Wednesday 31 August 2011

Campaign for Real Pubs

In the September issue of the CAMRA newsletter What’s Brewing there’s a letter from Frank Mitchell of Claverdon which includes the following comments:
In my part of Warwickshire there are so few decent drinking pubs remaining compared to just a few years ago. Many of them have been taken over by people masquerading as chefs and attempting to become the latest gastro-venue and have discouraged drinkers from going there just for a drink.

In others the beer quality and service is so poor or the prices so unreasonable that customers have almost abandoned them altogether.

There is hardly a decent pub where you can meet friends just for a drink and a chat together without having a menu thrust at you or being made to feel guilty for occupying a table that food can be served on.
It has to be said that this reflects what I’ve been saying on here for the past four years. The same is a major problem in Cheshire. Of course food has its place in pubs (as Mr Mitchell later acknowledges), but there comes a point where it dominates to the exclusion of all else. The core purpose of a pub is as a social meeting place where people will gather over a few drinks, yet nowadays you see so many press articles that assume that the menu is the main attraction. I’d say, once more than four-fifths of customers are there just to eat, you’ve lost it. But even a sprinkling of social drinkers can keep your pub authentic.

So, maybe as CAMRA has saved real ale, we need a Campaign for Real Pubs to save pubs. Pubs that work as pubs should, that don’t make casual customers feel unwelcome, that cultivate sociability, and that don’t make food the centre of their offer. This applies especially outside major urban centres, but within them too. Obviously the smoking ban, beer duty hikes, the demonisation of “one-drink driving” and the general anti-alcohol climate have all had their effect, but such pubs do still survive and deserve to be celebrated.

CAMRA’s National Inventory and the additional regional lists would be a good starting point. A few of the pubs on there won’t qualify, but the vast majority will. I’d doubt whether any Wetherspoons would be included, or any chain dining pubs, and many of the specialist beer pubs concentrate on that aspect of the business so much that they fail in the basic social function. On the other hand, if they attract a good number of customers who aren’t just there for the beer, as with the Barrels in Hereford, they might qualify.

Maybe I should start a blog of Real Pubs as a counterpoint to Closed Pubs, so people couldn’t accuse me of being unrelentingly negative...

Tuesday 30 August 2011

A tax too far

Words fail me...

The Liberal Democrats are drawing up plans for a controversial new ‘tipple tax’ on every drink sold in a pub – despite warnings it will cripple the struggling industry.

Policy documents to be discussed at next month’s Lib Dem conference in Birmingham suggest the party should push for councils to be given new powers to levy a ‘small per drink surcharge’ in bars and pubs.

The document suggests the money raised could offset additional policing and health costs that drinkers impose on councils, and therefore residents, in many towns and cities.

The plan was condemned last night by both the drinks industry and the party’s Coalition partners. Experts warned it would pile financial pressure on pubs, which are already closing at the rate of 25 a week.
Do these people have any grasp on reality whatsoever? It seems they have come to believe their own hysterical propaganda in which Britain is in a fatal spiral of rising alcohol consumption and drink-related health problems, whereas in reality pretty much the opposite is true. Not to mention the fact that we already have the third highest alcohol duties in the world.

Six into two does go

Northenden is a South Manchester suburb which must be typical of many places throughout Britain. Sandwiched between upmarket Didsbury and sink estate Wythenshawe, it’s a middling kind of place, with a surprisingly extensive local shopping centre along the main Palatine Road. Maybe about ten years ago, it had six pubs, unusually all situated south of the main road – the Jolly Carter, the Spread Eagle, the Church, the Crown, the Tatton Arms (pictured) and the Farmers Arms. Now, only two are left, the Crown and the Farmers, which were probably the smallest of the six.

Maybe that is a bit of an extreme case but, on the other hand, there are plenty of places that have lost two or three out of six, or the equivalent, and this is somewhere depopulation and poverty cannot be blamed. This should serve as an object lesson to those blinkered individuals who continue to insist, in the face of an ever-growing mountain of evidence, that the British pub trade remains fundamentally healthy and losses have only been at the margins.

On a similar note, it’s worth mentioning the scenic B5470 road between Macclesfield in Cheshire and Whaley Bridge in Derbyshire. Not so long ago, this had five pubs along it – the Rising Sun and Robin Hood in the village of Rainow, the Highwayman in a picturesque location a couple of miles east of Rainow, and the Bull’s Head and Swan in the village of Kettleshulme. Now, only the Swan is still open, and this not in the deep countryside but in a desirable area within twenty miles of the centre of Manchester.

Monday 29 August 2011

Not so ordinary

Back in the 1970s, most British brewers just produced Mild (at around 1033 OG) and Bitter (at around 1038 OG). Choice, and a contrast in flavours, was achieved by switching between brewers, not within an individual brewer’s range. There were a handful of premium beers, such as Ruddles County, Marstons Pedigree and Wadworths 6X, and these got the recognition as the beers you would go out of your way to sample. Inevitably, these beers gained a reputation and became the standard-bearers of the “real ale revival”. The fact that they had memorable brand names rather than just being “Bloggs’ Bitter” must have helped.

