Tuesday 28 April 2009

Falling off a cliff

It has been widely reported today that UK beer sales were 8.2% lower in the first quarter of 2009 than in the comparable period last year. Perhaps surprisingly, and certainly in defiance of the conventional wisdom, sales in the off-trade fell almost twice as steeply as those in pubs, suggesting that at-home drinking is much more of a discretionary purchase than going to the pub, and something people cut back on when times are hard.

The fact that total revenues from beer duty fell despite higher duty rates calls into question the government’s policy of above-inflation increases. We are now clearly past the point of diminishing returns. And, given that overall consumption has fallen so sharply, you might imagine that they might let up on their campaign of anti-drink hysteria, but don’t hold your breath.

Sunday 26 April 2009

Fewer bangs per buck

I have great respect for our independent cider producers, and from time to time I enjoy drinking their bottled products at home. I’ve also been known to sample the odd drop of traditional cider and perry at the local beer festival. All these quality ciders sell at prices broadly comparable with similar beers, as do keg ciders in the pub. But cider enjoys a favoured alcohol duty regime, with a flat rate of duty, much lower than that for beer, being levied for all strengths up to about 8.4% ABV. I assume this originated from a desire to protect small farmhouse cidermakers, who for most of the 20th century were much more common than micro brewers. But it is noticeable that many of the high-strength, low-quality products on sale in the off-trade are ciders, the likes of Frosty Jack’s. Surely it would make sense – and in the long run improve the image of cider – if cider duty was equalised with that on beer.

Beer temperature poll

I recently concluded a poll with the question “Which cask beer temperature do you come across more often?”

There were 23 responses, of whom 18 (78%) said “Too warm” and 5 (22%) said “Too cold”.

For clarification, the poll referred to beer that falls outside what is to you an acceptable temperature range.

We often hear complaints about over-chilled cask beer in Wetherspoon’s pubs, and about Cask Marque setting their temperature standards too low, but I have to say that I come across far more warm ‘uns than cold ‘uns, and obviously the poll shows this is a common experience.

Cask beer should be served at a natural cellar temperature of around 12-13°C (54-55°F) which will make it noticeably cooler than room temperature, but not cold. All too often, pubs fail to achieve this.

It must also be remembered that a pint that’s a bit too cold can always warm up, but one that is too warm will never cool down.

Wednesday 22 April 2009

A kick in the teeth for pubs

Despite intensive lobbying from many quarters, Alastair Darling did not flinch from his plan to increase alcohol duties by 2% above the rate of inflation. In fact, it's even worse than that, as he has used a notional zero inflation rate rather than the -2.25% which is actually forecast. This vindictive, short-sighted measure will undoubtedly accelerate the closure of many more pubs and, ironically, is unlikely to bring in any additional revenue as we are now past the point of diminishing returns from alcohol duties. The only people this will benefit are smugglers and the owners of discount booze warehouses in Calais.

Tuesday 21 April 2009

Random repression

The government’s latest consultation on improving road safety has revived the idea of introducing so-called “random breath testing” for motorists. Ministers claim that giving the police the power to stop any driver, regardless of how they are driving, would be a powerful deterrent. At present, the police can stop only those drivers who have committed a moving traffic offence, who have been involved in an accident, or who they suspect of having exceeded the legal limit.

In fact, of course, “random breath testing” is nothing of the kind. That implies that the police will set up roadblocks and stop every seventh vehicle, or whatever. But what is really being proposed is “unfettered discretion”, an entirely different concept, that the police can test any driver, whenever and wherever they choose, regardless of any suspicion or evidence.

It is hard to see this making any difference to current conviction rates, as the key constraint on the number of breath tests is police resources, not powers. The police interpret their existing powers very broadly and in practice can already test anyone they want to. What is the point of testing someone when you have no grounds to suspect they may be offending? A senior traffic police officer has stated on an internet forum that there has never been a single occasion in his career where the current law prevented him from carrying out a breath test where he considered one was justified. And the reason the number of breath tests administered has fallen in recent years is because so many traffic police officers have been replaced by speed cameras, which of course are singularly useless in detecting drink-drive offenders.

What this measure will do is further erode the basic principle of a free society that the police should not treat anyone as a suspect without due cause. It has been described as “sus on wheels”, but in reality it is even worse that the old “sus” law as there is no requirement even to demonstrate the slightest suspicion of offending.

