Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Home James!

There’s a growing amount of interest in the development of driverless cars. The wider subject is really beyond the remit of this blog, although I’m sure there are many applications where they will prove very useful. However, as with many other disruptive technologies, both government and independent commentators seem unsure as to how they will eventually come to be used, and there’s a distinct possibility that they will stand many existing certainties of transport policy on their head.

Looking at it from a more parochial perspective, one area where they could make a massive difference is in getting you home from the pub. In rural areas, with negligible public transport and distances beyond an economic taxi ride, pubgoing opportunities are currently very constrained. And, even in towns and cities, while there will be some pubs that can be reached easily on foot or by public transport, there are plenty more that can’t be. Just imagine programming your automatic chariot for a night’s crawl round some otherwise hard-to-reach pubs!

Some have suggested that there will always need to be a sober, licensed driver on hand in case of emergencies, but that rather defeats the whole purpose, and how quickly could someone be expected to react anyway if they were transfixed by cat videos on Youtube? And surely one of the major benefits of driverless cars would be to enhance mobility for people such as the elderly or those with chronic illnesses who are currently unable to drive themselves.

However, no doubt the killjoys will be working hard on ways to prevent driverless cars being used in this way, saying “that’s not what they were intended for”.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Hiding your light under a bushel

Boak & Bailey recently posted a picture on Twitter of a sign outside the Dock Inn in Penzance listing the beers that are on offer. This struck both them and me as a good idea, especially for pubs that don’t offer a constantly varying range of guest beers where you know you’ll be taking pot luck, but those where a particular beer might tempt you in off the street. In that case, I’d certainly fancy trying the Spingo.

This reminds me of an Opening Times column I wrote back in 2002 which remains just as true today:

Walking around a popular tourist town, I was struck by the way many pubs sell themselves short in trying to attract customers. They may have looked welcoming enough, but there was nothing at all to indicate what kind of food and drink they sold.

In the past, when most pubs belonged to specific breweries, their ownership gave them a clear identity. Not only did you know what beer was on offer inside, but you also had a good idea about what kind of pub to expect, as most brewers had a distinctive house style that ran through their estates. Now that so many are in the hands of faceless pub companies, there’s nothing outside to tell one from another. While it would be a waste of time to display “Punch Taverns” or “Enterprise Inns”, a listing of the major beer brands on offer would surely be extremely useful.

Pubs also fall down in failing to display menus outside, particularly when there is plenty of passing trade on foot. Many people don’t appreciate the wide range of good value food on offer in pubs, and seeing a particular dish on a menu may make the difference between crossing the threshold and going elsewhere. When traditional pubs face such strong competition from branded bar and restaurant chains, they really should not be hiding their light under a bushel.

Fifteen years later, it is still a puzzle as to why pubs are so coy about what is on offer inside. It’s another example of them seeming to imagine that they are exempt from the normal principles that apply to every other type of retail business – the failure to display opening hours being another. I was actually under the impression that restaurants were obliged to display menus outside, but presumably pubs don’t think that applies to them. It can often take only a very small cue to trigger the decision between going in and walking by.

It’s also interesting to reflect on the point I made in the top item.

Obviously no official publicity campaign extolling the virtues of the swift half, or saying “the world’s a better place after a couple of pints”, is likely to be forthcoming. All we can look for is that social changes will over time reduce the attractiveness of heavy drinking to the young, as the talkies did in the 1930s, and rock’n’roll and coffee bars in the 1950s, and hope that process will not drag down many traditional pubs in its wake.
It’s certainly true that social changes have led to a dramatic fall-off in drinking, both heavy and light, amongst the young, which was hard to foresee back then. But, sadly, it hasn’t resulted in a renewed vogue for the “swift half”.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Community challenge

Congratulations to the George & Dragon at Hudswell in North Yorkshire on being chosen as CAMRA’s National Pub of the Year for 2017. A significant point about this pub is that it was saved from closure a few years ago through being bought by the local community. As commercial operators continue to shed what they view as “marginal” pubs, this is a model of ownership that is going to become ever more common in the future.

However, no community group should assume that their troubles are over once they have bought their pub – indeed, the challenge is only just beginning. Obviously a community pub doesn’t have to pay rent or interest charges, so may not need to make the same margin as a commercial operation, but will still need to be run as a profitable business. The owners are unlikely to want to stump up more money every year to subsidise losses.

There’s always the risk of ending up with a “horse designed by a committee” if the owners are allowed too much say in the details of day-to-day operations. There may be a conflict of interest between those who want to turn it into some kind of community centre, as opposed to a more conventional pub operation. There could, for example, be a difference of opinion about the admission of children.

Does the community group actually want to run the pub business on their own account, or let it out to a tenant? And should the pub be run on a low-key basis as a “local pub for local people”, maybe with limited hours, or should it be more ambitious and do more to attract trade from other areas, which carries more potential reward, but also more risk? The licensee at the George & Dragon is described as “manager” – does that mean he is a salaried employee?

