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.