Friday 12 July 2024

A Utopia of lager

My recent post about authenticity in lager reminded me of Devon-based Utopian Brewing, who specialise in making classic lager styles using local British ingredients. This prompted me to buy myself a mixed pack of their beers as a birthday treat. This comprised six different beers, all in 440ml cans, namely:
  • Premier British Lager (4.7%)
  • Unfiltered British Lager (4.7%)
  • Bohemian British Lager (4.2%)
  • Akoya British Pilsner (5.0%)
  • Augsburg Export Lager (5.5%)
  • Wondrous Isles Modern Pale Ale (4.4%)
I don’t propose to give a detailed review of each one, but the five lagers were all clean-tasting, well-made beers with a genuine lager character. Unlike many “craft” lagers, they did not fall into the traps of either using inappropriate New World hops or being overtly sweet and malty. My favourite was probably the Akoya British Pilsner. The Unfiltered Lager was only lightly hazy, not murky – fairly similar in opacity to unfiltered Stella. The Bohemian and Augsburg lagers were both a credible take on those respective styles, but not quite on a par with the best beers from the Czech Republic and Bavaria.

The odd one out was the Wondrous Isles, which was a slightly hazy, hoppy IPA in the modern style with a more pronounced fruitiness than many others in that category.

They don’t come cheap, however, with the six-pack coming in at £18.00, or £23.50 including postage, which is over twice the price per can of a four-pack of Stella or Heineken in the supermarket. On the other hand, they are clearly competing in the craft market, not the mainstream, and I am regularly paying around that for authentic imported German lagers.

A further drawback is that they are all in the 440ml size, which always leaves me feeling slightly short-changed compared with a 500ml. But it is interesting how the craft sector, having initially decided 330ml was the future, has increasingly embraced 440ml. Maybe eventually they will go the whole hog to 500ml to differentiate themselves from supermarket slabs.

At those prices Utopian are going to remain a niche producer rather than challenging the mainstream, but it is good to see a modern craft brewery pursuing a different niche from the usual hoppy IPAs and pastry stouts.

However, as I said in my previous post, beer is not solely a functional product, and it is impossible to drink a beer in isolation from its heritage and cultural associations. For that reason, most drinkers will feel that a replica, however good, will never be on a par with the authentic original product from which it takes its inspiration.

Interestingly, it has been reported this week that Utopian are opening their own pub in the Devon market town of Hatherleigh, featuring their own beers alongside those of other independent brewers. However, it also seems they have chosen this moment to unfollow me on Twitter, although I won’t use that as a reason to slag them off.

Tuesday 9 July 2024

Protesting too much

The Co-op convenience store chain has come under fire for an advertising campaign urging people to watch the European football championships at home with beers from the fridge rather than going to the pub. The retailer has put out a series of TV and radio adverts claiming “It’s hard to see the screen in the pub, stay in with two pizzas and four beers” linked to promotional offers during the Euros 2024 tournament.

This has been widely attacked by representatives of the pub industry, being described as “disgusting” and “ridiculous”, and with one commentator saying that “the company’s ethical approach has long been forgotten.”

However, this response comes across as distinctly thin-skinned and precious. Pubs are commercial businesses, not sacred institutions, and have no right to be shielded from the rough-and-tumble of competition. Nobody would object to an ad saying “don’t watch the footy at home, it’s much more fun down the pub”, so why is there a problem with the opposite?

The venues that benefit most from the football will tend to be knocked-through drinking barns where most of the customers are on Stella or Madri, not chocolate-box locals or trendy craft bars, many of which won’t even show it in the first place. In any case, if you are looking for good-value beer offers to drink at home, the Co-op is far from the cheapest place to go.

Being referred to in your competitors’ advertising is generally regarded as a sign of strength rather than weakness, as pointed out by licensee Joe Buckley, who took the ad as a compliment to the pub sector. For many, pubs have come to be seen as essential venues for big sporting occasions in a way that they weren’t a generation ago. The pub trade is fully entitled to respond by pointing out that, not only do pubs offer much more atmosphere, they also have a far wider range of beers, including cask, which is not an option at home.

Pub operators would be well advised to accept the realities of a competitive market rather than just whining that life is unfair. And, yet again, the anti-drink lobby will be laughing into their sarsaparilla as the two segments of the drinks industry are at loggerheads.

Thursday 4 July 2024

Decision day

As with previous General Elections, I created a poll to gauge the sentiments of blog readers. The 2019 equivalent can be seen here. This year’s results are shown below. This time I recorded 265 votes as compared with 257 in 2019. I did not share this beyond this blog and the related Twitter account. I froze this poll last night, so if you view the original one or two more votes might have been added.

Using the Electoral Calculus model, the number of seats for each party this would produce are as follows:

Conservative 9
Green 2
Labour 254
Liberal Democrat 50
Plaid Cymru 2
Reform 300
Scottish National Party 14
Speaker 1
Northern Irish parties 18

This produces a hung Parliament with Reform as the largest party. In that scenario it would be difficult to form a stable government. Bear in mind that this purely reflects the opinions of blog readers and is not intended to be a representative sample of the population.

By contrast, the final YouGov MRP projection, issued at 5 pm last night, gives very different figures.

While there is a hundredfold disparity in the number of seats for Reform, this only represents the impact of their vote share doubling from maybe 17% to34%. What the actual results are we will find out in the small hours of tomorrow morning.

This final poll from Survation is fairly representative of the percentages the major pollsters are predicting.

There was little mention of pubs and beer, or wider lifestyle issues, in the campaign, with the exception of Labour announcing a rather half-baked idea to allow communities to purchase closed pubs, and whatever the result we can expect more bans, more restrictions and more taxes.

