Monday, 13 September 2021

Come outside!

Over the recent Bank Holiday weekend, I was able to enjoy sitting outside pubs in the pleasant late Summer sunshine for two days in a row. Then, last week in Wolverhampton, the licensee of the Combermere Arms expressed surprise that I preferred to sit inside on a hot sunny day. It occurred to me that the past few decades have seen a marked movement of the business of pubs from indoors to outdoors. Of course the smoking ban was a major catalyst for this, but it had started long before that.

There was a time when outdoor drinking was largely associated with rural pubs. A trip out there on a sunny time would give the opportunity to enjoy sitting outside in a leafy beer garden. But it was a rarity in an urban environment. Those seas of underused car park surrounding estate pubs were noticeably devoid of benches for drinkers. It just wasn’t seen as important. I remember the news that one street-corner local was converting its cobbled yard into a “beer garden” being met with derision.

However, in the 1990s that began to change, motivated by a desire to present pubs as welcoming to fit, sports-oriented younger people rather than just being the preserve of grey-faced codgers in gloomy vaults. People also wanted to recreate memories of al fresco drinking on Mediterranean holidays.Benches started to appear on yards and in the margins of car parks, and gardens were brought into public use.

But then the whole situation was turned upside down by the smoking ban, which placed a huge premium on pubs being able to provide some kind of outside area to accommodate smokers. If they couldn’t cater for them at all, they would be severely disadvantaged. Smokers were looking for somewhere they could sit with their pint rather than just nipping out for a quick fag, and their non-smoking friends often wanted to be there with them.

So we saw a concerted programme of improving existing outdoor areas, making back yards open to the public and building new decking and shelters. Very often, given reasonably clement weather, pretty much the entire business of the pub moved outside, with customers just popping into the deserted interior to buy drinks. This is something that particularly struck me at the Barrels in Hereford in 2011. It seems now that virtually every pub that has the space now has a few tables outside at the front, protected by a little barrier of advertising banners.

With all this enhancement of outdoor areas, it’s hardly surprising that antismoker felt that they weren’t getting a fair crack of the whip, so pressure began to designate part of them specifically as non-smoking. Many pubs with sufficient space have taken this up, and the result is often that the best parts of the outdoor area have become non-smoking, with smokers confined to a dingy yard at the back, even though for three-quarters of the year they will be the only ones outside anyway.

Then, this year, there has been a further boost to outdoor drinking from the Covid regulations. In England, for five weeks in the Spring, pubs were only allowed to serve either food or drink outside, which obviously conferred a huge advantage on those with enough space to make it viable. In Scotland, for a short period, eating was allowed indoors, but not drinking. Even after customers were allowed back inside, capacity restrictions still led to many having to stay outside, and some felt they were safer there anyway.

Planning restrictions were eased to allow pubs to put out tables on pavements and in roads, and some of these may end up being permanent. Although in general we have a cool, damp climate that isn’t ideally suited to outdoor drinking, there does seem to be a psychological attachment to the idea of Mediterranean café culture. Despite the weather, we are the biggest purchasers of convertible cars in Europe.

Sometimes there seems to be an element of bravado about it, as with the people who go to football matches in the middle of winter wearing just a team shirt. I get the impression that it is often the louder and more boisterous customers who choose to colonise the seating just outside the door, meaning that anyone wanting to venture inside has to run a bit of gauntlet.

Some may argue that it reflects the influence of climate change, but personally I don’t really feel that our summers have become appreciably drier or warmer. Many will remember the very hot summers of 1976 and 1990, whereas this summer has been, subjectively, generally cool and wet.

An increase in outdoor drinking can cause problems for pubs’ neighbours, leading to pressure to put a curfew on allowing drinkers outside. It’s all very well saying that you shouldn’t buy a house next to a pub and then complain about the noise, but if what used to be private yard has now been turned into a beer patio that is packed with noisy drinkers into the late evening, it’s quite understandable.

Despite this, outdoor drinking is certainly here to stay, and there are regular reports such as this one I spotted recenlty of pubs seeking permission to expand their outdoor areas. The move outdoors is a major change that has happened to pub culture during my drinking career.

Friday, 10 September 2021

Thirsty like the wolf

Following on from my trip to Chester, earlier this week I decided to broaden my horizons and have an afternoon trip to Wolverhampton. As I said then, while it is about half as far away again, and the train fare is proportionately even more expensive, it can actually be reached considerably more quickly, with an hourly service from Stockport taking around an hour for the 63-mile journey. One reason for choosing Wolverhampton was to revisit the Great Western, one of my favourite pubs, but there are plenty of others in the city worth visiting.

The train from Stockport was delayed by about ten minutes due to signalling problems at Heaton Chapel, but managed to make up most of this during the journey. It was a nine-car Voyager, with a four- and five-car set coupled together so, unlike the trip to Chester, there was plenty of room. I was surprised to find on my arrival that the main entrance to the station, previously a functional 1960s design, had been completely remodelled in the two years since my last visit, with an impressive frontage in black and gold reflecting the colours of Wolverhampton Wanderers. Work was in progress to extend the West Midlands Metro, which previously terminated on the south-east side of the city centre, to reach the station.

My first port of call was Wetherspoon’s Moon Under Water, which is only a short walk from the station on Lichfield Street. This was really only a pit stop for lunch – I’m sure there are better pub food options, but I didn’t really have the time to research them. I had a rather underdone burger and an alcohol-free beer. As in Chester, no mustard was available – surely this is something nobody can blame on Brexit! It’s very much an old-school Wetherspoon’s with plenty of dark wood, and benefits from having a fair amount of bench seating around the walls. A pair of old boys across the way from me were chewing the fat on various topics, principally it seemed bemoaning the standard of customer service. But they will still go back!

I headed west along the spine of the city centre which changes from Lichfield Street to Darlington Street. On my left I passed the Posada, a well-known heritage pub that I had pencilled in for a visit later but, looking in through the window, the only cask ale on the pumps seemed to be Robinson’s Unicorn, so I decided to give it a miss. Sadly the city centre seemed very quiet, even more so than Stockport, with numerous closed shops including the magnificent Art Deco Beatties department store which was in the midst of a closing down sale. On Darlington Street one disused shop had been done up as the imitation bar shown above.

Crossing the Inner Ring Road brought me to Chapel Ash, a tree-lined street containing a number of Georgian buildings, but again looking a touch down-at-heel. I was last here in the Spring of 2018, when we did a tour of Banks’s Brewery, which stands just to the north. My destination was the Combermere Arms, a small cottage-style pub set back from the road behind a couple of trees. It also famously has a tree growing inside the gents’, which I didn’t actually need to visit on this occasion.

The pub is more spacious inside than it appears, with a room by the bar on the left, two cosy rooms on the right and a fair-sized garden at the rear. The licensee expressed surprise that I didn’t want to sit outside, but frankly I was glad to get out of the blazing sun. It’s Greene King lease, but apart from London Glory most of the beers on the bar were guests, including Black Sheep Bitter, Tribute and Landlord. I perhaps approached my pint of Black Sheep with trepidation, in a quiet pub on a hot day, but in fact it turned out to the best beer of the day, cool, tasty and with plenty of condition. I had a brief chat with the licensee, who was a relief manager with plenty of experience of pubs around Wolverhampton, about beery things before he closed up at 2.30.

