Friday, 19 October 2018

Ale Britannia

Regular readers will be aware that I’ve not always seen eye to eye with beer writer Pete Brown. He can talk a lot of sense when he sticks to the subject, but unfortunately too often he can’t help bringing in his own political agenda. However, he’s recently made an important point in asking why this country has such a downer on its indigenous brewing tradition. The UK, along with Germany, Belgium and the Czech Republic, is one of the world’s four great traditional brewing nations. Our beers have influenced brewers all over the world, and were the inspiration behind the original microbrewery revolution in the USA. And yet, all too often, both in popular culture and amongst beer enthusiasts, we tend to either ignore or disparage them.

It’s very common to see British beer styles dismissed as “boring brown bitters”, “twiggy” or “old man beers”. If pressed, a beer enthusiast will sometimes grudgingly say “Well, there are some really good traditional beers. Harvey’s, example. And Adnams are pretty good.” But the trail goes cold there, and it’s not long before they have returned to gushing over mega-hoppy US-style IPAs and salted caramel stouts. To be honest, it all comes across as a bit “some of my best friends are Jews”. And most of the beers that were championed by the original 1970s real ale movement are now dismissed out of hand and considered to be no longer of much interest.

Pete wonders whether this is part of the general British tendency to downgrade our own achievements. After all, self-effacing understatement is one of our national traits. He writes, slightly uncomfortably:

And I know of no other nation of people who are so quick to agree that their national cuisine is the worst in the world, when it patently isn’t. The problem is, even if we wanted to stand up for our national food and drink, being proud of what we do is undoubtedly one thing that we Brits are genuinely terrible at.

Anyone who dares to say they’re proud to be British, or of British achievements, faces the danger of being lumped in with Nigel Farage. A majority may have voted for Brexit, but even most Leave voters rankle at being compared to red-faced, racist ‘gammons’.

And what drink do you associate with Nigel Farage…?

Exactly.

Is it just another manifestation of the tendency described by George Orwell that “England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality”?

However, I’m not too convinced that the answer really lies within “culture wars”. After all, the archetypal “gammon” sneered at so condescendingly by the Woke drinks lager, not traditional bitter. And the modern beer enthusiasts are keen to embrace every trend emanating from the land of Trump.

Partly it is a result of changes in fashion. The original real ale revival came in the 1970s, when there was a general tendency to embrace the old-fashioned, quirky and traditional as a response to the modernising spirit of the 1960s. The current zeitgeist, which is very much in favour of the new, shiny and innovative, runs right against that, so anything that was around in 1978 is just dull, stodgy and out-of-date.

And much of it stems from the beer world itself. After all, we don’t take the same attitude to many other aspects of our heritage from Scotch malt whisky to Shakespeare and Dickens. Pretty much every major country has adopted pale lager as its dominant beer style. The UK, with its long and honourable tradition of ale brewing, was late to that party, only really arriving at that position in the 1980s. There is still a tendency, even when many who have drunk lager from adolescence have now retired, to see traditional British ales as old-fashioned.

Within the beer community, there is a general desire to seek out the novel and experimental, which goes back to the beer ticking trend of the 1990s and long predates “craft”. Anything that is a permanent fixture on the bar, and has been for years, is just one of the “usual suspects”. And, when the craft beer movement crossed the Atlantic back from the USA in the current century, rather than taking aim at the global brewers, it set itself up in opposition the established real ale culture and the beers associated with it. Punk IPA is not so much the antidote to Carling and Stella as to Pedigree and London Pride.

But beers in traditional British styles, from the huge variety of pale ales and bitters, through milds, stouts and old ales, are one of the great glories of the beer world, and something entirely unique. Whatever your political standpoint, they are well worth celebrating and enjoying in their own right. As Pete concludes,

If we turn away from and deny our own tradition, we turn off a big flow that’s been going into the global creative mash tun. And if that happens, the whole global brewing scene is diminished.
And Marston’s have now removed the St George’s flag from Bombardier pumpclips and bottle labels!

Friday, 12 October 2018

What goes around, comes around

Going back sixty years, most pubs in the UK apart from the very smallest had a compartmentalised interior layout. Typically, they would have the standard demarcation between public bar and “best room” – the term “lounge” was not yet in general use. Some had a three-level division between public, saloon and lounge, with subtle gradations in clientele and ambiance between the three. Plus, as documented in Basil Oliver’s book The Renaissance of the English Public House, there could be a whole variety of other rooms such as news rooms, tea rooms, games rooms and, at the time, ladies’ rooms.

But, in the intervening period, pretty much all this has been swept away by knocking pubs through into a single-bar layout. The only pubs that still have two “sides” are the few survivors from a past era – the last one I know of that was built in that way was Holt’s Sidings in Levenshulme about thirty years ago. The main reason always advanced for this was that it reflected a more democratic and egalitarian society in which the old class divisions no longer applied, and there’s certainly some truth in that. But it also made pubs easier to manage and supervise, and in the 1960s and early 70s there was also the factor that public bar prices were subject to government price control, which could be circumvented by turning the entire pub into a lounge bar.

However, it didn’t always work out quite as intended. In many cases, rather than everyone happily mixing together in the same pub, the class division moved from one between different bars to one between different pubs. The middle classes used one pub, the working classes another. Near me, there’s a location where a modern craft bar faces a big old sports TV and karaoke boozer on the opposite side of a crossroads. I doubt whether the two share many, if any, customers.

But now, as the Morning Advertiser reports, a growing number of pub operators are realising that there is a need to cater for different audiences within a single venue, and are thus returning to the concept of pub “zoning”. It’s all too easy if you’re not careful for one aspect of a pub to take over the whole place and alienate many potential customers. The comment that “our elderly crowd... wouldn't necessarily want to be sat in a café-style place full of kids” particularly resonated with me.

There are two obvious divisions between different customer groups that often rankle in pubs today. One is showing big-screen TV sport, which brings in a specific crowd who may well put a lot of money across the bar, but which deters those who just want a quiet drink. And allowing children, while key to the concept of family dining, is something that that those who prefer an adults-only environment feel uncomfortable with. Plus, of course, in a more tolerant society there would be a strong argument for a division in pubs between smoking and non-smoking areas.

My suggestion that this meant the wheel turning full circle met with much approval on Twitter – so far gaining no less than 61 likes.

It’s a classic example of the principle of Chesterton’s fence – that you should never get rid of anything in the interest of “improvement” without understanding why it had been put there in the first place.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

It doesn’t add up

I’ve done an analysis like this before, but it’s worth repeating in the light of the recent highlighting of the widespread quality issues with cask beer. The latest edition of the Cask Report states than one in seven pints sold in British pubs is now cask. According to the British Beer & Pub Association, total on-trade beer sales in the year to the end of June 2018 were 12.549 million bulk barrels. One-seventh of that is 1.793 million barrels. CAMRA’s WhatPub website states that there are 35,777 pubs in the country serving cask ale.