Monday 1 July 2024

Seeing the wider picture

Last month, US beer writer Jeff Alworth ruffled a number of feathers in the British beer community with this controversial post on the subject of cask beer quality. He quoted former Fullers head brewer John Keeling, who said:

In my travels up and down the country I can confirm that most family brewers who are the backbone of cask beer are […] reporting a decline in sales. Indeed, cask beer sales are now less than 9% of all draught beer sales and around 4% of total beer sales…. The reason is the old elephant in the room – that of quality. I have long said that the worst beer you can drink in Britain is cask beer. Cask beer that has been on serve for seven days is no good to anybody never mind what the latest new hop you use.
This provoked an angry and defensive response from many British cask enthusiasts, who insisted that in the pubs they frequented cask was thriving, and was consistently served in top quality. It is certainly true that plenty of pubs do serve cask well and sell a lot of it, but it doesn’t mean that at the same time the wider picture isn’t much less rosy.

This reflects what I wrote last year, about how many beer enthusiasts and commentators are led into the selection bias fallacy, whereby they extrapolate from their own experience that the general health of cask is a lot better than it actually is. Jeff later added an update to his post in which he said:

I do think my friends across the pond may be blind to how serious a problem poor quality is. If you are a cask fan, you have opted in to a lifestyle choice in which variability is a given and bad pints are a tolerable downside. Many on Twitter seemed to hand-wave this away, arguing that it’s not a problem if you go to the right places, or the bad pints aren’t that bad, or some other justification.

Consider those who haven’t joined you in this lifestyle choice, however. Most drinkers are not avid fans. They flow like water to the easiest, most pleasant glass of booze. Choices are legion. What is the value proposition of a form of booze that is unreliable and occasionally horrible? There’s a reason 91% of the time people buy a pint of beer that is not cask—what to speak of those who choose wine or a cocktail instead.

It should be pointed out that the main thrust of Jeff’s argument is to support the use of cask breathers, which I regard as something of a red herring. Cask breathers are essentially a means of papering over the cracks, and the key to maintaining quality should be to align cask size and beer range with the level of turnover. Now that 4½-gallon pins are widely available, there really shouldn’t be an excuse for keeping beer on too long. If you can’t sell 12 pints of a beer in a day, there’s little point in bothering in the first place.

Some have suggested that it would be perfectly OK for cask to retreat from the mainstream and confine itself to a niche market, but that is basically a counsel of despair. In any case, if cask’s overall profile is reduced it will eventually reflect back with lower demand in the niche and mean that fewer brewers bother to produce it. And I see no evidence that pubs are dropping cask in any numbers. They still see it as an important product to have on the bar even if they struggle to keep it in good condition.

The problem is also often blamed on large corporate pub owners who are more interested in the bottom line than in maintaining quality. There is some truth it this, but it is wrong to say that independent pubs are uniformly good either. Indeed some of the worst beer I’ve had over the past couple of years has been in independent pubs. There’s nobody looking over your shoulder to tell you that you’re getting it wrong. In my experience, the most reliable category of pubs for beer quality is family brewer tied houses.

There are plenty of ways to mess up beer, but the issue that overshadows everything else is slow turnover. There is no magical way of “looking after your beer” that doesn’t involve achieving sufficient turnover. When I survey the handpumps on the bar, the key things I want to know are when the beer was first put on sale, and when the last pint was pulled, but unfortunately this is information that just isn’t made available.

Last week I had some first-hand experience of drinking outside the bubble on a trip to South-West Scotland. This was primarily a sightseeing holiday, not a drinking holiday, and my expectations were not great, but I still ended up being disappointed. I thought at least with six pubs listed in the Good Beer Guide under Dumfries there would be some decent beer, but I didn’t encounter a single pint that I would rate as good. Indeed, in one GBG-listed pub that was also a recent CAMRA award winner I was served with a pint that, while not obviously “off” in any way, was at room temperature. (I didn’t take it back as I don’t go out to have an argument, and it’s unlikely I’ll ever return there anyway).

And Dave Morton’s experience in Glasgow last week was pretty dispiriting. In what other consumer market are customers routinely sending back half the products they are presented with?

In a highly fragmented industry, there’s no easy answer to this question. All we can really do is continue to highlight those pubs that do consistently serve their beer in good condition. And beer writers and commentators need to take their heads out of the sand and accept that, across the board, there is a major problem with cask quality that does the sector no favours.

Wednesday 19 June 2024

Crocodile tears for pubs

It’s noticeable how, when an election comes around, politicians suddenly discover an interest in pubs that had been notably lacking in the preceding years. The latest example of this comes from the Labour Party, who have proposed a policy to “give communities a new ‘right to buy’ shuttered pubs.”

It must be said that this is a bit rich coming from the party responsible for the smoking ban and the alcohol duty escalator, and which in the first term of the Blair administration, proposed to cut the drink-drive limit, although that was fortunately kicked into touch. They also consistently demanded longer, harder lockdowns and opposed the full reopening of pubs in July 2021.

However, setting that to one side, what would such a plan involve? Local communities already have the right to put in a bid for pubs that have been declared an Asset of Community Value, and where the owner is proposing to sell them off for alternative use. However, there is no obligation to accept such a bit.

This would seem to beef that up by extending it to pubs that are long-term closed, but where there is no intention to dispose, and potentially to include some degree of compulsory purchase. It has some elements of the idea I postulated in a post about the hard realities of pub closures last year.

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

  2. Would a pub have to have been previously open for a minimum length of time for it to apply? Surely it wouldn’t cover a micropub that had closed after nine months’ trading.

