Wednesday 29 September 2010

The death of passion

It’s reported that the Passionate Pub Company, a seven-strong pub operator in the North-East, has gone into liquidation after its bank RBS withdrew its support.

Passionate, which has traded since 1999, said it had been severely affected by the smoking ban, changes in the market with the move towards food sales, and price competition from supermarkets.
Are you listening, Gillian Merron? Probably not. What does she care now she’s lost her seat?
“It is hoped that the policy makers and the legislators can see the consequences of their actions on a beleaguered but important sector of the economy.”
Well, precisely. And will they?

On the same day, new Labour leader Ed Miliband expressed his support for pubs – but if his chief weapon is to increase off-trade prices, that is simply a blatant attack on the living standards of the less well-off. Who was it Labour was supposed to represent again? And it is an exercise in despicable hypocrisy when he supported the measure that has ripped the guts out of the pub trade, especially in working-class areas, over the past three years. I wonder if Ed has spent much time going round the pubs and clubs of Doncaster North asking ordinary drinkers why trade had fallen off a cliff.

The damning verdict of Mr Eugenides on his defeated brother is equally applicable to Ed.


The various recent discussions about the Cask Report made me think how, during the lifetime of CAMRA, the market for real ale has been totally turned on its head, and the beer enthusiast has moved from observer to active participant. In the early 1970s, interest in real ale was almost an archaeological exercise. It was a declining product, produced by old-fashioned, stick-in-the-mud breweries, sold in grotty backstreet boozers and drunk by middle-aged and elderly working men. Keg beer, in contrast, was fresh, modern, youthful and glitzy. Of course that's a bit of an exaggeration, but still essentially true.

In the early days of CAMRA, many of its supporters felt that they were just marking the passing of an era, in the same way as steam locomotive buffs were. Possibly in the future there might be the occasional brewpub producing real ale on a cottage scale, a bit like a preserved steam railway, but no more than that.

However, it didn’t work out like that. The rise of CAMRA chimed with the popular “small is beautiful”, “Good Life” ethos of the 1970s, and before the end of the decade we were seeing new beers like Ind Coope Burton Ale being launched, the first micro-breweries springing up and multi-beer exhibition pubs starting to appear. As we know, this process has only intensified in the following decades.

This is not a bad thing – indeed in some ways it is a very good thing – but it means that the nature of the relationship between producer and consumer has fundamentally changed, and is far more interactive. Brewers and pub operators are far more aware of what their customers want, and responsive to their requirements. It is a very big change from basically exploring a static or declining field of interest. It is almost as if the National Trust, aware of a wide and growing interest in stately homes, had suddenly decided to start building new ones. But that wouldn’t by any means be greeted with universal joy. And God doesn’t make any new birds for twitchers.

While the steam locomotive analogy only goes so far, you could regard the construction of the Tornado as an example of producing an “enthusiasts’ special” that takes railway preservation beyond the mere role of being a custodian of the past. But of course even that is only the equivalent of recreating 1940s Draught Bass rather than creating something entirely new.

And now, ironically, the joy of unexpectedly unearthing the past is more likely to come from visiting an obscure working men’s club and finding on the bar an 80s-style font for a keg beer you thought had disappeared twenty years ago, or finding one of the last pubs still dispensing cask beer by electric meters.

Tuesday 28 September 2010

Extending the repertoire

Yesterday, the latest edition of the Cask Report, written by Pete Brown, was published. Broadly speaking, this gives a positive message for cask ale, with volumes remaining steady in the context of an overall decline in on-trade beer sales, and thus recording a gain in market share. This was the first time cask volumes had not shown a year-on-year decline since 1994, which is especially impressive given the very difficult general climate for the pub trade. Unlike pretty much anything else they offer, cask beer is the one thing you can only get in pubs, clubs and bars. This has already been dealt with in general terms by other bloggers such as Tandleman, Hardknott Dave and Pete Brown himself.

