Wednesday 31 October 2012

Never mind the quality, feel the width

In a recent post, Tandleman quite correctly says:
Choice is often good, but quality is always good. I’d rather have two beers in top nick, that ten in so-so condition. Poor quality beer has always been cask beer’s Achilles Heel. Pubs really do have to ensure that they always serve beer well, particularly as they struggle to lure customers in. Failure to do so really is both inexcusable and suicidal these days.
I have to say that I encounter more pints than I should, even in Good Beer Guide listed pubs, that, while not returnable as such, are just a bit flat, tired and lacklustre. And, as I’ve said before, for many people the risk that one in five pints is going to be dull and flabby is one they don’t think is worth taking. So I thought I’d do a bit of maths on pub turnover.

According to the BBPA statistics, there are about 2 million bulk barrels of cask beer sold in the UK each year. Let us assume that there are 50,000 pubs, and 60% of them sell cask beer. It doesn’t matter if those figures are a bit out, as the general point remains the same. That makes 67 barrels per pub per year, 369 pints a week, or 53 pints a day. It’s generally reckoned that you’ll struggle to keep cask beer in good condition beyond three days, so even if you get your beer in 9-gallon firkins, that means you can only have two beers on before quality begins to suffer. Beer is available in 4½-gallon pins, but they’re far from usual. It’s also the case that pubs typically do half their weekly business on Friday and Saturday nights, leaving only 185 pints for the rest of the week, or 37 a day. So it’s hardly surprising you often get a tired pint early doors on Tuesday evening.

Simple observation suggests that the typical pub selling cask beer has more than two beers on, and in recent years the number has tended to increase even as overall volumes have fallen. Many ordinary pubs now have five, six or seven different beers. Obviously there are some pubs that do have the turnover to keep a lot more beers in good nick, but the law of averages means that others won’t even have the turnover for two. Keeping beers on well above three days must be extremely commonplace.

So perhaps there needs to be more emphasis on quality rather than quantity for its own sake, and the automatic praising of a pub for “putting on another handpump” should be replaced by positive references to pubs that limit themselves to one or two well-chosen beers.

Tuesday 30 October 2012

Bursting out of the bubble

Boak and Bailey recently posted about St Austell Brewery in Cornwall putting some of their stronger and more unusual ales in kegs, and speculated as to whether this might lead to more breweries introducing more lower-volume guest ales on keg, where by definition turnover isn’t the problem it is with cask. In theory, the idea has some merit but, as I said in the comments, I’m not convinced that in the general run of pubs the customer base who go for cask would be interested in “craft keg”, especially one produced by a family brewer rather than a micro. It would just be seen as another keg beer.

Historically, keg ales and lagers have been preferred by those who do not trust the variability of cask beer, and continue to account for over 80% of draught beer sold in pubs. That market, to my mind, is adequately catered for by the likes of Carling, Stella, Guinness and John Smith’s Smooth. As B&B say, “Overheard some chaps in the pub discussing this the other day: all in their fifties, and all said that bad pints in their twenties put them off for life, hence they were on Stella Artois.” Also see this post of mine from 2009. I can’t honestly see that craft keg will have any appeal to those who put great store by consistency.

I could be wrong, of course, but I just don’t see craft keg bursting out of the beer bubble at all. I’ve created a poll to ask people whether they think we will see any craft keg beers appearing in Wetherspoon’s – surely the definitive sign of a product having gone “mainstream”. And if it did go mainstream, there would be a lot of muttering about “the thin end of the wedge”.

I would have thought there was more scope for putting beers like Leffe and Innis & Gunn on keg which don’t have a direct cask equivalent.

Monday 29 October 2012

Law goes up in smoke

I recently posted how there were concerns that the established restaurants of the “Curry Mile” in Rusholme were being squeezed out by a rise in shisha bars, many of which were apparently failing to comply with the smoking ban. Now the Manchester Evening News has carried out a special investigation and found that – Shock! Horror! – all fifteen of the bars visited were allowing smoking indoors.
Shabir Mughal, executive member of the Rusholme Traders Association, said: “These places each make up to £25,000 a week, so to them a £3,000 fine is pocket money, it’s just loose change.”

...Since 2002, 28 shisha bars have opened in Wilmslow Road alone. Mr Mughal said: “Most of the shisha bars let people smoke indoors.” Earlier this month, Manchester council launched a campaign against illegal shisha smoking in Rusholme’s bars.

Habibi Cafe, which was fined more than £4,000 just weeks ago for breaching the smoking ban, was full of people smoking indoors when we visited.

Coun Nigel Murphy, Manchester council’s executive member for the environment said: “We are aware that there are shisha cafes in Manchester whose owners regularly allow their customers to openly flout the law. We will continue to crack down on these offences and these people should realise they are breaking the law.

“Our present campaign is highlighting the health risks of smoking shisha, which many people are unaware of, but as well as this we will be enforcing the legislation which means that anyone caught smoking indoors will be liable for a £50 fine – while owners and managers who allow this to happen face much larger fines.”

...One of the cafes had a shisha pipe design on the door next to a non-smoking sign.

The owner was fined more than £2,700 earlier this year for breaching the smoking ban – yet last weekend the cafe was full of illegal shisha smokers.

The legal process to prosecute a business owner for breaching the smoking ban is lengthy, and the council faces difficulties if the ownership changes hands.

At a time of cutbacks and austerity, you often get the impression that councils place a greater priority on bullying their residents in ways like enforcing the smoking ban than on actually providing services to them. I reckon if it became widely known that, because of shortage of funds, any particular council was in effect not policing the ban, it would be dead in the water in that area within a few weeks. I’ve always tended to think that, in the end, it will disappear with a whimper rather than a bang. The best way to render a law ineffective is simply to ignore it en masse.

