Tuesday 29 January 2013

Minimum support, maximum damage

I know others have got there first, but I thought these two stories about minimum alcohol pricing that came out in the past few days were worth a mention.

First was an opinion poll conducted by YouGov on behalf of SABMiller, which found that a mere 0.36% of people said that it would lead them to drink more in the pub and less at home, while no less than 39% said it would mean they actually drank less in the pub. That completely undermines the argument advanced by some in CAMRA and industry twerps like Rooney Anand of Greene King that it would actually help pubs. In fact it would do just the opposite.

The pernicious effects of the policy are underlined by the fact that 16% of respondents said it would lead to them cutting back on other areas of spending, and 13% of those already in financial difficulties said they would cut back on food. A better way of making the poor poorer is hard to imagine.

Second, another poll conducted by ComRes on behalf of the WSTA found that fewer than one in five people support the plan. No less than 87% thought it would do nothing to reduce binge-drinking. You do have to wonder why the government are pressing on with such a blatantly unpopular and ineffective policy, although the word is that they are looking for a way to quietly shelve it before the European courts do it for them.

Yes, of course both SABMiller and the WSTA have an axe to grind, but YouGov and ComRes are reputable polling organisations and they certainly would not conduct such polls using dubious methodology.

Saturday 26 January 2013

Take me home country roads

Councillors in County Kerry in the west of Ireland have voted in favour of asking the Irish government to introduce a relaxation of the drink-drive limit for rural areas. Ireland reduced its limit from 80mg to 50mg in 2011 and, not surprisingly, the move has led to a sharp fall in trade for rural pubs, already reeling from the impact of the smoking ban. The petition has minimal chance of success, but it underlines how cutting the limit has cast a grey blanket of Puritanism over social life outside major towns and cities, just as it would on this side of the Irish Sea. For the most part, Ireland is a far-flung, rural country, and the available trade for such rural pubs as remain must now be very thin pickings.

The cut is defended as a road safety measure, but in reality the vast majority of drink-related casualties have always been caused by people well over the previous limit, and the additional risk for drivers in the 50-80 mg band varies between zero and very little. The people who cheerfully ignored the previous law will continue to do so, while the law-abiding will sit miserably at home over a few cans of Guinness or a bottle of whiskey, missing the companionship of the pub. Many will have been happy to enjoy a couple of legal pints with their friends, but if restricted to just the one will conclude the trip is no longer worthwhile.

The proposal isn’t entirely far-fetched, as there is a precedent for having different limits in different areas within the same country – until fairly recently, this applied between different states of the USA, and of course it will be the case if and when Alex Salmond cuts the limit in Scotland.

Friday 25 January 2013

Decline accelerates

Three months ago I wrote a post called Steady Decline Continues, saying that the most recent BBPA Beer Barometer figures weren’t actually all that bad, considering. However, following a sharp downturn in the final quarter of 2012, the latest ones, released today, are markedly worse.

On an annualised basis, the overall beer market is down by 4.7% on 2011, with the pain shared equally between on- and off-trades. The on-trade is now 25% down on five years ago, and an annual 4.7% fall will halve the total in 14 years. Indeed, the past 14 years have seen a 45% drop. It’s no longer a switch from one to the other, it’s a decline right across the board, so the argument that “supermarkets are killing pubs” looks very threadbare.

The beer duty escalator must bear a substantial share of the blame for this. I certainly get the impression there has been a significant fattening of margins on undiscounted products in the off-trade, with a humble four-pack of Carling now often costing well north of £4, and the £3+ pint of cooking bitter has become commonplace in pubs. On the other hand, the anti-drink lobby will look at the figures and say “good result – keep with it”.

Sunday 20 January 2013

Bière ordinaire

Robinson’s Unicorn (formerly Best Bitter), the best-selling cask ale in and around Stockport, is brewed to a relatively generous 4.2% ABV. It’s fairly rare for a beer of that strength to be sold as the staple bitter in pubs, and I’ve heard people complaining that “it gives them a bad head”, probably because it’s that little bit stronger than most of its competitors.

It’s sometimes claimed by anti-drink campaigners that drinkers will simply “go for strength”, but in fact that is very wide of the mark. Beer has a much wider range of strengths than wines or spirits, but in reality beers of a particular type tend to cluster within a fairly narrow strength range, and people rarely choose one over another just because it is that bit stronger.

