Friday 15 February 2013

Cart before horse

It has often been said that the role of CAMRA is “to campaign for real ale” and that seems a clear enough mission statement. However, something that isn’t appreciated as widely as it should be is that CAMRA actually predates “real ale” as a concept. It’s not as though the organisation was formed to defend something that was widely understood but felt to be under threat.

When they had their famous discussion in that pub in the west of Ireland, the four founder members had a general sense that something was going wrong with British beer, but they didn’t know exactly what. Initially, of course, the organisation was called the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale. It was only later, once they had looked into the subject more thoroughly, that the current definition of “real ale” was arrived at.

In the context of the British draught beer market at the time, it was actually a pretty good approximation of the distinction between “good” and “bad”, and it is something that has stood the test of time. Of course recently it has been challenged to some extent by the rise of “craft keg”, but that remains very much a niche phenomenon and this certainly isn’t meant as yet another blogpost on that much overdone topic.

The problem starts to arise when the principle is extended to areas of the beer market for which it was never intended. By the time CAMRA was founded, cask-conditioning had pretty much died out beyond the shores of Great Britain, but that isn’t to say there was no good draught beer in any other countries. Yet you would find some people who had taken the definition a bit too seriously saying things like “there’s no good beer in Germany, it’s all keg”, which was both silly and ignorant. To some extent, you still do.

Matters got worse, though, and were brought closer to home, when the principle was extended from draught to packaged beers in the UK. In 1971, bottled and canned beers accounted for less than 10% of the British beer market, and so had not assumed the significance they have now, and effectively all bottled beers had been “bright” for decades as drinkers wanted to avoid the risk of cloudy beer. There were only a tiny handful of bottle-conditioned beers still on the market, and so CAMRA could easily put these on a pedestal without ruffling too many feathers. The discerning drinker drank real ale in the pub.

However, over time the market changed. There was a steady move from pub to at-home drinking, and brewers began introducing bottled (but brewery-conditioned) versions of the popular real ales people enjoyed in the pub, rather than the generic pale and brown ales that had once dominated the market. Clearly a bottle of Taylor’s Landlord is a very different product from a can of Younger’s Tartan, and yet it was still glibly dismissed as “keg in a bottle”.

In response to this, CAMRA began putting more effort into championing bottle-conditioned beers, and developed the marketing concept of “real ale in a bottle”. White Shield has been repackaged and promoted, and some of the established brewers have introduced new beers like Fuller’s 1845 and Young’s Special London Ale. However, it can’t be said that the sector has exactly set the market alight, and most of the widely available BCAs are strong specials that you would only drink on occasion rather than everyday quaffing brews.

And the downside is that many micro-breweries have been encouraged to produce ranges of bottle-conditioned beers that, to be blunt, are wildly inconsistent dreck, and which many buyers will actively avoid. Those smaller breweries wanting to make a mark in the bottled market have – to the chagrin of some CAMRA diehards – gone for brewery-conditioning, as they know it is more customer-friendly. Take, for example, Purity, Slater’s, Moorhouse’s, Hawkshead, Harviestoun and Williams Bros, all of which have been spotted on the shelves of my local supermarkets.

It has to be recognised that bottle-conditioning simply does not give the drinker the clear distinction from brewery-conditioning that cask beer does over keg. Indeed, the main difference was always the care needed in pouring to keep the sediment in the bottle, and the likelihood of getting a cloudy glassful, although that has been eroded by the widespread adoption of “sticky” yeast by the bigger brewers. But, given that, it cannot be said that a bottle of bottle-conditioned Fuller’s Bengal Lancer presents the drinker with a significantly different experience in terms of general character and mouthfeel from one of brewery-conditioned ESB.

As py0, who sometimes comments on here, said on the CAMRA forum, you can take some CAMRA diehard into Tesco, show him the hundred or more widely varied British ales on the shelves, mostly from independent and micro breweries, and ask him which he thinks are worth drinking. He’ll cough, hum and hah a bit and point out the one or two that are bottle-conditioned such as 1845 or White Shield. Surely that can’t be an acceptable position for an organisation supposedly committed to promoting quality and variety in British beer and brewing.

