Saturday 2 March 2024

Branded

In the early 2000s, I visited Brussels several times on business trips. I was struck by how all of the well-known Belgian beers had their own specific design of glass – Duvel, Chimay, Orval and even Kwak which needed a little wooden support to stop the glass falling over. It was a very distinctive and characterful part of the drinking experience.

At the time, this was virtually unknown in this country, but over the succeeding twenty-odd years branded glasses have become increasingly common here. At first it was simply standard designs with a brand logo, such as the well-known John Smith’s Extra Smooth tulip, but it then evolved into each brand having its own characteristic and unique form. The Stella chalice, as shown, was one of the first to become commonplace.

Now, Guinness and pretty much every leading lager brand have their own individual glass design. This obviously helps to promote the brand, and leads to drinkers having a sense of ownership and feeling they are making a statement about what they are drinking. On the other hand, it could be argued that it helps people distinguish what are essentially pretty samey beers.

One obvious problem is that branded glasses are much more likely to be stolen than plain ones, particularly ones of a highly distinctive form such as the Leffe chalices now seen in Wetherspoon’s. However, my understanding is that they tend to be provided either free or at a substantial discount by brewers, so they may not be too concerned about their promotional material ending up in people’s houses.

Personally, I have to say I’m not a fan of stemmed pint glasses, which to me come across as unwieldy. That includes many leading brands such as Stella, San Miguel and Cruzcampo. I also find gold-rimmed glasses a touch “icky”. And getting a beer in the wrong branded glass is surely much worse than getting one in a plain glass.

This tweet illustrates the pitfalls of serving beer in the wrong glassware. Surely in this case, even a plain stemmed glass (which Wetherspoon’s have large stocks of) would have been better than an unmarked conical.

As I mentioned in my post about guest ales, the lack of branded glasses arguably puts cask at something of a disadvantage. Plenty of beers do have their own glasses but, like the Bass one, they tend to be just standard designs with the appropriate logo on it. Some brewers such as Robinson’s have generic branded glasses for their own pubs, and Lees have introduced the distinctive “grip” glass for their cask ales, although personally I’m not a fan. And, by definition, ever-changing guest ales are not going to come with a branded glass. Some pubs do make up for this by having a stock of glasses with their own logo.

I recently ran a Twitter poll on this which produced some remarkably symmetrical results. Half of respondents thought that a branded glass did enhance their experience of drinking at least to some extent, while another half felt it made no difference or was actively offputting. I suspect, given the nature of my followers, the sample was heavily biased towards people who mainly drink cask.

Branded glasses are certainly here to stay, and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that to some degree they do give pub drinking more of a sense of occasion. Plus a good-looking pint in its own glass might tempt others to try it. So, even when it is on as a permanent beer, this is something where cask possibly does lose out when it is competing for attention with other beers.

Saturday 24 February 2024

The premium merry-go-round

The hackneyed topic of cask beer premiumisation has recently reared its head again in the shape of comments by Georgina Young of St Austell Brewery. Tandleman rapidly provided a comprehensive and impassioned response. Cask beer, he always reminds us, has to be priced to go. Looking back I recall that back in 2019 I did similar out of something of a sense of exasperation.

The idea that increasing its selling price will improve the quality and perception of cask beer always seems to me to be a case of putting the cart before the horse. Premium positioning has to be earned over a long period of time – it can’t be achieved overnight. It’s certainly possible to achieve premium pricing for individual beer brands and pubs, and many, to a greater or lesser extent, succeed in doing this. But to premiumise an entire sector comprised of many disparate products, producers and outlets is an impossible task.

A key aspect of the market that very much works against the idea of premiumisation is the widespread culture of ever-changing guest beers. To achieve premium status, you need to be able to exercise a strong measure of control over product quality at the point of sale. You must make it possible for people to readily find your product, and to be able to make repeat purchases if they like it. And you will need to develop the perception of your product over a long period of time through a carefully considered and crafted marketing strategy.

But none of this applies to rotating guest beers. Yes, it matters that the individual pub knows how to look after its beer, but if one isn’t to your taste there will be another along in a couple of days, or even later the same evening. There’s no realistic way of having confidence that a particular brand will be available, and no opportunity to make repeat purchases. Sometimes, a guest beer may be one that you recognise and have enjoyed before, but very often they will be completely unfamiliar short-run brews. It is turning cask beer into an interchangeable, disposable, commodity product.

A further issue is branded glasses. The past ten or fifteen years have seen a major change in the on-trade beer market, as pretty much all of the leading brands have acquired their own distinctive design of glass. But obviously this cannot apply to rotating guests, which will just be served in a generic unbranded glass, or at best one with the name of the pub on it. This is also an issue for the perception of cask beer more generally.

I recognise that plenty of beer enthusiasts like this approach to selling beer, and are always on the lookout for something new. A fair number of pubs do well out of it. But it’s something that just doesn’t resonate with the 90% of pub drinkers who don’t drink cask, and indeed also a substantial proportion of those who do. Most people just don’t want to drink beers they’ve never heard of. And it goes completely against all recognised strategies of developing premium status.

By far the most successful example of a premium brand in the current beer market is Guinness, which I wrote about last year. Guinness ticks all the boxes of premiumisation. It is permanently available in a large number of pubs, so you know where you’ll be able to find it, and that you’ll be able to make a repeat purchase. It doesn’t occasionally crop us as a rotating guest stout. It’s distinctively different from anything else on the bar. A great deal of effort is put in to maintaining quality, and poor examples are highlighted, for example, by the ShitLondonGuinness Twitter account. And its brewers have over the years carried out a series of very well-crafted and memorable marketing campaigns to burnish its image, with a level of consistency no other brand can equal.