But times change, and recently we have seen a number of brewers reducing the strength of these “premium beers” because they were felt to be too strong for the current climate of sobriety and health obsession.

However, rather than doing this, shouldn’t the brewers be doing more to promote their classic “ordinary bitters” in the 3.5-4.0% ABV strength band? These beers, which manage to extract huge depths of flavour and character from a very modest, quaffable strength, are surely the most distinctive achievement of British brewing, and cover a vast spectrum of colour, flavour and character.

Locally, Robinson’s Unicorn at 4.2% is a bit too strong to qualify, but both Holts and Lees bitters are excellent brews when in good condition. Just considering the family brewers, a selection of Timothy Taylors Bitter, Batemans XB, Adnams Southwold Bitter, Harveys Sussex Best and Hook Norton wouldn’t disgrace any bar. I used to love Brakspear’s when brewed in Henley, but have not had enough of the Wychwood version to be able to judge it.

Incidentally, I was recently surprised to learn that Robinson’s are now selling more of the pale, somewhat hoppy 3.8% Dizzy Blonde than their traditional mainstay, the 4.2% Unicorn. Dizzy Blonde was originally just produced as a seasonal beer but has now become their best seller. Initially it was a bit bland, but more recently it has gained more hop character and is now, when well-kept, an enjoyable beer.

Saturday 27 August 2011

Responsibility or appeasement?

If you were running any kind of business, you would obviously, unless you were a crook, want to do so in a responsible manner. So, if you were running a brewery, what would you do? You would aim to comply with all relevant legislation, to be open about what ingredients you were using, not to hold out your products as something they weren’t, not to sell or promote them to minors, and not to advertise them in a way that implied they might contribute to sexual success or would get you drunk quicker. You would recognise that you were selling a product that a small minority of customers might abuse, but provided your business was conducted in an open, legal and above-the-board manner, that would be their responsibility, not yours. If your business was successful and well-established, you might even contribute a bit towards programmes to rehabilitate alcoholics, but that wouldn’t mean that you accepted blame for their problems.

However, Stefan Orlowski, the Managing Director of Heineken UK, doesn’t seem to think that goes far enough. He believes that his industry needs to actively engage with health professionals in an attempt to reduce alcohol misuse.

But, in accepting the health professionals’ definition of alcohol misuse, he is batting on a losing wicket from the start. They believe he is involved not in a legitimate business but in a “toxic trade”. There can never be any final settlement with them. Every concession granted will only be met with a demand for more. He only needs to look at the tobacco industry to see the likely outcome.

He prints on all his bottles and cans the made-up “official guidelines” on safe drinking levels. But he knows that a large proportion of his customers cheerfully ignore these, and if they all followed them to the letter, the pub trade would be devastated and the British brewing and distilling industries grievously harmed.

Perhaps he is being clever and playing a long game in the belief that, given time, the neo-Prohibitionist threat will abate, as it did in the past. But the example of tobacco is not encouraging. Is a prolonged managed decline and surrender to restriction the best future that can be expected? Maybe the long-term interests of the drinks industry would be better served by adopting a more robust and combative stance rather than by endless grovelling and appeasing. Wetherspoon’s Tim Martin, for example, would never be so defeatist.

He may even damage his own business relative to others by being too eager to embrace its enemies.
As an example, we recently withdrew a popular and highly profitable white cider brand because it had become part of a category of drinks increasingly chosen for price and alcoholic strength alone. It no longer had a place in our business.
So he gave Diamond White the chop. But Aston Manor are still happily making Frosty Jack’s, and no doubt taking a lot of what once was Heineken’s business. If you take a high moral stance, there will always be other producers willing to come in below you, while still fully adhering to the law. Alcohol is far more suited than tobacco products to small-scale, under-the-radar production.

Friday 26 August 2011

Urban pubs hammered

The Western Mail reports that, in a recent auction of pubs held at the Celtic Manor Hotel near Newport, only one of the nine pubs on offer was sold, six failed to meet their reserve prices and two received no bids at all.

This is sadly symptomatic of the general malaise of the pub trade in urban areas outside major town and city centres. Prominent South Wales CAMRA activist Arfur Daley looked into the pubs being sold and said:

One thing I noticed about these pubs is that a lot of them are urban and they lack outdoor smoking areas.

Some of them had been quite successful in the past but once the smoking ban came in that was the big problem. That was their downfall.
A rare and welcome example of a CAMRA member actually taking the blinkers off and recognising the disaster that has overtaken the pub trade all around him.
Rodney Cave, an independent licensed property valuer, said it was time for the Government to call a review of the smoking ban, adding pressure also needed to be put on banks to lend to those looking to invest in pubs and hotels.

“I attribute this disastrous decline in the licensed trade to the smoking ban, certainly,” he said.

“While you can make a case for saying smoking is harmful, it would be perfectly suitable to provide a separate room for smokers.

“Now the people who would have been down their local are at home with cans of lager from the supermarket.”

He said the trend has led to a decline in social contact, especially in less prosperous areas where, he claimed, families cannot afford to pay for expensive meals and “going out for one or two pints is all that their budget allows.”

