Thursday 29 December 2011

Price and value

I was recently rather surprised to see a comment about one of Brunning & Price’s pubs in the South-East describing their food as “hearty stuff at moderate prices”. Up here, I’d describe them as unashamedly expensive and up-market, and I doubt whether that is much different down there. Let’s take their nearest outlet to me, the Sutton Hall near Macclesfield. The menu, which obviously is likely to change, currently offers, for example:

* Braised shoulder of lamb with dauphinoise potatoes and redcurrant gravy £16.75
* Pan-fried seabass fillets with a chorizo, caper, lemon, herb and tomato dressing £15.25
Now, of course they are perfectly entitled to charge those prices, and I’m not saying the food isn’t worth it, but those dishes on a pub menu are unquestionably expensive, ambitious and upmarket. There are cheaper main courses, but nothing, not even ham, egg and chips, below £9.95. To be fair, their sandwiches are not so much out of line with other food-led pubs.

To my mind, I would expect main dishes – excluding prime steaks and the like – in middle-of-the-road pubs to cost maybe between £7 and £9. Below £6 is cheap’n’cheerful, whereas over £9 is getting a bit steep, north of £10 and the eyes start to water.

The whole question of pricing in pubs, whether for food or drink, is far from simple. You have to consider the quality and choice of what is on offer, convenience of access, general atmosphere and the preferences of your companions. There may be forty pubs within easy reach of you, especially if you can travel directly to a town centre, but realistically on each occasion you’re unlikely to be choosing between more than a handful.

Recently, for beer of around 4.0%, I have paid £1.60 in a Sam Smith’s pub, £1.99 in Wetherspoon’s, £2.15 in a Holt’s, £2.46 in a Hydes’, £2.53 in a Lees’, £2.71 in a pub company outlet, £2.80 in a Robinson’s (one of the more upmarket ones), £3.30 in a Brunning & Price and £3.60 in the Pointing Dog in Cheadle Hulme, all within 15 miles of my house. This demonstrates the huge range of prices that are on offer. I won’t be going back to the Pointing Dog in a hurry, though. The Sam Smith’s beer was just as good as most, and rather better than some.

Each pub has its own target market, and the £3.30 in the smart B & P pub will be acceptable to those who have come for a meal and are only going to drink one or two pints, but won’t appeal to the local six pints a night men. But you do need to be careful that your pricing aspirations don’t go beyond what your customers think is reasonable, otherwise they will start to drift away. People still have a strong sense of fairness and value for money. Also, the headline prices of a pint of bitter and lager are likely to stick in the mind, and be readily comparable to other pubs, and so it makes sense not to be seen to be out of line on these.

And price competition is much more intense in town and city centres, where there is much more of a choice of pubs, and where the influence of Wetherspoon’s is likely to have been brought to bear.

It must be said too that people are often happy to condemn pubs they don’t like as expensive, while happily tolerating similar prices in those they do like.

Wednesday 28 December 2011

Unlikely pioneers

You wouldn’t have guessed it in advance, but conservative, secretive family brewer Samuel Smith’s of Tadcaster seem to be leading the response to the reduced beer duty for beers of 2.8% or below. They have cut the strength of their keg Light and Dark Milds to this level, together with that of Alpine Lager. I think the two milds were only about 3.0% before, so it isn’t a huge difference in strength, and Alpine, once their standard lager, has now been supplanted by Taddy Lager as their full-strength offering.

It is significant that they have done this by cutting the strength of existing products rather than introducing new ones which will inevitably carry something of a stigma. Would you really want to go in a pub and order a pint of Small Beer?

I sampled a pint of the Light Mild, available at the Boar’s Head in Stockport at an incredible £1.18 a pint (where Old Brewery Bitter is £1.60). It’s a nitro effort, although not quite as soapy as John Smith’s Extra Smooth. It’s a bit darker than OBB, with a dense, lasting head, and is bland but inoffensive in flavour, with a slight burnt caramel tinge. Nothing to write home about, but if your finances are limited and you fancy a pint it has an appeal.

It was notable that, despite there being no actual market in the Market Place, the Boar’s Head was standing room only at lunchtime today, when Robinson’s nearby Baker’s Vaults and Bull’s Head were both closed.

Jumping on the wagon

The Daily Telegraph reports today that Call Me Dave is actively looking into the introduction of a minimum unit price for alcohol. I’ve gone through the arguments against this at length in the past – it is wrong in principle, even on its own terms it won’t work, and it is against EU competition law anyway. Several other bloggers have criticised the plan this morning – I thought Cranmer (not one of my usual sidebar links) offered one of the best summaries.

Perhaps part of Cameron’s thinking is to pick a fight with the EU, although it is unlikely that many of his natural supporters will be with him on this one, and ironically it would give UKIP the opportunity to open up some more clear blue water.

And can we expect Labour, which historically has claimed to be the champion of the poor, to fight him on this? I strongly suspect they will do so just as strongly as they stood up for working-class pubs and clubs in 2007. Mind you, it’s unlikely to affect the price of Chianti, is it?

Edit: and I see the Telegraph in its editorial column is not at all keen. Could this be the Coalition equivalent of Blair’s “marching yobs to the cashpoint”?

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Brass in pocket

You often hear representatives of the medical profession moaning about alcohol being available at “pocket-money prices”. However, they’re always vague about what specific products they are referring to. It would be illuminating to get them to name the products they are talking about, and to demonstrate that they have some kind of disproportionate involvement in alcohol-related health problems.

And are they talking about the price per individual pack, or the effective price per unit? Tesco will sell you a single bottle of Czech lager for 99p, but in terms of bangs per buck that is a lot dearer than a 20-pack of Fosters for a tenner, and the latter can hardly be regarded as within the scope of “pocket money”. And the average weekly pocket money for a child is apparently £6.84, which will comfortably buy a four-pack of pretty much any beer in the off-trade.

In reality, the UK has about the third-highest alcohol duties in the European Union, and amongst the highest 10% in the world. In no meaningful sense can alcoholic drinks in this country overall be regarded as cheap.

If anything really is available at “pocket money prices”, then that suggests one or both of it being very weak and in a very small measure. This is a dishonest and emotive use of words that is only too typical of the anti-drink lobby, and regrettably is occasionally taken up by some claiming to represent the interests of drinkers who really should know better.

Bang on?

I seem to have got the idea into my head that Wells’ Bombardier is a beer I don’t like. I tend to feel it has an unpleasant, cloying maltiness that really isn’t to my taste. But, I have to say, on at least three occasions over the past twelve months, I have ended up with a pint of it as it was the least bad option on the bar, and actually found it quite enjoyable. And – dare I say – the cut in strength from 4.3% ABV to 4.1% actually seems to have made it lighter in body and more palatable. It’s got to the point now where I may even actively prefer it to some other mainstream beers on the bar.

Having said that, I was recently in a (decent enough) pub where the beer range was Bombardier, Everards Tiger and Hobgoblin. Does that not perfectly define “dull and predictable”?

Friday 23 December 2011

Strangers in tonight

Last night we had a very enjoyable evening in the Davenport Arms at Woodford to present licensee Yvonne Hallworth with a certificate commemorating 25 consecutive years in the Good Beer Guide. This is a classic pub, bursting with character and, while it has been altered a little over the years, still has a cosy tap-room and snug at the front, all warmed by real fires which, on a fairly mild evening, produced a roasting atmosphere. Robinson’s Hatters Mild, Unicorn, Mr Scrooge and Old Tom were all on excellent form.

However, amongst some people, this pub seems to have got a reputation for being “cliquey”. It was described by one person as “ very much a locals' local in the style of "American Werewolf in London"'s Slaughtered Lamb: odd looks from (most likely) regulars, and the like.” Well, yes, it does have a strong band of regular customers, and isn’t that really a sign of a good pub? And, given its location between Bramhall and Wilmslow, most of them tend to come from the comfortable middle classes.

