Thursday 30 June 2011

Trickle becomes a flood

Many will have said it was watery piss already, but the next beer to have its strength reduced is Budweiser Draught, which is being reduced from 5% ABV to 4.3% to make it “more sessionable”. Few beer lovers will be shedding any tears over this, but it’s yet another example of the growing trend of beer watering. I suspect few of its drinkers realised it was actually 5% in the first place.

Incidentally, while there is a widespread belief that American beer is weak, this is largely a myth. Most regular US beers, although very pale and bland, conform to the “Continental” 5% standard rather than the British 3.8-4% “session beer” standard. This may arise from the fact that, in the US, alcohol content is normally shown by weight, not by volume. As alcohol is considerably lighter than water, a US beer that is 4% by weight will be the same strength as a Canadian one that is 5% by volume.

Wednesday 29 June 2011

From Blackburn to India

While there’s a wide variety of premium bottled ales available in the major supermarkets, few of them can be described as particularly hoppy. One exception was Hawkshead Lakeland Gold, a genuinely bitter beer which was a good cross between traditional English flinty bitterness and New World hops, but unfortunately after selling it for a few months Tesco seem to have dropped it earlier this year.

However, some compensation is at hand in the form of the recently-launched Thwaites Indus IPA, a 4.6% ABV brew now available in bottle at Morrisons. Thwaites house style has generally been on the malty side, but this offers a distinct contrast. The bottle describes it as having a “thoroughly hoppy flavour” and says it is a “refreshing amber ale, brewed with four hop varieties for superb taste and aroma.” It isn’t yet on the Cyclops tasting notes website.

There was little noticeable aroma, although this was a fridge-chilled sample that might have dampened it down. Colour is an appealing dark amber, with noticeable carbonation and a thin but lasting head. The flavour is very dry, with the hops coming through strongly in a surprisingly long, complex aftertaste. There are hints of fruit and a good solid malty base – it’s certainly not one of those wishy-washy lemony beers. Definitely one for a repeat purchase.

It’s also available in cask form, but it is yet another beer where the bottled version is considerably stronger than the cask, which is only 3.9%.

Smoking and freedom

There’s a very interesting blog posting at Liberal Vision:

Smoking, Freedom and all things (ob)noxious

The demolition of the “protecting the health of workers” argument is particularly good:

The third point, then, must address what is often portrayed as both the main argument and the one hardest to refute – though ASH admitted it was in fact merely a tactical ploy – which is that something must be done to protect the health of workers. This, again, is a property rights issue: every man has a property in his own person, and is able to make an informed decision as to the costs and benefits of any employment. The idea that no person should be allowed to take employment that carries a risk is absurd. Instead, the risks should be made clear and individuals should be free to determine the balance for themselves. If people are able to evaluate the risks of going to war or space, of running into burning buildings or driving 40 tonne trucks across a thin layer of ice above the Arctic Ocean, they are presumably able to evaluate the risks, and the potential rewards, in terms of wage premiums, higher overall levels of employment, and so forth.

Some might not mind working in a smoky bar; some might actively enjoy it; and some might value the extra income more than they fear the health risks. But it is their choice to make. They do not need ASH or the government taking decisions for them. It is that removal of individual choice, discretion and responsibility that is “bastardising the central plank of liberalism”.

Tuesday 28 June 2011

A problem of proof

Here’s a rather unfortunate tale from my neck of the woods where Joe Coyle, a 22-year-old man with cerebral palsy, was refused service in the Governor’s House pub in Cheadle Hulme despite reportedly providing nine separate forms of ID. Reading between the lines it does seem like one of those “six of one and half a dozen of the other stories” – he clearly looks about 15, so it was entirely reasonable for the pub to ask for ID, but they were then overzealous about it resulting in him becoming abusive towards them. If the pub staff really did suggest that they wouldn’t let him in because he might become “mentally unstable” then that is totally out of order and will do their reputation a lot of harm.

However, the real villain of the peace is surely the climate of hysteria about underage drinking that makes pubs feel compelled to operate “Challenge 25” policies in the first place and fearful of the consequences if they don’t follow them to the letter.

There’s another pub just across the road – the Church – so I wonder if he and his friends tried there and got a better reception. Plus five other pubs within half a mile. As an aside, Cheadle Hulme is one of those rare places that has seen an increase in the number of actual pubs (not just bars) in the past twenty years.

You also have to wonder what kind of “friends” would let him stay outside while they finished their drinks.

Monday 27 June 2011

Grit your teeth and bear it

Ever been tempted to complain about howling children in a pub or restaurant? Perhaps best not to bother, as you run the risk of getting a bottle smashed over your head. And in future, give your business to establishments that have an adults-only policy, or at least have a completely separate room for families. Realistically, if you do feel the need to complain, it may be more prudent to do so to the management rather than directly to the offending customers.

