Wednesday 29 December 2010

Bad characters

Recent pub visits have reacquainted me with two of my bêtes noires of irritating behaviour in pubs. First is the “bar prowler”, a regular who fancies himself as a bit of a character, and who isn’t content just to stand by the bar, but instead walks a regular beat between the counter and some other feature, often the fireplace. Even though probably a sad and lonely individual, he clearly sees himself as the “cock of the walk”. Certainly a cock.

It’s even worse when he starts engaging people in what he no doubt imagines is genial banter. At times, this can verge on the deranged, such as the old boy who told me on walking into a pub that I looked like Elton John. For a second, it seemed amusing, until it clicked that he was actually a total fruitloop. Frankly, customers don’t want these tedious so-called characters prying and disturbing them.

Then there is the “space eater” who sits in the gap between two tables and thus deters anyone from using either of them. Obviously, if the pub is very busy, people will muscle in, but if it’s quietish they’ll tend to sit elsewhere for fear of appearing rude. The best I’ve ever seen was in a Peak District pub where one “character” plonked himself down in the gap on the bar side of a large two-table alcove that could probably have accommodated sixteen people. Sitting at one table but putting your drink on the other is a favourite technique.

Pubs can still work

The prolonged holiday between Christmas and New Year always seems to tempt a few people out to visit pubs who might not normally do so, and produces some encouraging scenes of pubs doing a good trade. One was in a well-known pub on the edge of the Stockport built-up area, which had been ticking over nicely at lunchtime, and where it was good to see at about 1.45 pm a party of five youngish people come in, settle themselves around a table near the fire and enquire whether food was still being served (it was). Not a pint between them, and no cask beer either, but even so it was a new generation rediscovering what pubs are about.

I also called in Sam Smiths’ Boar’s Head on Stockport Market Place, where the experience was a carbon copy of two years ago. Absolutely heaving, with hardly a seat to be had, the clientele still predominantly male, working class and over 40. It’s rare now to see a pub with so many pint glasses on tables. The day being a bank holiday, I don’t think they were serving any food either. Of course, Old Brewery Bitter at £1.43 a pint does help, but its success is down to far more than just cheap beer.

But, on the other hand, I went in a Good Beer Guide listed pub, to my eye a very pleasant, cosy establishment with a real fire, less than five miles from the centre of a big town, and I was the only customer at one o’clock. No doubt some will say “it’s not a lunchtime type of pub”, but who ever said that twenty years ago, and back then I’m sure there would have been a good buzz of custom.

Monday 27 December 2010

Time, gentlemen

Here’s a very eloquent elegy on the decline of the British pub, written by the obituaries editor of The Economist. Funny how the elephant in the room is scarcely mentioned, though.

The current attitude towards pubs, with all the great and good flocking to “save” them, seems in many ways to be similar to that towards rural railways in the Beeching era - people become increasingly sentimental about them, but in practice use them less and less.

Friday 24 December 2010

10 ways Christmas is good for your health

Thanks to Dick Puddlecote for pointing out a refreshing antidote to all the politically correct, healthist miserablism we have to endure for 364 days of the year. No. 1 is particularly relevant:

There is overwhelming scientific evidence that moderate drinkers live longer than teetotalers. Moreover, the recent Million Women Study in the UK, which looked at the link between drinking and cancer, found that nondrinking women had a higher incidence of cancer than those women who had one drink a day. American researchers found men consuming two alcoholic drinks a day had a 36 percent less risk of developing diabetes.
Mind you, as always it's wise to ensure you don't exceed your daily 3-4 units, even on Christmas Day.

Thursday 23 December 2010

I smelt a rat

...when this case was originally reported, and now it seems I was right:

A policeman who escaped a drink-drive ban by blaming a pub barman has been arrested for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.

Pc Myles Hughes, 34, said he was only over the limit because he had been served the wrong drinks. The barman involved in the original case and a GMP sergeant have also been arrested.

Pc Hughes pleaded guilty to drink driving at Macclesfield magistrates court last month. But he kept his licence after the court was told barman Paul Doyle gave him stronger drinks than he asked for.

Mr Doyle, 36, of Hurdsfield Road, Macclesfield, said he gave Pc Hughes one shandy and four pints of lager top – lager with a splash of lemonade – instead of the shandy he ordered.
It always seemed something of a cock-and-bull story, to be honest.

The timebomb that stopped ticking

In recent years we’ve constantly been told that we’re experiencing an ever-rising tide of alcohol consumption, with all the attendant problems it brings. But, in reality, it has been falling since 2003, and many indicators of alcohol-related harm such as arrests for Drunk & Disorderly have fallen too. Funny how you don’t read that in the Daily Mail.

Likewise we have often been been warned of the “obesity timebomb” that by 2050 was going to result in 60% of the population becoming officially obese, and a whole generation dying younger than their parents from all the attendant health complications. Well, surprise surprise, it turns out that isn’t happening either, and indeed obesity rates have started to fall.

This has been achieved despite a decline in the proportion of the proportion of the population following the (made-up) official “five-a-day” guidelines, and scarcely any reduction in the rate of smoking – although of course there may be some connection between smoking remaining steady and obesity ceasing to rise.

In reality it is always dangerous to assume a trend will continue indefinitely, as human nature is always ultimately likely to provide a restraining factor. The statistics may suggest that 60% of the population will become obese, but looked at subjectively, is that really credible?

But of course we rarely hear any good news on health indicators reported in the media, as it goes against the agenda of those who want to control our lives and impose a régime of joyless austerity on everyone.

As the great H. L. Mencken said many years ago, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed - and hence clamorous to be led to safety - by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” Indeed it’s very hard to find any scare that in hindsight hasn’t turned out to be at best much exaggerated and at worst wholly spurious.

Monday 20 December 2010

Guest beer syndrome

The various discussions in recent months about whether cask beer should aspire to being a “premium” product led me to wondering whether the current approach to selling it in the on-trade actively works against that aim. In most pubs aiming to appeal to beer enthusiasts, not just the general drinker, cask beer is mostly presented as a series of ever-changing guest beers. The pubs may have one regular house beer (anyone remember West Coast Green Bullet in the Crown?) but the vast majority of the range changes from week to week, or even from day to day. You are only ever likely to encounter the products of most micro brewers as guests.

I can’t think of any other consumer market in which this approach applies, and it certainly doesn’t for premium bottled ales in the off-trade, where the rate of churn is much lower and many of them are fixtures year-on-year. Neither does it for non-cask beers in pubs – when did you last see a “guest lager”?

Clearly as the “guest beer” approach is so widely adopted, it is something that appeals to customers, and so you can’t blame pubs for doing it. But it creates an image of cask beer as a kind of unpredictable, here-there-gone-tomorrow, pot luck product, not one that is reliable and dependable.

If I was a brewer wishing to build up a reputation for my beer, I would want to see it as a permanent fixture on as many bars as possible, so customers knew where it is available and had the chance of a repeat purchase if they liked it. If your beer is only ever seen as a guest, you will never build up much brand loyalty.

Sunday 19 December 2010

An ebbing tide floats no boats

Last Friday in the pub was one of those classic “setting the world to rights” nights, and one of the subjects we got on to was pub closures. The proposition was advanced that the closure of failing pubs would serve to make the remaining ones stronger. Now, I’m the last person in the world to advocate flogging a dead horse by trying to keep fundamentally unviable pubs in business, but I don’t think it’s quite as a simple as that, as it ignores the question of how the demand for pubs works.

If we were talking about petrol stations, the idea would be entirely correct, as the demand for road travel is pretty much independent of the intensity of petrol stations, provided that people can get to at least one. But much of pubgoing is dependent on the actual presence of pubs in locations where people live, work or choose to socialise. Also, pubs are not offering a homogenous product, but a distinctive and individual experience. For every pub that closes, there will be a proportion of its customers who simply stop going to pubs rather than moving to one down the road, and a segment of society for whom pubgoing ceases to be something that is an option in their normal routine.

Of course pubs will continue to close in the face of declining demand, but to imagine that closures will do much to improve the viability of pubs that remain open demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the way the market works. A good metaphor would be that, as the tide goes out, the fact that some boats are grounded doesn’t mean that those still floating are more buoyant.

And I have made the point before that areas where pubgoing remains strong have lots of pubs, whereas the presence of closed pubs tends to indicate an area where the pubgoing habit has fallen off a cliff.

