Saturday 31 July 2010

Ostriches spotted in Manchester

I was struck by this piece from Chimp magazine (?!) who gathered together a panel to discuss the state of the pub trade in Manchester.
The item closest to The Chimp’s heart, though, was the panel on the putative demise of the Great British Boozer. And what a thoughtfully selected panel it was: Oliver Robinson of Robinson’s Brewery, Jan Rogers of Marble Brewery, Cleo Farman of Odd Group and John Quilter, former proprietor of now defunct Marmalade in Manchester 21.
Their discussions contained the astonishing statement that:
The panel also concurred that the smoking ban had had zero effect on their bottom line, and at least two of them enjoy a fag now and then to our knowledge, so no baccy-free evangelism here.
Now, that may be true for handful of metrosexual bars in Chorlton and Central Manchester, but surely these people cannot be blind to the pub devastation in Manchester’s suburbs and satellite towns. And are they saying that every single pub operator who has attributed reduced profits to the smoking ban over the past few years has been lying? Take this, for example, from J. W. Lees earlier this year:
JW Lees, the family-owned brewery based in Middleton, blamed another poor summer and the continuing impact of the smoking ban introduced in 2007 for a 34 per cent drop in profits in the year to March 31, 2009.
And I can’t honestly believe that is Oliver Robinson’s opinion, given the number of his company’s pubs that have closed over the past three years.

The continued denial of reality from some sections of the pub trade, while pubs continue to tumble like ninepins around them, is truly amazing.

Tilting the scales

Phil Mellows points out here two aspects of the Coalition’s proposed licensing reforms that have the potential to cause serious problems for the pub trade. It is planned to drop the requirement for objectors to licences to live “in proximity” to the premises in question, and also to add the “promotion of public health” to licensing objectives.

In combination these measures could open the way for alliances of public objectors, ideologically motivated by a general dislike of pubs, drinking and people enjoying themselves. Indeed, the germ of such an organised force already exists, set up by the temperance-funded Institute of Alcohol Studies.
So this gives some miseryguts in Stockton the right to object to a pub licence in Stockport just because it’s a pub and therefore a source of moral degeneracy?

And how on earth is a pub supposed to “promote public health”? While it may create a lot of human happiness, and thus improve people’s state of mind, it can’t really be said that a pub, especially a wet-led one, promotes health in the terms defined by the Righteous. Does any other type of business have such a pious aspiration loaded on to it?

As with many other such things, in the short term this may seem as though it’s nothing much to be worried about, but in the long run it must have the potential to come back and bite pubs with a vengeance. This is not “rebalancing” the licensing laws, but tipping them very steeply against the pub trade. And the more pubs become sanitised temples of health, the more their customers will turn to the arms of Tesco and informal social gatherings on private premises.

Tuesday 27 July 2010

Heading North

I have been having a further look through the North Review which recommends cutting the UK drink-drive limit. It has to be said that the entire report reads as though it is written to back up an already formed conclusion rather than dispassionately assessing the arguments. Once you look behind all the verbiage, there is actually no new research evidence that wasn’t included in the previous consultation document produced thirteen years ago.

While some passing references are made, there is no serious attempt made to analyse types of drink-drivers, whether law-abiding or currently illegal, what their motivations are and how they might respond to a change in the law. There is little point in advocating a change in the law unless you provide some analysis of the likely level of compliance.

There is an assumption that cutting the legal limit will reduce the numbers driving when well over the limit, which is questionable in itself and indeed somewhat unreasonable anyway. This is similar to the oft-heard claim that increasing the average price of alcoholic drinks will reduce the number of “problem drinkers”. Well, it might, but it will hurt responsible drinkers too, and the problem drinkers are probably the least likely to be swayed by price increases. If the aim is to cut the number of over-80mg drivers, then surely the best way of doing it is to devote more resources to testing, rather than penalise those at lower alcohol levels in the vague hope it will also influence those currently breaking the law.