The weak and the strong

I’ve reported several cases recently of brewers reducing the strength of their draught real ales. It’s easy to portray this a either a sop to the anti-drink lobby or a cynical rip-off, but the reality is that it is being done in response to market demand. Quite simply, people increasingly don’t want to drink stronger real ales in pubs. I was in a Marston’s pub looking at a leaflet about their forthcoming (in-house) guest ales, and not a single one was above 4.5%. Robinson’s have always struggled to sell the 5% Double Hop and its predecessor Frederics.

On the other hand, most of the best-selling premium bottled ales in the off-trade cluster around the 5% ABV mark, and very few are below about 4.2%. Indeed, Marston’s actually increased the strength of their best-selling Pedigree from 4.5% to 5% in bottle, but not on cask or in can. More and more beers (London Pride, Cumberland Ale, Bombardier, Butcombe, Old Speckled Hen to name but a few) are stronger in bottle than on cask.

This represents a growing divergence in the beer market. In the pub, many customers are going back to work, or heading off to a meal, a show or a sports match, or driving, and therefore have an interest in keeping the level of intoxication within bounds. Even if they’re there for the evening, it will be as part of a session and they’ll be looking to pace themselves. In all circumstances, they need to get themselves home once they’ve finished drinking. In general, even if people do drink the stronger beers, it will usually only be one at the end of the evening. It is also the case that many 5% real ales, while very good beers, are hard work to drink in quantity.

In contrast, most PBAs will be consumed at home, in ones or twos, while relaxing in front of the TV or computer screen, at times when people are not going anywhere else. They may well see an advantage in drinking less volume of a richer, stronger beer. The two markets are very different and the products offered to them are evolving to reflect that difference rather than just being a mirror image of each other. It’s no longer a case of drinking at home what you drink in the pub.

Perhaps the answer for pubs is that, if they want to sell ales of 5% or above, they would be better doing so as speciality keg products, like Leffe or Innis & Gunn.

And on the “you read it here first” front, it would not surprise me to see Wells & Youngs cutting the strength of cask Directors from 4.8% to 4.5% to directly rival Old Speckled Hen and Batemans XXXB.

Edit: I’ve added a poll asking what is your preferred strength for draught beer. This is a new third-party poll which allows the option of comments - but bear in mind these will be lost once the poll closes.

Saturday 25 June 2011

Yet more beer watering

The latest issue of the CAMRA newsletter What’s Brewing reports that Wells & Youngs have reduced the strength of cask Bombardier from 4.3% ABV to 4.1%. This is hot on the heels of Bateman’s cutting the strength of their flagship XXXB.

Who needs an anti-drink lobby when the brewers are doing their work for them?

It’s getting increasingly difficult to find any cask beer above 4.5% on the bars of mainstream pubs. On the other hand, there’s no problem amongst the ranks of the premium bottled ales on Tesco’s shelves.

Ironically, there is one of the “Rik Mayall” advertisements for Bombardier immediately below the relevant news item.

May suit alternative use

...subject to planning permission of course. Such is the description on many entries for pubs for sale on estate agents’ websites. So, if your local pub closed down, what would you like to see in its place? I asked the question: “Which of these would you prefer on your street?” There were 35 responses, broken down as follows:

A block of Housing Association flats: 5 (14.3%)
A derelict pub: 4 (11.4%)
A kebab shop: 5 (14.3%)
A nail parlour: 1 (2.9%)
A restaurant that is outside your price range: 9 (25.7%)
A Tesco Express: 11 (31.4%)

Perhaps I should have made it clear that the “derelict pub” was one that had zero prospect of ever reopening as licensed premises. Personally I went for a Tesco Express, as that would be handy for my top-up shopping, but a kebab shop within easy walking distance would also be good. None of the others would be of any use to me, and I wouldn’t really want a rotting eyesore just down the way.

Incidentally, the poll was prompted by this thread about whether it would be a good thing for Marco Pierre White to convert a local pub into a poncey restaurant gastropub. I reckoned the locals would probably find a Tesco Express more useful. If there was a poncey restaurant I’d be worried about Mercs and Range Rovers taking up all the parking spaces.

Friday 24 June 2011

Don’t let society scapegoat smokers

Peter Guillam argues here that calls to ban electronic cigarettes reflect a deep-rooted prejudice against smokers and our death-denying culture. In the Guardian, of all places. “You will see in the thread below vitriolic comments about smokers being disgusting, revolting, even sub-human; for smokers are now fair game for just about any sort of abuse,” he says. It seems that stigmatising smokers is the new fashionable prejudice. Read the full article.

Half a loaf

Let me make it quite clear that my personal view is that there was no need for any form of legislation restricting smoking in licensed premises. Prior to July 2007, the market was already responding to meet the demand for non-smoking areas. The vast majority of food-oriented pubs had a substantial non-smoking area (including all Wetherspoons). Many were over 80% non-smoking; some had banned smoking entirely. A growing number of community and wet-led pubs were also providing non-smoking areas. Although some antis will exercise selective memory and deny this, in most areas of the country it wasn’t at all difficult to find somewhere you could have a drink in a non-smoking atmosphere, if that was what you wanted.

