Thursday 26 April 2012

Guiding punters to the door

A couple of years ago, the Good Pub Guide attracted a lot of criticism for its plan to charge pubs £199 a year for a full entry in the publication. This raises the question of how much extra business an entry in a guidebook actually brings in for a pub. While it does include other types of pub, the GPG very much majors on the middle-class rural dining pub where you’ll get a nice braised lamb shank with redcurrant jus and coriander mash. If you run that type of pub, especially in a touristy area, you’ll probably attract a lot of trade from featuring in the book, so your outlay is likely to be well worthwhile.

CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide obviously has a very different remit, and of course doesn’t charge for entry. It also covers a wider overall spectrum of pubs than the GPG. Here there’s likely to be a wide variation in the amount of trade an entry will attract. Many people use the GBG as a kind of woolly-jumpered version of the GPG, and the food-serving pubs in the National Parks and other heavily touristed areas are likely to gain the most benefit. Likewise pubs in the centres of tourist-friendly towns like York and Stratford that don’t tend to be so well represented in the GPG. The beer-ticking fraternity will be on the lookout for new venues where they might get a few scoops, and any major city centre will have people staying on business or for conferences who will want to know where they can get a decent pint in the evenings. Pubs near football grounds like the Armoury in Stockport may well attract trade from visiting fans.

But pubs in the suburbs, or in smaller towns with little tourist appeal like Northwich or Worksop, are unlikely to see many new customers, especially if they don’t serve food, or if they are just two-beer locals rather than having an array of beers on the bar. The picture shows the Grapes in Hazel Grove (page 317 of the 2012 edition), a Robinson’s pub which according to the Guide just offers Hatters and Unicorn, although I understand it now has seasonal beers as well. It’s an excellent little boozer, and to my mind it’s a good thing that the GBG can still find space for pubs of that type, but it’s hard to imagine that many people will open the Guide and identify it as a must-visit pub. Indeed the casual pubgoer in Hazel Grove would be more likely to make for the Spoons a few doors down the road. In many cases, an appearance in the Guide is primarily a badge of accomplishment for the licensee, not a generator of trade.

There’s also the question of how much value an entry in the GBG will be to a Wetherspoon’s. In practice, I would say very little. I recognise that some are far better than others in terms of beer quality, beer range and ambiance, but I’d say if you’re inclined to go in Spoons and find yourself in a strange town, you’ll probably go in anyway, and if you’re not you’ll still stay away. And they don’t tend to hide their light under a bushel down alleyways and in back streets. If the beer’s good, you may stay for another, and when you get back to the hotel note that the pub was in the GBG, but it probably won’t influence your decision in the first place. Therefore, from a personal perspective, listing any Spoons is a waste of space – I expect the Guide to lead me to places that I might not otherwise have found.

Wednesday 25 April 2012

When is 8% not 8%?

A few years ago, I pointed out how anti-drink campaigners were misleadingly claiming that less than 50% of drinks sold in the off-trade carried the official government safe drinking propaganda information. This may have been true in terms of individual product lines, but when you looked at it in terms of the actual volumes sold, the figure jumped up to over 90%.

We are now seeing something similar with a report that only 8% of off-trade drinks are sold below the proposed minimum price of 40p per unit. 8% isn’t much, it will be argued, so the minimum price will scarcely make any difference to most drinkers. However, once again this is looking at individual products, not at overall volumes. Almost by definition there is likely to be more product proliferation at the top end of the market, and a £12.99 bottle of Chablis is not going to be remotely the equivalent in sales terms of a slab of Carling.

A recent report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies showed that 71% of all alcohol units bought in the off-trade ware under 45p per unit, and from this I would expect the figure for those under 40p to be well over 50%. Rather different from 8%.

Monday 23 April 2012

Cheap as chips?

One of the favourite pieces of misinformation put about by the anti-drink lobby is that, over time, alcohol has become “more affordable”. Well, yes it has, but only in terms of the number of minutes’ work needed to buy a pint. As living standards have progressively improved, in practice pretty much everything has become “more affordable”, and the only really honest way of tracking movements in the relative value of things over time is by comparing them with general price inflation.

