Tuesday 30 November 2010

Cat to be castrated after all

The Treasury have just published the results of their review of alcohol taxation. In general, this doesn’t recommend any major changes to the tax structure, but there are two significant exceptions.

The first is that they are planning to introduce a new higher rate of duty for beers over 7.5% ABV. The intention here is to increase the cost of super-strength lagers such as Carlsberg Special Brew which are clearly associated with consumption by problem drinkers. However, it will apply across the board and so will also hit traditional British strong ales such as Robinson’s Old Tom, and imported products such as Duvel and most Belgian abbey beers.

The report argues that such products will only see a small percentage increase as they are already typically sold at a premium price, but even so it seems unreasonable to penalise them when they are in general consumed responsibly and are not associated with problem drinking. Old Tom is not something you can pour down your neck at a rapid rate of knots.

I would have thought there was a golden opportunity here for CAMRA to campaign for an exemption from this new tax for cask- and bottle-conditioned products, whether home produced or imported. (In my view, the whole thing is misconceived, but obviously CAMRA can't be seen to be standing up for Special Brew, and at least this would give them something reasonably productive to gnaw at)

And surely what will happen in practice is that the super-strength lagers will simply be reformulated to bring them down to 7.5% ABV to avoid the new tax, so there will be a clustering of products at that level. Arbitrary tax cut-offs of this kind inevitably lead to distortions in the market place and are prone to unintended consequences.

The other proposal is to introduce a reduced rate of duty for beers of 2.8% ABV or below. As I’ve argued before, I can’t see this making much difference, as it is difficult to brew beers at such strength with much taste or character, and realistically the demand for them is minimal. On the other hand, had the threshold been set at 3.5% it might have encouraged a revival of the milds and light bitters which have become a neglected part of the British beer scene.

Sunday 28 November 2010

Minimum pricing on the way?

I was taken aback to see the headline in today’s Sunday Telegraph “Minimum price for alcohol”. But, on reading the article, it seems that all that is planned is preventing retailers from selling alcohol for below the cost of duty plus VAT. So nothing really to worry about there, although it might cause a problem if you want to get rid of slow-moving stock that is approaching its sell-by date. In reality, very little of this goes on anyway, and I suspect it will end up making no noticeable difference to anything.

Not surprisingly, the anti-drink zealots don’t think it goes anywhere near far enough. But I can’t help thinking that the idea that setting a minimum unit price for alcohol in an attempt to reduce “alcohol-related harm” is the logical equivalent of trying to improve road safety by saying that nobody should be able to buy a car for under £15,000.

Spuds glorious spuds

A while back I was taken to task in the comments on this post for ignoring the range of “hugely varied and interesting food” that is now available in pubs. But I still believe that the vast majority of pubs continue to embrace an old-fashioned, conventional approach to food that largely ignores the revolution in eating habits in this country over the past thirty or forty years.

I was recently in a pub that is held out as a local example of high-quality pub food. The menu included seventeen main dishes, of which thirteen were served with potatoes of some kind. The menu doesn’t offer (as some more enlightened ones do) the opportunity to swap one accompaniment for another. Where's the rice, the pasta, the noodles, the couscous, the garlic bread, the pizzas?

While not quite “chips with everything”, that isn’t exactly a warm embrace of the contemporary international menu. I suspect in most pubs claimed to serve “good food”, you would find much the same.

Saturday 27 November 2010

No change

It is common to see commentators ascribe part of the decline of pubs to “stricter drink-driving laws”. There was an example only this week in the Daily Telegraph article by Rowan Pelling I referred to below. But, in reality, while there have been changes in equipment and procedures, there has been no change whatsoever in either the UK legal limit or police powers to carry out breath tests since the breathalyser law was introduced in 1967. Indeed, the ultimate high water mark of the British pub trade was reached twelve years after that in 1979.

What has changed, though, is public attitudes, with a growing reluctance to drive after drinking even within the legal limit. In the early years of the law, this was widely regarded as normal and responsible behaviour, and many suburban, village and rural pubs prospered on this “car trade”. However, from the mid-80s onwards, there has been a distinct shift towards the view that drivers shouldn’t touch so much as a half of lager, which has become commonplace amongst new entrants to the driving population.

There are still plenty of people from their mid-forties upwards who continue to do what they have always done, although their ranks are steadily being thinned by age, death and infirmity. But, amongst their younger counterparts, the kinds of people who in the 1970s would have routinely gone to the pub in the car and drink a couple of legal pints haven’t, by and large, found an alternative means to get there, they have simply stopped going in that kind of regular, moderate way (although they may still have a weekend blow-out). And this has, over the past two decades, been a major and ongoing cause of the continued decline of the pub trade.