Even if we ignore sales to clubs and beer festivals, that means that the average pub sells 50 barrels a year, or just under one a week. That’s 276 pints a week, or a mere 40 per day. Assuming that beer is generally sold in 9-gallon firkins, that means the average pub can only have two cask lines if it wants to make sure it empties a cask within three or four days. Yet how many handpumps does the typical cask pub you go in have? Considerably more than two. And we wonder why so much beer ends up in poor condition.

Monday, 8 October 2018

On the sauce in Worcester - Part 2

We pick up the story of our day out in Worcester having just left the Plough, which I wrote about in Part 1. Crossing over the High Street, we reached the Eagle Vaults, a street-corner pub with an impressive tiled facade advertising Mitchells & Butlers’ Gold Medal Ales. It’s one of three pubs on this crawl that appears in the 1978 Good Beer Guide, where it’s described as “A friendly pub with an unspoilt Victorian bar” and sells M&B Brew XI and Mild. It’s now a Banks’s/Marston’s pub, with Banks’s Amber Bitter, Sunbeam, Boondoggle and Eagle IPA. I had a pretty good pint of Amber, although others weren’t so impressed with the Sunbeam.

It still has the impressive, unspoilt bar and, although presumably knocked through a little, still qualifies for a regional entry on CAMRA’s National Inventory. The lounge side had a selection of traditional pub games including quoits and table skittles. We caught up here with the stragglers whose journey from Cambridge had presumably been delayed by being bogged down in the Fens. It was now mid-afternoon, and groups of traditional drinking customers were starting to drift in.

Now came the division in the camp that Martin refers to here. So far we’d successfully been relying on navigation by seat of the pants based on vague memories – “I think it’s somewhere down here.” However, this method now came unstuck. The Eagle Vaults is on Friar Street, a long historic street running parallel to the High Street, which further north morphs into New Street. Consensus was that the next pub, the Cardinal’s Hat, was somewhere to the north on the right. However, after we’d walked for five minutes and reached the next pub after that, it dawned on us that we should have been going the other way. This resulted in a breakaway group muttering “sod that for a game of soldiers” and deciding to decamp to the new craft bar, the Oil Basin Brewhouse, to rejoin us later.

However, a party of committed stalwarts were determined to stick to the script and retraced our steps back past the Eagle Vaults to the Cardinal’s Hat. This has an impressive Tudor timbered facade, with a high-quality 1930s internal refit that qualifies it for a regional entry on the National Inventory. It was once a Davenport’s pub, and featured in the 1978 Good Beer Guide, described tersely as “Timbered pub in a back street”, with Davenports Bitter on the bar. I remember coming in here on a visit in 1992 when they were playing tracks from Jethro Tull’s then-new album “Catfish Rising”.

Spotted on the wall of the gents' in the Cardinal's Hat

However, first impressions were not favourable, as the front bar had incongruously been fitted out with high-level posing tables. We retreated to the more comfortable surroundings of the wood-panelled snug at the rear, but noted that we were the only customers. The beer range was Salopian Lemon Dream, Prescott Hill Climb and Autumn, North Cotswold The Tempest and Purity Mad Goose, none of which struck us as particularly memorable. There were some amusing pictures on the wall of the gents’, but the overall impression was one of unfulfilled potential. It sounded like they had more fun in the Oil Basin.

Heading up New Street for the third time we were eventually able to pay our visit to the King Charles II. Right next door to the Georgian Swan With Two Nicks, this is another ancient half-timbered building that claims the eponymous king escaped from it following the Battle of Worcester in 1651. Internally it has been more opened out than the Cardinal’s Hat, but retains plenty of dark wood and an impressive historic fireplace. There were a reasonable number of customers in, but we were able to find seats at a table by the window, where one of my companions rescued me from a beetle that was advancing menacingly up my shirt front.

It’s leased by Craddocks Brewery and offers a somewhat jawdropping array of their ales on about nine handpumps ranged around the bar. This brought to mind my visit to their other pub, the Talbot in Drotiwich, last year, where I questioned whether they were spreading themselves too thinly. Many of the beers appear to be very similar to others, and did the pub really have the turnover to keep every single one in good condition? We tried three – Saxon Gold, King’s Escape and North Star – none of which were particularly impressive, with the last-mentioned, described as an American IPA, perhaps shading it. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that a bit more focus in the beer range would be desirable.

The splinter group arrived just as we were drinking up, so we followed an initially dubious-looking short cut through ASDA’s car park to reach the Firefly on Lowesmoor. This is a pub housed in an impressive Georgian building that apparently was once the residence of the manager of the adjoining vinegar works. We hoped that wouldn’t be an augury for the quality of the beer. Reached via a short flight of steps, the interior is very much in modern craft bar style and rather belies the external appearance. The handpumps are rather oddly located, well set back from the front of the bar at a lower level, which makes them a little difficult to see. They dispensed the distinctly murky Siren Suspended in Rainbows, Mallinsons Dreaming, New Bristol Pineapple Pale and Enville White. I had at least heard of the Enville White, which was decent enough, but the others very much fell into the category of “OK if you like that sort of thing”. One person ended up with the Pineapple Pale after failing to spot the Enville, possibly because the pumpclips were a bit hard to see.

The Tything is a long Georgian street leading north from Foregate Street station away from the city centre, featuring several pubs. Our initial intention had been to make the final call the Dragon, run by Church End Brewery, but a late change of plan resulted from the Lamb & Flag, a few doors further up, appearing as a new entry in the 2019 Good Beer Guide. This was another entry in the 1978 edition, when it was a Marston’s pub serving Pedigree and Burton Bitter, described as “Lively, friendly city pub.” I vaguely recalled coming here on a train trip from university in the late 1970s.

Now it’s run by Two Crafty Brewers, and offered their American Pale and Golden Beast alongside Wye Valley HPA, which was OK, and Greene King Yardbird – I think there was some kind of partial tie with GK. It’s a long, thin pub running well back from the narrow street frontage, although the interior has been much modernised. We were able to find some seats around a table towards the rear. The soundtrack included “Horse With No Name” by America, which brought back more memories of the 1970s, but to be honest was regarded as a poor Neil Young pastiche even when originally released. From here it was a ten minute walk back to the station for the train home, which turned out to be ten minutes late, so I could have had more time in the pub. Some of those who were staying overnight called in to the Dragon afterwards.

So another highly enjoyable day out, with the quality and variety of the company as always being one of the best aspects. The pub of the day was the Plough, something on which I think all of us who visited it agreed, while the biggest disappointment was the Paul Pry, a lovely pub that let itself down by the poorest beer we had all day. Hopefully those who run it will read this, and the other blogs about it, and take note. This underlines that the Good Beer Guide is by no means infallible in terms of leading you to a consistently good pint, and the fact that it was Wednesday lunchtime and afternoon shouldn’t really be put forward as an excuse. Looking around, there were plenty of other pubs in Worcester that would merit further investigation.

