Friday, 18 August 2017

The ups and downs of pubs

There have been plenty of books written on the history of the British pub, and for the most part they cover the same ground. They run through the great days of the coaching inns, the Victorian Beer House Act, the Edwardian gin palaces and Lloyd George’s temperance campaign, possibly getting on to the inter-wars improved pub and the Bolton Mass Observation studies. But, after that, they tend to peter out and go strangely quiet.

This gap has now been remedied with 20th Century Pub by Jessica Boak and Ray Bailey, well-known beer bloggers and authors of the widely acclaimed Brew Britannia, a study of the rise of British beer enthusiasm. This is a comprehensive survey of the development of pubs since 1900, beginning with the temperance pressures faced by brewers in the early years of the century, and moving on through the genteel improved pub, theme pubs, Irish pubs, gastropubs and Wetherspoon’s to end up in the modern-day but oddly old-fashioned environment of the micropub.

It’s organised thematically, with each chapter closed by a visit to a pub that exemplifies its topic. Most of these, in their different ways, are still thriving, a sombre exception being Marples in Sheffield, where 70 people died in a Luftwaffe raid in 1940 while sheltering in the cellars. It was rebuilt after the war, but the replacement but itself is no more. Especially interesting is the chapter on the origins and development of the much-maligned estate pub of the post-war era. Will we come to cherish the few survivors in the same way as we now do the inter-wars pubs?

The book has clearly involved a lot of intensive research in archives and press clippings, especially in the earlier chapters which have more of a historical feel. It is also enlived by many anecdotes from people with direct experience of the various themes covered, so a number of names crop up that are already familiar from Twitter and the beer blogosphere. In the chapter on gastropubs, there’s even a quotation from a letter sent by one Peter Edwardson of Stockport to What’s Brewing, which adopts a familiar curmudgeonly tone:

We have all come across pubs which have effectively turned themselves into pretentious quasi-restaurants, with blackboard menus offering a julienne of this and a ragout of that at £8 a time, which no doubt make their own stock, and where a request for brown sauce would be met with a supercilious sneer.
During the writing of the book, I was involved in one or two e-mail exchanges with the authors on various points, and it’s good to see this recognised, and my true identity “outed”, in the acknowledgments section.

A recurring theme is the constant tension between the desire to reform and clean up pubs, and the opposing tendency to see them as places for people to let their hair down where the normal rules can be relaxed. Allied to this is the enduring attempt by brewers and operators to impose particular formulas on pubs, while all too often end up making them somewhat sterile, and are eroded by the conflict with warts-and-all reality. As they say in their conclusion:

Which leads us to the second challenge, the flipside to the first. The story of the pub in the 20th century is of concerted efforts from every angle to do away with ‘the mere drink shop’ by going upmarket, on trend, or both. This has undoubtedly led to many improvements – few people would want to go back to spittoons or outside toilets. But the chasing of respectability and relevance has seen breweries and pub companies apply superficial characteristics in a desperate and inauthentic attempt to win new custom. We’ve seen in the course of this book how the trade tends to be a relentless follower of fashion, leaping on whatever bandwagon is currently in town – Victoriana, theme pubs, real-ale joints, gastropubs, craft beer – but it so often fails, or at least fails to endure. There are few sights bleaker than a would-be upmarket pub all dressed up to impress only a handful of bewildered customers left over from the old days; with tea-towels draped over its redundant craft beer taps; with the menu sliding week by week away from gastro and towards the microwave while the chef twiddles her thumbs.
The book is intended to a historical and sociological survey, not a polemic in the style of Christopher Hutt’s Death of the English Pub and the authors, while not fighting shy of expressing opinions, do not treat it as a soapbox. They offer a very balanced account of the debate surrounding the very obvious decline of the pub trade in recent years. On one particularly fraught issue, they report that:
...a 2012 survey by the trade journal the Morning Advertiser found that nearly half its readership felt that the smoking ban had had ‘a significant impact’, and we have spoken to publicans who say, quite matter-of-factly, that they certainly noticed a marked decline in footfall when it was introduced.
and go on to say:
If when people talk about the death of the pub they mean of specifically this type – primarily working-class, drink-led, male dominated pubs – then the argument that the smoking ban is significantly to blame for the decline gains credibility.
Not surprisingly, they end up with an upbeat conclusion that “we feel unfashionably optimistic about for the pub”. I have to say I’m not so sure. It faces pressures from various sides which to my mind add up to an existential threat, and my fear is that we still have a lot further to fall. Pubs and bars will never entirely disappear, but we could end up seeing them occupying a very limited, niche role that is completely irrelevant to most people. In some areas, and amongst some sections of society, this is already the case.

Like pretty much every other writer about pubs, the authors do not really recognise the long boom in the pub trade between about 1960 and 1980, a period during which British beer production almost doubled. It is this that gave brewers the investment funds and self-confidence to create the often bizarre and short-lived theme pubs – they were a sign of hubris, not a desperate reaction to falling sales. It’s ironic that Hutt wrote his famous polemic at a time when the pub trade, at least in financial terms, was thriving.

