Saturday, 3 June 2023

Getting fresh

Otter Brewery have recently launched a new category of beer called Fresh Ale which has attracted a fair amount of media attention. They are described as “beers that are said to straddle the lager, cask ale and craft beer categories”. The article goes on to say that “fresh ales are initially brewed as cask ales, but instead of being filled into casks they are gently carbonated before being put into kegs”. The objective is to provide a longer-lasting product that will replicate some of the experience of drinking cask without exposing drinkers to the quality lottery that sadly is all to prevalent nowadays. Tandleman has also recently written about the concept here.

However, an obvious issue is that they will inevitably be judged as being just another type of keg beer. Back in the 1970s, beer tended to be categorised in terms of style and brand, and there were many different ways of serving it as well as real ale, such as bright beer, tank beer and top-pressure beer as well as the archetypal keg, all of which had their own characteristics.

But, as CAMRA sought to promote the uniqueness of real ale (or cask as we now seem to have to call it) it presented it as a category that stood apart from all other beers. If it wasn’t cask, it was keg. This is despite the fact that keg beers today are certainly not all the same – a nitrokeg is very different from a classic carbonated one, and many keykeg craft beers have a much softer level of carbonation. Fresh Ale, whatever its merits, will simply be seen as one more type of keg. Serving it through a handpump, as the illustration suggests, will be condemned as misleading.

We are often told that “everyone’s a repertoire drinker now”, as there’s certainly some truth in this. Fewer and fewer drinkers exclusively confine their drinking to one category as they may have done a few decades ago. However, many of those who account for most of the sales volume of cask are people who, while they may not drink it exclusively, do predominantly choose it and show quite a lot of loyalty to the category. If they do venture into other areas, it will be for things that stand well apart, such as Guinness, premium lagers or strong craft kegs. They won’t be tempted by something that isn’t cask, but is fairly similar, and if that’s all that’s on offer they may not be too enthusiastic.

At a time of declining volumes, this loyal customer base provides something of a cushion for cask, but it can cut both ways. There’s no denying that cask is currently fighting a rearguard action, and its main problem is inconsistent and often downright poor quality which makes drinkers reluctant to trust it. This comment on Twitter is typical of several I have seen, and he describes himself as a “cask evangelist” in his bio:

It’s not the sole reason, but the core of the problem is slow turnover and over-extended ranges, something that remains very much an elephant in the room that the industry as a whole is reluctant to confront. Sometimes even one beer can be one too many. It often used to be said in CAMRA circles that if a pub didn’t have the turnover for cask it should stop selling it, but the pubs that took them up on that then found themselves cast out in the cold.

Ironically, it’s the pubs with the lowest and most fluctuating turnover of cask, often in rural areas, that are most likely to continue stocking it. They tend to have an older and more traditionalist customer base who would be resistant to the idea of drinking keg beer. By dropping cask, they would exclude themselves from the Good Beer Guide and any other guides produced by CAMRA and place themselves in a second-tier category on WhatPub.

Yes, other pub guides are available, such as the Good Pub Guide, but even they would tend to comment negatively on the absence of cask. And many casual customers, on entering a pub with no handpumps on the bar, would immediately turn round and go out again. For some people, even if they don’t drink cask themselves, the presence of handoumps on the bar selling ales from local breweries is a reassuring part of the atmosphere along with horse brasses and old local photos.

So pubs soldier on with cask, even in the full knowledge that they’re often not presenting it at its best. Except in areas well off the tourist track, you would be hard-pressed to find any rural pubs in England and Wales that don’t at least nominally stock cask.

Something like Fresh Ale would provide a sensible solution for low-turnover pubs like that, allowing them to consistently provide a pretty decent pint, rather than occasionally offering up a really good one, but more often serving up warm slop or vinegar. But the continued loyalty to the concept of cask means that they would be ostracised if they chose to go down that path.

Wednesday, 31 May 2023

Unsafe at any level

It’s generally accepted that drinking large quantities of alcohol over a prolonged period really doesn’t do you any good. On the other hand, given its prevalence in society, it’s also pretty obvious that drinking modest quantities doesn’t do you much, if any, harm. This is something that government agencies have to wrestle with when producing guidance on healthy diets.

I vaguely remember when a figure of 50 units a week was bandied about as the level above which risk does start to increase steeply. It has then more formally stated as 28 units a week, then 21, then 21 for men and 14 for women. Most recently, it was reduced to 14 units for both sexes purely on the grounds of equality, as there was no scientific basis for this given men’s typically larger body size and different metabolism. But the basic principle remains that official bodies recognise that drinking a modest amount of alcohol isn’t inconsistent with a healthy lifestyle.

What is more, there’s a wealth of evidence that drinking a moderate quantity actually results in better health outcomes than total abstention. It’s sometimes claimed that the figures are distorted by the inclusion of “sick quitters”, people who have had to give up alcohol after it caused them serious problems but, as Christopher Snowdon explains here, the effect still applies even when they are discounted.

This presents a major problem for the anti-drink lobby, as they are unable to present alcohol as being universally bad. They also argue that it gives the alcohol industry a figleaf of respectability, as they are able to promote it as a mainstream, responsible product even when they know that many of their customers consume well above the official guidelines. Hence it becomes a kind of holy grail to be able to convert the official line to one of saying that any level of consumption is harmful.

This is a line that the World Health Organisation are currently pushing strongly, for example in this article. I’m not aware anything in the underlying science has changed, and it remains a subject of debate. Remember that these are the people who want national governments to surrender their authority to them to determine future pandemic policy.

Even accepting the underlying premise, the risk level at low levels of consumption remains very small and not something that really should concern people. People engage in all kinds of leisure activities for their own pleasure that even at minimal levels cannot be said to be entirely free of risk. You might as well say “there is no safe level of mountaineering.” There’s also a risk that it might encourage a mentality of “might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb”. The current guidelines, while extremely over-cautious, are not bad advice as such. Replace them with “even a drop is dangerous” and people are deprived of any yardstick to assess risk.

