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!

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

The taste test

I recently came across this interesting article discussing whether the temperature at which it is served is holding cask ale back. However, it also included the depressing, although not remotely surprising, statistic that fully 90% of cask beer was kept on sale beyond the recommended three days. This prompted a lively debate on Twitter about how to improve cask turnover in pubs, in which several people made the point that licensees or cellar managers should be routinely tasting their cask ales to make sure they haven’t gone off.

This may seem like a statement of the obvious, but is that really the case? Pubs sell a huge range of drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, and for virtually all of them the licensees never have to taste them to ensure they’re OK. If they did, they would turn into alcoholics. Plus, many pubs sell a lot of food, but they have sufficient confidence in their suppliers and their kitchen hygiene that they don’t feel the need to nibble a corner of each steak or sandwich before they’re sent out to the customers. Is cask beer something so exceptional that it is different from everything else sold in the pub?

Added to this, there are many people running pubs who, for genuine medical or religious reasons, do not drink. Obviously that means they’re not in a position to sample the product. But it doesn’t follow that they shouldn’t be in the business in the first place. Likewise, there’s no reason why a vegetarian, provided they do it from personal choice rather than wishing to impose it on everyone else, should not work in a food business selling meat dishes. Across the whole spectrum of businesses, there are plenty of examples of people who work at providing goods and services for which there is a demand, but which they do not personally consume. Why should the pub trade be any different?

It’s sometimes said that anyone running a pub really should drink the beer themselves. This is clearly ridiculous for the generality of pubs, and does it even apply to specialist bars? I’ve come across people over the years who have opened craft bars and micropubs because they see an attractive business opportunity, but who personally do not drink, or at least do not drink beer.

Yes, tasting the beer may be useful in some circumstances, and undoubtedly cask beer is a perishable product that does need special care. But a properly run pub really should be able to ensure that its stock turnover, supplier selection and cellar management practices are such that it is not routinely operating on the verge of its cask beer going off. The only skills really needed are to be able to smell vinegar and see if a pint isn’t clear.

Monday, 6 May 2019

Tom Brown’s Pubdays – Part 1

Our next Beer & Pubs Forum Proper Day Out took us to the Warwickshire town of Rugby on Friday 3rd May. The home of the famous school may not seem the most obvious choice for a beery excursion, but we were assured it had a good and varied selection of pubs, and so it proved. Rugby is an interesting combination of genteel market town and more modern industrial centre, which perhaps adds extra interest to its pub scene. Now that there is an hourly service from Stafford down the Trent Valley line through Nuneaton, it’s easily accessible by train from Stockport, taking less than two hours. Paul Mudge, aka The Other Mudgie, had a 1970s CAMRA pub guide of Warwickshire, which showed the town being dominated by Ansells and M&B, but we didn’t see any evidence remaining of either their livery on the pubs or their beers on the bar.

Our meeting point was the Seven Stars on Albert Square, which is actually a small cul-de-sac just north of the town centre. It is about fifteen minutes’ walk from the station, along a road that looks level on StreetView, but in fact climbs a noticeable gradient. Although it looks fairly small from outside, it has been considerably extended at the rear to provide a rambling interior with plenty of comfortable seating. A banner outside proclaims it was the local CAMRA Pub of the Year for 2017 and 2018.

It’s an Everard’s Project William pub, meaning that it has a wide range of guests alongside their own beers, making about ten cask lines in total. Those we tried included Everard’s old Original, Oakham JHB, Marston’s Old Empire, Titanic Plum Porter and Brit Hop King of the Kerb mild. The general view was quite favourable, but it has to be said that the mild, while in decent enough condition, was a touch thin and unmemorable. Although initially it took a long time for anyone to appear behind the bar to serve me, the landlord turned out to be quite chatty and gave us some tips about the other pubs in the town. The decorations include some vintage, and valuable, Worthington E toby jugs.