Of course the vast majority of drinkers, even the most knowledgeable and discerning, cheerfully ignore this distinction, and its effect is not so much to restrict the prospects of individual breweries as to make CAMRA appear pedantic and out-of-touch. It does it no favours to erect bottle-conditioning as a shibboleth for packaged beers. Whether or not a beer is good should be judged by how it actually tastes, not on whether some particular hard-and-fast rule has been rigidly applied.

Monday 11 February 2013

Premium position

Following the most recent round of brewery price increases, I paid £3.20 for a pint of Robinson’s Dizzy Blonde (3.8% ABV) in a pub within the boundaries of Stockport MBC. This compared with a previous price of £3.05, and so represented an increase of nearly 5% - and that’s before the next round of the duty escalator. There’s at least one pub I can think of within the borough boundaries where it would probably be at least 10p dearer, while on the other hand you could get the same beer, or the slightly stronger Unicorn, for £2.60, only a few miles away in and around the town centre.

On the face of it, such differentials may seem hard to justify when the underlying cost of the beer is identical. However, it must be remembered that these pubs are tenancies, not managed houses, and licensees are entitled to make their own judgment as to the appropriate level of pricing for their local area. Pub company owned pubs in the Stockport suburbs are already charging similar prices, and out in the leafier parts of Cheshire the typical price of a pint is well north of £3. Those with an interest in economics may also want to consider the concept of embedded rent, which is especially relevant to products such as pub drinks which are consumed at the time and place of purchase and not stored.

While it is undoubtedly true that differentials between pubs owned by the same brewery have widened over the years, it has always been the case that some pubs, often those serving a more prosperous clientele, have charged a price premium. And you can now see similar differentials in the Holts estate, once renowned for uniform low prices, between their “improved” pubs and their more traditional boozers.

A further factor is that customers of pubs in more salubrious areas will not only have more money in their pockets, but are also more likely to be diners and so will view the cost of their pint as part of their overall spend. A 50p differential on one or two pints will be neither here nor there if you’re spending £15 or more on a two-course meal, but if you’re going to the pub for a six-pint session you will be much more price-conscious.

The question must be asked, though, as to whether the trade as a whole is taking decisions which from the short-term perspective of the individual pub may seem to make sense, but in the long-term are likely to seriously erode business by continually raising prices above the general level of inflation, let alone their customers’ disposable income.

Saturday 9 February 2013

Wet January

Well, not a lot of interest from blog readers in “Dry January”, with no less than 46% having visited pubs ten or more times just to have a drink, and two-thirds having done it at least five times. Amongst this sample, pubgoing is clearly alive and well. However, as seen with other polls on here, there’s a distinct U-shape to the results, with 28% having done it just once or twice or not at all - although they may well have had a drink elsewhere.

As I said in a recent post, people who want to go to pubs will continue to go to pubs. Whether the population as a whole will do the same is less certain.

Thursday 7 February 2013

Sticky wickets

There’s an interesting new website called A Journey into History which contains reminiscences of the long-closed Railway Inn on Wellington Road South in Stockport, which is now an art shop.

One of the most memorable anecdotes is the tale of pub regular “Sticky” Edwards whom the family encountered when they moved to another pub, the Church in Heaton Norris. At the same time both funny and sad, this has to be read to be believed, and conjures up a vanished world of how pubs used to be.

You just don’t seem to see that kind of heroic-cum-tragic volume consumption of beer in pubs nowadays. Indeed, to maintain a twenty pints a day habit would be prohibitively expensive, yet “Sticky” seemed to manage it on a pension in the 1950s, suggesting that the real-terms price of a pint across the bar has actually increased over the years.

The story reminded me of this post from last year about a retired licensee who claimed to have routinely drunk forty pints a day in his heyday.