It is precisely these areas, he said, where the worst-hit pubs are.
And exactly the same kind of thing has been happening in working-class areas the length and breadth of the country, for example as reported here in Denton and Audenshaw.

It would be interesting to see whether some of those who bang on in the comments here about the rude health of some parts of the pub trade would have the guts to take on some of these South Wales pubs. The asking prices are so low that, if you could make a go of one, it could prove a goldmine. Funny how nobody was biting, though, isn’t it?

This coincides with the launch this week of Antony Worrall Thompson’s petition on the government website calling for a review of the smoking ban. If you care about the future of the pub trade, please sign it here.

Incidentally, the headline on the newspaper article is wrong – it clearly should refer to “urban pubs”, not “rural pubs”.

H/t to Simon Clark at Taking Liberties.

Thursday 25 August 2011

The ox loves the yoke

I was reading an article recently which said that, in the era of the Suffragettes, a substantial proportion of women didn’t actually want to be given the vote. From the perspective of a hundred years later, this may seem unlikely, but at the time I have no doubt it was true.

More than once, commenters on this blog have said that many smokers actually support the blanket smoking ban. That may seem equally unlikely, but that too contains a certain element of truth. Indeed, I have spoken to one or two such myself. Now I can see how a smoker might support some legal restrictions on smoking in public places. That is an intellectually defensible position, in the same way as a motorist might to a greater or lesser extent support the use of speed cameras and road humps.

But to be in favour of a blanket ban in any indoor public place is taking things to a completely different dimension. I mean, something that you do personally, and that is entirely legal, but you don’t believe you should actually be able to do it anywhere. What kind of twisted thinking is that?

All I can conclude is that these people have been so brainwashed by years of hysterical antismoking propaganda to come to believe that they really are contemptible, weak-willed, dirty, smelly, inadequate second-rate human beings. Self-loathing has been inculcated into them. Just as in the 1900s many women believed their sex was inherently inferior in judgment and intellectual capability to men. Something similar has happened to a proportion of the oppressed throughout history.

And it is completely wrong to claim that all, or the vast majority, of smokers are hopeless, enslaved addicts. As James Rhodes explains here, many smokers find smoking actively enjoyable. “Every puff is like a little hug,” he says. Is that really much different from scoffing “naughty but nice” cream cakes, something else that we are constantly told is unhealthy and shows a lack of self-control?

Another one down

Sad news that the Tiviot pub in Stockport town centre is to be demolished in eight weeks’ time. Apparently the building has been condemned as unsafe by the council, but it would not have been allowed to get into such a state if it had been seen as having more of a future.

Yes, it was tatty in places, but going through the door was like entering a timewarp back into the 1950s. It even still had wrought iron bar fittings – you don’t seen many of those around nowadays. Until fairly recently, it was one of the last Robinson’s pubs in Stockport to serve Mild and Best Bitter into oversize glasses using electric metered pumps. Licensee Dave Walker was one of the longest-serving in the Robinson’s estate, and had taken over the tenancy from his father.

Not surprisingly, the clientele tended towards the more mature end of the spectrum. It could be busy at lunchtimes, but was often quiet in the evenings. It was the epitome of what Cooking Lager would dismiss as “dumpy old men’s pubs”, and all the better for it.

We will not see its like again.

Sunday 21 August 2011

Not in front of the children

The Sunday Telegraph reports that two mothers were refused white wine spritzers in a City of London pub because the barperson thought it inappropriate for them to be drinking alcohol in front of their children. Now obviously this is just a one-off aberration, and if it was generally adopted it would kill the “family dining” market stone dead.

But it is symptomatic of the growing stigmatisation of alcohol that such an opinion was expressed at all. It’s a more extreme version of the refusal to serve a pregnant woman even a single drink. The view is becoming increasingly common than any quantity of alcohol is incompatible with any responsible activity (see my recent poll about lunchtime drinking at work) and we are heading towards a situation where drinking becomes an activity that has to be ringfenced from the rest of society.

Decline and fall

A year ago today, I started a blog entitled Closed Pubs. This was originally prompted by a non-beer-related forum, where people were invited to put forward some interesting sights in the then new Google StreetView. I posted a couple of views of boarded-up pubs near to me, and then thought that, since there were so many closed pubs around the country, I could turn it into a blog. So I did.

So far I have featured 207 pubs. Some are ones known to me, some suggested by correspondents, some I have spotted on Internet searches. It has featured town-centre pubs, inner-city pubs, suburban pubs, estate pubs, classic roadhouses, village pubs, isolated country pubs, indeed pretty much every kind of pub known to man. I’d like to record my thanks to those who have e-mailed me with suggestions for the blog.

There can be no doubt that over the past few years the British pub has experienced an unprecedented holocaust. Before then, unless it was due to population decline in the locality or redevelopment, pubs scarcely ever closed. But now, it seems that pretty much everywhere you go you are confronted with the depressing sight of a closed and boarded pub.

