Thursday 7 December 2023

Leaders of the pack

The Morning Advertiser has recently reported on the top ten best-selling cask ale brands of 2023, as shown in the table below. Doom Bar retains the leading position, which it has occupied for several years now, although its sales volumes were down by 11.7%. Taylor’s Landlord retains second place, something that would have been hard to believe only a decade ago.

There are two new entrants, Butcombe Bitter and Harvey’s Sussex Best (The article states that Butcome is a new entry, although the graphic contradicts that). Butcombe is the first entry from one of the new post-1973 breweries to make this listing. (I would exclude Doom Bar as, while it originated from a micro-brewery, it is now owned and promoted by one of the major international brewers). Harvey’s, who previously limited their sales to a fairly close radius around the brewery, have presumably made a policy decision to take a more expansionist approach to distribution, although it’s still rarely seen in the North.

Obviously, as well as having the necessary production capacity, getting the distribution is a major factor in a beer becoming a top seller. But it’s a highly competitive market, and there are very few captive customers nowadays, so drinkers always have the choice of going for something else. In the vast majority of pubs with strong cask sales, there will be at least two beers on the bar. So people are making a positive choice to drink these beers, rather than reluctantly choosing them because there’s nothing else on offer.

It’s also worth noting that, while we are often told that “everyone wants pale hoppy beers nowadays”, nine of the ten are traditional, mid-brown, balanced bitters, and the only one that is pale, Wainwright, is fairly subdued in its hoppiness.

It’s interesting to compare these figures with the equivalent table for 2019, which I reported on here. The total sales volume of the Top Ten has declined by 23.2%, which is perhaps less than I might have imagined given the damage done by protracted lockdowns. Doom Bar was still the best-seller in 2019, although Greene King IPA was second and Landlord only fifth. IPA sales are down by 39.7%, while Landlord is up by an impressive 73.4%.

Eight of the beers were the same as in 2023, with the two that have dropped out of the chart being Deuchars IPA and Ruddles Bitter. I’d say their replacements, Butcombe and Harvey’s Sussex, are both considerably better beers.

The total annual sales volume of the Top 10 in 2023 is 624,900 hl, which equates to 318,800 bulk barrels. Back in the heyday of cask in the 1970s, several individual brands would have exceeded this figure.

Monday 4 December 2023

Partial dilution

From 1 August this year, a major reform of UK alcohol duties was introduced. As far as beer is concerned, the biggest change was raising the threshold for a significantly reduced rate of duty from 2.8% ABV to 3.4%, a level which makes it much easier to brew palatable and appealing beers. Obviously this was likely to lead to major changes in the beer market, which I wrote about back in March, in what has proved to be one of my most-viewed posts of the year. As I said at the time, “It’s always difficult to make predictions on changes like this, and it should be remembered that measures such as the lower duty for 2.8% beers and permitting two-thirds measures have been damp squibs. However, the savings available are so great that it’s hard to imagine that the beer market will sail on little changed.”

And so it has proved, There have certainly been significant changes, but they haven’t approached the earth-shattering level. Few of the changes have been entirely unexpected, and it’s surprising that some beers haven’t cut their strength. It must be remembered, though, that the cost impact is very substantial. The duty+VAT saving on a pint of draught beer at 3.4% is 26.01p compared with a pint at 3.5%, which will equate to twice that at typical pub mark-ups. But there is a challenge that you have to bring drinkers with you.

A problem with investigating this subject is obtaining accurate information, as brewers are understandably not going to make a big splash about reducing the strength of their beers. Plus the beers affected are not in general ones that I personally buy. So I’ve assembled the information from a variety of news reports, brewery and supermarket websites and checking on supermarket shelves. Plus there’s the beer list on the Wetherspoon’s app, although I have certain doubts as to whether that is up-to-date. Thus I can’t guarantee that the examples I’ve listed are entirely correct, and they’re certainly not complete.

The biggest mover in the cask beer field has been Greene King IPA, which has been cut from 3.6% to 3.4%. This is the second biggest cask seller, but most of the rest of the Top Ten are 4.0% or above and so probably won’t be shifting. Its strength has been reduced in all formats. I don’t know whether this will cause any kickback in its traditional East Anglian heartland, but elsewhere it tends to be just dismissed as a standard “ordinary”, so it will probably make little difference. On the other hand, its stablemate Ruddles Bitter, while it has been reduced to 3.4% in bottles, remains at 3.7% in cask, presumably because the vast majority of sales go through Wetherspoons and Tim Martin has said that’s what he wants.

Other cask beers that have been cut from 3.5% are Hook Norton Hooky Bitter and Hawkshead Windermere Pale. Such a small reduction is unlikely to make much difference either to taste or the beers’ appeal. Marble Brewery have cut their Pint all the way down from 3.9%. Presumably the motivation is to give them a contender in the discount sector, and they already have a product in the full-strength Bitter category in the 4.2% Manchester Bitter.

On the other hand, it is surprising that some beers have not had their strength reduced. Obvious examples are Taylor’s Golden Best and Dark Mild, and Hyde’s 1863 and Dark Ruby, all of which remain at 3.5% according to their websites. They must have their own reasons for this, but it’s hard to believe that the reputational damage would come anywhere close to the benefits from the duty savings.

Robinson’s have a 3.4% beer in their portfolio called Citra Pale which was actually introduced last year in anticipation of this change, but I find it rather thin and astringent, and it doesn’t normally sell for much of a discount against their stronger beers. It also rather treads on the toes of the 3.8% Dizzy Blonde. There have also been more 3.4% seasonal beers from various breweries which may appeal to the guest ale market.

Amongst the well-known canned widget bitters, Tetley’s and Boddington’s have been cut to 3.4%, while John Smith’s and Worthington, as far as I can see, remain at 3.6%. From this, I’d assume draught John Smith’s is still 3.6%, and Wetherspoon’s are still declaring the strength of Worthington Creamflow at that figure. I would have thought these products, being declining brands with something of a captive market, would be ideal candidates for a strength reduction. On a related note, the other day I spotted on the supermarket shelf a 10-pack of Hobgoblin “Session IPA” at 3.4%, so someone’s introduced a new canned product in response to the duty cut.

