Saturday 27 March 2010

Don't cut the limit

I recently concluded a poll asking the question “Should the UK drink-driving limit be reduced from 80mg to 50mg?” There were no less than 147 responses, easily beating even the s*****g b*n poll, and the results were as follows:

Yes, with a mandatory ban at 50mg : 13 (9%)
Yes, with points only between 50mg and 79mg: 5 (3%)
No, the current law is sufficient: 129 (88%)

So a decisive rejection of the idea, although no doubt some will claim it was from a biased sample. As I’ve said before, I don’t believe there’s any guarantee that cutting the limit will save a single life, but there can be no doubt it would have a serious negative impact on the pub trade outside major urban centres. It would be an all-too-typical example of the current-day trend of taking headline-grabbing “Something must be done” measures without regard to either the wider consequences or indeed whether they will be effective at all.

Thursday 25 March 2010

Going dry

Managed house operator Mitchells & Butlers have announced that they are planning a “rapid” exit from wet-led pubs, and intend to focus their efforts on dining brands such as Harvester, Toby Carvery and Sizzling Pub Company.

Now this may provide opportunities for other operators to acquire some of their wet-led sites and run them in a more enterprising manner. But I can’t help thinking it represents a further step in the steady erosion of the original concept of pubs as essentially places to drink and socialise.

In a growing number of areas, the proportion of pubs of that actually are pubs rather than “dining outlets” is rapidly dwindling, and the welcome to customers who don’t want to eat can be grudging in the extreme. Indeed, in many cases where a pub has been turned over to a food-led operation, the removal of public bars and meeting rooms has led to the expulsion of what wet trade there still was in the place.

I’ve never said pubs should not serve food full stop, but there has to come a point where the concentration on food to the exclusion of all else means an outlet can no longer be called a pub in any meaningful sense. Who would even cross the street to a Toby Carvery to savour its atmosphere and drinks range?

The scales fall from his eyes

Well, pretty much everything that can be said about yesterday’s Budget has already been said, so there’s very little I can add.

It seems to have prompted Mike Benner of CAMRA into an uncharacteristic display of fighting spirit. But I was struck by his comment that “CAMRA is totally at a loss in understanding how a Government that recognises the community value of pubs can impose such consistently draconian beer duty increases” Umm, Mike, why does that come as any surprise to you?

While Labour may claim to support “community pubs”, those are self-evidently the kind of pubs in which nobody is allowed to smoke, where two musicians cannot play live together, to which nobody must drive and have a couple of pints, where nobody must ever consume four pints at a sitting, and where the world will come to an end if a 17-year-old is served with an alcoholic drink. In fact, not real pubs at all.

As I’ve commented before, far from regarding pubs as a valuable community resource, the current government seems to see them as a kind of health hazard. It was only too typical when, last year, Alan Campbell, the minister in charge of licensing, admitted he couldn’t remember the last time he had been in a pub.

It has also been interesting to see today that the one issue from the Budget that has got people excited is the 10% plus inflation rise in cider duty. Indeed there was a phone-in this morning on Radio Five Live devoted to it. Obviously Darling is well aware there are few Labour MPs in the West Country, and will be even fewer come May 7th. There may be a case for bringing the duty on mass-market ciders closer to that on beer, but this is an indiscriminate across-the-board increase that gives no recognition to small producers and remains a flat rate that takes no account of alcoholic strength.

Tuesday 23 March 2010

Tarnished Shield?

In the early 80s, I was working in the South-East, and my parents came down to visit me one weekend and stayed in a local hotel. This hotel didn’t have any cask beer, but what it did have were bottles of Worthington White Shield, which were probably well out of date. I’m not sure if they even had best before dates back then. They had undergone a vigorous and prolonged secondary fermentation and, if you could actually get the beer in the glass, were some of the finest beers I had ever tasted.

In those days, White Shield was widely available around here in Hydes and Robinsons tied pubs as well as in the Bass estate, and could sometimes offer a welcome contrast to the standard cask beers. But it was noticeable that its regular drinkers tended to be old codgers.

Ed writes here about how White Shield today isn’t the beer it once was, but I’m convinced its decline isn’t a recent phenomenon and can in fact be traced back a long way. Seeing that it was lauded by CAMRA as one of the very few surviving bottle-conditioned beers, Bass decided to relaunch it by putting it in a old-fashioned round-shouldered bottle with an informative booklet on a string around the neck, and at the same time increased the price by at least a third. But they badly misjudged the market, as in reality, while CAMRA may have trumpeted its qualities, it was the codgers who actually drank it.

