Thursday, 21 June 2018

A rare outbreak of normality

Over the weekend, I was in one of the dwindling number of pubs in my local area of a broadly traditional character. I saw what I assumed was a middle-aged couple come in (although they seemed a little ill-matched) and sit down with drinks. They were joined a few minutes later by a couple of younger blokes of around 20, who may have been the son of one or both of them and his mate.

Nothing unusual about that, you may think. But how often nowadays do you see that kind of mixed-sex, mixed-age family group in a pub, who are just having a drink and a chat and not eating? It was once commonplace; it isn’t now. This is the pub functioning as it should, as a “third space” for social interaction away from the baggage of home and work.

There was sport on the TV, by the way, but it was just one of the more obscure World Cup matches. And they asked the barman to change it over to the cricket anyway, although I don’t think that was their main reason for being there.

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

True crafties don’t drink halves

Over the weekend, Boak and Bailey tweeted a telling little anecdote.

The immediate response is obviously that he needs to get himself some new mates, but it illustrates how the craft beer sector, despite its claims to “considered, mindful drinking” is not immune from this kind of laddishness. It also underlines why mainstream draught beers much above 5% ABV are so rare, as they offer an obvious come-on for irresponsible drinking.

Mind you, if you are going to drink pints of DIPA, it’s always best to make sure it’s someone else’s round.

Meanwhile, the beer and food pairing lobby have been coming up with their usual snobbery about how the worst thing that ever happened to beer in this country was the pint glass. It cuts both ways.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Free the keg

One change that was made at the recent CAMRA AGM was to remove the previous prohibition on CAMRA beer festivals selling British beers that didn’t meet the definition of real ale. This was always, in Highway Code terms, a “should not” rather than a “MUST NOT”, and some branches did disregard it, surely to some extent out of a desire to cock a snook at what they saw as stuffy traditionalism. However, removing it entirely will surely encourage others.

As I’m someone who doesn’t tend to attend beer festivals as a customer, it will make no difference to me personally. But I do have to wonder what exactly is the point. If you’re supposed to be a Campaign for Real Ale, having keg beers at a festival comes across as rather like having cats at a dog show. It has been suggested that keg and cask beers might be presented alongside each other to underline the superiority of the latter, but that comes across as a touch disingenuous. Who would want to serve X at a festival merely to show that Y was better? Plus, in any case, beer festivals by their nature rarely show cask at its absolute best.

If festivals are to serve keg beers, they should give some thought to what they’re aiming to achieve, rather than just doing it because they can. Maybe consider beers that simply aren’t available in cask form, or where it is felt that the keg format shows them at their best. A good example of the latter would be to showcase British craft lagers, which are often spoken of as a massive potential growth market, but which by definition aren’t going to be real ales. Or perhaps nitro stouts from craft breweries.

Or even why not offer a selection of the established beers such as M&B Mild and Tetley Imperial, which live on in keg form but, because of that, never receive any attention from enthusiasts? Who even knows what beers are out there in the marketplace? OK, that may be a bit of a mischievous suggestion, and is unlikely to happen in practice, but to someone interested in our brewing heritage it could be far more interesting that a random selection of the local railway arch brewers’ latest pastry stouts.

Presumably this also removes the prohibition on selling British bottled beers that aren’t bottle-conditioned. I’ve referred in the past to the insistence on bottle-conditioning as being an unhistorical shibboleth, so this is a move to be welcomed. It will give festivals the opportunity in future to sell, for example, bottled Robinson’s Old Tom. And it could be a good thing if small brewers were given the opportunity to showcase their beers in more reliable brewery-conditioned form rather than expose them to the lottery of small-batch bottle-conditioning.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Looking for a role

Phil of Oh Good Ale has recently been recounting his experiences doing the local CAMRA Mild Magic trail. In his concluding post, he makes some very thoughtful observations about the current state of the pub trade.

So, what’s going on out there? Pub-going is changing; like Spinal Tap, its appeal is becoming more selective. The progressive denormalisation of alcohol and social drinking, as a part of everyday life, is continuing to drive pub-going numbers down – or rather, it’s ensuring that losses in pub-going numbers (which are inevitable with social and cultural changes, plus the march of time) aren’t being made up by equal numbers of new drinkers. There is a new breed – or a number of separate, partially overlapping new breeds – of drinker; it’s not just a few hundred hipsters, but on the scale of the population as a whole their numbers are tiny. We can get a false impression from looking in the wrong place, I think. People come from miles around to destination bars in the town centre (and Chorlton), and those bars get pretty crowded at times – but if they’re in town, those people aren’t drinking in the pubs where they live. Thanks to a range of social changes, many of them positive, pubs have lost what used to be their steady clientele (defined roughly as “every unmarried male over the age of 14 and a large proportion of the married men”) – and people who know their Beartown from their Beavertown aren’t going to fill a gap that size...