The biggest brand by far to undergo a strength reduction is Carlsberg Danish Pilsner, where it was announced back in August that all formats were being cut from 3.8% to 3.4%. This has duly happened to the canned version, although the fact they were offering a 10-pack for £7.50 in Morrisons recently suggested it may not be selling well. However, the Wetherspoon’s app still shows the draught version as 3.8%, and indeed one example I had tasted more like 3.8% than 3.4%. But this is something of a comedown when they did a relaunch in 2019 that won considerable praise from beer writers.

There has been no movement from the other two of the Big Three of cooking lagers. Foster’s has only relatively recently been cut from 4.0% to 3.7%, so a further move might seem a step too far, and Carling, the market leader, is probably happy to stay at 4.0% as a mark of differentiation. I would have thought Bud Light, which is only ever perceived as a low-strength commodity product, would have been an ideal candidate for a cut to 3.4%, and that has certainly happened to the canned version. But, again, it is still declared at 3.5% on the Wetherspoon’s app. As with Ruddles Best, Wetherspoon’s probably make up a high proportion of total draught sales.

J. W. Lees have introduced a new 3.4% lager called Lees Light. However, the history of new products identified as “light” and positioned below the standard beer does not augur well for its success. Going back some years, they introduced a 2.8% keg light mild and lager selling at a discount price which did not last very long.

In a rare demonstration of enterprise and quick thinking, Sam Smith’s took the opportunity to raise the strength of their keg light and dark milds and Alpine lager from 2.8% to 3.4%, and in the process made them considerably better beers. I’m not aware, though, of any other brewer having made a similar move. Surely Hook Norton’s 2.8% Hooky Mild is crying out for it.

So the conclusion is that, while the new tax regime has brought significant changes, it hasn’t turned the beer market on its head. While it is entirely possible to brew good beers at 3.4%, few if any will be improved by having their strength reduced to that level, and many of the beers of that strength tend to be somewhat thin and lacklustre. It would be a depressing prospect if that was to become the norm of British beer drinking.

In my previous post, I discussed how price sensitivity applied in the beer market. It’s certainly there, but there has never been a substantial discount sector. There are discount pubs, but not discount beers. In general, people don’t want to drink beers that are perceived as cheap, and that’s especially true if they’re weak at the same time. No doubt we will see further movement towards 3.4% but it has to be questioned whether, despite the cost advantages, drinkers will be prepared to accept this as their regular tipple.

Personally I can’t see myself ever wanting to buy 3.4% beers for home consumption, although I might well drink them on occasions if I come across them in the pub – and I have tried all three of Sam Smith’s contenders.

Some of the same ground as this post is covered in this piece by Matthew Curtis on Reverse ABV Creep.

Tuesday 28 November 2023

Wasted youth

The Morning Advertiser reports that Leeds-based brewery Northern Monk has discontinued two of its seasonal products after complaints against them were upheld by the Portman Group. The brand’s Rocket Lolly IPA and Wasted Hot Cross Bun Pale Ale were “found to have a particular appeal to under-18s and did not communicate the alcoholic nature of the drink with absolute clarity”.

I have in the past criticised the Portman Group for having a po-faced and heavy-handed approach, and being all too willing to act on a single vexatious complaint. But surely it should be obvious that it is neither appropriate nor responsible to promote alcoholic drinks using images relating to childhood treats, or with references to drunkenness.

No major alcohol producer would even dream of using such themes. But there still seems to be a view in the craft beer community that it is part of their mission in life to be edgy and transgressive, and that they are not bound by the rules that apply to the stuffed shirts. Yes, there is a place for humour in alcohol marketing, something the Portman Group sometimes fails to appreciate, but there are subjects that it should steer well clear of.

At a time when there is ever-growing pressure for tighter curbs on alcohol promotion and marketing, selling products like this is offering a hostage to fortune that may well end up being flung back in the industry’s face. As I wrote back in 2020 over a similar case involving Lost & Grounded Brewery, “is defending figures reminiscent of children’s cartoon characters really the hill you want to die on when standing up for the rights of alcohol producers?”

And it’s impossible to escape the suspicion that these can designs did not stem from an innocent mistake, but were deliberately tweaking the regulator’s tail in a bid to gain publicity.

Thursday 23 November 2023

A confederation of wowsers

The Guardian reports on research that has found that British firms are earning a staggering £52.7bn a year from “smoking, excess drinking and junk food”.
…they calculated that 28.8% of all food bought by UK households is unhealthy because it breaches government dietary guidelines for fat, salt or sugar (HFSS). Those sales together earn the food industry £34.2bn.

Similarly, they found that 43.4% of all alcohol consumed in the UK is drunk by people exceeding the government’s safe drinking guidelines of 14 units a week, and is thus potentially harmful. The alcohol industry makes £11.2bn from this consumption. And all of the tobacco industry’s £7.3bn annual revenue is from sales of products that are known to kill half of the people who use them, they found.

“These findings show that these health-harming industries are making obscene amounts of money from selling us products that are making us ill,” said Hazel Cheeseman, Ash’s deputy chief executive.

One hopes that Hazel is eating healthy low-fat cheese, not the kind you’re not allowed to advertise on the Tube. So who has commissioned this report? Oh, it’s the usual suspects. And you can’t help thinking “they would say that, wouldn’t they?”
The research was undertaken by the Obesity Health Alliance (OHA), Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA) and Action on Smoking and Health (Ash) in conjunction with Landman Economics.
It’s significant that, on top of the £52.7 bn going to companies, the government is raking in £28.8 bn through VAT and duties, making them a major source of revenue. And it is disingenuous to say that companies are “earning” £52.7 bn, as that is the figure for total sales revenue. The actual profit made on these products will be far less.

When it comes to smoking, these analyses always fail to acknowledge that, while it undoubtedly carries health risks, many people genuinely enjoy it, so it is no different in principle from many other so-called vices. And aren’t the government doing enough already to clamp down on it, by increasing the rate of duty every year by above the rate of inflation, and introducing a system of creeping prohibition that will increase the legal purchase age by one year every year?

The “safe drinking” guidelines have been repeatedly ratcheted down in recent years, turning more and more people into “problem drinkers” without anything actually changing. And, as with all policies that are supposed to address the dangers of alcohol, the proposed measures will also end up clobbering moderate consumers.

