Sunday 29 July 2012

A taste of tradition

The July issue of the CAMRA newsletter What’s Brewing contains an article entitled “Endangered (beer) styles need protection”, including styles such as light and dark mild, light bitter and old ale that were once the mainstay of the British pub. The August issue includes a couple of letters suggesting that, in view of the wave of golden ales colonising our bar tops, even ordinary bitter needs to be added to the list. This led me to think about how “beer enthusiasm” has changed over the past forty years.

The 1970s saw a strong reaction against the modernism and “knock it down and start again” attitudes of the 1960s. “Small is Beautiful”, “The Good Life”, Laura Ashley, railway preservation and the real ale revival were all facets of this.

The initial premise of CAMRA was all about “preserving tradition”. It was like a beery version of the National Trust. Small family brewers, often employing antediluvian management techniques, were lavishly praised. Beers such as Ruddles County and Wadworths 6X were regarded with reverence. In many cases, these beers were post-war introductions, but even so it was the traditional image that counted. Classic pubs like the Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham and the Royal Standard of England at Forty Green in Buckinghamshire were spoken of in hushed tones. Wolves & Dudley adopted the famous advertising slogan of “Unspoilt by Progress”.

Throughout the 1980s, much the same remained true. Yes, there were a few micro-breweries springing up, but it was good that some dedicated people were seeking to revive the old traditions. But, eventually, things started to change. The growth of beer exhibition pubs, the freeing up of the pub trade after the Beer Orders, all helped contribute to a view that innovation and novelty were desirable factors on the beer scene.

And so it has led to the current situation, where the long-standing traditional beers are dismissed as “boring brown bitters” and the pubs that have served them for generations written off as dumps only suitable for old codgers. The future is, we are told, in cutting-edge bars serving craft kegs and innovative beers laden with New World hops.

It’s as if people originally signed up for a movement to preserve Lyme Park and St Pancras Station, but ended up instead championing the Guggenheim Museum and the Millennium Dome. Not necessarily a bad thing (although that’s debateable) but certainly something completely different.

I have nothing against the development of new beers and new bars, and obviously recognise that in a commercial sense every industry needs to move on and adapt to changes in consumer tastes. But I make no apology for saying that what really interests me, personally, is drinking traditional British beer in traditional British pubs, not triple-hopped American IPA in an uncomfortable, echoing craft beer bar. And that’s something that an organisation like CAMRA should stand up for and support even if it runs counter to short-term commercial advantage. Just as the defence of real ale was in the 1970s.

From time to time, I enjoy a pint and maybe a meal too in Wetherspoon’s, but it’s just a utilitarian satisfying of a need, in the same way as a visit to Pizza Express or the Bombay Palace. On the other hand, going to the Nursery, or Turner’s Vaults, or the Thief’s Neck, is in a small way drinking in tradition and history in the same way as a visit to Lyme Park or Moreton Old Hall. That may not matter to you, but it matters to me.

While some commenters always see any mention of CAMRA on here as a criticism, in my view CAMRA deserves praise both for its ongoing commitment to the National Inventory of historic pub interiors and for highlighting endangered beer styles. The championing of the “shock of the new” comes largely from voices either outside CAMRA or not aligned with its mainstream. I get the feeling that many stalwarts of CAMRA feel a profound unease about the beer and bar landscape we are now moving into, something often hinted at on the letters page of What’s Brewing.

The picture, by the way, is of the Traveller's Rest at Alpraham in Cheshire, one of the dwindling number of truly traditional and unspoilt pubs.

A licensed rabbit warren

I recently dug out my copy of the 1979 Good Beer Guide to look for early examples of “beer exhibition” pubs, and was reminded of the classic description of the Victoria Hotel in St Annes on the Fylde coast - then a Boddingtons tied house - as “Unspoilt Victorian building, resembling a licensed rabbit warren”. I’ve never been there, and it doesn’t appear in more recent editions, so I thought I would look into what had become of it. It’s still there, and can be seen on Google StreetView here – a rather magnificent late-Victorian edifice, perhaps grander than I had imagined it from the GBG description. Here is a description of its history. As it doesn’t appear on CAMRA’s National Inventory of historic pub interiors I assume the “licensed rabbit warren” element has been subject to substantial gutting.