A further concern that it will remove any constraints on the unreasonable targeting of specific individuals or establishments. If the police did not like how a particular pub was being run, they could target its customers to the point that it was closed down. It is no use saying that the innocent have nothing to fear, as if you were routinely harassed when visiting a specific pub, you would naturally choose either to go elsewhere or not bother at all. Given recent news stories about the abuse of police powers, you have to question whether the police should be given “unfettered discretion” to wipe their own backsides.

The best way of reducing drink-drive offending is surely to provide drivers with realistic, honest information about how to abide by the law, while carrying out proportionate, carefully targeted enforcement. Regrettably, the government, obsessed with the unrealistic concept of “even one drink is dangerous” – which has no basis in fact – seem disinclined to see sense.

Monday 20 April 2009

Night half-life

There has been a lot of discussion in the local CAMRA branch recently about how moribund Stockport’s “night-time economy” is. It seems as though, if people want a good night out, they head off to Manchester rather than remaining in the town. There is the tacky nightclub near the station, but even there in the “Grand Central” complex we have seen Fatty Arbuckle’s and Burger King close in recent years. The once-vibrant Market Place scene seems to have died on its feet, and Sam’s Bar is closed and boarded. There is a remarkable dearth of restaurants of any kind beyond McDonald’s in central Stockport – how come it can’t support a Pizza Express when much smaller Cheadle manages to?

The rest of the town centre away from Grand Central is usually very quiet, even on weekend nights. Some pubs such as the Crown, Arden and Railway do well, but in general it is a deadhole. This was a point reinforced by a recent crawl of pubs on the fringe of the town centre, where we came across two (perfectly decent) pubs that were largely empty between 9 and 10 on a Friday night. The smoking ban doesn’t help, of course, but that isn’t a good sign. Little Underbank, right at the heart of the town, was eeriely deserted at 10 pm.

One major reason for this must be the effective banning of traffic in the town centre streets. Pedestrianised streets may work during normal shopping hours, but in the evening they turn an area into a dead zone. If the dreaded rising bollards on Underbank were permanently retracted after 4 pm, and traffic was allowed along Princes Street after 6 pm, I’m sure it would make a big difference. However, you have to be careful what you wish for, as inevitably a revitalisation of night-time Stockport would lead to the spread of chain bars and takeaways.

Rather than this, maybe what Stockport needs to do is to promote its unparalleled collection of high-quality traditional pubs rather than just trying to ape every other town centre. “Stockport – the civilised night out” might not be too bad a slogan.

Saturday 18 April 2009

Drinking makes you fat shock!

As if nobody had ever heard of a beer gut, the government are now launching a publicity campaign to inform people of the number of calories in alcoholic drinks. “Ministers are concerned that the average wine drinker now consumes around 2,000 calories from alcohol alone each month” – given that 2,000 calories is less than a thirtieth of the typical monthly intake, what on earth is there to worry about? I’m sure I consume far more than 2,000 calories from alcohol every week.

Although such scares are easy to dismiss, the problem is that they add to the steady drip-drip-drip of negative perceptions of drink. Committed boozers won’t be bothered, but those who are keen to “do the right thing” and follow official advice will be swayed, even though they probably don’t drink enough in the first place for it to be a problem. It is yet another small step towards the denormalisation of alcohol.

Sam’s call the Samaritans

A few months ago I wrote about Samuel Smiths’ committing culinary suicide by introducing a menu consisting overwhelmingly of stodgy microwaved pies to their pubs in prosperous Cheshire. The company is not exactly renowned for responding to customer complaints, but it seems they have now relented. A visit today to the Vine at Dunham Woodhouses revealed an expanded menu that still included the pies, but also featured steaks, fish and chips, burgers and sandwiches. Good to see common sense prevailing. The Vine, incidentally, is a very pleasant multi-roomed pub that has a spacious beer garden and also seems to retain a core clientèle of regular drinkers as well as the diners.

Thursday 16 April 2009

Gimme shelter

A recent article I linked to claimed that, following the smoking ban, pub owners had invested huge sums of money in providing outdoor facilities for smokers. However, around my local pubs I really don’t see that. Obviously a lot of pubs are effectively landlocked and have little scope to do anything even if they wanted to, but many that do have the outside space to provide substantial covered areas haven't bothered to do much at all. There’s one, for example, with an open drinking area at the front and a large garden at the back that provides nothing but a titchy lean-to in a yard next to the toilets, devoid of any seating.