There’s also a significant gap in recent years, with no mention of the rise of the new-build family dining pub, which arguably is just as important a development as Wetherspoon’s but, lacking a single identifiable banner, and tucked away on peripheral retail parks, hasn’t attracted anything like the same column inches. My rather ordinary home town of Runcorn has one Spoons, but it now has three of these. Maybe they, combined with Wetherspoon’s, represent the transformation of the traditional drink-led pub into the food-dominated “prub” referred to in an MP’s speech they mention in a recent blogpost.

However, these are omissions, not errors. It’s a thoroughly-researched and intelligently written book that nevertheless maintains a lightness of tone that prevents it becoming turgid even when the subject-matter is serious. It’s a must-read for anyone with an interest in pubs beyond just drinking in them, and is one of those books that you will return to and re-read sections again and again.

I have a couple of quibbles about the physical book itself as opposed to the contents. The first is that the text is left-aligned rather than justified, which to my eye gives a slightly low-rent feel and makes it marginally harder to read. And, while I’m well aware that books aren’t sold by the word, the cover price of £16.99 seems a little steep when compared to similar volumes. Brew Britannia, which is about the same size and format, and was published only three years ago, was £12.99. Still, no doubt it will be available at a lower price from various Internet vendors.

Disclosure: I was sent a review copy of this book by the publishers. As it is a book I would undoubtedly have bought anyway, I have made a donation of £10 to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, which is a cause that I and my family have supported for many years, and was also suggested to me by the authors.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

A view from the window

Something you won't see from the train

The point has often been made that people’s experiences in their daily lives inevitably influence their perceptions of wider issues. A thought that occurred to me is that how people see the British pub scene may well be affected by their use of the transport system.

According to the latest edition of the Department for Transport’s Transport Statistics Great Britain, 82% of all adults between the ages of 30 and 59 hold a driving licence, broken down between 86% of males and 77% of females. Although it isn’t analysed in the statistics, those who don’t are likely to be disproportionately drawn from the lower socio-economic categories, so amongst mature adults in the ABC1 groups, not having a licence is a distinct rarity.

Yet I would say those who don’t are considerably over-represented amongst those who pursue pubs and beer as a leisure interest. Before anyone jumps down my throat, this is purely an observation, not any kind of criticism. For some, it may have been a deliberate decision, as being a non-driver makes life simple and avoids a whole load of sacrifices, compromises and balancing acts. But it’s probably more a case of seeing it as an easily accessible hobby, or because being a public transport enthusiast (where there is a strong overlap wth CAMRA activism) makes the idea of taking up driving less attractive in the first place.

As a non-driver, virtually all of your long-distance journeys will probably be by train between the centres of towns and cities, even travelling relatively short distances such as between Manchester and Rochdale. There’s a lot that you will see, but also, by not using the roads, a lot that you will miss. It’s really only through travelling by road that you will witness for yourself the scale of the devastation of the British pub trade in recent years.

Journey from the centre of Manchester to any of its major satellite towns and you’ll see a whole parade of closed and boarded pubs. Over time, some will be demolished or converted to alternative use, but plenty still remain. On some trips, such as that to Oldham, there may well be more closed pubs than open ones. Continue over the tops to Huddersfield, and you’ll see plenty more. And on any longer journey away from the motorway network, the evidence of pub closures in rural areas, villages and small towns is inescapable. Often, each trip made every year or so will reveal yet another one that has bitten the dust. If your experience was confined to your own local area, and the centres of towns and cities in other parts of the country, you could be forgiven for concluding that the trade continued to enjoy fairly rude health

On the other hand, you will also miss a major advance in the pub trade. On the outskirts of pretty much every town of any size, you will now find a modern retail park, and alongside this, more often than not, you will find a new-build family dining pub, often, although not always, owned by Greene King or Marston’s. They may not be your cup of tea, or mine, but they must represent about the biggest category of bricks-and-mortar investment in the sector in recent years.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Nobody else has complained

Cask beer is a natural, living, variable product and, as such, with the best will in the world, it’s inevitable that very occasionally you’ll be served with a sub-standard pint. What matters is not that it’s happened in the first place, but that the pub deals with the issue swiftly, politely and without quibble. Unfortunately, though, as Martin Taylor recently experienced, it doesn’t always work out that way, and an ill-mannered and unhelpful response can easily put a dampener on an enjoyable evening. Indeed, the whole business of returning beer to the bar can be something of a minefield.

The first thing is to be specific as to exactly what it is you’re complaining about. If the beer is obviously cloudy or vinegary, then you should have a cast-iron case, although opinions will vary on what degree of haziness is acceptable. Personally, unless it’s declared as a beer that is intentionally hazy, I’m pretty dogmatic on the issue, and will reject anything with more than a slight cast. But, of course, if it is a deliberately hazy beer, how do you or the bar staff know how much haze is too much?