Sunday 3 February 2013

A more selective appeal

Tandleman recently wrote a post about the future of the pub entitled I’ll Still Have a Pub to Go To. This included the following comments about the current situation that could almost have been written by myself:

So why go to the pub? Remaining bottom end pubs are no go areas, road house pubs have either gone or become family oriented eateries, estate pubs have closed, slowly, one after the other as drinkers can drink and smoke cheaply at home, town centre pubs can be hell holes at weekends (or magnets for a certain kind of young drinker) and deserted during the week. Good honest locals are struggling too. My observation too is that many young drinkers that do find their way to the boozer, aren't drinking that much by way of beer, but ready mixes, exotic ciders and gaudily coloured spirits with Red Bull.
His conclusion is that, while the pub trade has declined, there will always be pubs of some kind for those that want them. Despite all the doom and gloom, it is important to remember that we still have two-thirds of the pubs that were trading thirty years ago, and some of them at least continue to do very healthy business.

However, as I posted here, both the geographical and social range served by pubs have become narrower over the years. The famous quote from the classic film This is Spinal Tap that the band’s appeal was “becoming more selective” is very much true of pubs as well. Whole swathes of inner cities are now pretty much devoid of pubs – see this post on Pubs of Manchester about how a recent closure has left Collyhurst in Manchester “an almost pub-free district” – while the comfortable middle classes, although they may eat in gastropubs, don’t do much actual drinking in pubs any more.

It’s also the case that closing one pub doesn’t necessarily mean that all its customers will go to another. Making a visit to a pub depends on a particular combination of opportunity and geography, and for every pub that closes, there will be a proportion of its customers who simply stop going to pubs rather than moving to one down the road, and a segment of society for whom pubgoing ceases to be something that is an option in their normal routine.

Rather than having a universal appeal, pubs in future will need to specialise in those aspects of their offer that they can do well enough to tempt people out of their living rooms. This is why, in the right location, specialist beer pubs are doing much better than bog-standard pubs, but it doesn’t mean your average estate local will prosper by putting on a range of craft kegs. Pubgoing will increasingly become a niche market, not something most people do.

In a sense it is now Wetherspoon’s who are flying the flag for pubs used by a variety of age groups and for a range of different purposes, and which anyone can walk into without looking or feeling out of place.

Another factor is that, perhaps counter-intuitively, pubs seem to thrive in areas where there is already a lot of activity, rather than locations convenient to people’s homes. We can see clusters of pubs and bars, and new openings, in places like Chorlton and Didsbury, and to some extent in areas of Stockport like Heaton Moor and Cheadle Hulme, while many pubs set amidst housing estates have closed despite the number of potential customers living nearby. That is certainly what drives Wetherspoon’s location policy.

Yes, there will still be pubs and bars in twenty years’ time, but I expect there to be a lot fewer than there are today and, outside of major city centres and prosperous inner suburbs, just going to a pub to have a drink will be something that most people rarely contemplate doing and indeed perceive as a trifle eccentric.

Saturday 2 February 2013


Great Night Out is a comedy-drama series currently showing on ITV1 at 9 pm on Friday nights, which focuses on the lives of four mid-thirties blokes purportedly living in Stockport. Much of the action seems to centre around copious consumption of pints of smooth bitter in the pub, although surely working-class men of that age would be much more likely to be drinking Carling.

Many of the exterior scenes were actually shot in Edgeley in Stockport, but the featured pub, the Admiral Lord Nelson, is actually the Queen’s Arms nearly 200 miles away in Battersea, London, which indeed as can be seen from the picture is a pub of very distinctly “London” appearance.

Some of the best TV moments of recent decades have come from comedy-drama series such as Auf Wiedersehen Pet, but unfortunately this one, while the concept is promising, is actually utterly dreadful, with cardboard characters and unlikely, contrived situations that just do not ring true on any level. Despite the interest of looking for familiar locations, I’ve now given up on it.

Probably the best pub-centred TV show I have ever seen was Early Doors, which had a couple of series on BBC2 in 2003 and 2004. This also had a strong Stockport flavour, with many local street names featuring. Although a sitcom, it was actually like a mildly exaggerated version of real pub life, which perhaps is why some critics found it rather slow-paced. One of the cast was Christine Bottomley who also features as Julie in Great Night Out.