Sunday, 13 October 2019

Declaration of independence

Writing in the Morning Advertiser, Pete Brown wonders whether this is the last time he will have to drop the c-bomb? It is certainly true that the term “craft beer” has proved confusing and impossible to define in the UK context. The key to the problem is that its advocates tried to read it across directly from the USA, but that just doesn’t work as the markets are very different. In the US, the established stratum of medium-sized independent breweries had largely disappeared, so it was easy to pitch craft as anything that wasn’t Big Beer.

But, in this country, there was a long-standing group of independent brewers, mostly majoring on cask beer, who had in more recent years been joined by a growing number of new microbreweries. By the definition in general usage, “craft” would have encompassed pretty much all of these. But the British craft movement deliberately chose to ignore them, and indeed pitched itself as being in contrast to “real ale culture”.

Thus we have arrived at the situation I described here, where “cask” and “craft” are polar opposites, and I wrote:

...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.
Or, as Cooking Lager said in the comments, “Craft means a hoppy keg fizzy IPA. Cask means that old man handpump stuff.” In British terms, “craft beer” has become just another market segment, and one increasingly dominated, to a greater extent than real ale, by the products of the international brewers or their offshoots. Something similar has happened in European countries with a long-established brewing tradition, such as Germany and the Czech Republic, where “craft beer” is often seem as a hoppy, US-style IPA in contrast to their indigenous styles.

To avoid these issues, Pete is proposing a move to defining craft beer as that produced by independent companies rather than the industry giants, which indeed is what already is accepted in the USA. However, this cuts across how the concept is viewed in this country, as he writes:

Applied to the UK, every single beer from one of our traditional family-owned breweries would count as a craft beer. I would have no problem with that, but I know a lot of craft drinkers who would.
There is much to be said for championing independent producers – it encourages both competition and a more heterogenous beer market. It’s also a good idea to promote transparency in terms of who owns what. But it’s a lazy assumption that independent beer and good beer are synonymous. Many of the world’s great beer brands, such as Pilsner Urquell, are owned by multinational brewers, and Fuller’s ESB didn’t become any less worth drinking when it was acquired by Asahi. In contrast, plenty of unbalanced, low-quality homebrew comes out of inexperienced brewers’ garages.

In the early days of CAMRA, the organisation made great play of promoting the independent brewers in preference to the “Big Six”. After all, it had been their commitment (or inertia) that had been largely responsible for keeping real ale in existence in this country. But it always recognised that the major brewers could, and did, produce good real ales, and indeed one of them was responsible for Ind Coope Burton Ale, one of the poster boys of the initial real ale revolution. CAMRA always recognised that the product was distinct from the corporate ownership: it never sought to claim that the only beer worth drinking came from independent brewers.

The concept of independence is also very hard to define. The US definition from the Brewers’ Association sets a figure of 6 million barrels a year, but scaled down to the size of the British market that would comfortably encompass Marston’s. Yet I doubt whether many craft beer enthusiasts would accept Marston’s as craft brewers. They’d even feel uncomfortable about Palmer’s and Holt’s. How how much of a stake are multinationals allowed to hold in breweries such as Beavertown before they no longer qualify? The Brewer’s Association says no more than 25%. And how big would BrewDog have to become before it turns from a minnow into a shark? In some people’s eyes, it already has.

It’s questionable to what extent ownership really matters to most drinkers anyway. People judge beer, or indeed any other product, by what it tastes like, not who owns it. They recognise that most of the products they buy are made by multinational companies – who ever heard of an independent smartphone, or toilet paper? Indeed, the person who strives as far as possible to eliminate anything “corporate” from their lifestyle comes across as an obsessive bore. The traction this will gain amongst the great majority of drinkers is exaggerated.

So allowing “craft” to be reborn as “independent beer” isn’t going to solve the issue of definition, and is fraught with problems of its own. “Craft”, ultimately, has become established as a cultural concept, not a specific type of beer or a size of brewer. Maybe it would be best to call time on all these attempts to sort the beer world into sheep and goats.

Friday, 11 October 2019

Going Down to Liverpool - Part 2

We pick up the story of our Proper Day Out in Liverpool having just left the Lion Tavern and heading down the narrow street of Hackins Hey in the direction of Dale Street. This brought us to Ye Hole In Ye Wall, which is certainly a pub that I remember from forty years ago, and seems little changed since then. It is a low, mock half-timbered building that appears obviously older than its neighbours. It claims to be the oldest pub in the city, with the facade bearing the date 1726.

Entering through a door on the left, the bar counter runs along the front of the pub, with a couple of comfortable snugs with bench seating opposite. There’s plenty of dark wood and leaded glass, including the door to the gents’ pictured. It was the last pub in the city to be men-only, and this was not joined by ladies’ facilities until 1975.

The pub also has the unusual feature of a first-floor cellar. I vaguely recall the beer being served through free-flow gravity-fed taps, although it now has conventional handpumps. Beers on the bar included Lister’s IPA, Hafod Moel Famau, which was very good, and Lancaster Noble Pilsner, which was in good condition but, like many British cask lagers, didn’t really seem to hit the spot in terms of flavour. Although it was now well past lunchtime, it was busy, with mixed-sex groups of a variety of ages.

Ye Hole in Ye Wall is one of four pubs immediately adjacent to each other, the others being the Saddle on the corner of Hackins Hey and Dale Street, the Lady of Mann tucked away in a courtyard, and Thomas Rigby’s on Dale Street itself. Now owned by Manx brewers Okell’s, it occupies the ground floor of a substantial four-storey white-painted Victorian building in the Italianate style.

There’s a busy public bar running the length of the pub on the left, and a parlour on the right that was reserved for diners, and thus empty in mid-afternoon. Beers on the bar included Okell’s Bitter and IPA, Red Star Formby IPA and Sharp’s Atlantic, the Bitter being particularly good.

There now followed the longest walk of the day, first heading down Dale Street and Water Street past Liverpool’s historic Town Hall to the Pier Head, with a memorable view of the Mersey estuary framed by the tall buildings. We then followed the waterfront past the monumental warehouses of Albert Dock to cross a river of rush-hour traffic along Wapping to reach the Baltic Fleet, a distinctive “flat-iron” style pub in the angle of two roads. We debated the origin of the name, but according to the Liverpool Historic Pub Guide it comes from a Scandinavian merchant fleet of the 1850s trading in timber, and is nothing to do with either the Russian navy or Admiral Napier’s Royal Navy squadron in the Crimean War. By this time, as you can see from the picture, the sun was shining brightly after the earlier rain.

Oddly, while there are numerous external doors, you have to go right round the back of the pub to gain entrance. Inside, there is a central bar with long rooms on either side, the walls covered with nautical memorabilia, mostly relating to Liverpool’s involvement in Transatlantic liner services. There’s an overall pastel colour scheme reflecting the exterior, and it gave the impression of being unsure whether it wanted to be a modern craft bar or a traditional pub. It also seemed in places to be straddling the dividing line between shabby chic and tatty.