Indeed, as explained here on the Straight Statistics blog, in fact “Alcohol has become more affordable, but more slowly than other items.” Using the NHS’s own figures:

As the NHS IC’s table makes clear, the price of alcohol has risen more swiftly than the retail price index since 1980. Setting both at 100 in 1980, the retail price index in 2010 was 334.5, while the alcohol price index was 411.2; so over this period alcohol prices have risen nearly 23 per cent faster than retail prices as a whole.
In comparison with the general level of prices, alcoholic drinks have actually become dearer, not cheaper. And the post also points out that there are significant problems in any case with the measure of income used as the base for the calculation of “affordability”.

Pile ‘em high

The latest trend I’ve spotted in quite a number of pubs is, instead of spreading beermats out on the table, to make a little stack of them in the centre where once there would have been an ashtray. Perhaps this saves a minute amount of work for the staff, but it means you have to grab one to put under your pint. Given that it’s not an isolated instance, you have to wonder whether there’s a magazine column somewhere on “pointless things to do to make your pub look a bit different”.

Saturday 21 April 2012

A fashionable cause

The front page of today’s Times (sadly hidden behind the Murdoch paywall) shows fashion designer Alice Temperley, daughter of Somerset cidermaker Julian Temperley, who is expressing her concerns about the potential effect of the government’s minimum pricing plans on farmhouse cidermakers. Inside the paper, there’s a two-page spread on the issue.

But it’s the soul of his business, here inside the cider cellar, where minimum pricing will hurt. This is where the “old boys” come to fill their flagons. Gamekeepers and gardeners buy cider straight from the barrel for £5.80 per 4-litre container. One elderly man picks up his 16 litres and pedals home on his bike. Another customer commutes weekly from London to pick up his 100-litre load. The plans will take the cost of those containers to more than £11.
If he loses these customers to the supermarkets, he argues, Britain will be poorer for it. “Being a cider farmer is like being part scrap man, part gypsy. We have a roguery. These old boys keep it real. Without them we lose our mystique. We’ll be forced into the living death of National Trust shops.
This is an issue about the popular traditions of rural England that goes far beyond those who will actually be affected. Anyone who’s seen or read about Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem will understand this. I’d expect pretty much all farmhouse cidermakers to be in areas represented by Tory or LibDem MPs. Yes, I know it’s special pleading, but let’s hope they get a lot of flak about it and it helps undermine the whole policy.

Oh, and sign the petition here If someone comes up with a nice logo for it, I’ll put it in the sidebar.

Edit: See here for a report and a very appealing pic of Alice Temperley.

A worthwhile gain?

Last night the local branch of CAMRA had their monthly “Stagger” – in this case a wander round one of the less affluent, but still well-pubbed, parts of Stockport. Two of the pubs visited were ones that, after a long time selling only keg beers, had fairly recently restored cask beer. Both, perhaps surprisingly, had Black Sheep Bitter: one also had Greene King IPA and the other Marston’s Pedigree.

In the first, the Black Sheep was OK-ish, the IPA very tired and just on the cusp of becoming vinegary. In the second, however, the Pedigree was well beyond that stage and fully qualified as Sarson’s Best. The Black Sheep wasn’t much better. The Pedigrees were returned, and the bar staff accepted that they needed changing. After some humming and ha-ing, they eventually put on a new cask of Black Sheep, which was acceptable, but the whole experience was a somewhat uncomfortable one.

Sadly this will have reinforced the stereotype of CAMRA members as people who visit a pub once every two years, order a round of halves and then moan about the beer, and there was a bit of barracking from some of the lager-drinking regulars.

But it does raise the question of whether marginal outlets should put cask beer on if they don’t have the turnover to keep it in good condition.

By the way, the beer and atmosphere in the other five pubs visited were fine. I had rather hoped Cooking Lager would join us, but in the end he didn’t turn up.

And, if you are thinking “dull selection”, what beer of around 4% ABV would you suggest a “community” pub putting cask beer on for the first time in years should go for?

Friday 20 April 2012

Just Say No

So far the petition on the government website opposing minimum alcohol pricing has made disappointingly slow progress. The more limited Save Our Scrumpy one has done much better.

Publican Sam has kindly provided a trendy logo for this petition, created by Designs of Hope. This is far better than my amateurish effort.

If you would like to use this on your blog or website, click here and cut and paste the appropriate HTML code.

Thursday 19 April 2012

Save our Scrumpy!

