Saturday 29 December 2012

Halcyon days in Poynton?

I wrote here about how Wetherspoon’s had bought the former Kings Bar and Lounge in Poynton and were busy working on it with a view to opening on Tuesday 18 December, reverting to the pub’s original name of the Kingfisher. Well, that deadline was achieved, so I popped in to have a look.

It originally opened as a Greenall’s pub in 1959, and has the typical sprawling, low-built style of estate pubs of that era. There’s a plaque inside the door with some information about the pub’s history. Untypically for the Wetherspoon’s estate, it has a small car park, maybe with about 20 spaces, which was completely full shortly after noon.

I never visited it in its previous incarnation, so I don’t know if the layout has changed at all, but it’s largely open-plan, with a long bar counter down the right-hand side, a raised seating area to the left, and an odd windowless area with a skylight full of chairs and tables right in the middle. The toilets, in typical Wetherspoon fashion, are upstairs, which I doubt was an original feature.

The food and drink are the standard Wetherspoon offer, with ten handpumps on the bar and guest beers of up to 6.0% priced at £2.09. Interestingly, in view of my previous posting, amongst the beers on the bar was Harviestoun Schiehallion craft lager on keg. Some, but not all, of the food prices were a little higher than Stockport and Didsbury.

The interior design is unashamedly modernistic, and to my eye more resembles a modern upmarket McDonalds than a traditional pub. The colour scheme is predominantly pastel, the floors are bare wood or lino with geometric patterns, and many of the chairs are tubular steel rather than wood. The only bench seating is one stretch right at the far end, and there’s no shortage of high-level posing tables. It was also, on this particular visit, heated to an uncomfortable level, with a fierce downdraught of hot air right in front of the bar counter.

There’s an extensive discussion on the Poynton web forum here, and some photos here which give a reasonable impression of the interior. Like all Spoons, it does what it says on the can, and no doubt they have researched the potential marketplace thoroughly and it will prove a success. However, as a place to have a drink or a meal, I didn’t personally find it remotely congenial. Other Spoons, such as the Gateway, have a much more “pubby” feel to them.

Friday 28 December 2012

Complements of the season

Over the years I have been consistently critical of the dogmatic “real ale good, keg beer bad” attitude but, on the other hand, I have seen precious little evidence of “craft keg” breaking out of the beer bubble and getting into mainstream outlets.

The dinosaur view that nothing that isn’t real ale is worth drinking remains surprisingly common even now. You can see it, for example, in the postings of Richard “chemical fizz” English on the CAMRA forum, and only this month there was a letter in our local CAMRA magazine Opening Times from a prominent local member saying “I would hope that Opening Times will in future drop the ‘craft keg’ and call keg beer ‘keg’ in whatever form it is marketed (treating it with disapproval rather than tacit acquiescence)”.

In contrast, many of the proponents of craft keg, most notably BrewDog, seem to see it as a stick to beat CAMRA with for being fuddy-duddy and out-of-touch. There’s a blogpost here from Hardknott Dave in which he – I think deliberately provocatively – portrays keg as the dispense method of the future for craft beers.

There’s an interesting article by Peter Jackson in the January issue of the CAMRA newspaper What’s Brewing discussing ways of attracting younger drinkers, in which he points out the negative stereotype of real ale as a drink for middle-aged men with beards, and concludes:

CAMRA should take new craft keg on board and regard it as a friend rather than the spawn of Satan: it’s often innovative, good stuff with its heart in the right place; we drink it in Belgium, Bavaria and Prague and think it can be great. So why not embrace it here, see it for what it is, a bridge to the real thing?
There are various reasons why pubs and bars might want to stock craft keg beers
  • They are venues such as small hotels, social clubs and music venues where turnover is low and/or erratic
  • They want to offer a wider choice of unusual beers which may not sell in the volumes necessary for cask
  • They want to cater for drinkers who want a beer served colder than is traditional for cask
  • They want to put a toe in the water of offering a more “interesting” beer without committing themselves to selling twenty or more pints a day of it
But, on the other hand, thirty or forty years ago, the discerning beer drinkers of Britain decisively plumped for cask over keg ale on the grounds that, when properly looked after, it was quite simply better. They wouldn’t have continued buying real ale if it actually had been warm vinegary muck. The argument that now, across the board, keg is “better” doesn’t really wash.

All of this suggests that craft keg is something that, in the overall marketplace, should complement cask beer rather than being its direct rival. It can bring good beer to places where cask cannot reach. To my mind, it will always remain a niche product, and the large majority of decent ale served on draught in British pubs will continue to be cask. And, as I’ve said before, the big opportunity for British micros to expand keg sales may well lie in lager rather than in ale.

