Monday, 23 January 2023

They all add up

In my Review of 2022, I mentioned that I had visited 128 different pubs during the year. This was considerably more than in the two years of lockdowns, but still quite a bit less than in the four preceding years, which is as long as I have been keeping a record. For information, for 2016-19 the numbers were 154, 188, 203 and 207. In fact, during 2022 I had to cancel a planned holiday due to unforeseen circumstances, which would probably have bumped up the total to over 140.

However, I was struck by this review of the year by Matthew Thompson, who I know from the local CAMRA branch, who said he had only been to about half a dozen pubs. Now, I have no knowledge of his circumstances, but that obviously indicates a very different mindset. So I thought I would run a Twitter poll on how many different pubs people had visited over the year, producing the following results from an impressive turnout of 511 votes:

Obviously my followers are likely to be much keener on pubgoing than the population at large, but this produced a wide and fairly even spread of results, with the largest share going to the top category of “Over 50”. That must indicate people who are consciously seeking out pubs rather than just visiting them in the normal run of their daily life. GBG ticker Martin Taylor responded that he had been to 877 in 2022, and over 1000 in 2019, which rather puts my efforts in the shade, although I’m not really looking to visit pubs in pursuit of any specific objective.

Ever since I reached legal drinking age I’ve been fascinated by pubs. I would go out and visit various pubs with my dad, and with former school friends in the university holidays. At university in Birmingham, armed with a student railcard, I travelled as far afield as Bath and York. Remember in those days that lunchtime closing was 2.30 pm in most places in the South and Midlands, so trips had to be planned much more carefully than now. Apart from the two years of lockdown, and possibly 2001, which was something of an annus horribilis in which I spent six weeks in hospital with a shattered ankle, and was later made redundant, I would say I’ve visited at least 100 different pubs in every year of my adult life.

In the early years, a major factor was sampling different beers that I had never encountered before. At this time, the tied house system still held sway, and there were only a handful of national-distributed beers, meaning you had to travel to find particular beers. I often sought out obscure pubs just because they had a rare brew for the area. I wrote about this in detail here.

Nowadays, the situation is very much changed, with far fewer pub-owning breweries with a distinctive offer on the bar, and far more beers distributed across the country. Very often, you will walk into a free house or pubco outlet with no idea what you are likely to find, which to my mind somewhat detracts from the experience. However, I will seek out family brewer tied houses when away from my local area, and indeed in the 2010s had two mini-holidays with the partial motivation of visiting Donnington and Hook Norton pubs.

However, I increasingly found that it was the pubs themselves were the attraction, not the beers themselves. As I wrote back in 2010 in a post entitled Wooden Wombs:

At heart I have to conclude I’m more fascinated by pubs than beer – by the variation in layout and architecture, the fittings from many different eras, the ebb and flow of trade, the little rituals and quirks of pub life, the mix of customers, their interaction with the bar staff and each other, the way their clientele and atmosphere reflect the varied strands of society. Every pub is different and has its own character and its own story to tell.
And there are still plenty of pubs to explore that haven’t had the soul sucked out of them by corporate makeovers. I will also make an effort to seek out pubs on CAMRA’s National Inventory when I’m outside my local area.

I’m not setting any targets or making any predictions for 2023, but I would hope that, if all goes well, I can manage at least 150 during the year. I’ve already visited 12 in the first three weeks of the year, which would indicate an annual total over 200, but of course some of those are ones on my regular rounds which I will visit again over the course of the year.

Wednesday, 18 January 2023

Better late than never

In my post about Falling out of love with alcohol, I mentioned the British Beer & Pub Association’s detailed table of beer sales statistics, which for a long time had not been updated beyond the end of 2018. In fact, they had not been updated for so long that I had given up checking. However, on taking a look at their website, I found they had produced some newer figures, albeit only going up to the end of 2020, so still two years out of date. These can be downloaded from their website as an Excel spreadsheet.

In 2019, the last full year BC (Before Covid) they show the on-trade holding up pretty well. Total sales were 12.658 million barrels, accounting for 45% of the total beer market. This was only 0.6% down on the previous year, and indeed over the five years since 2014 they had only declined by 6.5%, an average of 1.3% a year. This is a much slower rate of decline than, say, print newspapers. In contrast, in the five years from 2006 to 2011, they fell by 25.2%, an average of 5.0% a year. Is that the sound of trumpeting I hear in the distance?

However, 2020 shows a very different story. Total sales saw a catastrophic fall of 55.1% to a mere 5.689 million barrels, representing a mere 23.6% of the total market. Indeed total beer sales fell by 14.2%. While there undoubtedly will have been some switching to wine and spirits, this rather gives the lie to the widespread claim that lockdowns led to an increase in alcohol consumption.

In the first quarter, on-trade sales were down by 18.3%, reflecting the fact that pubs were completely closed down in mid-March, and for a couple of weeks before that trade was increasingly depressed by the lengthening shadow of Covid. Then in the second quarter, which was entirely during lockdown, they fell to a mere 150,000 barrels, all of which would have been take-home sales from pubs.

In the third quarter, when pubs were finally allowed to trade with a reasonable degree of normality, sales showed a good recovery, although they were still 25% below 2019. Then in the fourth quarter they slumped to 795,000 barrels, affected by a month of full lockdown, the hopeless confusion of the tier system and the ludicrous substantial meal and mask rules. In the first quarter of 2021, when there was a full lockdown throughout, and pubs weren’t even allowed to do takeaway sales, they must have fallen to virtually zero.

It would be very interesting if and when these statistics are updated to the end of 2022 to see just how well the on-trade has been able to recover and how close it has been able to regain the pre-Covid position.

Monday, 16 January 2023

Falling out of love

Over the weekend, there was an interesting article in the Observer entitled Last orders: how we fell out of love with alcohol. This isn’t maybe the most rigorously researched piece, and it relies heavily on anecdotal evidence, but it does reflect a fundamental truth that, over the past twenty or so years, drinking alcohol has become markedly less fashionable, something I have observed on this blog on several occasions.

After reaching a post-WW1 peak around 2000, in the wake of lad culture and Cool Britannia, per capita alcohol consumption has steadily declined, and is now about 15% lower. Plus, in many situations, drinking alcohol has become less acceptable, and abstaining seen as virtuous rather than cranky. I discussed this back in 2013 in a post entitled Socially unacceptable supping.