Realistically, if they believed in freedom of choice, anyone who wanted to promote non-smoking areas should have been trying to convince licensees to provide them, and demonstrate that there was a genuine demand, rather than campaigning dog-in-the-manger style for a blanket ban.

Both before and after the ban, various compromise solutions were proposed that would have restricted smoking to some degree but not outlawed it in all indoor areas. These included:
  1. Banning smoking in pubs serving food, but allowing it in those that didn’t
  2. Allowing smoking to continue in private clubs, but not in pubs
  3. Allowing separate smoking and non-smoking pubs (much the same as 1)
  4. Allowing smoking in separate rooms in pubs without either a bar or table service
  5. Allowing smoking in pubs and bars that have no staff apart from the proprietor
  6. Allowing the current “smoking shelters” to be expanded to fully-enclosed, heated “smoking huts”
All of these have their advantages and disadvantages, which I don’t propose to go into in detail. Some are more practical than others. The first two were for a time declared government policy. All are a step backward from the pre July 2007 situation. But, in their different ways, all would be an improvement on the current position, and would at the same time give some succour to the licensed trade while enhancing social life for both smokers and non-smokers. Half a loaf is, after all, better than no loaf at all.

But, of course, the real reason why the antismokers are not prepared to concede any ground whatsoever is that it would rapidly and clearly demonstrate the lack of demand for entirely non-smoking venues, at least as far as wet trade was concerned.

Imagine, for example, the pub that has been allowed to erect a fully-enclosed, heated smoking hut. Inside the hut, it’s rammed and there’s a lively flow of banter. In the main part of the pub, there’s a handful of diners, a white-bearded bore holding his glass up to the light saying “The London Pride’s drinking well tonight” and a constant troop of merry hut denizens to and from the bar.

Thursday 23 June 2011

Stubbing out your own folk

There has been plenty of anecdotal evidence that the smoking ban has hit working-class communities hardest, as they are more likely to have the kind of traditional wet-led pubs that it has damaged most, and working-class people are more likely to be smokers. It is ironic that the Labour Party who brought it in have hurt their own supporters more than any others.

For example, as I reported here a couple of years ago:

Brian Iddon, MP for Bolton South East, said: “I’m getting complaints from our core Labour vote that they feel the Labour Government is just hitting them left, right and centre. They are heavily bruised at the moment.”

Dr Iddon cited the ban on smoking in public places and rising alcohol and food prices as other causes of anger.
This is confirmed by a new report from the Save Our Pubs and Clubs Campaign entitled The British Smoking Bans: Stubbing out the urban pubs:
Traditional inner city pubs have suffered the most since the introduction of smoking bans in Scotland, England and Wales, a new report has found.

Researchers also found that the areas with the greatest levels of closure have been in Labour-held constituencies with an average of almost eleven pubs per Labour constituency, compared to 9.9 pubs per Liberal Democrat constituency and 7.6 pubs per Conservative constituency.

Of the ten hardest hit constituencies seven are Labour held, two Liberal Democrat, and just one (Cities of London and Westminster) Conservative.

The data show large numbers of traditional drink-led urban pubs shutting down. These are in areas with traditionally quite high levels of smoking so it would appear that regulars who used to enjoy a pint and a cigarette with friends have decided to stay at home instead.
But of course the Labour Party is now increasingly dominated by an arrogant, patronising metropolitan élite that sees the working classes as no more than voting fodder who need to be told how to live their lives. It may have been the party of the people once, but it certainly isn’t any more.

(h/t to Simon Clark at Taking Liberties)

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Drink less and live longer

The latest piece of foaming anti-drink hysteria is a report from the Royal College of Psychiatrists which says that the already made-up and absurdly low alcohol consumption guidelines should be “drastically reduced” for people over 65. They should drink only 1.5 “units” of alcohol a day, the equivalent of half a pint of beer or a small glass of wine. I’m sure that’s going to soothe the cares of the world away. Leave off that 500ml bottle of Pedigree, it’s far too much for you! You’ll have that 2% Tesco Value Bitter and enjoy it!
A group of experts from the Royal College of Psychiatrists says there is a growing problem with substance abuse among older people, who they describe as society's "invisible addicts".

The report says a third those who experience problems with alcohol abuse do so later on in life, often as a result of big changes like retirement, bereavement or feelings of boredom, loneliness and depression.

But the extent of the drinking is hidden because unlike younger drinkers, more older people drink in their own homes, the report suggests.

The problem is exacerbated by the widespread use - and misuse - of prescribed and over-the-counter medicines among elderly people which can interact badly with alcohol.

Compounding the problems are the changes our bodies undergo as we get older which mean we are less able to cope with the effects of alcohol.

