Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Nothing new under the sun

I’ve recently been re-reading The Brewing Industry 1950-1990 by Anthony Avis, a fascinating memoir to which I will devote a longer blogpost over the new few days. However, I was struck by these comments relating to beerhouses, that is drinking places with a beer-only licence, which the pub-owning brewers were striving to eliminate in the 1950s, and which had pretty much all disappeared by the end of the 1960s. They were:

...small homely places where the working man could take his ease and drink his honest ale in the company of his friends and neighbours...

...These outlets were small, usually the front rooms of private dwellinghouses, the beer often brewed on the premises, and many were run by women. They attracted a class of custom which liked ale to the exclusion of spirit, and consumed it in moderate quantity; they were places for the married workingman to escape to, and they tended to be men only establishments by custom...

...they often had primitive toilets, no proper beer cellars, no bar counters, and no proper washing up facilities.

Now this strikes me as, in several respects, remarkably similar to present-day micropubs, especially those closely following the authentic Herne model.

Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Only here for the beer

If you asked most people about their reasons for choosing a particular pub, they would list factors such as the company, a relaxing atmosphere, food, watching TV sports, playing pub games or quizzes, or even simply because it’s convenient to get there. But few would say that it was because it sold a specific beer, or range of beers. Yes, beer does matter – they will choose between different beers on the bar, and the beer selection may influence a marginal decision between one pub and other. But few would visit a pub they otherwise didn’t like purely because they liked the beer.

However, if you are what might be called a “beer enthusiast”, obviously the balance of decision-making shifts in the direction of beer. Just how far was tested in a couple of recent polls carried out by Tandleman and myself. On the face of it, these seemed to produce contradictory results, with Tandleman’s poll showing 67% favouring “a fantastic pub” over “a fantastic beer”, while mine, which asked a somewhat different question, said 65% favouring “great beer, dull pub” over the opposite. I then ran a poll on my blog which, with a smaller sample size, came up with one of those pesky 52-48 results in favour of pub over beer. The comments on that poll can be viewed here.

Obviously the answer to a question like this very much depends on the interpretation you put on it, which is what must account for the widely varying results. I did wonder in the comments on Tandleman’s post whether people thought I was having a go at micropubs and brewery taps, but that certainly wasn’t the intention. Certainly these places don’t appeal to everyone, as suggested in this tweet by Matthew Lawrenson:

However, the simple fact that you are in like-minded company will make you feel at home – a pub being congenial is about far more than just its physical design. I recall someone in my local branch of CAMRA saying “I don’t care what the pub’s like so long as the beer is good”, but you do have to wonder just how many aspects of what he would regard as “pub hell” he would be prepared to endure just to have a pint he liked. Of course, in general, the pubs that offer beer that appeals to enthusiasts don’t tend to have the features that would really put them off, so the conflict of interest doesn’t arise.

It’s sometimes suggested that, in the early days, CAMRA members would often make a point about going in unappealing pubs purely because of the beer. There was some truth in this, especially in areas where the only place real ale could be found was a grotty dump, but the mere fact that a pub is plain and basic doesn’t mean you won’t feel at home there. The truly threatening pubs wouldn’t tend to get much recognition, or indeed many visits. And the other side of the coin was that, far more so back then than now, many attractive pubs that outwardly ticked all the boxes were distinctly cliquey, and you wouldn’t be made welcome if you didn’t fit in.

I make no secret of the fact that I very much come down in the “pub” camp, and as I wrote back in 2010 in a post entitled Wooden Wombs, “at heart I have to conclude I’m more fascinated by pubs than beer”. I’m very much with Mark here:

Forty years ago, I was certainly keen to seek out unusual brews, but that was very much a question of finding them in their natural habitat, not the present-day random selection of beers you’ve never heard of that you’ll never get the chance to try again. And that doesn’t apply if you’re just looking for somewhere to have a drink in your local area. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve always lived in places where there has been a good choice of decent beer in a variety of pubs so I’ve never been forced to make that choice between good pub and good beer.

I’ve described my reasons for going to the pub rather than staying at home as “just to get a change of scene, relax, chill a bit, do some peoplewatching, get some mental stimulation”. Obviously I don’t want to drink bad beer, but that’s not my chief factor in deciding where to drink. I have mentioned before that I regularly visit some Sam Smith’s pubs, not because I think their beer stands out from others generally available in the area, but because their general ambiance makes me feel at home. If they decided to convert their OBB to keg, as some others have, then I might not go so often, but I certainly wouldn’t shun them. If I’m visiting a different area, my first thought is to consult the National Inventory of heritage pubs rather than check the Good Beer Guide for micropubs and brewery taps.

At the end of the day, what makes an appealing pub is highly subjective, and varies enormously between different people. In practice, it’s very rare that people are confronted with a clear-cut choice, on their terms, between “good pub” and “good beer”. However, by putting the beer offer ahead of every other factor when choosing a pub, beer enthusiasts are further emphasising the gulf between them and the general pubgoing population.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Transpennine trip – Part 2

We pick up our visit to Huddersfield having left the Slubbers Arms and making our way back towards the town centre. Our next call was the Sportsman, a corner pub near the station in the shadow of the railway viaduct. It’s a handsome stone building, originally built by local brewer Seth Senior (what a name!) and then remodelled internally by Hammond’s of Bradford in the 1950s. Hammonds, who eventually passed into the hands of Bass, became through takeovers by far the largest owners of pubs in Huddersfield.

The interior is largely unspoilt, and merits a full entry on CAMRA’s National Inventory. The corner door gives access to a large main bar, with a parquet floor and an impressive curved counter. On either side are a couple of snugs with bench seating. There’s a separate entrance door by the one on the left, which may in the past have been divided from the main bar by a partition. On the wall were a collection of pub plans, although I was unable to get close enough to check whether they were of this particular pub. There were maybe eight or nine beers on the bar, including Boltmaker again, Great Heck Christopher and Buxton Downfall Citra.

There then followed a rather stiff uphill walk in squally conditions to reach the Grove, the well-known multi-beer free house which overlooks the town centre from the western side. On the approach are a pair of rather sinister-looking windowless brick towers, which it turns out are ventilation shafts for the twin railway tunnels running underneath. It’s another corner pub, with a large bar on the left and a smaller, cosier one to the right. The decor is a mix between traditional and modern and quirky. Although it was late afternoon on a Tuesday, it was very busy.

There was a bewildering array of about eighteen different cask beers, from which our selections included Beatnikz Republic Beach Bum, Oakham Citra and Harveys Armada. From such a long list it can be difficult on first look to choose something that will appeal. The pub is known for offering snacks of dried insects, but we managed to avoid the temptation. The conversation turned, as it often does, to the various ailments suffered by older people, but rather surprisingly one of the most impressive catalogues came from one of the younger members of the party still in his early forties.

Fortunately it was downhill from here as we skirted the edge of the Inner Ring Road to reach the Rat & Ratchet, a large free-standing pub on the main road out to Sheffield. A long-standing free house, it is now owned by Ossett Brewery and also sells beers from its own on-site Rat Brewery. Although much opened out, it retains a spacious, rambling interior on different levels, and we managed to find a cosy corner in a room to the rear.

There were about twelve different beers on the bar, from which we selected Ilkley Moor Bah’Rat, Black Rat, White Rat and Marshmallow Mild, all of which I think were all from their own brewery. The Marshmallow Mild certainly had a very distinctive sweet, silky flavour. I made a note of Rainbow’s “Since You’ve Been Gone” playing on the jukebox. We even managed to have a discussion about Brexit without coming to blows.

The original plan had been to go on to the Star, which is a few minutes’ walk further south from the Rat &Ratchet, but as we were somewhat behind schedule, and it was a nasty, wet and and windy night, we decided to head back in the direction of the station. On the way, we passed the Commercial, which looked a lot busier than it had been seven hours before. The two pavilions on either side of the central block of the station are now both occupied by pubs – the Head of Steam on the left, and the King’s Head on the right, which is the one we chose.