Thursday 27 December 2012

A cheesy gift

As someone known to have an interest in beer, over the years I’ve received my fair share of rather naff beer-related Christmas gifts. Possibly the worst was a set of four “Great British Ales”, in 275 ml bottles, three brewed by Ridgeway Brewery, the other being Elgood’s Black Dog, with strengths of 3.0%, 3.2%, 3.6% and 4.0%. Whoever got away with charging a fiver for that made a mint. And, while I’ve never received one myself, I’m sure in the past I’ve seen one of “Lagers of the World” including both Fosters and Stella. This isn’t much better – and I think all four are British-brewed.

However, I thought this gift pack of Lancashire cheese and ale which I received this year was actually very decent. Traditional farmhouse Lancashire cheese together with a couple of decent beers from a Lancashire family brewery, and oatcakes and chutney, is a good combination. In many ways the ideal gift is something that will be appreciated by the recipient, but which they wouldn’t have bought themselves, and this fitted the bill perfectly.

Gill Hall, third generation cheese maker at Butlers said of the new product, “Lancashire has a rich foodie heritage and we wanted to create a gift that showcased this. All our cheeses are made from milk from local farms so we chose to match it with two local ales that complement the soft, open texture of our traditional creamy Lancashire with their complex flavours. Cheese and beer make an excellent pairing so we hope people will enjoy this special Christmas gift!”

Sunday 23 December 2012

Enemy within the gates

A comment by Phil alerted me to the dubious delights of CAMRA’s Nottingham Drinker magazine:

I've just got back from Nottingham, where I had a pretty foul pint of flabby, metallic-tasting beer while reading the local CAMRA magazine - which featured a column applauding the decision to bar a local offie from selling anything over 6.5%. The enemy is already within the gates, I fear. (Other odd features of the mag included what appeared to be a regular column contributed by the local police. I was glad to get back to Opening Times-land.).
Further investigation reveals that, not only does the magazine include a column from the police, it also includes one from an anti-drink pressure group. See here to download the latest issue.
News from Suffolk: The local Police, fed up with ‘offies’ selling super-strength cider and lager to known nuisance characters, are encouraging the offies to stock nothing above 6.5% ABV. It is a voluntary scheme, with a slow take up, but it is a positive step towards dealing with the products that are associated with most of the problems. Responsible drinkers will be heartened by this news and we look forward to seeing the scheme adopted locally.
Oh, sorry, I had a bottle of Duvel (8.5% ABV) the other day which I bought from Tesco on a 3 for 2 offer. Apparently I am not a responsible drinker and don’t feel in the slightest degree “heartened”.

In what weird and perverted world do those who claim to stand up for pubs, beer drinkers and breweries see it as in any way sensible to give a mouthpiece to those who abhor all those things? Has Nottingham CAMRA somehow been infiltrated and taken over by the anti-drink lobby?

And, of course, the police are no friends of pubs either.

To his credit, the editor of our local CAMRA magazine Opening Times will have no truck with such appeasing nonsense.

Saturday 22 December 2012

Smoked out

In the days of the old licensing laws, the “lock-in” where a pub continued serving after hours to a group of favoured customers was commonplace, and was often carried out with the full knowledge of the local police, if they were confident no trouble would result.

With the liberalisation of licensing hours, that probably happens much less often now but, following the 2007 smoking ban, it has been replaced by the “smoke-in”, where the doors are shut and the ashtrays come out. Various comments over the past five years have suggested this is very widespread.

But, apparently, Bolton Council see it as a priority to clamp down on such outrages.

Lesley O’Reilly, who is landlady of the Gilnow Arms in Deane, has been fined £500 and ordered to pay a further £510 in costs and surcharge after pleading guilty to failing to prevent smoking inside the pub.

Speaking after she was sentenced at Bolton Magistrates’ Court yesterday, Ms Reilly said: “I really think they have killed the trade with this law.

“Why can’t we give smokers a room inside where they can go instead of them having to stand outside.” The court was told the pub was visited at 1.25am on May 13 by council enforcement officers and police as part of a routine inspection.

The front door was closed and curtains shut, but the officers were allowed inside after knocking on the door and they smelled smoke.

Rebecca Kirk, prosecuting on behalf of Bolton Council, said one man was stood at the bar smoking a cigarette with an ashtray at his side and Ms O’Reilly was sitting with a woman who was smoking a hand -rolled cigarette.

Altogether there were four ashtrays out in the pub, containing a total of 18 cigarette butts.

Whatever happened to the old policy of turning a blind eye? £27.78 per butt – that is beyond harsh.

One of the comments on the article is very telling:

The smoking ban HAS killed the pub trade..fact! All the people who said they hated smoke filled pubs never went in in the first place, and they certainly don't go in now.

And what are the council doing organising a posse of officers and police at that time in the morning just to find 18 cigarette stubs and somebody smoking a cig and somebody smoking a roll up. Pathetic!

There are far worse things going on in 'the suburbs' going on...ah but council officers won't go there.