I must declare an interest as I have been going in there throughout those twenty-five years, and before, delivering the local CAMRA magazine, and have had many stimulating conversations both with Yvonne and her late father John who was the licensee before her. Every pub has its own character, and I can understand why this one may not be to everyone’s taste, but I can honestly say I have never experienced that exclusiveness of which some complain. And, in reality, especially in the tap-room, it’s a lot more down-to-earth than some seem to think.

Do these moaners simply have a problem with any pub having regular customers? Another excellent Stockport pub sometimes unjustly tarred with the same brush – and which undeniably has a mostly middle-class clientele – is my local, the Nursery in Heaton Norris.

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Class in a glass

There have recently been a few postings on beer blogs discussing the issue of when the appreciation of unusual and expensive beers turns from simple enthusiasm to beer snobbery, such as here, here and here.

A point that was made was that some of this was tied up with the British class system, and it wasn’t anywhere near so prevalent in other countries. However, I have certainly got the impression that food and drink snobbery was alive and well in the USA, and indeed was often accentuated by being tied up with the “culture wars” that are a much more pronounced feature of that country’s society. This was confirmed by this piece I unearthed about food snobbery, which has very clear echoes of the way many craft beer devotees enthuse about their favoured brews:
Whereas you’re keen on Granny Smiths, he insists that you haven’t even tasted an apple until you’ve sampled a Newtown Pippin...

...Artisanal. Adjective suggestive of handmade goods and old-fashioned craftsmanship. In the food world, a romantic epithet bestowed upon the cheesemaker, breadbaker, bacon-curer, etc., who labors in his or her integrity-steeped native locale, independent of the pressures and toxicities of Big Food, to produce exquisite high-end, SMALL-BATCH edibles available by mail-order.

“The farmstand’s shelves groaned with a dazzling array of
artisanal pickles.”
To my mind, anyone who ever uses the term “artisanal” in a food and drink context is unquestionably guilty of snobbery.

The pieces on the same site about rock snobbery and wine snobbery are also well worth reading.

Much of this modern snobbery is not driven by social-climbing affectation, as was often the case in the past, but by a genuine belief that one is being a champion of quality in food and drink, and indeed in other aspects of culture. But this can easily turn into a rancorous and patronising denigration of those – often from a working-class background – who do not share your heightened appreciation. Ironically this often comes from those who would consider themselves as having a left-wing political outlook. It’s far from uncommon to read denunciations in the columns of the Guardian and the Independent of people who swill Carling and eat Big Macs and pizzas from Iceland. If only we could have a society where everybody could afford to buy polenta from Waitrose!

In beer terms, I would say the key factor differentiating the snob from the mere enthusiast is whether you feel a sense of superiority over the unenlightened by choosing the expensive and exotic, or whether you just think “each to his own”.

I also came across this blog post about beer snobbery. Some of the “types of beer snobs”, particularly the “Beer Führer” and “Beer geek” are all too familiar.

A rum do

Innis & Gunn’s beers take a little bit of getting used to at first. As they’re brewed in Scotland, and oak-aged, you expect them to have some of the peaty, smoky character of Scotch whisky. But they don’t, and that takes you aback a bit. What I eventually decided they most resembled was a beer equivalent to American Bourbon-style whiskeys, smooth and slightly sweet, with pronounced oak, vanilla and toffee notes to its flavor. Once you understand what it’s getting at, you can appreciate it more.

A variant that seems especially suited to the style was the Rum Finish variety that I recently picked up in Tesco. (The photo says “Rum Cask”, but it was “Rum Finish” on the actual bottle) This was a rather steep £1.99 for 330 mls, but was available in a 3 for 2 offer covering a wide range of “world” and “craft” beers. It’s 7.4% ABV, so just coming under the HSBD threshold, and in the glass looks very much like Coke – dark but translucent with a thin but lasting head.

The typical I & G vanilla character is fairly subdued, but the toffee comes through strongly, and it is mixed with distinct fruit and spice notes. There’s a definite alcohol kick, but it’s relatively smooth and light-bodied and so is easy to drink – it’s not a heavy, chewy beer like many ales of this kind of strength. An ideal beer to sip and savour on a cold winter’s night, and probably the best I have sampled from this brewery.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Lansley speaks sense shock

I can’t say I’ve been the greatest fan of Health Secretary Andrew Lansley since his appointment last year – far too much of a Nanny Stater for me (although no worse in that respect than his predecessor). However, he came out with some surprisingly blunt common sense last week on the subject of minimum alcohol pricing:

He said that there were “big problems” with the idea, which he said would penalise the poor, fall foul of EU competition laws, and do little to tackle the kind of dangerous drinking seen in town and city centres on Friday and Saturday nights.
Roll on the day when this misguided, illiberal and élitist policy comes before the courts and gets struck down. I really do look forward to seeing the egg plastered over that face of that smug, sanctimonious git Salmond.

Lansley’s government colleague Chloe Smith was speaking on similar lines last week. Interestingly, in that debate, some backbenchers “condemned Tesco for marketing tactics that encouraged shoppers to buy from English stores when minimum pricing for alcohol is introduced in Scotland.” You do have to wonder what else Tesco are supposed to do. It would undoubtedly be illegal for them to stop Scottish people buying from English stores, and I doubt whether it would need much if any publicity for canny Scots to realise they can get a bargain in Carlisle Tesco.

Join the revolution

It’s interesting that Robinson’s have created a Facebook page here to campaign against High Strength Beer Duty, which for them is the “Old Tom Tax”. Rare to see a major company directly challenging a government policy in this way. However, although I have a page (under my own name, not A. Curmudgeon) I have to say I’ve never really “got” Facebook and would question how effective this is going to be – wouldn’t a simple petition on the brewery website be better? In reality, I would suggest it’s primarily a marketing tool. But good luck to them – it’s a fine beer.

Saturday 17 December 2011

Staggering uphill

It is believed that the annual Hillgate Stagger, performed by the local branch of CAMRA, has been regularly held for longer than any other CAMRA event anywhere. Hillgate – divided into Lower, Middle and Upper – is a long historic street which stretches about three quarters of a mile south from Stockport town centre until it joins the A6 in Heaviley. It was originally the main road through the town, and would have been traversed by Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745 on his ill-fated advance to Derby. However, it was bypassed in the early part of the 19th century by Wellington Road South and North, the current alignment of the A6. This must have been one of the very first road bypasses anywhere in Britain.

Over the years, there have been 19 different pubs included on the crawl, although I don’t think there have been more than 17 serving cask beer in any one year. Sadly, due to inner-urban decline and the general contraction of the pub trade, there are now only nine pubs on the route with real ale, plus a couple that are keg-only. Those nine include six Robinson’s, two Holt’s and one Sam Smith’s, a considerable reduction in beer choice compared with what was available twenty years ago. At some point around 1990, the direction of the crawl was reversed to go uphill rather than downhill, as problems had been experienced with some of the pubs near the town centre locking their doors after 10 pm due to the crowds of revellers. That isn’t a problem nowadays, but the uphill direction has become well established and does mean ending up at the Blossoms where Robinson’s Old Tom is available.

The 19 pubs, starting from the bottom end, are as follows:
  1. Queen’s Head (Turner’s Vaults) (Samuel Smith’s), originally in the early years of the crawl a free house offering no cask beer. Currently open and serving cask beer.
  2. Winter’s (Holt’s) – converted from a jeweller’s shop in the early 1990s. Currently open and serving cask beer.
  3. Spread Eagle (Robinson’s) – now closed and used as brewery offices
  4. Royal Oak (Robinson’s) – actually just off Hillgate on High Street. Currently open and serving cask beer.
  5. Bishop Blaize (Tetley, then Burtonwood) – previously called the Gladstone, now closed, but still in pub livery
  6. Red Bull (Robinson’s) – currently open and serving cask beer. Shown on the picture
  7. Waterloo (Robinson’s) – currently open and serving cask beer. Actually on Waterloo Road, just off Hillgate
  8. Black Lion (Boddington’s) – closed for some years
  9. Sun & Castle (Tetley, then Holt’s) – currently open and serving cask beer
  10. Pack Horse/Big Lamp (Whitbread) – closed for some years
  11. Golden Lion (Burtonwood) – closed for some years
  12. Crown (Corner Cupboard) (Wilson’s, then Vaux, then pub company) – currently open but not serving cask beer, although it has in the past
  13. Star & Garter (Robinson’s) – currently open and serving cask beer
  14. Ram’s Head (Wilson’s) – long closed, and now an Indian restaurant
  15. Flying Dutchman (Robinson’s) – currently open and serving cask beer
  16. Royal Mortar (Robinson’s) – closed for some years, still derelict and boarded
  17. Bowling Green (Wilson’s, then pub company) – very recently closed. Actually on Charles Street, just off Hillgate
  18. Wheatsheaf (Wilson’s, then pub company) – currently open but not serving cask beer, although it has in the past
  19. Blossoms (Robinson’s) – currently open and serving cask beer
That really is a classic collection of British pub names. I made a few notes on this year’s event, held last night, and with a bit of luck will write them up and post them some time over the holiday period.

