Tuesday, 27 September 2022

A fresh approach

This week is Cask Beer Week and, as Roger Protz reports, the Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) have launched a new initiative to promote cask entitled Drink Fresh Beer. At first I thought this was just another glib marketing gimmick, but on looking further there’s a lot more to it.

The Achilles heel of cask beer has always been inconsistent quality over the bar, and by far the biggest problem is slow turnover, leading to tired, lacklustre beer. At its best, fresh cask is great, but all too often it falls far short of that, and you just don’t know when ordering it. Most people in the industry acknowledge this issue, but are always very reluctant to put it into practice because they are too attached to offering a wide range of beers. As I have written in the past, it’s a case of waiting for the other guy to blink first.

Now, this SIBA scheme is seeking to address this issue head on by providing customers with the details of when a beer was put on sale.

Once they reach the bar, an AR-scannable pump clip will help beer drinkers learn more about their favourite drink, how far it has travelled to the pub and when the cask was freshly tapped.
Hopefully this information will be made more obvious than having to fiddle about with a QR code, but the principle is there. This is something that I have suggested in the past in a somewhat mischievous spirit, and I probably never thought it would actually happen. The report goes on to say:
To ensure the quality of beer across the venues involved, pubs participating in the campaign will be asked to sign up to the Fresh Beer Promise. Alongside campaign materials at the Point of Sale in their pub, they will commit to stocking at least two handpulls with a rotating third cask on tap and ensure a high standard of freshness by promptly replacing casks and take part in initiatives to improve quality.
Maybe it needs to be extended to those pubs that only have the turnover for one or two lines, but the intent is very clear. It’s unpredictable as to what effect knowing when a cask was tapped would have on customer behaviour, but people would soon find out through a process of suck it and see. They wouldn’t automatically choose the one-day beer over the two-day one, especially if it wasn’t their preferred style, but if there was nothing on the bar under five days they’d probably be looking at the lager and Guinness pumps or going elsewhere. It would give pubs a rocket up the backside and lead to a substantial and overdue curtailment of over-extended beer ranges.

It’s probably wishful thinking, but it would be good to see this initiative rolled out across the entire industry, particularly to Wetherspoon’s, who in my experience are the biggest culprits when it comes to selling stale beer. And, if a pub operator won’t sign up, it will be a clear indication that they have something to hide.

Obviously, rapid turnover is not the be all and end all of beer quality, and there are other issues that need to be addressed such as hygiene, temperature and conditioning time. There is no guarantee that a fresh beer will be a good one, but it’s pretty certain that a stale beer won’t be.

Over the summer there been an initiative called The Cask Project which has sought to promote the category while at the same encouraging debate about the issues surrounding it. While much of it has been very worthwhile, it has to be said that some has failed to appreciate the fundamental nature of the product. For example, one strand was “There’s a cask beer for everyone” which, in the reality of the typical pub there simply isn’t, as they won’t have the turnover to stock more than a couple, which will probably be a hoppy golden ale and a classic brown bitter. If you want that 8% mango sour you’ll have to look for it on keg.

What is needed, surely, is to go back to basics as to exactly why people should choose cask ahead of other beers. Back in the early days of CAMRA, the main priority was trying to convince people why cask ale was better than its keg counterparts. Nowadays, mainstream keg ales are a sector in steep decline, and the issue is more of how to appeal to people who drink lager, Guinness or cider. The key USP has to be saying that, at its best, cask offers far more richness, depth and complexity of flavour. And, of course, although this is very much in conflict with the current zeitgeist, it is a link with this country’s brewing traditions.

No doubt it will turn out to be a damp squib, but if the fresh beer initiative took off it could be a real shot in the arm for cask beer.

Tuesday, 20 September 2022

A picture of health

It seems an age away now, but it’s only two weeks ago that we saw the installation of a new Prime Minister and with it the selection of a new Cabinet. One appointment that raised a few eyebrows was that of Thérèse Coffey as Health Secretary. Ms Coffey is what might be politely described as a “larger lady”, and has been known to enjoy a drink and a cigar, leading some people to suggest that she would not be setting a good example. One the other hand, others felt it might not be such a bad look.

I’m the last person to criticise others for their lifestyles, and it has to be accepted that some people are simply naturally more solidly built than others. All the dieting in the world isn’t going to make her look anything like Kate Moss. Surely it is better to have someone who will get to grips with the political and administrative challenges of the job rather than simply acting as a role model. And she must be a vast improvement on the egregious Matt Hancock, who may have been more svelte, but always came across as if he was giving a middle management pep talk. It’s also interesting to note the words this week of one of her predecessors, Ken Clarke:

“I’m not denying that smoking is the biggest single cause of lung cancer. But life has risks and smoking is one I’ve willingly incurred because it’s a nice part of my lifestyle – I’ve never made any attempt to give up.”

Maybe one could compare her with Barbara Ferrer, the Los Angeles Director of Public Health, who resembles nothing so much as one of Dracula’s victims, and can hardly be regarded as a picture of health or vigour. And it’s not hard to guess who would be more fun on a night out.

Tuesday, 13 September 2022

Basstories

Earlier in the year, I reviewed Harry White’s very interesting and informative book on The Story of Bass. However, I pointed out that wasn’t a history of the famous beer itself (although that would surely make for a very interesting volume) but a survey of the complex history of the giant corporation that came to bear its name. I’m not the person to write that history of the beer, but I thought it would be worth setting down a few personal memories and reflections on it.