Nor is this evenly spread across the board. While the older generation are drinking much the same, their younger counterparts have substantially cut down. “Between 2002 and 2019, the proportion of 16- to 24-year-olds in England who reported monthly drinking fell from 67% to 41%.” This clearly gives a pointer to the future direction of travel, and the fall in consumption inevitably lags behind the change in attitudes.

As something becomes less fashionable, people are more likely to prefer to do it in private than in public, which is bad news for the pub trade. According to the statistics produced by the British Beer & Pub Association, in the twenty years from 1998 to 2018 (which is as far as they go), total beer consumption fell by 22.8%, but on-trade consumption almost exactly halved. The trail of pubs now demolished or converted to alternative use is all too obvious. Some will argue that the Anteater Tap is still doing great business, while ignoring the fact that the Sir Garnet Wolseley across the road, which was ten times the size, has been replaced by flats. Even within a declining market, it is still possible to be successful, but that doesn’t make the wider narrative any less true.

In the past, a lot of drinking in pubs was centred around ritual and routine, often linked to the workplace. But all those Friday lunchtime drinks with the office team, after-work unwinders, Sunday lunchtime sessions and “I always go out with Bill and Frank for a few on Friday night” are now much diminished if not virtually extinct. If you’re no longer going to the pub out of habit, but have to make a positive choice to do so, you may well decide not to bother.

Of course you can go to the pub and drink soft drinks or non-alcoholic beers, but the people doing that are in general doing so to go along with their alcohol-drinking peers. In any social group, once a tipping point of non-drinkers is reached, they will begin to question what is the point of going to the pub in the first place.

On the other hand, the article points out that, while it undoubtedly carries health risks, throughout history alcohol has made a major contribution both to human creativity and human sociability.

That, [Professor Edward] Slingerland adds, is where alcohol comes in: put simply, it can turn the PFC (pre-frontal cortex) down a few notches and expand our minds. “Alcohol is a cultural technology,” Slingerland believes, “that we have developed to briefly get us back to our five-year-old brains when it comes to flexibility and creativity. After a few hours it wears off and we can glean the results.” Across the world, throughout history, alcohol has been associated with creatives: artists, poets, great thinkers. “And this is not a myth,” he says. “There’s good evidence it increases creativity, which as a society we need.”

Alcohol can also play a key role in fostering relationships. By temporarily turning down the PFC, we’re more inclined to trust and be open with other people. “In the same way that shaking hands started out as a way to show we aren’t carrying weapons,” says Slingerland, “drinking beers – taking our PFCs out – is like putting our mental weapons on the side. By relaxing the PFC, it’s harder to lie or fake.” And, he adds, alcohol boosts feelgood chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin and endorphins. “These don’t just make us less inclined to cheat. Because we feel positive about each other, it creates a sense of bonding that’s crucial for humankind.”

And I’ll certainly drink to that!

Friday, 13 January 2023

Limited offer

Wetherspoon’s are currently running a January Sale including price cuts across a whole range of food and drink items, including reducing the price of a pint of Ruddles Bitter to a mere 99p, in England at least. There have been the predictable complaints that this was unfair and represented predatory pricing. But, in reality, how much of an effect is it likely to have?

By definition, the opportunities to take advantage of an offer on something that is consumed at the time of purchase are much more limited than on something that can be taken home and stored for later use. It may tempt the odd person to visit Wetherspoon’s who otherwise wouldn’t have done, or encourage them to have an extra pint, but it’s hardly going to turn the market upside down. And remember that Ruddles Bitter was already priced at £1.49, so you’re only saving 50p per pint. The main benefit to Wetherspoon’s will be gaining publicity.

Low prices alone seldom provide sufficient attraction to visit pubs. You sometimes see urban pubs with signs advertising how cheap their beer is, but by and large they tend to be the less appealing ones. Yes, Wetherspoon’s do offer good value, but they also attract customers due to their long and consistent opening hours, their wide food and drink offer, and their general ambiance that doesn’t make anyone feel unwelcome. In any case, they are competing as much with fast food and casual dining outlets as with other pubs. And, over their full drinks range, they’re not as cheap as cask drinkers might imagine. The discount on cask is greater than on other beers because it’s the product where people make price comparisons.

Another factor is that people generally buy drinks in rounds rather than individually. There’s a general understanding that people don’t take the piss by ordering particularly expensive drinks when it’s someone else’s turn, but the benefit of choosing a cheap beer purely on price is diluted. If you choose Ruddles on your round and Leffe when someone else is paying your companions won’t be impressed. Wetherspoon’s probably attract a higher proportion of solo drinkers than most other pubs, but even so the majority are likely to be buying in rounds. It may be that the rise of app ordering is eroding round-buying, but I doubt whether than is a big factor amongst the Ruddles-buying classes. I am currently running a Twitter poll which so far is showing a strong preference for round-buying:

The custom of round buying is also why various attempts to introduce lower-priced, weaker “value bitters” in pubs have always been a failure. Over the years, I remember various North-West brewers trying this – Boddingtons had Old Shilling and Hydes Billy Westwood’s – and some of them were actually quite pleasant. I remember once drinking six pints of Billy Westwood’s on Sunday lunchtime in the now-demolished Moss Rose/Four Heatons near my home. But none stayed the course, as the round-buying culture, especially in traditional boozers, worked against them. Why choose a cheap product rather than the mainstream one when someone else is paying?

Wednesday, 28 December 2022

Out of the frying pan... – Part 2

July saw the fifteenth anniversary of this blog, which of course was originally sparked by the smoking ban. Sad to report that I have achieved a record low number of posts, even below the half-year of 2007. As I’ve said before, a lot of the brief comments on news items have moved to Twitter, so I’m never going to return to the heady days of 2011. The cancellation of my magazine column has meant that I no longer feel an obligation to write something about specific subjects, and there are only so many times you can say much the same thing about minimum pricing or advertising bans.