Going back thirty or forty years, this was matched by Stella Artois, which was carefully positioned as a premium brand using the “Reassuringly Expensive” strapline, which was introduced in 1982. But, more recently, this image has been eroded by cheapening the recipe and progressively reducing the strength, so it is now regarded as just a bog-standard product in what is described as the “premium lager” category, although in reality that just means “stronger than cooking lager”. It’s a classic example of the destruction of brand equity.

I would have said that Peroni had achieved something of the same image, being a beer that sold for a price premium, was not on draught in Spoons and was not sold in slabs of 440ml cans. I can’t say that premium lagers are something that much interests me in pubs, but I do get the impression that some of the shine has worn off more recently. And reducing its strength from 5.1% to 5.0%, while trivial in itself, is a slight chink in its image as something that stands out from other products.

In the cask sector, Timothy Taylor’s have achieved considerable success in positioning Landlord as a premium beer. It is now the second best selling cask beer and seems to consistently achieve a higher price point than other beers. It is noted for literate, gently humorous advertising placed in upmarket publications. However, Taylor’s don’t control quality at the point of sale, and it is frequently disappointing, in particular often being served too green. Unless it’s in a pub where I know I can trust the cask quality, I tend to give it a miss in favour of something else.

Ironically, one beer that has almost accidentally achieved many of the characteristics of a premium brand is Draught Bass. Pubs have to make a point of asking for it, rather than having it foisted on them by brewers, so the quality tends to be better. It has a strong reputation amongst a loyal band of devotees, so to some extent markets itself. And it has possibly the most instantly recognisable design of branded glass of any cask beer, which now seems to have got into most outlets. But it remains something of a secret in the wider beer market, and so doesn’t tend to sell for a premium price. Which, as a drinker, I’m not complaining about.

Tuesday 20 February 2024

Drink for Britain!

The Daily Telegraph reports that an increasingly abstemious younger generation are blowing a large hole in the government’s revenue forecasts:
Clean-living youngsters threaten to blow a multibillion-pound hole in public finances as alcohol and tobacco tax income declines, the head of the spending watchdog has warned.

Richard Hughes, head of the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), has questioned whether assumptions about future tax income from what are often dubbed “sin taxes” are realistic. He told the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee: “There are some bits of the tax system which are themselves not sustainable. In a few decades’ time we won’t collect any fuel duty because every car will be electric, and they don’t pay any fuel duty. Nowadays, you have to ask whether young people are drinking and smoking enough for us to be collecting alcohol and tobacco duties at the current rate that we are.”

Around one-third of 18 to 24-year-olds do not drink alcohol, according to surveys from YouGov, up from one in five in 2019. Some experts believe Generation Z are less interested in alcohol because they fear the fallout on social media if they embarrass themselves while drunk.

The number of smokers in Britain has also been steadily declining for years and Rishi Sunak has announced plans to ban smoking for the next generation.

Plans to balance the books are built in part on the assumption of higher incomes from sin taxes, particularly from drinking. Alcohol duty is set to bring in £13bn this year, according to the OBR’s forecasts, rising to more than £17bn in 2028-29, an increase of almost one-third in just five years. A failure to collect this level of tax could be significant for a government whose finances are already finely balanced.

It’s all very well making worthy attempts to cut down people’s consumption, but the risk is that you end up shooting yourself in the foot in terms of the public finances. Although somehow I can’t see our po-faced public health lobby being happy to follow the Japanese example and officially encourage young people to drink more to swell the Treasury coffers.

Friday 16 February 2024

Champion in your own backyard

It was reported earlier this week that the highly-regarded Elland Brewery in West Yorkshire was facing liquidation. Obviously sympathy has to go out to those involved, but it’s an unfortunate fact of life that, at a time when there is significant overcapacity in a declining market, not all breweries are going to survive.

There often seems to be little correlation between breweries’ survival prospects and the quality of the beer they produce, and this was certainly true of Elland, whose 1872 Porter is the current holder of CAMRA’s Champion Beer of Britain award, which was revived in 2023 after three fallow years during the Covid crisis. It was also the runner-up in this week’s Champion Winter Beer competition, which was won by Sarah Hughes’ Snowflake Barley Wine. As these awards operate on blind tastings, this cannot be said to have just been a sympathy vote.

However, this clearly shows that winning CBOB is no guarantee of long-term success. As a 6.5% dark ale, the potential market for 1872 Porter would be inherently limited, and the award would probably have only made a marginal difference to Elland’s prospects. There is a full list of all past winners on Wikipedia, and many of the successful breweries have failed to go on to bigger things. As the page says, “While the award is prestigious, winning has sometimes caused problems for smaller breweries who have been unable to meet the demand for their champion beers caused by the newfound fame and publicity.”

In the early years, many of the winners were established favourites like Taylor’s Landlord and Fuller’s ESB, and winning would only have given a small fillip to their existing reputations. And quite a lot of winners are ones that never seem to have made much of an impact. I remember Coniston Brewery running into problems after Bluebird won in 1998, when they ended up sub-contracting production out to Brakspear to increase their capacity. However, this did not stop their No. 9 Barley Wine winning in 2012.

Some past winners, such as Oakham JHB, Harviestoun Bitter and Twisted and Castle Rock Harvest Pale, are ones that at least for a while were very often seen in the free trade, and I understand that Cwtch winning in 2015 gave a major boost to the fortunes of Tiny Rebel. That was (and is) a highly distinctive beer that people would make a point of looking out for.

Awards of this kind do not exist in a vacuum, and some regard has to be paid to what their purpose is, which in this case presumably is generating column inches about cask beer and promoting the category in general. People will expect the winners to be beers that they stand a decent chance of getting hold of and might actually want to drink. Having said this, it would seem unreasonable to exclude smaller breweries purely on the grounds of limited production capacity.

Four of the past five winners have been dark beers, and it often seems to be the case that dark beers do disproportionately well in beer competitions, perhaps because they tend to have stronger and more clearly-defined flavours that make an immediate impact on the judges. But it’s been widely observed that dark cask beers don’t tend to sell well in the pub trade, and drinkers may react with “Yawn, yet another stout or porter.”