...There are places where an old style of pub-going doesn’t seem to have gone away, but there are many others where it seems to have died completely, leaving big multi-room pubs waiting for a clientele that isn’t to come back (or not more than a couple of times a week)...

... That’s the world we’re in now, pretty much; unless that wider trend towards denormalisation can be reversed, the pub industry’s going to be facing lean times – or rather, even leaner times.

This echoes several of the points I’ve made in the past in posts such as this and this, that:
  1. The “denormalisation” of drinking alcohol, especially in a social setting, is one of the key factors in the decline of pubs

  2. People increasingly see going to the pub for a drink, if they do it at all, as a distinct leisure activity in its own right rather than something woven into the fabric of everyday life

  3. “Use it or lose it” is a simplistic and not very helpful statement. The problem isn’t so much existing pubgoers visting less, but demographic churn not replacing them with a new generation
While some pubs, in specific locations, catering to specific markets, continue to thrive, many others, even if still open, are all too visibly “running on empty”.

Friday, 8 June 2018

More Blogger bother

Blogger have recently carried out a number of changes to their service. As usual, these seem to fall into the category of Hutber’s Law, that is “improvement means deterioration”. One is the removal of support for OpenID, which allowed people to leave comments using their account on other blogging platforms such as Wordpress. They claim that this was little used, but it certainly was on this blog, and it was valuable in adding authenticity to comments. Using the “Name/ID” function, anyone can superficially pretend to be anyone else.

On top of this, they have stopped e-mailing comments on my own blog to me. They accept this is a fault, but after a couple of weeks have done nothing to fix it. The big problem with this is that, if comments require approval, I don’t receive them. The only way I’m aware of them is if I log on to the control panel, which obviously is a lot more trouble than just looking in my inbox. So, if you’ve left a comment and are wondering why it hasn’t appeared, please be patient...

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Welcome to the real world

A couple of years ago, pressure was exerted on the brewers of “super lagers” to change their packaging to bring them in to line with guidelines on “responsible drinking” that no single-use bottle or can should contain more than four units of alcohol. All of the major brands have complied, through one or both of reducing the strength from 9% to 8%, and reducing the can size from 500ml to 440ml. It’s not a law, though, and you can still find 500ml cans of Polish 9% lager in corner shops.

Now it seems that the spotlight is being turned on the craft beer sector and, as the Morning Advertiser reports, they’re not at all happy about it. Indeed, their response seems ridiculously hyperbolic. Russell Bisset, of Leeds-based Northern Monk, says that the move comes across as “an attempt to curtail them growth of the independent craft brewing sector”, and he is “troubled by the Portman group’s attempt to influence and dictate the strength of beer we are able to produce”.

Come on Russell, keep your hair on! Nobody’s trying to stop you brewing very strong beers, just wanting to control the maximum size of package you can put them in. Indeed, many people have criticised craft brewers for their tendency to put very strong beers in containers of 500ml or above, when generally you only want to drink 330ml or less at once. At the same time, there have also been numerous complaints about the craft tendency to put beers of modest supping strength in “child-size” 330ml bottles and cans as a mark of differentiation from the 500ml bottles of boring mainstream brown bitter.

Yes, this is a restriction on brewers’ freedom, but in the overall scheme of things it’s an utterly trivial one. If customers really want to drink that volume, why can’t they buy two smaller bottles instead? Although no doubt we’ll also get the guff about secondary fermentation in larger bottles imparting an additional depth and subtlety of flavour. And there is a good argument that standardisation of package sizes helps consumers by making it easier to compare value for money between different products.

It’s noticeable how the craft brewing sector imagines that it should be exempt from the rules that apply to ordinary mortals. Large bottles of mega-strong beer, cartoon characters on labels, and fixed price all-you-can-drink offers are fine for them, but not, it would seem, for normal drinkers. They are thick, irresponsible drunken plebs who can’t resist temptation, while the crafties, in the words of Mr Bisset, are “champions of considered, mindful drinking”.

Did we get a peep out of these people when the same arm-twisting was applied to Carlsberg Special? Nope, didn’t think so. So I can’t say my cup of sympathy is exactly overflowing. Welcome to the real world, crafties!

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Yer what?

The Morning Advertiser reports on Frazer Grimbleby (surely a character from an Ealing comedy) of Craft Union Pub Company talking about the resurgence of wet-led pubs. It would be good if that were true, but to be honest I see precious little evidence of it. It’s more like a case of old friends steadily dropping off one by one. Maybe a more honest narrative would be to say that some wet-led pubs were proving resilient to the long-term market decline.