A few doors along from the Combermere Arms is the Clarendon, which I suppose still qualifies as Banks’s brewery tap. It states “The home of Banks’s” on the wall alongside the names of the other major brands owned by the parent company. I remember going in here many years ago when it had a multi-roomed layout, but has been progressively altered over the years, and now consists of a central bar area with posing tables surrounded by several congenial alcoves with bench seating. The only cask beers were Banks’s Amber Bitter and Sunbeam. I went for the Bitter at a very reasonable £2.90, and it was pretty good. It’s not a bad pub, but I couldn’t help thinking the brewery could make more of what should be a showcase.

Heading up the hill back into the city centre, I passed on the right the impressive Darlington Street Methodist Church, with its green copper dome, which is more visible now the buildings that used to be at the side of it have been demolished. The Lych Gate Tavern is situated at the top of the hill just off the central Queen Square and predictably facing the parish church. It’s an early Georgian building converted from offices to a pub a few years ago by Black Country Ales.

You go downstairs from the entrance to reach the main bar area which has a comfortable lounge section with bench seating opening off it. There’s another seating area on the first floor, and the toilets are a further level up, with a lift for the disabled to connect the three. The three BCA standard beers featured on the bar, together with a seasonal beer called Chain Ale which I decided to go for. It was in good condition but, as usual with BCA’s output, a little lacking in distinctive character. There were several other guest beers including Prescott Hill Climb and Titanic Plum Porter.

The soundtrack was music to my ears, featuring songs such as Boston’s More Than a Feeling and China Grove by the Doobie Brothers, an early 70s nugget that had disappeared off my radar, from the days when they actually were a rock band. This was a very congenial space to drink, and it must be said that BCA do a good job with their refurbishments, but are let down by the blandness of their own beers and by always seeming to have too many beers on the bar for the turnover.

I walked through the churchyard of the handsome St Peter’s Collegiate Church (excellent choice of saint) and then followed King Street and Market Street down the eastern side of the city centre to bring me to the Wheatsheaf opposite the back entrance of Marks & Spencer. At least Wolverhampton, unlike Stockport, does still have a branch of M&S. I remembered this pub from many years ago as an archetypal bustling, down-to-earth city-centre Banks’s local. It may now be the only Banks’s/Marston’s pub remaining within the Inner Ring Road.

I can’t really remember the old layout and so am not sure exactly how it has been changed, but it seems now to have been reduced to one bar accessed through the corner door, with the former rear snug reduced to the status of a function room. The bar counter is in an odd position, with only a narrow gap between it and the front wall, creating a restricted space that predictably couldn’t be accessed due to a crush of drinkers. There is some more comfortable seating towards the rear of the room – I’m not sure whether this area has been knocked through from how it was before.

There were four beers on the bar, Amber Bitter and Sunbeam, Hobgoblin and Directors. I was tempted by the Directors, but decided it was best to stick to the ordinary-strength beers and plumped for the Bitter, which was a very reasonable £2.85. Wolverhampton does have some keen beer prices. Although cool enough, this was no better than OK, and was certainly the least impressive beer of the day, although the pub did have a good, lively atmosphere. The Directors might have been worse!

The route back to the station took me along the narrow Castle Street, which is spanned by a bridge connecting the two parts of the now defunct Express & Star print works. The paper, which is one of the few independently-owned regional newspapers remaining in the UK, is still published, but it is a sign of the times that its circulation, according to Wikipedia, has declined from 175,000 in 2007 to below 20,000 in 2021.

The Great Western, tucked away round the back of the station, always used to be rather difficult to reach. For many years, the best way was through a slightly dubious-looking tunnel running underneath the platforms. Things were transformed in the early 2010s when a new vehicular access was opened up on the south side of the station entrance, but due to the refurbishment works this was partially blocked off so you had to follow a narrow pathway between builder’s hoardings. I still had to negotiate a narrow cobbled lane that takes a sharp bend under the railway bridge before the pub came into view picked out in the evening sunlight.

Since my last visit, the interior seems to have been smartened up a little and, while the fabric is unchanged, it appeared brighter and somewhat less “lived in”, although all the railway memorabilia was still there on the walls. The WhatPub entry refers to it being refurbished in Spring 2021. For those not familiar with it, the interior comprises a very congenial front area with bench seating on the either side of the main door facing the bar counter, a snug to the rear on the right, and on the left a long room with benches against the wall leading to a conservatory and beer garden.

It’s a Holden’s tied house, offering the full range of their beers alongside a number of guests, which usually include Batham’s Best Bitter, although I understand they have a weekly ration of this. While I was tempted by the Batham’s, I decided to stick with the Holden’s beers, trying the Bitter and the Golden Glow at £3.00 and £3.10 respectively (the Batham’s is considerably dearer). Both were good, but I have to say would have benefited from being a degree or two cooler. Yes, it was a very hot day, but other pubs seemed to manage. I treated myself to a bag of scratchings, only to end up with a massive 100g Holden’s branded pack that I had to take home to finish later in the week. It’s still an excellent pub, and no doubt will grow into its new skin, but I will admit to feeling slightly underwhelmed by my visit.

It was then a short, but rather indirect walk back to the station and an uneventful journey home, benefiting again from a doubled-up Voyager. It always comes as a surprise at this time of the year that it gets dark shortly after 8 pm. I’ve now recouped more than half the cost of my three-year Senior Railcard, with fourteen months still to go. I wouldn’t claim that Wiolverhampton was one of britain’s top ten drinking cities, but there’s plenty of interest and for me it benefits from being easily accessible from Stockport.

The two pubs outside the ring road on Chapel Ash were, as you might expect on a Tuesday afternoon, fairly quiet, but the four in the city centre were all doing decent business. There was no evidence of any Covid restrictions still in operation, and I spotted no masks on bar staff, and only a tiny handful on customers.

Residents always blame their local council, but the problems besetting Wolverhampton city centre are really no different from those being experienced by most other second-tier regional centres. It suffers, as do places like Bradford and Sunderland, from playing second fiddle to a larger and more glamorous city within the same conurbation. It also doesn’t help that most of the shopping activity is concentrated in two rather unappealing indoor shopping centres from the 60s and 70s – the Mander Centre and the Wulfrun Centre – which turn their backs on the main streets and denude them of pedestrian footfall.

Thursday, 26 August 2021

End of the line?

Last week, the Manchester Evening News reported that the Railway pub in Portwood, Stockport, which had had a threat of closure hanging over it for many years, was finally likely to reach the end of the line. And, later in the week, it was duly decided by Stockport Council to confirm the planning permission allowing it to the demolished to make way for a retail development. Over the past three decades the pub had become a much-loved fixture of the Stockport real ale scene, making regular appearances in the Good Beer Guide and winning the local Pub of the Year award in 2007.

It had originally been a rather nondescript Wilson’s pub, taking its name from the long-closed Cheshire Lines route running east to west through Stockport via Tiviot Dale station. It then went through rather questionable incarnations as “Byrons” and “Cheekies”, the latter featuring a sign showing a pair of buttocks covered by a pair of skimpy briefs. However, salvation was at hand in the form of brewer Dave Porter, who converted it into Porter’s Railway as a showcase for his distinctive beers including the potent Porter’s Sunshine.

It rapidly became a local CAMRA favourite and was narrowly pipped to a Pub of the Year award following some rather questionable use of proxy voting. However, it later became a perfect illustration of the principle that, however good a pub, it should never be simply nodded back into the Good Beer Guide under a new licensee unless they have an established track record elsewhere. Fortunately this proved to be a short-lived aberration.

