Tuesday, 18 February 2020

In praise of boring brown beer

It’s common to hear people refer disparagingly to “boring brown beer” and dismiss it as all much of a muchness. However, as former Fuller’s head brewer John Keeling argues in this article, that is very far from the truth.

Yes, now of course there is much more choice of beer styles in absolute terms, but in practice there’s often much less variety across mainstream pubs, and we have lost the contrast provided by distinctive tied estates owned by a range of brewers, and the fascination of discovering new beers that had their own territory in limited areas.

...one of the joys of travelling through the country was to try the local version of bitter. In fact, being `a born and bred Mancunian’ meant it was not difficult to find different versions. I grew up on Boddingtons, Robinsons, Holts, Hyde’s, and Oldham Brewery.
He forgets Lees, and within the Manchester area there was also plenty of real ale from independent brewers such as Marston’s, Higson’s, Thwaites and Samuel Smith, plus Big Six offshoots such as Tetley’s and Wilson’s, plus Bass and Whitbread to a limited extent. All the bitters, and milds, produced by these companies, had their own distinctive character and were often very different from one another. In no way was the drinking experience dull or samey. There was also far more real ale around in total than is often imagined, or than there is now, although availability was much patchier and it was very thin on the ground in London, thus leading CAMRA’s “Founding Four” to imagine that it was on the brink of disappearing.

It should also be remembered that, back then, the pubs were much busier, had a wider social mix of customers and often, despite the supposed introduction of “all-day opening”, were open for longer hours than they are now.

He also makes the important point that “CAMRA was formed to save the great beer that was being brewed and not to get people to brew great beer.” It’s often claimed today that CAMRA’s primary objective was increasing choice, but in fact this represents an attempt to rewrite history. In the early days, this was definitely not the case. Real ale was felt to be under threat, and so the core purpose was a preservationist one, to champion the beers that were already in existence, encourage people to drink them and spread the word about where they could be found.

The main focus of change was to persuade breweries to swap keg or top-pressure dispense for cask on the beers they already sold, not to add new ones. The days of microbreweries and multi-beer free houses, except in penny numbers, were still well in the future. Even new beers were virtually unheard of – the first major new beer launch of the “Real Ale Revolution” was Ind Coope Burton Ale, which didn’t come along until 1976.

Looking through the 1975 Good Beer Guide, all the entries on the page including Stockport were just selling standard beers, bitter and usually mild, from the likes of Ind Coope, Wilson’s, Whitbread, Boddington’s and Robinson’s. No premium beers (apart from one with Bass) and nowhere with more than three different ones on the bar. Of course there was choice, and there was plenty in Cheshire, but it was found across the tied houses of different brewers, rather than within individual pubs.

It may seem quaint now, but one of CAMRA’s main campaigning planks in its early years was the ending of local quasi-monopolies in the tied house market, which eventually triggered some half-hearted pub swaps between the major brewers in the late 1970s. Now, of course, the post-Beer Orders break-up of the erstwhile “Big Six” has pretty much entirely swept that local dominance away.

While CAMRA undoubtedly played an important role, it is probable that many of the changes in the beer market that it is linked with would have happened anyway to some degree with the change in emphasis from the glossy modernism of the 1960s to the more natural, traditional, “small-is-beautiful” sentiment of the 1970s.

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Solitary splendour

Martyn Cornell recently wrote a very interesting post on his Zythophile blog In defence of sitting in a pub on your own. This is a subject I have touched on in the past, for example here and here. Some people find any kind of solitude unsettling, but for others, especially those of a quieter and more introverted nature, having a couple of drinks on your own in the pub can provide a valuable opportunity to relax, recharge your batteries and order your thoughts. The idea of the pub being a valued “third space” where you can take refuge, if only for a while, from the concerns and responsibilities of home and work applies just as much to the solo pint as that enjoyed in company, As he says,
I’m entirely happy here in my own head, sitting and thinking, people-watching, enjoying my pint, getting a vicarious buzz from all the social interaction around me, and I will get up after a beer or two and go home having had all the contact with people I need right now.
And, as I said in one of the posts I linked to above,
Until various illnesses put it beyond him, my late dad used to go out for a pint or two at lunchtime a couple of days a week. My mum would ask “what’s the point of that if you never talk to anyone?” but that is missing the point. If nothing more, it provides a change of scenery, a bit of mental stimulation and something to look forward to. Sometimes you exchange a bit of conversation, other times all you do its talk to the bar staff, but anything’s better than nothing.
This is reinforced by another rather poignant comment:
This one hits the point with me. I'm old and now alone, but not lonely, my wife passed away 4 years ago. I use the pubs several times a week just to sit quietly chat, read a book and a change of scenery. Without the pubs I would be lonely but I find I get the necessary interaction with just a brief visit to charge my batteries up for another day or two. Probably seems sad to most people but we all have our own ways of coping with different and difficult situations.
This is especially important for people with Asperger’s syndrome and similar conditions, who may find any kind of social interaction challenging. However, that doesn’t mean that they want to shun all company, more that they prefer to do it in a manner that allows them to control just how much contact there is, and retreat if it becomes too much. The simple act of getting out of the house and being in the company of others, even if you don’t converse with them, can in itself be very valuable. Vicarious socialising is still socialising. I can’t think of any other situation other than the pub where that is possible.