Incidentally, this is post #284 for this year, thus exceeding the record set in 2009.

Friday 16 December 2011

That was the year that was

I’m not someone who deliberately goes out seeking exotic and unfamiliar beers, and even if I encounter them I tend to forget the names. So I won’t be doing a “best of the year” awards including categories such as Best Black IPA (sub 6.5%). But I thought I might mention a few highlights of the past twelve months.

My best pub experience (in an unfamiliar pub) was the Barrels in Hereford, a city not generally known for the quality of its pubs. This is Wye Valley Brewery’s flagship tied house, selling the full range of their own beers, together with guests and cider, at notably good-value prices. It’s a spacious, four-square pub with a good choice of rooms, a lively atmosphere and a varied clientele ranging from Bohemians to businessmen. On a dry Monday evening it was noticeable how the extensive, part-covered courtyard at the rear was absolutely full of groups of smokers and their friends.

I’ll also congratulate Joules Brewery on their sensitive refurbishment of the Royal Oak in Eccleshall, Staffordshire, which I haven’t previously mentioned on here. This is a striking pub on the main street of this small town with a distinctive arcaded frontage. I don’t know what it was like before, but they have given it a very congenial, pubby interior with a main bar, snug and lounge/dining area making much use of dark wood. It sells Joule’s three cask beers – Blonde, Pale Ale and Slumbering Monk.

Most memorable pint of the year was a superb drop of Batham’s Best Bitter in the Great Western in Wolverhampton (currently featuring in a Sky Sports darts trailer). And an honourable mention to drinking BrewDog’s Avery Brown Dredge in the Magnet in Stockport. Brewery-conditioned bottled lager at a CAMRA meeting – whatever next?

Saddest event of the year was the closure of one of my local pubs, the Four Heatons (formerly the Moss Rose). While it had declined in recent years, in the 1990s this featured in the Good Beer Guide for a number of years and was a classic example of a thriving, down-to-earth boozer. It’s still standing, but with the windows now covered by metal, not wood. There can be little doubt that this pub was kicked over the edge by the smoking ban.

Extinction threatens

The “alarming rate” of pub closures and the decline in beer volumes is a wake up call of epic proportions, claims British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) chairman and Molson Coors chief executive Mark Hunter…

…“Beer volumes have declined by a fifth in five years… while pubs continue to close at an alarming rate.”
How very perceptive of him. Perhaps he – or his predecessor – should have thought about that five years ago. And on-trade beer volumes are down by over a quarter.

Monday 12 December 2011

In memory of the smoky pub

Phil Mellows is normally someone who seems to have his finger on the pulse of the licensed trade, and has been alert to the threat from the anti-drink lobby. But this posting about the smoking ban is, sadly, the most ignorant and bigoted nonsense imaginable. He concludes:

I supported the idea that pubs might, by installing efficient ventilation and air-cleaning kit, ‘remove the smoke – not the smoker' as the slogan went. But over a number of years, as the pub trade fought a rearguard action against legislation, it became clear to me that the world was changing and that people – smokers and non-smokers alike – were ready for a ban.

And so it's proved. The smoking ban, it's true, was the last nail in the coffin for some pubs but the vast majority, and their customers, have adapted to the new circumstances.

Has it made pubs better places? I'm afraid you have to say it has.
It’s some adaptation when pubs have lost 25% of their beer trade in less than five years. And are all those pubs that have closed, and those that have lost most of their regulars and are now just running on empty, really better places?

And he repeats the old canard that, in the days before the ban, non-smokers felt obliged to throw their clothes in the washing machine after a night in the pub, whereas in reality I doubt whether even 1% did.

Edit 16/12/11: and four days on, no comments have been approved on that article, even though I and several of the commenters here have said they have submitted some. Are they afraid of open debate or something?

Dog in the manger

Iconoclastic Scottish brewer BrewDog have recently opened their first “craft beer bar” outside Scotland in Camden, North London. Like the existing ones, it serves no cask beer, only keg. Despite this, beer blogger Mark Dredge reckons it will immediately become one of the go-to beer bars in London. BrewDog have also recently let it be known that they are going to discontinue cask beer production entirely in the New Year.

Now, from my perspective, BrewDog’s craft beer bars are very much an “urban beer bubble” phenomenon and of minimal interest or relevance to me as a consumer. However, by completely eschewing cask, they are very much throwing down the gauntlet to CAMRA. Is this a sign that the terms of discourse of the enthusiast beer market are increasingly moving away from CAMRA, or does it just show that the bubble is becoming increasingly disconnected from the mainstream?

Sunday 11 December 2011

Moment of truth

A point I have made several times on here is that many “beer enthusiasts” seem strangely oblivious to the threat to their pleasure posed by the growing movement to have the State control and dictate individual lifestyles.

Not only do they refuse to accept the first they came for the smokers argument, but they seem to believe that their particular interest can sail on unscathed through the obviously increasing trend towards the denormalisation and demonisation of even moderate alcohol consumption. One day, though, something will happen to make them wake up and think “oh shit, this really does mean us!”

Perhaps it will be when the UK ends up with the highest beer duties in the developed world, which a few more years of the annual duty escalator will bring about. However, from the government point of view, we are already into the realm of diminishing returns on that one, with absolute revenues dropping and a substantial rise in smuggling and illicit brewing and distilling.

Or it could be when tiered beer duty makes selling anything beyond very weak beers prohibitively expensive.

Or maybe when restrictions on promotion and advertising (which is where I fear we are likely to see most action) make it impossible to carry on the activities of running beer festivals and producing local newsletters and render most micro-breweries unviable.

I don’t know, as I’m not in possession of a crystal ball. But one day it will happen, and the one thing that is absolutely certain is that it will be too late.

And, in case anyone still didn’t accept the “first they came for the smokers” argument, you only have to read this singularly vile article from Prohibitionist harridan Joan Smith in today’s Independent on Sunday, ably fisked by Chris Snowdon here.

Any suggestion that the principles behind the smoking ban be extended to junk food prompts near-apoplexy, as though we have an inalienable right to consume as much high-fat, sugary rubbish as we wish.
You do have to wonder what is the underlying motivation here. The hackneyed argument about “unhealthy” lifestyles imposing costs on the rest of society does not really wash, as it has been amply demonstrated that, over their lifetimes, those “healthy” people who live into extreme old age cost the NHS far more.

Or it is that we need to have a healthy population to fulfil our national destiny, something disturbingly redolent of the totalitarian ideologies of the 1930s? Or simply a desire to control others and stop them doing anything that the Righteous disapprove of?

And, for what it’s worth, although she says “filling your face with popcorn is not a human right”, in my view being able to choose your own diet and not have it imposed on you by the government is a fundamental human right.

Saturday 10 December 2011


Redwillow Brewery from Macclesfield have been gaining a lot of plaudits for the quality of their cask beers. So I was interested to see a selection of their beers on sale in bottle-conditioned form. Now, I know I’ve had some bad experiences in the past with BCAs from micro-breweries, but these had to be worth a try, so I ended up with a bottle of their 4.1% “classic bitter – but a bit more so” Feckless. The bottles have attractive, stylish labels with the brewery’s distinctive branding theme.

