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beer market, the cask sector seems to have dropped off the media radar as it is seen as terminally unfashionable and outdated.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 rĂ©gime 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.