In an era of cutbacks and austerity, it is beyond belief that Bolton Council thought it worthwhile to spend council tax payers’ money on such a vindictive crusade. And I hope the scumbag who grassed the pub up feels thoroughly pleased with his efforts.

Not so black Friday

Yesterday was widely described as “black Friday” – the day of the year on which most pressure is placed on emergency services from drunken revelry. Fortunately none of this resulted from the latest occurrence of Stockport & South Manchester CAMRA’s annual Hillgate Stagger. Sadly, the number of pubs serving cask beer is now depleted to eight, but on the other hand this gives more chance to linger in each one.

There was a good turnout, all the pubs (apart, perhaps, from the Sun & Castle) seemed to be doing a healthy trade and there wasn’t a bad pint to be had. The Fairway, reborn from Robinson’s closed Flying Dutchman, seemed to be doing very well. There were some heroic drunks to be seen, especially in the first couple of pubs where presumably they had been at it all day. We were even favoured with an appearance by @CarpeZytha. And the world was duly set to rights over some stunning Old Tom in the final pub, the Blossoms.

This pub crawl may not offer the world’s widest or most exotic choice of beers, but as a way of experiencing authentic English pub life it is hard to beat. And nobody suggested that I looked like Ronnie Barker! For me, almost certainly the best pub night of a generally crappy year.

Wednesday 19 December 2012

Then they came for the pub drinkers

It often seems to be assumed by people involved in the pub trade that either alcohol minimum pricing won’t affect them at all, or it may even help them by making cheap off-trade drinks less attractive.

However, it should be remembered that the University of Sheffield study which has been used as justification for the proposals actually said that the most beneficial results would come from setting differential minimum prices for the on- and off-trades, with the former more than twice as high.

And now it seems that Newcastle City Council are taking them at their word by imposing a minimum price of no less than 125p/unit as a licensing condition for two city-centre bars.

Decantus (30-32 Grey St) and the Grey St Café Bar and Grill (77 Grey St/21-27 Market St) have been awarded a premises licence subject to a condition that alcohol is sold at set prices which equate to minimum price of £1.25 per unit of alcohol.

This is nearly three times the 45p per unit price currently subject to government consultation.

These prices have been agreed as a condition in order to maintain standards and to keep the street as the city’s premier street.

The minimum prices will apply at all times during which alcohol may be supplied under the premises license and there will be no specific trading hours/evenings when alcohol is discounted below the minimum agreed price and used as a vehicle to attract customers.

This initiative by the city council, with the full cooperation of the applicants, is designed to maintain the quality of the city centre, control crime and disorder and improve health. It also seeks to end the availability of the most irresponsibly priced alcohol by controlling multi-buy promotions which lead to irresponsible drinking.

Bear in mind that this is well above the price of most draught beer sold in the North-West. It would make a pint of Robinson’s Unicorn three quid, and it’s over twice the unit price of some of the stronger guest ales sold in Spoons. It’s a fat lot of good campaigning for an end to the duty escalator if pubs are prevented from taking advantage of it anyway.

No doubt some will say that it’s only a couple of posers’ bars in the centre of Newcastle which is notorious for alcohol-fuelled disorder. But I’d like to bet there’s a Spoons within a few hundred yards that is now anxiously looking over its shoulder. And how many times have we been told that some principle will never be extended only to find ourselves rapidly sliding down a slippery slope?

This seems to be an example of a growing trend for councils to make up the law as they go along by imposing licensing conditions that go well beyond legal requirements. For example, we have just seen Perth and Kinross council prevent a new Sainsbury’s supermarket selling any beers or ciders above 5.5%, which excludes many craft favourites such as Duvel, Old Tom and even Punk IPA. Let us hope that in future the likes of Wetherspoon’s and Tesco manage to mount a robust legal challenge and leave the councils with egg on their faces.

Edit: and it seems as though the Newcastle plan may well be legally questionable.

Tuesday 18 December 2012

Taking years off your life

Sometimes you get a wonderful juxtaposition of stories in the papers, and today provided a good example of this. On the one hand, we had the Daily Mail in characteristic scaremongering mode saying:

Although Christmas is a time to eat, drink and be merry, each day of over-indulgence can reduce your life expectancy by at least half an hour.

Indeed, smoking, having a couple of drinks, eating red meat and watching television at any time of the year can each knock at least 30 minutes off your life expectancy for every day you indulge.

But by taking things in moderation each day by sticking to just one alcoholic drink, eating plenty of fruit and vegetables, and exercising, you could claw two hours back.

I’m sure that will go down very well over the festive season. As one commenter said “Oh dear..have just worked out how many Mince pies I have eaten and guess what ?..... I DIED 3 YEARS AGO !”

But, on the other hand, the Daily Telegraph reports that people are living longer and longer, and even exceeding previous forecasts of increasing life expectancy.

