Tuesday 31 December 2013

Revolution coming?

The January issue of the CAMRA newspaper What’s Brewing contains another puff piece about the supposed imminent “micropub revolution”, quoting extensively from Martin Hiller who claims to have invented the concept. He reckons that the clearing out of the dead wood by the major pub operators will open up great opportunities for micropubs to thrive, and that we could eventually see tens of thousands of them.

Now, that would be very nice to see, and it would certainly open up the prospects for pubhunting which seems to have been going round in ever decreasing circles in recent years. However, as I wrote here, given that the biggest decline in pubs over the past couple of decades has been in small, traditional, wet-led, drink-and-chat establishments, it is hard to see how pubs following that kind of model are going to spearhead a revolution in pubgoing. Indeed, their widely-proclaimed ethos of “no lager, no wine, no music, no soft drinks, no food” is likely to severely limit their appeal in terms of both generational profile and gender balance. They give the impression of being specifically designed to appeal to retired middle-class blokes with too much time on their hands.

What we have seen in recent years is a large number of new “box bars” opening up in former shop units, which could be regarded as fulfilling a similar role to micropubs. However, although there are some exceptions such as those in Chorlton, most of these appeal primarily to a youth or young professional clientele and offer nothing of interest to the beer enthusiast. I also get the feeling that, while a pub is by definition a “public house” and should be open to all so long as they behave themselves, you need to be part of a clique or set to feel at home in a box bar.

Monday 30 December 2013

A diet of worms

There was recently a story in the news about the diet secrets of the oldest woman in Europe, who apparently ate eggs, pasta, minced meat and milk and didn’t touch fruit and vegetables. On Twitter, I retweeted someone else’s message about this suggesting “five-a-day” wasn’t a magic prescription for long life, and received a surprisingly angry riposte along the lines of “well, that doesn’t prove anything!” Of course it doesn’t, but on the other hand it’s yet more anecdotal evidence that sticking to the dietary prescriptions of the health establishment is no guarantee of long life, and neither does ignoring them prevent it being achieved.

From time to time, stories appear in the media about people who seem to get along fine despite eating very limited diets. For example, a few years ago, there was this one about a boy who allegedly ate little but jam sandwiches, but nevertheless had grown to be 6’2” and an active sportsman. And recently there has been the case of an attractive young woman called Faye Campbell who claimed to survive on pizzas, cheeseburgers and chips, washed down with Lucozade and Coke. I mentioned this on Twitter too and received numerous responses along the lines of “she must have scurvy” and “she’ll get bowel cancer” – but the news report suggests that overall she is in pretty good health.

All this demonstrates that the human body is a pretty robust organism and can thrive on all kinds of diets. If you look across the world, there must be huge variations in diet between different cultures, and I doubt whether Eskimos get five-a-day or anything like it. In practice, these people’s diets are probably not quite so exclusive as they claim, and there are nutrients concealed in all kinds of supposedly “unhealthy” foods and drinks – even beer. Bread, flour and breakfast cereals are routinely fortified with a variety of vitamins, in some cases by law.

In reality, there are a surprising number of people whose diets are restricted to a greater or lesser extent by a psychological aversion to certain foods. It isn’t a case of just not liking things, but being simply unable to eat them. Sometimes, although by no means always, this is associated with autistic spectrum conditions such as Asperger’s Syndrome. Christopher Boone, the Asperger’s hero of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is unable to stomach anything brown, while others can’t eat anything that isn’t brown. This is something that is underappreciated by pubs, cafés and restaurants, who continue to insist that customers have specific combinations of foodstuffs rather than encouraging a more mix-and-match approach.

Clearly if you completely fail to obtain certain nutrients, you are going to suffer health problems relating to dietary deficiencies, as thousands of scurvy-ridden sailors found out in the age of sail. But this surely suggests that we are being seriously over-prescriptive in the official dietary guidance that is issued. The “five-a-day” concept was derived from taking the average per capita consumption of fruit and vegetables in California and doubling it, and has no scientific basis. There must be huge numbers of people who reach a ripe old age without ever having consumed five-a-day or anything like it. Likewise, the official alcohol consumption guidelines were plucked out of the air and roughly represented a halving of what scientists considered was a realistic level of what people could consume and still maintain reasonable health.

These guidelines are not in themselves bad advice – you won’t harm yourself by eating five-a-day, or restricting your alcohol intake to below 21 units a week. But the problem is that the implications of not adhering to them are grossly exaggerated, and they come to be presented as “essential” or “maximum limits” rather than simply some kind of desirable ideal. There is no cliff of risk, just a very gentle gradient. As Simon Jenkins argued in the article I linked to here (now behind the Murdoch paywall), the gulf between what is ideal and what is unacceptable is being narrowed all the time.

Friday 27 December 2013

A brief history of electricity

I was recently asked by a correspondent about electric real ale dispense and thought it would be worth turning my response into a blogpost.

My legal drinking memories go back to 1977. At that time, probably at least 40% of all real ale in the UK was dispensed by electric pump, and much more across large swathes of the Midlands and North.

Electric pumps were divided into two main types - the free-flow, which was visually indistinguishable from a keg dispenser, and the metered, which was either of the sliding cylinder "diaphragm" type or had a push-button to dispense a half-pint from a separate nozzle. I am told that some Stones' and Ward's pubs in the Sheffield area had diaphragm pumps dispensing a pint at a time, but I have never seen these. There were one or two other types occasionally seen, such as one with what looked like a revolving vane in a glass sphere which cropped up in some Wilson's pubs.

In my experience, the free-flow pumps were only widely used for real ale in pubs owned by the Bass group, although I have seen them in a few Lees, Holt's and Robinson's pubs. The obvious drawback was that they were outwardly indistinguishable from keg dispensers, which once CAMRA made a major point of promoting real ale could all too easily deter prospective drinkers. A few said "cask conditioned" on the mounting, but this wasn't usual.

Metered dispense was more common, and in particular was widely used by Banks's, Greenall's, Boddington's, Robinson's, Hyde's, Home and Shipstone's, although I have seen it in many other brewers' pubs, even including Gale's down in Hampshire. At first the diaphragm-type pump was much more numerous, but from maybe about the late 80s onwards it came to be increasingly replaced by illuminated bar mountings which were harder to distinguish from keg taps.

I have always associated metered dispense with real ale, but it was also widely used for bright and keg beers, and also for lager and Guinness. In the 1980s I recall my local Hyde's pub, the Nursery, having Harp Lager, Strongbow and even Guinness on meters alongside Mild and Bitter. Metered dispense for non-real beers was very common in clubs. I remember being taken aback once to be served obviously fizzy beer from diaphragm pumps in a Border pub south of Oswestry, so that must have been a rarity.

Two big advantages of metered dispense were that it ensured a full pint, and that it greatly reduced the ability of bar staff to ruin decent beer by an incompetent pulling technique.

From the late 80s onwards it began to slowly disappear - breweries seeing the advantage of at the same time pushing a more obvious image of "real ale" and also being able to use brim-measure glasses and serve less beer per pint. In my view CAMRA mistakenly encouraged this process by presenting handpumped beer as superior and apparently putting image before full measure.

By 2000, metered dispense had become pretty rare and as far as I know has pretty much entirely disappeared now. The last pub I saw it in was Robinson's Queens Arms on Portwood in Stockport which isn't one I regularly pass and tends only to be visited by the local CAMRA branch every two years on a Stagger. The Flying Dutchman retained it for a long time but has now been sold off and is the Fairway free house, of course with handpumps and brim-measure glasses.

I am also told that one or two of the more traditional former Banks's houses still serve their Mild using electric meters, although I haven't seen this myself in recent years.

Personally I miss it as something that added variety to the pub scene and have written about it here. Incidentally, I couldn’t find a single picture of a diaphragm dispenser on Google Images.

Tuesday 24 December 2013

Priced out

I wrote recently about how Robinson’s had been carrying out a cull of their pub estate, and suggested that there were one or two more that didn’t look long for this world. However, one that I didn’t see as being vulnerable was the Baker’s Vaults on Stockport Market Place. It’s a prominent pub in a distinctive early-Victorian Italianate style which over the years has gained a considerable reputation for live music. It also many years ago hosted a Christmas meal for the local CAMRA branch at which the late, great Michael Jackson was the guest speaker.

However, it is reported that it closed its doors last Saturday night, with the tenants blaming “the costs of Robinson’s beer, the high cost of renting the building, the extortionate cost of business rates from Stockport Council, and the ridiculous cost of utilities.” Now, I suspect Robinson’s may try to find new tenants for this one, given that to my mind it still does have a strong innate appeal, but it does highlight a problem that affects many Robinson’s pubs in less well-heeled areas.