The claimed reductions in fatalities are at the same time dubiously specific, but cover a very broad range. Given some of the holes in the research it's difficult to attach much confidence to them. 43 to 168 is one hell of a range! Could it not easily be 0 to 125? Or -43 to 82? I tend to believe that if this was implemented any reduction in casualties would be so small as to be lost in the noise of wider trends. After all, road fatalities in Great Britain fell by 12% between 2008 and 2009 without any significant changes in traffic legislation.

Mandatory one-year bans at 50mg, as proposed by North, would give us the strictest legal regime of any country in Europe with a 50mg limit. All countries with a 50mg limit either do not impose bans until some way above that level, or only impose short bans for lower level offenders.

The report does not recommend the general adoption of “unfettered discretion” (often incorrectly described as "random testing"), but it does say that it should be allowed in defined circumstances where there was a high risk of offences being committed, such as on the roads surrounding major sporting events. However, the worry with that is that the power could easily be abused to harass specific individuals or establishments, who would have no legal comeback. It also acknowledges that senior police officers have stated that in their view their current powers do not in practice restrict them from carrying out breath testing. The prime restriction on testing is resources, not limited powers.

While it is presented as a road safety measure, there does seem to be an unspoken anti-drink agenda behind all of this. Lowering the limit would force responsible people who hold driving licences to consider their alcohol consumption more carefully, both immediately before driving and on the night before driving, and would also lower the bar as to what, in both circumstances, was considered acceptable. It is likely to prove a far more effective means of closing pubs than of saving lives on the road, just as the smoking ban has been far better at closing pubs than reducing smoking.

There is a very good official response to the report from the Association of British Drivers here – I can’t find much to disagree with in that.

Monday 26 July 2010


Attractive pub in a prominent location, with an extensive food menu. Not as busy as you think it should be, but then again, when are most pubs busy nowadays apart from Friday nights? “Pint of bitter, please.” The barman serves it, looking mildly aggrieved that you’ve asked him to do some work. Glass full of bubbles, slowly starts to clear from the bottom, but it’s not crystal. Grip the glass, and your heart sinks, as it’s room temperature, whereas with a decent pint of cask beer you would expect some sensation of coolness. It’s probably the first pint of cask sold that session, although the pub has been open for an hour and a half. Once the pint has cleared, it retains a slight but discernible haze and, while the beer’s not off as such, it’s distinctly tired, end-of-barrelish and lacking condition. In a pub where you were known, you might well mention to the licensee that the beer was a bit below par, but here there’s no point; you just drink it, put the glass back on the bar and leave. Not the best way of spending £2.60 of your hard-earned cash. You won’t be going there again in a hurry, and if social events took you there, and you weren’t a diehard cask drinker, you’d probably choose smooth, or lager, or Guinness. Regrettably, while there are pubs where you can be confident that won’t happen, it’s all too typical of the experience of ordering a pint of cask beer in random pubs at quieter times.

Saturday 24 July 2010

Gimme shelter revisited

Last year I wrote about how few pubs had made much of an effort in providing smoking shelters. But I said in the comments “I think it will slowly come, as the better-run, more forward-looking pubs realise that they need to cater for all their customers,” and since then I’ve noticed quite a lot of investment going on in this area. For example, the Railway at Rose Hill now has a very smart elevated, covered area of wooden decking at the rear, while the beer garden at the Armoury in Edgeley, once little more than a patch of grass, now has two substantial separate shelters and bears a distinct resemblance to a grotto. I’ve seen several pubs with a notice outside advertising, amongst other facilities, “Covered, heated smoking patio” – so it’s becoming an important point of differentiation. No doubt the Righteous will moan about the patio heaters causing global warming, but they should have thought about that before imposing the smoking ban in the first place.

I was talking to a smoker who still does go to pubs, and he said that it’s very clear which pubs, within the current law, extend a welcome to him, and which don’t, and that obviously influences his choice of where to give his custom.