Two points sprang out, though. The first is that only 18% of people who drink cask beer sometimes, claim to drink it regularly. Clearly this provides an opportunity to increase sales by encouraging people to drink it more often, but it also underlines the point that, for many people, cask beer is just one element in their repertoire of drinking. Cask drinkers are also more likely to experiment in the fields of wine and spirits. There isn’t the Manichean divide between cask drinkers and keg/lager drinkers often portrayed by some voices in CAMRA. So generic condemnations of lager and “chemical fizz” may end up not “converting” people, but putting them off. If you want to encourage someone to try something, but make out that what he’s currently drinking or eating is rubbish, you are in effect implying he’s a fool.

The report also highlights the association between offering cask beer and a more affluent customer profile. Long gone are the days when it was the working man’s pint – that, if anything, is now Carling and Stella. But you have to be careful not to put the cart before the horse. Simply putting cask in a crappy downmarket pub won’t suddenly get middle-class drinkers flocking in. There’s a strong association between affluent areas and Waitrose stores, but you won’t regenerate Beswick by putting a Waitrose store in the middle of it. In many pubs, there may be the potential to introduce cask, or increase the cask offer, but you have to weigh it up carefully and take your customers with you.

Pete is also absolutely right to emphasise the quality issue – there is no point in offering cask beer if you can’t keep it properly, and a few poor pints will put people off drinking it in general. Warm, flat, hazy beer should be completely unacceptable.

Sunday 26 September 2010

The heyday of pubs

I cut my drinking teeth in the late 1970s, a period that surely will come to be seen as the all-time heyday of the British pub. Annual on-trade beer sales exceeded 37 million bulk barrels (over 10 billion pints), a post WWI record, and more than two and a half times the current level. And the pub trade had achieved a level of acceptance and respectability that it never did in the previous boom period of the late 19th century when the temperance movement was still an active force (which it of course now is again). Drinking in pubs had become a normal part of everyday life, something most people did from time to time. I remember my father saying to elderly aunts “it’s OK to go in pubs now, they serve food”.

It has been suggested that on this point I am looking at the past through rose-tinted spectacles. Now, I recognise that back then the range of beer and food was often much more limited, poor cask beer was commonplace, many pubs had a sense of entitlement that led to a “take it or leave it” attitude to service, a cliquish, unwelcoming atmosphere could often be encountered, and there was a whole stratum of dirty, grotty bottom-end pubs that has now largely disappeared.

But it is a matter of recorded fact that pubs were shifting vastly more beer in those days, and so thus demonstrably far more popular than they are now. My subjective memory is also that going to the pub for a drink was, for far more people, a routine everyday activity. Apart from town-centre redevelopments, and areas of inner-urban depopulation, pub closures were virtually unknown.

Today, there are still some thriving and busy pubs, although a lot fewer than there once were, and the best pubs are in many respects well ahead of their counterparts of thirty years ago. But it is all too obvious that much of the pub trade is now scratching along on very thin pickings, and equally obvious that pubs in general have lost a lot of their broad social acceptability. I am struggling to think of the last occasion I went in a pub (except on a Friday night) and couldn’t find anywhere to sit. The last job I had where it was commonplace to go to the pub at lunchtime at least one day a week I left in 1988.

Middle-class people may eat enthusiastically in dining pubs, but you just don’t see them drinking in pubs in the way they once would. I vividly recall an occasion in the early 80s when my father and I went in a pub in one of the better-off parts of Cheshire, and encountered a gang of “golf club types” standing around the bar sounding off about the latest BMW models and Poppy’s gymkhana results. It wasn’t one of my most enjoyable pub experiences, but you rarely see it now. Drinking – and I mean drinking – in pubs has morphed from the staid and respectable to Mark Dredge’s realm of misbehaviour. It has become, to some extent, denormalised.

And, however good individual pubs may be nowadays, I make no apology for looking back nostalgically to the days when pubs as a whole were doing two and a half times the business, when there were half as many of them again, and when visiting them just for a drink was a core part of national life rather than something peculiar and vaguely antisocial done by oldsters, oddballs, students and drunks.