Martyn also raise the issue of the “age of invisibility”, especially in relation to women visiting a pub on their own. That is perhaps really a separate subject but, as I said in the comments, it applies to men as well to some extent. Young people are very judgmental of their peers, and when I was younger I would occasionally attract unwelcome attention from people around my own age if I was in a pub on my own. Now I am just another indistinguishable bespectacled late middle-aged bloke, nobody seems remotely bothered.

It also must be said that there are many – probably too many – pubs where the general layout, atmosphere and offer make enjoying that solitary pint well-nigh impossible.

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Double standards? I’ll bet!

As explained on this website, children under the age of 18 are not allowed in a betting shop under any circumstances. This is obviously a very different situation from the law that now applies to pubs. Following on from my post earlier this week about the links between drinking and gambling, I thought I would ask on Twitter whether people felt this restriction should be relaxed. The results, as shown below, were a pretty decisive no.

However, this comes across as more than a touch hypocritical. Is the action of taking your child with you into a pub while you have a pint really much different in principle from taking them into the bookie’s while you put a tenner on Brewer’s Droop in the 4.15 at Catterick? Obviously taking a child into a pub for a meal is a different situation, but otherwise both are a case of a child accompanying its parent while they carry out what is basically an adult activity. The child is expected to behave as well as possible while they’re there, but they’re not there for their own benefit.

Some people look on taking children to the pub through highly rose-tinted spectacles.

The reality, though, can be very different: The reason children were excluded from betting shops was to protect their own interests, not for the convenience of the punters. But are they really corrupting of the young by several orders of magnitude greater than pubs? The article I linked to above suggests that, if adults find it difficult to put a bet on with a child in tow, they should consider internet betting instead. However, that fails to recognise that, for many, physically placing a bet and then possibly watching the result on TV, is a kind of “getting out of the house” social ritual in just the same way as going to the pub.

Betting shops are also, of course, prohibited from selling alcoholic drinks. But, as well as the ban on children, they are also required to have opaque windows to stop people on the street gawping inside, something else that is now less and less common in pubs. So spending an hour or so there might not actually be all that unpleasant...

Monday, 10 February 2020

Pubs and punters

I was recently in a pub in central Stockport* when a bloke quickly finished his pint and said he had to leave to put a bet on at the nearby bookie’s. “Beer and betting, that’s all I live for now,” he said. And the two activities certainly have a long and close connection. Before the legalisation of off-course betting in 1961, the pub was the favourite hangout of the bookie’s runner, and the preferred activity of the legendary Pub Shaman of Prestwich was “the solitary pint in a smoke-filled vault poring over a fixed odds coupon and going through a packet of Bensons.” One of my local pubs when I lived in Runcorn had a betting shop built in a corner of the car park for the convenience of its customers.

I have to say it’s something that has never remotely appealed to me, and I have never put a commercial bet on in my life. However, I recognise that, since the dawn of mankind, there has been an irresistible inclination to lay wagers on all kinds of activities, and gambling is an extremely popular activity worldwide, even in countries where alcohol is prohibited. It is also something that is highly susceptible to criminal activity, which is why there is a strong argument for making it legal to a greater or lesser extent, to bring it in from the cold. That, of course, was the motivation behind the legalisation of off-course betting in the UK in 1961. While strictly illegal, it was widely tolerated beforehand and indeed implicitly supported by the publication of race cards in newspapers.

In some respects, gambling is similar to alcohol in that it is something that is widely enjoyed, that most people manage to cope with and keep under control, but which does cause serious problems of addiction for a minority. Both have issues of restricting access for minors – while children are now widely admitted to pubs, betting shops are strictly over-18s only. Plus, both have for a very long time been the target of campaigns of moral disapproval. Indeed at present it seems that gambling, especially in terms of its connection with football, is the subject of a moral panic that possibly is diverting some of the prohibitionists’ attention from alcohol.