As described, for example, here, Greece has in theory a similar smoking ban to the UK, but in practice it is pretty much entirely ignored, and the Greek authorities are of course much further down the road to penury than we are, so are probably happy just to turn a blind eye.

Sunday 28 October 2012

Not in front of the children

The latest absurd outbreak of political correctness is that an organic bottle-conditioned beer produced by former F1 racing driver Jody Scheckter has been banned by the Portman Group because the label includes a child’s drawing, so the beer is alleged to “appeal to children”. I thought that “Challenge 75” was supposed to deal with the problem of underage purchases. Next they’ll be complaining about Badger ales featuring winsome animals.

Anyway, plain packaging for alcohol will resolve all these issues...

Saturday 27 October 2012

The discerning tramp

As promised here, I ran a poll on which strong “craft” beers people had drunk, the results of which are shown on the right. A good turnout of 103, and a surprisingly low proportion who had never tried any, although possibly some readers spotted a rather “beery” poll and moved on.

A narrow win for Duvel over Chimay, with Old Tom third and BrewDog, which has only been around for about three years, still recording over 50%. Of course all these are high-quality beers sipped in moderation by discerning consumers, and are never used as a fast lane to oblivion in the way of Special Brew. To be honest, apart perhaps from Duvel, it would be hard work to drink any of them rapidly.

Thursday 25 October 2012

Gone for a Burton(wood)

I was recently looking through my collection of old beer and pub leaflets and guidebooks, and came across a little book entitled The Pub Lover’s Pocket Guide, published in 1983, which was a fairly in-depth guide to all of the nearly 300 pubs owned by Burtonwood Brewery. Now, some defunct independent breweries are still clearly remembered with considerable affection, such as King & Barnes, Simpkiss or Yates & Jackson, but Burtonwood, despite being a substantial operation, never commanded the same loyalty. Even though it survived into the 2000s, and the plant is still going as a contract brewing operation, you might not realise it had ever existed.

In his 1986 book Local Brew, Mike Dunn credits the company with 290 tied houses. These were widely scattered across Lancashire, Cheshire and North Wales, with outposts in Shropshire, Derbyshire and West Yorkshire and a substantial cluster in Staffordshire south and east of Stoke-on-Trent. However, nowhere were they numerous enough to say “this is Burtonwood country”. Many were fairly unassuming pubs in inconspicuous locations, although they did have a few prime properties such as the Rake Hall at Stanney in Cheshire and the Manor Farm at Rainhill near St Helens. They also included historic pubs such as the Holly Bush at Salt in Staffordshire, the White Lion at Barthomley in South Cheshire and the Scotch Piper at Lydiate in South-West Lancs. They also owned the Royal Oak in Eccleshall which has recently been ably refurbished by Joules. In the late 70s and early 80s I often used to visit the Tiger’s Head at Norley, an attractive, comfortable country pub between Frodsham and Northwich.

They tended to avoid prominent sites in the centres of major towns and cities, although in central Manchester they did have the Bull’s Head opposite Piccadilly Station and the Union on Princess Street which became famous as a gay venue. In Stockport they had the distinctive two-level Ups and Downs on Wellington Road South, which I don’t think has been open at any time in the 27 years I have lived in the town, and remains as an eyesore to this day, and the long-closed Golden Lion on Hillgate which even when trading was basic and grotty. They also later acquired from Tetley’s the Gladstone/Bishop Blaize, a pub with a characterful unspoilt interior, but which was also allowed to become very run-down and is now closed too.

Possibly a key reason for the company’s lack of profile lay in its beers, a standard mild and bitter which Mike Dunn says “have no great reputation”. They weren’t bad beers, just undistinguished, in the same way as Hyde’s regular beers are (in my view) today. You wouldn’t actively avoid them, but few would go out of their way to find them. They also later introduced a cask version of their Top Hat premium keg bitter but this, while stronger, I wouldn’t say was particularly distinctive either. In the early 80s Burtonwood also gained unwanted publicity through some of their pubs selling keg beers through handpumps.

In the early 1980s they fought and lost a takeover battle with Marston’s for Border Brewery in Wrexham, and Mike Dunn describes them as an ambitious company, but after this they seemed to lose their way and fall into a corporate torpor. There was a steady drip-drip of pub closures and disposals, and the pubs that remained began to look tired and lacking investment. They certainly weren’t actively buying new pubs as some of their competitors were. In 1998 they entered into a bizarre joint venture with Eldridge Pope of Dorchester called the Thomas Hardy Brewing Company. This seemed to usher in a protracted saga of mismanagement, resulting in the Dorchester brewery closing in 2003 and what remained of the Burtonwood pub estate being sold to Marston’s in 2005. Some of their pubs, such as the Bull’s Head mentioned above, are now doing well in Marston’s ownership.

The Burtonwood beer brands disappeared, but the brewery continued in operation doing contract brewing, producing, for example, Webster’s Yorkshire Bitter. According to the 2013 Good Beer Guide, it is still going today, although no longer producing any cask beer. But the substantial family brewing and pub-owning concern of which it was once a core part has now become no more than a fading memory.

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Steady decline continues

Today the BBPA have published their latest Quarterly Beer Barometer figures. While their press release concentrates on the quarterly figures, showing an overall 4.8% decline in beer volumes, these were somewhat distorted by an untypical rebound in the third quarter of last year. In reality, the annualised figures are a better guide, showing an overall 3.2% decline, split between 3.6% in the on-trade, and 2.8% in the off-trade.

This is representative of a long, steady decline rather than a catastrophic fall, and is much better than the 5% plus falls recorded in 2008 and 2009, but even so it must be remembered that a 3.2% annual drop will halve overall volumes in fifteen years. On-trade sales are 26% below 2007, and 37% below 2002, so it’s hardly surprising that so many pubs have closed. The off-trade is now 94% of the on-trade, so the inevitable tipping point can’t be too far away.

