Saturday, 17 August 2019

Typecast

Last month, I wrote about how it was becoming ever harder to find pubs whose decor and general offer hadn’t fairly recently been put under a corporate microscope. One result of this process is that, over the years, pubs have become much more differentiated in terms of the type of clientele they’re aiming to attract.

Of course, going back forty years, there were plenty of different types of pub – rough boozers and genteel middle-class haunts, those with youth appeal and those frequented by the older generation, those that did a healthy food trade and those that made a speciality of live music. And, given the typical lack of external cues, it could be all too easy to end up in the “wrong” type of pub and feed distinctly out of place.

However, they also had much more in common. The vast majority were owned by breweries and offered that firm’s standard beer range regardless of their customer base. They tended to have names like the Dog & Duck and the Northumberland Arms. Hardly any brand-new pubs had been opened since the war apart from those on new housing estates, or replacements for pubs lost to the Luftwaffe or to redevelopment schemes. There was much more commonality of interior design, with most pubs still having public and saloon or lounge bars with a distinction in furnishings. Nobody had ever heard of posing tables, and the only televised football was Match of the Day and the FA Cup Final.

Since then, though, whenever brewers and pub owners had money to spend on their estates, they started to look much more closely at exactly what kind of customer they wanted to attract. One of the first manifestations of this in the 1980s was the youth-oriented fun pub, which has now pretty much died the death but for a time was all the rage. By definition, the older person wanting a comfortable seat and a quiet pint felt excluded.

There have been a variety of other trends pulling the pub trade in different directions. The rise of satellite TV sport, especially football, has led to many pubs where that is the core of their appeal. In contrast, others have concentrated on ever more ambitious food to the extent where dining becomes their prime or even sole purpose. The growth of innovation in beer has resulted in more and more pubs and bars that deliberately set out to appeal to beer enthusiasts who may often pass many others to visit them. And the relaxation of the restrictions on opening new licensed premises has allowed venues to spring up that make no pretence to a generalist appeal, many of which entirely lack the “body language” you associate with a pub.

The result is that we now have different types of pub with very little overlap in clientele. There is the lively, sports-oriented boozer, the upmarket gastropub, its more plebeian family dining cousin and the specialist craft beer bar. When people are planning a pub visit, there are many more places that they won’t even consider. I’m always struck by how, in the Stockport suburb of Heaton Chapel, the Heaton Hops, a small modern craft bar, stands directly opposite the George & Dragon, a big Edwardian boozer majoring on TV sport and cheap and cheerful eating. I wonder how many customers ever go out unsure as to which one they plan to visit. It was once the case that, in many smaller towns and suburbs, having a wander round the local pubs was a popular Friday or Saturday night activity. That’s much less common now, and even if people do it many of the pubs will be ruled out because they don’t fit the bill.

Pubs with a broader appeal across different categories of customer do survive, but they tend to be the smaller and less high-profile ones, and nobody is opening new ones. The one category that is missing from the selection being developed is those specifically catering for the traditional core purpose of pubs, simply meeting and socialising over a few drinks. There is, of course, one pub operator for whom that is their USP, but at present they rather seem to be contracting rather than expanding.

It could be argued that Wetherspoon’s fill that niche, and they certainly attract a much wider range of customers than many of the other pub categories. But they are also themselves a very carefully targeted proposition that is deliberately pitched to be nothing like traditional pubs, and whose design militates against cosy conviviality.

One benefit of this segmentation is that it reduces the chance of inadvertently wandering into the “wrong” type of pub, but it doesn’t entirely eliminate it, and many independently-run dining pubs don’t obviously advertise that fact. It’s still entirely possible to end up in a pub and think “Oops, I’m the only one in here not eating!”

Pubs are often viewed through rose-tinted spectacles as hubs of the community where all classes and types of customer happily mingle together. That was always a somewhat optimistic view, and the ever- greater fragmentation of the trade further undermines social cohesion. How can a pub be the heart of its community when its business formula deliberately excludes whole sections of people?

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Very early doors

The determined band of drinkers who assemble in Wetherspoon’s at 9 am are often viewed with a mixture of amusement, derision and pity. There’s sometimes even a whiff of moral panic about it: “just look what 24-hour drinking has led to!” However, Tandleman recently found himself in a branch of Spoons at this hour and took a considerably more sympathetic view:

By ten past nine when I leave there is a noticeable air of contentment and the genesis of a conversational buzz... Some spend quite a few hours there, but by four even the most hardcore will be gone, many resting for a repeat performance the next day. This is an interesting sub culture of pub goers. Good luck to them I say.
The last is an important point. They’re not settling in for an all-day session; many will be gone at lunchtime, and pretty much all by mid-afternoon. And is it really all that different from the regular sessions straight through from 5 or 5.30 to 11 pm that used to be commonplace and hardly remarked upon? I’d also suggest that in many cases they will only be drinking at a leisurely pace too.

The Eastern Daily Press reports how the phenomenon has spread well beyond Wetherspoon’s in Great Yarmouth, with pubs even offering happy hours for early morning drinkers. There seems to be a general feeling of conviviality and sociability. One customer said “I love the atmosphere in here and it's great to catch up with my mates. The pints are cheap and everyone is in good spirits”, while a barmaid commented “Everyone knows each other in here and they just have a laugh. There's no trouble.”

Other customers gave safety as a reason for coming out earlier. One said “I don't feel safe coming into the town any later. There are too many yobs on the streets and who knows what might happen”, and another added “It's not safe for someone like me who has health problems to come to the pub in the evening.” These fears may seem a touch exaggerated, but many towns that encourage a lively nightlife do develop a distinct “atmosphere” later in the evening that makes older drinkers feel uncomfortable.

It may not be something that appeals to you or me; it’s unlikely to meet with the approval of the public health lobby, and it’s certainly not compatible with holding down a job. But isn’t this really just a case of the liberalisation of licensing hours opening up opportunities for people to go to the pub at times that suit them? In this respect it’s similar to the busy sessions now seen in some pubs in the late afternoon when tradespeople knock off, a time of day when, before 1988, the pub doors would have been firmly shut.

Rather than laughing or sneering at the early-morning drinkers, shouldn’t we just accept that they’re taking advantage of longer opening hours to drink in a way that suits their particular pattern of life? It’s also usually going to be a calmer, more relaxed and sociable way of drinking than is typically associated with late nights. That surely is what pubs should be all about.

Friday, 2 August 2019

Under pressure

The Morning Advertiser reports on a survey which claims that Millennials feel five times more likely to be pressurised into drinking alcohol when socialising than older generations. Now, this has to be taken with a considerable pinch of salt, as it has been produced on behalf of a maker of low- and zero-alcohol punches, but it completely flies in the face of my own experience.

I would say that, over the past twenty years, the pressure to drink alcohol on social occasions has greatly reduced, and in many situations not drinking has become the norm. This is particularly the case with anything connected with work, after hours as well as at lunchtime. Indeed, it is often the person who chooses an alcoholic drink who stands out and ends up being stigmatised. When visiting friends and relatives, you are much less likely to be routinely offered an alcoholic drink than you once were.

Back in 2002 I asked Can a responsible person ever be seen with an alcoholic drink in their hand?

Twelve people from my workplace went out to the pub one Friday for someone’s birthday. Apart from myself and one other, it was a round of ten Diet Cokes, including one for the person who was supposed to be celebrating. Anyone would think that a pint of bitter or a glass of wine would have them throwing up over the boss or copying their backsides on the photocopier. Is it any wonder that the licensed trade and the brewing industry are in such a bad way?
And it certainly hasn’t got any less so in the intervening years.

It would be interesting to be given examples of precisely in what kind of situations people do feel pressurised into drinking, as I really don’t see this at all. One area where this is often mentioned is in social life in higher education institutions, but they provide a huge range of activities, most of which don’t involve drinking in any way. The fact that someone has organised a Carnage pub crawl doesn’t mean you’re under any obligation to go on it.