I don’t for a minute claim that all of it is due to the smoking ban – indeed some of the closed pubs pictured predate the smoking ban by many years. But only the most self-deluding antismoker would claim that the smoking ban has not played a significant part in pub closures over the past four years. For a lot of pubs it seems to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.

And the question has to be asked whether this is an “adjustment” which will lead to the pub trade stabilising at a lower level, or whether it is the sign of an inexorable long-term decline that in a generation will reduce pubs to a tiny, irrelevant rump. Yes, some pubs are still thriving, but many of those that are still open are noticeably much less busy than they once were.

The pub illustrated, The Beeches in Northfield, Birmingham, is maybe the saddest of the lot, its mock-Jacobean magnificence, almost like a licensed stately home, contrasting poignantly with its current burnt-out dereliction. It wouldn’t surprise me if it had now been demolished.

Saturday 20 August 2011

Denormalisation at work

Well, it would seem that blog readers are not very keen about lunchtime drinking when at work. Out of 75 responses, 79% said it was something they would do either very occasionally or never.

This is a major change in pubgoing habits that has occurred over the past twenty or thirty years. When I started work in the early 80s, it was usual to go to the pub at lunchtime – and drink a couple of pints – at least one day a week, often more.

But now, partly due to changing attitudes towards alcohol, partly due to more restrictive policies from employers, for most workers the lunchtime pint is rare or non-existent. I have a facsimile of a guide to central Manchester pubs produced in 1975, which comments how many of the pubs were busy at lunchtimes, but much quieter in the evenings. Nowadays, assuming the pubs are still there, it’s usually the other way round. Even if people do go to the pub for a leaving do or suchlike, most will stick to soft drinks.

Obviously it can be argued that this is a good thing in an age where idleness and low productivity at work are much less acceptable. Many will say that they like to keep themselves fully on the ball while at work, but can still go out and have a few pints in the evening.

But the point is that the number of occasions during the week when going to the pub is something that people will consider doing has been reduced, to the inevitable detriment of the pub trade. For many, lunchtimes while at work were the main occasion when they had an opportunity to visit a pub, as opposed to making a specific journey for that purpose. Pubgoing becomes a specific interest rather than something woven into the fabric of everyday life.

And that is the process of “denormalisation” in a nutshell – a steady curtailment of what is considered “normal” behaviour, which creeps up on people so stealthily that they don’t notice it happening.

And cheers to the 20% who still manage to do it at least once a week.

Friday 19 August 2011

Float or sink?

October 1st will see two significant legislative changes affecting the British brewing industry and pub trade. In both cases, it’s difficult to predict exactly what the impact will be. The first is the new beer duty regime, with 50% duty for beers of 2.8% ABV or below, and 125% duty for beers above 7.5%. And the second is the introduction of the two-thirds pint “schooner” measure. Will these measures radically change things, or will they prove a pair of damp squibs? Heineken UK have announced that they will be making a big push on two-thirds glasses. Given that they campaigned for the change, you can see them featuring prominently in BrewDog’s bars, where they may be well-suited to the relatively strong beers on sale. But will they really take off in the general pub trade, or will it be a case of the H. M. Bateman cartoon of “the man who asked for a schooner in the Gungesmearers’ Arms”?

Thursday 18 August 2011

Nobody biting

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read that food is going to be the saviour of the wet-led pub. But it isn’t always quite as simple as that. Not too far from me, there’s a big Victorian pub in a prominent suburban main-road location tied to one of the local family brewers. It used to do a cheap and cheerful lunchtime menu of toasties, bacon barms, ham, egg & chips, pensioners’ specials and the like, which seemed to bring in a reasonable amount of custom.

However, the brewery clearly thought the food trade had more potential, so they gave it a makeover – nothing structural, just new upholstery and chairs and a general spring-clean, put the bar staff in uniforms and introduced a new and more ambitious menu with most main courses in the £7+ bracket. However, all this seems to have done is to drive away the old food trade but not bring in any new, more upmarket customers. I’ve been in at lunchtimes both during the week and at weekends, and have always been able to count the number of diners on the fingers of one hand. Sometimes there have been none at all.

Possibly the fact that the pub, both outside and in, still looks like a classic urban local doesn’t help matters. If the same food offer was transplanted into a cottage-style establishment ten miles further south, it might prosper. But it looks as though, in this pub, in this location, the owning company have made a wrong call on the potential food trade. You wouldn’t blame them too much if they decided to cut their losses and, as many other pubs have done, drop the food entirely and not even bother opening at lunchtimes during the week.

Sunday 14 August 2011

The indifferent stuff

Well, here are the results of the survey question “Name up to three cask beers that you regard as poor or lacklustre examples of the genre.” As you can see, there’s an even more decisive winner in the shape of Greene King IPA, with Wells Bombardier second and Sharps Doom Bar third.

There are quite a few beers that appear in both lists, such as both Bombardier and Doom Bar, Deuchars IPA, Butcombe Bitter, Holts Bitter and Wadworths 6X. I’m disappointed to see Harveys Sussex Best on this list as to my mind it is one of the finest ordinary bitters in the country.