  3. How would the sale price be assessed?

  4. Would groups who expressed an interest be expected to put down a deposit to demonstrate serious intent, to avoid frivolous applications jamming up the system?

  5. How long would groups be given to raise the funds?

  6. Would there be a requirement that the premises should be operated as a pub, rather than for some other community purpose?

  7. Who would profit if it proved unsuccessful as a pub and ended up being redeveloped as housing?
For a pub to be open to a community buyout, there has to be a group of people with both sufficient means to put up the funds and a strong identification with that particular pub. In practice, this will tend to restrict it to affluent villages and suburbs. Very few high street, estate or inner-urban pubs are likely to command such loyalty.

If a pub is long-term closed, it will be because its owner wasn’t able to make a go of it. It may be the case that it will do better under community ownership, either because the cost structure is lower, or because a different trading formula is more successful, but that is by no means a given.

The question of future development rights is crucial. If there is a possibility that a pub may be subject to compulsory purchase at below its open market value, and the owner loses all rights to it, that amounts to expropriation of property. It’s conceivable that, if this scheme gets up and running, pub owners will keep pubs open on a “Parliamentary train” basis, with very limited opening hours and offer, to prevent them being snaffled from under their noses.

In any case, even if this policy becomes reality, I would expect it to have very little impact and only cover a handful of examples. It’s just headline grabbing, and no magic bullet for the pub trade. As I said last year, ultimately, the shadow hanging over pubs is not one of lack of supply, but lack of demand. If you want them to survive and prosper in future, you would be better off spending your time promoting the appeal of both pubs and moderate social drinking, rather than engaging in a constant rearguard action of fighting planning battles.

For what it’s worth, I’m not saying that any other party has better policies for pubs, just looking at the implications of this particular one. And I would suggest the best thing for pubs is to be left alone by government, with no new taxes or regulatory burdens.

Thursday 13 June 2024

False colours

The Daily Telegraph reports that the boss of Spanish brewery Estrella Galicia has accused British brewers of “dishonesty” for selling beers that appear Spanish but are brewed in the UK. His most immediate target is Madrí, a beer with a Spanish-sounding name that is in fact brewed by Molson Coors at Tadcaster, and doesn’t represent any actual brand produced or sold in Spain.
Mr de Artaza said: “There is a lack of transparency because they use a big famous city in Spain, but they don’t produce here. This is confusing for the consumer.”

Since its launch in British pubs in 2020, Madrí has quickly become one of the UK’s best-known beers. Its website claims Madrí lager is made in collaboration with La Sagra, a Spanish brewery also owned by Molson Coors since 2017. However, the beer itself is only brewed at several sites across the UK, including Tadcaster in Yorkshire.

While Madrí claims to be inspired by Spain, and its slogan means “The soul of Madrid” it is essentially a marketing exercise designed to put a Spanish gloss on a British beer. However, I’d guess that most of its drinkers are well aware of this, and don’t imagine for a minute that it is actually imported from Spain or sold there. While it no doubt will enrage those who are sent into apoplexy by the fact that Wainwright is brewed in Wolverhampton, as I reported some years ago, most drinkers of “international” lagers are actually fairly relaxed about their provenance.
Joe likes his lager beer brands for sure, and he has a reasonable idea of where they’re supposed to be from – not always spot on, but close enough. One thing’s for sure though, when you ask Joe if his Kronenbourg is certifiably ‘made in France’, the Gallic shrug that follows tells much of the story. He’s not that bothered. “It’s a global market place, mate. Volkswagens aren’t all made in Germany; these Armani jeans aren’t made in Italy”, says Joe. And he’s right of course.
Given this, the fact that Estrella Galicia is actually imported from Spain isn’t necessarily such a killer argument as its boss might imagine.

Some may argue that Madrí owes most of its success to gaining widespread distribution. However, that argument comes across as distinctly patronising towards lager drinkers. You can’t palm any old slop off on them, and in fact there are plenty of examples of new product introductions that have bombed. Not too long ago, Hop House 13 lager was heavily promoted and appeared in a large number of pubs, but has now been withdrawn from the British market. Unless a product strikes a chord with drinkers, it won’t sell, and there are plenty of other lagers on the bar for them to choose instead.

And beer writer Gary Gillman, coming to it without any preconceptions, thinks it actually isn’t too bad.

There is a wider issue involved here too. Over a period from about 1970 to 1990, the British (and Irish) beer market came into line with every other major market in the world, with pale lager becoming the dominant type of beer. In fact bitter in Great Britain and stout in Ireland were the last hold-outs of non-lager beers dominating their local markets.

There were some British-branded lagers, such as Carling, and Harp, which has now faded from the scene, but the majority were sailing under the colours of existing international brands. In the 1970s CAMRA made a major campaigning point of this, pointing out that these beers were in fact brewed in the UK, and in most cases were considerably weaker than the Continental originals. This hit home to some extent, although even then I’m not sure how many drinkers of Carlsberg and Heineken really believed those beers were brewed in Denmark and the Netherlands. And surely they didn’t when Foster’s and Castlemaine XXXX became big brands fifteen years later.

Nevertheless, the fact that beers were brewed in their country of origin and imported became a significant selling point at the higher end of the market. However, a fly in the ointment then appeared in the concept of “beer miles” where, in view of concerns about climate change, the distance travelled from the brewery to where a beer was drunk became an important factor. This was originated by CAMRA in response to brewery closures and the transfer of production to a distant location, specifically that of Hardys & Hansons in Nottinghamshire, but has acquired a wider currency.