Saturday 18 December 2010

Half of all advertising is wasted

...but you never know which half. I was reminded of this old saying when leafing through a copy of the Stockport Pub, Food and Music Guide, a local independent publication that is a sort of competitor to the local CAMRA magazine Opening Times and all too often is a cuckoo in the nest of the Opening Times holders. It’s a glossy, all-colour, 44-page A4 magazine that, in its most recent issue, contains no less than 77 adverts for pubs and clubs. Given that it doesn’t seem to reach the Cheadle and Bramhall areas, that’s over half the establishments in its catchment area.

Most of the ads are very standard stuff, promoting weekend karaoke and live football on plasma screens, illustrated by stock photos of non-real looking pints and young female singers, so you have to wonder what benefit the pubs actually derive from them. Or is it just a case of “the pub down the road is doing it, so we don’t want to miss out”? It’s noticeable that some of the top-drawer pubs such as the Arden Arms and Magnet are conspicuous by their absence.

I can understand pubs advertising in a CAMRA magazine, as it might draw in new customers from visitors to the area, or promote events such as pub beer festivals. It’s also a way of making a contribution to the “cause”. But if you don’t have anything distinctive that a hatful of other pubs don’t, it is hard to see the point. And, personally, karaoke and footy are a big turn-off.

One of the most laughable ads is for the Horse & Jockey in Hazel Grove, which boasts of “a terrific range of ales”. Now, the Magnet, Crown or Railway could justifiably make that claim, but for the Horse & Jockey, which probably has John Smith’s Extra Smooth and one intermittently available cask ale, it is absurd.

Wednesday 15 December 2010

Oak-aged keg

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the rise of “craft keg”. However, despite the assertions of BrewDog, realistically it is not going to mount any kind of head-on challenge to cask beer – it will be confined either to venues that don’t have the facilities or turnover to sell cask, or to specialist low-volume beers. You can drink BrewDog Zeitgeist on keg in the Magnet in Stockport, but it doesn’t exactly threaten the fourteen or so cask beers on sale there.

In the past, the vast majority of British keg ales have simply been inferior equivalents of beers also available on cask, or brews at the bottom end of the market that never even made it to cask. No beer enthusiast would really be inclined to bother with them. However, in an interesting development, Innis & Gunn have decided to launch their 6.6% ABV oak-aged beer in keg form, to be sold only in halves and one would expect at a hefty price.

I can’t say I’ve enjoyed this when I’ve tried it in bottle, but it does seem to have built up a following which justifies its launch on draught. The presence on bars of a distinctive, British-brewed ale with a “connoisseur” image that isn’t available in cask form is something entirely new – it will be interesting to see how it does. And, if it succeeds it will reinforce the perception of keg, not cask, as the high-quality, carefully presented product commanding a price premium.

Friday 10 December 2010

Public inconvenience

Stockport Council have recently announced that, as a cost-saving measure, they are going to close all of their remaining ten public toilets (and this in a borough that twenty years ago had over thirty). This apparently will save the princely sum of £105,000 a year. However, this doesn’t mean that people will be left with no choice but to relieve themselves in the streets, as they are supposedly replacing the closed toilets with a community toilet scheme.

This involves opening up toilets in council buildings and – for the payment of an annual fee – those in business premises like pubs and cafés, to use by the general public. Clearly, if facilities are there, it makes sense to make them available, and in areas where public toilet usage is likely to be low it can be a “win-win” situation in expanding provision at minimal cost. I’m certainly not against it per se. It could also be a good idea for many rural pubs.

However, it really is no substitute for providing proper public toilets in busy town centres where there is plenty of pedestrian traffic. It is notable that the web page has no entries for Stockport town centre. (In practice, I know you can always pop into Wetherspoons where there is one, but a timid female pensioner might not know that, or have the confidence to)

One problem is that business hours may not correspond with those when there is a demand for toilets. Few pubs open before 11 am (and many not before noon), yet in a shopping centre you would expect a toilet to be available once the shops were open. Also, for such a scheme to be effective, it needs flag signs on lampposts saying “Dog & Duck – Toilet Available to the Public” to bring it to people’s attention (something I have seen in the Perth & Kinross district of Scotland). Window stickers are not enough.

If you were a licensee, you might think that £600 a year was a useful source of extra income in hard times. But you are effectively surrendering the right to control who comes in your pub and use your facilities, and allowing all and sundry to troop through your bars without buying anything. Once one or two unsavoury incidents have taken place you might start to question whether it’s worthwhile. If my pub was in a location with a lot of footfall past the door, I’d be wanting more like £6,000 than £600. I can’t, for example, see the Chestergate Tavern being happy to become the official toilet for Stockport Bus Station.

While the provision of public toilets by councils isn’t a statutory obligation, it is extremely important to allow people to live civilised lives and maintain a degree of dignity, and regrettably this move is all too typical of the tendency of councils to cut back services provided to the public while continuing to featherbed internal administrative departments, and all the time seek to blame it on government rather than their own inefficiencies and warped priorities. I have written before of the “bladder leash” restricting the movements of the elderly, pregnant women, diabetics and people with a wide range of medical conditions, and this is now being applied to Stockport.

In terms of the council’s overall budget, £105,000 is a drop in the ocean, and less than the salaries of numerous senior officers. You have to wonder how many people are still on the council’s books doing non-jobs like Smoking Enforcement Officer and Five-a-Day Co-ordinator who wouldn’t be missed in the slightest if their services were dispensed with.

The lack of toilets may also be a factor encouraging people to use shopping centres like Cheadle Royal or Handforth Dean rather than traditional district centres, thus acting directly against the council’s declared objective to get people to “shop local”. (Extortionate parking charges are another factor, of course) And don’t shop owners in those district centres have a legitimate expectation that their business rates will pay for public toilets as well as pavements and street lighting?

Surely in this age of information freely available via the Internet it should be possible to create a unified database of all public toilets showing their location, opening hours and cost (if any). The Aussies can manage it, so why can’t we? It could even be provided as an “app” for smartphones. In the days when there was a reasonable assumption that public toilets would be available in most locations, there might have been little need for this, but now they are becoming increasingly few and far between it would provide a valuable service for tourists and indeed anyone spending more than a short time out of their house or workplace.

And yes, I know it could also be used to facilitate “cottaging”, but to use that as an excuse not to provide toilets at all really is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If cottaging is a problem, it needs to be dealt with on its own terms without disadvantaging legitimate users of public toilets.

Thursday 2 December 2010

Committee rejects cut - for now

Welcome news that the House of Commons Transport Select Committee have come out against the cut in the drink-drive limit proposed by the North Review earlier this year. As I have argued before, there is no guarantee this would save a single life, while it would undoubtedly result in the closure of thousands of pubs without addressing the real problem which is people driving when well over the current limit. Hopefully this will give further ammunition for Transport Secretary Philip Hammond, who is known not to be keen on the idea, to officially reject the proposals.

They did, however, say that they ultimately supported reducing the limit to 20mg, something that would impose quasi-prohibition on all responsible people with a driving licence and leave very few pubs still in existence outside city centres, but that is a long-term aspiration, not an immediate threat.

Tuesday 30 November 2010

Cat to be castrated after all

The Treasury have just published the results of their review of alcohol taxation. In general, this doesn’t recommend any major changes to the tax structure, but there are two significant exceptions.

The first is that they are planning to introduce a new higher rate of duty for beers over 7.5% ABV. The intention here is to increase the cost of super-strength lagers such as Carlsberg Special Brew which are clearly associated with consumption by problem drinkers. However, it will apply across the board and so will also hit traditional British strong ales such as Robinson’s Old Tom, and imported products such as Duvel and most Belgian abbey beers.

The report argues that such products will only see a small percentage increase as they are already typically sold at a premium price, but even so it seems unreasonable to penalise them when they are in general consumed responsibly and are not associated with problem drinking. Old Tom is not something you can pour down your neck at a rapid rate of knots.

I would have thought there was a golden opportunity here for CAMRA to campaign for an exemption from this new tax for cask- and bottle-conditioned products, whether home produced or imported. (In my view, the whole thing is misconceived, but obviously CAMRA can't be seen to be standing up for Special Brew, and at least this would give them something reasonably productive to gnaw at)

And surely what will happen in practice is that the super-strength lagers will simply be reformulated to bring them down to 7.5% ABV to avoid the new tax, so there will be a clustering of products at that level. Arbitrary tax cut-offs of this kind inevitably lead to distortions in the market place and are prone to unintended consequences.