There are two pubs I can think of in Stockport – the Royal Oak in Edgeley and the Adswood Hotel – which do strike me as having particularly good outdoor facilities for smokers, but after that I’m scratching my head. If I was a smoker who still wanted to go to pubs I would be looking for ones where I could sit down in a covered area where I wouldn’t get wet even if the rain blew in a bit – and there are precious few that meet that description.

If we are to assume the current arrangements have some permanence, surely they change the dynamics of how pubs function that had been built up over decades. If you were designing a new pub from scratch now, you would look at shifting the balance between “inside” and “outside” areas by having extensive awnings around the sides of the building, and possibly even having an area with removable wall panels, which could be used as a legal smoking area when the weather was reasonable, but be converted to “indoors” in the winter.

But who would be prepared to bet a large investment on the current régime remaining unchanged, as the odds must be that, seeing the continued prevalence of smoking, the banners will press for yet more restrictions on outdoor smoking on licensed premises? We have already seen them moaning about smokers using beer gardens.

Tuesday 14 April 2009

Blowing smoke in Nanny’s eye

I was interested to read that hand-rolling tobacco is seeing a resurgence in popularity. Not only is it cheaper than ready-mades, it also has “a slightly more antiestablishment feel”. And, of course, given the degree to which it has been demonised by the great and the good, smoking is now more a statement of rebellion against conformity than it ever has been.

Monday 13 April 2009

Return of the temperance hotel

1959 saw the opening of Britain’s first Motorway Service Area at Watford Gap on the M1. From the beginning, British service areas were not allowed to serve any alcohol, a restriction that has continued to the present day. That’s not something I can get particularly worked up about, although it must be said that many Continental service areas sell alcoholic drinks without turning the roads into scenes of drunken carnage, and being forced to be “dry” undoubtedly contributes to the image of service areas as downmarket, distress purchase outlets.

However, in recent years a growing number of budget hotels or “lodges” have opened alongside service areas, which have been required to abide by the same restriction, something reinforced by the most recent Highways Agency policy document. Surely it is unreasonable to prevent them offering an evenings-only licensed restaurant and bar for residents, when this is no more likely to encourage drink-drive offending than the fact that virtually all similar hotels not on the motorway network, and often catering for a very similar clientele, are allowed to sell alcohol. Indeed, the absence of bar facilities may even have the unintended consequence of making offending more likely by encouraging customers to get in their cars in search of somewhere to get a drink.

Sunday 12 April 2009

The inconstant pint

The other day, I ordered a pint of Thwaites Bitter in a pub that for many years was a Good Beer Guide regular, although not in the current edition. The barmaid sawed away at the pump for about ten or twelve pulls (always a bad sign) and produced a pint of tired, flat, tepid liquid that wasn’t returnable, but really wasn’t very good at all.

Obviously I wouldn’t drink cask beer if I didn’t enjoy it, and part of its appeal is that it varies between different pubs and different batches. But sometimes I do feel you have to take the rough with the smooth more than you really should. Most of my drinking is done in pubs that are either in the Good Beer Guide or would be strong contenders for it, yet even here I would guess that around 20% of the pints I buy fall into the category of being distinctly disappointing.

I put up with this as a price worth paying for the superior quality of the remaining 80%, but it’s easy to understand why some drinkers may be put off for life. Possibly it is also one reason why cask beer still sells at a discount to keg lagers, stouts and ciders. And I’m sure pubs could do more to improve the ratio of good to poor pints – there are a few, but only a very few, where indifferent beer is almost unknown.

Some years ago I had a work colleague who seemed to get the idea I was some kind of expert on beer (!?) We were away on a course, and two successive evenings soon put paid to that notion, from his point of view at least. On the first occasion I ordered a Hoegaarden in a restaurant, and he was visibly taken aback to get a glass of distinctly cloudy beer. Then, the next night, we went into a pub near where we were staying. Courage Best and Directors on the bar, I plump for a pint of Best and so does he. It was crystal-clear, but, if anything, even worse than the Thwaites I mentioned before. I doubt whether he’s ever ordered a pint of cask since.