However, there are other faults that are not so clear-cut, for example being served far too warm, lacking in condition, having a noticeable off-flavour such as diacetyl, or simply being generally tired and end-of-barrel-ish. If you’re in a pub where you’re a regular and are known to the licensee and bar staff, such a complaint might be taken seriously, but in a strange pub you could well feel that you are chancing your arm.

It’s also important to be clear about your objective when making a complaint. Obviously the best solution is to be given an acceptable replacement, either the same beer which has been pulled through, or a new cask tapped, or a suitable alternative. Failing that, the aim should be to be given a refund, which you may well prefer if it’s the only cask beer on sale and you don’t fancy a Carling as a replacement. Or, in some cases, just venting your spleen will leave you with a sense of moral satisfaction.

The last two outcomes, though, imply that you’ll be bringing your visit to an end. If you’re in the middle of a pub crawl, or there’s an alternative pub nearby, or you’ve just popped in for a swift pint, that might be entirely acceptable. But in other situations, for example having a meal or social evening with a group, or watching a football match or live music performance, you might not want to do that, and thus be reluctant to create a fuss. You’ll just quietly leave the sub-standard pint, and put up with Guinness or Diet Coke for the rest of the proceedings. The point has also been made in the past by Tandleman that you’re going out for a pleasant social evening, and creating a confrontational situation may end up leaving a sour taste in the mouth even if you gain a moral victory.

I’d say in general that attitudes to changing sub-standard beer have improved over the years, although it may simply be that as a more mature chap I command more respect than a pimply youth. The days of “everyone else is drinking it” or “real ale’s meant to look like soup/taste like vinegar” are largely a thing of the past. One of the worst responses I recall was “but you’ve drunk some of it!” Well, if I hadn’t drunk any, how would I know it was foul?

However, as Martin and his friends found out, that kind of quibbling hasn’t entirely disappeared. In that case, although they had spent £60 in the pub, they would now think twice about going back and he has disseminated his experience over the Internet. Given the amount of goodwill at risk, compared with the gross profit on a pint, it’s hard to see why pubs continue to argue the toss about changing beer if customers present a reasonable case. After all, I don’t think anyone beyond a handful of troublemakers deliberately sets out to wind pubs up by returning perfectly good pints.

To their credit, Wetherspoon’s seem to have adopted a no-quibble policy when it comes to exchanging cask beer. Bar staff who are not beer experts will be in no position to decide whether or not a complaint is valid, and they must recognise how much goodwill they stand to lose. If any customer established a reputation as a “vexatious complainant”, I’m sure it would be brought to management’s attention.

No doubt someone will point out that that, if you stick to mass-market lagers and smooth beers, you won’t have any of this problem with variability. However, the point about cask beer is that, when it’s good, it’s much superior to kegs and lagers, and the occasional duff pint is a price worth paying for that. If you stick to pubs in the Good Beer Guide, or ones with a decent reputation locally, you’re unlikely to have much problem. The only returnable pints I’ve had in recent months have been when drinking off-grid in pubs that I happened to like the look of, but came with no recommendation. And keg beers, especially small-batch “craft” ones, are by no means immune from faults either.

But, if you go into a food- or sports-oriented pub with a solitary Doom Bar handpump at the end of a long line of kegs, it’s entirely understandable if you decide to give it a swerve. And, at least once, we’ve all been there with that pint of slightly warm, slightly flat, slightly stale, slightly hazy beer, where no one fault really makes a convincing case for taking it back, but we conclude the best solution is just to leave it unfinished on the table...

Edit: I’ve added a poll on taking beer back in the sidebar, which mobile users won’t see.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Hooked on Hooky

In the late Seventies, when I was at university in Birmingham, one of the most common beers to be found in the handful of free houses that had started to relieve the duopoly of Ansells and M&B was Hook Norton Bitter from Oxfordshire. It was a classic “country bitter” – distinctive, well-rounded, bittersweet, with a slight earthy note, which offered a very welcome contrast to our usual big brewery fare.

Fortunately, while many other of the family brewers of that era have fallen by the wayside, Hook Norton is still very much with us. It stands in the extreme north-west of the county, in the village of the same name a few miles west of Banbury. While it claims to offer “beer from the Cotswolds”, in fact it’s just outside the area generally regarded as bearing that name, and in fact is more in ironstone country, distinguished by the notably darker and redder hue of the local stone.

Hook Norton is a long, straggling village that is pretty quiet compared with some of the nearby Cotswold honeypots. At the west end is the area known as Scotland End, and at the side of the attractive Pear Tree Inn is a lane leading to the handsome Victorian tower brewery, dating from 1899. It’s a resolutely traditional affair, retaining a steam engine dating from the time of its construction that can still be used to power the brewery, and still using shire horses to deliver beer to local pubs.

Even if you’re not going on a tour, the brewery’s visitor centre is still well worth a visit. It includes a small museum covering both the history of the brewery itself and of the village and the surrounding area. I was interested to learn that the village used to by a major centre of ironstone quarrying and processing, served by a number of narrow-gauge railways, and that, before the introduction of mains water in the 1950s, the deficiency of iodine in the local water led to a disproportionate number of people in the area suffering from goitres. There’s also a café and a shop where you can pick up the full range of bottled beers together with other merchandise.