Freedom of association

I have just concluded a poll asking the question “Should private members’ clubs be allowed to offer indoor smoking areas?” The result, with 95 people voting, was pretty decisive:

Yes: 81 (85%)
No: 14 (15%)

I’ve already made the argument in favour of this here.

Friday 23 July 2010

A price worth paying?

Critics of the proposed reduction of the drink-drive limit point out the impact it would have on rural pubs and on rural social life in general (and in this context, “rural” means anywhere outside of big towns, not just the deep countryside). In the past, I have seen suggestions that an 80-50 limit cut could result in the closure of up to ten thousand pubs, although some of them may now already have been accounted for by the smoking ban. 7,500 is more likely. It scarcely needs repeating that pubs are widely valued as social centres and a cohesive point for village and rural communities.

The North Report acknowledges this but doesn’t really properly address it:
There were concerns expressed about the impact of a reduced blood alcohol limit on the drinks industry. The British Beer and Pub Association was particularly concerned about the impact on rural pubs, saying that drivers would be reluctant to go out to pubs which involved driving and would be reluctant to go for meals in groups where the driver could not drink. The Association said, “Lowering the BAC limit will therefore have significant impact on footfall in rural food-led pubs resulting in loss of sales across all areas, but especially food”. Their concern was heightened because of the particular reliance of many pubs on food to maintain their profitability. The Association went on to calculate that if one-third of those currently arriving at pubs by car chose not to go, pubs would lose £624 million a year. This was hugely significant, they said, because pubs were closing at the rate of 39 per week. The consequent loss of duty would also impact upon the Exchequer. This concern for pubs, and rural pubs and their place in rural life, was shared by others in the industry who gave evidence to the Review, with the Federation of Licensed Victuallers Associations, for example, writing in very similar terms.
Any policy proposal that is likely to make large numbers of lawful businesses unviable and result in a serious detriment to rural communities should not be allowed to go through on the nod. Surely there needs to be a detailed investigation of the effect that reducing the limit might have on rural pubs and communities. It may be a price worth paying, but that price needs to be quantified.

It is always difficult to forecast the effect of any legislative change on the licensed trade, particularly as it has long been characterised by the triumph of hope over experience. For example, while the smoking ban has undoubtedly led to the closure of large numbers of pubs, some of the pubs that had seemed most vulnerable – landlocked, no outside drinking space, no food trade – are still in business.

However, looking at the proportion of customers of a pub eating meals, in conjunction with the proportion arriving by car, will give a reasonable impression of the potential effect of a limit cut on any particular pub. A pub with entirely wet trade and all customers arriving by car will have no chance. But a pub with 75% dining, and 65% arriving by car, will be in a better position than one with 10% dining, but 45% arriving by car. People will be much more likely to continue to visit pubs to eat meals and drink less than they will be just to have a drink and a chat. Also those eating meals are more likely to travel in groups where the driver may not feel he is making too much of a sacrifice by being abstemious.

Anything with under 25% arriving by car would have little to worry about – which underlines the sense behind Wetherspoons’ long-standing policy of concentrating on town-centre sites, even if at times it may have given the impression they were ducking competition and limiting their options.

As with the smoking ban, the effect on pubs would be slower and more insidious than might be supposed, and likely to take at least five years to work itself out, as licensees try new ideas and formulas in a usually futile attempt to attract new custom. There are plenty of pubs that in the long run have been made unviable by the smoking ban, but are still open and struggling along. But the idea that it wouldn’t close pubs at all, or that the effect would be trivial, is simply incredible.

Thursday 22 July 2010

Lansley talks sense

There was an encouraging outbreak of common sense recently from Health Secretary Andrew Lansley in his evidence to the House of Commons Health Committee on the issue of minimum alcohol pricing:

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley has again ruled out minimum pricing, arguing it would have an “unwelcome” impact on low-income families.

Giving evidence to the Health Committee yesterday, Lansley admitted the idea that the price of alcohol affected demand was unquestionable.