The article says that people don’t drink alcohol on two out of three social occasions, so the pressure can’t really be that intense. If they truly were having their arms twisted to drink, surely we wouldn’t be seeing so many pubs closing. And, if you really don’t much care for drinking, but most of your friends seem to do nothing else, maybe it’s time to find some new friends.

In reality, this is an example of the common phenomenon of something attracting more criticism as it becomes less popular. We have seen exactly the same happening with smoking. Forty years ago, there undoubtedly would have been more social pressure to drink, but nobody complained about it back then.

Saturday, 27 July 2019

Stubbing out the habit

The government have, perhaps rashly, pledged to end smoking in England by 2030, as part of “a range of measures to tackle the causes of preventable ill health.” If this was some kind of infectious disease, that might be a reasonable objective. However, let’s think about this a little more deeply. While it is known to carry significant health risks, smoking is a legal activity that large numbers of people enjoy. Many of them don’t actually want to quit, as Pat Nurse explains in this article. And, if they are adults in full command of their mental faculties, why should they? Many commentators seem to forget that, whatever the risks, smoking is a very soothing and relaxing activity.

There are plenty of other activities people engage in that carry substantial risks of death, injury and ill-health, but the government seems happy to tolerate them, possibly because it would be seen as politically incorrect to criticise them. Prejudice against people on a wide range of grounds has now rightly become socially unacceptable, but it seems that much of that bile has now been redirected against smokers.

The plan doesn’t seem to involve outright prohibition, just an ongoing campaign of denormalisation and exclusion of smokers from more and more public places. However, while that may apply a continuing downward ratchet on smoking levels, it’s not going to eliminate it entirely. People would still be able to import tobacco or buy it on the black market, and smoke it in private homes or secluded areas. Even outright prohibition wouldn’t really work, as it has been so notably unsuccessful with various kinds of illegal drugs.

Of course we now have the means at our disposal to achieve a substantial reduction in smoking, by encouraging vaping as an alternative. However, this tends to be pooh-poohed by the public health lobby, both because of “not invented here” syndrome, and because it is often espoused as a recreational activity in its own right rather than simply a smoking cessation therapy. Indeed, some countries such as Australia have banned vaping altogether while continuing to tolerate smoking, which by any reasonable calculation is surely considerably more dangerous.

As has often been said, the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stone, but because something better came along. The same could be true of smoking and vaping, but it’s not going to be achieved unless the government takes a markedly more positive attitude towards vaping. The licensed trade could also play its part by ceasing to take such an absolute and dim-witted attitude – Wetherspooon’s, I’m looking at you! But it’s much easier just to continue to demonise smokers, and all too readily lump vapers in with them.

There’s currently a lot of talk of legalising, or relaxing the prohibitions, on cannabis, but it would be interesting to know how many of those who support these campaigns at the same time also want to see a further crackdown on smoking, something that comes across as a distinctly hypocritical stance. Apparently the US state of Colorado, which has legalised recreational cannabis, has passed an ordinance preventing employers from discriminating against cannabis users. But they haven’t done the same for smokers, or drinkers.

Of course, some will say, smoking is a special case, something uniquely harmful, and these tactics are never going to be turned against any other activity. Or are they? The cartoon at the top is borrowed from this blogpost by Christopher Snowdon, but it seems that nowadays the tables have been reversed. If we can eliminate smoking by 2030, then why not fatty and sugary food by 2040, and then alcohol by 2050?

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

A whiff of intolerance

It happens as regular as clockwork at this time of year. A few days of hot, sunny weather bring people out into beer gardens for the first time since last summer, and they discover to their horror that they are already populated by filthy, smelly smokers. This results in the inevitable cries for smokers to be banned from outdoor areas of pubs. The latest to jump on this bandwagon was radio presenter Jeremy Vine, although fortunately 50% of respondents to his Twitter poll were prepared to stand up for tolerance. Frankly this attitude displays one hell of a cheek, when these people have presumably supported the legislation that forces smokers to be in the beer garden in the first place. You have a choice as to whether to be inside or outside, while they don’t. They have no alternative but to go outside, regardless of how unpleasant the weather is, but on the few hot days a year you think they should be banished just for your convenience. Vine talks of smokers’ lack of consideration for others. Well, if you had been more considerate to smokers, you wouldn’t have compelled them to go outside in the first place.

It’s sometimes argued that, even after the ban, pubs can still cater for smokers. Yes, this is true to a limited extent, but they are still treated as third-class citizens. Yet, despite this, smokers on average still spend more time and money in pubs than non-smokers, presumably because many non-smokers are prissy, health-obsessed people who would never be seen dead in a pub in the first place. To prevent smokers even using outdoor areas would do severe damage to the business of pubs.

I have noticed an increasing numnber of pubs designating a section of their outside drinking areas, often the most attractive part, as non-smoking, and banishing smokers to a grotty yard round the back. Yet, on 330 days a year, these non-smoking areas are completely unused. And no doubt even with this arrangement the antismokers will moan that “there’s someone smoking 50 yards away! I’m going to die!” Pibs like this really don’t deserve smokers’ custom.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Woken from slumber

In the early years of my drinking career, one of the most interesting aspects was visiting new pubs and finding so many that seemed to have been little changed for many years, both in their fabric and the way they were run. Indeed many could have to been said to be stuck in something of a timewarp. Some of them were pubs that fell into the category of Classic Basic Unspoilt Pubs featured by Rodney Wolfe Coe on his famous list. The Sun at Leintwardine, pictured right, was the only one to merit five stars, although since then, while the original core remains unchanged, it has received a large modern extension at the rear. I did have the privilege of seeing it in its original form in the late 1980s.

But there were also plenty of pubs that, while not meeting those standards, didn’t fall far short, and quite a lot of them were within brewery tied estates. Often it was actually the Big Six brewers who had the least spoilt pubs, as they had acquired huge swathes of pubs from often moribund family brewers over the preceding couple of decades and had not yet got round to doing much about many of them. Some of the independent brewers had, in contrast, been pretty assiduous in upgrading their pubs – I was struck in the early 80s by the contrast between Greenalls’ estate in Cheshire, and the unimproved nature of many Allied Breweries and Courage pubs in Surrey. Even at the bottom end of the size scale, most Donnington pubs had received a significant makeover in the 60s or early 70s in a style that was fashionable at the time. On the other hand, some independents had estates that seemed barely touched for decades – Brakspear particularly springs to mind.

To me, and many others, one of the key aspects of the 1970s “real ale movement” was the preservation of our beer, brewery and pub heritage, and there was certainly plenty out there to explore and discover. Back in those days, there was much less of a spotlight on the performance of individual businesses, and it was a lot easier just to plod along for many years ploughing your own furrow. But that is now all in the past, and to find any pub that can remotely be described as unspoilt is far more difficult.

Since then, a huge amount has changed. Large numbers of pubs have been drastically altered, and still more have seen their offer totally revamped, often to accommodate the seemingly inexorable advance of food. At the same time, pubgoing has become much less of a default activity for the general public. Many thousands of pubs have closed, especially in the present century, and those have often been the smaller and less altered ones. And, even when some of the classic unspoilt pubs survive, they have become in effect museum pieces owned by people with deep pockets rather than a living tradition. The original fabric of the front rooms of the Sun at Leintwardine has been preserved, but they have become little more than a curio attached to a much larger modern pub.

No more can pubs just moulder away with little attention as part of sprawling tied estates. Since the Beer Orders, pretty much all the pubs previously in the hands of the Big Six have been churned and rechurned several times through the hands of various pub companies, with each one being put under a spotlight and the less lucrative allowed to fall by the wayside. The surviving family breweries have also in most cases taken a long hard look at their estates and disposed of those pubs that don’t fit in to their desired business model.

There has also been a distinct change in public attitudes. Back in the 1970s, the fact that a pub was quirky, old-fashioned and unspoilt was often reason in itself to visit it, but that has now largely reversed, with the new, glossy and trendy finding favour. In their 1989 book, The Quest for the Perfect Pub, Nick and Charlie Hurt wrote that the Barley Mow at Kirk Ireton “is often packed with young people from the nearby cities of Derby and Nottingham, where most of the pubs are now amusement arcades. They learn how to play dominoes, love the beer and the atmosphere, and revel in the quiet simplicity to be found here.” Their modern-day counterparts don’t do that, and would look at you in bafflement if you suggested they should.