Ironically, because of cutbacks in traffic policing, you’re probably less likely to be stopped and breathalysed now than at any time since 1967.

Friday 26 November 2010

Let a thousand flowers bloom

There was a particularly nauseating piece in the Morning Advertiser recently proclaiming the virtues of “gastropubs” and arguing that they should be seen as a successful contemporary evolution of the pub trade.

The growing band of gastropubs represent a golden seam of excellence, a burgeoning carpet of flowers prospering in the fertile ground of increasing demand for a high-quality, pub-based dining experience.
Pass the sick bag, Alice!

There is nothing wrong with pubs serving food, and good food at that. But the essence of a pub surely is that it is a place for people to socialise over a drink, and there comes a point at which a food-led pub has gone so far down that particular route that it effectively ceases to be a pub at all. And the mere fact of declaring your establishment a “gastropub” is putting two fingers in the air to the history and tradition of pubs in this country. I’m firmly with Rowan Pelling here in believing that “gastro” has not enhanced the British pub but ruined it.
Cut to 2010, and my parents’ old pub has a smart new Barratt-style dining room glued on its side, and the epic-length menu offers “griddled peach and Parma ham tart [with] balsamic drizzle” at £6.50. No wonder gastro-pubs turn a profit – but where can punters go to nurse an honest pint?
Many former pubs have “evolved” into successful businesses of all kinds from wine warehouses to tanning salons. Others have found a new role as fancy restaurants – it’s just a pity they continue to masquerade as pubs when in reality they are no such thing.

Tuesday 23 November 2010

The Manchester Minimum

Minimum alcohol pricing has recently been decisively rejected in Scotland, but the Manchester Evening News reports that the ten Greater Manchester local authorities are still pressing ahead with plans to implement a 50p/unit minimum in their local areas via a bylaw. It is also proposed to outlaw various on-trade discounts and promotions such as, from the sound of it, the CAMRA Wetherspoon vouchers.

The article is accompanied by a survey of personal alcohol consumption and attitudes to alcohol, which contains so many tendentious and loaded questions that I declined to fill it in. You’re on a hiding to nothing, really – if you say you only drink two halves a fortnight, then minimum pricing will scarcely affect you, but if you drink two gallons a week then you’ll be portrayed as part of the problem.

The comments on the article are overwhelmingly opposed to the idea. Indeed, you have to wonder exactly whose agenda the MEN is following in continuing to champion such an unpopular (not to mention illegal) plan, when clearly it is not wanted by the general public.

Saturday 20 November 2010

Hoist with his own petard

It seems that Schadenfreude is one of the few pleasures still legal. And I got an especially enjoyable dose on hearing that Labour MP Eric Joyce, who only a few days ago had been banging on David Nutt-style about how the middle classes were hypocrites for condemining drug use amongst their offspring while happily jugging back alcohol, has been banned from driving for refusing a breath test. God knows how he got into that situation, but I can’t say I have the remotest drop of sympathy. People in glass houses, and all that...

The tipping point

Statistics suggest that during the next twelve months, the “tipping point” will be reached where off-trade beer sales exceed on-trade sales. Currently, the off-trade accounts for 46% of beer sales, but the report claims that, by 2018, 70% of beer sales will be in the off-trade,and a mere 30% in the on-trade. And I can’t say I’m surprised. The latest stats from the BBPA show a 7.8% decline in year-on-year beer sales in the past quarter, and a 44% decline since 1997. That is not an “adjustment”, it is a slow-motion car crash. Maybe the Magnet and the Marble and the Baum are doing fine, but the pub trade in general is falling off a cliff. And CAMRA’s typical concentration on a limited number of favourite venues means that many of its members - and many beer bloggers - seem oblivious to the wider decline.

No doubt some will accuse me of having a gloomy outlook, but you can’t argue with the cold hard facts.

Friday 19 November 2010


There’s an unusual case here where police officer Myles Hughes escaped a drink-driving ban after it was shown his drinks had been “spiked” by giving him pints of Stella top rather than Stella shandy. Exceeding the legal alcohol limit is essentially a strict liability offence, so it is good to see the courts exercising a bit of discretion where someone has inadvertently ended up over the limit and genuinely believed he wasn’t. If his blood-alcohol level was only 85mg after four Stella tops, it is clear that it would have been well under 80mg after four shandies.