It appears that it has recently been the subject of a planning application by McCarthy & Stone to demolish it and build retirement flats on the site. It is exactly the type of pub on a large site in a suburban residential area that has been most vulnerable to redevelopment in recent years. It’s probably the only pub within walking distance for many local residents, but that is no guarantee of success. However, there is a happy ending – the local council have refused planning permission for the redevelopment. Let’s hope it can enjoy future success as a pub.

Interestingly, there is no mention of food being served in the 1979 Guide, although you would now think that would be essential to its success. How times change.

Saturday 28 July 2012

Over the moon

Q: Why do so many Wetherspoon’s pubs mention the Moon in their name?

A: Because neither of them have any atmosphere...

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Know your own strength

The Daily Mail reported over the weekend that less than a third of people paid any attention to the strength of alcohol they drank at home. However, the article fails to build up much of a head of outrage, as surely what this indicates is not that drinkers are unwittingly consuming more alcohol than they thought, but that they regard drinking as a more rounded pleasure and not simply a calculated way of getting a given dose of alcohol.

In any case, this only really applies to beer and cider, as the strength of table wine falls within a fairly narrow range, that of spirits even more so. And, even if people don’t know the exact strength of what they are drinking, they will still have a broad idea of the general category it falls within, in the same way as you probably don’t know the exact horsepower of your car, but you have a pretty good feel for how quick or slow it is.

It could even be argued that, if people are indifferent to the precise strength of their drinks, it gives brewers more scope for reductions in % ABV, but, as I have said before, they run the risk of losing sales if they are seen as having taken a particular product out of its perceived strength category.

Tuesday 24 July 2012

Paint it black

The British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) were predictably downbeat in announcing the results of their latest quarterly statistical survey of beer volumes. They highlighted the fact that, in the second quarter of 2012, beer sales were 5.3% down on the same quarter last year, with the off-trade actually falling slightly more than the on-trade, blaming it on above-inflation duty rises. However, single quarter comparisons are vulnerable to one-off factors, and last year we had some glorious Spring weather, whereas this year it was mostly dismal.

More meaningful are the full year figures, which actually only show a 1.2% overall decline, with the on-trade 3.4% down and the off-trade 1.2% up. That’s actually one of the smallest annual falls for a number of years. This could even be regarded as giving grounds for a touch of qualified optimism.

Interestingly, since the figures issued for the year to the end of December, the BBPA seem to have rebased this series of statistics, resulting in an increase of 2.3 million barrels for 2011, and similar rises in the earlier years, although the year-on-year movements remain much the same. I have e-mailed them to ask how this has been arrived at.

Edit: I received a very prompt response to say that the figures had been rebased to take better account of production volumes of, and imports by, non-BBPA members. It gives a somewhat better picture of the health of the overall beer market, although of course that might potentially be used as a justification for further restrictions by the government.

Saturday 21 July 2012

Gone for a Burton

I’ve recently been sent an impressive – although distinctly sad – collection of photos by a local correspondent showing closed pubs in and around Burton upon Trent, for inclusion on my Closed Pubs blog. Two of them – the Gladstone, a classic backstreet boozer, and the Union, which I don’t think was named after the Burton Union fermentation system, complete with incongruous palm tree – are shown at the right. These images are particularly poignant due to Burton’s historic status as the capital of British brewing, although now there are only two established breweries operating in the town – Molson Coors and Marston’s – together with six small micros. It’s a rather workaday place with extensive areas of Victorian terraced housing, and the traditional street-corner pubs seem to have suffered particularly badly.

Monday 16 July 2012

How low can drinkers be pushed?

The House of Commons health select committee has come out with a predictable report claiming that the alcohol industry is “drinking in the last chance saloon” and should face much tougher regulation unless it cleans up its act. They repeat the familiar canard about beer being sold “cheaper than water” and also say that “Britain's ‘alcohol problem’ has become so entrenched that drastic action – which would also include an end to sponsorship of sporting events – is required to protect children and teenagers.” Which is rather odd when you consider that per capita alcohol consumption has been steadily falling for eight years.

One point they make is that reducing the strength of some premium lagers by 0.2% ABV is no more than a token gesture. Maybe it is, but in a competitive market there must come a point when such strength reductions start to encounter consumer resistance, especially if not everyone moves at once.

