Monday, 27 January 2020

A dismal milestone

Over the past few days, the pub closures ticker in the sidebar has passed the 20,000 mark. Now, I’m well aware of the limitations of this data, that it’s simply based on statements of weekly or monthly pub closures issues by the likes of the BBPA and CAMRA, and that it’s essentially a gross figure that does not take account of new bar openings. But it certainly conveys a fundamental truth, that the pub trade overall has seen a dramatic decline over that period. According to the most recent figures produced by the BBPA, beer sales in pubs have declined by 35% since 2007, so it’s not exactly surprising that so many have closed.

I would never claim that the smoking ban has been a monocausal factor in pub decline over that period, but it has certainly been a significant one, especially amongst the more down-to-earth, wet-led pubs. It’s undoubtedly true that a huge number of much-loved pubs have been lost, such as, in Stockport alone, the Tiviot, Waterloo and Grapes. And, if you’ve lost the only pub in the area where you live, it’s scant consolation that a new craft bar has opened up three miles away in the town centre charging four quid a pint. It is nothing remotely resembling a like-for-like replacement.

Thursday, 23 January 2020

One wrong doesn’t excuse another

Pellicle magazine has recently published an article entitled Pubs, Parenthood and Children at the Heart of the Community advocating a more tolerant attitude to children in pubs. Now, I’ve been over this ground many times before, so I don’t propose to revisit it here. However, I can’t help thinking that the article paints a rather rose-tinted picture of mummy happily sipping her third of craft beer with her friends while little Jocasta quietly sits with a colouring book, which all too often bears little relation to reality.

One argument that came up in discussion about this was the old chestnut that “what adults do in pubs is far worse than a few noisy children”. Now, in extremis, this is undoubtedly true, but it is essentially a classic example of the logical fallacy of tu quoque, that wrongdoing by one group in some may justifies or excuses the (possibly less serious) wrongdoing by another group.

I also have to say that, in my experience, witnessing inappropriate adult behaviour in pubs is extremely rare. This is true not only of actions at the extreme end of the scale such as fighting, or being abusive or threatening, but also more low-level behaviour such as shouting too loudly, throwing tantrums or deliberately annoying or pestering others. Of course it does happen, but it isn’t an everyday occurrence.

It has to be remembered, though, that behaviour has to be taken in context, and what might be par for the course when the local team win a football match, or in a lively city-centre bar late at night, would stand out like a sore thumb at lunchtime in a rural gastropub. Pubs often, by definition, are somewhat boisterous – that comes with the territory.

Children in pubs can often behave in a way that would be entirely normal for the playground, but is inappropriate for a pub environment and would not be considered acceptable in adults. (By “pub” I mean a drinking place, not a casual dining venue) It doesn’t mean that you hate children not to want to be in the presence of their happy laughter all the time.

The article rightly points to the importance of the pub as a “third space”, a refuge where people can relax away from the pressures of the workplace and the home. And, for many people, that also means an adult space that offers a respite from the responsibility of tending to children’s needs, and where inhibitions can be loosened somewhat. Is that something so unreasonable to ask for?

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Drying out

To tie in with Dry January, the Morning Advertiser reports that one in four pub visits no longer involve consuming an alcoholic drink. My first thought is to wonder how many of these are connected with eating. My guess would be that the proportion on non-dining occasions is much smaller.

It’s also of limited usefulness taken in isolation. How does it compare with previous years? Does it represent a marked change, or is it little different? It could, of course, be the case that as the amount of drinking in pubs decreases, the proportion of dining occasions rises, and with it the percentage of non-drinking visits, even without much change in individual behaviour when in the pub. It could simply be a reflection of the growing role of food in pubs.

It’s certainly true, as I have observed before, that adults in groups of diners in pubs are now much more likely to be having a non-alcoholic drink than they were twenty or thirty years. But it doesn’t follow that hordes of people have suddenly started jugging back non-alcoholic beers on non-dining pub visits.

And, if they are, there must come a point where they start to wonder what they’re doing there at all. If one person decides to hang on the coat-tails of a group of drinkers and enjoy an evening in the pub while avoiding alcohol, that’s understandable. But, once the non-drinkers become a majority, they might one day ask “Paula, you’re now the only one of us who’s actually drinking alcohol. Wouldn’t it be better if we all did something else?”

Friday, 17 January 2020

Drinking with the enemy

For a number of years, we have seen the Dry January campaign run by the public health lobby, which aims to encourage people to abstain from alcohol entirely throughout the month and hopefully to take stock of their drinking in a wider sense. Understandably, the licensed trade have viewed this as a threat to their business, especially as January is one of the slackest months for trade and a time that sees many pubs financially struggling. As a response, various initiatives have been devised, including Drinkuary (which now seems to have faded away) and, most prominently, Tryanuary. This aims not to encourage people to drink more, but to take the opportunity to try out new and unfamiliar beers and venues.

However, we are now seeing voices raised that are critical of this approach, arguing that to oppose Dry January comes across as disrespectful and unhelpful to people who are genuinely trying to reduce their consumption or grappling with alcohol-related problems, not to mention being potentially damaging to business, For example, see this post on Bring on the Beer, a blog which I have to admit I hadn’t previously come across.

I wouldn't for one moment decry desperate business owners for being miffed at a campaign that they perceive as seeking to undermine their footfall at a needy time of year. But I would like to know if it's been proven that that's where their ire should be directed. Blunt, hostile rejection of the "other" camp is completely illogical and does more harm than any abstinence campaign ever could. If a pub does put out a tweet saying "Forget (or stronger) Dryanuary" it makes it less likely that folks will come into their pub to partake of a soft drink or two, so they're basically shooting themselves in the foot.
The post makes some nuanced points, not least that Dry January is unlikely to reach those most in need of a break from alcohol, and is well worth reading. However, it is important to distinguish the individual from the general. On the personal level, people may well wish to reduce their overall alcohol consumption, or give it a miss for a while, and that needs to be respected. They shouldn’t be badgered into have a drink when they don’t want one, or told that they’re letting the side down, and pubs should offer products that enable them to make a non-alcoholic choice, which of course in general they do.

