Sunday 28 December 2008

Three folk singers in a pub near Wells...

This song - Roots by Show of Hands - is a superb and pointed expression of true English patriotism:

Getting the price right

I’ve never been wholly convinced by the view that supermarket alcohol prices are killing pubs. Yes, off-trade beer is cheaper, and has been for thirty years. But the experiences of going to the pub and socialising with your friends, compared with sitting at home and drinking a few cans of Stella while watching telly, are not really interchangeable.

However, this is not to say there’s nothing in it, and I can’t help thinking that over the years the pub trade has shot itself in the foot on the pricing issue. There has been an assumption that, year-on-year, prices can be increased by a bit above inflation, and the customers will put up with it. But every other sector has been subject to severe price competition, so why should pubs be exempt? This point has been underlined by the rise of Wetherspoon’s, who aren’t as cheap as the off-trade, but in general are much cheaper than the local pub competition. A Wetherspoon’s pub may be devoid of character, but you need a strong incentive to go somewhere else that is charging 50 pence a pint more. Arguably Wetherspoon’s are doing to the pub trade what ASDA and Morrisons have done to food retailing.

Surely the generality of the pub trade should at least give some impression that they are doing something about prices – maybe, for example, offering one draught beer a week at 50p a pint off. You don’t need to discount everything you sell, or even very much of it, to give an impression of being price competitive, a lesson the supermarkets have learned very well. The current recession is only going to underline this point.

Tuesday 23 December 2008

Back to 1948

A couple of months ago, I was told about how the owners of Samuel Smiths’ brewery had apparently acquired a financial stake in a company making pies. The result was that the conventional pub menus in their managed houses had been replaced by new menus predominantly featuring pies of various kinds, something which had not gone down too well in the leafier parts of Cheshire. I don’t routinely go in any Sam’s pubs that serve food, so I had half forgotten about it, but the other day encountered it for myself in a pub not too far from some of the most up-market residential areas in the North-West.

Unfortunately, it was just as bad as I had feared – a listing of unappetising, old-fashioned stodge that was even illustrated with little pictures of some of the dishes to make your gorge rise even more. It was as though Elizabeth David had never lived and we were back in 1948. There weren’t even any sandwiches or similar for those who didn’t want the full 1000 calories. A robust defence of tradition is one thing, a wilful refusal to accept the realities of the present is something else entirely. This is an extremely short-sighted measure that will do nothing for the long-term success of Sam’s outlets and will simply serve to confirm the widely-held view that pubs have nothing to do with good or imaginative food.

Edit 26/12/08: today I have spotted a detailed write-up of this story in the excellent CAMRA magazine Out Inn Cheshire entitled Sam Smith’s Culinary Suicide. Apparently the piemaker in question is called “Sarah Brownridge” and all the dishes on the menu are capable of being cooked in a microwave in eight minutes. An instruction from Chairman Humphrey Smith to all managed houses reads:

The new menu is out and I would make it absolutely clear on behalf of the company that we desire 100% Sarah Brownridge and no other food (with the possible exception of of a roast only on Sundays and only in a minority of our catering houses) to be sold in all pubs. No sandwiches, nothing else, just the food shown on the menu we have sent you.
The article goes on to say, “Needless to say, this has killed the food trade in our local Sam Smith’s houses.”

Tuesday 16 December 2008

Minimum pricing canned

Realistically, minimum alcohol pricing was never going to be introduced. There was a major potential conflict with competition law, the effects were uncertain and it would not look good in a recession to be raising the price of a staple purchase of working-class households. Nevertheless, it's good to have a clear confirmation from the government that they have no plans to bring it in at present.

It's interesting how the more extreme ideas of the anti-drink lobby, such as this, a 21 minimum age for off-sales and separate tills for alcohol, are being knocked off one by one. However, it would not pay to be too complacent, as they could all too easily be revived if the climate of public opinion changed, as we have seen in the case of anti-smoking measures. And the slow but steady attack on drinkers through ratcheting up duty rates is likely to continue unabated.

Friday 12 December 2008

Psst, want a fag?

So, within a few years, retailers of tobacco products will have to keep them under the counter or in closed cabinets. As is often the case, the Filthy Smoker deals with this far more eloquently (and profanely) than I could ever do. It also raises the question of exactly how smokers are meant to know which outlets stock cigarettes, what brands are available and at what prices. The tobacco manufacturers won’t really be that bothered, as it will do little to cut smoking rates and effectively kill price competition stone dead.

And is this a chilling vision of how pubs and off-licences will be in twenty years’ time, with no alcoholic drinks on display and customers having to ask for them by name? In such a climate, the opportunities to launch new products or set up new breweries would be absolutely zero.

Saturday 6 December 2008

Forcing Britain to sober up

Excellent article here from the estimable Sp!ked about the present government's Puritanical, miserabilist attitude to pubs and alcohol.

The section about how out-of-touch ministers are with how ordinary people actually live their lives is particularly good.

Nevertheless, the sheer relentlessness of these measures and proposals helps legitimise the notion that it is perfectly acceptable for government to restrict public space and personal freedom. That assumption is also based on the poisonous and corrosive notion that British citizens are inherently problematic, especially when we’ve had a few drinks. It is this genuine fear and barely concealed disgust for us that propels New Labour to carry on restricting our autonomy at every opportunity.

That fear and loathing is itself a product of New Labour’s peculiar development in British politics, as a self-referencing clique of managers and technocrats with no genuine roots or connections in wider society. As such, their isolation from ordinary people has generated a succession of Labour ministers who are, at best, embarrassingly unworldly about adult life or absolutely petrified of the city they live and work in. One minister, Caroline Flint, said she ‘couldn’t believe that people actually go out to get drunk’; Harriet Harman couldn’t face touring the London district of Peckham - an area she has represented in parliament for 26 years - without wearing a stab-proof vest. This would be funny if New Labour’s jittery nerves didn’t have such destructive consequences on our freedoms and our lifestyles.

Thursday 4 December 2008

Missing the target

In a classic case of unintended consequences, it seems that the government’s plans to restrict alcohol promotions will hit middle-class wine drinkers hardest, hardly a group noted for causing drunken mayhem on the streets. Consumers of cheap lager and cider will be relatively unscathed. And surely all those offers of “4 for £5” or “3 for £4” have done a great deal in encouraging people to sample premium bottled ales, another sector that typically appeals to moderate, responsible drinkers.

Tuesday 2 December 2008

Cheaper than water

This blog posting makes the point very clearly that newspaper claims that beer is being sold by supermarkets for less than water are grossly misleading, as they are not comparing like with like. The comparison is between a very cheap bottom-end lager and a premium branded water. However, the average price of beer sold in supermarkets would still be far higher per fluid ounce than the price of water.

This is similar to the oft-repeated canard that pubs sell soft drinks for more than beer, whereas in reality, especially when you consider the actual quantities purchased, beer is on average considerably more expensive, drink for drink.

Peetered out

I foresaw back in July that the launch of 4% ABV Stella Artois would lead to the demise of Stella's existing little brother Peeterman, and so it has proven. I don't expect it will be much missed.

Inbev's efforts to develop a "family" of beers around the core Stella brand have proved a dismal failure, and you also have to wonder how Stella itself is faring now its alcohol content has been cut from 5.2% to 5.0%, just the same as every other "premium" lager. No doubt it would attract the ire of the anti-drink lobby, but some other brewer might clean up if they launched a rival brand in the 5.3% to 5.5% strength band.

Monday 24 November 2008

Giving with one hand...

How typical of Alastair Darling to cut VAT as an economic sweetener, but at the same time increase duty on alcohol, tobacco and road fuel to offset the shortfall. Alcohol duties have gone up by a whacking 8%. Given that food and books and newspapers are zero-rated and domestic fuel already has a lower VAT rate of 5%, there’s very little left that people buy on a day-to-day basis that is actually subject to VAT. If people are worried about their job prospects, they’re hardly going to be tempted to splurge on a new car or kitchen by a 2.5% price cut. And what’s the betting that, when the VAT rate reverts to 17.5%, the duty rates won’t be reduced back to where they started?

It would have been welcome if people were given a bit of Christmas cheer from a temporary reduction in the price of drink, but obviously that does not fit with the joyless agenda of the New Puritans. Indeed, while the duty hike has been presented as simply maintaining the retail price, in many cases, particularly spirits, it will actually increase the price in the shops. Also, given the way pub licensees often work out retail price by applying a mark-up to the wholesale price, it could easily end up putting prices up in pubs too.