The Alexandra Arms on James Street was only a very short walk along a pedestrian cut-through passing some modern housing which had a plaque announcing it had won some kind of design award. It’s another outwardly small back-street pub that in fact has been considerably extended, with a couple of comfortable lounge areas at the front, and a large room at the rear with a pool table that is also used for live music. There were a group of youngish blokes in there who already seemed quite well-refreshed at 1pm. One of them chatted to us about the history of pubs in Rugby. “Are you the landlord?” one of us asked. “No, I’m just a dickhead”.

There were five handpumps on the first section of bar we came to. “Are there any more beers round the back?” “Hopefully not,” replied Martin Taylor, very conscious of the risk to beer quality from an over-extended range. Indeed there were, sensibly, only five beers. The pub is owned by the local Atomic Brewery, and the range included, alongside their own Strike, a number of guests including Titanic Plum Porter and Old Hooky. The Old Hooky came to the end of the barrel, but was cheerfully replaced by the Strike, which was pretty good. It was good to see the difference in price being automatically refunded, something you don’t always get when a beer is changed for another. Some gems on the jukebox, which may or may not have been selected by one of our party, included Si Tu Dois Partir by Fairport Convention, which I hadn’t heard for years, and Spirit of Radio by Rush.

We then skirted the eastern fringe of the town centre and were confidently led by Martin along an unpromising-looking path beside a church to reach the Merchant’s Inn on Little Church Street, which is close to the famous Rugby School. It’s a mock half-timbered building which describes itself on its website as a “flagstoned gem”, which indeed it is, at least in the main bar area. It has an extensive, rambling interior which has been opened out somewhat, but includes a magnificent room at the rear with a gabled timber roof. Everywhere is festooned with breweriana, including the advertisement for Wilson’s brewery of Manchester shown below.

There were nine cask beers on the bar, including Wantsum Black Prince, Titanic Plum Porter (again), Box Steam Machine Head, North Cotswold Black Jack and Nethergate Venture. Possibly at lunchtime this was rather too many beers for the trade available, and my Venture seemed a little tired. The pub has a comprehensive menu of fairly straightforward pub food, from which we selected a mixture of burgers, steak, fish and chips and a sandwich, all of which came in generous portions and were well-received, the home-made oinion rings being particularly memorable.

Another dubious-looking cut-through eventually took us to the busy Clifton Road, one of those characteristic just-off-the-centre shopping streets lined with curry houses and Polish grocers. This led us to the Victoria on Lower Hillmorton Road, a classic large back-street pub in the angle of two roads. It has a spacious, comfortable lounge to the right, and a basic public bar with pool table in the apex of the building, where we went. We were welcomed at the door by one of my favourite pub signs.

This is another pub owned by Atomic Brewery, and it had a couple of their beers on, Strike and Mosaic, alongside guests including Hooky Norton Hooky (which was pretty good), Adnams Ghost Ship and, yet again, Titanic Plum Porter, which so far had been a fixture in every pub we had visited. The music choice was what could best be described as “contemporary ballads” (oh for Ann Wilson to blow them away without the assistance of AutoTune) and this proved to be the first of several pubs screening the England vs Ireland one-day cricket international.

To be continued...

Thanks to Peter Allen of Pubs Then And Now for the external photo of the Victoria – all the rest are my own.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

The beer that dare not speak its name

Go back forty years, and there were basically just three types of real ale sold on draught in British pubs – mild, bitter and old ale. Each had its own distinctive symbol in the Good Beer Guide. And chief amongst them was Bitter. The term covered a huge variety, strong to weak, dark chestnut to pale straw, mouth-puckeringly hoppy to sickly sweet, but it was all part of that same identifiable, and uniquely British, style.

Since then, sales of mild have declined yet further and it has disappeared entirely from large areas of the country. In reponse to this, brewers started renaming their milds in the belief that the term itself was offputting to drinkers. So we have Hydes brewing Old Indie, Moorhouse’s Black Cat and Thwaites Nutty Black. But now this tendency has spread to bitter as well.

