Sunday 31 October 2010

Chairman of the board

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 30 October 2010

Rose tinted pubs

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sensitive souls

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 29 October 2010

Freezing your drink

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 28 October 2010

Dog amongst the pigeons

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 27 October 2010

A cut worth making

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

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

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

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

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

Pressure drop

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 26 October 2010

Streets paved with gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 25 October 2010

Premiumisation in practice

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

Sunday 24 October 2010

Losing your Spoons

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

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

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

Saturday 23 October 2010

Turning a blind eye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The deception that isn’t

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

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

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

Thursday 21 October 2010

Proxy parenting

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

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

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

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

Bottled beer poll

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

Wednesday 20 October 2010

Snippery slope

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

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

Tuesday 19 October 2010

Going bananas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 16 October 2010

Smooth operator

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

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

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

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

Thursday 14 October 2010

It's not going away

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

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

The secret of our success

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

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

Sunday 10 October 2010

A London Eye

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

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

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

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

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

Campaign with a Capital C

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 9 October 2010

The Ultimate Curmudgeonly Jukebox

There have been a number of posts recently in the beer blogosphere about people’s ultimate pub jukebox. Now it has to be said that beer snobbery has nothing on music snobbery, and there is a whole range of acts whose music might be utterly unlistenable and devoid of commercial success but still merits a high place in the “critical canon”. Whereas I make no apology for liking Magnum, and for liking Sam Smith’s Old Brewery Bitter.

I am an unabashed fan of classic rock and AOR. So here are ten tracks, not necessarily my ten favourite tracks, but ones that, if I walked into a pub and heard them playing, I’d say “yeah, alright...”
  • AC/DC – Hell’s Bells
  • Belinda Carlisle – Lay Down Your Arms
  • Big Country – Wonderland
  • Boston – More than a Feeling
  • Dire Straits – Single Handed Sailor
  • Don Henley – Boys of Summer
  • Heart – Crazy on You
  • Mountain – Nantucket Sleighride
  • Pearl Jam – Alive
  • Tom Petty/Stevie Nicks – Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around
And I haven't even mentioned Roxette!

If you go in any rock pub, you’ll find a band cranking out covers of Bad Company, AC/DC and Van Halen, and the critically preferred wank will be nowhere to be heard.

Edit: Thanks to Mark Wadsworth for the cartoon.

Wednesday 6 October 2010

What men want

I recently unearthed this article from the Morning Advertiser a few weeks back about what men are looking for in pubs. “A pint of ale, a packet of crisps and some peace and quiet are still what men desire most in a pub,” it says. Certainly suits me. But it goes on to say:
What emerged was a desire for a back-to-basics format, which somewhat reflected pub life back in the 1950s — an era when pickled eggs and bottled beer ruled the roost and television was still reserved for the living room of private homes.

This view seems the antithesis of what licensees in 2010 are being encouraged to offer — where’s the wine, coffee, Wi-Fi, 3D TV and Michelin-starred gastro grub?

Industry watchers and pub companies believe that any licensee pursuing this version of a wet-led, old-man’s boozer is playing to a strictly niche market. Very few examples of this business model will survive in the longer term, we are constantly told.
But, as the article goes on to say, while this model of operating pubs is often dismissed as a thing of the past, there are still a fair number of pubs that do well following that format – the Armoury in Edgeley, which has recently received a thoroughgoing refurbishment from Robinson’s, being a good local example. Many pubs in the Sam Smith’s estate fall into that category too.

It’s certainly the case that most of the pubs where I feel most at home are ones like that – tied house, traditional layout, extensive bench seating, mostly mature clientele and food, while usually served, not allowed to dominate to the exclusion of all else, and they can still be found in this part of the world.

Although it must be said that, from my perspective, this pub in Blackpool sounds like a descent into the seventh circle of Hell:
Veteran licensee Dave Daly, manager of the Castle in Blackpool, says live TV football is the one attraction guaranteed to fill his pub — but he admits it takes much more than a bank of television screens to ensure he gets the right volume of footfall.

The Town & City Pubs-owned venue, in the shadow of the resort’s famous tower, has the space to hold 800 customers on two floors — and on key Saturdays Daly says numbers can often approach capacity.

“We have 28 screens in total and we need every one of them. But getting things right in other areas is crucial,” he says. “Proper staffing and stock control are essential to cater for such high numbers and plastic glasses are also essential.