When Dave Porter quit the scene, the brewery became Rossendale and, more recently, after that closed down, the Railway has become an independent free house. It mostly features beers from local breweries such as Pictish, Outstanding and Dunham Massey and, while the range tends towards the paler end of the spectrum, there is always at least one dark beer on the bar.

However, far from being a “beer shrine”, it is more of a cask-centred value pub of a kind that is common in West Yorkshire but much rarer on this side of the Pennines. This is hinted at by the mobility scooter shown on the photo. Prices are very reasonable, with the ordinary-strength beers still well under £3. This gives it much more of the atmosphere of a lively local, with many regular customers including some “characters” and a good interchange of banter. From its location at one end of the town centre I’ve often found it marking the end of a Stockport pub crawl, and indeed this was where my little reopening crawl of last month finished up..

As the article reports, the original planning permission for redevelopment was granted in 2005, and since then the Railway has been operating under an extended stay of execution. Therefore any work done has been strictly on a care and maintenance basis meaning that, while kept clean, nobody would describe it as smart. I’d question whether it was really beyond economic repair, but if it was to be retained for the long term it would certainly need a lot of money spending on it.

Over the years, I’ve often criticised campaigners who seem to want to keep pubs open regardless of their commercial prospects, but it can’t be denied that the Railway is a busy pub and a viable business. There is already no shortage of vacant retail units in Stockport, so it seems risky to replace it with what must be a highly speculative venture. However, given that the new planning permission is really only reiterating what was decided sixteen years ago, and the developer owns the building anyway, the prospects of a reversal of the decision are extremely slim. The current licensee is looking towards retirement, and a pub being saved from the bulldozers is no guarantee of ongoing success anyway.

No firm closing date has yet been set, and the Railway could continue trading for a year or more, but it is worth making sure you pay a visit before it goes. With the imminent closure of the Hope on Wellington Road North, it looks as though Stockport is going to lose two of its more characterful beer-focused pubs in a short space of time. Hopefully the expected reopening of the Crown on Heaton Lane in the Autumn will go some way to redress the balance.

Friday, 13 August 2021

Baby steps to prohibition

It has been reported that, to help achieve their target of achieving a “smoke-free Britain” by 2030, the government are looking at raising the legal age for buying cigarettes to 21. This would put it out of line with pretty much every other normal activity in society. We have established now that 18 is the age of majority for virtually everything. The only areas where the minimum legal age is 21 are those where some additional degree of maturity is considered desirable, such as adopting a child, supervising a learner driver and gaining an HGV or commercial pilot’s licence. Yet smoking, while widely deprecated, remains a legal activity, and one that is enjoyed by very many people.

Young people would still be easily able to obtain cigarettes either from co-operative adults or via the black market, so it’s hard to see this making any meaningful difference to availability. And, given that smoking is already outlawed in any indoor social settings, there aren’t really many situations where a young person lighting up would raise eyebrows. On any warm day in a city, the smell of cannabis is already widespread, and that is illegal for any age.

There’s no suggestion that possession would be outlawed, only the act of purchase, so the police wouldn’t be patrolling the streets demanding that any young smokers they come across prove their age. And it’s hard to see that pub licensees would have much enthusiasm for checking the age of smokers in beer gardens.

And what kind of message would this send to young people, that they’re not considered mature enough to act responsibly? As a society, we pay a lot of lip service to the interests of the young, while in numerous ways seeking to restrict their freedom of action. The previous increase in the tobacco purchase age from 16 to 18 in 2007 went through with very little adverse comment, although it was overshadowed by the indoor smoking ban introduced earlier in the same year.

The only area where there is pressure to increase their freedoms is in reducing the voting age to 16, but would that really achieve any more than giving them the opportunity to choose what colour of stick they prefer to be beaten with? And it’s hardly a consistent message to say that you are considered old enough to decide who should govern the country, but not what you can put in your own body.

Once the principle was established, there would inevitably be calls to extend it to other areas, in particular alcohol. Oh, that will never happen, many will say. But it has already been proposed in Scotland. Fortunately it wasn’t implemented at the time, but it clearly indicates the thought processes of the public health establishment. What would it say to a young soldier who had been putting his life on the line in Afghanistan, but then wasn’t allowed to buy a few cans to relax at home with his family?

Sunday, 8 August 2021

Back in training

In the Autumn of 2019 I spent £70 on a three-year Senior Railcard, but I was only able to use it for two trips out, to Shifnal and Burton-on-Trent, before the country was plunged into lockdown in March of last year. Obviously there remained a good amount of time to take advantage of it, but anyone who had bought a one-year card in the first two months of 2020 would have rightly felt aggrieved. Despite this, the administrators of the scheme set their face against giving any refunds.

Finally, once the restrictions on travel and pubgoing had been relaxed, I felt able to make use of it last week to put my toe back in the water with a trip to Chester, nearly seventeen months after my last train journey to Burton. I’m not normally in the habit of doing “what I did on my holidays” posts, but thought this one was worth reporting on as a significant milestone.

Despite only being at the other end of Cheshire, because of the geography of the rail network Chester is surprisingly difficult to reach by train from Stockport. You can get to Liverpool, Shrewsbury or Wolverhampton more quickly and easily. Basically there is a choice of taking the slow train through the middle of the county, stopping as such metropolises as Plumley and Mouldsworth, or doing a longer and more expensive, but quicker, dogleg changing at Crewe.

I chose the latter option. The two-car train bound for Milford Haven was standing room only, although I was able to get a seat as some groups seemed to prefer to stand together. There was a boisterous group occupying the two sets of table seats, who seemed genial enough, but might have been hard work all the way to South Wales, especially once the cans of Thatcher’s Gold had kicked in. It was hard to tell on a crowded train, but I would estimate well below half the passengers were masked.

The line between Crewe and Chester is a vital link in the rail network, but doesn’t seem to tie in with any others in terms of through passenger trains, so its basic service is operated by a shuttle which does the 21 miles in even time, allowing an hourly service to be worked by just one unit. Again this was just two cars, and pretty full, with a notable Orthodox Jewish contingent. The line mostly runs through unremarkable lush pastureland, but halfway along you are treated to the spectacular sight of Beeston Castle on its crag rising up from the surrounding plain, with the more modern Peckforton Castle lurking menacingly in the background.

My first call in Chester was a lunch stop at Wetherspoon’s Bull & Stirrup, a handsome redbrick building standing just outside the Northgate. I remember it from the late 70s as a multi-roomed Higson’s pub of great character. However, it was later knocked through by the Boddington Pub Company, so Spoons cannot be held to blame for its current condition. Indeed it had closed before they took it over a few years back.

Wetherspoon’s have much extended it at the rear, where the bar now is, but the front section does retain something of a multi-roomed feel, although as usual the absence of bench seating detracts from the overall ambiance. To their credit, they have preserved the tiled mural of Edgar’s Eight, showing eight subsidiary kings from all over the British Isles rowing the 10th-century Anglo-Saxon King Edgar on the River Dee. And, sorry cask purists, but I had a bottle of Tusker with my meal deal.