I can’t say it’s a subject that I’ve studied in any depth, and it’s not for me to say that the balance between control and permissiveness has currently been struck in the right place. But I know that Christopher Snowdon, who has been assiduous in exposing the lies and exaggerations of the anti-drink lobby on his Velvet Glove, Iron Fist blog, has pointed out many of the same things about gambling, that both the prevalence of “problem gambling” and the rate of its increase have been greatly overstated by the those whose agenda is to oppose gambling per se.

This underlines one of the key problems faced by those who are opposed to increased lifestyle regulation, that people so often think in silos and, while they may perceive a threat to their favoured indulgence, fail to draw the connection with other activities towards which they are indifferent or indeed may even actively oppose. There’s no point in standing up for freedom if you’re only prepared to defend those things you personally like.

* No prizes for guessing which one.

Wednesday, 5 February 2020

Lowering the bar

“Dry January” always sees a surge in media interest in low-alcohol and alcohol-free beers, and they are certainly showing a substantial rise in sales, with annual increases of 6% being reported. This has led to an expansion of the selection available in supermarkets, where two or three years ago you would find very little beyond rather dull mainstream lagers and one or two rather unpleasant alcohol-free ales. My local branches of Tesco and Morrisons have both started doing three for £3 offers to appeal to customers who want to try a variety of different examples.

As I’ve reported before, this is an area of the market that I have dabbled with, so over the past couple of months I have sampled some of the newer arrivals.

  • Brew Dog Punk AF (0.5% ABV) – this seemed to me to have a one-dimensional, aggressive hoppiness, whereas in Punk IPA this is balanced by the alcohol. Not to my taste at all.

  • Coast Beer Co.(Belgium) Hazy IPA (0.0% ABV) – only subdued hoppiness, sweetish, citrusy flavour. Quite pleasant, but more like a vaguely beer-flavoured soft drink.

  • Big Drop Brewing Company Stout (0.5% ABV) (pictured) – the pronounced stout flavour rather compensates for the lack of alcohol, although you do notice it eventually. Quite decent overall, from a new brewery specialising in low-alcohol beers.

  • Brooklyn Special Effects Hoppy Lager (0.4% ABV) – darker than many IPAs, quite full-bodied, hoppy but not aggressively so. This is probably the best of these I’ve tasted – something you might well be happy to drink for its own sake.
It’s certainly true that both the range and quality of no and low-alcohol beers has shown a marked improvement over the past couple of years. I would say from these that the little bit of alcohol contained in a 0.5% beer, as opposed to a 0.0% one, does in general bring about a worthwhile improvement.

However, as I wrote around this time last year, the inherent limitations of non-alcoholic beers place a fundamental ceiling on their prospects in the marketplace, and I would say some of the more bullish projections of growth are overstated. However good they are, they will never be any more than a pale echo of normal-strength beers. They may mirror the experience of drinking it, but they omit the essential point of beer. And it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that the major brewers are promoting them partly to act as a shop window for their standard products.

Friday, 31 January 2020

Raise a glass

Well, at last we’ve got there. Forty-three months after the referendum, and ten months after it was supposed to happen, today we are finally leaving the European Union. So I think I can be forgiven for indulging in a celebratory libation of English ale.

The day after the referendum, I made the point that the smoking ban, and other instances of the political class treating ordinary people with patronising contempt, was a small contributory factor towards the result. And subsequent events have only served to reinforce that message.

A reminder that the comment facility is not provided as a platform for Brexit bitterness.

Wednesday, 29 January 2020

Can I just try one of those?

Martin Taylor has drawn my attention to this brilliant skit making fun of people who take advantage of asking for tasters in pubs. The punchline is, from what I’ve heard, only too true. While tasters have their place, I have written before about how asking for one is often just an affectation, and some people do abuse the facility. As one licensee said, “Yes, I do offer tasters. They’re called halves.”

Tuesday, 28 January 2020

Economies of ale

Regular readers of this blog will be well aware that I’ve not always seen eye-to-eye with beer writer Pete Brown. However, when he puts the agitprop politics to one side and takes a detailed look at the beer and pub industry he can come up with some well-researched and interesting material. He has recently been investigating the truth behind the recent news that there had been an increase in pub numbers in the past year, and has produced a couple of blogposts on the subject, both of which are well worth reading in detail.

Is The Moon Under Water Finally Getting its Head Above the Surface?

Economies of Ale Part Two: How the Pub is Evolving

It’s interesting that he acknowledges the impact of the smoking ban on the decline of pubs, something that for long was taboo amongst most of the beer commentariat.

