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.