At first one of the drivers of this was to give beers are more instantly identifiable presence in the free trade and in take-home sales, so instead of just Blogg’s Bitter we got Robinson’s Unicorn and Taylor’s Boltmaker. And, earlier on, it was mostly confined to beers at the stronger end of the scale, with Courage Directors, Young’s Special and Marston’s Pedigree dropping the “Bitter” and just going by their one-word brand name. But it has now extended to the classic “ordinary” bitters, such as Hook Norton Hooky, and many of them denying that they are any kind of bitter at all, often just describing as “amber ale”.

This trend has now come to the attention of beer writers, with both Martyn Cornell and Pete Brown penning pieces on the subject in recent weeks. Both of them see the undesirable flavour connotations of the word “bitter” as a major factor, but I’m not entirely convinced by that. After all we’ve been happily drinking it for decades, and “sours” have become popular in the craft world without anyone finding that terms offputting.

It is more that “bitter” carries associations, as “mild” did before it, as being something old-fashioned that your dad would drink. This was borne out last year when we went round Banks’s brewery in Wolverhampton and were told that changing the name of their Bitter to Amber had gained a very positive reaction from drinkers. At least they do still own up in smaller letters to it being a bitter, though.

However, “amber” really says nothing about the character of a beer apart from a colour, and for many bitters it is seriously misleading. This is the colour Amber as defined by the official HTML colour chart:

And this piece of actual amber, with a mosquito trapped inside, is pretty much the colour most people associate with the term.

However, that colour is pretty much that of Foster’s when it was advertised by Paul Hogan as “the amber nectar”. Most bitters are considerably darker than that, and indeed Bombardier, despite being described as “amber beer”, is in fact a dark chestnut. The term is unhelpful and misleading, and obfuscates the true heritage of the beer. Nobody ever, when asked the question “what type of beer do you enjoy drinking?” replies “Oh, I like amber ale”.

At least, round here, if you go in a Holt’s, Lees or Sam Smith’s pub, you can still ask for a pint of bitter and that is precisely what you will get. Robinson’s, on the other hand, long ago renamed their Best Bitter Unicorn, and have more recently introduced a new mid-brown ordinary bitter called Wizard, while Hydes Bitter was renamed Original, as was Thwaites.

My friend Cooking Lager recently ran a Twitter poll which showed strong support for keeping the name of Bitter.

Whether you like it or not, Bitter, while it covers a wide spectrum of colours and flavours, is perhaps the quintessential English beer style, and stands in the pub alongside other major categories such as mild, stout and lager. To try to deny its existence and break it down into a myriad of sub-styles just sows confusion and leaves drinkers adrift as to what it actually is. So maybe it’s time that brewers should be prepared so say, loud and proud, that what they’re producing is Bitter, and stop trying to suggest that it’s just some fuzzy, ill-defined category of “Ale”.

And it seems that, after years of disguise, mild is at last coming back out of the closet and declaring unequivocally what it actually is, as shown in the pumclip below for Mcmullen’s AK, a light mild that for some years was badged as a light bitter.

Saturday, 27 April 2019

A load of froth

It’s generally taken as read that beer in the North has a thick creamy head, while Southern beer is flat. There’s a fair bit of truth in this – but why has this division come about? What follows are just a few reflections based on my personal experience, and I don’t claim they represent any kind of definitive answer to the question.

The first thought is that, broadly speaking, the North was much more industrialised than the South. This led to greater population density, and many more pubs needing to cater for hordes of thirsty miners and factory workers. Therefore turnover was higher, and beer in the North was, quite simply, usually fresher. Even when dispensed straight from the cask, newly tapped beer will still produce a thick, frothy head, although that will largely disappear once it has been on sale for a couple of days.

The distinction is certainly long established and not a recent phenomenon. In his book The Brewing Industry 1950-1990, Anthony Avis describes how, in the 1950s, beer in the North-East was typically served with a head standing proud of the glass which drinkers would proceed to blow off onto the floor, while in Norfolk, “all the Norwich brewed beers, before and after the last war, were much the same – thin, flat and lifeless; however, they suited, or appeared to suit, the customers.”