The current beer range comprises Mild, Hooky Bitter and the stronger Old Hooky as permanent beers, as well as a number of seasonals, of which Haymaker is perhaps the best known. Old Hooky was introduced in the late 1970s as a traditional dark old ale, and is listed as such in the Good Beer Guides of that time, but at some point in the intervening period was repositioned as a premium bitter, albeit definitely at the darker and sweeter end of the range. The company history recounts how the brewery used to enjoy a strong trade for their dark mild in working men’s clubs in Coventry and North Warwickshire which only eventually came to an end in 2000. Hooky Bitter remains one of the finest British balanced “ordinary” bitters, and indeed reached the final of my recent Twitter poll on the best of the breed.

The 1977 Good Beer Guide shows Hook Norton as having 34 tied houses, but the number grew slightly in subsequent years through the occasional purchase of additional pubs. Wikipedia says it currently has 47, but the brewery’s own website states 40, which is probably a more accurate figure. Some of the smaller wet-led pubs will have been lost, in towns as much as in the countryside, but this has been offset by buying up pubs in towns where there is likely to be more trade on offer. Both Hook Norton and Donnington now have pubs in the small South Warwickshire town of Shipston-on-Stour, as, indeed, do Brakspear.

In Banbury, they have two pubs. One is the Olde Reine Deer (pictured right), historically a coaching inn, which retains the octagonal 17th century wood-panelled “Globe Room”, and has recently received a sympathetic refurbishment incorporating much dark wood and bench seating. The nearby Coach & Horses forms a sharp contrast as, while outwardly traditional, the interior has been remodelled in a rather stark modernistic scheme with loose seating and posing tables. Significantly, this was the only pub on my recent visit to the area where I had to return a cloudy pint. In another pub, I overheard some locals saying that what it needed to do was to concentrate on “basic food and basic beer”, which is very much what it doesn’t do.

Another noteworthy pub is the Elephant & Castle in the nearby village of Bloxham. This presents a rather forbidding, cliff-like aspect to the street, but once you pass through the archway you come to the main frontage of a very comfortable and welcoming two-bar pub. While in Banbury, I also visited the Wine Vaults, almost opposite the Olde Reine Deer. I remember this from a train trip while at University as a free house serving Marston’s, which was a long, narrow pub of great character with a stone-flagged floor and odd little wood-panelled snugs. Since then, it has fallen into the hands of Greene King and been dramatically remodelled. You can still see a faint echo of its original character around the bar, but otherwise it’s just another identikit pub.

Hook Norton makes an interesting pair with Donnington, another family brewer survivor, which genuinely is right in the heart of the Cotswolds. Donnington’s location and brewery buildings are arguably even prettier, and it has an estate of, externally at least, very handsome pubs in the distinctive local stone. However, few would deny that Hook Norton brew by some margin the better beers. They, and the brewery’s pubs, are well worth seeking out.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Sugaring the pill

It has been recently reported that moderate alcohol consumption reduces the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. This is yet another contribution to the huge body of research suggesting that moderate drinking is beneficial to health, and further undermines the Public Health objective of being able to claim that any level of alcohol consumption is harmful.

As those of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook may be aware, I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes earlier this year. Obviously such news takes you back a bit but, given that my father had the condition, and, in hindsight, I recognise that I had been experiencing some of the symptoms, it wasn’t a total bolt from the blue.

Well, Mudgie, you may say, you have spent forty years living on a diet mainly consisting of beer, pork scratchings and pizza, so you shouldn’t be too surprised, and really only have yourself to blame. However, risk factors are not direct causes. General lifestyle factors in society have raised the likelihood of people developing diabetes, plus diagnosis is now more likely than it once was, and people are living longer.

In the past, given that the immediate symptoms can be far from obvious, many people will have gone to their graves without it being spotted. My father wasn’t diagnosed until his late seventies. Whether you develop it has far more to do with heredity and chance than the actual lifestyle you live, and I know plenty of people who have drunk deeper and gorged more yet have remained immune. While I make no claim to have rigidly adhered to healthy living guidelines, I have for many years tried to make sure my alcohol consumption is kept under control, and have never been more than moderately overweight. Indeed, my current BMI is about 26, which I don’t think is anything to get too worried about.

As the news report indicates, drinking alcohol isn’t incompatible with diabetes, despite what some may imagine. However, obviously a bit of care is needed, and I’ve set myself a target of reducing my consumption by 25% compared with previously. On reflection, I was often going for “oh, let’s just have one more” when it added little to the experience. Over five months, I’ve achieved 23%, which isn’t too bad going. But that doesn’t in the slightest deter me from seeking out new pubs and drinking experiences.