“It’s very much a male-dominated audience and lager sales go through the roof. We don’t do any food; it’s vertical drinking all the way and our take is often 15% or 20% up on a big Saturday,” he reveals.
Wow, lager in plastic glasses, 28 screens and vertical drinking – must jump on that train to Blackpool!

Edit: There’s a picture of the Castle pub in Blackpool here. It looks just as you would expect.

Tuesday 5 October 2010


Phil has recently made some interesting comments about Pete Brown’s Cask Report on his Oh Good Ale blog here and here. One of the points he addresses is that raised by Pete that cask beer should be able to command a price premium over kegs and lagers (or at least not sell at a discount to them) as it is a higher quality product. On the face of it, that seems a reasonable enough proposition, and something that applies in many other consumer markets. However, it is likely to run into a number of practical difficulties.

The first problem, of course, is that “cask” is merely a method of storage, maturation and dispense, which says nothing about the inherent qualities of a beer. The idea that cask beer is lovingly crafted from traditional, natural ingredients, while keg is made from chemicals in somewhere resembling an oil refinery has always been largely a myth, and is no less so in 2010 than it was in 1972, despite the Cask Report describing it as an “artisanal” product. Many individual cask beers are of much higher quality than most kegs, but cask as a generic category isn’t. There are plenty of cask beers such as Pedigree and Old Speckled Hen that are also available in keg form. While serving them as cask is likely to result in more depth and complexity of flavour, at least when well-kept, they’re still basically the same stuff.

We also shouldn’t forget the long tail of fly-by-night micro-breweries who often haven’t fully mastered the art of brewing and produce wildly inconsistent and often revolting slop. If you went in a pub and saw a pumpclip for Old Scrotum from some brewery you had never heard of, would you really be happy to pay a price premium for it? In contrast, if you saw a Thornbridge beer on keg, you might.

When keg beers and lagers were first introduced in the 1960s, they sold at a higher price than cask beers as they were something new and different, required an investment in refrigeration equipment and CO2 cylinders, and held out the prospect of more consistent quality. That pretty much remains the same today, even though the marketplace has changed beyond recognition. Even bog-standard cooking lager like Carling is 20 or 30p a pint more than cask bitter. There is a lot of history to overturn.

It is also still the case that, where keg ales are sold alongside cask of a comparable strength, the keg generally sells for more. Clearly the keg drinkers see it as worth paying a price premium for over cask, not the other way round. We have also seen in recent years the growth of “smooth” as a distinct category, whereas in the past there would just be “bitter”, which could be either cask or keg. I’ve seen groups come into Holts, Hydes and Robinsons pubs and ask “have they got any smooth?” Does cask premiumisation ultimately lead to it becoming an entirely separate, and more expensive, beer category from keg – and thus inevitably one perceived as a middle-class drink?

Traditionally, price premiums in the on-trade have been associated with specific pubs and areas, not specific beers. If you are in a prosperous area, offer a smart atmosphere and want to keep out the riff-raff, then you may feel justified in charging more for your beer. But in the individual pub the pricing structure across the draught beer range remains much the same, typically with Draught Guinness at the top of the tree in terms of pence per unit, and cask down at the bottom. There is still little evidence of particular beers being able to command a price premium within their own category, although maybe Beck’s Vier and Stella 4% do to some degree over Carling and Fosters. The culture of seasonal ales and rotating guest beers also tends to militate against any cask beers gaining the long-term reputation that may justify paying more in the customer’s mind.

And, of course, there is the “quality lottery” that I have alluded to before here. By definition, cask beer is a product that will vary somewhat from pint to pint due to the stage of secondary fermentation it has reached, and various factors in cellarmanship. Even in the very best outlets, you will occasionally get a pint that is no better than indifferent; if you drink it in random pubs at least one in ten is likely to be pretty poor. That factor alone makes it harder to justify charging more for it, and probably always will – in a sense it’s part of its appeal.

Some establishments will continue to seek to charge a premium over others for draught beer that reflects their location, ambiance and aspirations. But there is a very long way to go in terms of both public perception and consistent quality before cask beer can command a premium over kegs, and that of course begs the question as to whether that’s a desirable aim in the first place. To my mind, the concept reflects a somewhat half-baked and perhaps rather London-centric view of the draught beer market.

If you are a brewer of cask beer and want to establish a premium perception in the marketplace, you need to gain more control over the distribution chain by determining where it is sold and how it is presented. Not to mention having a high-quality product in the first place. The history of business is littered with companies who have tried to go for a premium image and pricing but haven’t had the quality or consistency to back it up. Securing a price premium depends on long-term reputation – the challenge is how to build that up.