Nevertheless, I’ve come up with some substantial pieces on a variety of topics. The one I feel most proud of is this one looking at the demise of the inner-urban boozer, once a mainstay of the pub trade and the source of much of the beer volume of the past. The highest number of pageviews was actually on my post about the short life of the Fickle Mermaid, which exemplified a wider topic of how things seemed to have gone sour for the family dining pub, once hailed as a major growth area in the pub industry. It also continues to attract a healthy level of comments, sometimes much more than other supposedly higher-profile blogs.

I managed considerably more posts on my Closed Pubs blog, where I achieved the highest total after the first three years of “shooting fish in a barrel”. This serves as a sad record of the absolute devastation that has overwhelmed the pub trade in the past twenty-five years. A scattering of poky micropubs open for a few hours a week is scant compensation. For this I am indebted for the prolific input of Leeds resident Kyle Reed, and Yorkshire is rapidly catching up on Lancashire and Staffordshire as the county with the highest representation. I’ve never actually met Kyle, but a pint or two is certainly his if we can arrange to get together. I’ve also sourced many entries from the Fullpint news aggregation Twitter account, which often posts news reports of long-closed pubs about to be demolished and replaced by flats.

I’ve added a few more entries to my Campaign for Real Pubs blog, which celebrates some of the dwindling number of characterful “proper pubs” still remaining, although unfortunately at least one has fallen victim to the jackhammer during the year.

I celebrated the tenth anniversary of my Twitter account, and also exceeded the 100,000 tweets mark, which is about 27 per day. My follower count has increased from 5,900 to just short of 6,300, although it’s probably reached something of a plateau now. Mind you, I said much the same when I passed 5,000. I deliberately aim to steer clear of general political issues beyond the politics of lifestyle, and indeed some of the people who regularly interact are clearly not political soulmates, although “Opposed to the Nanny State in all forms” should give a clear idea that I’m not some kind of Commie. It’s always good to receive a bit of acclamation:

In the Autumn, Twitter was bought by tech billionaire Elon Musk. As I wrote at the time, he is perhaps more loose cannon than knight in shining armour, but the platform has not fallen over as many predicted, and indeed is recording record traffic. He has restored many accounts that were unreasonably suspended, and has released some damning evidence of political interference. And those who have noisily decamped to rival platforms have discovered their limitations. The big plus point of Twitter is the number and range of other people who are there.

Moving on to some more general points, Pub Vandals of the Year must be Robinson’s, for their destruction of the unspoilt heritage interior of the Armoury in Stockport. Previously I would have named this as one of my favourite Stockport pubs, but it’s now little different from hundreds of others. They have also (although I haven’t seen it for myself) made some pretty destructive changes to the Church House in Congleton, which had retained many original 1930s features.

Public Health Own Goal of the Year was the legislation to prevent the prominent display of so-called HFSS items in supermarkets, which has had the entirely predictable outcome of them being replaced by displays of alcoholic drinks, surely not what the purse-lipped wowsers intended. Never mind, no doubt they’ll be coming for alcohol next, as they already have in Ireland.

Pub Food Innovation of the Year was Wetherspoon’s ice cream. Very reasonably priced at only £1.55, going up to £2.30 in That London, and actually quite decent stuff and in no way obviously cheap. You could easily pay £4 for something similar in a restaurant.

Blogging Event of the Year was the return of Cooking Lager. While his activities were curtailed by family issues, he has posted some splendid stuff, particularly this account of his exploration of the keg pubs of Edgeley. He makes many wider observations about society in general and explores territory, both physically and conceptually, where few other beer bloggers dare to tread.

A major achievement of the year was Martin Taylor taking advantage of the removal of Covid restrictions to reach the epic milestone of completing the Good Beer Guide, which he did in September at the Taversoe on Rousay in Orkney. Although, once the new edition was released, he was back down the snake again with a few hundred more pubs to visit.

Around the time of the annual Cask Beer Week, there was a great deal of handwringing around the subject of cask beer quality. But commentators continue to pussyfoot around the central issue, that of excessive ranges leading to slow turnover and stale beer. Of course that isn’t the sole reason for poor quality, but at least if you shift it quickly you give it a fighting chance. Everybody recognises that there’s a problem, but it seems that nobody is prepared to actually do anything about it.

There was a significant crack in the Sam Smith’s edifice when card payments were finally allowed in the Autumn, although the absurd ban on any use of mobile devices remains in force. Glynn Davis wrote an excellent article setting out the contrast between the often praiseworthy way in which Sam’s run their pub estate, and the damage done by their pigheaded policies.

The beginning of the year brought the sad news of the death of Peter Allen, who was less than a year older than me. He was a keen canal traveller, and the author of the Pubs Then and Now blog which was mainly focused around his waterborne journeys. He accompanied us on numerous pub days out where he was always good company. The photo above shows him in happier times, on the left, in the Slubbers Arms in Huddersfield in March 2019. I am just to the right of the fire. Sadly, that splendid pub, which was my best new pub visit of 2019, is no longer with us either.

One noteworthy book I read during the year was Northerners by Brian Groom, which is basically a history of England seen through the lens of the North. For long a poverty-stricken backwater, it did nevertheless play a crucial role in many key historical events. Then the Industrial Revolution elevated it to becoming the most prosperous region of the country, only for it to be laid low in the last century by the decline of traditional industries. It is perhaps let down towards the end by an attempt to shoehorn in as many artistic, literary and showbiz figures as possible, whereas a more limited number of extended profiles illustrating particular themes might have been better. And the North now faces the question of how it can create a distinctive identity for itself without becoming merely a subsidised colony of the South, the contradiction that is inherent in the “Levelling Up” agenda.

I also read Municipal Gothic by Ray Newman, one half of Boak & Bailey, which is a collection of ghost stories with modern and everyday settings. Some of the stories are very good and are based on inventive concepts, particularly the increasingly creepy faux gazetteer of Modern Buildings in Wessex, but it did come across as rather too obviously written by someone who has pondered on the mechanics of how ghost stories work.

A year without Covid restrictions gave me the chance to get out and about and visit many more tourist attractions of various kinds. Undoubtedly the best new one was the Lady Lever Art Gallery at Port Sunlight on the Wirral, which celebrated its centenary this year. Although only twenty miles from where I grew up, unaccountably I had never been here before. It’s a very impressive purpose-built gallery, with a huge and varied art collection to which a single visit cannot really do justice. The paintings on display major on Pre-Raphaelite and early 20th century figurative art which are perhaps somewhat unfashionable genres nowadays.