This, as befits its former role as a waiting room, is a large, echoey, high-ceilinged room with a smaller ante-room off to one side. Approaching 8 pm on Friday night, it was very busy, and we had to find a seat on the end of someone else’s table. Opposite us were two mature ladies, one of whom was drinking pints of cask, the other cans of Gold Label barley wine poured into a glass. There were about eight different beers on the bar, from which we chose Bradfield Farmer’s Blonde, Oakham Green Devil and Landlord.

I then needed to catch my train home, but a couple stayed on for a curry in a nearby restaurant. In summary, this was an excellent day out, possibly the best of all of these we have done. Excursions beyond the Inner Ring Road in two directions meant that we must have walked at least three miles during the day, some of it up and down some pretty steep hills. The company was as stimulating as always, despite the absence of one or two usual suspects, and the beer quality uniformly good to excellent. Although most of the pubs had a lot of different beers on, the turnover in busy town-centre locations was obviously sufficient to keep them in good nick. We didn’t have a sub-standard pint all day. The one possible caveat was that the beer ranges tended to very much major on the pale and citrusy, so the choice of traditional balanced beers was rather more limited.

Interestingly, the 1978 Good Beer Guide lists nine pubs under Huddersfield, but the only one visited on this day was the Commercial, which back then still just had Old Brewery Bitter, but on electric pump. And that’s not an entry in the current edition.

Thanks again to Peter Allen for the photos of the Sportsman and the Grove.

A reminder for those reading this on a mobile who can’t see the sidebar, please cast your vote in my new poll on whether you’re really more interested in the pub or beer experience in pubs.

Friday, 15 March 2019

Transpennine trip – Part 1

Our latest Proper Day Out organised via the Beer & Pubs Forum took us across the Pennines to Huddersfield on Friday 8th March. While I’ve often passed through on the train, I had never actually been drinking in the town, so this was an entirely new experience for me. On the outward journey, the train took me along the fairly new Castlefield Curve which allows direct running between Manchester Piccadilly and Victoria. Outside Huddersfield’s imposing classically-themed station is a statue of local boy Harold Wilson, and I spotted a father (or maybe grandfather) taking a photo of his offspring as if to say “One day, son, you could be Prime Minister too!”

The walk down from the station involved passing three off-licences all advertising Polish beers almost next door to each other. The town centre features a wealth of handsome Victorian stone buildings, whose appearance has been much improved from the 1970s by cleaning away all the accumulated grime from coal smoke. Our meeting place was Sam Smith’s Commercial, a four-square, stone-built pub standing on the town’s main shopping street of New Street, but noticeably older than most of the surrounding buildings. Outside there was a blackboard advertising all the good-value beery delights to be found within. Is there any other pub operator in the country that routinely sells draught beer for as a little as £1.34 a pint?

Inside, it has two cosy rooms with bench seating on either side of the front door, plus a longer room with a pool table at the back left running along the side of the bar. It’s one of the nicest Sam Smith’s interiors I’ve come across, and if I lived locally it would certainly become a regular haunt. As always, there was just the one cask beer available, Old Brewery Bitter, at the usual bargain price of £2 a pint, although one of our party chose to have the keg Extra Stout instead. At just after noon, the pub was fairly quiet, but I have previously written about the buzzing atmosphere of booze, blokes and banter later in the day.

A short walk of no more than a couple of blocks brought us to the Albert on Victoria Lane, which had been included by virtue of its unspoilt National Inventory-listed interior. This aspect of it did not disappoint, with high ceilings and impressive wooden bar counters in both top and bottom rooms, the lower one being in a curved quadrant shape. However, as we expected, there was no real ale on, nor did it look as though there ever was any, and so we ended up with three halves of Carling and a glass of tap water, which actually only came to £3.45, suggesting a price of £2.30 a pint. Despite this, it was busy, and we stood for a few minutes until one of the drinkers in the lower room got up and left. Golf was showing on the numerous television screens, with the sound turned down, although nobody appeared to be watching.

Our next venue provided a complete contrast in the form of Mallinson’s Corner on Market Walk. As the name suggests, it occupies a rather hard-to-spot corner site on a pedestrianised alleyway. The inconspicuous door next to a health food shop opens on to a stairway that takes you up to an airy, square first-floor bar. While unashamedly modern in style, there’s a welcome absence of posing tables, and I quite liked it, finding it reminiscent of those first-floor restaurants above shops you used to see in town centres a generation ago. There’s also a spacious function room on the floor above, where you also have to ascend for the toilets.

As well as a selection of craft kegs, there were six cask beers on the bar, including a mixture of Mallinson’s own and guests. There’s also a wide range of traditional ciders. Those we had included Blue Bee Triple Hop, Mallinson’s Wappy Nick and Wishbone* Tiller Pin. It offers a shortish food menu that isn’t just the usual pub suspects, from which we chose beef brisket baguettes and chicken kebabs with aioli. The food was good, although the presentation of the kebabs was a bit “We Want Plates”. We were told off for trying to order individually rather than as a group. It was busy, with a mixed crowd rather than just obviously craft beer fans, the food presumably being an attraction on a Friday lunchtime.

There now followed a longish walk out beyond the Inner Ring Road and along the wide but quiet St John’s Road to the Magic Rock Brewery Tap, which the Good Beer Guide lists under “Birkby”, although it’s easily walkable from the town centre, and nearer than, say, the Blossoms from the centre of Stockport. This has become something of a place of pilgrimage for beer enthusiasts visiting Huddersfield, and the outside yard features a large amount of seating both outside and covered, plus a street food stall, to cater for weekend crowds.

Inside, it’s an archetypal industrial-chic brewery tap, with high ceiling, bare walls, concrete floor and seating almost entirely comprised of posing tables, although we did manage to claim one of the two at normal level. The beer range included a large selection of craft kegs and six Magic Rock cask beers, from which we had Hat Trick, described as a “classic bitter”, and Common Ground Porter. Several very small children were brought in and, although they were well-behaved, this did strike me as somewhat selfish on the part of their parents given that no food was being served, so it was solely a drinking visit. To be honest, not at all my kind of place, but the quality and choice of the beer could not be faulted and it has to be visited as part of a trip like this.

The same could certainly not be said of the Slubbers Arms, which occupies a triangular site on the corner of Willow Lane and Halifax Old Road. The name refers to a traditional wool treatment process. Now this was a proper pub and a half, with the sign on the door giving an indication of the atmosphere to be found within. The main part of the pub is two cosy sections on either side of a horseshoe bar, with bench seating and a real fire on each side. As it didn’t open until 3 pm, we were the first customers, so the fires had just been lit. There’s also a small separate snug in the apex of the building that could be closed off for private meetings. There was a piano in the small ante-room leaing to the toilets. Bizarrely, this pub appears in the Good Beer Guide under “Hillhouse”, even though it’s only five minutes’ walk from Magic Rock.

Now a free house, it was formerly a Taylor’s tied pub, and the beer range still centres on Boltmaker and Landlord, together with, on this occasion, Heritage Tremendous and Victoria Pale Ale, and Draycott Lamb & Flag. Interestingly, the three guest beers were all from Staffordshire. The photo, taken by Alex (aka Quosh) shows the assembled company, and the by now blazing fire. All the pints are either Boltmaker or Landlord – just look at those lacings! Definitely the highlight of the day for me, although there were several more excellent pubs to come later, which I will cover in the second instalment.

Thanks to Peter Allen of Pubs Then And Now for the photos of the Corner and Magic Rock and the exterior of the Slubbers Arms. Incidentally, I haven’t made any comment on beer quality, as all of it ranged between good and excellent. We didn’t have a single sub-standard pint all day.

A reminder for those reading this on a mobile who can’t see the sidebar, please cast your vote in my new poll on whether you’re really more interested in the pub or beer experience in pubs.

* Incidentally, Wishbone Brewery spectacularly shot themselves in the foot on Twitter by referring to the Carling brewery, featured in the recent TV documentary, as a “piss factory”.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

It might even catch on

While I help run my local one, I can’t say I’m much of a fan of beer festivals as a customer. Standing around in a draughty municipal hall drinking warm, flat beers that I’ve never heard of doesn’t really appeal. I’d much rather have a cool, tasty pint of something familiar in a cosy pub.