Traditionally, Robinson’s, unlike some other family brewers, never set out to be cheap as such. Their prices were typically comparable with, or maybe just a little below, those of the national or quasi-national brewers such as Wilson’s, Tetley’s, Whitbread and Greenall’s, who in many of their trading areas were their main competitors. However, as the Big Six metamorphosed into pubcos, and they started winnowing out their estates in town centres and inner-urban areas, over the years Robinson’s found that the competition in places like Stockport town centre had turned into Wetherspoon’s, Sam Smith’s, Holt’s and various free trade operators running pub company cast offs. What all of those have in common is that they are significantly cheaper.

It seems that the cost structure Robinson’s offer to their tenants makes it very difficult for them to be competitive in such an environment. The Baker’s Vaults was probably charging about £2.60 for a pint of bitter, but you have to have a good reason to go there when you can be paying just £1.80 across the road in Sam Smith’s Boar’s Head, and £2.15 a couple of minutes away in Wetherspoon’s. I was told a story of how a group of friends had started getting a taxi to a free trade pub for their regular Friday night out because the beer was 80p a pint cheaper than in their Robinson’s local, so they didn’t have to drink that much for it to pay for itself.

Obviously with any pub closure there is usually more than meets the eye, and some Robinson’s pubs not too far away like the Arden Arms and the Red Bull still seem to thrive despite charging a price premium. However, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that their tenants are often struggling to be remotely competitive on price. It’s not so much of a problem for their dining pubs where typical prices are higher and price competition is not so intense. But unless Robinson’s can come up with some way of offering their urban tenants a better value-for-money proposition we are likely to see more closures in the coming year.

Saturday 21 December 2013

Action and reaction

A common error made by campaigners and politicians is to imagine that policy changes can be made in isolation without any wider implications. Sometimes this can be achieved, but in most cases, if you change one thing, it will end up changing something else. It’s like trying to squeeze jelly into a string bag. If you increase the tax on something, people may be persuaded to buy something else; if you regulate a business sector more, companies may be more reluctant to invest in it; if you ban something outright, it’s no guarantee that people will stop doing it or even do it less. It may well be the case that, on balance, it’s still worth doing, but it is foolish to imagine that unintended consequences never occur.

A good example of this is in the field of payday loans, which have been much in the news recently. Many would argue that the likes of Wonga are heartless, grasping scum who cynically exploit the poor who have encountered financial difficulties, and therefore the interest rates they charge should be capped. However, if that was done, they wouldn’t make the more risky and marginal loans, and some of the very neediest people would be driven into the arms of illegal loan sharks. It might benefit more people than it harmed, but to claim that capping legal interest rates would not give any encouragement whatsoever to illegal lenders is fanciful.

A similar situation applies with the pub companies such as Punch and Enterprise. These have been widely criticised for both strategic and operational incompetence, and in particular for having an exploitative relationship with their lessees. In response to this, various proposals have been put forward such as implementing a statutory code of practice, allowing lessees to take a guest beer and offering all lessees a free-of-tie option.

However, seeing a potential threat to their business, the pub companies have come back with dire warnings about how such changes would affect them and what their response would be. For example, Spirit Group have claimed that it might force them to reinstate upward-only rent reviews, Greene King have said they could restructure their business to reduce their leased estate below 500 pubs, and J. W. Lees have suggested that a mandatory guest beer option could be disastrous for themselves and other similar family brewers.

Now, all this may contain a substantial element of exaggeration and scaremongering, but it would be foolish in the extreme to imagine that, if new curbs were introduced, pub companies would just roll over, wave their legs in the air and say “OK, we’ll play nicely now”. It’s hard to believe that, at least to some extent, they wouldn’t cut back on new investment, accelerate the disposal of their more marginal outlets and seek to convert as many pubs as possible to managed or franchised operations that were outside the scope of the controls. However much you detest the pub companies, they are the incumbent owners of the pub estates and you need to assess how, in the real world, they would actually respond. There is no blank sheet of paper.

In particular, given that some degree of product tie is fundamental to the pubco business concept, it’s very difficult to see why any pub company should want to lease out pubs on a completely free-of-tie basis, as it would change their position to being essentially that of any commercial landlord. As Martyn Cornell has pointed out in his provocative blogpost In Praise of Ted Tuppen:

large numbers of the best currently tenanted/leased pubs will be turned into managed houses, and those pubs not suitable for a managed operation that look as if they will not bring in an adequate return to their pubco owner as free-of-tie operations will be sold to the highest bidder – likely to be Tesco, Sainsbury’s or Morrisons...
As I have said before, the critics of pub companies always seem strangely reluctant to put forward any kind of alternative business model for the industry. If you don’t like the way it’s organised at present, it is incumbent on you to outline what you think it should evolve into. I am not suggesting nothing should be done at all, but the implications of any change in regulation need to be considered very carefully. Otherwise the risk is that we end up with another Beer Orders-style disaster which could be extremely damaging to both the pub trade and the British brewing industry.

Friday 20 December 2013

Generation shift

This week, the alcohol consumption figures from the Office for National Statistics’ annual Lifestyle Survey were published. They showed a continued across-the-board fall, which is no doubt welcome news to the anti-drink lobby and was soberly reported as such by the Morning Advertiser under the headline Consumers drinking more responsibly.

However, given that the fall was steepest amongst the youngest age group, much of the press chose to whip up a predictable moral panic about older people drinking, with the Times saying “More pensioners are retiring to the bottle” (article behind paywall), the Telegraph referring to “unrepentant” middle-aged and elderly drinkers and the Mail coming up with a characteristic shock front-page headline Older women drink most frequently. As the Telegraph reports:

Middle aged and elderly people are ignoring warnings about excessive alcohol consumption as younger people turn their back on the daily after-work drink, official figures suggest.

People between the ages of 45 and 65 are now more than twice as likely to drink alcohol every day of the week than the those in their late 20s, 30s and early 40s, figures from the Office for National Statistics show.

And although middle aged Britons have reduced their intake in the last seven years, they have done so at only half the rate of those in the younger generation.

Strikingly, the figures show that pensioners have barely cut back at all and on some measures actually increased their drinking over the same period.

Over 65s drink as regularly as students – although in smaller quantities.

However, attempts to portray this as some kind of public health timebomb really do not stack up, despite the claims of anti-drink zealots like Eric Appleby of Alcohol Concern. In fact, less than one in ten pensioners are exceeding the official government guidelines (which many would consider err on the side of caution anyway), and only 2% can be classified as “heavy drinkers”. That hardly sounds like an epidemic to me.

It has long been recognised that, as they grow older, people tend to drink less per session, but on more occasions through the week. You can’t on the one hand criticise the young for binge-drinking and the elderly for drinking every day, as one is the mirror image of the other. And it’s always seemed to me intuitive that drinking three units seven times a week is not realistically going to do you any more harm than drinking eleven units twice a week, and may even expose you to less risk.

The point must also be made that you need to drink substantially more than the official guidelines for any significant increase in health risk – they do not represent the cliff-edge of risk that they are often portrayed as. And the older age groups are still on average drinking less than they did ten years ago.

The steep decline in drinking amongst the younger age group must be a concern for both the overall drinks industry and specifically the pub and bar trade, though. Over 50% of those in the 16-24 group had not had an alcoholic drink at all in the past week when surveyed. There has been a distinct shift in attitudes with abstention being seen as fashionable and drinking regarded as uncool. As this cohort grow older these attitudes will have an increasing effect on the wider market. Before too long, we may be back to the situation of the late 1950s when pubs were regarded as being for the staid and elderly and were shunned by the rock’n’roll generation. Urban craft hipsters, you are the exception, not the rule.

Thursday 19 December 2013

Amateur hour

The festive season is when large numbers of people who scarcely go into a pub between January and November suddenly find themselves crossing the threshold and end up annoying both staff and regular customers by their total ignorance of the normal standards of pub etiquette. There’s an entertaining (if somewhat sweary) summary here. Another one I would add is standing about in large groups in the middle of the floor completely blocking movement around the place despite the fact there are plenty of seats available.

But, on the other hand, given the parlous state of the pub trade, perhaps it’s not a good idea to be quite so sniffy. After all, if the bar staff are polite and the other customers friendly, they might be tempted to come back at other times of the year rather than dismissing pubs as cliquey and unwelcoming. And it makes a refreshing change to see pubs actually busy – often with people drinking alcohol (!?) – and even finding it difficult to get a seat.

