Tuesday 30 June 2009

Out of sight, out of mind

Before too long, it is likely that retailers in the UK will be required to keep all tobacco products out of public view. Now, as a non-smoker, this does not concern me directly (although it certainly does indirectly), but it raises the question of exactly how people are supposed to establish what brands are on offer, and at what prices? Presumably they’ll be allowed to display a price list in a prescribed format, otherwise customers will be placed in a ridiculous position of trying to find out what’s available by a process of elimination.

It’s an interesting thought experiment to speculate on what effect this would have if applied to alcoholic drinks in pubs and off-licences. Gone would be the days of looking along a row of pumpclips or bottles on a shelf to see if there’s anything different you fancy. You would have to peruse a dry price list and then ask for something by name. The barperson would not even be able to answer the question “have you got anything interesting on today?” Inevitably, people would tend to ask for something they had bought there before or, if in an unfamiliar pub, something they’d heard of elsewhere, so the familiar would win out over the new.

And the role of promotion couldn’t be taken on by private citizens either. I’d probably be breaking the law now if I started going on here what a good smoke Benson & Hedges were, and how they were available for £5.79 for 20 at Faroukh’s Newsagents, even if it was purely a personal opinion and I received no payment for it, so I wouldn’t be able to sing the praises of Taylor’s Landlord either or tell people they could get it at the Jolly Plover. Which would also make the activities of CAMRA well-nigh impossible and the Good Beer Guide a banned volume.

Now, I'm not saying this is going to happen in the next ten years, or indeed ever. But it is by no means axiomatic, as many in the beer world seem to think, that restrictions on the advertising and promotion of alcoholic drinks, even those falling well short of a total ban, would favour small producers over big ones. Indeed I would say overall they would tend to prop up established players and well-known brands. If you can’t advertise products, effectively you can’t introduce new ones, so a market without advertising ends up being ossified.

Saturday 27 June 2009

Behind closed doors

It’s not exactly a surprise that local authorities are overstepping the mark with alcohol control zones – extending them over whole areas rather than just obvious disorder hotspots, and using them to confiscate closed containers from people who have done nothing wrong. Indeed, I predicted this back in 1996. Any law that outlaws a wide swathe of activities, but relies on the goodwill of the authorities to ensure that in many circumstances it is not enforced, is fundamentally flawed. There are already plenty of laws on the statute book that allow the prosecution of people for alcohol-related disorder without any need for these sinister, totalitarian control zones. And is alcohol such a bad substance that people should be prohibited from drinking it in public anyway?

Friday 26 June 2009

The slippery slope

In his inimitable style, the Filthy Smoker lets fly with both barrels at the anti-drink crusade demanded by the odious Professor Ian Gilmore, President of the Royal College of Physicians (strong language alert).

Gilmore says, “We need an international framework convention for alcohol control, similar to that on tobacco, as soon as possible, to put into practice the evidence-based measures needed to reduce alcohol-related harm,” and then adds, “The big message is treat alcohol like tobacco, not as a substance that is relatively benign except for those bad alcoholics. That is not true.” No such thing as moderate drinking, then.

So is anyone still seriously claiming that the smoking ban wasn’t a harbinger of anti-drink measures?

Out in the open

One of my local pubs currently has a large sign saying “Tenancy Opportunity”. In the past, breweries would have waiting lists of potential tenants, and when a vacancy arose it would be discreetly offered around without any need for advertising. But, in the current climate, good tenants can be hard to find, and so pub owners have to resort to making it common knowledge that a pub is available. But I can’t help thinking that it is likely to be offputting to potential customers if they know a pub is under temporary management. People’s decision to visit or not to visit a particular pub can often be swayed by apparently trivial factors, and a sign saying “You could run this pub!” may well be one of them. It also puts across a distinctly negative impression of the trade as a whole if half the pubs in an area are up for grabs.

Tuesday 23 June 2009

Save Our Pubs and Clubs

There was encouraging news today that a campaign group called Save Our Pubs and Clubs has been launched to press for an amendment to the smoking ban. This combines politicians – including Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrats and UKIP – with licensed trade representatives and other interested parties.