The striking portrait above is Jeunesse Dorée, painted in 1934 by Gerald Leslie Brockhurst and depicting his muse, and later wife, Kathleen Woodward.

I was also able to renew my acquantaince with a number of places which in many cases I had not visited for decades. Two that stand out are Rufford Old Hall in West Lancashire, a fascinating Tudor and Restoration house in a tranquil, wooded setting by the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, and Avebury stone circle in Wiltshire, which is far less immediately spectacular than Stonehenge, but where the National Trust have done a very good job of explaining its origins and significance.

As for 2023, who knows what it will bring? It could turn out better, but it could be a lot worse. And dare I suggest that one thing that would bring about an improvement in the situation around the world would be a swift return to peace in Ukraine?

See here for Part 1.

Tuesday, 27 December 2022

Out of the frying pan... – Part 1

This time last year, pubs had been spared the Covid restrictions that had been reimposed on large sections of the economy due to concerns about the Omicron variant. However, this led to a wave of cancellations of Christmas bookings, meaning that the trade had a dismal festive season for the second year in a row. As many of us had predicted, the fears of Omicron proved to be greatly overstated, and the general restrictions were all lifted at the end of January, perhaps accelerated by the embattled government wishing to avoid a backbench rebellion. The abhorrent plans to impose vaccine mandates on NHS workers lingered on into the Spring, but they were eventually scrapped too. The lockdown narrative has steadily crumbled as the sheer scale of the economic, social, educational and medical harms it caused have become increasingly clear, and many politicians have rushed to dissociate themselves from it.

There were, however, one or two pockets of the pub trade that, like Japanese soldiers in the jungle after 1945, continued to cling stubbornly to the old religion. The Bailey Head in Oswestry, run by a chap called Duncan Borrowman, was insisting on the ludicrous and oppressive rule of requiring masks unless seated well into this year, even though this had been officially lifted in July 2021. I assume it has now been dropped, but that’s certainly one to add to the list of pubs to avoid, at least under their current management.

This cleared the way for a year of unrestricted trading for pubs, which was helped by some hot summer weather. Although it certainly hasn’t been uniform, many have reported sales figures approaching those of 2019 or even, in some cases, exceeding it. However, they have then been hit by a wave of inflation which has increased their costs, especially energy prices, while at the same time reducing their customers’ disposable income. This leaves many pubs in a very precarious financial situation going into the New Year, and has already led to a number of closures which have spread to breweries too. To a a large extent, this inflation was the inevitable consequence of the borrowing and money-printing to finance the Covid bailouts and furlough, although the Bank of England seemed remarkably myopic in failing to foresee it. The Ukraine conflict has exacerbated it to some degree, but it’s really no more than the icing on the cake. The situation of pubs in town and city centres has been further worsened by the wave of rail strikes in the run-up to Christmas.

During the year, I have visited 128 different pubs, of which 40 were new to me. This compares with 79/18 in 2021 and a mere 60/17 in 2020. Obviously I could have visited more new pubs if I’d really set my mind to it, but I didn’t really do more than take the opportunities that were available to me in the course of my travels. A couple of highlights were a day out in Burton-on-Trent for the first celebration of National Bass Day that was actually able to take place, and being kindly taken on a tour of rural pubs in West Berkshire by Tim Thomas of the local CAMRA branch.

My best new pub was the North Star in Steventon, Berkshire, one of the most unspoilt pubs on CAMRA’s National Inventory, with no bar counter as such and a snug formed by a high-backed settles.

Runner-up was the Magazine in New Brighton, with its spectacular views over the Mersey estuary towards Liverpool. This is one of those classic pubs that is in my general part of the world, but I’d never been near enough in recent years to think, “oh, let’s go there”. Although known as a Bass shrine, unfortunately due to the supply difficulties that have plagued Bass this year there was none available when I called. I’ll also give honourable mentions to the Boat and Horses in Newcastle-under-Lyme, and the Heatons Bridge at Scarisbrick in West Lancashire, both of which have a canal connection.

On the other hand, there were one or two horror stories, the most memorable being one pub, which shall remain nameless, where my experience was completely spoilt by what appeared to be the landlord and his cronies engaging in bout of Chubby Brown-level swearing in one of the rooms. This was a pity as otherwise it was a very appealing place that came across as more genteel than rough, which made the crudity even more incongruous.

My best revisit was undoubtedly the Bell at Aldworth, again in Berkshire, another classic unspoilt pub that has won CAMRA’s National Pub of the Year on two widely-separated occasions. I had been there once in the early 80s, but never since. This was on the aforementioned tour with Tim Thomas. I was also able to renew my acquaintance with a number of pubs not visited since before Covid, such as the “symphony in brown” Cross Foxes in Shrewsbury, and the Red Lion at Dayhills in Staffordshire, a simple rural pub attached to a working farm.

Amongst all those pubs, sadly I haven’t encountered a single pub cat, although I have continued to follow the activities of Arty at the Olde Cottage in Chester, and Fiddle Pub Cat, whose pub has now closed down, but who seems to be enjoying a comfortable retirement with plenty of rodent-hunting opportunities.

To be continued...

Monday, 19 December 2022

A franchise affair

A significant development of the past few years that has perhaps not received the attention it deserves is the rise of franchise models for operating pubs owned by the major pub companies. These are a kind of halfway house between a managed pub and a traditional tenancy, under which the publican remains self-employed, but the pubco pays all the bills and takes all the sales revenue, leaving a cut of typically between 18% and 22% to pay themselves and employ staff.

All of the major pubcos now offer deals of this kind, as explained in this article in the Morning Advertiser, with Marston’s being the leaders in the field with 637 sites currently operational. Probably the most visible is Stonegate’s Craft Union, which has been positioned as a standalone brand, with the pubs painted in a distinctive livery. Most of them tend to be wet-led pubs, but some of the deals allow the licensees to run their own food operation.

From the point of view of the pubco, they avoid the commitment and administrative burden of a fully managed operation while still retaining a high degree of control over how the business is run. Most significantly, all the sales are put through their own books.