When the government made its announcement about minimum alcohol pricing, I made the following point:
And how much does scrumpy sell for at the farm gate in the West Country nowadays? Indeed, does the farmer even know how strong it is? If it’s 8%, a pint will cost £1.82, which I suspect is rather more than the current price.
It seems I was right, as the cidermakers have been quick off the mark to spot this and start a government petition to Save our Scrumpy. I’m sure the policy was never designed to clobber small farmhouse cidermakers, and this campaign has considerable potential to cause embarrassment to the government. Labour’s plan in 2010 to increase cider duties overall by 10% certainly provoked a groundswell of popular opinion against it.

The picture is taken from the Burrow Hill cider brandy website, and I suspect the author of the petition, Edward Temperley, is a relative of Julian Temperley who runs Burrow Hill. On that page, the 6% farmhouse scrumpy sells for £6.80 for a 4-litre container, which is 28.3p/unit, well below the proposed 40p minimum price. As I doubt whether Burrow Hill is small enough to qualify for the small producers’ duty exemption, others must be able to sell it for even less.

You can imagine many farmhouse cidermakers just giving up, or alternatively just making cider for family and friends and others “in the know”.

Tuesday 17 April 2012

Prohibition on the menu

An impressive 85 people responded to the poll on what further anti-drink measures we are likely to see in the coming years. Bear in mind that none of these are actual declared government policy at present. There was just a single Pollyanna who believed that none of this would come to pass – I’d happily bet a substantial sum of money against that eventuality.

Not surprisingly, “Prominent health warnings on all containers” topped the poll, with “Extension of duty escalator” second and “Minimum price escalator”, “Further high-strength duties” and “Ban on television advertising” following closely behind. It is maybe surprising that there has been little movement on advertising restrictions so far. Perhaps the health establishment realise that advertising doesn’t really boost overall consumption, although curbs would undoubtedly advance the “denormalisation” message. And remember, beer geeks, that the more advertising and promotion is restricted, the harder it becomes to launch new products into the market.

Some might feel that a list such as this is giving the neo-Prohibitionists ideas, but in reality all of these measures have already been mooted by them on occasion.

“Restrictions on home brewing and winemaking” got the lowest vote, and indeed there’s no prospect of that at the moment. But if we end up with a minimum price going well north of 50p/unit, the incentive to do this is going to become much greater, and it may be perceived as undermining the overall anti-alcohol strategy. So, remember, you read it here first.

Monday 16 April 2012

Drunk in charge of a pair of shoes

As reported by Kent Online:

Clubbers and pub goers could be breathalysed as they venture out in Maidstone in an attempt to measure levels of drunkenness.

Urban Blue Bus volunteers will carry hand-held intoximeters to determine the volume of so-called 'pre-fuelled' drinkers who load up with alcohol BEFORE a night out in town.

A recent study by Maidstone Town Centre Management indicated many revellers are well above the drink-drive limit before they even set foot in a pub.
I wasn’t aware there was any law (yet) against being above the drink-drive limit when out around the town on foot. Indeed, isn’t that sort of the point of leaving the car at home? Hopefully any revellers asked for a sample will give a robust two-word response, although possibly they may take a sense of pride from how high their reading is.

It is also misleading to use the drink-drive limit as a measure of drunkenness, when in reality it is set at a relatively low level where there is some statistical evidence of impairment of drivers’ judgment. People at that level, or indeed a long way above it, are not in any meaningful sense “drunk”.

The comment by “Invicta” is spot on.
If you really want to stop pre-fuelling (rather than simply enjoy telling people what they should and shouldn't do which I suspect is more accurate), remove the smoking ban and stop over-taxing one of the few pleasures people have in this rapidly developing Orwellian nightmare.
There is, however, an outbreak of common sense from one councillor:
One of the group, Cllr Dave Naghi, was shocked to see drinkers relieving themselves at the side of the road. “It was disgusting,” he said. “We're going to get some toilets back in the High Street.”
One of the original purposes of public toilets was to “prevent nuisance”. And, as sure as night follows day, once you shut them all down the “nuisance” returns. In the old days many towns, especially in the North, had a large number of basic public urinals that presumably were to some extent intended for the convenience of blokes walking home from the pub. However, dog-in-the-manger demands for gender equality and disabled provision have now put paid to all of those.