One old boy in a pub I went in (probably now long since dead) was affronted by this price rise and decided to switch to pints of mild. There must have been plenty of others who reached the same conclusion, with the result that sales fell off a cliff. The rest is history.

And I continue to believe that if a beer is to be produced and sold in bottle-conditioned form, it needs to show evidence of having actually enjoyed a secondary fermentation in the bottle. It should have a dense head and obvious natural carbonation, whereas all too many supposedly bottle-conditioned British ales nowadays just seem to be a bottle of rather flat beer with some gunk in the bottom. Duvel is an excellent example of how it should be done.

Sunday 21 March 2010

Mug punter

I was surprised yesterday in a pub to be served with a pint in a dimpled mug. I remember when the “handle glass” was widespread, but was seen as stuffy and pretentious, and I – along with many others – made a point of asking for a straight glass, or a “sleever” as it was called in the West Country. Nowadays, while many pubs still keep a few behind the bar for some of their older customers, it’s rare indeed to be given one by default. Do they, I wonder, subtly change the character of the beer by exposing a greater surface area of head to the atmosphere?

Saturday 20 March 2010

A view of a pub

Google have recently updated the Street View facility on Google Maps to include pretty much the whole of the UK. Some may feel this is an invasion of privacy, but one benefit it brings is to be able to view pretty much any pub you care to mention.

So here are a couple of Stockport’s classic unspoilt Robinson’s pubs, the Arden Arms in the town centre, and the Davenport Arms at Woodford.

The Old Bull’s Head at Little Hucklow, recently mentioned on here, still looks inviting despite having been closed for five years, and hopefully the current closure of the very attractive Highwayman at Rainow will prove temporary.

Of course it also shows up the all-too-obvious decline of the pub trade. Here is the Aston Arms in Frodsham, Cheshire, once a delightful multi-roomed pub with its own bowling green. A couple of miles along the road in Helsby, two of the four pubs in the village are now closed and boarded, the Horse & Jockey and the Robin Hood. Ironically, I would always have thought those two were more appealing and had better prospects than the two that remain open, the Railway and the Helsby Arms (ex Brown Cow).

I have in my hand a piece of paper

I had an e-mail yesterday from Mike Benner of CAMRA trumpeting CAMRA’s “fantastic campaigning success” in securing “a major package of reforms to support pubs”.

To support community pubs, the Government has announced:
  • Greater protection for pubs under threat of demolition
  • A ban on the anti-competitive practice of imposing restrictive covenants on the sale of pubs
  • Greater flexibility for pubs to diversify by adding shops and other facilities without planning permission
  • £1 million Government funding for Pub is The Hub
  • £3 million to support Community pub ownership
  • Greater freedom for pubs to host live music without a specific licence
To reform the operation of the beer tie to ensure a fair deal for tenants and consumers, the Government has announced:
  • A one year deadline to fully implement the recommendations of the BIS Report before the government intervenes with legislation if necessary
  • A guest beer right for tied tenants
  • A free of tie option for tied tenants
Forgive me for thinking this is all just pathetic fiddling while Rome burns. As long as we continue to see no amendment of the smoking ban, above-inflation duty hikes and the constant insistence that drinking two pints at a sitting will lead to an early grave, not to mention the prospect of slashing the drink-driving limit and thus rendering thousands of pubs unviable, the pub trade will remain under serious threat, and for government ministers to pose as its friend is laughable. There couldn’t be an election imminent, could there?

Face facts, despite the liberalisation of licensing hours, this has proved to be the most anti-pub government since the days of Lloyd George.

And Clive Aslet isn’t too impressed in today’s Times:

There is a tiny irony in this. Not only might it be argued that the Government itself has precipitated the closure of many pubs by making it illegal to smoke in them — a blow to the traditional boozer, where sons of toil would spend all evening, perhaps several nights a week. Without this trade, licensees have only been able to survive by reinventing their establishments as gastro pubs, serving meals at prices that few locals could afford. I shouldn’t worry; I don’t smoke. I like the fact you can get a decent meal on your travels. But now the Government is considering making it impossible to get into a car if you’ve had so much as a single pint of bitter. That means they’ll lose my custom too.

Wednesday 17 March 2010

Nature or nurture?

Greene King IPA is possibly the biggest-selling cask beer in the UK, and is often dismissed is irredeemably dull and bland. But, as Paul Garrard points out here, when it is well kept it can be a very good and distinctive beer, something with which I would agree on the rare occasions (generally in East Anglia) I have encountered it on top form. But this raises the important question of to what extent the drinker’s enjoyment of a pint of cask beer derives from the intrinsic characteristics of the beer, and to what extent from the general standard of cellarmanship in the pub.