For a while, the pub had its own brewery, but this had not been in operation for a few years now. There were maybe eight beers on the bar, including Beartown Polar Eclipse, Neptune Wooden Ships, Ad Hop Endeavour and Tatton Best Bitter, all of which were pretty decent.

We then returned towards the city centre through the Liverpool One shopping precinct, which is entirely new since I had last been there, and can be a touch disorientating, although we managed to find our way without mishap. The White Star on Rainford Gardens is situated in an area of narrow streets between the shopping and commercial districts, close to Matthew Street, the location of the famous Cavern Club.

Named after the shipping line, it’s a small pub with a front seating area facing the bar and a larger rear room where a band were enthusiastically playing Beatles and Oasis covers. The live music meant it was packed, and we were only able to find a seat by unstacking some plastic stools in the corridor. It was historically a Bass tied house, and still has that classic beer alongside others including, on this occasion, rugby-themed beers from Hook Norton and Wadworth’s. The Bass, we were pleased to find, was in excellent condition, but because of the crowding we didn’t stay as long as we had planned.

The route to our final call, the Globe on Cases Street close to Central Station, took us along Church Street, which was historically the main shopping zone, although I’m not sure to what extent this has been affected by Liverpool One. It was now after six and the crowds were much reduced. The small street on which it stands had been partially taken over by a new covered shopping arcade causing a moment’s confusion, but we got there in the end.

It’s a small cosy pub with a front bar area noted for its gently sloping floor, which we were pleased to see was still carpeted, plus a rear snug. It was pretty busy, again with a wide mix of customers, but we were able to find some seats opposite the bar. The soundtrack included the Beatles (again) and Roy Orbison. There were four beers on the bar – Landlord, Doom Bar, Wainwright and Griffin Rock Red., from which we all went for the Landlord, which was pretty good.

As we had not spent as long in the White Star as we had planned, two of us had time to make a quick return visit to the Crown before catching our trains home. The route involved passing the corner of Ranelagh Street and Lime Street which was once dominated by three Liverpool landmarks – the now-closed Lewis’s department store, the Adelphi Hotel, which is still in business but has lost much of its original lustre, and the impressive Vines pub, another with a National Inventory interior, which had been reported closed but seemed to be showing some signs of life tonight, although it had not sold real ale for some years.

The Crown was extremely busy, with large standing groups in the main bar, but we found some seats in the rear room. Trooper was again good, as was Gritchie Lore English Pale Ale, which we eventually worked out came from a brewery owned by film director Guy Ritchie. The general busyness of the pubs in Liverpool was very noticeable, as werr the mixed sexes and ages of the customers. We know that pubs are struggling in many areas, but in the city centre on a Friday afternoon and early evening they certainly weren’t.

I managed to get a direct train back to Stockport, with no shortage of seats, and was back home not long after nine. Another excellent day out with, as ever, good company and conversation to go with the beer. All of these trips have their different virtues, but Liverpool stood out both for the heritage quality of the pubs we visited and their lively atmosphere. The best beers of the day were three of the more familiar ones – Trooper in the Crown, Okell’s Bitter in Thomas Rigby’s, and Bass in the White Star.

Thanks to Peter Allen of Pubs Then And Now for the photos of Ye Hole in Ye Wall, Rigby’s, the White Star and the Globe, the other two being mine.

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Plain stupid

The Morning Advertiser reports that the drinks industry are becoming increasingly concerned about the potential introduction of plain packaging for alcohol, which, it is claimed, on a global basis could cost them up to £350 billion. This has been supported by bodies such as Public Health England and the Institute for Public Policy Research.

Now, I can’t help being reminded that, at the time of the smoking ban, the idea that the principles of the anti-tobacco crusade would be extended into other areas was pooh-poohed. Smoking is a special case, we were told, and the likelihood of a slippery slope was just scaremongering. But, while it gives me no pleasure, it’s impossible to avoid something of a feeling of vindication to be proved right and to see the tobacco template increasingly being applied to soft drinks, so-called “unhealthy” foods and, of course, alcohol. Basically, pretty much anything people consume that they might enjoy.

Of course, this isn’t going to happen next year, or even in the next five years. And, realistically, plain packaging is pretty meaningless unless it is accompanied by a comprehensive ban on advertising and promotion, as we have seen with tobacco products. But the Overton window has now been opened and brought the subject into the sphere of public debate, and in the coming years the pressure is only going to increase.

The quoted figure of £350 billion refers to the total revenue that would come under the scope of the restriction, not the profit the industry would stand to lose. Indeed, in the short term, profits might increase as companies no longer had to spend any money on advertising or product development. However, their scope to conduct business would be greatly curtailed, and they would be reduced, like tobacco companies, to producing a declining but still lucrative product, but having very little ability to influence how the market operated or even to compete in any meaningful way with each other. Plain packaging takes away a key means of differentiating your product from others and reduces it to a generic item.

Nor would it stop people drinking, as they take up alcohol following the example of family members or peers, not because they are seduced by glitzy labels. But what it would do is to ossify the market in the form it took before the restriction came in. Product knowledge would depend on folk memory and word-of-mouth and, increasingly, price would become the main determinant of choice, as it has with tobacco products. Innovation and new product introductions would become virtually impossible. And, while measures of this kind are sometimes portrayed as a way of attacking corporate power, it is the little guys and the new entrants to the market who would suffer to a much greater extent than the big, established players.

Ultimately, this is a highly patronising and illiberal policy that seeks to control people and deny them the opportunity to make informed decisions as to how to live their lives. It is “we know better than you”, and needs to be strongly resisted by anyone who is interested in the protection of individual freedom.

Monday, 7 October 2019

Going Down to Liverpool – Part 1

Our latest Beer & Pubs Forum Proper Day Out involved a visit to Liverpool on Friday 4 October. I grew up in Runcorn, from which Liverpool was the closest and most accessible big city, so in the late Seventies and early Eighties I became very familiar with its pubs. However, I hadn’t been back there for at least twenty-five years, probably longer than I had last visited Preston. There’s really too much in Liverpool for a single day to do it justice, so we decided to concentrate on the pubs in and around the downtown business district around Dale Street which is the original heart of the city.

While the city centre hasn’t experienced the dramatic rebuilding of Manchester in recent years, there has still been plenty of modern development, particularly along the waterfront and in the new Liverpool One shopping precinct. You are also confronted when leaving Lime Street station with some garish bright blue cladding on the St John’s Centre opposite.

Manchester to Liverpool is one of those railway journeys that could be accomplished more quickly in the Edwardian era than today, albeit with fewer stops. The fast train I caught was scheduled to take 54 minutes for the 35-mile journey, although in fact it started ten minutes late and easily made up the time without ever really seeming to put the hammer down.

I couldn’t resist a reminder of this Bangles classic from the early 80s, in fact written by Kimberley Rew of Katrina & The Waves:


Hey now, where you going with that pint of Higsons in your hand
I said: Hey now, through this green and pleasant land
I'm going down to Liverpool to do nothing
All the days of my life
Well, an afternoon spent in various pubs isn’t quite doing nothing, but probably much more fun.