However, it does raise a few questions – did he not see any of the drinks being dispensed, and was he really unable to tell the difference? The barman’s motivation is hard to fathom, and if Hughes had really been planning to drive you might have thought it would make sense to drink Carling shandies rather than Stella shandies. You also have to wonder whether if he had been a member of the public rather than a police officer he would have received the same leniency.

Thursday 18 November 2010

Acting drunk

Police in North Wales have been hiring actors to go in to pubs pretending to be drunk and seeing if they can get served. While it is illegal for pubs to serve “drunks”, this kind of agent provocateur tactic does leave a nasty taste in the mouth, and of course it isn’t actually an offence to serve someone who is just pretending to be drunk. (To be fair, the police did make it clear they were not seeking to prosecute any pubs that had served these actors, merely give them a warning)

However, there may well be a divergence of opinion about exactly what constitutes being “drunk”. I would define it as staggering about and being incapable of coherent speech. But some po-faced individuals not used to pubs could easily intrepret someone as being drunk merely when they have become a bit loud and boisterous, so this kind of approach has the potential to rebound on pubs well beyond those recognised as trouble spots. This is a point I made back in December 2007 in a column entitled Spy in the Pub.

(Incidentally, I turned word verification for comments on a few days ago and it seems to have worked wonders in cutting down the amount of spam being received)

Sunday 14 November 2010

Baby and bathwater

There has been a huge kerfuffle in the beer blogosphere in the past week or so about the role of CAMRA and whether it shoots itself in the foot by defining good beer too narrowly. The charge was led by Pete Brown, eloquently backed up by the Zythophile, and their charges were passionately rebuffed by Tandleman. Now, I will happily place myself in the “revisionist” camp, but my complaint really is not that CAMRA defines what it campaigns for too narrowly, but that, all too often, it seeks to campaign against anything that isn’t “real ale”.

My personal view is that, while I am happy to support “real ale”, as the supreme exposition of British draught beer, it is a definition that doesn’t extend beyond that sphere, and there are many other quality beers in the world that don’t conform to that definition. And even, on occasions, I might drink a pint of cooking lager, and will regard it as a refreshing, rather bland, industrial product, and not some kind of vile filth.

Tandleman says “CAMRA is a broad church, but it actually the moderates that prevail. These are the guys you bump into in Bamberg, Brussels and Prague, or at the Great American Beer Festival, or wherever. They seek out beers to enjoy whatever the provenance and are comfortable with being CAMRA members and the odd dichotomy.” That is true of Tandleman, of my local CAMRA branch chairman, of most of the beer bloggers, and of many CAMRA members I know. But it is far less dominant than he suggests, and it is all too common to see the old unreconstructed attitudes surface – not least in the opinions of the most prolific contributor to the CAMRA web forum. The generalised “campaign against lager” and the broad-brush view that bottle-conditioned bottled beers are without exception far superior to their brewery-conditioned counterparts are two prime examples of this. And, regrettably, while it is often ignored at the coal face, these things are enshrined in CAMRA’s official policies.

More worrying, though, is the attitude expressed by one respondent to Pete Brown’s post:

As I've mentioned recently elsewhere (mainly Twitter & other blogs) I think that there's an argument for CAMRA to tighten or at least clarify its definition of what is 'real'.

To my mind, the campaign was launched to try to preserve good British beer, made with decent ingredients, by a quality brewery & beers that had not been overly processed.

For me, there are now many beers that are classed by CAMRA as 'real' that don't fit with various parts of that broad description (& some that do, but aren't classed as being real!).
Is that likely to lead to a redefinition of “real ale” as stuff produced by obscure small breweries and consumed by pretentious middle-class tossers?

Surely two of the great virtues of “real ale” are that it has a crystal clear definition, and that it is something that is available to ordinary drinkers in ordinary pubs.

The risk from that approach is that you may end up casting aside the brews upon which the real ale revival was founded, such as Wadworth’s 6X, Marston’s Pedigree and Greene King Abbot Ale, and that you also end up casting aside the pub in favour of the specialist urban yuppie craft beer bar.

I have no problem with CAMRA being a campaign for “real ale”. I have no problem with the definition. I just wish it didn’t, so often, present itself as a campaign against all other forms of beer. Does the Alfa Romeo Owners’ Club oppose all other marques of car? I don’t think so. Why not say “We like beer, full stop. But British draught real ale is something very special that is worthy of campaigning for”?