If it’s a “hidden” problem, in what way is it a problem at all? It’s not as if the Old Gits are rampaging through the weekend streets brawling and puking.

For many older people, having a regular couple of drinks is one of the few pleasures they’re still able to enjoy. In my experience, the vast majority settle down to a ritualised routine of moderate drinking and rarely if ever overdo it. In the last years of his life, my late father (who lived to 91) would have one pint or bottle or can before his lunch, and one small whisky or sherry before his tea, and that was it. But even that would have been 3 or 4 units a day.

In any case, if you’re in the twilight of your years and can see the Grim Reaper coming over the horizon, the argument that abstaining from drink will prolong your life is unlikely to carry much weight.

It also seems that they want doctors to do yet more prying every time you go into the surgery with a minor ailment:
They also want GPs to screen every person over the age of 65 for substance misuse, along with health campaigns around drugs and alcohol specifically targeting older people.
Also, typical of the BBC and its unquestioning obeisance to the Bully State, there isn’t a single dissenting or sceptical opinion quoted in the report.

The comments on the article are, however, well worth reading:
So now we have to work on past the age where scientists are telling us we cannot tolerate alcohol due to health issues, we are susceptible to injury and are over the hill. But we need to keep working to support junkies and those who scrounge off the system. At this rate it is cradle to grave and don't think you are getting a pension as you will just drink it. By the time I retire I will be dead.
I was amused by one comment that this guideline limit was so low that they were obviously now trying to treat alcohol abuse by homeopathy.

Tuesday 21 June 2011

Fame at last

I see the companion blog of my Opening Times columns has now made it to the heady heights of #81 on the Wikio wine and beer blog rankings. It’s a bit disappointing I don’t get more comments on there, given that the column appears in a monthly print magazine with a circulation of 7,000 and the link is always given at the bottom. I mean, it’s not as if it’s never controversial. While it often develops themes first mentioned here, it’s rarely just lifted verbatim. And that column came first, of course.

If you’ve subscribed to this, why not subscribe to that as well and liven it up a bit?

Incidentally, do you get the impression that the general beer blogging scene has gone a bit quiet recently? Maybe folks are all blogged out after the great “craft keg” ruckus…

Monday 20 June 2011

Save the pub from Cameron!

The Sunday Mirror seems to have suddenly woken up and noticed that pubs are closing left, right and centre.

The local is in crisis. So today the Sunday Mirror calls on PM David Cameron to honour his election promise that his Government would be “pub-friendly and take the urgent action needed to protect a treasured national institution”.
It’s funny how they weren’t quite so vocal when their friends in the Labour Party were in charge and busy doing their best to wreck the pub trade. But, even so, better late than never, and as we have seen the Coalition are enthusiastically continuing the anti-pub policies that Labour began. There’s even - right at the end - an acknowledgement of the elephant in the room:

The smoking ban dealt a devastating blow to thousands of traditional pubs. Takings nosedived by as much as 40 per cent at some town centre and inner city locals as smokers decided to drink at home. Supporters of the ban - introduced in Scotland in 2006 and the rest of the UK in 2007 - say it has made pubs more family friendly and people healthier. But street corner pubs with no beer garden have suffered badly.
It may not do all that much to change things, but at least there’s a wider appreciation of the reasons behind the decline of the pub trade in the past few years. And, while supermarket pricing again gets part of the blame, was the differential really that much less before July 2007?

(h/t to Simon Clark at Taking Liberties)

Social cleansing

Chef Marco Pierre White is not someone known for his customer care skills. He has recently bought the historic Angel Inn in Lavenham, Suffolk and alienated regulars by getting rid of Strongbow and Foster’s. He says “I don’t like Foster’s and Strongbow. I like traditional ales and ciders. If they don’t like that, I’m sorry.” Fair enough, but surely if you want to change the product mix you take your customers with you by offering a choice rather than doing your best to antagonise them. While he may be conjuring up an image of a traditional rustic ale and cider house, in reality what’s the betting it will be a poncy, pricey gastropub, and he quite simply doesn’t want working-class people riff-raff in there? They probably drop fag-ends on the floor outside as well.

Saturday 18 June 2011

The results are out

My blog reader survey has now reached the maximum of 100 responses, in only just over two days, so here's a breakdown of the results. Three twerps failed to spot there was a second page, so there are 100 answers to the first four questions, and 97 to the second four. I’ve not bothered with percentages as all the figures either add up to 100 or very close to it.