Taking this to its logical conclusion, you should support the brewing of international lagers in the UK rather than transporting them hundreds or even thousands of miles from their place of origin. However, the response is generally harrumphing, shifting uneasily in the chair and pointing out that there are plenty of British craft brewers producing good lagers, actually. This is true, for example Utopian in Devon, but it is really something of an “if your uncle was your auntie” argument. Most lager sold in the UK will continue to be international brands brewed domestically, and the chances of Utopian British Lager supplanting Madrí are non-existent.

The emissions aspect of beer miles is in any case overdone. CO2 emissions from transport, even over long distances, pale into insignificance in comparison with those from the actual brewing process. And, given the greater energy efficiency of large plants, a beer shipped from an industrial brewery in Barcelona is likely to have lower CO2 emissions than one from a railway arch in Barnoldswick. But it isn’t very cost-effective for companies to transport what is in effect mainly water over long distances, so inevitably they will see an economic benefit from production closer to the point of sale. In fact, the only leading lager brands that I can think of that are imported are Peroni and Budweiser Budvar. Everything else, whether Heineken, Moretti or San Miguel, is brewed in the UK.

But, at a niche level, people are still willing to pay a premium for genuine imported beers. Beer isn’t really a functional product and, even if the actual flavour is comparable, it’s impossible to escape the wider associations and connotations when choosing which brand to drink. This is why supermarket own-brands enjoy limited success in comparison with supermarket groceries. I have to admit that my principal indulgence when it comes to beer is buying genuine imported German beers at a considerable price premium to British equivalents. And, even if domestic beers tasted just as good, there would still be a value placed on authenticity.

Friday 7 June 2024

Think of a number

The letter reproduced below appeared in last week’s issue of the Spectator magazine – the original (paywalled) can be seen here.

No doubt the idea of a maximum consumption guideline of 80 units a week will raise a number of eyebrows, but I have seen such a figure bandied about elsewhere as a level, not which will avoid any adverse effects whatsoever, but above which there is likely to be a serious negative health impact if routinely exceeded.

That 40 units a week has been progressively reduced, first to 28, then to 21, then to 21 for men and 14 for women, and eventually to 14 for both sexes. The final reduction was done purely on the basis of equality even though there is plenty of evidence that women’s different physiology and typically smaller size merits a lower guideline.

It can be argued that suggesting that people drink less is never going to be bad advice as such. But simply plucking figures out of the air cannot be a good way to set public policy, and there is a risk that if one piece of advice comes to regarded as excessively over-cautious it will undermine the credibility of all public health guidance.

Plus, on an individual basis, if people are encouraged to be dishonest about their alcohol consumption it may inhibit giving them appropriate medical treatment. A few months ago I was responding to some health questions and gave a somewhat understated figure of alcohol consumption to come within these guidelines, but even then I was told that maybe I should consider cutting down a bit. If you’re going to be at the receiving end of a patronising lecture if you admit to drinking fifteen pints a week, you’re just not going to say it.

There is a parallel with the widely-publicised guidance to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Apparently this was arrived at by public health professionals in California taking the average consumption across the population and doubling it. Again, suggesting that people eat more fruit and veg isn’t bad advice as such, but if you fall short of it you’re hardly going to fall off a cliff-edge of risk. I don’t think I’ve eaten five portions of fruit and veg on a single day of my life (assuming you don’t include cider) but I’m still here.

On a more serious note, US medical chief Dr Daniel Fauci has recently admitted that many Covid restrictions, such as six-foot distancing and masking of children, had been implemented without any scientific backing. While such things may have seemed desirable on a precautionary basis at a time of widespread panic, we ended up closing down large swathes of the world economy and harming many businesses on the strength of what was no more than gut feeling.

Many naturally sceptical people had severe reservations about all this at the time, but were howled down as “Covidiots”, and it took a full two years before society was free of all Covid restrictions. And we are likely to be paying the price in terms of healthcare, education and the economy for many years to come.

Friday 31 May 2024

Vive la différence

A report by consultancy Dea Latis has revealed that the proportion of women in the UK drinking beer is well below that of men, and indeed has fallen over the past six years.
According to The Gender Pint Gap: Revisited, while 50% of UK men drink beer on a weekly basis, just 14% of women do so now, which is a three percentage points fall from research carried out by Dea Latis in 2018.
However, the question has to be asked whether this is something that really matters. Rather than being the result of discrimination, could it simply stem from differing tastes and preferences? It’s now generally accepted that women are entitled to equal treatment and esteem in society as compared with men, but that does not mean that one should simply be a mirror image of the other.

In my professional capacity, I used to audit the annual accounts of a local flower arranging society. As far as I could see, 100% of the active members were women. Likewise, the audience at a Girls Aloud concert would be predominantly female. On the other hand, the people interested in trainspotting and World of Warcraft are overwhelmingly male.

A society in which it was viewed as a desirable objective that every single activity should see equal participation from men and women would be a very uncomfortable and stifling one. Especially when it comes to leisure activities, differences in involvement simply reflect different proclivities, not any lack of opportunity.

And, as the report acknowledges, two of the reasons women are deterred from drinking beer are that it is perceived as fattening, and that it makes you pee. Maybe they are right on that, but they are factors that men do not see as being so important.

The report also found that beer advertising was a key factor deterring women from drinking it. However, as any advertising professional will tell you, the main role of advertising, especially of regularly-bought products, is to validate the decisions of existing purchasers, not to win conquest sales. Decisions on what to drink mainly come from social cues and peer group influences. The targeting of beer marketing at women also has a rather dismal track record of being cringe-inducingly patronising.

The beer sector supposedly “fails to communicate its huge range of aromas, colours and flavours in consumer friendly language”, thus making lager the default option. But, when pale lager accounts for around three-quarters of the market, that is simply a fact of life, as it is in every other major beer-drinking country.