Saturday 22 November 2008

A silver lining?

Inevitably the current “credit crunch”, “economic downturn” or whatever is going to lead to the closure of large numbers of pubs. But, ironically it might end up being the saviour of a few. Especially in the south-east, but increasingly in other parts of the country, pubs that are viable enough in themselves have been closed because the site was more valuable for residential development. But, with the demand for property having fallen through the floor, that is often no longer the case. One such is the Ryecroft Arms in Cheadle Hulme, the former Conway, that had been slated by Hydes for closure and redevelopment, but now seems to have been given a new lease of life. The report of the local planning committee makes interesting reading – the proposed redevelopment seems to have been rather misconceived and the appetite of the developers for pushing it through will now have evaporated.

But the Conway/Ryecroft Arms was never a particularly appealing pub, and it does raise the question, which might lead to another post, as to why post-war “estate pubs” – and indeed many of their inter-wars counterparts – have proved so intrinsically unappealing in the long term.

Friday 21 November 2008

United we stand

Some very wise words from Archie Norman, former Chief Executive of ASDA, about the need for on and off-trade to stand together to resist government restrictions.

As I have argued, both are part of one overall drinks trade, and the right of adult consumers to consume alcohol responsibly, whether at home or in the pub, is now under serious threat from government action, egged on by the anti-alcohol lobby. It is not pubs vs supermarkets, it is drinkers vs banners.

Sunday 9 November 2008

A missed opportunity?

You can’t really blame Carlsberg for wanting to close the Tetley brewery in Leeds, given that it is on a prime city-centre site. But surely there is a missed opportunity there. Cask is the only growth sector in the beer market, and Tetley’s is one of the very few beers brewed by the international brewers that still has any credibility. If they could have found a compatible alternative brewing site in Yorkshire, they had a wonderful opportunity to make Tetley’s the best-selling cask beer in Britain. Just more proof that executives obsessed with international mega-brands have no idea how the British beer market actually works.

Sunday 2 November 2008

Dedication to drinking

It's hard to beat this story for commitment to pubgoing and drinking:

Drinkers on longest ever pub crawl reach 14,000th pub

No doubt Dawn Primarolo or some other joyless New Labour health minister will condemn it for setting a bad example and encouraging drinking above "safe" levels.

It was also interesting that in a radio interview they admitted to doing most of this pub-crawling by car. Now, I'm sure they're well aware of the need to avoid falling foul of the law, but can we really believe the designated driver doesn't partake of the occasional half?

Tuesday 28 October 2008

Real innovation

It’s amazing how this BBC news article about innovation in the beer market manages to completely avoid mentioning real ale. In reality, it is the cask sector that is seeing by far the most genuine innovation, with a wealth of new styles, flavours and ingredients and most established brewers introducing a programme of seasonal beers. In contrast, any innovation from the global brewers is either gimmicks or bringing in new brands from other countries. And is a Lithuanian lager really that different from a Polish lager? Unfortunately, despite being the only growth area in the beer market, the cask sector seems to have dropped off the media radar as it is seen as terminally unfashionable and outdated. However, growing by stealth may not be such a bad thing...

Sunday 26 October 2008

The bladder leash

I see a House of Commons committee has rightly criticised local authorities for closing large numbers of public toilets, something the government seems happy simply to stand by and allow to happen. There was also an excellent leader on the subject in the Daily Telegraph.

Obviously beer drinkers will be well aware of the need for some relief after consuming a few pints, and I’m convinced that the declining expectation of being able to find a toilet when you need one is a factor in people, especially those in middle age and above, being more reluctant to go drinking outside the home. However, there is a more serious issue here. The average person needs to urinate about once every two to two and a half hours and many, such as the elderly, pregnant women and those with bladder or bowel conditions may need a toilet more frequently than that. If toilets are non-existent or hard to find, it greatly curtails people’s ability to venture outside the house, and effectively puts them on what has been described as a “bladder leash”.

A good example of this tendency is the recent announcement by Derby City Council that they are planning to close all but one of the public toilets in the city centre. The City of Manchester to its shame already has but a solitary conventional public toilet in the entire city centre, and that (near the Town Hall) well away from the main shopping centre *.

When local councils are still happily employing “five-a-day co-ordinators” and sending out glossy magazines promoting their “achievements” it is impossible to believe they can’t find the money to provide a few decent public bogs. All too often council officers seem keener to protect their own staff and empires than frontline services, and then blame cutbacks on the government.

This is a prime example of the eroding quality of life in modern Britain and something that needs to be urgently addressed.

* I am aware that Manchester also has four or five automated “superloos” in the city centre, but I really don’t regard these as an acceptable replacement for conventional toilets, and they certainly don’t adequately address the issue of providing male urinals.

Friday 24 October 2008

The walk of shame

Once again the Filthy Smoker is spot on in his attack on the proposal that has been touted for alcohol-only checkouts in supermarkets. Once you look beyond the swearing, he and I seem to have a great deal on which we agree.

Of course, such a move would have the unintended consequence of creating express lanes for drinkers who would no longer have to queue up behind folks buying vast quantities of disposable nappies and vegetables and exchanging a purseful of discount coupons.

Anyone fancy a twother?

Interesting report today that a consultation on drinks measures is proposing the introduction of a two-thirds of a pint beer measure. As I said here in the past:

...there’s a very good case for also allowing measures of two-thirds of a pint to be served, slightly bigger than the commonplace 330 ml bottles and almost exactly the same as the 12 US fluid ounces that is usual in America. It would have enough size advantage over a half to seem a more worthwhile drink, but be sufficiently smaller than a pint to leave you considerably more sober and less bloated. It would also be appealing to drinkers in multi-beer alehouses who want to sample a range of beers without ending up under the table.
It would also (whisper it softly) allow the law-abiding driver to have three worthwhile glasses of beer rather than two.

But I suspect in practice it would lead to a notable drop-off in on-trade beer sales, so watch out for a lukewarm reception from trade bodies, who no doubt will whinge over the cost of acquiring new glassware. It would be interesting to know what proportion of pub customers simply drink one pint during their visit, and so thus would be prime candidates for downsizing.

Monday 20 October 2008

Fifty pence too much

It's disappointing that The Publican have decided to put their weight behind a campaign to impose a 50p per unit minimum price on all alcoholic drinks. Do they not realise that these beggar-my-neighbour tactics will damage the entire drinks trade and simply play into the hands of the neo-prohibitionists?

For many people, drinking in the pub is quite simply not a realistic option, and so to put up the price of a pensioner’s bottle of cheap Scotch from £8.99 to £14 – an overnight rise of over 50% – will reflect very badly indeed. In reality, in the midst of a recession, no government is going to impose swingeing increases on the price of take-home alcohol that would hit working-class families very hard in the pocket.

This wouldn’t free up a single extra penny for people to spend in pubs, and it is hard to see how in practice it would do anything to help their business. The businesses who would be licking their lips are the manufacturers of home brew kits and the owners of discount booze warehouses in Calais. It is one thing to use minimum pricing as a way of curbing cheap multibuy offers, something else entirely to use it to raise the general price level of mainstream products.

If your business is struggling, you need to look at ways of increasing its appeal, not try to prop it up by hobbling the competition.

Wednesday 15 October 2008

The Puritans are coming

Nail very firmly hit on head here by the Filthy Smoker on the wonderful (but distinctly foul-mouthed) Devil's Kitchen blog.

Coming soon to a bar near you?

When faced with a problem demanding a solution, human ingenuity can be an impressive thing, and in response to the smoking ban it’s now come up with the E-Cigarette. This looks like a normal filter cigarette, but contains a battery and an electronic mechanism to release a controlled, smoke-free dose of nicotine into the “smoker’s” lungs. As there is no smoke, it’s entirely legal to use indoors. As much of the support for the smoking ban was based on naked, dog-in-the-manger hatred that defied rational analysis, I look forward to the spluttering outrage of antismokers seeing people using these devices in pubs and bars. They’ll probably then campaign to ban them, of course.

Tuesday 14 October 2008

Seen but not heard (again)

There’s a lot of space devoted in the press today to the launch of the latest Good Pub Guide, with editor Alasdair Aird saying they had received a record number of complaints about unruly children in pubs, something with which I have great sympathy.

Surely the time has come when publicans must recognise this concern and do something to address it. Obviously nowadays it’s unrealistic to expect all pubs to be child-free, but there’s no real reason for children to be in non-food pubs at all, and in those serving food, why can’t a certain proportion of the interior be set aside for adults?