However, he then goes on to make the jawdropping statement that “The smoking ban is the best thing that ever happened to the pub industry”. Presumably the huge tide of post-2007 pub closures has passed him by, and he is totally indifferent to the customers who have been forever alienated. I was tempted to make a Ken Livingstone-esque comment but, deciding that would be in bad taste, I’ll content myself with saying that it is akin to claiming that Christmas is the best thing that has ever happened to turkeys.

Again, honesty would result in something more like “the smoking ban has posed serious challenges for the industry, and we have had to work hard to salvage something from the wreckage.” And, if he is so cloth-eared to what has happened in his own industry, you have to fear for the future of the pubs his company runs.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

The future’s so bright you gotta drink keg

Twenty years ago, if you were after “interesting” home-grown draught beer in the UK, cask was the only game in town. However, since then there has been a steady growth in “craft keg”, to the extent that in some enthusiast pubs it is now the dominant or even sole dispense method. As Roger Protz reports, Adnams are saying that they expect keg production to overtake cask next year, while Dave Bailey of Hardknott Brewery asserts that the future really is in keg beer.

Now, I took issue with that in the comments. While I certainly have no objection in principle to drinking keg beer, I said “For British-style ales, cask, when done properly, is much preferable. To argue otherwise is to say that CAMRA has basically been barking up the wrong tree for forty-five years.”

However, it can’t be argued that keg, due to its longer shelf-life, provides the opportunity to offer drinkers much more choice of different styles and strengths. As Jonathan Adnams says in the article I linked to above,

There’s a lot of cask beer from micros – some of it not very good. At the same time, fewer people are going to pubs while some publicans are putting in a lot of handpumps to offer choice. The beer is often poor quality and drinkers won’t pay £4 for poor beer. They want reliability. Cask is now a lottery for drinkers.
Cask beer, by its very nature, is essentially a high-volume, quick-turnover product. It was ideally suited to the days when pubs were shifting huge quantities of Mild and Bitter, but is much less at home in a world where customers drink much less anyway while expecting a wider choice. As I’ve said ad nauseam on this blog, far too many pubs offer more cask beers than they have the sales to turn over properly, with the inevitable effect on quality. Even the pubs that do it well often give the impression of operating on the edge of acceptable throughput, especially early in the week. A lot of beer in GBG pubs is, while in no sense bad, not bursting with freshness. So maybe, if the future of draught beer is one of declining volumes and increasing expectations of choice, it is a keg future.

It has to be said that many bloggers who spend most of their time drinking in urban beer specialist pubs exaggerate the market penetration of craft keg. Yes, it’s certainly growing, but so far it hasn’t made much impact in “normal” pubs. Earlier this month, on our trip to Northampton, which by definition majored on beer-focused pubs, while most had one or two craft keg taps, there was only one – the Princess Alexandra – where it was at the centre of the beer offer, with cask as a “round the corner” afterthought.

Last week, I spent a few days in the more rural parts of South Wales, during which I visited ten different pubs. I wasn’t specifically looking for craft keg taps, but in all of them* the bank of handpumps remained the centre of attraction on the bar. There’s still a long way to go before craft keg replaces cask as the leading option for staple quaffing beers. It’s still something of an expensive, specialist product.

However, there are signs that things are changing. For example, the bar in the new The Light cinema in Stockport offers Camden Hells and Pale alongside one Robinson’s cask beer – Light Brigade on a recent visit. And I spotted the sign shown above outside a food-oriented pub in a tourist location in the Peak District. The tectonic plates are clearly shifting.

So maybe it’s time for CAMRA, if it wants to “do what it says on the tin”, to be more assertive in proclaiming that cask beer, when done properly, is better, rather than just weakly conceding the ground and muttering “well, a lot of that modern keg beer isn’t too bad either”. But, if people are served up with flat, warm, stale cask beer, you can’t remotely blame them for choosing keg in preference. Cask has no divine right to a place on the bar.

* There was one that was keg-only, but didn’t have any craft keg either, unless you count Marston’s 61 Deep, which strangely seemed to be the only “bitter” on offer. I went there for food, and actually had some keg Banks’s Mild.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Keeping the score

Last year, the recommended maximum levels of alcohol consumption were reduced to just 14 units a week for both men and women, the equivalent of a mere six pints of 4.0% beer. Many people, with justification, will dismiss this as a ludicrous exaggeration of risk. But, on the other hand, many others who are more inclined to accept official messages at face value will take it to heart, and it will strengthen the hand of the anti-drink lobby by, at a stroke, greatly increasing the number of “problem” drinkers.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably fond of the odd drop of beer. But you will have realised that, if you mix in varied circles, with family and work colleagues, that there is a huge divergence in attitudes to alcohol within society. I recently made an estimate that, in the course of a year, I probably drank about 600 pints in pubs, or about eleven and a half a week *. Assuming an average strength of 4.2%, that’s 28 units a week, which supposedly puts me in the category of a “hazardous” drinker. To be honest, having looked in to the statistics, I’m not remotely bothered about any additional risk that involves, and in the overall scheme of things it’s pretty trivial. If you never did anything that involved any risk, you’d never do anything at all.