Of course there are still plenty of good experiences to be had in pubs, and the mere fact that one is modern, or has been dramatically remodelled, doesn’t meant it isn’t worth visiting. But it’s now much harder to find one where you get the impression that the decor and the food and drink offer haven’t been fairly recently put under a corporate microscope. And, all too often, in the rush to promote various “activities” in pubs – dining, watching sport, listening to music, doing quizzes – their original core purpose of just providing a space for people to meet and have a drink seems to be forgotten.

Often now, the best chance of finding genuinely unspoilt pubs is in long-established free houses, which by definition are more likely to be in market towns and rural areas rather than large towns and cities. Family ownership through multiple generations is often a factor. In my experience, the Welsh Marches (at least south of Llangollen) and Mid and West Wales are some of the most fertile hunting grounds. But, even here, it’s possible to walk into an outwardly traditional-looking pub in a small and sleepy town and be confronted by a monstrosity of chrome and mirrors.

Some may say that none of this really matters so long as the food and drink are good, but that’s rather missing the point. Pubs are far more than just retail businesses, they are part of our heritage, and it can’t be denied that something valuable has been lost in the march of progress over the past forty years.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

But where are the customers?

At the end of June, I spent a few days in Cornwall, and on the way back stayed for a night in Gloucester. While I was there, I called in to Sam Smith’s Robert Raikes’ House, which is situated on one of the main shopping streets in the city centre. This is a magnificent 16th century half-timbered building that in recent years has been very carefully and lovingly converted to pub use.

It was a sunny Saturday lunchtime, and the pub looked very appealing with boards outside advertising that it was serving food. Yet it had no more than a thin scattering of customers, when Sam’s pubs in similar central locations in Stockport, Leeds or Chester would be heaving. This has also been observed by Martin Taylor. Boak and Bailey have described Sam’s William IV in Bristol, another impressive historical building, as “a pub which rarely has any atmosphere at all.” So you have to ask what is the trick Sam’s are missing.

First is the question of price. While Sam’s are noted for their low pricing policy, they apply a set of three or four fixed price bands dependent on geographical area, which don’t necessarily correspond to how affluent a particular place is. Old Brewery Bitter in this pub was £2.80 a pint, which may be about the cheapest in central Gloucester apart from Wetherspoons, but isn’t the outstanding bargain that £2 is in the North. Gloucester isn’t by any means the most well-heeled of cities, and overall is probably less prosperous than Chester.

The low prices aren’t just a matter of luring customers in purely on value for money. Once people have been tempted over the threshold, they find a distinctive ambiance that creates a critical mass of like-minded drinkers and that particular Sam’s atmosphere. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but in many places in the North it’s a very successful formula – you know what a Sam’s pub in going to be like.

There is also the issue of the unfamiliarity of the brand. In the North, Sam Smith’s is a well-established company that has been around for decades if not centuries, and the name will be familiar to most pubgoers. In the South, they’re not known at all, something that is compounded by their policy of only offering their own brand products across the entire range of drinks and snacks. The barmaid in the Robert Raikes very carefully and accurately explained to a customer the difference between the four Sam’s lagers, but in most pubs you don’t even have to ask because you will recognise some of the brands on the bar.

Plus you have to consider how the building actually works as a pub. I have written previously how Sam’s very careful remodelling of the Swan in Holmes Chapel had actually ended up too compartmentalised for its own good, with the bar tucked away in one small room right at the back of the pub. And in fact that particular pub is currently closed, and has been for some time.

Of course there is much to be said for pubs having a variety of distinct areas, but they also benefit from a substantial circulation and seating area close to the bar to promote a sociable feeling. The Robert Raikes isn’t as bad as the Swan, but even so the servery is situated in one room in the centre of the pub that doesn’t directly open on to any other rooms apart from the central corridor. It also has the toilets up a flight of stairs that Wetherspoons would be proud of, which could be another factor that older customers find offputting.

Sam’s deserve praise for taking on premises like Robert Raikes’ House and converting them to pub use in a manner that respects their fabric, and where no expense has clearly been spared. There are examples in a number of other cities – the Wortley Almshouses in Peterborough spring to mind. But, for their own sake as much as the customers’, they also need to have a look at their pricing policy and the circulation of people within the building, to make sure they actually succeed as pubs and not just as pieces of architectural restoration.

Saturday, 6 July 2019

Dispensing wisdom

I recently made a couple of posts that touched on issues of beer dispense. These spurred me to look at what was going on in pubs more closely than I had before. The first explained the development of the “swan neck” nozzle for serving cask beer, which originated as an attempt to emulate te creamy texture of beers dispensed using the “economiser” that was once commonplace in West Yorkshire.

These are often seen as something distinctly Northern, but when we went to Rugby in May pretty much every pub with handpumps seemed to be using them. Since then, I have had holidays in Bath and the surrounding area, and in Cornwall, where I observed that swan-necks seemed to have become pretty general as far south as you can get in the country. The only exceptions were pubs using gravity dispense, and those with very old sets of handpumps. A noticeable difference, though, was that they seemed to be of a thicker gauge than those usually found in the North, and were generally used without sparklers.

Someone made the point that dispense equipment was generally provided by brewers, not the pubs themselves, so the pubs had little alternative but to go along with the trend. The only exceptions would be some free houses which owned their own pumps. Swan-necks mean that, for most of the pull, you are dispensing beer in the midst of the liquid rather than on to the top, but in the absence of a sparkler it’s hard to see what difference it makes, or what advantage it offers. I would have thought it made it harder to bar staff to influence to final presentation of the head, which may or may not be a good thing.

Swan-necks by definition involve inserting the pump nozzle into the beer, but in this post on beer presentation it was strongly argued by Pete Brown that keg beers should ideally be dispensed without the nozzle touching the beer at all, a point echoed in this video:

I have to say I expressed scepticism at the time as to how often this was achieved in practice, and this was certainly borne out by my observations. Most keg beers nowadays are dispensed either from T-bars or tall fonts standing well above the bar top. The old-fashioned bar-top illuminated boxes have pretty much entirely disappeared except in Sam Smith’s pubs. They have a stainless steel nozzle about three inches long.

From what I saw, the nozzle was almost invariably inserted into the beer to a greater or lesser extent, and sometimes the pint glass was moved up and down, or swirled around, to achieve the desired final appearance of the head. So clearly the ideal is scarcely ever being achieved there and, to be honest, with brim measure glasses and nozzles of that length, it would be extremely difficult to do so.

Friday, 5 July 2019

Unavailable at any price

Three weeks ago, as part of our day out in Uttoxeter, we were very kindly given a lift by Paul Mudge’s wife Jacquie to the outlying Plough. She wanted a soft drink, but not being a lover of artificial sweeteners, asked for one of the full-sugar varieties. However, the pub didn’t have anything available in this category, although it was eventually able to dig out some expensive premium drink.

The sugar tax has been in the news recently, and one fact that has emerged is that it has only raised one-third of the revenue that it was predicted to. This is due to a mixture of manufacturers reformulating their products and, as in this case, outlets simply ceasing to stock the full-sugar versions. It’s certainly not just confined to pubs – in Subway, all of their draught soft drinks are diet versions, while I was recently in a branch of Waitrose where only diet drinks were included in “meal deals”. Fortunately you can still get a full-sugar Pepsi with your burger in Wetherspoon’s.

Now, as someone with Type 2 diabetes, this is academic to me, but it still represents a significant denial of choice. Some people simply don’t like the taste of artificial sweeteners, while others are allergic to them, and there are also concerns that they may lead to long-term health problems, as we have found with replacing butter with various kinds of artificial spreads. Plus there is the fact that full-sugar drinks can be a life-saver for Type 1 diabetics experiencing a “hypo”.