But he added: “The evidence does not support minimum unit pricing as the mechanism to deliver a price adjustment that best impacts on demand and does not as a consequence have unwelcome, regressive impacts in terms of low-income households.”
Good to see that he recognises that a minimum pricing regime which sought to increase the price of everyday off-trade alcohol purchases would have a negative impact on responsible drinkers on low incomes.

Given that he recently also said that people had to take responsibility for their own health rather than being told how to live by government, this gives mild grounds for encouragement.

It’s interesting that his inquisitor was Dr Sarah Wollaston, the Tory MP for Totnes and a former GP, who was selected by an “open primary” of all electors and on this issue at least does not appear to have very “Tory” instincts.

Tuesday 20 July 2010

A dozen reasons to stub out the smoking ban

Taken from Sp!ked, musician Joe Jackson explains why it's time to extinguish this illiberal, undemocratic, junk science-inspired legislation.

What is needed is not just the repeal of the smoking ban and other illiberal laws, but a return to healthy scepticism about the claims made about various risks, fairness and tolerance towards others with different habits, and a large dose of common sense.


The article I linked to last week about hoppy mid-Atlantic pale ales brought to mind an indigenous beer style similar in colour but rather more subtle in flavour – pale, sweetish West Midlands bitters and light milds. In the current edition of the CAMRA newspaper What’s Brewing, Roger Protz reports how the historic Three Tuns home brew pub at Bishop’s Castle in Shropshire has been brought back to life. The core of their beer range is XXX bitter, which he describes as “a pale, all-malt beer, hopped with Fuggles from Worcestershire, soft and malty, with a fruity nose and hop bitterness coming through in the mouth and finish.” Lovely.

The brews produced by the other two historic home-brew pubs in the broader West Midlands area – the All Nations at Madeley in Shropshire and the Swan (Ma Pardoe’s) at Netherton near Dudley, although weaker, were broadly similar – pale, easy-drinking, soft-flavoured and subtle. And finest of the lot is Batham’s Best Bitter, also from the Black Country not too far from Netherton. As well as their own small tied estate, this is sold in the Great Western in Wolverhampton, a Holden’s tied house, and I always enjoy a pint when I go in there. Famously dismissed as “sugarwater” by CAMRA stalwart Ivor Clissold many years ago, to my mind this is one of Britain’s great beers. Holden’s own bitter, although a little darker and more robust, is fairly similar too.

And it could be argued that the unlamented M&B Brew XI, being a palish, sweetish bitter, also fell into broadly the same style, although a much inferior product that never in my experience rose above tolerable. It always seemed to have a kind of heaviness and thickness to it quite unlike the delicacy of beers such as Batham’s. In the late 70s, Brew XI was ubiquitous across large swathes of the Midlands – was there ever a cask beer that was so widely available but so little regarded? According to the 2010 Good Beer Guide it is now brewed under contract by Everards, but I haven’t seen it in years and even if I did it would be one of the last beers on the bar I would choose.

Sunday 18 July 2010

Guerrilla marketing

The Observer reports with predictable outrage that tobacco companies are using “edge-of-the-law” tactics to get round the tobacco advertising ban and promote their products. Not surprisingly, ASH are yet again foaming at the mouth. But I say good luck to them – the blanket ban on tobacco advertising is an egregious violation of free speech, and one of the things Clegg should (but won’t) put at the top of the list for his Great Repeal Bill (which is increasingly looking as though it won’t repeal anything significant at all). If you ban something, you shouldn’t be surprised if those affected do their best to find ingenious ways of circumventing it.