The other proposal is to introduce a reduced rate of duty for beers of 2.8% ABV or below. As I’ve argued before, I can’t see this making much difference, as it is difficult to brew beers at such strength with much taste or character, and realistically the demand for them is minimal. On the other hand, had the threshold been set at 3.5% it might have encouraged a revival of the milds and light bitters which have become a neglected part of the British beer scene.

Sunday 28 November 2010

Minimum pricing on the way?

I was taken aback to see the headline in today’s Sunday Telegraph “Minimum price for alcohol”. But, on reading the article, it seems that all that is planned is preventing retailers from selling alcohol for below the cost of duty plus VAT. So nothing really to worry about there, although it might cause a problem if you want to get rid of slow-moving stock that is approaching its sell-by date. In reality, very little of this goes on anyway, and I suspect it will end up making no noticeable difference to anything.

Not surprisingly, the anti-drink zealots don’t think it goes anywhere near far enough. But I can’t help thinking that the idea that setting a minimum unit price for alcohol in an attempt to reduce “alcohol-related harm” is the logical equivalent of trying to improve road safety by saying that nobody should be able to buy a car for under £15,000.

Spuds glorious spuds

A while back I was taken to task in the comments on this post for ignoring the range of “hugely varied and interesting food” that is now available in pubs. But I still believe that the vast majority of pubs continue to embrace an old-fashioned, conventional approach to food that largely ignores the revolution in eating habits in this country over the past thirty or forty years.

I was recently in a pub that is held out as a local example of high-quality pub food. The menu included seventeen main dishes, of which thirteen were served with potatoes of some kind. The menu doesn’t offer (as some more enlightened ones do) the opportunity to swap one accompaniment for another. Where's the rice, the pasta, the noodles, the couscous, the garlic bread, the pizzas?

While not quite “chips with everything”, that isn’t exactly a warm embrace of the contemporary international menu. I suspect in most pubs claimed to serve “good food”, you would find much the same.

Saturday 27 November 2010

No change

It is common to see commentators ascribe part of the decline of pubs to “stricter drink-driving laws”. There was an example only this week in the Daily Telegraph article by Rowan Pelling I referred to below. But, in reality, while there have been changes in equipment and procedures, there has been no change whatsoever in either the UK legal limit or police powers to carry out breath tests since the breathalyser law was introduced in 1967. Indeed, the ultimate high water mark of the British pub trade was reached twelve years after that in 1979.

What has changed, though, is public attitudes, with a growing reluctance to drive after drinking even within the legal limit. In the early years of the law, this was widely regarded as normal and responsible behaviour, and many suburban, village and rural pubs prospered on this “car trade”. However, from the mid-80s onwards, there has been a distinct shift towards the view that drivers shouldn’t touch so much as a half of lager, which has become commonplace amongst new entrants to the driving population.

There are still plenty of people from their mid-forties upwards who continue to do what they have always done, although their ranks are steadily being thinned by age, death and infirmity. But, amongst their younger counterparts, the kinds of people who in the 1970s would have routinely gone to the pub in the car and drink a couple of legal pints haven’t, by and large, found an alternative means to get there, they have simply stopped going in that kind of regular, moderate way (although they may still have a weekend blow-out). And this has, over the past two decades, been a major and ongoing cause of the continued decline of the pub trade.

Ironically, because of cutbacks in traffic policing, you’re probably less likely to be stopped and breathalysed now than at any time since 1967.

Friday 26 November 2010

Let a thousand flowers bloom

There was a particularly nauseating piece in the Morning Advertiser recently proclaiming the virtues of “gastropubs” and arguing that they should be seen as a successful contemporary evolution of the pub trade.

The growing band of gastropubs represent a golden seam of excellence, a burgeoning carpet of flowers prospering in the fertile ground of increasing demand for a high-quality, pub-based dining experience.
Pass the sick bag, Alice!

There is nothing wrong with pubs serving food, and good food at that. But the essence of a pub surely is that it is a place for people to socialise over a drink, and there comes a point at which a food-led pub has gone so far down that particular route that it effectively ceases to be a pub at all. And the mere fact of declaring your establishment a “gastropub” is putting two fingers in the air to the history and tradition of pubs in this country. I’m firmly with Rowan Pelling here in believing that “gastro” has not enhanced the British pub but ruined it.
Cut to 2010, and my parents’ old pub has a smart new Barratt-style dining room glued on its side, and the epic-length menu offers “griddled peach and Parma ham tart [with] balsamic drizzle” at £6.50. No wonder gastro-pubs turn a profit – but where can punters go to nurse an honest pint?
Many former pubs have “evolved” into successful businesses of all kinds from wine warehouses to tanning salons. Others have found a new role as fancy restaurants – it’s just a pity they continue to masquerade as pubs when in reality they are no such thing.

Tuesday 23 November 2010

The Manchester Minimum

Minimum alcohol pricing has recently been decisively rejected in Scotland, but the Manchester Evening News reports that the ten Greater Manchester local authorities are still pressing ahead with plans to implement a 50p/unit minimum in their local areas via a bylaw. It is also proposed to outlaw various on-trade discounts and promotions such as, from the sound of it, the CAMRA Wetherspoon vouchers.

The article is accompanied by a survey of personal alcohol consumption and attitudes to alcohol, which contains so many tendentious and loaded questions that I declined to fill it in. You’re on a hiding to nothing, really – if you say you only drink two halves a fortnight, then minimum pricing will scarcely affect you, but if you drink two gallons a week then you’ll be portrayed as part of the problem.

The comments on the article are overwhelmingly opposed to the idea. Indeed, you have to wonder exactly whose agenda the MEN is following in continuing to champion such an unpopular (not to mention illegal) plan, when clearly it is not wanted by the general public.

Saturday 20 November 2010

Hoist with his own petard

It seems that Schadenfreude is one of the few pleasures still legal. And I got an especially enjoyable dose on hearing that Labour MP Eric Joyce, who only a few days ago had been banging on David Nutt-style about how the middle classes were hypocrites for condemining drug use amongst their offspring while happily jugging back alcohol, has been banned from driving for refusing a breath test. God knows how he got into that situation, but I can’t say I have the remotest drop of sympathy. People in glass houses, and all that...

The tipping point

Statistics suggest that during the next twelve months, the “tipping point” will be reached where off-trade beer sales exceed on-trade sales. Currently, the off-trade accounts for 46% of beer sales, but the report claims that, by 2018, 70% of beer sales will be in the off-trade,and a mere 30% in the on-trade. And I can’t say I’m surprised. The latest stats from the BBPA show a 7.8% decline in year-on-year beer sales in the past quarter, and a 44% decline since 1997. That is not an “adjustment”, it is a slow-motion car crash. Maybe the Magnet and the Marble and the Baum are doing fine, but the pub trade in general is falling off a cliff. And CAMRA’s typical concentration on a limited number of favourite venues means that many of its members - and many beer bloggers - seem oblivious to the wider decline.

No doubt some will accuse me of having a gloomy outlook, but you can’t argue with the cold hard facts.

Friday 19 November 2010


There’s an unusual case here where police officer Myles Hughes escaped a drink-driving ban after it was shown his drinks had been “spiked” by giving him pints of Stella top rather than Stella shandy. Exceeding the legal alcohol limit is essentially a strict liability offence, so it is good to see the courts exercising a bit of discretion where someone has inadvertently ended up over the limit and genuinely believed he wasn’t. If his blood-alcohol level was only 85mg after four Stella tops, it is clear that it would have been well under 80mg after four shandies.

However, it does raise a few questions – did he not see any of the drinks being dispensed, and was he really unable to tell the difference? The barman’s motivation is hard to fathom, and if Hughes had really been planning to drive you might have thought it would make sense to drink Carling shandies rather than Stella shandies. You also have to wonder whether if he had been a member of the public rather than a police officer he would have received the same leniency.