But Dry January isn’t just about individual responsibility. It is a campaign that has been consciously crafted by the anti-drink lobby with the declared intention of not just allowing people something of a detox but to review their entire relationship with alcohol. It takes advantage of the fact that, after Christmas and New Year, people maybe will feel they’ve overdone it a bit, and may also find themselves short of funds, so abstinence becomes doubly attractive. In the past, anti-drink campaigns often focused on morality and the role of drink as a step on the road to ruin, but now they have been subtly redirected to capitalise on contemporary concerns about health and general feelings of purity and well-being.

This objective is made explicit in this blogpost, which also reiterates the point that Dry January does little to help those most in need of it.

For two campaigns aimed at helping beer sellers and alcoholics, it seems that neither of them actually have much effect. It can be argued that Tryanuary doesn't drive more folk to pubs in January than those who would go anyway, and Dryanuary is mostly partaken by folk who sensibly drink in moderation. Which means that, when you strip away the superficiality of likes, retweets, shares, headlines and humblebragging social media posts, the real world effect is negligible at best.

So what does this mean for the value of Dry January? It’s potentially helpful for a lot of people at an individual level, but for me its key contribution is about culture change, which then provides a space for policy change.

First, it prompts everyone to think about their alcohol consumption, and that fits perfectly with Alcohol Change UK’s admirable goal of getting everyone to make well-informed decisions.

Second, it provides an opportunity for commentators and policymakers to note that alcohol isn’t just any other commodity, and for all its strengths the individual-focused approach of Dry January doesn’t work for everyone, so we need more.

“Its key contribution is about culture change, which then provides a space for policy change.” Mark those words very carefully.

Some initiatives proposed by the anti-drink lobby may actually make sense. But they should always be taken with a large pinch of salt, because we know all too well what their ultimate objective is. There is no acceptable end-point short of outright prohibition, and whatever you agree with, they will always come back for more. Therefore, while it may well be prudent for pubs to keep their heads down during Dry January, and make good business sense to offer alcohol-free products, embracing the concept is effectively getting into bed with those who wish to destroy you.

The point has also been made, for example in the blogpost I linked to above, that, given the greatly improved choice and quality of alcohol-free beers available now, doing without alcohol doesn’t require as much of a sacrifice as it once did. There’s certainly a fair amount of truth in that – it’s no longer a question of having just a limited selection of bland ersatz lagers, although in practice the range available in the typical pub is still pretty narrow.

However, it misses the point that the fundamental reason people drink beer is because it contains alcohol. While people may have entirely valid reasons for choosing an alcohol-free beer, and I sometimes drink it myself, it’s always to some extent a distress purchase. They are intended to mimic, as far as possible, the experience of drinking a standard beer, but with that crucial element omitted. Ideally, all other things being equal, people would prefer to be drinking a normal-strength equivalent.

Without standard beer, there would be no alcohol-free beer, just as there would be no decaffeinated coffee without regular coffee or nut roasts without meat roasts. One is a mere echo of the other. While people may be happy enough with an alcohol-free beer if they find themselves in the pub, they’re not going to go out of their way to seek them out. Nobody is going to go on AFB pub crawls. So it’s always going to be an inferior substitute that falls short of the real thing, but will constantly remind you of it.

People who choose to switch to AFBs during January are not, in practice, going to spend as much time or money in pubs, so it is still undermining the trade to some extent. There may be the odd exception, but they will be vanishingly few. The best way to cut down on alcohol is simply not to go to the pub in the first place. And it should always be remembered that, without alcoholic drinks, and the people who consume them, there would be no pubs.

Monday, 13 January 2020

An old-fashioned success story

Yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph carried a feature article by beer writer Adrian Tierney-Jones on the reasons behind Samuel Smith’s perhaps unlikely success story. It’s paywalled, but I believe it’s possible to read a limited number of articles for free. It includes a brief quotation from me (albeit without any explanation of who I am):
They are pubs as they used to be,” says Peter Edwardson, “though I do think the mobile phone ban is bonkers and represents eccentricity taken a bit too far.”
And a lengthier explanation from Peter Alexander aka Tandleman, which hits the nail on the head.
For Peter Alexander, a Rochdale-based beer writer and CAMRA activist, the pubs’ popularity is due to the fact that visiting them is “like stepping back into the late 70s and early 80s. They are clean and bright, not hugely over-decorated and well run. There is no music. The beer is cheap, with a pint of keg mild being £1.29 and Old Brewery Bitter below £2, so they attract people who don’t have much to spend. The bottled beer and spirits prices are higher though — £6 for Imperial Stout for instance.

“The thing about Humphrey Smith,” he adds, “is that he has a demographic of customers who find the pubs comfortable, and they are mainly in their fifties, sixties and seventies. He also doesn’t stint on heating with the pubs always having coal fires in the winter.”

This comment from an ex-manager sums it up very well:
A former licensee I spoke with (on condition of anonymity) said that the pubs’ success was due to the fact that they have got their business model absolutely right. “They trade off their heritage, which is real and authentic. They are streets ahead of other pubs that also try to trade as traditional pubs. The authenticity is why I bought it into it. They were also the first brewery to be vegan, and the beer is also crucial to their reputation as it is so natural.”
No other pub chain comes anywhere close to matching the ambiance of pubs as people imagine they used to be. In Sam’s pubs, people do talk to each other in a way they rarely do elsewhere.

It was also very well explained in Anthony Avis’ book on the postwar brewing industry. He praises Samuel Smith’s for being an “exemplar among the smaller brewery companies”, and says “The custom is aimed at the older person, who relishes a good pint, with home-produced food if he wants it, and the surroundings to sit down and talk with his companions in unfashionable comfort – just like the brewery industry advertising of forty years ago represented pubs to be”. This was written in the 1990s, but remains just as true today, especially the “unfashionable comfort” point, at a time when many other operators seem determined to make their pubs as uncomfortable as possible.