1. What age group are you?

Under 18: 0
18-24: 3
25-34: 14
35-44: 27
45-54: 31
55-64: 20
65 or over: 5

2. Are you?

Male: 96
Female: 3
Prefer not to say: 1

3. Are you a member of CAMRA?

Yes, a current annual member: 36
Yes, a current life member: 7
No, but I have been in the past: 12
Never been a member: 45

4. Where do you live?

North-West of England: 19
Rest of England: 57
Wales: 3
Scotland: 7
Ireland: 3
Europe: 5
North America: 2
Elsewhere: 4

5. Do you drink cask beer in pubs?

Yes, regularly: 53
Yes, occasionally: 30
No, never or virtually never: 14

6. Are you a smoker?

Yes, currently: 35
No, but I have been in the past: 22
No, never smoked regularly: 40

7. What are your main interests in reading this blog?

(Choose as many as apply)

The smoking ban: 37
Individual freedom in general: 39
Beer: 81
Pubs: 72
I live in or have a connection with North-West England: 16
Other: 5

Some of the “other” responses sounded like “beer” or “pubs” to me:

  • Hilarious smoking ban rants. Love 'em..
  • I like Stockport pubs
  • Grumpiness
  • I'm a brewer and keep an eye on most beer related blogs
  • have imported and sold beer in the past, so have some interest in the beer aspect
8. Do you work in the licensed trade or brewing industry?

Yes: 8 No, but I have in the past: 17 No: 72

9. Any other comments?

16 comments were left – reproduced verbatim below:

  • Read your blog weekly
  • It is a good read for local beer drinking lad and also good read for those who do fall into these categories
  • Excellent blog-always thought provoking
  • There are other areas in England!!!!
  • I used to write awp software but the deterioration in the on-trade cost me and many others our jobs.. The most annoying thing I know is to have government ministers say that the ban has had little effect I saw our figures.
  • When in England I do use Pubs. but not as much as pre July 2007. Keep up the good work
  • Your rants about the smoking ban are getting tedious. Just accept the fact that you will never over turn it, quit smoking for the good of your heath and get on with drinking beer.
  • Getting longer in the tooth now, and really saddens me to see how that wonderfully English institution, the 'Boozer', is slowly but surely vanishing. Sad, very sad.
  • I read this blog for my regular dose of right-Libertarian anti-prohibitionist bile, but I would hate it to go further down the Burning Our Money/Raedwald/DK route. At the moment I think you've got the balance between the political stuff & enthusiasm for real ale about right. I also read it for the same reason I read your OT columns, because you're a good writer.
  • Your blog, and the comments posted, are an interesting sidelight on what is going on in the beer/pub world. Most interesting is the degree of response given to each topic. Needless to say, with so many CAMRA members involved, the volume of response tends to be in inverse proportion to the importance of the issue.
  • Good writing, hence staying on my RSS feed.
  • Keep up the good work!
  • bit of a hobby Off Licence years ago. Haven't been in a pub since smoking ban. Completely changed my life. Was never interested in any kind of campaign previously but now in a permanent rage.
  • thanks for the blog - entertaining & informative - cheers
  • If supermarket counts ??
  • I like pubs and the camaraderie they (should) offer.
So, the typical blog reader is aged 45-54, extremely male, never been a member of CAMRA, lives in England outside the North-West, regularly drinks cask beer in pubs, has never smoked, primarily reads it because of his interest in beer and has never worked in the brewing industry or licensed trade.

I’m not going to comment in detail, but the overwhelming male bias is quite notable. And who was the “prefer not to say” – a joker or a hermaphrodite? It’s clear that beer and pubs come ahead of the more general lifestyle/political aspects in generating traffic, and also that “Beer” comes some way ahead of “Pubs”.

I have toyed with the idea of creating a more general blog, but in the end felt that what makes this blog (and indeed any other) distinctive is that I am writing on a subject that I know something about, and feel passionately about. Those who know me will be aware that I do have other hobby-horses (never!) but I would just be producing a second-rate echo of something that others do far better.

And if you feel my rants about the smoking ban are getting tedious, nobody says you have to read it.

Stick to the knitting?

My poll on “Should CAMRA give more recognition to quality non-cask British beers?” has now concluded. There were an impressive 116 responses, broken down as follows:

Yes: 57 (49.1%)
No: 35 (30.2%)
Not sure: 13 (11.2%)
Don’t care: 11 (9.5%)

This subject has been done to death in recent weeks, but it is clear that, from the readers of this blog at least, there is a strong feeling that CAMRA, as the only substantial organised body of beer enthusiasts in the UK, should take less of a “four legs good, two legs bad” view and recognise that there is more to good beer than real ale.

It would be interesting to hear people’s thoughts on exactly how that could be done. To my mind it doesn’t really need a formal change of policy, just a change in tone, giving a few positive mentions to non-real draught and bottled beers in publications and dropping the hackneyed rhetoric about “chemical fizz” and “sealed dustbins” which regrettably you still see from time to time.

I have to say that personally, while I’m not averse to the odd pint of Guinness, Stella or even Carling, and drink relatively little bottle-conditioned beer at home, I find the whole “craft keg” movement something about which I can’t really work up any enthusiasm, although it does have its uses as a means of poking a stick at some unreconstructed attitudes in CAMRA.