It is noticeable that this list includes many of the most widely-distributed cask beers in Britain. This raises some interesting questions. Are these intrinsically lacklustre beers, brewed to a lowest common denominator for a mass market? Or is it a case of “familiarity breeds contempt”? Or could it be that, the more widely available a beer is, the more likely it is to end up in outlets that can’t look after cask beer properly, thus damaging its reputation?

For example, Wells Bombardier is a beer that I “think” I don’t much care for. However, I have to say on the past three occasions when I’ve drunk it, generally when there wasn’t much else to choose from, I have found it in good condition and a perfectly pleasant pint.

And does it do the overall cause of cask beer any good when “beer enthusiasts” dismiss many of the cask beers the average drinker is likely to encounter as disappointingly bland?

29 votes:
Greene King IPA

Ten votes:
Wells Bombardier

Eight votes:
Sharps Doom Bar

Six votes:
Marstons Pedigree

Five votes:
Deuchars IPA

Four votes:
Ruddles Best Bitter
Wychwood Hobgoblin

Three votes:
Courage Directors
Greene King Abbot Ale
Hydes Bitter
Shepherd Neame Spitfire
Tetley Bitter
Youngs Bitter

Two votes:
Draught Bass
Fullers London Pride
John Smiths Cask
Marstons EPA
Morland Old Speckled Hen
Ringwood Best Bitter
Robinsons Unicorn
Sam Smiths OBB
Theakstons Best Bitter
Thwaites Bitter
Wadworths 6X
Wells Eagle IPA

One vote:
Ansells Bitter
Any golden ale
Anything by Arkells
Anything by Coach House
Anything by Enville
Anything by Greene King
Anything by Marstons
Anything by Hydes
Anything by Salamander
Arkells 3B
Badger Best Bitter
Banks’s Best (not sure if this means Mild or Bitter)
Bath Ales Gem
Black Sheep Bitter
Boddingtons Bitter
Brains SA
BrewDog Paradox
BrewDog Punk IPA
Butcombe Bitter
Caledonian Golden Promise
Courage Best Bitter
Davenports Bitter
Dorset Piddle Cocky Hop
Everards Sunchaser
Fullers Discovery
Harveys Sussex Best Bitter
Holts Bitter
Holts IPA
Jennings Cumberland Ale
Leeds Brewery Best
Lees Mild
Ramsbury Bitter
Sambrooks Wandle
Shepherd Neame Master Brew
Storm Brewing Storm Damage
Woodfordes Wherry

Saturday 13 August 2011

Heavy fuel

Not sure what to make of this one. Do ten readers of this blog really believe that drinking 15 pints of Stella or Abbot a week makes someone a “heavy drinker”? That’s hardly two pints a day. Or did they interpret it as “what is the official government line?” Even that is 50 units a week, which in the terms of the poll would equate to 20 pints.

If this reflects the genuine opinion of blog readers, it’s hardly surprising that the pub trade is on its knees.

Thursday 11 August 2011

The Good Stuff

The survey on which cask beers you like and dislike has now closed. There were 52 individual responses in total. Obviously this takes a bit of work to analyse, so I’ll present “The Good” today and “The Bad” hopefully tomorrow.

So here are the results of “Name up to three cask beers that you regard as good examples of the genre and that you would happily recommend to others.” Number 1 was perhaps not a total surprise, but Dark Star Hophead made a strong showing in second place and Taylors Landlord in third. Bear in mind that the responses were entirely unprompted.

As you will see later, quite a few of these beers also feature on the other list.

Incidentally, I now have 99 followers, so one more to bring it up to the round 100 would be nice :-)

13 Votes: Thornbridge Jaipur IPA

10 Votes: Dark Star Hophead

7 Votes: Taylors Landlord

5 Votes: Fullers London Pride

4 Votes:
Harveys Sussex Best Bitter
Oakham Citra
St Austell Tribute

3 Votes:
St Austell Proper Job
Robinsons Old Tom

2 Votes:
Adnams Broadside
Bathams Best Bitter
Black Sheep Bitter
Brakspear Bitter
BrewDog Edge
Copper Dragon Golden Pippin
Dark Star American Pale Ale
Deuchars IPA
Harviestoun Bitter and Twisted
Jennings Snecklifter
Kelham Island Pale Rider
Marble Lagonda IPA
Marble Manchester Bitter
Marble Pint
Oakham JHB
Pictish Brewers Gold
Thornbridge Kipling
Thornbridge Wild Swan
Wadworths 6X