Thursday 18 November 2010

Acting drunk

Police in North Wales have been hiring actors to go in to pubs pretending to be drunk and seeing if they can get served. While it is illegal for pubs to serve “drunks”, this kind of agent provocateur tactic does leave a nasty taste in the mouth, and of course it isn’t actually an offence to serve someone who is just pretending to be drunk. (To be fair, the police did make it clear they were not seeking to prosecute any pubs that had served these actors, merely give them a warning)

However, there may well be a divergence of opinion about exactly what constitutes being “drunk”. I would define it as staggering about and being incapable of coherent speech. But some po-faced individuals not used to pubs could easily intrepret someone as being drunk merely when they have become a bit loud and boisterous, so this kind of approach has the potential to rebound on pubs well beyond those recognised as trouble spots. This is a point I made back in December 2007 in a column entitled Spy in the Pub.

(Incidentally, I turned word verification for comments on a few days ago and it seems to have worked wonders in cutting down the amount of spam being received)

Sunday 14 November 2010

Baby and bathwater

There has been a huge kerfuffle in the beer blogosphere in the past week or so about the role of CAMRA and whether it shoots itself in the foot by defining good beer too narrowly. The charge was led by Pete Brown, eloquently backed up by the Zythophile, and their charges were passionately rebuffed by Tandleman. Now, I will happily place myself in the “revisionist” camp, but my complaint really is not that CAMRA defines what it campaigns for too narrowly, but that, all too often, it seeks to campaign against anything that isn’t “real ale”.

My personal view is that, while I am happy to support “real ale”, as the supreme exposition of British draught beer, it is a definition that doesn’t extend beyond that sphere, and there are many other quality beers in the world that don’t conform to that definition. And even, on occasions, I might drink a pint of cooking lager, and will regard it as a refreshing, rather bland, industrial product, and not some kind of vile filth.

Tandleman says “CAMRA is a broad church, but it actually the moderates that prevail. These are the guys you bump into in Bamberg, Brussels and Prague, or at the Great American Beer Festival, or wherever. They seek out beers to enjoy whatever the provenance and are comfortable with being CAMRA members and the odd dichotomy.” That is true of Tandleman, of my local CAMRA branch chairman, of most of the beer bloggers, and of many CAMRA members I know. But it is far less dominant than he suggests, and it is all too common to see the old unreconstructed attitudes surface – not least in the opinions of the most prolific contributor to the CAMRA web forum. The generalised “campaign against lager” and the broad-brush view that bottle-conditioned bottled beers are without exception far superior to their brewery-conditioned counterparts are two prime examples of this. And, regrettably, while it is often ignored at the coal face, these things are enshrined in CAMRA’s official policies.

More worrying, though, is the attitude expressed by one respondent to Pete Brown’s post:

As I've mentioned recently elsewhere (mainly Twitter & other blogs) I think that there's an argument for CAMRA to tighten or at least clarify its definition of what is 'real'.

To my mind, the campaign was launched to try to preserve good British beer, made with decent ingredients, by a quality brewery & beers that had not been overly processed.

For me, there are now many beers that are classed by CAMRA as 'real' that don't fit with various parts of that broad description (& some that do, but aren't classed as being real!).
Is that likely to lead to a redefinition of “real ale” as stuff produced by obscure small breweries and consumed by pretentious middle-class tossers?

Surely two of the great virtues of “real ale” are that it has a crystal clear definition, and that it is something that is available to ordinary drinkers in ordinary pubs.

The risk from that approach is that you may end up casting aside the brews upon which the real ale revival was founded, such as Wadworth’s 6X, Marston’s Pedigree and Greene King Abbot Ale, and that you also end up casting aside the pub in favour of the specialist urban yuppie craft beer bar.

I have no problem with CAMRA being a campaign for “real ale”. I have no problem with the definition. I just wish it didn’t, so often, present itself as a campaign against all other forms of beer. Does the Alfa Romeo Owners’ Club oppose all other marques of car? I don’t think so. Why not say “We like beer, full stop. But British draught real ale is something very special that is worthy of campaigning for”?

Sunday 7 November 2010

You can turn back

I’ve often heard it claimed that the main reason for introducing the smoking ban in the UK was the protection of workers. This, of course, is completely spurious, as:

  • It is widely documented that the main driver for the ban was an attempt to reduce the prevalence of smoking
  • There is no scientifically credible evidence that environmental tobacco smoke represents a danger to health anyway
  • Even if there was some small danger, the protection of workers could easily have been achieved without a blanket ban – after all, smoking is still permitted in hotel rooms
  • There are many occupations that are still allowed, but where there is a far greater and better proven risk to health, such as farming, mining and quarrying, and deep sea fishing
But even if you taken the claim at face value, it rather falls over if a pub has no employees. So, the Netherlands has decided to lift its smoking ban for small “mom and pop” bars that are solely run by the proprietors. No doubt they will be looking forward to a substantial increase in trade.

The structure of the trade is different in this country, with very few pubs and bars that don’t employ any staff, but I would imagine many of the small evenings-only “box bars” that have opened in former shop premises could qualify – though no doubt the big pubs would whinge that they couldn’t compete on a level playing field. A growth in small, individual, independent bars could be just what the licensed trade needs.

And this news gives the lie to the assertion that there is “no going back” from the British smoking ban. If it can happen in Holland, it can happen here.

Wells & Youngs - a summary

In conclusion, the bottles I was kindly given to sample by Wells & Youngs represented a varied range of quality beers that were all distinctively different and avoided having an obvious house character*. If they do have something in common, it is that they are all to a greater or lesser extent malty but dry. All of them are beers that I have bought myself in the past.

Bottle-conditioning can often be problematic in quality terms, but Wells & Youngs seem to have got it right, with the beers (unlike some) having noticeably conditioned in the bottle, but all the yeast sticking to the bottom and not ending up in the glass.

As an everyday drinking beer the Wells Burning Gold is probably my favourite, but the Young’s Special London Ale is well worth saving for a cold night or a special occasion. Directors is the one where the tasting most improved my previous opinion.

The only one of the five beers I found a touch disappointing was the Young’s London Gold which, while pleasant enough, was lacking in distinctiveness and, as I said, maybe too subtle for its own good. Although it looks the part, I kept searching for something flavour-wise that I couldn’t quite find.

This will also motivate me to look out for the bottle-conditioned Young’s Bitter. The last time I remember having some on cask was probably in 2008 but it was always one of my favourite “ordinary” bitters. The bottled version is, however considerably stronger at 4.5% ABV rather than 3.7%.

* To be honest I quite like the Greene King house character, but all of their beers taste somewhat the same.

Saturday 6 November 2010

Crafty keg

My poll asking the question ‘Would you drink a keg “craft” beer from BrewDog or Thornbridge in the pub?’ has now finished. There were 81 responses, broken down as follows:

Definitely: 34 (42%)
Probably: 12 (15%)
Maybe: 17 (21%)
Unlikely: 14 (17%)
Absolutely not: 4 (5%)

This clearly suggests sufficient interest to make the idea a goer, with over half pretty keen, and very few totally setting their face against it. It doesn’t need a majority, just a significant minority who are willing to try it. I don’t see it replacing cask on any kind of large scale, but it could be a way of getting craft beer into trendy bars that don’t have the facilities or throughput for cask, or who don’t see cask as fitting in with their image.

Friday 5 November 2010

Capital Ale

The final Wells & Youngs beer to sample is the flagship of their range, the 6.4% ABV, bottle-conditioned Young’s Special London Ale. It comes in a brown bottle with an attractive, mainly blue label.

It pours clear, leaving all the sediment in the bottle, and exhibits a vigorous natural carbonation, as with the London Gold, which suggests that the brewery have mastered the issue of getting consistent quality and genuine secondary fermentation from bottle-conditioned ales.

The colour is dark amber – not a pale beer, but fairly pale for a British ale of this strength. It has a full, satisfying mouthfeel, as with all the W&Y beers. The aroma is subdued, mixing fruit with CO2.

There’s an initial surprising hoppy attack, which then slowly metamorphoses through spiciness into a lingering aftertaste of sweet, creamy malt. It is fairly light in body for its strength, although you are aware of some alcohol warmth.

A distinctive, complex, multi-faceted beer that makes a good contrast with the richer, heavier Fullers 1845, which is of similar strength. Definitely one to be savoured.

Wednesday 3 November 2010

Bring me my bow

Wells Bombardier is one of the best-selling premium cask beers in Britain, but it’s one that I’ve never really taken to. I’m not saying it’s a bad beer, but it has a distinctive kind of almost chewy maltiness that doesn’t appeal to me. Having said that, on a couple of occasions in the past year I’ve come across very well kept examples when it’s been the only cask beer in a pub.

