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.

Apocalypse now

Some very pointed, but sadly all too true, comments here from Pete Robinson about the depressingly high number of pub closures taking place at the moment. This is happening all over the country, yet, as he says, the national media have so far been surprisingly quiet about it – possibly because few commentators get a view of the trade outside a limited number of areas they regularly visit.

Obviously there are a number of factors at work here, including:

(a) the wet summer
(b) the economic downturn
(c) negative publicity about “binge drinking”
(d) the unrealistic expectations of pub companies

However, there can be little doubt that the smoking ban is what has pushed many once-thriving pubs over the cliff.

It has now gone way beyond just a few marginal or struggling pubs closing their doors. At the current rate of attrition, the pattern of licensed trade that we have been familiar with for thirty years will before too long be a thing of the past.

Friday 11 January 2008

Brown barred

Interesting report here that 105 Yorkshire pubs have decided to ban the Prime Minister from their premises in protest against the effects of the smoking ban. Whatever the government may have hoped, this issue just is not going away. It’s doubtful whether our gloomy PM will be too much inconvenienced personally as he gives the impression of never having enjoyed a night in the pub in his life.

Friday 4 January 2008

Two drinks and you’re out?

It’s been widely reported today that Wetherspoon’s are applying a policy of allowing adults accompanying children to have a maximum of two alcoholic drinks. At first sight this appeared to be another example of political correctness gone mad, implying that anyone having a third drink is an unfit parent.

But, in reality, it makes a lot of sense. Wetherspoon’s only admit children if both the child and the accompanying adult are having a meal, and understandably they don’t want family groups lingering for prolonged drinking sessions. It would be a good thing if more pub operators took the view that they were not running licensed crèches.