After an inexplicably crowded, standing room only train journey, we met up at the Crown, which is conveniently situated right next to Lime Street station. It was still raining at this point, but it gave up while we were in the pub and in fact the sun came out later. It’s a large street-corner pub with impressive external plasterwork advertising Walker’s Warrington Ale. The interior is even more impressive, meriting a full entry on CAMRA’s National Inventory, with stunning, intricate plasterwork ceilings and a wealth of original wooden details.

There’s a spacious main bar at the front, which given the number of blocked-up external doors has presumably been opened out at some time in the distant past, although the layout has been the same for as long as I can remember it. To the rear is a comfortable lounge with bench seating around the walls, and there is an upstairs dining room. There were eight cask beers on the bar, including Doom Bar, Landlord, Trooper and Rudgate Hop for Heroes. We sampled the latter three, which were all good, although the Trooper was certainly the best of the bunch.

We then walked down St John’s Lane past the magnificent St George’s Hall, which is like a Merseyside version of the Parthenon. It was designed by Harvey Lonsdale Elmes when he was only 24, and he was dead by 33. Ever since I’ve been visiting Liverpool, it’s always struck me as odd that it’s so difficult to get from Lime Street to the commercial district on foot, and nothing seems to have changed, so we ended up having to walk across the throat of the original Queensway Mersey Tunnel, opened in 1933, to reach our target, the Ship & Mitre at the eastern end of Dale Street.

This is an impressive white-tiled Art Deco pub, built in 1937 as the brewery tap for the long-defunct Bent’s Brewery, that ended up falling into the hands of Bass Charrington. The suprising spacious, rambling interior has been mostly modernised in bare-boards alehouse style, but apparently there is an intact original function room upstairs. It positions itself as Liverpool’s premier real ale free house, and sported a very wide range of both cask and keg ales on the bar, including three form their own Flagship Brewery. We chose Flagship Lupa, Fernandes Triple O and Lees True Faith, all of which were pretty good. It also had the authentic German ABK lager which seems to be getting into a lot of beer-focused pubs.

Our next call was the Railway on Tithebarn Street opposite the former Exchange Station, which isn’t on the usual real ale/heritage pubs trail, but had been recommended to me by several people on Twitter for its food. While we rarely struggle to find good beer on these trips, decent lunchtime pub food can be more of a challenge, as we found to our cost in Preston. It’s a handsome Victorian street-corner pub that has been opened up somewhat, but extends a long way back, with no shortage of comfortable bench seating, albeit sporting the dreaded scatter cushions. It was pretty busy, with most groups eating, and seemed to be popular with city workers of various ages. It also had uniformed bar staff in aprons, and gave the general impression of being a classic bustling city-centre pub.

The beer selection of Doom Bar, Dizzy Blonde and Trooper wouldn’t excite the ticker, but three beers is quite enough for a generalist pub, and we all plumped for the Dizzy, which didn’t disappoint. It was also only £2.90 a pint. While I wasn’t keeping a detailed record, beer prices in Liverpool seemed generally reasonable, and well below central Manchester, with little over £3.50. The Railway has an extensive menu of good-value food, from which we variously chose the classic local dish of Scouse and a steak baguette with chips, both of which, by the standards of mainstream pub food, were very good.

Right next door to the Railway is the Lion Tavern on the corner of Tithebarn Street and Moorfields. Outwardly, it doesn’t look as impressive, but it has a magnificent unspoilt interior which qualifies it for a full National Inventory entry. It has a corner public bar surrounded by an L-shaped corridor giving access to a News Room at the front and a cosy toplit lounge to the rear. There’s an abundance of original etched glass and a very rare Art Nouveau tiled frontage to the bar. The only jarring feature was that any fixed seating that once existed in the bar itself had been removed and replaced by posing tables.

There were six or seven cask beers available, including Lion Mild brewed specially for the pub by the local Rock the Boat Brewery. We chose Salopian Lemon Dream, which was pretty good, and Butcombe Bitter and Lees Bitter, both of which unfortunately were rather past their best, which slightly detracted from the general experience. We also took advantage of the free jukebox, featuring real CDs, which didn’t seem to include much music recorded over the past thirty years.

To be continued....

Thanks to Peter Allen of Pubs Then And Now for the photos, with the exception of that of the Crown, which comes from Merseyside Pub Guide.

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

It won’t lie down

The most recent version of the annual Cask Report was published last month. Against a background of falling sales, it argued that the key to turning the sector round was premiumisation, which seems somewhat perverse to say the least. This idea really is a complete canard that for some reason keeps getting resurrected. I have written about this several times in the past, here for example, so am reluctant to produce another lengthy essay on the subject. However, here are a few quick bullet points.

  • The historical reason that cask sells at a discount to keg ales and lagers is that it was originally the standard beer in pubs. Keg ales and lagers commanded a premium both because they were new innovations and because they incurred more processing and storage costs.

  • One reason that it continues to sell at a discount is inconsistent quality. People won’t pay top dollar for a product that is something of a lottery.

  • Cask doesn’t inherently cost any more to make than keg, and it isn’t really that difficult to keep well so long as you stick to a few simple rules.

  • Cask is a perishable product that is critically dependent on turnover. It is ill-suited to occupy a low-volume niche.

  • Most cask is consumed by ordinary drinkers, not beer enthusiasts. It is usually the staple ale in pubs and is compared with lagers and smooth ales, not with craft keg.

  • Cask beer isn’t exactly cheap at the moment, with the £4 pint very common now.

  • Many cask drinkers are people on a limited budget who have no scope to absorb hefty price increases. 59% of drinkers may say in a poll that it should cost more, but in practice would they be happy to pay it?

  • The single biggest retailer of cask beer is an aggressive discounter, which makes it very difficult to shift the perception of the market.
With work, premium pricing can be achieved for individual brands and pubs, as I wrote here. But it’s just not going to happen for the whole sector, so maybe it would be best to stop trying to flog this particular dead horse.

It’s interesting to see the contrast between these two Twitter polls by Ber O’Clock Show and myself asking subtly different questions:

Saturday, 28 September 2019

Whither the village pub?

On my recent visit to Cambridge, I happened to be driving through the village of Harston, to the south-west of the city, and spotted a closed Indian restaurant prominently situated in the fork of two roads. It looked like an obvious former pub, and after a certain amount of digging I found out that it was originally called the Old English Gentleman. Clearly a shoo-in for my Closed Pubs blog.

However, my investigations also revealed that there were two other closed pubs in the village, the Pemberton Arms and the Three Horseshoes, leaving just the Queen’s Head still standing, plus a keg-only brewery tap on an outlying industrial estate that is only open for ten hours a week. This is a familiar story from villages up and down the country.

Yet Harston is situated in area where there’s a lot of new housing development going on nearby. Surely that should provide new custom for its pubs. After all, it’s often said that being close to a good local pub is often a major factor in housebuying decisions – for example, this report states that a quarter of homebuyers see it as important. However, this seems to be yet another example of revealed preference, where what people say to pollsters isn’t borne out by what they actually do on the ground. There’s very little evidence that building new housing in practice does much to help village pubs. It’s a demonstration of the “chimneypots fallacy” that nearby housing is a guarantee of trade.