In recent years, Wells have come up with a couple of “brand extensions” to Bombardier, building on the theme of “The Drink of England” by using phrases from Blake’s Jerusalem. One was the dark, rich, almost stouty Satanic Mills, which got some good reviews but now seems to have been delisted. The other is Burning Gold, which is still very much with us. The website says it is available as a seasonal cask beer as well as in bottle, but I can’t recall ever coming across it in the pub.

This has a strength of 4.7% ABV and comes in a clear bottle which shows off its appealing bright orange-gold colour, darker than most beers bearing the name “Gold”, which looks very good once in the glass. It has a fairly thin but lasting head and noticeable carbonation. There’s a subdued initial aroma of malt and fruit.

It’s a basically dry beer with a good balance of both malt and hops and some fruity notes. It’s quite a “big”, assertive, full-bodied beer in comparison with the understated London Gold, and isn’t truly in the characteristic floral, fragrant golden ale style, which to my mind is a plus point.

A distinctive and highly drinkable golden ale which has a much more robust character than many of the genre. It’s too strong to really be called a session beer, but certainly something you could happily drink more than one of.

Appearance money

The Good Pub Guide have announced that they are going to start charging pubs for inclusion as full entries - £199 a year for dining pubs, and £99 for those with a more limited food offer. They claim that this won’t lead to a reduction in standards, and that no pubs will be included that otherwise wouldn’t be, but inevitably any policy of charging for entries will compromise the independence of a pub guide. The problem is not so much that unworthy pubs will be included, but that worthy ones won’t be because they won’t pay up.

I’ve never had a lot of time for the Good Pub Guide, which gives the impression of being predominantly a guide to poncey dining pubs that I would go out of my way to avoid. But it does, perhaps in the interest of credibility, include a smattering of proper pubs – for example, the 2006 edition includes, in this area, the White Lion at Barthomley, the Marble Arch and Stalybridge Station Buffet.

It is exactly that sort of pub that is likely to feel it is not worth paying for an entry, thus leaving the guide even more skewed than it is at present and reducing the comprehensiveness of the information it provides for its readers. And, if a pub is on the borderline, but is willing to pay for an entry, can the editors really say that won’t affect their decision? Despite their claims, I can see this move damaging sales as the book will no longer be perceived as unbiased.

Tuesday 2 November 2010

Closing the Gateway

I noticed the other day on Fleurets’ website that Hydes had put the Gateway pub on the market for £1 million freehold. This is a prominent 1930s roadhouse type pub at East Didsbury on the main A34 Kingsway road into Manchester from the south. It’s a prosperous area with plenty of housing nearby. Yet clearly Hydes don’t believe it’s viable as a pub, and I’d be very surprised if any other operator thought they could do better.

This very much gives the lie to those who still believe that having plenty of chimneypots nearby guarantees a pub a healthy trade if run even half decently. Clearly, it doesn’t, and indeed it is the large, purpose-built 20th century pubs that seem to have suffered worst from the recent tide of closures. Only a few months ago, the similar Greyhound in Adswood closed its doors for the last time and has now been flattened. In contrast, a mile down the road, pubs are thriving on the Didsbury village drinking circuit. A brewery representative said:
“...the ethnic mix and the ages of the residents that live behind the Gateway make it difficult to draw trade to the pub. There are large numbers of elderly residents and non British groups who for ethnic and religious reasons are not regular pub visitors. So it’s the pub’s catchment area that is against the pub rather than the competence or otherwise of the brewery. The cinema/bowling alley/fast food complex opposite does the Gateway no favours as it attracts mainly teenagers who will not visit a ‘pub that their dad might visit’”.
The role of changes in the social mix of an area in affecting the viability of pubs has often been underestimated. It’s a simple fact of life that for cultural reasons people of South Asian origin aren’t going to visit pubs to anything like the same extent as the indigenous British and Irish, and nothing pubs do short of closing down and becoming Indian restaurants is going to change that.

One possible solution for the Gateway could have been to build an accommodation lodge next door and turn it explicitly into a dining venue. Only just up the road, on the other side of the leisure complex, a new, purpose-built pub, the Bell House, does precisely that. But the Gateway, on a cramped site in the fork between two major roads, just didn’t have the room for extra car parking or new construction, and so it has paid the price. It won’t be the last, either.

Sunday 31 October 2010

Chairman of the board

Directors (in the past known as Directors’ Bitter) allegedly took its name from a special beer set aside for the directors of the Courage brewery at Alton in Hampshire, which was then released to the public. In the late 1970s it became Courage’s contender in the “premium bitter” market, competing with the likes of Ind Coope Burton Ale, Ruddles County and Eldridge Pope Royal Oak.

For a few years in the early 1980s I lived in Surrey, where most of the pubs were tied to either Courage or Allied Breweries, so I became quite familiar with Directors. To be honest, in that section of the market I tended to prefer the drier, hoppier Burton Ale, but recognised Directors as a good beer that, while predominantly malty and fruity, did not allow itself to be overwhelmed by sweetness.

It was then brewed at the Courage brewery in Bristol, but after that closed in 2000 went to the John Smiths plant at Tadcaster, a rather unlikely location for an essentially “Southern” beer. As the international breweries sought to divest themselves of their cask beer interest, the Courage brands, including Directors’ lower-strength stablemate Courage Best, were sold to Wells & Youngs in 2007 and are now brewed at Bedford.

Directors has a strength of 4.8% ABV and comes in a brown bottle with the characteristic Wells & Youngs wide shoulders. The label is dark red, which leads you to expect a reddish beer, which indeed it is, mid-brown with a copper-red tinge. Again the picture makes it look paler than it actually is.

It has a shallow but lasting head, rather thicker and creamier than the other W&Y beers, and noticeable although not overpowering carbonation. The initial aroma is fruity, and its basic character is malty and fruity, but with a hoppy note too and a surprisingly dry aftertaste. It’s certainly not a sweet, syrupy beer and, while it drinks its strength, you can imagine having more than one.

While it won’t appeal to lovers of pale, heavily hopped beers, it’s a good example of the traditional English robust, malty strong bitter. Although I haven’t tried the current cask version, Wells & Youngs have succeeded in recreating in bottle something that retains much of the character of the beer I remember from the 80s. It’s also a distinctive beer that you might well be able to identify in a blind tasting.

Saturday 30 October 2010

Rose tinted pubs

I see that the government have now appointed Bob Neill as Community Pubs Minister, whatever that may mean. It’s all too common to hear of “community pubs” being held up as an ideal in comparison with irresponsible High Street bottle bars, as, for example, in the comment here by Greg Mulholland MP that “community pubs are a crucial part of the solution to problem drinking.”

The term conjures up visions of cosy little street-corner locals with darts teams, meat raffles and coach trips to the races, the kind of pubs where most of the customers live within walking distance and regulars will greet each other in the bar. In short, the kind of place where you might ask the proverbial “man in the pub” a question and get a meaningful answer.

Yes, there still are pubs of this kind, but they represent a small and dwindling proportion of the country’s pub stock, and it is these “community pubs” that have suffered most over the past three years when legislation has decreed that half the pubgoing community have to be treated as outcasts.

And it is very misleading to imply that “well run pubs” and “community pubs” are one and the same. What about town-centre Wetherspoons? Or destination dining pubs specialising in local food and ales? Or multi-beer freehouses that most of their customers will pass numerous local pubs to visit? All types of pubs promoted by CAMRA, but not really in the accepted sense “community pubs”, unless “community” is defined as a community of interest of their customers.

How often, honestly, do you go in a pub and strike up a conversation with people you already know, but who haven’t either gone there with you or arranged to meet you there?

Perhaps if distinctions are to be drawn in the pub trade, they should be between “responsibly” and “irresponsibly” run venues. “Community pubs” is a sentimental, old-fashioned and increasingly meaningless stereotype which fails to reflect the way most responsible drinkers use pubs today.

Sensitive souls

The most recent poll followed on from my post about Premiumisation and asked to what degree buyers of bottled and canned beers were sensitive to special offers and discounts. There were 107 responses, broken down as follows:

I buy the brands I like regardless of price: 48 (45%)
I have a range of brands I like, but tend to choose those that are on offer: 24 (22%)
I often try brands outside my favourites if they are on offer: 21 (20%)
I just go for the cheapest available within the category: 4 (4%)
I never buy bottled or canned beer: 10 (9%)

So almost half of respondents said they did not tend to be influenced by offers and went for the beers they preferred. Overall, I suspect that understates beer buyers’ price sensitivity, but it applies more at the premium end of the market.