I know which report I will give more credence to. In reality, despite all the health panics and alleged timebombs, people are on average eating better diets and taking more care of themselves – it isn’t purely down to medical advances. But longevity should not be seen as an end in itself, as the medical community often seem to imply, and there is little point in living to a great old age if you never enjoy yourself along the way.

Monday 17 December 2012

Loss (of brain) leading

Call Me Dave has recently made the claim that supermarkets are subsidising alcohol sales at the expense of wholesome food by selling alcohol cheaply, or even at a loss.

This has been vigorously debunked by Tim Worstall and by Legiron. Amongst the points they make are:

  • Supermarkets don’t make profits by selling any significant proportion of goods at a loss
  • Most discounts are in any case funded by manufacturers rather than retailers
  • Supermarkets will only make money by subsidising one part of a customer’s basket at the expense of other parts. They won’t make money by subsidising some customers at the expense of others
  • Supermarkets are in general cheaper than other retailers, even those who don’t sell alcohol, across the whole range of goods
Cameron’s comment that “there are some supermarkets that discount tins of high-strength lager down to, you know, 25-30p” is completely untrue and just shows how out-of-touch he is. In reality, you would struggle to get one below £1.50.

And I love this comment from Legiron:

It’s simple. If any shop is making a consistent loss on a product line, they stop selling it. That’s why the beer selection changes – if it’s not popular, it doesn’t get re-stocked. No shop anywhere is going to put up the price of their standard fare (McEwan’s Export in these parts) to subsidise the loss-making craft beer known as Jock McSquirty’s Bowel Purger.
To be honest, all this really proves is how disconnected Dave is from the ordinary voter.

Sunday 16 December 2012

Grape and grain

When I was a kid, we never had any drink in the house apart from at Christmas. At Christmas dinner, it was bottles of Greenall’s Bullseye Brown Ale (once I was old enough, I would get a shandy), and a glass of port to follow. It was probably the late 70s before a bottle of Lutomer Riesling actually graced the Christmas dinner table.

But, since then, there has been a dramatic change in British drinking habits. More and more, having a bottle of wine at home has replaced having a few pints down the pub. Between 1980 and 2010, according to the BBPA statistics, wine consumption grew by 148%, while beer consumption fell by 46%. You get the impression that, for many families, and not just those in the comfortable middle classes, cracking open a bottle with the evening meal is now routine.

So I thought I would ask how often people drank wine at home. Obviously the readership of this blog is going to be more beer-focused than the average person, but even so 23% of respondents said they drank wine at home more than once a week, although 59% said they did so less than one a month. There’s a very clear polarisation between frequent drinkers and rare-or-never drinkers. It would be interesting to see what a similar survey of the general population revealed. It would also be interesting to see an analysis of singles vs couples.

Dead in the water

Or so is minimum pricing south of the Border, according to a report in today’s Sunday Telegraph. Isn’t it fun when the wheels come off a stupid and ill-considered plan? Apparently, even Cleggy finds it a bit “illiberal”.

A well-placed coalition source said: “Minimum alcohol pricing looks dead in the water and the search has begun in Whitehall for an exit strategy which will allow the maximum amount of face saving.

“You have now got an alliance which includes the current Home Secretary and the minister responsible for the policy, the former health secretary, the Education Secretary and the Deputy Prime Minister. They see it as a tax on the poor.”

The odds must be shortening now on that face-saving strategy including an above-escalator duty rise in next year’s Budget. Hopefully all the useful idiots who imagined minimum pricing might help pubs will feel duly pleased with themselves when that happens. Why not just attack sky-high duties for what they are, an unreasonable imposition on all drinkers, rather than portraying a duty cut as a magic bullet for pubs?

And it makes Salmond’s position in Scotland look increasingly untenable. How long before he retreats with his tail between his legs, no doubt blaming the English as he goes?

Saturday 15 December 2012

Whining and dining

The various CAMRA branches in Cheshire collectively produce a quarterly magazine called Out Inn Cheshire. It’s an attractive-looking A5 publication on glossy paper with colour throughout and contains a lot of pub news and features about individual pubs. If it has a fault, it is in adopting an overwhelmingly positive and upbeat tone which can eventually become a little too much.

One area in which this can become irritating is in the often fawning praise given to “dining pubs”. Now, obviously in this day and age, few pubs can survive without offering food, especially in suburban and rural locations, and if you’re doing food at all it is better done well than half-heartedly. But, if taken too far, there comes a point when a pub offers such a dusty welcome to the casual drinker that, while it still may be in technical terms a “public house”, it has forfeited the right to be regarded as such. Sadly, more and more once characterful pubs in Cheshire are falling into that category, and maybe a more critical eye is needed as to whether pubs still manage to retain their original function to any extent.