However, official acceptance of this position will over time completely change alcohol’s position in society. It will inevitably lead to moves to discourage the presentation of alcohol in a positive light. Pressure will be stepped up to further restrict advertising, and drinks will be excluded from export promotions and celebrations of local produce. Despite years of doing their best to appease the anti-drink lobby, the drinks industry will be left in the same position as tobacco, as a “toxic trade” excluded from polite society.

And this, of course, is why the anti-drink lobby are so keen to push this message, and why it needs to be strongly resisted.

Sunday, 28 May 2023

Putting the bottles out

I have written a couple of times about the planned Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) in Scotland, most recently here. I made the point that the Scottish Government had so far failed to apply for an Internal Market Exemption from Westminster, which they would need for the scheme to go ahead. There were serious concerns from industry that applying different rules in Scotland would impose additional costs, erode the single market within the UK and reduce choice for consumers.

The UK government have now given their response, which is not to reject the scheme outright, but to give it conditional approval on the condition that glass is excluded. Predictably, this has met with an angry response, but by removing the element that was most problematical and would cause the most problems for smaller craft producers, it could be seen as doing the Scottish Government a favour by making the scheme more realistically workable, and thus in a sense be a deft piece of politics.

Outright rejection would have been met with fury, although it might have been tempting to allow it to go ahead and let it fall flat on its face. Given the array of problems that have been pointed out, the odds must have been that it would either end up being postponed even further, or if it did go ahead in March next year, have proved disastrous. However, as the UK government are planning a nationwide scheme in 2025 they would not want the whole concept to be tarred with the brush of failure.

This may lead to some substitution of glass bottles for cans, particularly amongst craft beers but, as bottles are more expensive than cans anyway, the effect probably wouldn’t be all that great. This episode also illustrates a potential pitfall with devolution if devolved administrations are given the power to impose internal trade barriers.

It remains to be seen how the Scottish government will respond. Will they just scrap the whole thing in a fit of pique, or let it go ahead on the basis that half a loaf is better than none at all?

Thursday, 11 May 2023

Boys’ (and girls’) bitter

From time to time, you see stories about under-18s being ID’d in shops when trying to buy alcohol-free beers. On the face of it, this seems heavy-handed, as anything with an alcohol content of 0.5% ABV can be legally purchased and consumed by under-18s. However, the issue is complicated by the fact that these are products that carry the names of alcohol brands, and are specifically designed, as far as possible, to mimic the appearance and taste of normal-strength beers.

The Morning Advertiser has recently been looking at the legalities of selling these products to under-18s. The conclusion is that, while there is no law against it, as they do not legally qualify as alcohol, it does create several problems, such giving the impression to others that young people are drinking alcohol, and the fact that it may not be immediately clear to staff which products are alcoholic, and which are not. Therefore most pubs are understandably unwilling to do it, and will ID any customers wanting to buy them. You also have to wonder how often under-18s actually order anything at the bar of a pub anyway, although they might be more likely to buy meals with drinks in a casual dining restaurant.

There is a more fundamental question, though. While they certainly meet a genuine demand amongst adults, one of the key reasons alcohol-free beers exist is to act as a marketing tool for the parent brand. That’s why every major lager brand now has its own alcohol-free version. So we are asking whether under-18s should be buying a product that not only is a form of alcohol marketing, but specifically sets out to mimic the experience of consuming the standard product. It’s more than just wearing a Guinness-branded T-shirt.

When I was a kid, we used to enjoy chocolate cigarettes, and pretend we were smoking the real thing as consumed by adults. They tended to be American brands such as Camels and Chesterfields rather than British ones like Players and Rothmans, but they certainly looked pretty realistic. These obviously would be frowned on nowadays, but there is something of a read-across to under-18s and alcohol-free beers. Nobody would raise any objections if the same products were sold as something like “Malt Cola”, with no mention of beer or links to alcohol brands, but then they would lose much of their appeal to adults.

I’ve often argued that we tend to be rather heavy-handed about alcohol marketing potentially appealing to under-18s, but few people would seriously argue that it’s OK to specifically market alcoholic drinks to them. Therefore, while I see no problem with a parent giving their child an alcohol-free beer, it’s probably not a good idea for pubs or shops to sell them directly to under-18s.

Thursday, 20 April 2023

Kicking the can

Last Autumn, I wrote about the issues surrounding the Scottish Government’s plans to introduce a Deposit Return Scheme (DRS) for beverage containers, with effect from August this year. It has to be said that some of the comments showed a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the scheme, in particular failing to appreciate that every container would need a specific barcode to confirm it was one on which a deposit had been paid, and not realising that, unlike virtually all similar schemes in other countries, every producer would be required to register and would have their performance monitored in terms of the proportion of containers returned.

Since then, there was a growing chorus of concern from both industry and consumer groups that the scheme as designed would be inflationary, would impose significant extra costs and administrative burdens on businesses, and would severely restrict consumer choice. It also became clear that no attempt had been made to look at how such schemes operated in other countries, and that the Scottish Government had failed to apply for an Internal Market Exemption from the UK Government, which would be needed to put the scheme into operation. Plus it remained unclear how the deposits would be treated for VAT purposes, which is essential for the programming of electronic point-of-sale systems. So it started to look increasingly likely that there would be some further delay in the implementation date.

Then in the middle of February came the unexpected and precipitate resignation of Nicola Sturgeon, which turned out to put a slow-burning match under the whole edifice of the Scottish National Party. All three of the candidates to succeed her said that, to a greater or lesser extent, that they would review the scheme, and earlier his week her eventual successor Humza Yousaf duly announced that the implementation date would be pushed back until 1 March next year. However, the hapless Yousaf now seems to be inhabiting a burning building, with the whole of the SNP having imploded, so it’s anyone’s guess exactly what the situation will be then.