The implication of this for brewers must be that to build respect and success for your brand in the long term it is important to avoid being seen as something that is regularly piled high and sold cheap. One of the best beer marketing slogans of all time was Stella Artois’ “Reassuringly expensive”, a reputation that was destroyed by the brand’s owners in the pursuit of higher volumes. To some extent, Greene King seem to manage that with Old Speckled Hen, which apparently is the best-selling bottled beer in Britain.

And I think you’d find even if you confined the survey to canned lagers that there was more brand loyalty than might be imagined – consumers don’t just choose indiscriminately between Carling, Carlsberg and Fosters depending on what is cheapest on the day.

Friday 29 October 2010

Freezing your drink

A new high water mark has been reached in the anti-drink tide flowing through Scotland, with the news that West Dunbartonshire Council has decided to impose a complete ban on any new drinks licences, in both the on and off-trade, in 15 out of 18 areas within the authority. In the remaining three areas applicants for licences will have to prove that customers would not travel from an “overprovision” area to purchase alcohol.

Inevitably this will lead to stagnation in the market and act to the detriment of responsible consumers of alcohol by blocking any new entrants, as Patrick Brown of the Scottish Beer and Pub Association rightly points out. “The Board appears to be more interested in political grandstanding than it is in public health,” he said.

The Chair of the Licensing Board, councillor Jim Brown, said: “We have far too many pubs, bars and off-sales shops given the size of the area.” Just what right does this self-important twerp have to make judgments as what constitutes “too many” pubs or off-licences? Surely the number is determined by the level of business – if all are trading profitably, then there cannot be too many.

And what evidence is there that freezing licences is likely to reduce either consumption in general or so-called “problem drinking”?

The policy is also likely to hold back economic development in the area, as who would want to open a new supermarket, hotel or sports club if they were unable to get an alcohol licence for it?

The report doesn’t say whether existing licences will be transferable – if they are, the move will have the unintended consequence of handing a potential goldmine to anyone who has one, as they will be able to sell it to the highest bidder.

Thursday 28 October 2010

Dog amongst the pigeons

Tee hee, James Watt of BrewDog – never knowingly uncontroversial – has said that keg is the future of craft beer in Britain.

“I don’t think cask is an appealing way to get people into beer,” said Watt. “Cask is more sleepy, stuffy, traditional and just has this kind of stigma attached to it which isn’t going to get young people excited.

“It’s all CAMRA, beards, sandals, beer bellies, hanging out at train stations at the weekend. We think keg beers could be the future of craft beers in the UK.”

Watt also argued keg better suits the beer styles the company produces.
Keg also has the advantage of allowing bars to stock interesting and unusual draught beers where they don’t have the turnover for cask.

It would be amusing to see a few CAMRA fuddy-duddies squirming if forced to make a choice between cask Greene King IPA and keg Punk IPA.

Wednesday 27 October 2010

A cut worth making

Simon Clark of FOREST sets out very clearly here how immense sums of money are given by the government to ASH and other anti-smoking organisations who overwhelmingly use it to lobby the government to further tighten restrictions on smoking.

Two examples: commencing June 2008 the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies will receive £3,694,498 over five years. It was also awarded a £1.2 million grant to develop and pilot several projects to implement smoking cessation services. Smoke Free North West meanwhile secured almost £1.9 million from the PCTs in 2008 to “complement core national funding”.

ASH UK, for example, received a direct grant of £142,000 from the Department of Health in 2009 (£191,000 in 2008 and £210,400 in 2007) plus £110,000 from the Welsh Assembly Government in 2007. In 2008-09 ASH Scotland received £921,837 from the Scottish Government followed, in December 2009, by a £500,000 grant from the Big Lottery to fund a major three-year research project into smoke-free homes in Scotland. ASH Wales meanwhile received £115,800 from the Welsh Assembly Government in 2008-09 and £113,000 in 2007-08.
The comments thread to that posting is well worth reading!

Surely the government should not be funding what are basically pressure groups full stop, and in this time of economic stringency this is money that should be at the top of the list for cutting. Any smoking cessation activities carried out by these groups should be brought under the wing of the NHS, and their campaigning should only continue to the extent that it could be financed by genuine donations from the public. Which I suspect would be very small indeed.

Of course, the same also should apply to Don Shenker and his miserable crew of sarsaparilla-sipping anti-drink zealots at Alcohol Concern.

Pressure drop

This post on Paul Bailey’s blog refers to the phenomenon of “top pressure”, which was widespread in the 1970s, and was described and decried at length in CAMRA publications. What this involved was delivering real ale to pubs in casks, but then connecting a cylinder of CO2 to it, and using the gas pressure to force the beer to an illuminated keg-type font on the bar.

It must have largely been a Southern phenomenon, as I don’t recall ever knowingly coming across it in the North, where a lot of the beer was real, and a lot of what wasn’t real was “tank” (which maybe merits a post of its own). In fact the only occasion when I have drunk what I believed to be top-pressure beer was in a Whitbread pub in Alton, Hampshire in about 1981. By that time the practice was in steep decline, as real ale, and the handpumps that symbolised it, were once again perceived as attractive.

The system also had a unique drawback of its own, in that not only did the gas pressure make the beer fizzy and prevent it maturing in the cask, but it also tended to disturb the sediment, so you would end up with a pint of slightly hazy pseudo-keg. Thirty years or more on, it’s hard to see why it was done, as it combined the worst of both worlds, lacking both the freshness and authenticity of cask and the consistency of genuine keg.

But, back in those days, fizzy beer that came from illuminated boxes on the bar was seen as the future, and brewers who lacked the funds to invest in kegs, kegging lines and pasteurisation facilities climbed on the bandwagon by sending out cask beer and making it masquerade as keg. How times change.

Tuesday 26 October 2010

Streets paved with gold

The next Wells & Youngs beer to sample is Young’s London Gold. This is a bottle-conditioned beer of 4.8% ABV*, packaged in a brown bottle with an attractive green label. It was previously known as Kew Gold – presumably it has been renamed to give it a wider appeal. I’m not sure if the recipe has been slightly tweaked or not – it tastes much the same to me.

Although bottle-conditioned, it pours clear, with all the yeast sticking to the bottom of the bottle. The colour is a bright pale gold, similar to many lagers.

It has a strong natural carbonation, with obvious spires of bubbles rising in the glass, although it did not form a large head. This is a good sign that it actually has been enjoying some secondary fermentation in the bottle.

There’s an initial floral hop aroma, with malt starting to come through further down the glass. It has a carbonic bite, but overall a fairly soft, subtle flavour. There’s nothing wrong with subtle beers, as I have said here.

Boak and Bailey have compared it here to a British Kölsch, which is quite an accolade.

It would make an ideal refreshing summer pint, although the question has to be asked whether it is perhaps a bit too subtle for its own good: there are other golden ales, most notably the similarly bottle-conditioned Hop Back Summer Lightning, which are more in-your-face.

* The website says it’s 4.5%, but the bottle definitely says 4.8%.

Monday 25 October 2010

Premiumisation in practice

As noted on their own blog, BrewDog have now got three of their beers listed in Morrisons, who of the “big four” supermarkets arguably take the most conservative approach to their beer range. They are Punk IPA, 5am Saint and Trashy Blonde, and they are priced at a somewhat eye-watering £1.59 for a 330ml bottle. Tesco, in comparison, sell Punk IPA and 77 Lager for £1.39 a bottle. Morrisons sell a wide range of 500ml premium bottled ales for £1.69 each, or £5.50 for 4, which works out at 27.5p per 100ml. The BrewDog beers, in contrast, are 48.2p per 100ml, 75% dearer. Are they better beers than Pedigree or Abbot Ale? Very possibly. Are they that much better? The jury is still out on that one. I did pick up a bottle of 5am Saint, as I’ve never tried that particular beer, but in general I think I’ll be waiting for the offers to kick in.

Sunday 24 October 2010

Losing your Spoons

The other day, I received an e-mail from Fleurets, the licensed trade estate agents, about the Red Lyon in Whitchurch, Shropshire, a former Wetherspoon’s pub that is now closed and up for sale. It could be yours for £300,000, freehold and contents.

