to be reducing its range, which may be perceived as a sign of retrenchment or failure. And CAMRA doesn’t help with its constant demands for “more choice” and lauding pubs when they add another pump to an already over-extended range. But, as long as it isn’t addressed, the endemic problem of slow turnover leading to poor quality will remain, and continue to lose sales for cask to more reliable kegs, thus creating a vicious circle.

It is true that some specialist beer pubs do manage to sustain ten or more beers in good condition, but that is because they have a specific appeal to beer drinkers, so 80% of their customers are drinking cask, as opposed to less than 20% in more mainstream pubs. And I’ve been in well-known GBG-listed multi-beer pubs when on a Tuesday lunchtime the beer has been distinctly past its best. If you only drink on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights you may not notice a problem.

In the past, I’ve mischievously suggested that pubs should display on each pumpclip the day and time that the beer was put on sale. Clearly that isn’t going to happen, as it would expose far too much poor stock management practice, but it would certainly concentrate a few minds if it did. Perhaps a more realistic option would be for Cask Marque to include within its assessment viewing pubs’ records of stock and sales, and failing pubs that routinely keep beers on beyond three days.

I know it may be an unfashionable view that goes right against the current CAMRA orthodoxy, but I would contend that fully half of all pubs currently serving cask only have the turnover to keep two beers in decent condition. And a substantial number, especially those dining pubs without any real beer-drinking customer base, should only be serving one throughout the week, with possibly another tapped on a Friday to sell over the weekend when it’s busier. “Guinness is their draught stout; XXX is their cask ale”. It’s never going to happen, though.

Monday, 16 October 2017

A little bit of peace and quiet

Sophie Atherton has recently written in the Morning Advertiser about how today’s pubs are so often offputtingly noisy. It’s an article that rather meanders around the subject without reaching a definite conclusion, and it’s perhaps unfortunate that she takes Wetherspoon’s as an example, when as a matter of policy they don’t have any piped music. It can be the case, however, that the hubbub of conversation in a large, echoing space can become deafening, and in such situations it may be desirable to play low-level background music to cancel it out a bit.

There are some worthwhile points hidden away in there, though. The first is that the widespread trend towards hard surfaces in pubs tends to magnify the general level of sound, and there is a good case for the return of carpets, soft upholstery and curtains to soak it up a bit.

It also should not be forgotten that, for many people, pubs are valued as a “third space” between work and home where they can escape from the stresses and strains of both. They don’t want to be entertained, or to “have fun”, they just want to chew the fat with their friends or just engage in a bit of quiet contemplation. All too often, people are deterred from pubs not by the absence of “attractions”, but by the presence of elements that they find offputting, amongst which loud music and TV football are two of the most obvious.

And the seemingly inexorable march away from compartmentalisation in pubs means that whatever’s going on in one part is effectively going on in all of it. It becomes impossible to accommodate differing tastes and activities, not to mention removing the sound-deadening effect of walls and partitions. Pubs could widen their appeal if they were able to cater for a variety of likes and dislikes rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach. As she says in the article, “a range of different environments to suit different customers.”

Who knows, given a different legislative climate, they could even provide space to accommodate the legendary Elephant in the Room...

Friday, 13 October 2017

Raising the bar

In last week’s issue of the Spectator, there was an interesting article (registration may be required) by Rory Sutherland in which he argued that the development of well-known chains of service businesses such as coffee shops and budget hotels, while we may not think much of them, had served to raise standards overall by creating what he calls a “threshold of crappiness”.

It is worth remembering that many unfashionable large businesses create value in ways that are often under-appreciated. No one will ever write gushingly about McDonald’s or Starbucks or PremierLodgeExpress. But what these large chains do is valuable, even if you never use them. They effectively raise what I call the ‘threshold of crappiness’ in the sectors in which they operate. To operate successfully as a coffee shop or a sandwich bar or hotel (or a minicab firm), you have to be at least as good as a chain or else you fail. This raises the bar for everyone. You can get better coffee in a truckstop now than at Claridge’s in 1990.
Surely much the same is true of Wetherspoon’s in the pub industry. They are often derided for their cheap and cheerful menus and customers and lack of atmosphere, but they have had a salutary effect in raising the bar of what people expect from a pub. Most notably this is true in terms of all-day opening and food service. It is largely forgotten now that, in the early years after all-day opening was introduced in 1988, it was often hard to find a pub that was actually open in the afternoon. But, if the Wetherspoon’s down the street is open all day, a competing pub may well lose customers if they’re not. Even if you scarcely ever go in the pub in mid-afternoon, it’s reassuring to know you can.

Back in the early 1980s, there were some truly terrible pubs with a slapdash, take-it-or-leave it approach to customer service, especially in London, which is where Wetherspoon’s started off. Today, while they’ve not entirely disappeared, they’re much less common. If you run a pub in a town or city centre with a Spoons, you have to do at least one thing better, or you’re not going to survive.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

HOW much a pint?