In any case, all that he has done is to kick the can further down road. While the extension does give the opportunity for a review, and allows businesses more time to prepare, nothing has actually changed, and the scheme remains as damaging and impractical as it was before. In the words of a statement from the Night Time Industries Association Scotland (NTIA),

“The NTIA welcomes the news that the Scottish Deposit Return Scheme has been delayed until March 2024, but we need to be clear that the scheme as designed is fundamentally flawed and remains completely unworkable for large parts of our sector. It would also be significantly inflationary and worsen the cost of living pressures being felt across society.

“Scotland’s DRS as currently proposed cannot be fixed by tweaking around the edges, and a total redesign, learning the lessons of schemes elsewhere, is needed. If there is to be a scheme it also must be identical in scope across the UK, launching at the same time UK wide, and it should be much simpler and less expensive to implement.

“We urge Scottish Government to now engage in meaningful consultation with businesses and commission a full review and redesign from scratch of the deposit return scheme.”

So, unless there are significant changes, Scotland will end up in just the same mess in March 2024 as it would have done in August this year. There must be a very severe doubt as to whether that date will be achieved either. If a DRS is to be implemented at all, surely the sensible option would be to shelve the Scotland-only plans and await the UK-wide scheme planned for 2025, which will avoid the creation of any internal trade barriers.

It also has to be questioned whether such a scheme is worthwhile in the first place. Unlike most other countries that have introduced a DRS, the UK already has an effective system of kerbside collections which handles the majority of beverage containers. Recycling is not worth doing regardless of cost and, in a report produced by the Institute of Economic Affairs, they point out that it does not make economic sense even when intangible benefits are taken into account:

A UK-wide deposit return scheme (DRS) can be expected to increase recycling rates for beverage bottles and cans from 70-75 per cent to 85-90 per cent, but at a disproportionate cost.

A DRS is expected to cost over £1 billion in its first year and £814 million per annum thereafter. The tangible economic benefits are expected to be less than £100 million per year. In financial terms, a DRS would be highly inefficient, largely because kerbside collection already recovers 72 per cent of these containers.

The government’s impact assessment is only able to claim a net economic gain by including intangible benefits of £968 million per annum from a reduction in litter. This figure is highly questionable. The impact assessment neglects to include the much larger costs of unpaid labour that will be incurred by households having to collect, store and return empty containers. When the full costs and benefits are included in the analysis, there seems to be no economic case for a deposit return scheme.

There also remain significant questions around the sheer practicalities of how the scheme is expected to work. The sheer volume of containers involved is enormous. I haven’t been able to find a figure for the average number people use, but if we assume it’s two per person per day, that means a two-person household will generate well over a hundred per month. People are supposedly going to use “reverse vending machines” that will give you a credit for each container but, given that they’re going to have to check the barcode on every one, they’re not exactly going to the lightning-quick. How many of these will be needed to avoid massive queues? Is there enough supply to achieve this from the start? Where will they be located, and who will be responsible for operating them? Has there even been a demonstration of one in a UK context?

Another issue is how the repayments will actually be made. In some other counties the machines issue supermarket vouchers, but I can’t see most people being happy with that. They’ll want actual money. And, while it may be possible to create a system where people create an account that sends the repayments directly to their bank, that’s not going to cover everyone and will create a barrier to claiming refunds. A foreign student who buys a can of Coke in the street is going to want actual cash, so are we going to have machines dotted around the streets containing large sums and potentially presenting a target for thieves?

As I said in my previous post, given that we already have an extensive system of kerbside collection that in general works fairly well, surely it would make sense to build on this for the majority of containers that are consumed at home, rather than making people use something entirely different. Effectively all such containers that I buy go in the recycling already, so personally I would gain nothing apart from more hassle. I, and I’d guess millions of others, would happily get a private company or charity to collect the containers from the my home and take a commission for doing so.

At the same time, the Scottish Government announced that they were withdrawing their proposals for draconian curbs on alcohol advertising and promotion and would review them. I have to say I didn’t get too worked up about these, as they always seemed too extreme to be actually implemented. Such ideas always show a failure to appreciate how advertising actually works. They would have done little or nothing to address problem drinking and would have disadvantaged small producers and new entrants to the market in favour of the big established players. The main motivation seemed to be to express a distaste for alcohol in general. And to demonise the industry that is your biggest export earner is a spectacular example of shooting yourself in the foot.

Monday, 10 April 2023

A touch of grey

We live in an ageing society, with an ever-increasing ratio of older people compared with younger ones. However, you would never guess this from the media, who seem obsessed with the youth market. Scarcely a week goes by that we do not hear of some presenter or columnist being put out to grass in the interest of “bringing in new blood”.

This can be a dangerous attitude to carry across into the business world, where companies often seem preoccupied with attracting a diminishing and fickle youth audience while loyal older customers are ignored. This article identifies this misapprehension as one of the factors behind the fall of Silicon Valley Bank:

When releasing its annual State of the Wine Industry report for 2023 (as well as lending to tech start-ups, it also had a premium wine lending arm), it came to the conclusion that the future of the wine sector depended on bringing a new generation of young drinkers into the category.

This was the wrong decision again by SVB. The reality is that great swathes of young people don’t touch wine, and they never have done. Consider that as many as 35% of people in their 20s don’t drink vino at all, whereas in contrast, the majority of wine is consumed by the over-40s. What actually happens is that many of these younger drinkers ultimately move over into the wine-drinking camp as they get older, and possibly more discerning with their alcohol choices.

The same seems to happen on a regular cycle with trying to attract younger drinkers to cask beer. However, the main thrust of Glynn Davis’ article is how this attitude applies to the pub trade. Increasingly, the over-45s are the people with both the time and money to spend in pubs, but when they do cross the threshold they encounter a variety of factors that make them feel ill at ease.