It is one thing to seek to deter people from consuming certain products through higher taxation, although whether that in itself is proving effective is highly questionable. But it is something else entirely to simply, through a form of official arm-twisting, make those products completely unavailable. Surely adult consumers should be treated as informed, empowered people who have the right to make their own decisions about their diet. And, if price is an issue, why can’t retailers simply include smaller measures in all-inclusive deals, such as 375ml bottles rather than 500ml?

There’s a parallel with the schemes that, not content with imposing additional duty on higher strength beers and ciders, seek to remove them from the shelves entirely.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

In the land of Bass and Pedi – Part 2

We pick up our story in the back room of the Vaults in Uttoxeter. The next pub on the itinerary was the Plough on Stafford Road, but this was the best part of a mile out of the town centre, and generally in an uphill direction, which didn’t look a particularly appealing prospect on a showery afternoon. However, our luck was in as Paul Mudge had managed to persuade his wife Jackie to drive out from Stafford to give us a lift, which was extremely generous of her. He said that he was fortunate to be married to someone who literally drove him to drink!

The Plough is a white-painted roadside pub that presumably was there long before the suburban housing that now surrounds it. Inside there’s a narrow area with a few posing tables in the centre by the bar, a dining area at a lower level to the left and a plainer public bar-type area to the right, where we managed to find a table. It’s a pleasant, although not strikingly plush, pub, and taking a look at the menu some of the prices seemed rather steep, especially compared with those in the Bank House. “Carry on Wayward Son” by Kansas was playing as we walked in.

There was a little more choice of cask beers here, with Pedigree being joined by Hop Back Crop Circle, Wainwright and the local Uttoxeter American IPA. The American IPA and Pedigree were both pretty good, although the latter fell a little short of that in the Bank House. While it’s a decent pub, we weren’t convinced it would have really justified the walk out of town. Reading the description on WhatPub, it was rescued from a period of closure by new owners at the end of last year.

We were duly decanted back in the town centre and made our way to the Old Star on Queen Street, a narrow street that is separated from the main part of the market place by a block of buildings. This has been altered rather more than some of the previous pubs, but retains a rambling interior with various different areas including a pool room with a tiled floor and bench seating at the rear. The atmosphere seemed a little more lively, and we were greeted by loud music which seemed to be majoring on the Cure’s Greatest Hits. One of us changed the mood by putting “Back in Black” by AC/DC on the jukebox.

On the bar were Doom Bar and Jennings’ Cumberland Ale alongside Bass. The Bass was pretty good, but the person who chose the Cumberland found out that in Uttoxeter it’s best to stick to Bass or Pedi as they’re likely to turn over much quicker. It wasn’t returnable, but rather lacklustre.

Our next call was the Horse & Dove which is just around the corner on the aforementioned island block of buildings. While it claims to be Uttoxeter’s first micropub, it doesn’t conform to the purist Herne model, being a fairly spacious single room that in fact is larger than the front two rooms of the Vaults, with all the seating at a normal height. It has lager, spirits, piped music and separate gents’ and ladies’ WCs, so realistically is just a smallish modern bar. It was fairly busy, as you might expect at teatime on a Friday. There were six cask beers in total on the bar, from which we selected Wantsum Yellowtail, Uttoxeter Groundbreaker and S43 Raven from Country Durham, all of which were rated good.

There now followed the longest inter-pub walk of the day, taking a full four or five minutes up the pedestrianised High Street to the Smithfield. This is a substantial redbrick street-corner pub with a public bar at the front and a larger lounge stretching a fair way back along the side of the building. This was still pretty basic, with a bare wooden floor throughout, and had a distinctly lively atmosphere. This was the busiest pub of all those visited on the day.

The soundtrack seemed to be “Hits of the 70s”, including “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond and “Wig Wam Bam” by The Sweet. It could be said that Uttoxeter’s musical tastes are another aspect of the town that are stuck in something of a time warp. We encountered a very large, friendly retired greyhound, which must count as best pub animal of the day. The sole cask beer was Pedigree, which again was pretty decent.

We then returned to the market place to the Black Swan, which is on a side street very close to the Old Star. The pub names in this part of town must be a source of confusion. This has a side passageway running the length of the pub, with a single door giving access to two rooms, both of which are labelled “Bar” and contain a dartboard. We chose the small and cosy front one; the one at the rear is much more spacious, with extensive bench seating around the walls.

“Fire and Ice” by Pat Benatar was playing as we walking in; Peter Allen later put “Stay With Me Till Dawn” by Judie Tzuke on the jukebox, as he was going to see her in concert in Birmingham the following night. There followed a predictable discussion about various singers’ ages – Judie Tzuke is, I was pleased to learn, three years older than me. More very palatable Bass, although Peter had by this time had his fill of BBB and plumped for that other classic product of Burton, Carling.

We thought we would finish off the day by calling in the only pub in the town centre we hadn’t yet done, the Steeplechase. Previously called the White Horse, this is a modern pub closing off the eastern end of the market place, which internally has been knocked through into a single cavernous room. However, the two pumpclips on the bar had been turned room, and the barman seemed to sense what we were looking for and told us without prompting that there was no real ale. So we returned to the Vaults for a final drop of Bass before the short walk back to the station. Unlike our last trip to Rugby, all the homeward trains were on time.

So another very enjoyable day out, with good beer, good pubs and good company. Some may balk at the limited choice of beer available, but it’s rare that you get to sample two of Britain’s classic ales on their home territory, and get to compare them between different pubs. It’s also unusual to get the opportunity to visit every pub in a town centre which gives much more of a feel for the place than just dipping in to a select handful of highlights. Obviously they were all different, and catered to some extent to a distinct clientele, but every one had something to be said for it, and, as long as you stuck to Bass and Pedi in the pubs that served them, we didn’t encounter any sub-standard beer. Uttoxeter seems a fairly prosperous place and there was little evidence of vacant shop premises on the main streets.

Thanks to Peter Allen of Pubs Then And Now for all the photos used in this post.

Monday, 17 June 2019

In the land of Bass and Pedi - Part 1

The Staffordshire market town of Uttoxeter is best known for its racecourse and being the home of JCB and Elkes Biscuits. The name will also be familiar to travellers from the roundabout creating a bottleneck on the A50 between Stoke and Derby. It has a reputation for being somewhat insular and behind the times, which is reflected in its pub stock still being mainly composed of traditional boozers, and dominated by the Burton classics of Draught Bass and Marston’s Pedigree. This made it a contrast with some of our earlier Beer & Fubs Forum Proper Days Out, which have aimed to cover a wide variety of beers and types of pub.

Our numbers were somewhat depleted, but four of us managed to meet up on Stoke Station, where Paul Mudge had time for a swift drop of Titanic Cherry Mild in their Bod bar on the southbound plaftform. We then had a 25-minute train ride through the lush but rather waterlogged East Staffordshire countryside to Uttoxeter, where the station lies between the racecourse and the town instelf. A short walk past Waitrose and the long-closed Wheatsheaf pub brought us to our first port of call, Wetherspoon’s Old Swan just off the market place.

The name suggests it may have been an old coaching inn, but in fact a little research reveals that it was previously a furniture store. It has a fairly typical Wetherspoon interior, with the bar along the left-hand wall, and a variety of comfortable seating areas at a slightly higher level spreading out to the right. It had a rather elegant carpet in a wavy pattern, and pictures and photos by local artists on the wall. Even just after 11 am, it was reasonably busy, although the clientele seemed to be more gentlefolk enjoying a morning coffee than the hardcore morning Spoons boozers on the John Smith’s Smooth.

It avoided the frequent Wetherspoon’s problem of having too many beers on the bar by sensibly limiting the number of cask lines to six – the usual suspects of Doom Bar, Ruddles and Abbot, together with the local Lymestone Foundation Stone, Rudgate Ruby Mild and Pheasantry Mikado Mild. Despite reports of declining beer quality in some Wetherspoon’s branches, both the Foundation Stone and Ruby Mild were in very good nick.