I’ve recently praised Wetherspoons’ skills in site identification and property management. But it’s clear they don’t always get it right. This web page listing all of Wetherspoon’s outlets, also lists 99 former ones that have closed. In some cases, they may have moved to bigger and better premises nearby, but in others they must have misjudged the local market, as they spectacularly did with the Edwin Chadwick in Longsight, Manchester.

There are Spoons in some fairly small market towns, of similar size to Whitchurch, such as Ross-on-Wye and Haverfordwest. I don’t know the Red Lyon, so can’t really comment on why it closed, but it would be interesting to look into the reasons that lead to Spoons succeeding in some small towns, and failing in others. This news report links it to a general decline of pubs in the town. There is a Cheshire example in the Lodestar in Neston on the Wirral. Maybe a key factor is the extent to which a town is a magnet for people from the surrounding area.

Saturday 23 October 2010

Turning a blind eye

I’ve never thought much of Robert Crampton as a newspaper columnist: he always comes across as one of those who writes whimsical, knowing drivel that doesn’t actually say very much, in other words much like every writer in the unlamented Punch magazine. Indeed, I remember a column he wrote a few years ago in which he effectively said “I don’t see the point of pubs. I once went in one and didn’t like it.”

However, he’s spot on in a recent column in the Times, which I can’t link to because it’s behind a paywall, but which has been reported in the Morning Advertiser. In this he argues that tolerating under-18s drinking in pubs is a way of socialising them and teaching them the rules of the adult world, a point that has been made before by Tim Martin of Wetherspoons, amongst others.

“Part of the tacit arrangement with the landlord was that we had to keep a low profile, behave ourselves, act in at least a civilised manner, learn the etiquette of communal socialising.

“If you got too gobby, you would be chucked out. Literally chucked out.

“Being in a pub meant that you absorbed a code of behaviour and that code did not include being an annoying little prat, or what is nowadays called antisocial behaviour.

“A pub is actually a very good place — much better than a street — for older men and women to pass on words of wisdom or warning to those who need to hear them.”
Unfortunately, the current draconian insistence on age-checking paradoxically makes the problems of underage drinking worse, not better.

What is needed is not a change in the law, but a tacit acceptance that, unless trouble is caused, a blind eye will in many circumstances be turned. If you know you are underage, you haven’t a leg to stand on if you step out of line. A similar blind eye is often turned, for example, with underage sex and many minor motoring offences, so it can’t be said that it never happens.

The deception that isn’t

Last night, the local CAMRA branch did a crawl of some of the pubs on the east side of Stockport town centre. One of the pubs visited was the Queens on Great Portwood Street. Go in, and you’re greeted by the sight of two handpumps dispensing Robinson’s Unicorn and Hatters. However, ask for either, and the barmaid will not pull the pump but flick a little switch to dispense your beer. Shock! Horror! Fake handpumps! But, in fact, the beer you get is cask-conditioned, served via electric meters, so while it may on the face of it look like a deception, it isn’t. The Unicorn was fine, and a beer I could happily have drunk all night, although those who went for the Hatters weren’t so happy. It’s a smartly-decorated, comfortable pub that, while never likely to be a CAMRA favourite, perhaps gets dismissed too easily.

I’ve expressed in the past a certain amount of nostalgia for the disappearance of metered real ale dispense. I know handpumps are an unequivocal symbol of cask beer, but in my view electric meters provide the ideal halfway house between sparklering a beer to death, and serving it flat, they remove the ability of incompetent bar staff to cock up dispensing a pint, and they give you a full measure too! Once very common in the North-West (especially in Robinson’s, Hydes and Greenalls pubs), the Queens and the Flying Dutchman on Hillgate are the only pubs I know of that still have it.

Incidentally, the best beer of the night was (handpumped) Robinson’s Battering Ram in the Tiviot – a wonderful pub that is like stepping back into the 1950s.

Thursday 21 October 2010

Proxy parenting

A South Shields woman has been fined £80 for buying cider and sparkling wine for her 14-year-old daughter to drink. Fair enough, you may think, and the report doesn’t go into the circumstances in detail. Possibly the fact that the alcohol was being drunk by the girl’s friends as well was a significant factor in the case.

But it does raise questions as to where it is right to draw the line. The law is quite clear that if an adult buys alcohol on licensed premises on behalf of a minor, they are committing an offence. But the offence is specifically in the proxy purchasing. It is not illegal for someone between the ages of 5 and 18 to drink alcohol, and nor is it illegal for parents to give their children alcohol. If a parent gave their 14-year-old daughter a glass of wine and she took it out into the park, would that be an offence?

Although it might not be an example of first-class parenting, I do not believe I would be committing an offence if I went into Tesco Express to buy a ready-chilled four-pack of Stella, went back to my car, and gave one of the cans to my hypothetical fifteen-year-old son who was sitting in the back seat. It’s far from unknown for parents to buy alcohol for parties given by their under-18 children, or to give their children alcohol to take to such parties.

Is this a case of the authorities seeking to push the boundaries and uninformed people who feel a bit guilty about their behaviour meekly acquiescing?

Bottled beer poll

The current poll is intended to find out to what extent people are influenced by in-store offers when buying bottled or canned beer. After I’d done it, it occurred to me that there is really a fifth category – people who don’t mainly stick to familiar brands, but are always on the lookout for something new or unusual. But if you take that approach, and don’t pay much attention to the price tag, then the first answer, “I buy the brands I like regardless of price” is the best one to go for. So far, that’s well in the lead, which will no doubt disappoint Cooking Lager and his campaign for cheap lout.

Wednesday 20 October 2010

Snippery slope

A US charity called Project Prevention is offering drug addicts £200 if they agree to have a vasectomy so they can’t pass on their degenerate lifestyles to the next generation. Apparently alcoholics (however defined) will get £100. Whether or not this will actually produce the desired results is doubtful, and you can’t help wondering where all this is going to end. What about people who weigh 20 stone? What about long-term benefit claimants? It’s not hard to find people prepared to express Sun-reader type opinions that “they shouldn’t be allowed to breed”. What about smokers? What about heavy drinkers, or indeed anyone who drinks more than the officially sanctioned annual thimbleful? Or those who don’t eat their “five a day”?

The discredited eugenics movement of the early 20th century is generally thought of now as being about racial purity, but in reality it was just as much, if not more, about improving the quality of the population by preventing the feckless underclass from breeding. The well-known novelist H. G. Wells, generally regarded as a man of the political Left, advocated ridding the world of the “unfit” through forced sterilisation, and he was far from alone. It seems that this mentality of making value judgments as to who is fit to reproduce and who isn’t, based on “lifestyle” criteria, is starting to creep back in again by the back door. It’s certainly widely spoken of already in relation to healthcare entitlement.

Tuesday 19 October 2010

Going bananas

Wells & Youngs were recently kind enough to send me some samples of their premium bottled ales, so I’ll be progressively reviewing them over the next few weeks. Clearly I have to declare an interest here, but on the other hand I’m not going to say something is good when I don’t think it is, as you can see from this book review, which I wanted to like, but couldn’t.

Wells & Youngs are in the second division of brewers of PBAs alongside the likes of Badger and Shepherd Neame, but behind the market leaders Marston’s and Greene King. They also now own the Courage brands. They have a distinctive portfolio of beers including one or two that are a bit out of the ordinary. Interestingly, all their Young’s branded beers are bottle-conditioned.

The first one I sampled was one of their more unusual brews, Wells Banana Bread Beer, which weighs in at 5.2% ABV.

I’ve never really been a fan of beers brewed with fruit, and some British cask ales with strawberries and raspberries have been among the most unpleasant I have ever tasted. However, the distinctive taste of banana, which doesn’t really have any element of sweetness, seems to suit beer rather better.

It comes in clear glass in the distinctive W&Y bottle shape tapering slightly out to the shoulder. The colour is mid-brown, but a dark tan without any reddish hint. The picture makes it look paler than it actually is. The head is fairly small, but lingers down the glass; there’s a full mouthfeel and distinct although not excessive carbonation.

The beer itself is fairly dry, with an underlying maltiness and hops too, but not of the floral kind that might struggle with the banana. The banana flavour, while not overpowering, is very evident – this is much more than a beer with a “hint of banana”.

Overall a good, unusual but eminently drinkable beer which makes an interesting change from more mainstream brews. Obviously it won’t appeal to those who don’t like the taste of bananas, and probably best to have one while relaxing in front of the TV rather than something you would drink as a session beer. The fruitiness would also make it a refreshing summer beer.