Music to whose ears?

Piped music in pubs used to be a perennial source of complaint, but I don’t recall mentioning it once since the creation of this blog. However, the other day I was in quite a traditional pub where dance-style music (possibly Radio 1) was being played at considerable volume. The average age of the customers was well over 50, so I doubt whether that would be their favoured listening, but the bar staff were all, by the looks of it, under 25. So no prizes for guessing who chose the radio station. But surely, if there is to be piped music at all, it should match the preferences of the customers, not the bar staff. “AOR Hits of the 80s” will do me nicely, thank you very much. It was a frequent complaint in the days of jukeboxes, that the staff could override customer selections and impose their own choice of music.

One of the big plus points of the main Wetherspoons chain (although not Lloyds No.1 Bars) is that they don’t have any piped music.

Saturday 25 September 2010

The Good Guide Guide

Prompted by this post on Mark Dredge’s blog, I ran a poll asking whether people bought the Good Beer Guide. There were 77 responses, broken down as follows:

Every year: 17 (22%)
Every two or three years: 7 (9%)
Occasionally: 3 (4%)
I have an old copy I still use: 5 (6%)
I once bought one but have long since lost it: 6 (8%)
Never bought one: 39 (51%)

Obviously quite a lot of readers of this blog aren’t real ale drinkers, so you would expect “never bought one” to be the biggest category. However, the second highest is those who buy one every year. Although far from CAMRA’s cheerleader-in-chief, I have in fact bought every single copy since 1978, and I always regret throwing away the 1978 edition, which was the last to use “blobs” to identify beers rather than actually naming them in the pub entries.

I was a little surprised that Mark didn’t see much point in buying it. However, the main reason people buy it, I suspect, is not that they are fanatical beer geeks or tickers, but they uses it as a guide to pubs worth visiting when on holiday, away on business or out on day trips. It is, in effect, not so much a beer guide as a more down-to-earth version of the Good Pub Guide. To this end, from a personal point of view it always seems a waste of entries to include working men’s clubs, and some branches do have a habit of including too many pubs in obscure suburban locations that in practice, in comparison with town-centre or rural pubs, very few Guide users are likely to visit.

I have a 2006 copy of the Good Pub Guide which I bought off eBay, but I have to say that, while it does list some of what I would regard as “good” pubs, to a large extent it is for me a guide to establishments to avoid.

And, while I accept that some Wetherspoons do serve very good beer in terms of both quality and choice, it always seems something of an admission of defeat when the only pub listed in a town is the local Spoons, which in the 2011 Guide is the case, for example, in both my twin home towns of Runcorn and Widnes. The menu and general pubgoing experience are always much the same, and you can easily find them on Spoons’ website.

Really, I want it to unearth places that I might not come across by chance – such as the Black Horse at Clapton-in-Gordano which no tourist would ever find unless they already knew it was there. Some years ago I was staying in Taunton, which is a very poor town for pubs, and the Guide led me to the Masons Arms, a characterful independently-run free house tucked away behind the main street, sadly now closed. Another excellent Somerset pub you would never find by chance is the Crown at Churchill just off the A38. It’s coming across places like that that make it worth paying the cover price for.

Drunk and orderly

There’s an excellent article here from The Spectator (oddly uncredited) pointing out how the crackdown on underage drinking in pubs has ended making our alcohol problems worse, not better.

...pubs have become no-go zones for those who inhabit the purgatorial zone between childhood and adulthood. And that’s a disaster, because it was traditionally in pubs that young people learned how to handle their drink. In the grown-up world of the boozer, teenagers were taught adult skills: how to conduct themselves socially, how to converse with other adults, how to flirt and how to drink in a way that wasn’t embarrassing. No amount of alcohol training by the Red Cross can replace that informal education of old.
Of course, this is only what Tim Martin has been saying for years.

Inevitably, in the current climate, the answer will not be a bit more encouragement to turn a blind eye in pubs, but a further counterproductive crackdown in the off-trade. Tesco are doing it right, it would seem.