I then walked down to the Cross along the full length of Northgate Street, which still has six pubs on the right-hand side, although none on the left. I’ve been going to Chester since I was a small child, so I tend to take it for granted to some extent, but it really is a beautiful city, even though I know much of the half-timbering on display is actually Victorian. The city centre was much busier than Stockport, although probably still short of what might be considered “normal” levels, with the absence of foreign tourists obviously a factor.

Turning left along Eastgate brought me to Sam Smith’s Olde Boot, which is one of the very few pubs now situated on the historic Rows. I remember from the 1970s when this was a small pub accessed by a passage from the walkway, but it was extended forward to the shop frontages many years ago. It’s a long, dimly-lit space with plenty of dark wood, with the usual Sam’s mature clientele, mostly although by no means entirely male, and was ticking over nicely enough for a Monday afternoon.

Old Brewery Bitter was on pretty good form, although most of the customers seemed to be going for the Taddy Lager. The landlady was telling a guy standing at the bar how the previous Sunday she had had to throw a party of racegoers out for taking cocaine in the gents’. Many Chester licensees seem to approach race days with dread.

Heading back in the general direction of the station brought me to the Olde Cottage on Brook Street, which is a pub whose fortunes I have been following on Twitter through the cycle of lockdowns. Brook Street, bypassed by a new road in the 1960s, is still on the main pedestrian route from the city centre to the station, and is a busy street with a variety of independent businesses.

Unfortunately I missed the famous pub cat Arty, who was taking his beauty sleep upstairs, but I did get the chance to have a good chat with Trevor, the licensee, who has been in the pub for twenty years. He said that, after two weeks, there were encouraging signs of trade returning to normal, although it was still much less predictable than pre-Covid, with the occasional unexpected quiet night.

While the pub has a strong contingent of regulars, its location also means it picks up plenty of casual and passing trade. It was certainly reasonably busy for Monday teatime, with a variety of customers popping in and out. The pub belongs to Admiral Taverns, and is allowed to choose one cask beer outside the tie along with three from their own fairly extensive list. On this visit the range was Otter Bitter, Ossett Yorkshire Blonde, Butcombe Bitter and Wye Valley HPA. I tried the first three, all of which were in good nick.

Then back to the station for the trip home, with the trains on both legs busy enough, but much less crowded than earlier in the day. I noticed a long goods train laden with cut logs trundling through Chester Station, which was certainly to me at least an unusual sight. I was told it was a regular working from Carlisle to the Kronospan fibreboard mill at Chirk south of Wrexham. So an interesting and enjoyable day out, and hopefully if we are not plunged back into lockdown I will be able to make more use of that Senior Railcard in the remainder of the year.

Friday, 6 August 2021

Meet the new keg

This year sees CAMRA’s 50th anniversary, and many people have been keen to project their own present-day agenda back on to the reasons for the organisation’s formation. One comment you often see is “of course, the keg beers back then were nothing like those we have now”.

In some respects, this is of course true. There were no nitrokeg beers around then, for a start. And there is a much wider variety of draught beers produced overall, many of which are low-volume niche products that would never be able to sell in cask form. But it shouldn’t be imagined that, back in 1971, there was a clear dichotomy between fizzy, heavily-processed Double Diamond and Red Barrel, and wholesome, natural Boddington’s and Brakspear’s.

Much of the beer that CAMRA was objecting to wasn’t even keg as such, anyway. In the North of England, many breweries produced tank beer which was only rough-filtered and often unpasteurised. It was pumped to the bar, not pressure-dispensed. And, in the South, many offered top pressure beer, which involved attaching a CO2 cylinder to a cask to push the beer to the bar rather than using a handpump. In some ways this was analogous to the present day “keg-conditioned beer”.

But, while the starting point of top pressure was real ale, CAMRA refused to regard this beer as acceptable. The Good Beer Guides of the 1970s record with a certain amount of regret against breweries whose real ales were well-regarded, “Only 12 of the 24 tied houses sell real ale” (Harveys) or “140 tied houses, many of them offering only pressurised beer” (Morrells).

It must be remembered that, while the concept of “traditional draught beer” was broadly understood, the specific definition of real ale was something that was devised by CAMRA to identify that in British beer that it was trying to preserve, against that which it regarded as a negative trend. It was always something of an arbitrary division into sheep and goats, but it had the advantage of being clear-cut, and rapidly became something that resonated with the drinking public. If CAMRA had attempted to say “well, this Harvey’s top pressure beer is actually not bad, whereas this Whitbread West Country Pale Ale, while technically real ale, is actually swill” it would have been putting across a very muddled message.

Over time, the use of the top pressure and tank beer systems withered away, so that by half-way through the lifetime of CAMRA they had pretty much entirely disappeared. There was much less small-scale, artisanal beer available in a non-real format than there had been when the organisation was founded. However, since then the tables have been turned, with the keg format increasingly being adopted by new and innovative craft breweries.

In most cases, this represented either beers that were outside the British tradition, or which were unusual in terms of strength or flavour to the extent that they would be unlikely to achieve the level of turnover needed to be presented as real ale. It was notable how the new wave of keg beers rarely challenged the established leading brands and styles of real ale head-on. But it is certainly not the case now (if indeed it ever was) that no high-quality draught beers are being produced and sold in the UK outside the scope of real ale.

However, despite the advance of these “new wave” keg beers, you’re stil fairly unlikely to encounter them outside specialist pubs. Go in one of those pubs identified on WhatPub by the little red keg symbol indicating “No Real Ale”, and the ale range is likely to consist of one of the well-known smooth bitters along with, if you’re lucky, something like John Smith’s Chestnut Mild. A trend, though, that is becoming increasingly evident is the spread of keg pale ales such as Shipyard and Camden Pale that do not have a direct cask equivalent. You might well find one of those on the bar of an Ember Inn or Stonehouse pub that no longer has cask. And one licensee was telling me recently that a keg pale was drawing customers who wouldn’t even think of touching his cask.

There remains, though, an element of forked tongue about this new-found embrace of keg. It would seem that some keg beers are more equal than others. While it is true that most well-known real ale brands do not have keg equivalents (or, if they do, they are only produced in tiny volumes) there is one well-known bitter that is sufficient to get pubs into the Good Beer Guide where it is the only cask beer. Yet put that beer in keg form, and those pubs would not be given house room, even though the beer is essentially the same. And, pre-Covid, I spotted a pub selling Robinson’s Old Tom in keg form. Given its low volumes and specialist appeal, that might seem a sensible candidate for kegging, but would it really be accepted in the same way as a craft keg imperial stout?

It could be argued that, given the widespread availability of high-quality craft keg beers, CAMRA’s original definition of real ale is no longer relevant in the modern British beer market. However, it does have the great advantage of being an objective standard – some beers are real, and others aren’t. Take that away, and you are left with making subjective judgments on which beers are good based on a whole range of criteria that may be nothing more than personal prejudice, not to mention the likelihood of slipping into outright snobbery directed at popular beers and large-scale producers.

It was always a blinkered approach to believe – as many people once seemed to do – that the definition of real ale could be used as a universal yardstick to separate good from bad beers. But, in the context of the British ale market of the early 70s, while it was a broad brush, it did make a lot of sense, and provided a clarity that a more nuanced explanation never could. And, as far as beers in traditional British styles go, it remains relevant today. I don’t see anyone arguing that beers such as Taylor’s Landlord would be just as good, if not better, if they were kegged.

