Thursday 31 December 2009

Don't call time on historic pubs

Writing in the Guardian, Simon Davies says that the government should be doing much more to preserve the interiors of pubs. While there is a good case for listing the interiors of pubs that appear on CAMRA’s National Inventory, whether as whole interiors or as part survivals, beyond that the survival of pubs must be a matter of commercial viability. I like pubs with a sense of tradition and history, but I recognize that pubs can’t be preserved in aspic if they can’t attract customers. And, as many commenters point out, the government itself is the chief villain in making profitable pubs unviable at the stroke of a pen. Davies says:

It is time for political parties to take action to preserve what is left of the pub heritage. To hell with the idea that we shouldn't stand in the way of progress. I want future generations to stand in a grotty pool room and sniff the air that Johnny Rotten smelled when he changed history.
Oh the irony!

Home drinkers can’t count

The latest piece of festive joy from the Righteous is a warning that people drinking at home are pouring themselves measures much larger than the official “units” and thus underestimating their alcohol consumption.

Most people who drink spirits at home pour well over what they would get in a pub when trying to give a single measure, figures suggest.

The government's Know Your Limits Campaign found that among 600 people tested, the average amount poured was 38ml, compared with a standard 25ml.

Those aged 31 to 50 - the most generous pourers - gave an average of 57ml.

For a person thinking they were drinking 7.5 units a week, the extra measures would equate to 17 units...

…When asked to pour the equivalent of one unit into a large (250ml) wine glass, the average amount poured was 157ml - almost exactly twice the correct amount of 76.25ml.

In a smaller wine glass (175ml), it was 131ml, which is still 55ml more than the correct standard measure.

Surely the real reason for this is not ignorance but the fact that people couldn’t give a toss about the made-up official guidelines and their teeny units. And does anyone really think that 25 ml of spirits or 76ml of wine represents an acceptable or satisfying drink?

Tuesday 29 December 2009

The drinkers of Britain have murmured

Back in September, Emily Ryans of CAMRA created a very laudable petition on the Number 10 website saying:

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to reject proposals from the British Medical Association to vastly increase taxes on alcohol and restrict pub opening hours; and to protect the interests of the responsible, sensible majority of moderate drinkers.
What drinker or pubgoer could object to that? Yet it only achieved 2,824 signatures. When we consider that CAMRA has over 100,000 members, at least half of whom must be Internet-literate, that is frankly pathetic. It was given a certain amount of publicity in What’s Brewing, but it never appeared on the front page with a direct link to the web page.

The proposition in the petition was entirely reasonable and moderate and did not challenge any of CAMRA’s shibboleths. But it’s hard to escape the conclusion that far too many members are still preoccupied by tilting against the windmills of Lager, The Supermarkets, The Tie, The Pub Companies and The Keg Menace and completely fail to appreciate the existential threat to every single thing they hold dear.

Monday 28 December 2009

Any bets on a pub revival?

There have been various comments in the beer blogosphere suggesting that we are likely to see a revival in the pub trade in 2010. This one by Paul Garrard is one example – I’m sure I’ve seen a similar one by Tandleman, but I can’t locate it at present. Locally we have seen high-profile reopenings of the Magnet in Stockport and the Black Lion in Salford. However, I have to say I think this is all dust in the wind – we may see a few more optimistic reopenings in 2010, but on balance we will continue to see closures vastly outnumbering openings. But you can give your opinion in the poll.

More or less going to the pub

I recently concluded a poll asking the question: “Do you visit pubs more or less often since 1 July 2007?” There were 73 responses, broken down as follows:

I didn’t go to pubs before but have now started: 1 (1%)
Much more often: 10 (14%)
A little more often: 10 (14%)
About the same: 11 (15%)
A little less often: 2 (3%)
Much less often: 29 (39%)
I have completely stopped going to pubs: 8 (11%)
I never went to pubs before or after: 2 (3%)

Quite a wide divergence of opinion there, whereas I suspect a real-world poll of a representative selection of drinkers would cluster much more strongly around the options of “about the same” and “a little less often”. As we know, the smoking ban is an issue that arouses strong feelings and many responses on both sides may have had something of an axe to grind. But it is notable that by far the largest single group was those who said “much less often”, and combined with those who said “I have completely stopped going to pubs” they account for over 50% of the total of respondents. So it’s hardly surprising that so many pubs have closed, and so many of those that remain are visibly struggling. For what it’s worth, I was one of only two who said “a little less often”.

Sunday 27 December 2009

Enter your high score here

I had to raise a smile at the latest example of the unintended consequences of Righteous initiatives. The NHS have launched an iPhone “app” which lets users enter details of the alcoholic drinks they have consumed and then warns them if they are exceeding “safe” levels. However,

within days of the tracker being released it was being described on the internet as an “awesome game” and users were boasting about trying to beat their “top score”.
Now who could have ever guessed that would happen?

It’s on a par with those roadside signs that light up saying “Your speed is 36 mph” which inevitably acted as an invitation to the local yoofs to see who could record the highest speed.

Wednesday 23 December 2009

Bah Humbug!

Good to see the spirit of joy and goodwill to all men is alive and well this Christmas:

Snow-trapped cars abandoned at pub are wheel-clamped

Festive wine list branded as irresponsible

A Merry Christmas to all blog readers, and make sure you don’t exceed four units of alcohol even on Christmas Day, as you know how harmful it can be.

Tuesday 22 December 2009

Minimum effectiveness

From the school of I could have told you so, a report by Wilson Drinks Research says that a minimum price of 50p per unit of alcohol would be unlikely to affect overall consumption. Only one in five adult drinkers in the UK said they would buy less alcohol and spend the same amount they do now, while more than half of those responding to the survey said they would either spend more on the same amount of drink or look for cheaper drink alternatives.

Interestingly, given that such a measure has been most strongly advocated in the country, “Scottish drinkers were the most likely (35 per cent) to take the hit on pricing and continue to drink the same amount should minimum pricing be introduced.”

Of course, if you jacked the minimum price up high enough, it would start to affect overall consumption, but I suspect we would be looking at the £20 bottle of whisky and £1.50 can of cooking lager before that started to happen to any significant degree. Well before then, ordinary middle-of-the-road drinkers would have started to realise that a measure claimed to be targeting cash-strapped problem drinkers was actually hitting them hard in the pocket. And of course there would be all the inevitable unintended consequences such as a rise in smuggling and the growth of illicit distilling and home brewing for resale.

Thursday 17 December 2009

Starting them early

Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson has announced that he is going to step down in the middle of next year. For many, of course, that couldn’t come a day too soon. Today he’s come out with another load of prohibitionist nonsense suggesting that parents giving their children alcohol is likely to encourage binge drinking in later life. Once again, as I pointed out back in January, he completely fails to make the distinction between irresponsible parents who couldn’t care less about what their children are doing, and responsible parents who introduce their children to alcohol in a controlled and supervised manner.

I am not David Cameron’s greatest fan, but surely he was right with this last year:
The Tory leader said his friends with the biggest alcohol problems were those who were ‘never allowed to drink anything at home’.

Those who had been allowed small amounts to drink at mealtimes were now the most responsible drinkers, he said.

Even Sir Ian Gilmore, who normally sings in harmony with Fat Liam, conceded that:
We know that adults who drink sensibly tend to pass these habits on and that some families choose to introduce alcohol to their children younger than 15 in a supportive environment.
The worry, of course, is that what is “guidance” today gets the force of law tomorrow, with children being put into care and their parents arrested for daring to give them a small glass of shandy with their Sunday lunch.

Raedwald very effectively dismisses Donaldson as someone suffering from a crazed compulsion about stopping other people drinking alcohol:
The one consolation with cranks like Donaldson is that they can quickly take up novel obsessions; perhaps convincing the French that eating cheese is bad, or advocating the health benefits of the German habit of walking about naked once you reach forty years of age. Perhaps all of these together; a shrill, naked little man prancing about opposite Parliament waving a 'No cheese, No wine' placard. That will get you taken seriously, Liam.
Edit: I’ve just spotted another good article on the same theme in today’s Telegraph by Cassandra Jardine: Why I will let my children drink alcohol. This reinforces the point made above:
My children all say that the thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds most likely to be found heading to the park with alcopops concealed in plastic bags, are those who come from homes where there is total prohibition.