1 Vote:
Abbey Ales Bell Ringer
Anything by Dark Star
Anything by Hook Norton
Anything by Oakham
Anything by Thornbridge
Arbor Ales Oyster Stout
Arundel Mild
Bowman Swift One
Brains Dark
Brains SA Gold
BrewDog Grain Cask
BrewDog Paradox
Brimstage Oystercatcher Stout
Bristol Beer Factory Stout
Butcombe Bitter
Buxton Axe Edge IPA
Camden Inner City Green
Castle Rock Harvest Pale
Dark Star Hopstar
Dunham Massey Stout
Eastwood and Sanders 1872 Porter
Everards Beacon Bitter
Everards Tiger
Flowerpots Perridge Pale
Fullers Bengal Lancer
Fullers London Porter
Fyne Ales Jarl
Grain India Pale Ale
Great Oakley Welland Valley Mild
Hardknott aether bleac
Harveys 1859 Porter
Harveys Hadlow
Harveys Old
Hawkshead Lakeland Gold
Hobsons Mild
Hogs Back TEA
Holts Bitter
Holt's IPA
Holts Mild
Hook Norton Old Hooky
Humpty Dumpty Porter
Ilkley Mary Jane
Kelham Island Easy Rider
Liverpool Organic Josephine Butler Elderflower Ale
Liverpool Organic Shipwreck IPA
Marble Dobber
Morland Old Speckled Hen
Old Dairy Brewery Blue Top
Old Dairy Brewery Gold Top
Ossett Citra
Otter Bitter
Phoenix Wobbly Bob
RedWillow Wreckless
Sam Smiths OBB
Sarah Hughes Dark Ruby Mild
Sharps Doom Bar
Southport Golden Sands
Titanic White Star
Triple fff Pressed Rat and Warthog
Ufford White Hart
Wadworths Horizon
Wells Bombardier
Woodfordes Wherry
Wye Valley Butty Bach
Wye Valley HPA
Yorkshire Dales Muker Silver

Monday 8 August 2011

An MP repents

The following post by Natalie Solent on Samizdata is worth repeating in full:

Writing in today's Times behind a paywall, Natascha Engel, Labour MP for North East Derbyshire, relates how she stood in the rain outside a miner's welfare hall smoking with a angry but partially mollified constituent.

...he told me about his father in law who used to come to the welfare every night and spent all evening drinking one pint of Guinness. He was a chain smoker. Since the smoking ban he's never been back.

“He can't stand outside in the rain like this. He's an old man.” He told me about how his father-in-law never goes out any more. “He's lonely and miserable. And he still chain smokes.”
Natascha Engel now says that, given the chance again, she would not vote for the ban. It is good that she has the empathy to see and the courage to state that reason the smoking ban is wrong is that it makes people more miserable than they would otherwise have been. Just that. That is reason enough. Arguments about health are very interesting, and I have no doubt that the dangers of passive smoking have been exaggerated, but the fact that an old man has had the solace of smoking in company with his friends denied him trumps all that. I do wish Ms Engel had been able to perceive this at the time when her vote might have done some good, but better late than never.

End of an era

There’s a poignant article by Andy Sullivan (warning: very large .pdf file) in the latest edition of the local CAMRA magazine Opening Times under the title “The Hat Goes Forth”, about the decline of the pub trade in Denton and Audenshaw in Tameside to the east of Manchester. To read the full piece, turn to Page 19 of the .pdf, but the first couple of paragraphs really say it all:

It has to be said that Denton and Audenshaw do not immediately spring to mind when it comes to thinking about a destination for a beer or two. But I live here and have done for long enough to remember the Thursday, Friday and Saturday night wanders. Each of these evenings saw groups and couples of all ages starting in one pub, let's say the Cottage on Hyde Road, and by one route or another ending it in the Red Lion at Crown Point perhaps. There were the “all nighters” and the “last hour” people and their routines were pretty much a fixture.

Sadly those days are gone and I find the streets deserted of those mostly easy going folk, who often knew each other, passing the time of the night so to speak and the easy unthreatening atmosphere. Yes of course there were young men who got into fights, indeed sought them out, but it never seemed to spill over much and it was always fists and often handbags anyway. So it has to be said most of my supping goes on at tea time, which has kind of evolved over time and has a lot more to do with personal circumstances than the shift away from the pub culture of old.

This story is in common with many a town and familiar I guess to a lot of people so I won't belabour it too much, but it does go some way to emphasise the decline of the local pub trade, which appears to have reached catastrophic conditions and in particular recently here in Denton and Audenshaw.
Sadly, that is all too typical of working-class, industrial urban areas the length and breadth of the country. Now, I wonder what could have made a big contribution to such a decline “recently”. Any ideas?

Sunday 7 August 2011

Weak beers to flood the market?

It seems that the Daily Mail has woken up to the fact that, from 1 October, the duty on beers of 2.8% ABV or lower will be halved. However, despite the suggestion in the article, I can’t see it affecting the price of the “normal” pint bought in pubs. Obviously it’s too early to say exactly what the impact will be, but I would expect the main beneficiary to be cheap off-trade lager.

Price may influence people’s decision as to whether to go to the pub or not, but once inside they’re not all that price-conscious, otherwise mild would do a lot better than it does. Also bear in mind that many drinks in pubs are bought in rounds, where there is less incentive to choose the cheapest, and any disparity in price is accepted so long as participants don’t blatantly take the piss. I can’t see £2 pints of 2.8% bitter decimating the sales of the 4% stuff at £2.50. I know it’s politically incorrect to say so, but people actually buy beer partly because it contains alcohol, so whether or not the taste is unaffected is not the sole consideration.