I have enjoyed it as a cask beer in the past although it is not listed in the current Good Beer Guide – which also, interestingly, says that after taking on the Courage brands, Wells & Youngs’ total brewing volumes are now more than Greene King’s.

Saturday 16 October 2010

Smooth operator

Well, my survey on “do you drink ‘smooth’ bitters?” has closed, with fairly predictable results:

Yes, and I never touch cask: 3 (3%)
Usually, but I occasionally drink cask: 0 (0%)
Sometimes, but I prefer cask: 11 (10%)
No, not if I can help it: 81 (77%)
I prefer other draught products to ales: 5 (5%)
I never drink any draught beer or cider: 5 (5%)

But if cask is so strongly preferred, why is it that “smooth” commands a substantial price premium? In Wetherspoons the other day, Ruddles Best Bitter was £1.55 a pint, John Smith’s Extra Smooth, a beer of similar strength, £1.95. Robinsons, Holts and Hydes all price smooth higher than cask bitter. In the real world, Pete Brown’s cask beer price premium is a long way off. Real drinkers will pay a premium for consistent but bland smooth beer.

Personally, I can’t stand the stuff, and in extremis would prefer cooking lager.

Thursday 14 October 2010

It's not going away

Earlier this week, David Nuttall, the new Conservative MP for Bury North, put down a private member’s bill under the Ten-Minute Rule to amend the smoking ban in pubs and clubs. It was defeated, but by the surprisingly narrow margin of 141 votes to 86 – and this for a hastily-submitted measure where there was little opportunity to lobby for support. Much of the opposition seemed to be simply recycling the same old clichés with little sense of conviction – see Dick Puddlecote here. What is to say that a better-organised bill, with more time for lobbying, could not do even better? The antismokers have argued that the ban enjoys overwhelming support, and is a done deal on which there is no going back, but clearly this isn’t the case.

This underlines the fact that the the smoking ban very much remains on the political radar. Contrary to the hopes of the antismoking lobby, opponents of the ban are not going to “move on” or “stop crying over spilt milk”. The passage of time does not render the ban any more acceptable, or any more right, if anything quite the contrary. And the issue won’t go away until the ban is relaxed.

The secret of our success

Wetherspoons are undoubtedly the greatest success story of modern times in the pub trade, all the more so because they have achieved that success in an overall declining market. They have about 1.5% of the total number of pubs in the UK, but because of the average size of their pubs probably account for more like 10% of pub drink sales. While there have been a few attempts to take them on, such as Bass’ Goose chain, none have really amounted to much. Although they offer low prices, that is far from the whole story as to why they have prospered so much. So what is the business model that has led them to enjoy such success?

  • They are very good at identifying sites that will fit the Wetherspoons formula. It’s rare for them to make a mistake. The Edwin Chadwick in Longsight was a rare exception where they seem to have completely misjudged the area, although I could see a Spoons working in the centre of Levenshulme a mile down the road. The success of Tesco is built on astute property management as well as retailing skills.
  • Wetherspoons sites are always ones with a lot of pre-existing footfall – they are primarily targeted at customers who are already in the area, or would be visiting it anyway.
  • By definition then, they are not destination venues. There is seldom much point in visiting a Spoons other than the one closest to you at the time (or maybe one out of a handful in a city centre). This may seem a negative factor, but it is fundamental to the business model. While a few Wetherspoons pubs do have car parks, they would avoid any site where a majority of customers would be expected to travel by car. They wouldn’t open up, for example, in the Rams Head at Disley or the Waggon & Horses at Handforth. In this context, it will be interesting to see what kind of fist Spoons make of some of the new pubs they have acquired in more suburban locations such as the Black Horse in Northfield, Birmingham and the Childwall Fiveways in Liverpool
  • They offer low prices and largely undercut the local competition, although they aren’t necessarily as cheap as often imagined. A perception of good value counts for a lot. If there’s a Spoons nearby, as a customer you have to justify to yourself paying more elsewhere.
  • Their all-day food offer, while obviously more adequate than inspiring, cannot be beaten in their trading locations for range and value. All-day pub food is still rare in town centres.
  • Their pubs are designed to be unintimidating and welcoming to the casual user and occasional pubgoer, hence the shopfront type appearance and open-plan layout. They are deliberately intended to be “unpubby” – I am sure the lack of fixed seating which I personally find offputting is a considered policy.
  • Their drinks range offers something for everyone, from the shot drinker to the real ale buff – nobody can object that “they don’t sell that!” It’s an easy default choice for a group to go to Wetherspoons. They probably have the widest customer age range of any pub chain.
  • Although it’s obviously in their commercial interest to sell cask beer, they also recognise that it is useful to keep CAMRA sweet. If CAMRA started generally condemning the chain it could do a lot of damage.
  • They have constantly varying offers and promotions to maintain customer interest.
  • They offer a consistent formula across all their pubs (with a few minor regional tweaks). This may be condemned as bland and uniform, but you know exactly what to expect, and it makes it much easier for the company to stay in control of what is on offer and maintain standards.
  • They have now achieved a critical mass so that the chain promotes itself through word of mouth – say to someone “there’s a new Spoons opening in Puddlebury” and no further explanation is needed.
  • They have created a subtle differentiation between the Wetherspoons and Lloyds No.1 brands which allows them to widen their potential market in the “night-time economy”, although the two can be indistinguishable in the daytime.
Wetherspoons have now become so big that it would now be effectively impossible for any other operator to mount a direct challenge – they are the “category killer” of the urban pub world. Indeed, Tim Martin openly acknowledges Wal-Mart as a role model. While I’ve said more than once that as a pub connoisseur I’m lukewarm about them (although I do use them) you can’t argue with their success. The same opportunities have been open to others – after all, Wetherspoons started small thirty years ago – but they have failed to take them.

Sunday 10 October 2010

A London Eye

The last time I ventured within the M25, my car was broken into in a hotel car park, doing over £300 worth of damage, and stealing a valuable classic Pentax SLR camera. So I’m not really inclined to repeat the experience any day soon.

Tandleman makes regular visits to London, and has remarked in the past how the pub scene there, at least in the inner areas, seems to be much more vibrant than in the country as a whole. But London is very different from the rest of the country, and really is not representative.

The much more intensive provision of public transport, and the much higher proportion of middle-class residents of inner-urban areas are both likely to result in a much healthier pub trade than in the rest of the country. Only in London is it not considered unusual for a middle-class family to eschew a car.

It seems to me that Pete Brown’s Cask Report is very London-centric in its outlook, with its claims that cask beer attracts an upmarket clientele, and that some licensees are put off serving cask because of the lower margins it commands. That last point just does not resonate here at all – almost without exception, the reasons pubs don’t serve cask are (a) they see it as too much bother, and (b) they believe, rightly or wrongly, that there is insufficient demand for it.

This also leads to a more general problem in politics as so many “opinion formers” live in London, yet in numerous ways it is not representative of the rest of the country, transport of course being a prime example. We have seen this with the congestion charge that seems to work in London, but has been decisively rejected by electors in both Manchester and Edinburgh.

Campaign with a Capital C

There have recently been a few ructions about the undemocratic proposal by CAMRA’s National Executive to remove the right of members to set the annual membership fees. I am a member of a professional accountancy institute, and that august body allows its members to vote on fees each year, so why it is such a problem for CAMRA I struggle to understand.

In this month’s issue of What’s Brewing, Colin Valentine, the CAMRA chairman, says “We are not a drinking club. We are not an appreciation society. We are a Campaign with a capital C.” But for many members the first two are precisely how they regard CAMRA. As I have described here, it has been extremely successful both in creating a social network of beer enthusiasts, and in promoting the appreciation of “quality” beer.

However, looking at the other side of the coin, in what campaign, as such, has CAMRA ever achieved success – setting aside the infamous Beer Orders which proved to be largely a disaster for the pub trade and the brewing industry?

It has also, of course, signally failed to campaign effectively, if at all, against the biggest legislative assault on pubs in its lifetime, not to mention doing little to confront the rise of the neo-Prohibitionists.

The question must be asked, what precisely, beyond the general appreciation of good beer and good pubs, is CAMRA campaigning for today? Possibly this is something that the current strategic review being carried out by ex-MP John Grogan will help to resolve, but don’t hold your breath.