Wednesday 29 December 2010

Bad characters

Recent pub visits have reacquainted me with two of my bêtes noires of irritating behaviour in pubs. First is the “bar prowler”, a regular who fancies himself as a bit of a character, and who isn’t content just to stand by the bar, but instead walks a regular beat between the counter and some other feature, often the fireplace. Even though probably a sad and lonely individual, he clearly sees himself as the “cock of the walk”. Certainly a cock.

It’s even worse when he starts engaging people in what he no doubt imagines is genial banter. At times, this can verge on the deranged, such as the old boy who told me on walking into a pub that I looked like Elton John. For a second, it seemed amusing, until it clicked that he was actually a total fruitloop. Frankly, customers don’t want these tedious so-called characters prying and disturbing them.

Then there is the “space eater” who sits in the gap between two tables and thus deters anyone from using either of them. Obviously, if the pub is very busy, people will muscle in, but if it’s quietish they’ll tend to sit elsewhere for fear of appearing rude. The best I’ve ever seen was in a Peak District pub where one “character” plonked himself down in the gap on the bar side of a large two-table alcove that could probably have accommodated sixteen people. Sitting at one table but putting your drink on the other is a favourite technique.

Pubs can still work

The prolonged holiday between Christmas and New Year always seems to tempt a few people out to visit pubs who might not normally do so, and produces some encouraging scenes of pubs doing a good trade. One was in a well-known pub on the edge of the Stockport built-up area, which had been ticking over nicely at lunchtime, and where it was good to see at about 1.45 pm a party of five youngish people come in, settle themselves around a table near the fire and enquire whether food was still being served (it was). Not a pint between them, and no cask beer either, but even so it was a new generation rediscovering what pubs are about.

I also called in Sam Smiths’ Boar’s Head on Stockport Market Place, where the experience was a carbon copy of two years ago. Absolutely heaving, with hardly a seat to be had, the clientele still predominantly male, working class and over 40. It’s rare now to see a pub with so many pint glasses on tables. The day being a bank holiday, I don’t think they were serving any food either. Of course, Old Brewery Bitter at £1.43 a pint does help, but its success is down to far more than just cheap beer.

But, on the other hand, I went in a Good Beer Guide listed pub, to my eye a very pleasant, cosy establishment with a real fire, less than five miles from the centre of a big town, and I was the only customer at one o’clock. No doubt some will say “it’s not a lunchtime type of pub”, but who ever said that twenty years ago, and back then I’m sure there would have been a good buzz of custom.

Monday 27 December 2010

Time, gentlemen

Here’s a very eloquent elegy on the decline of the British pub, written by the obituaries editor of The Economist. Funny how the elephant in the room is scarcely mentioned, though.

The current attitude towards pubs, with all the great and good flocking to “save” them, seems in many ways to be similar to that towards rural railways in the Beeching era - people become increasingly sentimental about them, but in practice use them less and less.

Friday 24 December 2010

10 ways Christmas is good for your health

Thanks to Dick Puddlecote for pointing out a refreshing antidote to all the politically correct, healthist miserablism we have to endure for 364 days of the year. No. 1 is particularly relevant:

There is overwhelming scientific evidence that moderate drinkers live longer than teetotalers. Moreover, the recent Million Women Study in the UK, which looked at the link between drinking and cancer, found that nondrinking women had a higher incidence of cancer than those women who had one drink a day. American researchers found men consuming two alcoholic drinks a day had a 36 percent less risk of developing diabetes.
Mind you, as always it's wise to ensure you don't exceed your daily 3-4 units, even on Christmas Day.

Thursday 23 December 2010

I smelt a rat

...when this case was originally reported, and now it seems I was right:

A policeman who escaped a drink-drive ban by blaming a pub barman has been arrested for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.

Pc Myles Hughes, 34, said he was only over the limit because he had been served the wrong drinks. The barman involved in the original case and a GMP sergeant have also been arrested.