As I wrote earlier in the year, the concept of ultra-processed food is something that is pretty much entirely made up. It draws the net so widely that it ends up demonising pretty much any food item that has seen the inside of a factory, regardless of its actual recipe or nutritional content. It also has to be remembered that there is no such thing as unhealthy food, only unhealthy diets. Should people not be allowed the occasional indulgent treat?

The measures proposed to deal with these issues will inevitably involve more restrictions and higher taxation, exactly what people need at a time when many are struggling to make ends meet. The whole thing comes across as a crusade against poor people having any kind of pleasure. It is also profoundly patronising, denying people any agency in their own lives, and portraying them as unwilling dupes. Does it never occur to the campaigners that these companies are selling products that people actually want to buy?

Those who insisted at the time of the smoking ban than alcohol was different should take note of the three groups who have come together to produce this report. As far as the public health lobby are concerned, smoking, alcohol and “junk food” are three sides of the same coin, and having the temerity to make a profit from any of them is engaging in a “toxic trade”.

And, of course, as usually happens, the article is illustrated by a picture of people drinking pints of cask beer in a pub garden…

Thursday 16 November 2023

Robinson’s roundup

At last week’s meeting of the local CAMRA branch at the Blossoms in Stockport, we were given a talk by Oliver and William Robinson of Robinson’s Brewery. They are cousins, but very different in both appearance and personality. These are a few of the points that I noted:
  • Oliver and William obviously have a clear vision for the future direction of the company and give the strong impression that they are in it for the long term. As John Clarke (chairing the meeting) said, it's unusual for brewery representatives not only to say what they are doing, but also to explain in detail why they are doing it.

  • Robinson's no longer supply beer in any cask sizes bigger than firkins, and are currently investing in a large number of pins. They see it as important to give customers a choice of cask beers.

  • They also saw it as very important that all their pubs opened seven days a week, as finding a pub closed can seriously damage its reputation.

  • The vessels for their new brewery are being sourced from China, which might raise a few eyebrows. However, they made the point that alternative suppliers were also overseas, in places like Bulgaria or Canada, and would be several million pounds more expensive.

  • They hoped to start production in the new brewery in the second half of next year.

  • There were no definite plans yet for the future of the old brewery - a lot depended on the view of Stockport Council.

  • They were supplying about 15,000 barrels of cask beer each to year to their 257 pubs, which is only just over one barrel per week.

  • They were targeting 35% of beer sales in their pubs to be their own production, covering both cask and keg.

  • They had sold their wholesaling business in 2019, before Covid hit. They made the point that when they sell beer to a wholesaler, it goes out of their control and quality can no longer be guaranteed.

  • They had experimented with offering a range of outside guest beers in some pubs, but with a handful of exceptions such as the Black Horse in Preston the formula hadn't worked.

  • They firmly intend to reopen the currently mothballed Bull's Head and Pineapple in Stockport town centre when the time was right.

  • They had applied restrictive covenants to pubs they had sold on rare occasions, but this was as likely to have been at the request of the buyer. It certainly is not a general policy (and indeed there are numerous examples of former Robinson’s pubs having been acquired by other operators).

Nobody asked them about pub refurbishments, but I suspect they would have given a blunt answer that they weren't running a museum, and that they needed to invest in pubs to guarantee their future.

Tuesday 14 November 2023

Driven to drink

The general subject of self-driving cars is really beyond the remit of this blog, but one obvious benefit they might bring is to make it much easier for people to get to, and specifically get back from, the pub. This is a subject I discussed in my magazine column back in 2017. However, I concluded “no doubt the killjoys will be working hard on ways to prevent driverless cars being used in this way, saying ‘that’s not what they were intended for’”.

And indeed, from a recent report, it seems that this will be the case, as it is stated that Being drunk or asleep at the wheel of a driverless cars to be made illegal, and goes on to say that the user in charge must also be in the driver’s seat and stay off their mobile phone. It then says, with a distinct whiff of curled lip:

Plans to forbid drunk back-up driving come amid concerns that the technology could encourage overindulgence. Researchers at Curtin University in Australia have suggested that the public safety benefits from driverless cars could be outweighed by more binge drinking if it becomes easier to get around while inebriated. In 2020, 37 per cent of respondents in a survey said that their alcohol use would be likely to increase if they had access to driverless cars.
However, surely one of the main potential benefits of driverless cars is that they will extend mobility to people who are unable to drive themselves either through old age or medical conditions. It is also impossible to have driverless taxis – often suggested as one of the main applications – if there always needs to be a competent driver on board. If it was indeed true that driverless cars would need a capable driver on board at all times it would severely limit their usefulness, to the extent where it’s hard to see what the point would be.

I suspect this report arises from a misunderstanding of the concept of the technology. It has always been set out that progress towards automated cars will come in a number of levels, as shown in the graphic above. At Level 3, a driver may be called upon to take control in certain situations, but at Levels 4 and 5 they won’t. If an automated taxi can travel without a driver to its pick-up point, then surely it can carry a passenger who is incapable of driving, whether through age, infirmity or intoxication. And if a taxi can do it, why not your own driverless car?

It has always seemed to me, though, that this technology essentially represents a solution looking for a problem. And it’s pretty certain that the authorities will never allow it to be used to its full potential, as it would be so disruptive and undermine so many vested interests.

Thursday 9 November 2023

Passing on the torch

The well-known Laurieston Bar in Glasgow has been put on the market due to the retirement of the owners John and James Clancy, who have run it for forty years. I’ve never been there, but from the description it sounds a splendid establishment, and by all accounts is something of a local institution. It also has a striking, unspoilt 1960s interior that qualifies for a three-star entry on CAMRA’s National Inventory. Let us hope that they can find new owners who will carry on its traditions.

However, this illustrates a fundamental problem for owner-managed pubs and bars. Whenever the time comes round for the current owners to retire, they have to find someone else to take it on, and there’s no guarantee that its character will be maintained , or indeed that it will remain as a pub at all. Obviously breweries and pub companies have a far from flawless track record in keeping pubs open, but at least when one licensee retires there is the opportunity to maintain continuity by installing a replacement. With the free house, every time a licensee retires or wants to leave the trade, it is put “in play”.