And much of that huge range exists only in obscure niche products. The selection on the bar of the typical pub consists of various forms of lager, bitter, stout and probably now IPA, and you have to make your choice from one of those. Using terms such “grapefruit, caramel, mango, nutty, marmalade and chocolate” is more likely to come across as pretentious and offputting than informative.

A comparison is drawn with the wine market, which is said to have “navigated this education piece really successfully”. But the pretentiousness and obscurantism in wine is off the scale compared with beer, and most people who regularly buy it still find it baffling to some degree. They tend to stick with categories they are familiar with, and only venture slightly off the beaten track on to similar products. Choice is determined by trial and error, other people’s recommendations, or what is being promoted at the end of the supermarket aisle. There is also, compared with beer, far less brand identity and loyalty in wine, making it a very different market.

It’s worth noting that this report was produced by the same Annabel Smith who asserted that “Fresh Ale”, a form of keg beer, could be the saviour of cask. So maybe we need to treat her conclusions with a healthy degree of scepticism.

Friday 24 May 2024

Here we go again

So Rishi Sunak has unexpectedly called a General Election for July 4th. As with previous elections, I have created a poll on people’s voting intentions. I’ve put it in the sidebar, but for those reading this on a phone, which is probably the majority now, I’ve repeated it below.

POLL: How will you vote in the General Election on July 4th? free polls

There is a direct link to the poll here. Feel free to comment on the election, although please try to retain a modicum of politeness!

The results of my poll on the 2019 General Election can be seen here.

And there is a crumb of good news in that the appalling legislation for a generational smoking ban has fallen victim to the wrap-up process of dealing with outstanding bills. Obviously Labour, who have never seen a ban they didn’t like, are highly likely to revive it, but we have to take every win when we can.

Thursday 23 May 2024

The antisocial discount

The Coronation pub in Bristol has announced that it is introducing an unusual scheme under which customers will receive a discount for ordering their drinks from the table using a QR code rather than at the bar.

Customers who insist on ordering at the bar of the Bristol boozer will now pay up to 30p a pint more than those who order via the online menu. It means a pint of Southville Session house lager costs customers £3.50 at the bar – but only £3.20 if they order through the QR code.

A pint of Korev lager is £4.20 at the bar or £4 at the table, while Guinness is £5 at the bar or £4.80 at the table. A pint of Proper Job, the Cornish ale, will be £3.50 when ordered online, instead of £3.80 at the bar.

I would have thought carrying drinks to tables creates more work for the staff than dispensing them at the bar, so it seems counter-intuitive that table service should be cheaper. It’s illegal to impose a surcharge for paying by card rather than cash, so by the same token surely the reverse should be true as well. The report goes on to say:
‘The app gives the pub a nice atmosphere, there's no queuing at the bar, no hassle at the bar, and you don't have to interrupt your drink to go up and order’, Mr Cheshire said. He said engaging with customers could be ‘mentally draining’ over the course of an eight-hour shift, and the digital system made things easier for himself and his staff.
Oh, the poor things! If he thinks interacting with staff in a pub is “mentally draining” it sounds like he’s in the wrong business. The interaction between staff and customers, and between customers at the bar, is a crucial part of the atmosphere of pubs. Much of that is lost if people are just sitting at tables and tappingat a phone to get their drinks brought to them.

Hearteningly, the report states that 90% of the pub’s clientele are continuing to order at the bar, so obviously they’re not impressed with the scheme. If I lived locally I’d certainly think long and hard before going there. It is worth noting, though, that the beer prices do seem pretty good value for anywhere, let alone Bristol.

Monday 20 May 2024

Raising the stakes

For as long as I can remember, the “one-armed bandit” has been an integral part of the pub scene. Starting as mechanical devices with a handle, they steadily morphed into ever more complex electronic machines. In the 1980s I did have a spell of routinely playing them, but for whatever reason lost the habit, possibly because they became increasingly hard to fathom out.

The government have now announced that, for the first time, debit card payments will be permitted for slot machines in addition to cash. This is a recognition of the declining role of cash in society, and brings them into line with other forms of gambling. Use of credit cards, which may result in players borrowing unsustainably to gamble, will still be prohibited.

It’s hard to argue against this in principle, as it simply creates a level playing field, although anti-gambling pressure groups inevitably will. Another reason is that restricting stakes to cash was adversely affecting the business of physical venues, including pubs. However, the change does have other implications for pubs.

The traditional cash slot machine was tied in with the general economy of the pub. Spare change might go in the machine, while winnings could be recirculated across the bar. Allowing card payments turns it into an entirely separate activity that just happens to take place in the pub. Pub staff will also be tasked with the responsibility of monitoring the amount of money being spent, which creates another administrative burden and could potentially lead to confrontations with punters.

It also isn’t made clear how winnings will be paid out if customers do not have some kind of registered account. If vouchers are issued that can be redeemed across the bar, it will inevitably attract the ire of anti-drink campaigners. Some people may not be happy with the fact that all card transactions are traceable, whereas just bunging a few pound coins in a slot machine is anonymous.

Restricting stakes to debit cards means that you can’t gamble with money you don’t have, but it does remove a certain level of inhibition. With cash, you can only use the money you physically have in your pocket, but it’s not hard to imagine someone getting a bit carried away and splurging next week’s grocery and petrol money, especially if they’ve got a few drinks inside them. It’s not something that’s ever really tempted me, but it’s well-established that gambling can be highly addictive.

So, while this may be a recognition of changes in society, it’s not going to come without potential problems.