Pc Hughes pleaded guilty to drink driving at Macclesfield magistrates court last month. But he kept his licence after the court was told barman Paul Doyle gave him stronger drinks than he asked for.

Mr Doyle, 36, of Hurdsfield Road, Macclesfield, said he gave Pc Hughes one shandy and four pints of lager top – lager with a splash of lemonade – instead of the shandy he ordered.
It always seemed something of a cock-and-bull story, to be honest.

The timebomb that stopped ticking

In recent years we’ve constantly been told that we’re experiencing an ever-rising tide of alcohol consumption, with all the attendant problems it brings. But, in reality, it has been falling since 2003, and many indicators of alcohol-related harm such as arrests for Drunk & Disorderly have fallen too. Funny how you don’t read that in the Daily Mail.

Likewise we have often been been warned of the “obesity timebomb” that by 2050 was going to result in 60% of the population becoming officially obese, and a whole generation dying younger than their parents from all the attendant health complications. Well, surprise surprise, it turns out that isn’t happening either, and indeed obesity rates have started to fall.

This has been achieved despite a decline in the proportion of the proportion of the population following the (made-up) official “five-a-day” guidelines, and scarcely any reduction in the rate of smoking – although of course there may be some connection between smoking remaining steady and obesity ceasing to rise.

In reality it is always dangerous to assume a trend will continue indefinitely, as human nature is always ultimately likely to provide a restraining factor. The statistics may suggest that 60% of the population will become obese, but looked at subjectively, is that really credible?

But of course we rarely hear any good news on health indicators reported in the media, as it goes against the agenda of those who want to control our lives and impose a régime of joyless austerity on everyone.

As the great H. L. Mencken said many years ago, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed - and hence clamorous to be led to safety - by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” Indeed it’s very hard to find any scare that in hindsight hasn’t turned out to be at best much exaggerated and at worst wholly spurious.

Monday 20 December 2010

Guest beer syndrome

The various discussions in recent months about whether cask beer should aspire to being a “premium” product led me to wondering whether the current approach to selling it in the on-trade actively works against that aim. In most pubs aiming to appeal to beer enthusiasts, not just the general drinker, cask beer is mostly presented as a series of ever-changing guest beers. The pubs may have one regular house beer (anyone remember West Coast Green Bullet in the Crown?) but the vast majority of the range changes from week to week, or even from day to day. You are only ever likely to encounter the products of most micro brewers as guests.

I can’t think of any other consumer market in which this approach applies, and it certainly doesn’t for premium bottled ales in the off-trade, where the rate of churn is much lower and many of them are fixtures year-on-year. Neither does it for non-cask beers in pubs – when did you last see a “guest lager”?

Clearly as the “guest beer” approach is so widely adopted, it is something that appeals to customers, and so you can’t blame pubs for doing it. But it creates an image of cask beer as a kind of unpredictable, here-there-gone-tomorrow, pot luck product, not one that is reliable and dependable.

If I was a brewer wishing to build up a reputation for my beer, I would want to see it as a permanent fixture on as many bars as possible, so customers knew where it is available and had the chance of a repeat purchase if they liked it. If your beer is only ever seen as a guest, you will never build up much brand loyalty.

Sunday 19 December 2010

An ebbing tide floats no boats

Last Friday in the pub was one of those classic “setting the world to rights” nights, and one of the subjects we got on to was pub closures. The proposition was advanced that the closure of failing pubs would serve to make the remaining ones stronger. Now, I’m the last person in the world to advocate flogging a dead horse by trying to keep fundamentally unviable pubs in business, but I don’t think it’s quite as a simple as that, as it ignores the question of how the demand for pubs works.

If we were talking about petrol stations, the idea would be entirely correct, as the demand for road travel is pretty much independent of the intensity of petrol stations, provided that people can get to at least one. But much of pubgoing is dependent on the actual presence of pubs in locations where people live, work or choose to socialise. Also, pubs are not offering a homogenous product, but a distinctive and individual experience. For every pub that closes, there will be a proportion of its customers who simply stop going to pubs rather than moving to one down the road, and a segment of society for whom pubgoing ceases to be something that is an option in their normal routine.