“Ordinary bitter” took over from mild as the best-selling beer in Britain in the early 60s and, although it has now relinquished that position to cooking lager, it remains by far the best-selling type of ale. Despite the rise of golden ales and premium beers, I would guess it still accounts for well over half of all real ale sold, and a much higher proportion of keg beers.

Typically it falls in a strength range between 3.4% and 4.0%, and within that I don’t really think drinkers are too concerned about the actual strength. Indeed, one of the best-regarded examples, Brakspear Bitter, is down at 3.4%. Intoxication is not the main object of drinking ordinary bitter. It’s a beer suited to long evening sessions in the pub, where the effect builds up gradually and it acts as a social lubricant. It doesn’t instantly render you incapable; a couple at lunchtime won’t stop you working in the afternoon, or cause you to fall foul of the breathalyser. It’s a subtle, social kind of beer. Up to a point, as with the example of Unicorn, moderation in strength is even seen as a virtue. Arguably, it is the quintessential English beer.

This helps explain why the reduction in strength of John Smith’s Extra Smooth won’t be met with outrage and boycotts, just as the reduction of Stella wasn’t. As long as a beer continues to fit within its category, drinkers, especially pub drinkers, won’t be too bothered.

Out of interest, here are the strengths of the some of the popular ordinary bitters in the North-West, compared with their original gravities from the 1977 Good Beer Guide:

  • Holt’s Bitter: 4.0% (1038.5)

  • Hyde’s Bitter 3.8% (1036)

  • Lees Bitter: 4.0% (1038)

  • Robinson’s Unicorn/Best Bitter: 4.2% (1042)

  • Sam Smith’s Old Brewery Bitter: 4.0% (1039.9)

  • Tetley Cask Bitter: 3.7% (1035.5)

  • Thwaites Bitter: 3.6% (1036)
So we weren’t drinking particularly strong beers back in 1977 either, and nobody would have been outraged at being offered a 3.6% bitter.

Boddingtons Bitter – now no longer available in cask – was declared at 1035 in 1977. The brand owners made a big mistake when they increased its strength to 4.1% a few years before its demise – indeed Brunning & Price replaced it with Thwaites because their regular customers (no doubt including many drivers) felt it had become too strong.

Wednesday 16 January 2013

Water, water everywhere

The latest round in the inexorable process of watering the workers’ beer came with the announcement from Heineken that the strength of John Smith’s Extra Smooth was to be cut from 3.8% to 3.6% ABV. This was greeted with hoots of derision from many quarters, but it should be remembered that this beer, however little you may think of it, is the best-selling draught ale in the UK. To be honest, I can’t recall ever having drunk it, although I have had Tetley’s Smooth a few times.

Heineken have managed to save themselves £6.6 million a year in beer duty while at the same time gaining brownie points by going with the flow of the government-approved programme of taking alcohol units out of the market. It still isn’t out of line with its competitors – Greene King IPA is 3.6%, and I believe smoothflow Boddingtons is only 3.5% – but this is a clear indication of the overall direction of travel. And don’t forget that some popular Scottish smooth beers such as Belhaven Best and Caledonia Best are a mere 3.2%, so there may well be further to go. In the long term, beer strength reductions are an inevitable result of the duty escalator.

Cask John Smith’s Bitter will remain at 3.8%, so there may be a temptation to say “I’m all right Jack.” However, we have already seen strength reductions for many popular cask brands such as Bombardier and Old Speckled Hen and, while there remains a wide mix of strengths in the market, I certainly get the impression that the average strength of guest beers offered in pubs has significantly fallen in recent years. And it’s not inconceivable that, for example, Robinson’s might decide that they gain no benefit from brewing Unicorn at 4.2%, which is a couple of points stronger than any of its direct competitors.

Of course, given that in some quarters it is portrayed as a virtue that beer is a “low-strength drink”, this could be regarded as good news in advancing the responsible drinking agenda.

Saturday 12 January 2013

Obscure beer syndrome

Something I’ve noticed a few times recently is pubs aiming to establish their credentials for selling and promoting real ale trying a bit too hard by offering an ever-changing roster of often distinctly obscure and seasonal guest beers. These are not the specialist multi-beer alehouses, but pubs of a more general appeal, with food trade and footy-watching regulars, that want to make a mark for themselves.