The latest issue includes a frankly gushing review of the newly refurbished Three Greyhounds at Allostock which is described as “a very welcome addition to the fine dining scene in Vale Royal”. This was the pub referred to here – sadly the memorably bad write-up I linked to is no longer online. The author waxes lyrical about his £10.95 Porterhouse Burger which he says was “a fantastic juicy, flavoursome large burger that was simply delicious and bursting with flavour”. It’s enough to make you want to rush to Spoons for that £6.69 gourmet burger with drink included! He also complains about having to go to the bar to order food rather than having a waiter come to the table to take it. Er, what does he think it is, a restaurant?

I also spotted that amongst the sandwich fillings on offer was Hen’s Egg Mayonnaise. Wow, eggs from hens! Wonders will never cease...

On the other hand, there is also a piece about the Black Swan at Hollins Green/Rixton winning the North Cheshire CAMRA Community Pub of the Year award for 2012. From the description, this seems to do a fairly good job of catering for both diners and social drinkers. Having used this as a guinea-pig to test out online pub guides I will have to make the effort to visit it some time.

The runner-up in this award was the Antrobus Arms at Antrobus, which it says “has been visited by the Cheshire Forest Hunt this season, and plays host to two gun clubs.” I can imagine that sticking in a few craws! As a complete aside, I remember calling in this pub with my father many years ago when it was called the Wheatsheaf. A guy had a dog of the bull terrier type and fed it a packet of pork scratchings which it rapidly wolfed down. A few minutes later the dog had thrown them back up again in the middle of the floor, and the look on its face was the absolute definition of a “hang-dog expression”.

Friday 14 December 2012

Can’t say I’m surprised

I had to raise a wry smile at this report that the Scottish ban on multibuy alcohol discounts was actually leading to people buying wine more often.

Accolade Wines’ latest WineNation Report, which combines consumer insight with figures from research companies Nielsen, CGA and Kantar, claims Scottish consumers have been buying wine more often since the legislation was introduced last October.

Accolade claims this has helped to attract new drinkers to the wine category.

The report found that consumers who bought the most wine have increased purchases by 1.3% since last October, with consumers defined as ‘light shoppers’ increasing their purchase frequency by 34.4%.

Overall, wine volumes dropped 3.1% in Scotland between July 2011 and July 2012, broadly in line with a UK decline of 2.8% – despite there being no multi-buy bans in England or Wales.

It’s clear that all this has done is to shift consumption patterns around, and the idea that multibuys lead people to buy and drink more than they otherwise would is groundless. So what on earth is the point of repeating it south of the border?

Thursday 13 December 2012

Another two fingers

Following my post earlier in the week about online pub guides, commenters suggested another couple of sites that were worth looking at. Both are to a greater or lesser extent London-centred, which is maybe why they hadn’t come to my attention.

First up is Fancyapint? This describes itself as “a pub guide to London pubs and other pubs in the UK” and claims to have 33,686 pubs on its database. One of the pubs featured on the front page is the Grey Horse in Manchester. It’s a smart-looking site, although perhaps with a little too much advertising clutter. However, it’s let down by a rather clunky search facility based on Google Maps, and if you’re looking at a particular pub it doesn’t show a list of other nearby pubs. There are quite a lot of pubs listed outside London, but the selection comes across as somewhat random. The Black Swan only has a placeholder. Like most of these sites, information about pubs is entirely dependent on content submitted by users.

Then there is Pubs.com, which says that it is “an independent guide to traditional English pubs”. This is another professional-looking site, and has a better search facility which will display all listed pubs close to any selected location. However, once you’re outside London the coverage is very patchy, much more so than Fancyapint?, and often seems to add up to no more than a scattering of pubs that readers happen to have come across. For example, there are only 11 pubs listed within 20 miles of Stockport, and none in the town itself. There’s no mention whatsoever of the Black Swan. Having said that, where there is a listing the entries are reasonably informative, with a general description of the pub and also opening hours and food serving times which few of the other sites mention. See, for example, this entry for the Marble Arch in Manchester.

To my eye, Pubs.com is the better of the two, but both are very much London-oriented and so don’t really stand up as national guides. If you were only interested in pubs in London they would probably be a lot more useful.

However, as I said in my previous post, what is really needed is for one site to develop sufficient critical mass that it starts to attract all the user contributions that are currently spread too thinly in ten or more different places.

Tuesday 11 December 2012

Let them drink craft beer!

Mark Daniels is a long-standing columnist for The Publican and The Morning Advertiser, and in the past I’ve sometimes linked to his comments as a good example of common sense, particularly with regard to the smoking ban.

But I have to say his latest column is very wide of the mark. Minimum Pricing won’t make alcohol expensive, he says. Well, in a sense it won’t. Anyone on a comfortable income won’t regard £3.20 for a four-pack of Carling, or £4.50 for a bottle of red, or £12.60 for a bottle of Scotch, as “expensive” in any meaningful sense. Although I’ve occasionally taken advantage of prices below that level, it won’t make any difference to the amount of off-trade drinks I buy.