In the past, the view was often taken that people with diabetes should completely avoid certain foods, especially those with a high sugar content. However, the current line is that nothing should be considered completely off limits, and that diabetics should basically just adhere to the dietary recommendations for the general population. But I’m a bit sceptical about that. The key factor triggering diabetes is sugar, and the sugar contained within carbohydrates, while fat, while it may not do you much good overall, has no particular implications. So it might make sense to go easy on bread and cakes, but there’s no problem with milk, butter and cheese. Indeed, in recent decades, the general dietary advice has been to eat a low-fat diet with plenty of wholegrain carbohydrates, which has been accompanied by a marked rise in cases of diabetes.

Not surprisingly, the subject is a magnet for various kinds of dietary cranks and single-issue obsessives, especially the zealots advocating a zero-carbohydrate diet. The forum at diabetes.co.uk is so infested with them as to be virtually unusable. And some people seem to have become “professional diabetics”, endlessly analysing their diet and blood sugar readings.

I certainly take the subject seriously, and I would be a fool not to. But my objective is to aim to manage it with the least amount of intrusion into my daily life, not to allow it to become an all-consuming fixation.

And pork scratchings, which contain no sugar or carbs, are in a sense the ideal diabetic food.

As a total aside, this subject gives an opportunity to listen again to this unforgettable classic of Sixties bubblegum:

Friday, 4 August 2017

Two-thirds of the way there

Alec Latham was recently musing on the subject of the two-thirds pint measure, which became legal in British pubs nearly six years ago, on 1 October 2011. At the time, I asked the question as to whether the “schooner” would float or sink. In practice, it seems to have been very much the latter. While they have gained some traction in specialist craft beer bars, they’re virtually never seen in the wider pub trade. I can only remember seeing one mainstream pub advertising their availability, and that was four years ago. Significantly, Wetherspoons, who are often seen as a bellwether for the trade in general, haven’t adopted them. In most pubs, if you asked for two-thirds, you would get a funny look and a pained explanation that they didn’t serve them.

Alec is quite right to make the point that a half never seems to quite give half as much satisfaction as a pint, and is often gone in much less than half the time. It’s just not a very appealing measure and, unless they’re doing it specifically so that they can taste more different beers, it’s rare to see blokes drinking halves in pubs. If they are, it’s usually something of a distress purchase triggered by lack of funds, lack of time or the fact they are driving. Ideally, they would prefer a pint. To put it in a blunt and politically incorrect manner, basically real men just don’t drink halves. They might be more attractive if they were served in oversize glasses, but that’s another story.

Obviously two-thirds measures make sense for the stronger beers that often feature in craft bars, where a pint may simply be too much. They are roughly in line with the 330 or 355ml bottles and cans that are popular for craft beers. But they also make sense for beers of more ordinary strength, where you just want “a glass of beer”, but a pint seems a bit too much, whereas a half comes across as a bit footling. On several occasions, I’ve ordered a pint only to find it was a bit lacklustre, and felt that I’d rather not have to drink it all. But ordering a half from the outset seems like an admission of defeat. However, as the measure has failed to take off in the general run of pubs, the option simply isn’t available. Maybe something of a pity, but a fact of life.

One deterrent, of course, is that in order to serve two-thirds measures, you have to have the appropriate glassware – either dedicated brim-measure or lined oversize two-thirds glasses, or pint glasses with a two-thirds line, or possibly specific measuring vessels. It’s not lawful to pour what you think is an approximation of two-thirds into a normal pint glass. And, given the investment needed to cater for something for which there doesn’t seem to be much demand, most pubs understandably have chosen not to bother.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Join the queue

Martin Taylor has recently reported on encountering a Post Office-style queuing system in operation in Wetherspoon’s in Cheltenham, something I have never actually seen myself, but have heard about in other locations. At first sight, this seems like an unwelcome development that subverts the usual interaction between customers and staff across the bar, and certainly my Twitter followers weren’t very keen on the idea. However, if you think about it, it does start to make sense in an establishment like Spoons. A bar counter is fine for getting your drinks handed to you immediately, and allows the customers to chat both to the staff and each other. However, in Spoons I’d guess that well over half of all orders include food, especially when you consider that many drinks will come as part of meal deals. As you don’t collect your food at the same time as ordering, the benefit of a service counter is much less, and it’s hardly surprising that cafés and restaurants in general take orders at tables. In the past, although it’s less common now, many pubs had a separate dedicated counter to order food so it didn’t get in drinkers’ way.

The typical Spoons has a very long bar counter and never quite seems to have enough staff, so with the best will in the world you can easily end up being served out of turn, and when it’s busy you may be in for a long wait. A queuing system makes sure everyone is served in order, and while it might not necessarily shorten the waiting time, it will make it more bearable, as you will be able to see clearly how long it’s likely to be before your turn comes. It will mean you won’t get stuck behind someone ordering coffees, as you’ll go to the first available member of staff, and it eliminates the problem of barflies hanging about and blocking the view of the pumps.

No, it’s not how a traditional pub works, and you do lose the contribution to pub atmosphere of interaction between staff and customers. But Wetherspoon’s aren’t really traditional pubs anyway, and in terms of how their business operates, queuing is likely to make things more efficient when it’s busy. If it takes off, you could even see the interiors of their pubs being redesigned with shorter bar counters divided into identifiable serving points, and display boards alongside the queue showing the food and drink menus. Maybe you could even separate ordering and collecting drinks, as in a McDonald’s drive-thru, so your drinks are ready when you actually reach the bar.