That massive, horrible drop between 2007 and 2013 was the result of a clusterf*ck of negative factors: the smoking ban started in 2007, the global financial crash happened in 2008, and in response the then government thought it would be a good idea to punish an already reeling industry with the beer duty escalator, which helped the total tax burden payable on beer rise by 40% in four years.
He’s also pretty scathing about the anti-pubco conspiracy theorists. As I’ve often said on here before, while some of the business practices of the pubcos leave much to be desired, their role in the decline of the pub trade has been trivial. It is essentially a problem of demand, not supply. And, if there was a huge untapped demand, then surely independently-run pubs would be booming, whereas in reality they’re doing no better than ones owned by pubcos.
Last year the Office of National Statistics (ONS) launched their ‘Economies of Ale’ report into the changing numbers of British pubs. It painted a gloomy picture that we were used to, but I spotted an interesting quirk in the data. It showed that small, independently owned pubs were closing faster than larger pubs owned by the big pub companies. So I wrote a column pointing out that, if this was the case, the big pubco tie can’t be the main reason for pub closures – not if pubs that have nothing to do with the pubcos are closing faster than pubco-owned pubs. That’s simple logic. It’s not to say the pubco tie isn’t a factor in closures, but it can’t possibly be the main factor.

Not for the first time, the piece was given a misleading headline by the sub-editors, which didn’t accurately reflect the tone of the piece. And as few people these days bother to read beyond the headline, if you follow the debate around pub closures at all, you can guess what happened next.

According to my social media feeds, my story was proof that the ONS, the whole British Guild of Beer Writers, the entire UK national media and most of all, me personally, were involved in a vast conspiracy and were being paid off by the likes of Ei Group (formerly Enterprise Inns) and Punch Taverns. I had been paid thousands of pounds by the pubcos to write this piece. I was apparently performing sexual favours on the chief executives of these companies, and I was actively supporting their actions in the pub market because I hated pub tenants and lessees and the businesses they ran. I absolutely loved big corporate CEOs because, in ways that were never made quite clear, their actions benefited me professionally.

The people who wrote these comments remain hurt and bewildered that most beer writers refuse to engage with them.

A few years ago, Pete wrote an angry blogpost in which he called racism over the suggestion that had made that, in some areas, the increasing Muslim population had been a major factor in the decline in pub numbers. However, it was pointed out in the comments that this wasn’t racism, but a simple question of fact. If the proportion of people in the population who don’t drink alcohol, especially in public, increases, then inevitably the demand for pubgoing will decline. He later deleted the post, and now accepts the point in his article.
The worst-hit boroughs are an absolute bloodbath:

- Barking and Dagenham has lost 67% of its pubs between 2001 and 2019

- Newham has lost 57%

- Luton has lost 55%

- Burnley has lost 53%

Why? Well, one thing all these areas have in common is that they have a high proportion of ethnic communities who for religious and cultural reasons don’t drink alcohol. Over the course of the 21st century, while the ethnic population as a whole may or may not have increased all that much, the children of people who moved there earlier have grown up and replaced a cohort of young people who used to spend a lot of time in pubs with a cohort of young people who don’t.

In contrast, some areas, especially those with a strong tourist appeal, have seen an absolute increase in the number of pubs, although I have suggested that this is likely to be not so much from the opening of new bars as from the reclassification of existing restaurants and hotels, and new restaurant-type establishments obtaining full on-licences. However, he rather gets his statistics in a twist:
West Somerset has seen a 25% increase in the number of pubs – the most of any region in the UK. Numbers have also grown in the Scottish Highlands and stayed stable in the Western Isles, confirming that tourism plays a key part in keeping pubs alive. This gets even more apparent when you split the data by number of pubs per capita. West Somerset, the Cotswolds, South Lakeland, the Derbyshire Dales, North Devon, West Dorset and Stratford-upon-Avon all have more than one pub for each person who actually lives there, and have only seen a fractional fall – or an actual increase – in the total number of pubs.
More pubs than there are residents – I don’t think so. That would suggest 35,000 pubs in West Somerset, which seems a little unlikely. At a guess, the figure is more likely to be no more than one pub per hundred population, if that.

Monday, 27 January 2020

A dismal milestone

Over the past few days, the pub closures ticker in the sidebar has passed the 20,000 mark. Now, I’m well aware of the limitations of this data, that it’s simply based on statements of weekly or monthly pub closures issued by the likes of the BBPA and CAMRA, and that it’s essentially a gross figure that does not take account of new bar openings. But it certainly conveys a fundamental truth, that the pub trade overall has seen a dramatic decline over that period. According to the most recent figures produced by the BBPA, beer sales in pubs have declined by 35% since 2007, so it’s not exactly surprising that so many have closed.

