Wednesday 27 May 2009

Hitting your wallet

Here’s an effective debunking on the Adam Smith Institute blog of yet another report, this time from the Policy Exchange, claiming that increasing the price of alcoholic drinks would be the solution to all our ills. How many times does it have to be said that the UK already has some of the highest off-trade alcohol prices in Western Europe, so if we have more “problems” than France or Germany it is clear that price isn’t the major driving factor? Indeed, far from leading to a Chardonnay-sipping café culture, it’s highly likely that an across-the-board price increase would just tend to exacerbate many of the more negative aspects of our drinking culture.

The report also falls into the common trap of pointing the finger of blame at “strong drinks”, whereas in fact the average strength of beer consumed in the UK must be lower than in any other EU country apart from Ireland. As the posting says, if you look at the products that are heavily discounted in Tesco and ASDA, they’re all beers of low to medium strength. Indeed, it’s noticeable that the supermarkets never offer price promotions on super-strength lagers, and indeed the way they present them suggests they regard them as a product stocked grudgingly to cater for an ageing, downmarket customer base. Beers over 5% ABV represent a tiny section of the market split between the aforementioned super lagers and premium products such as Duvel and Old Tom which tend to be consumed responsibly by discerning drinkers.

If public policy is framed by people who haven’t got a clue what they’re talking about, it’s hardly surprising that nothing improves.

Monday 25 May 2009

Out of condition

It’s a common myth that real ale is “flat”. In reality, although it doesn’t display obvious bubbles, this is far from the truth. There should be an appreciable amount of CO2 dissolved in the beer, which gives it an obvious “bite” known as “condition”. This is evident even in gravity-dispensed beers with little or no head. At times when beer is not being served, a hard spile should be put back in the cask to ensure that CO2 builds up and does not just escape to the atmosphere.

Beer that is completely flat and has lost all its condition is extremely unappealing. Although in my experience this isn’t a common fault, it is one of the most difficult to complain about. Beer that is blatantly cloudy will generally be changed with good grace, and a vinegary pint is usually obvious enough for a complaint to be upheld. But if it’s just dull, flat and tired, all you can generally do is vote with your feet and go elsewhere.

When this regularly happens in what has been a well-loved pub, it poses a particular dilemma, to which I really don’t know the answer. I have never managed a cellar and wouldn’t presume to tell someone else how to do it, but I do know poor beer when I come across it.

Sunday 24 May 2009

Why do old men drink lager?

In a pub yesterday, ticking over nicely, good mix of age groups and diners and drinkers, only one cask beer on, but it was in good nick and they do have guests at other times. Guy sitting at the bar, must have been at least 70, probably 75, with a pint of Carling. He’s old enough to remember when mild and bitter ruled the roost in British pubs, and must have been in early middle age when the lager revolution swept the country in the 1970s. So why on earth is he drinking it now?

I can fully understand the appeal of standard lager – it’s cold, refreshing, consistent and undemanding on the taste buds. I’m not one of those who thinks it’s vile muck, because it plainly isn’t. But it still baffles me why an old bloke should choose it as his standard tipple, especially given the inevitable deterioration of the personal hydraulic system which is likely to be adversely affected by ice-cold beer.

Saturday 23 May 2009

Electric dreams

It may be hard to believe today, but in the first decade of my drinking career, most of the cask beer in the North-West and the Midlands was served by electric, generally metered, dispense. It was well-nigh universal in Banks’s and Hanson’s pubs, and very much in the majority in the Greenalls, Robinson’s, Hydes, Home, Border* and Burtonwood estates. Plenty of Holts and Lees pubs had it too. Large numbers of Mitchells & Butlers pubs served cask beer from illuminated boxes indistinguishable from keg dispensers.

Now, it has pretty much entirely disappeared – my last sighting was of Robinson’s Unicorn in the Flying Dutchman in Stockport. I entirely understand the reasons why this has happened, that handpumps give a clear and unambiguous signal of the availability of cask beer in a way that electric meters can never do. But I can’t help feeling that we have lost a piece of tradition and a valuable element of diversity in the pub trade. And the old glass diaphragm pumps were, in my experience, just as good a guarantee of cask beer as handpumps.

Electric meters also had two significant advantages over handpumps – they minimised the influence of incompetent bar staff on how beer was served, and they dispensed full pints into oversize glasses. I continue to think it was a disgrace how many CAMRA branches, nominally committed to full measures, actively encouraged the replacement of meters by handpumps even though they knew at the same time that would lead to the replacement of oversize glasses by brim measures - a fact that may have given breweries a financial incentive to make the change.

* btw, anyone still remember Border Breweries nowadays?