We then moved on to the Olde Talbot, which dominates the market place from the western end. It’s an old gabled inn claiming to date from the 16th century, with a projecting ground floor. The interior is L-shaped, with three comfortable seating areas along the front and a more Spartan public bar area to the right which seemed to be set up for live music. The wood-panelled section to the left by the bar counter was particularly congenial. There was a sign saying “Cash Only”, which the friendly barmaid told us could cause problems on race days, although there are a couple of banks with cashpoints within fifty yards.

The beer range was Doom Bar and Bass, so not surprisingly it was a round of four pints of Bass, which came to £14.20, £3.55 a pint seeming to be the going rate for that beer in the town. Perhaps surprisingly, Peter Allen, who had spent most of his life as a confirmed lager drinker, revealed that it was his first ever taste of Bass. It proved to be in excellent condition and indeed turned out to be the best Bass of the day. The soundtrack included Marianne Fathfull’s version of “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan”.

Apart from Wetherspoon’s, there seems to be very little pub food on offer in Uttoxeter town centre, although there are a couple of modern dining pubs on the outskirts near the bypass. We had therefore arranged our lunch stop at the Bank House, a seventeen-bedroom residential hotel just to the east of the market place opposite the parish church. It’s an impressive redbrick thre-storey Georgian building dating from 1777, which in fact was the town’s first bank. Through the front door, there is a dining room on the left and a long, congenial bar area on the right with bench seating along the front windows. There was a golden retriever belonging to one of the customers asleep in the middle of the floor.

There were two cask beers on the bar, Pedigree and Bates Pale Ale from Little Eaton Brewery just north of Derby. A couple of us went for the Bates Pale Ale, but unfortunately it was well past its best. However, it was changed without demur for the Pedigree, which really was in very good form, and proved to be not only the best Pedigree of the day, but the best beer of all. This proved that this beer, although sometimes dismissed as not being what it was, can still shine when properly looked after. This was also Peter’s first ever tasting of Pedigree.

The menu featured a range of traditional British dishes, from which we selected fish, scampi and rump steak, all coming with chips, and all priced at £10 or below. We also managed to squeeze in a couple of starters and one dessert. The food was also very good, and was possibly the best we’ve had on these trips, where finding pub lunches that rise above the adequate can be difficult. We had a chat with the chef who was very keen to make us welcome.

We then returned to the market place to the Vaults, which is perhaps Uttoxeter’s classic pub. A narrow, shop-like frontage conceals a pub of great character running a long way back from the street. There’s a front bar area where most of the drinkers seem to gather, a middle room with a devil amongst the tailors game, and a larger lounge at the rear with bench seating and a dartboard. The outside toilets are yet further back on a passageway running along the side of the pub. It was fairly busy for early afternoon, with an all-too-familiar discussion about ailments taking place amongst some of the customers. “There’s no point in having Challenge 25 in here,” said the barmaid, “you wouldn’t even need Challenge 50!”

It’s renowned as a stronghold of Bass, and in the past proudly displayed a row of five Bass handpumps along the bar, as shown in the photo (not mine) above. Guest beers have been introduced in recent years, and my Twitter header photo shows one pump for Robinson’s Wizard flanked by four for Bass. Today’s guest beer was Marston’s EPA, but all of use plumped for the Bass, which didn’t disappoint, although it was slightly shaded in quality by the Olde Talbot. The jamjars to show the colour of the beer, including one for each Bass pump, seemed rather superfluous.

To be continued...

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Watering down the proftis

A Bristol licensee has recently complained that her profits were being adversely affected by customers choosing just to drink tap water with their meals. At first sight, this just comes across as sour grapes. Free tap water is a legal right, and indeed on several occasions recently I have been given a carafe of water in restaurants without even asking. A business needs to adjust its pricing to ensure it makes a profit on what customers actually order, not what they think they should order.

However, on reading between the lines, it seems that the food in question is being provided by pop-up vendors, so the bar is probably making little or nothing from it. Maybe in this case the answer is to charge the pop-up businesses more commission for the right to sell their food on your premises. Or you could adopt the Wetherspoon’s approach of meal deals combined with drinks. You would have no problem getting a free glass of tap water in Spoons, but you wouldn’t get a discount off the “with soft drink” price because the two come together as a single offer.

My recollection is that the right to free tap water was introduced to give drinkers, especially in nightclubs, the opportunity to rehydrate without being charged for the privilege. Some publicans complained about it at the time, but I don’t really see that it represents a threat to anyone’s business, and indeed have occasionally taken advantage of it myself to wash down tablets. There is perhaps scope to abuse it, for example by groups of thirsty cyclists or hikers demanding rounds of water, but I doubt whether that’s at all common, and a decent licensee should be able to make it clear that is basically taking the piss if they’re not going to spend anything.

If you’re running a restaurant, you are able to insist that your customers do actually buy something, and once their meal has finished its course you can encourage them to leave. However, it’s not quite as simple in a pub, and I’ve written before about the potential for the abuse of hospitality by customers who put little or no money across the bar. One example given in the comments was people coming in the watch TV sports but not buying anything.

However, unless your pub is full, you’re not really losing any money from non-drinking customers, and if one member of a group spends all evening on tap water you will still be making money from their companions. If you really do feel that people are taking advantage, there are various tactics available to a competent licensee to make them unwelcome, and of course at the end of the day you are legally entitled to refuse to serve anyone, and ask them to leave, without giving a reason.

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

Sheep in wolf’s clothing

In the early days of CAMRA, a substantial proportion of cask beer, especially in the Midlands and North of England, was served via electric pumps of various kinds. However, there was a problem with this that it could be well-nigh impossible to identify what was real and what was not. So, progressively, with a certain amount of encouragement from CAMRA, breweries replaced them with handpumps, which gave an unmistakeable sign that the beer was real. I wouldn’t want to suggest that increasing profits by, in many cases, exchanging metered dispense and oversize glasses with brim-measures ever entered into their heads. There were a scattering of cases of keg beer being dispensed via handpumps, but those now seem to have pretty much entirely disappeared. If you see a handpump, you know that the beer will be real.

However, this can cut both ways. It can also be a clear sign of something you wish to avoid, and for many drinkers it may be once bitten, twice shy with anything coming out of a handpump. Anoher problem is that handpumps may be perceived as dull and old-fashioned in comparison to the brightly-illuminated keg taps that adorn many bar tops, not to mention harder to see. As I wrote last year:

Maybe it is also time to question whether handpumps can be more of a hindrance than a help...

...However, what allows you to clearly identify something also allows people to instantly reject it as something not for them. In many pubs, there’s a binary division between stuff on T-bar taps (including craft kegs) and stuff on handpumps, and many drinkers just won’t consider the beers on handpumps. So, just a thought, but might it be an idea to try dispensing cask beer though the T-bar taps (obviously with the word “cask” on the label) so it is not immediately marked out as something “other”. There’s no technical reason why it can’t be done as, in the past, many cask beers were sold using freeflow electric dispense.

This was really only a speculative thought experiment, but Nathaniel Southwood reports that Sharp’s brewery have tried just such a thing in an experiment at the Royal Cornwall show, as pictured above. It’s in conjunction with an attempt to introduce a chilled version of Doom Bar, but it also offers the normal-temperature version alongside it. It does state clearly on the font that it is cask beer.
I’m not saying that it will work, and there’s always the possibility that drinkers are so wedded to the concept of handpumps that it will deter more than it attracts. But it must be worth a try, to see whether it helps to make cask look more like everything else on the bar rather than something “other” that is to be avoided at all costs. It might eliminate some of the variability caused by incompetent bar staff having little idea how to use handpumps. Plus I would certainly be interested to see how the head and condition turn out in the absence of a swan neck and tight sparkler. However, it’s definitely not going to cover up faults in beer that has been allowed to become flat and stale. And it would probably be too much to ask for them to get some oversize glasses and attach meters to these new pumps.

Saturday, 8 June 2019

Zero preparation

The other day, I was in a pub where a guy went up to the bar and very decisively ordered a Heineken Zero. Nothing unusual about that, maybe, but in general people would either ask generically for a non-alcoholic beer, or ask slightly sheepishly what non-alcoholic beers they have. That he was able to order it by name suggests it has established a strong brand identity.