Despite the negative impact on jobs, and on VAT and duty receipts, it remains a racing certainty that the government will ignore all the petitioning and campaigning and continue to apply the duty escalator in the next budget. Or, as minimum pricing seems to have been kicked back until at least 2014, they may even ratchet it up a bit more.

Monday 22 October 2012

Drinking in the shadow economy

The latest report from Chris Snowdon looks like essential reading:

The Treasury is losing as much as £1.2 billion every year to the illegal alcohol industry. A new report, Drinking in the Shadow Economy, demonstrates how illicit alcohol consumption is becoming a permanent and growing problem due to excessive taxation.

Failing to deal with counterfeit and smuggled alcohol threatens not only public cash, but public health and public order. Counterfeit alcohol can contain potentially life threatening levels of dangerous chemicals, whilst alcohol smuggling is linked to other illegal activities such as drug dealing, violence and money-laundering. High taxes are encouraging the growth of the illicit alcohol market

It is evident that high taxes are causing this boom in the illicit alcohol market. As prices rise, consumers are increasingly turning to the more affordable options available in the shadow economy. Government policy might intend to improve people’s health, but it may be having the opposite effect.

A growing divide

Following the, er, lively debate generated by my post about the exclusiveness of the “craft beer” movement, I set up a poll on people’s attitudes towards some of the most popular cask beers. I also included our local stalwart, Robinson’s Unicorn. The results are shown on the right.

Only three beers – Taylor’s Landlord, Fullers London Pride and (maybe surprisingly) Thwaites Wainwright got an overall positive score. All the rest got more votes for “dull” than “good”. Yet these are beers that are amongst the biggest-selling real ales in the country and also, in many cases, are top-selling premium bottled ales too.

It’s well-nigh unknown to see most of these promoted on beer blogs, or in the editorial of CAMRA publications. Is this not indicative of a growing divide between the views of the cognoscenti, and what the ordinary, but moderately discerning, punter, chooses to buy? By simply deciding to go for cask in the pub, or a PBA in Tesco, the customer is already making a statement that he wishes to distinguish himself from the herd drinking Carling or John Smith’s Extra Smooth.

And the PBA sector is not directly championed at all by CAMRA (except in the sense that most of the beers have cask equivalents) and also, except in its more esoteric manifestations, rarely features on beer blogs either. Yet this is one of the fastest-growing segments of the beer market. Where do customers get the information as to what to buy, and what to avoid? Certainly not from any self-declared beer enthusiasts. I’ve more than once heard PBAs referred to as “real ales”, which indicates there is a widespread perception that they are the take-home equivalent of cask beers in the pub.

There are also a growing number of successful cask micro-breweries that have achieved wide distribution without any significant championing from the enthusiast community, Otter being a good example. Good branding and sales practices must be important factors, but isn’t another brewing an accessible range of ales in the classic British tradition that are never going to steal the show, but equally reliably deliver what they promise?

Saturday 20 October 2012

Festival fever

In the past, CAMRA seemed to have a monopoly on beer festivals but, more recently, they seem to have been springing up all over the place, run by pubs and a variety of independent organisations. In one sense this has to be seen as a good thing in widening the appreciation of beer. But, on the other hand, isn’t it a further symptom of beer drinking increasingly being seen as a “special occasion” activity rather than a regular part of everyday life? And I know some people for whom beer festivals have largely replaced routine pubgoing.

It used to be thought that attending a beer festival would have a wider effect in informing people’s choice of beer in their local pub. But, more and more, it has become an end in itself. It wouldn’t surprise me if there were people who happily jugged back craft ales at the Stockport beer festival, but in their Robbies’ local continued drinking Carling or Guinness.

Buy one, get none free

In the latest step on the long march to Prohibition, the government have announced that they are going to ban discounts for multiple purchases of alcoholic drinks. The article describes this in the context of wine, but of course it will also affect all those 4 for £6 offers on premium bottled ales, and 3 for £20 on slabs of Carling.

This is presented as a way of reducing overall consumption, as it is argued that these offers encourage people to buy and drink more than they otherwise would have. But surely, for most people, it is simply a case of buying in advance in a planned and cost-effective way. And it marks a move away from simply targeting identifiable “problem drinkers” to ordinary, responsible members of society who just happen to drink a bit more than the absurdly low and scientifically groundless official guidelines.

It will also adversely affect the business of small independent brewers and winemakers, as you might well be tempted to make up a multibuy with an unfamiliar bottle, but if you have to pay full price for everything you are more likely to stick to the tried and trusted. And retailers won’t just sit back and do nothing – inevitably they will come up with different forms of promotion concentrating on varying single-product discounts.

A similar ban has been in force in Scotland for a year. There were initial reports of a substantial fall in sales, but that was probably mainly due to people stocking up before it came in. Can any Scottish readers comment on how retailers have responded to it a year down the line?

You might hope there would be something of a backlash against this from the Conservatives’ and LibDems’ natural supporters stocking up their car boots at Waitrose, but it is perennially disappointing how supinely people seem to take all this bullying nonsense. It seems they have been conned into thinking it is all for their own good, when in reality it represents a relentless erosion of their freedoms. Don’t expect the official opposition to do anything either – their response is more likely to be that the measures don’t go far enough.

And just wait for the divide-and-rule dupes saying that it will help pubs compete against supermarkets on a more level playing field.

Thursday 18 October 2012

Release your inner tramp

There were an impressive 131 responses to my survey on which high strength or “problem” drinks people had consumed, and some interesting results.

Carlsberg Special was, predictably, the winner, although with Gold Label a surprisingly strong second and Tennent’s Super third. Possibly many of the Gold Label responses came from memories of drinking it in nip bottles in pubs many years ago, when it was a stonking 10.5% ABV rather than the current watery 7.5%.