Take the large village or small town of Holmes Chapel, right in the heart of Cheshire. The 2011 census gave it a population of 5,605, but that has since been substantially boosted by major housing developments on three sides. It once had four pubs, one of which, the Good Companions, closed a number of years ago. Of the three remaining, Sam Smith’s Swan, just over the railway line from a big new estate, is currently closed, leaving just two, plus a new craft bar/micropub. Despite a large influx of new residents, it doesn’t seem to be boom time for pubs in Holmes Chapel. Maybe the archetypal village local isn’t what new house buyers are looking for.

Planning permission has now been granted for the former Old English Gentleman to be turned into a convenience store. Clearly that will be of more benefit to the local community than a closed Indian restaurant. And, while we may bemoan the loss of pubs to retail use, it has to be remembered that all pubs are not equal. While some can genuinely say they are the heart of their village, others adopt a trading format that delivers very little to local residents, something with which my recent Twitter poll agreed:

Thursday, 26 September 2019

Stoned

Over the past couple of years, Sam Smith’s have abruptly closed a substantial number of the pubs in their estate. Where the pubs have car parks, they are often crudely barricaded with large rocks, as shown in the two photos below of the Bird in Hand at Mobberley in Cheshire.

I don’t get the impression that, by and large, this is happening because the pubs in question are unviable. The Bird in Hand often seems pretty busy, and hosts regular gatherings of cyclists who I doubt would be welcome at the other gastropubs in the village. And I was recently in York where the York Arms facing the west door of the Minster was firmly shut: in the right hands that should be a goldmine.

The answer lies more in the company’s difficulty in recruiting new managers, following numerous press reports of their high-handed management practices. The managers are also put in a difficult position by being expected to enforce unreasonable policies such as the blanket bans on swearing and mobile phone use. Added to this, there appears to a reluctance to employ relief managers, thus leading to pubs closing entirely when there are no permanent incumbents. This seems to be a very short-sighted policy – not only will there be a loss of revenue, but regular customers may be lost and the fabric of the pub deteriorate while it is closed.

Two of the five Sam’s pubs in my local CAMRA branch area – the Turnpike in Withington and the Sun in September in Burnage - have been closed for some time with no immediate sign of reopening. The Bird in Hand, which I have written about here, is one of the most congenial pubs in their Cheshire estate, and one of the few proper country pubs remaining in the county. Let’s hope they are able to get it open again before too long.

Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Taking a punt

I’m not generally one for “what I did on my holidays” posts, but last week I spent a few days in Cambridge, which I thought would be worthy of a mention. The last time I was there was actually the week in 1997 following the death of Princess Diana, when there was a very strange atmosphere in the country. One thing that struck me this year was the amount of new construction of five- and six-storey buildings that had taken place, especially in the vicinity of the station.

Contrary to popular belief, my objective on holiday is mainly to visit places of historic interest rather than engaging on a non-stop pub crawl. I managed to get to Anglesey Abbey, which stands in beautiful grounds and was restored in the inter-war period by the wealthy Lord Fairhaven as a beau-ideal of the English country house:

The Imperial War Museum Aviation Collection at Duxford – even a full day can’t do this justice.

And Audley End. This is a palatial Jacobean house originally built by the Earl of Suffolk that, despite its current size, was in the early 1700s drastically reduced from its original huge extent. It even had a brief spell in the ownership of King Charles II in the 1660s. Unusually for such properties, it is in the hands of English Heritage rather than the National Trust, which results in a somewhat less cloying and patronising approach to presentation.

However, despite this, it’s impossible to avoid the opportunities for a bit of pub exploration that a trip away provides. On the Monday afternoon, I had a wander round some of the pubs on the eastern fringe of the city centre with Martin Taylor and Andrew from West Suffolk CAMRA, covering the Alexandra, Free Press, Elm Tree and Champion of the Thames (pictured at the top). Martin has written about this perambulation here and here.

All were good, but the Free Press and Champion are absolute classic unspoilt pubs, and both in fact Greene King tied houses. The Free Press had the rare Greene King XX Mild (which was superb) and a tiny box snug that was crowded with three of us in it. However, I probably marginally preferred the Champion, which is closer to the city centre and has more of a passing-trade clientele, Indeed I went back there the following night, when I overheard some classic pub banter:

Boycott was a boring batsman who turned into a stimulating commentator. Botham was the opposite...

British actor who has just landed a top role in a US TV series being interviewed on breakfast TV. “You must have beaten off a lot of American actors to get that part.”

Both of those, though, are very much middle-class pubs. The Champion shows the rugby on the telly, but not the footie. I have no problem with that but, apart from Wetherspoon’s, there really are no down-to-earth boozers left in central Cambridge, and Martin reports that the traditional estate pubs have also died the death on the outskirts. There is no Cambridge equivalent to Oxford’s Blackbird Leys and Cowley car factory. The lack of older customers in the pubs was also noticeable.

What Cambridge does have is the Mill Road area on the southeast of the city centre, which encompasses the two districts of Petersfield and Romsey Town on either side of the railway line. It is an area of Victorian terraced housing that is now occupied by young professional workers in education, healthcare and high-tech industries, and you could probably buy a whole street in Burnley for the price of a single house. The demographic is maybe similar to Cholrton in Manchester.

However, it has retained its small back-street locals, and the character of the local population is reflected in the clientele of pubs such as the Six Bells, Live and Let Live and Cambridge Blue, resulting in an atmosphere rare anywhere else in the country. You wouldn’t find any small suburban pub around here anywhere near as busy as the Six Bells at 8.30 pm on a Wednesday night, or with such a youthful customer profile. The Wikipedia article recounts that Dylan Thomas attended a notorious week-long drunken party in the Mill Road area in 1937 after coming to Cambridge to give a reading.

Despite the title, I spurned the offer of a trip in a punt on the Cam, but I did overhear one of the punters informing his passengers that Cambridge alumni had won 117 Nobel Prizes to Oxford’s 69. On the other hand, Cambridge has only produced 14 British Prime Ministers to Oxford’s 28. I suppose those statistics reflect rather better on Cambridge. Both are fascinating and characterful cities, but I don’t really have a preference between the two.

As an aside, Cambridge was the last major town or city in Britain to have a “one-sided” railway station, where all trains in either direction used the same very long through platform. I remember this from the late 70s and early 80s, and Wikipedia reports that it continued in that form until as late as 2011.

Sunday, 22 September 2019

Reassuringly expensive

Wetherspoon’s have recently cut the price of some beers by 20p a pint as a way of illustrating the benefits that could be gained from a post-Brexit free trade regime. However, this has been criticised by the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) on the grounds that it will devalue the product and make it increasingly difficult for small brewers to make a decent living.

To some extent, they have a case, as presenting beer as a high-quality, premium product is inconsistent with it being sold in a market where low price is a key selling point. However, comments like this often seem to assume that beer is somehow exempt from the normal laws of supply and demand. If Wetherspoon’s charged half as much again for their beer, as most of their competitors do, they would sell a lot less of it. Every price increase, however small, will make the product unaffordable for someone.