The prospective publican may find this kind of arrangement an easier introduction to the pub trade than a traditional tenancy, and it requires much less of an initial financial ingoing. It provides a much more structured operating environment, which may suit many people, although others will find the lack of opportunity to use their initiative to develop the business limiting. Running a tenancy is much more complex now than it was fifty years ago. There’s a direct relationship between the success of the business and your own remuneration, although of course that is a double-edged sword.

An important aspect is that all the bills are paid by the pubco, including the energy costs, which is a massive attraction in the current climate. However, concerns have been expressed that these deals may in practice leave people working for a pittance and can be regarded as exploitative. People are effectively entering into unsatisfactory contracts just to get a roof over their heads and their bills paid. On the other hand, several people interviewed in the Morning Advertiser article seemed happy enough with the situation. No doubt the shrill anti-pubco lobbyists will find much to criticise, but they never seem able to come up with any constructive suggestions about how pub operating companies should actually function.

When I first heard about this kind of arrangement, my initial thought was that they were a way of pubcos avoiding the possibilities of seeing their pubs lost to tenants claiming a Market Rent Option and going free-of-tie. However, that hasn’t in practice proved to be a major problem for pubcos, and in reality franchising is more a way of finding a system that works for smaller, lower-end pubs that have proved difficult to let on a traditional tenancy basis. But, whatever its pros and cons, franchising certainly seems to be here to stay as a significant part of the pub landscape, and is only likely to expand its share at the expense of tenancies. Marston’s certainly see it as a key driver of future growth.

Saturday, 10 December 2022

Ailing ale

A couple of months ago, I wrote about how the unintended consequence of banning displays of “HFSS” foods in supermarkets had been a mushrooming of the quantity of alcoholic drinks in prominent view. But one thing that has been conspicuous by its absence from all these mountains of bottles and cans is beers in traditional British styles. Yes, there is Guinness, and there are Punk IPA and Hazy Jane, but the vast majority of it is lager of various kinds. There is nothing remotely resembling a Bitter. Not too long ago, there would have been slabs of John Smith’s Extra Smooth, Boddingtons and Tetley’s, and even, a few years before that, Stones. But now there is nothing.

While these beers are still available in four-packs in the alcohol aisle, their absence from the piles of seasonal drinks shows that they are no longer ranked amongst the big hitters of the beer world. And yes, those styles are well covered by the Premium Bottled Ales sector, but that again is a niche market playing several divisions below the Premier League.

In the on-trade, it is overwhelmingly cask that is carrying the standard for British ales. When cask disappears from a pub, it doesn’t get keg Landlord and London Pride, it is likely to end up with an apologetic cowl on the T-bar for John Smith’s or Tetley’s Smooth, and maybe a throwback keg mild if you’re lucky. These products are now zombie brands, receiving no advertising or promotion, and selling to a dwindling band of downmarket older drinkers. Maybe there is still some love for keg ales in pockets like the North-East club trade, but in general they are unloved and overlooked.

When Cooking Lager did his tour of the keg pubs of Edgeley earlier this year, he didn’t even mention the keg ales available. I’d assume they all stocked some form of smooth beer, but I’d guess these accounted for no more than 10% of draught sales. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of the more modern-themed pubs and bars that have dropped cask now no longer stock any British-style keg ales at all. I don’t tend to frequent such establishments, but earlier this year I stayed in a slightly upmarket hotel where there were eight kegs on the bar. One was some kind of craft IPA, but none were British ales.

When I started drinking in the late 70s, ale (mostly bitter, but still with a large component of mild) was the dominant category in the beer market. Lager was a trendy, upstart interloper. However, it steadily gained on ale, probably overtaking it at some time in the mid-80s, and has now for most people become the default beer. If you visited the house of someone who wasn’t a beer enthusiast, and they offered you “a beer”, odds on it would be a lager. As the Scottish Licensed Trade Network reports, lager has now become the quintessential pub product.

British-style ales are now on the verge of falling back from being a lower-volume mainstream product to something that is definitely just a niche. Over the next couple of decades it will become increasingly common in the on-trade to find them entirely absent, while in the off-trade the shelf space allocated to them will steadily diminish. Yes, there will still be places where they enjoy strong sales and appreciation, but they will be limited pockets in the general landscape. While cask may mount a determined rearguard action, its distribution is only going to contract, not increase. And, if you run a brewery that specialises in British-style ales, you may have a bleak future.

Of course it is a simple fact of life that customer preferences change over time. Porter disappeared, mild is now a tiny niche and bitter is going the same way. But it is a matter of regret that we are losing something that was the absolute cornerstone of the once-mighty British brewing industry. And you can’t help thinking that other nations such as the Germans and the Czechs would be more committed to cherishing such an important part of their heritage.

Yes, there has been a rise in craft IPAs, mainly on keg, but they are not ales of the traditional British style and their market share remains minuscule in comparison to lager.

Sunday, 27 November 2022

Getting the bird

Regular readers will know that I’m an enthusiastic user of Twitter. In recent weeks, there has been a mixture of excitement and consternation following the $44 billion takeover of the platform by billionaire tech entrepreneur Elon Musk. I’m no cheerleader for Musk, and in some respects he seems more of a loose cannon than a knight in shining armour. After peremptorily sacking a substantial proportion of staff, there was much speculation that the platform might fall over, but that hasn’t happened, and indeed Musk has reported record traffic and user numbers.

Many of the dismissed staff seem to have been engaged not in actually running the site, but in “content moderation”, i.e. censorship. It was widely felt that the previous regime on Twitter had pursued a very heavy-handed and partisan approach to throttling and banning accounts expressing conservative viewpoints or questioning the official narrative on Covid and lockdowns. People felt that they were constantly walking on eggshells, and many accounts have been suspended purely for the opinions expressed.

Musk has said that he will give an amnesty to all banned accounts with obvious exceptions such as illegal conduct and harassment, and they seem to be slowly returning, most notably that of former US President Donald Trump, although he has engaged in his own subtle form of trolling by not actually tweeting anything so far. Another is the satirical account The Babylon Bee.

Some people, alarmed by this sudden outbreak of free speech, have taken refuge in an alternative platform called Mastodon. Now, I don’t know much about this, and have no intention to open an account, but it appears to be a decentralised network of servers, each of which applies its own policies. I have already heard reports of heavy-handed moderation, and of someone being banned for supposedly being “a capitalist”. And surely, if the whole thing links together, there must be problems when someone on one of the more tolerant servers ends up interacting with those on one of the more censorious ones.