Obviously a major driver behind the recent surge in interest in alcohol-free beers is a growing concern about health and wishing to cut down in general on alcohol consumption. However, this sparked the thought that there may well be another motivation on the part of brewers.

In the future, there is likely to be a growing trend to restrict or prohibit entirely the advertising of alcoholic drinks. So far, there hasn’t been much movement on this issue in the UK, and the public health lobby currently seems distracted by sugary and fatty foods. However, it is eventually going to happen. So creating alcohol-free range extensions could be a good way of keeping your brand name in the public view even if advertising of the main product has been banned.

Alcohol represents a much more diffuse target than tobacco, as it comes in a wide range of varieties and strengths, and it also attracts a huge amount of commentary both from journalists and non-professional writers. Thus it would be a lot more complex to impose advertising restrictions. However, the tide is clearly flowing in that direction. Maybe eventually they would prevent alcohol-free drinks sharing brand names with alcoholic ones, but it wouldn’t be a straightforward process. And alcohol-free variants may at least buy the brewers some time.

Thursday, 6 June 2019

Sugary slope

Earlier this week, the Institute for Public Policy Research published a report proposing that, to combat obesity, the plain packaging currently required for tobacco should be extended to crisps, sweets and fizzy drinks. There’s little comment I can make that hasn’t already been said: it is filleted here with his usual aplomb by Christopher Snowdon. Realistically, it isn’t going to happen this year or next, but the idea is now well and truly within the “Overton window” of the acceptable range of public debate.

It underlines all too clearly that the claims that the draconian regulation of tobacco was a special case that would never be extended to other areas were patently false. It is perhaps a little surprising that snacks and soft drinks are ahead of alcohol in the queue, but that will come in time as surely as night follows day.

Presumably this would have to be accompanied by a comprehensive ban on advertising and promotion. This would have the effect of ossifying the market and preventing any innovation or new product introductions. People’s choice of product would depend on word of mouth and folk memory, as it does now with tobacco products. It would be completely impossible now to introduce a new legal cigarette brand. This would effectively leave the market in the hands of large, established players.

The point of plain packaging for tobacco was supposedly to “denormalise” its consumption. But if a whole raft of other food and drink products are also put in plain packaging, that effect largly disappears, as plain packaging becomes the norm for anything remotely enjoyable. They don’t seem to have thought that one through.

Monday, 3 June 2019

Something just gave

Last Autumn, I argued in a post entitled Something’s Got to Give that the steady decline in cask beer volumes would inevitably lead to reductions in availability, which might manifest themselves in sudden and unexpected ways. And it now seems that something has given, with the news that Marston’s are going to withdraw cask from 21 of their 22 managed pubs in Scotland.

The initial reaction to this is some quarters was one of dismay at the reduction in cask availability. Surely Marston’s could have done more to promote it? However, as Britain’s leading cask ale brewer, they’re hardly going to abandon it lightly: it’s not like they’re some trendy craft brewer trying to make a point. It seems clear that, despite their best efforts, they simply can’t achieve the throughput necessary to keep it in good condition and, given this, it has to be regarded as a sensible and pragmatic, if disappointing decision.

These pubs are mostly family dining venues, not urban boozers, and so are probably never going to achieve big beer volumes, especially in view of the cut in the Scottish drink-driving limit. The photo shows the Highland Gate on the outskirts of Stirling, still shown on WhatPub with real ale, which is probably typical.

When CAMRA was formed in the 1970s, real ale had pretty much entirely disappeared from the country, so there was no established tradition of cask drinking. Since then, there has been a substantial increase in availability, and some city-centre pubs do shift a lot of it, but outside the major population centres it has always struggled, and often gives the impression of having been just put on for the tourists.

Good Beer Guide tickers such as Martin Taylor and Simon Everitt have often reported poor cask beer in Scottish entries, which probably wouldn’t get anywhere near inclusion south of the Border. This even extends to Wetherspoon’s branches, and realistically it might make sense for Spoons to do the same in the some of the smaller towns, even though it would undermine their reputation for serving cask in every pub.

I have earlier written about the Cask Crisis, where I made the point that cask needs a certain amount of commitment from a pub’s management to thrive. It can’t just be another tick-box option on the bar at the end of a row of keg taps, only there because you suppose you ought to stock it. Poor, ill-kept, stale beer is cask’s worst enemy. While this decision may seem like a retrograde step, in the longer term it would probably benefit cask if it was removed from marginal outlets which lack either the demand or the enthusiasm to present it at its best.

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Crying over spilt beer

Pete Brown (yes, him again) has recently been complaining in the Morning Advertiser about the poor aesthetic presentation of beer as compared with other drinks. Although this is nothing that hasn’t been going on for decades, he does have something of a point. His core concern is spilt beer, either cascading down the sides of the glass or swilling around on tables.

There can be little doubt that this puts across a poor image. But there’s a very simple remedy in the general introduction of oversized instead of brim-measure glasses for draught beer, which would largely eliminate the problem. They used to be commonplace, but have now pretty much entirely disappeared. However, with oversize glasses inevitably comes the pressure for metered dispense, which would be compelling in busy, high-turnover pubs to avoid routine overmeasure. So be careful what you wish for.

From time to time you read articles about how the presentation of beer in pubs is offputting to women – there’s one in the latest issue of the CAMRA newspaper What’s Brewing. Often they’re vague as to what exactly they expect to change, but surely one factor in it is brim-measure glasses, which arguably look inelegant compared with wine glasses and are very much prone to spillage.

The issue of beer on tables could of course be easily solved by bringing back beermats, which seem to have been largely absndoned by the more fashionable end of the market on the grounds that they’re old-fashioned.

He also makes a rather odd point about the pump nozzle never touching the beer. Clearly this is impossible with the swan-neck dispense that is now fairly general for cask beer, and I doubt whether it’s completely avoided with any dispense system for keg beers either. To achieve that would require a complete revolution in the way beer is served, which may end up alienating many drinkers.

Of course, in recent years there has been a major improvement in the presentation of beer in pubs with the widespread introduction of specific branded glasses. However, by definition, these are only applicable to major beer brands that are permanent fixtures on the bar, and exclude the constantly rotating guests that are the stock-in-trade of many specialist pubs. But pubs can go some way towards remedying that by producing their own branded glasses with the pub name. Hopefully oversized.

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Groundhog Day at the polls

This isn’t an overtly political blog beyond the sphere of lifestyle politics. However, for each major national election, out of interest I’ve run a poll on people’s voting intentions. Five years ago I published the results of the one on the 2014 European Parliament Elections. It’s fair to say that the outcome had been somewhat swayed by rather enthusiastic sharing by other people.

Five years on, and against all expectations following the referendum result, we have another round of European Parliament elections. The results of my poll are shown above – make of them what you will. I’m not aware of this one having been touted around to anything like the same degree. As a comparison, here are the results of one of the final proper opinion polls:

As it is not off-topic on this post, feel free to comment on the political issues, but please be polite and don’t throw a metaphorical milkshake (or brick) at anyone.

Note that I removed For Britain from the options shown in the sidebar, as they did not end up nominating any candidates, which I wasn’t aware of when I originally created the poll.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Bladdered Brits?

Last week, there was a rather odd report claiming that British people were the biggest boozers in the world. This was based on a survey which asked people in 36 different countries how many times they had been “drunk” over the past year. The British came out top with 51 separate occasions, or almost one a week. However, this conflicts with actual statistics on per capita alcohol consumption. These can be worked out in various ways, but always put the UK well down the league table. For example, this table on Wikipedia puts us in twenty-fifth place, with Belarus top, over 50% higher than us.

There are perhaps two explanations for this. The first is that British people have always tended to adopt something of an “all or nothing” approach to alcohol, rather than the “little and often” than is more common in many Continental countries. This has if anything become more marked in recent years. And we also seem to be much more willing to admit, or claim, that we have been drunk than many other countries, and even see it as a desirable objective for a night out. That some of the other leaders are Australia, Canada and the United States, all of which are actually below the UK in the consumption league table, suggests there is a strong cultural element to it.