But many people would look at that figure and say “ooh, 600 pints, that’s an awful lot of beer!” while others would probably dismiss me as a lightweight. If you believe what they say on social media, many people scarcely ever seem to be out of the pub. Now, so long as they’re doing it with their eyes open, I’m the last person to sit in judgment on others, and perhaps some of them have a tendency to big it up. However it is clear that a substantial, although diminishing, number of people continue to jug it back with gusto, while others look on with pursed lips thinking “Eww, a whole pint!?”

I wrote about this divide in a column from 2006, where I said:

“It is striking nowadays how at some social gatherings people look askance at a level of alcohol consumption that at others would seem untypically modest. We are becoming two nations marked by our tolerance (or lack of it) for alcohol, and it is less and less common to see the old-fashioned moderate social drinking actually taking place.”
But it is very clear which side is gaining the upper hand at present.

* For two months last year, out of curiosity, I did an exercise to record all the different beers I drank. Totalling these up, it revealed that I consumed 34 pints in pubs in November, and 38 in December. However, October would certainly have been higher, as it included trips out to Birmingham and Leicester, and showing the Southworth brothers around the pubs of Stockport. Given that I would also have consumed a fair bit more during holiday weeks, that’s consistent with 600 a year. The results of the exercise showed a staple diet of Old Brewery Bitter, Lees Bitter, Holts Bitter and Robinson’s Unicorn and Wizard, interspersed with a few other beers (and one solitary pint of Draught Bass) and so weren’t really very illuminating.

Friday, 18 May 2018

At the sign of the crossed legs

Our recent visit to the Olde England in Northampton reminded me of the vexed question of the inadequate provision of toilets in micropubs. If you’re running what is basically a bottle shop that allows customers to sample the odd drop on the premises, then having a single unisex WC may be sufficient. However, the after-effects of drinking beer are well-known and predictable, and if your establishment is one where substantial numbers of people are likely to linger and consume a series of drinks, it just isn’t good enough. The Olde England has a spacious first-floor room that could easily accommodate fifty people.

While, averaged out over time, it may in theory meet the need, in practice there will inevitably be times when a queue builds up, especially at closing time. Many years ago at school, I studied Queuing Theory in maths. I don’t recall much about it, but one thing I do remember is that reducing the number of nodes may not impact too much on the average wait, but it can have a much more significant effect on the maximum.

Plus, without going into too much detail, not every visit to the loo is over and done with in a couple of minutes. Sometimes it can take ten minutes or more. If that happens, it may place those left outside waiting in an excruciatingly embarrassing position. When you gotta go, you gotta go, and you can’t hold it in indefinitely.

It can’t be denied that the rise of micropubs has injected an element of freshness and enterprise into the pub scene, and I certainly wouldn’t want to see minimum toilet provision for pubs and bars laid down in law. But, at a personal level, I really wouldn’t choose to spend much time at all in any establishment with just a single WC. Even the smallest traditional pubs, such as the Circus Tavern in Manchester City Centre, manage to have separate gents and ladies facilities, and to offer a choice of urinals or trap in the gents.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

A national treasure

If we set aside Guinness as Irish, Bass must be the most famous British beer brand in the world. However, in recent years, especially in its home country, it has received scant support from brand owners AB InBev, and its distribution has drastically reduced.

However, it retains a strong base of support, and Ian Thurman, who blogs as thewickingman, has taken on the task of producing a database of all known Draught Bass outlets, to which a number of others including myself, retiredmartin and britainbeermat have contributed. The results of his endeavours can be found here, together with an excellent summary of the recent history of the brand and where it stands today. Its heartland remains the Midlands counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Staffordshire, which together account for well over half the total. There’s a particular concentration in the Potteries, but only a solitary outlet in Greater Manchester. If you know of anywhere else that stocks Bass, Ian will be very happy to hear from you.

I blogged about Bass a couple of years ago, when I wrote:

I wouldn’t claim that the Marston’s-brewed Draught Bass is a patch on the 1970s original, but it is hard to compare things over a forty-year gap. But it does carry an echo of its essential character – complex, subtle, bitter-sweet, slightly sour and lactic, and not really drinking its strength. Its understatement makes it a classic English beer. Unlike many other 4.4% beers, you could happily sink several pints in a session. It’s one of my favourite real ales, and one I always like to see on the bar, and will go for in preference to other widely-distributed premium beers.
While it may not be what it was forty years ago, what else is, and it’s still a well-made, distinctive, high-quality beer that stands up very well against the other beers in the premium sector with which it competes such as Doom Bar, Wainwright and Bombardier. It’s also, more than any other beer, a unique icon of British brewing. In many pubs, from the Tynemouth Lodge in the North-East to the Dolphin in Plymouth, stocking Bass is a symbol of their commitment to quality beer and respect for their heritage.