Another consideration is strength. As with dark beers, the market for cask beer over about 5.0% is fairly limited. Indeed one contributor to Twitter suggested putting a strength ceiling on CBOB contenders. The proportion of everyday cask drinkers (i.e. not the habitués of specialist taprooms) who would even consider ordering a 6.5% porter, is relatively small. But if beers are good, however strong they are, is it fair to exclude them?

I’m pretty agnostic on this issue, as I can see the arguments either way, and limiting the field for a competition may undermine its credibility. But it’s undeniable that, over time, the impact of any kind of award will be lessened if it is repeatedly given to products that, whether because of their style, strength or limited availability, aren’t going to be of much interest to the majority of consumers. If say, you were running a fiction prize, and awarded it year after year to experimental avant-garde novels, it would be hardly surprising if most of the reading public switched off.

Tuesday 13 February 2024

Give me some relief

Several industry bodies have joined together to campaign for a reduction of VAT applying to hospitality and tourism from 20% to 10% in the forthcoming budget on Wednesday 6 March. This is something that would give a significant boost to a hard-pressed sector. Several other countries have a similar differential, and there is a precedent for it in this country on a temporary basis during the Covid crisis. There is a petition to support it here, which also gives more detail on the rationale behind the proposal. A petition has also recently been added to the government website here.

However, a note of caution is needed. It would lead to a large hole in Treasury receipts and, while it has been widely reported that there is some scope for tax cuts, this may not be seen as the highest priority. While hospitality is a major industry and a large employer, most hospitality spending is to some extent a luxury, and prioritising daily necessities may be seen as more important. So, realistically, the chances of it actually happening must be below 50-50.

A further issue is that it would apply to hot takeaway food as well as on-premises consumption. This was the case with the VAT relief during Covid, and in practical terms it would be impossible to disentangle the two. So it might be portrayed as a tax bonus for McDonald’s and kebab shops.

On the other hand, it would not apply to alcoholic drinks, so there would be little or no benefit to wet-led pubs. Again, this was the case during Covid, and it would be very difficult to rigidly segregate on- and off-sales. In any case, the proponents of the reduction aren’t calling for it to apply to alcohol. And the public health lobby would be up in arms if there was any tax reduction on drink.

The effect of a reduction in VAT from 20% to 10% would be to reduce sale prices by 8.33%, although it is probable that much of it would be used to strengthen margins rather than being given directly to customers. Of course this would provide a boost, but it isn’t really a game-changer either way. So, while a VAT reduction would be welcome, it’s probably wise not to bet the farm on it happening.

In contrast, some of the advocates of a VAT reduction have been pooh-poohing the idea of freezes or reductions in beer duty. “We never see any of it”, they complain. Well, there hasn’t been any reduction in the general rate of beer duty for several years. The differential between draught and packaged rates was achieved by freezing the draught duty while increasing that on packaged beers. So there hasn’t been anything for brewers to give to pubs. (It is true that the lower sub-3.4% duty rate doesn’t seem to have resulted in much reduction of wholesale prices for the products it applies to).

But the UK has one of the highest rates of beer duty in Europe, if not the world, so any freeze or reduction would be welcome, and would benefit all beer drinkers. It’s a lot better than the alternative - if there was to be a substantial increase, then no doubt the same people would be loudly decrying it. And to dismiss the impact of beer duty changes rather undermines CAMRA’s campaign to widen the draught discount from 10% to 20%.

There are other forms of tax relief that might benefit the licensed trade, in particular reducing the rate of employer’s National Insurance contributions, which has been widely touted as a possibility in the budget, and is probably more likely than a VAT cut.

Thursday 8 February 2024

Another turn of the screw

In a move that will surprise no-one, the Guardian reports that the Scottish government are planning to announce a 30% increase in the minimum unit price for alcohol, from 50p to 65p. I have discussed this extensively in the past, so don’t propose to go over old ground again, but I will repeat what I wrote a couple of years ago:

Meanwhile, the Scottish government has released a report on the impact of MUP on homeless and street drinkers. This confirms that, to some extent, all the predictions made before its introduction have proved to be justified – a switch from cider to spirits, increased use of illicit drugs, especially cheap “street benzos”, consumption of “non-beverage alcohol”, an increase in theft and begging to fund drinking, and allocating a greater proportion of a limited budget to alcohol. As the old Russian proverb goes, “Daddy, now that vodka is dearer, will you drink less? No, my son, you will eat less.”

Maybe the policy, does, all things considered, have an overall beneficial effect. But it is certainly an indiscriminate blunt instrument that creates a lot of collateral damage. And, while it isn’t stated explicitly, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that at least part of the motivation behind MUP was to deter and denormalise alcohol consumption amongst normal drinkers of modest means. It is effectively a tax on the less well-off.

The report states that Scotland has experienced a 25% rise in alcohol-related deaths over the past three years, which hardly suggests it’s an effective policy. But is it a case of “ the medicine isn’t working, so we must increase the dose”? The question also has to be asked why a party calling themselves the “Liberal” Democrats are supporting such an illiberal policy.

The 50p rate did increase the price of many bottom-end products, particularly cheap cider, but it only nibbled at the heels of mainstream drinks. However, 65p will increase the price of most off-trade alcohol that people buy. A four-pack of Stella or Madri will be at least £5.26, a bottle of 13% red wine £6.38 and a standard 70cl bottle of whisky £18.20. It will also put a huge amount of money into the coffers of retailers by in effect legitimising a price-fixing ring.

As I said, the fact that the main impact will be felt by normal everyday drinkers is as much a feature of the policy as a bug. It will now not only be “screw the poor”, but screw the middle class as well.

It won’t affect any drinks sold in the on-trade, with the possible exception of guest ales in Wetherspoon’s after the CAMRA discount has been deducted. But it is completely delusional to imagine that this will drive any extra trade to pubs, and indeed it may well hurt them by putting more pressure on household budgets.