Monday, 26 July 2021

Back in the groove

Last Monday at last saw the arrival of the delayed “Freedom Day”, when all formal Covid-related restrictions relating to pubs were lifted. However, in the context of rising numbers of positive tests* and many businesses being crippled by workers self-isolating due to the “pingdemic”, the impact was distinctly muted. The expectation of some kind of bacchanalia being unleashed signally failed to materialise.

As I have discussed before, my personal appetite for pubgoing was very much reduced over the preceding ten months due to the combined impact of the various restrictions, which largely destroyed the pleasure of the swift pint. If you were visiting pubs on spec you had no idea of what kind of atmosphere to expect. Ironically, I found Wetherspoon’s to be one of the most tolerable, partly because they simply don’t have enough staff to micromanage the behaviour of their customers. But pub atmosphere in Spoons is limited at the best of times, let alone when they are operating table service only.

However, during the past week I have felt able to get out and visit a few more pubs, including a wander round central Stockport on a very hot afternoon. Indeed I have visited more different pubs over the past seven days than I did in the whole of the preceding ten months. Obviously my observations only reflect my own experiences, and with the exception of Wetherspoon’s these were all very much traditional “proper pubs”.

None of the pubs were operating any kind of door control, so there was no problem in gaining entry and walking up to the bar. Only one, for some reason, insisted that I write my details down for track and trace purposes. I only spotted one bar person wearing a mask, in the pub where possibly you might least expect it. One barmaid said to a customer “I bet you don’t recognise me without a mask”. A handful of customers entered in masks, but very much in the minority. One pub had a sign saying “Please wear a mask when moving round the pub”, but nobody, including the landlord, did. No pub apart from Wetherspoon’s was operating table service for drinks. I paid cash everywhere apart from ordering a meal in Wetherspoon’s – I did also buy a pint there with cash and use a CAMRA discount voucher.

In general, the pubs were fairly quiet, although that was probably more a function of visiting them at slack times than an indicator of the overall level of trade. There were clear signs of the normal kind of pub life and interaction returning. The usual crew of codgers were there in the Boar’s Head in Stockport at 11.45 am on the Monday morning as though nothing had happened over the preceding ten months, although I hear that their elderly pub cat Felix has sadly died.

The quality of cask beer was in general pretty good, especially considering the hot weather. I wasn’t served with anything I didn’t want to drink, and the temperature was fine. In fact, the warmest pint I had was in Wetherspoon’s (although still within an acceptable range) - possibly a reflection of slow turnover. In the 1976 heatwave I’m sure many broiling pints would have been served up, which anecdotally was a major factor in the shift to lager drinking during that decade.

I also travelled on a bus for the first time since August of last year, and noted that none of the ten or so passengers, of varying ages, were wearing masks, and neither was the driver.

A few establishments, mostly at the “crafty” end of the spectrum, have stated that they are continuing with the previous restrictions, including wearing face masks. Presumably this is to appeal to excessively risk-averse people who dare not brave the “cesspit” of Wetherspoon’s. Obviously it is their right to do this, just as it is my right not to favour them with my custom.

It should not be forgotten that, under the restrictions that applied previously, few pubs beyond out-and-out dining venues were able to trade profitably. The removal of the restrictions at last gives them the chance to operate as they were intended to, and they will hopefully be able to take advantage of the second half of the summer. Given a clear run through to Christmas, many of those pubs that have survived will be able to re-establish themselves on a firmer footing. There have certainly been many comments on Twitter about both the atmosphere and the trade returning, such as this one from the Olde Cottage in Chester.

However, there will surely be continued pressure from the sociopaths of Public Health for further lockdowns and restrictions. Nobody should be in any doubt, though, that any return to mandatory table service, social distancing and masks would bring about the permanent closure of many pubs that have survived so far. Fortunately though, in the past few days, there has been a sharp decline in the number of positive tests reported, very possibly because of the start of the school holidays. I don’t want to go too far in reading the tealeaves of Covid statistics, but this must give grounds for encouragement.

My feelings last Monday were certainly not ones of joy or delight, but just profound relief that an important part of my life had been restored to something approaching normality. However, at teatime I felt sick to the stomach on hearing that the government were reintroducing the abhorrent, totalitarian concept of vaccine passports. This despite the fact that vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi had categorically promised earlier in the year not to do this. The government’s relationship with the country seems to be very much that of an abusive partner, giving a little treat in the morning and then delivering a kick in the crotch later in the day, while continually lying about their intentions and making false promises.

It has been stated that vaccine passports would only apply to nightclubs and similar crowded venues, but mission creep is inevitable, and it was certainly floated earlier in the year that they would be extended to pubs and restaurants, something that would cause huge practical problems and be severely destructive of business. Fortunately the idea has attracted a wave of political opposition, but we are certainly far from out of the woods yet, and everything remains to play for.

* Positive tests cannot be equated with cases. For something to be recorded as a “case” surely requires a formal diagnosis.

Thursday, 15 July 2021

A welcome to all ages

The trade are often keen to make the point that pubs act as a community hub for a wide cross-section of society and are far more than just commercial businesses. There could be no better illustration of this than this heartwarming story from the Manchester Evening News of 93-year old Gordon Williams, who visits the Cart and Horses at Astley near Leigh four afternoons a week, and has been using the pub for 75 years.
Gordon, a former miner, will visit the Wigan pub four afternoons a week and sticks to his classic order of two pints of Joseph Holt Black.

“I don’t understand why more people of my age don't go to the pub,” Gordon says. “It's so sociable, you never need to be lonely. And, of course, the beer is wonderful.”

And he’s right. There is a lot of congeniality and sense of belonging to be found in pubs even if you’re just exchanging a few inconsequential words with other customers.

However, a key point here is that he is able to visit the pub in the afternoon. Pensioners in general much prefer going out in the daytime, and tend to avoid the evenings, especially after it gets dark. Yet nowadays more and more pubs, especially community locals, do not open at lunchtimes during the week. Of course no pub is under any obligation to open when they don’t regard it as profitable, but by staying closed they forfeit any claim to be accommodating the older generation.

But it’s not enough just to be able to get in the pub. People like Gordon want somewhere comfortable to sit rather than having to clamber on to a high stool at a posing table. They don’t want to be hassled if they spend an hour occupying a table while nursing a pint. They expect someone will have a friendly word for them rather than being isolated amongst a sea of self-absorbed dining groups. And, of course, if the pub has already closed down during the carnage of the last couple of decades, it won’t be able to offer a welcome to anyone.

I’ve never been there personally, but it sounds as though the Cart and Horses does an excellent job of meeting all these requirements. But, while the hospitality industry may boast of fulfilling a wider social function, it has to be said that many of the establishments it represents fall a long way short.

The Cart and Horses itself has an interesting history. It has been owned by Joseph Holt throughout its life, and celebrated its centenary last year. But it was in fact a former private residence called Farnworth Lodge that was converted to a pub when Holt’s closed and demolished their former pub of the same name across the road.

Tuesday, 13 July 2021

Cask crisis deepens

Last week saw the untimely death on his 67th birthday of David Thompson, the former chairman of Marston’s, which, it should be remembered, in fact originated as Wolverhampton and Dudley Breweries, but took on the name of the Burton-on-Trent company after taking it over in 1999. He was the last member of the founding family to run the business, and had assumed the position of Managing Director in 1986 at the age of only 32.

It also saw the retirement of his successor, Ralph Findlay, who was interviewed by Roger Protz here. He offered a sobering assessment of the current state of the cask beer market.