If anything, the Spoons smartphone app, which Boak and Bailey have written about here, undermines the traditional working of pubs considerably more than expecting customers to queue at the bar.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Gone over to food

One of the most marked changes in the pub trade over the forty years of my drinking career has been the ever-growing prominence of food. In practice, there was a lot more pub food around in the 70s than the decade is often given credit for, but even so it has steadily increased in importance such that, for many pubs, it now forms the core of their business. It has become a truism to say that, outside urban centres, most pubs now could not survive without food.

The situation where this is perhaps most obvious is when away on holiday. For most people, going on holiday is about the only opportunity they get to experience pubs outside their own area in the evenings, when they are busiest, and the balance of trade is most representative. I remember in the 80s, when visiting pubs on holiday, that there tended to be a mixed economy. Yes, many now served evening meals, but there was also a good leavening of drinking customers too. Fast forward thirty years, and all too often they’re given over entirely to dining. For example, last month I visited a pub on the Isle of Wight on a Monday night. It didn’t obviously present itself as a “dining pub”, but I rapidly became conscious that I was the sole customer who wasn’t eating.

Obviously the main driver of this is changing social trends and mores, and pub operators can’t be blamed for adjusting their business model to suit the shifting winds of fashion. It may be a matter of regret, but there’s nothing really that can be done to reverse the trend. But you do have to wonder whether it has, slowly but surely, led to pubs metamorphosing into something entirely different from what they once were. Certainly, the new-build “family dining pub” that is becoming increasingly common would be unrecognisable from the perspective of 1977.

Back in the early days of this blog, I described this as “a strange hybrid kind of business that may superficially resemble a pub but in reality is just a second-rate dining outlet.” I know that particular boat has long since sailed, but I still can’t help thinking that we would have both better drinking and better eating if the two hadn’t merged into one.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

The Brexit Arms

It’s taken as read amongst the beer writing fraternity that pubs, while they may be criticised for this or that, are unequivocally a Good Thing. However, out there in the wider world, this view isn’t necessarily shared by everyone, and over the years I’ve read a fair few articles by bien-pensant journalists arguing that pubs are, basically, well, a bit rubbish.

The latest effort is one by Marina O’Loughlin in London Eater magazine entitled Each to their Own, which was drawn to my attention by Boak & Bailey. This is a strangely schizophrenic piece in which, on the one hand, she accepts that pubs are just not for her, saying “Just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean there’s anything inherently wrong with it, just that it doesn’t work for me” , but then going on to level a list of criticisms against them.

Top of the list is that they “don’t serve good wine”, which comes across as spectacularly missing the point. As I said on Twitter, that’s rather like complaining about the lack of guitar solos in opera – it’s just not what pubs are about. Indeed, it could be argued that many, if not most, pubs don’t even serve good beer!

She goes on to describe pubs, with a metropolitan sneer, as being “offputtingly Brexity”. Well, I suppose you can sort of see what she means – pubs have always been a bit anarchic, rumbustious and politically incorrect, and you can understand why fastidious people might turn their noses up at them. I’ve said before that pubs, at heart, are more Sun reader than Guardian reader kinds of places.

It would be perfectly reasonable to argue that the rose-tinted view of pubs as cheerful, welcoming centres of community life is all too often not matched by the reality. But, if you basically see no appeal in pubs, then wouldn’t it be better just to keep quiet rather than moaning that they aren’t something they never set out to be in the first place? After all, I don’t much care for gyms or dance music clubs, but I don’t complain that you can’t get a good pint of bitter in them, I just ignore them.

Friday, 21 July 2017

A fit of the vapers

I spotted the sign on the right in the Prince Rupert in Newark, Nottinghamshire, which belongs to a small pubco called Knead Pubs. Similar blanket bans on e-cigarettes are commonplace, most notably in Wetherspoon’s, but the the faux-politeness of this one is particularly grating. It’s not much consolation to vapers that using e-cigarettes indoors is legal if the pub behaves as though it isn’t.

However, it illustrates a wider issue confronting public health policy. Despite indoor smoking bans and punitive taxation, smoking prevalence in society remains stubbornly reluctant to fall. In the past few years, though, there has been more sign of movement, which has been mainly due to the rise of e-cigarettes, or vaping. While many vaping devices do mimic conventional cigarettes, it is in fact somewhat misleading to describe them as such, as they don’t involve tobacco or combustion in any way.

It is clear that simply wielding a big stick is not an effective way of reducing smoking, and smokers need to be provided with an attractive alternative. However, the public health lobby has a big problem with vaping, not only because it falls into the category of “not invented here”, but also because it can be an enjoyable activity in its own right, not just a joyless smoking cessation therapy. The result is that they have been reluctant to endorse vaping, and indeed by going on about how its risks still need further investigation are in effect telling people to continue smoking, which comes across as an extremely callous attitude. No activity is entirely without risk, but it is pretty self-evident that the health risks of vaping are lower than those of smoking tobacco by several orders of magnitude.