(h/t to Chris Snowdon)

Sunday 15 April 2012

No business here

According to Health Secretary Andrew Lansley, “the government did not work with tobacco companies as it wanted them to have ‘no business’ in the UK.” A rather strange thing to say when they produce a legal product that is enjoyed by millions, keeps thousands in employment within the UK and generates billions each year for the Exchequer.

It doesn’t stop there, either. I reported last year about a joint conference held in Glasgow involving ASH Scotland and Alcohol Focus Scotland where no alcohol industry representatives were allowed to attend or express an opinion. And you can see it in more and more sectors, with “campaigners” whingeing about the food industry being consulted about nutrition policy, the oil industry about energy policy, the airlines about aviation policy, the motor industry about transport policy.

Of course government shouldn’t allow business to dictate policy, but if you feel that a business sector should not be consulted and listened to at all about legislative changes affecting it, then you are in effect saying that business is not inherently legitimate.

And do these people never stop to think who ultimately generates the tax revenue that keeps them in their cushy, well-paid employment?

Wednesday 11 April 2012

The Ale Shrine

The George in Stockport has recently reopened after a period of closure. How long for remains to be seen, but at least they have made the effort to put on some cask beers including Taylor’s Landlord at notably reasonable prices. However, there have been complaints about the volume of piped music in the pub, with one person asking why they can’t “leave one or two areas free of noise so that the serious real ale drinker can enjoy the beer without unnecessary distraction?”

This raises an interesting question about the attitude of many beer enthusiasts to the whole pubgoing experience. Forty years ago, virtually nobody would go to the pub just for the beer. You might choose one pub over another because you preferred the brand of beer they sold, or the landlord kept it better than other pubs, but drinking beer wouldn’t be an end in itself, it would be a social lubricant, or an aid to quiet contemplation, or even a road to intoxication. But you wouldn’t say “I am going to the Skinners’ Arms tonight for the sheer pleasure of drinking Marston’s Pedigree”.

This increasingly changed with the rise of beer enthusiasm and the beer exhibition pub, and for many people the beer itself did become the primary reason for visiting pubs. Of course pubs meet a lot of different needs, but it seems to me this misses one of their core reasons for existence, which is to provide a kind of rumbustious, slightly anarchic escape from the cares of the everyday world, somewhere to let your hair down a bit and swear and fart and flirt. They can’t understand how anyone could have a good time in a keg pub, or even drinking the same beer all night.

This reminds me of this comment from IanB from last year on Dick Puddlecote’s guest column:
... if you do a sociological analysis on the IanB Scale, a scale of Puritanism which I invented several seconds ago, CAMRA are a heavily puritan social formation. Puritans come in a number of guises, and can, on the surface seem to be promoting something notionally libertine, such as imbibing an intoxicant. Nudists are another example of a puritan formation that you have to look more closely at to see it. Try bumming a fag in a nudist camp and see the reaction you get.

The thing about the average CAMRAman is that he's after this pure unadulterated ale experience; ale is healthful and nourishing and natural, not like artificial, chemical, adulterated keg beer. Hence the general CAMRAman support for the smoking ban; the solitary purpose of a pub is to supply healthful nourishing ale, so tobacco smoke is an unnecessary and distracting impurity in the experience. On the IanB scale, they score a 10, I'm afraid. As a result, they see themselves as on the side of the angels and are entirely unable to understand what's heading their way.
While CAMRA often extols the virtues of “community pubs”, I suspect many of its members (not all), if they came across a true community pub, where such still exist, would stick their head around the door, take one look and beat a hasty retreat. You sometimes get the impression they would prefer to sit in sepulchral silence nursing their half-pints and discussing obscure hop varieties, undisturbed by loud voices, singing, piped music, cooking smells - or tobacco smoke. They may love beer, but they don’t get pubs.

Monday 9 April 2012

Two times better?

On Easter Sunday I took my mother out for lunch to a pub that had a “two for one” offer on effectively all main meals. This meant that meals priced at around £9-£10 on the menu in fact ended up costing only a fiver each, which is pretty decent value. I understand the reasons for this – thinking you have got a £9.45 meal “half price” feels good, whereas if it was priced at £4.75 you would simply think it was cheap crap. But it comes across as distinctly arbitrary – it’s unfair if you’re dining on your own, and also, to a diminishing extent, if in an odd-numbered party. Wouldn’t the objective be better achieved, and returns maximised, if the individual meals were priced in a range from £5.50 to £7? The food, in the context of microwaved pub grub, was fine, by the way.