“Cask has taken a terrible hammering,” he says. “The beer market is no longer a cask market. It’s a changing demographic – young people are not drinking cask and brewers are putting their money behind craft beer.”

“Banks’s and Pedigree haven’t performed well,” he says bluntly. “The market is changing and the Banks’s market is disappearing. There are no mild drinkers left – the industry has gone.”

Of course, some responded that it’s hardly surprising as Marston’s beers aren’t much cop anyway, but that falls into the familiar trap of assuming that everyone else is going to like what you like. Most people who drink beer in pubs don’t drink cask anyway, and those who do aren’t in general interested in beers they’ve never heard of. The idea that keg and lager drinkers will suddenly be converted to real ale if only their local pub was able to stock Crudgington’s Old Snotgobbler is a fallacy that dates back to the early days of CAMRA.

Of course the pub trade is still operating under lockdown restrictions, and it will be some time before things return to anything like normality. Increased footfall and turnover may improve the position of cask. But overall this is a very pessimistic view of its prospects. It echoes many of the points I made three years ago when I wrote about The Cask Crisis. As I explained in that post, there’s no simple answer, but they key must be that pubs treat cask as being at the core of their offer rather than just an afterthought at the end of the bar.

Part of the problem is that the whole system of cask storage and dispense was designed for high volumes and rapid turnover. It is ill-suited to a world where endless variety is prized and there is an increasingly long tail of niche products. Quality is the Achilles Heel of cask, and it is all too easy to get into a vicious circle of declining sales leading to a lower and less consistent standard of beer. It’s not that it’s often completely off, but it’s all too common to come across pints of cask that are just that little bit warm, flat and stale.

I haven’t yet seen much evidence of pubs removing cask beer entirely, although obviously I haven’t been out and about anything like as much as normal over the past sixteen months. Yes, it is happening at the margins, but not really in the kind of pubs you would naturally expect to stock cask. The situation in this area is also affected by a high proportion of pubs belonging to family brewers which are strongly committed to cask. It is when we begin to see the high-profile pubco pubs no longer feeling that they need cask as part of their offer that we really need to start worrying.

You might well think that, if cask beer is struggling, there is already an organisation ideally placed to champion and promote it, and indeed incorporates it in its name. However, over the years, CAMRA’s objectives have multiplied and become more diffuse, and cask beer itself doesn’t seem to feature very high on its list of priorities. No doubt many members will say that Marston’s beers wouldn’t be much loss anyway, while happily sipping on a keg mango sour in the craft bar. It is a touch hypocritical to claim that you are campaigning for real ale while at the same time dismissing most of it as not really worth drinking. And if you erode the mainstream market, you reduce the number of potential recruits for the supposedly superior products.

Despite what some revisionists may claim, CAMRA’s original purpose was not one of promoting choice and innovation in the beer market. It was to champion the idea that the ordinary, everyday ales served in British pubs should be cask, not keg or top pressure. They were more than happy to list pubs selling Banks’s and Pedigree in the Good Beer Guide. And that is what the organisation seems to have lost sight of.

So possibly it is time to look more to the Society for The Preservation of Beers from the Wood, or revive this idea which I floated a few years ago. Or maybe cask will only be saved if it is freed from the clutches of “beer enthusiasts”.

Tuesday, 6 July 2021

Freedom beckons

There will have been a huge sigh of the relief in the hospitality industry when the Prime Minister announced last night that it was his intention to remove virtually all the remaining Covid restrictions from 19 July. This will come almost exactly sixteen months after pubs and restaurants were required to close on 20 March last year.

While restrictions have varied somewhat in different areas, around here the pubs were completely closed for eight of those sixteen months. For most of the rest, they have been limited to serving outside, or only serving alcohol with substantial meals, or operating under a strict regime that both destroyed their profitability and severely undermined the customer experience. For only eleven and a half weeks, from the beginning of July to late September last year, were they able to operate with anything approaching normality, although still labouring under capacity curbs.

However, nobody in the pub trade will imagine that they will then be out of the woods. One licensee has said that it took him three or four years for his trade to return to what it had been before the smoking ban, and he expects something similar after lockdown. Many people will have been so traumatised by sixteen months of official scaremongering that they will still be very reluctant to return to their former habits. Younger people have consistently greatly overestimated the personal risk to them of Covid.

On the other hand, many pubgoers have been deterred to a greater or lesser extent by the restrictive regime that pubs have had to operate under for the past seven weeks. Added to this, many pubs seem to have taken an unsympathetic and over-zealous approach to applying the regulations. It’s not all or most by any means, but anecdotal evidence suggests it’s a substantial minority, not just a few isolated examples. It’s all very well to exhort people to support pubs, but most people go to the pub as an enjoyable leisure activity, not out of a sense of duty. I don’t want to harp on excessively about this, as it should soon be a thing of the past, but this exchange is a fairly typical example.

With the furlough scheme being wound up, many people are likely to be strapped for cash and worried about their jobs, and thus reluctant to go out and spend money. This may be offset by the reported general health of the wider economy, and the fact that many people who have remained in work will have been able to save money during lockdown. There certainly seems to be no shortage of jobs on offer in hospitality itself.

Some of the people who have been praising pubs for their strict adherence to Covid rules may feel discomfited by the new free-and-easy atmosphere, but I suspect they will very much be in the minority and, unless trade is dramatically higher than it was pre-Covid, there will still be plenty of half-empty pubs for them to rattle around in.

Earlier in the year, it was reported that pubs would still be required to collect customer details for test and trace purposes even after all other restrictions were removed, but it now seems that this is to be dropped. It had in any case become largely voluntary, with many people deleting the NHS app out of the fear of getting pinged, and pubs finding that their manual records contained a surprising number of visits by Matt Hancock and Chris Whitty. It had in effect become a pointless bureaucratic burden to both pubs and customers, and would be impossible to enforce in a busy pub with bar service and no door control. It’s also questionable whether, with something that is so endemic as Covid, applying it to hospitality is anything more than an exercise in pissing in the wind.

There will be nothing to stop pubs maintaining Covid regulations if they choose to, but I’d expect most of them will go by the board for the simple reason that they restrict capacity and thus profitability. Some dining pubs may choose to stick to an all table service model, thus effectively turning themselves into restaurants, or adopt the divisive practice of mandatory app ordering. But I really can’t see any pub insisting that customers put on a mask to go to the toilet.

The possibility has been raised of some restrictions having to return in the winter if there is a surge in Covid hospitalisations. But surely that is unlikely if the vast majority of the adult population has been vaccinated. The objective of lockdown should have been as a one-off emergency measure to prevent the health service being overwhelmed, not a routine tactic of infection control. If there is to be a surge, the government have plenty of time to plan for it. It would seem unreasonable in the extreme to pull the rug out from the hospitality industry just as soon as they had got back on their feet. No business can plan for the future if they fear being arbitrarily restricted at a moment’s notice. and cancelling Christmas again will go down like cold turkey.

This isn’t a done deal yet, as the plans still need to be formally confirmed next Monday and, predictably, all the enthusiasts for permanent lockdown have been busy attacking them. However, the government have signalled a very clear commitment and to renege on them now would involve a highly embarrassing climbdown. In fact, there was no reason why we couldn’t have unlocked a couple of weeks ago, as the SAGE forecasts of hospitalisations on which the decision to extend the lockdown was based proved to be hopelessly pessimistic. However, what is done is done and now the pub trade needs to look forward to the future.