And, the most thorny question of all, what is going to happen if community owners reluctantly conclude that, at the end of the day, there is no way that their pub can be made viable? This is inevitably going to happen somewhere, at some time, and there could be heated debate about who stands to benefit.

This is not to say that most community-owned pubs don’t have a promising future, but nobody should delude themselves that everything will be plain sailing.

Incidentally, it’s good to see that, despite being in a small village, the George & Dragon manages to open at lunchtimes seven days a week.

I will declare an interest here, as I have a small stake in Ye Olde Vic in Stockport, which is owned by a community group. However, the situation here is untypical, as the problem was that the previous owner wished to dispose of the freehold. The pub continues in business with the same tenant and the same business model as before. I don’t, to be honest, expect any return on my contribution, but it does raise the issue of whether my heirs will inherit my stake. And, if it was CPO’d by the local council, would I stand to benefit?

Friday, 10 March 2017

Back on the escalator

In one of his budgets, maybe in 2012 or 2013, George Osborne mentioned in passing that “there would be no changes to previously announced alcohol duties”, which many media outlets wrongly reported as meaning that they would be frozen, whereas in fact the dreaded duty escalator remained in operation.

This week, Philip Hammond pulled the same stunt, which led to widespread confusion as to what the duty implications actually were. One well-known brewer, who will not be named, even said on Twitter that they didn’t think there had been any changes. The situation was so bad that the British Beer and Pub Association felt compelled to issue a statement clarifying the position.

Even the official government announcement was distinctly disingenuous, saying “This measure increases the duty rates on alcohol manufactured in, or imported into, the UK by reference to the retail prices index (RPI).” Anyone reading this would assume that duties had been increased in line with RPI, but in fact the term “by reference to” meant that the dreaded duty escalator had returned, with rates going up by RPI plus 2%.

This means that the main rate of beer duty has increased from £18.37 per hectolitre per % of alcohol to £19.08, a rise of 3.86%. A pint of 4% beer will now incur duty plus VAT on duty of 52p, a rise of 2p over the previous level. Inevitably, once pubs have applied standard mark-ups, this will translate into 5p at the bar, and often 10p given the way many prices are now rounded up.

It’s easy to dismiss such rises are trivial and say people will take them in their stride. But every price increase is a step too far for someone who is already at the limits of their budget. And, over time, successive above-inflation increases in duty will make alcoholic drinks significantly more expensive in real terms and reduce the demand for them. Although obviously it wasn’t the sole factor, it is noticeable how the rate of decline in the pub trade in the three years since the escalator was shelved in 2014 has been considerably less than in the preceding years.

It would have been understandable, if regrettable, if the government had returned to raising duties each year in line with inflation. But it has been made clear that the duty escalator was never scrapped, merely suspended, and is now back with a vengeance.

Sadly, all the hard work that CAMRA and drinks trade bodies devoted to campaigning against it and pointing out its negative effect on one of Britain’s biggest business sectors has been thrown back in their faces. The process is going to have to be restarted, and this time it must be made clear that the objective is to drive a stake through the escalator’s heart, not just to put it into suspended animation.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Pointless petitions

Nowadays, you can hardly log on to Facebook or Twitter without being asked to sign a petition in favour of something or other, whether on the Government website or sites such as change.org. Although this may give the impression that you’re doing something to change the world, in reality more often than not it is just a substitute for action that achieves nothing beyond producing a mild feeling of warmth.

Many of these petitions involve protests against the closure of pubs. To pick an example at random, here’s one about the closure and potential revelopment of the Crown Hotel at Worthington near Wigan, a former runner-up in CAMRA’s National Pub of the Year award. WhatPub suggests that the pub remains closed, but hasn’t so far been demolished.

But, to stand any chance of success, a petition must be addressed to a specific body, not just be a generalised howl of despair, and must be realistically achievable. If a pub operator has concluded that a pub is no longer profitable, are they really going to be convinced by two hundred names of people who hardly went in there anyway? And, while a council can refuse planning permission for conversion or redevelopment, they run the risk of ending up with an empty, mouldering building on their hands.

It still doesn’t seem to be properly appreciated that, over the past couple of decades, the demand for pubs as drinking places has collapsed, so it is not exactly surprising that so many have struggled and shut their doors. According to the website of the British Beer & Pub Association:

Beer sold in the on-trade in the UK (million barrels):

12 months to December 1997: 26.2
12 months to December 2007: 18.7
12 months to December 2016: 12.9

So, over 19 years, beer volumes have more than halved. They fell by 29% over the first ten years, then by 31% over the next nine. Looking at those figures, what is perhaps surprising is not that we’ve lost so many pubs, but that we’ve lost so few. Sadly, all too often, petitions against pub closures are nothing more than an exercise in railing against fate.