Thursday 21 May 2009

One in ten

More nonsense from the bansturbators today with them trying to claim that one in ten men are on the brink of alcoholism. Now you and I would define an alcoholic as someone who is physically or mentally dependent on alcohol, the sort of person who drinks a bottle of spirits or more each day and needs a stiff one before they can function in the morning. I’ve come across a few in my time – generally beer drinkers – but it simply beggars belief that they amount to one in ten of the male population or anything remotely close to that. Are one in ten male deaths attributable to chronic alcohol problems? I don’t think so.

And what does “on the brink of” mean anyway? Isn’t this really just another way of saying “one in ten men are drinking a bit more than us joyless Puritans are happy with”? It is a typical example of the Righteous ratcheting down the threshold of acceptability so what was once considered normal, or not far beyond normal, comes to be regarded as aberrant.

Wednesday 20 May 2009

A pub with no beer?

Just a quick clarification - the poll to the left on "What do you drink if there's no cask beer?" allows multiple answers, although this isn't entirely obvious.

Sunday 17 May 2009

The life and soul of the drinking classes

There's a good – if somewhat elegiac – article here in the Times by Melanie Reid.

Pubs have been around since the 11th century but unstoppable 21st-century social forces - drink-driving legislation, the smoking ban, the internet, cheap supermarket booze - are killing them. Drinking, instead of being a public, moderate thing, is being done to extreme at home - and more people are dying of cirrhosis as a result. (At least when you drink yourself to death in a pub, you have a few laughs and lots of people come to your funeral.)

In tidying up society, making it neater, shinier, healthier and safer, something has been lost. I think it's called soul. Pubs are repositories of character and contact: messy, funny, traditional, politically incorrect places, which beat Facebook and YouTube for entertainment every time.
But the point must be made that the decline of pubs is due to a multiplicity of social changes and they cannot simply be legislated back into rude health. Even if the price of off-trade booze was doubled overnight, I doubt whether it would save more than a handful of pubs.

Upscale drinking

Throughout my drinking career there has been a generally understood principle that you start on the weaker drinks and work your way up to the strongest. So your evening tends to go Mild – Bitter – Special Bitter – Strong Ale. But does it need to work like that? Might it be a good idea to drink a pint of stronger beer early on, to maximise the alcohol kick, and then take the evening more easily on weaker beers? And it’s often been said that in Robinson's pubs, if arriving early, it's best to start on the bitter and only move on to mild once you're happy it's been pulled through.

Does this rule make sense, or is it just a superstition?

Saturday 16 May 2009

Punched out

For a number of years, I’ve held the view that the giant pub companies were ultimately unsustainable. This was not because of their financial position, but because they had no unique selling proposition. Ask Tim Martin why you should go in a Wetherspoon’s pub as opposed to a competitor, and he’ll have a ready answer. Likewise William Robinson of the eponymous family brewer. But ask Ted Tuppen why you should go in an Enterprise Inns pub and he’ll do a good impression of a fish.

Now, with the recession, the chickens are really coming home to roost, with Enterprise and especially Punch Taverns in an increasingly precarious financial position. Apparently the value of Punch’s debts now exceeds the total value of their property portfolio. In these circumstances, it’s not surprising that they’re engaged in a fire sale of their crown jewels to various family brewers. In the South-East, Fullers, Charles Wells and Adnams have benefited from this, and now in the North-West first Lees and now Robinson’s have bought tranches of pubs from Punch. It will be interesting to see which pubs Robinson’s get their hands on.

In the longer term, this is likely to lead to a major shift in the balance of power in the pub trade away from the pub companies as heirs of the former Big Six towards the family brewers, who were once derided as an anachronism. I wonder if the heirs of Home and Vaux now regret selling out.

Eight pointless things about myself

I have been tagged by Dick Puddlecote to come up with eight pointless things about myself. So here goes:

  1. I am irritated by people who leave the tops off pens
  2. The only professional football match I have ever attended was in 1971, when I saw Everton beat Southampton 8-0
  3. I must get some varifocals next time I have my eyes tested, as I am struggling to read beer bottle labels with my glasses on
  4. I can see a blue pyramid from my bedroom window - even when sober
  5. When I was at university in Birmingham in the late 1970s, I once went all the way round the Number 11 Outer Circle bus route
  6. I witnessed the final flight of the Vulcan bomber before its recent restoration
  7. The beer I have almost certainly drunk most of in my life is Robinson’s Unicorn (formerly Best Bitter)
  8. I enjoy the music of the Swedish pop duo Roxette
Not being a believer in chain letters I won't be passing the misery on to anyone else.

You could also try looking at this questionnaire, done when such things were all the rage in the newspapers.