As RedNev argues here, it is wrong to blame drinkers for low prices in the beer market. It’s not as if they’re some organised lobby who could easily pay more, but prefer to greedily trouser the difference. They act as individuals and can only make their buying decisions based on what is set out before them. Plus it has to be said that, outside of Wetherspoon’s, beer isn’t exactly cheap anyway, with £4 a pint now common in many places, although how the cake is actually distributed is another matter.

Nobody, certainly not CAMRA, is actively campaigning for an across-the-board cut in beer prices, and I’ve argued in the past that relative price alone is a relatively minor factor in the decline in the pub trade over recent years. But it does beer no favours to be asked to pay a premium price for something that isn’t of consistently high quality.

I’ve discussed the beer pricing issue at some length in the past, and don’t intend to go over the same points again. However, rather than just complaining that life isn’t fair, the brewers should recognise that competitive markets are often unforgiving, and look at what they can do themselves to enhance the perceived value of their product.

There are a couple of factors in the marketplace that clearly work against this. The first is oversupply – there are a very large number of breweries chasing a finite amount of business, and many of them, for various reasons, are in a position where they don’t actually need to make a full-time living from brewing. This inevitably leads to intense price competition and deep discounting, which may benefit pubs and consumers in the short term, but which doesn’t produce a healthy brewing industry. It may sound harsh, but some kind of shakeout is needed to restore the equilibrium of supply and demand and allow the remaining brewers to improve their margins.

Then there is the prevailing culture, at least in the cask beer market, of ever-changing rotating guest beers. This presents cask as an undifferentiated, interchangeable product and denies drinkers the opportunity to make repeat purchases if a beer takes their fancy. If brewers wish to develop a premium reputation for their product, it is important to be able to secure permanent lines in pubs – possibly for the brewery rather than specific brands – so that customers are given the opportunity to show loyalty rather than just accepting what happens to have turned up on the bar.

But there are things that brewers could do to improve their situation. The first, which may sound obvious, is to actually brew good beer, so that people will try it, enjoy it, and ask for it again. If you don’t like Wetherspoon’s, don’t sell to them. Nobody has to; they don’t operate a monopoly. Try to avoid cut-throat price competition, and if necessary just walk away from a deal rather than selling at a price you’re not happy with. Ultimately, if you conclude you can’t make a living from it, it may be best to shut up shop entirely rather than playing beggar-my-neighbour.

And, perhaps most importantly, do what you can to gain more control over your distribution chain. This means that you can exert more influence over both the selling price and the quality of the end product. Restrict your sales to outlets that you know you can trust and, if finances allow, try to develop your own pubs and bars. Even a single brewery tap can act as a showcase for your products. These are things that far-sighted breweries are already doing. Yes, it’s a tough world out there, but brewers don’t just have to sit back and take it.

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Home Counties havens

Spectator Life magazine recently published a feature on the best country pubs within touching distance of London. I posted on Twitter that you just knew what kind of pubs these were going to be, and I wasn’t wrong, as they were, entirely predictably, the type of places where “Mouth-watering mains include whole Roast Grouse with Game Chips & Bread Sauce and Venison Steak with Quince Jelly & Blue Cheese Mashed Potato.”

So I invited suggestions for some genuinely unspoilt and characterful pubs that would fit the bill better, and the results are shown below. I haven’t made any attempts to vet the list and they are presented as given to me. The only ones I’ve actually been to are marked with a *. In particular, I really don’t know rural Hertfordshire and the southern part of Essex well at all. The preponderance of pubs in these two counties is, of course, maybe driven more by who responded than being an accurate reflection of the relative quality of the pub stock in the various areas. I’ve provided links for some that people waxed particularly lyrical about. Initially, nothing was suggested in Buckinghamshire, but I’ve now added a couple from the comments.

Bedfordshire

Cock, Broom *
Engineers Arms, Henlow

Berkshire

Bell, Aldworth *

Buckinghamshire

Prince Albert, Frieth
White Horse, Hedgerley

Cambridgeshire

Queen’s Head, Newton *

Essex

Bell, Castle Hedingham
Cats, Woodham Walter
Chequers, Dunmow
Chequers, Marks Tey
Compasses, Littley Green
Hurdlemakers Arms, Woodham Mortimer
Rodney, Little Baddow
Station Arms, Southminster
Swan, Little Totham
Three Elms, Chignall St James
Three Horseshores, Duton Hill
Viper, Mill Green (pictured above)

Hampshire

Harrow, Steep
Plough, Little London

Hertfordshire

Angler’s Retreat, Marsworth
Cross Keys, Harpenden
Crown & Sceptre, Bridens Camp
Green Man, Sandridge
Half Moon, Wilstone
John Bunyan, Coleman Green
Plough, Ley Green
Queen’s Head, Allens Green
Red Lion, Marsworth
Rising Sun, Berkhamstead
Rose & Crown, Trowley Bottom
Strathmore Arms, St Paul’s Walden
Woodman, Wild Hill

Kent

Crown, Groombridge
Five Bells, Eynsford
Old House, Ightham Common *
Queen’s Arms, Cowden Pound
Rock Inn, Chiddingstone Hoath

Oxfordshire

Black Horse, Checkendon

Surrey

Fox, Worplesdon *
Fox & Hounds, Godstone
Royal Marine, Lyne
Scarlett Arms, Walliswood *

Sussex

Blue Ship, The Haven *

This one – the Green Man at Sandridge – certainly sounds a world away from the kind of pub listed in the original article:

Something I’ve observed before is that traditional country pubs with a substantial wet trade seem to be much more prevalent in the South of England than the North, and an attempt to come up with a similar list for Cheshire and Lancashire would, I think, yield pretty slim pickings.

Monday, 9 September 2019

Cream of the crop

My recent post about how judging the quality of beer contains a large element of subjectivity was prompted by Boak & Bailey defending Matthew Curtis’ right to say he liked Harvey’s beer. It certainly seems to be true that they attract a fair bit of affection from the craft fraternity.

Much of the contemporary British craft beer movement seems to have set out its stall by pitching itself in opposition to the established real ale scene, both in terms of “boring brown twiggy bitter” and the wider culture surrounding it of socks and sandals, folk-singing and steam railway preservation. But Harvey’s is one of the select band of established family brewers who seem to be an exception to this.

So why might this be the case? They are fairly close to London, which inevitably gives them a higher profile. I think they only have a couple of pubs in the capital, but they have an extensive free trade, often cropping up in those pubs that are viewed as making an effort on the beer front. On the other hand, they haven’t succumbed to the lure of getting large-scale deals with the major pub companies, which may bring more distribution, but inevitably leads to a drop in quality at the point of sale and an element of familiarity breeds contempt. They have also not gone for national supermarket distribution for their bottled beers, which is a low-margin, cut-throat business and again will erode the feeling of exclusiveness.