As regular readers will know, I have long been a strong supporter of Samuel Smith’s general approach to their pubs, and locally often find them the most congenial places to go for a drink. However, while I can easily manage without my phone for the time it takes me to drink a couple of pints, I do regard that particular policy as a ban too far. I am also somewhat dismayed by Humphrey Smith’s refusal to employ relief managers, which leads to unnecessary and often protracted closures of pubs that on the face of it appear to be perfectly viable.

Saturday, 11 January 2020

A question of more or less

You can just go in for a drink, but would you call it a pub?
I recently linked to a Guardian editorial praising the British pub, which mentioned that, after years of decline, the number of pubs in the country had actually increased in the past year. The detailed story can be found here in the same newspaper.
The decline of the British pub may be at an end, according to official figures showing that the number of pubs has increased for the first time this decade.

The UK ended March 2019 with 39,135 pubs, 320 more than a year earlier, according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS). It is the first net increase since 2010.

The rise marked a dramatic turnaround compared with the previous nine years, during which the UK pub network declined by an average of 732 each year, comparable data showed.

I have to say I’m distinctly sceptical about what this is actually telling us. It all hinges, of course, on how “pub” is actually defined. It is certainly true that, in the past two or three years, the rate of closures of existing pubs, which had been vertiginous in the years immediately following 2007, has distinctly slowed. It hasn’t entirely come to a stop, though, with, for example, one prominent pub in Stockport apparently going to close for redevelopment later this month.

On the other hand, made possible by post-2005 changes in licensing laws, there has been a growth in the number of new drinking establishments. This doesn’t just include micropubs, but a whole swathe of new bars in various formats, very often in former shop premises. We recently did a crawl around Stockport Market Place where four of the eight establishments visited had opened fairly recently, three in the preceding twelve months. It would be entirely credible that Stockport has more licensed premises than it did twelve months previously.

Another, less-recognised, factor may be the reclassification of existing premises. The changes in licensing laws have made it easier and more attractive for other types of establishment – restaurants, social clubs and residential hotels – to obtain full on-licences so the general public can, if they want just go in there for a drink. Added to this, many new places that once would have clearly fallen into the category of restaurants now choose to define themselves as “restaurant and bar” or similar terminology, even if their primary purpose is still the serving of meals. It is perceived as being more modern and informal. Figures were recently published showing an increase in the number of “pubs” in the Scottish Highlands and Islands. As Scottish licensing law is not so conducive to the opening of new small bars, and the general climate there is hardly a fertile one for new stand-alone pubs, this kind of reclassification must be a major factor.

In many ways, all of this has been a positive development. It allows the market to function to provide new drinking establishments of a type and in locations that people actually want, and it opens up existing premises to a wider clientele. But what it has done is to blur the boundaries between different types of businesses. Go back twenty years, and if someone referred to a pub it would have been pretty clear what they were talking about. Now it is much less obvious.

Many of the pubs that have been converted to Indian or Chinese restaurants over the past two decades will have retained their full licences, so in theory you can just go in for a drink, but their body language very clearly states “eatery”. Just off Stockport Market Place, there’s a new establishment called Vinabod which describes itself as a “Viking-themed tapas bar”. I’m not knocking it – you have to commend their enterprise – but how many people would really think of it as a pub, even though you don’t have to eat. Over the summer, I had lunches in a couple of cafés when on holiday, both of which also served alcoholic drinks, one even having a couple of keg taps. Go back twenty years, and that wouldn’t have been the case.

This doesn’t mean, though, that everything blurs into one, and words lose their meaning. Pub, bar, hotel, social club, restaurant and café are all separate concepts that carry very different connotations. The boundaries may be blurred, and there may be a considerable area of overlap, but it shouldn’t be inferred that the distinctions no longer exist. A year or so, I wrote about the difference between a pub and a bar. Legally, there may well be none, but they still occupy very distinct spaces in people’s minds. Indeed, as I pointed out, some bars took exception to being classified alongside pubs, as they thought it put across an undesirably stuffy image.

Now, I don’t know how many of these new styles of establishment are included within the headline total of “pubs”, as the definition has not been given. But we need to very careful about assuming that the reported rise in the headline number actually does represent any kind of renaissance of pubs as generally understood. Maybe we need a new term to encompass the whole variety of different establishments that now possess full on-licences. It may be a business success story, but it isn’t necessarily a pub success story.

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Do it the French way

Last week, I made the point that the lack of legislative action on the anti-drink agenda during the 2010s shouldn’t give any grounds for complacency during the coming decade. And, as sure as night follows day, it didn’t take long for the first salvo to be fired by the neo-Prohibitionists in the New Year.

Writing in Saturday’s Daily Mail, our old friend Professor David Nutt described alcohol as a national epidemic and urged concerted action across a number of fronts to address this menace. Not surprisingly, the article was full of exaggerations, misleading statements and downright lies. It was comprehensively filleted by Christopher Snowdon with his usual aplomb, saying that Nutt was “wrong in every possible way”. Please read it – there’s really very little I can add.

It is interesting that Nutt singles out France as an example for us to follow, although I’m not sure it’s really such a good role model as he seems to think. It is certainly true that France has halved its per capita alcohol consumption from a very high figure in the early 1960s, but according to various international comparisons it’s still at a similar level to the UK. And how much of that is due to general social trends as opposed to specific government policies?

He praises France’s severe restrictions on alcohol advertising, but it’s generally recognised that advertising primarily serves to influence brand choice rather than the level of consumption as such. The main impact of advertising curbs is to make it more difficult to launch new products. He also says that the government encouraged wine producers to make higher quality wines rather than vin ordinaire, but isn’t that in line with the general trend across the developed world to drink “less but better”? And you certainly can get drunk on Chateau Latour if you can afford it.

He highlights France’s decision to cut its drink-driving limit, but by doing so he effectively identifies this as primarily an anti-alcohol measure, which of course it is. Despite this, France still has a level of road fatalities, in terms of both population and vehicle mileage, about 70% higher than the UK. He conveniently ignores the fact that the limit was reduced in Scotland five years ago, and so far has failed to produce any noticeable reduction in accidents either in absolute terms or relative to England and Wales.