But there are a lot of people, who buy a lot of drinks priced well below that level. If your £9.99 bottle of vodka goes up to £12.60, it will be an overnight increase of over 25%. It may not make it “expensive” in middle-class terms, but it will make it a lot more expensive.

Large numbers of people on modest incomes will experience very substantial increases in the prices of their regular alcohol purchases.

Sadly this is yet another example of the arrogance and delusion of so many involved in the pub trade. Making cheap alcohol dearer won’t bring a single extra customer into your pubs. It might generate rather more customers for the bootleggers, though.

As Churchill once said, “an appeaser is someone who feeds the crocodile hoping it will eat him last”. Well, good luck with that one, Mark.

The world at your fingertips

The point is often made – for example in the comments to this review of the 2013 Good Beer Guide – that there is no longer any need for printed pub guidebooks, as all the information is readily available on the Internet. However, although there is a huge amount about pubs on the Internet, how usable is it, and how do the various pub websites measure up?

An important point is that people are not always looking for the same thing from pub websites. Sometimes they might just be looking for any pubs that may be of interest in an unfamiliar area, or they may be trying to find out more detailed information on a specific pub, and that may be specifically relating to the dining experience, or concerned with broader aspects of the pub such as the general ambiance or beer range.

So let’s look at a few of the well-known pub websites and see how they measure up.

First up is Beer in the Evening, which is possibly the market leader. It describes itself as “officially the UK's biggest and busiest pub, bar and club guide,” and it certainly has a very wide coverage. It includes all types of pubs, not just food-led ones, and probably has the most reader comments of any site. The “other nearby pubs” feature works well. However, there is very little editorial information about the pubs, and the overall design is a bit like a boring pint of brown beer. The search facility also leaves something to be desired, and if you don’t know the correct name of the settlement in which a pub is located you may have difficulty finding it at all. Plus I once submitted a new - and very deserving pub - to the site and it never ended up being added.

Next is the Good Pub Guide, based on the publication of the same name. This unashamedly majors on upmarket dining pubs, but at least you know what you’re getting. The search facility is pretty good, with the ability to find all pubs within x miles of a particular location, and the database of pubs is fairly comprehensive. However, very few have any kind of editorial comment. There are some user comments, but nowhere near as many as on BITE.

Then there is Pub Explorer. This has a very good map-based search facility which enables you to home in on your chosen area quickly and easily. Once you are there, there’s a comprehensive display of all the pubs with their locations. However, the site then falls down as it appears that the only pubs with any information are those where it has been loaded by the major managed pub operators, so there’s effectively nothing about the majority. There’s also no facility for user comments.

Pubs Galore has an attractive appearance and the facility for users to add both comments and photos. There’s also a good search facility. However, it’s entirely dependent on users to add information with the result that coverage is distinctly patchy. It also says “Pubs Galore exists to promote good pubs, if your purpose is solely to leave negative reviews of pubs you dislike, they will be deleted”. This is fair enough, but does result in a rather bland site, whereas some of the negative comments on BITE can be quite amusing and also in some cases genuinely telling.

Pub Utopia uses a Google-based search method. It appears to have a pretty comprehensive listing of pubs, and does offer the facility for users to add comments. However, actual detail about pubs is dependent on being added by licensees and overall, while there’s nothing wrong with the concept, it lacks sufficient critical mass of information to be at all useful.

Finally there is Trip Advisor, which is primarily a hotel website, but also includes locations and reviews of restaurants, which covers many food-oriented pubs too. While not the place to look for unspoilt boozers, the fact that it does generate a lot of customer reviews does make it worthy of investigation if you’re after a pub meal.

So how do these sites measure up when looking for a specific pub? As an example, I have chosen the Black Swan, which was CAMRA’s North Cheshire Community Pub of the Year for 2012. It’s not one of the “usual suspects” and indeed is a pub I have never personally visited. It is situated at the extreme north-east of the modern county of Cheshire where it is perhaps easily overlooked. It also suffers from the fact that its location is variously known as Hollinfare, Hollins Green and Rixton.

Beer in the Evening doesn’t cover it at all – and also seems to have no pubs in nearby Cadishead.

The Good Pub Guide has a limited amount of information provided by the licensees, plus a photo and a lot of reader comments. This is probably the best result of the six.

Pub Explorer has nothing but the location, and neither does Pub Utopia, although the latter also gives me a rather offputting advert for a mature dating site. Pubs Galore is little better, but it does at least have a couple of photos of the pub.

Trip Advisor has some photos and a number of customer reviews of varying quality, but no editoral information.