Of course pubs will continue to close in the face of declining demand, but to imagine that closures will do much to improve the viability of pubs that remain open demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the way the market works. A good metaphor would be that, as the tide goes out, the fact that some boats are grounded doesn’t mean that those still floating are more buoyant.

And I have made the point before that areas where pubgoing remains strong have lots of pubs, whereas the presence of closed pubs tends to indicate an area where the pubgoing habit has fallen off a cliff.

Saturday 18 December 2010

Half of all advertising is wasted

...but you never know which half. I was reminded of this old saying when leafing through a copy of the Stockport Pub, Food and Music Guide, a local independent publication that is a sort of competitor to the local CAMRA magazine Opening Times and all too often is a cuckoo in the nest of the Opening Times holders. It’s a glossy, all-colour, 44-page A4 magazine that, in its most recent issue, contains no less than 77 adverts for pubs and clubs. Given that it doesn’t seem to reach the Cheadle and Bramhall areas, that’s over half the establishments in its catchment area.

Most of the ads are very standard stuff, promoting weekend karaoke and live football on plasma screens, illustrated by stock photos of non-real looking pints and young female singers, so you have to wonder what benefit the pubs actually derive from them. Or is it just a case of “the pub down the road is doing it, so we don’t want to miss out”? It’s noticeable that some of the top-drawer pubs such as the Arden Arms and Magnet are conspicuous by their absence.

I can understand pubs advertising in a CAMRA magazine, as it might draw in new customers from visitors to the area, or promote events such as pub beer festivals. It’s also a way of making a contribution to the “cause”. But if you don’t have anything distinctive that a hatful of other pubs don’t, it is hard to see the point. And, personally, karaoke and footy are a big turn-off.

One of the most laughable ads is for the Horse & Jockey in Hazel Grove, which boasts of “a terrific range of ales”. Now, the Magnet, Crown or Railway could justifiably make that claim, but for the Horse & Jockey, which probably has John Smith’s Extra Smooth and one intermittently available cask ale, it is absurd.

Wednesday 15 December 2010

Oak-aged keg

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the rise of “craft keg”. However, despite the assertions of BrewDog, realistically it is not going to mount any kind of head-on challenge to cask beer – it will be confined either to venues that don’t have the facilities or turnover to sell cask, or to specialist low-volume beers. You can drink BrewDog Zeitgeist on keg in the Magnet in Stockport, but it doesn’t exactly threaten the fourteen or so cask beers on sale there.

In the past, the vast majority of British keg ales have simply been inferior equivalents of beers also available on cask, or brews at the bottom end of the market that never even made it to cask. No beer enthusiast would really be inclined to bother with them. However, in an interesting development, Innis & Gunn have decided to launch their 6.6% ABV oak-aged beer in keg form, to be sold only in halves and one would expect at a hefty price.

I can’t say I’ve enjoyed this when I’ve tried it in bottle, but it does seem to have built up a following which justifies its launch on draught. The presence on bars of a distinctive, British-brewed ale with a “connoisseur” image that isn’t available in cask form is something entirely new – it will be interesting to see how it does. And, if it succeeds it will reinforce the perception of keg, not cask, as the high-quality, carefully presented product commanding a price premium.

Friday 10 December 2010

Public inconvenience

Stockport Council have recently announced that, as a cost-saving measure, they are going to close all of their remaining ten public toilets (and this in a borough that twenty years ago had over thirty). This apparently will save the princely sum of £105,000 a year. However, this doesn’t mean that people will be left with no choice but to relieve themselves in the streets, as they are supposedly replacing the closed toilets with a community toilet scheme.