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

On the sauce in Worcester – Part 1

Our latest Beer and Pubs Forum Proper Day Out took place in the last week of September with a visit to the cathedral city of Worcester. It’s easily reachable in 2¼ hours on the train from Stockport, changing at Birmingham, and once again I was able to get a good discount on the fare by using the services of trainsplit.com. After several visits I still struggle with the layout of the revamped New Street station, though. I had been to Worcester before, but not for the past twenty years, so much of it would be new to me. One thing I remember from my university days is that it was one of the select band of towns and cities that suffered the very restrictive 2 pm afternoon closing, along with Northampton which we visited earlier in the year. Of course this isn’t a problem now, but a sign of the times was that some of the pubs, even on the fringes of the city centre, didn’t open until 4 pm on weekdays. It was a typical fine early Autumn day that started off rather chilly, but became pleasantly warm once the sun had got to work. Apologies for the hackneyed blog title, by the way, but it does rather write itself.

We met up at Wetherspoon’s Postal Order, which is handily situated just a stone’s throw from Foregate Street station. I had been here before in 1998 – it’s a typical old-school Spoons conversion, surprisngly enough, from a former post office, with plenty of dark wood in the decor and bench seating around the walls of the large single room. It had a fair number of customers at 11.30am, including a guy at the bar on a mobility scooter. There were about ten cask beers on the bar, with the usual mixture of regulars and guests. Amongst the guests were Woods Shropshire Lad, Acorn Old Moor Porter, Hop Farm Frizzle, Man in a Hat American Pale Ale and Boss Brave AIPA. I had the Shropshire Lad, which was pretty good, and all the others were well-received too, with the Frizzle being particularly appreciated. It claims to have one of the largest cask beer sales of any Wetherspoon’s in the West Midlands area, and is definitely in the top of the Spoons drawer.

Counter and bar back in the Paul Pry
A short walk took us to the Paul Pry, a distinctive late Victorian or Edwardian pub in the angle of two streets. After a somewhat chequered history, including a spell as a restaurant, it reopened in 2017 as a free house and in fact is a new entry in the 2019 Good Beer Guide. It features on CAMRA’s National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors, and pride of place goes to the magnificently unspoilt public bar in the apex, with impressive carved wooden counter and mosaic floor. There’s more mosaic and tilework in the central passageway leading to the toilets, and another room on the opposite side of the entrance which retains original wall detailing but has lost its fixed seating.

Pub dog in the Paul Pry
First impressions were good, with a friendly, helpful barman, an endearing pub dog and a number of proper pub customers including a pair of codgers sitting in a corner with pint tankards. However, unfortunately it was let down by the beer. The range was sensibly limited to three – their own Paul Pry ale brewed by Teme Valley, Salopian Picc and Animal London Porter, together with Lily the Pink cider. However, all of them were to a greater or lesser degree a touch tired, flat and tepid, which really isn’t what you expect in a GBG pub. Some of the latecomers who visited the pub in the evening had a similar experience. For me, my beer in the Paul Pry was the least good of the day.

Just around the corner on a main shopping street was the Cricketers, our scheduled lunch stop. This is a regional entry on the National Inventory, and is perhaps a little smaller inside than it looks from the street, with two areas on either side of a curved wooden bar. It was pretty busy, and we had to squeeze on to a corner table and pull a couple of extra chairs up. There was a high quality of banter from some of the other customers. The beer range was more familiar than in the Paul Pry, comprising Doom Bar, Wadworth Horizon, Sadler’s Peaky Blinder and Prescott Hill Climb. I, perhaps foolishly, went for the Doom Bar in the interests of research, which was well enough kept, but still lacking in much distinctive flavour. The other beers were all judged pretty decent. The pub has an extensive menu of good-value food – my £6.25 Ploughman’s couldn’t be faulted at the price, and the £5.95 Faggots, Chips and Peas also went down well. Upstairs, in keeping with the name, is a fascinating little museum of cricket memorabilia, which is well worth a visit.

The Plough - a Sooty charity box is always a good sign in a pub
We now had a longer walk down the busy pedestrianised High Street to reach the Plough on Fish Street near the cathedral. Worcester has a general air of prosperity about it, with very few vacant shop units in the city centre. The Plough is one of two historic pubs on this short street, being almost next door to the Farriers Arms, which also looks very inviting. Entering up a short flight of stairs, you’re immediately confronted by the short bar counter, with cosy rooms on either side with bench seating, together with a surprising suntrap beer garden, although you do find yourself sitting right next to a busy street. Meals are served from Friday to Sunday, but weren’t today. The beer range, concentrating on West Midlands beers, was Ledbury Bitter, Hobson’s Best, Swan Brewery Green Swan Green Hop, Black Pear MHB and Beowulf Finns Hall Porter. All those sampled, including my Hobson’s, were good. In terms of general atmosphere, this was my pub of the day.

...to be continued...

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

All too difficult

Back in August, I attracted a lot of attention for my post on The Cask Crisis, which looked at the reasons behind the decline in cask’s sales and public image, and put forward some suggestions for addressing the issue. Many of the points I made have been amplified in this post by Martyn Cornell on his Zythophile blog, which sets out in brutally honest terms just how much of a problem slow turnover and stale, tired beer has become.

Last week, the latest version of the annual Cask Report was published, which put some flesh on the bones by stating that, in the past five years, cask ale sales have dropped by 20 per cent, while the overall beer market in pubs has fallen by just nine per cent. It makes the usual worthy noises about making sure your beer range is properly matched to your turnover, although if anything it underplays that issue. It also, quite rightly, makes the point that far too much cask beer is dispensed well above the recommended serving temperature. However, to some extent that’s a consequence of lack of throughput, and a cool pint of stale beer is still a pint of stale beer.

It urges pubs to do more to tell cask’s story by providing tasting notes, offering samples, putting jam jars of beer in front of the pumps to show the colour, and training staff so they know something about the beers they’re selling. However, I can’t help thinking that this may be part of the problem rather than a solution. Arguably, it surrounds cask with a layer of mystique and obscurantism, and makes it harder to get to grips with, not easier. Most people go to the pub for a relaxing drink with friends, not for a beer-tasting tutorial.

Over the past few years, cask has declined from one-sixth to one-seventh of the beer sold in pubs. The biggest category, by far, is lager. But did anyone ever go into a pub and ask “what’s that Fosters like, then?” or ask for a sample of Stella? And fast coming up on the rails is “craft keg” (however defined) which apparently now accounts for 6% of the market. By far the biggest chunk of that must be Punk IPA, which is something that now commands instant brand recognition.