He also urges the other parts of the UK to follow Scotland’s example and introduce minimum unit pricing. But there is no minimum pricing in France, and you will still make big savings across the range of alcoholic drinks in the Calais hypermarket, although maybe not as much as you once could, due to the relative weakness of the pound in recent years.

Of course alcohol does cause problems for some who misuse it, but most people manage to handle it in a responsible manner and it brings pleasure to millions. Any attempt to deal with alcohol-related issues should surely adopt a targeted approach rather than being a form of indiscriminate collective punishment.

It may be easy to dismiss this as typical hyberbolic Daily Mail scaremongering. However, it should not be forgotten that the Mail was one of the main cheerleaders for the current government, and is often thought to represent the voice of “middle England”. They are far more likely to listen to the Mail than the Guardian. So nobody should delude themselves that the election of a new government that claims to listen to ordinary people means that the Nanny State agenda is now off the menu.

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Two cheers for pubs

The Guardian newspaper recently published an editorial praising pubs as the heart of the community. To be fair, it includes much to agree with:

Britons cling to their pubs because they have been engraved on to their hearts. Hilaire Belloc remarked that “when you have lost your inns drown your empty selves, for you will have lost the last of England”. They represent to us what cafes are to the French: a way of seeing ourselves and our condition. It was painful to see a British institution sadly and slowly disappearing, and that trend risked losing an important part of our culture. With more pubs opening, Britain feels like we can overcome the social isolation and cultural confusion of the age. We ought to raise a glass to good news in these dark times.
It can’t help saying, though, that “the pub’s image was perhaps not helped by Nigel Farage’s obvious joy at being inside one.” However, it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that it all rings a bit hollow when the paper has, over the years, enthusiastically published every scare story about alcohol and often given editorial support to anti-drink and anti-pub policies.

Pubs are only going to thrive when people feel relaxed and confident about visiting them, rather than sensing they are doing something vaguely disreputable. It seems, as I have remarked before, that many media commentators have a rose-tinted affection for the idea of pubs in the abstract, but are uncomfortable with the rumbustious reality of what they actually are and what people do there.

Friday, 3 January 2020

The dog that didn’t bark

Something that jumped out at me from my review of the past decade is just how little progress the anti-drink agenda has actually made in practical terms. Yes, there have been many warnings about the possibilities, often including on this blog, but on the ground not a lot has happened.

After the end of the alcohol duty escalator in 2014, duty has either been frozen or only increased by the rate of inflation. Indeed there have been a couple of small cuts in beer duty. While higher duty rates have been introduced for strong beers and ciders, these have only affected a tiny proportion of the overall market. Equally, the lower duty rate for beers of 2.8% ABV has proved a damp squib, showing that there is little appetite for these products.

Earlier in the decade, there were some half-hearted attempts by government to twist the arm of the drinks industry to reduce the strength of some popular beers and ciders, resulting, for example, in Stella Artois being cut in two stages from 5.2% ABV to 4.8%. However, there is a limit on how far this can be taken without destroying the credibility of the product, and more recently nothing seems to have been heard of it.

It’s still possible to advertise alcohol across the whole spectrum of media using a wide variety of messages and imagery. Likewise, there are few restrictions on the design of packaging and labelling. A few slaps on the wrist for craft brewers using cartoon teddy bears doesn’t really add up to very much. You can display alcoholic drinks openly anywhere in the supermarket and use short-term price cuts, multibuy discounts and BOGOFs (at least south of the Border).

In England and Wales at least, the drink-drive limit has not been reduced, something that has been shown in Scotland to be a far more effective way of deterring people from visiting pubs than of improving road safety.

The total number of outlets licensed to sell alcohol has, if anything, increased, with many new small bars opening up and all kinds of small corner shops and petrol stations now displaying a few shelves of bottles and cans. There have been no moves to cut licensing hours, which are now the most liberal for a century. If pubs in practice are opening shorter hours, it’s done voluntarily because the business simply isn’t there, not because they’ve been made to by the authorities.

As suggested above, Scotland, influenced more by a Scandinavian prohibitionist tradition, has gone somewhat further down the road. They have reduced the drink-driving limit, banned short-term price promotions and multibuy discounts, introduced minimum pricing and operate a stricter licensing regime than England and Wales that has made it well-nigh impossible to open new micropubs.

But even that is only scratching the surface when you compare it with what has been done in the field of tobacco control. The rate of duty has been consistently increased above inflation for many years, all advertising and promotion has been banned, smoking in all indoor public places has been prohibited, plain packaging, including graphic health warnings, has been mandated and even displaying tobacco products on sale is now impossible. Smokers in general have been demonised and made to feel like third-class citizens. The anti-drink lobby (who of course are often the same people) must be feeling rather envious.

In practice, a lot of the attention of public health seems to have been diverted in the direction of food and soft drinks, something that few would have predicted in 2010. We had seen the introduction of the ineffective and discriminatory sugar tax, and pressure growing for the “reformulation” of food products (i.e. in general making them smaller and less palatable) and mandatory portion size reduction. Introducing plain packaging for products such as crisps and biscuits is now being seriously discussed. This has even extended to restricting the advertising of natural, but supposedly high-fat, foodstuffs such as cheese and butter.

In fact, changes in social attitudes have been doing a lot of the anti-drink lobby’s work for them. Over the past ten years, there has been a gentle but significant fall in per capita alcohol consumption, probably more than they would have hoped for in 2009, but largely without help from public policy. As I’ve said in the past, the moderate consumption of alcohol in social situations has increasingly been stigmatised, and the range of occasions on which people will consider an alcoholic drink has shrunk. Just look at all those pubs that no longer open at lunchtimes, or are virtually deserted when they do, and observe amongst a party of diners in a pub how many of the adults have a soft drink.