However, my attention has been drawn to a beer festival with a difference being run by the Engineers Arms at Henlow in Bedfordshire. This is basically a selection of classic ales from well-known, accomplished breweries. There certainly aren’t any duds on that list. While it might be argued that many are pretty familiar, how true is that in practice? When did you last even see Double Dragon or Tanglefoot on the bar, let alone actually try one? And there are only two permanent Bass outlets in Bedfordshire.

Clearly a beer festival isn’t going to get far if it just offers beers that are already widely available in the local area. But it could be argued it needs some points of reference for customers to latch on to, such as special editions and one-offs from familiar brewers, or beers they’re likely to encounter when visiting other parts of the country. If all they’re presented with is a long list of beers that they have never heard of before, and are unlikely to ever get the chance to purchase again, they may not be too impressed. Perhaps this very obscurity is one of the reasons behind the decline in festival attendances over the past few years.

Maybe more pubs and festival organisers should try this sort of thing. You never know, it might even catch on. If Henlow was a little bit nearer I would certainly be tempted to pay a visit.

More cider watering

On February 1st, there was another small turn of the anti-drink ratchet when a new higher band of cider duty was introduced for products between 6.9% and 7.5% ABV. The detailed duty rates can be seen on the HMRC website. This passed with surprisingly little comment. As in other cases I’ve mentioned recently, the ostensible objective was to tackle products supposedly favoured by problem drinkers, specifically white cider, but as always it is impossible to come up with a watertight legal definition so everything ends up being hit.

I don’t routinely visit any retailers who stock Frosty Jack’s or other brands of white cider, so I can’t say whether it has had its strength reduced. However, looking at other products on the shelves, the strength of a 750ml bottle of Merrydown Original has been cut from 7.5% to 6.8%, while Aspall Premier Cru has fallen from 7.0% to 6.8%, which is pretty trivial and a bit of a no-brainer really. The Merrydown does have some “bangs per buck” appeal, but the Aspall is undoubtedly positioned as a premium product. Incidentally, the Merrydown bottle has a screw cap, so even though it still contains 5.1 units of alcohol it won’t fall foul of the Portman Group.

Other premium bottled ciders are unchanged, so Thatchers Vintage remains at 7.4% for now, and Weston’s Old Rosie at 7.3%, while Henry Weston’s Vintage, which even before was in the highest band, is still proudly at 8.2%. But, as with beer, the financial attraction of making products at these higher strengths is going to diminish over time. And what’s the betting that, before too long, the threshold for Higher Strength Beer Duty will see a similar reduction?

A reminder for those reading this on a mobile who can’t see the sidebar, please cast your vote in my new poll on whether you’re really more interested in the pub or beer experience in pubs.

Monday, 11 March 2019

Selling your (Dover) sole

The Morning Advertiser has recently reported how pubs have grown to rival restaurants, with no less than seventeen now possessing Michelin stars. This is presented as though it is unalloyed good news, but should it really be seen as an entirely positive development?

Of course it is a truism to say that many, perhaps most, pubs would struggle to survive without serving food of some kind. However, there is a huge difference between offering snacks and functional food for people who are already in the area, and setting yourself up as a destination dining venue that people will make a special trip to visit.

I have written before how developing a destination food trade will, over time, tend to drive away other classes of customer. And that’s not just “drinkers” in a narrow sense, but anyone else who wants to partake in an activity other than eating, such as various sports, pub quizzes and meetings of clubs and societies. If you don’t feel at home if not dining, you will stop going.

While it may still have the outward appearance of a pub, it has in functional terms turned itself into a restaurant. In effect, it has sold its soul to continue in operation as a business. And is becoming a high-end gastropub really all that different from metamorphosing into an Indian restaurant or a convenience store? It certainly is unlikely to be much of a resource for its local community.

One of the Sunday papers recently ran a feature on the best pubs in Britain, and it was taken as read that each one would have, not a signature beer or cider, but a signature dish. A generation ago, that would have been unthinkable. In the early days of this blog, I asked whether it would have been better all round if pubs and restaurants had gone their separate ways. Of course, that particular ship has long since sailed, but I can’t help thinking it’s still just as true today.

Incidentally, for those reading this on a mobile who can’t see the sidebar, please cast your vote in my new poll on whether you’re really more interested in the pub or beer experience in pubs.

Friday, 8 March 2019

Surely they don’t mean us

Earlier this week, I reported on how craft beer enthusiasts were outraged at being subject to the same restrictions on large containers of strong beers than were intended to deal with products favoured by problem drinkers. Now much the same is happening in the world of food.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan has recently imposed a ban on any adverts for “junk food” being displayed on the Tube network. This is a grossly objectionable and illiberal measure which is preventing the advertising of perfectly legal products that are enjoyed by millions. Even if the supposed justification was valid, it is in any case unlikely to have any significant effect. It is just another case of “something must be done”.

The problem is that the ban is using the definition of “HFSS” food, that is food that is high in fat, salt or sugar. This includes many items than most people would regard as natural and wholesome, such as orange juice, butter, full-fat cheese and milk, and many meat products including bacon. So a company called Farmdrop who supply mixed boxes of supposedly natural fair trade foods found that they had fallen foul of this by showing a photo including bacon and butter. They wrote about it in pretty aggrieved terms on their blog:

Naturally, we were pretty shocked that a picture of some fresh groceries with a healthy mixture of fruits and vegetables, dairy, eggs and cupboard staples would flout TfL’s new junk food rules. But it turns out that TfL score foods individually according to a nutrient profiling model created by the Government. It’s a pretty crude measure and means that foods you would still think of as junk, like fizzy drinks with artificial sweeteners or low-fat fried foods, could in some scenarios comply with the new regulations.

Take McDonald’s. Last year, the fast-food chain was allowed to run a Happy Meal advert during children’s television and it passed the Advertising Standards Authority’s (ASA’s) standards for healthy food, which are the same standards TfL are now using for the junk food ban. According to the ASA, a McDonald’s Happy Meal is not a junk food product because 80% of the mains, and 100% of the sides are non-HFSS. But swapping out sugar for a sweetener or fruit for chips, doesn’t detract from the fact that this is still a fast food company promoting meals with fried foods to kids.

Yet they still say they support the ban on principle, just not when it happens to apply to them. Of course, “junk food” is a an extremely vague and subjective concept, and often seems to add up to nothing more than “food that working-class people enjoy”. This attitude is satirised in another Daily Mash article entitled It’s not a takeaway when we do it, say middle class people. As has very wisely been said, there is no such thing as junk food, only junk diets.

As with potentially “harmful” alcoholic drinks, any attempt to produce a hard and fast definition of “junk food” is inevitably going to be a very broad brush that will sweep up many products that nobody would have considered fell within that category. Again following the example of alcohol, maybe the answer is to employ Jamie Oliver to decide what is healthy middle-class gourmet fare, and what is artery-furring plebeian slop.

And the question must be asked whether it would be a better use of Sadiq Khan’s time and energy to concentrate on the epidemic of lethal knife crime sweeping the capital rather than engaging in such pointless and illiberal gesture politics.

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Dubbel standard

Alcohol watchdog the Portman Group have recently published new guidelines on the packaging of alcoholic drinks which seek to impose a limit of four units in any single non-resealable container. This has got SIBA (the Society of Independent Brewers) up in arms about the perceived threat to the new wave of very strong craft beers that are often packaged in large cans and bottles of up to 750 ml. They contrast products that “are savoured, enjoyed slowly and shared” with “super strong, super cheap lagers and ciders that are abused by some members of society.”

However, this comes across as a glaring piece of double standards, where what is seen as acceptable for well-heeled middle class connoisseurs cannot also be allowed for the irresponsible drunken plebs. While there may be a substantial amount of truth in their assertion, you can’t make policy on the basis of the intention of the producers, and the dividing line is not necessarily as clear-cut as it may seem. This is especially true in relation to ciders – is a 500ml bottle of Henry Weston’s Vintage Cider, which is 8.2% and contains 4.1 units, on sale at three for a fiver in Morrisons, a premium craft product, or just a slightly classier form of tramp juice?