It should be noted that all of the above applies only to England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will not be unlocking on the same day, but will probably, as usual, tag along a few weeks behind just to prove that they are different. But that will mean that pubs in those regions will have lost most of the summer rather than just half of it.

Friday, 2 July 2021

Back to Imasas

When I was a child, my dad used to sing a fragment of a comic song from before the war that went “I’m going back to Imasas”. But it didn’t refer to some exotic place down Mexico way, but to “Imasas the pub next door.” You can listen to a version here.

However, it seems that the idea of having a pub next door is far from universally popular. Boak and Bailey recently ran a Twitter poll in which 58% of respondents said they wouldn’t want a pub to open next door to their house, and discussed the results here.

It’s not really surprising that most people don’t want a pub right next door, considering all the noise and comings and goings that it entails. And, compared with a generation ago, pubs are both open considerably later and conduct much more of their business outdoors. It’s unlikely to be a Herne-pattern micropub used by a handful of codgers who are all off the premises by 9.30.

However, realistically, if you live in any housing developed after the First World War, a combination of planning constraints and the limited commercial prospects mean that it’s highly unlikely that anyone actually will open a pub right next door to you. What many areas do have, though, is small suburban shopping parades where the decline of traditional types of shops has opened up an opportunity for a different type of business. But, in practice, any application for a licensed convenience store, a takeaway or a small bar is likely to meet with stiff opposition which is often tinged with snobbery on the grounds that it will “attract undesirables.”

In fact, in recent decades the trend has very much been for pubs to move out of residential areas. Many smaller wet-led pubs in villages and urban backstreets have closed, and the standalone pub in the middle of a large housing estate has been one of the most endangered categories. Where new pubs and bars have opened, it has tended to be in town centres and the more prosperous suburbs or, for dining pubs at least, on retail parks. Some desirable suburban high streets have developed whole strips of fashionable new bars.

While people may not want a pub right on their doorstep, there remains a strong attachment to the idea of having one in the neighbourhood in general. Estate agents’ surveys have consistently shown that a substantial proportion of people see having a “local” as an important criterion when choosing somewhere to live. However, the idealised vision may be in conflict with the reality, and where new housing estates are built it often seems that they generate little or no trade for the existing pubs in the area.

It’s important to remember that pubs are certainly not something with universal appeal. Surveys have shown that almost half of people never visit a pub from one month to the next, although the proportions vary across different age groups. Those who fall into that category are likely to see a local pub as a blot on the landscape rather than an appealing facility.

This discussion prompted me to run a Twitter poll on how many people have a pub or bar within comfortable walking distance of their house. This showed that almost two-thirds of respondents had somewhere that they could call a “local”, even if it might not be right next door. However, I accept that my followers probably aren’t representative of the population as a whole. More than one person replied that they wouldn’t buy a house that wasn’t within walking distance of a pub.

I chose ten minutes as I remember reading a survey that said that, for most people, ten minutes was the maximum they were prepared to walk to a pub, although I don’t have a reference for it. I know some will say “I’d happily walk an hour for a pint of Batham’s”, but most of the population don’t see it that way, and pub owners need to bear that in mind when analysing the appeal of their premises.

The picture at the top shows the Black Hose in Burton-on-Trent, an end-terrace pub where complaints from neighbours were a factor in its closure a few years ago.

Tuesday, 15 June 2021

Never let you go

While it had been well signalled in advance, the news yesterday that the end of lockdown restrictions was being postponed by a further four weeks will have come as a bitter blow to the hospitality trade. Business leaders have warned that the delay will ruin the industry.

Few pubs, especially wet-led ones, are currently able to trade profitably, and many are hanging on by the skin of their teeth in the hope that things will eventually improve. Less than a quarter are confident of being able to survive three months. A delay to 19 July will mean losing over half the summer, by far the most lucrative season for most. They will also miss out on the entire Euro 2020 football tournament which, along with the World Cup, is the biggest moneyspinner in the trade.

Pubs are bleeding to death. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the government are conducting a deliberate vendetta against them. They certainly seem supremely indifferent to their fate. Yet at the same time, forced into a sanitised experience in pubs and unable to socialise there in large groups, many people will be choosing to go to house parties instead, where social distancing guidelines are well-nigh impossible to police.

I have criticised the snail-like pace of the unlocking roadmap, but at least it provided a clear timetable and hope of light at the end of the tunnel. If we had unlocked next Monday, a lot would have been forgiven and forgotten. But to kick the can down the road for a further four weeks will result in a huge erosion of trust. This will only have been compounded by the sight of large groups of world leaders socialising unmasked at the G7 summit on Cornwall. It clearly seems to be one rule for us and another for the little people.

The move has been condemned by numerous respected commentators and newspaper leading articles. I could offer a forest of links, but will just give you this unpaywalled one from David Paton of the University of Nottingham.

The delay to the reopening is a devastating blow to many businesses and sectors, such as the events industry, sports, music, theatre and hospitality. There ought to have been compelling evidence for any delay. But there is nothing in the data to justify it.
It’s quite an achievement to unite the Daily Telegraph, Theresa May and Sadiq Khan in opposition to your policy. Yet it will get through the House of Commons without difficulty because, as throughout the past fifteen months, Starmer will act as Johnson’s nodding dog. The official opposition have abdicated their responsibility. You don’t have to oppose the policy outright to scrutinise it properly and force the government to account for their decisions, and Labour have signally failed to do this.

Predictably, many from the scientific community had urged the government to delay the unlocking, and will no doubt now be feeling pleased with themselves. But, of course, they would say that, wouldn’t they? They have no skin in the game, and no responsibility for anything beyond their own narrow remit.

We could bandy statistics about all day, but it’s worth noting that the current level of hospitalisations is below the lowest of five scenarios produced by SAGE when the roadmap was originally announced on February 22. The average number of Covid deaths in England over the past two weeks was 7.7, or scarcely more than half of one percent of all deaths. There is plenty of evidence that vaccinations have broken the link between cases and hospitalisations. There is no realistic chance of the NHS being overwhelmed, which is what was put forward as the original justification for lockdowns, not keeping the population under the heel until Covid had virtually disappeared.

Johnson has stated that he is “confident” that the restrictions will end on July 19. Yet there has been a long trail of such broken promises before. And, as the next review date approaches, the joyless sociopaths of SAGE will no doubt be ramping up the pressure to persuade him to extend the lockdown even further. It is being seriously suggested that the partial lockdown is now likely to continue all through the winter, in which case we would have precious few pubs left at the end of it.

Last September, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis made the decision to unlock the state against the advice of the scientists, and the state has never looked back. Large swathes of the US are fully open again despite a considerably lower vaccination rate than the UK. Yesterday, Denmark cancelled all mask mandates, and today Israel has scrapped all Covid restrictions. If they can do it, why can’t we?

Many foreign commentators have expressed their surprise at the high level of restrictions that persist in the UK despite the highest level of vaccinations of any major European country. In reality, SAGE will never let go willingly, and eventually Johnson is going to have to face them down, or we will never be set free. As before, I’m not making any specific predictions, but suffice to say that I will be pleasantly surprised if I am actually able to order a pint at the bar on July 19.