Tuesday 15 December 2009

Gone but not forgotten

Earlier this year I made a post noting the sad loss of most of the pubs on the main road between Ashton-under-Lyne and Oldham, which provoked an oddly poetic comment about the decline of the Ashton pub scene.

This is now starkly underlined by Steve Gwilt in the latest issue of Opening Times, in an article entitled Gone but not forgotten... Ashton-under-Lyne, a study in misery for the drinker. (Warning, it’s a big .pdf, and you’ll need to scroll down to Page 16).

More than one in three pubs in existence in the town fifteen years ago have now closed, he says, and the situation is much the same in many of the Manchester satellite towns, although Stockport has not suffered quite so badly. He writes:
Out west, the credit crunch, the smoking ban, town centre redevelopment and the changing demographics have done for several pubs.
And his conclusion is a reproach to anyone who still goes on about the reason pubs are closing is that they’re crap:
And yet I’ve always admired those down to earth staunchly working class locals and Ashton had many. Places doing what they’ve done for a century or more – being the heart of a local community and helping dull the pain of the day to day miseries we all face. Of course these pubs are much the better if they have some architectural merit; and much more palatable if they sell real ale. But even a cold leaking shack dispensing chemical lager to a band of dedicated locals should have its place in our communities. No food, and no frills and no beer mats laying down the law and selling healthy lifestyles either. But these pubs are slipping away and part of our history is going with them.

More than one in every three pubs we had in Ashton 15 years ago is gone, and many of those that remain are up for sale or to let. Now you might disagree with me that these pubs are worth saving. But too often in Opening Times I see remarks such as “good riddance” when a non-real ale pub closes for the last time. Yet it is these ordinary pubs that form an established network of community locals – with their darts teams and pool tables, their dominoes, cards and quizzes and yes, their keg beers too. They are the fabric of our communities and we should do all in our power to support them – real ale or not.

A “bad” pub can always be turned into a “good” pub. A demolished or de-licensed pub is lost forever – like the nearly 40 pubs of Ashton you won’t find today.

The same issue of Opening Times also contains the write-up (on Page 9) of the pub crawl of Stockport Market Place that I referred to here – so those who don’t know can find out my real name.

Taking the rough with the smooth

There was a lot of discussion in the beer blogosphere the other week about innovation in the beer market. Surely one of the biggest innovations of recent years, albeit one not to the taste of cask ale fans, is the establishment of smooth beers as a distinct market category in their own right.

If we go back twenty years to 1990, the draught beer market was (very crudely) divided into “bitter” and “lager” (OK, with a few pockets of mild too). All the lager was keg, whereas the bitter was divided between real and keg. The real ale drinker knew the difference, but most of the bitter drinkers neither knew nor cared. In any case, a lot of real ale, especially in the North-West and the Midlands, was still served by electric pumps so it wasn’t obvious at the point of sale whether or not it was real.

But then Bass in Ireland dreamed up Caffrey’s, a sweet, copper-coloured ale dispensed by the same nitrogen system used for Guinness, which produced a much smoother (some would say almost soapy) and less fizzy beer than traditional kegs. For a brief period, this took the beer market by storm, and other brewers inevitably followed suit with their own version of what were then called “smoothflow” beers. A new market category had been created, which some people started deliberately looking for when they went in pubs.

You hardly see Caffrey’s any more, and the lasting winner has proved to be John Smith’s Extra Smooth, which surely now must be the biggest selling ale brand in the on-trade by some margin. Earlier this year I saw it on the bar of a tied house in Sussex alongside one of the finest “ordinary” bitters in the country, Harvey’s Sussex Best. Despite this, it was still attracting a number of customers.

One of my worst predictions was suggesting that I didn’t think our local independent family brewers would have any truck with smooth, whereas of course it wasn’t too long before they all did. You will now see fonts for both pale and dark versions prominently positioned on the bars of many Holts, Hydes and Robinsons pubs. In hindsight, that particular column was spectacularly wrong in every way.

In 1990, you wouldn’t really get anyone who would describe themselves as “a keg drinker”, but nowadays there are plenty of people who would say their beer of choice was “smooth”. In a sense this change gives cask a clearer profile, with more people choosing it specifically because it is cask rather than just generic “bitter”, but on the other hand it has led to it losing market share and disappearing from a lot of pubs.

Sunday 13 December 2009

A crisp deal

As the tide of bansturbation spreads across our once pleasant land, it opens up surprising opportunities for keen-sighted entrepreneurs. Create a shortage, create a demand. 12-year-old Joel Bradley was caught allegedly selling a packet of Discos in a Liverpool secondary school at a marked-up price of 50p. No doubt he has a bright future ahead of him in business.

It is a sad commentary on the state of our nation that the humble crisp should be banned in the first place.

Have you been drinking, Sir?

And, if you feel reasonably confident of passing a breath test, the answer tends to be “just the one”.

I recently concluded a poll asking the question “How many times have you been breath tested in your driving career?” There were 60 responses, and the results were:

Never: 23 (38%)
Once: 18 (30%)
Twice: 7 (12%)
3-5 times: 3 (5%)
6-10 times: 1 (2%)
More than 10 times: 1 (2%)
I have never held a driving licence: 7 (11%)

I was really asking this out of interest rather than trying to make any particular point. Obviously the likelihood of anyone being breath tested depends both on how long they have been driving and the pattern of journeys they make. I would imagine anyone routinely driving in suburban and urban fringe areas late on Friday and Saturday nights would have experienced more than one test.

While I am certainly not an advocate of large-scale random breath testing, there is no doubt that having been tested, or knowing a friend who has been, is an effective deterrent to drink-drive offending, and the widespread replacement of traffic police with speed cameras may in a sense have given a green light to offenders. But, given that most drivers rarely or never experience a test, it calls into question what safety benefit a lower limit would bring. If you just blend into the general flow of traffic, your chances of being pulled up are miniscule. Of course, though, the situation in which you are most likely to be tested is having just driven out of a pub car park.

For what it’s worth, I have held a driving licence since November 1976. Since then, I have driven more than 350,000 miles, and have been breath tested just once, almost exactly twenty years ago, in precisely the circumstances described above, having just pulled out of a pub car park in an urban fringe area at about 8.30 pm. I had had a drink, but an amount that I believed would leave me well below the legal limit, which the test confirmed.

Wednesday 9 December 2009

Who are you working for?

On the day when Alastair Darling, not surprisingly, confirmed that he was not going to cut beer duty when VAT went back up to 17½%, thus effectively imposing a stealth increase of 8%, it’s a sobering thought that the beer and pub industry makes five times more money for the government than it does for brewers and pub companies.

Oxford Economics conducted a study for the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) that compared the Government’s tax take on beer with the profits made by brewing and pub sector sales.

The study showed that the total taxes, including excise, VAT employment and corporation taxes, raised by the Government from beer sales totals £7.2bn. The profits made by brewing and the pub sector amounted to just £1.4bn.

The total UK beer market generates £19bn. The Government takes 84% of the £8.6bn total tax and profit generated by beer sales.

That makes all the hard work by licensees seem really worthwhile.

Edit: I see that Irish finance minister Brian Lenihan has actually cut alcohol duties in an otherwise hard-hitting austerity budget.

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Don’t call me stupid

“What’s the matter, lagerboy?” goes the Hobgoblin advert, “Afraid you might taste something?” Well, actually he probably is, possibly something along the lines of vinegar or yeast.

It has long been an article of faith amongst many in CAMRA that people only drink keg beers and lagers because they have been taken in by advertising and promotion into believing that these products are desirable, and they need to be educated into seeing the light and switching to the proper stuff. But surely that view is very disrespectful of the judgment of most beer drinkers, and if you’re trying to change someone’s mind you’re off to a bad start if you call them stupid.

Most people who drink beer are not really particularly interested in the subject, and tend to drink the same brew or a limited range rather than constantly experimenting. To them, it makes sense to choose something familiar and consistent from what they perceive as a reputable source. They want it to be refreshing, to lubricate their socialising with friends and to have something of an alcoholic effect on them, and if it meets those needs reliably then they’re happy to buy it. They may well see it as desirable to avoid extremes of flavour that would have the beer buffs’ tastebuds tingling.