It has long been noticeable that a few pubs manage to coax depths of flavour and character out of beers such as Tetley Bitter which most others signally fail to do. And I would contend that the vast majority of beers (or at least those that have become reasonably well established and are not produced by short-lived micros) have the potential to be very good indeed in the right hands. I will admit that there are a few, however, such as Websters Yorkshire Bitter and Worthington Bitter, that do seem so intrinsically bland that they can never get there however well looked after, although an example where all the tick-box aspects of good cellarmanship are there can still be recognised.

It is certainly the case that all the regular beers from the four Greater Manchester family brewers, although dismissed by some as rather dull, are capable of scaling the heights when well looked after. Indeed probably the most memorable pint of beer I have ever had was a pint of Robinson’s Unicorn (Best Bitter as it was then) in a Stockport local towards the end of a pub crawl when you might have expected tastebuds to be getting jaded. So I would say the relative contribution of cellarmanship to the quality of the beer in the glass is considerably more than is often acknowledged.

Some of the beers that enthusiasts rave about only tend to appear in specialist outlets where they can expect to be well looked after, and might fare differently if made available to a diverse cross-section of pubs. Even a Thornbridge product might not be too impressive if turning over a bit too slowly on a lone handpump at the end of the bar of a family dining outlet.

And I can’t help thinking that often there is a lot of “tall poppy syndrome” amongst beer enthusiasts, in that any widely-available beer is inevitably dismissed as dull and bland, and any “cult” beer that achieves widespread distribution – Pedigree, Landlord, Deuchars etc – is said to have lost much of its character.

Tuesday 16 March 2010

Clear blue water

It was good to see within 24 hours of Lord Adonis announcing that he was seriously considering cutting the drink-drive limit, the Tories saying clearly that they did not back the plan.

Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, Theresa Villiers, the shadow transport secretary, made clear a Tory Government would leave the limit unchanged.

“If the Conservatives win the election, we will not reduce the limit to 50 milligrams. We don't think the case has been made for change.

“Other countries in Europe also have lighter penalties. We feel the best thing is to maintain the current limit and a mandatory ban and ensure that it is properly enforced.”
Now please don’t think that I am a cheerleader for the Tories, because I am not, and I have been highly critical in the past of their apparent attempts to outbid Labour on who can have the toughest anti-drink stance. But it is clear on this particular issue that, if you live in the countryside, the suburbs or a small town, or ever visit pubs in those locations, your vote could made a difference to their future.

On a related note, I was thinking that at least, unlike with the smoking ban, nobody could make the claim that cutting the drink-drive limit would actually boost the business of pubs. But I wonder how long it will be before some twerp stands up and says it will make people more aware of the opportunities to visit pubs by public transport when their ability to drink alcohol will not be so constrained.

Sunday 14 March 2010

Vote Labour and lose your pub

The Sunday Times reports today that the Government are planning to reduce the UK drink-drive limit from 80mg to 50mg, following the recommendations of a review by Sir Peter North. Now, this particular kite has been flown many times before, especially by that newspaper, and of course the forthcoming election will at least for a while kick it into touch. But there is no doubt that pressure continues to grow to cut the limit.

Over time, such a reduction would have a slow, insidious effect on the pub trade at least equal to that caused by the smoking ban, and the effect would spread much further than the stereotypical “country pubs”. It would ultimately cut pubs as generally understood back to a small urban rump, and any licensed premises that survived in suburban and rural areas would effectively just be restaurants.

Whether it would make any difference to road casualties is highly questionable, when the vast majority of drink-related accidents involve drivers well over the current limit, and the reduction in traffic police means that you can drive for years without ever being breath-tested – unless, that is, you have just driven off the car park of a pub. So it’s likely to do much more to close pubs than reduce road casualties.

There’s also some odd arithmetic in the article – if it is possible, as it says, for a man to drink 1½-2 pints of beer and stay within the 80mg limit, surely it will in most circumstances be possible for him to drink one pint and stay within the 50mg limit – something borne out by this TRRL booklet from the 1980s. Not that that makes it any better, of course.

Dirt-cheap booze

The advocates of minimum pricing often describe it as a means of stopping the sale of alcohol at “dirt-cheap” prices. But, in fact, even at a level of 40p per unit, it would sweep up a lot of drinks that most people would not regard as in any sense “dirt-cheap”. So I asked blog readers in a poll how cheap they thought a 70cl bottle of spirits needed to be before it qualified as “dirt-cheap”. There were 56 responses, broken down as follows:

£14: 1 (2%)
£12: 2 (4%)
£10: 5 (9%)
£8: 12 (21%)
£6: 15 (27%)
It's never too cheap: 21 (37%)

So nearly two-thirds of respondents either thought that nothing over £6 could be regarded as “dirt-cheap” (whereas realistically there are no spirits priced quite that low) or that the question didn’t really justify being asked in the first place.