There is a constant stream of negative stories in the media, with examples of alcohol consumption being portrayed in a positive light being vanishingly rare. The proportion of people who say they never drink alcohol has been steadily rising, a trend that is particularly marked amongst the young. It is now often the middle-aged who drink most. This change in attitudes must eventually feed through into public policy.

One stumbling block is that, while it is generally reckoned that smoking is harmful at any level of consumption, there is a wealth of evidence that drinking moderate quantities of alcohol is actually beneficial to health. However, undermining this is a holy grail for the anti-drink lobby. We have already seen a steady ratcheting down of recommended consumption guidelines, often completely unsupported by scientific evidence, to a level where people who take official advice seriously may wonder whether it’s even worth bothering with. Expect to see a steady increase in “any quantity is dangerous” scare stories during the coming decade.

Significant restrictions on smoking only became possible once smokers formed a relatively small minority of adults, possibly below 25%. But the figure for the proportion of people who drink alcohol will need to be carefully watched, as once it falls below 50% it changes the political climate and potentially opens the door for much stricter policies. So there are no grounds for complacency – what largely failed to happen in the 2010s may very well become reality in the 2020s.

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Pub pet peeves

The fallow period between Christmas and New Year inevitably gives rise to various diversions, one of which is the making of lists. One of these that cropped up on Twitter this week was listing five things that annoyed you beyond all reason. I couldn’t avoid the temptation to answer specifically for pubs, and indeed eventually stretched it to fifteen.

These were a couple of other good ones: But, of course, not wanting to be entirely negative, I have in the past come up with a list of ten things I’d like to see in a good pub. Pub cat and Bass of course feature.

Friday, 27 December 2019

Ten years further on

Although some pedants would argue that it doesn’t actually happen until the end of next year, this month marks the end of what has proved to be a momentous decade in British history, although possibly not quite so much in the sphere of beer and pubs.

Looking back through my posts in the first couple of months of January 2010, it seems that what was most concerning me was the rise in anti-drink sentiment. I was also criticising CAMRA for barking up the wrong tree. So nothing much has changed there. Home Office minister Gillian Merron was delusionally claiming that the smoking ban hadn’t affected the trade of pubs. There was quite an outbreak of antismoker bigotry in the comments on that post, although I got the last laugh by pointing out in the final comment that she lost her seat at the general election a couple of months later. And the idea of a majority Labout government seems a world away now.

On-trade beer sales declined from 16.3 million barrels in 2009 to 12.6 million in the year to June 2019 (the latest figures available on the BBPA website), a fall of 22.6%. The on-trade fell from 54.5% of the total beer market to 45.6%. By contrast, the fall during the 2000s, which included both the smoking ban and the financial crisis, was 33.4%.

This was once Robinson's Adswood Hotel in Stockport
The number of pubs has continued to decline, although not at quite as steep a pace as in the final couple of years of the 2000s, with quite a number of prominent closures. More recently it has levelled out somewhat, and there have even been reports recently of a small increase in the total number, although this always raised a question of how exactly a pub is defined. A full on-licence is not an automatic signifier of pub status. The impact of closures has also greatly varied between different areas.

On the other hand, the decade saw a rise in the number of micropubs and other small new bars, made possible by changes in licensing law that made it much easier to open new venues. In general, these places aren’t really to my taste, and my feeling is that they represent a further fragmentation of the pub trade. The concept of “a pub” as something universally understood is looking increasingy dated.

In response to the fall-off in trade, many pubs cut back their hours, often no longer opening at lunchtimes, particularly early in the week. Even when they are open, outside the traditional busy times of Friday and Saturday nights pubs can often be embarrassingly devoid of customers. Going for a pint simply isn’t the part of everyday life it once was.

The British craft beer market grew in size and prominence, and the term entered the general vocabulary. However, nobody could agree on what it actually meant, and by the end of the decade most of its leading lights had been wholly or partly taken over by the international brewers. Pretty much all the beers on this list come from brewers either owned or invested in by the big boys, or from BrewDog, which is now very much a shark itself rather than a minnow. Craft’s lasting legacy seems likely to be the presence of a hoppy keg IPA on many bars.

Part of the craft beer movement was co-opted into a political campaign with the avowed aim of increasing diversity and inclusiveness in beer, although the actual results often seemed to tend more towards a shrill, humourless intolerance of different views and outlooks.

Wetherspoon’s apparently inexorable rise was stemmed by a period of retrenchment, although to some extent this was driven by wanting to escape from expensive leases. They realised that two sites fairly close to each other in the same town would just cannibalise each other’s sales, and that some locations just didn’t suit their formula. They have now gone back to opening new pubs, but the figure of 1,000 that once seemed inevitable now looks a long way off. The company still accounts for more than one in ten pints of real ale sold in Britain, though, and remains a bellwether of what is hot and what is not in the beer market.

There were further steps in the unceasing war against smoking and smokers, including a display ban and plain packaging, together with ever-increasing duty levels. However, despite many warnings, little of this seemed to be turned in the direction of alcohol, with very little being done to increase duty, curb availability or restrict advertising and promotion. Ironically, much of the ire of public health seems to have been redirected against “junk food” and soft drinks, with the introduction of the controversial and ineffective sugar tax. However, the general climate of public opinion has become much more censorious about alcohol, and stricter anti-drink measures certainly cannot be ruled out in the next decade.

The trend in pub refurbishments very much tended towards a stripped-back, minimalist, pastel-shaded “Farrow and Ball” style. The removal of carpets, bench seating and warm colours resulted in a harsh, echoing atmosphere offering little in terms of comfort and cosiness.

The Crown on Walney Island - not exactly cosy and welcoming
One of the worst offenders have been my local family brewer Robinson’s. The news that they are refurbishing a pub is enough to fill the heart with dread. Perhaps more than any of their competitors, they have carried out a root-and-branch reassessment of their business, involving refocusing on smart food-led pubs and getting rid of most of the smaller wet-led locals. Over the decade they must have sold off around a third of their estate.