Since the ban, over 3,500 pubs have closed in England and Wales, and many more will inevitably give up the unequal struggle and go the same way over the next few years. Despite the claims (with hindsight, utterly ludicrous) of its supporters that the ban would bring lots of new customers into pubs, in reality the effect of being forced to treat half their customers like lepers was wholly predictable. Trade, especially in the smaller, more traditional community pubs and social clubs, has fallen off a cliff.

But this campaign isn’t about forcing anyone to go into area where smoking is permitted, merely to allow that as a choice for pubs and clubs in part of their premises if they want to take it up.

With over half of the House of Commons after the next general election likely to be newly-elected members, this is an unparalleled opportunity for those who wish to help the licensed trade and support genuine choice to make their voice heard and seek to influence the outcome.

Now let’s see whether CAMRA will be prepared to add its weight to this campaign. Because CAMRA is of course in favour of saving pubs and clubs. Isn’t it?

Monday 22 June 2009

Pub transformers

There was a rather depressing, but all too true report in the Observer over the weekend about the large number of pubs being converted to alternative use. Indeed the expectation that the number of pubs in Britain will fall to 50,000 seems hopelessly over-optimistic to me, and I can see it dropping a lot further than that.

Virtually any established pub in a built-up area on a free-standing site must now be considered fair game for the redevelopers. I can think of several in the Stockport area whose days must be very much numbered, although I wouldn’t want to put the kiss of death on them by naming them.

Sunday 21 June 2009

Last of her kind

Sad news recently of the death at 94 of Flossie Lane, long-serving licensee of the Sun Inn at Leintwardine in Shropshire, one of Britain’s last unspoilt “parlour pubs”. I managed to visit it once, about twenty years ago, and can confirm that it really was like stepping back in time. Regrettably such pubs have become a critically endangered species, either closing their doors for good, as happened with the unforgettable Hop Pole at Risbury, not too far away from the Sun, or being turned into upmarket gastropubs bearing no relationship to their original incarnation, as with the Crooked Billet at Stoke Row in Oxfordshire, which now apparently “cooks an eclectic menu: with modern Italian, French provincial and popular Brasserie favourites all working in harmony.” Sadly, in this day of licensing plans, premises supervisors and risk assessments, there seems to be no place left for this kind of slice of history.

Saturday 20 June 2009

Time gentlemen please!

I recently drove along the A627, the main road between Ashton-under-Lyne and Oldham, and was struck by the fact that along its four mile length there seemed to be more closed pubs than open ones. For most of the way it runs through areas of traditional terraced housing, but it’s still heavily populated and except right at the northern end has not fallen victim to dereliction. But, despite this, the majority of the pubs along there are now closed, and I’d like to bet most of them have shut their doors in the past two years. The potential customers are still there, but the pubs no longer have much appeal for them. The events recounted in this story of a working-class local are only too typical of the demise of thousands of pubs up and down the country.

And I note that the first comment refers directly to Ashton:

My town Ashton u lyne (once a garrison town) was a hub for the local SE Lancs area. 100 pubs, clubs, discos, bars, taverns catering for every taste. Now a wasteland, venues boarded up, part closed, empty, dead or part filled with the living dead. Even the salvation army has stopped selling the war cry. Wetherspoons has managed to attract the lost souls from the closed pubs, an Enterprise pub has reopened as a Kamp Karaoke venue. A thugs den does "late sessions", take a Rottweiler or a tame gorilla Outside the bingo hall an handful of old ladies brace themselves against the ever prevalent Pennine gusts. The young slither into the tenements where cider and Smack abound.
The last couple of sentences almost sound like a Ted Hughes poem!

Winston Man has second thoughts

As “Winston Man”, David Goerlitz was a star of cigarette ads until he turned against Big Tobacco. Now, however, he thinks the anti-smokers have gone too far:

What about the right to smoke in a bar? ‘Absolutely they should have the right to smoke in a bar! Abso-fricking-lutely. Only because children don’t generally hang out in a bar. Bars should be a place where a smoker should be able to go to have a drink, have a pint, have a six-pack or whatever, and smoke his or her cigarettes.

