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 The result was that the conventional pub menus in their managed houses had been replaced by new menus predominantly featuring pies of various kinds, something which had not gone down too well in the leafier parts of Cheshire.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.