Only this week, there has been another example of this more locally with the Wharf in Macclesfield which, like the Laurieston, is a current Good Beer Guide entry.

Sunday 5 November 2023

Cleaning up your act

In one job I worked at, we were planning a Christmas lunch, and the women of the office checked out the hygiene ratings of the various restaurants in the town to decide which was best. I couldn’t help thinking that they’d rather got the cart before the horse there. It might have made sense to narrow it down to those with good scores, and then choose from amongst those, but they seemed to be using that as the primary criterion. But having an immaculate kitchen is no guarantee that the actual food will be any good, and indeed we ended up having one of the worst Italian meals I can remember.

Now Cask Marque have launched a similar scheme to give pubs star ratings for cellar hygiene. Obviously there’s everything to be said for promoting clean cellars, but it’s a touch disingenuous to suggest that it will help improve cask ale quality. Serving a good pint over the bar is a combination of various factors, not just hygiene, but also turnover, temperature control both in the cellar and in the lines, and maintaining condition through correct tapping, venting and spiling procedures. It’s not rocket science, just diligently following straightforward routines.

Good hygiene alone will not produce good beer if the other elements aren’t there. It’s significant that “One of the first pub groups to endorse the scheme and act on the findings has been named as the budget pub chain Wetherspoons, owned by Tim Martin, which now has 95% of its pubs with 4*/5* ratings.” Yet Spoons’ beer quality can be distinctly variable, and all too often their beer lacks condition and tastes as though it has been pulled through a very long pipe.

We will all have come across pubs whose public areas don’t give the impression of a scrupulous adherence to cleanliness, and yet reliably manage to serve up a good pint. Maybe they do have spotless cellars, but I have my doubts. As a product that is kept in sealed containers, and where the alcohol content has some preservative quality, beer has something of a natural resistance to contamination anyway. Schemes of this kind tend to involve a significant element of ticking boxes to confirm meticulous record-keeping. Some catering establishments end up with one-star ratings purely because they haven’t done their paperwork.

Nobody can argue against promoting hygienic cellars, but don’t imagine that a five-star rating will guarantee a five-star pint.

Wednesday 1 November 2023

At the sign of the Dead Horse

Following the case of the fire and subsequent demolition of the Crooked House, West Midlands Mayor Andy Street has called for nominations for pubs that deserve additional legal protection. That’s all well and good, but it has to be remembered that the best protection for pubs is for people to actually use them. Those who claim to be campaigning to support pubs often seem to fail to acknowledge how much the trade has declined in recent years, which inevitably will render many unviable.

Nobody who follows this blog can be left in any doubt about my enduring love of pubs. As I wrote back in 2010:

At heart I have to conclude I’m more fascinated by pubs than beer – by the variation in layout and architecture, the fittings from many different eras, the ebb and flow of trade, the little rituals and quirks of pub life, the mix of customers, their interaction with the bar staff and each other, the way their clientele and atmosphere reflect the varied strands of society. Every pub is different and has its own character and its own story to tell.
I have also devoted a separate blog to highlighting some of the best pubs I have come across.

However, it is important to be realistic and not look at the subject through rose-tinted spectacles. One of the core themes of this blog has been to highlight the various trends that have combined to undermine pubs and reduce their role in society. Obviously one of the biggest factors, and one specifically down to government action, was the 2007 smoking ban, which really ripped the guts out of wet-led community pubs. There has also been an ever-increasing stream of official messaging about the dangers of drink, which is inevitably going to have an effect on public attitudes. If people do drink, very often they will prefer to do it in private homes rather than public places.

But much of it is due to changing social attitudes, which mean that going out to pubs for a drink is looked upon much less favourably, alcohol consumption is more stigmatised, and many occasions on which people would once routinely visit pubs are now frowned upon. As I wrote back in 2013, pubgoing as a leisure activity has increasingly become socially unacceptable. It also has to be recognised that, in the past, much of the core trade of pubs came from men – and it was overwhelmingly men – who were in there several nights a week drinking multiple pints. The number of jobs where you can get away with that, or indeed afford it, has much reduced, and it’s viewed much more unfavourably. Maybe in wider terms that is a positive trend, but it doesn’t help the business of pubs.

It’s a basic principle of economics that, in broad terms, the value that is put on land and activities reflect their overall benefit to society. Of course this cannot be viewed in isolation, and the impact on others has to be taken into account, such as, for example, avoiding pollution and preventing the building of properties with direct access to motorways. But, as a general principle, resource allocation is done much better by markets than by central direction.

If there is an underused pub occupying a large plot of land in a city, at a time of housing shortage it may well benefit society as a whole to knock it down and build flats on the site. Thus it would command a much higher price as a development site than as a going concern. If there is a demand for a pub or bar in that location, it can be provided on the ground floor of the block.

If the pub is of particular architectural quality or significance, it can be protected by being given Listed Building status, which gives it much more protection from alteration or demolition. This, in a sense, is a luxury that prosperous and civilised societies can afford, to be able to retain buildings for cultural or historical reasons even if the site could be used in a more economically advantageous way. There is always the issue, though, of finding a use for listed buildings, unless they can be presented as tourist attractions. Domestic buildings can normally be used for their original purpose, but if a pub has its interior listed as well as its exterior it cannot realistically be used for anything else. And there is a problem with large industrial or institutional buildings that have been listed, but for which no alterative use can be found.

If a pub does not qualify for listing, then it can be given some measure of protection through the planning system. The first option is to apply for it to be registered as an Asset of Community Value, which can be done if it can be demonstrated that it has played a part in the life of the community over a period of time. This does not prevent redevelopment, or change of use, but forces it to be considered in the planning process and gives the local community a six-month window of opportunity to raise funds to purchase it, although there is no obligation on the owner to sell.

To some extent this has been superseded by a relatively recent change of giving pubs their own specific use class for planning purposes, which means that any change of use or demolition has to be given permission by the local council. However, planning can only stop things from happening, it can’t actually make them happen. No operator can be forced to keep a pub open against their will. There is nothing to stop the owner simply closing a pub they do not consider to be viable, and then engaging in a Mexican stand-off with the council over its future use. Local campaigners will often put pressure on councils not to approve a change of use even if there is little realistic prospect of the building continuing to be a pub.