Another factor is the use of electric metered dispense with oversize glasses, which obviously allows a head to form in the glass above the surface of the beer. These were widely adopted in the North and Midlands from the early 60s onwards, but never caught on to any extent in the South – the only Southern pubs I’m aware used them were a handful of Gales tied houses. I understand they were introduced by brewers because they believed that it was in principle illegal to serve any short measure, so this system would allow them to continue meeting the local customer preference for a thick head. In my early drinking years in North Cheshire in the late 1970s, metered dispense was the norm, and handpumps a relative rarity.

In my view, this was a better system than handpumps, as it ensured full measure, was much quicker in a busy pub, and largely removed the ability of bar staff to ruin a pint by poor pulling technique, although obviously that battle is now lost. From the late 1970s, following case law that allowed, within reason, the head to be defined as part of a pint, most brewers stopped installing them, and they gradually died out over the next twenty years. Their only remaining stronghold is in the club trade in the North-East, albeit pretty much always with keg rather than cask beers.

But, in the 1960s and 70s, if you went in the average pub across much of the Midlands and North, you would be likely to be served your beer in an oversize glass with a thick head reaching almost to the top, whereas in the South you would get beer from a handpump with a head no more than a quarter of an inch deep, or often just a thin coating of foam on the top. It’s also worth adding that, in the South, you would often get keg beer with little or no head as well. Getting a pint a totally flat-looking beer with plenty of CO2 still dissolved in it was a touch disconcerting.

Where handpumps were used, the difference, while still there, was not so great. Pubs in the North-West did generally use sparklers, but they were just the short stainless steel type that screwed on to the end of the pump nozzle, and could be tightened or loosened as desired. A few rural pubs still served their beer on gravity. One feature that was commonplace, both on handpumps and meters, was the “dog’s dick”, a conical white plastic device that screwed on to the pump nozzle, with an extension that emerged from the centre when beer was pulled through it to aerate it more, hence the name. You never see those any more.

However, cross the Pennines into West Yorkshire and you would encounter something completely different – a pint pulled with an incredibly tight, creamy head that initially looked like milk and took several minutes to clear. I hadn’t really done much drinking in that part of the world, and remember being taken aback when I first came across this system in a Taylor’s pub in Heptonstall in about 1984. It was also commonplace in Tetley’s pubs. This was made possible by the use of the “economiser”, a device which allowed the recycling of spilt beer collected in the drip tray, so it was possible to pull a pint and let a lot of beer cascade down the side of the glass without wasting it. This obviously raised some hygiene concerns, but it undoubtedly, with fresh, lively beer, produced an extremely smooth and distinctive pint that literally could be described as “silk in a glass”.

This system never really spread beyond West Yorkshire and Humberside, although there is a small outpost in and around Edinburgh. Even there, some local authorities took exception to it on hygiene grounds, and forced the brewers to come up with an alternative. What this involved was using a handpump with a quarter-pint rather than half-pint cylinder, and a long “swan-neck” pipe that reached to the bottom of the glass, so pretty much all of the beer was being dispensed within the liquid in the glass rather than cascading on top of it.

Done properly, this gave a decent approximation of the economiser-style pint, and it rapidly spread across most of the North where economisers never reached. Swan-necks are now the standard means of real ale dispense. As with economisers, if the beer is fresh and full of condition, it can produce very good results, but with beer that has been on sale for several days you can end up with a lovely-looking pint of utter glop, with the sparkler having knocked any remaining life out of it. Another problem is that they make it all too easy to serve seriously short measures.

The 1990s saw the rise of “smooth” keg ales, which were initially developed as an extension of the Guinness dispense system, first seen in Caffrey’s, but rapidly became more of an attempt to replicate the look and mouthfeel of swan-neck dispensed real ale. They certainly do look the part, but in my view have a rather “soapy” feel to them and don’t come anywhere near that actual drinking experience of cask. These have now spread across the South, retaining the same thick creamy head, but are still seen as something distinctively “Northern”, underlined by the advertising message of John Smith’s, the leading brand. Non-smooth keg ales have now largely disappeared outside the craft sector – would a pint of keg Courage Best ecountered in a South-East pub now also be smoothflow?