It was crystal clear in the bottle, with the yeast firmly sticking to the bottom, and I was able to pour it clear without any difficulty. However, it was almost totally devoid of any condition, so I ended up with a glassful of flat brown liquid. Even though it was clear, there was a distinct yeastiness in the taste akin to poor-quality homebrew. Sorry, guys, you’ll have to do far better than that.

I’ve described drinking BCAs from micros as a bit of a lottery, but it seems that this is a lottery you are bound to lose. Wouldn’t it make more sense for breweries like Redwillow to just bottle one flagship beer and make sure they get the quality control right?

It’s worth noting that the label didn’t have the questionable “CAMRA says this is real ale” logo.

If anyone out there runs a micro-brewery and thinks I’ve just been unlucky, feel free to send me a sample of your beer. I’ll store it upright in a cold dark place for a week or so and then give it an honest tasting without prejudice. But if I can’t (with a bit of care) pour it clear, or it shows zero or minimal condition, then it won’t even get out of the starting blocks.

Jumping to conclusions

Well, with 57 responses to the poll, there’s an exact 2:1 split between those who think “Beachy Head Christmas Jumper” is funny and those who think it’s insensitive.

Thursday 8 December 2011

A couple of niggles

Two things recently observed in pubs that, while individually trivial, both contribute to a feeling of lack of interest in customers:

  1. The pub isn’t busy, and a middle-aged guy who I presume is the licensee is the only one serving. He’s chatting on the phone, and carries on doing this even though he can see I am waiting to be served. This continues for maybe three minutes. Couldn’t he have either said “hang on, let me just serve this customer”, or said that he would ring back when more convenient? And no apology even when he eventually comes off the phone.

  2. Another pub is nowhere near full, but ticking over reasonably. The landlady has allowed her daughter, aged approximately 10, to occupy what to my mind is the best seating position in the pub to do her maths homework on her laptop. There were other places to sit, but that, a comfortable corner bench with a clear view of the bar and a window behind, is where I always sit by preference in that particular pub if it is available.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Pilgrim’s Progress

In a recent post, I referred to Hereford’s Pilgrim Cider, a new product on the market which makes a donation to Help for Heroes of 10p for each bottle sold. Unfortunately, I wasn’t too impressed, and was taken to task in the comments by Chris Newall.

So, to be fair, I thought I’d sample another bottle. It’s 5.0% ABV and £1.75 for a 500ml bottle at Morrisons, or 4 for £5.50.

In appearance it is clear, a pale straw colour with a very gentle carbonation. The flavour is fairly sweet, with subdued fruitiness and a distinctive, somewhat “floral” note, which is what I previously described as “perfumey”.

I make no claims to any kind of expertise on cider, but this isn’t really to my taste at all. Given that it is supporting a worthy cause I’m sorry I can’t be more enthusiastic.

(And no, I didn’t just drink it this morning...)

Monday 5 December 2011

Steer clear of pubs this Christmas

We have recently seen the launch of the annual advertising campaign against drink-driving over the festive season. Of course the sentiment is laudable, even if the means of delivering it is not always as well-focused as it could be, but surely for every person who says “better get a cab, then”, there will be another who thinks “better safe than sorry, stay at home and get some cans in”. Might it not be the case that, over the years, the subliminal drip-drip effect of these campaigns, however noble the intention, has had the unintended consequence of encouraging people to stay away from pubs, even if they are individuals who realistically are not going to become offenders? In effect, it’s a high-profile annual anti-pub marketing campaign.

Saturday 3 December 2011

The beer bubble

Reading many beer blogs, you can’t avoid getting the impression that a “craft beer revolution” is taking place. The country, it would seem, is awash with new, exciting, challenging styles and flavours. But how far does that really spread beyond a handful of specialist outlets?

In the general run of pubs I go into, while you might see the odd guest beer or Peroni tap, that’s about it, and the vast majority of the beer drinkers are still necking Unicorn, Holts Bitter, John Smith’s Extra Smooth, Carling, Stella and Guinness. In Tesco, while there might be a little ghetto with a few BrewDog bottles and Belgian and American imports, much the same is true. I don’t really think the craft beer evangelists are giving a warm embrace to bottles of Spitfire and Warsteiner.

It’s also very much an urban phenomenon, confined to major city centres and the urban villages of the prosperous, liberal middle class. You might see it in Chorlton, but hardly in Levenshulme, let alone in Leominster. And, because London has quite a few neighbourhoods like Chorlton, it’s supposedly sweeping the board in the capital. But, beyond that limited sphere, it just doesn’t resonate at all. It’s a bubble of urban hype.

Back in the 70s and 80s, you would travel around the country and see plenty of A-boards and roadside signs proclaiming “The Red Lion -15th Century Inn – Good Food – Real Ale”. The concept of “real ale” is something that, at the time, had really caught the popular imagination. I never see similar signs advertising “craft beer”, and I don’t expect I ever will. And the Red Lion itself is probably now a private house.

“Real ale” connected beer enthusiasm with the wider drinking public. Far from evangelising to a broad audience, “craft beer” locks beer enthusiasts into a bubble of self-absorption and means they end up just drinking in their own exclusive venues and steering clear of any engagement with the hoi polloi.

Friday 2 December 2011

A seasonal leap forward

There has been an outburst of manufactured outrage about Beachy Head Brewery naming a seasonal beer Christmas Jumper. This, it is claimed, is offensive to those unfortunates who take their own lives by jumping from said headland.

In a sense that is true, but it isn’t referring to any individual, and in any case much of the best humour has a dark edge to it and to some extent plays on our inner fears. Very often the funniest things you see are the viral text message jokes you start getting a few hours after some “tragedy” in the news.

It seems today that the acceptable subjects for humour in public are becoming so circumscribed that you can listen to some so-called comedians without even raising a smile.

In any case, the brewery’s story that they originally named a beer after the well-known unwanted gift of knitwear and only then realised it had another connotation seems entirely plausible. If any other brewery had done it, nobody would have batted an eyelid or spotted the alternative meaning.

The people complaining about this are probably the same politically correct, humour-free “legions of the perpetually offended” who were whingeing yesterday about Jeremy Clarkson suggesting in obvious jest that public sector strikers should be shot.

Sunday 27 November 2011

Worth passing a few offies for?

On a vaguely similar theme to the last post, I ran a poll asking whether people bought beer from specialist off-licences, the results of which are shown in the graphic.

It’s interesting that 50% of respondents said “occasionally”, which suggests that they will contemplate using a specialist, but for various reasons don’t do so regularly. I would hazard a guess that the main reason was not price but simply convenience – while people recognise the appeal of the specialist, they won’t go too far out of their way to visit one. This is reflected by Jesusjohn’s comment on the poll:
I perhaps would more often if there were one close by. I live in Hackney - and for all the proliferation of lifestyle bars and delis, we still lack a beer specialist. My nearest, I'd wager, is Utobeer at Borough Market - a very pricey offer, if understandably so. Even so, with Waitrose stocking Thornbridge, White Shield, Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams, it stocks enough decent stock for me to have something good in the fridge. Tesco's BrewDog Imperial IPA is also worthy of honourable mention. I would still go to a specialist - and indeed do on occasion - but it would have to be a local resource. With online purchasing also available for rare beers, it's simply too much effort for too little reward to go out of my way to a specialist. And bar selection has also improved immeasurably in the area. One final point - a beer shop that really does deserve more praise is Bacchanalia in Cambridge. Absolutely first rate.
As I’ve said before, I do call in about monthly at the Bottle Stop in Bramhall when I’m passing nearby, but, as it’s about six miles away in a direction I don’t routinely go in, I don’t feel it’s worth making a special journey more frequently. I would also say that their previously very impressive selection of German – especially Bavarian – imports has been rather reduced in recent years. It seems that German beers aren’t very fashionable nowadays. On the other hand, their prices are roughly on a par with undiscounted supermarket prices, so you’re not expected to pay an arm and a leg.

If you want to make a success of a specialist off-licence, it would seem you need to be careful to get both your location and social mix of catchment area right.

Saturday 26 November 2011

Worth passing a few pubs for?