Thursday 23 September 2010

Divided we fall

Some very wise words here from Jeremy Beadles of the Wine & Spirit Trade Association on the need for the drinks trade to speak with one voice.

On duty he “would like some tax freezes please”. But what of other critical issues, such as ways of tackling cheap off-trade alcohol?

Surely this is a tricky one for the head of a group that represents producers (including brewers such as Fuller’s and St Austell) alongside retail giants Tesco and Sainsbury’s.

“I think there’s a perception about cheap alcohol and some of it is not real,” he starts. “It is still a damn sight cheaper to buy alcohol in most of continental Europe than it is here.”

So youngsters pre-loading before hitting the pubs is a myth? According to Beadles, ‘pre-loading’ is not the issue some would have you believe.

“When you look at the level of pre-loading most people only have one or two drinks before they go out, so they are not blasted,” he says.

“There’s a small proportion who are, but does that mean we have to regulate the entire industry, the entire population – or should we find a different route?”

On that subject, Beadles is adamant minimum pricing is most definitely not the way to go. As well as, in his view, probably being illegal, it is also “simply about making alcohol too expensive for poor people to buy it”.
As I’ve often said before, the anti-drink lobby don’t care if you’re drinking in the pub or at home, they don’t care if you’re drinking Jaipur IPA or Carling, all they care is that you’re drinking at all. If different sections of the drinks trade start squabbling with each other and claiming the moral high ground, the only winners will be the neo-Prohibitionists.

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Strange logic

There’s a rather strange line of reasoning here from Neil Robertson of the British Institute of Innkeeping, who argues that the pub trade must avoid being seen as an industry that relies on drink-drivers.

“We can not present ourselves as the suppliers of drink drivers,” warned Robertson.

“If we say hundreds of country pubs will shut, we are basically saying that we rely on and supply those people who drink and drive.

“We need to be more positive and stress that most of our customers are responsible and we are not worried about them drink driving.”
If by “people who drink and drive” he means drink-drive offenders, then those are people who are breaking the current law anyway, and realistically I would doubt whether any pubs are critically dependent on the trade of those who fall into that category.

But, in reality large numbers of people do visit pubs by car and drink alcohol, whether or not with a meal, within the current legal limit – in most cases well within it. If those are, in his terms “people who drink and drive”, then large swathes of the pub trade are dependent on their business. This is an entirely lawful activity and if industry representatives are not prepared to say so they are conceding the argument to the opposition. Clearly, if the limit was cut, most of those people would either drink less or not bother going at all (or less often) which inevitably would have an adverse effect on the business of pubs. As with the smoking ban, though, it would be a slow and long-drawn-out erosion of trade, not a sudden one off hit.

In fact, the vast majority of people err on the side of caution and in practice limit themselves to an amount of alcohol that would leave them well below the current limit. If you have a go at the blood-alcohol calculator on RUPissed you might be surprised at how much you need to drink to take you over 80mg – but in reality very few deliberately aim to drink up to the limit, as is often alleged.

Oliver Robinson of Robinson’s brewery talks much more sense on the subject in pointing out that a limit reduction would decimate many pubs’ early-doors trade.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

The credibility gap

Quite amazingly, Sir Peter North, who was responsible for the report proposing the reduction of the UK drink-drive limit, has admitted in evidence to the House of Commons Transport Committee that he had no information about what must be the crucial factor in looking at the issue:

Asked if he’d seen evidence from police records of how many accidents are caused by drivers whose blood/alcohol level is between 50mg and 80mg, North replied: “It’s not something that was made available to me.

“My own judgment is that we don’t need that sort of evidence to bring the limit down.”
So, effectively, he’s saying that he thinks we should be making policy on a basis of unsubstantiated gut feeling. Surely before legislating on such an important matter, something that would potentially have a devastating effect on the pub trade, it is absolutely essential that the proposals are founded on firm evidence, and there is confidence that they will be effective in improving safety.