Yet go into so many pubs nowadays and you’re confronted with a line of cask beers that the typical drinker has never heard of. It’s all too easy to decide it’s all just too complicated and unpredictable and plump for a John Smith’s or a Peroni instead. The importance to any category of well-known, instantly recognisable brands cannot be overstated, and indeed the Cask Report itself reports that “84% of ale drinkers want to see at least one nationally recognised ale brand on the bar.” They also want guest beers to be on for two weeks (hopefully with multiple casks) so they get the chance to try them more than once. But most of the familiar big-selling cask beer brands are ones that many CAMRA members dismiss as “the usual suspects”. It’s an odd sort of organisation that denigrates most of what constitutes what it is supposed to be campaigning for.

Maybe it is also time to question whether handpumps can be more of a hindrance than a help. Younger beer drinkers may not be aware that, in the early days of CAMRA, a substantial proportion of cask beer was sold through electric dispense of various kinds. In some areas it was the norm. People just saw it as Mild or Bitter. not “real ale” as such. But handpumps steadily spread as they gave an unequivocal symbol of real ale, and have now become pretty much universal.

However, what allows you to clearly identify something also allows people to instantly reject it as something not for them. In many pubs, there’s a binary division between stuff on T-bar taps (including craft kegs) and stuff on handpumps, and many drinkers just won’t consider the beers on handpumps. So, just a thought, but might it be an idea to try dispensing cask beer though the T-bar taps (obviously with the word “cask” on the label) so it is not immediately marked out as something “other”. There’s no technical reason why it can’t be done as, in the past, many cask beers were sold using freeflow electric dispense.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Cashing up

A Suffolk pub has claimed to be the first in Britain to go entirely cashless and stop accepting any payments in cash. This seems to be a rather dubious assertion, as I know that Sandbar in Manchester has been entirely cashless for some time, and Martin Taylor has recently encountered the same in the Cloudwater brewery tap. However, it’s undoubtedly a trend that is only going to grow.

It needs to be made clear we are not discussing cashless payments per se. They are a growing feature of the financial landscape, and obviously it makes business sense for many pubs to accept them. But to refuse to accept cash entirely is something entirely different, and comes across very much as an attempt to practice social selection of your clientele.

This may not be a problem in a rural gastropub, but in inner-city boozers it’s a common sight to see the pound coins being counted out on to the bar to pay for a pint. It is estimated that there are 1.6 million unbanked workers in the UK, and there must be many more pensioners and benefit claimants, not to mention people who prefer to avoid using cards for routine transactions. It’s effectively saying that you’re not interested in the business of the poor or the old. And it seems particularly ironic that it is being practiced by a standard-bearer of the craft beer movement that supposedly prides itself on its “inclusiveness”.

There are other reasons to justify caution in adopting cashless payments, some of which are set out in this Guardian article and this blogpost by Boozy Procrastinator. One obvious point is that they make budgeting more difficult, both in terms of controlling your spending on a night out, and also in a more general sense of creating a disconnect with the whole concept of money. It’s hardly surprising that so many people seem to get into unmanageable debt when they hardly ever see the stuff.

You are making yourself vulnerable to power cuts and to the breakdowns of banking computer systems which seem all too common nowadays. You are also willingly putting yourself in the hands of giant, faceless corporations that may not have your best interests at heart. And someone is able to track exactly where you have been and what you have spent your money on. You don’t have to be a tinfoil hatter to see how that could potentially be abused.

Yes, by all means use cashless payments where they are convenient, and allow them in your pubs, but there are dangers in the headlong rush to embrace them and relegate cash to history. And, if you really want to be a rebel, stick to cash as much as you can.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Another morsel for the crocodile

The industry-funded alcohol education body Drinkaware have recently teamed up with Public Health England to launch a campaign to encourage people to have alcohol-free days. Some of us may enjoy a touch of Schadenfreude at the news that this has led to the resignations of several prominent figures such as Sir Ian Gilmore on the grounds that health campaigners should not have any association with the drinks industry.

However, that should not lead us to conclude that it is anything other than an act of appeasement of the anti-drink lobby. It takes as read the unscientific 14 units a week consumption guideline, something that if generally adopted by the population would probably render most of the pubs in the country unviable. It is worth noting that the equivalent guidelines in Italy are 35 units for men and 26 for women.

Plus, as often happens with such initiatives, the effect is likely to be more to encourage the already prudent to even more unnecessary over-caution, while being cheerfully ignored by the irresponsible. The objective often seems to be less to change behaviour than to further denormalise alcohol consumption per se. And, intuitively, it seems to me that drinking one pint every day of the week is likely to do you less harm than drinking seven pints on one day.

Accepting this guideline may give the industry a figleaf of respectability, but it’s an ever-shrinking one. Not so long ago, the figure was 28 units a week for men. It was then cut to 21, and now to 14. Will they still parrot it when it’s further reduced to 7, and then to 2? And how about when the official line becomes that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption, something that has been claimed in a recent study? If drinks producers and retailers want to see where they will stand in the eyes of officialdom in twenty years’ time, they have only to look at the tobacco industry. They will have become a “toxic trade”.

It’s often a source of disappointment that industry bodies are so reluctant to speak out in their own defence, and just tag along with the official message. However, it has to be recognised that business is about making a profit, not conducting a moral crusade, and it may well make sense to keep your head down, playing along with the official agenda while dragging your feet a bit, and hoping that in time the storm will pass, which of course the previous temperance crusade of the 1870-1930 period eventually did.

On this note, it’s disappointing to see that the Drinkers’ Voice campaign, which I enthusiastically welcomed last year, seems to have become moribund. They haven’t updated their Twitter account for two months, and nor do they seem to have issued any press releases. It’s not exactly difficult for a pressure group to keep up the illusion of activity without actually doing very much, but they haven’t even been able to manage this, despite having received a substantial amount of seedcorn funding from CAMRA.

It’s always been difficult to get private citizens to come together in defence of their liberties as consumers and users of public services, as there’s an assumption that somebody else is going to do it for them. But if industry isn’t prepared to, then who else will? Of course there are individual bloggers and commenters who are prepared to speak out, but even they often come under suspicion, however unjustified, of being paid shills. Incidentally, CAMRA doesn’t really qualify as its original raison d’ être was to campaign against the policies of the brewing industry, not government, and it’s not really its role to become a generalised defender of drinkers’ interests.

There’s no body to champion the rights of all drinkers of alcohol, or of soft drinks, or of consumers of food. It’s all too easy just to chuckle when the other lot get it in the neck from government. But, at the end of the day, everyone will. United we stand, divided we fall.

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Counting the calories

We now take it for granted that the alcoholic strength of beers and other alcoholic drinks is declared on packaging and at point of sale. It’s hard to believe that, forty years ago, the brewers were extremely unwilling to release this information, and CAMRA paved the way in working out the original gravity of all the real ales in the country where the brewers were unwilling to divulge it themselves. The brewers’ argument was that people would judge beers purely on the basis of strength, but in reality were probably more worried about having it exposed just how weak many of their beers were. Experience has shown that the concern about “drinking on strength” was largely unfounded – people continue to choose beer of a wide range of strengths based on taste and occasion, and indeed in the current century the general trend has been towards lower strengths.