It has been said that all the advertising in the world will only sell a bad product once, and if people are repeat purchasers of kegs and lagers then obviously they must satisfy their requirements – which will not be the same as the requirements of a beer enthusiast.

For example, I have no interest whatsoever in breakfast cereals. There are hundreds of different varieties on the market, but I eat the same one pretty much every day of the year. With the same type of milk and the same type of sugar on it. But I don’t think that makes me a fool.

There are some people who give the impression of trying to live their entire lives on the bleeding edge of experiment and unconventionality. And they are often some of the most crashing, self-obsessed bores you can hope to meet. Life really is too short for that kind of approach – you have to decide what matters to you and take the rest as it comes.

It also cannot be denied that there is a strong and genuine demand for beers served colder than the natural cellar temperature that is appropriate for cask. If people really didn’t want cold beer, they wouldn’t buy it. They only didn’t buy it in the past because the refrigeration facilities weren’t available. And of course far too much cask beer still ends up being served well above cellar coolness anyway.

I have written before about the “quality lottery” involved in drinking cask beer. For some people, the peaks are well worth enduring the occasional troughs, and they take the view they end up better off all round. But for others, indeed the majority, keeping their stake in their hand and keeping out of the troughs seems a better bet.

It is maybe less true now, but in the past many car enthusiasts would praise the driving qualities of Alfa Romeos. The only problem was, they were likely to leave you stranded by the roadside rather too often, so it wasn’t surprising people chose to buy Toyotas instead which at least could be relied upon to get them from A to B, even if in a somewhat dull and predictable manner.

For most drinkers, beer is just a commodity, and within their terms of reference they are making a rational and sensible choice by picking well-known keg and lager brands. In no way are they deluded dupes. That is what suits them according to their criteria.

Surely in this era of pub closures and anti-drink hysteria it’s a good thing that people are drinking beer at all. And if you want to encourage them to take more of an interest in the subject rather than just accepting the default choice, the way to do it is to communicate your own enthusiasm rather than telling them they’re stupid.

Sunday 6 December 2009

What’s a nice girl like you doing in a dump like this?

Given that this is a blog whose main themes are pubs and beer, a recent poll showed a surprisingly high proportion of people who had not been to a pub at all in the past month. So, as a commenter suggested, I thought I would ask people what was the main interest that led them to read this blog.

With some polls you have a good idea of what the answer will be, with others you may be looking for a particular response, but with this one I genuinely had no idea of what the outcome would be.

There were 65 responses, and the results were:

Beer: 16 (25%)
The pub trade: 12 (18%)
The smoking ban: 27 (42%)
General lifestyle freedom issues: 10 (15%)

So make of that what you will...

As I’ve said before, this isn’t wholly or even mainly a blog about the smoking ban. But I think being the only “beer blogger” to take a strong anti-ban stance does give the blog a unique selling proposition which is probably what accounts for that result.

Friday 4 December 2009

Smoking policy poll

Well, the great smoking policy poll has come to an end. The question was: “What should be the official policy on smoking in pubs and bars?” There were 134 responses (which I suspect will prove an all-time record for this blog) and the results were as follows:

Licensees should be able to decide their own policy: 83 (62%)
Smoking should be allowed in separate rooms: 20 (15%)
Private smoking clubs should be permitted: 8 (6%)
Smoking should be banned in all indoor public areas: 15 (11%)
Smoking should be banned in outside areas of pubs too: 8 (6%)

So 83% of respondents favoured some relaxation of the status quo. I hope the 8 who voted for the final option aren’t the same antismokers who are constantly telling us that it’s no problem for smokers visiting pubs to go outside.

I wonder whether, if I’d included a further option “Smokers should be ritually disembowelled and hung from lampposts”, it would have received any votes.

The preponderance of opinion demonstrated in this poll shows clearly that the smoking ban issue is not going to “go away” and those who oppose the ban (many of whom are non-smokers) are not going to “move on” anywhere.

Rise of the anti-pub

This provocative article on Sp!ked by Nathalie Rothschild is bound to ruffle a few feathers: A place where nobody knows your name - as Britain’s dark, smoky, friendly pubs close down, the anti-pub - the JD Wetherspoon - is taking their place.

That the chain is marching on in these credit-crunched times signals not a healthy growth of public houses, but the relentless rise of the anti-pub, which is a suck-up to, and a beneficiary of, our unhealthily killjoy times.

The rise of JD Wetherspoon parallels the slow but steady decline of authentic, grimy, smoky, welcoming, rowdy and unruly real pubs. There’s nothing wrong with family-friendly cheap eateries, but publicans and their customers should be allowed to relax, to sing and talk loudly to friends and strangers, play games, misbehave and drink if they want to.

And, as I posted here, I broadly agree. Wetherspoon’s are soulless, corporate eating and drinking barns – they are not real pubs.

Thursday 3 December 2009

Pubs face renewed drink-drive threat

It’s reported today that Transport Secretary Lord Adonis has asked legal expert Sir Peter North to draw up plans (yet again) to cut the drink-drive limit. This news is exceptionally galling for pubs and pubgoers as only last year it seemed that any such plans had been rejected for the time being.

During their term of office, New Labour have toyed with this idea on several occasions without ever putting it into effect. Indeed, after the 1997 general election, it seemed for a while that it was inevitable, but those plans were eventually quietly dropped. It is my suspicion that it is the privately-expressed scepticism of senior police officers that has kept the plan from being implemented. However, given that it has been made abundantly clear over the past twelve years that New Labour hate pubs, hate motorists and hate the countryside, what’s not to like with a policy that kills three birds with one stone?

Of course these plans will run into the sand with the General Election being imminent, and there is no guarantee that a new government will implement them, but this is a clear indication that the threat to pubs from a lower limit has not gone away.

Another interesting aspect of the report I link to is how the amount of alcohol represented by the current limit seems to have been deflated over time. I have in my possession an CAMRA publication from about 1980 called 100 Classic Pubs in the Heart of England that explicitly states “the limit equals three pints”. Now, that might be taking a rather optimistic view, but it has always been my understanding since I passed my driving test over thirty years ago that if a man of average build consumed two pints of sub-4% beer he would stay comfortably within the limit – something that is borne out by this TRRL publication from 1986.

However, the report states that “the current 80mg limit equates to one-and-a-half small glasses of wine or one-and-a-half pints of normal strength beer,” which is not the case. In reality, it equates to roughly 5-6 units for a man, and 4-5 units for a woman. A 50 mg limit would still allow someone to legally consume one pint of ordinary-strength beer, or glass of wine, although whether they would think that was worthwhile is of course a moot point.

And, as often stated before, wouldn’t it make more sense to enforce the current limit more effectively rather than impose a lower limit which in practice people will all too often be able to flout with impunity?

Heads in the sand

There’s a quite astonishing piece of smoking ban denial on the Number Ten website in the response to a petition calling for pubs to be allowed to have indoor smoking rooms.

Survey data, anecdotal evidence and reports in the media seem to indicate that the impact on the hospitality trade as a whole has been at worst neutral and in many cases positive.
Have these people been living in a cave for two and a half years? There is a vast amount of anecdotal evidence reported on this blog and other websites that the ban has been extremely damaging to the pub trade, and the rate of pub closures has dramatically increased.

There have been numerous reports that the smoking ban has proved a significant factor in deterring working-class people from voting Labour:
Brian Iddon, MP for Bolton South East, said: “I’m getting complaints from our core Labour vote that they feel the Labour Government is just hitting them left, right and centre. They are heavily bruised at the moment.”

Dr Iddon cited the ban on smoking in public places and rising alcohol and food prices as other causes of anger.

This response shows a complete unwillingness to listen to any evidence that contradicts the official message. Now, where else have we seen recently that evidence must be discarded if it doesn’t fit the theory?

And the school exam results go up and up every year despite the fact that major employers bemoan the growing illiteracy and innumeracy of school-leavers. Meanwhile, tractor production continues to set new records!

Tuesday 1 December 2009

X-certificate drinking

An annoying feature you come across on an increasing number of beer and brewery websites is a requirement to either enter your age or confirm that you are of legal drinking age in your country of residence. I assume this originally began in the US, but it has now spread to this country, for example on the website of Wells & Youngs.