I would never claim that the smoking ban has been a monocausal factor in pub decline over that period, but it has certainly been a significant one, especially amongst the more down-to-earth, wet-led pubs. It’s undoubtedly true that a huge number of much-loved pubs have been lost, such as, in Stockport alone, the Tiviot, Waterloo and Grapes. And, if you’ve lost the only pub in the area where you live, it’s scant consolation that a new craft bar has opened up three miles away in the town centre charging four quid a pint. It is nothing remotely resembling a like-for-like replacement.

Edit: At present the counter appears to be advancing by three per day.

Thursday, 23 January 2020

One wrong doesn’t excuse another

Pellicle magazine has recently published an article entitled Pubs, Parenthood and Children at the Heart of the Community advocating a more tolerant attitude to children in pubs. Now, I’ve been over this ground many times before, so I don’t propose to revisit it here. However, I can’t help thinking that the article paints a rather rose-tinted picture of mummy happily sipping her third of craft beer with her friends while little Jocasta quietly sits with a colouring book, which all too often bears little relation to reality.

One argument that came up in discussion about this was the old chestnut that “what adults do in pubs is far worse than a few noisy children”. Now, in extremis, this is undoubtedly true, but it is essentially a classic example of the logical fallacy of tu quoque, that wrongdoing by one group in some may justifies or excuses the (possibly less serious) wrongdoing by another group.

I also have to say that, in my experience, witnessing inappropriate adult behaviour in pubs is extremely rare. This is true not only of actions at the extreme end of the scale such as fighting, or being abusive or threatening, but also more low-level behaviour such as shouting too loudly, throwing tantrums or deliberately annoying or pestering others. Of course it does happen, but it isn’t an everyday occurrence.

It has to be remembered, though, that behaviour has to be taken in context, and what might be par for the course when the local team win a football match, or in a lively city-centre bar late at night, would stand out like a sore thumb at lunchtime in a rural gastropub. Pubs often, by definition, are somewhat boisterous – that comes with the territory.

Children in pubs can often behave in a way that would be entirely normal for the playground, but is inappropriate for a pub environment and would not be considered acceptable in adults. (By “pub” I mean a drinking place, not a casual dining venue) It doesn’t mean that you hate children not to want to be in the presence of their happy laughter all the time.

The article rightly points to the importance of the pub as a “third space”, a refuge where people can relax away from the pressures of the workplace and the home. And, for many people, that also means an adult space that offers a respite from the responsibility of tending to children’s needs, and where inhibitions can be loosened somewhat. Is that something so unreasonable to ask for?

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Drying out

To tie in with Dry January, the Morning Advertiser reports that one in four pub visits no longer involve consuming an alcoholic drink. My first thought is to wonder how many of these are connected with eating. My guess would be that the proportion on non-dining occasions is much smaller.

It’s also of limited usefulness taken in isolation. How does it compare with previous years? Does it represent a marked change, or is it little different? It could, of course, be the case that as the amount of drinking in pubs decreases, the proportion of dining occasions rises, and with it the percentage of non-drinking visits, even without much change in individual behaviour when in the pub. It could simply be a reflection of the growing role of food in pubs.

It’s certainly true, as I have observed before, that adults in groups of diners in pubs are now much more likely to be having a non-alcoholic drink than they were twenty or thirty years. But it doesn’t follow that hordes of people have suddenly started jugging back non-alcoholic beers on non-dining pub visits.

And, if they are, there must come a point where they start to wonder what they’re doing there at all. If one person decides to hang on the coat-tails of a group of drinkers and enjoy an evening in the pub while avoiding alcohol, that’s understandable. But, once the non-drinkers become a majority, they might one day ask “Paula, you’re now the only one of us who’s actually drinking alcohol. Wouldn’t it be better if we all did something else?”

Friday, 17 January 2020

Drinking with the enemy

For a number of years, we have seen the Dry January campaign run by the public health lobby, which aims to encourage people to abstain from alcohol entirely throughout the month and hopefully to take stock of their drinking in a wider sense. Understandably, the licensed trade have viewed this as a threat to their business, especially as January is one of the slackest months for trade and a time that sees many pubs financially struggling. As a response, various initiatives have been devised, including Drinkuary (which now seems to have faded away) and, most prominently, Tryanuary. This aims not to encourage people to drink more, but to take the opportunity to try out new and unfamiliar beers and venues.

However, we are now seeing voices raised that are critical of this approach, arguing that to oppose Dry January comes across as disrespectful and unhelpful to people who are genuinely trying to reduce their consumption or grappling with alcohol-related problems, not to mention being potentially damaging to business, For example, see this post on Bring on the Beer, a blog which I have to admit I hadn’t previously come across.