Buckfast Tonic Wine was last, although I don’t think it’s widely available outside Scotland. Just over a third had never tried any of them.

I suspect if the question had been “which have you drunk in the past year?” the positive numbers would have been far lower. However, it does show that “responsible drinkers” – which, of course, you all are – do at least occasionally toy with these products.

Maybe next I need to ask the same question about Old Tom, Duvel, Chimay and Hardcore IPA.

Social cleansing rebuffed

Last year I reported how celebrity chef Marco Pierre White had run into trouble with the locals in his attempt to take the Angel in Lavenham, Suffolk, upmarket.

Now it seems he’s encountered similar problems at the Rainbow in Cooksbridge, East Sussex, and has had to admit defeat.

As part of the relaunch the traditional pub was taken upmarket to look more like a dining room, with dark walls and tables with white tablecloths. It also had a “cosy bar” ripped out to make way for the dining tables.

The menu was changed to include dishes such as poussin à la chipolatas and pomme fondant, and the pub changed its name to Wheeler’s of St James’s at The Rainbow.

However locals were upset that the traditional pub atmosphere had disappeared.

After less than a year of trading the pub’s owners have now parted company with Pierre White and are turning the building back into a traditional pub.

Alf Turnbull, a 67-year-old drinker at the pub, said that locals wanted simple pub food.

“People do not want posh nosh just simple English pub food cooked to a decent standard.

"I could not pronounce half the things on Marco's menu let alone eat them,” said Mr Turnbull.

To be honest, anyone who does things like that to pubs should be strung up from a lamppost by a mob of angry yokels with torches and pitchforks. Only joking, folks...

Wednesday 17 October 2012

You lookin’ at my bird?

When discussing the irritating behaviour of small children in pubs, the point is often made that adults, whether drunk or sober, can be far worse. While, in extremis, this is undoubtedly true, I have to say it is something that I seldom personally encounter.

While I freely admit that I am rarely to be found in pubs at the rougher end of the spectrum late at night, it is vanishingly rare that I see “bad” behaviour from adults. Maybe some overloud cheering from sports fans, or an old boy who’s had one too many attempting to croon a song, but never anything like running madly around the pub, jumping on and off seats or fighting. Adults, even if a bit inebriated, generally know how to control themselves. And any adult who decided to shout at the top of his voice for a prolonged period would be swiftly ejected.

Plus it must be years since I have personally been the target of insulting or threatening behaviour in pubs. Maybe this is more likely when you are of a broadly similar age to the perpetrators, and once you become identifiably just another middle-aged bloke you tend to blend into the background.

Tuesday 16 October 2012

There but for the grace of God...

I can’t say the thought has never entered my mind:

Angry drinker poured half a pint of ale over 'grizzling' toddler because the noise disturbed his lunch

And, surprise surprise, it was in a branch of Spoons.

There’s quite a lot of sympathy in the comments, too.

Sunday 14 October 2012

Casketeer or crafterati?

Which are you? What do you think of some of the most popular cask beers in Britain? Is cask good, or only some cask? Are popular beers always bad? Take the survey here.

Scottish minimum pricing shelved

The Scotsman

"Plans to introduce minimum pricing on alcohol in Scotland have been postponed indefinitely by ministers as a result of a growing legal challenge to the controversial move."


I'll break out a bottle of McEwan's Export to celebrate.

And surely this shelves it in England and Wales too until the legal issues are resolved.

Edit 22/10/12: and confirmation today from neo-Prohibitionist fake Tory Dr Sarah Wollaston that minimum pricing has been kicked into the long grass south of the border by legal challenges.

Craft excluder

The vexed question of What is craft beer? has recently raised its head again in the beer blogosphere. However, something that strikes me about so much of what is touted as “craft beer” in the UK, is that it is in some way “extreme”, in one or more of strength, flavour, ingredients and pricing. It seems to have become the chosen label for beer élitism, for something that will only be appreciated by the cognoscenti, and that is beyond the understanding of the Carling-swilling hoi polloi. Any conception that beer needs to be accessible, or should be quaffable in social situations, has gone by the board.

One of the key features of the original “real ale revolution” was that it was fundamentally democratic, that it was saying some of the finest beers in Britain, if not it the world, could be, and indeed were, routinely enjoyed by everyday drinkers in ordinary pubs. But “craft beer” stands this on its head and says that beer nirvana can only be found in the strong, expensive, obscure and uncompromisingly flavoured. It is a cult of beer snobs. If any brewer’s products become popular and start to sell in large volumes, it is inevitably decried as having sold out.

“Craft beer” is a term that originated in the USA, and its application to this country’s beer scene has always been somewhat controversial and questionable. However, if we extrapolate the US understanding (and I know the two countries are very different in terms of their beer markets), we would say that, effectively, all cask beer and all premium bottled ales were craft. But I don’t think the typical crafterati would agree.

Maybe a “craft beer enthusiast” could be defined as someone whose idea of perfect hell was having to spend the entire evening in a Donnington pub serving just BB and SBA. But Donnington must be one of the most “artisanal” (in the true sense of the term) breweries in the country.

Saturday 13 October 2012

Premium positioning

If you’re reading this blog, the odds are that you haven’t drunk any McEwan’s Export recently. Although apparently it is the UK’s Number 3 premium ale brand in the off-trade, until recently it has only been available in cans, thus keeping it off the radar of the “discerning beer drinker”. It also used to be a popular keg beer, and still is north of the Border, but I can’t say I’ve seen it on the bar of an English pub for years.