Meanwhile, 25% of the population is sitting pretty. These are aged over 45, largely mortgage-free and living rather comfortably, with plenty of disposable income. But they have moderated their behaviour in line with the rest of the country and reduced their frequency of visits to pubs, bars and restaurants.

Drawing these people out of their homes more often must surely represent a major opportunity for the hospitality industry? They need to be given more confidence, and reasons, to get spending again, and this could involve some really simple things like increasing the print size of menus, adjusting the lighting and addressing one of the biggest bugbears of older customers – the high volume of music in many venues.

The volume of music in pubs is a perennial complaint. Regardless of what genre it is, if it’s too loud to sustain a conversation many people are simply not going to want to stay. I remember on our trip to Shifnal in 2019 going in the Crown in mid-afternoon and being regaled by the greatest hits of Pink at absolutely earsplitting volume. There were very few other customers, none of them particularly young, and I’m really not sure for whose benefit it was being played. As I said, “It wasn’t surprising that this was by some way the least busy of all the pubs we visited.”

The choice of music is also an important factor. It has to be remembered that the older generation are people who have lived through the Summer of Love, punk and rave culture, and so don’t necessarily want to be given the musical equivalent of a pipe and slippers. They are people who will still put School’s Out, Back in Black and Smells Like Teen Spirit on the jukebox. There is a tendency to believe a pub appealing to a more mature clientele should offer a mixture of bland easy listening and songs from the shows, which can be very wide of the mark.

From the Beatles to the Britpop era, the popular music of the day was part of the general public consciousness. But, in the present century, the fragmentation of media and the growth of streaming has greatly undermined this, and so if a pub plays contemporary pop it will to a large extent fall on deaf ears. And a crucial factor is that music should always be selected to suit the tastes of the customers, not the bar staff.

Edit: I ran this Twitter poll which underlines the point. Only 13% of respondents said they made any effort to keep up with the current charts, including a slightly lower proportion of under-50s:

Pub seating is another important aspect. If customers aren’t comfortable, they’ll go elsewhere. A particular offender is the growing trend towards high-level posing tables. A couple of years ago, Holt’s refurbished the Cat & Lion at Stretton, a prosperous and genteel suburb just south of Warrington. Yet the bulk of the seating in the main bar area consists of posing tables, as pictured. You have to wonder where all the fit young customers are going to come from who will find that appealing. Another type of seating that is very offputting to older people is long forms with no backs, as often seen in craft bars.

Other factors that could be added are:

  • Low lighting, making reading impossible.

  • Bare wood floors, which echo and amplify noise rather than soaking it up.

  • Long flights of stairs to reach the toilets. There is a huge territory covered by “not disabled, but not as sprightly as I once was”. Wetherspoon’s do well on most of these points, but not on this one.

  • Putting your entire menu on a blackboard – maybe OK for daily specials, but regular items should on a printed menu with font of a legible size and which makes it clear how to order and exactly what comes with what.

  • Allowing noisy children a free run of the pub.

Obviously if a pub deliberately markets itself as being targeted at the older generation it is likely to have a negative effect – oldies do not want to be reminded of the fact. But it shouldn’t be too difficult for pub operators to take a few simple steps to avoid being offputting to older customers without deterring anyone else. And, at a time when younger people seem to be increasingly avoiding alcohol entirely, and preferring burying themselves in social media to actual physical socialising, it makes good business sense.

It’s easy to say “you need to catch them young”, but it has been extensively demonstrated over the years that there are many things in life that people just grow into. An excessive focus on youth is likely to prove counter-productive.

Monday, 27 March 2023

The 3.4% solution

It’s perhaps surprising that it’s as long ago as 2011 that the government halved the rate of duty for beers of 2.8% ABV or below. However, this proved to be a perfect demonstration of how changes in tax rates won’t carry the public with them if they don’t want to go. Although there was an initial rush of interest, as I wrote here, it rapidly became clear that it was difficult to brew palatable beers at such a low strength, and people didn’t want to drink them anyway, even if they were cheap. About the only remaining evidence on the beer market are Sam Smith’s keg Light and Dark Milds and Alpine Lager, which retail at a very low price (I think £2.40 a pint) and were only about 3.0% before anyway.

However, as part of the general restructuring of alcohol duties that comes into effect on 1 August this year, this threshold will be increased to 3.4%, which obviously creates a very different situation. It’s much easier to brew enjoyable, palable beers at that strength, and indeed many popular beers already qualify such as, in the North-West, Holts Mild at 3.2% and Thwaites Mild at 3.3%. The very tasty Brakspear Bitter (now ridiculously renamed as “Gravity”), which back in the days when it was brewed at Henley I would have classed as one of my Top Five beers, is only 3.4%. On the other hand, I do note that many of the beers perceived as “light” are actually 3.5%. There are a lot fewer low-strength milds and light bitters around than there once were.

The savings under the new regime are certainly not to be sneezed at. On looking at the detailed figures, the lower-strength duty is not half, but only 44% of the full-strength one. For draught beer, there is a saving of 24.7p on a 3.4% pint, which with typical pub mark-ups equates to 50p across the bar. It’s 21.1p for a 440 ml can, taxed at the slightly higher packaged rate, making 84p on a four-pack and £4.20 on a 20-can slab. No doubt these savings will be partly absorbed by brewers and pub operators, as indeed they should be, rather than being entirely passed on to the drinker, but they’re certainly pretty significant.

Price elasticity in the beer market does not work in an entirely linear way, though. It is broadly divided into standard and varying grades of premium, with no significant discount sector. Drinkers generally won’t go for beers just because they are cheap, and will be even more reluctant if they’re relatively weak too. People will generally look for cheaper places to buy their favourite brands rather than trading down.