A platform like Twitter needs a critical mass to succeed – there is no point in being there if all you’re doing is shouting into a void. This is likely to be a problem for Mastodon, just as it was for conservative-minded people who set up accounts on Gab, Parler or GETTR. Maybe some parts of it will become a cosy echo chamber for like-minded people, but that’s really missing the point. And if you are trying to operate two accounts in parallel it becomes more like hard work and you will lose some of the spontaneity.

It must be remembered that the key point about free speech is that it needs to be extended to people with whom you profoundly disagree, and indeed whose views you may find obnoxious. If it is only allowed to those you find congenial, there is no free speech. And a key feature of Twitter and similar platforms is that you can tailor it to your own tastes by your choice of who to follow, and who to mute or block so, if you so choose, you never need to be exposed to opinions that make you feel uncomfortable.

It’s also worth mentioning that Musk has reportedly carried out a major crackdown on the exchange of child porn material through Twitter, which apparently had been widespread under the old regime, although I have to say it’s not something I’d ever noticed personally.

Monday, 21 November 2022

Think of the children

The Scottish government must be disappointed by the effect of the raft of anti-alcohol measures they have already introduced, so they have decided to double down by launching a consultation on restricting or banning alcohol advertising. The full document can be read here. It covers a variety of options from prohibiting sports sponsorship all the way to placing alcohol products behind curtains in shops as with tobacco. It’s unlikely that all of these measures would be implemented at once, and in any case in a national market the scope for Scotland-only curbs is limited, but the desired direction of travel is clear.

I’ve written about this at length in the past, so I don’t propose to go over old ground. But it’s generally accepted that the primary function of all advertising is to encourage brand switching and to bring new products to the public’s attention. The effect on the overall level of demand for the category is minimal. This is especially true of problem drinkers, who will go for whatever they can get their hands on at an affordable price. Over time, removing alcohol brands from the general public consciousness might have a moderate effect on dampening demand, but it would be a very slow process. We can see this with tobacco where, despite a total advertising ban, above-inflation price hikes and severe restrictions on where it can be consumed, the total level of sales has only gradually declined.

The authors of the document seem particularly concerned about the impact of advertising on children, and indeed have come up with a cringe-inducing “easy-read” version of it, from which the image above it taken. Being exposed to alcohol images apparently has a pernicious effect on children, even though they must regularly see people drinking in pubs and restaurants.. But surely young people start drinking alcohol because they are introduced to it by family or peer group members, not because they see a poster for Madri or Smirnoff. It seems to be a case of recruiting children as soldiers in the war on alcohol.

The public health lobby must be well aware that they are exaggerating the impact of advertising restrictions on consumption levels. But it serves their purpose to foster a climate of moral panic to promote a long-term process of denormalisation.

Some smaller producers may have a sneaking sympathy for measures to prevent sports sponsorship and TV advertising. Surely that will hurt the big players and help the little guy. But that is embarking down a dangerous road. Advertising restrictions will always work against new products and new entrants to the market, and reinforce establish brands that people are familiar with. They serve to ossify the market in its previous form. Tobacco brand choice now relies entirely on word-of-mouth and folk memory of how things were before the ban. It would be completely impossible now for a new company to enter the market, or to introduce an entirely new cigarette brand.

Drinks retailers have reacted with alarm to the prospect of having to put alcohol products out of sight. And it should not be forgotten that whisky is Scotland’s biggest export earner, and I can’t imagine the industry being particularly pleased about being prevented from advertising their product in its home country.

Tuesday, 15 November 2022

Losing your deposit

Next August, the Scottish Government will introduce a Deposit Return Scheme under which buyers of all glass and plastic bottles and cans used to package drinks, both alcoholic and soft, will be required to pay an additional 20p deposit which they will be able to reclaim when they return the empty container, the objective being to achieve a substantial increase in the recycling rate. While this is well-intentioned, it is likely to cause significant practical problems for both businesses and consumers which is the last thing they need at a time when everyone is struggling with a cost-of-living crisis.

Any business supplying these products in Scotland will incur additional costs in designing Scotland-specific packaging, as obviously the affected items will need to be clearly identifiable. The two categories of product will then need to be kept separate in the distribution chain. Some producers for whom Scotland only accounts for a small part of their business may well conclude it is no longer worthwhile to supply it at all, thus reducing the choice for Scottish consumers.

Retailers will need to adapt their point-of-sale systems to cope with the deposits, and there is also an unresolved question as to how they will be treated for VAT purposes. They will have to separately account for the revenue and pay it over to the government. And there will be further administration associated with repaying the deposits on returns, and storing them until they can be collected. The collections will require the creation of a whole new logistics system. Fortunately many smaller retailers have now been exempted from the need to act as collection points.

It’s all very well saying that you can reclaim the deposit when you return the container to where you bought it from, but it’s not always as simple as that. If you have a car and routinely drive to the supermarket it may not be too much trouble, but you will still have to gather the containers together and queue to have them redeemed, particularly at busy times. Each container will need to be individually checked to confirm that it falls within the scheme. With the best will in the world, there will inevitably be many car trips specifically undertaken just to return drinks containers.

There will inevitably be pressure to sign up to some kind of scheme to have the refunds paid directly into your bank account, which will further undermine the use of cash and result in more tracking of people’s activities and movements.

If you don’t have a car, you will have to physically lug all your bottles and cans to a collection point, or get someone else to do it for you. If someone else does your shopping for you, it creates a layer of negotiations between neighbours and relatives as to how the deposits are handled. If you give someone a gift of a bottle, you’re effectively gifting them the deposit too.

Where groceries are ordered online and delivered directly to the home, presumably there will be an expectation that the delivery driver will have to collect the empties too and arrange credit to your account, as it would clearly be unreasonable to expect shoppers to physically return them somewhere. That, though, will make the logistical task of deliveries much more complex, with an inevitable increase in costs.

While in theory you will be able to reclaim the deposit and so not be out of pocket, increasing the headline price of products will produce the perception that the cost of living has gone up even more. There is a question mark over whether it will affect the official inflation statistics. And it will undermine Scotland’s minimum alcohol pricing scheme by increasing the headline differential across the border. The sticker price of a 20-can slab of Tennent’s Lager will be a further £4 cheaper in Carlisle than in Dumfries.