It also raises the question of how you actually define “drunk”. To my mind it implies one or more of slurring words, unsteady on feet, losing inhibitions, vomiting, becoming loud and aggressive or tearful and maudlin. It’s well beyond just a bit merry or tipsy, and definitely doesn’t just mean “over the legal limit for driving” as sometimes seems to be insinuated. Are people really saying they’re getting in that state once a week and, if they are, shouldn’t they take a long hard look at themselves? Or do they actually see it as just getting through half a bottle of wine or three cans of Punk IPA in an evening?

I’ve certainly had my moments in the past, but I can’t recall a single occasion during the past year when I’ve been in anything like that condition. For example, earlier this month we had a day out in Rugby, during which nine or ten pubs were visited. (I know exactly how many, but not everyone did every pub) Pints weren’t consumed in every pub, but they certainly were in quite a few. But everyone managed to get back to their hotel or catch their train home without any problem, and the conversation, while it might have become a little more forthright, never descended into argument. I wouldn’t say anyone was drunk or anywhere near it.

At the end of the day, this survey doesn’t really convey any worthwhile information: it just serves to reinforce national stereotypes and highlight our collective feeling of guilt and self-loathing about drinking.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

A pinch of salt on your greens

In recent years there has been a growing amount of interest in and media coverage of vegetarian and vegan diets. The impression given is that there’s an ever-increasing number of people taking up one or the other. According to this report in the Guardian, one in three people in Britain have stopped or cut down on eating meat, and no less than one in eight have given it up already. This is something that clearly has significant implications for the catering trade.

However, a recent survey by Yougov, carried out ironically for National Vegetarian Week, acts as a reality check to this and suggests that the actual figures are far lower, with a mere 3% identifying as vegetarians, and only 1% having gone the whole hog of adopting veganism. While that’s a market segment that shouldn’t be ignored, and obviously there’s nothing to stop meat-eaters choosing meat-free dishes, it hardly suggests that it’s something that is about to take the catering world by storm. Maybe people tend to overestimate the level because vegetarians are so keen to tell others about it.

In contrast, according to the poll, 14% describe themselves as “Flexitarians”. Now, one person rather piously explained to me that this meant someone who basically ate a plant and dairy-based diet, but occasionally ate small amounts of meat as a treat. No doubt a few do take that approach, but it’s one of those words that can mean anything you want it to. I’m sure others chose that option because they thought it sounded good and, hey, if I had an egg butty at work and that nice goat’s cheese pizza at Spoons the other day, then I must be a flexitarian. It’s not as if being a meat-eater means you have to include meat in every single meal. We often had dishes like cauliflower cheese and Welsh rarebit when I was a kid. Even if you drink considerably less alcohol, you’re still not a flexi-totaller.

It’s sometimes argued that vegetarian diets are better for the environment because using the intermediary of an animal is a much less efficient means of providing human nutrition than consuming crops grown directly. However, despite huge increases in world population in recent decades, we don’t exactly have a problem feeding people. There is no famine now apart from that caused by war and political mismanagement, and there is more obesity than malnutrition. Plus, much of the world’s land area is unsuited to arable farming, but can be used for grazing animals, which can be used for milk, wool and hides as well as meat. So, while there might be an argument for eating a bit less meat, using grassland for animal husbandry makes a better use of natural resources.

Yes, clearly there’s a place for vegetarian and vegan dishes in the catering trade. But it would be a mistake to bet the farm on it being an ever-growing market segment, just as it would be with alcohol-free beer. And, just as I’ve written in the past about the “beer bubble”, this indicates that there’s a similar “food bubble” inhabited by writers and commentators who breathe a rarefied atmosphere and are largely isolated, except for the occasional patronising sneer, from the culinary experience of ordinary people.

Incidentally, for the benefit those reading this on a mobile, I’ve created a poll in the blog sidebar on voting intentions for the European Parliament elections on Thursday. You can cast your vote here.

Saturday, 11 May 2019

The three-pint window

Yesterday I wrote about how there was a fundamental limitation to the extent to which pubs could diversify their offer to attract non-drinkers. Whatever else happens in a pub, drinking alcohol always remains their core purpose, and if it isn’t, they’re no longer pubs.

Although I wasn’t aware of it when I wrote my post, Manchester journalist Tony Naylor has written an article in the Guardian along much the same theme. He was prompted by the opening in Dublin of a “pub” that only serves non-alcoholic drinks. One or two have described the tone of his piece as a touch panicky and defensive, but I would say it rings very true, and those who champion pubs need to be less apologetic about what they’re actually there for.

Of the Irish pub, he wrote:

“Can you lose the booze and keep the craic?” asked the Irish Times rhetorically, to which the only conceivable answer is: no. A fact that, despite reports of the Virgin Mary aiming for a “pub vibe”, Yates implicitly conceded when he told the Guardian: “By 10 o’clock in a [traditional] bar it’s very loud; there can be noise and chaos. Here you can still be having a conversation and still be making sense.”
He also describes how the pub trade has, in reality, taken numerous steps to broaden its offer:
At the same time, the pub trade has proved itself nimble in embracing a world beyond pints. Food has become central to the survival of many pubs, while others host endless activities – comedy and film clubs, mums’n’toddlers’ coffee mornings, psychic nights, karaoke – where alcohol is incidental to your visit, rather than the main draw. Landlords are acutely aware that they cannot survive by serving dwindling numbers of hard-drinking regulars.
However, all these activities only take place on the coat-tails of drinking. Take that away, and the pub becomes a restaurant, a community centre, a coffee shop or a music club. And he sums up very well the essence of what makes pubs special:
Beyond loving the taste of beer, I also love the effects of alcohol, and for what it can do to a pub. I cherish that three-pint window where real life melts away. I love the warmth, the laughter, the life, the random, nonsensical conversations and soft-edged, jovial chaos of full pubs at peak hours. I like the din. I like the revelry. I like a bit of noise and chaos, frankly. And I like the sense of drinkers of often very different backgrounds rubbing along in mutual intoxicated tolerance. In an increasingly atomised society, there is value in that.
Non-drinkers may get a taste of that experience vicariously, but they will never truly live it. However, he concludes:
Could people who aren’t drinking (much) even enjoy that atmosphere, too? Interestingly, according to Nescafé, 77% of supposedly abstemious Generation Z-ers still visit their favourite pub more than once a month. Pubs remain hugely attractive spaces and, undeniably, booze is crucial to their appeal. Cheers to that.

Friday, 10 May 2019

Making pubs safe for non-pubgoers

A major problem for the pub trade is the growing proportion of young people who have chosen not to drink alcohol at all. In response to this, a recent report has said that 70% of “Generation Z” believe that the licensed trade needs to make itself “more inviting” to those who do not drink alcohol. This has to be taken with a pinch of salt given that it is sponsored by a coffee company, but it does make an important point.

Clearly it makes commercial sense for pubs to widen their appeal so that they can be more inclusive of non-drinkers. Customers are increasingly likely to consist of mixed groups of drinkers and abstainers. This can be achieved by providing higher-quality tea and coffee and soft drinks, offering food and putting on events like quizzes and live music. And, to be honest, they have been doing these things to a greater or lesser extent throughout my drinking career. It’s nothing new or exactly a startling revelation.

However, there’s an important caveat here. The core purpose of pubs is, and always has been, socialising centred around the consumption of alcoholic drinks. Yes, over the decades they have needed to evolve and change in various ways, but that fundamental purpose remains unchanged. If nobody drank alcohol, pubs wouldn’t exist. Non-drinkers may enjoy various activities and services provided by pubs, but they wouldn’t be there in the first place if they weren’t there for drinkers. It’s rather like non-alcoholic beer – it wouldn’t exist if alcoholic beer didn’t, and it is only there to mirror to some extent the taste and experience of drinking alcoholic beer.

If they go too far down the road of changing their offer, pubs may well find themselves evolving into something entirely different. Some pubs have in effect turned themselves into restaurants, and it’s a very fine line when they actually cross over to that status, while others have metamorphosed into what are essentially live music venues.