As I said, not the full story, just a few thoughts from my own experience on how we have arrived at the present-day situation. And it’s interesting how memory of how things used to be fades, so fewer and fewer people will even be aware that electric metered dispense was once widespread, or the typical handpump had a half-pint cylinder, or there were such things as “dog’s dicks”, and even those who were around at the time may struggle to recall them.

Sunday, 21 April 2019

The craft monoculture

Last week I described how the craft beer movement had, in Europe, to a large extent ended up making its pitch against established, indigenous beer styles rather than the international brewers. This is a theme that is echoed in this recent blogpost by Will Hawkes:

What is important is variety and regional diversity: craft beer is making everything the same, everywhere. It emerged to challenge industrial pale lager’s hegemony by allowing customers to access a whole world of other flavours - but it appears to be on the way to creating a market that is almost as monocultural. I appreciate being able to get what I want to drink in London, from IPA to witbier, but it’d be better if there was more that spoke specifically of London.

What is the point of craft beer if what you get in Strasbourg tastes largely the same as what you drink in Glasgow? Mikkeller is opening a new bar in Paris later this month; Brewdog has dozens already. This is not exciting. Regional variety is exciting.

All too often, craft’s appeal seems to be that you can now have a Five Guys and not just a McDonald’s, while conveniently ignoring all the chip shops that have closed down.

He reckons that the bubble has now well and truly burst:

The shine has decisively gone off craft beer, and its previous calling card - It’s innovative! It’s new! - is all used up. (That’s why the scenesters are moving on to natural wine: it’s exciting and new and when it gets dull … well, there’ll be something else along in a few years.) The interesting stuff is happening at the fringes - coolships, barrel-aging - and the obsession with intense hop-dosed beers is dragging what remains away from the mainstream, deep into trainspotter territory.
He suggests that part of the reaction is “the fetishisation of ales like Landlord and Sussex Best”. However, I’d argue this is very limited and in general tends to be no more than paying lip service to tradition. “Oh, I really like some of those real ales”. But the trail rapidly goes cold beyond a few familiar names, and I see precious little evidence of enthusiasts actively seeking out these classic British ales on their home turf, in the way that CAMRA members did in its early years.

As he concludes, “in a world where everyone is doing the same thing, going back to where you began is the only sensible thing to do.”

Saturday, 20 April 2019

Voodoo marketing

I was rather amused by the latest Foster’s ad which pokes fun at beer snobs and their liking for “fancy pants beers”. Note the sandpapering of the cricket ball.

I can’t locate the story, but I remember reading a few years back about how a mainstream lager was successfully passed off as a craft blonde beer at a beer festival in Ireland. It has certainly happened in Australia.

Saturday, 13 April 2019

Never the twain

You often nowadays see “craft” and “cask” being treated as two entirely separate and mutually exclusive categories, both in discussion about beer and in publicity material. The pub advertising board shown at the right is a typical example. On the face of it, this seems nonsensical, as surely much cask beer ideally fits the textbook definition of craft production as small-scale and handcrafted.

However, the way it has arisen stems from the way the term “craft”, in a beer context, was borrowed from the USA. As I described here, in that country the existing tradition of small-scale, regional brewing had largely died out by the early 1970s, so what began as the microbrewery movement, and later metamorphosed into craft, was starting with a clean slate, and could concentrate all its efforts on differentiating itself from “big beer”.

The UK, though, was different, as it had preserved a substantial stratum of small and medium-sized breweries majoring on its own unique ale-brewing tradition, and had a further layer of newer microbreweries on top of this. But when the craft beer movement was transplanted from across the Atlantic in the 2000s, it decided to set out its stall in opposition to this existing tradition rather than the industry giants. Real ale, much more so than international lager, was what they were not.

Real ale culture was seen as fuddy-duddy, narrow-minded and inward-looking, whereas craft beer was modern, youthful, dynamic and international. This was most marked in BrewDog’s PR schtick, but it extended much more widely than that. And a key point of that differentiation was that craft brewers produced modern keg beers which, we were assured, were nothing like Red Barrel.