There’s a lot to be said for Wetherspoon’s policy of limiting adult diners accompanying children to two drinks as well, so the parties move on once they’ve finished eating. Responsible adults should not be taking their children out with them for a prolonged drinking session.

Tuesday 7 October 2008

Sigh of relief confirmed

Excellent news for pubs and pubgoers that the government have finally confirmed they have no current plans to reduce the drink-drive limit. Given that most of the great and the good seem to have expressed support for this, I’m slightly puzzled as to what the thought processes are behind it, as I was when it was more seriously proposed ten years ago. I strongly suspect that the senior police officers are in private much more sceptical than they are in public, and recognise that in practice it would do little or nothing to reduce casualties while forfeiting much public support.

The government would also have had to grasp the nettle of whether to impose mandatory bans at 50 mg. If they did, we would have a far stricter drink-drive régime than any of our major Continental neighbours, whereas if drivers were only subjected to points and a fine between 50 and 80 mg, as is usual in the Continent, the unholy alliance of anti-drink and anti-car pressure groups would have accused them of letting drink-drivers off the hook. Either way, it’s opening a can of worms.

The combination of the financial crisis and the slump in Labour’s electoral support probably led them to conclude it just wasn’t worth pursuing at the moment. But I’m sure the threat hasn’t entirely gone away…

The news report also parrots the oft-heard nonsense that “Britain is to become the only European country that allows motorists to have at least one alcoholic drink and still be legally fit to drive.” This in fact is quite untrue - a 50 mg limit would still allow most people, unless very lightly-built, to consume a pint of ordinary-strength beer, a medium glass of wine, or a double whisky, and still drive legally. And surely a half of mild counts as an alcoholic drink, and you might be able to get away with three of those.

Saturday 4 October 2008


I took a look today at the Roebuck in Urmston, one of Holts’ flagship pubs, which was badly damaged by fire a couple of years ago and has been given an extensive and thoroughgoing refurbishment. It’s not bad at all – although done in a generally “contemporary” style, it retains a vault and the lounge still has a fair amount of traditional pub-style bench seating.

But I was taken aback to be charged £2.23 for a pint of Holts Bitter – a full fifteen pence more than Original Bitter in my local Hydes pub. Make no mistake, the beer was good, the pub is smart and comfortable, and I don’t begrudge paying that. But it’s a far cry from the days twenty years ago when Holts were champions of the good value pint. Even in the Griffin in Heaton Mersey it’s still somewhere in the £1.70s.

At about ten past two on a Saturday afternoon there was a notable dearth of customers in the vault – you do have to wonder whether Holts have thrown the baby out with the bathwater in trying to take their pubs upmarket.

Friday 3 October 2008

The woman who waters the workers’ beer

Here’s a picture of Sally Keeble MP, who has sponsored the Private Members’ Bill calling for the introduction of minimum drink pricing. As I am not The Devil’s Kitchen, I will go no further than to call her a miserable cow.

But it struck me that this is a profoundly snobbish measure – the middle classes will still be able to jug themselves to oblivion on craft-brewed ales, chateau-bottled wines and single malt whiskies, but the poor will have to pay more for cheap crap, which is often all they can afford. It will, in practice, inflate the household bills of poor families while leaving the better-off completely unscathed. In short, it is a highly regressive measure – but of course, as we have seen with tobacco duty, self-proclaimed socialists have never been afraid to screw the poor financially.

Also, despite its declared intentions, surely minimum pricing will end up placing more emphasis on alcoholic strength, not less, as at the lower end of the drinks market there will be a much more direct association between price and strength. If it commands a price premium, stronger will be perceived as better to a much greater degree than at present.

Thursday 2 October 2008

I’ll drink tae that

Excellent news from Scotland that the SNP’s ill-considered plan to raise the minimum age for buying alcohol in the off-trade from 18 to 21 have been decisively defeated by 72 votes to 47 in the Scottish Parliament.

Of course the killer point against this is the one made by Tory deputy leader Murdo Fraser: “They are creating an even more ludicrous situation whereby a soldier returning from a tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan at the age of 20 cannot buy a bottle of champagne from the off-licence to celebrate with his wife on his return.” A point also made in my Opening Times column for October.

And of course the proposal does not sit at all well with the SNP’s declared intention to reduce the voting age in Scotland to 16.

It’s also worth having a look at the very responsible and well-argued website produced by CARDAS, the mainly student-led Coalition Against Raising the Drinking Age in Scotland.

Wednesday 1 October 2008

The minimum Trojan horse

Although in my view it’s a bad idea for numerous reasons, many supporters of pubs have been attracted to the idea of minimum pricing of alcohol as a means of curbing some of the discounting excesses in the off-trade. But what is being proposed in a Private Members’ Bill put forward by Sally Keeble MP goes far beyond a simple flat-rate minimum price per unit.

The private members’ bill calls for the setting up of a Drinks Industry Council (DIC), made up of representatives from the industry, producers, police, health care, youth sector and consumers, which would advise Government on a minimum price for a unit of alcohol, promotions and set codes of conduct.

The minimum price would be set by the Government after advice from the DIC with different prices being set depending on product, alcoholic strength, region and the type of establishment selling it. The minimum price would be reviewed every year.

The Bill also calls for limits on alcohol advertising by supermarkets and the areas in which alcohol can be displayed and the introduction of a standard warning label for all drinks.
In other words, the creation of a whole new structure of bureaucratic control to regulate prices across all sectors and many other aspects of the drinks trade. In reality, with the vast burden of regulation they suffer already, the trade need that like a hole in the head. And, with “health” interests involved, you can be sure that there would be a steady year-on-year pressure to raise prices and cut back promotions.

And nobody has yet answered the question as to who benefits from the difference between the official minimum price and the market price.

Sunday 28 September 2008

A sigh of relief?

It's reported in the Sunday Times today that the government have backtracked on reported plans to reduce the drink-drive limit:

Ministers will also announce plans to toughen the regime for drink-driving, although they will reject calls from police and campaigners to reduce the drink-drive limit from 80mg of alcohol per 100mg of blood to 50mg.
Let's hope this proves to be true, as such a measure would lay waste to the remnants of the pub trade even more comprehensively than the smoking ban has done.

Thursday 25 September 2008

Skullsplitter threatened with axe

I see Orkney Brewery's Skullsplitter strong ale is the latest target of the politically correct brigade. This post by Mr Eugenides sums it up better than I ever could. It's also discussed here by The Pub Philosopher.

Is there any evidence that such beers actually do encourage alcohol-related violence or problem drinking? I don't think so. Indeed, the multi-beer free houses where they are likely to be encountered are some of the most notably problem-free of venues, although occasionally there may be a boisterous edge to the craic that would get the killjoys tut-tutting.

Tuesday 23 September 2008

Only too true

I'm sure many struggling British pubs wondering when the promised post-ban influx of non-smokers was going to arrive could put up a sign very like this American one:

At your disservice

Spending a few days away recently unfortunately reacquainted me with the lamentable standard of service prevailing in restaurants in Britain. Now, I would have thought the job of a waiter wasn’t too difficult – you simply have to keep track of events on a handful of tables, and politely nudge them on to the next stage in the proceedings once it is obvious they are ready to order or have finished each course. But this is obviously far beyond the typical staff encountered nowadays, resulting in extended longeurs even when the place isn’t remotely busy.

Worst of all is actually managing to extract a bill from them. You’ve finished your dessert and coffee, and sit there for twenty minutes or more looking at your watch, drumming your fingers on the table and staring into space. No response whatsoever. So eventually you have to accost a member of the staff – invariably not the one who actually served you – and ask if you can have the bill now. They look at you as if you have just asked to molest their three-year-old daughter, stomp off and eventually produce it ten minutes later. Once you have gone through the rigmarole of presenting a credit card and getting it back it can all too easily be a full hour since the last drop of food or drink passed your lips, in which time you could have missed a train, a date or an interview. This has happened even in very busy restaurants where you might have thought freeing up a table would be a priority.

It may be regarded as down-market, but the typical pub practice of paying for your food at the time of ordering has much to be said for it if your time is limited.

Friday 19 September 2008

Heading South

I’m a Northerner, and in many respects a strong defender of the North of England, but one thing I have little time for is the “traditional Northern head” on beer, which in reality is a tradition that goes back no more than two or three decades. Pulling beer through a tight sparkler and serving it with a thick collar of foam can all too easily knock the life out of it and blunt its flavour.