The McEwan’s and Younger’s ale brands, originally owned by Scottish & Newcastle, were sold by Heineken UK to Wells & Youngs this time last year, and they have now decided to launch McEwan’s Export in 500ml bottles to compete in the premium bottled ale sector, which is a growth market and commands considerably higher margins than cans. They claim that the recipe is identical to the canned version, and the bottle still has the distinctive McEwan’s cavalier logo. It was £1.89 a bottle or 4 for £6 in Morrison’s.

With a strength of 4.5% ABV, it’s dark mahogany in colour, with a fair amount of carbonation and a lasting head. The taste, to be honest, is much like I remember from my last sampling of a can – that distinctive Scottish full-bodied maltiness, with little hop character but a definite dry underpinning that prevents it from being cloyingly sweet. Not perhaps my favourite style of beer, but one I appreciate from time to time. I prefer Caledonian 80/-, though. I believe McEwan’s is actually brewed at the Caledonian brewery in Edinburgh.

Is it any good? Well, it has a distinctive flavour which won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I don’t see that it’s intrinsically any worse than the other big hitters in the PBA sector. And it’s an interesting example of how the perception of a product can be altered just by changing the packaging.

Friday 12 October 2012

Below cost challenge

It’s almost an item of faith amongst people who subscribe to the “supermarkets are killing pubs” hypothesis that the supermarkets are routinely selling alcoholic drinks below cost, and indeed often below the aggregate of duty and VAT on duty.

However, Tesco and ASDA aren’t stupid, and they’re not realistically going to be selling what is probably the biggest single item in most people’s shop at a loss. Yes, they often have very keen prices, but the key factor behind that is driving a hard bargain with their suppliers.

As stated by Chris Snowdon here:

This blog has always maintained that supermarkets selling alcohol below cost-price is a myth dreamt up by the temperance lobby to feed the tabloid hysteria over binge-drinking. I have looked far and wide for examples of below-cost selling happening in practice and—aside from a few products being discounted because they're approaching their 'best before' date—have never found any.
He goes on to quote Richard Dodd of the British Retail Consortium saying:
“if you just stop and think about it for a minute, no business could survive - let alone thrive - if it was routinely selling large amounts of product at less than it was actually paying for it.”
So, here’s a challenge. If you believe that supermarkets really do sell alcohol below the cost of duty and VAT, find me a real-world example in one of your local stores.

For reference, the price for a 440ml can of Carling is 41p, for a 70cl bottle of 37.5% vodka £8.45.

Interestingly, the other day I spotted a “special offer” in my local Tesco - four cans of Carling for £3.50. That’s about 50p per unit. So the supermarkets are flogging dirt-cheap alcohol, are they?

Thursday 11 October 2012

Get the state off the plate

As well as the piece about parental drinking I linked to a couple of days ago, there’s another excellent article on Sp!ked this week by Rob Lyons about the increasing tendency of the authorities to seek to dictate people’s diets:

Underneath all the dubious scientific claims about food and ill health, there is an instinct among lobby groups, the medical profession, civil servants and politicians to regulate what we do in minute detail. We cannot be trusted, it seems, with even the most mundane decisions about our lives. The existence of prohibitionists and petty control freaks is not new, of course. But the fact that governments now enthusiastically support such groups is a fairly recent development. In the past, politicians would have recognised that some areas were out of bounds for state intervention, and might even have believed, on principle, that maintaining autonomy was the proper thing to do. Now, the lifestyle micromanagers are pushing at an open door to the corridors of power.

Pals when it suits

Apparently there are plans to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in the forthcoming Scottish independence referendum, a proposal regarded with some scorn by Jackart here. However, young voters may care to recall that only a couple of years ago there were serious plans to raise the minimum drinking age in Scotland from 18 to 21. It seems that Salmond is happy to woo them when he wants their votes, but at other times is quite prepared to take away their rights. The stench of hypocrisy is overpowering.

Mind you, if the Scots decide to vote for independence, they will be able to have all the minimum pricing, duty rises, border controls and age restrictions they like. But it will make the whisky industry, which would become the country’s biggest export earner, look increasingly like one of those US Bourbon distilleries operating in a dry county in Kentucky or Tennessee.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Calling time on duty fraud

Here we go again – alcohol smuggling is a major problem, so we need to crack down on it. How many times have we heard that before? Just a bit more police attention, just one more heave, and it will be sorted. No it won’t, just as US Prohibition was never sorted by official crackdowns, and neither has the “war on drugs”. As long as there is a glaring disparity between UK and Continental duty rates, smuggling and duty fraud will continue. The solution is in your own hands, politicians. While I’m no fan of the EU, surely this is one area where a move towards harmonisation would be hugely beneficial.

Seldom seen things

Compiling the list of “pubby” features spurred me on to put together a list of things that were once commonplace in pubs, but which are rarely if ever seen nowadays:
  • Fish tanks
  • Blokes coming round selling cockles and mussels
  • Electric diaphragm pumps
  • Ashtrays
  • Upright pianos
  • Bottles of pale and brown ale
  • People drinking “splits” such as light and bitter
  • Premium kegs such as Double Diamond and Worthington E
  • Carlsberg-style straight sided tankards
  • Babycham and Cherry B
  • Nip bottles of barley wine
  • Wrought-iron “features” dividing different sections*
  • Little bags of “cheese and biscuits” alongside the peanuts
  • Jars of pickled eggs
  • A glass case at the end of the bar containing stale cheese and ham rolls
  • Chicken or scampi in a basket
  • Plain triangular sandwiches made of sliced bread
  • Retired military pub bores (in fact pub bores in general seem to be an endangered species)
  • Outside toilets

  • Customers (hides)
Any further suggestions?