The business model of the original Bass company was to a significant extent based on selling its beer into the free trade across the country. Before Draught Guinness, Bass was the first nationally-distributed draught beer. This still lives on to some extent in areas like the West Country and North and West Wales, in pubs like the Seven Stars in Falmouth, the Dyffryn Arms at Pontfaen, the Black Boy in Caernarfon and the Bull’s Head in Beaumaric, none of which have ever actually been Bass tied houses. The late Rhys Jones recalled how, in the 1950s, Stockport brewer Robinson’s bought up a number of free houses on Anglesey that had previously sold Bass, something that was resented locally for decades.

Another aspect of this approach was concluding trading agreements with family brewers to sell Draught Bass in their pubs, giving them another string to their bow and Bass more sales. Most of these were swept away by the merger mania of the 1960s, but one that survived into more recent time was with Higson’s of Liverpool. They owned the now-closed George in the centre of Stockport, and I remember before the takeover by Boddingtons in 1985 being able to drink Bass in what was then a very characterful interior. Another pub stocking Bass was the Carnarvon Castle in Liverpool city centre, which is fortunately still with us.

In the mid-70s, the original gravity (OG) of Draught Bass was increased from 1039 to 1044 so as to be able to compete better with the popular premium beers of the time such as Ruddles County. This was a very rare example of a major beer brand increasing its strength. This was before my time, but there must be some older drinkers around who can recall what difference it made to the flavour and character of the beer. It should be remembered that, across large areas of Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire, Bass was sold as the pubs’ standard bitter, as was its Burton rival Pedigree. This is still true to a limited extent.

In the early 70s, there were only seven cask beers available in the whole of the city of Birmingham and one of them was Draught Bass, which was only sold in six selected Mitchells & Butlers pubs. One of these was the Bull’s head on King’s Norton Green in the south of the city. This wasn’t the nearest pub to where I lived as a student in the late 70s, but sometimes we would pass the local to go and drink there as something of a treat. Bass was served in oversized dimpled mugs from electric metered pumps.

The cowls for these had a distinctive design reflecting the look of a Bass mirror, used for both metered and free-flow dispense. I don’t think the image is an actual font, but it gives an impression of the general look. I believe these survive in a handful of Bristol pubs where there is a tradition of drinking “flat Bass”, usually direct from the cask, which to some extent sails under the CAMRA radar. I don’t know Bristol well, but I have experienced this in the tiny Myrtle Tree in the Hotwells district, a few doors down from the better-known Bag of Nails “cat pub”.

The Bass company had a scattering of pubs in the Stockport area which had mostly come via the Charrington branch of the mega-merger from Hardy’s Crown Brewery of Hulme. In the late 80s, they decided to promote cask Bass by introducing it into the Bull’s Head and the Reddish Vale in the downmarket suburb of Reddish. While on one level this was an initiative to be welcomed, in practice it seemed to be an experiment designed to fail. The locals tried it, but complained that it was expensive, and gave them a bad head, because it was that bit stronger than the keg Stones Bitter they were used to. Not surprisingly, it didn’t last long. If they had been serious about reintroducing cask beer, it would have made more sense to switch the Stones from keg to cask. Both pubs have long since closed, and of what I think were at one time eight Bass pubs in Stockport only two now survive.

The beer itself has gone through a number of changes in production method and location, with Bass themselves abandoning brewing in the Union system in the late 80s, and contracting it out to Marston’s in the 2000s. Pedigree is still brewed in unions, but not Bass. Inevitably some people will say it’s now a pale shadow of its former self. However, which beers can really be said to be the same as they were forty or fifty years ago, and people’s memories of what beers tasted like back then are inevitably hazy and coloured by memories of their own lives in general.

Bass had always been a beer I quite liked, but I always tended to pigeonhole it as just another brew from the Big Six national brewers. My memory of the old union Bass was that it could sometimes have a rather cloying character that is absent from the current version. It is significant that the great beer writer Michael Jackson considered that Pedigree, not Bass, was the classic of the style.

I’ve given it more attention in the present century when it has become something of an endangered species, and I have to say that to my tastebuds the current incarnation is an excellent beer that preserves its distinctive bittersweet character and does not disgrace its honourable heritage. It stands up very well against its direct competitors. If it’s not the kind of thing you like, fair enough, but if you think it’s a poor beer compared with others in the same category that really says more about you.

It’s also significant that, as it is not actively promoted either by AB InBev or by pub companies, every pub that serves it has made a positive decision to stock it rather than having it foisted on them. Compare this with Taylor’s Landlord, another excellent beer in top condition, but all too often poorly looked after and extremely lacklustre when actually drunk in the pub.

Friday, 2 September 2022

Huddling together for warmth

In response to the news of steep increases in energy prices, people inevitably started wondering for how long they would be able to get away with nursing a half of Ruddle’s in Wetherspoon’s. The appeal of lingering in a warm pub as opposed to heating your own house is only too obvious.

This may have been said partly in jest, but there are now serious suggestions that local authorities should turn vacant shops into official warm rooms for cash-strapped people to congregate instead of staying at home. There may be merit in this idea, but surely, as Richard Coles suggests here, to some extent pubs provide a ready-made solution. Plus the pub is already heated, so nobody is incurring any additional bills.