I grew up in an area of North Cheshire dominated by Greenalls, and so in the 1970s it made a refreshing change to head off a few miles to the south where, around Tarporley, there was a cluster of four Robinson’s pubs. And from time to time we would visit Chester and make a beeline for the Olde Custom House, one of the very few pubs this side of the English border selling Border beers from Wrexham.

At University in Birmingham, the city was dominated by a duopoly of Ansell’s and M&B, so the handful of Davenports pubs were an attraction, and a bus trip to the Black Country to sample Batham’s, Holden’s and Simpkiss was a virtual pilgrimage. Even finding a Banks’s or Marston’s pub in the surrounding areas (then two separate and very different companies) was something of an achievement.

After that, I worked in Surrey for a while, again an area dominated by two of the then Big Six, in this case Courage and Ind Coope. But the county was surrounded by a number of well-respected independent brewers – Young’s, King & Barnes, Brakspear’s and Gale’s (all now closed) – whose tied houses either spread into the edges or started not far beyond the border. Fuller’s had virtually no presence outside London in those days.

It was also very much the case back then that the tied houses of a particular brewery had a distinctive house character. Young’s pubs tended to be big, a bit posh, traditional and comfortable, with plenty of dark wood, whereas Brakspear’s were often small and Spartan with bare wooden benches and whitewashed interior walls. Around here, Holt’s pubs were noted for their busy, basic and boisterous atmosphere, often in an environment of some architectural splendour.

But times have changed, and over the past twenty years one of the most significant changes to the British pub scene has been the wholesale removal of brewers’ identities from pubs. It has to be questioned whether today there is any cachet gained from linking a pub with a particular brewery. The beer enthusiast is likely to be found in a multi-beer outlet working his way through fifteen different golden ales tasting of lychees, while looking down with scorn at the neighbouring Robbies’ house and its boring brown beer. While Robinson’s and Lees have been busy buying up pubs from the pub companies in the last few years, in general their main objective has been to acquire establishments with the potential to develop the food trade, not showcases for their beers.

It certainly does still have a cachet for me, as in any given area the tied houses of a family brewer are likely to my mind to be better run, more “pubby” and have better-kept beer than pubs belonging to pub companies. But, in the overall pub market, does being identified as “A Bloggs’ House” now give a pub any kind of USP?

The one exception to this is Sam Smith’s, who ironically don’t even paint the name of the company on their pubs. They have a very definite, even somewhat eccentric, policy of low prices, all products bearing their own branding and a no-frills, traditional atmosphere. It doesn’t always work, but at their best Sam’s pubs are examples of what good pubs are all about. In the London area, where they have a number of pubs, they must stand out from the general herd even more than they do here.

(And for those too young to remember, “Worth passing a few pubs for” was an advertising slogan used in the 1970s for, of all things, Younger’s Tartan)

Friday 25 November 2011

Beer battered

Reports from Scotland show a 14% fall in volumes of beer sold in the off-trade following the Scottish government’s banning of multibuy discounts from 1 October. Obviously one month’s figures are not enough to establish a trend, and it is likely there was some element of stocking-up at the end of September. Part of the reduction is also probably attributable to the fact that the effective average price of beer rose, rather than simply multibuys encouraging people to buy more than they otherwise would. The supermarkets may also welcome the opportunity to increase their margins, as big-pack multibuys, while rarely sold at an actual loss, were often heavily discounted as a tool to get customers to visit one particular shop rather than a competitor.

Over time, the retailers will no doubt work out what combination of pack sizes and price points work best under the new regime to maximise sales, and it will be interesting to see what the figures look like over a full year. As I understand it, while you can’t sell two of something for less than twice the price of one, you don’t have to sell all pack sizes of the same product exactly pro-rata, so there’s nothing to stop you selling 4x500ml cans of Carling for £3.99, and a multipack of 10x440ml cans for £7.99.

It’s not something that would greatly bother me personally, and if Morrisons started selling single bottles for £1.39 rather than 4 for £5.50 I doubt whether I’d buy any less. But it’s another small salami slice of restriction imposed on the drinks trade, and it’s the direction of travel that should concern anyone interested in the brewing industry.

It also must be questioned whether, at a time of a flatlining economy and rising unemployment, reducing the revenues of a substantial business sector by 14% as a result of government action is really a sensible thing to do.

Edit: I see in today’s paper that ASDA are advertising 20x440ml cans of Carling, or 18x440ml cans of Stella, for £10. Including Scotland. Both under 30p per unit. That’s two fingers up to Salmond, then.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

The ciderator

Earlier this year, celebrity chef Marco Pierre White introduced his own branded beer “The Governor”, in conjunction with Middleton brewers J. W. Lees. Now, I’m no fan of his, but I suppose this must be praised as an effort to give beer more class and less of a downmarket image. However, having sampled it in both bottled and cask forms, I have to say it comes across as just another underwhelming brown beer from Lees.

Marco has now collaborated with Herefordshire cidermaker Weston’s to produce a “Governor” cider. It’s 4.8% ABV and retails in Morrison’s at £1.75 for a 500ml bottle, or 4 for £5.50. It is pale in colour with a slight greenish tinge. There’s a small amount of sediment which produces a moderately hazy appearance, although much less than Westons’ Old Rosie. It has a fresh, quite sharp taste, that probably qualifies as “medium-dry”. It only has a slight hint of carbonation and overall is probably the best bottled approximation to a traditional draught cider I’ve come across. As described here, the intention is to reproduce the characteristics of Old Rosie at a more moderate strength, which I would say they have succeeded in doing. I spotted the similarity before reading that article. However, as it is well-nigh still and a touch hazy, it might not appeal to those who are more used to Magners and Stella “Cidre”.

While I do enjoy the occasional bottle of “craft” cider, I’ve never really tried to review any on here as I lack the tasting vocabulary to describe them adequately. However, I recently sampled Hereford’s Pilgrim, which took my eye as it promises to donate 10p to Help for Heroes for each bottle sold. The company are rather coy about where it’s actually made, although the postcode links it to an industrial estate in Ledbury. However, even though it is supporting a good cause, I thought it was pretty unpleasant, with a dominant perfumey off-flavour. I won’t be trying that again.

Sheep and goats

Although the protection of workers was often used as a “smokescreen”, the underlying motivation behind smoking bans has always been an attempt to reduce the prevalence of smoking in society through a process of “denormalisation”. However, in many places where bans have been imposed, that doesn’t seem to work, and very often the steady decline in smoking rates that has occurred until the ban has stalled or even reversed.

That has certainly been the case in Ireland“there was a slight increase in the percentage of smokers since 2002, with 29% admitting to being a smoker in 2007, compared to 27% in 2002” – the Irish ban having come in in 2004. And the latest figures from Scotland show that the same is happening there.

The number of Scots smoking has risen since it was banned in public places – and the vast majority live in our poorest housing estates.
Arguably a key reason for this is that the bans in effect force people to identify as smokers, and once they have done that they become more committed to sticking with it. You can’t really be a casual smoker any more.

One of the comments rings all too true:
Billy Dunn, 68, Parkhead, Glasgow

The retired factory worker has smoked for 60 years.

He said: “Scottish people have always smoked and it’s not going to change.

“I still come out for my pint every other day and I still manage to have a cigarette.

“However, the pubs are a lot quieter now than they were about four or five years because a lot of people aren’t able to stand outside smoking like I can.

A lot of smokers have difficulty coming down out of their homes to go for a drink and the last thing they want to be doing is having to get up every 30 minutes and go outside.
It’s also quite instructive how readily smoking and drinking are linked together:
Also, people living in the most deprived areas have very few things to indulge in which are theirs. Smoking is one of them. They might say, ‘I can light up a cigarette or drink a pint – that’s my thing.’
They have become all too often joined in a figure of speech like the proverbial horse and carriage. And, while the aficionado of craft beer, or claret, or malt whisky, may jib at the suggestion, if the Righteous choose to tar you with the same brush there’s nothing you can do about it.