I can, however, see the likes of Carling, Carlsberg and Fosters bringing out 2.8% versions which may sell enough in pubs to be viable, but won’t take over from the mainstream brands. Apart from maybe a few existing milds being reformulated to take advantage of the lower duty, I really don’t see much impact on the cask sector. But of course only time will tell.

Saturday 6 August 2011

The ultimate question

Following on from the two surveys of smokers and non-smokers, I thought I would ask the overarching question “What is your view on smoking in pubs and bars?” The results are shown in the graphic.

The previous general blog readers’ survey showed that people came to this blog for its specific pubs and beer content, as opposed to more general political and libertarian reasons, by a margin of about two to one. Nevertheless, four-fifths of all respondents supported some relaxation of the smoking ban, with only just short of 50% failing to see the need for any legislation whatsoever. On the other hand, five people seemed keen to wipe out what remains of the pub trade.

I always regret not adding a option along the lines of “smokers should be locked in the showers and gassed with their own vile fumes” to really smoke people out.

I know I’ve done this, or similar, before, but maybe I should do it every year to see how opinion has moved.

Friday 5 August 2011

Drink-drive deaths down 35%

New figures from the Department for Transport reveal there was a sharp fall in deaths from drink-drive accidents in 2010.

There were 250 fatalities in 2010, compared to a total of 380 deaths in 2009, reveals the department’s provisional report.

Serious injuries from drink-driving incidents fell 18 per cent to 1,230 and slight injuries were down 19 per cent at 8,220.

In 1979, when drink-drive casualty records began, there were as many as 1,640 deaths.

Transport minister Norman Baker said: ‘The provisional figures suggest the number of drink-drive deaths is now 83 per cent lower than 30 years ago – this is very welcome. However, we are determined to continue to take firm action against the small minority of drivers who still ignore the limit.’
Very good news that backs up Transport Secretary Philip Hammond’s decision earlier this year not to cut the drink-drive limit. Arguably, the vast majority of the casualty reductions that might have been achieved by cutting the limit fifteen or twenty years ago have already been realised by changes in behaviour. However, regrettably, some of this fall must be due to people simply choosing not to visit pubs at all, with the inevitable repercussions for the pub trade.

Thursday 4 August 2011

Can you judge a pub by its car park?

Pubs Then and Now shows pictures of the Boot at Lapworth in Warwickshire with the contents of the car park becoming steadily more upmarket over the years. So this got me thinking about how you can often tell what to expect inside a pub from what is parked outside. This can be especially useful in rural areas where it’s not always that obvious from the exterior whether you’ve chanced upon a genuine unspoilt pub or a stripped pine dining emporium.

So here are a few rough and ready guidelines that could come in handy (not to be taken too seriously):
  • Land Rover Defenders, Lada Nivas, old Subaru Legacy estates, rusty Fiesta vans, anything over six years old covered in mud: Much talk of crop yields, livestock prices and field sports. Wet, smelly dogs. May not be too welcoming to townies.

  • Extensively modified Saxos, C2s, MG ZRs and Corsas: Expect to hear some bangin’ chewns. Bacardi breezers and Blue WKDs very popular, but cask beer unlikely to be available.

  • Mainstream Fords and Vauxhalls over four years old, aftermarket alloys, things dangling from the rear view mirror: Here for the game, mate. Another four Carlings, love! Anyone seen my copy of the Sun?

  • French cars of a few years old, very likely diesels, not very clean, junk in the footwells, National Trust and RSPB stickers: A good selection of ales, and of beards and chunky knitwear.

  • Rover 400s/45s, Honda Jazzes, Skoda Fabias, Hyundais: Pensioners’ special – full roast dinner for £5.99. None of that foreign muck here. Much indecision as to where to sit.

  • VW Sharans, Vauxhall Merivas, Renault ScĂ©nics: Family dining. Kids eat free! Take your earplugs.

  • Newish Audis, Volvos, “crossover” 4x4s: Oh, what a lovely dining pub. They do a simply divine braised lamb shank with tarragon gravy.

  • Range Rovers, Porsches, high-end Mercedes: Footballers’ Wives territory. If you’re lucky, you might get a pint of Peroni for a fiver, but can you afford those cocktails?
Another point is that, in my experience, a full car park by no means always implies no seating room inside. The occupants either park up and go walking, or mysteriously vanish into thin air, so it’s always worth poking your nose round the door even if it doesn’t look too promising.

I hear no ticking

It’s commonplace nowadays to hear various self-appointed “health campaigners” going on about how modern lifestyles mean that children living today are likely to die at a younger age than their parents. We’ve got an obesity timebomb, a cancer timebomb, a heart disease timebomb, a diabetes timebomb and an alcohol timebomb, all merrily ticking away.

Yet figures released today show that, on average, people are living longer and longer.
Today's 20-year-olds are three times more likely to live to 100 than their grandparents and twice as likely as their parents, official figures show.

And a baby born in 2011 is almost eight times more likely to reach their 100th birthday than one born 80 years ago.

A girl born this year has a one-in-three chance of reaching 100 years old and boys have a one-in-four chance.
This trend has been going on for many years and there’s no sign of it slowing down, let alone reversing. And I’ve got a good idea who is drawing reasonable scientific conclusions and who is engaged in irresponsible scaremongering.