Saturday 17 July 2010


Good news that the coalition government are reported to be considering scrapping Labour’s plan to ban the display of tobacco products in shops. Not surprisingly, the likes of ASH have been foaming at the mouth with outrage. This was always an absurd, spiteful measure that would impose substantial costs on small retailers and restrict consumers’ access to information about the price and availability of a legal product while, paradoxically, if you believe the evidence from countries that have implemented it, doing nothing to achieve its stated aim of reducing the prevalence of smoking. According to Parminder Singh, president of the National Federation of Retail Newsagents:
“It is precisely the kind of measure that should be first in the deregulation firing line: unwanted, unworkable, unnecessarily costly for struggling small businesses and proven not to achieve its objectives.”

Friday 16 July 2010

The elephant in the lounge bar

Some salutary words for the pub trade here from Chris Snowdon, in response to this article from Adam Fowle of M&B pleading for special favours from the government – the call of lame duck industries down the years. It’s funny how nobody seemed that bothered about supermarket drink prices before 1 July 2007, isn’t it? Chris concludes:
Consumers aren't stupid. They've always known that they can get their alcohol much more cheaply from the off-trade. They pay (or paid) a premium to go to the pub because pubs sell atmosphere, comfort, entertainment and relaxation. Above all, they sell an environment. That environment changed dramatically in July 2007. For some people, it was a change for the better, but every economic indicator suggests that for pubs' core customer base, it was a change for the worse. People will not pay a premium to stand out on the street. Whether that premium is £2 or 2p makes little difference when there is a comfy sofa and a roaring fire back at home.

So, yes, it's not pretty when business colludes with government, but it's understandable when business feels it can maximise its profits. But when years of collusion have led to nothing but the decimation of your industry, isn't it time to grow a pair?
The anti-drink lobby must be chortling into their sarsaparilla at the sight of sections of the drinks trade at each others’ throats.

Wednesday 14 July 2010

Mid-Atlantic drinking

There’s an interesting article in the current issue of Opening Times – the Stockport & South Manchester CAMRA newsletter – by Gazza Prescott on the rise of pale, highly-hopped “mid-Atlantic” pale ales. There’s an extended version on Gazza’s website here.

Now Gazza is well known for his trenchant opinions, but this is an enthusiastic and readable survey of the development of this particular beer style. I have praised the likes of Oakham JHB and Thornbridge Jaipur on here before. It’s a bit much to say “Pale’n’hoppy beers are slowly taking over the beer culture of the UK”, although he does acknowledge that it is a phenomenon largely confined to specialist beer pubs. There isn’t much sign of these beers “going mainstream”. Realistically it is just adding another colour to the palette of British beer styles – I can’t really see them replacing the traditional balanced bitters in the general run of pubs.

It’s probably also fair to say that these beers are the beer world’s equivalent of highly-peated malt whiskies such as Laphroiag and Talisker – very well-respected, but too much biased towards one extreme end of the flavour spectrum to appeal to many people as a regular tipple. You might well enjoy one or two during an evening’s sampling of a variety of beers, but few would want to drink them all night.

It should be said that there is a marked difference between the kind of intensely hoppy beers Gazza is talking about and those “gold” beers with an insipid, floral hoppiness than can so easily become wishy-washy, which is what I was complaining about here.

Closing down the debate

Apparently fakecharity Alcohol Concern Wales want to have a “national debate” about the future of alcohol sales in petrol stations. This stems, they say, from continued concern about the high level of drink-related road accidents. But is there actually evidence that any such accidents have been caused by drivers who have bought alcohol from petrol forecourts and consumed it immediately afterwards? Also, in many areas of rural Wales, petrol stations may offer the only shop for miles around, so banning them from selling alcohol would be a significant detriment to local communities.

Of course, when such organisations call for a “debate” that is the last thing they want – they are seeking to impose their views on others. We saw exactly the same a year or so ago when health organisations staged the so-called “Big Drink Debate” which was really just an exercise in making moderate drinkers feel guilty. And isn’t the real motivation behind turning the spotlight on petrol stations just yet another niggly, salami-slicing, superficially reasonable-sounding bid to restrict the availability of alcoholic drinks?