In some cases, it’s possible that a new owner and a change of format might breathe new life into a pub, but to what extent is that simply redistributing the customers from other pubs rather than growing demand overall? And it’s very hard to see many of the “beached whale” estate pubs having any future whoever took them over. It is this kind of planning sclerosis that leads to “mystery fires” when unscrupulous owners try to force the council’s hand. (I am not in any sense trying to excuse what happened at the Crooked House, which was prima facie entirely illegal and probably, from the point of view of the owners, self-defeating.)

It would, of course, be possible to go one step further by requiring any owner wishing to dispose of a pub to at first offer it for sale valued as a going concern for, say, a period of six months. However, this would simply tend to lead to owners closing pubs and sitting on them until any prospect of them appealing to alternative buyers had evaporated. Humphrey Smith is an expert at keeping pubs closed for years at a time. There would have to be a qualifying time period, as otherwise if your micropub in a converted shop failed to prosper, it would be much more difficult to change it back into something else. Plus there would be the question of who would eventually receive the development gains if, after one or two more throws of the dice, it did not prove possible for it to operate as a pub. Realistically, all this would do is to prolong the agony.

If cherished pubs can no longer be sustained on a commercial basis, then if people feel strongly enough about their loss they will need to stump up their own cash to take them into community ownership. This is a growing trend across the country and it is to be welcomed as a way of keeping pubs in existence. But it must be recognised that, once it has been bought, a pub must be able to operate profitably, otherwise it will be a continuing cash drain on the community. Actually buying the pub is only the beginning of the battle. I have also suggested in the past that CAMRA could set up a kind of National Trust of Pubs that could aim to acquire pubs on its National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors that are no longer able to operate commercially. Pubs will increasingly have to move from the business sector to the heritage sector.

Ultimately, the shadow hanging over pubs is not one of lack of supply, but lack of demand. If you want them to survive and prosper in future, you would be better off spending your time promoting the appeal of both pubs and moderate social drinking, rather than engaging in a constant rearguard action of fighting planning battles.

The header photo is of the Black Horse in the Stapenhill district of Burton-on-Trent, an impressive inter-wars Art Deco pub that has since been replaced by housing.

Friday 27 October 2023

Led astray in Leeds

I haven’t done any travelogues on here for a while, but I thought I’d make an exception for my trip to Leeds on Tuesday of this week. Apart from a brief foray for the press launch of Tetley’s No.3 Pale Ale (and whatever happened to that?) I hadn’t visited the city since December 2016, so I thought it was time for another exploration.

I sat down on my train from Manchester Piccadilly, only for a message to come over the PA that it had been cancelled due the lack of a driver. The next train was one that look the longer route via Manchester Victoria, and would probably be very busy due to the transferring passengers, so I took the opportunity to get on a stopping train which arrived at Huddersfield just before the express. Indeed there were plenty of seats available on this. For some reason the regular stopping service on the Standedge route, previously operated by Northern Rail, has been discontinued, and replaced with a rather intermittent service operated by Trans-Pennine Express calling at the intermediate stations. But it does give a higher standard of rolling stock.

It was a morning of heavy rain and thick, lowering clouds, so as we travelled along the steep-sided valleys of the Tame and Colne, stopping at Mossley, Greenfield, Marsden and Slaithwaite (correctly pronounced by the conductor) it was rather like a train journey into the depths of Mordor. The connection at Huddersfield was duly made, and there were a few seats still available on the express, which arrived in Leeds on time. I duly submitted my claim for compensation to the train operator and am pleased to report I was promptly refunded a quarter of the fare.

My plan had been to have some lunch in the Wetherspoon’s on the concourse of Leeds station, but this must be one of their smallest branches, and was completely full, so instead I decided to go to the Cuthbert Brodrick, which is about ten minutes’ walk away on the north side of the city centre. It was pouring with rain, so I just took a quick glance at Google Maps on my phone to establish its general whereabouts. I was walking up a street and saw a large red-brick building on my left, with the Wetherspoon’s name displayed on the wall, so I dived in out of the rain, found a seat and placed my order via the app.

Twenty minutes later, nothing had arrived, so I mentioned this to a passing member of staff and was assured in a rather offhand way that the kitchen would still be making it. Another twenty minutes passed, so I went up to the bar to complain. “We’ve got no record of any order being placed from that table,” I was told. So I showed them the confirmation e-mail on my phone, only to be told that, while I had indeed placed my order at the Cuthbert Brodrick, the pub I was in was actually the Hedley Verity.

Feeling a touch embarrassed, I duly decamped to the Cuthbert Brodrick, which is in fact only about two hundred yards away. I explained the situation to the staff there, and in fact the drink I had ordered was still on the bar. I found a table and my food was served fairly quickly, so kudos to them for sorting matters out. Possibly they had noticed the table was empty when delivering the drink, and then not actually cooked the food, as it didn’t seem as though I’d been given something that had been warmed up again. I suspect I’m not the first person to make this mistake when two branches are so close together.

Named after the local Victorian architect, the Cuthbert Brodrick is a modern Wetherspoon’s with an unusual corner tower, built on the site of former public baths and overlooking the city’s Millennium Square. While wide, it’s fairly shallow, with the ground floor mainly occupied by posing tables, but more comfortable seating upstairs. Not the most memorable of Spoons, but it had served its purpose in the end. Last time in Leeds we had eaten at Friends of Ham, which I thought was very good, but I don’t think their formula works so well for a solo diner. And, as I said on Twitter: So far, I had felt rather like Unlucky Alf from the Fast Show, but things were to get a lot better. Walking past the impressive classical façade of Leeds Town Hall, designed by the said Cuthbert Brodrick, brought me to the Town Hall Tavern. This is a Timothy Taylor’s tied house with a fairly functional one-room interior, offering the full range of their regular beers – Dark Mild, Golden Best, Boltmaker, Knowle Spring, Landlord and Landlord Dark. I went for the Landlord Dark (£4.50), as I’d never had it before on cask, and it was pretty good. In mid-afternoon, it wasn’t busy, but there were a group of lawyers talking shop. Perhaps not the most scintillating of conversations to eavesdrop on, but it’s good to see the tradition of professional people discussing business over a pint still being maintained.