In the on-trade, the impact of lower prices is reduced by the prevalence of round-buying. If people do feel the pinch, they will shift from the craft bar or brewery tied pub to Wetherspoon’s. In the off-trade, while there is cut-throat competition on major brands, supermarket own-brands have never gained much traction. They’re fine if you’re drinking alone, but if a friend comes round and you offer them an Aldi clone rather than a Punk IPA or Carling they’ll think you’re a right cheapskate.

It’s always difficult to make predictions on changes like this, and it should be remembered that measures such as the lower duty for 2.8% beers and permitting two-thirds measures have been damp squibs. However, the savings available are so great that it’s hard to imagine that the beer market will sail on little changed.

Surely it will be a no-brainer to reduce existing beers positioned at 3.5% by a single point. This would include Taylor’s Golden Best and Hook Norton Hooky Bitter, and locally Hydes Dark Ruby and 1863, and Lees Dark. The same would also probably happen to Bud Light, and very likely also the 3.6% smooth bitters such as John Smith’s and Worthington. Robinson’s have already introduced a new 3.4% beer called Citra Pale to compete in that category, although in my experience it’s a thin, lacklustre product and not a patch on the 3.7% balanced bitter Wizard which is being withdrawn.

I can’t really see established products around the 4.0% mark such as Carling or Holts Bitter having their strength reduced. But brewers of beers in the 3.6-3.8 range will be carefully considering their position. Of course if you do reduce the strength of a beer you need to take your customers with you, although a substantial price reduction might help persuade them. We may well end up in a position where there’s a yawning gap in the beer market between 3.4% and 4.0%. And who would introduce a new beer at 3.6% even if they think that’s the ideal strength for it? It will also be interesting to see if Sam Smith’s nudge up the strength of their 2.8% kegs by a few points.

Introducing new, weaker versions of existing products is something that doesn’t have a good track record, and it also serves to dilute the perception of the core brand. But it’s possible that brewers may consider launching entirely new beers that don’t identify themselves as “light” to take advantage. And it’s worth noting that in Scotland Greene King and Caledonian seem to have had success with Belhaven Best and Caledonia Best, relatively new keg and canned beers in the traditional sweet, malty Scottish style, both of which come in at a mere 3.2%. I have to say I have never even seen these beers on a bar or supermarket shelf, let alone tasted them, but they will certainly receive a big boost from the lower duty rate. And, under Scottish minimum pricing of 50p a unit, 4x440 ml cans of 3.4% beer at £2.99 is an attractive price point.

I have to say that in principle I don’t favour systems of tiered alcohol duties (or any similar taxes), as they inevitably produce perverse edge effects and distort the market. In my view there should be a single scale of beer duty proportionate to alcoholic strength. But brewers and drinkers can’t look a gift horse in the mouth, and any cut is better than none. It will be very interesting to see how this plays out in the beer market.

Friday, 24 March 2023

Is the outlook getting wetter?

There has been talk recently of a move away from dining pubs back towards wet-led ones. This is a theme taken up in this BBC report from February, and explored in further depth in this article by Glynn Davis. However, the two examples used are not perhaps the best illustrations of the point.

The first is the Ypres Castle Inn, situated in the shadow of the eponymous castle (actually more a glorified gatehouse) in the picturesque historic town of Rye in Sussex. It’s in a location where you’d probably expect a pub to serve food for visitors. However, it was taken over pre-Covid by high-profile licensee Jeff Bell who I suspect has turned it into more of a beer-focused pub and no longer sees the need for food.

The second is the Queen’s Head in Newton, Cambridgeshire, which is one of the “famous five” ever-present entries in the Good Beer Guide. It’s situated in an attractive village a few miles outside Cambridge. It serves a limited food menu including soup, sandwiches and meat and cheese platters, but as far as I know has never attempted to be a full-on dining pub, so it isn’t really illustrative of a trend, although it does underline the point that you don’t need to be a gastropub to thrive in that kind of location. As I wrote about it, “It’s odd how the South of England manages to draw middle-class customers to non-dining village and rural pubs in a way that is hard to imagine in Cheshire”.

So, case very much not proven. It has certainly been recognised in recent years, though, that the food-driven model isn’t necessarily appropriate for all pubs, and wet-led pubs need to be considered as an important category in their own right rather than just seen as second-class citizens of the pub world. North West-based Amber Taverns developed as a pubco dedicated to wet-led pubs, and divisions of major pubcos such as Stonegate’s Craft Union concentrate on this segment.

There has also, over a longer timeframe, been a substantial retrenchment of the availability of food in pubs, to a large extent associated with the general decline of the pub trade. In the past, many pubs would offer a simple menu of soup, sandwiches, toasties, burgers and the like with perhaps a hot dish of the day, which to a large extent was aimed at customers from nearby workplaces.

But lunchtime pub visits from work are increasingly frowned on, even if they don’t involve drinking any alcohol, and many of the workplaces themselves have closed or drastically slimmed down. Tougher hygiene regulations also require pubs to have a dedicated catering kitchen rather than preparing food in their domestic one. And town-centre footfall from shoppers is much reduced too. The classic freshly-prepared “four quarters” pub sandwich is a virtually extinct species.

I wrote about this trend fifteen years ago:

...many pubs in less prominent locations that once made an attempt to serve meals and appeal to outsiders have dropped the food, gone evenings-only and essentially cater only for locals and regulars.
In many cases these pubs are no longer there at all, and if they are they’re probably not open at lunchtimes. In smaller non-tourist towns it can be difficult to find any pub food outside of Wetherspoon’s, who have hoovered up what trade remains.

Of course many pubs do thrive by concentrating on food and turning themselves effectively into restaurants, but the “mixed economy” pub with a balance of dry and wet trade is becoming increasingly rare. With pub food, it seems to be either all or nothing. Plus, as I’ve mentioned before on the blog, there’s evidence of the much-vaunted family dining pub model not finding everything plain sailing.