Obviously I don’t live in Scotland, so won’t be directly affected. Currently my local council gets me to collect all bottles and cans in a brown bin which is collected monthly. There may be a question mark over how many of them actually get recycled, but it isn’t particularly onerous and seems to work smoothly. They would still need to do this, as it covers a lot of items such as milk cartons and coffee jars which won’t fall within the scope of the DRS.

I would need to separate out the items with deposits and then store them securely within my home, as their value would make them attractive to thieves. From my point of view, it would make life much simpler if someone, either the council or a private company, could collect all the deposit items directly, even if they charged a commission on it.

Many of the most thorny issues revolve around online ordering and delivery, which particularly affects the small brewery sector. I’ve not been able to find any clear answer to this in the literature I have read, but I would assume that any deliveries physically made from outside Scotland would be excluded from the scheme, as otherwise it’s likely that many vendors would simply refuse to supply Scotland entirely because of the cost and administration involved.

However, that isn’t an option for small brewers in Scotland delivering directly to customers, and that is what SIBA have been rightly concerned about and have made strong representations. Apparently the legislation includes a requirement to arrange for physical takeback of online orders, which seems completely impractical in general, but particularly for small producers. It does seem that they have achieved some progress on this, but there is still a long way to go.

“It is therefore encouraging that the Scottish Government has today recognised some of the issues facing the scheme in the Emergency Budget Review and have indicated a willingness to amend the online takeback element which currently would prevent any small producer from selling online in Scotland next year.

“However we would urge the Scottish Government to look again at the requirements for small producers which, as currently designed, are threatening business closures and jobs in Scotland and will lead to reductions in choice and an increase in price. Many small breweries have already told us they will have to stop selling beer in cans and bottles in Scotland because of the multi million pound costs of the scheme to small producers.”

Maybe there needs to be an exemption for smaller producers based in Scotland, which would predominantly be brewers, although inevitably there would be grumbles about unfair competition and edge effects.

It may be that all these issues prove to be just teething troubles, and the system will work well enough once it is bedded in. However, given the SNP government’s past track record on delivering such projects, I wouldn’t hold out too much hope.

Friday, 11 November 2022

Last orders for lout?

At the beginning of this year, Wetherspoon’s carried out a substantial revamp of their beer range, one of the major elements of which was delisting products from the Heineken Group. This meant the disappearance of two 5.0% ABV draught lagers, Heineken itself and Kronenbourg 1664, leaving the only product remaining at that the strength as San Miguel, owned in the UK by Carlsberg.

5% premium lagers were once one of the leading segments of the British beer market, but recently seem to have become very much eclipsed. What was once its flagship brand, Stella Artois, has been reduced in stages from 5.2% to its current strength of 4.6%. The draught lager range in my local Spoons is now San Miguel, Stella, Corona and Budweiser (both 4.5%), the “premium standard” Coors at 4%, Carling (4%), Carlsberg (3.8%) and Bud Light (3.5%)

There’s nothing inherently wrong with beers of any particular strength, although it’s probably fair to say that few beers are improved by being made weaker. Obviously there is a duty saving to brewers, but it may well be that less strong premium lagers suit customer preferences in making them more sessionable and keeping a slightly clearer head.

When I have written about this in the past, I have suggested there might well be some degree of customer kickback, but this doesn’t seem to have happened. But, whatever the motivation, it certainly represents a major shift in the beer market. There has been a similar movement in the cask market, where beers of 5% and above don’t find many takers nowadays, and a number have had their strength cut.

A new product category has been devised for these products – Mediterranean Lager – which encompasses those of both Spanish and Italian identity. To get a share of the action, in 2020 Molson Coors launched a new product, Madri Excepcional, which has been very heavily promoted in the succeeding two years. While this may appear to be of Spanish origin, it is in fact an entirely concocted brand that bears no relation to anything actually sold in the Spanish market, as explained in this article, which is basically a recycling of a press release.

This will cause much harrumphing amongst those still outraged by the fact the Wainwright is brewed in Wolverhampton, but the fact of the matter is most drinkers are no longer particularly concerned about authenticity and provenance, as I wrote back in 2011. This is a point reinforced by this article hanging on the recent closure of Jennings. Nobody is being deceived, as having a product with the vague trappings of Spanish or Italian style is sufficient. There are plenty of examples in the general food and drink field of products that lay claim to a particular national identity but in fact have little or no presence in their supposed home markets.

I was recently in my local convenience store where the two lager brands being heavily promoted were Madri and Moretti (owned by Heineken), both 4.6%, which certainly would not have been the case five years ago. And I suspect in the current climate it would be very difficult for any major brewer to launch a new mass-market 5.0% lager brand. If you do want an authentic British 5% lager, though, you could do a lot worse than Samuel Smith’s Pure Brewed.

Thursday, 27 October 2022

Nature abhors a vacuum

From the beginning of October, new regulations were introduced in England to restrict the display and promotion of HFSS foods (“high in fat, sugar and salt”) in larger shops. While this has been disingenuously promoted as only affecting “junk food”, in fact it covers a huge swathe of everyday food items including chocolate, sweets, crisps, cereals, cakes, biscuits, sausages, pies, cooked meats and full-fat dairy produce. It means that such products can no longer be displayed on aisle ends or free-standing islands, and have to be confined to the body of aisles.

The purported objective is to reduce the rate of obesity, although there is little evidence that it is likely to prove effective. Experience shows that advertising and promotion may affect product choice, but have little impact on the total quantity purchased. And, even if it did work to some extent, should we really be treating adult consumers like naughty children who cannot control their urges? As stated by Tom Harris in this article, which in general has been very much superseded by events:

I must accept that no one forces me to eat pizza or Mars Bars; those are my choices, made by an adult with the full knowledge of the consequences. To assume that other, mostly poorer citizens have no such agency strikes me as unforgivably patronising.
However, it has come into force, and shops have to rejig their displays to comply and find something else to replace the HFSS items. One obvious candidate is alcoholic drinks, which are not covered by the same restrictions, and Grocery Gazette reports a significant increase in such displays, something borne out by my own observation. Instead of walking in through the door and being confronted with a pyramid of Quality Street and Celebrations tubs, you will now find a pile of Corona and Madri packs. This will inevitably raise the hackles of the public health lobby, leading to them stepping up their campaign for further curbs on the placement of alcoholic drinks, something that has already been done in the Irish Republic.