Wednesday 18 December 2013

Big is beautiful

Not entirely surprisingly, my recent poll showed a decisive majority in favour of 500ml over 330ml bottles for normal-strength beers. Surely the point about bottle sizes is that you want a bottle that equates to what you would normally regard as “one drink” which, if you look at what people prefer in the pub, is overwhelmingly pints or something like a pint. You have to wonder whether some brewers are actually losing out on sales by having their beer sold in fun-size bottles in the craft ghetto rather than alongside the 500ml big hitters in the PBA section.

If anything, the argument in favour of smaller bottles in terms of maximising variety within a given intake actually has more validity in the pub, where you might encounter a range of unfamiliar beers, than in the home setting.

Saturday 14 December 2013

A fresh idea

I’ve posted in the past about how many pubs seem to stock more cask beers than they can realistically turn over, resulting in a distinct risk of encountering stale, past-its-best beer. I’ve had a couple over the past month in pubs you would expect to do better that were almost on the turn. The thought has occurred to me that an obvious answer to this problem would be to display on every pumpclip the date when the beer was put on sale. So it was interesting to see this proposed recently in the comments on Tandleman’s blog.

Obviously it’s never going to happen, as it would expose just how long many beers were left on sale, but it would certainly give pubs a rocket up the backside to ensure they matched their range to the actual demand. And maybe pubs could offer a discount once beers had gone over three days old. If it led to fewer beers on the bar then so be it – quality should always trump choice.

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Craft thimbles

My local Morrisons and Tesco have recently created separate “craft beer” sections, stocked with a mixture of beers they already had, such as Punk IPA, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Innis & Gunn, and new introductions such as Shipyard, Point IPA and Professor Green’s Remedy. Not, maybe, something that will set the dedicated crafterati’s pulses racing, but a clear indication of how “craft” has established itself as a distinct category.

However, one distinguishing feature of these craft offerings is that they all come in 330ml or 355ml bottles as opposed to the 500ml bottles that dominate the Premium Bottled Ales section just down the beer aisle, even though the prices are often scarcely cheaper if at all. I have to say that I find one of these small bottles strangely unsatisfying, at least for normal-strength beers of maybe up to 6.0% ABV, and am much happier with the larger size which comfortably fits into a pint glass.

A couple of years ago I ran a poll on preferred bottle sizes which revealed a wide divergence of opinion. And I’m reminded of this splendid rant from Mark Dexter (aka The Hearty Goodfellow) against “test-tube sized bottles”:

The children's-sized bottle, however, quickly becomes a right old pain in the proverbial, especially when you realise that the happy event is pretty much over after around three average mouthfuls. If this were an act of love making, it would trigger a very awkward argument. No question about it.
It’s not a question of people preferring 500ml bottles simply because they want more beer – the smaller ones leave you unfulfilled and wanting more.

So is this an indication of yet another divide opening up in the beer market between the would-be hipster with his slim, trendy 330ml bottle, and the pot-bellied fogey with his pint-like 500ml?

Monday 9 December 2013

Slightly foxed

I’ve mentioned in the past how bottle-conditioned beers from micro-breweries are so inconsistent that drinking them is like a lottery – and one you’re more likely to lose than win. Brewery-conditioned bottles, while they might never quite scale the same peaks, are much more consistently reliable. However, even with these I have found a recurrent fault affecting a small proportion, although certainly no more than one in fifty.

While the beer does not lack carbonation and will generally form a healthy-looking head, it pours with a slight haze and has a kind of stale, musty taste, sometimes with a hint of sourness too. Not generally so bad as to go down the sink, but disappointing nonetheless.

It’s something I’ve encountered in beers from various breweries, so it seems to me that, rather than just bad luck, something specific is happening to cause it, but I’m not sure what. Could it be oxidation, maybe, or perhaps a slight but unwanted secondary fermentation taking place? I don’t think it’s just a case of beer being light-struck as more often than not it is found in brown bottles.

Broadly speaking, I’d say it’s more likely to be found in bottles from smaller breweries, and from independent shops where turnover may be less, although that isn’t always the case. This is what was the matter with the poor examples of Pendle Witches’ Brew I had a couple of months ago, and I recently also found it in a bottle of Lees MPA that I was quite keen to try.

Sunday 8 December 2013

Season of ill-will

There have been various reports this festive season of police forces offering rewards to people who successfully inform on drink-drive offenders. Let me make it quite clear that I do not condone lawbreaking, but, whatever the offence, the principle of “the end justifies the means” to secure convictions is never acceptable. And, as Longrider points out here, getting children, relatives, friends and neighbours to inform on people has always been a staple tactic of totalitarian regimes. It is fundamentally un-British. Even the Campaign Against Drink Driving have their reservations.

It’s also not quite as easy as you might think. You might imagine you’ll see drink-drivers in any pub with a car park. But, if you are prepared to sit there for a prolonged period, assess the means of transport of every arrival, tick off how much they drink, make a judgment as to when they’re over the limit, establish the registration number of their car, work out in which direction they’re heading, and then inform the police, then I wish you luck. A few years ago, one police force announced they were allocating officers to act as decoy courting couples in rural pubs to spot offenders. But I’d wager the results were pretty meagre.

In reality, the only way such schemes will work is if people are aware of a persistent pattern of behaviour by individuals they know well. And, if you are a true friend or a caring relative, surely you will make your best efforts to deter the individual concerned from breaking the law before actually shopping them. The most likely outcome is simply that it will encourage people to pursue personal grudges and vendettas.

And, if the rewards are sufficiently high, it could even lead people to act as agent provocateur by egging drivers on to drink more.

Saturday 7 December 2013

Strike an E-lite!

Well, the poll on the use of e-cigs in pubs has closed and there’s a pretty overwhelming majority in favour of their unrestricted use. I’d guess that those against are the kind of hysterical anti-smokers who will have a panic attack if they see someone doing something that even looks slightly like smoking in a public place.

As I’ve said before, licensees are entirely within their rights to ban the use of e-cigs anywhere on their premises. But they need to think very clearly exactly what kind of message that sends out. The days when they could capriciously ban all kinds of “undesirable” behaviour are long gone, and now pubs are scratching around for every customer they can get.

Is it really going to be in their interest to impose a blanket ban on an entirely legal activity? Surely they need to either permit e-cigs throughout, or if there are concerns about them being mistaken for real fags (which obviously are illegal, if not undesirable, indoors) define separate zones where they can and cannot be used.

And, if pubs that have banned e-cigs come along bleating that they have had to close because of lack of trade, I won’t exactly have much sympathy. Pubs can’t afford to turn away trade – they need to manage it.

Friday 6 December 2013

Divided by a common language

The great craft beer debate rumbles inexorably on but never seems to get any closer to reaching any kind of definitive conclusion. One of the best things I’ve read on the subject recently is this blogpost from Pete Brown. He makes the important point that many of the problems we in the UK are experiencing with nailing down the concept is that it originated in the very different environment of the USA and doesn’t read directly across to our beer market. As he says,
There was no discernible craft beer in America before the current microbrewery boom began. Craft in America reacted against the total lack of interesting beer. Every craft brewer in America is a relatively recent arrival. So if we take our cues from America, craft beer is all about novelty. But this is circumstantial rather than intrinsic - the word 'novelty' does not appear in the US definition of craft beer.
Britain, of course, still had an established tradition of small-scale, artisanal brewing which was what was championed by CAMRA in the first wave of the real ale movement. The term “craft beer” only really became commonplace in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, and it was deliberately adopted to set it apart from “real ale”. Partly this was to encompass small-scale, quality products that fell outside the definition, but it was also to distance itself from some of the baggage that “real ale” had accumulated – the beer bellies, twigs in beards, Morris dancing, dodgy puns and Dungeons and Dragons. Craft beer was young, trendy and urban; real ale was middle-aged, fuddy-duddy and rustic. Craft beer was brewed under railway arches, real ale was brewed in farm outhouses. Of course much craft beer is real ale, but the two concepts carry very different connotations.

All American craft beer was by definition innovative, because it was a reaction against bland industrial lagers, even if it was actually aiming to recreate established British, Belgian and German styles. And innovation was key to British craft beer too, most notably in the lavish use of New World hops. It was different from the old “boring brown beer”. So it wasn’t just a matter of scale, but also of approach. This raises the question of whether small, newly-established breweries, which are undoubtedly “artisanal”, but make beer in the traditional British style, such our local Ringway Brewery, are really felt to belong in the craft fold.

The term has of course now become so widely used and debased that it finds itself being applied to anything that isn’t a mass-market beer produced by the international brewers. For example, all of the recently repackaged Ringwood beers, some of which go back to the first wave of microbrewing, now describe themselves as “craft beers”. But I would say that amongst those with some interest in beer the original intention of the term is still broadly understood. Whether it conveys anything useful to the drinker apart from image is another matter, of course.