So I always enjoy a visit to the South of England, particularly the South-West, where beer is typically served with a notably shallower and thinner head. When it’s fresh and well-kept, this allows the flavour and character to shine through in a way they can never do with a Northern head, although it must be admitted that it also does nothing to disguise flat, tired beer.

Particular praise must go to the White Hart in Cheddar which on a recent visit served up a very tasty pint of Butcombe Bitter – one of my favourite beers – after a slow and trying journey through the roadworks over the Avonmouth Bridge.

No sign of the inn

In one of the most ludicrous examples of anti-drink political correctness I have yet seen, Wiltshire County Council have joined forces with the Highways Agency to compel pubs to remove roadside direction signs, on the grounds that they may act as an incentive to drink-driving.

Do they really think that drivers on seeing one of these signs will pull off the main road, have a skinful at the Dog & Duck and then return to the highways to cause carnage? The idea that in practice they will act as any kind of incentive to drink-drive offending is simply incredible.

To be consistent, are they going to also demand the removal of signs pointing to any other establishment with an alcohol licence, such as hotels or restaurants, not to mention supermarkets? And what about pubs that are already situated by the roadside – will they have to remove all advertising material?

Nowadays, most country pubs derive a large part of their income from food – many having become to all intents and purposes restaurants. For the vast majority of drivers, these signs say one thing: “Here is somewhere to stop for food”, as is clearly shown by the photograph.

Especially worrying are the comments of Jacqui Ashman of the Highways Agency:
No alcohol is allowed to be served or consumed in service stations on motorways as a matter of principle and we would wish to continue this principle by not encouraging drivers to break their journey in a public house.
Why not? Even if you accept the argument that drivers should not consume any alcohol whatsoever, most pubs will offer a far wider range of soft drinks than motorway service areas, and will also provide a much more relaxing atmosphere. Service areas exist purely to serve road travellers, while pubs cater for a much wider and more diverse market. And service areas in many Continental countries serve alcohol with meals without the roads becoming a scene of mayhem.

And the point must be made that, even though the likes of Ms Ashman may want it to be different, drinking alcohol before driving is still permitted in this country so long as you do not exceed the prescribed legal limit.

Regrettably this is just another small, subtle way of undermining the trade of pubs and accelerating their decline.

No draught in here

A few years ago I commented on pubs keeping their doors open on chilly September evenings in a futile attempt to make people believe it was still summer. I came across some more of this the other week. Once the sun has gone down, the temperature can drop rapidly at this time of year, and bar staff working up a sweat behind the counter may not realise that customers are sitting in a freezing draught.

While this wasn’t house policy, I found myself in one otherwise good pub where customers were getting up to shut a non self-closing door every couple of minutes.

Monday 1 September 2008

Tramp juice

My previous post on the tendency to level down beer strengths led me to ponder on the morality of selling super-strength lagers such as Carlsberg Special Brew and Tennent’s Super at strengths of up to 9.0% ABV. Some groups have criticised these brews on the grounds that they are disproportionately favoured by people with severe alcohol problems, hence the nickname of “tramp juice”.

Their producers would argue, of course, that there are plenty of other alcoholic drinks available at similar or higher strengths, including ciders and wines in non-resealable containers, and that market research shows the majority of consumers of these products are not problem drinkers. A quick look around off-licence shelves also showed that in terms of price per unit they were at a similar level to other beers and lagers, so they aren’t a particularly cheap way of getting drunk.

Beer differs from other drinks in that it is available in a wide variety of strengths, whereas wine and spirits tend to be sold at a common strength, or at least over a very narrow range of strengths. I argued below that there were many beers whose strength was an integral part of their character, and so any attempt to set a mandatory ceiling on beer strength would be unreasonable.

However, strong beers should be savoured for their rich flavour and character, not guzzled as a rapid path to inebriation. Selling these beers in 440 ml or 500 ml cans does rather suggest that the latter is the prime objective. So, at a time when a spotlight is being directed at the social responsibility of the drinks industry, it might well make sense for their producers to switch to selling them in 330 ml cans, and also to downplay their alcoholic strength in marketing and pack design.

And might a strong lager actually be more palatable at around 6.5-7% ABV rather than 9% when the taste is largely overwhelmed by alcohol? It is widely considered that the 7.2% Carlsberg Elephant Beer is a far superior brew to the 9.0% Special Brew.

Friday 29 August 2008

Levelling down?

InBev, the makers of Stella Artois, have recently announced that they are going to “harmonise” the strength of the premium lager at 5.0% ABV, as opposed to the previous 5.2%. While that isn’t the most earth-shattering news, it does seem to indicate a growing reluctance of brewers to offer mainstream products above 5.0%. Holsten Pils used to be sold at 5.5% with the slogan “more of the sugar turns to alcohol”, but that’s now a flat 5% too. A number of mass-market ciders have also had their strength reduced, as has the draught version of Old Speckled Hen.

Now I would certainly never advocate drinking anything purely on the basis of its strength, or assessing alcoholic drinks on a “bangs per buck” basis. But there are many beers - such as Robinson’s Old Tom and Belgian specialities such as Duvel - whose strength is an integral part of their character. It is not unreasonable that drinkers might sometimes want to sacrifice quantity for strength and choose a beer that is rich and warming rather than one that is light and refreshing. And if you want to pay a bit more for a 5.5% lager rather than a 5% one, why shouldn’t you?

But I do get the feeling that brewers are deliberately aiming to limit the strength of their mainstream products in an attempt to avoid an anti-alcohol backlash. This is something that needs to be watched carefully as within a few years it might be extremely difficult to buy any beers stronger than 5% apart from expensive specialities.

Friday 22 August 2008

The mark of Cain Part 2

It seems from various reports that, while the Cains brewing and pub business has gone into administration, the Dusanj brothers still own the freehold of the brewery and some of the pubs, and may be contemplating buying some of the other pubs back off the receiver. Now if that isn’t sharp business practice I don’t know what is – no wonder the IFBB wouldn’t touch them with a bargepole.

Thursday 21 August 2008

Trade ‘substantially down’

It becomes a bit tedious endlessly repeating bad news, but here’s yet another report confirming the sharp downturn in the pub trade over the past year or so. 25% of pubs report a big drop in profitability, rising to 33% amongst wet-led community locals.

Tuesday 19 August 2008

Mid-strength misleads

I’ve seen a couple of drinks products recently described as “mid-strength”, such as this new version of Magners. Now, I would have thought “mid-strength” was somewhere between the strength of ordinary cooking beers and strong premium ones, say around 4.5% ABV. But in fact these products are only half the strength of normal drinks, and are if anything mid-way to zero alcohol. Surely they should be described as “lower alcohol” or even, being honest, “piss-weak”, rather than the misleading “mid-strength”. Presumably the thinking is that they don’t want to deter men who wouldn’t be seen dead drinking anything “weak” – but are consumers really that gullible?

Saturday 16 August 2008

A day to bury bad news

This is a pretty coruscating attack on the rationale behind plans to reduce the drink-drive limit in the UK. (Warning: swearing alert!)

Why should we adopt the laws of countries that, despite a nominally lower legal threshold, still in practice have more drink-related road deaths?

In particular, this comment from a coroner stands out:

“Of those fatal accidents where alcohol is implicated, it has been on very rare occasions, and I have been doing this job for 17 years, that I have come across inquests where people have been killed with a blood alcohol level of between 50 and 80mgs. Normally, the blood alcohol level involved in these deaths is between 150 and 350 mgs.”
This underlines the point that the vast majority of accidents attributed to alcohol involve people who are by any standards drunk, not those marginally above or even below the current legal limit.

Thursday 14 August 2008

Stand up and be counted

I see the licensee of the Prince of Orange in Ashton-under-Lyne has banned his local MP from the pub on the grounds that he supported the smoking ban, which has led to a 50% fall in custom. It would be a good thing if more licensees were prepared to make their voices heard in this way. If an MP found him or herself barred from over half the pubs in their constituency, it might just make them think a little.

Pubs should also consider putting up posters stating that, while they do not tolerate breaking the law, they do not support the ban. And why not adapt the mandatory no smoking signs to make it clear it is a government diktat rather than house policy?