They have added to their pub estate piecemeal over the years – the latest Good Beer Guide gives a figure of 48 – but it hasn’t grown to the extent where they start being accused of high-handed practices towards their tenants and imposing bland corporate uniformity. And, most importantly, they do actually brew some very good beer. They have a range of products, have produced various seasonal and limited editions, and have even dabbled in the more crafty side of things. But their flagship product is undoubtedly Sussex Best Bitter, of which Mike Dunn in his 1986 book Local Brew says:

This is a magnificent beer, one of the truly great and distinctive bitters which are still available; quite sharp to the palate but nevertheless essentially malty in character, it i s regarded as well suited to local tastes and so, very reassuringly, there are no plans to follow other, more short-sighted, breweries by reducing its distinctive nature.
And the same still holds true thirty-three years later. It’s perhaps the archetypal example of the classic English balanced country bitter, and it makes no concessions to modern craft trends. But I think part of the affection for it stems from people saying “well, that’s not really my style of beer, but within that category that’s the one I like.” That’s an entirely reasonable stance, and not in any sense insincere. Many people might say something similar about whiskies, or blue cheeses. You can’t have an in-depth experience of everything. There may also be an element of “revealed preference”, with people saying they like it, but not in practice making a great deal of effort to seek it out.

It’s interesting to look at how Harveys have risen to this position of pre-eminence. Going back forty years, they were just a small curiosity in the roll-call of independent breweries, to be be filed alongside the likes of Burts and Paines. According to the 1978 Good Beer Guide, they had a mere 24 pubs, of which only half sold real ale. They also provided beer to the 26 pubs of their erstwhile local rivals Beards, who had closed their own brewery in the early 1950s due to a yeast infection, but only half of these had real ale. Yes, their beer was good, but in the South-East south of the Thames Gales, King & Barnes, Youngs and Shepherd Neame were more highly regarded.

But, since them, under the stewardship of Miles Jenner, who combined the roles of Joint Managing Director and Head Brewer, the company slowly but steadily advanced. It maintained the quality of its core beers, while expanding its range, increasing its pub estate and developing its free trade. And, partly due to others falling by the wayside, it’s emerged at the front of the pack in that part of the world. Three of the breweries I mentioned have gone, while Shepherd Neame seem to have sacrificed beer quality on the altar of expansion.

Over the years, I can’t say I’ve drunk a huge amount of Harvey’s beer, as it is rarely seen in my part of the world. I’ve probably not had more than thirty pints of it in total, despite having both been on a pub crawl of Lewes and had a holiday in Eastbourne, two things that I suspect few of my readers have done. But I’ve had enough to say that, in my view, Sussex Best is one of my favourite cask beers, and one of the best beers of its category in the country. It’s definitely one that would spring out from the bar when I walked into a pub.

But I’m not convinced it really does stand head-and-shoulders above its competitors. Last month, I had an excellent pint of John Smith’s Cask in Preston, and recently I’ve had several very good drops of Black Sheep Bitter. Are they as good as Harvey’s? Probably not. But they’re certainly in the same general ballpark of quality when well-kept. And, if I was marooned on a desert island and could only drink one beer for the rest of my life, I would probably choose Draught Bass in preference, and certainly Batham’s Best.

If you decide Harvey’s is the one trad beer you like, that’s fair enough. But if you then dismiss Wadworth’s 6X, Palmer’s IPA and Brain’s SA as boring brown bitters, then you’re just demonstrating your own ignorance.

Friday, 6 September 2019

Making pubs safe for Saskia

Every year, the Good Pub Guide is published around this time, and often courts controversy with the accompanying publicity. As I’ve mentioned in the past, it has a very specific vision of what constitutes a “good pub” – namely an unthreatening, smart, middle-class dining pub. The occasional more basic and characterful establishment may occasionally get a look-in to add a touch of colour and authenticity, but they know very well what their readership is looking for.

This year, they have chosen to celebrate the transformation of pubs in the twelve years since the introduction of the smoking ban. However, its tone comes across as smug, middle-class triumphalism. What we don’t like, nobody else should be allowed to have, especially not the scummy plebs.

12 years since the introduction of the smoking ban in England, a pub guide has credited the initiative with transforming pubs and forcing them to become cleaner, brighter places with better food and with greater appeal to women and families...

“Those bars full of fug and male chat quickly became a thing of the past,” the guide notes. “Pubs adapted by installing smokers’ shelters and outdoor heaters, and licensees soon realised that by making their pubs smoke-free, they turned into cleaner, brighter places, and opened up a massive new customer base: women and families with young children who headed to pubs for a meal and even an overnight stay.”

However, even before 2007, there was no shortage of bright, family-friendly, food-dominated pubs. What has happened is not so much that the old working-class wet-led boozers have transformed themselves, as that they have closed down in huge numbers. The article says rather dismissively “It was predicted to be the death knell for the traditional British boozer and likely to lead to a slump in business and permanent closures,” but then goes on to contradict itself by pointing out that fourteen pubs a day are still closing. The amount of beer sold in pubs has fallen by 35% since 2007. As one commentator on Twitter says,
It’s rather baffling how the smoking ban is supposed to have made pubs more appealing to women, when a higher proportion of women smoke than men. And the very fact that they have chosen to return to the subject twelve years on indicates that it is still a live issue that has created an abiding legacy of bitterness. We haven’t moved on and put it behind us. If people choose to constantly reiterate their argument it suggests they do not feel that they’re standing on particularly solid ground.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

The twenty-year itch – Part 2

We pick up the story of our Proper Day Out in Preston having just left the Olde Blue Bell and retracing our steps along Churchgate towards the city centre. We turned right along Lancaster Road, passing between the actual Guild Hall, a modern edifice on our right, and a row of impressive Victorian civic buildings on the left. This brought us to the Guild Ale House, described as “a larger than average micropub”. It also has longer than average hours, being open from noon every day to 11 pm most evenings.

It has a main bar area with posing tables, a more comfortable snug to the rear where we were able to find some seats, and also an upstairs seating area reached by a Wild West saloon-style open staircase. There were seven cask beers on offer, from which we chose Lancaster Blonde, Blackedge Cascade APA and Bank Top Swan Lane Mill. The latter was an amber-coloured beer which was in good condition but had a distinctive liquorice flavour that wasn’t to my liking.

We then had a long but fortunately level walk up North Road, passing the New Meadow Street Labour Club where people in the outside drinking area at the front were obviously enjoying their Friday afternoon in the sun. I’m sure if Life After Football had been with us he would have wanted to dive in for a swift pint. Eventually we reached our next port of call, the Moorbrook, which is now the solitary pub on a road junction where there used to be several others. Here we stragglers at last caught up with the rest of the party.

It has a distinctive frontage with arched, single-light, frosted windows on either side of the entrance door. Inside the bar is on the right with two snug areas with bench seating to the left. There is also a small beer garden at the rear. Once a Thwaites pub, it is now a free house, with eight beers on the bar, including their own Moorbrook Pale Ale brewed by Blackjack, Durham Lemon Dib Dab, Potbelly Streaky and Raw Black Forest Stout. This did seem a somewhat ambitious range for such a small pub, but all those we had were in decent enough nick. My sole previous visit here had been on Saturday 27 November 1993, when I memorably watched England beat New Zealand at Rugby Union, and also visited two of its now-closed neighbours.