Occasionally I have thought that life must be much easier for the keg drinker, who doesn’t have to worry about all this variation in quality, but even keg can be made worse by poor cellar practice and not cleaning lines properly. And in general my response when tasting widely-available keg beers has been that it must be very depressing knowing it will never get any better than this.

Saturday 11 April 2009

The people’s Parliament

Interesting video here made by Nigel Farage of UKIP for Channel 4 stressing the importance of saving the British pub:

I’m well aware that Nigel Farage probably wouldn’t play too well in Collyhurst, but, given their obvious hatred of pubs and all they stand for, you can’t imagine any NuLabour apparatchik doing such a thing in a month of Sundays. Good to see he doesn’t shy away from mentioning the elephant in the room either.

Friday 10 April 2009

Cow goes to market

There’s a growing spate of cash-strapped pub companies selling off some of the crown jewels of their estates to independent family brewers. Both Fullers and Adnams have recently bought batches of pubs from Punch Taverns and now local brewer Robinson’s have got in on the act with the acquisition of the Dun Cow at Ollerton on the A537 east of Knutsford.

Clearly the family brewers are demonstrating faith in the future by making such deals and should be better placed to give these pubs a clear identity and take a long-term view of running them. So often pub companies seem to have fallen victim to every short-term marketing wheeze going while allowing the fabric of their estate to slowly deteriorate.

It’s ages since I’ve been in the Dun Cow, an attractive ex-Greenalls house prominently situated on a bend in the road. In recent years it has sprouted the dreaded legend “Country pub and dining”, which is a clear sign to the lover of real pubs to go elsewhere. It is to be hoped that Robinson’s will be able to give it a bit more pub character, although their refurbishment of the nearby Windmill at Tabley doesn’t give much grounds for confidence.

Thursday 9 April 2009

3,000 and counting

Today, the ticker in the left-hand side bar recording the number of pubs closed in England since 1 July 2007 has reached the 3,000 mark. I’m sure I don’t need to remind readers what that date signifies.

In case anyone is in any doubt, I am a non-smoker of many years’ standing. But I regard the ban as grossly objectionable and illiberal in its own right, setting a precedent for all sorts of other assaults on people’s freedom to live their lives as they choose, and on a practical level doing serious damage to the pub trade.

I’m not saying the smoking ban is the sole factor behind pub closures, but I’m convinced it has been by far the biggest one over the past couple of years. My gut feeling is that overall it has taken about 15% of the purely wet trade out of pubs – that is drinks bought on occasions when customers are not eating. In previous recessions, the pub trade has stood up very well, with people seeing a visit to the pub as an affordable pleasure, but in this one pubs have been dropping like flies.

Even two years later, a lot of pubs still feel a bit flat and empty, as though some of the character (and characters) that once was there has been lost. They may still be busy on Friday and Saturday nights, but at lunchtimes and earlier in the week many pubs are a lot quieter than they were before.

The smoking ban was what originally spurred the creation of this blog, and it is significant that the very first post was about Bansturbation, while the third recorded what was possibly the first pub closure it caused (although it may be the case that some marginal landlocked wet-led pubs closed before the ban as it was clear they wouldn’t be viable afterwards).

Obviously it would be foolish for anyone running a pub to make business plans in the hope that the ban will be repealed, but as were are now seeing with the fox-hunting ban, it is incorrect to assert that such measures are irrevocable.

Tuesday 7 April 2009

Junction closed

Anyone who has ever travelled by road between Manchester and Sheffield will have spent rather more of their life than they would wish to queueing up for the traffic lights in the centre of Mottram-in-Longdendale. No doubt on one corner of the crossroads they will have noticed a rather tired, shabby-looking Robinson’s pub called the Junction. I once went in over twenty years ago and it wasn’t very appealing then, having suffered Robinson’s typical tasteless 1970s modernisation. I doubt whether it has improved much since, and now it is reported that it is going to close and be turned into four terraced houses, with a further eight houses being built on the car park. The reasons cited were “the smoking ban, the credit crunch and changes in licensing law”.

You might have thought being situated in a Conservation Area at the centre of a prosperous commuter village, and on a major trunk road too, was an ideal situation for a pub. However, Mottram doesn’t seem to be a happy hunting ground for pubs, with the White Hart just up the road reported to be struggling too. While undoubtedly more of an effort could have been made with the Junction, I suspect in the final analysis a pub situated in the middle of a twelve-hours-a-day traffic jam is never going to be very appealing whatever you do with it.