Some of these trends are illustrated by the changing fortunes of one of my local pubs, the Griffin in Heaton Mersey. This is a four-square Holt’s pub with an unspoilt multi-roomed interior including an impressive sash-windowed bar. In the 1980s it was so busy, mostly with wet trade, that a large extension was built on one side, the bar of which effectively became the pub’s main bar.

There was a serving hatch in the extension from which a variety of straightforward food was dispensed at lunchtimes. I remember having some tasty bacon barms there. But the general decline of pubgoing meant that it became nowhere near as busy as it once was, and Holts carried out a thorough cosmetic refurbishment, fortunately leaving the historic parts untouched, but removing the serving hatch. I’m not sure whether this was pre- or post-smoking ban.

They introduced a much more ambitious and expensive pub food menu, but it never seemed to find many takers, and the general impression that the pub still gave of being a traditional boozer probably put diners off. In hindsight, it might have made more sense to make the extension a dedicated dining area with a brighter colour scheme and return the main bar service to the old side.

So the food has now been dropped, and according to WhatPub it now only offers “pies and barmcakes”, which presumably need no kitchen preparation. It majors on TV sports, but apart from when United or City are on gives the impression of a few people rattling around in a large building, whereas thirty years ago it was often standing room only. As I mentioned in an earlier blogpost, the contrast in the level of trade between it and the Wetherspoon’s half a mile down the road is very striking.

Yes, there may well be examples of more marginal food-serving pubs giving it up entirely, but I really don’t see much evidence of pubs with a major food offer dialling it back and putting the emphasis more on wet trade. It might be nice if they did, though.

As an aside, the term “wet-led” often seems to be used to mean pubs that serve no food at all, whereas surely it should also encompass pubs where food is only a relatively small part of their sales.

Monday, 20 March 2023

Widening the gap

Last year, the government announced that, as part of the general restructuring of alcohol duties to come into effect from 1 August this year, they would introduce a 5% duty discount for draught beer. In his budget last week, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt sprung something of a surprise by almost doubling this discount. However, the way he achieved this was to freeze the duty on draught beer (and cider) but to increase it on all other alcoholic drinks by the full amount of RPI inflation, resulting in a differential of 9.2%. The full details of the new duty rates are set out on this page.

In practice, this won’t make a huge difference to prices. The duty isn’t actually being cut, just frozen, so no prices will fall, they will simply rise more slowly. For a pint at 4% ABV, it’s worth about 5p when the VAT is added on, equating to 10p over the bar once a typical markup has been added on. That’s not enough to change people’s behaviour, but that isn’t the point. Essentially it is giving financial support to pubs by reducing the tax burden on a product that is only sold in pubs and other on-trade outlets.

Likewise, some have complained that most of the benefit will accrue to the brewers and drinkers of mass-market lagers, but of course most of the draught beer sold in pubs *is* mass-market lagers. I was amused, though, to see it labelled as the “Brexit pubs guarantee”, as it’s a change that could not have been made if we were still members of the EU, something that will no doubt stick in a few craws.

It wouldn’t really make much sense if it was intended to change behaviour. Fiddling about with tax rates rarely makes much difference to purchasing patterns, especially if it’s going against the grain of what people want to do. Halving the duty on beers of 2.8% or below didn’t lead to any kind of boom in sales. And, as I wrote here, would shaving a few pence off the purchase price of beer really prompt most people to drink more in pubs? I also tend to take the view that reducing the burden on things I happen to like, however tempting it may seem, isn’t usually a sound basis for taxation policy.

All the talk about the reduction in draught beer duty has to some extent obscured the fact that Jeremy Hunt has imposed the largest increase this century in the duty on all other forms of alcoholic drinks. This must account for 85% of all alcohol sold in this country, and includes all the production of small distilleries and a growing proportion of the sales of small independent breweries.

After several years of either duty freezes or minimal increases, this will be a real kick in the teeth for consumers, especially at a time when the price of pretty much everything else they buy in the shops is rocketing too. Tom Utley certainly wasn’t impressed. And, as usual, smokers, who typically are less well-off than the average person, have been clobbered by an above-inflation increase.

The wine lobby are understandably aggrieved that the changes will lead to the duty on a typical bottle increasing by as much as 45p, although in fact, while one might quibble about the ahsolute level of duty, a move to taxing wine by alcoholic strength rather than at a flat rate is long overdue.

Wednesday, 8 March 2023

All human life is there

My pub visits this year so far have reinforced my view that Wetherspoon’s must attract a wider cross-section of society than any other pub operator. People often look back at the past through rose-tinted spectacles imagining an idyllic world where the lord of the manor rubbed shoulders with the farm labourer. But in fact pubs back then could often be very exclusive at both ends of the spectrum, and the vast majority applied social segmentation through having separate public and saloon bars. You quickly knew if you had ventured in to the wrong pub, or the “wrong side”.

Now in Wetherspoon’s you are likely to encounter a very wide mix of customers of different ages, social classes and sexes, and also who are visiting for different purposes, whereas the dining pub and sports boozer can be very monocultural. This is perhaps even more the case for those in suburban locations, where there will be more families, and also categories of customer like sports teams after their Sunday morning match.

Wetherspoon’s have always tended to avoid this type of location, as their business model is very much based on sites with a lot of existing footfall, rather than being pubs people would make a special trip to visit. But the Gateway in East Didsbury, opposite the Parrswood leisure complex, with its cinema and bowling alley, is an exception to this rule, and seems to do very good business. It’s always noticeable how busy it is, when the Griffin just up the road, a classic multi-roomed Holt’s boozer, is virtually empty. There are a handful of other Spoons in similar spots around the country.