Bringing it all back home

One of the major trends in the drinks market over the past thirty years has been the move from drinking in the pub to drinking at home. Surely one of the major reasons behind this, although rarely acknowledged, is the rise in car ownership. Beer is a very heavy substance, and so if you don’t have a car it is hard work to lug enough of it home for a decent drinking session. Even in the mid-1970s, most ordinary working-class families didn’t have a car, but now (assuming they are actually in work and not living on benefits) they do, so it becomes much easier to stock up on beer at home. And, as the market grows, obviously retailers will start tailoring offers to cater for it. There’s not much point in offering multibuy deals on 15-packs if the customers have to carry them home on the bus.

Monday 11 August 2008

Hatred breeds hatred

In a recent incident in Kent, a woman suffered a broken wrist from being pushed on to a railway track after she had complained about two men smoking on a station platform. Clearly any attack such as this must be condemned unreservedly. However, it must be pointed out that until very recently, what the two men were doing would have been entirely legal. Although there is no legal requirement for them to do so, as platforms are open spaces, railway companies have taken it upon themselves to ban smoking there in the contemporary spirit of political correctness.

It may be an unpalatable truth to some, but if there hadn’t been a witchhunt against smokers and smoking, this incident would never have happened. It is a direct result of our current climate of bigotry and intolerance. And in any situation people need to think very carefully before acting as self-appointed policemen.

Thursday 7 August 2008

Measures of confusion

A Polish-themed bar and restaurant in Doncaster is reported to be facing prosecution from Trading Standards for serving draught beer in metric measures of 0.5 and 0.3 litres. Predictably, this has led to a chorus from the metrication lobby about “freedom of choice” - but you do have to wonder whether they would be quite so vocal if a traditional Scottish-themed pub was serving whisky in measures of a quarter of a gill. In reality, of course, they couldn’t care less about freedom of choice - they are championing it as a way of eroding one of the few traditional measures we are still allowed to use.

The key issue here, of course, is not really one of metric vs Imperial but of pubs being required to use the measures prescribed by weights and measures legislation. If there was a free-for-all in draught beer measures it would lead to endless confusion for the customer. Some pubs would switch to serving beer in half-litre measures, but would not reduce the price accordingly, while no doubt others would try to encourage customers by saying “10% bigger pints here”. It’s also important that customers should left in no doubt as to how much they are drinking.

Tuesday 5 August 2008

Unintended consequences strike again

Excellent piece here from the Adam Smith Institute blog about how measures intended to reduce alcohol abuse in fact make matters worse by hitting at the very institution that keeps excessive drinking in check, namely the community pub.

Left hand vs right hand

It’s an amusing bit of Schadenfreude to see different sections of the government at each others’ throats over the issue of minimum pricing. Outlawing below-cost selling is fair enough, but imposing minimum pricing would be a profoundly anti-competitive measure. In effect, it would be legitimising price-fixing by retailers. And supporters of the on-trade are deluding themselves if they think it would do anything to help pubs, as even with a 50p/unit minimum price, drink in the pub would still be considerably more expensive. The only people it would benefit are cross-border smugglers and the manufacturers of home-brew kits.

Castle conquered

It’s reported that the Castle on Oldham Street, Robinsons’ only outlet in Manchester City Centre, has closed. Apparently, following the smoking ban, the pub, which has no outside area suitable for smokers, had experienced a decline in trade of 60%. Now it has to be said that the Castle, although undeniably characterful, was a dingy pub much in need of refurbishment, but that was the case a year ago too, and so the catastrophic drop-off in trade cannot really be put down to anything but the ban. Yet more proof that the claim that the ban would attract new customers to pubs was complete wishful thinking.

Wednesday 30 July 2008

The frightfully good pub guide

Over the years, I’ve dipped into the Good Pub Guide in bookshops or in pubs, but I’ve never actually owned a copy since the first edition from 1983. However, I’ve just acquired a recent edition via eBay. A more detailed read confirmed my impression that it very much majors on a certain type of independently-run, rural, food-oriented establishment. It’s very much “nice pubs for middle-class people”. There’s the odd example of a more down-to-earth style of pub thrown in, but they’re in a small minority. Rather more feature in the “Lucky Dip” readers’ recommendations section, including Stockport favourites such as the Armoury and Blossoms, but as many of these have not actually been inspected by anyone you have to take them with a pinch of salt. And even the Arden Arms, which you might have thought ticked enough boxes to merit a full entry, is just a Lucky Dip too.

To me, a good pub has to be somewhere that actually functions as a pub, and is a social centre, not just an eating house. Some of the Good Pub Guide entries qualify, but all too many don’t. While it undoubtedly meets a demand, and is very popular, I can’t see that I will be making it a regular purchase. And to make it worse, the intolerant, snooty sods were advocating the smoking ban too – yet more proof of their failure to give any recognition to working-class pubs.

Monday 28 July 2008

The mark of Cain

I see that Cain’s brewery are in trouble with the taxman. I can’t say I’m entirely surprised, as the Dusanj brothers always gave off a slight whiff of sharp practice, and their takeover of Honeycombe Leisure last year seems to have over-extended the company. I never really much rated their beers, either.

Still, at least the Independent Family Brewers of Britain now seem justified in refusing them admission. I never saw this as racist - it was simply that the owners of Cain’s didn’t get the point.

Labels and smears

There has recently been a scare story in the press about the poor take-up of the voluntary scheme on unit labelling of alcoholic drinks. However, as this report points out, this analysis has been based on a fundamental misconception, as it has taken no account of the market share of the products concerned. It may be that less than 50% of the products on sale have the correct labels, but those that do account for 90% of packs actually sold. And is it really a problem if a few packs of obscure, small-volume imported beers and wines don’t have the labels anyway? Indeed, if every single pack has to carry these labels it could be regarded as a restraint of trade.

On a similar theme, there was a report that significant numbers of under-age people were being served in pubs and bars - but, astonishingly, this was based purely on whether people superficially looked under 18, without any attempt to confirm their age or indeed whether they were drinking alcohol. It is extremely dangerous to base public policy on such dubious hearsay evidence.

Tuesday 15 July 2008

You saw it here first!

A couple of months ago I made a post querying the claim of Stella Artois to be brewed from pure ingredients because amongst its four ingredients was maize.

I suggested: Maybe the likes of Beck's should get in with a campaign saying “Only four ingredients - barley, hops, yeast and water”.

Now guess what I saw in a local pub tonight – an advert for Beck’s Vier saying “Only four ingredients – water, malted barley, hops and yeast”! Perhaps I should be claiming royalties.

Given that it is brewed in Germany according to the Reinheitsgebot purity law, Beck’s Vier, while obviously not a cask beer, is one of the more acceptable non-real products to be widely available on draught.

Fixing the market

Given that the government are so keen to reduce the prevalence of smoking, you wouldn’t expect them to be too bothered about keeping the price of fags down. So it is rather surprising that this price-fixing case was pursued with so much vigour. Wouldn’t they argue that there is no real benefit to consumers from lower prices as it would simply encourage them to smoke more?

In reality, of course, the ban on tobacco advertising in itself represents a form of price fixing, as it makes it very difficult for consumers to compare prices between outlets, and prevents manufacturers promoting brands on the basis of price. The effect of this ban is to protect the market position of established manufacturers, save them money on advertising and erect an insurmountable barrier to entry to the industry. It is the consumers who suffer, not the manufacturers.

Friday 4 July 2008

The 4% solution?

I see that InBev are planning to launch a 4% ABV version of Stella Artois in the UK. Obviously this is an indication that Peeterman, the existing 4% little brother to Stella, has proved a failure.

On the face of it, this seems like diluting the brand, although given full-strength Stella’s nickname of “wife-beater” it’s questionable how much reputation there is left to dilute.

There can be no doubt, though, that the “standard lager” category is one of the dullest and most jaded in the entire drinks market, so you can understand the brewers’ desire to stimulate interest in it. Brands such as Carling and Foster’s are looking very tired nowadays.

A few years ago I was in a pub in the Midlands and saw five working-class, middle-aged blokes in succession come in and order a pint of Carling each. This really underlined how standard lager has usurped the position of “ordinary” bitter as the default choice for the undiscerning, non trend conscious drinker. In contrast, more and more, those choosing lower gravity cask beers will be offered an ever changing variety of products and will take an active interest in what they’re drinking.

Unhappy birthday

An excellent piece here by Pete Robinson marking the first anniversary of the smoking ban.

Tuesday 1 July 2008

The delusion of appeasement

After having shown some positive signs of actually being prepared to stand up for the rights of adults to drink alcohol responsibly, CAMRA now seems to have slid back into the delusion that appeasing the anti-alcohol lobby might prove beneficial to pubs. Now, I’m not particularly bothered about 35p a unit minimum pricing, but it is wishful thinking to believe that if you make off-trade drinks a bit more expensive it will actually tempt people back into pubs, where it will still be much dearer.