Local residents fed up with the traffic will be further dismayed to learn that plans for the long-promised bypass once again seem to have been kicked into the long grass.

Saturday 4 April 2009

How much do you drink?

I recently ran a poll on “How many units of alcohol do you drink in a typical week?” which has now closed. There were 34 votes in total, and the results were as follows:

None: 0
1-10: 2 (5%)
11-30: 13 (38%)
31-50: 9 (26%)
51-75: 3 (8%)
76-100: 3 (8%)
101-125: 1 (2%)
Over 125: 3 (8%)

To be honest, I’m not sure what this tells us, and there has to be a question mark about how accurate the answers were anyway. 15 people, or 43%, said they drank 30 units or less a week, which is roughly within the government “guidelines”, but on the other hand, 3 hardy souls claimed to drink over 125 units a week, which certainly isn’t. One of these seems to have moved his vote from the 101-125 category within the final hour of polling!

It’s interesting that nobody claimed to drink nothing at all – don’t any anti-alcohol zealots read this blog? But apart from that it does seem to follow a fairly predictable ”normal” distribution with a peak in the 11-30 zone.

If we assume beer consumed is at an average of 4.5% ABV, 30 units a week equates to 12 pints, and you would only need to drink 20 pints a week, which in many people’s eyes really isn’t very much, to exceed the supposed “danger” level of 50 units a week.

Rumblings in the West

Bristol drinkers are up in arms after Gaymers reduced the strength of keg Blackthorn cider from 5% ABV to 4.7% and also made it much sweeter in taste. Now, I can count the number of pints of keg cider I’ve drunk in my life on the fingers of one hand, and I doubt whether either the before or after versions had much to commend them. But it seems Blackthorn had a strong following in the West Country, and this is another example of major drinks companies ignoring real consumer preferences to make their products weaker and blander in a questionable attempt to gain a wider market. Yet the only categories in the on-trade “long drinks” market to show positive growth are cask beer and traditional cider – precisely where strong, distinctive and even “difficult” flavours come to the fore.

Friday 3 April 2009

A controlled drinking environment

CAMRA makes a big point of pubs providing a “controlled, responsible drinking environment” as opposed to the uncontrolled free-for-all of consuming alcohol bought in the off-trade. However, in real life it isn’t anywhere near as clear-cut as they suggest, and it looks dangerously like wishful thinking. The only pubs that consistently live up to this standard are some of the more genteel rural dining establishments. Even in the best-run “community local”, a species of pub championed by CAMRA, you will routinely see people drinking enough alcohol to qualify as a “binge” in the government’s description, some of whom will end up getting boisterous, or the worse for wear, to the extent that some might even say they were “drunk”.

And the circuit bars that on Friday and Saturday nights spill out drunken, brawling, puking young people on to city centre streets don’t really fit the description at all.

On the other hand, people quietly wasting their livers on The Claymore and Tennent’s Super in the comfort of their own homes aren’t causing trouble on the streets. And you can’t tell me all that wine sold by the supermarkets ends up with the empty bottles thrown at the neighbours. Most off-trade alcohol is consumed responsibly and overall is probably far less a source of disorder than on-sales.

It is important to distinguish between “problem drunks” and “problem drinkers”. There is an overlap between the two, but the former are people who cause a public nuisance when drunk, whereas the latter are those whose long-term drinking poses a major risk to their health. They are different problems which require different solutions, and the first category are primarily people who do the bulk of their drinking on licensed premises.

It is certainly a valid point to say that well-run pubs enhance communities and promote an attitude to drinking of keeping within your limits and knowing when you’ve had enough, but CAMRA must be careful about making too much of this as all too often the reality falls well short of the rose-tinted stereotype.

Wednesday 1 April 2009

April fool?

On first glance, you might have thought the story in the Daily Mail about a pregnant woman being ordered to leave a Hove pub was appropriate for today, but it turns out it’s entirely true. There is no law against drinking when pregnant, and many medical experts see no harm in light drinking during pregnancy, but obviously that failed to register with the staff of the Sussex Cricketers. Of course the staff concerned were being “over-zealous”, and the pub company have apologised, but, as with the case of the women refused service of alcohol in a supermarket because she had her fourteen-year-old daughter with her, it’s a sad reflection of the current level of hysteria over alcohol in this country.