Thursday 9 May 2024

Flight to the suburbs

Back in 2020, just after the end of the first Covid lockdown, I wrote about how the shift from city-centre offices to home working was likely to lead to a permanent change in the dynamics of the pub trade. And indeed so it has proved. While there has been a significant move back to offices, the level of working from home remains well above what it was before, especially in the public sector. This obviously has had a major impact on the business of city-centre pubs and bars.

In response to this trend, the Daily Telegraph reports that Star Pubs and Bars, the retailing division of Heineken UK, have announced a substantial investment in its suburban estate.

Heineken is to spend £39m on reviving hundreds of “tired” suburban pubs in a bid to attract punters working from home. The brewing giant’s retail arm, Star Pubs & Bars, is planning to improve more than 600 pubs across the UK, as bosses respond to the surge in remote working since Covid. The investment drive will include reopening 62 pubs in 2024, with 94 other sites set for full refurbishments. The remaining pubs will receive varying upgrades.
The report goes on to say:
Heineken said it wanted to “broaden each pub’s use and appeal” in response to an increase in people working from home, giving customers more reason to visit throughout the day.

Lawson Mountstevens, chief executive at Star Pubs & Bars, said: “Fundamentally, the changes in people’s working habits means that in a lot of these suburban locations, you’ve got more people who are around those areas a lot more.

“It’s not rocket science. Those people are looking for pubs of a certain standard.”

It comes as hybrid working forces the hospitality industry to divert their attention away from city centres and focus increasingly on towns and villages.

Heineken said its refurbished pubs, which will each receive an average of £200,000 in investment, will have dividing screens to help separate areas for different types of customers.

Mr Mountstevens said that many pub visits were now taking place earlier in the day, with customers arriving and leaving earlier than they used to. He also dismissed suggestions that younger customers were visiting their local less due to high living costs.

By the end of the year, Heineken is expected to have re-opened 156 pubs since the start of 2023, including in places such as Barnsley, Carlisle and Derbyshire. Its entire UK estate includes 2,400 pubs.

One fairly local pub to me that is reported to be affected is the Hesketh in Cheadle Hulme, pictured above, which has been closed since the autumn of last year, and where plans to convert it to a Pesto Italian restaurant have presumably fallen through.

The switch to visiting the pub earlier in the day as been widely observed, with pubs often busy in the late afternoon and early evening, but trade tailing off much earlier than it once used to. However, I have to say that some of my local suburban pubs still seem deathly quiet during the daytime, so maybe the trend should not be exaggerated.

It’s also good that the desirability of compartmentalising pubs is at last being recognised, after many years of asserting that knocking everything through was more modern and democratic. People want to engage in a variety of activities in pubs, and there are few more dispiriting things than walking in to an echoing one-room barn entirely dominated by TV sport, often with only a small knot of customers half-heartedly watching.

You might have thought that any investment in pubs would be welcome, especially if it involves bringing closed pubs back to life. However, there were the inevitable sour grapes in some of the responses. The Drinks Business site bizarrely asked whether it would help or hinder beer. I would have thought it was obvious that enhancing the appeal of pubs would increase beer sales, but it seems that some people have an axe to grind. You get the impression that some would prefer that pubs didn’t receive any investment at all than that it was done by an international brewer.

Wednesday 1 May 2024

Starting them young

A report by the World Health Organisation has claimed that Britain has the worst rate of child alcohol consumption in the world.
Great Britain has the worst rate of child alcohol abuse worldwide, and more than half of children in England, Scotland and Wales have drunk alcohol by the age of 13, according to a report.

The study, one of the largest of its kind by the World Health Organization (WHO), looked at 2021-22 data on 280,000 children aged 11, 13 and 15 from 44 countries and regions who were asked about alcohol, cigarettes and vape usage.

The analysis found that Great Britain had a significant issue with underage alcohol abuse. More than a third of boys (35%) and girls (34%) had drunk alcohol by the age of 11, and by 13, 57% of girls and 50% of boys in England had consumed alcohol – the highest rate included in the analysis.

More than half of girls (55%) and boys (56%) in England from higher-income families said they had drunk alcohol in their lifetime, compared with 50% of girls and 39% of boys from lower-income backgrounds.

However, they are conflating two very different things here. If a child has consumed alcohol in the home on a handful of occasions, it does not necessarily mean that they are drinking in an abusive or problematic manner. There is no law against adults giving alcohol to children over the age of five, and many parents may feel that, once they enter their teens, that allowing them the occasional small drink in a controlled environment is better than imposing a strict prohibition that they may well kick against. If parents are regularly drinking alcohol themselves, it comes across as hypocritical to deny their fifteen-year-olds, who may well be physically bigger than them, a small glass from time to time.

It used to be a commonplace observation that children in countries like France and Italy would be routinely given wine at family meals from an early age to accustom them to the culture. This was once regarded with slightly raised eyebrows in this country, but as cultures have grown together and drinking at home has become normal, the situation here has become much the same.

When I was a young child, the attitude was very much one of “we never have drink in the house except for Christmas”, with the exception of my dad having the occasional bottle of brown ale. But, in the 1970s, there was a cultural shift, and home drinking was seen as more normal and indeed aspirational. I remember been allowed the odd glass of bottled cider from my mid-teens, which was probably perceived as something virtually non-alcoholic at a time when strengths were never declared, and by the age of 16 I was regularly having half-pint cans of lager.

I did a couple of polls on Twitter which generally bore this out, that most people had first sampled alcoholic between the ages of 13 and 15, and most had been introduced to it in the family home.

Of course, there is another side to the picture, in that many under-18s are drinking alcohol in an uncontrolled and potentially hazardous manner, in parks, at parties and at informal gatherings. But merely having been given a glass of beer or wine by your parents does not automatically lead on to this, as bodies like the hard-line prohibitionist Institute of Alcohol Studies, quoted in the article, allege.