There was only one well-heeled snob who thought that even £14 a bottle was “dirt-cheap”.

But that’s the price which a 50p per unit minimum price would make the cheapest bottle of spirits. Go figure...

Friday 12 March 2010

Minimum chance

If I mentioned every single demand by the anti-drink lobby for minimum alcohol pricing, this blog would contain little but. However, I couldn’t let pass without comment the call from the ten local authorities in Greater Manchester to introduce a county-wide scheme. Of course this doesn’t have a cat in hell’s chance of happening, but it’s a sad reflection on local voters that they can manage to elect such a bunch of miserable, snobbish killjoys. The massive queues for off-licences just across the border in other authorities would quickly bring such a scheme to an ignominious demise – and this would of course underline the “screw-the-poor” aspect of it, as it would be those without access to cars who were forced to buy expensive booze locally.

Nick Grant, head of legal services at Sainsbury’s, hit the nail on the head when he said to the Scottish Parliament:

If you create a market for the man or woman in the white van you’re putting the sale of alcohol into the hands of people who have no corporate responsibility whatsoever.

You would find the white van in housing estates with strong lager at a compelling price.
And, of course, as the Filthy Smoker points out on the Devil’s Kitchen blog, minimum pricing is absolutely illegal anyway under EU competition law, so all this talk about the subject is just so much hot air.

Drinkers demand weaker beer

Well, apparently Molson Coors think they do, as part of their relaunch of Caffrey’s nitrokeg ale involves reducing its strength from 4.2% ABV to a mere 3.8%. Caffrey’s was originally launched in the mid-Nineties at 4.8% ABV, and at that strength it did at least have a distinctive alcohol kick to it. It was eventually reduced to 4.2% as drinkers apparently found it too strong for a prolonged session, and now they’ve had a second bite at the cherry. But whether drinkers will come flocking now it’s been made weaker than many ordinary bitters and cooking lagers is very questionable. It all very much smacks of flogging a dead horse, to be honest. It joins the ever-growing list of popular beers and ciders whose strength has been cut in recent years.

On a related note, virtually every pub now will offer a 5% ABV premium lager – Stella, Heineken, Carlsberg Export, Kronenbourg 1664 etc. – yet outside specialist outlets it is very rare to find an ale of similar strength as a regular beer. Greene King Abbot Ale is about the only widely-available example I can think of. Even its stablemate Old Speckled Hen was reduced to 4.5% in draught form a few years ago. The explanation for this must be that consuming ales of that strength in volume is just so much more like hard work than lagers.

Tuesday 9 March 2010

Frozen in time

This website for the Old Bull’s Head at Little Hucklow in the Peak District isn’t maybe the most professionally-done in the world, but even so it’s extremely inviting:
Ducking through the small door of the fifth oldest pub in England you go back to another era. It is like entering another world and a reminder of times lost.

Two small rooms, each with their own open roaring fire, welcome travellers into their fold.

Collections of trinkets, brasses, tankards and mining equipment fill the low ceiling and, in fact, every available space. Almost hidden away are steps leading up to "the cave"- a tiny room up in the roof which cosily holds a long table and benches either side.

The pub has been home to a long line of innkeepers who were also miners and farmers. For years a shaft in the pub's cellar went down to a mine where the man of the house used to work during the day while his wife tendered the animals and brewed beer.
The only trouble is, sadly it’s been closed since 2005. I do hope nobody tries to book a room via the website.

This was a great pub, described in past editions of the Good Beer Guide as “a connoisseur’s pub”. For many years it sold only one, locally-brewed real ale, firstly Winkle’s Saxon Cross Bitter and then Ward’s distinctive malty brew from Sheffield. It didn’t, when I remember it from the late 80s, even serve meals, although obviously from the website it did later bow to commercial reality.

How many more lost pubs still linger on in cyberspace?

Highwayman arrested

Sad news from the local CAMRA magazine that Thwaites’ Highwayman at Rainow on the main road between Macclesfield and Whaley Bridge is currently closed and boarded. Apparently the recent severe winter weather led to the road being closed for weeks and the trade obviously disappeared. In an isolated moorland location with superb views, this is (or was) a true classic pub, with a rambling multi-roomed interior warmed by multiple real fires, and stone walls several feet thick. It has often appeared in the Good Beer Guide, although not in the current edition. Let’s hope the closure is only temporary and the brewery are able to find new tenants for the Spring and Summer.

