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.