‘Treat people with dignity and respect. Once you turn on them and try to dehumanise them and make them feel like lepers you’ve got yourself a war. And unfortunately, with a war there has to be participation and all you’re hearing in this tobacco war are these loud-mouthed anti-smoking zealots, the wackos, the grab-bag full of nuts that are there.’
One can only hope that more people will wake up to the extremism, dishonesty and intolerance that lie at the heart of the anti-smoking movement.

Thursday 18 June 2009

The pubco disease

As Pete Robinson points out, their complete misreading of the likely impact of the smoking ban must be one of the key reasons for the current financial plight of the pub companies. And there was no shortage of people who could have told them that at the time.

There is also a perceptive point made in the comments that the smoking ban must be one of the main factors behind the swing from Labour to BNP at the recent elections. Now, I hold no brief for the BNP, but the ban made it crystal clear that Labour no longer stood up for or even understood the traditional working classes, and indeed has a deeply patronising attitude towards them.

The F-factor

Marston’s announced today that they were launching a £176 million rights issue to fund the construction of new-build pubs. “The roll out of new build pubs can generate higher returns at lower risk than acquiring mixed packages of existing pubs,” said chief executive Ralph Findlay. The recently opened Fallow Deer by the A6 in Chapel-en-le-Frith is a good example of this policy. On the radio this morning, a spokesman said they would be targeting the “F-factor” – food, families, females and fortysomethings. Well, that may be a clear sign of how pub trade is going, but for a lot of traditional pub customers it will spell the “f-off home factor”.

It’s hard to imagine nowadays that, back in the 1980s, Wolverhampton & Dudley (who are the real predecessors of the current Marston’s company), were proud to use the slogan “Unspoilt by Progress”.

Tuesday 16 June 2009

Not so wee dram

I can’t say I’ve been able to work up much outrage about the government’s proposed mandatory code of practice for the licensed trade. Yes, it’s an unnecessary imposition at a time when the trade is struggling, and it’s a classic example of punishing the responsible majority for the sins of the irresponsibly minority. But a lot of it is common sense that well-run pubs are doing anyway, and so I’m not exactly motived to rush to the barricades to defend all you can drink offers and speed drinking competitions.

One aspect that I agree with is the requirement for pubs to serve wine in 125ml measures, which is perfectly reasonable as even at 12% ABV this represents 1.5 “units” of alcohol. But the proposals are strangely equivocal on the issue of spirit measures. Currently, pubs can serve spirits in measures of either 25ml or 35ml, or multiples thereof, but have to choose one or the other. These are rough metric equivalents to the old English one-sixth of a gill and Scottish one-quarter of a gill. At some point after metrication, pubs in England and Wales were allowed to opt for the larger “Scottish” measure, and a growing number have done so.

At first sight, it might be thought this would lead to increased consumption but, as the consultation document recognises, while 35ml increases the volume of a single, it might well also lead to people trading down from doubles. I very rarely drink spirits in pubs, but I’ve always found 25ml to hardly be enough to cover the bottom of the glass, whereas 35ml is a more reasonable drink. So I might be inclined to switch from a double to a single where the larger measure is served. People who are drinking spirits with mixers might not be so concerned about the actual quantity of spirit, though.

The consultation document makes no recommendations as to whether the current situation should be allowed to continue or whether one or other measure should be made a single standard. Frankly I really don’t see any problem with the current situation and don’t believe it leads to any significant confusion as to how much people are drinking. But, if there is to be only one standard spirit measure, I would suggest that 35ml is the better option as, at 1.4 “units”, it is more in line with other drinks – both a 125ml glass of 13% wine and a 330ml bottle of 5% beer are 1.6 units.

Sunday 14 June 2009

Stella rebellion?

Last year, InBev decided to standardise the strength of both bottled and draught UK Stella Artois at 5% ABV, instead of the previous 5.2%. No doubt that missing 0.2% will save lots of wives from being beaten. But it seems that their customers are revolting – recently I have seen a number of off-licences selling the imported 5.2% version, which possibly is brewed to a superior recipe as well. Could it be that customers, when offered the choice, are rejecting InBev’s dumbing down?

Saturday 13 June 2009

Crisis, what crisis?