Saturday 6 March 2010

A warm glow

I recently concluded a poll asking the question: “What gives you a positive feeling about a pub?” What I meant was not what leads you to go a particular pub in the first place, but what once you’re there what makes you think “ah, yes, this is all right.” There were 69 responses – not too bad, although well down on the 115 of its negative mirror image, and the results were as follows:

1. Real fires: 57 (82%)
2. Lots of handpulls: 48 (69%)
3. Beer garden: 37 (53%)
4. Sign saying “No children”: 34 (49%)
5. Home-made food: 33 (47%)
6. Small separate rooms: 32 (46%)
7. No piped music: 31 (44%)
8= Attractive bar staff: 28 (40%)
8= Friendly pub cat or dog: 28 (40%)
10. Free newspapers: 27 (39%)
11. Wood panelling: 26 (37%)
12. Free WiFi: 23 (33%)
13= Bar Billiards or other unusual pub games: 20 (28%)
13= Covered, heated smoking area: 20 (28%)
15= Bench type seating: 17 (24%)
15= Live music: 17 (24%)

A wide spread of responses there, with “real fires” not surprisingly topping the poll. Personally I don’t necessarily see “lots of handpulls” as a plus point, as I’ve been in too many pubs where the number of customers is scarcely greater than the number of pumps and you just know you’re going to get a warm, flat one. Interesting that “live music” was joint bottom – I know to many pubgoers this is a major plus point, but equally for the casual customer it is likely to be a turn-off.

Breaking the silence

There are some interesting motions on the order paper of CAMRA’s 2010 AGM, to be held next month in the Isle of Man. I was particularly struck by Motion 13:

This Conference censures the NE for failing to address and counter the ‘anti-alcohol lobby'. Its silence in the face of a continuing onslaught against even moderate alcohol consumption is counter to the aims of the campaign in encouraging responsible consumption of cask-conditioned beer.

Conference instructs the NE to mount a constructive rebuttal of the aims of the growing ‘anti-alcohol lobby' and a defence of the responsible consumption of cask beer at every opportunity.

Proposed by Peter Alexander
Seconded by Graham Donning
Perhaps somebody has been reading the poll I conducted a couple of months back. I wish them luck with it, but, realistically, until CAMRA realises that it cannot counter the anti-alcohol lobby effectively without to some extent making common cause with non real ale drinkers and at-home drinkers, it will simply be falling into the neo-Pros’ divide and rule trap.

Motions 5 and 16 may also lead to some lively debate.

Friday 5 March 2010

Thorn buds again

Last year I reported how West Country cider drinkers were up in arms at the way Gaymers had reduced the strength and dumbed down the flavour of Dry Blackthorn cider. Today it’s been announced that, following a Facebook campaign, Gaymers have relented and agreed to make the original recipe available again. This shows that grassroots campaigning can work and underlines the point that big companies ignore their consumers at their peril.

Thursday 4 March 2010

Here come the chip police

The latest front to be opened up in the “war against obesity” is a campaign by the Food Standards Agency to encourage fish and chip shops to serve thicker chips, which absorb less fat and are thus supposedly healthier.
The FSA scheme will cover Cambridgeshire, Greater Manchester and Northern Ireland by the end of this month. Officials will visit 80 chip shops to examine how much fat is in their chips and offer advice.

If the pilot scheme is successful it will be rolled out across the country and last two years. Other small caterers including Indian and Chinese takeaways will be included.
It is naïve, though, to believe that this change can be sneaked in without anyone noticing it. As always, the possibility of unintended consequences is ignored. If the chips are no longer to their liking, people are likely to forsake fish and chips in favour of other fast food options which may contain even more calories and fat.

I’ve said on here before that I prefer my chips to be slim, crisp and thoroughly cooked – Burger King on a good day is my ideal. I already actively avoid chips in pubs because all too often they are flabby, half-cooked abominations. Now, if people actually prefer big fat soggy chips, then fair enough, but it is one thing to offer them the choice of the “healthier” option, something else entirely to give them no alternative.

In future, I can only see the scope of such arm-twisting initiatives widening. I continue to believe that within the next five years were will see brewers being “encouraged” to “voluntarily” reduce the strength of popular beer brands in a bid to cut alcohol related health problems – something that to a limited extent has already been happening, in particular with Stella giving up its 0.2% ABV strength advantage over most of its direct competitors.