I wrote about this a couple of years ago when discussing proposed restrictions on “white ciders”, and the attitude was also satirised by the Daily Mash in their report entitled Middle class alcohol ‘less alcoholic than all other alcohol’. I concluded that “Maybe we need to abandon all attempts to be logical and just ask a panel including Pete Brown and Jancis Robinson to make subjective judgments as to what is for the discerning drinker and what for the antisocial pisshead.”

And, if price is to be the sole criterion, it brings to mind John Stuart Mill’s statement that “Every increase of cost is a prohibition, to those whose means do not come up to the augmented price.”

The Portman Group proposals also include a considerable amount of flexibility taking into account factors such as the premium status, price point and the likelihood of sharing actually taking place, so it’s very hard to see exactly what SIBA are getting so worked up about. The restriction could also be avoided by using either screwcaps or wired cork stoppers, which make the bottle resealable.

It also has to be questioned why it is seen as necessary to put such strong beers in large bottles anyway. For most of living memory, strong beers in Britain were sold in nip bottles, or half-pints at the most. What is the point of a bottle containing more than a normal person would want to consume at one go? Yes, of course they can be shared, and there’s plenty of evidence that they often are, but the same result could be achieved with two smaller bottles. Plus, if you do want to appreciate these beers without a like-minded companion, it limits your options. It should also be remembered that cans of Carlsberg Special and the like carry pious messages saying “ideal for sharing”.

This is another example of the sense of entitlement found amongst many in the craft beer community, which leads them to believe that they shouldn’t be bound by the rules that apply to ordinary mortals. It’s fine for crafties to have all-you-can-drink offers, childish cartoon characters on cans, and strong beers in big bottles, but extremely dangerous for the great unwashed.

By all means campaign vigorously against the Portman Group’s restrictive nannying as it applies to all beers and ciders. I’m not defending it for a minute. But objecting to it only when it affects expensive products favoured by middle-class aficionados comes across as an exercise in snobbery and hypocrisy.

Monday, 4 March 2019


The March edition of CAMRA’s monthly newspaper What’s Brewing contained a long letter from seven representatives of young members’ groups complaining that the organisation wasn’t doing enough to encourage the participation of younger people. Specifically, it was accused of becoming a “pensioners’ drinking club” and being “riddled with accusations of sexism and cronyism.” Given the prominence given to the letter, it seems clear that it was to some degree encouraged by the CAMRA hierarchy.

However, it has emerged into the public domain and over the weekend generated pieces in both the Daily Mirror and Daily Mail, which didn’t exactly show the organisation in a good light. And the question must be asked whether, regardless of the substance of the complaints, the best way to advance them was in a way that came across as the divisive playing of identity politics and disrespectful of the older generation.

Like most other similar organisations, CAMRA has an ageing membership profile, and inevitably the general social ambiance and the activities it runs will reflect that. Experience has shown that events designed specifically to attract younger members have often fallen flat on their face, and run the risk of coming across as patronising. And what aspects of “campaigning for real ale” are specifically youth-oriented anyway? Do the younger members of the RSPB favour spotting different birds from their older colleagues? Is it actually helpful to create a kind of young people’s ghetto?

The general tenor of conversation will naturally follow the inclinations of those involved, but many of the accusations of sexism come across as overdone and manufactured by people who are setting out to seek offence. When we have widespread problems of rape gangs, sex trafficking and female genital mutilation, is it really worth getting worked up about a cartoon fox on a pumpclip? And it’s a bit rich complaining about sexism when you are yourself undertaking an exercise that could be regarded as an example of ageism.

While things may be different at a branch level, a visit to CAMRA’s online Discourse discussion forum will quickly reveal that the “modernisers” very much hold sway, and those of a more traditional bent are often given short shrift.

On the ground, it is true that a high proportion of positions are held by over-50s, which is going to become a growing problem in the coming years. But younger people are simply not coming forward to fill their shoes. I’d be very surprised if any branches were actively discouraging younger volunteers – they can’t afford to. It seems that kind of volunteer work in general no longer holds the attraction it once did – this isn’t a problem unique to CAMRA. In the long term, surely the best way to change things in any organisation is actually to get involved rather than just to complain from the sidelines.

Maybe this also indicates that last year’s much-vaunted Revitalisation project hasn’t actually solved anything, and indeed has left CAMRA less clear about what it actually stands for. As I’ve argued before, there is a fundamental divide between those who want it to support good beer in all forms (however defined) and those who want to concentrate on championing a particular distinctive British tradition. The two are mutually exclusive objectives, and the cracks can only be papered over so far. It could be considered to be rather like our two main political parties which recent months have shown to be composed of increasingly incompatible bedfellows.

Friday, 1 March 2019

Refreshing the parts others cannot reach

Recently, somebody posed the question on Twitter as to which subjects did not get sufficient attention from beer writers. There were the predictable right-on responses championing increasingly obscure minorities, but one thing that struck me that they rarely touch on is the experience of ordinary, non-enthusiast drinkers.

This is a charge that cannot be levelled at Britainbeermat, whose Life After Football blog regularly chronicles the pubgoing experiences that others cannot, or choose not to, reach. For example, he was recently in the Bell Inn at Tile Hill, Coventry, where he observed:

...considering it is around 2pm on a Monday then there is a reasonable crowd in and a large group of 50/60/70 somethings are making their presence felt in the lounge...

...One of the group was leaving with a walking frame and he was getting plenty of stick with one particular sage warning him not to hit the accelerator button otherwise he’d end up in Canley!

the menu didn’t appear to have any food over £8...

Now, there is nothing particularly special or wonderful about this place, and to be honest it isn’t really a pub that I would choose to spend much time in. But here were people enjoying themselves in a pub at a typically slack time of the week a world away from the “beer bubble”.

Of course, if you want to concentrate on the rare, innovative, unusual and expensive in the beer world, that is your prerogative. Indeed the same can be said of most of the food writing you come across in the media. But it would help if you accepted your enthusiasm for what it is – a middle-class niche interest – and stopped trying to pretend that you were being marvellously inclusive or doing your bit to change the world for the better.

And it must be remembered that, in the early days of CAMRA, this certainly wasn’t the case. They were celebrating beers that were drunk by ordinary people, often in large quantities, without a thought as to their wider significance, and the Good Beer Guide included plenty of pubs described as “Basic drinking pub” and “Unspoilt working man’s local” (both of these in the Salford entry in the 1978 edition). It doesn’t any more.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Beer and whine

Whenever people best known for their writing on wine venture on to the subject of beer, they invariably shoot themselves in the foot. And rarely has this been done with such spectacular effect as by Bruce Anderson in the latest edition of the Spectator, in a piece entitled Only the south offers beer lovers a decent pint. He writes:

In recent years, the quality of civic life in Britain has steadily deteriorated. Change has become synonymous with decay. But there is one delightful exception. In southern England these days, it is almost impossible to find a bad pint of beer. Matters may be different in other parts of the United Kingdom. From my limited experience, we Scots are not good at beer. It is something that is only drunk to eke out the whisky. North of the Tweed, bitter is known as ‘heavy’, which is a fair description and not an encouraging one. In the north of England, too, beer is often excessively sweet. As for Wales, I believe that there is a brew called sheepshag, in which the hops are mixed with mistletoe, but we should leave the west Celts to their… bardic… rituals.
And, after this, he concludes:
Decent pints come almost exclusively from the southern parts of the Heptarchy.
Such a complete load of ill-informed, xenophobic nonsense hardly deserves a rejoinder. While there is indeed plenty of potentially good beer in the South, all too often it is overpriced and poorly kept. Come to the North, though, and you will find just as much, if not more, and what’s more it will in general be much cheaper and in much better condition. “My limited experience” indeed!