It has to be questioned to what extent all this diversification is actually going to bring new customers into pubs. It may make non-drinkers happier when they are there, but will it encourage them to visit more often? It’s rather like the smoking ban, where prior to July 2007 many people said that one reason they didn’t go to pubs was that they were too smoky. Well, magic the smoke away, and they say that on their half-yearly visit that the atmosphere is much more pleasant, and it’s so much better now that those rough people are no longer there. But they don’t actually go any more than they did before. It’s a classic case of “revealed preference” – you have to judge people by what they actually do, not by what they say they would like.

This kind of call is nothing new, either. Back in 1998, I wrote:

You often read today that pubs will have to appeal to new groups of customers to ensure their long-term survival, but the examples given are usually people whose visits to the pub would at best only be occasional, and whose allegiance would be very fickle.
And later in 2011, I said:
At the end of the day, a pub is still a pub, and its fundamental raison d’ être remains the same. It can’t “move with the times” by turning itself into something else. If people no longer want to go to pubs, no amount of wine dispensers, crèches, coffee-makers and wi-fi hotspots will make any difference. And one of the oft-advanced examples of “moving with the times” – the general admission of children – is to many longstanding pubgoers excruciatingly offputting.
The reason that the pub trade has declined so much over the past twenty or so years is essentially because, due to a combination of social and legislative change, the demand for their core product has fallen. Obviously they can’t just turn their face against meeting other needs, but there is a limit to how far they can go down that road. It may be regrettable, but the fortunes of the pub trade are closely linked to the proportion of people in society who enjoy drinking alcohol in a social setting. And one of the most successful forms of “diversification” for pubs has been to metamorphose into convenience stores...

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Tom Brown’s Pubdays – Part 2

We pick up our story having left the Victoria and heading back along Clifton Road towards the centre of Rugby. This brought us to the Squirrel on Church Street, which our previous route had circled without actually passing it. It’s a small, shallow, brick-built pub, probably one of the oldest buildings in the town. The image on WhatPub shows it in pink, but it has now been repainted in a shade that we struggled to actually name, a kind of cross between powder blue and aquamarine. Note Spiderman on the roof in Peter Allen’s photo.

Internally, it has a narrow seating area on the left-hand side, where newspapers – the Sun and the Daily Mail – were laid out on the tables, the bar in the centre, and a larger, but still fairly intimate room with a fireplace on the right, where we managed to find some seats, although at 4 pm it was rapidly filling up with a cross-section of customers. It’s fair to see this isn’t a Guardian reader type of pub. You can imagine it absolutely jumping on the evenings when the regular live music is on.

We were hoping to find Pedigree on the bar, but unfortunately it wasn’t on today. Instead there were two beers from the Marston’s stable – Ringwood Boondoggle and Lancaster Bomber, and Cotleigh Hawk’s Gold and Osprey. The one person who chose the Boondoggle was a touch disappointed, but both the Bomber and Osprey were in very good nick. Although Bomber isn’t maybe my favourite beer, it was certainly the best of the day so far in terms of condition.

Next came the obligatory excursion into the craftier side of things, partly driven by the Good Beer Guide listings. Rugby town centre has a complex layout that makes orientation difficult for the first-time visitor, so we were glad that someone knew where he was going and was able to lead us to the Crafty Banker, located appropriately enough on Bank Street. The name invites an obvious play on words, which the landlord of the Seven Stars couldn’t avoid. The solitary toilet contains both a urinal and WC, which opens up some interesting possibilities.

It’s a typical modern shop-conversion micropub, with posing tables by the door, some normal-height seating further back, albeit still unupholstered, and a bar across the rear. The lighting left the pumpclips in shadow, making them difficult to read. There were six cask beers, including XT Crafty Banker Bitter and Hop Kitty, Dark Revolution Sonic, and Chalk Hill Dark Anna, which were generally judged pretty decent. Obviously I had to have the Hop Kitty, which had the appropriate hoppy bite.

A short walk to the south side of the town centre brought us tohe Rugby Tap, facing the impressive buildings of the famous school across a roundabout. This originally began as a bottle shop with a few seats, but has since expanded into the premises next deer to offer a dedicated bar. This is considerably more comfortable than the Rugby Tap, with a number of upholstered cheairs with the arms of the kind you might find in a conference room. There was a pretty busy teatime trade – clearly this has become a rather smart meeting place. Unfortunately the atmosphere was marred by a couple of noisy, barking dogs.

It doesn’t have a bar as such, instead serving its cask beers on gravity from a stillage at right-angles to the side wall. The casks all had cooling jackets, so the temperature was fine. Those we tried included Church End Mild and Gravedigger, and Byatt’s Platinum Blonde and Hazy Belgian Pale. I decided to be adventurous and try the Hazy Belgian , which did what it said on the label and was pretty good. Apart from the Atomic ones, this was the only pub or bar we visited that was supporting local breweries: Church End is in Nuneaton and Byatt’s in Coventry.

Heading westwards away from the school along Lawford Road saw a rapid transformation to a more workaday environment, which was matched by our next stop, the Half Moon. This is a mid-terraced pub that looks as though it has been converted from a couple of houses. The WhatPub description gives you a good idea of what to expect: “Small mid-terraced pub that is quite simply a local boozer. Friendly locals who always make you feel welcome populate the pub... There are no foody smells to distract from the beer.” The interior comprises a busy bar area on the right, with some seating in the window by the open fire, a pool room in the centre, and a further area on the left with a dartboard and more seating.

There were three beers on the bar, Black Sheep Best Bitter, Old Golden Hen and Taylor’s Golden Best at a bargain price of £2 a pint. The natural inclination was to give this a swerve on the grounds that it would almost certainly be well past its best, which indeed proved to be the case, but it was willingly changed for the Black Sheep, which everyone ended up with. And indeed, in terms of condition, this was for me the best beer of the day at a stage when tastebuds are often jaded – fresh, cool, lively and full of flavour. While it was a somewhat Spartan pub, the toilets were immaculate. The soundtrack seemed to be “Dr Hook’s Greatest Hits”, which I have to say isn’t quite my favourite music from that era.

The comment was made that this was the sort of pub that splits the Pub Men from the Beer Men. Yes, the beer was in excellent condition, but would the searcher for exotic sours and pastry stouts even cross the road for a pint of Black Sheep?

The Half Moon was about the furthest pub from the station, so the next and final call had been planned as a staging point, although it’s worth a visit in its own right. The Bull, owned by Stonegate, is a big open-plan pub on one of the main shopping streets. It’s the sort of place with brightly-coloured menu flyers and an abundance of TVs, on one of which we were able to see England finally reach victory against Ireland after an earlier scare. Nevertheless, the L-shaped interior does include a variety of areas and plenty of comfortable seating.

Although owned by Stonegate, there were three Greene King beers on the bar – IPA, Abbot and Old Speckled Hen – alongside Taylor’s Landlord, which most of us went for, although one of our number decided to try Punk IPA for the first time. And the Landlord was pretty good, demonstrating that, even in a pub where most of the customers probably aren’t cask drinkers, you can still serve up a decent pint if you have enough trade overall.

From here, it was a fifteen-minute walk back to the station, although fortunately all gently downhill. However, when we got there we found that an incident on the line at Harrow & Wealdstone had caused chaos with the timetable, and the train that Paul and I were planning to catch back to Stafford had been cancelled. There followed an anxious half-hour of checking the departure board, but if trains are running late, then a delayed one may actually be on time for you, so I was in the end able to get back to Stockport only half an hour later than originally planned.

This was another excellent trip, to a town that I’d never been drinking in before, with a choice of pubs of different types, including some splendid proper boozers, and generally pretty good beer too. It was a marked contrast with Huddersfield a couple of months before. As always, the company was one of the best points. Thanks again to Peter Allen for the photos of the Squirrel and Half Moon. Perhaps the one disappointment was that, as well as the disappearance of the M&B and Ansells heritage from the town’s pubs, there was no sign of those Midlands classics, Bass and Pedigree. However, we’re planning to make amends for that on our next trip. Watch this space!