I wouldn't for one moment decry desperate business owners for being miffed at a campaign that they perceive as seeking to undermine their footfall at a needy time of year. But I would like to know if it's been proven that that's where their ire should be directed. Blunt, hostile rejection of the "other" camp is completely illogical and does more harm than any abstinence campaign ever could. If a pub does put out a tweet saying "Forget (or stronger) Dryanuary" it makes it less likely that folks will come into their pub to partake of a soft drink or two, so they're basically shooting themselves in the foot.
The post makes some nuanced points, not least that Dry January is unlikely to reach those most in need of a break from alcohol, and is well worth reading. However, it is important to distinguish the individual from the general. On the personal level, people may well wish to reduce their overall alcohol consumption, or give it a miss for a while, and that needs to be respected. They shouldn’t be badgered into have a drink when they don’t want one, or told that they’re letting the side down, and pubs should offer products that enable them to make a non-alcoholic choice, which of course in general they do.

But Dry January isn’t just about individual responsibility. It is a campaign that has been consciously crafted by the anti-drink lobby with the declared intention of not just allowing people something of a detox but to review their entire relationship with alcohol. It takes advantage of the fact that, after Christmas and New Year, people maybe will feel they’ve overdone it a bit, and may also find themselves short of funds, so abstinence becomes doubly attractive. In the past, anti-drink campaigns often focused on morality and the role of drink as a step on the road to ruin, but now they have been subtly redirected to capitalise on contemporary concerns about health and general feelings of purity and well-being.

This objective is made explicit in this blogpost, which also reiterates the point that Dry January does little to help those most in need of it.

For two campaigns aimed at helping beer sellers and alcoholics, it seems that neither of them actually have much effect. It can be argued that Tryanuary doesn't drive more folk to pubs in January than those who would go anyway, and Dryanuary is mostly partaken by folk who sensibly drink in moderation. Which means that, when you strip away the superficiality of likes, retweets, shares, headlines and humblebragging social media posts, the real world effect is negligible at best.

So what does this mean for the value of Dry January? It’s potentially helpful for a lot of people at an individual level, but for me its key contribution is about culture change, which then provides a space for policy change.

First, it prompts everyone to think about their alcohol consumption, and that fits perfectly with Alcohol Change UK’s admirable goal of getting everyone to make well-informed decisions.

Second, it provides an opportunity for commentators and policymakers to note that alcohol isn’t just any other commodity, and for all its strengths the individual-focused approach of Dry January doesn’t work for everyone, so we need more.

“Its key contribution is about culture change, which then provides a space for policy change.” Mark those words very carefully.

Some initiatives proposed by the anti-drink lobby may actually make sense. But they should always be taken with a large pinch of salt, because we know all too well what their ultimate objective is. There is no acceptable end-point short of outright prohibition, and whatever you agree with, they will always come back for more. Therefore, while it may well be prudent for pubs to keep their heads down during Dry January, and make good business sense to offer alcohol-free products, embracing the concept is effectively getting into bed with those who wish to destroy you.

The point has also been made, for example in the blogpost I linked to above, that, given the greatly improved choice and quality of alcohol-free beers available now, doing without alcohol doesn’t require as much of a sacrifice as it once did. There’s certainly a fair amount of truth in that – it’s no longer a question of having just a limited selection of bland ersatz lagers, although in practice the range available in the typical pub is still pretty narrow.

However, it misses the point that the fundamental reason people drink beer is because it contains alcohol. While people may have entirely valid reasons for choosing an alcohol-free beer, and I sometimes drink it myself, it’s always to some extent a distress purchase. They are intended to mimic, as far as possible, the experience of drinking a standard beer, but with that crucial element omitted. Ideally, all other things being equal, people would prefer to be drinking a normal-strength equivalent.

Without standard beer, there would be no alcohol-free beer, just as there would be no decaffeinated coffee without regular coffee or nut roasts without meat roasts. One is a mere echo of the other. While people may be happy enough with an alcohol-free beer if they find themselves in the pub, they’re not going to go out of their way to seek them out. Nobody is going to go on AFB pub crawls. So it’s always going to be an inferior substitute that falls short of the real thing, but will constantly remind you of it.

People who choose to switch to AFBs during January are not, in practice, going to spend as much time or money in pubs, so it is still undermining the trade to some extent. There may be the odd exception, but they will be vanishingly few. The best way to cut down on alcohol is simply not to go to the pub in the first place. And it should always be remembered that, without alcoholic drinks, and the people who consume them, there would be no pubs.