Sunday 7 November 2010

You can turn back

I’ve often heard it claimed that the main reason for introducing the smoking ban in the UK was the protection of workers. This, of course, is completely spurious, as:

  • It is widely documented that the main driver for the ban was an attempt to reduce the prevalence of smoking
  • There is no scientifically credible evidence that environmental tobacco smoke represents a danger to health anyway
  • Even if there was some small danger, the protection of workers could easily have been achieved without a blanket ban – after all, smoking is still permitted in hotel rooms
  • There are many occupations that are still allowed, but where there is a far greater and better proven risk to health, such as farming, mining and quarrying, and deep sea fishing
But even if you taken the claim at face value, it rather falls over if a pub has no employees. So, the Netherlands has decided to lift its smoking ban for small “mom and pop” bars that are solely run by the proprietors. No doubt they will be looking forward to a substantial increase in trade.

The structure of the trade is different in this country, with very few pubs and bars that don’t employ any staff, but I would imagine many of the small evenings-only “box bars” that have opened in former shop premises could qualify – though no doubt the big pubs would whinge that they couldn’t compete on a level playing field. A growth in small, individual, independent bars could be just what the licensed trade needs.

And this news gives the lie to the assertion that there is “no going back” from the British smoking ban. If it can happen in Holland, it can happen here.

Wells & Youngs - a summary

In conclusion, the bottles I was kindly given to sample by Wells & Youngs represented a varied range of quality beers that were all distinctively different and avoided having an obvious house character*. If they do have something in common, it is that they are all to a greater or lesser extent malty but dry. All of them are beers that I have bought myself in the past.

Bottle-conditioning can often be problematic in quality terms, but Wells & Youngs seem to have got it right, with the beers (unlike some) having noticeably conditioned in the bottle, but all the yeast sticking to the bottom and not ending up in the glass.

As an everyday drinking beer the Wells Burning Gold is probably my favourite, but the Young’s Special London Ale is well worth saving for a cold night or a special occasion. Directors is the one where the tasting most improved my previous opinion.

The only one of the five beers I found a touch disappointing was the Young’s London Gold which, while pleasant enough, was lacking in distinctiveness and, as I said, maybe too subtle for its own good. Although it looks the part, I kept searching for something flavour-wise that I couldn’t quite find.

This will also motivate me to look out for the bottle-conditioned Young’s Bitter. The last time I remember having some on cask was probably in 2008 but it was always one of my favourite “ordinary” bitters. The bottled version is, however considerably stronger at 4.5% ABV rather than 3.7%.

* To be honest I quite like the Greene King house character, but all of their beers taste somewhat the same.

Saturday 6 November 2010

Crafty keg

My poll asking the question ‘Would you drink a keg “craft” beer from BrewDog or Thornbridge in the pub?’ has now finished. There were 81 responses, broken down as follows:

Definitely: 34 (42%)
Probably: 12 (15%)
Maybe: 17 (21%)
Unlikely: 14 (17%)
Absolutely not: 4 (5%)

This clearly suggests sufficient interest to make the idea a goer, with over half pretty keen, and very few totally setting their face against it. It doesn’t need a majority, just a significant minority who are willing to try it. I don’t see it replacing cask on any kind of large scale, but it could be a way of getting craft beer into trendy bars that don’t have the facilities or throughput for cask, or who don’t see cask as fitting in with their image.

Friday 5 November 2010

Capital Ale

The final Wells & Youngs beer to sample is the flagship of their range, the 6.4% ABV, bottle-conditioned Young’s Special London Ale. It comes in a brown bottle with an attractive, mainly blue label.

It pours clear, leaving all the sediment in the bottle, and exhibits a vigorous natural carbonation, as with the London Gold, which suggests that the brewery have mastered the issue of getting consistent quality and genuine secondary fermentation from bottle-conditioned ales.

The colour is dark amber – not a pale beer, but fairly pale for a British ale of this strength. It has a full, satisfying mouthfeel, as with all the W&Y beers. The aroma is subdued, mixing fruit with CO2.

There’s an initial surprising hoppy attack, which then slowly metamorphoses through spiciness into a lingering aftertaste of sweet, creamy malt. It is fairly light in body for its strength, although you are aware of some alcohol warmth.

A distinctive, complex, multi-faceted beer that makes a good contrast with the richer, heavier Fullers 1845, which is of similar strength. Definitely one to be savoured.