It’s just a pity that it has been so neglected by its owners that it needs the efforts of enthusiastic amateurs to promote it. Hopefully someone from the corporate world will read what Ian has written and give it a much-needed shot in the arm.

Monday, 7 May 2018

A load of cobblers?

A couple of months ago, we held a very enjoyable Beer & Pubs Forum day out in Oxford. Someone suggested that, for a future event, we could consider a trip to Northampton, which was similarly accessible for those from both the North and the South. I have to say I wasn’t initially convinced, as my only memory of the town was from forty years ago at university in Birmingham, when it was dominated by Watney’s and was one of the handful of towns to suffer from 2pm lunchtime closing, something unthinkable nowadays. However, I was talked round, and a date was duly set for last Saturday (May 5th).

With the help of trainsplit.com, I was able to get a return fare of £38.30, changing at Stafford and Rugby and taking in total 2 hours 20 minutes from Stockport. This was my first journey along the route south of Stafford for many years. The London North Western train, which carried on to London Euston, steadily filled up at the intermediate stops and by the time it reached Rugby was standing room only.

Wig & Pen
We met up at the Wig & Pen, just off the town centre, which has a deceptively narrow frontage but widens out into a spacious, L-shaped interior further back. There’s plenty of dark wood and bench seating, and overall it’s a congenial place to drink. As a pub, it was probably my favourite of the day. As I walked in, my colleagues pointed out that the TV screen was showing a collection of funny cat videos. There were eight beers on the bar, including Taylor’s Boltmaker, Greene King IPA and Old Hooky, together with some from local micros. I went for the Boltmaker, which was pretty good but, like many others on the day, a degree or two too warm. Almost next door, I spotted the plaque shown below above the door of the Optimist pub (formerly the Fox & Quill).

Sign above the door of the Optimist pub
A fifteen-minute walk then followed out along Kettering Road to the Olde England, the furthest point on the itinerary. This is one of those cosmopolitan, slightly tatty shopping strips found in most large towns on one or more radial routes just outside the centre. Outwardly it looks like a small micropub, but in fact a flight of stairs takes you up to a rather cramped bar and a spacious room along the front of the building, watched over by the stuffed head of Barry the Boar mounted over the fireplace. There were ten beers available, all on gravity, and all in 4½-gallon pins to help with turnover. Several others went for Hydes Lowry, but I hadn’t travelled 130 miles to drink Manchester beer, so I plumped instead for Downton Honey Blonde, which had that typically slightly flat, lacklustre character of gravity beer than has been around a bit too long.

Lamplighter

Handpumps in the Lamplighter
We dived off through a maze of Victorian terraced housing to reach the Lamplighter, a spacious street-corner pub with a one-room interior laid out with geometrically-placed tables. There was a large party enjoying a 50th birthday meal in one corner. This was our lunch stop, so from a comprehensive menu I chose a Stilton Burger (£9.95), which was pretty good, being obviously freshly-made rather than something from the freezer, and coming with a generous portion of skinny fries. Again there were eight beers on the bar, most from local micros, including Oakham Citra, Nobby’s Chocolate Porter and Great Oakley Brewery’s Walter Tull, named after the pioneering black footballer rather than the brother of Jethro. Another decent pint without pulling up any trees.

A short walk around the corner on the main road was the Black Prince, the sister pub of the Olde England, but with a more traditional ambiance including wood panelling and leaded windows. A long line of handpumps on the bar again, with Marston’s Old Empire and the reappearance of the Chocolate Porter, together with the Motorhead Road Crew Beer on keg. The Old Empire lacked the bite you hope for in a beer promoted for its hoppiness. There was a good selection on the jukebox, including Bat Out of Hell, My Generation and Hotel California, but some mischievous person spoiled the mood by putting on Firestarter by The Prodigy. The route to the toilets was something of a maze, and one of our party ended up in the ladies’ by mistake.

Princess Alexandra
Returning to the back streets, we were effusively welcomed inside by the barman at the Princess Alexandra, which proclaims itself as a “Craft Beer & Ale House”. Indeed, the interior is very crafty, with a long line of keg taps dominating the bar, and the only seating in the main room being at high-level posing tables. There were, however, four handpumps tucked around the corner, including the surprisingly uncrafty Marston’s Saddle Tank, the locally brewed revivalist Phipps IPA and Potbelly Hazy Daze. Served in a stemmed half-pint glass, the Phipps IPA was a quite good. We managed to find some slightly more comfortable seating on stools in a back room, but as far as the general ambiance went this wasn’t really my kind of place.