I’m not normally a buyer of the mainstream premium lagers, but I wonder whether even now there is an effect of some customers rejecting 4.8% Stella in favour of competitors like Heineken that are still the full 5%, or even the 5.6% Polish brews like Tyskie and Zywiec. There’s no law against brewing 5% lager, and if the beer-weakening trend continues it must be likely that sharp-eyed niche producers will seek to muscle in on the market.

And this is why I fear that in the future we will see further tiers of additional beer duty brought in, with a steep hike kicking in well below 5%, and possibly even government-mandated standard strength categories. This would of course impact on many premium ales as well. If you want beer in the 5-6% strength category, you now have much more choice amongst the PBAs than amongst the lagers.

It’s also predictably disappointing that the focus of strength reductions is always placed on beer and cider, never on wine or spirits. Indeed, with spirits, EU law prevents them being sold at below 37.5% ABV.

Edit: something else I can see happening is the government pressurising the drinks industry to set a target for a reduction in the average strength of beer and cider produced in the UK.

Sunday 15 July 2012

Great exhibition

There’s an interesting post here by Boak & Bailey about the development of the “alterno-beer” movement in the UK. One point I made in the comments was that the dedicated “beer exhibition” pub, where the choice of beer was the main attraction, very much predates “craft beer” and indeed was firmly established not long after the birth of CAMRA.

A quick look through the 1979 Good Beer Guide reveals establishments like the Barley Mow at Tyttenhanger Green in Hertfordshire, the Duck on the Hagley Road in Birmingham, the Bat & Ball in Farnham, Surrey and the Windmill at Whiteley Green in Cheshire, all offering a choice of six to twelve beers from a variety of breweries. Clearly the demand for pubs of this type was already strongly established. I seem to remember the Barley Mow (now, sadly, I believe, closed) being described in one GBG as “more a beer exhibition than a pub”.

In about 1983 I remember being taken to the Fighting Cocks in Bradford, in an out-of-the-way spot on an inner-city industrial estate, but with a then incredible range of beers. The Duck & Drake on Kirkgate in Leeds was up and running in the mid-80s, and I think the Beer House in Manchester became a multi-beer pub around 1986 or 1987. The Crown in Stockport (pictured) dates back to maybe 1991, and by this time the concept had become so popular that it was being taken up by established breweries. Cameron’s converted a number of pubs to the Tap & Spile format, and Whitbread followed suit with the copycat “Tut & Shive”, which ended up being nicknamed “Tub o’shite”. By this time, there would have been few substantial towns in England at least without at lease one specialist beer pub with a bar groaning with handpumps.

Of course, as I wrote at the time, the Achilles heel of many of these venues was quality – if you’re serving twelve different beers, without the turnover necessary to sustain them, especially at slacker times, many will be warm at best and Sarson’s at worst. This inevitably led to something of a retrenchment during the mid-1990s.

My comment that “The more people who care about beer who drink in the multi-beer ‘freehouse’, the fewer there are to complain when their local switches over to nitrokeg” is even more appropriate today, when the beer geeks tick off the rare beers in their favoured 15-pump venue and don’t seem to care about the wider world in which local pubs are dropping like flies.

The Beer Orders led to a general opening up of the tied pub trade and actually, today, I’d say there are probably no more self-proclaimed “specialist beer pubs” than there were twenty years ago. But, in a sense, the wide choice has now gone mainstream, with many operators such as Wetherspoons and Brunning & Price routinely offering a choice of beers that in 1980 would have been considered worthy of an exhibition pub, and five beers a common sight on the bar of a pub company outlet.

Although it wasn’t given huge publicity at a time when the focus was firmly on “real ale”, these pubs often also stocked a good range of imported Belgian, Czech and German beers that you simply wouldn’t find in mainstream outlets.

Friday 13 July 2012

Hear the echo

I must say I have great sympathy with Pete Brown’s views on the design aesthetic of the new wave of trendy craft beer bars:

The amazing beers are not the only thing the above-named bars have in common. They also — every single one of them — follow a very strict design aesthetic that treats soft furnishings with the same contempt as a warm bottle of Corona. Not a single one has carpets.

They all have hard floors, hard chairs — hard surfaces wherever you look. I can’t even think of any that have curtains. Consequently, the craft-beer bar that has more than two groups of punters in at any one time is a place of booming, crashing, scraping, echoing cacophony.