A recent report by the Office of National Statistics (and not therefore a drinks industry body) shows a dramatic fall in “excessive” drinking amongst young men over the past decade. With overall alcohol consumption falling too, remind me again exactly why we need all this torrent of anti-drink propaganda and legislation?

You’ll have what you’re given

Food critics and enthusiasts often make the mistake of assuming that everyone will be happy to eat pretty much anything, whereas in fact this is very wide of the mark, and many people to a greater or lesser extent are unwilling to eat certain foods, not to mention those whose diets are genuinely restricted for medical reasons. It’s easy to dismiss this as being faddy, but it is a fact of life.

In the past, pubs were often criticised for offering menus where every dish was accompanied by chips, which is obviously a dead loss if you don’t like chips. Nowadays, most have moved on, but instead you get whatever combination of potatoes and vegetables the chef thinks goes best with each particular dish. Fine, you may think, but if that particular combination doesn’t appeal then you’re limited in what you can order. I’m sure this inhibits many people from eating out, and helps explain the popularity of pizza and buffet restaurants where you can take a pick and mix approach.

Surely it would be better (although it might offend some food snobs) if pub diners were able to choose from a variety of accompaniments to their main courses, even to the extent of having different gauges of chips, rather than having a one size fits all approach. I actually came across a restaurant recently, unfortunately not in the local area, that allowed customers to do this, which seemed to me a very enlightened policy. It was pretty busy on a Monday night, so must have been hitting the right note.

Thursday 11 June 2009

Pay and display

I spotted recently that the Bear’s Paw in Frodsham is planning to introduce pay and display parking on its car park, with the price of a ticket refundable for food and drink in the pub. I can’t say I blame them, really, as the pub is right in the centre of the town and its car park must be overwhelmed by shoppers during the week. In fact I’m surprised we don’t see more of this, as there are plenty of pubs in busy locations whose car parks seem to be seen as fair game by non-customers. It can cause ructions with the local community, though.

Mind you, across the road from the Bear’s Paw is the Golden Lion, a Sam Smith’s pub that doesn’t have its own car park, and given that the beer in there is around a pound a pint cheaper you still wouldn’t be out of pocket even if you paid the charge.

One local pub that has had pay and display for some years is the Airport Hotel near Manchester Airport, which was finding itself inundated by plane spotters.

Tuesday 9 June 2009

Too many Indians?

A noticeable feature travelling around the North-West, West Yorkshire and the Midlands is the large number of former pubs that have been converted to ethnic restaurants, sometimes Chinese but more often than not Indian. Very often these are large roadhouse-type pubs on prominent sites, in the suburbs or in semi-rural locations. Just the other day, I spotted that an attractive-looking pub on the outskirts of Oldham, one that I had always imagined would have been quite successful, had succumbed to this trend.

I do have to wonder, though, exactly where all the custom for these conversions comes from. Surely the factors that have affected the pub trade in these kinds of locations apply equally to restaurants. I would have thought restaurants, perhaps even more than pubs, benefited from clustering together in town and village centres rather than being on isolated sites. Also, people tend to look for a kind of intimacy of scale in restaurants – sitting in splendid isolation in an echoing room on a Tuesday night in November isn’t going to be very appealing. And they’re essentially more limited in their trade – you can have a full sit-down meal in a pub, but people don’t visit restaurants for just a quick drink or a snack.

Obviously there must be a superfically attractive business case for these conversions, or they wouldn’t happen. But I must admit I don’t really get it – and it’s sad to see so many once-thriving pubs lost. And are out-of-town ethnic restaurants really all that viable anyway? I’ve seen a fair number of former Little Chefs converted in this way that have closed again within a couple of years – the one on the A6 at New Mills Newtown being a good case in point.

Sunday 7 June 2009

Words to ponder

“Raising taxes on alcohol to prevent problem drinking is akin to raising the price of gasoline to prevent people from speeding.”

(hat-tip to Anti-Dismal )

Saturday 6 June 2009

If only more pubs were like this

Very heartening to see this lunchtime, in one of the very best pubs in this area, that the policy referred to in this post is still being firmly but politely applied.

The pub does admit, indeed welcome, children, but merely asks that they be kept out of the main bar area.

I just wish this applied to my own local, where noisy, poorly supervised children can be a major problem at weekend lunchtimes.