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Raise a pint to celebrate

There was good news for the British brewing industry in the beer sales figures for 2018 released yesterday by the British Beer & Pub Association. The detailed tables can be downloaded here. These showed that, over the full year, there had been an overall rise in beer sales of 2.6%, the largest single increase in the 21 years covered by this statistical series. This was made up of a 4.7% rise in off-trade sales, and a 0.1% rise in the on-trade.

This has been widely attributed to England’s lengthy run in the World Cup, but in fact looking at the detailed figures they don’t show a dramatic peak. On-trade sales rose by 0.9% in the third quarter, but 2.2% in the fourth, while off-trade sales were up by 7.7% in the second and 7.6% in the third. The prolonged spell of hot weather in June and July probably had more of an impact.

Inevitably there were a few sour grapes complaining that this represented a further erosion of the market share of the on-trade vis-a-vis the off-trade. The on-trade accounted for 45.8% of the total, compared with 50.7% five years ago and 71.5% in 1997. But, as I have commented over the years, this is a long-term trend caused by a wide variety of social and legislative factors, and isn’t going to be reversed unless society as a whole changes. The absolute rise in on-trade sales is the only increase over the entire 21-year period, and surely it should be cause for celebration that the brewing industry in total seems to be in rude health.

However, no doubt this news will be met with gnashing of teeth from the anti-drink lobby, so expect renewed calls for the revival of the alcohol duty escalator.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

The Holy Grail of pubs

A few years ago, a visit to West Wales prompted me to dig out my copy of A Year in the Drink, a book in which journalist Martin Green tells the story of how he and his wife ran a pub in a small Welsh market town. It turned out that this book ended up being withdrawn from sale because the locals objected to some of the unflattering and barely-disguised pen portraits of them that appeared in its pages, although it remains well worth reading if you can unearth a copy.

Another book in the same category that was recently drawn to my attention is The Quest for the Perfect Pub, written by Nick and Charlie Hurt and published in 1989. According to this article, this book too ended up being withdrawn because Big Six brewers Whitbread took strong exception to the way they were portrayed. So I had to get hold of a copy – there still seem to be plenty knocking around on eBay. I’ve only had it for a few days, and it’s the sort of book you dip in to rather than reading from cover to cover, so I can’t claim to have read it all. However, the worst I can find about Whitbread is the following in relation to the famous Drewe Arms in Devon:

So we issue a direct challenge to Samuel Whitbread: we challenge you to leave alone The Drewe Arms, Drewsteignton, and thus show that you still have an ounce of human feeling buried deep in the cold quartz of your corporate heart.
Fighting talk, maybe, but surely not grounds for calling in the lawyers. They are just as scathing about Robinson’s treatment of the Harrington Arms at Gawsworth, which to be honest still comes across as a largely unspoilt country pub in comparison to some of their more recent abominations. Incidentally, the Drewe Arms eventually passed into the ownership of Enterprise Inns, and remains little spoilt, although it has developed a substantial food operation and is no longer the basic village alehouse of old.

The authors never really introduce themselves, and the endpapers offer no biography, but from reading it I would assume they were a pair of youngish journalists, probably brothers, who were tasked by the publishers with doing a search to find the best and least spoilt pubs in the country. This makes it very much what the title says, a personal quest over a three-month period drawing on assorted word-of-mouth recommendations, rather than a considered and carefully-researched guidebook.

While it includes many of the well-known “character” pubs such as the Sun at Leintwardine and the Square & Compass at Worth Matravers, there are obvious omissions that surely would have been shoo-ins if encountered, such as the Boat at Penallt in Monmouthshire, the Old Inn at Ightham in Kent and the Anchor at High Offley is Staffordshire. There are also some where, looking back, their highlighting in such a book might seem a touch questionable.

The selected pubs cluster fairly thickly on the map in some areas such as the Welsh Marches west of Hereford, the western Chilterns and the Peak District, while other parts of the country are rather bare. This may be due to the vagaries of where the authors chose to visit, but it is generally recognised that pub quality is not uniform across the country. There are a handful of pubs in larger towns and cities, such as the Star in Bath and the Sun in Stockton-on-Tees, but their remit was very much to cover the countryside, villages and market towns. The introduction states that they also planned a companion volume covering more urban locations, but in view of their legal problems this never seems to have materialised.

They found themselves disappointed at just how few pubs had survived the inevitable march of “progress”:

The good old-fashioned English boozer is an endangered species at the mercy of many horrific modern enemies: decors of unparalleled artificiality, astonishing nylon carpets sending shockwaves through the body, appalling piped music,microwaved pizza and other Eurostodge, bleeping video-games bland jukeboxes, American “designer” beer, unsuitably flavoured potato “snax”.
And that was before anyone had even thought of pretentious gastropub food and wall-to-wall sports TV. They go on:
One by one the old pubs are being swallowed up by the catering chains, whose thrusting, Next-clad young executives are at this very moment roaming the country, Their acquisitions are speedily turned into half-hearted ‘theme’ pubs, probably called Funsters, Hank’s or the Raj, where a plastic mill-stream, bar staff in Stetsons, or a yellowing pith-helmet on the wall are considered to be bold and radical statements in ‘Leisure-time programming’. If you feel like blowing up such places, or merely hitting the landlord, then this is the book for you.
Even thirty years ago, many of the finest examples seemed to have recently disappeared:
Time and time again we would make enquires as to the best pubs only to be told in reverent tones about Grumpy Bill’s place in the next village, or of old Joan in the Red Lion down the road. Then the pause and the added rider: ‘But he/she is not there any more…it’s been revamped by the brewery…it’s now a restaurant/holiday home.”
However, all is not lost:
This book sets out to be a celebration of the fact that there are, thank God, a few proper pubs still left in England, true to the old traditions and upholding the values of privacy and simple pleasure which are so scored in modern life.
In total, the authors come up with 350 pubs worthy of listing, divided into 69 with the top star rating, 149 with two barrels, and 132 just with a single barrel. They assign them to their own categories, such as ORD (One-Room Drinker), LLL (Lively Little Local) and GGAR (Great All-Rounder) and assign various indicators to describe particular features such as FC (Flat Cap, for pubs frequented by old boys) and E for pubs of particular eccentricity. I’m not sure whether the publishers’ budget didn’t run to symbols, or whether it was felt they would be confusing. The book is dedicated “to the venerable landladies and all the old boys”.

The whole thing makes for entertaining reading although, as I said, it is probably best dipped into rather than consumed in large chunks. There are some excellent pieces of descriptive writing, such as how the entire atmosphere of the long-closed Horse & Jockey at Delph is “one of the Macmillan 1950s”, plus a variety of amusing anecdotes. The grumpy licensee of the Cows Hill Hotel in County Durham tells them “Mrs Thatcher tells me that I may remain open all day. The good lady and I do not agree on the subject,” whereas the landlady of the Queen’s Head at Cowden Pound in Kent says that she had reverted to closing at 2 pm on Sundays because the local wives got fed up with their husbands being late for lunch. This was, of course, not long after the 1988 liberalisation of licensing hours.

On the other hand, some of their longer diversionary stories do rather pall, such as the tale of the pub entertainment provided by “Dan Cavan and his Radiogram” which appears in the description of the White Horse in Beverley, or the extended description of odd and rather unlikeable characters in an unnamed pub in the wilds of Lincolnshire, which in the end did not merit an entry in its own right.

While most of the featured pubs are largely unspoilt, wet-led boozers with a distinctive cast of drinkers, some are mentioned for serving excellent food. At the time it was still possible to combine this with being a proper pub of character, but in the ensuing years it has become increasingly difficult. Over time, gaining a reputation for food tends to drive away the drinks trade, and the gastropub revolution has given many pubs culinary and social aspirations that they never had before. Places like the Star at Harome in Yorkshire have now become in effect restaurants, and it is hard to see them featuring in a modern guide to classic pubs.

At the end of the book, the authors come up with a list of the ten favourite pubs that they encountered on their travels. Pride of place goes to what they describe as The Perfect Pub, Somewhere in Suffolk, because the licensee did not want the attention that would result from it being named. A little digging based on the description suggests it was in fact The Cock at Brent Eleigh, illustrated above.