The range of beers and the barstaff may be welcoming, the sensory experience on the palate may be amazing, but the experience on the ears is — without exception — painful.

I don’t know why we have to be in a sterile echo-chamber if we want to drink craft beer. I suppose it’s a coolness thing.

In a sense, of course, they adopt this hard-edged, industrial, open-plan style specifically because it establishes a clear differentiation from the sterotype of the “traditional boozer”. Comfort, cosiness and intimacy are just not part of the plan. So I doubt whether they’ll be answering Pete’s plea any day soon:
But here’s a plea: how about some nice velvet drapes or something? Or even soundproofing on the ceiling? Or how about someone, somewhere, combining the comfort of an old-fashioned pub with the range on offer at a craft-beer bar? Please?
Both Wetherspoon’s and Brunning & Price do the same thing to a lesser extent, deliberately eschewing many of the characteristic features of “old-fashioned pubs”. Unfortunately, what was celebrated thirty years ago as the essence of pubness is now dismissed as old hat.

Personally, I look back with nostalgia to the days of red dralon-covered wall benches. And, if my nearest pubs were an echoing open-plan craft beer bar full of hard stools and posing tables, and a keg-only Sam Smith’s boozer with little rooms, there wouldn’t be much doubt as to which I would adopt as my favoured local.

Saturday 7 July 2012

Not in here you don’t!

It was recently reported that a group of soldiers wearing their uniform to attend a military funeral had been refused admission to Brown’s Bar in Coventry. Not surprisingly, there was a wave of indignation in the press, and it prompted this post by Pete Green at suggesting the time has come to abandon any discriminatory restrictions in pubs.

Which is what prompted the poll whose results are displayed above. All of those are things that, at some time, people have been refused admission to, or ejected from, pubs. Most of them still are still applied somewhere even today. Some of them you will probably feel can be justified, others not. A worthy addition would have been “wearing football colours”, suggested by Phil in the comments. Maybe refusing admission to customers with dogs, too.

At least two people thought every one could be justified. “Continued shouting or singing after being asked to calm down” topped the poll, while “Arriving in a minibus” was last. Perhaps surprisingly, 14 out of 103 respondents thought it was acceptable to admit customers wearing clothing apparently soiled by urine or faeces, but, hey, in some run-down areas that might exclude half the clientele.

There is a fundamental tension here, though. Traditionally, it has been regarded as the right of the licensee to admit or exclude whoever he wants. A pub may be “public” but is also a “house” – you are not just buying produce, as in a shop, but buying time in the company of others. A licensee tries to create a particular atmosphere which, while not entirely homogenous, means that all the customers feel reasonably at home with each other. It only takes a small disruptive, intrusive group to spoil that.

However, in recent times there has been a move to outlaw discrimination against people on the grounds of their race, religion or sexual orientation and, more recently, to ensure a level playing field in the provision of goods and services. To a large extent this is a welcome move, but there are some people who perceive discrimination on such grounds when in actual fact they have just been acting like an arse, and cry foul.

In my view, licensees are still fully entitled to impose restrictions on dress and behaviour, so long as they don’t contravene the law, but in today’s climate of political correctness they need to tread much more carefully than they once had to. There is always the point too as to whether you would actually want to visit a pub anyway that didn’t welcome you as a customer.

As a parting shot, while I am no cheerleader for Irish republicanism, might it not be a good idea on at least two levels for a pub with a strong republican ethos to bar people wearing British military uniforms?

Friday 6 July 2012

An invitation to have your say

The University of Bath have kindly produced an online questionnaire asking for your opinions on minimum alcohol pricing. While I strongly suspect a particular agenda is being pursued, it certainly gives you the opportunity to express your views clearly and strongly on a couple of pages near the end – and to be entered into a prize draw to win up to £250 in Amazon vouchers.

There are one or two examples of begging the question, such as “What would be the best alternative methods of reducing excessive alcohol consumption?”

“Er, I don't think it is excessive and doesn't need to be reduced.”

You can, however, just select the single option of “Lower the legal drinking age.”

Plus when it asks you how many units a week you drink, you can't say “mind your own sodding business!”