This article in the Morning Advertiser by Pete Brown has sparked a lot of interest and discussion. In it, he’s arguing that people should be prepared to pay £9 a pint if the quality of the beer justifies it. In principle, of course, he’s entirely correct. In pretty much every consumer market, products that cost more in terms of ingredients or production processes, or command a greater cachet, succeed in commanding an often substantial price premium.

However, as I’ve argued here, the nature of the cask beer market makes this difficult to achieve. It may be more the case with “craft keg” beers, but they remain very much a niche product. In general, price premiums apply between pubs, or between beer categories, not between beers within the same category. The most successful example of a premium-priced beer in pubs is, of course, Guinness, which, despite being of fairly modest strength, sells at the same price as premium lagers, and will typically be 20% dearer than a comparable cask stout.

But Pete rather clouds the issue by talking about a beer , Brooklyn Brewery’s Cloaking Device, which is 10.5% ABV. Now, in Stockport, where Robinson’s Unicorn (4.2%) is about £3 or a little more, you would expect to pay maybe £6 for the 8.5% Old Tom. In London, where the £4.50 pint of 4% beer is commonplace, £9 for a beer well over twice the strength doesn’t seem that unreasonable. The main reason Cloaking Device is so expensive is not that it is much better, but that it is much stronger. A far better example would have been if he had found an example of beer of ordinary strength that was selling for half as much again as the norm.

This has also inevitably led some people to say “why are you expressing it as a price per pint when it isn’t going to be drunk in pints?” Well, probably it isn’t, but it’s still desirable to have a consistent yardstick to make comparisons between different beers, and given that the pint is the standard unit for drinking beer then it seems sensible to use it. Even if you compared price per third, or price per gallon, the ratio would be identical. This line of argument comes across as fatuous and tendentious.

Beers of 10.5% only make up a minuscule portion of the overall market, and in most pubs you’ll struggle to sell anything over 5% on draught. From his North London eyrie, Pete should also not forget the drinkers in his native Barnsley whose limited means would make them blanch at the idea of paying £9 a pint or anything like it. Good beer shouldn’t only be the preserve of champagne socialists.

And it should be remembered that, in the early days of CAMRA, it was often the case that there was an inverse relationship between price and quality. The best beers were those sold at lower prices in plain pubs that hadn’t been expensively tarted up, and made by small breweries who didn’t advertise and hadn’t invested heavily in whizzy new kegging plant.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Bitten by the Dog

Last Saturday, I organised a pub tour of central Birmingham for members of the Beer and Pubs Forum. It may not seem the most likely of destinations, but it has the advantage of being easily reached by train from all directions, and people travelled from the four points of the compass, the furthest away being Frome in Somerset. In fact, Birmingham is underrated as a beer and pub destination, and it was a very enjoyable day. It was good to meet both old and new faces.

I’m not going to do a blow-by-blow description, but the general consensus was that the pub of the day was Black Country Ales’ Craven Arms just outside the Inner Ring Road near the Mailbox shopping complex. It’s a classic old-fashioned street-corner pub with an attractive tiled exterior and a cosy, welcoming interior with a good choice of beers.

This was actually the last pub on the itinerary, but, given that it was on the way back to New Street Station, a few of us decided to pop in to the BrewDog bar on John Bright Street. While I certainly have no ideological objection to drinking keg beer, this was actually my first visit to one.

It’s not really my cup of tea of course, but you can’t knock its success, and early evening on a Saturday it was packed out with a noticeably younger crowd than any of the pubs we had visited earlier. You do have to wonder, though, how many are really interested in the beer as opposed to just seeing it as a cool place to go.

All four of us plumped for two-thirds of the 6.5% Elvis Juice. This was the first time I have ever drunk a two-thirds measure in a pub and, at £4.95 (equivalent to £7.42 a pint), it was also the most expensive draught beer I had ever had. Described as a “grapefruit-infused IPA”, it was quite overpoweringly citrusy, with to my palate notes of apricot in there as well. I compared it with a particularly pungent Islay malt whisky, where you can appreciate the quality and distinctiveness, but wouldn’t really want to have more than one. I also couldn’t help wondering what it would be like in cask form.

The beer board could be rather more informative. It doesn’t help that prices for different beers are quoted in different volumes, so it’s hard to make a comparison, and it would benefit from at least a brief indication of beer style. To be fair, there may have been more information in the menu booklets on the tables. (The image above is just a stock picture and not taken on the day). It’s also worth noting that, unlike many of their craft competitors, BrewDog’s beers tend to be crystal clear rather than murky.

An interesting experience, but not really a place where I’d become a regular visitor. And I think it will be a long time before they open a branch in Stockport...