* there’s one of these in the Tiviot in Stockport, which in many respects is like stepping back into the 1950s

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Not in front of the children

The latest instalment of the seemingly never-ending tide of hysteria about alcohol is a report by the charity 4Children entitled Over the Limit: The Truth About Families and Alcohol which:

warns of a silent epidemic of alcohol misuse by British families. The report warns that too many parents remain oblivious to the negative effects that alcohol can have on their parenting. An alarming 19% believe alcohol has a positive effect on their parenting ability and 62% of parents say that their drinking behaviour has no impact on their family at all.
This is firmly rebutted here by Tim Black, who points out that alcohol consumption in Britain has now fallen to its lowest level for 13 years.
Furthermore, according to The Economist, supping rates have veritably plummeted among the young over the past 10 years. That is, the very people deemed to be vomiting and fighting at the coalface of binge-drink Britannia don’t actually seem to be drinking that much. ‘In 2003’, reports The Economist, ‘70 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds told interviewers they had had a drink in the previous week; by 2010, just 48 per cent had. The proportion of 11- to 15-year-olds who had drunk in the previous week halved over the same period. Heavy drinking sessions are down, too.’
It would appear that the problem is already rapidly subsiding even while the moral panic is ramped up to ever higher levels. But, he points out, the more that alcohol is denormalised and taken out of everyday life, the more the social restraints and rituals that led to it being consumed responsibly will be eroded.
Ironically, given the way in which 4Children is using kids to bully parents into changing their ways, it is likely to be future generations who will be most affected by our increasingly uncertain relationship with alcohol. The normal ways in which young people’s alcohol habits are cultivated, perhaps through a glass of wine with one’s parents, or a pint down the pub with mum or dad, are being rendered abnormal, harmful even. Without older generations to mediate younger generations’ relationship with booze, youthful drinking habits are likely to become more infantile. Which is perhaps apt given the fact that adults are no longer considered capable enough to decide when, where and how much they drink.


There has recently been a lively discussion on the CAMRA forum (registration required, although viewable by non-members) about the merits and demerits of J. D. Wetherspoon. Now, while you can’t argue with Wetherspoons’ success, one charge that is often levelled against their establishments is that they’re not, well, very “pubby”.

Pubbiness is one of those things that you recognise when you come across it, but is impossible to define precisely. However, I offer the following as a few suggestions as to what might make somewhere “pubby”:

  • At least some bench-type seating
  • Some feeling of intimacy – broken up into distinct areas even if largely open-plan
  • Customers who regularly come in for a social drink, even if just once a week
  • Geezers standing or sitting at the bar
  • Hosts sports teams and social events
  • Real fires in winter
  • Pub pets – dogs and cats
  • Cards pinned up behind the bar with nuts and other snacks
  • Pictures and memorabilia unique to that pub
  • Pub games – darts, pool, bar billiards etc
  • Jukebox
  • Bar staff who don’t wear uniforms and some of whom are over 25
  • A noticeboard advertising local businesses and events
If you have any other ideas, please mention them in the comments.

And two things that to my mind instantly make a pub feel unpubby are place-settings on tables and uniformed bar staff.

But of course the key point about “pubbiness” is that it’s something that develops naturally over time – you can’t install it ready-made from a checklist.

Many years ago I tried to define the characteristics of my ideal pub, but, as I said there, “unfortunately, though, I suspect you'd find you did all these worthy things and no bugger would turn up!” And one, of course, is now illegal...

(incidentally, one point on the list above contradicts one on that webpage, but I don’t have to actually like everything that makes somewhere pubby)

Monday 8 October 2012

Defending the indefensible?

The great H. L. Mencken once said “The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one's time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.” This is something that is very true in standing up for pretty much any aspect of lifestyle freedom.

The Independent newspaper recently seems to have specialised in bansturbatory hysteria, and a particularly egregious example is this: Special report: Super-strength lager ‘causing more harm than crack or heroin’. It is, predictably, full of the usual exaggerations, half-truths and downright lies, such as:

  • Alcohol is half the price it was in the 1980s – no, in terms of the RPI, it’s actually dearer, on average

  • You can buy a can of super-strength lager for just over £1 – you’ll struggle to get one much below £1.50, I think

  • Making the duty on a pack of four cans £1 – wrong again. The duty is more like £4. £1 was the increase resulting from High Strength Beer Duty.

  • Tesco and Sainsbury's sell four cans of Special Brew or Tennent's Super for £7.09, making them and bottles of white cider the cheapest route to oblivion – nope. There’s still plenty of cheap wine around for £2.99 a bottle, and two of those will contain just as many alcohol units. Not to mention cheap vodka.
The article also states with faux horror that “a single can contains more alcohol than the recommended daily maximum”, when every time a couple in a comfortable home share a bottle of wine and finish the bottle one or both of them also exceed that figure. Is the Independent going to be campaigning for a switch to a standard 500ml wine bottle size?

But, you may say, surely super lagers are products of little intrinsic merit, whose prime selling point is just their strength, and which are disproportionately consumed by problem drinkers. They would be no great loss. Maybe not, but, apart from the strength, is Special Brew any worse a product than the standard 3.8% Carlsberg lager? And it really isn’t possible to construct a coherent intellectual case that the cognoscenti of craft should be allowed to drink very strong beers, at a price, but the irresponsible plebs shouldn’t be.

Plus, as I argued here, these products were adopted as favourites of problem drinkers, they weren’t originally created for that market. And the dividing line between “good” and “bad” strong beers is by no means as a clear-cut as many might imagine. What about this, which in my view is lovely stuff, but at 6.3% ABV is 70% of the way to a can of Spesh? Deprived of super lagers, the tramps would just move on to something else.

So, as Mencken said, if you want to defend the right to enjoy Duvel, and Hardcore IPA, and Old Tom, then you need to defend the right to produce and consume super lagers.

Although I can’t help thinking that, as a sensible defensive move, it might make sense for Carlsberg to switch these beers to 330ml cans. They could even give Special Brew a bit of a “craft” makeover while they’re at it.