Heading back down Moor Lane towards the city centre, past further closed pubs, we turned off the right along Adelphi Street to reach the Vinyl Tap. Formerly the Hearts of Oak, this street-corner pub has now been reopened and revived with a vinyl record theme. There were two large racks of vinyl albums for people to pick out, although it wasn’t entirely clear to the casual visitor how the request system worked. We were treated to Hot Fuss by The Killers which, let’s face it, wasn’t exactly Jethro Tull.

The pub has a spacious single-room interior, albeit with something of a lack of seating, although we were able to find a berth at a long table in the centre. There were five beers available including their own Vinyl Tap Pale, Duffield Amber, Waen Eek-a-Mousse Stout (a musical reference there, folks) and Abbeydale Reaper.

We then followed Friargate back towards the city centre. This is a long street that, despite closures, still has plenty of pubs, including the Old Black Bull, once the city’s premier specialist beer pub, but now apparently fallen on hard times in the hands of Greene King, and the Sun, where Paul Mudge was staying. This is the last remaining Thwaites pub in the city centre, and we had considered including it on the itinerary for that reason, but he reported that they actually had no Thwaites beers on the bar. The top end of Friargate is closed off by an impressive vista of the Victorian Harris Museum which many people might imagine was the town hall.

Deliberately putting off the best until last, we diverted off Friargate along Orchard Street to reach the Market Tap, which not surprisingly faces the Victorian covered market halls. This pub seems to be undergoing an identity crisis, as it has been fashionably renamed “Tap”, but still plainly says “Market Tavern” on the frontage, as the photo shows. I suspect even that is relatively modern, and going back forty or fifty years it might well have been the Market Hotel or Vaults.

It has an L-shaped single-room interior around the central bar, with plenty of bench seating and couple of intimate but rather dark booths on the right. A notable feature is a glass panel on the floor just inside the door allowing you to see down into the cellar. There were four beers on the bar – John Smith’s Cask, Hawkshead Bitter, Titanic Plum Porter and Beartown Bluebeary. Compared with one or two of the earlier pubs, it was good to see some familiar pumpclips, and the John Smith’s, while it might be a beer that some look down on, was in fact very good indeed. Jessie’s Girl by Rick Springfield on the soundtrack brought back some memories of the 1981. Maybe, or maybe not, by coincidence, that particular day happened to be Rick Springfield’s 70th birthday.

Doubling back down Orchard Street took us to our final call and the crème de la crème of Preston pubs, Robinson’s Black Horse. This is an impressive late-Victorian redbrick street-corner pub that merits a full entry on CAMRA’s National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors. There are a couple of cosy front smoke rooms on either side of a mosaic-floored corridor leading to an amazing ceramic bar counter in what was originally the public bar. At the rear is a comfortable recessed seating area with mirrored walls, with the entrances to the Ladies’ and Gents’ toilets on either side.

There seemed to be something of a Hop Back tap takeover, with Citra, Entire and Fuggle Stone, but in a pub such as this it would be rude not to drink the Robinson’s, which was available in the shape of Unicorn and Dizzy Blonde in both standard and chilled version. The Unicorn was excellent and for me was the best beer of the day. We discussed what was the point of chilled cask beer when the actual serving temperature achieved was so variable anyway. Wouldn’t it be redundant if the target cellar-cool temperature was reliably achieved?

From here it was a brisk ten-minute walk back to the station for those of us not living locally or staying overnight. As always, a great day out with good beer, good – and varied – pubs and good company. Sheffield Hatter had worked out that the planned itinerary covered 4.2 miles, and with the fruitless short cut to get to the Continental it must have been more like four and a half. Who says beer drinking doesn’t keep you fit?

Thanks to Peter Allen of Pubs Then And Now for the photos of the Guild Ale House, Vinyl Tap and Market Tap/Tavern.

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

The twenty-year itch - Part 1

The Lancashire city of Preston is well-known for celebrating its Guild Festival every twenty years, and it occurred to me that the last time I had been drinking there was in fact nearly twenty-four years ago. Back then, it still had numerous Thwaites pubs, and it wasn’t that long since the other major local independent brewer Matthew Brown had been taken over, but a great deal has changed on the pub scene in the intervening years, although one or two things refreshingly hadn’t. It therefore made a good venue for our latest Beer & Pubs Forum Proper Day Out. It was a poignant thought that my last interaction on social media with the late Richard Coldwell had been discussing arrangements for this trip, which he hadn’t been able to fit in anyway.

We met up just after 11 am on the morning of Friday 23 August in the Old Vic, a large four-square pub conveniently situated right opposite the railway station. While the interior has been much opened out over the years, it retains a number of areas of comfortable seating ranged around the central bar counter, with plenty of dark wood in the decor. I’d actually say it’s a better pub than you might normally expect in such a location. There were seven of us, including a number of the usual suspects plus local boy Matthew Lawrenson of “Seeing the Lizards” fame in his trademark Paisley shirt.

For such an early hour, the pub was ticking over nicely, with a variety of customers. The Test Match was showing on various TV screens, fortunately with the sound down, and Jason Roy’s dismissal at 11.16 am proved to be the first of many throughout the day. Indeed, for the next three hours, England were averaging no less than three wickets per pub. There were four beers on the bar, including Timothy Taylor’s Knowle Spring, White Rat, Bombardier and Reedley Hallows Beer O’Clock. The Knowle Spring proved the most popular and was in pretty good nick. Martin Taylor’s liver was still suffering from his GBG-ticking exertions in Scotland over the previous couple of days, and he restricted himself to an alcohol-free Heineken, which was available here on draught, something I had not seen before.

On the map, the route to the next pub, the Continental down by the riverside, looked a straightforward one along the west side of the railway station, but in fact we ended up taking a wrong turn into a postal delivery depot, in contrast to some earlier trips where unpromising-looking cut-throughs turned up trumps. Don’t blame me, I wasn’t navigating. We had to retrace our steps a fair distance, and ended up about a quarter of an hour behind schedule. The pub is indeed situated right by the river in the shadow of the railway viaduct, although there is no view of the river from the extensive beer garden. By this time, after an overcast morning, the sun had come out, and it was starting to get pretty warm.

It’s a former Boddingtons pub, and still retains their characteristic external lettering. Internally it was been much modernised and extended, with a variety of seating areas, including a large conservatory. There were perhaps seven beers on the bar, including Pendle Witches’ Brew, the very hoppy Northern Monkey English Pale Ale, Ossett Treacle Stout and the hazy Pomona Island Pale, declared as such on the pumpclip. Although situated in something of a backwater, one would imagine the pub becomes pretty busy on sunny summer weekends. Here we picked up some copies of the newly-produced Preston Real Ale Trail leaflet.

