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.