Thursday 5 December 2013

Money to burn

Ever-increasing energy bills have been one of the dominant stories in the news for weeks if not months. And anyone with a passing interest in pubs will be well aware that many are struggling against a tide of rising costs and competitive pressures. So it comes as something of a surprise to find so many pubs where the owners can afford to heat them, not just to be comfortably warm, but to be oppressively hot. It’s not all or most pubs, but certainly a significant minority, and in my experience the overheated pub in winter is considerably more common than the chilly one. Indeed I pointed this out fifteen years ago.

It’s sometimes claimed this is a trick to encourage people to drink faster, but in reality most pub customers have a ration that they stick to and some may even be prompted to move elsewhere if they feel uncomfortable. And, while there may be a need to replace heat lost by the frequent opening and closing of doors, that doesn’t mean you need to turn cosy areas well away from the main entrance into saunas.

It seems to stem from the same mentality that leads people to whinge about fuel poverty while still expecting to be able to sit around the house wearing a T-shirt in the middle of winter. Perhaps if pub operators were a little bit more careful in controlling their costs they wouldn’t find themselves in such financial straits. And if they say “we can’t make it pay”, maybe it needs to be questioned where they chose to set their thermostat.

Tuesday 3 December 2013

Beer on the menu

Sam Smith’s are probably unique in the entire history of British brewing in the extent to which everything sold in their pubs, even down to the crisps and peanuts, carries their own branding. In the past, when tied houses were the norm, there was much more branding than at present, but even then most pubs would have some bought-in products. Now, when the idea of selling an own-brand lager or keg stout is highly unusual, they really stand out from the herd.

They have recently produced an elaborate four-page laminated “Drinks Menu” to display in their pubs, and I have managed to obtain a copy. I don’t have a working scanner, but these two photos – Page 1 and Pages 2 and 3 – are readable enough. The fourth page deals with wines, liqueurs and spirits.

In total it lists twelve different draught products (only one of which is cask) and fifteen bottled. I have to say I wasn’t even aware they brewed a 3.7% ABV keg Best Bitter until I saw this document, and the 4% Double Four Lager is a relatively new addition, presumably to bridge the gap between the 2.8% Alpine and the 4.5% Taddy. They must be the only brewery producing three different keg beers at 2.8% to take advantage of the lower strength duty relief.

While steering well clear of the C-word, great emphasis is put on authenticity and tradition, stressing that all of the beers are “brewed solely from authentic natural ingredients without any chemical additives, raw material adjuncts, artificial sweeteners, colourings, flavourings or preservatives”. No “chemical fizz” here, then. Most are fermented in Yorkshire squares and most are suitable for vegans.

Sam’s are often criticised for only producing the one cask beer – Old Brewery Bitter. I remember them also offering two more – Tadcaster Bitter, which suffered from the perennial difficulty of selling a weaker bitter alongside a standard one, and Museum Ale, which some liked but most drinkers found hard work. In the past they have also sold cask 4X Best Ale (i.e. light mild) and Old Samson strong ale, but I don’t recall either of them.

They might improve their image if they produced a second cask beer, and many of their pubs certainly have the throughput to sustain it, but it’s difficult to see what would prove a strong seller with their predominantly traditionalist clientele. I’d like to see the return of Tadcaster Bitter, but I fear it would suffer the same fate as before. Maybe the best option would be a premium bitter of around 4.5% ABV that was a little paler and hoppier than OBB and would fill an obvious gap in their range.

Saturday 30 November 2013

A whiff of anxiety

Fuller’s have recently become the latest recruit to the list of pub operators – most notably including Wetherspoon’s – to impose a blanket ban on the indoor use of e-cigarettes in their estate. The reasons given are twofold, that it can be difficult for staff to manage, and that it causes “anxiety” amongst customers. The first may have some validity, especially in a busy pub, but it’s nowhere near as difficult as they suggest, especially given that the ban on smoking real cigarettes is pretty much self-enforcing anyway. The second, on the other hand, just seems to be pandering to the kind of hysterical anti-smokers who, before the ban would say “Oh noes! There’s someone smoking on the other side of the room! I’m going to DIE!!!” and might go into a paroxysm if they saw someone who appeared to be smoking. Indeed, much of the opposition to e-cigs seems to stem simply from the fact that they somewhat resemble real cigarettes rather than from any kind of rational assessment of the risks.

Of course, pub operators are entirely within their rights to ban the use of e-cigs if they choose to do so, and I would strongly defend the principle of “my gaff, my rules”. But there is certainly no law against using them indoors, and they are becoming increasingly popular. There must be a growing number of pub customers who regard using an e-cig inside as much preferable to going out into the cold to smoke a real one. Given that they are often used as a means of helping people stop smoking, pubs banning them could also be seen as standing in the way of reducing smoking prevalence.

Rather than taking the easy way out and imposing a blanket ban, would it not make sense for pubs to make an effort to manage the issue, which is not in practice the impossible task that the likes of Fuller’s claim? They might even find they gain business by making a point of advertising themselves as “e-cig friendly”. And, if some customers still found it objectionable, there’s no reason why pubs can’t have an area where e-cigs are permitted, and an area where they’re not. That sounds like a very sensible idea – I wonder where I’ve heard it before...

Thursday 28 November 2013

As plain as red and white

Worthington’s bottle-conditioned White Shield is one of the classic British beers and one that I will often go back to despite experiences of variable quality that I have reported previously.

A few years ago, the 4.2% ABV Red Shield was launched as a kind of little brother to White Shield. Although it was also made available in bottle, the main motivation was to provide a beer to offer in cask form, as the 5.6% White Shield is too strong to find many takers in the pub. However, it’s not, as you might expect, a weaker beer of the same general style, but in fact a distinctly different brew in the contemporary blonde beer idiom.

As far as I can see, it hasn’t exactly been a roaring success in either form and I’ve rarely seen them available, although I think I have sampled both on occasion. However, I was interested to spot a large supply of the bottles on sale in my local Home Bargains store at a mere £1 – which does hint at a level of surplus stock. So I had to give it another go.

It comes in the same dark-brown, round-shouldered bottle as its stronger stablemate. Despite being bottle-conditioned, the yeast sticks firmly to the bottom of the bottle so it’s easy to pour. It’s a bright pale gold colour in the glass, with a dense, rocky head and visible spires of carbonation rising through the beer, just as a good bottle-conditioned beer should be. So top marks for presentation and condition.

The actual flavour is less impressive, though. The whole thing is fairly subdued, light-bodied, basically dry with a malt underpinning and a hint of citrussy hops. It’s a good beer for refreshment, but not particularly distinctive, and overall too subtle for its own good, rather like Young’s London Gold which I reviewed a couple of years ago. So by all means snap up a few at £1 a bottle, but if paying full whack there are plenty of other beers I would prefer.

The bottle says, as with White Shield, that it is “closer to cask”, which is really a pretty inaccurate and misleading statement. While both bottle- and cask-conditioned beers undergo a secondary fermentation, they emerge as distinctly different products. It’s also interesting to see that, in the latest redesign, Molson Coors have adopted the same overall look for canned Worthington Creamflow as well as White and Red Shield. I doubt whether there is much overlap between the target markets, though.

Incidentally, if you’re not too concerned about the overall breadth of range, Home Bargains is a good place to stock up on premium bottled ales at notably lower prices than the major supermarkets, even taking their multibuy offers into account. Much of the selection comes from the Marston’s and Thwaites stables, but you can find other rarities and one-offs as well. (And before someone pipes up and says “B&M Bargains is just as good” – yes, I know, but their branch in Stockport isn’t licensed)

Wednesday 27 November 2013

Which side are you on?

The great American science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein once observed that “The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire.” Sadly, in the past couple of decades, the first tendency very much seems to have got the upper hand, especially in the area of seeking to influence what people put in their bodies, in terms of tobacco, alcohol and food. The concept of self-ownership which was fundamental to the values of the Enlightenment has been forced to take a back seat.

It’s not easy to fathom the motivation for all of this. The idea that we need a healthy, efficient population to fulfil some kind of national destiny has disturbingly totalitarian overtones. And the argument that unhealthy lifestyles place a greater burden on state-funded health services does not stand up to analysis – while it is possible to point to individual horror stories, on average it is the healthy people who survive into extreme old age who eventually end up costing more. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that ultimately it stems from a simple desire to tell others how to run their lives and impose your values on them.