Saturday 18 September 2010

Who reads this anyway?

A couple of weeks ago, I made the comment that “I always picture most of the readers of this blog as middle-aged blokes.” A commenter suggested I set up a survey to analyse the readership and demonstrate whether or not this was true, so I did. This has now closed, and with 102 responses it seems I have been proven right.

The age and gender breakdown was as follows:

Female under 35: 6 (6%)
Female aged 35-54: 2 (2%)
Female 55 or over: 3 (3%)
Male under 35: 18 (18%)
Male aged 35-54: 46 (45%)
Male 55 or over: 27 (26%)

So, not unsurprisingly, a strong male bias (89%), and a strong weighting towards the over 35s (76%). I think the male predominance is typical of pretty much every general discussion forum on the Internet, and I suppose quality beer is one of the finer things in life you only come to appreciate after the first flush of youth.

Hiding your light

There’s a thread on the CAMRA forum started by the indefatigable Richard English entitled “Some pubs don’t deserve to succeed”. And, regrettably, even in this marketing-savvy age, too many fall down on the basics of promoting themselves. I have written before about how pubs fail to advertise what is on offer within, which in locations where there is pedestrian footfall and a choice of venues, is crucial to bringing customers in.

I recently found myself in an attractive little Borders market town around lunchtime. It’s not a prime tourist trap, but clearly somewhere that does attract a fair number of visitors. There are six pubs on the main street, some remarkably attractive half-timbered buildings. One, although clearly still trading, wasn’t open at 12.15, another was closed and boarded and up for sale. Of the other four, two made no mention outside of offering food at all, one had a blackboard saying “see menu inside” and the fourth clearly had menus set out on the tables inside, although not displayed by the door.

From the general look of it, I chose the fourth, and went in and ordered a (somewhat lacklustre) pint. I picked up a menu and went to the bar to order, only to be told that, because of a flood in the kitchen, they weren’t serving food. The barmaid recommended a café-bar down the street, which as it turned out provided a perfectly decent light lunch, and also – surprisingly – had a handpump serving real ale, although that wasn’t very good either.

Surely it is basic common sense that if you are serving food, you display a menu outside and indicate the times during which food is served. And if you’re not serving food, how much effort does it take to write a notice saying “No food today” and stick it on the door?

Incidentally, the entry for the one Good Beer Guide pub in the town, which is just off the town centre, says bluntly “No food”. While I’m not naming names, the picture will give you a good clue as to where it was - looks wonderful, doesn’t it?


Across much of the South-West, Sharp’s Doom Bar seems to be the current cask beer of choice to put on the bar. If any pub wants to do something just a little bit “different”, Doom Bar seems to be the beer they go for first. The brewery must have some very good salesmen, because I have to say I find it one of the dullest brown beers around, with nothing distinctive or memorable about it at all beyond a generic “beery” flavour. Other bloggers such as Tandleman have commented on this before. Butcombe would be infinitely preferable, and to be honest I’d personally much rather have a pint of Courage Best.

It also seems to be very likely to crop up in the kind of pub where it ends up being served just a bit too warm, and with just a slight haze on it, which can’t do its reputation any good. The last example I had in the North-West fell into exactly that category.

Friday 17 September 2010

Black Beauty

There’s always a worry, when visiting a pub you’ve enjoyed many years before, that you will find it changed beyond recognition and no longer worth the trip. But I was greatly reassured recently when visiting the Black Horse at Clapton-in-Gordano close to the M5 in the northern tip of Somerset. This is a country pub as country pubs should be. Outwardly, it’s an unassuming, whitewashed building of local stone. Access to the main bar is gained by a passageway that runs right through the pub from front to back. Inside, it’s all stone-flagged floors, ancient beams and creaking settles. There’s a main bar area with a cosy snug opening off. The servery also has an outside window allowing direct service to drinkers in the beer garden.

It once featured on CAMRA’s National Inventory of historic pub interiors, but apparently was taken off because a wall was removed in about 1850. But it’s still one of the most traditional pub interiors I can think of.