Tuesday 13 July 2010

Join the club

One aspect of the smoking ban which always seems particularly unreasonable is the prohibition of private clubs permitting smoking, something brought up the other day in the comments. Even if you take all the arguments about health and the protection of employees at face value (which of course I don’t), why in principle should a group of adult smokers, and tolerant non-smokers, not be allowed to set up a private licensed club where they could socialise, in the full knowledge of the potential risks they were exposing themselves to? Obviously under-18s would be strictly barred, and to prevent it having a wider appeal you could prevent the club selling food beyond crisps and nuts, or charging admission for entertainment. You could also prevent non-members being “signed in”, so nobody could visit on impulse.

Maybe it should also be a condition that such a smoking club could have no paid employees, with all the work done by the members on a voluntary basis – although, realistically, given that there are many jobs that involve a far greater and more demonstrable risk to health than working in a smoky club, I don’t see why there shouldn’t be paid employees. After all, in my experience a considerable majority of bar staff are smokers anyway.

Nobody who found smoking unpleasant or offensive or felt it was a risk to their health would ever need to cross the threshold of such an establishment. Nobody could claim it was the only place in town you could get a meal. I really can’t see how any reasonable person could object. If you don’t like kinky sex, you don’t go to fetish clubs. If you don’t like smoke, you don’t go to smoking clubs. Simple.

But perhaps the reason it’s not allowed is not philosophical principle, but the fear that such smoking clubs would become embarrassingly popular amongst non-smokers as well as smokers, thus taking away the vaunted “level playing field” for other businesses, and exposing the hollowness of claims that the ban enjoys overwhelming support. As I said in a previous post, in many spheres the way people vote with their feet can be much more significant than how they cast their ballot.

Sunday 11 July 2010

Practice what you preach

There have been predictable howls of outrage over the news that Tesco have been selling 75cl bottles of Bulgarian wine for a mere £1.11. It’s easy to condemn Sir Terry Leahy as a hypocrite for allowing this to happen while at the same time expressing support for minimum pricing and a ban on below-cost selling. But all he’s doing is what any canny businessman would do – trying to get the government to allow him and his competitors to set up a price-fixing cartel, but insisting he can’t move on his own as it would put Tesco at a disadvantage. He is following the precept of St Augustine, “Grant me chastity and continence, only not yet.”

And why are they selling wine at £1.11 a bottle anyway – because they’re lumbered with a surplus of stock they can’t shift (and I suspect bottles of Bulgarian Chardonnay that normally retail at £2.99 aren’t very palatable in the first place). So it makes sense, as it would with slow-selling packets of cereal or boxes of chocolates, to cut the price to get rid of it. Would it be better to simply pour it down the drain? The Righteous would probably say yes, of course. And, if such discounts were outlawed, the result would be obvious – smaller producers of alcoholic drinks of any kind would be expected to supply Tesco on a sale or return basis, or not at all.

Saturday 10 July 2010

Tyranny of the majority

Bad news from Bavaria that a referendum has voted by a 61% to 39% margin to impose a complete smoking ban in bars and restaurants. Some may hail this as democracy in action, but I had always thought that a fundamental principle of democracy was respect for the rights of minorities. Voting may be a good system for choosing MPs and councillors, but should voters be allowed to impose their own lifestyle preferences on others?

If you’re fond of the pongy ale, but most of the customers in your local pub prefer lager, should they be allowed to vote that everyone should drink lager?

Or, given that a large majority of people are heterosexual, would they be entitled to vote to outlaw homosexuality?

The report also shows the fallacious “level playing field” argument being trotted out again. In reality this is more of a “dog in the manger” argument. Surely hospitality businesses are entitled to offer a range of services and facilities as they see fit, and stand or fall as to how popular those prove with the paying public. If businesses with smoking bans feel disadvantaged because those permitting smoking do better, doesn’t that demonstrate that there is little genuine public demand for the bans? The real test of public opinion is not so much how people cast their ballots, but how they vote with their feet.