The controlling tendency have also been able to forge an unholy alliance with those promoting quality in food and drink. The root of the two ideas is different, but it is all too easy for advocacy of good food to slip into support for measures to deter people eating what you perceive as poor food. Thus we have supporters of “good food” hanging on Jamie Oliver’s every word, tut-tutting at the idea that McDonalds and Burger King might be valuable additions to the High Street, and seeking to lock children in school at lunchtime to stop them going to the chippy. It also has to be said that there is a strong element of patronising snobbery in all of this, the belief that the thick plebs can’t be trusted to look after themselves and therefore have to be told what to do by their betters.

Much the same happens in the field of drink, where those who celebrate fine wines, malt whiskies and craft ales find it all too easy to look down their noses at the hoi polloi lugging slabs of Carling home from ASDA and happily swilling cheap Spanish white and Glen’s vodka. We are discerning connoisseurs, they are irresponsible binge-drinkers. And the health argument, which may have some limited validity in the area of food (although less than often supposed), does not apply here – a pint of Carling will be no worse for you than the equivalent amount of alcohol in Weasel Piss Imperial Triple IPA.

This may help explain why many beer enthusiasts seem strangely reluctant to acknowledge the threat from the anti-drink lobby, and indeed in some cases may imagine that some kind of accommodation can be made with them to promote quality and responsibility. All credit to beer writer Pete Brown for recently pointing out the lies of the anti-drink lobby, and in the past he has done a series on debunking myths about alcohol. But, despite more than one Conference motion, you will still see nothing of this kind in the CAMRA newspaper What’s Brewing. Many activists, in their hearts, identify more with those pointing out the evils of (other people’s) drink than with Diageo and Molson Coors.

Of course, at the end of the day, this is a dangerous delusion. When push comes to shove, the anti-drink lobby have no interest in separating out the good and bad drinkers. It’s all just booze to them. And it has to be recognised that, in recent years, the increasing denormalisation of moderate drinking and the negative image attached to alcohol have been amongst the main factors contributing to the decline of the pub trade. It’s no good standing up for pubs if at the same time you’re happy to stigmatise most of their customers.

Tuesday 26 November 2013

The root of all evil?

This blogpost from Martyn Cornell: In praise of Ted Tuppen is a valuable antidote to some of the more hysterical anti-pubco tirades we have been seeing in the media recently. The whole thing is well worth reading, but the following paragraphs particularly stand out:
The call has been made for a mandatory free-of-tie option to be offered to pubco tenants. I can tell you what will happen if that is brought in: large numbers of the best currently tenanted/leased pubs will be turned into managed houses, and those pubs not suitable for a managed operation that look as if they will not bring in an adequate return to their pubco owner as free-of-tie operations will be sold to the highest bidder – likely to be Tesco, Sainsbury’s or Morrisons...

...There’s a good argument for saying that if it wasn’t for the pubco model and the support it provides licensees, even more pubs would have gone under in Britain than have so far. As one of the longest-lasting and most-successful pubco chief executives, having outlasted at the wicket most or all of his rivals from the early 1990s, Ted Tuppen can walk away from the crease, pulling off his batting gloves, with plenty of satisfaction.

If the tie was completely abolished, then what incentive would there be for a pubco to lease out a tenanted pub without any “wet rent”? It would become a pure property operation, and it might as well rent the premises out as a supermarket or a nail parlour. The pub market would polarise between high-profile, heavily-invested managed houses, and a long tail of often struggling, tatty and underinvested free houses. If a free house did well, it would be attractive to the managed house operators; if it didn’t, it would be even more vulnerable to conversion to alternative use than pub company pubs are at present. A few successful independent free houses with committed owners would thrive, as they do at present, but that would be far from general.

As I said in the comments, the anti-pubco campaigners never come up with any realistic alternative ownership structure for the industry. To imagine all pubs as stand-alone free-trade operations is pie-in-the-sky, to see them as council-owned “community assets” even more so. If property owners do not stand to gain from the business success of their properties, then what is in it for them?

Saturday 23 November 2013

Culling the stragglers

Until a few years ago, I would always have said that the family brewers were more committed to holding on to their pubs than the pub companies were. Yes, the occasional no-hoper would be let go, such as Robinson’s Church in Edgeley, but often you would see tied houses still in business when around them several pub company properties were closed and boarded.

However, recently things seem to have changed, as a new, more commercially-minded generation comes to the fore and the cold winds of the recession and the general decline of the pub trade have started to bite. I know that to varying degrees Holts, Hydes and Lees have all become keener to dispose of under-performing pubs, but it is Robinson’s cull that is most obvious as they had more pubs to start with, and a large concentration in and around Stockport. Over the past two or three years I would say they have sold off at least an eighth of the pubs they had before.

I recently mentioned the Wanted Inn at Sparrowpit which is typical of quite a few pubs in their rural estate. In central Stockport, we have lost the Royal Oak near the brewery, the Grapes in Edgeley, the Bull’s Head on the Market Place, the Flying Dutchman on Hillgate and Cobdens and the Unity on Wellington Road South. The much-loved Tiviot closed only last weekend. In the suburbs, pubs like the Horsfield Arms outside the Robinson’s packaging plant, the Pineapple in Marple, the Lowes Arms in Woodley and the Grove, Royal Oak and Woodman in Hazel Grove have gone. Macclesfield has seen a similar cull to central Stockport. And I could (but won’t) name at least three more within a mile of the town centre which, on recent evidence, do not look long for this world.

I also recently spotted that the Masons Arms in Denton (pictured) had been de-signed. This is a pub on a prominent main road site, with a car park, and plenty of nearby housing, much of it owner-occupied, so on the face of it would not obviously appear to be unviable.

In the past, many family brewers felt a sense of responsibility towards their community which led them to keep pubs open that were of only marginal viability. However, at the end of the day they are businesses, not charities, and the new generation of Robinsons have taken a long hard look at the company and how it can be taken forward into the future, which has borne fruit in the rebranding of their beers and initiatives like the brewing of Trooper. On the other hand, they have identified that a lot of their pubs were not sufficiently differentiated from each other, and that their estate did have a long tail of nondescript, underperforming pubs that didn’t contribute much to the business overall and in some cases were proving difficult to find tenants for.

It’s sad to see them go, and some have been cracking boozers in their time – particularly the Grapes in Edgeley which was an archetypal street-corner local and for many years a Good Beer Guide stalwart. However, nobody can be unaware of the multiple pressures on the pub trade and you can’t really blame Robinson’s for biting the bullet.

To their credit, I understand that none of these pubs have been sold with restrictive covenants. Some, such as the former Flying Dutchman, now the Fairway, have been bought by new free trade owners, but the majority have either been converted to alternative uses or still stand in a closed and boarded state. I understand there may be moves in the pipeline to bring more of them back to life, which would be a welcome development, but it would be naive to imagine that it’s possible to revive every closed pub with a new management and approach.

Friday 22 November 2013

Who’d ha’ thought it?

In October 2011, the Scottish government introduced a ban on multi-buy discounts for alcoholic drinks purchased in the off-trade. The thinking behind this is that these deals tempted people to buy more than they otherwise would have done and thus they ended up drinking more.

However, two years later, an in-depth study funded by the Department of Health Policy Research Programme has shown the measure has had no significant effect on levels of alcohol purchasing. People were buying alcohol more frequently, but buy less on each occasion. This clearly indicates that multibuy deals tended to be used by the more organised consumers to buy a set level of drinks at the most advantageous price rather than increasing overall consumption.

To a large extent, retailers have replaced these offers by price reductions on individual items and packs, which ironically leads to a lower price point for less well-off drinkers who may not have been able to take advantage of the multibuys. This kind of deal seems to have spread south of the border too – while I haven’t carried out thorough research, and I don’t buy them myself, I get the impression that discounts on individual beer and cider multipacks have grown in popularity in comparison with “3 for £22” offers.

Inevitably, given that this policy has been ineffective, the call comes for more to be done. But even that may not work. “Banning all forms of price promotion of alcohol may be considered a more effective option, yet, such a policy may still be compromised by reductions in the standard price of alcohol products, thereby making alcohol more affordable.” Indeed, I would expect an ALDI-style policy of permanent low prices without any promotions wouldn’t cut consumption either, and indeed may be preferred by many consumers. It should be remembered that price promotions of all kinds are primarily intended to benefit retailers and manufacturers. Canny consumers may gain, but more dim or time-pressed ones will lose out.

In the end, the conclusion is “More encompassing regulation of price promotion and price is likely required, in order to reduce alcohol purchasing and in turn consumption and related harms.” So despite us having about the second highest alcohol duties in the EU, drink is still too cheap!