Licensees, with good reason, have always been resistant to the idea of allowing freeloaders to spend extended periods in the pub without putting any money across the bar, and to not being able to exercise control over who is allowed entry. It would not be reasonable to expect already cash-strapped pubs to extend this welcome out of the goodness of their own heart, but if this role was formally recognised it could be a reason for pubs to receive additional financial support.

It might require pubs to incur additional costs, such as by opening longer hours and paying staff to work them, as this would tend to be mostly a daytime activity. And the visitors would no doubt expect to use facilities such as toilets, wi-fi and charging points that the pub had already paid for.

Licensees would have to put up with pensioners bringing in their own sandwiches and a thermos flask of tea, but of course they might even end up actually buying some food or drink from the pub. However, a line would surely have to be drawn at bringing in their own alcoholic drinks, which undermines the whole trading basis of the pub. And I suspect that the local authority warm hubs would have to enforce a no-alcohol rule to prevent street drinkers bringing in piles of cans and causing trouble. The warm rooms would need a lot more organisation and policing than might at first be imagined.

Maybe nothing will come of this – after all, you don’t hear much nowadays of pubs providing “community toilet” facilities which were widely discussed a few years ago – but it’s something that must be worthy of serious consideration.

And, of course, people are still free to seek out the warmth and hospitality of the pub in the normal manner...

Tuesday, 23 August 2022

Cowering in the safe space

It has been widely observed that today’s young people are much less likely to engage in risky and rule-breaking behaviour than previous generations. There has been a marked decline in smoking, drinking, taking illicit drugs and underage sex and pregnancy. Of course this is nothing new and was exemplified by the character of Saffy in Absolutely Fabulous in the 1990s.

These trends have been widely welcomed as representing a shift to a more health-conscious and socially responsible attitude, although on the other hand some have expressed regret that we have been raising a generation of censorious wowsers.

However, new research reported in the Guardian shows that this aversion to risk and social engagement has its negative consequences:

Many young people increasingly choose to stay within a comfort zone of a small network of like-minded friends in which much of their social activity is virtual, according to mental health experts.

While this can give them more control over some aspects of their lives, it can also lead to social anxiety when they have to interact with people offline, the experts added.

Natalie Phillips, a psychotherapist who works with children and young people aged from 11 to 25, said: “I’m seeing a disproportionate increase in referrals for social anxiety, professional anxiety, general self-confidence and relationship issues for this generation when they are confronted with the reality of being in an office, being in a nightclub, being in a pub, or being on a date.”

Obviously the widespread school and university closures and encouragement of working from home during the Covid crisis have served to exacerbate this tendency. And it has been greatly encouraged by the rise of social media over the past fifteen years, which has enabled people to have a high degree of virtual social contact without ever meeting face to face.

However, a major factor behind this withdrawal from society that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves must be the sustained campaign to discourage young people from socialising in pubs. In the 1970s, we were able to drink in pubs from the age of 16, some even earlier. The licensees knew it was happening, and so did the police, but in general they were happy to turn a blind eye unless there was any trouble. There were no mobile phones and no internet, so arranging meets in the pub was an obvious and straightforward way to socialise.

At this time, there were no fun pubs or circuit bars, so you had to mix in with other customers with a variety of different ages. Indeed it was often the smaller and less improved pubs that were the most welcoming to under-18s. Knowing that you would be out on your ear, no questions asked, if you stepped out of line helped encourage responsible behaviour. While there is a lot of pious guff talked about pubs being a controlled drinking environment, in this situation the argument did apply. Young people were learning how to drink in a social setting and keep their consumption and behaviour in check.

The same continued at university, although now with the cloud of possible underage drinking having been lifted. The pub was the natural place for students to socialise. Some may suggest I am looking at this through rose-tinted spectacles, and certainly there were examples of trouble, refusal of service and drinking far too much (although most of my bad experiences of alcohol in my teens occurred in private houses). But overall I would say this tolerated rite of passage into adulthood did far more good than harm.

However, from the 1990s onwards, things started to change as there was a growing moral panic in society about the evils of underage drinking, and so ever-increasing pressure was put on pubs to strictly enforce the law. Asking your age turned to ID cards, and Challenge 21 became Challenge 25. Not only were you unable to get a drink if you were under 18, but even if you were well over you would be treated with great suspicion. No longer were pubs available as a social venue for young people that was open to all comers and did not judge you. It should be stressed that the finger of blame should not be pointed at the pubs themselves – it is simply no longer worth them taking the risk.

Of course young people can still consume soft drinks, but licensees are understandably wary of mixed groups where it’s impossible to control who is drinking what, and many venues where under-25s gather are now strictly over-18 only. And under-18s can’t drink alcohol-free beers, as they are age-restricted products due to carrying alcohol branding.

Much socialising now takes place in parental homes, where there is likely to be a more tolerant attitude than fifty years ago, or in private flats and houses. In both of these settings, who is allowed in is controlled, so you can’t just casually walk in. It may move to the street or park benches, where adult supervision is non-existent and the alcohol may well have been bought on the black market.

Or, as the study has shown, informal, unstructured socialising between young people has just ceased to exist as they retreat into a virtual world, which carries its own dangers of people not being who they seem. This policy had undoubtedly resulted in a great reduction in underage drinking in licensed venues, but it’s very questionable whether it has brought about an overall benefit to young people’s social development. And it has damaged pubs, as if people don’t get into the habit of visiting them when young they probably never will.

