Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Beer and whine

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

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

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

Raise a pint to celebrate

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 9 February 2019

The Holy Grail of pubs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The remaining nine are:

The Cresselly Arms, Cresswell Quay, Pembrokeshire

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

The Tally Ho, Hatherleigh, Devon

The Tucker’s Grave, Faulkland, Somerset

The Olde Ship, Seahouses, Northumberland

The Barley Mow, Kirk Ireton, Derbyshire

The Double Locks, Alphington, Devon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

The bubble bursts?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 30 January 2019

The squeezed middle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 25 January 2019

Turning Japanese

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Here to stay low

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Ale-aggro

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 14 January 2019

Craft will eat itself

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Style or substance?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Don’t let the facts get in the way

For some years now, we have often seen assertions from sections of the beer commentariat that one of the main causes of the decline of the pub trade in recent years has been the policies of the large tied pubcos. However, as I argued here, there really is very little substance in this. Yes, in many respects the pubcos have been less than ideal custodians of their estates, but the decline of pubs has been due to a lethal cocktail of social change and legislative restriction. Running them in a somewhat different manner would not, overall, have made much difference.

The British pub trade today comprises a wide variety of different ownership models, including large and small pubcos, managed pub chains, family brewers and independent operators. If the pubcos really did have a particularly negative influence, then surely the other sectors would be doing markedly better. But, in fact, as Pete Brown points out in this article, over the past ten years it has in fact been the major operators who have done much better than the independents.

While everyone can point to examples of independently-run pubs that have prospered, there are plenty of others that have quietly fallen by the wayside, not to mention the huge numbers of pub disposals that nobody else has even sniffed at. Can anyone seriously argue that, under different ownership, all those beached-whale estate pubs and street-corner locals in run-down urban areas would have thrived? The reasons why one pub succeeds over another are completely different from those behind the wider decline of the trade as a whole.

The whole argument is just a convenient distraction from the true underlying issues. And it should always be remembered that, in the 1970s, the beer tie saved real ale in this country.

I also can’t help thinking that, in surveying the courses of pub decline over the past ten or so years, Pete as usual totally ignores the familiar elephant in the room...

Friday, 4 January 2019

Why can’t they just leave us alone?

Between Christmas and New Year, the Daily Telegraph reported how Public Health England were urging the government to impose strict maximum calorie limits on a huge range of common dishes eaten out of the home. Now, as I have argued before, while there may be practical difficulties in achieving it, there isn’t really any objection in principle to providing calorie information. However, this goes far beyond that to represent an unprecedented intrusion into the minutiae of people’s everyday actions, and something that is not mirrored in any other country.

There’s a huge list of practical problems with this. For a start, it’s a blanket, one size fits all solution that does not take account of people’s hugely different dietary requirements. Someone doing hard manual work (and there are still a few about) will need far more calories than a sparrow-like maiden aunt. There’s nothing to stop people ordering two meals if they don’t think that one is enough. And how does it deal with self-service buffets, or the growing trend for tapas-style menus with a variety of “small plate” dishes?

It must also be remembered that, in recent years, there has been a marked reduction in the average amount of calories consumed per person. If we are indeed as a society becoming more obese (which is less clear-cut than often supposed), then it is due to doing less, not eating more.

Not surprisingly, there was a chorus of protest in response to this news. Surely, you might think, there would be tremendous political mileage for any party prepared to call a halt on the ever-growing tendency to want to micromanage every aspect of people’s daily lives. Why can’t people be treated like responsible adults and left alone to make their own decisions?

But the problem is, as I have often said, that people in general do not identify any commonality of interest with others whose freedom is being infringed. I may be outraged that my ability to do this is being curbed, but I will cheer on when whatever that other dirty, irresponsible scumbag does is banned. As long as people to continue to view things within their own particular silo, it will continue happening.

It all started, of course, with the campaign against tobacco. And how many people welcomed that, and flatly denied that it represented the start of a slippery slope?