Thursday 21 November 2013

Sorting the sheep from the goats

I was recently sent a link to an interesting academic research paper. It’s worth reproducing the summary in full:

Could saving the traditional pub be the answer to Britain’s binge drinking problem?

A research study finds evidence for the traditional pub as a site for restrained and responsible social interaction for young adults. The UK government wants further controls to restrict high street bars but on the other hand is concerned about the decline in the number of traditional public houses or pubs. A recent article published in Planning Theory & Practice, Young adults and the decline of the urban English pub: issues for planning, by Marion Roberts (University of Westminster) & Tim Townshend (Newcastle University), discusses whether the English Planning System should distinguish between pubs for the ‘public good’ and licensed premises associated with ‘social ills’?

Roberts and Townshend bring together two issues that have pre-occupied the British government; the decline of the British pub and young people’s drinking. The number of public houses in the UK has fallen by nearly one quarter in the space of three decades. Meanwhile alcohol consumption amongst young adults remains a key policy concern. The authors discuss evidence from research into local variations in youth drinking cultures in England*, which found that young people reported drinking in a restrained and responsible manner in ‘traditional’ pubs. Young adults in their study reported having one or two drinks on a weekday evening or sometimes not drinking alcohol at all. Such behaviour could be contrasted with heavy drinking at high street bars or at house parties.

“I’ve got one group of friends who I would go out clubbing with and they like to get completely wrecked… My other group of friends are more like me and like to go down the pub and have a glass of wine and stick to soft drinks after that. It depends who I am out with.”

While recognising the adverse effects of excessive alcohol consumption, the authors point out that going to pubs reinforces social ties and networks. This evidence lends support to arguments for the contribution of pubs to social sustainability and paradoxically, to health, or at least a healthier mode of alcohol consumption.

The article explores the difficulties the English planning system faces in seeking to distinguish pubs that might be identified with a ‘public good’ from other types of licensed premises more associated with ‘social ills’. The Use Class Order in the English planning system does not provide an adequate distinction between different types of drinking establishment. The authors suggest a new use class established for traditional pubs where the majority of patrons are seated. The UK government is already providing special support to ‘community pubs’, through the Localism Act 2011 and the Community Services Grants. The study found that its sample of young adults were prepared to travel to meet friends and that their pub going routines were rarely confined to their ‘local’. This suggests that while the Localism Act may be effective in supporting well-organised community groups, it does not meet the needs of a younger, mobile demographic.

“It may seem paradoxical to support going to pubs as part of a healthier lifestyle”, says Marion Roberts, “and it is important not to romanticise pubs as there are issues about the extent to which young women feel welcome or comfortable in them and that applies to other groups. Nevertheless, the planning system has been called on by politicians to help local pubs to survive and it does seem that this issue should be taken seriously.”

This sounds all well and good in a motherhood-and-apple pie kind of way, but it’s extremely questionable whether it’s achievable in practice. For a start, many of the traditional pubs have gone already, so it would be a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. And, while the planning system certainly can effectively stop certain types of business from opening up, it can’t magic desirable ones into existence in the absence of customer demand and willingness of businesses to invest.

It would also in practice be very difficult to come up with a watertight definition to distinguish “good” from “bad” businesses and, in reality, the character of a pub is often determined by its clientele rather than the other way round. People might not normally regard Wetherspoon’s, specialist beer bars or upmarket dining pubs as sources of trouble and social ills, but they certainly don’t conform to the classic image of the traditional local. It would be like trying to separate out healthy and unhealthy takeaways through planning law. Qualitative planning criteria are very unlikely to be workable.

A further important point is that the relationship between young people and pubs has been severely eroded by the much greater efforts made in recent years to combat underage drinking. A generation ago, underage drinking in pubs was widely tolerated so long as no trouble was caused. This taught young people how to drink responsibly, and also got them used to the habit of pubgoing. Now, when they will not get served until they are indubitably 18, and even then are constantly harassed to provide proof of age, it is hardly surprising that they go much less and feel more negatively about pubs than they once did. Yet I doubt whether a deliberate policy of turning a blind eye to well-behaved under-18s in pubs is going to find much favour in official circles.

As so often, while politicians spout weasel words about the virtues of pubs, the reality on the ground is that they continue to encourage the policies that have harmed them. They like them in theory, but not in practice. The report is, like many academic publications, bizarrely silent on the factor that in recent years has done more damage to traditional pubs than any other.

It is also very doubtful whether the widespread view that pub drinking is somehow more responsible than at-home drinking has any validity except in the context of socialising the under-25 age group. On average, adults drinking at home will drink less per sitting than those in pubs and are less exposed to risk. Plus, forty years ago, when at-home drinking was largely irrelevant, pubs were by no means all calm, well-behaved establishments – rowdy and even violent behaviour were far from unknown and, back then, if you wanted to see drunks, you found them in pubs.

Sunday 17 November 2013

The world is your apple

In 1977, Michael Jackson produced the World Guide to Beer, which was the first attempt to look at beer on a global basis, identify the various styles in a systematic way and examine how different countries’ brewing traditions fitted together. It went through various editions and arguably has proved the most influential book on beer ever written and a cornerstone of the modern beer enthusiast movement.

Now, well-known beer writer Pete Brown, in conjuction with photographer Bill Bradshaw, has attempted to do the same for cider with his new book The World’s Best Cider. It’s a substantial large-format volume of 256 pages, lavishly illustrated throughout with many of Bill’s photographs which can also be seem on his IamCider blog. It begins with sections defining what cider is and running through its often rather imprecise history, before moving on to look at each cider-producing country in more detail, with descriptions of each region, features on a variety of cidermaking personalities and listings of selected ciders that can be ranked amongst the world’s best.

Although the large-scale industrial cidermakers are not ignored, it is made clear that this is a book celebrating the more distinctive and artisanal end of the spectrum. On the other hand, there is a certain amount of criticism of CAMRA’s narrow-minded definition of “real cider” which excludes many high-quality products and makes the definition of “real beer” seem broad and inclusive.

Cider has a long and honourable tradition in various countries including the UK and Ireland, France, Germany and Spain, but for various reasons has always had to play second fiddle to the major drinks categories of beer, wine and spirits, and therefore often ends up being misunderstood. It is also notable that there has been considerably less cross-fertilisation of styles and methods than there has been with beer, resulting in wide differences between the various countries’ cider cultures. However, as with beer, there is now a growing movement of new-wave “craft” cidermaking to build on the established traditions and look towards other countries’ practices.

I make no claim to be an expert on cider, and I certainly learned a great deal from the book that was new to me. For example, it isn’t widely realised that the UK and Ireland drink more cider than the rest of the world combined, even if much of it is Magners and Strongbow, and that the second largest market is South Africa. While I had vaguely heard of it, I certainly hadn’t appreciated what the strange fermentation technique of “keeving” actually involved, and nor had I realised that the agricultural heartland of Austria had a strong and locally celebrated cider and perry tradition. And I had never heard of the unique Quebec method of producing “ice cider”, which involves freezing the apples to separate out juice from water and results in a strong, sweet yet never cloying beverage that has been described as “like drinking starlight”.

It seems churlish to criticise, but perhaps more could have been said (as Rhys Jones mentioned in a review in Opening Times) about where these various ciders can actually be purchased and, while there is a page on traditional cider houses, the West Country pub cider-drinking culture is underplayed. There are also a few examples of black text on a brown mottled background that is a little hard to read, even before any cider has been consumed.

But, in summary, it’s an attractive, well-written, accessible yet authoritative book that is essential reading for anyone whose interest in cider has progressed beyond Strongbow and Magners. The cover price is £25, but it is available from Amazon at £13.85, and if you follow the links on that page can be obtained for as little as £10.79 including P&P. I have to admit to feeling a slight twinge of guilt for getting it so cheaply, but I’m sure Pete Brown’s wallet can stand it and at least I paid for it rather than getting a free review copy.

Another cider book that is well worth reading is Ciderland by James Crowden which very much concentrates on the West Country and does a good job of getting to the heart of the indefinable atmosphere of “cider country”. And I paid full whack for that!

Saturday 16 November 2013

Unwanted Inn

Here’s another in my occasional series of landmark pubs that have called time forever. This is the Wanted Inn at Sparrowpit in the Peak District, on a notoriously sharp bend on the scenic A623 road between Chapel-en-le-Frith and Baslow. Originally called the Duke of Devonshire, it gained its more recent name because in the 1950s the Devonshire Estate decided to dispose of it, and it took nearly two years before it found a buyer who “wanted” it. This may have been Robinson’s brewery, as for many years it was one of their tied houses before it fell victim, along with plenty of others, to their recent pub cull. The StreetView image from November 2012 shows that it survived long enough to gain Robinson’s new livery. The hamlet of Sparrowpit has thirty or so houses, so some people will no longer have a local pub within walking distance.

