Wednesday 28 April 2010

Wooden wombs

Over the years, I’ve come across people who have an intense interest in hi-fi, but are totally cloth-eared when it comes to music, and others fascinated by cars but who aren’t at all bothered about driving. And when I read about all these extreme beers, mega-strong beers, oak-aged beers, beers brewed with unconventional ingredients and all the rest, it does make me wonder whether some beer enthusiasts aren’t rather missing the point.

Don’t get me wrong, life would be very dull if all beer was the same, and it’s good that a wide range of beers are available and new ones are introduced, some to succeed, some to fall flat on their face. But you can only drink one at a time, and I don’t feel short-changed if I spend all evening drinking the same beer, or regularly go into pubs that offer nothing I haven’t had before.

Visiting a pub for a beer or two or six should be about celebration, or convivial socialising, or relaxing, or even just a brief respite from the stresses of life, not solely to sample a particular brew.

At heart I have to conclude I’m more fascinated by pubs than beer – by the variation in layout and architecture, the fittings from many different eras, the ebb and flow of trade, the little rituals and quirks of pub life, the mix of customers, their interaction with the bar staff and each other, the way their clientele and atmosphere reflect the varied strands of society. Every pub is different and has its own character and its own story to tell.

This is one of the reasons why I like visiting Sam Smith’s pubs as, although they only offer the one unchanging cask beer (and not always even that), they are without exception proper pubs with their own individual character and their own distinctive cast of customers. And, on the other side of the coin, why I always find the experience of visiting one of Wetherspoon’s soulless food and drink emporiums so oddly unsatisfying.

Tuesday 27 April 2010

Inflating your pint

I remember the first time I bought a pint of bitter – when slightly underage – in 1976. It cost 21p. Now, obviously there has been a great deal of inflation since then, so it’s not surprising that the equivalent pint is now around £2.40, or more than ten times more. But how does that compare with the general movements in prices?

I recently came across an interesting website called Measuring Worth, which allows you to input a monetary value from any time in the past and find out what the equivalent is in present-day terms. And, it turns out that the 21p in 1976 was, in 2008, worth £1.13 in terms of the Retail Prices Index, and £1.79 in terms of average earnings. So, by whatever measure you choose, a pint of beer in the pub is actually considerably dearer than it once was.

Now, over time, you would expect the prices of things with a strong component of service (such as meals and drinks in pubs and restaurants) to increase more quickly than those in shops, because as living standards rise, wage costs rise more quickly than the cost of goods. But, even so, it is clear that the prices of drinks in pubs have risen more quickly even than average earnings, and this must have played a part in the relative decline of the on-trade against the off-trade. It could be said that the pub trade as a whole has been short-sighted in constantly pushing through year-on-year above inflation price increases and not realising that the short-term fix of increased revenues was in the long term undermining their business.

In contrast, drinks prices in the off-trade have probably risen roughly in line with price inflation. But it’s not that alcohol is underpriced in the off-trade, but overpriced in the on-trade.

Saturday 24 April 2010

Super-premium ales

One of the reasons marketeers put forward for people buying premium bottled ales is to give themselves a treat. And a growing category that directly addresses this motivation is the “super-premium” extensions of existing brands, with ABVs well above 6%. One of the first of these was Greene King’s Old Crafty Hen, a very complex beer including a proportion of an oak-aged beer called Old 5X, and which retailed for an eye-watering £2.49 for a 500ml bottle (77p a unit). I have been very impressed with this, although the price means it can only be an occasional treat, and such a rich, multi-layered beer is one to be savoured rather than guzzled. I was much less impressed by the cheaper Abbot Reserve at the same strength (£1.99, 61p per unit), in which the distinctive slightly sour, bittersweet character of the standard Abbot Ale seemed to be overpowered by cloying sweetness.

I recently spotted Marston’s Pedigree VSOP at 6.7% ABV, retailing at £2.25 for a 500ml bottle (67p a unit). The bottle label says this “delivers a rich complex pale ale with an opulent and luxurious finish”. The one I sampled was distinctly lighter than its Greene King counterparts, but didn’t really seem to drink its strength, and – in common with several other Marston’s bottled ales – demonstrated poor head retention. There is another in the cupboard awaiting a second opinion. Another one from the Marston’s stable is Wychwood King Goblin (6.6%), which I haven’t tried yet, but which didn’t impress The Ormskirk Baron.