Obviously these controls are easily circumvented by anyone with half a brain, and so are no more than a futile sop to political correctness, but even so there is an underlying assumption that it is undesirable for anyone under the legal drinking age to find out anything about alcoholic drinks, because if they did they would immediately head out for a mammoth binge. Presumably we’re not meant to see any schoolchildren researching projects on the brewing industry, although that in itself would probably lead to howls of outrage from the Righteous.

In most countries the legal age to drive a motor vehicle is at least 16, yet I don’t see any of these age controls on automotive websites, and indeed they are probably an endless source of fascination to pre-pubescent boys. Nobody suggests that being able to view the Ford website is going to encourage a 14-year-old to go out on a joyriding spree. So why do we have to have these double standards when it comes to drink?

Isn’t it time that, at least on this side of the Atlantic, those running beer-related websites stopped treating all their readers like naughty children?

Saturday 28 November 2009

Is the sun over the yardarm yet?

I recently concluded a poll asking the question “What is the earliest you have had an alcoholic drink in a pub in the past month?”

There were a staggering 98 responses, which is by some way a record for this blog, although the current smoking policy poll looks on course to beat it. The results were as follows:

Before noon: 21 (22%)
Before 1 pm: 21 (22%)
Before 2 pm: 6 (6%)
Between 2 and 5 pm: 16 (16%)
Between 5 and 7 pm: 7 (7%)
Before 8 pm: 1 (1%)
Before 9 pm: 2 (2%)
After 9 pm: 2 (2%)
I haven't had a drink in a pub: 22 (22%)

It was really just meant as a general look at patterns of drinking, although the thought was at the back of my mind that it might reveal lunchtime drinking had become relatively uncommon. In fact, quite a high proportion of respondents said they had had a drink before 1 pm, with a gratifying 22% having started before noon.

In some quarters there seems to be a stigma against drinking before noon, and certainly far fewer pubs open before noon than used to, but Wetherspoon’s seem to do decent business out of it, and were not short of custom when, a few years ago, they brought the opening time of many of their pubs forward from 11 am to 10 am.

I haven’t actually had a drink before noon in the past month myself, although I have been waiting outside a pub door at noon on a Sunday.

There was also a surprisingly high number of people who said the earliest they had had a drink was between 2 and 5 pm . To me this is a rather unusual pattern of behaviour – does it perhaps reflect people knocking off work early on Fridays and heading straight to the pub?

It was also surprising, given that the main themes of this blog are pubs and beer, that the largest single group said they had not had a drink in a pub at all in the past month. Are they stay-at-home smokers, I wonder, or just people who come here out of a wider political interest but don’t actually go in pubs? That might be something worthy of a future poll.

Interestingly, although the phrase “is the sun over the yardarm?” is usually used nowadays to refer to early evening, its origins refer to the late morning, which is the sense in which I use it here.

Friday 27 November 2009

Bar stool myths

Interesting item on the Independent website today: Ten bar stool myths about booze. Good to see they’ve got “lager is cheaper than water” at Number 9 and give a favourable mention to the Devil’s Kitchen. And Number 2 says that alcohol does not actually kill brain cells and, according to recent scientific research, moderate drinking can actually promote better thinking and reasoning skills.

Thursday 26 November 2009

Offers you can refuse

From time to time I get special offers of either points or money off certain products with the Tesco Clubcard. Generally these are for things I buy anyway, or which they want me to buy more of in their store rather than elsewhere. But when it comes to alcoholic drinks their logic seems to have gone seriously awry.

I sometimes pick up a bottle of lager – Bitburger, Budweiser Budvar, BrewDog 77 and the like – so what do I get with my receipt one day? 75p off a four-pack of Carlsberg. Needless to say that went in the bin (although if I actually knew Mr Cooking Lager personally he would have been welcome to it).

Likewise, I buy the occasional bottle of decent cider – today I got a bottle of Henney’s Reserve. And what do I get with my receipt – 25 points off a bottle of “WKD Core Apple Cider” (sic). That will end up in the same place.

Somehow I can’t see them offering buyers of fine wine vouchers for discounts on Liebfraumilch.


Depressing news from a recent survey that “pub diners still want classic, traditional pub dishes such as fish and chips or bangers and mash.”

Classic meals such as fish and chips, bangers or pie with mash, homemade lasagne and Sunday roasts remain firm favourites with over 90% of the group
For all the talk of a gastronomic revolution in pubs, in the vast majority you still find a menu majoring on dull, unimaginative, old-fashioned dishes. I know I’ve said this before, but instead of reaching out for all the exciting culinary opportunities that are available, “pub food” has become a narrowly circumscribed food style all of its own.

Tuesday 24 November 2009

Swat these flies

I’ve never really understood the appeal of “perpendicular drinking”, although I suppose proximity to the source of supply is an attraction. When I go in a pub a prime consideration is finding somewhere comfortable to sit down.

But it gets beyond a joke when pubs have small serving counters that a couple of barflies can easily block completely. In places like that, surely a sign saying “please move away from the counter once you have been served” would not go amiss.

And it can’t be much fun standing there with other customers constantly jostling you and passing pints over your shoulder. If I had the physique of Wade Dooley I might be sorely tempted to “accidentally” spill a pint over the head of one of these obstructive twats. And then “suggest” he buy me another.

Museum preserved

It’s been mentioned elsewhere already, but it’s good news that the former Bass Museum (more recently the Coors Visitor Centre) has been saved and is to reopen next year. Roger Protz in typical Old Socialist style paints this as a triumph of the grassroots over an evil giant corporation, but in reality I suspect this was the kind of outcome Coors were always looking for.

I remember visiting the Bass Museum in 1984 and being impressed by what a fascinating place it was, although perhaps rather modest in scale. I enjoyed a pint of some specially brewed ale (can’t recall what) in the museum bar too. It also struck me that Burton-on-Trent was a rather odd place – a sprawling, amorphous town where it was hard to define an obvious centre, and where the massive Bass and Ind Coope breweries occupied extensive sites right in the middle of the urban area.

Hopefully the new museum will retain a foundation in serious scholarship and not go too far down the “interactive visitor experience” path, which can all too easily be a recipe for disaster. The precedent of the now-defunct Tetley’s Brewery Wharf in Leeds is not too good. And, given the current climate, the operators will have to tread very carefully if they seek to tailor any of their displays to children.

Sunday 22 November 2009

An old soldier speaks

This letter from a resident of Thame in Oxfordshire really sums up what an atrocity the smoking ban has proved to be:

The result of that has been the collapse of social networks, of organic resorts of camaraderie among some people, often the old and frail. Look at some of the sites on the Net devoted to campaigning for an amendment of the smoking law and read of the sadness and bitterness, not only among pub regulars but among elderly and isolated folk, whose one day out was a visit to a Bingo hall, now closed - because of the ban...

After the ban, however, despite being a non smoker, I felt no desire to spend money in sterile, half-empty pubs out of which the heart and social stuffing had been kicked - and by, of all groups, the party which represents the working class. I suspect that that alone will have done for much of Gordon Brown's vote.

The quality lottery

From time to time in the beer blogosphere, the argument crops up that, as cask beer is a high-quality craft product, it should be able to command a price premium over mass-market kegs and lagers. That has a lot to commend it – and indeed in the premium bottled beer sector it is already the case. But, in terms of draught beer in the pub, there is a big problem – as cask beer is a natural product, and dependent on care in the pub cellar, it is inevitably subject to variations in quality.

Our local branch of CAMRA organises monthly Friday evening pub crawls – known as “Staggers” – around various parts of the area. Last month we covered the Stockport Market Place area – and I had my arm twisted to do the write-up for the local magazine Opening Times. We went in eight different pubs – oh, I know, a disgusting binge, even if you only drank a half in each one. Of these, in three the beer was very good, and fully up to the standard you would expect from pubs in the Good Beer Guide. In three more, it was pretty decent, and you wouldn’t have minded being stranded in there all night. But in two pubs, the beer was distinctly lacklustre and disappointing, warm and/or tired. That included the local Wetherspoon’s.

It was an enjoyable evening, and on such an occasion you expect to take the rough with the smooth. It all adds to the interest of life. Had I specifically been going out for a drink, I would probably have made a beeline for one of the three “good” pubs where I would have felt confident in getting a top-class pint. But if my only drink of the evening had been in one of the two pubs where the beer was indifferent, I really wouldn’t have been happy with paying a price premium. Unless you can reliably deliver top-notch quality, you can’t get away with charging over the odds.