Tuesday 6 February 2024

Up the organisation

Following Tim Martin receiving a knighthood in the New Year’s Honours List, J. D. Wetherspoon have achieved recognition as one of Britain’s Top Employers.
To achieve Top Employer certification, participating organisations are assessed by the Top Employers Institute via an analysis of their people practices. The HR Best Practices survey covers six HR domains consisting of 20 topics across the business and employee lifecycle, including people strategy, work environment, talent acquisition, learning, wellbeing, and diversity & inclusion. The information is then validated and audited independently by the Top Employers Institute to ensure the integrity of the processes and data.

JDW people director Tom Ball said: We are extremely proud to be considered among the best employers in the United Kingdom, particularly as the recognition comes from an independent organisation, which researches numerous companies. The company employs more than 41,000 staff across its pubs in the UK and the Republic of Ireland, as well as at its head office. JDW is committed to offering employees the best opportunities to succeed and grow within the company, including studying for qualifications and apprenticeships. This is evident in the number of staff progressing to more senior positions at JDW.

Some people with an axe to grind like to characterise Wetherspoon’s as a bad employer, but it fact it is clear that they take their responsibilities very seriously. It’s also obvious that, with a few exceptions, their employees give the impression of being enthusiastic and committed to their work.

While many employees just view it as a short-term opportunity to earn money while studying, as the article says there is also the possibility of advancement up the hierarchy if that is something that interests you, something that is not available if working for an independent pub or bar. This is also true of McDonald’s, another company that is often looked down on. Hospitality must have one f the highest ratios of senior staff who started at the bottom of any major industry.

Saturday 3 February 2024

The biggest domino falls

Last December, I produced a summary of changes resulting from the introduction of the new reduced duty rate for beers of 3.4% or below, which came into effect from 1 August 2023. I noted that, although Boddington’s and Tetley’s smooth beers had been reduced, John Smith’s, the market leader, hadn’t been. But it was always going to be only a matter of time, and the brand owners Heineken have unsurprisingly declared that, from the beginning of February, it too will be cut to 3.4%.

Apparently 1.3 million hectolitres (794,000 barrels) of John Smith’s are still brewed each year at Tadcaster, and it is presumably the biggest-selling ale brand in the UK, and thus the entire world. (This is excluding Guinness, which is technically a type of ale). That is a major shift in the beer market. Predictably, Heineken have come up with disingenuous claims that its has been done for health reasons, to reflect drinkers’ preferences for lower-strength beers, but it is obvious to anyone with half a brain that duty savings were the overwhelming consideration.

This news resulted in a predictable outbreak of snobbery along the lines of “who drinks John Smith’s anyway?” But a lot of people do – those 794,000 barrels represent not far off 3% of the entire beer market, far more than any individual cask brand. (Cask Doom Bar sells 88,000 barrels a year, and the bottled version will probably do at least the same.) And you cannot stand there on your little rocky island and ignore the tides of watery beer lapping ever closer to your feet.

In any case, the cask sector isn’t immune either. Greene King IPA, the third biggest-selling cask beer, was quick off the mark to reduce its strength last year. Since I wrote last December, I have learned that two more leading brands of bitter, Tetley’s and Banks’s have followed suit. Several smaller brands have done the same, most recently Taylor’s Golden Best. Ordinary bitter isn’t the dominant force that it once was, and only includes one of the top ten brands, but this is certainly a significant trend.

It must be remembered that many in the industry, plus CAMRA, supported increasing the lower-strength cut-off from 2.8% to 3.4%. CAMRA has always had something of a soft spot for lower-gravity beers, and has for many years run campaigns to promote Mild. Giving a boost to these beers seemed an appealing idea. For example, in this press release from 2021 they said “Cutting tax for lower ABV drinks will incentivise lower strength alcoholic drinks”.

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to them that creating such a steep duty cut-off would lead to the large-scale watering down of beers at higher strengths. On a smaller scale, it’s a repeat of the Beer Orders, where well-meaning support for a legislative change led to severe unintended consequences, in this case the British beer market being swamped with a tide of bland, watery beers. “When we said we want to support lower-strength beers, we didn’t mean there should be a lot more of them!”

It was virtually impossible to brew beers at 2.8% with much body or character, and most brewers didn’t try. But 3.4% is a different matter. A 3.4% beer can be sort of OK, palatable enough, although it’s unlikely to uproot any trees. And there were already plenty of well-regarded milds and light bitters of that strength, although subtlety tended to be a typical characteristic.

Back in the 1950s, most beers were like this. As Anthony Avis wrote in his memoir about Norfolk beers: “All the Norwich brewed beers, before and after the last war, were much the same – thin, flat and lifeless; however, they suited, or appeared to suit, the customers.” It wasn’t a matter of rapid inebriation, more of a gentle lubricant to habitual socialising. Plus at this time the actual strength of beer was never declared. So drinkers may well end up grudgingly putting up with these beers even if they’re not particularly enthusiastic about them.

As far as I can see, Worthington Creamflow remains at 3.6% both on draught and in cans, but surely it is only a matter of time before that is cut too. And I’d expect the brand owners of Fosters and Carling to be at least discussing whether they should also take the plunge. It may even have come up in the Guinness boardroom, although I can’t see that happening. As I said in my earlier blogpost, it will take some time before this change fully works its way through the beer market. It would not surprise me if, by 2026, fully half of all beer sold in Britain is 3.4% or below. You may not like it, but you’ll be left with little choice other than to lump it.

Worthington Creamflow is, of course, a staple of the Wetherspoon’s beer offer, and there remains the conundrum of the ABVs declared on the Wetherspoon’s app. Both Carlsberg and Bud Light have officially stated that their strength has been cut to 3.4%, but they are still declared at 3.8% and 3.5%. And UK supplies of Leffe have now been cut to 6.0%, but the app shows it as 6.6%. Are Wetherspoon’s being remiss in not updating their app, or are they getting special supplies of stronger brews?