Note that I used a third-party polling site for this poll as the Blogger polls seemed to be playing up - it makes a nice little graphic to display the results.

Friday 17 June 2011

Stick to Tetley’s

Sad news that the iconic Joshua Tetley brewery in Leeds is closing its doors for the last time today. Obviously it’s a pretty much inevitable consequence of the overall decline in ale volumes, but it’s still cause for regret. I don’t know whether the recipe has been dumbed down in recent years, or that perceptions have simply changed, but there was a time when Leeds Tetley’s was regarded as one of the finest mainstream bitters in the UK, distinctively dry, and described by one beer writer as “shockingly bitter”. My father told me a story of calling in at a Tetley’s pub in the 1950s on his way to a Rugby League match and finding the beer “too bitter”.

Barrie Pepper, in his CAMRA guide to the Best Pubs in Yorkshire, talked of the distinctive, lively ambience of the typical Tetley’s town local “abuzz with darts and doms”. Now it has been done for by the Beer Orders, the switch from ale to lager and the ongoing decline of the pub trade. I’m sure Banks’s will make a decent job of brewing Tetley’s in Wolverhampton, but in an age when provenance of alcoholic drinks is becoming increasingly valued, things will never be quite the same again.

This is an interesting blog posting on the subject from outside the beer blogosphere.

“Stick to Tetley’s” was traditional advice given to beer drinkers in Yorkshire. The alternative was “if you can’t get Taylor’s where you live, move.” Fortunately Taylor’s are still going strong in Keighley.

Thursday 16 June 2011

The gestation of a dubious idea

There’s a good article here on Sp!ked by Ellie Lee arguing that it is moralism, not evidence, that underpins the advice that pregnant women should abstain from alcohol. “Foetal Alcohol Syndrome” is often put forward as a reason for total abstinence from expectant mothers, but, as she points out, this stems from the view the alcohol in any quantity is harmful. While FAS undoubtedly exists, it is something that affects the babies of alcoholics, not of women drinking six units a week.

Reader survey

I have set up a short survey to find out a little information about who and is reading this blog, and why. Click here to complete it or follow the link in the sidebar. It’s just asking for a few basic details and isn’t an opinion poll.

Edit: I’m impressed - five minutes after setting this up and there were five responses! And within 45 minutes there were 20.

The survey is limited to 100 responses, so I will close it when that figure is reached, or in two weeks’ time, whichever is soonest.

Further edit: The total of 100 has now been reached in a little over two days, so I'll post the results once I’ve had time to collate them.

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Get your act together

You often hear people complaining that the evil capitalists of Tesco are marching roughshod into local areas and opening new supermarkets that put all the characterful local shops out of business. They even had a riot about it in some hippy part of Bristol. However, Tesco are only going to succeed if people vote with their feet and choose to shop there rather than the other shops. As Xanthe Clay points out here, too often independent shops have had limited opening hours, high prices, dubious hygiene, poor choice and a lack of fresh produce, so it’s hardly surprising that customers have taken their business elsewhere.
Wake up and smell the instore bakery, little guys. We weren’t stolen from you, we left of our own accord. One look at the average mini-mart, and it’s not hard to see why. Given the choice between a crappy corner shop with yellowing broccoli languishing next to tins of spaghetti hoops and a bright, dynamic supermarket with decent quality fresh produce and a choice of pasta, we took the better option.
Much the same can be said of the pub industry, where it’s common to hear licensees bleating about Wetherspoons taking their trade away while not actually putting their own offer under the magnifying glass. Wetherspoons would not have succeeded if so many existing pubs had not been crap. There’s still little doubt that the actual choice and quality of food and drink available in Wetherspoons is streets ahead of the general run of pubs.

There is one significant difference, though. I don’t mind if Tesco is an echoing, soulless barn so long as it’s convenient for me to get to and they have what I want at a reasonable price. But, with a pub, I’m renting time in the place rather than just buying stuff, and I might be prepared to pay a bit more if I can get a comfortable bench seat in a cosy room and a good pint of a local brew rather than a national brand or an unpredictable, random choice of micro-brewery beer.

Realistically, pubs can’t simply compete on price against Wetherspoons, so they need to look carefully at what they can do that is distinctively different and better.

Saturday 11 June 2011

Bad company

Something that is very noticeable on the local pub scene is that pubs owned by pub companies seem much more vulnerable to closure than those owned by independent breweries. Yes, the brewers have closed some pubs, but in general only when they have clearly become unviable or when they have been made an offer they can’t refuse. But the vast majority of pubs that have closed belong to the pub companies – amongst recent high-profile closures look at the George in Stockport town centre, the Ash in Heaton Norris and the Greyhound in Adswood.

Pub companies are well-known for their hard-nosed business practices and their objective is to get the best return out of their properties, or, if they can’t make sufficient profit, to see if they can sell them off for redevelopment. Breweries, on the other hand, while clearly they can’t sustain unprofitable pubs in the long term, have an interest in maximising the sales of their own beers, and so it makes sense for them to take a broader view.