Thursday 8 July 2010

Give us the choice

We keep hearing claims from the antismoking lobby that the licensed trade has “accepted” the smoking ban and “moved on”. But, according to a recent poll in the Morning Advertiser, there continues to be a very strong belief that it has damaged the business of pubs and needs to be amended, if not completely scrapped. 64% of respondents believed that the ban had been terrible or bad for business, with 76% - more than three quarters - saying a separate smoking room should be allowed. Even three years later, 49% believed that the ban should be completely scrapped, with, presumably, a further 27% believing it needed to be relaxed to some extent.

Only 32% said the ban had encouraged a new type of customer into outlets, and there was no comment as to whether those outnumbered or even made up for those who had been deterred. On the flip side, 23% said the ban had a neutral effect, 10% a good effect and 3% that it had an excellent effect on trade. One can only imagine those are poncy dining pubs where clearing out the riff-raff is seen as a desirable objective.

It is very clear from this survey that, despite the deluded, ostrich-like views of ban apologists, this continues to be a live issue for the trade and is not going to go away any day soon.

Wednesday 7 July 2010

Boarded up

Two examples today, here and here, of officious local councils making pubs remove A-boards advertising their services. One is a pub in a market town set in a narrow street off the high street, the other is set back from the road in a rural area. In both cases, the presence of an A-board advertising that food is available will bring in a lot of customers who otherwise would pass by. For many rural pubs in particular, an A-board is a vital sign that they are open and trading.

So, at a time when the pub trade is struggling, busybody council officials are trying to kick them when they’re down. Despite all the noises about helping local businesses, the practical reality so often seems to be the complete opposite.

Tuesday 6 July 2010

The popularity stakes

Pete Brown reports that this blog has now ascended to the dizzy heights of #3 on the Wikio ranking of “beer blogs”. That’s some achievement for something that was only ever intended to give me the opportunity of getting certain things off my chest. It’s written for my benefit, and I don’t consciously seek to attract an audience.

Martyn Cornell (whose writings I greatly respect) had suggested that these rankings overstate the relative popularity of this blog. He has a point – it’s not really a “beer blog”, it’s more an “I hate lifestyle Fascists” blog wrapped around a pubs and beer theme.

But that, of course, is why it’s so highly ranked, as it attracts a lot of inward links from other blogs outside the “beer blogosphere”, specifically, although not exclusively, from those opposing the smoking ban. That is the way Wikio works, and inevitably however rankings are compiled there will always be some who benefit and some who in relative terms suffer.

It does seem to me, though, that a lot of beer blogging is somewhat parochial and introspective, and doesn’t really connect with the day-to-day experience of beer drinkers and pubgoers.

Not so simple

You might have thought that banning retailers selling alcoholic drinks below cost price was something quite easy to achieve. But in practice it’s proving far less straightforward than many imagined. The government have put forward four different options for consultation. One, just defining cost as duty plus VAT, is seen by many as too low as it excludes any production or distribution costs. Another, defining it as the invoice price paid, would mean opening up retailers’ accounts to expensive and time-consuming audits. And the remaining two simply seem to give manufacturers carte blanche to create a cosy price-fixing cartel that would effectively end price competition at the lower end of the market.

It also isn’t stated whether any option will deny retailers (and indeed pub operators) the ability to sell off surplus or short-dated stock below cost rather than be forced to pour it down the drain.

Yet another example of how, when governments try to interfere with the workings of markets in the pursuit of “higher purposes”, they so often end up with a can of worms floating on a raft of unintended consequences.

Saturday 3 July 2010

Three years on

Pete Robinson is, as usual, spot-on here in his analysis of the effects of the smoking ban, three years on. The NewBreed customers simply don’t exist, and the idea that food can be the saviour of community pubs is a total delusion.

The Great British Pub is dead. It just doesn't know it yet.

It died three years ago when it allowed the State to dictate what goes on behind its doors. It died when it ended a 450-year-old relationship with its smoking customers.