It’s interesting that nobody from the anti-drink lobby has yet seized on this phenomenon, as they surely would if Inbev came up with a 6.7% ABV Stella brand extension. But, on the other hand, the fact that these beers sell for more per unit than their lower-strength counterparts, and that ales of this strength tend to be too rich and heavy to drink rapidly in quantity, means that in reality they have little to worry about. This category does seem to be here to stay, though, and it will be interesting to watch out for the other major producers of premium bottled ales coming up with their own variations on the style.

Tuesday 20 April 2010

Running on empty

On my journey to work, there are two pubs within half a mile of each other with their freehold up for sale. They are both prominent, striking buildings with their own car park, situated on a busy main road with a very frequent bus service, and currently trading, not closed and boarded. They are less than two miles from the centre of one of Manchester’s major satellite towns. Yes, they’re in a working-class area, but there’s plenty of housing nearby and a lot of thriving businesses – it’s no derelict wasteland. Yet you could probably snap up either of them for less than £200,000.

In fact, looking around at the number of pubs for sale, it would be easy to build up an impressive pub estate at knock-down prices. They may not be in the absolute top rank of locations, and may need a bit of refurbishment, but there are plenty on the market that appear perfectly viable. On the face of it, this would seem like a golden opportunity for ambitious entrepreneurs. But the days when the success of a brewery was judged by the size of its pub estate are long gone, and despite the Pollyannaish blandishments that the pub trade is starting to turn up, nobody’s biting.

It seems that, unless you have a position on a town-centre or suburban drinking circuit, or are in a location where you can attract a destination dining trade, pretty much any pub nowadays is a fundamentally unappealing proposition. They may continue trading for the time being, but if they happen to suffer a period of closure, then it’s very unlikely that anyone will want to step in and breathe new life into them. All this suggests that we are still a very long way from seeing the end of the wave of closures and that more and more areas of the country are going to become pub deserts over the next decade.

Of course one can point to individual success stories, but it has always been possible for keen-eyed operators to do well in a declining market. The Magnet in Stockport is a good example, but it very much caters for a niche market, and it doesn’t follow that pubs like the Bow Garrett or the Wrights Arms could be revived by applying the same formula.

If you had up to £300,000 to invest in a pub freehold, you will find plenty of pubs in all kinds of locations on the Fleurets website. But how many do you think you, or indeed anyone, could really make a go of?

Sunday 18 April 2010

The apple of my eye?

As there had been so much discussion about cider duty, I thought I would run a poll to find out how often blog readers drank cider. This has now closed, with 56 responses, broken down as follows:

Never: 9 (16%)
About once a year: 25 (45%)
About once a month: 13 (23%)
Most weeks: 6 (11%)
More than beer: 3 (5%)

I have to say very rarely drink cider in pubs, as few of the pubs I visit stock “real” cider anyway, and those that do also tend to have a choice of good beers. But I am partial to the occasional bottle at home from the likes of Weston’s, Thatcher’s, Henney’s and Sheppy’s.

It is very clear from the poll, though, that relatively few respondents drank cider at all regularly, with well over half saying they either never drank it, or only had it once a year (possibly at their local beer festival). This seems to underline the point that cider drinkers are something of a breed apart, and there is relatively little overlap between them and beer drinkers. I have seen very little about cider on the popular beer blogs, and indeed one or two have been a touch dismissive of it. A lot of beer drinkers might at various times include Guinness, premium lagers and cask ales in their “drinking repertoire”, but it’s unlikely they’ll also include cider.

While cider is officially an important campaigning priority for CAMRA, I get the impression that few members really identify with it or see it as something with which beer drinkers should be making common cause.

Wednesday 14 April 2010

Because mummy says so

I reported recently that the official advice to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day had been shown to have only a negligible impact on reducing cancer risk. Now the Times reports that, just like the discredited alcohol guidelines, this target was plucked from thin air without any proper scientific justification.

So, from where did the US Government get the idea for the number five, if not the scientific studies? I was closing in. Marion Nestle, nutrition professor at New York University, thinks she remembers exactly where. “It was Susan Foerster, the head nutritionist in California. She had the bright idea of promoting fruit and vegetable consumption in a state which was a big fruit and vegetable producer.”

The American National Cancer Institute admits that “no studies have tested the impact of specific numbers of servings on cancer risk”. But it says five was chosen in California in 1988, as it doubled the average consumption, and “the number five was memorable and provided a platform for creative message and programme delivery”.