They also withdrew 1892 Mild (formerly Hatters), which as recently as 1977 had been their best-selling beer. Given that all their local competitors still make cask mild, this was essentially a symbolic gesture that they were turning over a new leaf. Of course, they are a commercial company and are fully entitled to make whatever decisions that want to ensure their future prosperity, but it all leaves a rather sour taste in the mouth. On the other hand, they have enjoyed great success with their Iron Maiden themed beer, Trooper, which has now become a mainstay of their business.

Hydes retrenched their brewing operations and moved to a new site in Salford in 2012. Of the other local family brewers, Holts are the ones who seem most committed to running pubs with a substantial wet trade and actually shifting lots of beer.

Samuel Smith’s distinctive approach to running their pubs stands out from the crowd even more today than it did in 2010, but they have scaled new and sometimes counter-productive heights of eccentricity.

On a personal note, I lost both of my parents during the decade. However, as they would now be 101 and 97, it was only to be expected. It never entirely leaves you, though.

But I confidently expect this country to enjoy a bright future during the coming decade. And, while it cannot be denied that their role in society is diminished, there will still be good times to be had in pubs. Plus, taking a wider perspective, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the 2010s were a decade of significant global progress on most aspects of human wellbeing.

Here’s an article by Matt Ridley explaining the factual background behind the above graphic.

Friday, 20 December 2019

Review of 2019

It’s now that time when people turn to reviewing the highs and lows of the year that is drawing to a close. So here are some of my thoughts. It can’t really be called “Golden Pints” as the emphasis is very much on pubs rather than beer.

Best new pub visited – the Slubbers Arms in Huddesfield. I’ve visited 111 brand-new pubs this year, probably a record total since 1985, and this narrowly claims the prize. It’s a former Timothy Taylor’s tied house that still serves their beers. Built in the sharp angle of two roads, it has an unspoilt interior and a warm, welcoming atmosphere. However, as it’s a good half-mile north of the town centre, and doesn’t open at lunchtimes, it may well be one that I never end up visiting again. An honourable runner-up was Holden’s Codsall Station Bar.

Best revisits – a joint award to the Black Horse at Clapton-in-Gordano in Somerset and the Dolphin in Plymouth, two pubs I have really enjoyed in the past and wasn’t disappointed when I visited them both in a day, as can often be the case. Plus another honourable mention to the wonderfully unspoilt Star in Bath.

Beer of the year – it s hard to single anything out when so many are only encountered once. A couple that particularly stick in the memory in terms of their quality were Pedigree in the Bank House in Uttoxeter and Enville Ale in the White Hart in Shifnal. I’ve had quite a few good examples of Pedigree, which is a beer that has gained a reputation for often suffering from poor cellarmanship.

The beer I’ve drunk most of is undoubtedly Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery Bitter, but that’s more a function of finding the atmosphere of their local pubs congenial. Sometimes it’s excellent, sometimes no more than OK. Draught Bass and Black Sheep Bitter have both been excellent on several occasions, and I had a memorably good drop of John Smith’s Cask in the Market Tavern/Tap in Preston.

During the course of the year we organised six Proper Days Out via the Beer & Pubs Forum, together with a few more impromptu meet-ups. These covered Huddersfield, Rugby, Uttoxeter, Preston, Liverpool and Shifnal. All were good, as much for the company as the pubs themselves, but perhaps those that stand out were Uttoxeter and Shifnal, which involved visiting most of the pubs in a smallish town rather than a few selected highlights in a bigger place. The next planned trip is to Burton-on-Trent in March next year. The forum itself continues to tick over nicely as a friendly, low-key alternative to the sometimes fractious CAMRA Discourse.

Pub cat of the year – I have to say I’ve encountered very few pub cats during the past year. I did visit the famous Bag of Nails in Bristol, where the cats were delightful, but I have to say the pub itself wasn’t really to my taste, and I felt more at home amongst the old boys drinking flat Bass and watching the racing in the Myrtle Tree a few doors down.

So probably the title has to go to Artemis in the Olde Cottage in Chester, who I have never met, although I hope to remedy that omission with a trip next year. He’s a handsome young tabby who turned up at the pub as a stray and, now duly snipped and chipped, seems to have established himself as the centre of attention.

I’ve done 92 posts on this blog so far this year, including this one, and may possibly add one or two more in the remaining days. That’s more than last year, but fewer than some previous years. As I’ve said before, many of the more ephemeral subjects now tend to go straight to Twitter rather than justifying a blogpost in their own right. I continue to get over 1000 pageviews for some of the more popular posts (usually those about craft beer in some way or other) and considerably more comments than some other supposedly more prestigious bloggers. Possibly my favourite post was my extended review of Anthony Avis’ fascinating memoir of the postwar brewing industry, although, as often happens, this one seems to have gone largely unremarked.

By restricting the ability to make unmoderated comments to a brief window, and laying down a policy of not accepting repeated comments from unregistered people unless I know who they are, I seem to have dealt with the issue of persistent malicious trolling which had bedevilled me before. If you want to debate the issues in a respectful manner, that’s fine, but if you want to have a go on a personal level that is out of order.

I’ve also continued to add new pubs to my Closed Pubs blog – a total of 45 this year so far – including in the past few weeks a series sent in by a reader on the Cross Green area in East Leeds, which in recent years has been denuded of all its pubs.

My Twitter account passed 5,000 followers earlier in the year, and is now over 5,200, so plenty of people seem to appreciate it. That is a significant milestone, as is opens the door to following more people, although in fact the number of accounts I’m following is now fewer than my followers because I’ve culled a lot of dormant accounts. I’ve said before that the secrets of success on Twitter are to define clearly what your account is about (and, by implication, what it isn’t about) and, despite the reputation of the platform, not entering into bad-tempered arguments. As with the blog, if you want to discuss things, that’s fine, but if you’re going to be personally antagonistic you will be muted. Toady, who does do the political stuff that Mudgie steers clear of, passed 3,000 followers during December. He mutes rude people too, and has been blocked by, amongst others, Stockport’s favourite young socialist Owen Jones.