Interestingly, only one of the three “good” pubs – the superlative Arden Arms – is in the current Good Beer Guide, although I think recent licensee changes debar the other two. And one of the “poor” pubs is in the Guide too. The other two “good” pubs – as they deserve the accolade – were the Boar’s Head (Sam Smiths) and the Bull’s Head (Robinsons).

I suspect if you spent the evening drinking your way along the pumps in a multi-beer pub, you would have a similar experience.

Saturday 21 November 2009

The Ban and me

The smoking ban was what prompted the creation of this blog in the first place and, while the blog isn’t solely about the ban, it remains one of its key themes. We all know what it has done to the pub trade, but it’s an interesting question how it has affected me personally.

Now, I am a non-smoker of many years’ standing, something which one or two commentators on this blog have failed to appreciate in the past. In a restaurant, offered the choice, I would have tended to go for the non-smoking section (assuming I had no smoking companions with me) but I was never all that bothered about smoke in pubs and in general preferred to share the crack with the smokers rather than sitting in splendid isolation in the non-smoking room.

I do make a patchy effort to remain within shouting distance of the official guidelines on alcohol consumption, so my life is not one long round of pub crawls. I am aware of a considerable number of pubs that have closed since July 2007, but there is only one that I used to regularly visit – the Railway at Heatley near Lymm, shown in the picture. Ironically, this had for a number of years banned smoking in the main bar area. As always, the story isn’t entirely straightforward, but this was a traditional drink and chat pub with a food sideline, in an area where most other pubs had a heavy emphasis on dining. It was thus the type of pub that would be much more at risk from the ban and so it has proved. It closed its doors in the Autumn of 2007 and has been up for sale with Fleurets ever since. In the meantime, the building has steadily deteriorated. When the Railway opens its doors again as a mainstream pub then, and only then, will I be convinced that the pub trade is on the rebound.

But the real difference is that the atmosphere has gone – both literally and figuratively – from large numbers of pubs, even the ones that do well enough from the food trade. There used to be a scattering of customers throughout the day who just popped in for a drink or two and a chat. A high proportion of them seemed to be smokers, or in groups including smokers, as pub-type people always were much more likely to be smokers than the average of the population. Now, a lot of them have disappeared, and those who remain often seem a touch lost and disoriented, especially when miserably trudging outside for a fag. It is as if people are unthinkingly going through the motions of their old routines even when the significance has been stripped away. The role of pubs as a social centre has greatly diminished.

As an example, there’s one pub I regularly visit on the fringe of the urban area. There used to be a group of customers who came in who were very much country folk rather than townies. They brought dogs and (well behaved) kids with them, and most of the adults were smokers. They made a distinctive contribution to the ambience of the place – but now, they no longer visit at all. Nobody has stepped into the breach to take their place. The pub still seems to do OK, but its social mix is less rich than it once was. Incidentally, this pub had banned smoking in about 75% of its public area some time before the ban came in, a solution that all its customers seemed happy with.

And, recently, I called in a pub in rural Staffordshire. The food operation on the lounge side seemed to be ticking over, but it also had an extensive, well-appointed public bar with a pool table. There was not a single person in it – something that I’m sure would not have been the case before July 2007. Even in Stockport town centre, many of the pubs outside the ranks of the usual flagships are very quiet in the evenings in a way they never used to be.

Much of the old welcoming, convivial atmosphere has departed from pubs forever, and despite one or two commentators detecting a few green shoots I am convinced there is much more pain to come. So many pubs now have a kind of sad, empty feeling about them. It will probably be said in the future that the smoking ban achieved what the Kaiser, Lloyd George and Hitler all failed to do and killed off the British pub as it once was understood.

Friday 20 November 2009

Ostentatious non-drinking

A growing phenomenon nowadays is that of the “ostentatious non-drinker” who, in a public setting, makes a point of ordering soft drinks and being seen to do so, hoping to make those degenerates who do have a glass of beer or wine feel vaguely guilty. However, very often he or she is someone who is known to like jugging it back in private.

This can’t do anything to help the pub trade, and I’m convinced a major factor behind it – and the overall movement away from pub to at-home drinking – is the ever-increasing official demonisation of alcohol.

People may not be drinking less in total, but they are much more reluctant to let their image slip by being seen drinking in public, so they compensate by doing it at home where there is nobody around apart maybe from family members to disapprove. Drinking should be a sociable activity, but making people feel bad about it only serves to encourage furtive, solitary tippling.

Thursday 19 November 2009

A rosy view

I can’t help thinking that Chris Maclean is looking at the pub trade through rose-tinted spectacles when he says he thinks the worst is now over and there are great opportunities out there. He is entirely right, of course, about the vicious circle of decline – falling trade leading to shorter opening hours, reduced facilities and lower standards of service and cleanliness. But putting all the lights on, turning the heating up, smiling broadly and organising a series of special events will do nothing to revitalise business if the trade isn’t there, and may well look more like flogging a dead horse.

I see no evidence that the pub trade is poised to roar back into life once the economy starts to improve. On the contrary, I see large numbers of once-thriving pubs that are virtually empty most of the time, look increasingly tired and down-at-heel and seem to be hanging on by their fingernails. If anything, the recovery might hasten their demise by making redevelopment into something else more financially attractive. Exactly where are all these new customers going to come from, when there’s been no evidence of them over the past two-and-a-half years? There are vast numbers of pubs for sale or to let on all the estate agents’ websites – there are two in a half-mile stretch on my journey to work – but nobody seems to be biting.

There will be a lot more pain before we hit the floor – I can easily see eight to ten thousand more pubs going – and few of those that remain will bear much resemblance to a pub as understood in the Seventies and Eighties. Of course the pub-haters will see that as a good thing, “But they serve ciabattas and have comfy sofas!” Umm, precisely.

This comment from Pete Robinson is spot-on:

I do take issue with talk of ‘bad pubs’ because there's no such thing IMHO. Grotty back street boozers are, or were, a reality and I deeply grieve their passing. They were as vital a part of our British pub culture as the very finest establishments. Many people loved their pure, unashamed character even if it was served in a dirty glass. They survived two world wars and a century of recessions only to be wiped out by the nannying political correctness of people who would never be seen dead in such places.
In reality, the decline of the pub trade is nothing to do with bad pubs or bad licensees. It might be possible to revive one or two failing pubs with a lot of care and attention, but all that would do would be to leach trade away from other pubs. It would do nothing to increase the overall demand for pubs.

The world turned upside down

There’s an interesting observation here from Frank Davis on how pubs are increasingly becoming like private homes, and private homes increasingly like pubs:

…the pubs which were once refuges from family life will have become no different from family homes, with toys strewn on the floor, children running round, nappies being changed, and old grannies being helped to the door on their walking frames. The pubs will have metamorphosed into family houses. And private houses will turn into pubs.

For the exiled smokers and drinkers have already started meeting up some place or other, often their own homes, bringing their own beer and whisky, sitting around makeshift tables smoking and drinking and belching and swearing. And telling blue jokes. And singing bawdy songs. No children will be allowed. Women will only be tolerated if they can drink a man under the table. If there are tables.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Beer and pub myths

This post by Pete Brown and my response to it led me to think about the pervasive but often largely groundless myths that have grown up about pubs and beer over the years. So here’s a few, offered without comment (although some of these are themes that I have addressed here in the past):

  • Pubs used to be male-only bastions where you would scarcely ever see women
  • Before the breathalyser, a substantial proportion of male drivers would regularly drive home drunk
  • Before the smoking ban, there were virtually no non-smoking areas in pubs
  • In the early Seventies, there was very little cask beer available in the UK
  • CAMRA brought about a dramatic increase in real ale sales
  • In the past fifteen or twenty years there has been a revolution in the quality and availability of food in pubs
  • “24-hour drinking” is now widespread in Britain
  • Mainstream beers in the 1970s were much weaker than they are now
Another one, which has been disproved now, but was surprisingly prevalent maybe fifteen years ago, is that alcohol consumption had considerably declined and the British were a much more sober people than they used to be.

Are there any other misguided ideas knocking around?