Friday 15 May 2009

Raising a glass at the Fox & Hounds

Rural communities across the country will welcome the news that the police are going to stop routine monitoring of hunts. This recognises that the ban on fox hunting is largely unenforceable and leaves the legislation effectively dead in the water.

It’s a pity that the sheer visibility of offences against the smoking ban, and the existence of self-appointed vigilantes keen to point out any infraction, mean that there is no chance of it withering on the vine in a similar way. But this news must give succour to opponents of bans of all kinds, that they are not necessarily a permanent fait accompli, and that even if not repealed they can eventually fade away if they lack public acceptance and the political will to enforce them.

I have heard reports of pubs in remote rural areas – just the kind of places likely to strongly support hunting – where customers are already cheerfully cocking a snook at the smoking ban.

It’s also interesting to hear Richard Brunstrom in his role as ACPO spokesman on rural affairs talking of priorities and proportionality in terms of enforcement of the hunting ban. This is widely at variance with his swivel-eyed, zero-tolerance approach to enforcement of motoring law, where many of the technical offences prosecuted could be regarded as equally trivial.

Wednesday 13 May 2009

Words fail me...

In one of the most bizarre examples I’ve ever seen of failure to understand how markets and businesses work, equality campaigners have attacked Canterbury City Council because the city apparently is not gay enough. One of their main complaints is that the city lacks a gay bar, the nearest being 17 miles away in Margate. What that has to do with the council is completely beyond me, and quite rightly they responded “No council in the land would set up a bar – gay or otherwise. It would be seen as a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money.” The absence of a gay bar is due to simple lack of demand – if the demand was there, there would be one. And isn’t the whole concept of a gay bar a bit old hat nowadays? Surely things have moved on and fewer people feel the need to define everything they do in terms of their sexuality.

Lighting up Barnsley

There’s been plenty of comment on this story about the Barnsley licensee who has allowed supposedly legal indoor smoking in her pub by designating the tap room a “smoking research centre”. No doubt the local Gauleiter will be round before too long to close it down and drive all the customers away, but it does underline very clearly that there remains a substantial unmet demand for smoking in pubs.

Tuesday 12 May 2009

New Model Pub

In recent weeks there have been a few examples of representatives of anti-alcohol groups such as Don Shenker of Alcohol Concern praising the “controlled drinking environment” of the traditional pub. Of course this is just weasel words, as in reality they are playing divide and rule with the drinks trade, and their underlying objective is to see, if not total prohibition, then a massive fall in alcohol consumption and the number of pubs, and an equally massive rise in the price of drink.

But you don’t have to scratch very far below the surface to appreciate that they don’t really have a clue what pubs are all about. Take, for example, this ludicrous call from so-called “alcohol expert” Dr Lynn Owens for pubs in Liverpool City Centre to be turned into cafés. This breezily ignores the basic economic principle that the market will provide the kind of outlets that people want. If there was a demand for cafés, there would be cafés. And what right has she, who has probably never run a business in her life, to seek to dictate what kind of businesses there should be? Perhaps next she’ll be demanding that tanning salons be replaced with wholefood shops.

There’s more evening food served in pubs now than at any time in living memory – just look in your local Wetherspoon’s – plus a huge rise in the number of restaurants in city centres. The world has changed, and in reality we have a lot more of that café culture than many give credit for.

These people just don’t get the idea of “going out for a drink”, and never will, and stories like this just serve to underline why there’s no point in trying to compromise or reason with them. They also seem to have no time for the concept of letting others live their lives as they see fit.

(h/t Dick Puddlecote)

Prohibition planet

More evidence that anti-drink campaigners inhabit a different world from the rest of us came in the comments here from Dr Petra Meier (sounds like a fun girl) that 50p/unit minimum pricing would only cost “moderate drinkers” £18 a year, which sounds like small beer. But how much is this so-called “moderate drinker” actually drinking? Turns out it’s 250 units a year, or less than five a week. That’s two pints or two glasses or wine a week, an amount that would be considered entirely safe for a pregnant women. In reality, in anyone’s book, that isn’t moderate drinking, it’s extremely light, even featherweight drinking.

Surely a moderate drinker should be defined as someone adhering to the official guidelines of 21-28 units a week, who would see their costs increase by between £75 and £105 a year, which doesn’t seem so trivial. Someone drinking 50 units a week – a level that still produces better health outcomes than total abstinence – would be paying £180 a year more. It’s very clear that, despite what the anti-drink lobby claim, minimum pricing would hit ordinary, responsible drinkers very hard in the pocket, and its impact would certainly not be confined to heavy boozers.

The UK already has some of the most expensive off-trade alcohol in Western Europe, and, if there was a direct link between price and alcohol problems, we wouldn’t have any alcohol problems. Clearly, these problems, such as they are (and the anti-drink lobby consistently exaggerate both their scale and severity) are not caused primarily by cheap drink, and therefore there is no guarantee that simply jacking up prices would do anything to solve them.