We now have the tightest ever controls on underage purchasing of alcohol and, while there may be the odd dodgy backstreet shopkeeper, under-18s find it very difficult to obtain drink on their own account. So they are either getting it from older peers, unrelated adults, a black market, or parents and relatives. Some parents are not particularly bothered about their children drinking a lot once they’re 16 or 17 and see no problem with it.

This will inevitably be used as ammunition for further restrictions on the availability of alcohol and increases in the price for adult drinkers. But it is essentially caused by a decline in social cohesion and a sense of moral values, and tightening the screw even more is unlikely to do much to curb it. No doubt someone will pipe up with the bright idea, thought, that since we are increasing the legal age for buying tobacco products by one year every year, why shouldn’t we do the same with alcohol for the protection of the young?

Much tighter restrictions on underage drinking on licensed premises have perversely had a negative social effect. When I was growing up in the 1970s, it was considered entirely normal for young people to be drinking in pubs from the age of 15 or 16 onwards, and it provided a convenient social outlet for them. This helped to socialise young people into drinking in a restrained and moderate way under the watchful eye of the licensee and older customers. They knew they were only there on sufferance and had to behave themselves.

However, pubs today are required to take a very strict line on checking the age of young drinkers, and aggressive ID’ing often continues well after 18 under the aegis of schemes such as “Challenge 25”. Many evening venues will refuse to admit any under-18s due to concerns about drinks being shared within groups. This is something that has only really happened in the present century. But the result is not that young people abstain from alcohol, but that they drink it in less controlled environments such as park benches or each other’s homes. And this has had a detrimental effect both on the licensed trade and on wider society.

Thursday 25 April 2024

Suffer the little children

The subject of children in pubs never fails to spark controversy, and there was an outbreak last week when the image shown above was widely shared on social media. Perhaps surprisingly, some of the strongest objections to this came from what might be called the “Christian Right”, with one commentator on Twitter stating: “Good luck with funding your pensions and finding someone to look after you when you're old and ill. Not sure that Fido is going to be much use then.” However, it should be pointed out that the birth rate was a lot higher in the days when children were not allowed in pubs.

Historically, under-14s were not allowed in the bars of pubs, although they could be admitted to restaurants and to physically separate “family rooms”. This was frequently ignored, but it did generally apply, and gave rise to the familiar memories of children being expected to sit outside in the car with a bottle of pop and a bag of crisps. It was undermined by the rise of dining pubs, which blurred the boundary between bar and restaurant, and in the early 1990s was abolished, leaving the admission of children up to licensees’ discretion. It should be noted that a different system applies in Scotland, where pubs and bars have to get specific permission to admit children in their licensing conditions, which is often refused for wet-led establishments.

Now, children are admitted to pretty much every food-serving pub, although a minority do require that they should actually be eating a meal. However, with wet-led pubs, the picture is more mixed, with some admitting children, but others not. Yet some people seem to raise an objection if they ever come across a pub that does not welcome their offspring. This comment on Twitter sums up the sense of entitlement of a certain category of customer, often to be found in craft bars.

If you take your children for a meal in a pub, they are going there for a specific reason in which they can participate. However, to take them into a wet-led pub while you enjoy a drink is essentially putting yourself first and expecting them to put up with it for a while. Children spend much of their time tagging along with adult activities, but surely it is best to spend leisure time with them doing something in which they can be involved.

The advocates for children in pubs with give examples of caring, involved parents taking their children for a quick drink at the end of a shopping trip or country walk. But that is a rose-tinted view that fails to reflect the spectrum of human nature. All too often, adults are immersed in their own conversation and leave their children to their own devices. Bored, fractious children will inevitably start to behave in a manner that other customers find irritating. This is not their fault; it is that of their parents. Children are also often given electronic tablets to entertain themselves, but I really don’t want to have to sit in a pub listening to Peppa Pig videos or the bleeping of computer games.

The point is sometimes made that adults often engage in far worse behaviour than children in pubs. That is true, but it is generally recognised as being out of order and dealt with, whereas it can be very hard to draw the line with the natural exuberant behaviour of children. If licensees to raise an objection, they are likely to find themselves branded as a monster on Mumsnet. So it is hardly surprising that many, who are running pubs targeted at adult drinkers, take the view that it is much simpler to exclude children entirely rather than having to deal with them on a case-by-case basis.

I carried out a Twitter poll on the admission of children to pubs, which received an impressive 619 votes. Nearly 70% of respondents preferred the “mixed economy” solution of some pubs being child-friendly and others adults only, thereby obviously stating that they felt it was entirely legitimate for some pubs to exclude children.

The sign draws a comparison with dogs. Obviously the issues surrounding dogs in pubs are different from those relating to children, although it’s worth pointing out that dogs will often happily sit quietly under tables, which cannot be said of children. I ran a similar poll on the admission of dogs. Again the “mixed economy” solution was the most popular, but it should be noted that 26% of people thought dogs should be admitted to all pubs, compared with only 12% for children. I would say it’s considerably easier to find a dog-free pub than a child-free one, at least in urban areas. In particular, Wetherspoon’s never admit dogs. On the other hand, most rural pubs would struggle if they excluded dogs, as Alex Polizzi pointed out in an episode of The Hotel Inspector. All Sam Smith’s pubs exclude dogs (apart, of course, from assistance dogs) and they only admit children if dining, which means that any wet-led ones are adults-only.