This division wasn’t entirely one-sided, and many real ale supporters have been critical of craft beer, but the initial impetus for it very much came from the craft side. This is underlined by the dimissive attitude many craft enthusiasts take towards the independent family brewers, who for many years were the principal standard-bearers of quality beer in this country.

Of course, many of what are considered as craft brewers do produce cask beers, and some major on it, but the cultural connotations of the two concepts remain diametrically opposed, and that is why they have become established in the public mind as mutually exclusive categories. Craft beer, essentially, is fashionable beer that does not carry the baggage of either real ale or mainstream lager.

Although sections of the beer commentariat may rail against it, it must be recognised that many of the products regarded by the drinking public as “craft” are in fact owned by the international brewers, to a much greater extent than real ales, and this has only been intensified by the big brewers’ craft acquisitions of recent years. And, if the US definition of craft (which has more to do with company size and independence than type of product) was extrapolated across the Atlantic, the likes of Greene King and Marston’s would certainly quality. They are smaller in terms of market share than Boston Brewing and Sierra Nevada are the USA.

It’s also noticeable how, in other countries with long-established brewing traditions such as Belgium and Germany, craft beer is usually taken to mean something different from their own indigenous styles, and very often is an international-style, heavily hopped IPA. As I said in the article I linked to above, real ale, and other countries’ own individual styles, is beer from somewhere, craft is beer from anywhere.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Supping with the devil

It was disappointing, to say the least, that, earlier today, a motion supporting minimum alcohol pricing was passed at CAMRA’s National Conference in Dundee. A similar policy had been struck down a few years ago following a motion proposed by Peter Alexander aka Tandleman, who argued that it represented “being on the wrong side of the debate”. However, it has now risen again from the dead.

I have set out the case against this in several magazine columns over the years, in April 2012, April 2013 and May last year, so I don’t propose to reiterate the arguments in detail. It’s fundamentally objectionable as it represents “prohibition by price”. It won’t do anything to boost the pub trade, and won’t give anyone a single extra penny to spend in pubs. There is also the distinct possibility that any increase over the current Scottish level of 50p per unit will start to hit the cheaper end of the pub trade. And this stance comes across as distinctly hypocritical when CAMRA is handing out vouchers for 50p off a pint in Wetherspoon’s which could easily take the price of stronger beers below the Scottish minimum.

As with the support given by the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, this comes across as a nihilistic, dog-in-the-manger lashing out at parts of the drinks trade CAMRA doesn’t particularly approve of. But, as alcohol industry commentator Paul Chase points out here, you can’t pick and choose from the anti-drink agenda.

The anti-drink lobby represents an existential threat to everything CAMRA holds dear. They only claim to support pubs over off-trade drinking because it suits their purposes at a particular time. By trying to cherry-pick from their policy proposals, CAMRA are allowing themselves to become their useful idiots. As Churchill famously said “an appeaser is one who feeds the crocodile, hoping it will eat him last”.

I’ve been a member of CAMRA for thirty-eight years, for most of that period as a Life Member. I’ve done thousands of hours of unpaid work for it. When I took up Life Membership, at a bargain price available at the time, a friend made the point that he wouldn’t do so, as it removed the potential sanction of resigning, if the organisation took a policy stance he strongly disagreed with. To jack it in would clearly be an exercise in cutting off my nose to spite my face, and ironically would actually save CAMRA money. But if I was an annual member, I’d certainly think long and hard about whether it was worth renewing, and it makes me much less inclined to lift a finger to help the organisation except out of loyalty to friends.

One consolation is that, in practice, CAMRA is unlikely to actually do very much to pursue such a policy and, judging by the reaction on Twitter, many local branches will be disinclined to lift a finger. It’s also worth noting that the motion was passed by 264 to 148, a total of 412 votes. That’s less than a quarter of one percent of CAMRA’s total membership. Is it really acceptable in this wired and connected age for such important policy decisions to be taken by such a tiny and unrepresentative group?