On my visit, it had Courage Best, Butcombe Bitter and Exmoor Gold on gravity, and Otter Bitter and Wadworth’s 6X on handpump. Not the selection of a cutting-edge craft beer exhibition, but all beers either brewed in the West Country or having a strong local tradition. Prices were between £2.60 and £2.90 a pint, similar to country pubs around here. The casks stillaged behind the bar had cooling jackets, and my pint of Butcombe was served at the right temperature and had no shortage of condition. When done well, gravity dispense has much to be said for it.

Food is mostly rolls and baguettes with a wide choice of hot and cold fillings, with the menu augmented by a small selection of specials. One of these was Jamaican Jerk Chicken on a bed of rice, so clearly they’re not rigidly wedded to Ye Olde Traditional Meate and Two Vegge style of pub food. This is how pub food should be done – provide a decent meal or snack to visitors, but don’t pretend to be a restaurant. No food is served in the evenings, or on Sundays (the latter something of a failing, I think).

It remains very much a proper pub – just after noon on a weekday there were old boys in there drinking pints of bright orange cloudy cider. Well worth a visit if you’re ever anywhere remotely close. And why can’t more operators of rural pubs realise that championing tradition, with a nod to the contemporary, makes much more sense than chucking it out of the window? The Black Horse is a truly memorable pub – how many knocked-through, stripped-pine establishments offering “contemporary dining with a strong emphasis on local seasonal produce” can say the same?

So don’t let anybody say there’s never anything positive on this blog!

Thursday 16 September 2010

The Faff & Fluster

One fascinating aspect of people’s behaviour in pubs is the extreme difficulty elderly couples seem to have in deciding where to sit. Of course, we’ll all get there eventually (with a bit of luck) but it’s still amusing to watch.

“Where do you you want to sit, Ethel?”

“Oh, I don’t know, anywhere, George.”

“Here then?”

“No, not there.”

“How about here by the window?”

“Oh, all right.”

...two minutes later...

“Ooh, there’s a draught here, shall we move over there?”

I recall one occasion in a Cornish pub where I had bagged what was obviously the best-placed table in the room, and an elderly couple came in and tried out each one of the six or seven other vacant tables before settling on one.

Maybe there is something to be said for the restaurant practice of in effect telling customers where to sit and putting the onus on them to refuse.

Thursday 9 September 2010

Fair outlook for Robinson's

There’s an interesting article here on the Morning Advertiser website by Roger Protz discussing Robinson’s, our local independent brewer here in Stockport. It’s quite amusing how the former Trotskyite Protz has now become a cheerleader for the famously conservative-minded and indeed sometimes quasi-feudal family brewers. The Robinson family do give the impression of having a clear vision for taking the company forward and certainly aren’t willing to let it stagnate. But Oliver Robinson is surely correct when he says “Of our 400 pubs, 20% are doing well, 60% could do better and 20% are struggling.” It should be pointed out that, while the Arden Arms, which is something of a showpiece pub, may be busy on a wet Monday lunchtime, it’s unlikely that you would find anywhere near as many customers at that time in any of Robinson’s other pubs in central Stockport.

Wednesday 8 September 2010

Worth a read

A couple of good articles on Sp!ked this week:

A licence to interfere in our everyday lives – Josie Appleton says the Lib-Cons’ proposed reforms to the licensing laws would make them even more authoritarian and killjoy than they already are - no mean feat.

Decent drinkers vs demon drinkers – Tim Black reckons the campaign to ramp up the price of booze is an unspoken class war by wine-quaffers against cider-consumers.

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Analysing pub closures

Last week, I referred to a study by CR Consulting demonstrating how the smoking ban had been the primary cause of pub closures over the past three years. Dave Atherton has now written about this at more length on the blog of the Institute of Economic Affairs.

While in-depth research would be required to ascertain accurately the relative impact of various factors, the statistical evidence certainly appears to support the view that the smoking ban is playing a pivotal role in the rapid decline of Britain’s pubs. If this is the case, the policy implications are clear: to reduce the rate of closures, pubs and clubs should at the very least be allowed to provide separate ventilated smoking rooms.