In contrast, it’s interesting that Japan – which of course is a very different society – is now urging young people to drink more to boost the economy.

Sunday, 7 August 2022

Disarmed

The Armoury is a Robinson’s pub in Stockport, prominently situated on the roundabout at the junction of Greek Street and King Street West, which stands above the southern end of Stockport station. It was rebuilt in the 1920s by Bell’s Brewery and received a multi-roomed interior characteristic of its time. It also had a distinctive facade of pale blue tiling which unfortunately had to be replaced by render in the 1990s as water had got in behind the tiles.

Apart from this, its interior remained pretty much unchanged. In the early 2000s, it saw minor alterations that removed a former off-sales counter and incorporated a lobby area for a disused side entrance into the main vault room, but otherwise left the layout and fittings unchanged. It was an excellent example of a modest traditional pub interior and qualified as a regional entry on CAMRA’s National Inventory.

While mainly a regulars’ pub, it also served visitors to the Castle Street shopping centre and, being located on the main pedestrian route between the station and Stockport County’s Edgeley Park ground, was always busy on match days. It was a classic street-corner local that also welcomed casual trade, and I would always name it as one of my favourite pubs in Stockport. For many years the planning meetings for the Stockport Beer Festival were held in the upstairs room. I wrote about it on my Campaign for Real Pubs blog.

However, over the past couple of months it has been subjected to a thoroughgoing refurbishment by Robinson’s that has pretty much erased its previous character. It has been knocked through into one room, the original bar counters have gone, warm wood tones have been replaced by pastel grey, and the carpet, frosted glass windows and cosy alcoves of bench seating have disappeared. I took a couple of photos of the interior in 2016 which provide a good comparison with how it is now.

How it was:

How it is now:

What we are left with now isn’t a bad pub as such, and it’s undoubtedly more congenial than any of the other five along Castle Street recently visited by Cooking Lager. There’s still some bench seating in what used to be the vault side, although the former lounge side features high stools and bizarre barrel-shaped fixtures that you can’t even get your legs under. There’s also a cosy snug-type room right at the back on the left with more bench seating. But it’s much the same as hundreds of other pubs, and it has lost what previously made it distinctive. Perhaps the only redeeming feature is that the previous unwelcoming grey colour wash on the exterior walls has been replaced with two shades of beige.

Some, such as the Twitter correspondent below, will argue that we need to accept change and move with the times, and that the past cannot be preserved in aspic.

Clearly it isn’t possible or desirable to preserve everything from the past as a museum piece. But, as a prosperous, civilised society, we understand the value of keeping the best buildings from previous eras, hence the existence of the listed buildings register and conservation areas. This provides a link to earlier generations and enhances the present-day environment. Stockport would certainly be the poorer without, say, Underbank Hall and the market hall.

We preserve and celebrate many stately homes that were built and furnished by the rich and powerful and were completely divorced from the lives of ordinary people. On a more modest scale, original pub interiors can be regarded as “the people’s stately homes” and undoubtedly have much more resonance for the general population. There are now well under a thousand pubs remaining in the UK with anything resembling their original layout and fittings, and surely they, where possible, deserve to be cherished in just the same way as Bramall Hall and Lyme Park.

Was there any evidence that the previous layout of the Armoury imposed significant extra costs or held back its trading performance? Very often, pub refurbishments seem to be embarked on simply out of a sense of wishing to smarten things up and move with the times rather than any kind of rational cost-benefit analysis. And, as I have remarked before, once the initial surge of interest has subsided, refurbishment often becomes like a drug where you have to keep increasing the dose to get the same effect. The current zeitgeist is very much against the old, quirky and well-worn, but hopefully one day we will return to a time where these qualities are once again seen as desirable in pubs.

Although they still own a number of unspoilt historic pubs, over the years Robinson’s track record on pub alterations has not been a good one. Fifty years ago, they were noted for their unsympathetic “Robinsonisations” including bottle-glass window panes, full-length small-paned glass doors, “Spanish arches” and white Artexed walls. They were responsible for removing high-quality original interiors at the Royal Oak in Stockport town centre and the Woodman in Hazel Grove, both of which have now closed entirely as pubs.

More recently, they severely compromised the interior of the Holly Bush in Bollington, which previously was ranked as being of national importance on the National Inventory. They have also spoilt traditional interiors of lesser rank at the Church House in Congleton and the Grapes in Hazel Grove.

In contrast to this, Robinson’s have recently received a CAMRA award for their conservation work at the Bleeding Wolf at Scholar Green in South Cheshire, which I have yet to visit in its new form. But that seems to be an isolated example. In general, they really cannot be regarded as respectful custodians of their pub estate. And how long will it be before they decide that a pastel-shaded knock-through might help revive the trade of the Blossoms or the Alexandra?

Wednesday, 27 July 2022

Hollowed out

Someone recently posted a picture on a local Facebook group of the Nip Inn in the shadow of the Lancashire Hill flats in Stockport. This former Boddingtons pub opened in 1970 and closed in 2001 so, while it had a fairly brief existence, it wasn’t as short-lived as some. In the general area of Lancashire Hill, which is partly Victorian terraced housing and partly modern redevelopment, I can remember visiting eight different pubs since I moved to Stockport in 1985. Only two still remain, the Grapes and the Navigation, both of which are older buildings rather than post-war ones.