A weak case

More evidence, if it were needed, in this report from the Centre for Economics and Business Research, that minimum alcohol pricing would not be an effective way of achieving its stated objectives. Ordinary families would pay a large financial penalty – £1.8 billion a year if the price was set at 50p/unit – while so-called “problem drinkers” would only cut down by a unit or two a week. This policy must surely now be dead in the water. It is the classic blunt policy instrument that penalises the responsible while doing little or nothing to change the behaviour of the irresponsible. And I still completely fail to understand why anyone would think raising the price of off-trade alcohol would lead a single extra person to switch their drinking to pubs, which in any credible scenario would still be charging much more.

Tuesday 2 June 2009

Who’s the target?

We’re constantly bombarded with the official “safe drinking” guidelines of “3-4 units a day” for men and “2-3” for women. But you have to wonder exactly who this information is aimed at. Are there actually any people, except perhaps for a few creature-of-habit pensioners, for whom that represents a realistic consumption pattern?

In my experience, people either scarcely drink at all, or their dedication to it is sufficient that they will routinely exceed the guidelines, even if they don’t actually consume more than about 28 units in a week. Remember that even a couple of pints of Holts or Robinson’s bitter is above the daily recommendation. The people who actually stop at one or one and a half don’t tend to drink at all on most days of the week. And if people decided to cut down they would probably not bother at all on some occasions rather than dropping to that level.

So in reality these “guidelines” don’t bear much relation to how people behave in real life, and seem calculated to denormalise as many responsible, moderate drinkers as possible.

More can mean less

I have no doubt in my own mind that the acquisition of pubs from the big pub companies by the family brewers is overall a good thing. It enhances choice and competition in the beer market by consolidating the strength and market power of the “second tier” below the international and national brewers. Even if there are hundreds of beers available, there isn’t much real competition or diversity if the top three players have 98% of the market.

However, at times this can lead to a reduction of choice on a local basis, as pubs offering a range of guest beers are turned into independent brewery tied houes. This complaint is reflected in this posting on the CAMRA forum about the Ring O’Bells in Frodsham, Cheshire, which has been taken over by J. W. Lees. Inevitably, as the pub companies are selling off their better pubs in a desperate attempt to raise money, those offering guest beers are more likely to go than the keg-only crapholes.

But I often feel that pub company outlets offering guest beers are just following the latest fad anyway. Very often the guest beers are expensive and poorly-kept, and confined to higher-strength brews, while the pub’s “cooking bitter” remains keg Tetley’s or John Smith’s. I am not saying this is the case with the Ring O’Bells, but there are relatively few pub company outlets around here that have much to be said for them on the beer front.

Change is an inescapable feature of life, and it’s always going to inconvenience some people in the short-term, but there’s still plenty of choice of beer in Frodsham, and I’m convinced that this is, taking a wider view, a change for the better. In the long term, a pub will have a much more certain future selling high-quality cask beer in the hands of an independent family brewer than a pub company following every short-term gimmick.

Incidentally, I did a lot of drinking in the Ring O’Bells in my youth, when it was a Greenalls tied house offering just Mild and Bitter, but haven’t been in for years.

Monday 1 June 2009

Not a drop to drink

I recently concluded a poll with the question “What do you drink if there’s no cask beer?”

There were a record 52 responses, and the results were as follows (bear in mind that the poll allowed multiple answers):

Keg/smooth ale: 6 (11%)
Guinness: 26 (50%)
Imported lager: 21 (40%)
British-brewed lager: 8 (15%)
Keg cider: 7 (13%)
Wine: 5 (9%)
Spirits: 11 (21%)
Soft drinks: 7 (13%)
I go elsewhere: 16 (30%)

So clearly Guinness is the preferred alternative tipple, with imported lager a strong second, and very low showings for keg ales and wine. Personally I would tend to look for imported lager as the first option – I quite like Guinness on occasions but it tends to disagree with me.

Possibly I should have excluded the “I go elsewhere” option as I was thinking of work or family occasions where this isn’t really possible, but it does show that 30% of respondents are so attached to their cask beer they wouldn’t drink anywhere by choice that didn’t offer it.