There followed a long walk up The Headrow, the wide main street running through the middle of the city centre, although the rain was now easing off. The next pub was the Templar, which I had heard many good things about, and which didn’t disappoint. It’s a long, shallow corner pub with an elaborate tiled façade. Inside, while it has been opened out somewhat, it retains plenty of historical character, with wood panelling, seating booths and a cosy snug right at the far end. It was very busy, with the clientele leaning towards the older male end of the spectrum, although with both sexes and a variety of age groups represented, but I managed to find myself a seat with a good vantage point.

Although owned by Greene King, this isn’t at all obvious, and indeed I don’t think any of the eight cask ales on offer were their products. Apparently it regularly stocks Tetley Bitter, but I overhead a customer asking about it and being told it wouldn’t be available for a couple of days. I plumped for Acorn Barnsley Bitter, a bargain at £3.36, which was very good indeed. Apparently it’s one of the pubs that still uses Autovac dispense. A splendid pub with a great atmosphere, that’s certainly the best new pub I’ve visited this year and immediately shoots into my all-time Top 20.

Retracing my steps, I passed the Three Legs, which has an impressive façade and a reputation for being distinctly “lively”, although as it is reported to have no cask beer I gave it a miss. By this time the rain had fortunately stopped. Briggate, which runs North to South, was Leeds’ original high street, and still retains several Victorian shopping arcades together with four pubs on the west side situated in courtyards accessed via narrow alleyways. I had previously visited Whitelock’s and the Angel, so today decided to try the other two.

First was the Ship, which is the smallest of the four. This is reached by a very narrow passage, and is made up of a room containing the bar, and a further seating area at a slightly higher level. A good scattering of customers, and a decent drop of Black Sheep Bitter at £4.30. I walked straight past the entrance to the Pack Horse before realising I’d reached Whitelock’s and turning back. A Craft Union pub, this is rather more spacious, with the bar against the back right-hand wall. Again it was ticking over nicely, although not heaving, and offering Landlord at the bargain price of £2.90.

Neither of these are going to win prizes for historic interiors, but it’s good to see a couple of unassuming pubs hidden away down passageways thriving in such a central location. The gem of the four is of course the well-known Whitelock’s, which may well merit a visit next time. It might be nice if Timothy Taylor’s could acquire either the Ship or the Pack Horse to give them a better Leeds flagship than the rather ordinary Town Hall Tavern.

Continuing to the south, I crossed the bridge over the River Aire, somewhat swollen by the recent rains, to reach the Adelphi, an impressive Victorian pub with a curved façade, the neon sign on the roof of the former Tetley’s brewery clearly visible in the distance. This is the only pub that I also visited on my previous trip, but it features a stunning unspoilt interior that qualifies it for a three-star entry on CAMRA’s National Inventory, with four separate rooms ranged around the central part, and an abundance of frosted glass and wood panelling.

It wasn’t anywhere near as busy as the previous time, although that was later in the year in the run-up to Christmas, and I had no problem finding a comfortable seat. I had a pint of Leeds Pale and then, looking at the times of the return trains, slotted in another of Titanic Plum Porter. These were respectively £4.85 and £5.25, and this was the first time I have ever paid over £5 for sub-5% beer, although I’m sure it won’t be the last. I’ve seen the point made before that, while the Adelphi has stunning architecture inside and out, the actual pub experience doesn’t quite live up to it.

From here it was just a short walk along Swinegate, passing under the eastern throat of the station, to catch my train home, which fortunately was dead on time. After an inauspicious start it had turned out into an excellent day out. While comparisons are invidious, I always feel that Leeds has a more coherently laid out city centre than Manchester, which is somewhat disjoined, and has demonstrated more respect for its architectural heritage, as shown by the arcades and pubs off Briggate. It certainly has nothing on a par with the eyesore of Manchester’s Arndale Centre. It will certainly merit a return trip some time in the future.

Friday 20 October 2023

A very Peculier beer launch

North Yorkshire brewery Theakston have announced that they are launching a new IPA as a brand extension of the celebrated Old Peculier. The description goes:
Made with all-British ingredients, it comes in at 5.1% ABV. English-grown Harlequin, Jester, and Olicana hops deliver a zesty fruitiness with a full-bodied malty undertone. It finishes with a pronounced hop-forward flourish.
It sounds very appetising, and I’d certainly give it a try. But it’s very different from the standard Old Peculier, which is a dark, sweet, rich, warming ale. And I can’t help thinking that this has the potential to dilute the image of the original beer. You have to wonder why it couldn’t simply be branded as “Theakston IPA”.

However, it seems to be an increasing trend to extend the brand name of a popular beer to others in the hope that they will benefit from a kind of halo effect. Something similar happened to Hobgoblin, where the original beer, another dark, sweetish brew, was joined by an IPA and a Gold. Wainwright, originally a pale gold beer, has now had an Amber version added, which looks suspiciously like an ordinary bitter. Several beers have had Gold spin-offs, including Shepherd Neame Spitfire and Brains SA and Reverend James, while Timothy Taylors renamed their Ram Tam as Landlord Dark.

Going back forty years, most beers were simply identified by the name of the brewer and the type of beer, such as “Bloggs’ Best Bitter”. But, increasingly, they came to be given distinctive names, which helped with recognition when there were more different beers on the bar, and the free trade grew in importance over tied houses. Thus Robinson’s Best Bitter became Unicorn and Taylor’s Best Better Boltmaker. The actual name of the brewer tends to be downplayed in favour of the brand.

Some of these have become so recognisable that the breweries felt it would be advantageous for other beers to piggyback on their reputation. But if you add the name to something very different, you run the risk of undermining the reputation of the original beer. Old Peculier was very well known as a distinctive rich, dark beer, but if the name is now also given to a pale, hoppy IPA it blurs that image.

Monday 16 October 2023

An epidemic of loneliness

Last month, the Daily Telegraph published a very perceptive and poignant article by Melissa Twigg entitled The pub closures at the heart of Britain’s loneliness epidemic *, looking at how the decline of pubs was contributing to a worrying a rise in social isolation. This echoes many of the points I have made on this blog over the years.
Mikey Jones had been going to the Beehive pub in south London for a drink at least once a week since the 1960s. He usually ordered a pint of bitter, but on the night he met the woman who would become his wife, he had a gin and tonic to appear more sophisticated; on the afternoon his daughter was born, he had a stiff whisky.

