Monday, 10 December 2018

The last pint

For a number of years, something called “The Session” has been run on a monthly basis amongst beer bloggers. This is basically asking the various bloggers to write their own take on a common subject. While the results have often been interesting, I have never participated, because I don’t really see this as a “beer blog” as such. It is more a blog on the general subject of lifestyle freedom, but centred around beer and pubs. And, as a political conservative, a craft beer sceptic, and a passionate and unrepentant opponent of the smoking ban, I have never felt part of that community.

However, it was a coincidence too poignant to miss that the last outing of “The Session” came last Friday, on the subject of which beer you feel would be most appropriate for a funeral. This happened to be the day on which my dad would have been a hundred years old, had he lived. He was born on 7 December 1918, and died on 2 March 2010.

I loved him dearly, and scarcely a day goes by on which I don’t miss him. Yes, in some ways he could be a very annoying man, and I’m sure in other ways he also found me something of a disappointment. But that is probably common to most father and son relationships, and ever since I came within a year or so of legal drinking age we would regularly share a pint or two in the pub. It was where we had our best and most open conversations. I can recognise in him many of my own character traits, in particular his refusal to tug the forelock to authority, which undoubtedly hindered his career, and also probably did the same to mine. But would he – or I – really have enjoyed the advancement that came from brown-nosing? In summary, we were both awkward buggers.

In his last years, especially since he had to give up driving, I would often take him out for a pint, latterly generally to the Golden Lion * in Frodsham, a Sam Smith’s pub. Indeed, this was the pub in which he enjoyed his last ever pint, in the Autumn of 2009. Of all the pubs in the area, this was the one he felt most at home in, for all the usual reasons for which Sam’s pubs stand out from the crowd. He was a firm believer in the virtues of bench seating, and we always had the same corner in which we would sit. Ironically, while I was driving, I would have a couple of pints, while he would just have one and a half or, towards, the end, just the one.

He always enjoyed a pint, and I have shared many hundreds with him, but I never saw him drunk, or anything beyond mildly tipsy at Christmas. I converted him to the idea of real ale, and for many years, Good Beer Guide in hand, he would seek out real ale pubs when on holiday with my mum. But, in his later years, he always enjoyed a pre-lunch can of Tetley Bitter at home. He never lost his intelligence, although towards the end it could become a bit vague and sporadic. In my experience, what tends to go with your parents is more their capacity to make decisions.

I miss you, dad, but I’m glad I shared a final pint of real ale with you in a proper pub.

* The Golden Lion always had cask beer when we went there, although sadly I see it has now gone keg, like many other Sam Smith’s pubs. But, even had that been the case when my dad was alive, I suspect we would still have gone there.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

The Gradgrind Arms

Regular readers will know that I have often praised the cheap prices, unspoilt character and congenial atmosphere of many Sam Smith’s pubs. However, I have certainly not been blind to the capricious and often high-handed way in which the company is run. This was starkly highlighted by this recent employment tribunal case in which a couple who had run the Roebuck in the centre of Rochdale for many years successfully made a claim against the company for constructive dismissal.

I have heard similar stories of unrealistic targets being set and a total disregard for the realities of the pub business across the bar of more than one Sam Smith’s pub. Reading the above report, it’s hardly surprising that Sam’s are struggling to recruit pub managers, with a number of their pubs currently being shut that on the face of it do not appear to be unviable.

However, it must be said that much of the company’s unique appeal does stem from their pig-headed refusal to follow the fickle winds of fashion in the pub trade. The managers of the Roebuck complained that their inability to offer piped music and TV sport made it harder for them to compete with other pubs, but for many pubgoers the absence of those features is an attraction in itself. And in some locations the formula certainly works. I’ve mentioned before how you will often find the Boar’s Head on Stockport Market Place standing room only at lunchtime on a non-market day, while the Roebuck was reported to be taking nearly £6,000 a week, which is pretty good going.

Could it be the case that, when the notorious Humphrey Smith is finally put out to pasture, Sam’s will end up losing their USP by trying to become more like other pub operators? After all, you once knew exactly what to expect in a Holt’s pub, whereas now it would be very difficult to say what defined them. And the biggest managed pub operator of all doesn’t have music or sports TV either, and is also known for its keen prices.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Who’d ha’ thought it?

Minimum alcohol pricing has now been in effect in Scotland for six months. I wrote about this at the time. Given that nothing of this kind has ever been tried before, obviously it was hard to predict the results, but it was a reasonable assumption that overall off-trade alcohol sales would show a small decline, but the value of those sales increase.

However, it hasn’t turned out quite that way. According to a study commissioned by cider maker Aston Manor, the total volume of alcohol sales has actually increased by 4%, while the value has gone up by no less than 11%. That certainly isn’t what was meant to happen.

Obviously it’s early days yet, and this is only a survey, not a detailed analysis of actual sales. It follows a general pattern, with sales south of the border in fact rising by 7%, encouraged by the long hot summer and England’s good run in the World Cup. We will have to wait and see what the official figures show, and how cross-border sales are affecting alcohol consumption in Scotland, but it does call into question how effective a policy this is likely to be.

Not surprisingly, sales of the notorious Buckfast tonic wine have shown a marked increase. Contrary to widespread belief, this has never been particularly cheap in terms of price per alcohol unit, and its appeal is down to its high caffeine content. It no longer commands such a price premium over other drinks. In contrast, sales of white ciders have plummeted, as they had little to recommend them apart from the high “bangs-per-buck” ratio. Frankly, it’s surprising anyone is continuing to buy them when they can get far more palatable drinks at the same price.

Convenience stores have gained market share over supermarkets, as the big stores no longer enjoy the price advantage they once did. In fact, the whole thing can be regarded as a price-fixing sceheme in favour of retailers. It’s rather ironic that the useful idiots of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association were so keen to support it, when it has given such a shot in the arm to the financial health of the off-trade. Given that household incomes haven’t increased by 11% or anything like it, some other area of expenditure must have suffered, and it could well be that pubs are included within that.

What seems to be happening is that, given that all categories of drink at the lower end of market now have a level playing field in terms of price, consumers are being more discerning over their preferred method of getting their desired alcohol kick. It’s the most enjoyable way, not simply the cheapest. This helps explain the rise in sales of fortified wines. There’s no longer any place in the market for the £3.49 bottle of gutrot wine or the £9.99 bottle of paintstripper vodka.

It will take a lot longer before we really have a full picture of the impact, especially in terms of the effect it has on “problem drinkers”, who are supposedly the group being targeted. But it doesn’t take a great deal of insight to realise that, if it isn’t felt to be “working”, however that is defined, the inevitable reaction will be to increase the dose and jack up the minimum price yet further.