Friday, 28 December 2018

Replacing apples with oranges

The Manchester Evening News has recently published figures showing the shocking extent of pub closures across the region since 2001, as shown in the table below. Seven of the ten local authority areas in Greater Manchester have lost a third or more of their pubs, with Stockport, which has lost 36%, actually doing slightly better than average.

Top of the list is Rochdale, where an astonishing 45% of pubs have closed their doors. This does have to be seen, however, in the context of what might be described as “changing ethnic mix”, which must surely also be a major factor in Accrington, which the Guardian recently reported on as The town where half the pubs have vanished. This also applies to a lesser extent in many of the other areas.

Neither does the decline apply evenly across areas. Tameside has done second worst across the board, but within the area on its south-eastern fringe around Mottram and Hattersley must have lost at least 80% of its pubs.

Of course this trend has to be seen in the context of the overall decline in the pub trade. Over the period from 2001 to the present day, according to the statistics produced by the British Beer and Pub Association, the amount of beer sold in the on-trade has fallen by 45%. Sometimes it seems surprising, not that so many pubs have closed, but that so many remain open, although it has to be said that some of those that remain exist on very slim pickings for much of the week.

Whenever this subject comes up, inevitably some Pollyannas will pipe up saying that, while we may have lost a lot of pubs, plenty of new bars have sprung up in their place. There is undoubtedly some truth in this, and I’m sure if you took into account the total movement in establishments with a full on-licence, it wouldn’t show anything like a 36% fall in Stockport. The liberalisation of the restrictions on opening new licensed premises has led to a more fluid market that is more capable of responding to changes in customer demand.

However, the overall figures on the decline of the trade do not lie, just as you can’t point to the rise in the number of breweries as an indicator of the general health of the brewing industry. These new places cannot really be considered a like-for-like replacement for the pubs we have lost. They are typically much smaller, for a start, appeal to a narrower customer base, and tend to be in entirely different locations. As I wrote back in 2011, “How can a small, boxy converted shop be regarded as any kind of acceptable substitute for an impressive Victorian or inter-wars building that was full of character and had served its community over several generations through a succession of licensees?”

This also raises a question mark about these statistics and how they are compiled. On the face of it, they don’t appear to take full account of new bar openings. But, on the other hand, neither are they simply gross figures of pubs lost that were in existence in 2001, as otherwise Manchester would surely record a much higher figure than 7%. Outside the inner ring road, Chorlton and the Wilmslow Road corridor, large parts of the city have become virtual pub deserts. So it would be interesting to know exactly what these figures are showing. Are they including some new openings, but not others, and how is the distinction drawn?

Thursday, 20 December 2018

When is a pub not a pub?

When it’s a bar, of course. While there’s no specific legal distinction, the two carry very different connotations. However, it’s notoriously difficult to come up with a hard-and-fast definition separating one from the other. Now Martyn Cornell has had another stab at it on his Zythophile blog. He suggests that a key distinction is that pubs tend to have a bar at right angles to the entrance door, whereas bars have their counter running along a side wall. Often, this is indeed the case, but it rather breaks down when you have a multi-roomed interior with different entrances. But perhaps bars don’t tend to have multi-roomed interiors anyway.

In general, while you can point to various characteristics that pubs usually have, and bars don’t, it’s always possible to come up with exceptions to the role. Overall, it’s often a case of “you know one when you see one”. I’ve suggested in the past that pubs are often specific buildings designed for the purpose, while bars tend to be part of a larger building. Pubs make use of the upper floors of the building, while a bar may be underneath something entirely different. The licensees of a pub are likely to live on the premises, but with a bar they hardly ever do. And, at least outside urban centres, pubs often have car parks, but I can’t think of a single bar that does. A pub retains its identity through various changes of ownership, while that of a bar is very much tied up with its current trading format.

Sometimes it’s less a question of physical aspects but how businesses choose to define themselves. On Stockport Market Place there are two recently-opened establishments right next door to each other – the Angel and Project 53. Both have a somewhat “crafty” ethos, but the Angel definitely comes across as a pub, whereas Project 53 is unquestionably a bar. With a new name and a different paint scheme, the Angel could be considered a bar, though.