The remaining nine are:

The Cresselly Arms, Cresswell Quay, Pembrokeshire

The King’s Head (Low House), Laxfield, Suffolk

The Tally Ho, Hatherleigh, Devon

The Tucker’s Grave, Faulkland, Somerset

The Olde Ship, Seahouses, Northumberland

The Barley Mow, Kirk Ireton, Derbyshire

The Double Locks, Alphington, Devon

The White Horse (Nellie’s), Beverley, Yorkshire

The Sun Inn, Stockton-on-Tees, Durham - complete with description of the famous “banked” Bass

All of these, maybe surprisingly, are still with us, although there was some concern recently about the survival of the Tucker’s Grave which fortunately seems to have been dispelled. Plus, most seem to be little changed, with the exception of the Double Locks, which I am told has been greatly sanitised since being taken under the corporate wing of Young’s. The Tally Ho (where I have never personally been) perhaps stands out from the others, as it was a little bit gastro even back in 1989, and perhaps comes into the category of places where they got an excellent welcome, but has never been a front-rank unspoilt classic.

The thirty years since the book was published have, not surprisingly, not been kind to the pubs listed. Some, fortunately, are still in existence in little-changed form, such as the Yew Tree at Cauldon in Staffordshire and the Traveller’s Rest at Alpraham in Cheshire. Others, such as the Stagg at Titley in Herefordshire and the Durham Ox at Shrewley in Warwickshire, have very much gone down the gastro route and can no longer be regarded as community boozers, while many, such as the Horse & Jockey at Delph in the former Saddleworth district of Yorkshire and the White Lion at Pen-y-Mynydd in Flintshire have long since closed. Indeed, I doubt whether either of those long survived the publication of the book, and the Horse & Jockey has long been a roofless, crumbling ruin.

At a time of a fairly static level of pubgoing, the authors identify the major brewers as the main villains of the piece. However, since then, the overall demand has more than halved, as a result of a toxic mixture of legislative restriction and social change, while most of the more marginal pubs have been sold off by the big companies. Added to this, the zeitgeist has very much shifted away from a love of the old-fashioned, quirky and individual to a worship of the new, fashionable and shiny. The book says that the Barley Mow at Kirk Ireton “is often packed with young people from the nearby cities of Derby and Nottingham, where most of the pubs are now amusement arcades. They learn how to play dominoes, love the beer and the atmosphere, and revel in the quiet simplicity to be be found here.” I very much doubt whether that is true today.

One glimmer of hope is that the growing trend for community ownership may give some of these pubs a new lease of life. If they really are cherished by their local communities, then surely they will be prepared to stump up to keep them in being. However, as I wrote here, this isn’t going to be an instant panacea – even without the need to earn a return on the capital investment, the actual business of the pub will still need to at least break even, and there may also be the risk of community ownership leading to management by committee. But it may well offer a future where such treasured pieces of our heritage can be taken outside the purely commercial sphere.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

The bubble bursts?

Over the weekend, there was an article in the Sunday Telegraph entitled Craft beer bubble bursts with glut of new brands. It reported:
“There is still growth, but the market is now much tougher for new entrants,” says Jonny Forsyth, global drinks analyst at market research group Mintel.

“The number of brands is outstripping the growth and now people with money are wising up to the market.

“If someone asked me to invest in a craft beer company now, I’d say ‘no way, that ship has long sailed.’”...

...This view is shared by Mr Forsyth, who says that the quality of new craft beer is often not of a high standard.

“We see a lot of brands starting from scratch, and a lot of these people are not expert brewers,” he said.

“The best brewers tend to work for the bigger companies.

“The quality can leave a bit to desire and although they can charge a lot of money, it doesn’t mean it’s made by experts.”

While the reports of its death may be somewhat exaggerated, there is undoubtedly a widespread feeling that the market has become saturated and we are at or approaching a crest of the wave moment.

The article also falls into the familiar problem of definition. It states that craft only accounts for 5% of the British beer market, but surely a large proportion of the 14% of on-trade beer sales that are cask also fall into the craft category, unless you’re arguing that they are two mutually exclusive concepts.

And, as the Morning Advertiser reported last year, most of the big brands within that category are actually owned by international brewers, and so wouldn’t count as craft by the US definition.

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

The squeezed middle

The sale of Fuller’s brewing interests to Asahi has underlined the highly exposed position in which many of the established, medium-sized firms find themselves. As a mid-sized brewer, Fuller’s said, it was being squeezed between the global brewers and the 2,000 smaller brewers across the UK. They went on to say that tax breaks given to microbrewers and the power of the big global drinks firms have left little space at the bar for those in the middle.

Progressive Beer Duty was introduced in 2002 by Gordon Brown with the aim of stimulating the number of small breweries in the UK. And it has certainly succeeded in this objective, with over 2,000 now in operation. However, as with many such well-intentioned measures, it has had unintended consequences. It allows a 50% discount on beer duty for breweries with an annual production under 5,000 hectolitres (3,055 barrels). That’s 59 barrels a week. Above this figure, the duty relief is steadily clawed back, until it entirely disappears at 60,000 hl (36,661 barrels). Many of the established family brewers are above this figure, or only just below it. Fuller’s, who were one of the biggest, were producing about 200,000 barrels a year.

In practice, many of the new small brewers have used the duty relief not to bolster the finances of their business, but to sell beer more cheaply, which is helped by the fact that many are in effect “hobby businesses” that aren’t expected to provide anyone with a full-time living. The result is that the established brewers are put at a severe price disadvantage when competing in the free trade, and also pubs taking beer at these lower prices are able to undercut their tied houses. The overall market share of these small brewers is relatively small, and to the likes of AB InBev they are no more than a pinprick on an elephant’s backside. But they have a much higher share of the market for cask beer in the free trade, and if you go in any pub that is able to buy beer on the open market it is likely that most of its cask lines are from microbreweries. Some of these beers are very good, but the main reason many of them are there is that they are cheap to buy.

The business model under which the family brewers developed was one of building up tied estates that would take the majority of the production from their brewery. For many years, this worked well enough, but trends in the industry have combined to undermine it. First, there has been a dramatic decline in the amount of beer sold in the on-trade, which has fallen by two-thirds over the past forty years. This in itself has had a severe impact on breweries producing beer for pubs. Added to this, there was the long-term switch from ale to lager, which now accounts for two-thirds of beer sold in pubs. Some breweries initially attempted to develop their own lager brands to keep their mash tuns busy – anyone remember Amboss and Einhorn? – but eventually found that these brews commanded little customer loyalty compared with nationally-advertised brands, and had often become a specific reason for people avoiding their pubs.

So they ended up dropping their own lager production and buying in brands such as Carling from outside, thus further reducing the throughput of their own breweries. Being left with tied estates where beer sales had fallen to the extent that many of the pubs were no longer viable, combined with large brewing plants not doing remotely the volume that they once did, it is hardly surprising that many family brewers decided that the best course of action was to sell up. The general outcome was to sell to a larger competitor, who would within a short time close the brewery and absorb the production to bolster the viability of their own plant.

However, all was not doom and gloom. Some of the family brewers had a number of attractive suburban and rural pubs that were ideally suited to capitalise on the growing trend for eating out in pubs. They were also able to pick up more such properties at knock-down prices from distressed pubcos, an area where, locally, both Robinson’s and Lees have been very active, as indeed were Fuller’s. But what kind of beer you sell has very little relevance to the business of a dining pub, and so they ended up being effectively chains of middle-class eateries with an under-utilised brewery tacked on.

Fuller’s reckoned that 85% of their profits came from their pubs and hotels, and so it is perhaps understandable that they, and previously their local competitors Young’s, decided to concentrate on that part of their business and accept an attractive offer for the brewing side. However, in doing that they are losing their distinctiveness. A brewery produces a unique, identifiable product that is recognisable to customers and may command a great deal of loyalty, but a pubco is, well, just another pubco.