Saturday, 12 June 2021

Never glad confident morning again

The British craft beer movement has been marked not only by a commitment to brewing interesting and innovative beer, but by taking a principled stand against various “isms” in society. However, that image has been considerably tarnished this week when 61 former workers of craft standard-bearer BrewDog published an open letter accusing the firm of hypocrisy, exploitation, and toxicity. The full text can be viewed here. This paragraph is particularly telling.
BrewDog was, and is, built on a cult of personality. Since day one, you have sought to exploit publicity, both good and bad (and usually with the faces of James and Martin front and centre) to further your own business goals. Your mission might genuinely be to make other people as passionate about craft beer as you are (and in a sense you have succeeded - your fanbase certainly has some true zealots in its ranks), but the ambitions you impressed on your team have always seemed business-led. Growth, at all costs, has always been perceived as the number one focus for the company, and the fuel you have used to achieve it is controversy.
This is not an isolated incident either. Last week, Cloudwater brewer Charlotte Cook published this angry and passionate article in which she recounted similar experiences of workers at a number of other smaller but still well-known craft breweries, and stated "These companies are not run as businesses, but as theocracies."

However, perhaps these incidents are not aberrations that betray the spirit of craft, but something whose seeds are contained in the very nature of the project.

It is recognised that the founders of successful start-up businesses often tend to be single-minded, driven people with little regard for social niceties, who often trample roughshod over the concerns of others. Their behaviour is tolerated and excused as long as the money keeps flowing in.

In a non-beer field there was a prime example of this recently in the case of Ray Kelvin, the charismatic founder of fashionable clothing brand Ted Baker, who was ousted by the company after a catalogue of misdemeanours including the creepy forced hugging. Yet, as sales tanked without him at the helm, he was later brought back in some capacity, although not restored to the leadership of the company.

In beer we have seen the cult of the “rock star brewer”, although we don’t hear so much of that nowadays. This is very much putting the emphasis on personalities, and rock stars themselves are not noted for their sympathetic treatment of those around them.

This tendency can be compounded in organisations that lay claim to some higher moral purpose beyond merely that of making money. It is sometimes believed that charities, local government and the health service are friendly and unthreatening work environments compared with the cut and thrust of the private sector, but often they are the scene of even worse bullying and abuse, partly because the restraint of actually needing to make a profit is taken away. Any complaint is seen as undermining the noble objective. There have been many examples in non-profit organisations of a toxic atmosphere developing because individuals were afraid to challenge the dominant culture.

As companies mature, they grow out of a reliance on individual personalities, and become the impersonal corporate behemoths that are often seen as the embodiment of what craft is setting itself against. But, while the likes of Heineken may be widely derided, they have HR departments, employment policies and grievance procedures, and any abuse of this kind would probably be swiftly nipped in the bud and not allowed to fester.

Looking forward, it’s not hard to imagine that, as a response to these issues, companies create a different but just as stifling climate of fear in which a blanket of conformity is thrown over the whole organisation and people live in fear of saying the wrong thing. Perhaps it is time for craft brewing to concentrate on the beer and stop proclaiming that it is trying to change society. It needs to become less of a movement and more of just another market segment.

Sunday, 6 June 2021

Smoked out

The Covid crisis has provided a golden opportunity for the Puritans and bansturbators of the public health lobby. Not content with just delivering patronising lectures to the general population about their behaviour, they have been able to actually ban people from doing a wide range of activities. The fact that pubs have either been completely closed or operating under severe restrictions for fifteen months must have gladdened their stony hearts.

However, as the Covid curbs start to be slowly and grudgingly eased, they will be looking at other ways of pursuing their joyless agenda. One obvious candidate is further limiting people’s ability to smoke outside pubs. Several local authorities tried to do this when pubs were given extra temporary pavement licences, but were told that during an emergency this would be unnecessarily divisive and further erode pubs’ ability to trade profitably.

Now, the Morning Advertiser reports that five local authorities have already included no-smoking conditions in pavement licences. And Oxfordshire is going one further and declaring an ambition to become the first smoke-free county in England. It does need to be pointed out that all these measures apply only to licensed public areas, and not to outside areas on the pubs’ own property, but the desired direction of travel is crystal clear.

After the smoking ban came in, many antismokers claimed that pubs could still cater for smokers as they could pop outside for a puff. This was always a pretty weak argument, but it is rendered completely void if they are unable to smoke anywhere near the pub.

While some people find environmental smoke unpleasant, there is no convincing evidence that it is harmful in an outdoor environment where it is rapidly dispersed. And there are many other things that people find objectionable, but aren’t banned, such as screaming children or fat sweaty blokes in T-shirts with brewery logos. In any case, pubs are quite at liberty to ban smoking in outdoor areas if they think it will benefit their business.

Although they are treated like pariahs, smokers are still more likely to visit pubs than non-smokers, possibly because they are by nature more convivial and less health-obsessed. But if they can’t smoke at all, they’re not going to be inclined to go in the first place. For landlocked pubs with no outside area apart from the street, this could a threat to their viability. And presumably licensees will be held responsible for enforcement in the area attached to their pub, just as they are with the indoor ban, as opposed to just leaving it to council jobsworths, which might positively invite mass non-compliance

The range of outdoor spaces where smokers are tolerated is steadily being diminished. It is a classic example of the technique, seen over the centuries, of “othering” despised and marginalised minorities. The targets may change, but the tactics don’t. And can we honestly believe this will never be applied to drinkers too?

Tuesday, 1 June 2021

Categorising the Germans

Regular readers will be aware that I have a fondness for authentic German lagers. So I was pleased last September to see Paulaner Münchner Hell appear on the shelves of my local Tesco, priced at £2 for a 500ml bottle. Initially it was not included in any multibuy offers, which some customers might have found a deterrent, but it was later brought within the scope for their regular 3 for £5 offer on premium bottled lagers and ciders. £1.67 a bottle is a very good price, and it seems to sell pretty well.

I was interested to see last weekend that Morrisons had started stocking the similar Hofbräu Original, albeit at the steeper price of £2.50 and not included in any multibuys. I suspect many Morrisons customers will find that price distinctly steep, so it remains to be seen how much they will actually sell, although I and many others would not jib at paying it for German imports in independent off licences such as the Bottle Stop in Bramhall.

Personally, although both are good, I prefer the Hofbräu to the Paulaner, but a Twitter poll I ran last year found Paulaner to be the favourite amongst the six well-known Munich breweries. This was perhaps a slightly surprising result, as most of the smart money had been riding on Augustiner.

This raises the interesting question as to where supermarkets should place these beers on their shelves. I’ve discussed before how the beer aisle is divided into distinct sections such as premium bottled ales, mainstream canned lagers and craft beer, and many customers will only look at one or two areas and disregard the rest. Tesco have chosen to place the Paulaner alongside the 660ml bottles of Stella and San Miguel, and include it in the same offer, which makes logical sense according to its style.

Morrisons, on the other hand, have placed the Hofbräu together with the “world beers” such as Duvel and Sierra Nevada, where its relatively high price might not stand out so much. Possibly those browsing that section might appreciate its quality more, but on the other hand it could end up being overlooked if it is the only beer there in that general style.

It’s puzzling that German beers, despite their undoubted quality and their central role in the development of lager, never seem to have got the recognition in this country that they deserve. Our four biggest-selling lagers purport to have Canadian, Australian, Danish and Belgian origins, and the most fashionable one is Italian.

And it would be nice to see Jever Pilsener, which is very different from the Munich beers, appear in the mainstream supermarkets!