If communities want to preserve something that approximates to a traditional pub, they are increasingly going to have to stump up themselves rather than expecting a commercial operator to do it for them. It is significant that this year’s CAMRA National Pub of Year, the George & Dragon at Hudswell in North Yorkshire, is a community-owned pub. That’s something that’s going to become more and more common in the years to come.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Fin de siècle

Jeffrey Bell wrote recently about how the brewing industry was in the grip of craft paranoia:
Almost everyone's worried they're going to become irrelevant - even those breweries that are currently doing well. This leads to lots of bizarre behaviour, such as rubbish rebrands and ill-conceived new product launches.
And I was struck by a number of recent news reports:

Gypsy brewery Beatnikz Republic is moving up from London to open its first permanent microbrewery and taproom in the Green Quarter

The Wild Beer Co is looking to raise £1.5m via crowdfunding to develop a new brewery space

Heineken is launching two beers under the Maltsmiths Brewing brand to tap into the growing trend for canned craft beers (in 330 ml cans, of course).

While coming up with these five principles of serving craft beer:

Not to mention Hydes Brewery converting a traditional local pub into a self-consciously stylised craft beer bar.

And the limits of bizarre innovation seem to have finally been reached.

I certainly get the impression that the whole craft beer phenomenon has been embraced by corporate interests desperate to climb on board the bandwagon before it leaves town, and is on the point of running out of steam. As Danny in Withnail and I says, “They're selling hippie wigs in Woolworths, man. The greatest decade in the history of mankind is over.”

The 1960s counterculture certainly left an indelible mark on society, but by the early 70s, the impetus and passion of the 1966-69 period had largely evaporated, even at the same time as the most mundane products were being labelled with psychedelic lettering. So it is likely to be with craft beer.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Posing a problem

In my recent write-up of the James Watts in Cheadle, I complained about how high-level “posing tables” accounted for more than half of the seating in the pub. This ia a plague that is afflicting more and more pubs nowadays. I suppose the thinking is that they appear modern and trendy, conjuring up visions of bright young things disporting their long, skinny-jean clad legs in a fashionable, cutting-edge bar. But, more often than not, you end up with plump middle-aged folk perched incongruously on high stools.

They spoil the look of the interior of a pub and create an artificial division between drinkers by putting them on two levels. You might say that some people prefer them and should be given the choice, but would anyone walk out of a pub if there were none, and did anyone ever suggest them when asked what they would like to see in a pub refurbishment? It also seems that they appeal to people with an exaggerated sense of their own importance who want to be the centre of attention. The formal name for them is “poseur tables”, which rather sums up their attraction.

Around 1990, there was a fad for putting raised seating areas in pubs to break up large areas of flat floor. However, the realisation eventually dawned that these were very unfriendly to the disabled, by effective closing off a substantial chunk of the pub to them. You certainly don’t see them in new schemes, and I can think of a few pubs that have had them removed during refurbishments.

Much the same is true of posing tables, which will place people in wheelchairs at a lower level than their friends, and also pose a challenge for older customers with creaky joints. They’re an ugly abomination that should have no place in pubs, and the sooner they’re all consigned to the skip the better. Significantly, I’ve never yet seen a posing table in a Sam Smith’s pub.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Summit of ambition

I’ve praised Hawkshead Brewery several times on here, both for brewing some excellent beers and for successfully straddling the divide between the craft beer movement and traditional real ale. Indeed, this month’s Opening Times column sings their praises as a brewery that has developed sufficient reputation that people will order their beers off the bar on name alone.

I was rather taken aback by the news that Hawkshead had agreed to sell a majority stake in the business to Halewood Wines and Spirits, which seemed to come completely out of the blue and, on the face of it, appeared an unlikely suitor. However, looking at it in a wider context, it’s not hard to understand the reasons behind the move.

The craft beer movement is often viewed as “sticking it to the man” and representing a revolt against big business and corporate interests. Thus there is often a sense of disappointment, sometimes verging on betrayal, whenever any independent brewer sells out to a larger firm. However, as I wrote here, at the end of the day, every business start-up needs an exit strategy, and very few can realistically hope to reach the broad sunlit uplands of being a large, well-financed, independent business.

Hawkshead founder Alex Brodie will celebrate his 67th birthday this year, so it’s entirely reasonable that he should seek to realise some return from the business. He’s done a great job both in brewing distinctive, high-quality beers and in growing the company, so I say good luck to him. There’s a good article about what makes him tick here.

Halewood, owners of Lambrini and Crabbie’s Ginger Wine, may not seem at first sight a good fit for a company such as Hawkshead. However, as they’re not already involved in brewing in the UK, there would seem to be a better chance that Hawkshead will maintain its distinctiveness, as compared with being taken over by one of the existing international brewers. It could be seen as comparable to the Restaurant Group, owners of Frankie & Benny’s and Garnfunkel’s, taking over gastropub operator Brunning & Price. So far that has led to a significant expansion of the estate and no obvious dilution of the brand values, so let’s hope the same proves to be true of Hawkshead. Just don’t decide like Thornbridge to put all your mainstream beers in those daft little 330 ml “craft” bottles!

One thing is for certain, though – the idea that distinctive, high-quality beer can only be produced by rugged individualists ploughing their own furrow becomes less and less true as time goes by, if it ever was in the first place.