There is one interesting question where you are asked if you would drink more in pubs, clubs and bars if the price of off-trade alcohol was raised to a similar level. It then asks you to explain the answer you have just given, which obviously opens the door to make a specific point.

Well worth five minutes of your time.

Thursday 5 July 2012

And your own...

A correspondent has asked me about the practice of giving a small tip to bar staff by saying “And your own” or “One for yourself” when paying for a round. This, as far as I know, is something unique to Manchester and the surrounding areas and I have never come across it anywhere else.

Perhaps it is a hangover from the days of waiter service, although that was certainly found in other parts of the country. It’s certainly something I would associate more with the older generation of pubs and pubgoers, although it’s still fairly commonplace.

You probably wouldn’t offer a tip for a single drink, but maybe for a big round, or if you'd been there all night, or if you'd received particularly good service from a specific member of staff. 20p would be par for the course, maybe going up to 50p for a large and/or complicated round, but anything more would be taking the piss.

It’s something distinctly different from offering to buy a drink for a member of staff, which in any case is often frowned upon nowadays.

Sunday 1 July 2012

Whatever happened to pubs?

Regular readers will be familiar with my blog of Closed Pubs, which draws attention to the huge number of pubs that currently lie closed and boarded, or have disappeared in recent years.

Now, this is not just another smoking ban post, and indeed many of these closures date back to before 1 July 2007. The smoking ban was just another nail in a coffin that was already under construction. But it is clear that something profound has happened to the British pub since its heyday in the late 70s.

That is when I first learned to drink, and back then pubs were a ubiquitous, taken-for-granted institution, running through the whole of society. They varied hugely, from the basic to the snooty, but every pub seemed to have its regulars, its casual drinkers and, often, those who had just come in for a bite to eat. The “pub lunch” was very popular, but nobody would ever confuse it with a “restaurant meal”. Each pub had its own character, and usually its own cast of characters too.

But somehow, in the following thirty-odd years, something has changed. Many of those pubs have closed, and many of those that remain have gone over to food to such an extent that they are now in effect restaurants, not social meeting places. In a sense that is an inevitable reaction to the changing market-place, and pub owners can’t really be blamed for doing it, but it still renders them radically different places.

Where the all-purpose pub does survive, its trade often seems thin and apologetic, and far from the parade of human nature that once could be seen. The trade is also much more concentrated towards the traditional weekend busy periods – lunchtimes and early evenings can be utterly dead. I go in pubs at times when they once were heaving and find them virtually deserted.

Sometimes, you come across a pub that still “works” as most pubs used to in the late 70s, but it is so rare as to be something worth remarking on, and also something largely characterised by customers over the age of 50 who remember how things used to be.

Overall, we as a society drink a bit more (maybe around 10%) than we did in the late 70s, but our relationship with alcohol has changed. It is no longer something to be enjoyed in moderation (and often with a vague sense of naughtiness) as part of everyday life, but something to be consumed more deliberately when other responsibilities can be set aside. People place far more emphasis on not touching a drop in “normal” situations than they used to. Just “going to the pub”, without involving a meal, is no longer an acceptable leisure pursuit in polite society.

And that is why pubs, as a seven days, fourteen sessions a week, institution, are a shadow of their former selves. I suspect if I was thirty-five years younger, and just embarking on the world of adulthood, regular pubgoing would be something that would not even feature on the agenda. Yet, over the years, I have found such pleasure, solace and companionship in pubs that it is desperately sad to see their place in society so much eroded.

Pubs continue to do much better in Inner London, and indeed in the centres of other big cities, than in the country as a whole, which is maybe why this trend has received so little attention from the journalistic profession.

Five years on

Well, another year passes with yet more decline, devastation, social exclusion and despair. Over 10,000 pubs now closed in England and Wales alone, and on-trade beer sales down 26% against the last full year before the ban. Whole swathes of the pub and club trade have completely had their guts ripped out, and plenty of pubs still trading are effectively “running on empty”. Not really a lot I can add to what I said last year – where is Pete Robinson when you need him?

While I have never claimed that the smoking ban has been the sole cause of pub closures over the past five years (and neither, to my knowledge, has anyone else) what is infinitely more ludicrous is the continued insistence of many antismokers that it has had no effect whatsoever.

Of course, if you believe the Guardian, everything in the pub garden is smelling of roses – a piece effectively deconstructed by Chris Snowdon.