Sunday 27 November 2011

Worth passing a few offies for?

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

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

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

Saturday 26 November 2011

Worth passing a few pubs for?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 25 November 2011

Beer battered

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 22 November 2011

The ciderator

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

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

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

Sheep and goats

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

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

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

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

The retired factory worker has smoked for 60 years.

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

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

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

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

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

Monday 21 November 2011

Last of the independents

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 19 November 2011

Ring my bell

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

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

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

Thursday 17 November 2011

At the sign of the gallows

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

Are there any others to be found?

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Stop panicking

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

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Pretentious, moi?

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

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

Nice beer, shame about the pubs?

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

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

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

Sunday 13 November 2011

I see no ships

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

Saturday 12 November 2011

Never coming back

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

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

Monday 7 November 2011

Retreating into a niche

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

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

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

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

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

First they came for the Special Brew drinkers

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

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

(H/t to Leg-iron)

Friday 4 November 2011

Bitter harvest

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Here we go again

Not surprisingly, we read in the Daily Mail:

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

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

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

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

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