Also well worth reading is this article by Dave Atherton (a regular commenter here) on The Commentator in which he argues that “smoking bans in pubs and bars, and now proposed car smoking bans constitute the most sinister assault on private property rights outside of an authoritarian regime.”

Monday 21 November 2011

Last of the independents

Go in a typical major supermarket, and you will find a range of beers that would not have disgraced a cutting-edge independent off-licence fifteen years ago. A huge spread of British independent and micro brewers, German and Czech pilsners, Belgian specialities, American craft beers. That’s an amazing transformation from the time when all you’d get is cans of McEwan’s Export and Carling Black Label.

But that spells bad news for independent off licences, who increasingly see the supermarkets encroaching on their territory. The growth in the appreciation of beer has led to a huge rise in beer-focused pubs, but the specialist off licences have at best trod water. The big difference is that, when you go out for a drink, you are specifically looking for a drinking venue, but when shopping for beer most people tend to combine it with shopping for all the rest of the range of household essentials.

Clearly the primary aim of Tesco et al is to make money, but at the end of the day you will only make money by satisfying consumer demand. They know that alcoholic drinks are probably the biggest single category in the typical grocery spend and, if they fail to offer a decent selection of beer, their customers will take their business elsewhere. The supermarket beer range may not be quite the best in the world, but for most customers it’s good enough to ensure they don’t bother making a pilgrimage to the specialist.

All too often that leaves the independents scrabbling for the last 1% of trade amongst the people for whom “you can get it in Tesco” is a major reason for not drinking a beer. Those obscurantist beer geeks will always be there, but they’re not the foundation on which you can build a growing business.

I call in at my most local specialist – the Bottle Stop in Bramhall – about once a month, and pick up a few bottles. But that’s only because I’m passing it, and otherwise I wouldn’t be too unhappy to exist on a diet of what Tesco and Morrisons sell.

Saturday 19 November 2011

Ring my bell

The ongoing decline of the pub trade inevitably leads to staffing reductions, so very often one person is left to look after a serving area which can’t all be seen from one vantage point. And, even if there is just a single bar counter, there are reasons such as toilet breaks and popping into the kitchen that mean the sole server is absent.

In these situations, it’s all too easy for staff to be distracted and fail to check regularly whether there are any customers waiting. I recall one occasion in a rural pub in Staffordshire, which had separate counters in the “dining” and “pub” sides, where I had to wait what seemed like an age before anyone noticed me, and less patient people might well have walked out.

So surely it makes sense to bring back the service bell, a staple of the old two-bar pubs, but rarely seen nowadays. At least that way you might stand a chance of actually getting served.

Thursday 17 November 2011

At the sign of the gallows

On a non beer-related forum, the subject recently came up of pub signs that completely span the road. The best must surely be that of the Fox & Hounds at Barley near Royston in Hertfordshire, with its cast of fox, hounds and mounted huntsmen. Others that were mentioned were the Magpie at Stonham Parva in Suffolk, where the sign spans the main A140 road, and two coaching inns, the Green Man & Black’s Head at Ashbourne in Derbyshire, and the George at Stamford in Lincolnshire.

Are there any others to be found?

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Stop panicking

There’s an excellent article by Chris Snowdon of Velvet Glove, Iron Fist fame in yesterday’s Independent entitled We should stop panicking about Boozy Britain. Good to see a rare outbreak of common sense about alcohol in the mainstream media as opposed to the usual hysterical moral panic.

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Pretentious, moi?

On an e-mail group, we were having a discussion about the Brunning & Price chain of pubs. While they have much to be said for them (not least in doing exactly what they say on the can) it cannot be denied that they have an unashamedly upmarket aspiration and ambiance. They’re not places for darts and doms and crib and meat raffles.

One correspondent said “we have never felt out of place, even when we staggered in after a long walk dressed in mud-stained walking gear.” But isn’t rambling the absolute acme of the pursuits of the comfortably-off, real ale slurping, slow food chomping, liberal middle class whom they are trying to attract? You have to wonder whether they might have received quite such a warm welcome had they wandered in wearing football shirts or motorcycle leathers.

Nice beer, shame about the pubs?

Last week, we were treated to an informative presentation by David Bremner, the Marketing Director of Stockport family brewer Robinson’s, in which he outlined the brewery’s plans for its beer range. These included tweaking the recipes of mainstream beers, more adventurous seasonal beers, short-run one-off “specials” and widening the bottled range, combined with a large-scale rebranding to give a more contemporary and less stuffy image. All music to the ears of the beer enthusiast.

However, he also made the point that focus groups had said that, while they recognised what Robinson’s were trying to do with their beers, all too often the pubs didn’t live up to that aspiration. In general they are either inner-urban and small town locals, or rural pubs that have increasingly gone over to dining. They conspicuously lack the kind of high-profile flagship pubs on sites with heavy footfall that have the potential to do well with an eclectic beer-drinking clientele. Many of them would struggle to sell any seasonal beer (and generally don’t even try), and very few can manage to shift anything more exotic than that. Do the brewery’s aspirations for their beers exceed what their pubs are capable of delivering?

Maybe it has to be accepted that a lot of pubs are, and are always going to remain, just “boozers”, and the scope for selling anything beyond the normal range of standard beers is extremely limited. I get the impression that quite a number of Robinson’s pubs would actually do better if they adopted the Samuel Smith’s business model of low prices, limited draught range and an unashamed pursuit of the traditional no-frills image.

Sunday 13 November 2011

I see no ships

Apparently, the two-thirds pint “schooner” measure is being shunned by pubs. I had imagined that they would have been of particular interest to specialist beer pubs offering higher-ABV draught beers, but apparently not. I can’t say I’ve seen them on offer in a single pub. Indeed, the whole raft of changes in measures and beer duty that came in on 1 October have so far proved to be the dampest of damp squibs. 2.8% ABV Skol? Result!

Saturday 12 November 2011

Never coming back

I was saddened to see recently as I was passing that the Railway at Heatley near Lymm was in the process of being reduced to a pile of rubble. I wrote about it earlier here. This former Boddingtons’ house had been a long-standing Good Beer Guide entry and was one of the very few remaining traditional, multi-roomed pubs in the area. The main bar, with fixed wooden benches lining the walls facing the counter, was one of the most congenial drinking spaces I knew. And that particular part of the pub had been non-smoking by choice long before the ban. Most pubs I know that have closed have, to be honest, at least in their latter days, been pretty dismal. But this had been a damn good pub almost to the end. It featured in the 2008 Good Beer Guide, which was published at pretty much the same time as it closed.

It closed its doors forever in the Autumn of 2007 (I wonder what could have happened earlier that year to cause that – Ed). For a while it featured in the sidebar as a touchstone of whether we were going to see any kind of revival of the pub trade. But, despite being situated in a prosperous area with no shortage of nearby housing, it was not to be. None of these people who are always bleating about what great opportunities there still are in the pub trade were prepared to put their money where their mouth was and take it on. Now any chance of that happening has gone. Outside the urban bubble, this is the reality of what is happening to so many pubs in the wider world.

Monday 7 November 2011

Retreating into a niche

Stockport town centre, depending on how you define it, currently has about 30 pubs open and trading. There are four or five standing closed and boarded and realistically unlikely to open as pubs, and a further ten or so that have closed their doors forever over the past ten or fifteen years and been demolished or converted to alternative use. A pattern that is fairly typical of large towns up and down the country.

For various reasons, Stockport isn’t renowned for its lively night-life and, being honest, although a few do well, many of those 30 are existing on very thin pickings. Two that are thriving, though, are the well-known specialist beer pubs, the Crown and the Magnet, which are only about four hundred yards apart near the bus station. Indeed, to get to either from the bus station you have to pass the very prominently-sited, and firmly closed and boarded, George.

Both these pubs are to be congratulated on doing well in a declining market, but it would be a mistake from that to conclude that a lot of other pubs would benefit from adopting that particular trading format. They are catering well for a substantial, but still ultimately limited, market of beer enthusiasts. Indeed it could be said of the customers of the Crown and Magnet that they are people for whom going to pubs and sampling different beers is a specific hobby that they pursue, rather than just something they do as part of the normal routines of everyday life.