There are very few pub operators that really stand out from the others in terms of how they are run and what they offer. Most identifiable pub “brands” are, in effect, the equivalent of restaurant brands, such as Brewhouse & Kitchen and Brunning & Price, and the only really distinct pub brand that means something to a wider audience is Wetherspoon’s. This makes non-brewing pubcos more vulnerable in the long-term to takeover, and means their management have to constantly ask themselves what it is that they bring to the party that another owner wouldn’t. Just look at what happened to Boddington’s.

It’s also something of a fallacy that you can make such a clear distinction between the brewing and pub sides of the business. Yes, if you own a chain of pubs and a chain of hair salons, they have nothing in common and can each stand on their own feet, but a brewery and a pub chain to some extent support each other. You can work out that one is more profitable than the other, but there’s a large amount of discretion in how you allocate common costs and calculate transfer prices. It’s rather like arguing that, since your right arm does much more work than the left, you can dispense with your left arm and reduce your food intake. If you separate brewing and pubs, both will be diminished and their long-term survival as businesses put at greater risk. Samuel Smith’s have realised this, and make sure that every drop of beer sold in their pubs is their own production.

Fuller’s stood out from the rest of the crowd of family brewers both because its location in the capital gave it a higher profile and because, more than most of the others, it produced special edition and collaboration beers than piqued the interest of enthusiasts. It also stood on a site with perhaps uniquely valuable redevelopment potential. You can’t really imagine a multinational brewer swooping on Arkell’s or Felinfoel, or their brewery sites being worth tens of millions for upmarket housing. But the announcement of this deal will certainly have given many directors of family brewers cause for thought about their long-term future.

It’s often the case that people attract warm tributes when they die while having a much more equivocal reputation during their lives. I can’t help feeling that some of those shedding crocodile tears over the sale of Fuller’s are the same people who a year ago were happy to dismiss London Pride as “boring brown beer”. Maybe if we want to help the prospects of the family brewers, beer enthusiasts should give them a bit more love as upholders of a unique British tradition, rather than spending all their time gushing over the latest pastry stout or enamel-stripping IPA in an industrial-chic tap room.

Friday, 25 January 2019

Turning Japanese

There was shock news this morning when it was announced that Japanese brewers Asahi were buying Fuller’s brewing business for £250 million. Fuller’s will retain their pub estate and enter into a long-term supply contract with Asahi. It’s fair to say this came as a complete bolt from the blue and hadn’t been even hinted at by any commentators on the industry. It’s also surprising in that the major international brewers, with the exception of Molson Coors and Sharp’s, had in recent years largely turned their back on the British cask beer sector.

Asahi already own the Meantime brewery in London, and a number of brands including Grolsch and Peroni, but they aren’t major players in the British beer market, so the deal doesn’t really raise any competition concerns. From a purely financial point of view, it is entirely understandable that the directors said yes to an offer it was hard to refuse.

However, it is disappointing news in that it represents a further blow to vertical integration in British brewing. This has historically been a key factor in establishing distinctive identities between different pubs. If you don’t have any stake in brewing, then the temptation is inevitably going to be to stock the same popular beer brands that all your competitors have, thus overall reducing the amount of choice available to drinkers. This was well summed up by Tandleman here:

The track record of vertically integrated businesses that have sold off their breweries to concentrate on running their pubs is a distinctly mixed one. Young’s is still in business as an independent company, but whatever happened to Boddingtons or Eldridge Pope? And the company loses its distinctive USP and just becomes just another business running an estate of pubs that must be ripe for merger or acquisition. What is there that distinguishes a Young’s pub in the customer’s eye from a Stonegate or M&B one? Brewing is something that is in the blood, while being a landlord of pubs is just another way of making money.

While the future of the Fuller’s brewery is secure for the time being, there must be a question mark over its long-term survival given that it occupies a prime piece of West London real estate. And there’s another brewery located about 60 miles to the north that I’m sure would have some spare capacity to fit the Fuller’s beers in if they asked nicely...

There will also be questions about the future of the Gales beer brands, and of the Dark Star brewery in West Sussex that Fuller’s bought only recently.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Here to stay low

Over the past couple of years, there has been a marked increase in interest in no- and low-alcohol beers, accompanied by a substantial rise in sales. As the Morning Advertiser reports, it certainly looks as though this is not a passing fad, and they are here to stay. However, it’s important not to get carried away, and it should be remembered that there was a similar surge in enthusiasm in the early 1990s that eventually fizzled out. The inherent nature of these products means there is a basic limit to their appeal.

It has to be remembered that the fundamental point of beer is that it contains alcohol. That’s why people drink it. They will choose between different beers based on taste, but they choose beer in the first place because it is alcoholic. Even the weakest beers within the normal strength range will have a subtle but gradual effect. What non-alcoholic beer aims to do is to mimic the experience and ritual of drinking beer, and as far as possible the taste, while avoiding that effect. But it always carries an implication of “ideally, I would like a normal beer, but for whatever reason I feel I need to drink this instead.”

Realistically, it is never going to be seen it as a product worth drinking and seeking out in its own right. It only exists because normal-strength beer exists. Nobody is going to go on a non-alcoholic pub crawl, or hold a festival of non-alcoholic beer, or make a pilgrimage to a particular pub because of the rare non-alcoholic beer it sells. Although the term may seem harsh, it is essentially a distress purchase.

The linked article refers to the “significant benefits of having a drink with friends”, but that occasion only exists because other people are drinking alcohol. Yes, a non-alcoholic beer will allow someone to join in, but without the alcohol it wouldn’t be happening in the first place. Not for nothing is alcohol, in moderation, referred to as a “social lubricant”. And, if you choose a non-alcoholic beer without any obvious pressing reason to do so, your choice may come across as a self-righteous reproach to your drinking companions.

Health may be cited as a reason for choosing non-alcoholic beers, but they still contain calories, and sugar, the current bête noire of the public health lobby, whereas diet soft drinks are free from both. And de-alcoholisation is a complex “industrial” process that requires significant investment in the necessary plant. They’re not products that can just be knocked up in a shed in a natural, artisanal way.

As well as being the key to the appeal of beer, alcohol is also an essential component in its flavour. Even in the weakest mild or light lager, it’s still a noticeable part of the mix, and it becomes more pronounced the further you go up the strength scale. Take the alcohol away, and something seems to be missing. A couple of years ago, I did a tasting of some widely-available non-alcoholic beers, with distinctly mixed results.

Early alcohol-free beers, which all tended to be lagers, often had a noticeably cardboardy taste. This seems to have been much reduced nowadays, and some of the lagers are quite palatable, if distinctly bland. As many normal-strength lagers are fairly subtle in flavour terms anyway, this is maybe not too much of a problem. Things get more difficult when it comes to ales. Full-strength ales generally have more robust flavours, and when an attempt is made to translate this to a low-alcohol brew the results can often be quite unpleasant, with a malty gloopiness and a sense of unfermented wort. The St Peter’s Without which I sampled was so nasty that it went straight down the sink. I recently tried the new low-alcohol Old Speckled Hen, which wasn’t much better, with an odd off-flavour that reminded me of nothing so much as room-temperature school milk. Adnams’ low-alcohol Ghost Ship was considerably better, with a hoppy character reminiscent of the standard brew, but even here you feel that is hiding some nastiness lurking underneath.

Having said that, it has to be accepted that these beers do fill a substantial and growing market niche. It’s no good to pooh-pooh them and just say “get a proper pint down your neck!” Whether at home or out and about, people have a range of entirely valid reasons not to want to drink alcohol: driving, wanting to keep a clear head for work, pregnancy or other health issues. Surely choosing something that has at least some of the flavour and character of beer is preferable to sparkling water or Diet Coke. Who knows, they could even act as a “gateway drug” to proper beer!

As I mentioned in the post I linked to, I had been trying some of these beers and continue to do so. Following a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes, I wanted to reduce my beer consumption somewhat, and one way of doing this was sometimes to replace the glass of beer drunk at home in front of the telly with an alcohol-free alternative. This wasn’t the world’s most cutting-edge beer-drinking experience in the first place, and I am still maintaining the ritual of beer drinking, which is the key aspect. However, I have to say that I have generally stuck to lagers, as I can’t really get on with any of the low-alcohol ales.