So, on the face of it, it would seem uncontroversial that we should be given the same information about the calorie content of the food we eat. This is already the case with pretty much all packaged food you buy in shops, but it doesn’t apply to fresh food or to most of the food sold for out-of-home eating in pubs, restaurants and cafes. There are, of course, a few exceptions to this, such as Wetherspoon’s, who also declare the calorie content of their alcoholic drinks.

So the government have now decided to put this into action. While I’ve been sceptical of many other so-called “health” initiatives, this can’t be criticised as an example of nannying, as all it is doing is to give people the information on which to make informed decisions. However, it poses a number of practical problems. Working out calorie content is by no means as straightforward as alcohol content, and the range of different food items is far greater. It’s likely to impose significant costs on small businesses, which may cause them to discontinue providing food at all, and also deter food businesses of all sizes from offering one-off daily specials. So inevitably there are calls for smaller business to be excluded.

However, simply exempting them seems like something of a cop-out that will undermine the objectives of the scheme. I’m no expert in the field, but wouldn’t it be possible to come up with something like providing official indicative figures for a range of food items that could be used if providers aren’t in a position to make a detailed analysis? Even if somewhat inaccurate, that would surely be better than nothing. An ounce of fried rice is an ounce of fried rice, regardless of which venue is serving it. The industry should be looking at realistic solutions rather than pooh-poohing the whole idea.

It can’t be denied that there is a serious issue here. Eating out of the house has boomed in recent decades, and accounts for an ever-growing proportion of our food intake. Not only do many businesses provide no calorie information, but they also offer standard portions that are way above what is regarded as compatible with a healthy diet. The typical portions served up by takeaways are easily half as much again as what a normal person would regard as a filling meal, and could often provide two slightly frugal meals. Even when calories are declared, the size of meals is often pretty overfacing. For example, Wetherspoon’s Ultimate Burger with chips is 1516 calories, while their Pepperoni Pizza is 1170, when the recommended daily intake for an adult male is 2,500. That may be OK for an occasional treat, but if you’re eating meals of that kind on a regular basis you’re going to have a problem.

Like many of those whose parents lived through the Second World War, I was brought up to finish everything on my plate, accompanied by exhortations to think of the starving children in Africa. I still feel a touch of guilt about leaving food on the plate in pubs and restaurants, and see it as something of an insult to the chef. Yet I find myself increasingly ending up leaving a quarter or a third of a meal uneaten, and having to apologise, saying “The food was fine, it was just a very big portion.” I still gag at the thought of the pub offering a “belly-busting pound of chips” on its menu. Calorie labelling would at least expose the true size of portions. And the risk is that, if the food industry doesn’t act to provide information and offer the choice of smaller portions, the government will end up enforcing them.

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

HOW much a pint?

Last month, CAMRA reported the results of a survey revealing that a majority of people in the UK now considered the price of a pint in the pub to be unaffordable. So it’s hardly surprising that eyebrows were raised when it was reported that a London branch of the Craft Beer Co. was selling AleSmith Speedway Stout Hawaiian Special Edition for no less than £22.50 a pint.

As is often the case, the issue is rather clouded by the question of strength. Unlike wines and spirits, there is a wide variation in strength between different beers. This particular brew is 12% ABV, and thus is not directly comparable with a pint of 4% standard bitter or lager that even in London would sell for no more than £4.50. However, even if you make a strict bangs-per-buck comparison, it still seems pretty poor value.

It’s generally accepted in the fields of wine and spirits that some rare and prized examples will sell for vastly more than the norm – for example a bottle of whisky was recently sold for almost £43,000. However, beer is much more considered to be a drink for ordinary people, and this wasn’t some scarce vintage brew of which there was a finite supply, it was one brewed for current consumption and sold on draught just like a normal pint of bitter. Of course there’s nothing wrong with some specialist beers selling for eyewatering prices, as after all nobody is forced to buy them. But it’s understandable that it makes headlines.

Inevitably, there was a rather defensive reaction from some quarters saying “why quote a price per pint when it isn’t drunk in pints?” but that’s rather missing the point. Price per pint is a straightforward and generally understood yardstick for comparing the cost of beers. Whether or not it is actually drunk in pints is irrelevant. Fine wines and spirits are generally priced per bottle, but that doesn’t mean that a bottle is the usual measure in which they’re served. And whatever unit was chosen, the relative disparity would be just the same.

In response to this, the Sun newspaper ran a feature in which members of the public were invited to taste a range of expensive craft beers. Fairly predictably, they weren’t particularly impressed - see the image above. Of course there is a tongue-in-cheek aspect to any such piece, but inevitably it touched a few raw nerves and provoked accusations of “reverse snobbery”. However, surely it is the job of the media to prick balloons of pretentiousness and self-importance.

It wasn’t long before the mask slipped, with comments being made that many of the drinkers pictured looked like “gammon”, and one well-known beer journalist who really should have known better tweeting that most of them were probably Brexit voters. He later had second thoughts and deleted it, so I can’t link to it here. So much for an inclusive beer community – obviously that’s the wrong kind of inclusiveness.

I’ll leave the final word to this Twitter commenter:

Thursday, 30 August 2018

The cask crisis

I’m a regular follower of Martin Taylor’s blog which records his travels around the country in his Sisyphean quest to tick off every pub in the Good Beer Guide. One thing that is very noticeable is that, although he encounters plenty of excellent beer, he also comes across a surprising amount that varies between disappointing and totally undrinkable, and sometimes ends up being disposed of into a convenient plant pot. You may say that he’s often going in pubs at opening time in the morning, or at other slack times, and realistically you have to expect the first one out to be bit sub-par. But this is the Good Beer Guide, not a random selection of pubs, and it shouldn’t be happening anywhere near as frequently as it does.

He also records many pub visits where there are more handpumps on the bar than customers, or when not a single pint of cask is pulled in half an hour, sometimes when the Peroni and Prosecco are flowing like water. Clearly, despite all the efforts of CAMRA, all is not well in the realm of cask beer. In recent months there have been a number of articles seeking to analyse the problem and sometimes to try to suggest what could be done about it.

One such appeared recently on “Good Beer Hunting” entitled Critical Drinking – State of the Burton Union. Now, I certainly don’t agree with everything in this piece, and in particular it is yet another attempt to argue that cask’s woes will be helped by charging more for it, which comes across as a touch arse-about-face. Many of the points raised are rebutted here by Ed Wray. However, it is right to point out that, after a period when it seemed to be bucking the trend of declining on-trade beer volumes, it saw a 3.8% fall in 2016, which was more than the overall market. It’s clear that there is some kind of malaise; that cask is no longer seen as a happening thing.