And I was dismayed to see even qualified support being given in the leader column of July’s What’s Brewing to the Scottish proposal to raise the minimum purchase age in the off-trade to 21. Now that’s going to look really good when you’re trying to recruit young people, isn’t it?

Historically, the anti-alcohol lobby have tended to turn their spotlight on pubs and give the off-trade a relatively easy ride. The fact that the off-trade has now become an easy target does not mean that they have become any more convinced about the desirability of pubs. In reality, they loathe both with a vengeance and are happy to do anything that will restrict the ability of adults to drink alcohol, full stop.

An ever more selective appeal

Yet more evidence, if it were needed, of the catastrophic decline in the pub trade following the smoking ban, with on-trade beer volumes having fallen by 8% in the nine months post-ban. And apparently we are likely to see a further 6,000 pubs closing over the next five years. As famously stated in Spinal Tap, it’s not that pubs are becoming less popular, it’s just that their appeal is becoming more selective by the day.

Monday 16 June 2008

Here comes Prohibition

Potentially the greatest restriction of the freedoms of drinkers we have seen so far in this country is the proposal by the Scottish government to restrict off-sales to over-21s. As alcohol is a legal product, and 18 is regarded as the age of majority for pretty much all practical purposes, this move is utterly abhorrent in terms of civil liberties. You will be able to marry, drive a car, vote, become an MP and fight for your country, but not to buy a bottle of beer or wine.

Even on a practical level, it is unlikely that it will solve the problems it is claimed to address. Rather it will simply drive them underground and transfer the trade from legitimate outlets to black marketeers. Partial prohibition has never worked in the past and will not work here.

Such a ban is likely to be a major disincentive to studying at Scottish universities. And, unless possession of alcoholic drinks is also made illegal, how are the authorities to know if stocks in student flats have been obtained legally or not? Are they going to be carrying out raids demanding receipts? You can imagine any English students returning back from weekends at home with cars laden down with drink. Or are they going to set up Customs checkpoints too and ban the importation of alcohol for personal use? The ban will make obtaining alcohol for consumption at home appear a far more fun and glamorous activity.

I also foresee that very many over-21s will see this law as wholly unreasonable and have no compunction about buying alcohol on behalf of their younger friends.

The worry, of course, is that if this happens in Scotland it is likely to spread south of the border…

Saturday 14 June 2008

Breeding intolerance

There seems to be something about the smoking ban that encourages intolerance between pub users. Perhaps it is because it panders to the regrettable British tradition of kicking a man when he’s down. I have mentioned before the ludicrous complaint that smokers, having already been excluded from the pub, should be prevented from using the beer garden. However, this is thoroughly trumped by this tale of rank bigotry.

Friday 13 June 2008

The locust years

More depressing news, that over 60 pubs are now closed and boarded in five East Lancashire boroughs with a high proportion of small, wet-led street-corner locals. This underlines the devastation of the pub trade that those who don’t venture beyond town centres and leafy suburbs fail to see.

Tuesday 10 June 2008

Smoke ban hits pub trade shock!

According to a survey by Deloitte, 20% of adults now visit pubs less often following the smoking ban. I suspect any licensee could have told you that for free, but even so - when some smoke ban apologists remain in a state of denial - it’s useful to have confirmation of the bleeding obvious from a reputable source.

Standing up at last

The recent CAMRA National Conference decided to set up a Task Group with the remit to “research and build extensive evidence on the importance of community pubs and real ale to the promotion of responsible drinking with the underlying principle of reinforcing the rights of adults to enjoy alcohol responsibly” (my bold). This is potentially one of the most important developments in the history of the Campaign. I have argued in the past that CAMRA has dragged its feet on this issue, seeing the big brewers as the main enemy and indeed occasionally even misguidedly making common cause with anti-drink campaigners in fighting them. However, it has become increasingly clear that the major enemies of pubs and drinkers are now the government and neo-prohibitionist lobby groups.

There is a pressing need for a body not associated with the alcohol industry to stand up for the rights of people to drink alcohol responsibly, and to counter the exaggerated health scares that have been bandied about. Hopefully in the coming years this will become a major plank of CAMRA’s campaigning and take priority over all this irrelevant left-wing nonsense about public transport and beer miles.

Friday 23 May 2008

Smoked out

Someone complained to me that he had gone out into the rather limited outdoor drinking area of one particular pub and found it full of smokers. Now I couldn’t help thinking he was really talking to the wrong person, but this was something that was always going to be an inevitable consequence of the smoking ban. If they’re not allowed to smoke indoors, where else are they supposed to go?

If you don’t like the situation, then the best thing to do would be to campaign for the ban to be reversed so the smokers can have their own room inside - where they would prefer to be anyway - and those who enjoy fresh air can go outside. It also underlines the point that I made before the ban that it could not be regarded as a final settlement and there would inevitably be pressure for further restrictions on smoking - and thus further erosion of the trade of pubs.

The tipping point

This is an interesting report on comments by the chief executive of Mitchells & Butlers in which he says we have now reached a tipping point in terms of value for money between the on and off-trade. Up to a point, people have been prepared to pay more in the on-trade for atmosphere and conviviality - and, for some, the availability of cask beer - but the latest duty hike combined with the economic downturn are likely to push many drinkers over the edge. Already, much of the serious session drinking that used to take place in pubs has moved to private homes (and has also by and large moved from draught bitter to canned premium lagers).

Now, even ordinary social drinking is being called into question when in many outlets just a couple of pints will set you back over a fiver. I’m not exactly on the breadline, yet I do wonder where some of the people who seem to be in pubs most nights of the week get the money from. This is yet another factor that raises serious doubts over the long-term prospects for the wet trade in pubs. Maybe operators will have to realise that the days of year-on-year above inflation price rises are over, and they need to look at shifting many outlets to more of a “value proposition” along the lines of Samuel Smith’s and Holts.

Friday 9 May 2008

Slipped differential

Not so long ago, it was axiomatic that beer prices in the South-East tended to be at least 50p a pint more than those around here. But recently, I’ve noticed the gap narrowing and even closing altogether. Many pubs in this area, especially those in the more affluent parts, seem to have put through inflation-busting rises that have resulted in £2.40 for a pint of ordinary bitter being commonplace. Yet recently I spent a few days in Buckinghamshire in and around Aylesbury, and found prices generally in the £2.50-£2.60 region. Indeed I encountered the premium Old Hooky in a fairly smart pub at a bargain £2.25, which you would be unlikely to find in a similar pub here. Price differentials now seem to have more to do with the perceived social status of the establishment than with geographical area.


I see Heineken are now looking at introducing 24 oz glasses so they can serve their beer with a “genuine Continental head”. It would be ironic, given all CAMRA’s futile campaigning on the subject, if the impetus for a revival of oversize glasses came not from the real ale sector but from lager.

Monday 5 May 2008

It includes what?

I see that Stella Artois is now being advertised with the slogan "Only four ingredients - barley, hops, maize and water".


Now, I'm not one to argue that only all-malt beers are worth drinking, and indeed many of the finest British ales include brewing sugars. However, you would think that if they included an inferior substitute ingredient in the mash they wouldn't be so keen to shout it from the rooftops.

And whatever happened to yeast?

Maybe the likes of Beck's should get in with a campaign saying "Only four ingredients - barley, hops, yeast and water".

Tuesday 22 April 2008

Smoking licences petition

Well, it's only a modest proposal, and falls far short of the complete repeal of the public smoking ban which I would advocate. But anything that undermines this obnoxious and intolerant piece of legislation must be good, so please sign this petition to allow pubs and clubs to apply for smoking licences.

Monday 21 April 2008

Bouncing downhill

I can’t help thinking that this article entitled Cask Ale Bouncing Back represents a large dose of special pleading. The overall market for beer is contracting, and within that market there is a continuing shift from drinking in the pub to drinking at home. There is less cask beer being drunk now than at any time in the lifetime of CAMRA. A rising share of a rapidly declining market is scant cause for celebration.

Yes, some smaller brewers are seeing substantial rises in sales, but most of that is simply due to the big boys largely vacating the cask segment, and in terms of the total beer market it is a drop in the ocean. Major regionals such as Robinson’s are seeing less beer sold through their own pubs than there has been in a generation. And the tidal wave of pub closures does not exactly bode well for a healthy future for cask. Indeed it is fast becoming no more than a niche product.