Saturday 14 November 2009

Tarnished Spoons

Not quite sure what prompted it, but during the past week I’ve been running a poll on people’s opinions of Wetherspoons. And it turns out you don’t think much of them at all! There were 43 responses, broken down as follows:

Love them: 2 (5%)
Quite like them: 6 (14%)
They’re OK: 15 (35%)
Not keen: 7 (16%)
Loathe them: 13 (30%)

The excess of “loathers” above “lovers” is very marked.

I have to say I am in two minds here. Wetherspoons have certainly revolutionised the urban pub trade and exposed the poor service and limited offer that once were par for the course. They are a well-run and highly profitable company. And Tim Martin is one of the few industry leaders who is willing to question the prevailing anti-drink orthodoxy.

But, on the other hand, on a personal level I seldom have much enthusiasm about visiting one of their outlets. They tend to be characterless, barn-like establishments with a shortage of both natural light and comfortable bench-type seating. Their regular beers are dull, and whether you find anything interesting on the guest list can be very hit and miss. They seem to have a knack of extracting the character from even apparently well-kept brews. Their food is unimaginative, mass-market, microwaved stuff done down to a price, and on a few recent experiences hasn’t even been decently presented (for example, I had a distinctly lukewarm meal last month). Their change of policy to admit children when dining has led to many of their pubs being dominated by the wails of infants at lunchtimes – they have become the chav mothers’ canteen.

And, as I posted earlier this year, while obviously they are fully entitled only to select the sites they believe will suit their formula, they refuse to venture out of their town-centre comfort zone and expose themselves to wider competition.

So it was a “not keen” from me. I’ll use them, especially if staying away from home, but if a Wetherspoon’s really is the best pub in a town, or even worthy of inclusion in the Good Beer Guide, then choice is pretty thin in that part of the world.

Friday 13 November 2009

Nutts and yet more Nutts

There are two excellent pieces by Brendan O’Neill in this week’s Sp!ked about the egregious Professor David Nutt:

David Nutt is not the new Galileo
The curious Cult of Nutt, backed by both dopeheads and scientists, is actually denigrating scientific truth.

Nutts to these anti-alcohol ‘experts’
Last night’s David Nutt debate confirmed that cannabis is now promoted as a means of pacifying young, drunk ruffians.
The latter includes:
The event provided an insight into what is driving the pro-dope movement today, that strange mix of scientists and politicians (who are at least sympathetic to cannabis) and social workers and students (who are champions of it): it is not freedom, or even hedonism, but Booze Prohibitionism. They promote cannabis as a way of denigrating alcohol. Professor Nutt explicitly said that the government’s attacks on cannabis are a ‘distraction from getting alcohol misuse under control’. Alcohol should also be part of the Misuse of Drugs Act, he said, since it is the ‘most damaging drug’ for young people in particular.
Why anyone claiming to be a defender of pubs and beer should give a second’s consideration to the views of this odious man completely eludes me.

Thursday 12 November 2009

What’s brewing today?

I see our friends at BrewDog have been digging up a few bones again by claiming that CAMRA has been a major obstacle to innovation in the brewing industry. Now, I know what sort of thing they were getting at, but that set me to thinking there are quite a variety of different ways in which you can be innovative in brewing.

In most industries, the major form of innovation comes with small, incremental improvements to the product. This is especially true of technological products, but its application to brewing is fairly limited. If you have an established beer, all you can do is to make minor tweaks to the recipe which may or may meet with the approval of consumers. And if you try to tailor your beer to “customer preferences”, the odds are that over time you will just make it more bland.

Then you can have improvements to the production process, which typically will mainly benefit the brewer, although this may filter through to the consumer in the form of lower prices. I’m sure the vast majority of brewers of all sizes are constantly looking at ways to achieve the same results while using less energy, but many process innovations such as continuous fermentation, high-gravity brewing and changing the mix of ingredients may be of very dubious benefit to the drinker.

A third area of innovation is not in the product itself, but in its presentation. This could encompass such things as electric beer dispense, kegging, nitrokeg, in-can devices and distinctive branded glasses.

And then there are innovations that completely change the nature of the mainstream – the replacement over a period of not much more than ten years of bitter by lager as the standard beer in the UK being a classic example.

But of course none of this is what BrewDog are referring to – they are talking about brewing beers in different styles and using different ingredients. However, you have to be careful here. As this post by Tandleman points out, British beer drinkers, even cask drinkers, are generally a pretty conservative lot, and brewers neglect the mainstream at their peril. You can’t see Timothy Taylors innovating Landlord into something completely different.

Typically a brewer will have a mainstream range, may produce a variety of more adventurous specials that they know will be time-limited, and may occasionally turn these into permanent beers if they prove sufficiently popular. But they must always walk a tightrope between keeping their regular customers satisfied and doing enough to maintain the interest of the enthusiasts.

And you have to be careful that you don’t end up simply introducing new ingredients for the sake of it – the market for beers flavoured with lychees or larks’ vomit is always going to be somewhat limited. One man’s bold innovation is another man’s pointless gimmick.

To a limited extent it may be true that CAMRA has held innovation back by the “four legs good, two legs bad” attitude still prevailing in many quarters of the organisation that dismisses anything not cask- or bottle-conditioned as “chemical fizz” – but that is really only deterring innovation in presentation, not in style.

But, in reality, there is a huge amount of innovation going on. Any visit to a major beer festival will reveal a wide range of beers with unusual varieties of malt and hops, unconventional ingredients, and pushing stylistic boundaries. Over the past few years, the growth in true, strong, heavily-hopped IPAs and the expansion of golden ales to the extent that they are threatening to eclipse the traditional copper-coloured bitters show very clearly that the market is far from moribund.

At the end of the day, surely the fact that BrewDog are thriving proves that innovation is in fact alive and well in the British beer market.

Tuesday 10 November 2009

Safer alcohol on the way?

There’s a bizarre story in today’s Sun that Professor David Nutt, the government’s sacked drugs adviser, is proposing the introduction of a form of synthetic alcohol that he claims will eliminate many of our alcohol problems.
WE have been poisoning ourselves for 2,000 years. Modern science can now provide a safer way for us to have fun.

I am working on a prototype of a synthetic alcohol. We can make someone feel pleasantly inebriated then reverse it.

We have a partial alternative tested on volunteers. With Government backing, the first ever synthetic alcohol could be available in three to five years.

The potential for this is enormous. It could slash Britain's binge drinking epidemic, which currently costs the NHS £3billion a year, and reduce the number of deaths from alcohol poisoning.

However, this completely misses the point. Alcoholic drinks have been enjoyed for thousands of years – they are part of our history and culture. Even when produced on an industrial scale, they are essentially made from natural ingredients rather than being synthesised in a laboratory.

It often seems to be believed by members of the drug lobby that people only, or primarily, drink alcohol to get drunk, whereas nothing could be further from the truth. People consume alcoholic drinks, even the bog-standard ones, because they like the taste. Beer and cider in particular can be extremely refreshing, while whisky may raise your spirits on a chilly day. And wine in particular, but beer and cider too, can be an excellent complement to food.

It’s also probably true to say that, on a large majority of occasions when people drink alcohol, they experience nothing more than a slight glow. Of course people are not indifferent to the effect of alcohol, but it is not consumed solely for the effect in the way that cannabis, ecstasy, cocaine and LSD are.

I would have zero interest in a pill that somehow simulated the effects of alcohol, and I doubt whether many other responsible drinkers who enjoy their beer, wine or spirits would either. Yes, in a sense, alcohol is a drug, but it is far more than just another drug – this plan would reduce it to that status.

Sunday 8 November 2009

Challenging our rights

I recently saw a young woman ahead of me at the checkout queue in my local supermarket get ID’d for alcohol sales. She had a somewhat “studenty” appearance, but to my mind looked about 24. There was no way on earth she was under 18. It turned out she was 27. She took it in her stride, and indeed might even have felt a little flattered at being thought under 25. But this really underlined how obnoxious this particular policy is. The legal age for alcohol sales is 18, and I have no problem with people who are, or who genuinely appear to be, under 18 being asked for ID. For the avoidance of doubt, I can, I suppose, see the point of “Challenge 21”. But extending the age to 25 is utterly ludicrous. And it must really hack people off to be effectively accused of a crime every time they go to buy alcohol. The basic principle of law in this country always used to be “innocent unless proven guilty” – Challenge 25 turns this on its head. Fortunately as an ancient, over-50 bastard I don’t have this problem.