A further factor is that pub company outlets often seem to be run in an inconsistent manner with frequent changes of format and emphasis, not least in often putting cask beer in and taking it out again, which can’t do their standing with customers any favours. With a Holts or Robinson’s pub, you know what you’re getting, and it doesn’t tend to change dramatically. Pub companies alsoseem to be much keener to board pubs up rather than installing temporary licensees, something that will just drive customers away that they may not be able to attract back.

An exception to this is Hydes, who don’t seem to have the local following that buoys up Holts, Lees and Robinson’s, and who have made a number of bad calls in recent years with pub acquisitions and refurbishments (see the previous post about Corbans). To be honest, given recent closures and sell-offs, I get the impression that Hydes have somewhat lost the plot, and it would not surprise me to see them sell up in the next couple of years.

Friday 10 June 2011

What did I tell you?

Back in 1999, I inveighed against Hydes converting the Unicorn, a traditional but rather faded 1930s pub in prosperous Halebarns, into a trendy abomination called Corbans Old Winery and Bar. “The trade might be up in the short term, but how long will it last before another cash injection is needed?” I asked. Indeed, it was later remodelled into the equally dubious “Corbans Gallery”, and the latest edition of Opening Times reports that it is to close and be turned into a “locksmiths, office and apartments”. Clearly, losing yet another pub is not something to be celebrated, but I can’t help feeling somewhat vindicated in forecasting that such a misguided venture would not have a rosy future. Schadenfreude is one of the few pleasures they haven’t yet tried to ban.

However much you tart it up with chrome and glass, somewhere like the Unicorn still resembles a middle-aged matron squeezed into a leather mini-skirt, and its target market of high-spending twentysomethings could obviously see through that. Although there is no shortage of either potential customers or money in Halebarns, that leaves just a single pub in the village, Robinson’s Bull’s Head, and it must be said that on my last visit that was looking a touch down-at-heel and lacking in customers.

The same issue of Opening Times also reports on the closure of the monumental Southern Hotel in Chorlton-cum-Hardy – once a Swales house dispensing the notorious “Swales’s swill” – and the Bowling Green in Chorlton-on-Medlock, a busy part of Manchester close to the University and the Manchester Royal Infirmary. There’s no lack of potential customers in either of those locations.

Thursday 9 June 2011

Giving it five

It has been suggested that a lower VAT rate of 5% should be introduced for sales of food and drink in pubs and restaurants to give a boost to the “hospitality trade”. Apparently an experiment along these lines has already proved successful in France. It is certainly true that, if you wanted to improve the relative position of the on-trade, cutting VAT is a much better way of doing it than cutting alcohol duty, as VAT applies to the total sale price, not just the cost of supplies brought in.

However, I have to say that on principle I can’t really support this, as I don’t believe government should be giving out special tax treatment simply on the grounds that it’s for “something we like”. It is not the role of government to make value judgments between different types of business. Anyone remember Selective Employment Tax? If a business sector is in overall decline, then all a tax break is likely to do is postpone the evil day. (The argument for tax concessions for small and start-up businesses is an entirely different one).

And surely the biggest beneficiaries of such a move would not be community pubs and real ale, but McDonalds and Stella. Are cafés and restaurants doing so badly at present that they are in need of a shot in the arm anyway?

Given the current anti-drink climate in government, does anyone seriously think there is a cat in hell’s chance of a lower VAT rate being introduced for on-trade alcoholic drinks? On the other hand, if the reduction only applied to food and soft drinks, then that would effectively give restaurants and cafés a boost at the expense of pubs as a higher proportion of their turnover would benefit.

Not to mention, of course, the dire state of the public finances overall which means that any kind of cut in VAT in the next few years is simply not going to happen. At times a reality check is needed as to what changes in government policy are actually remotely achievable.

Tuesday 7 June 2011

Cats in a sack

Chris Snowdon is suitably scathing about the ludicrous proposal by the Scottish Licensed Trade Association to impose a £1 per unit minimum alcohol price – more than twice that planned by the Scottish Government.

As I have often argued before, there is no guarantee that simply increasing the price of off-trade alcohol will do anything to help the pub trade, when it won’t make drinks any cheaper in pubs, and there are many reasons beyond price why at-home drinking has increased relative to pubs. I have also said that the anti-drink lobby must be laughing into their sarsaparilla at the sight of different parts of the drinks industry trying to scratch each others’ eyes out in the hope of gaining a short-term advantage.