Low- and no-alcohol beers are certainly here to stay, but some of the more bullish predictions of their likely market potential are overstated. They will only ever be an inferior alternative to normal-strength beer that cuts out the alcohol. They may be not too bad, all things considered, but they will never be quite as appealing, and people aren’t going to start seeking them out in their own right. Unless people were visibly enjoying the one, the other would have no reason to exist.

Tuesday, 22 January 2019


Over the weekend, Boak & Bailey published a long and thorough blogpost on the story of Watney’s Red Barrel, which is well worth reading in depth. It has acquired a reputation as the examplar of all that was bad in British beer at the time of the formation of CAMRA, but was it really all that bad? Some say no, but others say yes.

Red Barrel was in fact replaced in 1971 by a significantly different beer just called Red, which was, as Boak & Bailey explain, deliberately made to be blander and even more lacking in character. Yet, in the popular imagination, many of the failings of Red are now mistakenly attributed to Red Barrel, which is the name that sticks in the mind.

I carried out a quick Twitter poll to see how many had sampled either. Given that you would have to be in your mid-fifties to have had the chance, a surprising number had, which is perhaps indicative of the age profile of my followers. Although the early years of my drinking career overlapped with the final days of Red, I have to say I’ve never sampled either, as they weren’t commonplace in the areas where I lived. By the time I moved to Surrey in 1980, where Watney’s pubs were thick on the ground, the standard keg offer was Ben Truman Export, which had taken the place of Red, alongside Watney’s Special Bitter.

It must be remembered that Red belonged to the category of “premium kegs” which were ubiquitous in the big brewers’ pubs at the time. Each of the “Big Six”had their own brand – Worthington E, Double Diamond, Whitbread Tankard, Courage Tavern and McEwan’s Export – while Greenalls had Festival. These beers were sold alongside ordinary bitter and mild (whether real or keg) and commanded a price premium of a couple of pence a pint. For a time they were seen as desirable, aspirational drinks in the same way as Peroni is now, but by the end of the 1980s they had pretty much entirely disappeared. Effectively, premium lager and the real ale revival combined to kill them off. In fact, it’s now difficult in mainstream pubs to find any kind of conventional, non-nitro, keg ale, so it’s not possible to recreate the Red Barrel experience. Perhaps the nearest I’ve come is mid-2000s non-nitro Smithwick’s in Ireland.

A parallel could be drawn with the Austin Allegro, which is often seen as representative of the bad side of the 1970s British motor industry in the same way as Red was to British brewing. This was introduced in 1973 as the successor to the Austin/Morris 1100/1300 series, which in its day was widely regarded as a modern and forward-looking product. Yet the Allegro offered no significant improvement, while at the same time doubling down on some of the earlier models’ bad points. Motoring writers remain divided as to whether it was actually quite as bad as its popular image, and there were certainly plenty of other clunkers around at the time. But it has certainly come to stand, in the same way as Red Barrel, as a prime symbol of 1970s British naffness.

Monday, 14 January 2019

Craft will eat itself

Over the weekend, my attention was drawn to this blogpost entitled Is Craft Beer Burning Out? The opening paragraph immediately grabs your attention:
IPAs so cloudy they look like radioactive pond water, double mocha-wocha choco-vanilla fudgy wudgy pastry stouts, DDH fruit smoothies (that’s Double Dry Hopped for the uninitiated) and salty goses that taste like gym instructor sweat. Is craft beer trying so hard these days it’s in danger of burning itself out?
This trend is perhaps more pronounced on the other side of the Atlantic, but the constant pursuit of the new has certainly spread over here too. It ends up going in ever-decreasing circles as brewers and drinkers hare after increasingly outlandish novelties. Of course there is a place for innovation in beer, but if people never want to drink anything twice it ultimately becomes self-defeating.

It also undermines quality. If you’re never going to get the chance to drink a beer twice, then the incentive to make a product where drinkers will want to make repeat purchases disappears, and there’s no opportunity to tweak recipes in response to customer feedback. And, as the author points out, whereas in the past brewers would make small-scale test batches to develop and refine any new product, now they just put anything out without testing in the knowledge that drinkers will be moving on to something else anyway.

There’s a story that one particular brewer once had a batch that was badly affected by the common brewing fault known as diacetyl, but instead of pouring it down the drain they decided to rebrand it as “Butterscotch Porter”. That kind of thing now seems to be par for the course – however it turns out, someone will regard it as “interesting”.

I’ve argued in the past that one of the things damaging cask beer is the culture of ever-changing guest beers, which presents it as a disposable, interchangeable product and prevents the development of brand loyalty. The constant pursuit of novelty also serves to further widen the gulf between the enthusiast and the ordinary drinker in the pub with his or her regular pint of Pedigree or Carling.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Style or substance?

There have been quite a few articles in recent months asking the question of “how to save cask?” Some of these, especially those from across the Atlantic, refer to cask beer as a “style”. But, as I have pointed out in the past, that is incorrect. Bitter is a style; IPA is a style, but cask is rather a whole system of storage, maturation and dispense that can encompass a wide variety of different styles, but is critically dependent on sales volume to be viable.

However, it has come to be established as a beer category in its own right that commands a great deal of loyalty. In the 1970s, many people would identify themselves as “a bitter drinker” or “a mild drinker”, which could include both cask and keg, but that has virtually disappeared now. Cask is not just a delivery mechanism for various styles, and indeed people are much more likely to identify themselves as “a real ale drinker”. That doesn’t mean they will never touch beers that aren’t real, but that if there is no real bitter available they don’t immediately turn to a keg bitter as a substitute. The handpump has become clearly established as a distinctive symbol of a particular generic kind of beer.

The loyalty goes go the other way too, though. Some people identify as “smooth drinkers”, and I have seen people come in to pubs and ask whether they have any smooth. Likewise, the typical Guinness drinker would not see a cask stout as an acceptable alternative – they identify with Guinness as a brand, not with stout as a style.

I recently ran the Twitter poll shown above. Presumably most of my followers, or at least the ones who would answer this poll, are cask ale drinkers, and the results show that, while some do drink non-craft keg ales, for most it is something they do rarely or never. Personally I can only recall a handful of occasions in the past year, a couple in Sam Smith’s pubs, and one in a keg-only free house in a small town in Wales where I had a half of Banks’s Mild. I don’t dogmatically avoid keg beers, but if I find myself in a pub where there is no cask available I will generally switch to lager or perhaps Guinness rather than smooth ales.

It’s noticeable how little cask and keg actually tread on each other’s toes in the marketplace. Forty years ago, many brewers had a mixture of both versions of the same underlying product in their pubs, but nowadays the only ones I can think of are Felinfoel and Sam Smith’s. The vast majority of the remaining family breweries, at least in their own pubs, are all-cask. About a third of the pubs in the country still have no cask beer, but in most areas they tend not to be the ones the casual pubgoer would go into, leading some people to overestimate the dominance of cask. And a lot of keg beers are sold in clubs, which by definition tend to be used by regulars rather than casual customers. Very few of the new generation of breweries produce keg versions of their best-selling cask ales.

Much the same is true in the sphere of craft keg. Most craft kegs tend to occupy niches where cask is absent, typically American-style IPAs and very strong or speciality beers that by definition are not going to sell in the quantities needed for cask. There is some overlap, but not all that much. However, it is not difficult to foresee in the future that a keg American-style IPA, albeit at a moderate, sessionable strength, will become a regular fixture in mainstream pubs, no doubt to the detriment of cask. For some drinkers now, the fact that these beers are on keg is a selling point in itself.

It’s also important to remember that much of the change in market share amongst the various segments is due to customer churn rather than direct switching from one to another. Of course some drinkers have transferred their allegiance from cask to craft keg, at least on some occasions if not all the time, but that isn’t the prime reason for the apparent rise of one at the expense of the other.