It seems, though, that at last the public authorities are realising that encouraging vaping is likely to be the most productive way of cutting smoking rates, and this has been recognised in the government’s latest anti-smoking campaign, which is reported to involve urging millions to switch to e-cigarettes. But there is a lot of prejudice to be overcome from organisations, both public and private, that have found it all too convenient to treat vaping in exactly the same way as smoking. For example, I recently travelled on the Isle of Wight ferry, where both smoking and vaping had been banned completely on any part of the vessel, even outdoor deck areas.

Government, both national and local, and public bodies such as the education sector and the NHS, need to set an example by ensuring that the blanket prohibition of indoor smoking is not extended to vaping. If vaping is made no more convenient than smoking, then where is the encouragement to switch? And, while the principle of “my gaff, my rules” must always prevail, it should be made clear to commercial organisations such as pub operators that imposing blanket bans is distinctly unhelpful in terms of public health and, in effect, is indirectly killing people. The Welsh government’s plans for a ban on indoor vaping identical to that on smoking must be consigned to the scrapheap.

But the idea of vaping as a valid recreational pursuit is likely to be very difficult for many in authority to accept...

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Best of the rest

Last week, to mark the tenth anniversary of this blog, I posted a list of what I considered to have been some of my best posts over that period. Obviously such a selection can only be a snapshot, so I thought I would offer a second ten which further illustrate my key themes:
  • August 2009: Happy Days – a journey of discovery of adolescent drinking.

  • April 2010: Wooden wombs – at heart I have to conclude I’m more fascinated by pubs than beer.

  • October 2010: Premiumisation – why keg beers continue to sell for more than cask.

  • January 2011: Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll...and going to the pub – we don’t see the 1960s as a boom time for the pub trade, but they were.

  • August 2011: Drip, drip, drip... – the effect of the smoking ban on the pub trade has been a slow erosion of sociability, not a one-off hit.

  • November 2013: Craft vs Premium – how craft beer challenges the conventional concept of a premium product.

  • December 2013 - A brief history of electricity – it has now been airbrushed from history, but getting on for half of all cask beer was once sold through electric pumps. And, in several respects, they were preferable to handpumps.

  • October 2016: Getting out of the house – the simple act of going to the pub can provide a social outlet for the depressed and lonely.

  • January 2017: A campaign designed by a committee – will CAMRA’s “revitalisation project” end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

  • January 2017: The Sam’s factor – despite their sometimes high-handed and eccentric business practices, Samuel Smith’s continue to run an estate of proper pubs to a greater degree than any other substantial pub operator.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Craft corner

You would imagine that craft beer, with all its ebullience and self-confidence, would want to take on its competitors head-to-head in the market place. But, in reality, it chooses to differentiate itself so that side-by-side comparison is different.

On the draught side, it was always a cause of some discomfort amongst craft brewers that their products, in cask form, were dispensed by handpumps alongside the likes of Old Tosspot which exemplified the stuffy “real ale culture” they were seeking to challenge. So it was hardly surprising that they were keen to adopt “craft keg”, not just because they thought it was better, but also as a form of differentiation.

And, while craft keg facings may fit into the common T-bar dispenser, you’ll never find any craft kegs served through the towering, illuminated bar mountings that characterise Carling, Stella and the rest. Instead, the past few years have seen the rise of the “keg wall”, which is used to showcase a rotating range of craft products. In more and more recently-refurbished pubs, the draught beers are rigidly divided into three sections – real ales on handpump, macro kegs and lagers on tall fonts or T-bars, and craft kegs on a wall at the back of the bar. Many drinkers will look exclusively at one section and mentally blank out the others.

In the take-home trade, the craft sector has very much taken the 330ml bottle (and, increasingly, can) to its heart, in contrast to the 500ml bottle characteristic of Premium Bottled Ales and the 440ml cans in four-packs or slabs favoured by mass-market lagers. While many mainstream lagers are available in packs of smaller bottles, you never see them sold singly, and 330ml mainstream cans are virtually unknown. This makes direct comparison in terms of price per unit of volume, or indeed per unit of alcohol, much more difficult.

(As an aside, mainstream lagers seem to be sold in a bewildering variety of pack sizes, which seems to be a classic example of “confusion marketing”. How different from Germany, where pretty much everything seems to be in 500ml bottles and cans)

I’ve never been to the USA, so can’t comment directly, but I get the impression that craft beers there tend to be sold in the same package sizes and formats as mainstream ones, making direct comparison much easier. This article, for example, takes it as read that six-packs are the norm for both craft and macro beers. Yes, the craft costs more, but it’s very clear what the premium for higher perceived quality is. I can’t help thinking this may have been a key factor in its success.

It may come across as clever marketing that craft beer in the UK defines its own niche in terms of presentation and packaging. It’s not the same as macro lagers or BBBs, so why should it be sold the same way? But does it rather represent a shortage of ambition and a reluctance to take the fight directly to the enemy?