Sunday 7 October 2012

Smoked curry

The Manchester Evening News reports that the growth of shisha bars is crowding out the existing restaurants on Rusholme’s famous “Curry Mile”. There are now 28 Shisha bars along the famous road, it says, but just 12 sit-down curry houses left. Well, so what, society changes and moves on, and it was always on the cards that, as soon as the “Curry Mile” started being promoted as a tourist attraction in its own right, it would begin to decline. Many of the comments say, in effect, that it’s no longer what it was.

There are also complaints that “some of the shisha bars are allowing customers to flout the smoking ban and illegally smoke shisha indoors.” Good luck to them – I certainly wouldn’t want the City Council to devote any further scarce resources to mounting a crackdown. But you can’t help thinking that, if it had been pubs allowing indoor smoking, they would have been down on them like a ton of bricks.

Saturday 6 October 2012

A crown of spoons

Interesting news that Wetherspoon’s have bought the former Kings “bar and lounge” in Poynton, Cheshire and are currently in the process of refurbishing it, with a view to opening on Tuesday 18 December. This was a former Greenalls pub called the Kingfisher, probably dating back to the 1960s, which went through a variety of “trendy bar” incarnations before finally closing last year. The photo, taken in January this year, shows it in “tinned up” state.

Poynton is a large and fairly prosperous commuter village that only has one other pub and one bar in the centre, so there is obvious potential for trade. However, as I have pointed out before, Wetherspoon’s business model is very much targeted on sites with a lot of pre-existing footfall, and they have tended to avoid locations such as this where a substantial proportion of customers would be expected to arrive by car.

However, they have shown signs of tentative expansion into more suburban locations, such as their acquisition last year of the Gateway in East Didsbury, so it will be interesting to see how this one goes. At the same time, Joseph Holt have just bought the monumental Fiveways at the southern end of Hazel Grove, a couple of miles up the road, from Spirit Group. This was also originally a Greenalls pub. Do I foresee a bit of rivalry between the two?

More to come?

According to a report by CGA Strategy, the UK’s pub and bar sector will lose another 5,000 sites by 2017, and beer volume will decline by 7.1%. Now, that may sound a depressing prospect, but actually it’s considerably better than the previous five years, during which over 10,000 pubs have been lost, and on-trade beer volumes in the five years to June 2012 (i.e. going back to the last quarter before the you-know-what) have fallen, according to the BBPA, by a whacking 26%.

If anything, I’d say those predictions were a tad optimistic, especially the one for beer volumes. Realistically, the tide of anti-alcohol sentiment in society and official policy is likely, if anything, to intensify, and that will continue to be reflected in a reduced enthusiasm for drinking alcohol, especially in public spaces. The rate of decline may not be as steep as over the past five years, but there is no sign of things bottoming out.

Friday 5 October 2012

A pub of two sides

Martyn Cornell recently made an interesting post on his Zythophile blog entitled Shades, dives and other varieties of British bar about the way over the years different sections of pubs have been put to different uses and attracted different social groups. One significant change that has taken place during my drinking career is the large-scale elimination of the division between public and saloon or lounge bars. There was a time when many would sneer at “one-bar pubs” that had been “knocked through”, but now it is very much the rule rather than the exception.

Having said that, there are still a number of pubs around here that retain the division and where it continues to work pretty much as intended. The risk is, of course, if you remove the distinction the traditional vault customers end up colonising the lounge. Very often, nowadays, that distinction between types of customers exists between pubs, rather than within pubs.

Until the early 1970s, when it was abolished by the Heath government, there was official price control of public bar prices, which led to a price differential between bar and lounge sides, although I suspect that owed as much to custom and practice as to legislation *. In many pubs, this differential persisted for many years afterwards, although as far as I know it has entirely disappeared now. Having said that, in the comments to the post I linked to above, one person mentions it still applies in the Fox & Goose in Kingswinford near Dudley. Does anyone know of anywhere else? I would suggest other Banks’s pub in the West Midlands would be the most likely candidates. A little bit of investigation reveals that the Fox & Goose, like many other similar pubs, is now a Tesco Express.

Indeed, in my experience, the separation of public and lounge sides was probably strongest in the Midlands. In many of the characteristic inter-wars roadhouses and estate pubs, the prominent door in the centre would lead into the public bar, with a long bar counter facing you, and the lounge was accessed by a separate door at the side. In the 1980s, Banks’s built a number of new pubs in the Manchester area with entirely separate Midlands-style public bars that didn’t really suit the local trade, and which ended up being converted to one bar (and, in some cases like the Milestone in Burnage, demolished after a career of less than twenty years). This layout also applied on a smaller scale in the famous Ma Pardoe’s (Old Swan) home-brew pub in Netherton near Dudley.

On the other hand, many pubs in the North had a central bar and lobby with various rooms radiating off so, while one room had an obvious “vault” or “tap-room” character, it wasn’t as if there were two entirely separate zones. A common plan was to have a vault on one or other side of the central door, with a long bar counter, and other rooms accessed by going straight ahead and served by a hatch to one side of the bar. This can still be seen in the Plough in Gorton and also in the Waterloo in Stockport, although in the latter, strangely, the roles of the two areas have been reversed.

* I’m too young to remember this, but surely if public bar prices were controlled, but you could get out of the restriction by turning all your pub into a lounge bar, everyone would have been doing it, and it would have been a gaping hole in the legislation. Or was it that scrapping the restriction gave pub owners a new incentive to knock them through?

Thursday 4 October 2012

Are children the new pub bores?

I have to say this recent piece by Oliver Pritchett in the Telegraph about Dave and Boris having “peace talks” in a pub very much struck a chord:

Children in pubs are now part of the traditional British Sunday, along with those mountainous Yorkshire puddings, which come with absolutely everything, including the vegetarian option. The highchairs are brought out, the doors are thrown wide open to welcome the double buggies, and the babies are passed round the table with the horseradish sauce and wholegrain mustard. The bar staff are good-natured and unflinching.