On a related topic, I always wonder why there isn’t the same clamour to admit children to betting shops, a comparable situation of an adults-only activity where they remain strictly excluded by law. And I can’t help thinking there’s another area of human behaviour where a similar “mixed economy” approach might be beneficial to the pub trade ;-)

Thursday 18 April 2024

Filling a gap

Much of the discussion around the concept of Fresh Ale has revolved around Carlsberg-Marston’s intention to dispense it via handpumps, which is unquestionably misleading given that it is a keg beer. However, what has been largely ignored is that it represents a perhaps rather clumsy attempt to provide a better choice to ale drinkers in venues where no cask beer is offered.

A substantial number of pubs, for various reasons, now do not stock any cask ale whatsoever. In Stockport, this includes pretty much all the remaining working-class wet-led locals apart from those belonging to family brewers. If you go in them and want an ale of some kind, you will be confronted with a choice of one of the widely-distributed “smooth ales”, whether John Smith’s, Worthington, Tetley’s or Boddingtons, and possibly a rarely-seen keg mild bearing a historic brewery name. In one or two there might be some form of modern keg IPA. But there will be nothing remotely resembling a premium bitter, and nothing from any independent brewer, whether family or new-generation.

When CAMRA was formed in the early 70s, it was fair to say that the vast majority of pubs had sufficient turnover to be able to keep cask ale properly. Not doing so was a choice, not a necessity. However, since then, broadly speaking, the total on-trade beer market has fallen by two-thirds, and the share of ale (excluding Guinness) within that has fallen from over 80% to below 20%. This leaves a far smaller pool of sales for ale of any kind. Added to this, pubs are pushing the boundaries of what is feasible for cask to offer an ever-wider range.

I have written before of how a simple comparison of the number of cask outlets, the average lines per pub, and the size of the overall cask market, means that much of this beer must be being kept on sale for well over the recommended three days. Given this, it is only natural that brewers will look at ways of presenting their ales in ways that aren’t so critically dependent on rapid turnover.

Arguably, as long as it doesn’t seek to mislead drinkers as to its true nature, the existence of keg ale in pubs is beyond CAMRA’s scope. And most thoughtful members would accept that, for reasons of turnover, customer profile and simple lack of commitment, there are many pubs that really shouldn’t bother with cask. However, in practice there is a tendency to badger pubs to put cask on even when it’s unlikely to find many takers, and then complain when they don’t. Plus there is the view that the existence of traditional British beer styles is inextricably bound up with that of cask, which doesn’t necessarily need to be the case.

I have mentioned before how, amongst people who see themselves as ale drinkers, there is a strong loyalty to cask as a category as opposed to individual brands. They will choose an alternative cask beer in preference to a keg version of their favourite. This helps maintain cask sales, but arguably it is detrimental to traditional ales as a whole as it inhibits people from even trying non-cask versions. There is also the strange inconsistency than many will happily drink a “craft keg” raspberry sour or marshmallow stout, but turn their noses up at a mild or best bitter.

The loyalty to cask results in a kneejerk rejection of keg ales of whatever type. In the case of the well-known smooth bitters, this may be justified, as they are all pretty lacklustre products, made even worse by being reduced to 3.4% ABV. There is a distinct lack of keg options directly comparable to the popular cask brands. On the other hand, last year Samuel Smith’s increased the strength of their keg Dark Mild and XXXX Best light mild to 3.4% and, while not on a par with a well-kept pint of Old Brewery Bitter, I’d say these are both pleasant and palatable beers that avoid the soapiness of the smooth bitters. They also produce the 5.0% India Ale, about the only premium keg bitter I can think of, although this isn’t found in any of my local Sam’s pubs. To reject keg ales out of hand on principle comes across as prejudice rather than an objective consideration of the beer’s actual characteristics.

Some keg ales seem to do well as they are perceived as something that is “modern” and thus not to be competing head-on with cask. The obvious example is IPAs, which are seen as a category in their own right, even though they are basically just a heavily-hopped type of ale. Beavertown Neck Oil appears to be very popular at present, helped by being of a more sessionable strength than Punk IPA which was the initial pioneer of the type. Boak and Bailey recently reported that keg Sharp’s Atlantic Pale Ale was widely sold in the Bristol area. This is a much “softer” beer than Neck Oil, and indeed has a direct cask equivalent.

I was recently having an interesting discussion about the development of Mild in Ireland. Cask is virtually unknown in Ireland, so pretty much all “interesting” or micro-brewed beer is keg. Obviously mild is very much a niche style, but this gives brewers a much freer hand to make beers of traditional types without having to consider whether they will be viable in cask.

There is also a comparison to be drawn with the lager market. “Most of it’s mass-market crap, and Madri isn’t even a genuine Spanish beer” say the enthusiasts. But it’s lager that enjoys a market share of over 70%, while cask languishes below 10%. Virtually all lager sold in Britain is stabilised and filtered and sold in keg form, so there is no question of dividing the market up into sheep and goats, and everything competes on a level playing field. And, while the enthusiasts may say “actually, some of those German and Czech lagers are not that bad”, they are exactly the same as Corona and Madri in type, if not in quality.

Some may argue that the introduction of better keg beers will undermine cask. But, if they go into places that currently serve no cask at all, how can that be? And I would suggest that the pub offering a single handpump of stale Doom Bar hiding at the end of the bar does cask no favours either, and a keg alternative would be better all round. The core of pubs where cask is popular and sells well wouldn’t be remotely threatened. Taking a wider perspective, the greater availability of quality keg ales would surely boost the general category of traditional British ale styles. I’m certainly not suggesting that keg is on par with well-kept cask. But, rather than saying “I’m not going there, they have no cask”, wouldn’t it be better to say “well, they have no cask, but they do have keg Landlord”?