If you run a Twitter account on your own behalf, you are free to say whatever you want, and people will follow or unfollow accordingly. But, if you are tweeting on behalf of a commercial business, a pub or brewery, you really are shooting yourself in the foot by engaging in political grandstanding which may alienate half your potential customers.

I turned 60 in the middle of the year, which may seem like a milestone, but in practice you don’t feel any different. Growing older often feels as though you stay the same but the rest of the world gets steadily madder around you. And I still find myself approaching new situations and experiences like a wide-eyed kid. One thing you do notice is that conversation with your peers inevitably turns to discussion of various ailments and how you’re coping with them, although to be fair we were outdone in Huddersfield by someone who is twenty years younger than some of us. A benefit, though, is that I now qualify for a Senior Railcard, giving a one-third discount off these trips out by train.

A week later, though, I was shocked to hear of the unexpected death of Leeds beer blogger Richard Coldwell, who was four years younger than me. I think I only met him on five occasions, but he was a distinctive and memorable character who gave his full commitment to everything he engaged in. At first I found him a little hard to read, but eventually I realised that stemmed from his service in the police, where he inevitably had to develop a protective carapace, and underneath he was very kind and good-natured. I could still never quite work out to what extent he was winding us up over his professed dislike of Marston’s and all their works, though.

In the public sphere, I was particularly saddened by the death earlier this month of Marie Fredriksson of Roxette, who was only a year older than me but had fought a long and ultimately unsuccessful battle with cancer. While Roxette were often derided by the right-on critics, to my ear she had a beautiful voice and always came across as having a sympathetic personality. Here she is in happier times, with an uptempo song rather than a ballad:

I haven’t experienced any of the truly appalling examples of service in restaurants that I’ve suffered in previous years, although general slowness and lack of attention continue to be a problem, especially in independently-run places. If I had infinite time and infinite patience, I’m sure that sometimes I could still be sitting there at closing time without anyone having given me the opportunity to ask for the bill. Pub food, particularly that of lighter lunchtime items, continues to suffer from a failure to display menus outside and a simple lack of availability. All too often, Spoons is the best or only option.

The quality of food on our days out has been rather hit-and-miss, which I suppose is what you would expect from pub meals in town centres. Best for me in terms of quality and overall offer was the busy and bustling Railway in Liverpool; probably the most disappointing was the 45-minute wait for very ordinary food in the near-deserted Wellington in Preston.

Best food innovation – Wetherspoon’s 8-inch pizzas. Last year, Wetherspoon’s filled a gap in their menus with the introduction of pizzas, which were in fact surprisingly good for the price. However, as I mentioned here, they weighed in at a gut-busting 1100-plus calories each, which is far more than most people want or need. This year, Spoons have introduced smaller 8-inch versions at around 600 calories, which is quite enough for me and I suspect most other people who aren’t manual workers. Having said that, they’ll probably withdraw them next year.

Daft policy of the year – Samuel Smith’s phone ban. I’ve often praised Sam’s general approach to their pubs which, with comfortable seating and an absence of piped music and TV sport produces a congenial drink and chat atmosphere that suits me. However, to prohibit even silent browsing of phones is a ban too far, which has met with customer resistance and opens them up to ridicule. In what way is it any different in principle from reading the newspaper? The offices at Tadcaster must bear some resemblance to the Führerbunker in the last days of the Reich, with none of the subordinates having the courage to argue back against increasingly deranged pronouncements.

Saddest pub closure – Sam’s inexplicable refusal to employ relief managers has also led to a number of pub closures, most regrettable of all from my point of view being that of the Bird in Hand at Mobberley, which is one of the few genuine, unspoilt country pubs remaining in Cheshire and always seemed to do a decent trade. Hopefully, as with some of their other pubs, they will find it possible to reopen it in the future.

On a brighter note, they have managed to reopen the Sun in September in Burnage, close to where I live, which had been closed for the best part of two years, and so far it seems to be doing pretty well. I like to believe there is a still a demand for pubs that are, basically, just pubs.

Best political event – the decisive Conservative victory in the December general election, which after a year of ongoing political crisis finally opened the door for the UK to leave the European Union at the end of next month, three years and seven months after the referendum. Whether you voted Leave or Remain, it is a basic principle of democracy that such decisions should be respected. If that had failed to happen in one way or another, it would have led to decades of bitter division. While it hasn’t really been mentioned by commentators, my sense is that an undercurrent of resentment against the sneering attitude of so many in Labour to ordinary people's tastes, recreations and attitudes was a factor underlying the swing against them.

Best tourist attraction – Harvington Hall in Worcestershire, a fairly modest redbrick Elizabeth house which claims (probably with justification) to have the largest collection of priest-holes in the country. Plus it’s very close to the Plough at Shenstone, one of Batham’s only two country pubs.

And a mention to the aeronautical collection of the Imperial War Museum at Duxford in Cambridgeshire, which really does justify a full day and more, if you find that sort of thing interesting.

Most disappointing was the famous Longleat in Wiltshire, which is undoubtedly a magnificent Elizabethan house, but fails to put its story across or explain why it is special, and makes far too much of the eccentricities of the current Marquess of Bath.

Best revisits – I spent a few days in North Wales to revisit some of the castles that I had not been to for many years. However, most interesting of all were two more modern buildings – Penrhyn Castle, the Brobdingnagian mock-mediaeval castle built by the Douglas-Pennant family on the profits of the slate industry, and the Gothic Revival Plas Newydd by the Menai Strait, which I managed to catch on a beautiful sunny day when the tide was in.

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Selective evidence

This month sees the fifth anniversary of the reduction of the drink-driving limit in Scotland in December 2014. At the time, the immediate impact on the licensed trade was such that it caused a noticeable downward blip in Scotland’s national GDP figure. Now, five years later a study by academics at Stirling University has examined the longer-term effect on the trade and, perhaps predictably, concluded that it hasn’t really made a great deal of difference, saying that “Most participants reported no long‐term financial impact on their business.”