Few at the time asked if this might be a poor idea. Instead of fighting for fairer concessions the trade instead lobbied hard for the 'level playing field'. Industry consensus went along with the plethora of bogus surveys financed at the taxpayers' expense proving beyond doubt that even smokers were desperate for a blanket ban.

Untold riches lay ahead if we converted our pubs into shrines to politically correct apartheid.

Critics such as myself were dismissed as doomsayers and conspiracy theorists. We still are, despite time proving us right.

This industry's obsession with clearing out the riff-raff was like Basil Fawlty on 'Gourmet Night'. Deep cleansing, sterilising and redecorating to remove any shred of evidence the once loyal, nasty smoking customers had ever been there. A new dawn was beginning and the promised New Breed of non-smoking customer was all that mattered.

Unwittingly the trade ripped out the very heart and soul of the pub. From that day on the customers began a long exodus that has been impossible to abate, draining the life blood from this industry.

Devoid of soul our pubs struggle on like zombies in the vain hope of a new injection of sustenance when NewBreed starts coming through the door.

When are we gonna realise the painful truth? NewBreed isn't coming. He never existed, other than in the cunning imagination of anti-smoking groups to bait the seductive hook this industry so hungrily swallowed.
Nick Clegg’s Your Freedom initiative gives people the opportunity to make their voice heard – if you want to save the British pub, make sure you have your say.

Friday 2 July 2010

Ayr conditioning

Twenty years ago, apart from a few pubs in the major cities, there was very little cask beer to be had in Scotland. In most areas, you just had no expectation of finding a pint of the real stuff. Now, the situation has changed, and handpumps are cropping up in more and more bars. However, all too often the quality lottery becomes more like Russian roulette. If you go in a bar, and see a lone handpump hiding at the end of the usual row of keg fonts, do you try it and run the risk of a pint of ditchwater, or do you play it safe and order one of the kegs which at least you know will be clear and cool? Now, obviously the “real ale warrior” determined to bear witness to the cause would do the former, but from my point of view, while a good pint of cask is far better than lout, lout is a damn sight better than a bad pint of cask, especially if you’re just having the one with your lunch.

This point was brought home last Saturday when I met up with someone I know (not in a beer context) in Ayr. We went for a meal and then moved on somewhere for a drink. He’s not a real ale drinker, and I thought it polite to let him choose somewhere in his home town rather than insisting we go somewhere with real ale. We went to a congenial basement bar, and I was pleased to see a couple of handpumps on the bar dispensing beers from Strathaven and Kelburn. I plumped for a pint of the Strathaven, but was not entirely surprised to get a glassful of Scotch broth. I took it back, and it was changed politely. The barmaid pulled a fair bit through and presented me with a glass that had no more than a slight haze. It still wasn’t at all good, though, with a distinctly yeasty taste, and I didn’t spot anyone else drinking it. It hadn’t occurred to me that it would be a Good Beer Guide pub, but when I checked the Guide I found out that this pub – Wellingtons – was listed. On the evidence of that evening it certainly shouldn’t be.

I went in another pub in the same town where the sole cask beer was, of all things, Tetley Bitter. It was a bit hazy, and must have been about the flattest, dullest, stalest pint I have ever been presented with. I cut my losses and left it on the table after drinking about a quarter. In different circumstances it would certainly have justified a complaint, but in that situation I honestly couldn’t be arsed.

Having said that, I did have some very good cask beer in the GlenPark Hotel in Ayr, home of the Ayr Brewery. With hindsight, we would have been better going there.

Later in the week I went in another pub at lunchtime, one obviously appealing to the tourist trade. It had Old Speckled Hen on handpump. I didn’t risk it, and neither did anyone else while I was there.

There is plenty of good cask beer to be found in Scotland, but it seems that your chances of getting even a half-decent pint in a non-specialist pub are much lower than they are in England. Of course, as virtually every pub seems to have a fair choice of malt whiskies, the attractions of the top shelf may well prevail.