Recently there have been several reports that the gloss had come off the family dining sector, which not too long ago was hailed as a major growth area in the pub trade. To some extent, in these locations , Wetherspoon’s are competing against family dining pubs. But they are pubs that serve food, as opposed to food pubs, and so have a wider appeal. Although they sell a lot of food, there’s no pressure to eat in Spoons, and nobody is going to judge you if you just order random items from the menu. While the food in Spoons may not be particularly brilliant, neither is that in most family dining pubs.

Another factor is that Wetherspoon’s don’t show football. I recognise that there is a place, and a demand, for TV football in pubs, even though it isn’t something I particularly care for. But the mere fact of putting it on creates a somewhat more laddish atmosphere and makes the pub less inclusive. Its absence is a key factor in maintaining their broad appeal.

Do not imagine, though, that I am some kind of Wetherspoon’s fanboy. While I recognise them as a successful and savvy company, they’re far from my favourite places to drink. They are, I believe deliberately, laid out to prevent people feeling too cosy and comfortable, to reduce customer dwell time. Their cask beer quality is very hit and miss, and even at its best always seems to be lacking a little condition. They also have a strange knack of being able to put on eight beers, none of which I particularly fancy drinking. And their food offer varies from reasonably appetising to pretty poor.

But that isn’t the point. They’re not aiming for excellence, they’re setting out to be an adequate, consistent, good-value pub that deters as few customers as possible*, and in that they undoubtedly succeed.

* Apart from some diehard opponents of Brexit, of course. Although the people who performatively boycott Wetherspoon’s are generally those who hardly ever visited anyway.

Thursday, 2 March 2023

An inspector calls

Alex Polizzi has presented The Hotel Inspector on Channel 5 since 2008. In the show, she looks at a variety of struggling hotels and guest houses and comes up with suggestions as to how they could improve their business. As the granddaughter of famous hotelier Lord Charles Forte it’s a reasonable assumption she knows what she’s talking about. I’ve watched the occasional episode and found it mildly interesting but not really essential viewing.

However, the thought has often occurred to me, and others, that there could be room for a similar show specifically looking at pubs. Many pubs do seriously ill-considered or neglectful things that surely deserve to be pointed out to them. To some extent this brief was covered by Tom Kerridge’s Saving the Great British Pub which aired in 2020, but sadly that became overtaken by Covid and ended up with a distinctly different theme.

However, Ms Polizzi is now branching out with a new programme covering a wider range of hospitality operations, including restaurants, wedding venues, tourist attractions – and pubs – and is asking for businesses to put themselves forward. It’s easy to imagine that she’ll just tell them all to go down the gastropub route, but she’s more savvy than that, and I would imagine most of those that volunteer will already be food-led pubs rather than back-street boozers.

I have to say in my experience pubs of all kinds commit a myriad of sins that are likely to be offputting to customers. Setting aside my own personal prejudices, some of the most obvious ones are:

  • Failing to publicise your opening hours and changing them on a whim
  • Not displaying menus on your website or, in urban locations, outside the door. It also baffles me why pubs don’t put menus out on tables and expect you to ask for one at the bar
  • Ill-mannered, inattentive staff. Yes, I know recruitment is hard at present, but a lot of this comes from the management approach
  • Poor hygiene standards, especially unpleasant toilets
More than other types of venues, pubs are dependent on repeat business, and so it’s important not to give customers any reason not to want to return. On the other hand, I sometimes come across pubs that seem to be ticking a lot of the right boxes but still aren’t attracting customers, and so obviously are missing out on some magic ingredient. In these days of multiple online guides and social media channels, it can be difficult to know how best to promote your pub, but one thing that is certain that, if you do create a website or Facebook page, you need to keep it updated.

It has to be said that independent pub businesses are often some of the worst offenders. At their best, they include some of the highest-quality pubs around, but in the absence of an area manager to give them a prod they can all too easily lose interest and let standards slip. They also have much more scope to apply idiosyncratic and offputting policies. And I would expect in general that most of those who apply will be independent businesses

I’m pretty sure it will be a certain type of pub that predominantly features, but even so no doubt it will make interesting viewing and I’ll definitely make a point of tuning in.

Monday, 27 February 2023

Veering off the road?

The government have announced that the £2 cap on bus fares in England is going to be extended until the end of June. Some eyebrows may have been raised at the effusive welcome CAMRA gave to this policy, which they had strongly urged their members to support.
Chairman Nik Antona said:

“Cheaper bus fares are great news for the beer and pub trade, making it affordable for people to go out to visit their locals.

“Extending the £2 bus fare scheme for England is something that we had called on Transport ministers to do so that pubs, social clubs, breweries and cider producers grappling with the cost-of-business crisis can benefit from people being able to get to the pub in an affordable and environmentally friendly way.”

Whether or not it is a desirable policy is debatable. But is it really CAMRA’s role to be campaigning for generalised subsidies to public transport? It comes across as stepping outside its campaigning objectives. Yes, it may bring some benefit to pubs, although probably less than might be imagined, but that’s only a tangential effect. It would be just as logical to campaign for a cap on taxi fares, or funding research into self-driving cars.

It probably has a lot to do with the long-standing overlap between CAMRA members and public transport enthusiasts. At one point CAMRA did set up a national public transport campaign group, although mention of it seems to have disappeared from their public website. Many taxpayers on modest incomes may well question whether it is a good use of public funds to subsidise people to go to the pub.

No doubt someone will pipe up that it will act as a deterrent to drink-driving, but in reality the idea that a higher bus fare will tempt someone to offend isn’t really credible. This is akin to the suggestion that is sometimes heard of linking drink-driving with high soft drink prices.

Public transport subsidies are not a no-brainer – it is a matter of legitimate political debate as to whether they provide a worthwhile return to the taxpayer. Given this, even if they do tempt a few more customers to visit pubs, to actively support them is exceeding CAMRA’s remit. It should go no further than observing that they may be helpful to some pubgoers.