Compared with many other towns and cities, Preston perhaps doesn’t make much of its river, and you could easily visit the centre without realising it had one at all. However, our walk to the next pub took us along an attractive promenade on the northern bank of the Ribble through Miller and Avenham Parks. It no doubt looks better when the tide is in, as it was today. A steep and rather lung-bursting climb followed, taking us into a area of handsome late Georgian and Victoria housing in the Avenahm district of the city, much of which now appeared to have been converted into offices. We spotted the cat shown above sunning itself in a precarious position on a window ledge.

The Wellington was our scheduled lunch top, although as some members of the party were either not particularly hungry or fancying something a touch more crafty to drink, there was a split in the camp, and it was a depleted group that crossed the threshold. The Good Beer Guide says that it is popular at lunchtimes, but even on a Friday, and close to the city centre, it plainly wasn’t, with virtually no other customers. Significantly, it didn’t appear on the Preston real ale trail leaflet, and a little birdie told us that it had failed to make it to the 2020 edition.

There’s a central bar with three distinct areas opening off it, plus a small room at the front right with a door marked “Hotel”, where we chose to sit. Of four handpumps, the only one in use dispensed Marston’s EPA, a beer that seldom rises above lacklustre; on the reversed pumpclips were Cumberland Ale and two Rosie’s Pig fruit ciders. Peter Allen couldn’t really be blamed for choosing Carlsberg instead. There’s an extensive food menu at reasonable prices, plus a range of pensioners’ specials at £4.95. From these were chose cottage pie, lasagne and a ham salad, but unfortunately they took around thirty-five minutes to appear, putting us even further behind schedule. The food was actually decent enough, but the overall experience was distinctly disappointing.

We couldn’t help overhearing the Eastern European barmaid having something of an altercation with the manager. In retrospect, this pub probably wasn’t the best choice, but realistically the pub lunch options in this, or any other part of, the city looked rather limited unless you wanted to resort to Spoons.

Just to the north, we emerged on to Churchgate in the heart of the shopping centre, making the Wellington’s lack of customers even more surprising. Heading east past Preston Minster, the street turns into more of a “bar district” and develops a more down-market atmosphere, most noticeably with the distinctly seedy-looking Bear’s Paw pub. Just past here, but on the other side of the road, was Sam Smith’s Olde Blue Bell, with a lively group of drinkers sitting at the outside tables. I remember this pub as having been white-washed, but in more recent years this has been removed to reveal the original brickwork.

We encountered the other members of the party just as they were leaving. They were able to tell us that England were now all out for 67, although due to Sams’ mobile phone ban we were unable to confirm this for ourselves. Of course Ben Stokes was able to make amends a couple of days later. The interior has been remodelled at some time in the post-war era, with a central bar serving a long room on the left and two smaller snugs on the right, but it retains some original stained glass in the doors to the toilets. It’s all in Sams’ characteristic style, with plenty of dark wood and comfortable fixed seating. As always, there was only the one cask beer, Old Brewery Bitter, which I found pretty good, but Paul Mudge felt wasn’t quite up to the standard you might find in the Boar’s Head in Stockport. Peter Allen once more went for the lager in the form of the premium Pure Brewed.

To be continued...

Monday, 26 August 2019

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

Last week, Boak & Bailey defended people’s right to make subjective judgments about beer without having their sincerity questioned. It was a post that raised a number of interesting issues. But one question that arose from it was whether it is possible to define in any objective sense which beers are good and which are not, something that prompted some debate on Twitter. One person thought it was in general pretty obvious, but I’m not so sure.

For a start, beer isn’t solely or even mainly a functional product. We don’t judge it in terms of the maximum alcohol content at the lowest production cost, and indeed beers that score highly on those criteria tend in general to be judged pretty poorly. Beer is, broadly speaking , evaluated in generally subjective terms.

For draught products, the influence of cellarmanship needs to be discounted. This applies particularly to cask, but to sme extent to keg beers as well. Even the finest beer in the world will be pretty unpleasant if it is served flat, stale and warm, but some people who comment on beer seem to have difficulty in distinguishing between how well it is kept and its intrinsic qualities.

In business terms, quality is generally defined as consistent adherence to specification. It’s not about how good a product is an absolute terms, but whether it achieves what it’s supposed to do. If you don’t think much of it, blame the specification. In brewing, there are a range of production faults that will mar the character of the finished product, such as diacetyl, oxidation, lack of clarity (in intentionally clear beers) and obvious off-flavours. These will be obvious to anyone with much knowledge about beer, and should manifest themselves in the taste as perceived by the drinker, although some people insist on finding redeeming features in beers that to most are blatantly off.

However, I’m not aware of any regularly-produced beers that consistently manifest such obvious brewing faults. If they do, there’s something wrong with them. But, looking at it in more fundamental terms, what makes a poor beer as opposed to a good one?

A rough correlation is often drawn between the strength of a beer, and the cost of the ingredients, and its quality, but it doesn’t necessarily always work that way. After all, Harvey’s Sussex Best, which is what prompted this discussion in the first place, is a beer of relatively modest strength that retails in pubs for normal prices; it isn’t some eyewateringly expensive, mega-strong show pony.

The mere fact that something is a mass-produced, “industrial” beer doesn’t automatically make it a bad product. It is made to satisfy a different demand from a salted caramel quadruple IPA, and needs to be judged in those terms. In absolute terms, a Rolls-Royce or Ferrari is no doubt a better car than a Toyota Corolla, but it also costs hugely more to make, and possibly doesn’t offer anything like as good value for money. For most drivers, the Corolla will meet their requirements.

There has long been a tendency in some quarters to allow your opinion of the brewer to sway your judgment of a beer – they may be plucky independents challenging the industry giants, or standing up for fashionable causes. There may be entirely valid reasons for this, but it’s always a mistake to mix up the worthiness of the brewer with the intrinsic quality of the beer. There should be no “marks for effort” in assessing beer. Nor should a beer be dismissed out of hand purely because it’s popular, or lauded for obscurity.

Much of the above may suggest that there are really no absolute standards in judging beer, and that everything is entirely subjective and a matter of personal preference. Clearly this isn’t the case where beers demonstrate obvious brewing faults, even if some people are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. But, if you assemble people with some knowledge of beer and brewing, they are likely to reach a broad consensus on how good or otherwise a beer is.

They will look at the ingredients used, the malt and hops, and whether inferior adjuncts have been used to reduce costs. They will consider the production process, such as the nature of the fermenting vessels and how long a bottom-fermenting beer has been lagered. And they will assess the overall flavour profile – is it bland, or harsh and one-dimensional, or is it complex and well-rounded ?

Yes, of course it is possible in broad terms to say that some beers are better than others. But, as with literature or music, it’s an art, not a science, and personal taste plays a large part. It’s by no means as obvious as some seem to imagine. Beers also need to be viewed in the context of their market segment – few would dispute that Pilsner Urquell is a better beer than Carling, but Carling is a well-made, consistent product that satisfies its customers; it’s not in any sense a “poor beer”.

And ignorant blanket statements such as “all keg is piss” or “macro lagers are crap” really say much more about the people making them than the product under discussion.

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.