Turning in his grave

I can’t imagine that the great economist and philosopher Adam Smith would be very impressed by the plans to implement a 45 pence per unit minimum alcohol price in his native land. But the arguments against it are very well summed up here by Dr Eamonn Butler from the modern-day institute that bears his name.

Even if cheap alcohol were the problem, how should you deal with it? Putting up the tax would at least be defensible economics. Minimum pricing isn’t. Price controls just mess up the market system and produce all sorts of perverse results which may be hard to predict. And once the politicians have started to regulate one price on the supermarket shelves, where do you think their public-spirited intervention will stop?

Monday 6 September 2010

Shame about the food

Pete Brown says here in The Publican exactly what I’ve argued about pub food on several occasions in the past – that pub menus haven’t significantly changed in a quarter of a century, and the vast majority of menus are, with a few exceptions, pretty much the same as each other. Indeed, there was more originality in pub menus in 1980, when there was more of a spirit of experimentation and “suck it and see”, than there is now. When there is so much innovation and variety in the restaurant sector, even down to the everyday “family restaurants” on your local retail park, pubs remain mired in a hackneyed, old-fashioned world of “hearty fare” and meat and two veg.
This represents a crushing lack of imagination, innovation or listening to customers. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with these dishes per se, but they form such a tiny, narrow sliver of what we now like to eat as a nation, and when they’re all identical, and when there is simply no option of a nice, tasty meal that is going to be less than 75 per cent of your daily recommended intake of fat and calories, I suddenly realised why I find eating in pubs to be largely a depressing experience.

I’m not saying I want sashimi platters with my pint of ale. I’m not saying there is no merit in hearty fare, or traditional British dishes.

But when you look at almost any other aspect of pubs – décor, beer selection, ambience – there is incredible diversity as you roam the country, even within a single town.
Beyond snacks and sandwiches, I rarely eat in pubs now because the food is so consistently dull and unappealing. Traditional English gristle and stodge blighted my childhood – it’s the last thing I want to eat today.

Yet on the same website we have Jessica Harvey praising “retro nostalgia pub grub” which surely is the last thing forward-looking pubs should be promoting.

Greyhound put down

A pub not too far from me – the Greyhound in Adswood, Stockport – has joined the recent trend of closures I have illustrated on the Closed Pubs blog. Like so many others that have closed, it is a large, 20th-century pub on a free-standing site. A former Greenall’s house, it was never the best pub in the world, and there’s a Hydes pub – the Cross Keys – just down the road, but on the other hand it managed to remain viable for decades, and there’s no shortage of potential customers nearby. Many years ago, we even had a CAMRA social there.

The scale of the steel shutters and fencing suggests there’s little prospect of it reopening as a pub. Google Street View still shows it as open. It looks to be 1930s from the architecture, although it could be early 50s – the wings look more modern than the central core. In this case, the style is that associated with inter-wars post offices and telephone exchanges rather than Brewer’s Tudor or Art Deco.

Sunday 5 September 2010

Sitting pretty

Although it’s effectively an advertising feature, this piece from the Morning Advertiser very much agrees with me on the benefits of fixed seating in pubs, and the dismal space utilisation of sofas.

Fixed or built-in, made-to-measure seating has come to be seen as the pub owner’s most practical option, says Barry Revell, of Breachview Interiors. It may be more expensive than loose furniture, but is the better business choice.

“Fixed furniture is less flexible, but in a way it’s a much better option. It will seat more people, because it uses all the available space — a length of wall with tables and chairs has too many unused gaps. And fixed furniture always looks more comfortable.

“I am not a lover of sofas,” says Revell. “Comfortable as they may be, if one person sits down on a sofa, nobody else will sit next to them.