However, when you look at it more closely, the foundations for the study look distinctly flimsy. The authors interviewed a mere sixteen businesses, of which just four were classified as being in rural areas. Plus all of those four are described as “Hotel, pub and restaurant”, which by definition is going to be less affected than a normal pub that just maybe does a few bar meals. And it has been suggested on Twitter by licensing lawyer Stephen McGowan that at least some of the sixteen had been selected because they had received awards for taking steps to diversify their business. They seem to have deliberately chosen their subjects to support their desired conclusion.

Of course the impact of the change wasn’t going to be felt evenly across the whole of the licensed trade. Many pubs in the centres of large towns and cities would notice little or no difference. But, on the other hand, many pubgoers outside those areas would be placed in the position where their previously lawful behaviour had been declared illegal overnight. Few would want to risk the potentially severe penalties of breaking the law, and so they would respond by one or more of drinking less, visiting less often or not at all, and transferring their business to somewhere more accessible.

None of those would do anything other than to reduce the business of the establishments they used to frequent, and two out of the three would also impact the trade as a whole. It was possible to argue that the smoking ban had the potential to bring new business into pubs from anti-smokers, although we know in practice any increase was greatly outweighed by the loss of trade from smokers and their tolerant friends. However, there is no upside whatsoever for the trade in cutting the drink-drive limit.

The authors do acknowledge some the issues that may have been caused with real-world pub visitors, for example:

Especially people do not tend to come out at tea time as much whereas they used to come out at tea time and just have a couple of pints and still drive. Whereas now you do not see that’...

...So Sunday to Thursday you might get somebody coming in and having two, three, four pints up until midnight but maybe driving the next day; they would not be driving straight after leaving the pub but they'd be driving after they got up in the morning… …so they would go home earlier or reduce the amount, or just not come out at all.

However, these are dismissed as insignificant in the wider context. They also state that they did not interview any owners of closed businesses, which seems a strange omission. It’s unlikely that cutting the limit in itself would have been the sole cause of any closure, but it may well have been a significant contributory factor which tipped them over the edge. But, of course, dead men tell no tales.

Many people who pontificate about pubs seem to exist within a urban bubble and give the impression of having no conception whatsoever of how pubs actually operate outside it. There must be a large overlap with the useful idiots who still fail to recognise how much damage the smoking ban has wrought. And it’s important to remember that the vast majority of drinking drivers who visit pubs have no intention of breaking the law and indeed believe they are doing their best to stay within it.

Of course there is a road safety case for cutting the limit, although I would contend it’s a pretty flimsy one, and figures so far have suggested no reduction in the number of casualties. But nobody should delude themselves that it won’t have an adverse impact on the pub trade, and on many pubgoers themselves.

It’s rather amusing that, at the end of the study, the authors state that none of them have any conflicts of interest to declare. Shouldn’t that include being funded by the public health lobby?

Thursday, 12 December 2019

Feeling a bit cross?

Today we are going to the polls in a general election for the third time in less than five years. As on previous occasions, I created an opinion poll in the sidebar, which I have also mentioned in the text of posts for those reading the blog on a mobile device. The results are shown below.

The poll was created before the announcement that the Brexit Party were not going to contest any Conservative-held seats, so the results won’t be representative of the likely outcome. However, given that a large number of people had already voted, I didn’t think it appropriate to start again from scratch. The original poll together with the associated comments can be seen here.

Running these figures through the Electoral Calculus model, and eliminating the others and non-voters, gives the following numbers of seats, and surprisingly produces a slender overall Conservative majority of 10, and no seats for the Brexit Party on a 17% vote share.

Brexit Party 0
Conservative 330
Green 1
Labour 240
Liberal Democrat 17
Plaid Cymru 3
SNP 41
Northern Ireland parties 18

This is actually not all that different in terms of seats from the latest YouGov MRP projection, which was pretty accurate in 2017.

Tonight is the monthly meeting of the local CAMRA branch, at which I will be presenting a Christmas quiz. 27 years ago, in 1992, the two events (well, not the quiz) also coincided, and that election rather confounded the predictions of the pollsters. We’ll find out in the small hours of tomorrow morning whether that has happened again.

As I said last time, I’m not aware that lifestyle issues have featured at all in the campaign. Sadly, it seems that, whoever gets into power, more things will be banned or restricted.

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Buy in haste, repent at leisure

Last week, it was reported that US drinks conglomerate Constellation Brands was selling craft brewer Ballast Point, which it had bought for a jaw-dropping $1 billion in 2015. The buyer was the much smaller Illinois firm Kings & Convicts Brewing, and it was rumoured that the sale price could have been as little as $75 million. That would represent a staggering loss of value in only four years.

It brought to mind this blogpost from 2017, in which I made the point that much of the brewing industry seemed to be in the grip of “craft paranoia”, where they were frightened that the rise of craft beer posed an existential threat to their business, and they were flailing about in all directions trying to counter the trend. One aspect of this was established major companies paying what even at the time seemed inflated sums for up-and-coming craft brewers.

Two and a half years later, things look very different. There’s plenty of evidence that the seemingly inexorable rise of craft has peaked, and it’s also something that has been very much driven by novelty and innovation, and isn’t amenable to the tried and tested business strategy of building strong brands. While these deals might have provided bumper paydays for the founders of the acquired businesses, many big companies have been left feeling that they have burned their fingers, and are having to write down the value of their investments.

Brewing seems to be one of the few markets where a substantial number of customers really do put a value on the independent status of producers, and it could be argued that a large chunk of value was lost on the actual day the company was sold.

Of course the British market is very different from the American one, and it would be wrong to read the lessons across too closely. But you do have to wonder whether the big companies that have acquired stakes in British craft breweries are wondering just how far they can take the brands, and worrying that the initial spark has vanished.

One response of established British brewers to the craft trend has been to establish craft sub-brands and bring out products that ape the style of well-known craft beers. However, all too often this comes across as “dad dancing”, with the beers themselves being pale imitations, and drinkers easily able to see through it. Maybe a better response would be to play to their strengths and bring out speciality beers that build on their own heritage, such as Fuller’s Past Masters series, Greene King’s Chevallier beers and Marston’s Horninglow Street range.