There’s nothing wrong with rotating guest beers, but you can have too much of a good thing. In the widely-mentioned Peter Jackson article about CAMRA’s image with the young, he says that the reported factors putting people off drinking it include “too much variety” and “confronted with unfamiliar brands, which makes the decision difficult”.

I’m probably vastly more knowledgeable about the beer market than most punters, but even so I recently went in a pub where I was confronted with four totally unfamiliar beers and struggled to establish which I’d actually want to drink. I’m not suggesting an unremitting diet of familiar brands, but surely it would make sense, especially in a pub with a lot of casual customers, to have at least one beer on the bar such as, say, Brains SA, Black Sheep Bitter or Draught Bass that they might at least recognise. In a pub with a stronger regular trade, perhaps you should have one or two regular beers from a well-respected local micro on the bar alongside the more unusual brews. A well-chosen permanent beer can be a pivot around which the guest beers revolve.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that, even now, most real ale is probably consumed by drinkers as their “regular brew” in just the same way as Carling, Guinness and Strongbow. It certainly is round here in the average Robinson’s, Holts and Sam Smith’s pub.

Another problem is that this approach can easily lead to a lack of balance in their beer range, and four rather samey beers occupying the pumps. Ideally, if you have four pumps, it would make sense to offer a choice of a dark mild or stout, an ordinary bitter, a stronger special bitter and a golden ale. Christmas brings a slew of seasonal specials which are typically not too dark, not too strong and not too hoppy, and four of those can be distinctly underwhelming.

Down in the trenches

Some telling words here from William Lees-Jones of Middleton family brewer J W Lees:

Lees-Jones said that the company had been “in the trenches” since the smoking ban. He said the firm had initially adopted a “very defensive” approach, protecting its core wet-led trade by building smoking shelters.

“It has been a waste of time, if I’m honest. That part of our trade changed forever.”

“Where we have seen success, it has been with food and families”.

Food sales throughout its 30-strong managed-pub estate have increased from about 15% to 43% since the smoking ban was brought in”.

Surely, looking at it the other way, that means wet sales have declined from 85% to 57%, not good news if you run a brewery. This is yet more evidence of how the smoking ban has killed the traditional drink and chat community pub.

Lees may succeed in opening a few trendy café-bars, but how does a café-bar benefit from being owned by a family brewer dating back 185 years? As I reported here, the future of the pub is seen as “food, families, females and fortysomethings”. No fags, though, at least those sold in packs of twenty. Which, for all too many long-standing pub customers, spells “f-off home”.

And a smoking shelter, however commodious and well-intentioned, can never be more than a grudging, third-rate substitute for actually allowing the smokers inside the pub itself.

Saturday 5 January 2013

Out of their boxes

Tom Paine recently made a blogpost in which he suggested that resistance to State nannying is only likely to become serious once the pleasures of the working class are directly targeted:

The state can beat up as many anti-statist intellectuals as it likes and no-one will protest. Let it beat up the smokers, drinkers and pie-fans however and popular resistance can be expected - even from those usually too idle to move further than to the nearest Greggs. Doctors with God complexes may therefore be our best hope. Perhaps as we enter the final phase of end-of-year excess, we should be campaigning for votes to be proportionate to BMI, units of alcohol per week or fags per day?
I’m not too sure about that, as we seem to have meekly accepted all kinds of intrusion into private behaviour in recent years. But the BMA seem determined to prove him right, with their latest call for official government alcohol guidelines to be revised downwards. Apparently we should cut our consumption to no more than a quarter of a pint of beer a day. That’s really going to keep loads of pubs in business.

Mind you, if this becomes official, the convenient figleaf used by CAMRA and others that “moderate drinking is compatible with a healthy lifestyle” will be torn away. If you accept the BMA’s definition of a healthy lifestyle, it won’t be. To my mind, the day CAMRA abandon any pretence of standing up for “responsible drinking”, as officially defined, will be the day they are set free.

Of course, all this stems from a ludicrous misinterpretation of the concept of risk. Pretty much everything you do involves some risk, and drinking a bit more (or even quite a lot more) than some made-up official “guidelines” actually doesn’t involve significantly more risk. And it’s funny how they keep quiet about participation in sports and promiscuous sex.