It’s not as though cask is in imminent danger of disappearing or anything like it. Nor was it, if truth be told, in the early 1970s, despite what some mythmakers would have you believe. I visit plenty of pubs that clearly have a very healthy cask trade and where the quality is consistently good. However, it’s not hard to imagine a situation where there was a perfect storm leading to a substantial decline in availability, with a pincer movement of high-end craft bars seeing no need to stock it, while working-class locals find there’s no demand. A few ordinary boozers in Stockport have dropped it in the past few years despite having sold it consistently for a long time beforehand. In fact, much of its resilience has been due to the biggest developers of new pubs, Greene King and Marston’s, both of whom are also brewers, seeing it as a key part of their offer. But if a substantial operator of mainstream pubs decided that their business could manage perfectly well without it, it’s conceivable that the floodgates could open, especially if they could point to the presence of “craft kegs” like Punk IPA as providing something for the beer enthusiast.

A key problem that cask suffers from is that, while at its best it’s wonderful, it’s too often rather lacklustre. During the recent few days I spent in and around Carlisle, I had fourteen pints of cask in twelve different pubs. All but two were decent enough, but there was only one where you would turn to your drinking companion and say “Taste this! This is what cask’s all about!” There does seem to have been a general erosion of standards of cellarmanship following the break-up of the Big Six national brewers, but the central issue is surely the ever-increasing proliferation of handpump numbers.

The 1978 Good Beer Guide lists six pubs for Stockport. Five of them have just two beers, while the Midway, a prototype of the multi-beer free house, has seven. On the whole of the page on which it appears, there are only a couple of other pubs stocking more than two, both Tetley pubs with Draught Bass alongside Bitter and Mild. Since then, the total amount of beer sold in pubs has fallen by almost two-thirds, while the market share of lager has more than doubled. That means that the volume of cask beer sales is only a quarter of what it once was, if that. It’s hard to do a comparison with 2018, because so many pubs are just “beer range varies”, but the Magnet alone must stock more different beers than all the six 1978 pubs put together. Even with smaller cask sizes, if you keep increasing the range in a declining market something’s got to give.

The problem isn’t simply “too many beers”, though, as just decommissioning a few handpumps wouldn’t really make much difference apart from causing some to complain about reduction of choice. It’s more that cask has been held out as something that can provide infinite variety, which is something it is fundamentally ill-suited to do. By its very nature, it is a highly perishable product. It has to sell, and sell in volume, to justify its presence. It can’t just be an optional niche product on the end of the bar to satisfy a handful of enthusiasts. So it needs to play to its strengths rather than trying to compensate for its weaknesses.

Pubs should see their cask offer as central to their business model rather than being just one amongst a range of products. In a sense selling cask represents a whole system of running a pub. There’s not much you can do about lager sales, but if your best-selling ale isn’t cask you’re doing something wrong. Think carefully about which beers will appeal to your customers and draw people in. Try to stock something that has a connection to the area or the history and traditions of the pub, rather than a brand from the other end of the country that was never seen locally until a few years ago. In a sense this is what the pubs in the East Midlands serving Bass and Pedigree that Britainbeermat blogs about are doing – they are stocking a beer with a clear local identity that has loyal supporters amongst their customers in a way that Doom Bar or Wainwright in the same pubs never would.

Regard three days’ serving time as an absolute maximum, not a target. Beer may still be acceptable then, but it won’t be at its best. And seek to make your cask offer something that defines you as a pub and makes you stand out from the crowd, rather than just the apparently random selection of beers that often crops up today. That doesn’t mean that no pub should sell a range of constantly changing guest beers, but if you want to do that have some kind of theme to it rather than just accepting what turns up. Make it so that people will say “You really need to go to the Jolly Plover – they sell a great pint of XXXX – or, maybe, they have a great range of YYYY” rather than an anodyne “they have lots of real ales”. Whatever else you do, your cask beer should be part of your USP, not just something you happen to have on the bar. But if you’re half-hearted about it, best not to bother and leave it to those who can summon up some enthusiasm.

The article I linked to above suggested that CAMRA needs to take a lead in improving standards, but that’s making too much of its role. It is, at the end of the day, a pressure group, not the custodian of cask beer, which is a commercial product made by a large and variegated collection of breweries. It shouldn’t be CAMRA’s job to run training courses on cellarmanship. And asking CAMRA to call for smaller beer ranges would be rather like asking your dog to voluntarily go on a diet. But it could take the issue of quality more seriously, rather than simply paying lip service to it and often giving a free pass to new breweries and bars that are felt to need encouragement. And it should recognise that, in a declining market where consumers demand ever more choice, there are some venues that simply are never going to have the turnover, or indeed the commitment, to do cask justice. It’s not something you just dabble with, it needs to be taken seriously. And if the bottom 20% of marginal outlets took it out, it would probably make it a stronger and more valued product overall.

Friday, 24 August 2018

A mixed blessing

This week has seen the thirtieth anniversary of the introduction of all-day opening for pubs, which came in on 22 August 1988. From the perspective of today, it seems hard to believe that pubs were required to close for two or three hours every afternoon. It was originally introduced by Lloyd George as an emergency measure during the First World War, but lingered on for over seventy years.

There were dire predictions of mayhem in the streets in the early evenings after people had been drinking for hours, but needless to say nothing of the kind occurred. However, it’s important to remember that pubs didn’t immediately fling their doors open. For quite a few years, most stuck to the old pattern of opening. I remember it being well-nigh impossible to find anywhere open in central Manchester on a Saturday afternoon after 3 pm. It was only the pressure from Wetherspoon’s and other pub chains that forced the generality of pubs to follow suit.

However, it’s now become well-nigh universal for pubs in urban centres, and for food-led pubs in general. Overall, it’s hard to dispute that it’s greatly benefited pubgoers, allowing pubs to tailor their hours to what their customers actually want. It enables the kind of afternoon pub crawls that have now become standard practice for those of us interested in pub exploring, while Good Beer Guide tickers liked Martin Taylor have noticed the growing phenomenon of pubs having a busy session around four in the afternoon when many tradespeople knock off, something that once would have been impossible.

The change didn’t at first apply to Sundays, where lunchtime closing was initially only extended by an hour to 3pm, and even that was considered to have been something of an oversight by Parliament. However, this was increasingly undermined by food-serving pubs declaring part of their trading space to be restaurants, where they were permitted to sell alcohol with meals throughout the day. Eventually, Sundays were brought in to line in 1995. It is very noticeable now how busy many dining pubs are late on Sunday afternoons, which once would have been a dead time.

While many pubs with footfall throughout the day benefited from the extended opening times, others found that they were spreading the same amount of customers over a greater number of hours, and thus increased costs. Therefore they had to look critically at when it actually would be financially worthwhile to be open. This is a trend that has increased in the current century when there has been a steady decline in the overall business of pubs, peaking of course in the years after July 2007.