So, in summary, an overall poor result for this pub, with only the Good Pub Guide achieving what I would call even half-way decent coverage. It is also a feature of these sites that some of the reviews, particularly of the food, can be so gushing in tone that it is hard to believe they are genuine. Would anyone really write:

"The food is now fabulous serving beautiful juicy steaks and the fish and chips are to die for. The duck is a masterpiece and we have eaten here three times in the last few months without finding a single fault. The staff deserve a special mention too because they are so friendly and helpful. It's been a long time coming but we have at last found somewhere truly outstanding to eat right on our own doorstep."

CAMRA are in the process of developing a national pubs database at www.whatpub.com, but this is currently still in beta and only available to members. It also doesn’t give much information for the Black Swan despite its recent award-winning status. Some of the coverage is actually pretty good, including that of my local area, but it is very much dependent on the level of input from local branches, and it doesn’t have any facility for users to all their own comments.

As a conclusion, some of the key features I would be looking for in a pub website are:

  • Comprehensive coverage
  • Covers all types of pub, not just dining pubs
  • As much information as possible about each pub
  • Some kind of editorial description for each pub
  • Information about beer range, not just food
  • Information about smoking facilities, or lack of
  • Link to pub websites, especially for menus
  • Photos
  • Opportunity for users to add comments
  • Flexible, easy-to-use search facility
  • Easy to use on a smartphone
  • “Other nearby pubs” feature
Personally I also think it is useful if a website makes some kind of value judgment about the information it is presenting rather than just offering a uniform database. The Good Beer Guide does this implicitly by only including pubs that CAMRA members believe serve good beer and, while it may not be your cup of tea, the Good Pub Guide also majors on a specific kind of establishment, so you know what you are getting.

In many aspects of the Internet, one service seems to end up dominating and squeezing everyone else out – just look at Google and search. But that’s still a long way off for pubs, and the pub website scene remains fragmented with nothing anywhere near reaching that killer status, and all the sites on offer seriously deficient in at least one aspect, often more. Maybe if one became more dominant it would start to build up a critical mass of user-generated information.

If there’s any better pub site out there, please let me know!

Saturday 8 December 2012

Slow food revisited

Yesterday would have been my late father’s birthday, so I took my mother to leave some flowers at the crematorium and after that we went for what we hoped would be a nice pub lunch. However, and not for the first time, the occasion was largely spoiled by an excessive wait between ordering and food being served. If you have to go back to the bar to ask about the progress of the food they have failed, big time.

The food was actually quite decent once it arrived forty-five minutes later and, to be fair, they did apologise and give us free desserts. But it shouldn’t have to be like that. As I said in the linked post, in contrast, my experience is that Spoons’ food is always served pretty promptly once ordered. I won’t name the establishment, but it’s an Ember Inn, not somewhere they go out and freshly slaughter a pig in response to your order.

Friday 7 December 2012

Thursday 6 December 2012

Inertia rules

I was recently discussing, in an entirely different context, how people in positions of authority greatly overestimate the effect that small changes in rules and regulations will have on people’s actual behaviour. The new beer tax regime introduced in October last year is a perfect example.

Basically this halved the duty for beers of 2.8% or below, and added an extra 25% duty for beers above 7.5%. Now, I have to say I was a bit sceptical at the time about how much difference this would make, but even I expected that, at the lower end, one of the major cooking lager brands would have a go with a 2.8% brand extension, and at the top end someone would try cutting the strength of some “tramp juice” to 7.5% to sell at a substantially lower price.

But neither of these things has happened. Yes, a few new 2.8% ales have been introduced, but none seem to have gained much traction. The biggest brand would appear to be Skol, which was cut from a whacking 3.0%. This despite the fact that the duty+VAT on a 440ml can at 2.8% is only 14.4p, so surely with the right marketing four cans at £1.79 or a 12-pack for a fiver could have been a successful proposition. Although Gold Label has had its strength reduced, all of the four main super lager brands remain defiantly at 9.0%, with their prices correspondingly increased.

This just serves to underline how wedded consumers are to existing habits – clearly no brewer thought it worthwhile to make a big effort to respond to these new market opportunities, although surely one or two had a good look at it.

And, ironically, minimum pricing would pretty much wipe out any effect from these changes anyway, at least in the off-trade. While a 2.8% beer will attract a lot less duty than a 4.0% one, you won’t be able to sell it any cheaper in unit terms. That four-pack will need to be at least £2.22. And, when I last visited, Tesco were selling 4x440ml cans of both Carlsberg Special and Tennent’s Super for £7.09, which is pretty much bang on 45p/unit. Clearly, although the margin will be less than with a weaker beer, it will still be profitable to sell 9.0% beers at that price.

So, in retrospect, the whole exercise looks like futile tinkering that has done nothing significant to change the beer market.