This represents a common phenomenon that can be seen in most large towns and cities in Britain. There are still plenty of licensed premises in the centres, and very often the numbers have increased in recent years, although they don’t tend to be pubs as such. But, for a mile or two outside the centre, you will travel through a dead zone where, apart from the occasional survivor, pubs have entirely disappeared, even where there is plenty of housing. You have to travel a fair way out from Manchester’s Inner Ring Road along any of the main radial routes such as Rochdale Road, Oldham Road and Hyde Road, before you come across any at all. There is a stark example of this in this pub crawl from 1991 by the legendary Alan Winfield in which he visited 22 pubs across from Rusholme through Hulme to Old Trafford. Only one of these, Holt’s Claremont in Moss Side, still remains.

So what has happened to cause the pub stock in the inner cities to be so drastically hollowed out? There’s no simple monocausal explanation, but I will offer a few thoughts on the major factors behind it.

First, of course, there is the smoking ban. This disproportionately affected both wet-led pubs and working-class pubs, and so dealt a double whammy to inner-urban boozers. While the decline had set in well before 2007, it will have pushed many pubs over the edge.

Then there is the changing ethnic mix in many areas. Some years ago, left-wing beer bloviator Pete Brown worked himself up into a froth accusing those pointing this out of racism. But surely it is a simple fact of life that, if a growing proportion of the inhabitants do not drink alcohol for cultural or religious reasons (or at least do not drink in public), then the demand for pubs in those areas is going to decline. All of the traditional pubs in Rusholme in Manchester, famous for its “curry mile”, some of which were visited by Alan Winfield on his pub crawl, have now disappeared, and there are very few pubs left now in the inner areas of West Bradford.

Even if migrant populations do drink, such as many from Eastern Europe, the ambiance of a down-at-heel boozer may have little to appeal to them, and putting a Tyskie tap on the bar is unlikely to do much to change that.

There is a wider point about the dislocation of communities. A local pub isn’t just a retail outlet for the sale of alcohol, it depends on cultivating a sense of belonging for its success. Sometimes areas of traditional terraced housing were demolished, leaving the pubs still standing in splendid isolation. Or new housing was built without, at least initially, any pubs to serve them. Often, new modern-style pubs were built in the 60s and 70s, but this category of pub in inner-urban areas must have suffered one of the highest rates of attrition of all. They never seemed to have the appeal of the ones they replaced. More recently, there has been a marked densification of housing in these areas, but the days of planners designating plots for brewers to build pubs have long gone, and by and large they remain pub deserts. New local pubs and bars have not tended to spring up to cater for the residents of all the new housing.

It’s no coincidence that, as you head out of Manchester to the east, once you reach the areas of Gorton and Openshaw where much of the traditional terraced housing still survives, so does a fair scattering of Victorian pubs, although even here they have noticeably thinned out in recent decades.

When I first bought a pint of bitter on my own account in 1976, it cost 21p. According to the Bank of England inflation calculator that would have been £1.14 in 2021 money, but you’ll struggle to find a pint for twice that now. This tool has recently been rebased to CPI, which to my mind somewhat understates historic inflation. When it was based on RPI, the figure was more like £1.50. But the point still stands that, over the years, the price of beer sold in pubs has increased by considerably more than the general level of inflation. In contrast, off-trade beer has done no more than keep pace with it, leading to a considerable increase in the price differential between the two. This will have a particular impact in areas with lower than average incomes.

There has been a marked increase in the use of illegal drugs of various kinds in inner-city areas in recent decades. This obviously offers an alternative, and often cheaper, route to intoxication than drinking in the local pub. And pubs have often been caught in the crossfire of turf wars between criminal gangs seeking to control the drugs trade. The threat of violence and intimidation will deter responsible customers, and in many cases has been the trigger for the licence being withdrawn.

Another change in the pub scene over the past thirty years has been the rise of televised football on pay-TV. On the one hand, this gives pubs a USP that they didn’t have before, and certainly some do good business out of it. But it also creates a monoculture that squeezes out other activities, and may have been a factor in the decline of the darts and pool leagues that once provided a lot of bread-and-butter trade to urban pubs. And, if one of your circle has Sky TV, it may well be a more appealing option to gather in their gaff for the big match with a slab of Carling – plus you can enjoy a smoke while you’re at it.

I’ve discussed before how the pattern of drinking in pubs has dramatically changed over the years. People are much less interested in just popping in for a quick one or two, and tend to look for something more in a pub visit. Given this, the homely local loses its appeal, and they are much more tempted by the bright lights of the town or city centre, which anyway are only a short bus or taxi ride away. Stockport Market Place is only ten minutes’ walk from the Lancashire Hill flats (although it is uphill coming back). Manchester city centre within the Inner Ring Road probably has more licensed venues now than it has had for a hundred years, but it is surrounded by a two-mile doughnut where pubs and bars are extremely sparse.

As I said earlier, there is no single factor that has led to the decline of these pubs, and there is probably something significant that I have overlooked and someone will point out. But it’s an undeniable fact that the inner-urban working-class local, once one of the mainstays of the pub trade, has seen a dramatic fall in its importance. And that is where a lot of the two-thirds of on-trade beer volumes that have been lost since the late 70s has disappeared from.