This involves opening up toilets in council buildings and – for the payment of an annual fee – those in business premises like pubs and cafés, to use by the general public. Clearly, if facilities are there, it makes sense to make them available, and in areas where public toilet usage is likely to be low it can be a “win-win” situation in expanding provision at minimal cost. I’m certainly not against it per se. It could also be a good idea for many rural pubs.

However, it really is no substitute for providing proper public toilets in busy town centres where there is plenty of pedestrian traffic. It is notable that the web page has no entries for Stockport town centre. (In practice, I know you can always pop into Wetherspoons where there is one, but a timid female pensioner might not know that, or have the confidence to)

One problem is that business hours may not correspond with those when there is a demand for toilets. Few pubs open before 11 am (and many not before noon), yet in a shopping centre you would expect a toilet to be available once the shops were open. Also, for such a scheme to be effective, it needs flag signs on lampposts saying “Dog & Duck – Toilet Available to the Public” to bring it to people’s attention (something I have seen in the Perth & Kinross district of Scotland). Window stickers are not enough.

If you were a licensee, you might think that £600 a year was a useful source of extra income in hard times. But you are effectively surrendering the right to control who comes in your pub and use your facilities, and allowing all and sundry to troop through your bars without buying anything. Once one or two unsavoury incidents have taken place you might start to question whether it’s worthwhile. If my pub was in a location with a lot of footfall past the door, I’d be wanting more like £6,000 than £600. I can’t, for example, see the Chestergate Tavern being happy to become the official toilet for Stockport Bus Station.

While the provision of public toilets by councils isn’t a statutory obligation, it is extremely important to allow people to live civilised lives and maintain a degree of dignity, and regrettably this move is all too typical of the tendency of councils to cut back services provided to the public while continuing to featherbed internal administrative departments, and all the time seek to blame it on government rather than their own inefficiencies and warped priorities. I have written before of the “bladder leash” restricting the movements of the elderly, pregnant women, diabetics and people with a wide range of medical conditions, and this is now being applied to Stockport.

In terms of the council’s overall budget, £105,000 is a drop in the ocean, and less than the salaries of numerous senior officers. You have to wonder how many people are still on the council’s books doing non-jobs like Smoking Enforcement Officer and Five-a-Day Co-ordinator who wouldn’t be missed in the slightest if their services were dispensed with.

The lack of toilets may also be a factor encouraging people to use shopping centres like Cheadle Royal or Handforth Dean rather than traditional district centres, thus acting directly against the council’s declared objective to get people to “shop local”. (Extortionate parking charges are another factor, of course) And don’t shop owners in those district centres have a legitimate expectation that their business rates will pay for public toilets as well as pavements and street lighting?

Surely in this age of information freely available via the Internet it should be possible to create a unified database of all public toilets showing their location, opening hours and cost (if any). The Aussies can manage it, so why can’t we? It could even be provided as an “app” for smartphones. In the days when there was a reasonable assumption that public toilets would be available in most locations, there might have been little need for this, but now they are becoming increasingly few and far between it would provide a valuable service for tourists and indeed anyone spending more than a short time out of their house or workplace.

And yes, I know it could also be used to facilitate “cottaging”, but to use that as an excuse not to provide toilets at all really is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If cottaging is a problem, it needs to be dealt with on its own terms without disadvantaging legitimate users of public toilets.

Thursday 2 December 2010

Committee rejects cut - for now

Welcome news that the House of Commons Transport Select Committee have come out against the cut in the drink-drive limit proposed by the North Review earlier this year. As I have argued before, there is no guarantee this would save a single life, while it would undoubtedly result in the closure of thousands of pubs without addressing the real problem which is people driving when well over the current limit. Hopefully this will give further ammunition for Transport Secretary Philip Hammond, who is known not to be keen on the idea, to officially reject the proposals.

They did, however, say that they ultimately supported reducing the limit to 20mg, something that would impose quasi-prohibition on all responsible people with a driving licence and leave very few pubs still in existence outside city centres, but that is a long-term aspiration, not an immediate threat.