Before 1988, the vast majority of pubs would open for every one of the fourteen legally permitted sessions. The only variations were that many didn’t open quite as early as allowed in the morning, and they often opened later on Saturday evenings. But now we have a growing number of pubs that don’t open at all on one or more days of the week. Outside town centres, wet-led pubs are more often than not deciding not to open at all at lunchtimes, either on weekdays or even seven days a week. For whatever reason, this seems more common in the North than the South, where many pubs still keep to the traditional afternoon closure.

Of course much of this would probably have happened even if we still had fixed hours, but removing them has given licensees a blank sheet of paper as to when they feel there is any point in being open. I’d guess that, if you took a set of pubs in a typical area that have been trading throughout the 1988-2018 period, the total amount of opening hours would actually be markedly less now than it used to be.

One aspect in which this is most marked is delaying lunchtime opening. Depending on the area, the old system allowed for opening at various times between 10 am and 11.30. Some pubs wouldn’t open quite as early, especially if the permitted time was before 11 am, but virtually all were open before noon. The 1978 Good Beer Guide lists ten pubs in Manchester City Centre, where lunchtime opening was 11-3. None is mentioned as opening later. Yet, in 2018, of the seventeen pubs included, only three open before noon, and some don’t open on weekdays until late afternoon. It’s a bit disingenuous to claim that you’re “open all day” when you fail to take advantage of all the hours that were available to you before 1988.

Of course pubs shouldn’t be expected to open if they don’t believe there’s sufficient business, but the whole process of curtailing hours has resulted in a disbenefit to potential pubgoers, which is made worse by the uncertainty involved. At one time, you were reasonably confident when you could expect pubs to be open, but this is less and less true, and is made worse by the fact that pubs, even though they have far more diverse hours than shops, seldom display their hours outside. It’s not exactly very helpful if you turn up at a pub and find it closed with no indication of when it will open. I’m convinced that taking away the predictability of opening times has harmed the trade as a whole.

I’ve made the point in the past that many drinking occasions have always revolved around ritual and routine, something that was underpinned by the old system of restricted hours. The approach of either closing or opening concentrated the mind, whether it was the prospect of the shutters going down in the early afternoon, the early doors opening for that after-work pint, or the narrow two-hour window of Sunday lunchtime. If the pubs are open anyway, the incentive to have a drink now rather fades away, and sometimes leads to not bothering at all. Although the traditional Sunday lunchtime session would probably have been eroded anyway by the growth of other things to do on Sundays, in particular Sunday shopping.

There can be little doubt that the extension of opening hours has expanded pubs’ opportunities to sell food, but the same isn’t true of drink. There was no evidence before that there was a huge pent-up demand for afternoon drinking, which was borne out by what happened after the reform came in. It’s more the case that people had a fairly fixed budget to spend on drinking in pubs, which was then spread out over a longer period of time. Indeed, it could be argued that, given a largely fixed demand, the pub trade actually benefited from restricted hours.

All-day opening, or the possibility of it, has now been with us for thirty years and has become accepted as a fact of life. It’s impossible to envisage going back, and indeed when anti-drink campaigners talk of restricting availability they are normally referring to cutting back hours in the early morning and late evening, not bringing back an afternoon closure. Overall, it’s been greatly beneficial to pub users, and I’ve certainly taken advantage of it on a huge number of occasions. Most of the negative trends that have affected the pub trade would have happened anyway regardless of what had been done with hours. It’s certainly dramatically changed the landscape of how pubs actually function throughout the day, but it has to be accepted that change, even when generally beneficial, is rarely entirely without any negative outcomes.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Think about the average

Jeff Alworth has recently made a very interesting post on his Beervana blog entitled What If We Just Stop Drinking? which speculates on the effect on the beer industry if everyone curbed their drinking to the average of the entire population. While this is very much oriented towards the US, he makes a number of points that have featured on this blog over the years.

Beer consumption, like most things, is subject to a Pareto distribution. In the US, way over half of all beer is drunk by the top 10% of drinkers – see the graphic above. It’s probably much the same here. We responsible “moderate drinkers” who say we love pubs have to accept that they are sustained in business by people who would generally be classed as heavy, if not problem, drinkers.

Taking a median figure, if we look at all drinkers of alcohol in the US, the average person consumes only two drinks a week, which really isn’t very much. In the UK, the average adult drinks a mere two pints of beer in pubs a week, which isn’t going to keep very many of them in business. And that’s just a third of a pint of cask beer.

And the decline of pubgoing has been to a large extent driven by the decline of the kind of social occasion that encourages the sharing of a couple of drinks.

As entertainment options multiply, people spend far less time in the larger group settings that were once a place for drinking. Blame the Millennials all you want, but whatever happened to bowling and nights at the Elks Lodge? ...It's not just drinking, either. Church attendance has plummeted in that same period, and social club membership has almost completely vanished. And all of that happened before cell phones.
Of course everyone isn’t going to stop drinking completely. But just imagine what the pub landscape would be like if they all cut down their drinking to the average level. We would be left with sanitised restaurants that happened to serve alcohol to the minority of their customers who wanted it. And that, pretty much, would be it.
Alcohol has been a feature of human life since well before we domesticated grains, and it's not going to vanish. But it is possible to imagine the amounts we drink shrinking by 50-75% in a few decades. Our focus on health has made heavy drinking a shameful thing, mirroring our attitudinal shifts on smoking. Given the shrinking number of opportunities for social drinking, an increased focus on health, the stigma against drunkenness, and the availability of other drugs—all trends that started years ago—it's hard to envision how consumption doesn't shrink.
Do read the whole thing – it’s well worth it.

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Fill your boots

In recent years, licensing authorities have put a lot of pressure on pubs and bars to stamp out promotions that supposedly encourage irresponsible drinking, including offers of “all you can drink” for a fixed price. So I was rather surprised to see that, at next year's Manchester Beer and Cider Festival, CAMRA will be offering an inclusive all you can drink option called the MBCF Experience for £40. This will be limited to special sample glasses of, I believe, 120ml (just over 4 fl. oz). If an unlimited supply is available, there is no requirement to serve beer in officially-designated measures.

Clearly, given the very steep price and the small measures, this isn’t the same as “All you can drink for a tenner” at Porky’s Fun Pub, and it’s unlikely in practice that it will attract people who are simply setting out to drink as much as they can, or that it will lead to disorderly behaviour. But the difference is one of degree, not of principle, and it sits rather uneasily with CAMRA's External Policy 2.3, which states:

“CAMRA opposes promotions that encourage excessive or speed drinking, rather than providing a discount on the price of the product and allowing the consumer to determine his/her own preferred consumption.”

The reason given for this is to allow people to sample as many different beers as possible, and it follows the practice at many craft beer festivals. However, simply because someone else is doing it doesn’t automatically make it a good idea. Indeed, at some craft festivals it is the only payment option available, which really doesn’t seem consistent with responsible drinking and offers a very poor deal to those of more limited capacity. Frankly, I’m surprised that the licensing authorities haven’t questioned this. It’s another example of how the craft beer community imagines that it operates on a higher moral plane than the thick, Carling-swilling plebs.