So it could well be that in future the overall pub market continues to shrink substantially year-on-year, but the specialist beer pubs continue to thrive by catering specifically for beer enthusiasts. And those beer enthusiasts, and even people who just like the atmosphere of pubs in general, will increasingly gravitate towards those pubs as they alone will offer the choice of beers, and the congenial company, that they are looking for.

I have written in the past of the future of the pub trade (or the “wet” pub trade anyway) being one of increasingly retreating into a small urban niche. And you can see it happening before your own eyes in Stockport.

First they came for the Special Brew drinkers

Well, I said that High Strength Beer Duty would be just the start, and it now looks as though they’re planning to extend the principle to wine. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, in the next two or three years, they come back and have another bite at the beer cherry. Given that there aren’t really any mass-market beers in the range from 5% to 7.5%, I would expect to see the cut-off point at 4.5% or even 4.0%. Enjoy that Pendle Witches Brew while you can...

(H/t to Leg-iron)

Friday 4 November 2011

Bitter harvest

Apparently, Call Me Dave reckons that the smoking ban has been a success.

Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Cameron said: “As a former smoker and someone who believes strongly in liberties and someone who did not support it at the time, it has worked.”
Someone who believes strongly in liberties? Come on, pull the other one. And in what way has it “worked”? The long-term decline in the proportion of smokers in the population has actually slowed, while thousands of pubs have shut and their licensees and staff been deprived of their livelihoods. As he tours the country, does he see the legions of closed and boarded pubs and smugly think to himself “what a success”?

In contrast, no prizes for guessing which North-West MEP said the following:
Pubs are local parliaments and are a very important part of our society. Once the traditional pubs have gone they will never return.

There is no simple answer, but it is certainly time to rethink the smoking ban. The political powers of this country dealt pubs an absolute hammer blow four years ago with the total smoking ban. It has taken 20% off pub takings.
Well, absolutely, spot on Mr Nuttall.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Here we go again

Not surprisingly, we read in the Daily Mail:

One in three middle-aged men are increasing their chances of developing cancer and liver disease through 'risky drinking.'

A study found 31 per cent of men aged over 45 regularly drank the equivalent of more than two pints of beer five times a week.

Whilst over the safe limits it is not classed as binge drinking and researchers said drinkers may not realise it could affect their health.
There’s no point in attempting to refute this, but the idea that middle-aged men drinking three pints five times a week (which I suspect includes many readers of this blog) is storing up some kind of health timebomb really does strain credulity to breaking point.

All of this rests on a complete misinterpretation of the concept of risk. As I’ve often said before, once you’re over the top of the bell curve of alcohol-related health impacts, you don’t suddenly fall off a cliff, but for quite a distance just experience a gentle downward slope. You have to go a long way before you get down to the same level as teetotallers, and in any case a 50% increase in a minimal risk is still a minimal risk.

You increasingly get the feeling that, rather than addressing genuine health problems, the medical profession are doing their best to spread anxiety, guilt and self-loathing amongst the broad spread of those who engage in statistically “normal” behaviour, on food as much as alcohol. As the great Dr Heinz Kiosk might have said, “we are all alcoholics now”.

Saturday 29 October 2011

Patterns of pubgoing

OK, here are the results of my recent survey, which impressively attracted the maximum permitted 100 responses within 24 hours. Thanks to everyone who completed it. The number of responses obviously equate exactly to percentages.

A few points worth making. 89% of people live within half a mile of a pub, which is accepted as the maximum distance most people are prepared to walk to a pub. However, 35% never visit their nearest pub, and 27% never visit a pub on foot at all. And the high figures for people who go to the pub from work in the evenings, and combined with leisure activities, underline the importance of these sources of trade.

For 17% of people, there were over 50 pubs closer to their home than the pub they visited most often, although that is entirely feasible if, for example, someone from the south end of Hazel Grove was a regular in the Crown or Magnet in Stockport town centre.

And not a single person said that TV sport was one of the main factors influencing their choice of pub. Maybe it’s not quite the moneyspinner licensees believe.

1. How often do you visit pubs?

Daily: 5
Most days: 13
2-3 times a week: 30
Once a week: 15
Once a fortnight: 7
Once a month: 9
Less than once a month: 21

2. How far are you from the nearest pub?

400 yards or less: 53
Half a mile: 36
A mile: 5
A mile and a half: 1
Two miles: 3
Over two miles: 2

3. Do you regularly visit your nearest pub?

Yes, it is the pub I visit most often: 20
Yes, but I visit another pub more often: 10
No, but I occasionally call in: 35
No, I never visit it: 35

4. If you visit another pub more often than your nearest, how many pubs are closer than your chosen pub?

1: 7
2-5: 27
6-10: 9
11-20: 13
21-50: 4
51-100: 8
Over 100: 9

5. Would you say that you have a “local” pub, even if not the closest?

Yes: 64
No: 36

6. What methods of transport do you use to travel to and from pubs? (Choose all that apply)

NB: this refers to the main mode on each journey – by definition all will require at least a little walking

Foot: 73
Bus: 40
Train or tram: 27
Pedal cycle: 9
Motor cycle: 1
Taxi: 14
Car as driver: 18
Car as passenger: 28

7. On what occasions do you visit pubs? (Choose all that apply)

Directly from home in the evenings: 60
Directly from home at lunchtimes: 14
From work in the evenings: 44
From work at lunchtimes: 11
When shopping: 27
Combined with leisure activities (e.g. sports events, sightseeing, cinema or theatre): 49
Other (please give details): 10

  1. After dog walking
  2. Weekend days as a decision to go drinking
  3. Folk club
  4. Weekend afternoons.
  5. days out specifically for pub crawling
  6. Weddings,funerals,christenings
  7. Political meetings once per month
  8. I used to go but not anymore
  9. Meeting up with friends
  10. Wake

Some of these slightly missed the point, but “weddings, funerals and christenings” is a good one. In a past era “after church” might have been added too.

8. What are the main factors influencing your choice of pub? (Choose up to 3)

Range of beer: 48 Quality of beer: 68 Convenient location: 15 Choice/quality of food: 7 Comfort/ambience: 50 Value for money: 7 Smoking facilities: 21 My friends go there: 25 Live entertainment: 3 TV sport: 0 Other (please give details): 7

  1. No TV
  2. Interesting area
  3. Good landlady
  4. Quality of service
  5. No smoking available, so I seldom go there anymore.
  6. It's got a good smoking shelter and the service is really quick.
  7. Choice of Lager!

Maybe “quality of service” would have been worth adding to the list.

9. How many pubs do you usually visit on each drinking occasion?

1: 70 2: 11 More than 2: 19

10. Any other comments?

24 comments received, reproduced verbatim below:

  1. The good old 'boozer', and the attendant characters, are virtually extinct. Sad, so very sad.
  2. Having been a very regular pub goer (5-6 times a week) I no longer visit pubs unless away on business. This is a direct consequence of the smoking ban, no other reason.
  3. More than two unless it's my local. Then one.
  4. Also visit other pubs for meetings & socials on a regular basis. My answers as to location transport & no of pubs would be different for these visits
  5. How different this survey would have been in 2007. I used to go out several times a week but now I struggle to even bother visiting the restaurants near me which are laughably called pubs.
  6. I stop going in winter
  7. Two main reasons I don't visit pubs more is the cost, and the demise of so many of my favourite breweries. What's the point of going on a pub crawl of Henley nowadays, or Wandsworth? I've yet to find a new brewery that can produce ordinary bitters that are a patch on Brakspear's or Young's - let alone Batham's or Harvey's... (OK, pub crawls of Brierley Hill or Lewes are still very agreeable, thankfully.) All of which is a bit of a pity really, as pubs themselves are more pleasant to visit now you don't come out of them reeking of fag smoke!!
  8. My nearest pub was once very good but is sadly now a filthy drugs den.
  9. Used to go to pubs 3-4 times a week before the ban.
  10. And my visit to the pub is entirely dependent on the weather. eg NOT RAINING
  11. I have days when I just visit my local, other nights out are pub crawls.
  12. Now once a month at the most Between 1961 and 2007, 7 nights a week
  13. Used to go quite often but with no more smoking available I stopped except for once in a while. Most others have stopped too so I'm not alone. We tend to visit one anothers houses now instead of the pub. It is more friendly plus we can smoke and drink at the same time.
  14. Used to go 5 nights a week, since smoking ban down to two.
  15. Basically, the only time I visit a place with a bar (not a pub) is when we have a local BNP meeting. Then I MIGHT have a bottle of wifebeater (not that I have a wife to beat, these days).
  16. I have been to a pub three times this summer and not at all last winter, due to the smoking ban. Why should I pay the same price of a drink, when if I want to use a legal and taxed product I am forced to sit outside in inferior facilities at most pubs.
  17. I’m not friendly enough to have a proper local, I like to try different pubs everytime I go out.
  18. I do live in Cyprus so there is a bit more "slack" in the situation! :-))
  19. My nearest (give or take a hundred yards) pub is excellent, and is part of the reason why I bought a house where I did, but my friends live on the other side of town so that's where I normally go to drink.
  20. Used to go to a pub every Friday and Saturday night then came the smoking ban - nuff said
  21. Mumble mumble smoking ban mumble.
  22. I walk past a w/mens club and a pub on the way to my local club (men only,that should have Harriet Harpie spitting blood) PURELY for the smoking facilities.The 2 closest to me have been visited less than 10 times since that fateful day.I give them the same support as they gave me,and have told them so.
  23. Keep up the good, Hail to the ale.
  24. I would go more often but...........the smoking ban!
I like the one about not being friendly enough to have a proper local ;-)

Friday 28 October 2011

Frightened of your own strength

RedNev pointed out this article about Health Minister Anne Milton giving evidence about alcohol policy to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. In this, she said in relation to High Strength Beer Duty, “Already, there has been a response from the industry. Already they are dropping the alcohol strength to get below that duty level.” Yet I have seen no evidence of that at all, and the new duty regime has been in place for a full month now. I’ve checked on the supermarket shelves, and Special Brew and Tennent’s Super are still there at 9.0%, and Gold Label at 8.5%, albeit at a considerably higher price than before.

I’m sure the brewers are watching the situation closely, but there seems to be a strange kind of ossification in this segment of the market, whereby established products continue to be brewed, but there is a total avoidance of any kind of product innovation – or indeed any advertising or promotion. Presumably they fear that, if they did so, the Daily Mail would be screaming down their necks. Yet the cask and premium bottled ale sectors seem to happily sail on under the radar, with a number of new launches of higher-strength beers like Old Crafty Hen and Pedigree VSOP.

If I was the brand owner of Carlsberg Special or Tennent’s Super, what I would be tempted to do is to keep the existing product at 9.0%, but introduce a new brand at 7.5% which would sell for considerably less, and let the market decide which prospered and which failed. Yet there’s no evidence of that at all. It will be interesting to see what happens over the next few months.

On a related subject, it’s long been my view that there is a gap in the mainstream beer market for a premium lager of around 5.5-6.0% ABV. However, for the same reasons, no major brewer would touch this with a bargepole for fear of denting their image of social responsibility. To some extent the Polish imports like Tyskie and Zywiec fill this niche, but there’s nothing brewed in this country. In a sense, when it was 5.2%, that little extra kick was a major selling point for Stella. A couple of years ago, the much-trailed launch of the 5.5% Stella Black was pulled, and the name was later used for a weaker “premium” brand extension which now seems to have died the death.

Thursday 27 October 2011

Pubgoing survey

I’ve created a new survey about blog readers’ pubgoing habits and preferences which can be taken here.

Edit: the survey is now closed having reached the maximum of 100 responses. I will post the results tomorrow (Saturday). Cheers to all those who took part.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Cat wins mouse welfare award shock

I was amazed to read that JD Wetherspoon has been named as Britain’s best pub operator for customer satisfaction. Now, my usual experience of Spoons has been that you put up with service that varies from just about adequate through to execrable in return for the low prices, wide choice and consistent offer. It’s a trade-off between one and the other. The same has been reported by many friends and other bloggers – there never seem to be enough staff, and unless it’s virtually deserted it’ll take you a long time. See here, for example.

Earlier this year, when I was out at lunchtime with work colleagues, so time was limited, but going elsewhere wasn’t really an option, I had to wait about fifteen minutes before even attracting the attention of a barperson. And a Spoons was the last pub I walked out of after despairing of ever getting served, when there only seemed to be one member of staff on duty, and a long, complicated drinks order from another customer was then followed by what seemed like it was going to be an even more time-consuming food order.

The only explanation I can think of is that amongst nationally recognisable pub chains there isn’t much competition – the best service is likely to be found in independently-run pubs.

Rat leaves sinking ship

The Board of Alcohol Concern has announced a restructuring of its senior management following the loss of core funding, with the role of the CEO becoming part time for a year alongside the recruitment of a full time Director of Fundraising and Campaigning.

This means that after more than six years at Alcohol Concern, of which three and a half year have been as Chief Executive, Don Shenker has decided to leave the organisation in order to take a full time position elsewhere.
Crack open a bottle!

Perhaps SIBA will make up the missing funding.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Failure breeds failure

There’s been a lot of talk recently of the decline of traditional high streets, with retail guru Mary Portas being appointed to head a government task force looking into how to revive them. Inevitably, this has a knock-on effect on the business of town-centre pubs. In reality, the various parts of town centre economies have a strong degree of interdependence and can’t be considered in isolation.

The Centre for Cities has looked at second-rank provincial towns and cities like Sunderland and Preston (a category that would also include Stockport):
In Sunderland’s case the city centre suffers from a lack of scale – out-of-town employment sites limit the number of commuters into the centre each day. This limits footfall which in turn limits lunch time and evening demand on the High Street and in restaurants and bars.
It seems fairly obvious that a thriving employment sector will benefit both shops and pubs. However, they argue that simply limiting out-of-town development is unlikely to have much impact, and that much more attention needs to be given to the positive factors that will increase activity in town centres.

It works the other way, too, as Leg-Iron points out here. Deter people from visiting pubs, and they won’t visit the nearby shops either.

It also doesn’t help when local councils take measures, for whatever reason, that lead to a reduction in town centre footfall. For example, I saw the following comment on another blog:
In my local town the council have:

- raised all the car parking charges
- closed one large car park completely
- pedestrianised the High Street
- lowered the speed limit on all the approach roads
- installed loads of speed bumps
- installed loads more traffic lights at minor junctions
- closed all the public toilets
- closed the two theatres
- demolished the ice rink

and there's probably more that I can't think of just now.

And guess what (1) - the High Street is full of empty shops, charity shops, pound shops, and short-term tat generally and also guess what (2) the same council is wringing its hands wondering how it can save the High Street.

It's a cliché, but you couldn't make it up.
One would expect that particular town (which I think is one of the London boroughs) has also experienced numerous pub closures, although no doubt one of the more down-market Wetherspoons is doing OK next to the 99p store. Pedestrianisation of town centre streets, while it may create a more attractive retail experience during the daytime, can all too easily turn them into intimidating dead zones once the shops have closed.

It also has to be recognised that, just as with pubs, a range of social changes are working against high street shopping. Most of the closed pubs are never coming back, and neither are most of the 25% of shops currently vacant in some town centres. There needs to be a focus on what works in the 21st century context, not a naïve belief that a bit more stimulus will bring the good old days back.

Another idea that has been expressed to me is that the revival of residential development in town and city centres has proved beneficial in sustaining the pubs in those areas. However, I’m not entirely convinced that’s a particularly strong factor. As I’ve argued before, the idea that the typical pattern of pub use is to come home, have your tea and go out for a few pints is very much exaggerated, and the presence of nearby chimneypots is no guarantee of trade. To a large extent, people visit pubs because they’re out and about doing other things. That pubs in Manchester city centre are conspicuously thriving when in many other places they’re not is a function of the city centre being a strong hub for retail, employment, entertainment and public transport, not because a lot of new flats have been built there.