Thursday 1 February 2024

Then they came for the vapers…

In its dying days, the present government seems to have developed a distinctly illiberal streak. First there was the utterly appalling creeping smoking ban announced last Autumn, following the example of New Zealand, where the policy has since been scrapped after a change in government. And now they have announced that they are going to ban disposable vapes completely, giving as a reason the protection of children. But it is already illegal to sell them to under-18s, so surely the answer should be to enforce the law more effectively, rather than to deprive adults of a legitimate pleasure.

Chris Snowdon has summed up the case against this very well, and he makes the point that:

There is also the small matter of personal liberty. Banning adults from buying products because minors sometimes buy them illegally has never been a principle of UK law. Many more 11-15 year olds drink alcohol regularly than vape regularly, but no one is talking about banning cider.
Even if the loss of liberty doesn’t concern you too much, there is a more utilitarian argument that it is likely to lead people to return to smoking tobacco. It is generally accepted that vaping is considerably safer than smoking, so this would appear to be a major own goal.

However, as Sam Bowman says on Twitter, the idea that anyone could actually take up vaping because they enjoy it, rather than as a smoking cessation tool, makes the heads of the public health establishment explode. The same applies to drinking, smoking, gambling and eating crisps and chocolates. Adult consumers are viewed as unwitting dupes with no personal agency.

We like to boast in Britain that we are a freedom-loving nation, but in fact in recent years we have increasingly turned into a ban-loving nation, as shown by the widespread enthusiasm for lockdown restrictions. As Chris Snowdon says in his article:
The British public love a ban. Last month a survey found that 29 per cent of us want to close the nightclubs to deal with the remnants of Covid-19 and 20 per cent want to re-introduce lockdown.
This tendency is likely to continue even if there is a change of government later this year, and indeed there’s a distinct possibility it will intensify. So if you are minded to support this particular prohibition, bear in mind that eventually they will come for your own preferred indulgence, and the vapers are unlikely to give you much support when they do.

Wednesday 24 January 2024

Sober reflections

Last week’s issue of the Spectator magazine contained a very insightful article by Henry Jeffreys entitled How Britain sobered up, looking at how this country has fallen out of love with drinking alcohol. The whole thing is well worth reading*, but this paragraph is particularly salient:

The real losers in Britain have been pubs. Since 2000, Britain has lost more than 13,000 pubs – a quarter of its total – and the rate of closures is growing. It doesn’t help that we are all increasingly told to drink less: in 2016, recommendations for drinking levels were lowered to 14 units for men and women in Britain. The World Health Organisation even states that there is no safe level for alcohol consumption, despite numerous studies which show that in small quantities alcohol can be beneficial to our health. Not that you are likely to hear about the benefits of drinking from the alcohol industry. Instead, it is fighting a losing battle in enemy territory, up against public health officials and the NHS.
We are subjected to an ever-growing amount of anti-alcohol messaging, not just specifically health-related, but also lifestyle pieces preaching the benefits of an alcohol-free lifestyle and celebrity interviews dissecting their alcohol problems and proudly proclaiming their newly sober status. The pleasures of moderate drinking and the companionship of pubs rarely get a look-in. Inevitably, this is going to influence people’s decision-making, especially amoungst younger people who are just beginning to form their social habits.

Many people who comment on pubs and beer direct much of their ire at rapacious brewers and pub companies, while the anti-drink lobby gets off relatively lightly. Yet this must be one of the key reasons for the decline of the pub trade in recent years. You have to wonder why CAMRA allowed its Drinkers’ Voice initiative, specificially set up to combat anti-drink messaging, to wither on the vine.

The author concludes:

If we’re not careful, we might soon discover that alcohol has become an unaffordable luxury, or something bought from the supermarket, with the only place to drink it being in the home. It’s a sobering thought. The cheap pint of beer in a local pub or the £10 bottle of wine imported by that funny little chap from France can’t exist without a lively drinking culture to support them… The risk is that we throw away our infrastructure of sociable, controlled intoxication in pubs, bars and restaurants. The sort of places where we can meet others and random encounters can happen, where young people can dance, flirt and laugh. In other words, civilisation.
* The article is paywalled, but a free registration will allow you to read a couple of articles a month. If you’re really interested, I can send you the full text.

Monday 22 January 2024

Union busting

The Morning Advertiser reports that Carlsberg-Marston’s have decided to discontinue the use of traditional “Union sets” for brewing Marston’s Pedigree. This is a distinctive fermentation system, described here, which uses large wooden casks to recirculate the beer. This was met with predictable outrage about the destruction of Britain’s brewing heritage.

However, it must be remembered that Carlsberg-Marston’s are a commercial company, not the custodians of a brewing museum. Using Union sets is considerably more expensive than conventional fermenters, and they must have decided that any additional cachet conferred by this system no longer counts for much in the beer market. Yes, it is sad, but no more sad than the closure of innumerable breweries over the years. Change inevitably involves a sense of loss.

In the early days of CAMRA, Pedigree was revered as one of the top beers in the country. I remember when I was at University in Birmingham in the late 70s going on a trip into the Worcestershire countryside and being told, on entering a Marston’s pub, “Pedigree’s the one to go for here.” I have a copy of Michael Jackson’s Pocket Beer Book from as late as 1995 in which he gives it four stars as a world classic, and praises its “clean, dry, gently fruity, nutty character”, although I think by then it was already trading on past glories.

But, over the years, for whatever reason, it lost its allure. Possibly expanding its distribution and exposing it to more poor cellarmanship was a factor. In the 1980s it was made available in many Whtibread pubs, where it was often found in poor condition. The bitter takeover battle with Wolverhampton & Dudley in the early 2000s can’t have helped either. This ended up with Wolves triumphant, but not too long after assuming the more widely recognised identity of their target.