The only timebomb we really need to worry about is the pensions one.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

The good, the bad and the ugly

Here is a brief survey on which cask beers people would nominate as good, and which they think are poor. It will be interesting to see how much convergence there is in the results. I can certainly think of one IPA that is likely to feature in the “good” section, and another likely to be classified as “bad”. As with all these surveys, it’s limited to a maximum of 100 responses. Please note I’m really looking for specific beers, not the output of entire breweries.

Edit: and the first two responses include one particular beer in both categories!

More media bias

Apparently the BBC screened a Panorama programme last night that could be described as a half-hour commercial for the anti-drink lobby. I didn’t see it myself (my blood pressure would probably have been unable to stand the strain) but it is very effectively deconstructed by Chris Snowdon here.

Two of the Prohibitionists’ distortions of the truth particularly stand out:

  • While it is true that per capita alcohol consumption in the UK has approximately doubled since 1947, that year, in the wake of a World War and in a time of austerity and rationing, was an untypical historic low point. The current level is only consistent with the long-term historic average.

  • How can alcohol be considered absurdly cheap in this country when we have some of the very highest rates of alcohol duty in the entire European Union? Our duties are higher even than those in Sweden, notorious for its strict anti-drink culture. If alcohol is causing problems, then surely it must be due to social factors other than price.

Monday 1 August 2011

Drip, drip, drip...

Pubs are still closing in large numbers, and on-trade beer sales are dropping steadily, if not quite catastrophically. But some may question whether this continued decline can be blamed to any extent on the smoking ban, which after all came into effect a full four years ago.

Well, I’ve never claimed that the smoking ban is the sole cause of the decline of pubs over the past four years, but it’s certainly been a major cause. And I would say it’s still happening even now. This is due to what could be described as “the slow erosion of sociability”. You may wonder how a small, steady drip, drip, drip of water can do anything to a rock, but over time it can completely wear it away. One Tuesday night, Ken decides not to go the pub, because last week standing outside in the cold really made his joints play up. Phil notices this, and mentions it to Jenny, who ends up giving it a miss the next week. And so it goes on.

It wasn’t the case that a lot of smokers made a swift decision after the ban that pubs were no longer for them, although some undoubtedly did. Others might have made an effort to stay inside and just pop out occasionally, but after a while have found that didn’t suit. They may have given up after one harsh winter, or stuck it out but been finally deterred by a second one, or even a third one. And non-smoking friends and acquaintances may have continued going, but suddenly found it less appealing when some of the folks they used to chat with were no longer there.

Plus, with many people, it’s not a case of stopping visiting entirely, but of going less often and spending less when they do go. It is very noticeable that the trade of pubs had dropped much less at the traditional weekend busy times than at what were always quieter periods. Many pubs used to have a baseload trade of lunchtime regulars, retired or unemployed or on invalidity, including in my experience a fair proportion of smokers. That kind of trade seems now to have largely disappeared. Plenty of pubs no longer open at lunchtimes during the week, and where they do they are often embarrassingly quiet. And what are all those people doing? Probably sitting at home with a few cans and an ashtray watching daytime TV on their own.

Changes in people’s social habits happen very gradually and often creep up on them. They may suddenly realise “I used to go to the Dog & Duck at least twice a month, but I’ve not been for a year now.”

Obviously the effect has somewhat flattened out now, but it’s not yet run its course. And, as has often been remarked upon, the much-heralded influx of non-smoking drinkers to pubs totally failed to materialise.

There are other factors at work, too. First is the fact that new entrants to the potential pubgoing population may well take a different view from their elders. If you’re used to going to pubs, you may be prepared to put up with popping outside for a fag, but if you’ve never got into the pubgoing habit you may fail to see the point if you’re not allowed to smoke.

Then there is always the temptation of the “new format” or the “rebranding”. If you’re running a petrol station, there’s not a huge amount you can do to diversify if demand for your core product drops off. But, with a pub, there are always other things you can try to drum up more trade – more or different food, guest beers, quiz nights, karaoke. Sometimes these will produce a short-term boost, but all too often trade eventually falls back to its previous level. All you’re doing is temporarily redistributing the existing trade, not increasing the overall level. This makes the pub trade almost uniquely vulnerable to “the triumph of hope over experience”.

There’s also the state of the property market. For three years it’s been in the doldrums, so the opportunities to sell up for redevelopment are curtailed. Thus some pubs stagger on because that’s more economic in the short-term, but once things pick up their days will be numbered. I’m surprised, for example, that all of the six rather down-market wet-led pubs on Castle Street, Edgeley, Stockport, have survived thus far. I’d be even more surprised if they were still all there in five years’ time. (I think the unlamented Windsor Castle had closed some time before 2007) There are plenty of pubs still open and trading that in the long term have been made unviable by the smoking ban.

I would say it will be at least ten years before the effects of the ban have fully worked their way through the pub trade. By that time we may be down to less than 40,000.

A crafty pint

August’s column in Opening Times might well be of wider interest...