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Minimum windfall

One of the charges levelled against minimum alcohol pricing is that it would end up transferring money from the pockets of poor drinkers to wealthy corporations. Undoubtedly there is a certain amount of truth in that – if you were a consumer of cheap drinks, and wanted to maintain your alcohol intake, you would have to fork out more, and it would also take off a lot of the pressure of competitive discounting at the bottom end of the market. To some extent, it would be a legalised price-fixing ring by producers and retailers.

However, it’s important not to exaggerate this effect. For a start, rather than just having their prices increased, the bottom-end products would tend to disappear entirely from the market. As I’ve said before, why drink The Claymore when you can have Famous Grouse for the same price? Supermarket own-brand beers, ciders and spirits would be pretty much a thing of the past. So some of the extra spending would go on higher production costs.

Plus, if you were no longer allowed to use price as a marketing tool, then more money would be freed up to spend on other kinds of promotion. There would be increased advertising spend, competitions and maybe even – if still allowed – a rise in offers of the “buy three bottles and get a free glass” type. And it would still be entirely possible to discount higher-priced drinks, so the buyers of premium ales, malt whiskies and mid-market wines might find themselves getting a better deal at the expense of the poor.

A competitive market – which this still would be – always finds a way of eliminating windfall profits over time. And if it began to look as if alcohol producers and retailers were creaming it in from minimum pricing, then inevitably there would be a temptation for government to get more of the cake for itself by reducing the gap between the duty level and the minimum price.

Tuesday 4 December 2012

Raise a glass to Drinkuary!

As a response to Alcohol Concern’s joyless Dry January initiative, a group has been set up called Drinkuary. They set out their aims as follows:
Drinkuary is a quiet counter argument to Alcohol Concern’s “Dry January”. Alcohol Concern want you to not have a drink for the whole month and raise money for them whilst you do so, I don’t care one way or another if you drink or not. I do care that tax funded charities and health organisations feel compelled to tell us how to live our lives. Quite frankly I’m fed up with it, alcohol is heading down the same slippery slope that tobacco has already been forced down with health warnings in every advert and on every label. Yet still these Killjoys and Puritans can’t just let us make up our own minds, nope they have to spend more of our money lecturing us on how we’re drinking too much and having too much fun and should stop it immediately.
Please go along and have a look – sign up to their Facebook event page, get an icon for your blog or website (as shown in the left-hand sidebar) and maybe request some free beermats for your pub or club.

Despite Alcohol Concern’s best (or should that be worst?) endeavours, January doesn’t have to be bleak and miserable.

Monday 3 December 2012

Levelling the playing field

If alcohol was suddenly discovered then (assuming it wasn’t immediately banned) it would almost be certainly be taxed at a uniform rate depending on the amount of the alcohol in the drink. However, in practice we have a confusing and somewhat inconsistent system of alcohol duties, with different regimes applying to cider, beer, wine, and spirits, and some drinks taxed at a flat rate while others are pro rata to the alcohol content.

There is some point to this, though, as broadly speaking weaker drinks are taxed less heavily than stronger ones, Partly this is to reflect the higher production and distribution costs and also, as I said here, while it is invidious to claim that one form of alcohol is “better” than another, it is less like hard work to abuse spirits and therefore there is a case for the tax system sending a message that they need to be treated with a certain amount of respect. It’s important to remember that Hogarth contrasted the squalor of Gin Lane with the prosperity of Beer Street – the former was certainly not making a general point about the evils of drink

This is a distinction that will be seriously undermined by minimum pricing, as pointed out in this blog post by Damian McBride which was mentioned by Phil of Oh Good Ale. Yes, it is that Damian McBride, Gordon Brown’s disgraced spin doctor, but he does have a background of working in the Treasury on alcohol duties and on this subject does seem to have some idea what he is talking about. Under minimum pricing, at the lower end of the market all drinks will sell at the same price per unit of alcohol, regardless of duty, thus giving a relative boost to spirits at the expense of beer and cider, maybe not quite what the anti-drink lobby are hoping to achieve.

(He’s wrong about Buckfast though – my understanding is that it generally retails for well above 45p/unit anyway, and its main appeal is not so much cheapness as its high caffeine content).

McBride makes another good point here that minimum pricing would in practice be difficult to enforce and would tend to favour the outlets that are often least controlled and responsibly run, namely small corner shops, again not perhaps the consequence sought by the anti-drink lobby.

Saturday 1 December 2012

Run aground

The Winter 2012-13 edition of Wetherspoon News has a full-page feature on the Ship of Fools in Croydon entitled “Pub provides a positive force for community good”. The article explains how the manager of the pub has worked hard to improve community relations following the 2011 riots in the town. The pub even managed to win the Pub of the Year award in Croydon Council’s “Best Bar None” scheme. What an uplifting good news story about the pub trade, you might think.

But, despite all this, it appears that Tim is selling the pub off for conversion to a Sainsbury’s Local. Oh the irony! And this is not some “beached whale” suburban roadhouse, but a pub in the centre of a supposedly busy and thriving town.