Tuesday, 21 February 2023

Not all doom and gloom

Earlier this month, the local branch of CAMRA held its annual Good Beer Guide selection meeting in the upstairs room of the Magnet pub in Stockport. It was a very well-attended meeting, but on top of this the pub downstairs was rammed too. The pub themselves said that they had seen their busiest January for years, and this was continuing into February. Hopefully at least part of the motivation for this was a desire to put two fingers up to “Dry January”.

The Magnet is a pub that does what it sets out to do very well and is justifiably popular. On that particular Thursday evening it might well have been the busiest pub in Stockport town centre. But this clearly demonstrates that, despite all the hand-wringing about the cost-of-living crisis, there are still plenty of people around with money to spend in pubs. This is borne out by the Morning Advertiser, which reports that “The majority of operators I’ve spoken to have reported stronger than expected sales in January, with customers continuing to visit and spend well.”

I’m well aware that my pattern of pubgoing is hardly representative, but in the year so far I’ve visited a wide cross-section of pubs and seen levels of trade ranging from being the sole customer through nicely ticking over to standing room only. It seems no different from how it was pre-Covid. The one pub where I was the only customer was one that I’m confident would have been busy at other times*. Unsurprisingly, two of the busiest ones were branches of Wetherspoon’s.

I’m not denying for a minute that there are many people who are finding things a struggle at present, but equally there are lots who aren’t. Apparently foreign holiday bookings have exceeded the 2019 level. There is plenty of money out there to be spent, and pubs do themselves no favours by overdoing the doom and gloom.

* ironically, this one served me probably my best pint of the year so far

Wednesday, 15 February 2023

Hold it in!

Simon Everitt recently spotted this sign on his GBG ticking travels in the Split Chimp micropub in Whitley Bay, Northumberland. It comes across as remarkably prissy, it can’t practically be enforced, and it’s frankly unrealistic to expect customers to adhere to it. I have heard of people deliberately arranging their routines so that they can perform their bowel movements in Wetherspoon’s, but surely if someone needs one while visiting a micropub it’s not something they had planned and they don’t have that much control over the timing.

It also illustrates a wider problem with the single-WC pub or bar, which has become much more common with the rise of micropubs and other shop conversions in recent years. When I was at school I vaguely remember studying Queuing Theory in Maths. I’ve forgotten most of it, but one bit that did stick was that reducing the number of outlets would have a much greater impact on the maximum queuing time than the average.

A single WC may be acceptable in a café, but in a bar, where customers are likely to linger more, and where they’re consuming a product known for its diuretic and laxative properties, it’s likely to become problematical. If someone needs to occupy the single trap for ten minutes or more (which, without going into details, can happen) then other customers may be put in a very awkward and embarrassing position.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to want it banned under planning regulations, as a point of principle I won’t give my custom to any bar with a single WC. The tiny Circus Tavern in Manchester city centre manages to provide separate ladies’ and gents’ toilets, with a trap and a couple of urinals in the gents’, so why should they be any different? This is not a question of toilets being unisex (that’s a separate issue), but of the overall level of provision being seriously inadequate.

I have been told that planning rules state that, if you want to provide more than a single WC, one of them has be accessible to the disabled, which is reasonable enough in theory, but in practice may deter, or physically prevent, bar owners from expanding provision even if they feel it’s insufficient. The best becomes the enemy of the good.

On the other hand, of course, the much-derided Wetherspoon’s are noted for their ample toilet provision, although it can be something of a hike to get there. Plus they win numerous awards for toilet hygiene.

Monday, 13 February 2023

Speaking with forked tongue

Back in December 2021, I reported on how New Zealand was planning to introduce a kind of creeping prohibition of tobacco, with the legal purchase age being increase by one year every year. Given that tobacco is a legal product that is enjoyed by a large number of people, this is an utterly abhorrent and illiberal measure. Yes, it carries health risks, but every adult must be aware of that, and the same applies to plenty of other things people do. Also, given that smoking in public places has already been effectively denormalised already, it’s unlikely to be much of a deterrent. The main effect is likely to be handing over government revenue to the black market. It might have been thought that the departure of Jacinda Ardern might prompt a rethink, but given that her successor is someone who said that the unvaccinated should be “hunted down” that’s probably unlikely.

Now, Labour’s health spokesperson Wes Streeting has proposed that the same should be done in UK. Exactly the same issues apply – it is objectionable in principle and is likely to be impractical and problematic in operation. It will also give small shopkeepers the problem of having to establish people’s age at an ever-increasing level, unless of course they follow New Zealand’s example and restrict to tobacco sales to a small number of approved outlets, thus destroying many independent businesses.

Maybe this will never happen, but it underlines that, when it comes to lifestyle issues, whether tobacco, alcohol, food or gambling, Labour hardly has a single libertarian bone in its body. Their thoughts naturally turn to regulation, restriction, taxation and ultimately prohibition. And, while it’s obviously a legitimate position to vote in a way that goes against your personal interests, anyone imagining that a future Labour government will be good news for the pub and brewing industries in the UK, or for the consumer of alcoholic drinks, is likely to be sorely disappointed.

Yet, at the same time, former leader Ed Miliband has stated that a Labour government would be open to the legalisation of cannabis. There’s certainly a good case for this, but my support is hardly encouraged by the tendency of cannabis lobbyists to harp on about how it’s supposedly less harmful than alcohol, and states in the US that have legalised it have experienced very mixed results and completely failed to eliminate the black market. And it comes across as grossly hypocritical to seek to legalise one drug while at the same time prohibiting another, especially when in practice the two are often mixed together.

Presumably the motivation behind this is that one is fashionable, while the other isn’t, but it hardly comes across as intellectually consistent policy. It brings to mind the report I saw* that the US state of Colorado, one of the most right-on in the country, had made it illegal for employers to discriminate against cannabis users, but not tobacco users.

And of course nothing similar is ever going to be applied to alcohol, is it?

* I have definitely read this, although I don’t have a source for it.