Some Wetherspoon’s, particularly those in their more modern design idiom that are conversions of former retail units, do very much say “bar” rather than “pub”, whereas others than are in existing pub premises, such as the Gateway in East Didsbury, are definitely pubs. And, while their name says otherwise, I’d say that the vast majority of micropubs, going by the criteria set out above, are in reality small bars little different from the keg-only “box bars” often found in similar premises.

At the other end of the scale, there’s also the vexed question of when a pub actually turns into a restaurant. Most restaurants obviously aren’t pubs, but quite a few have the outward appearance of pubs and indeed might once have been one. Strictly speaking, if anyone can come in and have a drink without needing to buy a meal, it doesn’t qualify as just being a restaurant. However, I’d say there also needs to be a test of whether any meaningful number of people actually do.

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

A costly and futile gesture

This month sees the fourth anniversary of the reduction of the drink-driving limit in Scotland, which I wrote about here. The University of Glasgow have carried out some research on the impact, which has revealed no reduction in the number of road traffic accidents.

I have to say this doesn’t exactly come as a surprise. The additional level of risk involved in driving with alcohol levels between 50 and 80mg varies between pretty small and non-existent, so even if the vast majority of people who previously believed they were adhering to 80mg change their behaviour, it’s unlikely to make much difference to the overall numbers. Add to this the slow rate of absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream, and the fact that the conventional wisdom about the “legal limit” does actually include a significant amount of headroom, and it’s highly likely that, even before, they weren’t actually exceeding 50mg.

On the other hand, why should those who had no compunctions about exceeding the previous limit – who accounted for the vast majority of drink-related casualties – be any more likely to adhere to the new one? The UK government’s consultation document on cutting the limit from twenty years ago claimed that it would exert a moderating influence on people in this group, but it’s hard to see how this mechanism actually works.

Not surprisingly, there have been claims that it has only failed because of a lack of enforcement, but that rather suggests that reducing the limit was, in itself, a pointless gesture. If more enforcement was needed, then wouldn’t it have achieved the same benefits without a limit cut? The linked article quotes a statistic that of 195 found over the limit, only 17 were between the old and new limits, which suggests there isn’t a large population of drivers who are just chancing their arm a bit or have made a miscalculation. Either people adhere to the law, even if they disagree with it, or they couldn’t care less.

It also must be remembered that, according to the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, the effects on the pub trade have been catastrophic. Apparently, in the first few months, the reduction in trade caused a small but noticable downward blip in Scotland’s headline GDP. It’s hard to see how any pub in Scotland can now be viable outside urban centres unless it effectively turns itself into a restaurant. And, given the different pub landscape in England and Wales, the results would probably be even more severe if it were ever to be implemented south of the Border. Considering that the first assessment of the impact of minimum alcohol pricing has shown a surprising increase in off-trade purchases, it seems that the Scottish government has a spectacular talent for shooting itself in the foot when it comes to anti-drink measures.

While this is ostensibly touted as a road safety measure, it’s hard to believe that, at least subconsciously, part of the motivation behind it isn’t to increase the denormalisation of alcohol consumption in society. In this respect it’s rather like the smoking ban, in that it has been ineffective in achieving its stated aim, but highly effective in undermining the pub trade. In fact, this is even worse. It was possible to argue that the smoking ban would bring new non-smoking customers into pubs, although in practice it was more a trickle than a flood. But there is no upside whatsoever for pubs in cutting the drink-drive limit. It’s easy to imagine, though, the same useful idiots who argued that pubs would take the smoking ban in their stride being in favour of it, or at least pretty relaxed.

The whole thing has been pretty effectively filleted in his usual style by Christopher Snowdon:

Drunk driving isn't a very popular cause, and rightly so. It is obviously wrong to risk the lives of others by driving while inebriated. By contrast, driving after consuming a small quantity of alcohol poses no threat to others and is fine, but it is this that the temperance lobby is going after. It's so much easier to hassle normal people for having a pint after work than to clamp down on the dwindling number of habitual drunk-drivers.