Saturday 7 November 2009

Where you buy booze

I recently concluded a poll with the question: “Where do you buy off-trade alcohol? (select all that apply)” There were 46 responses, broken down as follows:

Supermarket: 41 (89%)
Traditional off-licence: 10 (21%)
Discount off-licence: 5 (10%)
Specialist off-licence: 21 (45%)
Corner shop: 14 (30%)
Pub off-sales: 2 (4%)
Mail order/internet: 9 (19%)

This clearly underlines the dominance the supermarkets have achieved in the market. Given that quite a few beer enthusiasts read this blog, it’s not entirely surprising to see specialist off-licences come second. But the fact that corner shops come out ahead of traditional off-licences illustrates the problems that sector has been experiencing, recently leading to Thresher going into administration.

As an aside, earlier this evening I visited a specialist off-licence and bought six bottles of beer, three German, three British, at an average price per unit of 71.3p. Don Shenker would be proud of me!

Friday 6 November 2009

Cuckoo in the nest?

I was a bit taken aback to find out that this blog had reached the giddy heights of #4 in Wikio’s ranking of the top British Wine and Beer blogs. That’s quite an achievement for something that was created purely to get things off my chest, took the best part of a year to receive its first comment and another six months to get any significant attention.

I can’t help feeling like a bit of a cuckoo in the nest, as this blog is really more about the politics of beer and pubs, and the general erosion of lifestyle freedom, than about beer and pubs themselves. However, I suppose straddling the boundaries like that is what gets attention from various parts of the blogosphere and thus boosts the ranking.

And, sadly, the very first post about Bansturbation has set the tone for all the dismal developments of the past two-and-a-bit years. Reading back over the first set of posts, though, it does seem that, the occasional excursion aside, I did find my distinctive voice from the start.

Smoke signals from Ireland

If you thought the worst was over for the British pub trade, that we had gone through a necessary period of “right-sizing” and could now look forward to a successful future, then think again. As Pete Robinson points out here, the experience of Ireland following their smoking ban suggests there is still an awful lot of pain to come. He predicted that, over five years, the ban would lead to a loss of 25% of the pub stock, and that looks as though it is coming true.

Yes, the pub trade in England and Wales is not exactly the same as that in Ireland, but even so the indications are that the 4,500 pubs already lost will be at least doubled over the next three years. It is very obvious that there are plenty of pubs that are still open but are doing a very thin trade and hanging on by their fingertips. Even on Friday nights you can now find near-empty pubs that once were full. As one comment says:

I remember having to push hard on the doors just to get into pubs when unemployment reached just over three million (over 10% of the population). Something tells me that finding somewhere to sit in pubs won’t be a problem in the current period of unemployment.
And it’s not even as if the ban has led to a reduction in smoking rates, with the proportion of smokers in Ireland rising from 27% to 33%. What a spectacular own goal for public health policy! It seems that smoking bans are far better at closing pubs than stopping people smoking.

Thursday 5 November 2009

In the zone

H/t to Tyson for tipping me off to this one. Following an attempt to impose licensing conditions including Post Office-style queueing on town-centre bars, Oldham Council are now trying to stick their oar into the off-trade.

Trading standards officers are writing to 17 stores across Oldham setting out proposals to review their drinks licences. If any store wants to sell booze at less than 50p per unit they must stick to certain rules.

Proposals include the creation of in-store alcohol zones with no adverts allowed to run outside these areas and no (unaccompanied) under 18s allowed in the designated booze aisles.

Extra security officers must patrol the zone and stores must display clear responsible drinking messages as well as limiting the size of alcohol adverts in store.

It seems to me that the council are significantly exceeding their powers here, and no doubt the legal departments of the major supermarkets will be sharpening their knives as I write. Local councils have no authority either to impose minimum alcohol pricing nor to dictate the internal layout of shops. Oldham are taking on far more formidable adversaries than a few local publicans and nightclub owners.

It would be interesting to know which are the 17 businesses that the council have written to. Clearly this does not include all the small corner shop off-licences in Oldham which arguably are the major culprits in irresponsible retailing, in particular under-age sales. This runs the risk of creating a two-tier licensing regime which in itself would be open to legal challenge.

If this is an attempt to impose a minimum price by the back door it is a seriously ill thought out one. The vast majority of off-trade alcohol is sold at less than 50p per unit, so any business that attempted to comply with that restriction would no longer be viable. In effect that makes the conditions compulsory, rather than voluntary.

Interestingly, the large Morrisons store at Hollinwood, which from the look of it dates from the mid-1990s, already has what is effectively a segregated alcohol sales area and so could probably comply with the conditions with little difficulty.

Let’s hope that the results of the consultation, which runs up to the end of December, will leave this misguided initiative dead in the water, or at least watered down to insignificance.

Government hands pubs VAT lifeline

Never let it be said that the present government does nothing to help the pub trade. In response to pressure from the industry, they have agreed to defer the 1 January VAT increase. By a whole six hours. I’m sure that will get Darling and Brown unbanned from thousands of pubs across the country.

It shouldn’t be forgetten, though, that the whole futile charade of cutting VAT and then raising it again conceals a stealth increase of 8% in alcohol duties – now reversing that might be a real lifeline for pubs.

Monday 2 November 2009

Drink sold at normal prices shock

The latest shock news is that heavy drinkers in Scotland are paying an average of only 34p for a unit of alcohol. But, hang on a second, that is a typical price for lower-end products in the marketplace, equating to £2.99 for 4x440ml cans of 5% lager, £3.32 for a bottle of 13% wine, and £9.52 for a bottle of Scotch or vodka. Off-licence shelves are groaning with products at that kind of price – it’s not as if it’s some irresponsible loss-leading mega-deal.

The report states that the average price paid by drinkers in Scotland is 70p per unit, but that is across the on- and off-trades. I’d like to bet that the average price paid in the off-trade is not too far above 34p, and certainly below 40p. “Drinkers pay normal prices for alcohol” – now that wouldn’t be a sensational headline, would it? And maybe “Normal drink prices to be hiked – poor hit hardest” would expose the true agenda rather more clearly.

Saturday 31 October 2009

Nutts about drugs

The sacking of Professor David Nutt as Government chief drugs adviser was criticised by an unholy alliance of Guardianistas and Brown-bashers, the former seeing it as giving support to liberalising drugs policy, the latter as more evidence that the government are unwilling to tolerate dissent or criticism.

But, once you look into it more closely, Prof. Nutt’s message is as much anti-alcohol as pro-drug.

I heard a radio interview with him yesterday in which he said that if he had his way alcohol would be a Class B controlled drug. He also refused to be drawn on whether the harm caused by ecstasy, proportionate to the number of users and the frequency of use, was less or more than that caused by alcohol. The interviewer, to be fair, did press him on that particular point and he waffled and prevaricated, but he wasn’t asked the vital question as to whether he consumed alcohol himself.

He also said that “parents should be aware that the drug that is by far the most likely to harm their children is alcohol” – without adding the essential caveat that any drug can only harm you if you actually use it. Obviously parents don’t want their offspring either pissed on Diamond White or stoned on skunk, but I would imagine the vast majority would prefer them to have a glass or two of wine or beer rather than a daily joint.

It’s often said, by Prof. Nutt and others, that alcohol is more dangerous than many illegal drugs. It always seems to me that they are clouding the issue by confusing the overall effect on society with the effect on individuals. Obviously, given the prevalence of alcohol in society, it is not surprising that more people in total experience harmful effects. But is it true that it is more dangerous on a proportionate basis? I really don’t think so.

For a start, many people consume alcohol as much (if not more) for the taste as for the effect. I’m not aware that you can say that for any other drug. And, more importantly, alcohol can be consumed in moderation through an adult lifetime without any adverse health effects, and even with some small benefits. Other drugs such as cannabis, ecstasy, LSD and cocaine must be judged against the same yardstick.

In the final analysis, Nutt is not a hero of rationality and free speech, he is just, at heart, another Righteous bansturbator.

Edit 01/11/09: There's a very interesting commentary on the issue here from Frank Davis: A Plague on Both Their Houses.