The Beehive closed in 2018, as did another pub further up the road in South Norwood where Jones used to meet his friends. The latter is now a coffee shop serving flat whites and chai tea lattes and is crowded with young families and people with laptops – but for someone like Jones, who is 78, it doesn’t feel particularly welcoming. As a result, he mostly stays at home. “I’ve lived alone since my wife died,” he says. “My daughter does come to visit but other than that I am mostly by myself with the telly on.”

Jones is just one of the 3.83 million people in the UK who are chronically lonely – a figure that has increased by more than half a million since the pandemic hit, according to the Office for National Statistics. Technology is often treated at the bogeyman but around the country, the mass closure of pubs and community spaces is fuelling a health epidemic of epic proportions.

“Pubs are the archetype of third space – somewhere that isn’t home or work, but a place that brings people together beyond the immediate family or work,” says Thomas Thurnell-Read, an author and lecturer at the University of Loughborough researching the impact fewer pubs is having on British society. “Traditional pubs have faced very challenging trading conditions and the steady closure of them around the country rings a lot of alarm bells.”

The concept of the “third space” is a very important point. The pub provides somewhere you can get away from the constraints and responsibilities of the home and workplace, and to some extent allows you to let your hair down and lose your inhibitions. People often report that their best conversations occur in the pub. And, if you are retired or unable to work, it offers a “second space” where you can get out of the house and get and change of scene.

It isn’t necessary to have in-depth conversations, though. The simple act of going somewhere different and interacting with a member of staff to buy a drink provides some social contact. And in a pub it’s up to you to what extent you engage with others. I wrote about this back in 2016, when Red Nev made the comment that:

Pubs are the only institutions that I can think of where you can walk in off the street, buy a drink and be entitled to sit there as long as you like, with the option of talking to strangers or not, as you prefer.
However, the idea that people might want to go to the pub and simply chat, or just read the paper or sit in silent contemplation, is becoming increasingly unfashionable. People have to be doing something, whether eating a meal, watching TV sport, taking part in a quiz or listening to a band. I wrote a couple of years ago about how people less and less “just went out for a pint”.

Increasingly limited opening hours mean that pubs are often simply not open when lonely people want to visit them. Many older or vulnerable people prefer to drink during the daytime and are reluctant to venture out after dark. Yes, it’s a commercial decision, but it limits the social function of pubs. Another factor is the increasing reliance on electronic communications, whether app ordering or cashless payments, which reduces the level of human interaction in pubs.

Very often, the layout of pubs is remodelled to make them deliberately unappealing to casual social drinkers. Wetherspoon’s are often the last pub refuge available to people, but they typically have a regimented array of individual tables with loose chairs, rather than cosy alcoves of benches that encourage conversation. It’s not uncommon in Wetherspoon’s during the day to see whole rows of tables occupied by solo drinkers. If they were facing each other, they might be more likely to talk.

And one of the solutions suggested by Dr Thurnell-Read, while well-meaning, is likely to be anathema to many pubgoers just in search of a quiet drink:

…they include adapting them by day to create more of a café-like environment where women and babies and laptop workers are welcome, and by introducing innovations such as small lending libraries.
Of course pubs are commercial businesses and cannot be expected to operate at a loss to serve a social function. And the idea of a council-run mock pub would be enough to make many pubgoers run a mile. But it can’t be denied that widespread pub closures, and reductions in opening hours and changes in the offer of those that remain, have exacerbated the level of loneliness in society.

Unsurprisingly, though, there is no mention whatsoever of the smoking ban legendary elephant in the room, which has been one of the biggest factors in the closure of community pubs over the past sixteen years. The pub is hardly a welcoming refuge if you’re forced out into the cold.

* The Telegraph article is paywalled, but if you would like to e-mail me, I can send you a copy of the full taxt.

Friday 6 October 2023

Creeping prohibition

A problem with writing a blog of this kind is that it can become a little tedious having to go over the same arguments again and again. There are only so many times you can explain why minimum alcohol pricing is a seriously counter-productive policy, or why cask ale premiumisation really isn’t going to fly.

Something of the same applies to the issue of progressively raising the minimum purchase age for tobacco, something I wrote about back in 2021 in relation to New Zealand, and again earlier this year referring to the British Labour Party. Now, not entirely surprisingly, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has announced that this is going to be applied in the UK.

It is an appalling, grossly illiberal policy that reduces responsible adults to the status of naughty children. Christopher Snowdon has already set out the case against it very clearly.

It would, over time, turn the entire tobacco industry over to the black market, and deprive the government of the associated tax revenue. Smoking has already been banned in all indoor public spaces, so the opportunities for younger smokers to stand out and feel stigmatised are now very limited. It’s already difficult to go far in cities and large towns without encountering the smell of cannabis, and that’s illegal for all age groups. Tobacco will be just the same. As I understand it, there’s no intention to ban possession or consumption, merely the legal sale.

It’s already difficult enough for shopkeepers to enforce the minimum purchase age of 18 for alcohol and tobacco, and this will be multiplied if the tobacco age rises every year. People in their 30s and 40s are going to need identity cards to prove their age. And a 36-year-old isn’t going to have any qualms about buying tobacco for their 35-year-old friend.

Of course smoking carries significant health risks, but that applies to plenty of other things do for pleasure, most of which are tolerated or even celebrated. And there is a total failure to appreciate that many smokers actually enjoy the habit and have no desire to quit. The government are looking to prohibit a leisure activity that gives people pleasure and, providing it is done in private, harms nobody else.

Smokers now represent only about 10% of the adult population, and come disproportionately from the more marginalised in society. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there is a distinct whiff of “othering” in this policy, in finding minorities to persecute and ostracise. Most prejudices against minorities are now rightly frowned on, but this one goes from strength to strength.

Unsurprisingly, every lobby group wanting increased lifestyle restrictions is jumping on the bandwagon and saying that this sets a precedent for their particularly bansturbatory hobby-horse.

And if you think it will never be used as a precedent to justify greater alcohol regulation, then I have a bridge to sell you.