Tuesday, 12 July 2022

Fifteen years

Today marks the 15th anniversary of this blog. Rather fittingly, the very first post was one about Bansturbation, which has remained a consistent theme throughout. That was very much the high summer of beer blogging, and also saw the foundation of blogs by Boak and Bailey and Tandleman which are still going, although many others have fallen by the wayside. The demise of blogging has often been declared, although I see many commentators have taken to Substack, which is basically the same thing under a different name.

The creation of this blog was prompted by the smoking ban in indoor public places, which was introduced in England on 1 July 2007. I said pretty much all that needed to be said on its tenth anniversary, and there is nothing there from which I would dissent. In the words of Lord Stoddart of Swindon, quoted in the sidebar, “This piece of legislation must be one of the most restrictive, spiteful and socially divisive imposed by any British Government.”

It had a disastrous effect on wet-led local pubs. While the immediate impact has long since worked its way through the system, it has left the pub trade permanently weaker than it otherwise would have been. And, as Christopher Snowdon writes, it was taken as a green light for all kinds of other lifestyle restrictions, although more recently the slippery slope seems to have pointed more towards food than alcohol, which is something I would not have predicted in 2007.

The photo above shows a sign still displayed on the door of the Griffin Hotel in Heaton Mersey, just down the road from me, which must have been there for at least fifteen years. This was one of the large number of pubs that did provide facilities for those who preferred a non-smoking environment.

I don’t propose to offer a summary of the developments of the past fifteen years, although suffice to say in the sphere of pubs and beer they have mostly been negative, with thousands of pubs shutting their doors for the last time. The number of pubs in Britain has now fallen to a record low and, while the BBPA seem to have ceased publishing their regular statistical updates, so has the quantity of beer sold in them.

One closure that affected me on a personal level was that of the Four Heatons (originally the Moss Rose), which was built in the early 1970s and bit the dust at the beginning of 2011. This was one of only two pubs within easy walking distance of my house and, while externally in an unattractive Brutalist style, it had a comfortable interior, and I had plenty of good times in there. It has now been replaced by a convenience store, originally Morrisons, now Co-op.

And the other pub, which was always my favourite of the two, has become progressively less appealing through a steady accretion of minor changes to the extent that I rarely go in it except to deliver the local CAMRA magazine.

I have tried via my Campaign for Real Pubs blog, which I began in September 2011, to highlight some of the characterful traditional pubs that are still out there to be enjoyed, although one or two have closed or been unsympathetically modernised since I wrote about them.

One positive development I will mention is the campaign to promote Draught Bass, the definitive beer of England, which sadly has fallen on hard times, seemingly unloved by the brand owners and seeing its distribution dramatically contract. This has been entirely a grassroots movement that has bypassed both the brewing industry and, with few exceptions, the great and good of beer commentary. This year it was finally possible to organise the first National Bass Day, after two previous attempts had been stymied by lockdowns.

Will there be another fifteen years? Only time will tell...

Incidentally, “Fifteen Years” is the title of this rather rousing song by The Levellers, although it always seems to me a touch hypocritical when potheads go on about the evils of drink.

Sunday, 3 July 2022

Rapid feedback

Last weekend there was a Channel 4 programme in the “Inside the Superbrands” series looking at Guinness. I can’t say I was expecting too much from a rather tabloidy format, but in fact it turned out to be surprisingly insightful. Plus it was presently by Carlisle-born Helen Skelton, who has an unmistakeably Northern accent.

One thing that took me by surprise was that it featured the Shit London Guinness Instagram and Twitter account (suitably censored), which highlights poor examples of Guinness served around the capital – see photo above. You might have thought this was bad publicity, but in fact a Guinness representative said that “as soon as we see a post on that account, we aim to be round there within four hours”. It’s performing a valuable quality control function.

And I couldn’t help thinking that cask beer wouldn’t half benefit from quality control that even remotely approached that standard. Obviously it’s different in that Guinness is a single product produced by a single company, but far too often the presentation of cask in pubs is utterly dreadful. Maybe a representative of Cask Marque should follow Martin Taylor on his GBG ticking travels and take action whenever he has to pour one in a plant pot, which seems to happen a lot more often than it should.

There has been some discussion recently over the negative image of cask, but surely its poor presentation is its major problem. All too often, outside familiar pubs, it’s a total lottery. I’ll just offer two examples.

On my trip to Berkshire in May, I was taken to a pub that isn’t in the current Good Beer Guide, but has a pretty decent reputation. Two different beers came out as total soup and were returned. If you have to return two successive pints, you start feeling like a pernickety arse, and on similar occasions in the past I’ve cut my losses and asked for a refund. Eventually we got a good, clear pint, but you shouldn’t have to go through that.

More recently, I went in a pub that had a single cask beer on one of three handpumps. It came out nice and cool, but once I took it back to my seat it was obviously pretty opaque, so it went straight back. “It’s the end of the barrel, but we’re just putting another one on. It’ll be ready in a few minutes”. Fifteen minutes later, it wasn’t, so I settled for a John Smith’s. Perhaps, on reflection, I should have had a Guinness.

I persevere with cask, because I know how good it is when it’s properly kept, but it’s understandable that plenty of others are very wary.

Another problem is that many people who write about cask beer and sing its praises only tend to drink it in “recommended” outlets, so don’t get to share the experience of the typical drinker out in the wild.

Saturday, 2 July 2022

Giving with one hand?