Heading back across the inner ring road to the town centre, we came to the St Giles Ale House, which actually is only a few doors down from the Wig & Pen. This is a contemporary micropub but, with dark wood and normal-height seating, it’s actually a congenial, if small, drinking space. We decamped to the unexpected beer garden at the rear, which is something of a suntrap in the afternoon and allowed us to hear the ribaldry from the Wetherspoon’s on the other side of the fence. There were four beers on handpump, including Nobby’s Northampton Red and Framework Double Chocolate and Winder Wheat. The Northampton Red, although it was actually more of a mahogany colour, was for me comfortably the beer of the day – cool, tasty and full of condition.

The next pub was something of a curveball – the tiny, keg-only Rifle Drum, situated on a narrow alleyway just off the Market Place. Martin Taylor had picked this out as a rare surviving example of an old-fashioned, down-to-earth, wet-led town-centre boozer, and indeed so it was. It’s a fairly shallow single room with no pretensions to architectural merit. The draught beer range, mostly from the Heineken stable, was John Smith’s, Fosters, Kronenbourg, Strongbow and Guinness. I had a half of Kronenbourg which was, well, what it was. This, together with two halves of Strongbow, came to under a fiver, which is pretty decent value for money. Just across the alleyway is Shipmans, formerly the White Hart, a National Inventory-listed pub that sadly has been closed and boarded for some time with no immediate sign of reopening.

All Saints' Church
Passing the impressive neo-classical All Saints’ Church, we headed down Bridge Street, which showed that Northampton, despite being in the “flat Midlands”, does actually have some hills. A special event was in progress in the Albion Brewery Bar, making it standing room only. From what I could see, it was celebrating “LGBTQ Friends”, and the Mayor seemed to be in attendance in his official chain. The bar is located in the erstwhile Ratliffe & Jeffrey Albion Brewery building. The interior seemed to have some interesting features, but the crowd made it difficult to appreciate them. However, we were able to get to the bar where the beers on offer included several of their own Phipps brews plus Lacons Falcon Ale. The latter was pretty decent, but those who had the Phipps Golden Mild were very impressed, although arguably it was too hoppy to really qualify as a mild.

Plough
Heading south across the inner ring road, we passed the impressive Plough on the left (now, I think, basically a residential hotel) to reach the Malt Shovel Tavern. Situated opposite the massive Carlsberg brewery, this is a distinctive mock-Tudor building that seems to be Northampton’s established multi-beer freehouse, with an interior full of brewery memorabilia. Although it was busy, we were able to find some seats at the front. As well as the regular range, there was a beer festival in full swing, with the beers stillaged next to the bar, providing a rather overwhelming choice. Among those sampled were Dark Star Partridge, Tornbridge Wild Swan, and Elgoods Harry Trotter. Nothing wrong with the beer, but again that lack of sparkle you get from gravity beer than has been tapped for a while.

Malt Shovel Tavern
From here, a ten-minute walk took me back to the station for my train home, although some of those who were staying overnight went on to the Pomfret Arms a short distance to the south of the Malt Shovel Tavern.

In summary, an excellent day out, not least for the company. We visited some interesting, quirky pubs with a wide variety of beer. However, it has to be said that nothing really stood out as a must-visit pub, and many of the pubs simply had too many beers on. The hot weather won’t have helped with beer quality, and I only had one beer (in the St Giles’ Ale House) that exceeded an NBSS score of 3. So it may be another forty years before I pay the town a return visit. I would say in its favour, though, that the town centre retains many traditional streets lined by Georgian, Victorian and inter-wars buildings, and is by no means, as some might imagine, a wasteland of modernist redevelopment.

For the uninitiated, the blog title comes from the nickname of the local football club, reflecting Northampton’s shoemaking heritage, and is not intended as a general comment on the town.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

The craft coup

Despite some high-profile flouncing, there’s little doubt that the general thrust of the Revitalisation Project was carried at the recent CAMRA AGM. The fact that one Special Resolution narrowly failed to pass isn’t, in practice, going to change anything that CAMRA actually does on the ground. But it’s worth reflecting on why CAMRA felt the need to “revitalise” itself in the first place.

For many years, CAMRA was the only game in town when it came to beer enthusiasm in the UK. Yes, it was accepted with varying degrees of enthusiasm that there were beers in other countries that weren’t real ale, but still qualified as “good”, but as far as this country was concerned, good beer and real ale were synonymous. However, it the early years of this century, this view was increasingly challenged by a new wave of craft brewers. The US craft beer movement had taken a great deal of inspiration from the real ale revival in the UK, but the nature of the US market meant that pretty much all draught beers were keg of some kind, not cask. Then the flow of ideas reversed direction, as British brewers drew inspiration from American craft beer to challenge what they saw as a fuddy-duddy real ale scene.