Quite a few people on Twitter have made comments along the lines of “I haven’t had a good pint in twenty years”, or “it’s just dishwater now”. Sadly, it seems to be widely dismissed as being just another boring brown beer to file alongside Doom Bar and Greene King IPA. It seems to be one of those beers, like Landlord, that needs a decent amount of conditioning time in the cellar and, if it’s served too green, just ends up being muddy and bland.

To be honest, it’s always been one of my favourite beers, and one that I tend to go for if I see it, which isn’t that often now. I don’t record every single beer I drink, but looking back through my notes, it seems that the last time I had it was in October last year in the Crown in Market Drayton, where I described it as “surprisingly good” and gave it an NBSS score of 3.5. I remember a particularly good pint in the Bank House in Uttoxeter in June 2019, where it was the best beer of the day. But I have to say that in recent years Draught Bass, also now brewed by Marston’s, although not in the Union sets, has been a consistently better beer. The results of this Twitter poll suggests that most drinkers have now largely forgotten about it.

Mention of Bass recalls the fact that they closed their much larger union sets back in 1981, to the accompaniment of a considerable amount of criticism, although back in those days the beer and pub industry in general was in much ruder health, and Bass were derided as one of the “Big Six”. It was widely felt that Draught Bass was never the same again.

But it is significant that no other brewery has sought to create union sets, suggesting they aren’t really an essential element of brewing a high-quality beer. There are plenty of beers in the UK that are currently rated more highly than Pedigree, none of which are brewed using unions. Indeed most Pedigree itself is not brewed in unions, with a proportion of union-brewed beer being blended in at the end of the process. So the system was, to be honest, something of an anachronism, described in the article I linked to above as “an anomaly”.

Beer writer Adrian Tierney-Jones has stated on Twitter that “I’m amazed it lasted this long given the rapacious nature of global brewing.” Whether the unions would have lasted longer if Marston’s had still been in sole charge is debatable, but once the merger with Carlsberg took place it was probably inevitable sooner or later. This was in effect a shotgun wedding forced on Marston’s by their heavily indebted state, which was dangerously exposed by the impact of lockdowns. This in turn was largely the result of the mutually destructive takeover battle with Wolverhampton & Dudley back in the 2000s.

It was clear from the beginning that Carlsberg held the upper hand, and they have proceeded with a process of rationalisation, involving selling off the Bedford brewery and closing Jennings, Ringwood and Wychwood. Indeed there must be a question mark over how long they will retain two large ale breweries fairly close together in the Midlands at Burton and Wolverhampton.

Obviously the two cases are very different, but there are certain parallels with the reaction to the destruction of the Crooked House pub, where many people suddenly discovered reserves of anger about the end of something that they hadn’t particularly cared about while it was in existence.

Saturday 20 January 2024

Fancy a thimbleful?

In a result that will surprise no-one, health campaigners have found that eliminating the largest size of wine glass reduces the amount people drink.
Removing the largest glass of wine from sale cuts the total amount people drink by 7.6%, a four-week trial in 21 pubs, bars and restaurants suggests. With the largest measure, 250ml - equal to a third of a bottle - off the menu, more 125ml and 175ml glasses of wine were sold.

Customers bought the same amount of wine by the bottle, but overall, less volume of wine was sold daily. Sales of beer and cider stayed the same as did the venues' overall takings. "Value for money" was likely to have been a factor in the drop in the amount of wine sold, the University of Cambridge researchers say. However, they believe the policy should now be "considered" for trial by licensing authorities.

Most people who drink wine by the glass in bars and restaurants probably only have one, so it’s almost inevitable that reducing the maximum size available will result in lower consumption. But surely they should be treated as responsible adults who are capable of making their own decisions, and given the choice of a larger measure, rather than being subjected to these nannying “nudge” restrictions.

In the coming years we are likely to see a growing number of attempts to micromanage people’s behaviour in this kind of way “for their own good”. I fear the trend will only intensify if we see the election of a Labour government later this year.

This news prompted the publication in the Telegraph of an opinion piece by Ross Clark entitled An alcohol ban is beginning to look inevitable. Maybe this seems alarmist, but that is certainly the general direction of policy, and who would have imagined twenty years ago that in 2024 the government would be legislating for a gradual complete prohibition of smoking?

No doubt attention will turn next from wine to the size of beer glasses in pubs. From time to time, we see articles called something like “The Tyranny of the Pint”, arguing that this standard measure encourages over-consumption, and also tends to be associated with a toxic masculine drinking culture. Of course there is a strong attachment to the concept of a pint, in a way that there isn’t to a 250ml wine glass, and indeed the term has entered into the vernacular as a synonym for beer. But will we see in the future attempts to make pubs and bars adopt two-thirds as the standard beer measure? After all, most of the world already tends to consume draught beer in measures of 330ml or equivalent.

Saturday 6 January 2024

All the alcohol turns to sugar

The annual Dry January campaign inevitably turns the spotlight on non-alcoholic beers, which in recent years have been the subject of a growing amount of publicity and hype. Obviously in terms of the specific objective of reducing alcohol consumption they have an undeniable advantage. Many people, though, have come to see them as being a healthy option in a wider sense. But does this belief really have any substance? A recent study has found that many of them in fact contain considerably more sugar than their normal-strength equivalents.
…while a regular can of beer such as BrewDog IPA contains negligible amounts of sugar, alcohol-free versions from the same brewery can have 6g per 330ml can or bottle – the equivalent of a teaspoon and a half of sugar.

Old Speckled Hen Low Alcohol, meanwhile, contains 2g of sugar per 100ml, compared with just 0.2g in its regular equivalent.

Faye Thompson, a nutritional therapist, said: 'Reducing alcohol is great, but the pay-off in switching to non-alcoholic beer is the higher sugar content. 'Sugar is the real culprit, not fat, when it comes to weight gain.'