How to alienate your customers

At a time when scarcely a day goes by that we don’t hear of another soldier dying in Afghanistan, the insensitivity of Kent licensee Bernice Walsh is beyond belief:
Landlady Bernice Walsh, of The Windmill, in Weald, Kent, told former RAF serviceman David Marchant that people could buy poppies ‘somewhere else’ when he asked her permission to leave a poppy tray in her pub.
She sounds like the kind of person who really believes in making her pub part of the community:
Another villager, who did not want to be named, said: “It’s a shame because people in the village want to support her, but she keeps rubbing people up the wrong way.

“We need a pub - it was closed for six months and then she came and everyone was really pleased about it, but immediately she banned dogs and it's a village pub and people like to take their dogs in so it’s upset an awful lot of people.”

She should remember that the community doesn’t need her, but she needs them. And Remembrance is not about the glorification of war but about the courage and sacrifice of the ordinary soldier. I wonder how long it will be before the Windmill gets a new licensee...

Thursday 29 October 2009

First quenched

It takes a special kind of genius to file for bankruptcy when the overall business sector in which you operate is seeing increased sales, but that is what First Quench, owners of Threshers and other various off-licences, have achieved. This came on the day when it was reported that off-trade beer sales had grown by 4.4%. They have experienced the fate of many mid-market operators in other sectors – caught between the supermarkets, the hard discounters, the specialists and the convenience of the local corner store. Maybe it’s not a good idea to give alcohol licences to newsagents, but that is the reality of the market in which First Quench had to operate and they never really came to terms with it. Their stores were always about the most expensive for any product on offer, and someone else always had a wider range of everything they sold, so there was never a compelling reason for anyone to shop there. I suspect this will mark the beginning of the end for the old-fashioned off-licence.

You may also like to answer the poll on the left about where you buy alcohol in the off-trade - remember that you can choose more than one option.

Tuesday 27 October 2009

Critical mass

York is a major historic city with a thriving tourist trade, and as such you would expect it to have a good number of busy pubs. But it always seems to me that, even taking that into account, York seems to support considerably more pubs than you might think, and certainly more proportionately than comparable cities such as Chester, with several new ones opening up in recent years. A recent CAMRA mini-guide showed well over 60 establishments serving independently-brewed cask beer within and just outside the city walls. It seems to me there is a “critical mass” factor at work here, where the existence of good pubs encourages an interest in beer and pubgoing and creates a virtuous circle that leads other pubs to thrive.

You can see something along the same lines in the South Manchester suburb of Chorlton-cum-Hardy, which is a prosperous and somewhat “yuppified” area (typical of many city suburbs across the country) where a lot of new bars have opened up and there are probably more than twice as many on-licences as there once were. A lot of these places, such as the Bar, the Marble Beer House and Dulcimer, do offer something interesting on the beer front, but they aren’t by any means exclusively or indeed mainly used by beer buffs.

In contrast, it often seems that failure breeds failure. Some of Manchester’s more down-market suburbs such as Levenshulme have lost more than half their pubs. If nobody else in your circle goes to pubs, then you won’t either. As Chris Maclean says here:
Worse still is the idea that you can profit from another’s demise. People believe that if their nearest competitor is destroyed in this process somehow they’ll be able to mop up the additional business. How wrong can they be? A closed pub seems to blight the area. It seems to me that, if you drive through an area, if one pub is shut then the others nearby are struggling.
This becomes very relevant when we consider the oft-heard suggestion that the decline in pubgoing means that a lot more pubs need to close to give the others a chance to survive. It isn’t anywhere near as simple as that.

It is certainly true that, if the demand for pubgoing falls, then over time the number of pubs will fall too. In fact the closure of pubs tends to lag considerably behind the fall in demand, so you end up with a number of struggling pubs with few customers which in itself can be somewhat offputting. It is also impossible to consider this subject without reiterating the point that if you introduce an external legislative constraint that makes pubs significantly less appealing to half their customers, the results are fairly predictable.

But, on the other hand, it doesn't necessarily follow that, if you reduce the number of pubs, it makes the others stronger. The decision to visit a pub is very much dependent on a specific combination of location and circumstance, and if you alter one factor it may well sway the whole decision. People visit pubs for a vast range of reasons about which it’s difficult to generalise, and it’s all too easy for commentators to assume that others’ motivation tends to be the same as their own. Probably making a deliberate decision to go to the pub in preference to other leisure options only accounts for a minority of visits.

As an example, if someone regularly walks to a pub in their village, and that pub closes, the odds are he’ll stop going to the pub entirely rather than use whatever means available to go three miles to the pub in the next village. Even if he does occasionally go to the other pub, he’s unlikely to go there anywhere near as often. In contrast, if the petrol station closed in his village, he would drive three miles to the nearest one rather than stop driving. And even if there are other pubs easily accessible, there may be very good reasons why the customers of one closed pub won’t use those that remain.

Many of the pubs that have closed have been ones on free-standing sites in the middle of extensive areas of housing, where there are no other pubs nearby, which from a narrow rational view of demand you might have expected to have a secure future.

This strongly suggests that simply culling the number of pubs will not guarantee the survival and prosperity of those that remain. What is more important is encouraging the interest and attitude of mind that leads people to visit pubs.

(this post is a revised and expanded version of my response to this blog post by Jesusjohn)

Monday 26 October 2009

Eating the whole barn

One of the few recent success stories in the pub dining market has been the rise of Whitbread’s Taybarns all-you-can eat concept, typically converted from former Brewer’s Fayre outlets. They are now serving over 10,000 people a week in some of the busier branches and there are plans to open 30 more next year. Predictably, the food snobs are outraged, claiming it will lead to binge eating. “The irony is that if you give people complete and unadulterated choice they eat a narrower range of food simply because they can - you can eat burgers every day if you like” says Professor Martin Caraher, professor of food and health policy at City University London. Ah yes, we can’t be giving the plebs freedom of choice, they have to be told to eat what’s good for them. You’ll eat that lentil salad whether you like it or not!

While undoubtedly to some extent the format will appeal to gluttons, in reality, as I have argued before, people have for various reasons become more choosy with their food and are increasingly frustrated by the conventional combinations dictated to them by standard menus. The key appeal of all-you-can-eat is not so much quantity as freedom of choice. Indeed, given the excessive portion sizes in many conventional eateries, it’s likely that some of the customers of all-you-can-eat venues actually value the fact that they only need to select as much as they want, and they don’t end up being embarrassed by leaving substantial quantities on their plate, so in fact end up eating less, not more. This point is reinforced in this article where Whitbread manager Simon Ewins says Taybarns orders the same amount of chips for 8,000 meals a week as the previous pub ordered for 2,000. Probably a lot of those chips with the 2,000 meals were left on the plate.

Taybarns may not be a gourmet’s paradise, but I suspect it’s here to stay. However, might we see in the future the all-you-can-eat concept attracting the same kind of Righteous indignation that all-you-can-drink does?

Sunday 25 October 2009

Welcome to Alcohol Alley

There has been a bout of predictable hand-wringing in the media in response to this Manchester Evening News report about the “alcohol alley” of Moston Lane in North Manchester, where apparently there are 22 outlets selling alcohol in a 1.4 mile stretch. The Sun and Daily Mail have both got in on the act. But surely that is typical of any urban high street – along a shorter stretch of leafy Heaton Moor Road, and the adjacent Shaw Road, in Stockport, there are maybe 4 pubs, a social club, 5 café-bars, 5 off-licences and 5 restaurants, giving roughly the same concentration. And the existence of off-licences is a reflection of demand, it doesn’t create it out of thin air.

I have to say I’m not entirely happy about the granting of alcohol licences to every two-bit newsagent, where supervision is inevitably going to be less firm than in supermarkets or specialist shops, but on the other hand we don’t want to head towards the Scandinavian model of queueing up like social outcasts at a grim outlet of the state-controlled alcohol monopoly. And isn’t the fact that three pubs on Moston Lane have closed down likely to have much more to do with the smoking ban, which has scythed through urban locals across the country? What a ridiculous comment from Bob Hill of the residents’ association that this signifies “a shift from sociable drinking to boozing in the streets” – how much of the off-trade alcohol is actually drunk on the streets as opposed to in people’s houses?