Yesterday, it was reported that the government were considering a temporary cut in the standard rate of VAT from 20% to 17½% to provide some relief from the cost of living crisis. There’s much to be said for this both in reducing the pressure on household budgets and giving hard-pressed businesses a little financial headroom.

However, people need to be careful what they wish for. Something very similar was done in December 2008 as a response to the financial crisis, when the standard rate was reduced from the then 17½% to 15%. However, at the same time the rates of alcohol, tobacco and fuel duties were increased to offset the VAT cut, as it was felt that buyers of these “undesirable” products should not benefit. But when VAT was restored to 17½% in January 2010, the duties were not cut again, resulting in what was in effect a stealth increase.

If the same were to be repeated this time, it would represent a kick in the teeth for the hospitality trade and negate much of the benefit. At least it would probably be politically impossible to raise fuel duty when prices are at record levels, but the poor old smokers would no doubt end up being kicked in the wallet yet again.

If any such policy is announced, it will be very important to read the small print below the headline.

Thursday, 30 June 2022

Solitary confinement

I live on my own, and from time to time find myself eating alone in restaurants. Over the years, I’ve experienced quite a number of examples of absolutely diabolical service, glacially slow, forgetful and unobservant, some of which I’ve described on this blog. There seems be something about solo diners that restaurants struggle with. I’ve received a few discounbts and refunds and, if I had infinite reserves of time and patience I’m sure I could have obtained plenty more. Closing time comes, and they ask what I’m still doing there. “Oh, I’m just waiting for my main course to arrive.”

I accept that most of this isn’t deliberate. By definition, a single diner will probably want to get through his meal more quickly than a group engaged in conversation, and also may be more easily overlooked. But I can’t help feeling that there is a touch of resentment that they don’t fit the desired customer profile, and a middle-aged bloke isn’t going to look so good to potential customers as a foxy single business lady.

The process of going through the steps of ordering and being served with food in a restaurant should be straightforward and predictable. A server should be aware of the tables they’re allocated to, and regularly check how the occupants are getting on. When they’ve obviously finished one stage, they should be fairly promptly invited to move on to the next. The aim of service should be to speak to the customer before they’ve even started to think about where the waiter has got to.

If you’re on the ball, you should be able to get a single diner eating a two-course meal through the entire process in an hour, provided that the main course can be cooked in 15-20 minutes. An hour and a quarter isn’t too bad, but anything more suggests you’re not really paying attention. Yet recently, in a place that wasn’t anywhere near packed, it took me an hour and fifty minutes. Fortunately I had brought some reading matter along with me. It certainly isn’t a phenomenon confined to busy restaurants. While some customers may be happy with spending most of the afternoon or evening in a restaurant, others will have trains to catch, or meetings or shows to attend.

Obviously the primary responsibility has to lie with management, for failing to recruit and train staff properly and make sure they are keeping their eyes open. However, it can’t be denied that some staff come across as lackadaisical, disengaged and unobservant, and almost seem to resent actually being asked to do anything. If I was doing a job, however mundane, I’d make an effort to do it as well as I could, but evidently this isn’t a universal sentiment. In fact, it could be argued that it’s easier to do a job properly than to deliberately slack.

Even after you’ve actually eaten your food, there are still the multiple hurdles of getting and paying the bill to negotiate. This requires three separate interactions with the staff – asking for it, receiving it (after which they invariably walk away) and then actually proferring your preferred means of payment and having it processed. If you need change, there’s a fourth step to add on. At least now they will bring a card terminal to the table rather than vanishing into the back with it. On several occasions, I’ve felt that I’ve got through a meal in decent time only to have to wait a further half an hour before I’ve actually paid for it.

All these things also apply to parties of diners, but they do seem to be notably worse for solo customers. It’s all very well to say that you should attract the attention of a passing waiter, but having to do that always seems a touch ill-mannered and a last resort, and you need to have one to hail in the first place.

This problem is avoided in most pubs by operating a system of ordering at the bar and paying at the same time. This means you can leave more quickly once you have finished your meal, although it may make it more difficult to have problems rectified. Some casual dining restaurants such as Gourmet Burger Kitchen and Nando’s operate a similar system with the exception of bar service for drinks. It also doesn’t occur in buffet restaurants where you pay a single price upfront. If you want a reasonably quick meal it may make sense to choose one of these places.

And, while it may seem a bit ill-mannered and brutal, surely there’s a case for restaurants having service bells in the same way as pubs operating waiter service used to.

Tuesday, 14 June 2022

Day of reckoning

The first five months of this year have seen a spate of closures of small independent breweries, many long-established and well-respected. They include, amongst others, Woods, Exe Valley, Beatnikz Republic, Kelham Island and Cheshire Brewhouse.

The immediate trigger for this has been the wave of cost increases resulting from money printing to fund world-wide Covid bailouts, exacerbated more recently by the conflict in Ukraine. However, it was evident well before Covid that all was not well in the microbrewery sector, and that there was a significant problem of oversupply. It seems that many breweries hunkered down during the prolonged lockdowns when nobody could make any money, but now that the pub trade has returned to something like normal are now finding themselves in a precarious position. It was often said that at some point there would inevitably have to be a shakeout, and that is now happening.

Brewing differs from most other businesses in that many people go into it as something of a labour of love rather than seeing it as a strictly commercial venture. There are many in the industry who have an additional source of income, being retired, having a working partner or a rich parent, and thus are not looking to make a full-time living out of it. This makes life more difficult for those for whom it is their livelihood, and there were numerous reports of cut-throat price competition.