CAMRA is always going on about encouraging “responsible consumption in a supervised environment”, so it offers up a hostage to fortune if its critics can then come back and say “well, but you allow all-you-can-drink at your festivals.” It’s rather like Jamie Oliver running an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant.

Presumably an offer of this kind would not be permitted under Scottish (and soon Welsh) minimum pricing, as it is theoretically possible (although highly unlikely) that the average unit price could dip below the minimum if there is no cap on consumption.

A further concern is that apparently, when beer is sold in this way, drinkers are inclined to throw away anything that isn’t to their taste and move straight on to another beer. The amount of food waste we produce is often highlighted as a problem – doesn’t this apply equally to beer waste? Although maybe the contents of the slops bucket could then be resold to the public, and no doubt some beer communicator would declare how awesome it was.

It’s also disappointing that they will be abandoning traditional British measures in favour of metric ones – what would be wrong with a quarter or a sixth of a pint?

Saturday, 11 August 2018

State of decay

A few years ago, I wrote a piece about the State Management Scheme in Carlisle and the surrounding areas, which was introduced in 1916 at the height of the First World War as a means of curbing excessive alcohol consumption amongst munitions workers in the area, and ended up enduring until 1971. During the inter-war period, the scheme’s architect, Harry Redfern, was responsible for remodelling a number of existing pubs and building entirely new ones, following the “improved” model of pub design which sought to reduce “perpendicular drinking” and encourage a more civilised and female-friendly atmosphere. These pubs were widely regarded as outstanding examples of enlightened pub design, and the scheme merited an entire chapter, together with numerous floor plans, in Basil Oliver’s Book The Renaissance of the English Public House, which was published in 1947.

Obviously times and fashions have changed, and in Carlisle as everywhere else the traditional intimate, compartmentalised interior layouts have largely been swept away by drastic knocking-through. I recently spent a few days in the city, so thought it would be interesting to take a look at what remained of what were once considered model pubs.

The twin towers of the Citadel immediately outside the station mark a dramatic contrast in Carlisle city centre. To the north, where the main shops are, it’s a dignified, genteel county town, but to the south, along Botchergate, it’s a garish, youth-oriented fun strip. Indeed, such is the level of revelry that Botchergate is closed to traffic on Friday and Saturday nights. Remember that Carlisle is sixty miles from the nearest big city, so if you’re going to have a night out, you’ll be doing it locally.

Rather marooned on Botchergate between the city’s two Wetherspoons is the Cumberland Inn (illustrated above), of which CAMRA’s heritage pub site says “Built 1929-30 to designs by Harry Redfern, this is the least altered of the Carlisle & District State Management Scheme pubs.” It has a narrow, dignified but rather austere Tudor-Gothic frontage in stone, which widens out further back. While some internal walls have been removed, it retains extensive wood panelling and a number of distinct areas which still give much of a flavour of how it once would have been. Apparently the two upstairs rooms, which are now occupied by a separate restaurant business, are even less spoilt.

However, the drawback is that its actual pub offer is pretty dismal. On the beer front, it has nothing but a selection of mainstream kegs, while various dubious entertainments such as karaoke and discos are provided. Maybe that’s what the location demands, but it seems completely out of keeping with the surroundings. I couldn’t help thinking that it would do much better, and be more true to its origins, as a Sam Smith’s pub. I had my annual half of Guinness, which reminded me that the promise is always better than the reality.

North of the Citadel on Lowther Street in the more sedate part of the city centre is the Howard Arms. This is a Victorian pub with a distinctive tiled frontage that was internally remodelled under State Management ownership. Some opening out has occurred, but it still has distinct lounge and public sides and a variety of areas surrounding the central servery. It also has that vanishing species – a jukebox. There were two cask beers on, one of which was a pretty decent drop of Theakston’s Best Bitter. It can’t be said that Carlisle is one of Britain’s great pub towns, but the Howard Arms is one of the most congenial in the central area.

The last pre-war pub to be built by the State Management Scheme was the Redfern Inn, named in Harry Redfern’s honour but actually designed by his deputy Joseph Seddon, which actually did not open until 1940. It stands in the suburb of Etterby, a mixed residential area about a mile and a half from the city centre on the north bank of the River Eden. It’s a long, low, brick-and-timber building in an Arts and Crafts style that wouldn’t look out of place in the Weald of Kent.

The interior layout, with extensive wood panelling, looks pretty traditional, but in fact a comparison with the plan in Basil Oliver’s book shows that the counter has been greatly extended on the public side, while on the lounge side the two rooms have been amalgamated and a new serving counter added. The pub originally featured a bowling green at the rear, but this has been out of use for some years and is now slated for redevelopment as housing, although as yet this hasn’t actually happened. It’s another pub where the offer doesn’t really match up to the surroundings, being just an ordinary, slightly down-at-heel local where the only cask beer available was, slightly bizarrely, a rather past-its-best drop of Brakspear Bitter.

Another pub with a bowling green is the Magpie in Botcherby on the eastern side of the city. This is in an inter-wars council estate and fits more into the mould of “estate pub” with a distinctive white-rendered design with prominent gables. It has experienced something of a chequered history, falling into the hands of Oakwell Brewery and then being closed for period before being bought and brought back to life by Sam Smith’s, who also, to their great credit, have restored the bowling green to use.

The interior layout seems little changed from the plan in the book, with the only significant alteration being replacing the off-sales area with a passage through from the public bar to the “smoking room”. Indeed, this room and the adjoining “tea room”, with the ladies’ and gents’ toilets on either side of the entrance porch, seem largely intact, so it’s a surprise to see that the pub doesn’t even feature as a regional entry on CAMRA’s National Inventory. Like many Sam’s pubs now, it has no real ale, but their keg range is much more appetising than that in a pub like the Cumberland Inn, and my OBB was decent enough.

While their original interiors may have been swept away by modernisation, there remain many architectural reminders of the State Management Scheme. For example, just a few doors down from the Howard Arms on Lowther Street is the rather grand Apple Tree, while on the main road north to Scotland is the Coach & Horses, which has appeared in several past Good Beer Guides. The scope of the scheme extended a fair distance beyond Carlisle itself, and you can still see examples of distinctive SMS architecture in places such as Gretna, where the round-arched doorway of the Hunter’s Lodge is a distinctive Redfern feature.

It’s a shame that so few pub interiors remain to remind us of this unique episode in the history of the British pub trade, but sadly wholesale internal destruction has been general across the whole country. Meanwhile, we should celebrate what is left, and in particular the Redfern Inn deserves to be cherished as a memorial to the work of the great pub architect.

Incidentally, while I was in Carlisle, I took a look inside the giant ASDA on the north side of the city next to Junction 44 of the M6, but didn’t see any specific signs of catering for booze tourists from north of the border following the introduction of minimum pricing. This convenience store and off-licence in a prominent position in the centre of Dumfries had closed, but far be it from me to draw a connection between the two.