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Not going out

Even such a dedicated pub man as Tandleman recently reported that, on one occasion in London, the combination of high prices and probably indifferent beer meant that he and his other half decided that staying in with a bottle of red from Tesco looked like a better option.

Ever since I left the parental home, I’ve been regularly going to the pub on various occasions during the week. Not any particular pub, just pubs in general. And not for any specific reason – just to get a change of scene, relax, chill a bit, do some peoplewatching, get some mental stimulation. But, sometimes you do start to question whether you just end up doing it through force of habit.

Is it really worth forking out in excess of three quid for a pint that may well turn out to be a bit lacklustre, especially if you have to drink it listening to screaming children and thumping R&B music chosen for the benefit of the staff? Or feel that you’re the only drinker in a sea of people chomping their way through mounds of chips? Or conversely, while there’s nothing wrong with a bit of peace and quiet in pubs, sometimes the place is so deserted that you feel uncomfortable.

Don’t get me wrong, the experience in plenty of pubs is still good, but it can’t be denied that all too often it leaves much to be desired. And it’s not so much a case of pubs needing to do more to attract customers, but to do less to deter them.

Or is just going to the pub for a pint or two itself becoming a thing of the past?

Friday, 14 July 2017

Declaration of independence

A key element of the craft beer movement, starting in the USA, and now transplanted across to this country, has been championing small, independent brewers against the multinational giants. Not surprisingly, the news of craft brewers being bought out by those same mega-brewers has been met with much wailing and gnashing of teeth and claims of a sell-out. In response to this, SIBA (the Society of Independent Brewers) has begun a fightback by launching a scheme to indicate which beers come from genuinely independent breweries.

Now, I'm all in favour of transparency in terms of who brews what, and of standing up for independent producers. But it must be pointed out that all this will do is to show whether a brewery is a member of SIBA. Many independent brewers of both the family and tiny micro varieties aren't, but that doesn’t make them any less independent, or their beer any less good. It’s just a membership badge for a trade association.

It also has to be questioned how many drinkers are really that concerned about who brews their beer, as opposed to what it tastes like. Consumers are more sophisticated that they’re often given credit for, and I don’t believe that they’re genuinely being deceived into thinking that Camden or Goose Island come from independent producers. They’re entirely comfortable with the fact that big companies have lower-volume, specialist offshoots. Most of the finest Scotch malt whiskies come from distilleries owned by multinational drinks companies, but that doesn’t make them inferior, or deter people from drinking them.

In the early years of CAMRA, while it stuck up for the independent brewers who had kept the real ale flag flying, it always acknowledged that plenty of real ale, some of it very good, was brewed by the Big Six. Any kind of precise definition of “craft beer” is notoriously elusive, but are SIBA really saying that it cannot be produced by a multinational company, full stop? Not to mention the fact that there’s no shortage of low-quality slop made by small, artisanal brewers. Small isn’t always beautfiful.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Now we are ten

Today marks the tenth anniversary of this blog, the creation of which was prompted by a certain event that had occurred eleven days previously. The very first post, which set the tone for the next ten years, was on the subject of Bansturbation. This is post number 1907, so I have made an average of 190.7 posts per year.

It is noticeable how many of the early posts were brief bullet points that nowadays would probably be reserved for Twitter. It was a couple of years before the blog started to attract any significant number of comments, or that I became aware of the wider existence of something called the “blogosphere”.

So here’s a personal selection of ten of my most significant posts broadly spread over the past ten years. It’s odd how some of my most serious and thoughtful posts have been the ones attracting fewest comments.

  • February 2009: Winds of change – the reasons for the decline of the pub trade in favour of home drinking go far beyond just relative price.

  • December 2009: Don’t call me stupid – drinkers of mainstream beers aren’t ill-informed, they just have different priorities from the enthusiast.

  • February 2011: Who wants customers? – would the pub trade as a whole really be much more successful if it did more to meet customer tastes? Strangely, despite making a very important point, this one drew no comments whatsoever.

  • September 2011: Taste the difference – contrary to received wisdom, pub food was often more diverse and of better quality thirty years ago.

  • July 2012: Whatever happened to pubs? – how did regular pubgoing stop being an integral part of ordinary people’s lives?

  • August 2012: The real reason why – changing attitudes to drink-driving within the law are one of the biggest factors behind the decline in the pub trade, especially outside major urban centres. And possibly a major part of the answer to the question posed in the previous post.

  • January 2014: Out of control – claiming that on-trade drinking is somehow more responsible than the off-trade is divisive special pleading that simply helps the anti-drink lobby.

  • March 2015: Last pub standing – in some less prosperous areas, pub decline has been devastating, yet beer bubble denizens just don’t see it.

  • May 2016: A taste of tradition – there’s a gulf between what you buy as a consumer and what you follow as a leisure interest.

  • November 2016: False equivalence – It is wrong and unhelpful to regard bottle-conditioned beers as the direct packaged equivalent of cask.