In America now, the five-a-day message is “invisible; it has completely dropped off the radar”, says Nestle.
As I said before, eating five-a-day isn’t bad advice, but neither is it a health panacea, and failing to meet that target isn’t necessarily going to have an adverse effect on your health.

No wonder the general public are feeling like children who question why they have to do something and are given no better answer than “because mummy says so”.

Tuesday 13 April 2010

Manifest lies

As several other commentators have pointed out, Labour’s 2005 election manifesto included the following commitment:

“We will legislate to ensure that all enclosed public places and workplaces other than licensed premises will be smoke-free.The legislation will ensure that all restaurants will be smoke-free; all pubs and bars preparing and serving food will be smoke-free; and other pubs and bars will be free to choose whether to allow smoking or to be smoke-free. In membership clubs the members will be free to choose whether to allow smoking or to be smoke-free.”
Now, that really happened, didn’t it? And – along with the broken promise not to raise the top rate of income tax – it underlines the point that political manifestos should be regarded merely as a generalised statement of aspiration rather than a cast-iron list of commitments.

But it’s interesting to speculate what the pub scene would be like if that commitment had came to pass. Certainly vastly healthier than it is today, with thousands more urban locals still in existence. But it would have opened up an undesirable class division, with a stark distinction between smoky working-class boozers and anodyne middle-class dining outlets. Pubs would have been faced with the dilemma that they could only serve food if they alienated the majority of their wet trade.

It would have raised all sorts of awkward questions and contradictions. Could we have started seeing pubs trying to build a wall down the middle and turn themselves into effectively two separate establishments, with different licensees, staff and accounts, so they could cater for all their customers? And would it have been illegal to allow pub customers to bring in food from the next-door sandwich bar, chippy or Indian, as often happens today? Might we also even have seen the rise of private members’ dining clubs where you could enjoy a smoke after your meal?

The only real solution, of course, is to let provision follow the market. If there is a genuine economic demand for non-smoking areas in pubs, or for wholly non-smoking pubs, then the market will meet it. As it was doing before 1 July 2007.

Flushed away

Edinburgh pubs face a new threat from City Council plans to restrict their capacity if they don’t have enough female toilets. Under new building regulations, pubs will have to provide one toilet for every 30 customers, and it is assumed that 50% of customers are female, even if in practice they are overwhelmingly male. If applied retrospectively, this could make many older pubs and bars which only have a single female toilet unviable, while newer, purpose-built venues will have no problem in complying, thus driving another nail into the coffin of the traditional pub.

Now, I accept that pub toilets often leave much to be desired, but surely this is going too far and ending up cutting off your nose to spite your face. On the Continent, provision of toilets often falls far short of British levels – I have been in one bar in Belgium that must have had a capacity of over 200, yet only had a sole unisex WC. Possibly the answer is for Edinburgh pubs to designate all their cubicles as unisex, although how well that would go down with punters is questionable.

And it is more than a little hypocritical for local councils to be insisting on lavish toilet provision by private businesses when they are under no legal obligation to provide an adequate number of public toilets themselves and indeed in most areas are busy closing them down left, right and centre.

Saturday 10 April 2010

Necking it

I was a touch surprised recently to read that one beer blogger (some young whipper-snapper, I think) was occasionally in the habit of drinking his beer straight from the bottle. So I thought I would run a poll to establish exactly how prevalent this practice was. This has now closed, with 71 responses, and the results were as follows:

Do you drink beer straight from the bottle or can?

Never: 29 (41%)
Rarely: 26 (37%)
Fairly often: 10 (14%)
Usually: 6 (8%)

Good to see “Never” had a small lead.

Now, I suppose if one was in the habit of frequenting nightclubs and rock concerts, one might occasionally be found necking a bottle of beer on the grounds of “when in Rome…”

But, on the other hand, surely a major part of the appreciation of beer lies in pouring it out into the glass, seeing the head and body separate and admiring its colour with the light shining through.

As I wrote in the past,

In his excellent CAMRA Guide to the Best Pubs in Yorkshire, Barrie Pepper rightly praises the licensee of the Mother Shipton Inn in Knaresborough for refusing to hand bottles over the bar. "Like me", Barrie writes, "he detests the obnoxious practice of drinking straight from the bottle. Ugh!" It's a great pity more pubs don't follow this licensee's example.
Would any self-respecting wine drinker guzzle it straight from the bottle? No, I thought not. Although, on second thoughts, I’m sure I’ve seen the late, great Keith Floyd doing it during a cookery demonstration.