It’s fairly obvious that if you reduce one element in a drink, something else has to take its place, and bulking it out with sugar is one of the easiest options. Holsten Diät Pils used to be advertised with the slogan “All the sugar turns to alcohol” (something that would not be permitted now), but for alcohol-free beers the opposite is often the case. Likewise, yogurts advertised as “low fat” often only achieve this through a high sugar content.

If you take the view that any alcohol consumption is a health risk, then switching to alcohol-free beer is a good idea. But even the official guidelines accept that there is a “safe” level of consumption, and I would bet that most people who sometimes drink AFBs are fairly light drinkers in the first place. Choosing an AFB over a normal-strength one is effectively like switching to a full-sugar fizzy drink.

Clearly there may be a benefit in situations such as driving where reducing one’s alcohol intake is desirable. But it’s unlikely to bring much, if any, health benefit. There is also the consideration that diabetics may find it better to drink a well-attenuated alcoholic beer than a sugary alcohol-free one. If you are going to drink AFBs, it might be a good idea to look carefully at the sugar content shown on the label.

As an aside, this reminds me of a book I read back in the 1980s entitled The Food Scandal by Caroline Walker and Geoffrey Cannon, which I probably still have somewhere. At the time I found it quite eye-opening in some respects, although with hindsight it did foreshadow much of the patronising, prescriptive approach to diet and health that has come to dominate official policy. But one thing that struck me even then was that the authors didn’t seem to be in favour of any kind of drinks beyond water. Alcohol – hardly needs saying. Fizzy drinks – full of sugar. Low-cal fizzy drinks – artificial sweeteners. Milk – saturated fat. Fruit juice – yet more sugar. Tea and coffee – full of caffeine. And that attitude only seems to have intensified in the present day.

Friday 29 December 2023

A pint of whine

As a measure of deregulation made possible by leaving the European Union, the government have announced a modest extension of the permitted measures for wine bottles and cans. These will, as well as the quantities currently prescribed, allow both still and sparkling wine to be sold in containers of 200ml, 500ml and 568ml (equal to an Imperial pint).

It would be easy to dismiss this measure as something of a damp squib that didn’t add up to much, and nobody could be blamed for reacting that way. But instead it seems to have provoked paroxysms of rage amongst many who are still struggling to come to terms with the result of a democratic vote seven and a half years ago.

Nobody is going to be compelled to use these measures, despite the linked report saying “Pint-sized bottles of still and sparkling wine are to appear on shelves in the UK”, and all of the previous metric measures will be allowed. So it’s really hard to see what all the fuss is about.

Considering that most wine sold in Britain is imported, and the 750ml bottle is an international standard, it’s unlikely that most buyers will notice any change. However, there is a history of champagne being sold in pint bottles and, given that the UK is the largest consumer of it outside France, it’s possible that some suppliers might decide it is worth offering the smaller option.

While 750ml bottles are the accepted norm for wine, it has to be said that for many consumption occasions they’re inconveniently big, and the possibility of having smaller bottles in various sizes will give drinkers more flexibility. I wonder how much wine from 750ml bottles ends up either being poured down the sink or reluctantly glugged down on the basis of “I suppose I’d better drink this, then.”

It should also be noted that this is only a very modest extension of permitted sizes and stops well short of complete deregulation. Yet there are no restrictions at all on beer bottle and can sizes, which can come in a vast and sometimes confusing range of quantities, although they generally seem to settle down around particular norms. Nobody seems to raise much objection to that, though.

Further aneurysms were provoked by the news yesterday that Wetherspoon’s chairman Tim Martin was to receive a knighthood in the New Year’s Honours List. Inevitably this news stuck in many people’s craws due to his vocal support for Brexit. This tweet, from a former editor of the Sun, unbelievably, really sums up the élite-level sneering:

However, regardless of his political views, he has created an extremely successful and popular pub business from scratch, often by going against conventional wisdom. He has taken an iconoclastic approach to how pubs should be run, and attracted many customers who never went to pubs before.

If he had held more mainstream establishment opinions it’s highly likely that he would have been knighted much sooner, but of course if he had simply followed the herd he probably wouldn’t have made such a success of his pub empire in the first place.

Please keep all comments well-mannered and relevant. Any generalised ant-Brexit tirades will be rejected.

Wednesday 27 December 2023

Review of the Year 2023 – Part 2

Elon Musk did a major service to Twitter in 2022 in taking it over and removing the stifling blanket of censorship that had previously applied. Large numbers of previously banned accounts have now been restored. However, it’s hard to see that many of the changes he has made in 2023 have been positive. For a start, it’s now been renamed as “X”, although everyone still calls it Twitter. Two changes that have been particularly negative from my point of view are requiring you to log in to view it, which put paid to the display of interesting tweets that used to appear in the sidebar of this blog, and ruining the functionality of the TweetDeck app which made it easy to operate multiple accounts from one screen.

Having said that, no potential competitor has managed to establish any kind of dominance, and the big plus point of Twitter is the wide range of people and organisations signed up to it. It’s a place for interaction, not just a personal platform. Using an alternative may end up feeling like shouting into a void. During the year, I have advanced from just short of 6,300 followers to over 6,800 (6.847 as of this morning), so hitting the 7,000 mark in 2024 is entirely possible. I had a surge of followers from this tweet made from the Jolly Sailor on a pub crawl of Macclesfield earlier this month.

As I said last year, I deliberately aim to steer clear of any overtly political comments beyond the politics of lifestyle, which in a sense is the core raison d'être of both this blog and my Twitter account. If you have a personal account, then you are free to express whatever views you choose, and people will take it or leave it as they wish. But if your account is presented as being on the general topic of beer or pubs, or represents a specific pub, then using it as a political soapbox will merely alienate a substantial section of readers.