At the time of the smoking ban fifteen years ago, I and many other of its opponents argued strongly that similar restrictions would inevitably be applied to alcoholic drinks sooner or later. However, in practice very little has happened in that direction, although the Irish Republic and other parts of the UK have gone somewhat further down the road than England. I wrote about this at the beginning of 2020.

What I would never have predicted is that so much of the energy of public health lobbyists would be redirected towards so-called “unhealthy” food. And there is more to come, with severe restrictions on the online advertising of HFSS products to come next year, which will make it very difficult for smaller producers to promote their businesses. So far, alcohol has escaped relatively lightly. But it would be very complacent to assume that will always be the case.

Friday, 21 October 2022

Many unhappy returns

I recently had a somewhat unedifying experience in one of my local Wetherspoon’s:

One or two people suggested that I shouldn’t have complained about it, as the pint was changed without demur, which indeed it was, although the novice barperson had to consult with his supervisor first. Indeed, Wetherspoon’s in general have a very creditable policy of changing duff beer without quibble. You never get “have you tasted it?” or “real ale’s meant to be like that”.

But surely having to return a pint is something that should only be necessary on very rare occasions. The customers shouldn’t be expected to do the pub’s quality control for them, and it shouldn’t be regarded as a regular hazard of choosing cask beer. Indeed, that was the second time in a row when ordering a guest ale in Spoons had resulted in it going straight back.

The whole business of taking beer back to be bar is fraught with difficulty. Many people are understandably very reluctant to do, on the grounds that they’ve gone out for a drink, not a confrontation. I wonder how many drinkers would have struggled through that duff pint and ordered a Shipyard or a Guinness next. On CAMRA pub crawls, when the group have returned poor beer, I’ve occasionally seen an old boy in the corner pluck up the courage to do the same.

I’m normally pretty dogmatic about it if there’s an obvious fault such as the beer being cloudy or vinegary. Beer is so expensive nowadays that you shouldn’t have to put up with poor quality. But it’s more difficult if the problem is a more subjective one, such as the beer simply being in general a bit stale, flat and warm. If I knew the landlord, I might mention it, but there again the pubs where I know the landlord are not those likely to serve poor beer very often.

In an unfamiliar pub, though, discretion can often be the better part of valour. If it’s a pub that I’ve just visited for the one pint, and am never likely to visit again, just leaving the beer and walking out may be a better option than having an argument. When making a complaint, you always need to have a clear view of what your objective is. If it’s getting a replacement, that’s fair enough, but in a pub with only one cask beer you may not want any of the replacements. A refund is also a valid aim, although that can leave a sour taste in the mouth. But if you just want to have a bit of a scene it may be wise to count to ten and walk away. And I’ve heard other customers remark “some people just come out to complain!”

Most of us who enjoy cask beer will choose most of the time to drink it either in familiar places where we have a reasonable expectation of a good pint, or in those recommended to us by friends, social media or publications such as the Good Beer Guide. But we have to recognise that our experience can be very unrepresentative. Once you venture “off grid”, the experience of drinking cask beer can too often be pretty dismal, as I found back in 2011 in and around Hereford.

I do make a point of sometimes seeking out new pubs, or ones I haven’t visited for years, and I have to say sometimes it’s very disappointing. For example, I recently called in at a pub that had been described as a community local but in fact was more of a smart dining pub. Four beers on the bar, all good ones from the better-known micros. I chose my favourite amongst them, but it was terrible – hazy, no head, full of bubbles, slightly off aroma. It was changed for another, which to be honest wasn’t all that much better. But it always takes a lot of moral courage to return two beers in succession as frankly, however, justified, it tends to make you look like a bit of an arse. So I drank it and went on my way, and I don’t think I’ll be going back there in the near future. That isn’t at all untypical of going “off grid” and, very often, the pubs where that happens also have the dearest beer.

And, every time someone feels the need to return a pint to the bar - or indeed chickens out of it - the reputation of cask beer takes another little knock.

(There are some reflections on the issues around returning beer on this post by Martin Taylor.)

Tuesday, 18 October 2022

Closed for you

In recent years, we have seen many pubs and bars adopt much shorter opening hours than in the past, often opening at what may seem odd times of the day and not at all on several days of the week. Given the financial and staffing pressures pubs are under, no individual pub should be criticised for doing this, provided that they publicise their hours clearly and don’t vary them on a whim from day to day.

However, they need to be aware that they are limiting their appeal to regulars who are in the know, and deterring casual trade. You may feel that there is little value in being open for certain hours of the day, but in fact giving potential customers the confidence that you are going to be open at all is likely to increase trade overall. Although it relates to cafés, this is a point made in this article by Rory Sutherland in the Spectator.

It cannot escape the notice of café operators that one reason why both chains and immigrant-run businesses do well is that they are open consistently and open late. But this isn’t simply because they sell more stuff later in the day by dint of being open: the reality is more complicated. If you stay open two hours more, even if you sell little in those two extra hours, you will still profit over time, because you will get far more business in your core hours. Firstly people are more confident that you are open: nobody plans to rendezvous in a café where there is a 20 per cent chance it’ll be shut. And no one really enjoys eating in cafés in the hour before closing, because once the staff start ostentatiously delactating the nozzle on the coffee machine, it ruins the vibe.
An important factor in Wetherspoon’s appeal is that they are open all day, every day. You can arrange to meet someone in Spoons at any time and have the confidence they will be open. You don’t need to go online to check what their hours are. The same is true of other managed house chains – locally, for example, with Holts.

And the increasing unpredictability of opening hours must be a factor deterring people from visiting pubs in general. Limited hours may make sense at the level of the individual venue, but overall it results in a kind of “tragedy of the commons”. “Pubs? You’re lucky to find one open!”

As an aside, fairly recently a craft beer shop opened in my local suburban shopping centre. I’m sure they open the hours that they feel suit their business. But most times when I’m visiting the area, it’s closed, so I can’t even have a browse.