Thursday 17 April 2008

Feeling the draught

On occasions, such as family social gatherings, I have tried canned versions of premium beers such as Abbot Ale. However, compared with bottles they are always disappointingly lacking in condition. These are not the “draughtflow” beers containing a “widget” (which in my experience always taste like foamy dishwater) but it seems the manufacturers deliberately make them less gassy to try to replicate the feel of handpulled beer in the pub. However, all they succeed in doing is producing something that is just, well, flat.

Interestingly, non-widget cans of ordinary bitters such as Tetley’s do not share this characteristic and so, despite their inherent limitations, are actually more palatable. In general it’s best to stick to bottles, though - cans of ale may be cheaper, but theyre a false economy.

Friday 11 April 2008

The revolution has been cancelled

Yum, yet another post about food!

In many ways I’m a staunch defender of the traditions of the English public house, but I would not lift a finger to defend traditional English cooking. All that gristly meat, thick gravy, soggy masses of spuds and veg and stodgy puddings blighted my childhood.

But salvation was at hand in the form of Mediterranean and Oriental cuisine, which typically offered a much lighter style of dish with more clearly defined ingredients, using pasta, rice and couscous as carbohydrate in place of the dreaded spuds, and an escape from the dreary “meat and two veg” style of presentation.

This has been taken up enthusiastically by the restaurant trade, so in any large town you will find a wide variety of establishments offering distinctive cuisines from around the world. But pubs have been much more cautious and half-hearted, and in general only gave a grudging nod towards this food revolution.

We have ended up with a situation where even supposedly up-market pubs offer a predictable menu of generic “pub grub” which reluctantly embraces the “exotic” dimension by including a poor-quality lasagne and a rubbish curry. On at least two occasions I have eaten curries in supposedly highly-regarded pubs that gave the impression that the people preparing them had never encountered an actual curry in an Indian restaurant in their lives.

The situation has been made worse by the “Jamie Oliver” approach which seems to dismiss much innovative international cooking as “junk food” and represents a depressingly successful attempt to rehabilitate the traditional English muck.

I have to say I increasingly avoid eating full meals in pubs as the food is so often second-rate and lacking in authenticity. As said in the previous post, I’d prefer it if pubs took a step back from the food trade and left destination dining to specialist restaurants. But, if pubs are to concentrate heavily on food, wouldn't it be better to specialise much more, so that one offered genuinely good Italian cuisine, another Chinese, another Mexican etc, rather than the “Jack of all trades, master of none” menus typically found at present?

Thursday 10 April 2008

Separate ways

While we are often told that food has been the saviour of the pub trade, I am more and more coming to believe that it has ruined it. The original purpose of a pub was a place where people could meet and socialise over a few drinks. If they wanted a sit-down meal outside the house, they would go to a café or restaurant. Back when I started drinking in the 1970s, this remained very much the case. Many pubs served food, but it was generally very much a sideline and often confined to sandwiches and snacks. Looking back, it is surprising how many of the high-profile rural destination pubs did not serve evening food at all.

In the mid-1980s, my local pub offered no food on Sunday lunchtimes, and was packed throughout the two-hour session from 12 to 2. Now it’s open all day, majors on set Sunday lunches, and sees fewer customers overall and certainly far fewer casual drinkers.

More and more, pubs have expanded their food trade in an attempt to develop their business. In the process they have encroached on the territory of dedicated restaurants and increasingly sacrificed their original character as pubs. We are left with a strange hybrid kind of business that may superficially resemble a pub but in reality is just a second-rate dining outlet. And of course with food comes “family dining”, and places where you could once enjoy a quiet pint have become infested with howling infants.

I can’t help thinking that it would have been better if pubs and restaurants had gone their separate ways, which would leave us with much more welcoming and convivial pubs, albeit perhaps fewer in numbers, and a better everyday dining experience too. This, of course, is something that remains the situation in many Continental countries.

As Ive said before, it’s an increasingly rare experience, and one that is to be savoured, to come across a proper pub ticking over nicely and doing what its supposed to.

Friday 4 April 2008

A pint and a half, Sir? You're nicked!

Writing in the Daily Mail, Richard Littlejohn pulls no punches in this scathing attack on the government's plans to reduce the drink-drive limit.

Monday 31 March 2008

Empty tables

So the much-vaunted advance of pub food has ground to a shuddering halt.

This is hardly surprising, really, considering the overall recession in the pub trade, but it does give the lie to the claims of the antismokers that food would take up the slack from the smoking ban. They forgot that smokers need to eat too!

It's really a subject for another post, but the dismal quality of most pub food must play a part too - although as I see my fellow citizens scoffing the most appalling muck and declaring it "lovely" you do have to wonder whether they would appreciate better quality even if put on a plate in front on them.

Saturday 29 March 2008

The death of the pub draws nigh

According to today's Daily Mail, the government are set on reducing the drink-drive limit. This will mean the end of the country pub and effectively cut pubs back to a small rump in urban centres.

After dealing grievous blows to the pub trade through the smoking ban, the hysterical campaign against "binge-drinking", and the savage increase in beer duty, New Labour are obviously intent on finishing the job.

No fun any more

I was thinking the other day how I drink markedly more at home and less in pubs than I did ten or twenty years ago, something that must be reflected in many other people’s drinking patterns. It struck me how going to be pub was, overall, much less enjoyable and interesting than it used to be. There are exceptions, of course, but they are becoming ever rarer.

I came up with the following list of reasons as to why this should be:

  • Reduction of the territoriality of beer distribution, so that there is much less sense of discovery in visiting different areas
  • The growing compartmentalisation of the pub market - there are far fewer “all-purpose” pubs
  • Domination of food in more and more pubs
  • The general admission of children to bar areas
  • Reduced opening hours - so many pubs now close at lunchtime
  • A large number of pubs have shut down, and a lot more have stopped selling cask beer
  • Pubs in general are less welcoming to casual callers - see my earlier piece on the demise of the casual drinker
  • Loss of pub character through refurbishments - there may be fewer grotty pubs, but so many are bland and formulaic, and are laid out more as cafés than as pubs
  • The mass closure of public toilets, so the inevitable consequences of a visit to the pub need much more careful consideration

Taking its toll

The licensed trade were widely criticised for making overly pessimistic forecasts about the effect of the smoking ban. However, new figures from Scotland show that pub closures have been running at twice the predicted level.

I wonder where all the non-smokers have gone who were supposed to be flocking to pubs post-ban!

Monday 24 March 2008

Confusion to our enemies

I don't always see eye-to-eye with Simon Heffer, as he is basically a conservative while I would regard myself as more of a libertarian, however he often talks a lot of sense, as in this piece about the effects of the rise in beer duty (you'll need to scroll down the page a bit).

But the real killer of the boozer is going to be the Government's rapacious accelerator on alcohol taxes, which, as with petrol, means they will rise faster than the rate of inflation for years ahead. It is rubbish to say this is about targeting binge-drinking louts and loutettes: it is about milking respectable people who indulge in one of life's few pleasures. Not enough has been made of this outrage in last week's Budget. The easiest response for brewers is to close pubs and concentrate their activities on supplying the anti-social supermarket trade: I, and many others who like to go to a pub, would rather they organised themselves to wage war on the Government instead. The cynicism and dishonesty of the assault on middle-class drinking habits is disgusting even by Labour's standards: toast its failure today.

Sunday 16 March 2008

The Binge Budget

What a disgusting decision by Alastair Darling, to raise beer duty by a punitive 4p a pint. This will do nothing to reduce problem drinking, and indeed will serve to shift drinking away from the controlled environment of the pub. It will also further encourage both legal cross-border shopping and smuggling. It will simply make Britain’s perceived “alcohol problem” worse.

It was good to see CAMRA making a quick and strong response, though. Maybe at last the gloves have come off. CAMRA has a strong message to put across, that the traditional community pub with a mixed clientele is the best defence against problem drinking, and it needs to push this for all it is worth, and to vigorously oppose all policy initiatives that will further undermine pubs.

Seen but not heard

Yesterday I had a trip out to Chester, and was most encouraged to come across three pubs with unequivocal "no children" signs on their doors. All three, needless to say, were buzzing, with a good, lively, adult atmosphere. There are plenty of restaurants and cafés in a city like Chester, so why parents feel the need to take children into a pub is beyond me.