All this makes life a lot easier for parents than it was when we used to crouch with our children in a drizzly pub garden with a broken swing. But it means the Sunday lunchtime pub is no place for unaccompanied adults, who are likely to feel much less at ease than all the little Archies and Jessicas around them

I am sure that the Cameron and Johnson offspring are beautifully behaved and good company, but if the Prime Minister and the mayor wanted to hold serious talks about Heathrow and all that, they would have done better to get a couple of bottles of ginger beer and a straw each and stand outside. They would then just have to put up with the quiet coughing of the smokers.

You could die of thirst in here!

In a move branded as ‘bizarre’, Westminster City Council have demanded that the Newman Arms serve its customers more slowly in an attempt to prevent excessive numbers congregating on the pavement outside the pub. Apparently the licensees put the idea forward as a joke, but the council took them up on their suggestion.

Presumably they will welcome more branches of J. D. Wetherspoon opening up on their patch, then...

Wednesday 3 October 2012

Micro pubs, micro prospects?

There has been a lot of talk about the supposedly burgeoning micropub movement, and apparently the CAMRA quarterly magazine Beer is going to be doing a feature on them in its next issue.

However, from counting the numbers on that page, there seems to be a grand total of six, of which four are in Kent, so it can’t exactly be said to be a movement that is sweeping the country. And, at a time when the traditional small, wet-led, adults-only, drink and chat pub has been in headlong retreat for a couple of decades, is that really going to be a model for success and expansion, nice as the thought might be?

There also seems to be a strong streak of living in the past about the whole thing. Refusing to serve lager harks back to the blinkered attitudes of the 1970s, while the comments of Martin Hillier of the Butcher’s Arms as quoted here that:

“I used to do red and white wine but it confused the ladies," Hillier says. "They'd start asking what red wine it was, and I'm not here to sell wine. So now it's just white wine. Simpler that way.”
come across as distinctly sexist and patronising. Indeed the views of the licensee of the Just Beer in Newark, who refuses to sell lemonade as it’s “the slippery slope to shandy” could be regarded as irresponsible.

Mind you, there is one activity that, if permitted solely in micropubs, might cause an astonishing surge in their popularity...

Lies, damn lies and Sheffield University research

A few weeks ago, the BBC screened an episode of Panorama entitled Old, Drunk and Disorderly?, taking a predictably hysterical line towards levels of drinking amongst older people. It was presented by no less than the erstwhile “thinking man’s crumpet” Joan Bakewell (who incidentally originally hails from Stockport). I was away at the time and so did not see it or comment on it.

This programme made the somewhat surprising claim, apparently based on research by Sheffield University, that imposing a minimum alcohol price of 50p per unit would, over a ten-year period, save the lives of no less than 50,000 older people in England. When the total of deaths wholly or mainly attributable to alcohol amongst all age groups is running at about 7,000 a year in England, such a figure is hard to believe, to say the least.

This was challenged by a member of the public and, after investigation, it turned out that the original figure had been overstated by more than four times. The actual figure, based on the research, was more like 11,500. This led to the following embarrassing retraction on the the BBC website:

Correction 28 September 2012: The main figure in this story has been amended from 50,000 to 11,500 after it emerged that there had been an error in the calculations carried out for Panorama by the School of Health and Related Research at the University of Sheffield.
Apparently Ms Bakewell is also going to be called in to re-record the relevant sections of the programme for BBC iPlayer.

It doesn’t say much for the standards of journalistic rigour practised at the BBC nowadays that such a self-evidently questionable claim was allowed to pass without challenge. And, given that an error of this magnitude managed to get through the system of academic peer review, what credence can we give to any of the research produced by the University of Sheffield that is being used to support the case for minimum pricing?

Even 1,150 a year seems a questionable figure based on broad-brush assumptions. That is a sixth of the annual total and, while alcohol consumption per head has fallen by more than 20% over the past eight years, there has not been a commensurate reduction in the death rate, so to claim such a fall as a likely consequence of the policy demands a large leap of the imagination.

The truth is that, as it has never been tried, we simply do not know what the impact would be, and it is well-known that across-the-board reductions in average consumption are not necessarily reflected equally amongst all categories of drinkers. I would guess that, in practice, it would be hard to discern any significant variation from existing trends.

It also seems that the older generation are increasingly being portrayed as irresponsible bad boys (and girls) in the media. As well as alcohol, within the past couple of months I’ve seen the typical scare stories about them engaging in unprotected sex and taking illegal drugs, and it can’t be too long before we see similar reports about them eating junk food, “continuing to smoke” and engaging in risky driving behaviour. You get the impression that many would prefer the over-sixties to sit quietly in the old folks’ home, listening to Max Bygraves, eating grey slurry and waiting patiently for death.

Tuesday 2 October 2012

The Good Spoons Guide

In the recent discussion about Good Beer Guide selections in Falmouth, the point came up as to whether there was any point in putting Wetherspoon’s pubs in the book, so I thought I would ask people the question. As can be seen from the poll on the right, the answer was a clear “Yes”, with 72% saying they should be treated just the same as any other pub.

However, personally I have to say I have some sympathy for the bottom two options, as Wetherspoon’s pubs are so homogenous in terms of menu, general ambiance and even the sort of beer range that is offered, that it’s a case of “seen one, seen them all”. This is not to say I wouldn’t use them, but I doubt that many people would go out of their way to visit one rather than another, as they might with an individually-run pub of character. And does the presence of a Spoons pub in the Guide indicate more the lack of local competition than the fact that it actually keeps its beer better than those that aren’t included?