Only about three miles away, Robinson’s have also recently closed the handsome Crown & Mitre at Chinley, but as the forecourt seems to be being used as an extension of the used car dealership opposite it wasn’t possible to get a decent photo. I recall many years ago listening to a female customer in this pub going on at great and tedious length about the quality of own-label groceries sold by ALDI.

Incidentally, it is my understanding that Robinson’s are not applying restrictive covenants to any of these pubs, so if you fancy taking one on the opportunity is there. Don’t all rush at once.

Friday 15 November 2013

Blogging blight

So far this year I have made 140 posts on this blog, which equates to about 160 in the full year. However, over the previous four years, the average has been 274. There has been a similar reduction in activity in the beer blogosphere in general, with some established bloggers giving up entirely and others going very quiet. For example, Tandleman has made 80 posts so far this year, or 91 in a full year, compared with an average in the past four years of 179.

For me, this year has been marred by a sad personal event, but I don’t think that has really stemmed the flow of blogging. The key reason, to be honest, is joining Twitter. In the past, there were many instances where I would make a blogpost linking to an interesting article with a few additional comments, which now I would just put on Twitter, saving the blog for the longer and more reflective articles.

However, the problem with Twitter is that it is totally ephemeral. Miss it and it’s gone, whereas on the blog pretty much everything attracts at least a few comments, and the discussion can still be read years later. So, while not planning to forsake Twitter, I will aim to post a few more links and brief comments on here where they may encourage more thoughtful and long-lasting discussion.

Taking flight

Last week I referred to the imminent opening of the Flying Horse, Greene King’s new Hungry Horse pub in Heald Green. As new-build pubs in and around Stockport are as rare as hen’s teeth (what was the last one? Three Bears? Micker Brook?) I thought I should go along and take a look.

It’s an impressively large building, mostly of red brick, with some white-painted facings and contrasting mock-quoin detailing on the corners. There’s a large car park at the back, but unusually you have to walk round to the front to get to the main entrance. I spotted later that there was a small back door, but it isn’t at all conspicuous. There are signs saying that there is a two-hour time limit in the car park. It’s questionable how enforceable this is, as all they can do is send out an imitation “fine” which you can probably safely ignore. Proximity to the airport is obviously the reason for this, but even so it’s easy to see a celebration meal with a large party extending for more than two hours, so I would have thought three more reasonable.

As you enter through the front door, the long main bar is in front of you. On the right is a lounge-type area with extensive bench seating and a “public bar” with large-screen TV and pool table where there is a sign saying “Over 18s only”. To the left, extending up to the conservatory, it is more restaurant-like with free-standing tables and seating booths. The decor makes extensive use of wood and dark blues and reds, and the overall impression is much more pub-like than many of Wetherspoon’s recent efforts such as the Kingfisher at Poynton. There is a large outdoor seating area that is ideal for watching planes coming in to the airport, but the covered smoking area at the rear is small and apologetic. For a midweek lunchtime only a few days after opening it was remarkably busy, with probably at least 75% of tables occupied in a very large pub.

There are two banks of handpumps dispensing Greene King IPA, Old Speckled Hen and Abbot Ale, but they are at each end of the bar and so not immediately obvious on walking in. The IPA is £2.95 a pint and the others £3.05 – par for the course for the area and type of pub. All are served in branded glasses, with the one for IPA being a dumpy, smooth-sided tankard which won’t be to everyone’s taste. The IPA I tried was in perfectly good condition but, as usual with this beer, rather bland. There’s a wide range of kegs and lagers, none of which, interestingly, are Greene King products – even the smooth ale is John Smith’s. World lager fans will note the availability of Brahma on tap.

Obviously there is an extensive food menu of a fairly cheap and cheerful kind, majoring on burgers, steaks and pub favourites. The prices and quality are similar to Wetherspoon’s, although with rather more choice overall. Most main courses are in the £6-£7 range. Only wanting a snack, I went for a “Big Burrito” which seemed to rather miss the point by mixing the rice, sour cream and guacamole in with the beef chilli filling rather than serving them separately. It’s a long way from fine dining and I can’t help thinking that pubs of this type often rather underestimate the food tastes of their target market, but presumably Greene King have done their research thoroughly.

In summary, it’s obviously a chain dining pub and has to be accepted for what it is. It’s not going to win any awards for an innovative beer range, gourmet food or pub atmosphere. But it actually feels more like a pub than many of the genre and is actually somewhere you would not feel out of place just going for a drink. It could be a lot worse.

The location is here at the junction of the B5166 Styal Road and Longstone Road. While most people would consider it to be Heald Green, it is actually just over the boundary into the City of Manchester and so would more properly be described as Moss Nook. It will be interesting to see what effect it has on the business of the nearby – and much more characterful – Tatton Arms, which Robinson’s refurbished a couple of years ago.

Thursday 14 November 2013

Seize the day

Pete Brown is always worth reading, but I can’t help getting the impression that in this piece for the Morning Advertiser he meanders round a number of points without ever really managing to hit the nail on the head.

The basic premise is reasonable enough, that pubs need to look at what people actually want rather than just trying to find ways to market their existing offer more effectively. However, on a number of points he’s guilty of somewhat muddled thinking.

For a start, I don’t really get the point that pubs in locations which can support coffee shops are not opening until 4 or 5 pm. Yes, a lot of pubs do that during the week, but generally in locations where there is little or no passing trade. If a High Street can generate the trade for Starbucks or Caffé Nero, then it can do the same for pubs. Certainly round here the vast majority of town and city centre pubs open all day. It may be a London thing, but flicking through the London pages of the Good Beer Guide I can’t find many pubs that don’t open at least from noon. Perhaps it’s just a generalisation based on one particular pub that annoys him.

He then argues that pubs need to look at reinventing themselves to appeal to the type of customers who are using coffee shops. In fact, many have to some extent – how many town centre pubs now have clear plate-glass windows, sofas and pastel colours? The still pervasive idea that pubs are gloomy dives hidden behind frosted glass containing hacking old drunks ranting on about the Four Canals is now far more myth than reality. And, as Steve Wilson says in the comments, if you try to appeal to new customers, you have to be very careful that you don’t just end up alienating your existing ones. Plus, for various reasons, the trade derived from people “just popping in for a quick one” is now much diminished from what it once was.

He also comes up with the familiar canard about pubs overcharging for soft drinks. As I argued here, nobody goes to pubs primarily because of their choice of soft drinks, the demand is highly inelastic and in any case pub soft drink prices are broadly comparable with “family restaurants”. It may well be in pubs’ interest to offer a better range of soft drinks (or anything else), and it may also be a good idea to avoid prices so high they give the impression of ripping customers off. But cheaper soft drinks won’t bring floods of new customers into pubs, and if you cut soft drink prices, what are you going to charge more for? Beer?

I get the impression from this piece that Pete is drawing lessons from the Inner London pub market and seeking to apply them to the rest of the country, whereas in reality the way the two work is becoming increasingly divorced.

The fightback begins

Off Licence News reports that alcohol producers are looking at taking legal action against local councils imposing “voluntary” bans on selling higher strength beer and cider in the off-trade.

Nigel McNally, managing director of Brookfield Drinks, which markets 9% abv Kestrel Super lager and 7.5% Diamond White cider, said local authorities could be bankrupted by the compensation they would be forced to pay out if they lost. Hundreds of off-licences, including the East of England Co-operative, have taken beers and ciders as low as 5.5% abv off their shelves as part of a drive to tackle street drinking, and in some cases the ban has been enshrined in premises licences.

But producers believe the schemes are illegal. McNally said: “People are being affected commercially, and when that happens companies will respond, probably collectively. Councils will be challenged and claims brought. Some councils could potentially go bust if it’s demonstrated it’s illegal, and that’s been our advice.”

Gordon Johncox, managing director of Aston Manor Brewery, which produces 7.5% Frosty Jack’s cider, added: “According to our advice super-strength bans could be breaking competition law if there is a concerted agreement between competing parties. If the local authority facilitated a dialogue it could be seen as illegal.

“A bigger issue is we’re hearing retailers feel coerced into participating, fearing they may jeopardise licences if they don’t.”

It’s also good to see producers of premium products like Henry Chevallier Guild of Aspall Cider getting involved, as they have just as much to lose, if not more, and should not deceive themselves that somehow they can avoid being tarred with the same brush.

Let us hope that the courts move swiftly to reinforce the point that councils have no right to prevent the sale of entirely legal products within their areas.