Wednesday 3 November 2010

Bring me my bow

Wells Bombardier is one of the best-selling premium cask beers in Britain, but it’s one that I’ve never really taken to. I’m not saying it’s a bad beer, but it has a distinctive kind of almost chewy maltiness that doesn’t appeal to me. Having said that, on a couple of occasions in the past year I’ve come across very well kept examples when it’s been the only cask beer in a pub.

In recent years, Wells have come up with a couple of “brand extensions” to Bombardier, building on the theme of “The Drink of England” by using phrases from Blake’s Jerusalem. One was the dark, rich, almost stouty Satanic Mills, which got some good reviews but now seems to have been delisted. The other is Burning Gold, which is still very much with us. The website says it is available as a seasonal cask beer as well as in bottle, but I can’t recall ever coming across it in the pub.

This has a strength of 4.7% ABV and comes in a clear bottle which shows off its appealing bright orange-gold colour, darker than most beers bearing the name “Gold”, which looks very good once in the glass. It has a fairly thin but lasting head and noticeable carbonation. There’s a subdued initial aroma of malt and fruit.

It’s a basically dry beer with a good balance of both malt and hops and some fruity notes. It’s quite a “big”, assertive, full-bodied beer in comparison with the understated London Gold, and isn’t truly in the characteristic floral, fragrant golden ale style, which to my mind is a plus point.

A distinctive and highly drinkable golden ale which has a much more robust character than many of the genre. It’s too strong to really be called a session beer, but certainly something you could happily drink more than one of.

Appearance money

The Good Pub Guide have announced that they are going to start charging pubs for inclusion as full entries - £199 a year for dining pubs, and £99 for those with a more limited food offer. They claim that this won’t lead to a reduction in standards, and that no pubs will be included that otherwise wouldn’t be, but inevitably any policy of charging for entries will compromise the independence of a pub guide. The problem is not so much that unworthy pubs will be included, but that worthy ones won’t be because they won’t pay up.

I’ve never had a lot of time for the Good Pub Guide, which gives the impression of being predominantly a guide to poncey dining pubs that I would go out of my way to avoid. But it does, perhaps in the interest of credibility, include a smattering of proper pubs – for example, the 2006 edition includes, in this area, the White Lion at Barthomley, the Marble Arch and Stalybridge Station Buffet.

It is exactly that sort of pub that is likely to feel it is not worth paying for an entry, thus leaving the guide even more skewed than it is at present and reducing the comprehensiveness of the information it provides for its readers. And, if a pub is on the borderline, but is willing to pay for an entry, can the editors really say that won’t affect their decision? Despite their claims, I can see this move damaging sales as the book will no longer be perceived as unbiased.

Tuesday 2 November 2010

Closing the Gateway

I noticed the other day on Fleurets’ website that Hydes had put the Gateway pub on the market for £1 million freehold. This is a prominent 1930s roadhouse type pub at East Didsbury on the main A34 Kingsway road into Manchester from the south. It’s a prosperous area with plenty of housing nearby. Yet clearly Hydes don’t believe it’s viable as a pub, and I’d be very surprised if any other operator thought they could do better.

This very much gives the lie to those who still believe that having plenty of chimneypots nearby guarantees a pub a healthy trade if run even half decently. Clearly, it doesn’t, and indeed it is the large, purpose-built 20th century pubs that seem to have suffered worst from the recent tide of closures. Only a few months ago, the similar Greyhound in Adswood closed its doors for the last time and has now been flattened. In contrast, a mile down the road, pubs are thriving on the Didsbury village drinking circuit. A brewery representative said:
“...the ethnic mix and the ages of the residents that live behind the Gateway make it difficult to draw trade to the pub. There are large numbers of elderly residents and non British groups who for ethnic and religious reasons are not regular pub visitors. So it’s the pub’s catchment area that is against the pub rather than the competence or otherwise of the brewery. The cinema/bowling alley/fast food complex opposite does the Gateway no favours as it attracts mainly teenagers who will not visit a ‘pub that their dad might visit’”.
The role of changes in the social mix of an area in affecting the viability of pubs has often been underestimated. It’s a simple fact of life that for cultural reasons people of South Asian origin aren’t going to visit pubs to anything like the same extent as the indigenous British and Irish, and nothing pubs do short of closing down and becoming Indian restaurants is going to change that.

One possible solution for the Gateway could have been to build an accommodation lodge next door and turn it explicitly into a dining venue. Only just up the road, on the other side of the leisure complex, a new, purpose-built pub, the Bell House, does precisely that. But the Gateway, on a cramped site in the fork between two major roads, just didn’t have the room for extra car parking or new construction, and so it has paid the price. It won’t be the last, either.