Wednesday 6 May 2009

Lost in translation

From time to time I have had snacks or meals in pubs that gave the impression they had been prepared by people who had got the recipe via a garbled phone message translated from a foreign language, and had never actually experienced the dish in question.

Yesterday I ordered a Cheeseburger in a Good Beer Guide listed pub that shall remain nameless. OK, I know it’s not haute cuisine, but I fancied a hot snack and that was the best option on the menu. What I received was an open, cold buttered roll, with a dry Westlers-type burger on it, covered with a heap of grated cheese. Nothing remotely like any real-life cheeseburger I have ever encountered – have they never actually crossed the threshold of McDonald’s or Burger King? I would have been better (and more cheaply) fed with a McD’s Extra Value Quarter Pounder.

Similarly, a few years back, at what was supposedly a smart hotel, I ordered a chicken tikka baguette as a bar snack. I expected it to contain some tender, succulent pieces of chicken tikka, but in fact the contents were an unpleasant slurry of generic curry. It was utterly inedible. Likewise the “steak barm cake” which, instead of containing a thin slice of grilled steak, had pieces of the kind of steak you might find in a steak pie, complete with gravy.

And on two occasions – once in the now-closed Setter Dog on the Cat & Fiddle road – I have ordered a “chicken curry” only to be served with something seemingly out of a 1950s recipe book that was so bland and creamy that it would make the average Korma seem fiery, not to mention containing unpalatable, rubbery chunks of chicken.

I have no expectations of fine dining in ordinary pubs, but the people who put together the menus really should take a reality check.

Saturday 2 May 2009

Location, location

Something that has always been difficult to fathom out is the precise dynamics of why some pubs succeed and others fail. Obviously being run well is a major factor, but it can’t be denied that location does play a significant part too. For example, I posted here about the Junction in Mottram, which wasn’t helped by the fact it stood in the midst of a permanent all-day traffic jam.

One of the most common misconceptions is that the presence of numerous houses nearby guarantees trade for a pub, when in fact one of the categories of pub that has seen most closures is stand-alone estate pubs, often leaving vast residential areas without any pubs at all. On the other hand, pubs often seem to thrive in clusters – for example, the centres of Didsbury and Chorlton have significantly more pubs and bars than they did twenty years ago. Another type of location which has seen a major attrition of pubs is just off town centres, where they are caught in a kind of limbo between the shopping area and where people actually live, and may well in the past have depended on trade from local businesses which is no longer what it was.

And neither is it a given that having a prominent site helps a pub, when many in that category have closed (such as the White Lion in Withington) while others well off the beaten track prosper.

I have also often heard people struggling to understand how pubs can succeed that are difficult to reach by public transport, when many obviously do without being the regular haunt of lawbreakers.

Maybe a problem with understanding why pubs succeed or fail is that everyone tends to assume that other people’s patterns of pubgoing are much the same as their own, whereas in fact they will in many cases be radically different.

Friday 1 May 2009

Lies, damn lies...

There was an interesting exchange of letters in this week’s Times. On Monday, Professor Ian Gilmore, one of our leading anti-drink bansturbators, wrote the following:

Carol Midgley suggests that “Middle England” drinkers are unlikely to die from overconsumption of alcohol.

A recent University of Southampton study of liver ward patients found all but one with alcohol-related liver problems were daily or very frequent drinkers as opposed to binge drinkers. One quarter were drinking 40 units or fewer a week — this is roughly equivalent to half a bottle of wine on five nights a week. Put simply, Middle England drinkers are ending up on liver wards by regularly consuming what some might consider moderate levels of alcohol.
The dubiousness of his “half a bottle of wine” figure was rapidly pointed out by two correspondents, including David Ryder of Middleton who said:
Professor Gilmore’s wine would need to be at least 24 per cent alcohol content. Could the professor inform me as to where I could obtain this heady vintage?
And then Gilmore was taken to task by no less than Professor David J. Hand, the President of the Royal Statistical Society, for the “error of the transposed conditional”:
The premise shows that if one is a liver-ward patient then the probability of being a daily or frequent drinker is very high. But it says little directly about the probability of being on a liver ward, if one is a daily or frequent drinker — which is surely what one is interested in.
A further point is that, while it might be true that a quarter of liver ward patients were drinking 40 units or less (although I doubt this, as heavy drinkers habitually understate their own consumption), what proportion of those who drink 40 units or less end up on liver wards? I suspect it is extremely low. It would also be interesting to know how it compared with, say, the proportion of regular steak eaters who suffer heart attacks. Let us know the risks so we can judge for ourselves, and if you never take a risk, you never do anything.