It’s also very noticeable how councils who are constantly pleading poverty and unable to provide basic services properly still seem to have money to burn on things that are none of their business. And surely, if there really is a problem with street drinking, the answer is to pass a local by-law to prohibit it (although there are concerns that can be applied in a heavy-handed manner) and then actively enforce it, rather than penalising responsible consumers as well.

Tuesday 12 November 2013

No fun any more

Discussion of changing pub names reminded me of a category of pub that seems to have largely vanished from the face of the earth – the “Fun Pub”, or “Young People’s Pub”, or, as often dismissively referred to by CAMRA members, the “Kiddy Pub”.

At one time during the 80s, this was all the rage. Take one struggling pub, preferably one on a prominent site, give it a makeover including pool tables, wall-to-wall TV screens, bright lights, loud music and garish decor majoring on white and bright pink, strip out bench seating in favour of high-level stools, give it a new name with an S on the end such as Chaplins or Bogarts, and there you go. The picture shows one in Brownhills near Walsall which was changed from the George and Dragon to “Georgies” – and, of course, is now long since closed.

Around here the Pennine Hosts managed pub arm of Grand Metropolitan seemed to be the worst offenders, but they weren’t alone. We even had the former Golden Hind in Offerton renamed as “Drakes”. Very often, any cask beer was removed, but sometimes an apologetic handpull remained dispensing ill-kept Webster’s Yorkshire Bitter so it could be criticised on CAMRA pub crawls.

The whole thing was very typical of the 80s boom, redolent of Loadsamoney, Stock, Aitken and Waterman and the Escort XR3i, and gave the impression that the designers had been watching too many Brat Pack movies and re-runs of Tom Cruise in Cocktail. I’m not sure that these pubs ever did the hoped-for business, as for every customer who was attracted at least one other would be deterred. Added to this, the redecoration schemes were very much done on the cheap and it wasn’t too long before they started to look decidedly frayed at the edges.

So, as we moved into the 90s, the concept withered on the vine. The pubs began to be converted back into something rather more mainstream, with a bit more food and a bit more seating, or, increasingly, they ended up being declared unviable and closed altogether. While you do get youth-oriented bars in the nightlife sections of major towns and cities, outside of those areas pubs specifically targeted at that market seem to have largely disappeared.

It’s not something I personally miss, but it’s an interesting example of how the pub scene has changed over the years. I also get the impression that the drinking and socialising patterns amongst the younger age group that once sustained these pubs, to a greater or lesser degree, twenty-five years ago have largely vanished.

Sunday 10 November 2013

What’s in a name?

In the past few years, a number of local pubs have been sold off into the free trade by the pub companies and family brewers. In many cases, with the aim of demonstrating a fresh start, the new owners have decided to change the name. Thus the Railway in Romiley became Platform One, the Board in Whaley Bridge the Drum and Monkey, the Flying Dutchman on Hillgate the Fairway and now the Pack Horse on Stockport Market Place the Cocked Hat.

This has divided opinion, with some people seeing it as a betrayal of tradition. However, I can’t really get too worked up about it. I can understand why the new owners want to draw a line under its former reputation, and the new name is at least an established pub name with a link to Stockport’s past association with the hatting industry. There is perhaps a better argument in favour of retaining unusual and distinctive names such as the Flying Dutchman. There was another example of this in Widnes a few years back where the possibly unique Angel & Elephant became the depressingly mundane Appleton Arms (and is now closed anyway).

At least the once commonplace fad of giving old pubs new “trendy” names such as Sippers, Jesters or Marilyns now seems to have died the death – along, sadly, with many of the pubs given this treatment, like the old Manchester Arms in Stockport which eventually ended up as Cobdens.

And, if you do rename your pub, you run the risk that for decades people will continue to refer to it as “you know, what used to be the Pack Horse”. Plus, sometimes new names simply do not stick, so a few years later the pub quietly reverts to its original identity, as we saw with the Dog & Partridge in Heaton Mersey which had a spell as the Mersey Vale.

Saturday 9 November 2013

The British Pub Corporation

Occasionally, campaigners against pub closures have suggested that threatened pubs should be taken into local authority ownership and run as “community resources”. Realistically, I doubt whether many people nowadays would consider running pubs to be an appropriate activity for councils and, even if they tried to, the enterprise would be on a pretty certain road to disaster. Just imagine going to your local pub and being bombarded with posters about the evils of binge-drinking!

But many of today’s pubgoers won’t be aware that, within the drinking career of many older pub customers, something along similar lines existed in Britain in the form of the Carlisle State Management Scheme. This was originally set up during the First World War when Carlisle and the surrounding area were a centre of munitions manufacture and concern was expressed that widespread drunkenness amongst the workers was harming the war effort. So all the pubs in the area, together with four small breweries, were taken into State ownership. Three of the breweries were closed down and production concentrated on the fourth. Opening hours were curtailed and instructions given that the pubs should be run with the aim of discouraging excessive consumption, for example by banning the buying of rounds.

Some would argue that the ulterior motive was actually for Lloyd George – a noted temperance campaigner – to run an experiment with State control of the liquor trade which, if successful, could be extended to the rest of the country. In the end, this never happened but, somewhat surprisingly, after the war the scheme was allowed to continue, and the pubs and brewery were not returned to private ownership. The beers were sold at notably reasonable prices, as the aim was not to make profits from alcohol sales, and there was no advertising or brewery branding on the pubs. During the inter-war period, a number of the pubs were tastefully rebuilt on “improved” lines according to designs by architect Harry Redfern, who is commemorated by the handsome Redfern Inn at Etterby, complete with its own bowling green. It almost sounds like a nationalised version of Sam Smith’s without the feudal employment practices. The photo above shows the Jester (formerly the Earl Grey) on Botchergate, a rare design by Redfern in an Art Deco style rather than his usual more traditional Arts and Crafts idiom. It is now a Taekwon-do school.

The scheme seems to have been pretty much forgotten by officialdom and continued in operation well after the Second World War. However, it was eventually wound up by the Heath government in 1971. In The Beer Drinker’s Companion, published shortly afterwards, Frank Baillie says that it brewed “a well-flavoured draught bitter with a good hop rate, and a dark mild” and also mentions that its pubs also stocked over twenty brands of beer from other brewers, draught keg and bottled. It seems that it was regarded locally with considerable affection, but in reality it had become an indefensible anachronism. I don’t know from my reading to what extent it exercised a monopoly within its trading area that prevented outside brewers from opening new pubs – I assume that effectively it did.

In hindsight, it would probably have made more sense to sell off the brewery together with a good chunk of the tied houses as a going concern. As it was, most of the pubs were acquired by either Scottish & Newcastle or Greenalls, and the latter attracted considerable criticism by refusing to sell cask beer in any of them. The brewery ended up in the hands of Theakston’s, who had outgrown their original Masham premises, but it seems they always struggled to make a go of it, especially as it was a considerable distance from their main trading area in the Yorkshire Dales. Eventually it closed in 1987 after Matthew Brown – who had previously acquired Theakston’s – were themselves taken over by Scottish & Newcastle.

Even had it lasted through the 1970s, it is unthinkable that the State Management Scheme would have survived the privatisation boom of the 1980s. It was created in an age when the demand for pubs was very much a given, and in the much more fickle and competitive marketplace of the modern age it would surely have struggled. It is always a feature of publicly-owned enterprises of any kind that they are much more concerned to defend the past rather than innovate, and you can see it attracting criticism for failing to meet the demand for trendy city-centre bars and food houses, while being engaged in a constant running battle over attempts to rationalise the peripheral estate and rural pubs that had experienced declining trade. There would inevitably be an expectation that it would keep open such establishments for social reasons even if they had become unprofitable.

Even now, there are a couple of examples of this kind of thinking in these recent local newspaper reports about the future prospects of two Redfern estate pubs – the Rose & Crown and the Magpie. Indeed,

Councillor Robert Betton, who represents the Botcherby ward, launched a petition to try and save the Magpie. He is trying to persuade Carlisle City Council to run it as a going concern.
I wish him luck with that. Whereas, re the Rose & Crown,
Philip Tuer, the pub’s liaison for the Solway branch of CAMRA, said: “It’s one of the Redfern pubs and it will be a sad loss but unfortunately the last couple of licensees haven’t been able to make it pay.

“If you can’t get the customers through the door no matter how much you spend you are flogging a dead horse.”

He added: “With its bowling green, by knocking it down you triple the size of the land you have available.

“Financially it is worth a lot more that way. It is a difficult time.”

I understand that the Rose & Crown has now been demolished.