Sunday 8 April 2012

Learn from the masters

The recent Tesco 4 for £6 offer has led me to buy more bottles of White Shield than I would normally do. This is a classic beer and one for which, despite recent travails and brewery moves, I still have a lingering affection. It still always seems a touch sweet, though, when I remember it from its glory days of the 1980s as a distinctively, even aggressively, dry beer.

Of four recent samples, one has been a bit flabby, but the other three have demonstrated real evidence of having conditioned in the bottle – dense spires of carbonation rising to create a huge, rocky head. That is what you want in a bottle-conditioned beer. And the yeast stays firmly stuck to the bottom, so it’s easy to pour it clear.

It may seem obvious, but “bottle-conditioned” means a beer that actually conditions (i.e. ferments) in the bottle. Hence it is well carbonated and forms a dense head. This can be seen in classic Belgian beers such as Duvel and Chimay.

Far too often nowadays, a “bottle-conditioned” label from a British micro-brewery results in a bottle of flat, cloudy liquid that somehow aspires to be like a pub pint of “real ale”, but ends up like the kind of pint you immediately return to the bar. The makers of such rubbish need to bone up on what bottle-conditioning really means, and how to do it.

Wednesday 4 April 2012

Out of sight, out of mind

On my most recent visit to the supermarket I noted that, in line with new legislation, the tobacco displays in the kiosk had all been covered with retractable shutters. The claimed justification for this is so as not to expose children to the sight of tobacco marketing, but surely in practice the main impact will just be to make life more difficult for both people buying tobacco products, and those serving them. It will also give small convenience retailers, who don’t have to do the same until 2015, three years’ advantage in the market.

The regulations do apparently permit retailers to display a price list in plain type, but, as Chris Snowdon reports, initially this does not seem to have been properly understood, with some staff taking the line that they cannot confirm either the existence of a particular product, or its price, until the customer actually makes a purchase, which is plainly ridiculous and in violation of consumer protection law. Clearly one result of this will be to make getting information about the price and availability of tobacco products much more difficult. Ironically, for the first time the bootlegger will have an advantage over the legitimate retailer in the information he can provide. There’s a briefing paper about the regulations here.

Of course nothing similar can ever happen to alcohol sales. Well, maybe not in the next few years, but they’re already talking about plain packaging for alcohol even before it’s been brought in for tobacco. The exact order of events isn’t necessarily the same, but it becomes clearer with every passing week that tobacco control is being actively used and promoted as a template for alcohol control. And, once this has come in, the chances of introducing and developing a new brand are precisely zero – sellers will be entirely dependent on customers’ folk memory. So bye-bye beer tickers, bye-bye seasonal beers, and bye-bye to most microbreweries.

There is also an existing example of this in the Swedish state monopoly alcohol retailer Systembolaget. As Wikipedia explains, many of their outlets have now moved over the a self-service system, but in the past they were all Argos-style stores where you ordered your drinks from a catalogue and the assistant brought them to you from a storeroom round the back. This is shown in the illustration, although there are still a few bottles on display. Likewise, in a bar or restaurant you would order from a little printed sheet (or from memory) and the bar staff would fetch your drink, in a plain, unbranded glass, from a screened-off area.

Can’t happen here? Don’t be too sure...

Sunday 1 April 2012

Minimum support

Not surprisingly, the poll on minimum alcohol pricing resulted in a large majority against, with 80% of respondents opposing the plan. I wonder whether the 11 who voted “Yes” fell into the category of CAMRA members who believe hiking the price of multipacks of Stella in Tesco will somehow bring drinkers flooding back into pubs.

As Dick Puddlecote reports, no sooner had the government announced their plans than the bansturbators were out in force demanding that the minimum price be substantially raised.
There’s an e-petition opposing minimum pricing on the government website. I actually know someone called Chris Ward, but I don’t know whether it’s him (Edit: it’s not). So far sign-ups have been slow, but it’s early days yet. With my rudimentary MS Paint skills, I’ve designed a crappy little icon to promote it which can be seen in the left-hand sidebar. If you can do better, go ahead. E-mail me if you would like the code to put this on your blog or website.

Coincidentally, April’s Opening Times column – submitted well before the government announcement – is on the subject of minimum pricing. I wasn’t tipped off by a mole, honest. Have a read and leave a comment.