Chris’ conclusion is well worth reading:

Is there any aspect of the pub debate that is not a cess-pool of cant and hypocrisy? If I see one more politician who voted for the smoking ban crying crocodile tears about the state of the pub industry, I may throw up. CAMRA are no better, climbing into bed with both the anti-smoking brigade and the temperance lobby in their crusade against any pleasure that doesn’t appeal to overweight, middle-aged Jethro Tull fans. Alcohol Concern are, it goes without saying, paid shills and neo-prohibitionists whose world would fall apart if they told the truth for one day. The pub industry, almost to a man, switched sides on the smoking ban as soon as they realised that exemptions for private members' clubs would adversely affect their business. And the SLTA, one of the few groups to have taken a consistent stand against the ban, now wants to torment their customers until they take their rightful place standing outside empty pubs in the rain.

A plague on all their houses. It's got to the stage where I'm now officially on the side of Tesco’s. How the hell did that happen?
Mind you, I think he’s a bit unfair on overweight, middle-aged Jethro Tull fans... cough...

(Also mentioned by Dick Puddlecote and Freedom2Choose Scotland)

Conspicuous by its absence

Interesting to read that amongst the points of attraction at BrewDog’s Alternative Aberdeen Beer Festival is…

No cask beer.

Now when has that been a selling point for an event aimed at people with an interest in beer? It is now, though.

Can you feel those tectonic plates shifting?

Monday 6 June 2011

Losing your head

Many years ago I remember staying in a hotel in South Wales and a fellow guest explaining to me how the sign of a good beer was that it left a series of rings of foam down the glass as you drank it. I remember thinking at the time that this was, at best, far from the whole story, and, at worst, total bullshit. But on the other hand, there is some truth in the corollary, that the absence of a head is usually a bad sign.

I have in the past had gravity-served beer – often Draught Bass – which had little or no head but was perfectly fine, with an almost vinous character. That’s not something you come across very often now, though. Last year there was some discussion in the blogosphere about the Bree Louise in London, a Good Beer Guide listed pub that some rated very highly, serving cask beer that came out looking completely flat. I can’t see many people in the North-West finding that acceptable.

This also seems to be an issue with quite a few bottled beers. For example, I recently had a bottle of White Horse Wayland Smithy where the head had completely disappeared within a couple of minutes of pouring. It also afflicts quite a number of beers from the Marston’s stable – see my review of Pedigree VSOP, although more recent samples have been better. Another one is Budweiser Budvar, regarded as one of the best widely-available lagers, described by Tandleman in the comments here as having “a head that lasted a millisecond”.

Clearly there’s far more to beer than just having a good head, and there are plenty of indifferent beers where the head is about the only positive thing about them. However, regardless of a beer’s inherent qualities, the absence or rapid loss of a head invariably gives a poor impression, and in the vast majority of cases is a sign that there is something amiss.

Thursday 2 June 2011

Scots wahey!

I see that, due to a computer error, three Tesco stores in the West of Scotland were selling 3 cases of beer for £11 rather than £20. Not surprisingly, this led to a stampede of customers and the police had to be called to the Greenock branch. The look on the faces of Don Shenker and the joyless prohibitionists of the current Scottish government when they heard the news must have been priceless.

Wednesday 1 June 2011

Don't say I didn't warn you

One of the recurring themes of this blog has been the way the tactics and themes of the tobacco control movement are increasingly being adopted in the parallel campaign against alcohol. There was a prime example of this in the recent joint conference held in Glasgow involving ASH Scotland and Alcohol Focus Scotland, which aimed “to consider the progress of alcohol and tobacco control and explore what each sector might learn from the other.” One noteworthy feature of this was that, as has been the practice of the tobacco control lobby for many years, no alcohol industry representatives were allowed to attend or express an opinion.

The antismoking lobby have been predictably up in arms over the news that tobacco company BAT have been engaged in lobbying against the proposed ban on tobacco displays in shops. Now, you might wonder what is the problem with that – surely an organisation engaged in a legal business is entitled to speak out in defence of that business, and expect that its view will be taken into consideration.

However, as Dick Puddlecote points out, this is apparently completely out of order. Under World Health Organisation guidelines, the UK government is obliged to ensure the drafting of all legislation is free from tobacco industry influence. So, in a democratic society that supposedly believes in free speech (yeah right, I know…), bodies with a legitimate interest in an issue are simply to be gagged and any opinions they may have discounted by law.

It’s not such a big jump to seek to apply exactly the same principle to alcohol. We’ve already had the anti-drink lobby taking their bats home because alcohol industry representatives have been allowed too much influence (i.e. any at all) in the formulation of government policies on alcohol, even though these are the most restrictive since the days of Lloyd George. Despite being an industry that provides employment for millions, and whose products give pleasure to untold millions more responsible consumers, in their view anyone engaged in that business simply should not be listened to.

Even if you run the most funky, low-carbon, organic, Fairtrade, recycling-friendly micro brewery in the world, you won’t have a voice. Your opinions won’t count. You will be expected to shut up, do as you’re told and uncomplainingly accept any restrictions that are imposed on you. As far as the anti-drink lobby are concerned you’re engaged in a “toxic trade” just as surely as Diageo and InBev, and they’re not interested in any kind of dialogue or accommodation with you.