Monday, 13 January 2020

An old-fashioned success story

Yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph carried a feature article by beer writer Adrian Tierney-Jones on the reasons behind Samuel Smith’s perhaps unlikely success story. It’s paywalled, but I believe it’s possible to read a limited number of articles for free. It includes a brief quotation from me (albeit without any explanation of who I am):
They are pubs as they used to be,” says Peter Edwardson, “though I do think the mobile phone ban is bonkers and represents eccentricity taken a bit too far.”
And a lengthier explanation from Peter Alexander aka Tandleman, which hits the nail on the head.
For Peter Alexander, a Rochdale-based beer writer and CAMRA activist, the pubs’ popularity is due to the fact that visiting them is “like stepping back into the late 70s and early 80s. They are clean and bright, not hugely over-decorated and well run. There is no music. The beer is cheap, with a pint of keg mild being £1.29 and Old Brewery Bitter below £2, so they attract people who don’t have much to spend. The bottled beer and spirits prices are higher though — £6 for Imperial Stout for instance.

“The thing about Humphrey Smith,” he adds, “is that he has a demographic of customers who find the pubs comfortable, and they are mainly in their fifties, sixties and seventies. He also doesn’t stint on heating with the pubs always having coal fires in the winter.”

This comment from an ex-manager sums it up very well:
A former licensee I spoke with (on condition of anonymity) said that the pubs’ success was due to the fact that they have got their business model absolutely right. “They trade off their heritage, which is real and authentic. They are streets ahead of other pubs that also try to trade as traditional pubs. The authenticity is why I bought it into it. They were also the first brewery to be vegan, and the beer is also crucial to their reputation as it is so natural.”
No other pub chain comes anywhere close to matching the ambiance of pubs as people imagine they used to be. In Sam’s pubs, people do talk to each other in a way they rarely do elsewhere.

It was also very well explained in Anthony Avis’ book on the postwar brewing industry. He praises Samuel Smith’s for being an “exemplar among the smaller brewery companies”, and says “The custom is aimed at the older person, who relishes a good pint, with home-produced food if he wants it, and the surroundings to sit down and talk with his companions in unfashionable comfort – just like the brewery industry advertising of forty years ago represented pubs to be”. This was written in the 1990s, but remains just as true today, especially the “unfashionable comfort” point, at a time when many other operators seem determined to make their pubs as uncomfortable as possible.

As regular readers will know, I have long been a strong supporter of Samuel Smith’s general approach to their pubs, and locally often find them the most congenial places to go for a drink. However, while I can easily manage without my phone for the time it takes me to drink a couple of pints, I do regard that particular policy as a ban too far. I am also somewhat dismayed by Humphrey Smith’s refusal to employ relief managers, which leads to unnecessary and often protracted closures of pubs that on the face of it appear to be perfectly viable.

Saturday, 11 January 2020

A question of more or less

You can just go in for a drink, but would you call it a pub?
I recently linked to a Guardian editorial praising the British pub, which mentioned that, after years of decline, the number of pubs in the country had actually increased in the past year. The detailed story can be found here in the same newspaper.
The decline of the British pub may be at an end, according to official figures showing that the number of pubs has increased for the first time this decade.

The UK ended March 2019 with 39,135 pubs, 320 more than a year earlier, according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS). It is the first net increase since 2010.

The rise marked a dramatic turnaround compared with the previous nine years, during which the UK pub network declined by an average of 732 each year, comparable data showed.

I have to say I’m distinctly sceptical about what this is actually telling us. It all hinges, of course, on how “pub” is actually defined. It is certainly true that, in the past two or three years, the rate of closures of existing pubs, which had been vertiginous in the years immediately following 2007, has distinctly slowed. It hasn’t entirely come to a stop, though, with, for example, one prominent pub in Stockport apparently going to close for redevelopment later this month.

On the other hand, made possible by post-2005 changes in licensing laws, there has been a growth in the number of new drinking establishments. This doesn’t just include micropubs, but a whole swathe of new bars in various formats, very often in former shop premises. We recently did a crawl around Stockport Market Place where four of the eight establishments visited had opened fairly recently, three in the preceding twelve months. It would be entirely credible that Stockport has more licensed premises than it did twelve months previously.

Another, less-recognised, factor may be the reclassification of existing premises. The changes in licensing laws have made it easier and more attractive for other types of establishment – restaurants, social clubs and residential hotels – to obtain full on-licences so the general public can, if they want just go in there for a drink. Added to this, many new places that once would have clearly fallen into the category of restaurants now choose to define themselves as “restaurant and bar” or similar terminology, even if their primary purpose is still the serving of meals. It is perceived as being more modern and informal. Figures were recently published showing an increase in the number of “pubs” in the Scottish Highlands and Islands. As Scottish licensing law is not so conducive to the opening of new small bars, and the general climate there is hardly a fertile one for new stand-alone pubs, this kind of reclassification must be a major factor.