This has not yet become law, and is unlikely to do so before the impending General Election. During that time, many articulate voices will be raised against it. Former Prime Minister Liz Truss has already stated she would vote against it. This, from Ian Dunt, is an example of an opposing view from the political Left. Don’t expect Labour to do anything to challenge it, though – they will do their usual nodding dog act when confronted with any authoritarian measure.

And, if it does come to pass, I will be able to sit back and just watch the inevitable and widely predicted policy disaster unfold. They haven’t banned Schadenfreude. Yet...

Wednesday 4 October 2023

Cutting off your nose to spite your face?

I recently spent a few days in Exeter. Researching the pubs that might be worth visiting, one that stood out was the Turk’s Head right in the city centre close to the Guildhall. It’s a historic inn that was converted into a pizza restaurant but has now been restored to pub use, and won a CAMRA Pub Design Award for Conversion to Pub Use. It also operates its own brewery. So, it sounded like somewhere well worth a look, but I noticed on the door a sign saying that they only accepted card and phone payments.

Now, I strongly dislike this policy, and would normally give a swerve to any pubs applying it, but I took the view on this occasion that it would be interesting to see what it was like, and I didn’t really want to cut off my nose to spite my face. It’s a pub of some character, with a small historic façade on the High Street leading to a rambling interior on several different levels. They also brew their own beer, although the pint of £4.75 homebrew I sampled probably wouldn’t win any prizes. I’m also not going to be so dogmatic as to take the same view over, for example, must-visit tourist attractions.

I’m not aware of any pubs in my local area that I would routinely want to visit that won’t accept cash. But even if there were, there are plenty of others that I could give my business to, so I wouldn’t experience any hardship by avoiding them. Back in 2020, during the darkest depths of lockdown, I wrote about the importance of preserving the right to pay in cash.

Ultimately, the continued existence of cash represents a bulwark of freedom against both governments and corporations. Yes, many people may find contactless payments for everyday transactions convenient, but if we as a society allow cash to entirely disappear, we will have also said goodbye to a large measure of our liberties.
This is a theme amplified in this recent article entitled A true cashless society would be a dystopian nightmare.

If paying for everyday purchases by card is more convenient for you, that’s fair enough, although personally I find it makes life more difficult. But if you venture out of the house without any cash at all, then you leave yourself very exposed, as one participant on a pub crawl recently found when he encountered a cash-only (not Sam Smith’s) pub.

A few places say they have gone cashless after experiencing burglaries, but if there are other cash businesses nearby it doesn’t entirely ring true. For most venues, not accepting cash is exercising a form of social selection. You’re saying that you don’t want the business of the old, the poor or the non-conformist. Your target market is all the people who enthusiastically support the latest thing.

Incidentally, on two previous visits to Exeter, the best pub I encountered was the Great Western Hotel next to St David’s Station, but sadly this closed down earlier this year and it future looks uncertain. It’s an interesting and characterful city, but not really the best for pubs. I think people are spoiled by York! I also happened to visit during Freshers’ week, when many of the pubs and restaurants were thronged with students.

Monday 25 September 2023

Not so grand

A couple of days ago saw a rather sad milestone when I posted the 1000th entry on my Closed Pubs blog. This was The Pagefield Hotel, a magnificent late Victorian or Edwardian edifice in a residential area just outside Wigan town centre. One or two of the pubs I have posted have subsequently reopened, but the vast majority haven’t, and it serves as a sad testimony to the decline of the pub trade.

I started this blog in August 2010, prompted by the creation of the Google StreetView app, which provided images of street scenes across the UK. Initially it was like shooting fish in a barrel, as I recorded all the closed pubs I was personally familiar with. In October 2010 I made 30 posts, virtually one a day. After a while, it slowed to a trickle, with only 4 posts in 2015, but after that I became more assiduous in seeking out new ones, and was helped by suggestions and photographs from various contributors.

Amongst these I will particularly thank the late Peter Allen, who was responsible for the Pubs Then And Now blog, Staffordshire resident Dan Bishop, and Yorkshire residents Luke H and Kyle Reed. In the past few years, Kyle has been a very prolific contributor, which helps explain the substantial number of entries in West Yorkshire. Yorkshire as a whole is about to overtake Staffordshire in terms of number of entries, and is not far behind Lancashire.

In general, I haven’t aimed to give any background, and just described what I see from the image, although in many cases I found about the pub from a news article which I have linked to, and which provides some more information. Many of these came from the Fullpint news aggregation Twitter account, which unfortunately stopped posting for some reason in May this year.

It was generally recognised thirty years ago that there were around 70,000 pubs in the UK, so 1,000 represents over 1% of the total, and that’s only a drop in the ocean. I have logged 117 pubs in (historical) Cheshire – assuming there were maybe 1,500 pubs in the county, that makes up 7.8%.

There can be no doubt that a slow-motion catastrophe has overtaken the British pub trade. There has been a profound change in the way people use pubs, which in most instances has meant that they no longer do any more. Most of this is down to changes in social attitudes, but of course the smoking ban was a wound deliberately inflicted by government. Some may respond that times have changed, and new pubs and bars have opened up, which is true enough. But they are on a much smaller scale than before, and overall there has undoubtedly been a huge contraction in the trade.

Ten years ago I wrote a post entitled Trying to make sense of it all which attempted to explain the tidal wave of closures. The conclusion was that pretty much all sectors of pubs were affected, with only a limited number of niche areas seemingly immune.

The most common category seems to be the post-war estate-style pubs, which for a variety of reasons never seem to have really worked, something I wrote about here. Possibly the whole concept was flawed from the start, and arose more from town planners’ tidy minds than actual drinkers’ needs. It would not surprise me if fully half the purpose-built, stand-alone pubs constructed after the war are no longer trading, in some cases lasting less than twenty years.

But the big inter-wars pubs, often built to much higher standards of design and construction, are in a sense the saddest. A prime example is The Beeches in Northfield, Birmingham, which resembles a magnificent Jacobean stately home. StreetView shows that it had been demolished by May 2011, and housing has now been built on the site.

Will there be another 1,000 pubs on the blog? Only time will tell, although there are certainly enough candidates out there waiting to be discovered. If you’re aware of any, please let me know, although I do need either a photograph or a StreetView link showing it in a boarded up or derelict state.