Sadly today it was back to normal in the local, with a four-year-old boy shouting at the top of his voice for an hour. Even if children are admitted, in cases like this we really miss the old-style landlord who would have a quiet word in the ear to say "I'm sorry, but if your lad won't pipe down I really will have to ask you to leave."

Saturday 1 March 2008


Went in what I've always considered to be a fairly decent traditional pub today, albeit one that because of its remote rural location has always been quite food-heavy.

Sign as you go in "Please wait at the bar to be seated". Sadly, not much welcome for the casual drinker there. I had my swift half and left.

In praise of proper pubs

Excellent article here from Chris Maclean.

I have a real affection for traditional pubs. Pubs that understand their origins. Pubs that understand their role within their communities. Pubs that preserve and maintain the tradition while others seek short term gains.

Give me a proper pub where I can have a conversation with people without the blare of music in my ear or the smell of fancy food.

It is these pubs that need defending. These pubs that cannot be treated as one amorphous lump with the others.

These pubs are special and deserve not only our support but, perhaps as importantly, our respect.

Well said that man!

Tuesday 26 February 2008

So much for conventional wisdom

Interesting to see a couple of articles in the press debunking two widely-held but erroneous beliefs:

Healthy people place biggest burden on state

The brightest are the heaviest drinkers

An epidemic of nonsense

There was an excellent article in the Telegraph recently in which Charles Moore took a very sober and sceptical look at the current hysteria about the alleged ‘epidemic’ of binge-drinking.

Tuesday 5 February 2008

Bastions of tradition

In February’s Opening Times column I commented on the increasing rarity of finding a cosy, traditional pub offering a welcome to all comers that was ticking over nicely. However, they are still out there and it is very gratifying to find yourself in a pub where that kind of atmosphere prevails, as I did on two occasions over the past weekend. One of the keys to this is getting the balance right between food and wet trade. In most locations, a pub that serves no food at all will limit its appeal purely to locals and regulars, but one that is wall-to-wall diners will be devoid of any pub character.

A cause for concern, though, is that the mainstream customers of pubs seem to be getting older and older. I’m in my late forties and often in a proper pub have found myself amongst the younger customers. The next generation just don’t seem to have got into the habit of regular social pubgoing and this has worrying implications for the long-term survival of pubs.

Monday 4 February 2008

Benches pressed

Yet another local pub - the Plough in Heaton Moor - has recently been refurbished and had all the remaining bench seating stripped out in favour of free-standing chairs and tables. I’ve commented on several occasions in Opening Times how this makes interiors less pubby and sociable, and I’m at a loss to understand why designers insist on doing it. The only conclusion I can reach is that they are aiming for an ambiance that is more “restaurant” than “pub”. I have to say that all of my favourite regularly-visited pubs feature extensive bench seating.

Friday 1 February 2008

Worse than Iraq?

This week’s Spectator features one of the most coruscating attacks on the smoking ban I’ve yet seen from the ever-outspoken Rod Liddle. Make no mistake, this issue is not going away. Not sure I totally agree with him on the Iraq war, though.

Of course, one shouldn’t drop a policy simply because the pubs are having a rather hard time of it as a result. But in which case, don’t bother to pretend that they’re not, that actually there are queues all down the street consisting of shiny, happy people who wish nothing more than to drink in a new, healthy, smoke-free environment. Stop lying. Say, instead, that the smoke ban is putting pubs out of business but actually we couldn’t give a toss.

Wednesday 30 January 2008

A moderate choice

LibDem MP Greg Mulholland has been reported as seeking to require pubs and bars to offer wine in 125 ml glass sizes, as the widespread adoption of 175 ml and 250 ml glasses may lead drinkers to underestimate how much alcohol they are consuming.

This has been criticised in some quarters as a restrictive, “nanny state” measure, but as there is no suggestion that the larger measures will be banned, I would regard it as an extension of choice. Pubs would be roundly criticised if they refused to serve beer in half-pints, and a 175 ml glass of pretty much any wine contains as much alcohol as a pint of standard-strength beer. Many customers quite reasonably might not want that much, and so it makes sense to give them the option of a smaller measure.

Thursday 24 January 2008

Ten green bottles

A couple of recent pub closures in the area between Altrincham and Warrington in North Cheshire have underlined the difficulties currently facing the licensed trade. Both, by coincidence, are sometime Boddingtons tied houses next to former stations on the long-closed Altrincham to Warrington railway line.

The first is the Rope & Anchor at Dunham Woodhouses, an imposing Edwardian redbrick edifice. Maybe fifteen or twenty years ago it was smartly refurbished inside but since then seems to have gone through a variety of food-led formats that have never been conspicuously successful. It’s now firmly closed and boarded.

The other, perhaps even more worrying, is the Railway at Heatley, a multi-roomed Victorian pub that appears in the 2008 Good Beer Guide, and was probably the most traditional, cosy pub for miles around. The tenancy is advertised on Fleurets website as being available, but it has been closed for three months now and is looking increasingly neglected. You have to wonder whether either will ever reopen as pubs.

In the surrounding area there’s further evidence of pub decline. The Roebuck in the centre of Partington has finally been demolished after being closed for a number of years - just opposite the site of the King William IV, which is now a block of flats. As far as I’m aware, Partington, a rather down-at-heel village of more than 7,000 people, now has no pub at all, although there is a social club.

The Anchor on the main A56 road through Lymm closed a few years ago, and the Bleeding Wolf in leafy Hale, once one of Cheshire’s landmark pubs and home of a famous bowling club, has also given way to flats. There is no shortage of spending power or potential customers in Hale - it is just that commercial redevelopment is far more lucrative than continued trading as a pub in a gently declining market.

This is a prosperous area near to major centres of population, so if proper pubs are struggling for viability here it is a worrying portent for the country as a whole.

Tuesday 22 January 2008

Back street hero?

It’s rare indeed nowadays for a new pub to open (as opposed to a café-bar) but one that has near me is the Penny Black in Cheadle Hulme, a prosperous suburban shopping centre about four miles from Stockport town centre. It is a “Smith and Jones” branded pub owned by the Barracuda Group. What is striking about this pub is its location, in a former postal sorting office down what can only be described as a service road behind a parade of shops. It isn’t visible from the main road, so nobody would go there unless they knew it was there, and, lacking a car park, it clearly isn’t intended to appeal to the destination dining market. It almost seems to be a modern reincarnation of the back street pub.

In fact it’s hard to see the rationale for this pub at all, but early reports are that it’s doing a roaring trade. The reason, I guess, is that Cheadle Hulme has become something of a “drinking circuit” and Barracuda are cashing in on the height of the boom but accepting a sub-prime location. Fashions change, though, and as the wet-led pub trade withers away in the next few years I can all too easily see it being put in the category of “return to sender”.

Edit 11/04/08: I’ve heard numerous reports that the Penny Black has been a regular scene of trouble. I can’t say I’m surprised.

Edit 05/01/12: And it's now reported that the Penny Black, more recently renamed the "Sozzled Sausage" (sic), has now closed its doors for good. I think I've been proved right there.

Shock news!

Well I never! Here’s another prize-winning piece of research from the Department of the Bleeding Obvious - men drink more than women.

I wonder how much people were paid for coming up with that particular piece of searing insight.

Friday 18 January 2008

Demise of the casual drinker

A phrase that often crops up in older pub guides is “the casual drinker” - which I interpret as meaning a person, or a group of people, who visit a pub where they are not regulars, with the intention of just having one or more drinks, and specifically not to eat a meal.

At one time this pattern of drinking was a mainstay of the pub trade, and going to a new or rarely visited pub just to try it out was commonplace among groups of friends, while an inviting pub door often beckoned you in for the proverbial “swift half”.

Yet a variety of factors have combined against it - official messages have increasingly promoted the idea that any drinking whatsoever does not mix with responsible activity, many pubs have closed down, the licensed trade has become increasingly diverse and fragmented, making pubs less welcoming to all comers, more and more pubs have effectively become restaurants where those who just want a drink attract funny looks, and an “all or nothing” attitude to drinking has prevailed.

And as casual drinking becomes less and less common, those still in the habit of popping into strange pubs just for a quick pint or two begin to stand out, and may well feel out of place. Yet in my experience the serendipity of casual drinking has often been one of the most enjoyable aspects of pubgoing.

Possibly Wetherspoon’s pubs, whose size and high throughput allow a degree of anonymity, are one of the last havens of the casual drinker - but of course those are only found in urban centres. Try ordering a round of pints in a Chef & Brewer and showing no interest in the menu and you will stick out like a sore thumb.