In many ways, all of this has been a positive development. It allows the market to function to provide new drinking establishments of a type and in locations that people actually want, and it opens up existing premises to a wider clientele. But what it has done is to blur the boundaries between different types of businesses. Go back twenty years, and if someone referred to a pub it would have been pretty clear what they were talking about. Now it is much less obvious.

Many of the pubs that have been converted to Indian or Chinese restaurants over the past two decades will have retained their full licences, so in theory you can just go in for a drink, but their body language very clearly states “eatery”. Just off Stockport Market Place, there’s a new establishment called Vinabod which describes itself as a “Viking-themed tapas bar”. I’m not knocking it – you have to commend their enterprise – but how many people would really think of it as a pub, even though you don’t have to eat. Over the summer, I had lunches in a couple of cafĂ©s when on holiday, both of which also served alcoholic drinks, one even having a couple of keg taps. Go back twenty years, and that wouldn’t have been the case.

This doesn’t mean, though, that everything blurs into one, and words lose their meaning. Pub, bar, hotel, social club, restaurant and cafĂ© are all separate concepts that carry very different connotations. The boundaries may be blurred, and there may be a considerable area of overlap, but it shouldn’t be inferred that the distinctions no longer exist. A year or so, I wrote about the difference between a pub and a bar. Legally, there may well be none, but they still occupy very distinct spaces in people’s minds. Indeed, as I pointed out, some bars took exception to being classified alongside pubs, as they thought it put across an undesirably stuffy image.

Now, I don’t know how many of these new styles of establishment are included within the headline total of “pubs”, as the definition has not been given. But we need to very careful about assuming that the reported rise in the headline number actually does represent any kind of renaissance of pubs as generally understood. Maybe we need a new term to encompass the whole variety of different establishments that now possess full on-licences. It may be a business success story, but it isn’t necessarily a pub success story.

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Do it the French way

Last week, I made the point that the lack of legislative action on the anti-drink agenda during the 2010s shouldn’t give any grounds for complacency during the coming decade. And, as sure as night follows day, it didn’t take long for the first salvo to be fired by the neo-Prohibitionists in the New Year.

Writing in Saturday’s Daily Mail, our old friend Professor David Nutt described alcohol as a national epidemic and urged concerted action across a number of fronts to address this menace. Not surprisingly, the article was full of exaggerations, misleading statements and downright lies. It was comprehensively filleted by Christopher Snowdon with his usual aplomb, saying that Nutt was “wrong in every possible way”. Please read it – there’s really very little I can add.

It is interesting that Nutt singles out France as an example for us to follow, although I’m not sure it’s really such a good role model as he seems to think. It is certainly true that France has halved its per capita alcohol consumption from a very high figure in the early 1960s, but according to various international comparisons it’s still at a similar level to the UK. And how much of that is due to general social trends as opposed to specific government policies?

He praises France’s severe restrictions on alcohol advertising, but it’s generally recognised that advertising primarily serves to influence brand choice rather than the level of consumption as such. The main impact of advertising curbs is to make it more difficult to launch new products. He also says that the government encouraged wine producers to make higher quality wines rather than vin ordinaire, but isn’t that in line with the general trend across the developed world to drink “less but better”? And you certainly can get drunk on Chateau Latour if you can afford it.

He highlights France’s decision to cut its drink-driving limit, but by doing so he effectively identifies this as primarily an anti-alcohol measure, which of course it is. Despite this, France still has a level of road fatalities, in terms of both population and vehicle mileage, about 70% higher than the UK. He conveniently ignores the fact that the limit was reduced in Scotland five years ago, and so far has failed to produce any noticeable reduction in accidents either in absolute terms or relative to England and Wales.

He also urges the other parts of the UK to follow Scotland’s example and introduce minimum unit pricing. But there is no minimum pricing in France, and you will still make big savings across the range of alcoholic drinks in the Calais hypermarket, although maybe not as much as you once could, due to the relative weakness of the pound in recent years.

Of course alcohol does cause problems for some who misuse it, but most people manage to handle it in a responsible manner and it brings pleasure to millions. Any attempt to deal with alcohol-related issues should surely adopt a targeted approach rather than being a form of indiscriminate collective punishment.

It may be easy to dismiss this as typical hyberbolic Daily Mail scaremongering. However, it should not be forgotten that the Mail was one of the main cheerleaders for the current government, and is often thought to represent the voice of “middle England”. They are far more likely to listen to the Mail than the Guardian. So nobody should delude themselves that the election of a new government that claims to listen to ordinary people means that the Nanny State agenda is now off the menu.