More and more, these beers were being produced in keg form. Perhaps the brewers wanted to reflect their American influences, perhaps they saw keg as offering a distinctly different flavour profile and drinking experience, perhaps they wanted to offer a wider range of draught beers that weren’t restricted by a short shelf-life. In some cases, undoubtedly, it was seen as a way of cocking a snook at CAMRA. But, for whatever reason, for the first time in thirty years, there was innovative, small-batch beer in the UK that wasn’t cask. Initially, this started with breweries like Lovibonds and Meantime that barely registered on the overall radar. But then it was enthusiastically taken up by BrewDog, a key element of whose schtick was having a go at CAMRA and the culture it represented. And now we have highly-regarded breweries like Beavertown, Cloudwater and Buxton who produce either no cask at all, or very little.

Initially, CAMRA’s reaction was to set is face firmly against this trend. A few years ago, the then Chairman, Colin Valentine, said “We decide what we will campaign for, not the bloggerati, and while I have anything to do with it, we will remain the Campaign for Real Ale,” and urged the craft keg enthiusiasts to go away and form their own organisation. However, as more and more members of CAMRA were seeking out and drinking this new, innovative keg beer, this stance came to be portrayed as dogmatic and stick-in-the-mud. Surely CAMRA should embrace this new world of beer rather than shunning it.

Hence the genesis of the Revitalisation Project, from which arose the report that stated:

There has been a blurring of boundaries. There is no doubt that, on the market today, there exist some keg and other non-cask beers that are high-quality products – brewed with first-class ingredients, often matured over long periods, unfiltered and unpasteurised. Some of these products, by most measures, are far superior to some of the lower-quality, mass-produced cask beer common in pubs – some of which, it is alleged, may be subject to very minimal, if any, secondary fermentation despite being marketed as real ale.
And this was the gist of Revitalisation – that CAMRA should at least to some extent, recognise these “high-quality” non-cask beers rather than simply pretending they don’t exist. This has been accepted, at least implicitly, by the changes in objectives that stemmed from the project. At the same time there was a growing willingness to dismiss many of the beers than CAMRA had enthusiastically championed in its early years, especially if they were produced by substantial companies and enjoyed wide distribution. They were sneeringly lumped together as “boring brown beers”.

So, in a sense, what has happened is a kind of coup by the British craft beer movement. Rather than setting up its own organisation, it has succeeded in capturing CAMRA and turning it into something very different from what it originally set out to be. It isn’t an engagement with the wider beer world of lager and premium bottled ales, it’s a concession to a narrow but vocal craft lobby. And, looking across the overall pub landscape, how much penetration does “craft keg” achieve anyway? What is hard to deny is that what CAMRA actually stands for has become much vaguer. It’s half real ale and half “all good beer”, however defined.

The craft beer movement is also far more snobbish and élitist than CAMRA ever was in its early days. While CAMRA was keen to criticise the market dominance of the “Big Six”, and many of their policies, it always accepted that they did produce some excellent real ales. But, to listen to many craft beer enthusiasts, once a brewery has sold out to one of the global giants, it has gone forever and its products are no longer worthy of recognition. They have become “macro craft” and a kind of fraud on the consumer. And this exposes another flaw in the case for craft – you can define real ale, but “craft” means whatever you choose it to mean. Surely all beers should be judged on their own intrinsic merits regardless of the size of the company that produces them. Small isn’t intrinsically good; big isn’t intrinsically bad.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blogpost in which I drew a distinction between those things you buy or use as a consumer, and those you are actively interested in as a leisure pursuit. The fact that you’re not actually interested in something doesn’t mean you’re against it. Many people still seem to struggle to grasp this point.

My view of CAMRA has always been essentially a traditionalist one, seeing its prime purpose as preserving and championing a unique and distinctive British tradition – cask beer, the breweries that produce it and the pubs that sell it. I’m not against craft beers and trendy bars, and may occasionally drink or visit them as a consumer, but they’re no more something I wish to pursue as a leisure interest than gin or dance music. CAMRA is a broad church, and contains many different threads of enthusiasm. But it has to be said that, following the recent vote, its overall vision and ethos aligns less well with my own personal interests than it did before.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Minimum madness

Well, minimum alcohol pricing has finally arrived in Scotland today. There’s not a great deal I can add to the points I made here and here, although I have produced a summary of the issue for my Opening Times column.

Despite all the publicity, a lot of people are going to be taken by surprise when they go to the supermarket. The policy has been touted as something to address the scourge of “high-strength, low-cost alcohol”, but in reality it will affect well over half of all alcohol sold in the off-trade. Many consumers of mainstream products such as multipacks of lager and litre bottles of spirits will receive a shock. This news report lists some of the significant price increases that will occur.