Friday, 6 October 2017

Putting the message across

Following the launch of Drinkers’ Voice last month, I’ve been having a few thoughts about the best way to put the message across, and the following points occurred to me.

1. Choose your battleground

There’s certainly an overwhelming body of evidence that moderate drinking produces better health outcomes than total abstention, and this needs shouting from the rooftops. There’s no case for telling moderate or light drinkers to give up entirely for the sake of their health. But the exact mechanism isn’t fully understood, and may have as much to do with psychological as physical factors. It doesn’t mean we should be telling unwilling people to force down a couple of glasses a week for the sake of their health.

Therefore caution is needed over presenting alcohol as a “healthy substance”. It’s fine to say that moderate drinking isn’t incompatible with a generally healthy lifestyle, but going too far to suggest it’s a necessary component of one. And what about all the people, including me and probably you, who knowingly drink a bit more than the minimum point on the J-curve of risk? They deserve representation too. If you fight the public health lobby specifically on the health issue, you are on shaky ground.

Far better to take the line that:

  1. Any health risks are often greatly exaggerated, especially those of exceeding the recommended guidelines even by quite a substantial margin
  2. Intelligent, informed adults are entitled to make their own decisions as to what risks they run in pursuit of enjoyment
  3. There are plenty of other activities that are generally accepted, but are known to carry enhanced risk, such as rugby, horse-riding, mountaineering and (whisper it softly) promiscuous unprotected sex. So long as people’s eyes are open, then why shouldn’t they?
At its core, the defence of people’s right to drink alcohol is an issue of individual liberty, not one of health.

2. Don’t make needless enemies

Defending drinkers’ rights is a different issue from that of defending smokers. Drinkers’ Voice isn’t an anti-smoking ban campaign. But it can’t be denied that the anti-tobacco campaign is widely seen as a template for that against alcohol, and in the eyes of the public health lobby the tobacco and alcohol industries are lumped together as “toxic trades”.

So special pleading that “alcohol is different from tobacco” isn’t really going to get you anywhere, and is going to alienate many people who you really need to get on side. In principle, I have considerable sympathy for the argument that cannabis should be legalised. But campaigners do themselves no favours in enlisting my support by constantly banging on about how it’s actually safer than alcohol.

3. Stand together or hang separately

There have also been the inevitable rumblings of discontent against this within CAMRA. Surely CAMRA’s role should be fighting the big brewers, pubcos and supermarkets rather than lining up alongside them? In the 1970s, when the current anti-alcohol campaign was hardly even a cloud as big as a man’s hand, that was maybe a reasonable attitude to take, but today, when the danger is all too clear, it’s a fatal division. As Churchill is supposed to have said “an appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last”. The public health lobby are completely uninterested in drawing a distinction between pub and home drinking, or between craft beer and alcopops. Either drinkers stand together, or they hang separately.

I’ve written before about how some elements within CAMRA seemed willing to be useful idiots for the anti-drink lobby. Maybe, going forward, whether or not people are happy to go along with a wider campaign on the issue will be a key indicator of how serious they really are about wanting to defend what they hold dear, or whether they prefer playing divisive games.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Too low for zero?

There’s a growing interest in non-alcoholic and low-alcohol beers, or “NABLABs”, with an increasing number of modern craft brewers getting involved in the sector. However, it seems to me that much discussion of the subject ends up grasping the wrong end of the stick.

The fundamental point of beer is that it contains alcohol. Yes, it may be tasty, it may be refreshing, but even the most inoffensive mild or light lager will have something of an effect on you. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t drink it in the same quantities, or on the same occasions. Take away the alcohol, and it loses its raison d'être. However flavoursome it is, it’s never going to be quite the same as a normal-strength beer, and is always going to be regarded as something of a distress purchase on occasions where for whatever reason an alcoholic drink is ruled out. Alcohol, even in small quantities, also always adds something to the essential character of a drink. It is never just about the flavour.

However, adults consume soft drinks on a wide range of occasions when they’re not thinking to themselves “all things being equal, I’d really rather be having an alcoholic drink now”. So NABLABs should really be seen as an alternative to conventional carbonated soft drinks, not as something that is always going to be a pale imitation of beer. I understand that, in Germany, alcohol-free beers are much more widely consumed and accepted on “soft drink occasions” than they are here.

Added to this, most standard soft drinks, even the sugar-free ones, are extremely sweet. Many people don’t necessarily want something so sickly, and so a drier alcohol-free beer may well appeal. There may also be more opportunity to introduce the unconventional flavours that often seem out of place in normal beers.

The way to present them should be as a superior, more mature alternative to standard carbonated drinks, not as just an emasculated version of normal-strength beer. Maybe, if you’re in Spoons, consider having the Beck’s Blue rather than a Coke as part of your soft drink meal deal. But, realistically, they’re never going to attract anything like the same level interest and connoisseurship that alcoholic beer does.