Wednesday 7 April 2010

Another one bites the dust

Another sacred cow of Healthism has been slaughtered with the news that scientists have discovered that the magic “five a day” portions of fruit and veg won’t in practice do much if anything to reduce the risk of cancer. A massive study covering over 500,000 people has shown that the reduction in risk is a mere 2.5%, which falls well short of being statistically significant.

Now, in broad terms, eating plenty of fruit and veg isn’t a bad idea. But the problem with this – and the “healthy drinking” guidelines – is that what in itself is reasonable advice becomes twisted into a logical fallacy, that if X is safe, therefore it follows that anything that is not X is unsafe. Eating your five a day may be a kind of dietary ideal, but in practice falling short of it is unlikely to do you much harm. Plenty of people live perfectly long and healthy lives without ever even approaching that figure.

Back on the top shelf

Good news for cider producers and drinkers that the government’s plan to increase duty across the board by 10% above inflation has been shelved to get the Finance Bill through Parliament before the election (along with the obnoxious “broadband tax” on landlines). It seems that they seriously underestimated the strength of the opposition this would provoke – as I said before, it was about the only measure in the Budget that people were talking about. There is a case for reforming cider duty, but imposing an indiscriminate flat-rate increase that gave no recognition to smaller producers was not the way to do it.

Sunday 4 April 2010

Estate of disgrace

I recently had the occasion to drive along Victoria Avenue in Higher Blackley, Manchester, for the first time in a number of years. Along here there used to be two massive 1930s estate-type pubs, but both have now disappeared and are simply vacant plots. You can see one of them – the Berkshire – on Google Street View before it was demolished. This is a pattern you can see all over the country – imposing 1930s, 1950s and 1960s estate pubs, surrounded by an expanse of under-used car park, either closed and boarded, knocked down and turned into a weed-strewn wasteland, or redeveloped into something else entirely. Here’s an all too typical example from Redhill in Surrey.

Obviously many once-thriving establishments have fallen victim to a profound social change. You can’t blame this on changing attitudes to drink-driving, as all these pubs have thousands of potential customers within walking distance and in any case were built when few working-class people owned cars. It is certainly true, though, that middle-aged people nowadays are much less likely to go out for a drink in the evenings, and younger ones are more likely to head for a town-centre circuit than go to a “local”.

Was the concept of the “estate pub” flawed from the start? There are two pervading myths about the pub trade – that coming home from work, eating your tea and then going out is the typical pattern of pubgoing, and that the presence of nearby housing guarantees business for any tolerably well-run pub – neither of which is any more than a half-truth, and which over the years have led many people to misunderstand the dynamics of the trade and make ill-informed business decisions. Possibly building smaller pubs that were part of local shopping centres rather than plonking them on massive free-standing sites in the midst of areas of housing may have given them a better chance of long-term survival.

While estate pubs may have been planned to offer all the facilities pubgoers wanted, the very act of planning made them somewhat sterile and characterless, and people felt happier in smaller, cosier, more natural and haphazard older pubs. In many areas the twentieth century pubs have gone, but the nineteenth century ones (or at least some of them) are still there. Perhaps it was a mistake to “plan” pubs at all. Might it have been better if the presence, or absence, of pubs in areas of new development had been entirely left to the discretion of private developers?

Thursday 1 April 2010

Licence to drink

In yet another attack on drinkers, The Publican reports that the government are planning to introduce drinking licences as a means of curbing binge-drinking and alcohol-related disorder.

As part of a move to cut binge-drinking the government is proposing that pub customers carry a card licensing them to drink outside their own homes.

The Publican has seen draft documents apparently drawn up by pubs minister John Healey in which he outlined proposals to ensure anyone over the age of 18 entering a pub carries the credit card-sized ‘drinking licence’.

Sources within the Department for Culture, Media and Sport confirmed that such a customer licensing proposal had been discussed with a view to tackling the UK’s binge-drinking culture.
“We are looking at several ways to curb irresponsible drinking, and this is just one of the options on the table.

“If everyone who wants to drink in a pub carries a licence of the sort we are considering, it will make the job of policing trouble-spots that much easier,” the source said.

Of course, in fact this was an April Fool. But, when we have seen genuine proposals to require people to obtain an official permit to buy cigarettes, and to be issued with personal alcohol ration cards, it is too close to the truth to be funny. In a few years’ time, will I be saying “You read it here first”?

Edit: And this is post #500! :-)