This is a point made by Gordon Johncox of Aston Manor in a report in Drinks Retailing News, where he says:

The forecast model for MUP significantly underestimates how much moderate drinkers will be out of pocket based on real-world experience and actual market data. If the level and pattern of drinking were to remain unchanged after 1st May, then it would cost drinkers in Scotland in the order of £150 million a year.
He also reiterates the point I have made before that, far from giving the on-trade a boost, it will if anything harm it, as people’s disposable incomes are affected.
Counter to the view that is often repeated and promoted, MUP will reduce spending in pubs and bars. Representing as it does a regressive cost on even moderate drinkers, the increased cost on such a wide range of drinks will reduce the spending of consumers in pubs. This is clear in the forecast model, yet is not referenced or highlighted (even by the researchers that formulated the forecast model).
However, despite this, the appeasers of the Scottish Licensed Trade Association, and many useful idiots within CAMRA, still cling to the idea that it will in some way be good news for pubs. However, at heart I suspect they don’t really believe it will bring any benefit, and are embracing it purely out of a spiteful, dog-in-the-manner spirit of doing down another section of the drinks trade that they perceive as the enemy.

Obviously it will take some time before the effects of the policy can be properly assessed. No doubt there will be a short-term drop in apparent alcohol consumption, but the headline figure will inevitably be affected both by drinkers stocking up before May 1st, and buying alcohol in England afterwards.

The Scottish Goverment have gone on record as saying they don’t think there will be a significant amount of cross-border shopping. It’s certainly true that the distances between the major population centres in Scotland and the Border are such that you can’t just nip across for a few cans – Glasgow is 99 miles from Carlisle, and Edinburgh 56 miles from Berwick. But, every time any Scottish resident crosses the border for any reason in the normal course of their life, there will be a strong incentive to pick up some cans and bottles both for themselves and their friends and relatives. With potential savings of at least a fiver on a slab of Carling and a litre bottle of Bell’s, a nice little afternoon drive down the A1 to Berwick for four mates every month will pay for itself many times over.

And, inevitably, the calls will now intensify for the policy to be extended to England...

Friday, 27 April 2018

Stand and deliver

I recently caught up at last with GBG ticker Simon Everitt of BRAPA fame at the Cherry Tree in Culcheth, a rather nondescript suburb of Warrington. Although it’s hardly a major metropolis, I noticed a pay and display machine in the pub’s car park. In this case it was no problem – it was only a quid, which was happily redeemed against a half of Tetley’s. But this is a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly common.

One of the first places I came across it was at the Bear’s Paw in Frodsham, Cheshire, which I mentioned here. In his last years, I sometimes used to take my dad out for a pint in the Golden Lion on Sunday lunchtimes. He had given up driving himself, and wasn’t really able to walk to the bus stop, so it was one of the few opportunities he had to get out of the house. The Golden Lion doesn’t have its own car park, but the Bear’s Paw just across the road does. Situated in the centre of a busy market town where parking is at a premium, inevitably non-customers were taking advantage, so you can’t really blame them for bringing it in. As the price differential between the Sam Smith’s in the Golden Lion, and whatever was on offer in Bear’s Paw, was easily a pound a pint, we were still quids in.

However, before pubs take the plunge, they need to think through the implications properly. You may be annoyed by non-customers using your car park, but unless they’re genuinely preventing customers from finding a space it’s not actually achieving anything for your business. Even though it may seem only a minor inconvenience, it’s still a little niggle to weigh in the balance when deciding where to visit. People’s pubgoing choices are determined by a whole raft of factors, many of which may individually appear trivial. Plus, in an age where cashless payment is increasingly becoming the norm, not offering this option erects another barrier.

In most examples I’ve seen, the charge is fully refundable at the bar, but in some cases a minimum spend is set. For example, at the Moor Top in Heaton Moor near me, the car park charge is £2, but you have to spend at least £5 to get a refund. Obviously they’re not interested in anyone just dropping in for a swift pint.

If people are really determined to take advantage, the enforceability of private parking “fines” is distinctly questionable – the system functions more as a psychological deterrent. You can of course bar them from the pub, but that’s no use if they never come in in the first place. There is also the factor that many responsible people may be reluctant to use the car park of a business where they’re not a customer, but have no such compunctions if a charge is introduced, as shown by the well-known experiment of introducing fines for late collection at a day nursery.

It may well be, of course, that a pub has an under-used car park that it wants to turn into a revenue stream, and if that’s the objective it’s entirely reasonable. But, whatever the circumstances, it’s important that pubs consider exactly what they’re setting out to achieve before implementing pay and display parking. And, if you want to ensure 100% compliance, the only way to do it is through putting up an exit barrier.