“It is strange, but on a bench seat, people are more likely to sit next to someone they don’t know. So, on a 12-seat bench you may well seat a dozen people — on 12 sofa seats, you may have six people and the rest is wasted.”
The reluctance to use fixed seating – which is clearly a company policy – continues to puzzle me about Wetherspoon’s, as it would allow them to fit more customers in and improve the ambience of their pubs which all too often now resemble works canteens.

Saturday 4 September 2010


“Pre-loading” – that is, fuelling up on cheap off-trade alcohol before going on a night out – is often seen as a major factor behind drink-related disorder, and this is used as a justification for increasing the price of drink. Now, I’ve no doubt that a certain amount of pre-loading does take place, but overall it must only account for a tiny proportion of off-trade consumption, so to use that as a reason for an overall price hike seems like punishing the majority for the sins of the minority. And even if the price of a bottle of vodka was raised by 50%, it would still be much cheaper than drinks in the pub.

But I thought it would be interesting to ask readers of this blog whether they ever indulged in pre-loading themselves. The question was “Have you ever “pre-loaded” before going out for a drink?” and there were 72 responses, broken down as follows:

I currently do it often: 4 (6%)
I currently do it occasionally: 8 (11%)
I used to do it often: 5 (7%)
I used to do it occasionally: 9 (12%)
No, never: 46 (64%)

Perhaps a little surprising, given that I always picture most of the readers of this blog as middle-aged blokes, that as many as 17% of respondents claim to currently do it – maybe some of those who gave that answer would like to comment on the circumstances.

You’d never have thought it

New research by CR Consulting shows that the smoking ban “is demonstrably the most significant cause of pub closures” over the past three years. The article describes it as “shock proof”, whereas I would have thought it was more a case of demonstrating the bleeding obvious, but there are still Gillian Merron-type deniers around who wilfully refuse to believe the evidence of their own eyes. The report predicts pub numbers will continue to fall, with another 1,700 to close in England before the fourth anniversary of the ban in July 2011.

It makes the point – raised more than once by commenters on this blog – that pubs cannot justify a price premium if all they can offer is expecting their customers to stand out in the street. It also explains how the impact of the ban on trade is not a one-off hit, but a slow, gradual process of the “loss of sociability”. It is still closing pubs today, and will continue to do so for many years to come.

Thursday 2 September 2010

Left hand, meet right hand

The drinks trade certainly seem to be putting out conflicting messages about alcohol taxation at the moment. On the one hand, we have the British Beer & Pub Association saying that the tax system should be set to favour beer, which is the weakest mainstream alcoholic drink, the mainstay of the pub trade, and overwhelmingly home-produced. On the other hand, we have Diageo saying that the tax system should be rebalanced so that all alcoholic drinks are taxed purely on their alcohol content, which would result in a reduction of duty on spirits in comparison with that on beer and wine. Of course, it’s all special pleading, and the anti-drink lobby will no doubt find it amusing that the industry are unable to come out with a consistent message on alcohol taxation.

On balance, I would say that the BBPA are more right than Diageo. The current relative levels of duty do at least serve to roughly balance the selling prices of the different forms of alcohol, and compensate for the fact that spirits, at least at the lower end of the market, are cheaper to make than beer or wine. Also, while it is invidious to claim that one form of alcohol is “better” than another, it is less like hard work to abuse spirits and therefore there is a case for the tax system sending a message that they need to be treated with a certain amount of respect. Tim Martin of Wetherspoon’s isn’t too impressed by Diageo’s stance either.

The Wine & Spirit Trade Association are surely quite right to point out here that:

“It is not possible to single out particular types of alcohol which are consumed by problem drinkers for targeted tax measures. Problem drinkers have access to, and consume the same products as moderate drinkers – it is their drinking patterns which make their consumption harmful.”
Trying to discriminate between different categories of alcoholic drinks on the grounds that some are disproportionately consumed by problem drinkers is a policy doomed to failure, as these drinkers will just move on to something else. While wine is often perceived as the drink least tainted by alcohol abuse, it is worth remembering that cheap red wine was the staple drink of the archetypal French alcoholic of a generation ago.