Brewers of cask ale are handicapped by the widespread culture of rotating guest beers, which leads to a perception of it being a homogenous, interchangeable product, and makes it difficult to command any kind of price premium. Small Brewers’ Relief, while well-intentioned, has in practice often been used simply to fund lower prices rather than reinforcing brewers’ financial position.

Obviously the people who have taken the difficult decision to close their breweries are deserving of sympathy. There often seems to be little correlation with how nice they are as individuals or how good their beer was. But the basic facts of the marketplace cannot be denied – there are simply too many breweries chasing too little volume.

The Society of Independent Brewers (SIBA) have proudly proclaimed the fact that there are now over 2,500* breweries in the UK as a significant achievement. However, if most of them are chasing a limited pool of free trade rather than being brewpubs it does rather suggest a dysfunctional market.

Sadly, there are likely to be further casualties in the microbrewery sector in the coming months. And anyone tempted to enter the market needs to be well aware of the harsh financial realities. And, if you enjoy tinkering about with metal pipes and vessels, you might be better advised to take up a career in plumbing.

Tandleman has also recently written about the problems of the small brewery sector here.

* 2,500 is the figure quoted by SIBA themselves. Other sources give a total of as many as 3,000 - see the discussion in the comments below.

Sunday, 12 June 2022

Sights to make the heart sink

As a counterpoint to yesterday’s post, here are a few things in pubs that for me are an instant turn-off.

  • The name of the pub displayed on the outside wall in a script font
  • It is described as “Something” & Kitchen
  • Part of the building painted in dark grey, blue, red or green
  • You are asked at the door or at the bar whether you are eating with them
  • A menu lacking pounds signs and trailing zeroes
  • Charges a substantial premium for half pints
  • Modern polished wood floors
  • An abundance of posing tables
  • Long wooden forms with no backs
  • Place settings on all or most of the tables
  • Many tables too big for a party of four
  • Motivational quotes on the walls
  • Uniformed bar staff
  • An elaborate display of wine and spirit bottles on the bar back with no clutter from notices or bags of snacks
  • An interior colour scheme of cold pastels
  • Deliberately curated “mellow” music
Although they are something of a bête noire of mine, I haven’t included scatter cushions as they’ve become pretty ubiquitous and you can easily move them out of the way.

Saturday, 11 June 2022

A sight to gladden the heart

Recently there was some discussion on Twitter about the signifiers of both rough pubs and snobby pubs. So I thought I would ask a related question of what things you come across when entering a pub that give you a positive feeling. These are a few of my personal suggestions – not the big items of beer and food offer or pricing, but the little touches. I’ve deliberately not included any that are the absence of something.
  • Frosted or etched glass windows
  • Bench seating
  • A stone-flagged or quarry-tiled floor
  • Or, failing that, a carpet
  • A jukebox
  • A glass case on the bar containing cobs/rolls
  • Small round copper-topped tables
  • Beermats
  • A pub cat or dog
  • A Sooty or similar charity box
  • A font for an obscure blast-from-the-past keg mild or bitter
  • Cards of nuts and snacks pinned up behind the bar, especially the famous “Ploughman’s Lunch”
  • Pictures or memorabilia reflecting a personal interest of the licensee
  • Lamely humorous notices such as “Free beer tomorrow!”
  • Coat hooks on the front of the bar
  • A collection of miscellaneous well-thumbed books and magazines for customers to read
  • A traditional pub game such as bar billiards, bagatelle or devil among the tailors. Even table football
I’m sure you can add one or two of your own...

Thursday, 9 June 2022

Arrested development

Given all the problems currently besetting the country, you might have thought that the government had enough on their plate at present. But apparently not, as they have now come up with a proposal to increase the legal age for purchasing tobacco products from 18 to 21.

This would be a grossly illiberal and abhorrent measure. Smoking, while widely deprecated, remains a legal activity, and 18 is generally recognised as the age of majority. What kind of message does it send to young people that you can’t trust them with what they put in their bodies? It is also completely inconsistent with allowing them to exercise informed consent over being vaccinated, not to mention the widespread pressure to reduce the voting age from 18 to 16. So you can decide who should govern the country, but not whether you can enjoy a legal product?

Some may see this as yet another stick to beat the present government, but I really can’t see the opposition parties raising much objection to it. They will do their usual nodding dog act as they did over lockdowns.

It’s not as if it would be particularly effective anyway. It would presumably only be a ban on purchase, not on possession and consumption, so there would be nothing to stop young people actually smoking. With the ban on smoking in indoor public places, the range of situations in which young smokers will stand out and be subject to social stigma has already greatly reduced. And, from the aroma hanging around many bus stations and public parks, the consumption of cannabis seems to be generally tolerated even though possession is illegal at any age. It’s more a case of sending a signal that smoking is being further denormalised.

It’s estimated that 25% or more of all tobacco products consumed in the UK are already bought on the black market, so young people are unlikely to encounter much problem in getting hold of smokes. It will also place more pressure on retailers who have to enforce the restriction and lead to potential confrontations.

And don’t imagine that it wouldn’t set a precedent that would in the fullness of time be extended to alcohol. Indeed, it’s already been proposed in Scotland, which in recent years has been the standard-bearer of authoritarian public health policies.