The worst public health policy of the year has undoubtedly been Rishi Sunak’s decision to implement a creeping prohibition of tobacco sales, increasing the legal purchase age by one year every year. He was following the example of New Zealand but, following a general election and a change of government, they have scrapped it, leaving the UK standing proudly alone as a world leader in bansturbation. Little hope of Labour dropping it in the UK if they should gain power next year. As I’ve said on numerous occasions, while there are undoubted health risks associated with smoking, many people actively enjoy it, and this is setting a disturbing precedent. But of course there’s no chance of anything similar ever being applied to alcohol, oh no, definitely not.

From August 1st, a new system of alcohol duties was introduced which ensured all drinks were taxed in proportion to strength. While one might object to the absolute level of duties, the general principle must be correct. It’s rare to see government carrying out a root-and-branch reform of anything nowadays, rather than merely tinkering around the edges. With any change of this kind, there will inevitably be winners and losers, and one category that did suffer an increase was stronger red wines, which perhaps tend to be disproportionately favoured by the chattering classes.

A significant aspect of these changes was to raise the threshold for a lower rate of beer duty from 2.8% ABV to 3.4%, a level at which it is much easier to brew palatable beers. As I reported earlier this month, there has been significant movement to reduce the strength of beers a little above this level, although it remains distinctly patchy, and the jury is still out on to what extent drinkers will be happy to accept lower-strength beers. The duty savings are so significant, though – over 50% – that the 3.4% category is only going to grow in future.

In a rare display of enterprise and initiative, Samuel Smith’s wasted no time in increasing the strength of their 2.8% Light and Dark Milds and Alpine Lager to 3.4%, and in the process made them much better beers. However, in general they have continued to plough their usual secretive and idiosyncratic furrow. They have reopened a few high-profile pubs, such as the Falcon in Chester and the Berkeley in Scunthorpe, plus the Windmill at Carrington in Cheshire, of which I took the photo above in Autumn sunlight. However, in that case it’s hard to see where the custom is going to come from.

On the other hand, they closed the well-known Queen’s Head (aka Turner’s Vaults) in Stockport town centre, and after a short period of reopening – which even prompted an article in the Daily Telegraph – also shuttered the Swan in Holmes Chapel. At least a third of their estate must still be closed, including several pubs in prime locations that must be potentially lucrative. The Bird in Hand in Mobberley particularly stands out in that respect.

Back in September, Boak and Bailey wrote about how Sam Smith’s were no longer a cheap option in London, which is certainly true. However, in the North, after implementing a “big bath” price increase after reopening post-lockdown in 2020, which took Old Brewery Bitter from £2 a pint to £3, prices have remained frozen, while all of their competitors apart from Wetherspoon’s have now overtaken them. They now look pretty good value again, especially for the Dark Mild and XXXX Best which are only £2.20 a pint.

Earlier this month, there was a detailed and insightful article about Sam’s in the Times, which for a while was free to view, but has now been put back behind their paywall. In hindsight, I should have scraped the text. The ridiculous policy of banning mobile phone use in their pubs remains in force and, while I understand it is widely ignored in London, it is certainly enforced in the North, with the staff at risk of being peremptorily sacked by Humphrey Smith. Having said that, I’m happy to forgo the phone for a couple of pints, and Sam’s pubs, where they are open, remain oases of calm, comfort and cosiness that few others can match.

Last year, there was a lot of hand-wringing on the subject of cask beer quality, much of which centred around the issue of pubs failing to get to grips with the problem of slow turnover. While obviously my experiences are not representative, I have to say I’ve experienced very few pints this year that I have had to send back. Quite a few brewers, including our local Robinson’s, have been investing in pins, and maybe more pubs are taking on board the message on turnover. But of course adopting pins has a touch of the Ian Faiths about it, that it’s a recognition that the appeal of cask beer has become more selective.

In Part 1 I mentioned a particularly poignant post on Cooking Lager’s blog. Another blog that I have found interesting during the year is Phil Wieland’s Merseyside Pub Guide, in which he visits various areas of Liverpool and the surrounding districts where most other bloggers would not think of venturing. It’s notable that Liverpool seems to have retained a lot more traditional street-corner locals than Manchester, but very few of them still have cask ale, so Carling tends to be his beer of choice. Even the new micropubs are usually keg-only.

I can’t say I’ve read any books this year so far with a direct relevance to the themes of this blog. However, as a Christmas present, I have treated myself to Dead Drunk : Tales of Intoxication and Demon Drinks, edited by Pam Lock, which is described as:

With a stiff measure of the supernatural, a dram of melodrama and a chaser of the cautionary kind, tales of drink and drunkenness can be found in a well- stocked cabinet of Victorian and early twentieth-century fiction, reflecting an anxiety about the impact of alcohol and intoxicants in society, as well as an acknowledgment of their influence on humans’ perception of reality.
So I’m looking forward to reading that.

The best new tourist attraction I visited in the year was undoubtedly Coleton Fishacre, an Art Deco rural retreat built in the 1920s by the D’Oyly Carte family on the South Devon coast between Brixham and Dartmouth, with stunning sea views. It is a relatively recent acquisition by the National Trust which I have to admit I hadn’t been aware of before. The interiors are all very beige-hued, though.

Amongst revisits, a far grander 20th century country house was Castle Drogo, on the edge of Dartmoor, built by grocery magnate Julius Drew who fancied he had ancestral roots in the area.

I also revisited Gawthorpe Hall at Padiham in Lancashire, a small-scale Jacobean “prodigy house” designed by the noted architect Robert Smythson. I had last been here about 35 years ago when it was still in the midst of being converted from its former use as a textile college.

So what will 2024 bring? It is certainly going to be a consequential year in electoral terms on both sides of the Atlantic, and there are several ongoing international conflicts that may or may not be resolved or eased. What will this mean for the brewing industry and licensed trade? Who knows? As the old Chinese proverb goes, “may you live in interesting times!”

See here for Part 1.