Friday 29 March 2013

Eleven memorable pubs

Boak & Bailey recently published a list of their ten favourite UK pubs (in fact nine), which led me to mull over a similar personal list. This is essentially places where I have had a truly memorable pub experience over the past ten or so years. I don’t claim that it is any sense a list of the best pubs in Britain.

As you might expect, it is much more biased towards the traditional and olde-worlde, with five currently on CAMRA’s National Inventory of historic pub interiors and another – the Black Horse – having been excluded due to a bit of knocking-through, but still very old-school in its atmosphere. All of them, though, are still places that function as real, vibrant pubs rather than just museum pieces. As I have said in the past, at heart I have to conclude I’m more fascinated by pubs than beer.

Most of these I’ve been to more than once, although the Red Lion and Star have only seen single visits, but have really stuck in my mind.

There are plenty of cracking traditional pubs in Stockport but, on consideration, the Nursery must be the cream of the crop. Maybe a forthcoming blogpost could cover my ten favourite Stockport pubs. I’d also like to acknowledge the number of excellent, unspoilt Sam Smith’s pubs in Cheshire, none of which quite made it to this list, although a couple would get on the second twenty. There are also some architecturally superb pubs in Edinburgh such as Bennet’s Bar and the Guildford Arms that I don’t really feel I know well enough.

Edit 20/4/13: post amended to add the Great Western in Wolverhampton which was unaccountably omitted from the original listing.

  • Barrels, Hereford – a busy, lively multi-roomed pub tied to Wye Valley brewery, with a mixed clientele and a proper pub atmosphere
  • Black Horse, Clapton-in-Gordano, Somerset – an ancient pub, allegedly dating back to the 14th century, with stone-flagged floors, old wooden settles, brasses, real fires and gravity-served beer
  • Blue Bell, York – a tiny two-roomer just off the city centre, with front vault, rear snug, central servery and side corridor, described as “a symphony in brown”
  • Digby Tap, Sherborne, Dorset – a small, cosy, cottage-style pub in a back street near the Abbey, with stone-flagged floors, plain food and local real ales
  • Dolphin, Derby – a magnificent 16th century half-timbered pub with a warren of cosy, atmospheric rooms
  • Great Western, Wolverhampton – Holden’s tied pub hidden away round the back of the station, offering the full range of their beers, three guests and Batham’s superb Best Bitter. Classic front bar and a variety of areas rambling back to a conservatory and beer garden. Lively, bustling atmosphere, busy throughout the day
  • Loggerheads, Shrewsbury (pictured) – a rare survivor of the unassuming town pubs of a bygone era, with four small rooms including a wonderful snug with scrubbed-top tables which was men-only until the 1970s
  • Nursery, Stockport – my local pub, a largely untouched building dating from 1939 with a classic three-roomed interior which in recent years has been much more enterprising on the beer front. CAMRA National Pub of the Year 2002
  • Red Lion, Dayhills, Staffordshire – a basic, cottage-style country pub, just one stone-flagged room dominated by a massive inglenook fireplace
  • Royal Oak, Eccleshall, Staffordshire – an impressive pub with an arcaded facade in the centre of this small town which has recently been brought back to life with a stylish and sympathetic renovation by Joules Brewery
  • Star, Bath – a surprisingly shallow pub in a Georgian terrace, with a quirky multi-roomed interior featuring extensive wood panelling and traditional West Country flat Bass on sale

Open and shut case

In the comments on my last post about entrance restrictions in pubs, Martin of Cambridge says: “I'm much more fussed about pubs in the beer guide which don't seem to bother opening at all; see for example several South London pubs opening at 4pm and nearly all so called micro pubs.”

He’s certainly got a point. Over time, in many cases the effect of allowing all-day opening from 1988 onwards seems to have been pubs opening for shorter hours, not longer. Before 1988, most pubs would adhere fairly closely to the standard permitted hours for their area, although opening a bit later at lunchtimes and Saturday evenings was fairly common. If a pub was normally closed even for one session it was something worthy of note.

In the early years of the new licensing regime, most pubs seemed to stick to their previous pattern of opening, and indeed a couple of years afterwards it was still hard to find anywhere open after 3 pm in the centres of Stockport and Manchester. However, the growth of Wetherspoons and other chain pubs, which didn’t close in the afternoon, made them start to reconsider that approach, and nowadays you’ll find that most pubs in town and city centres do open all day.

On the other hand, many pubs with a more local appeal started to take the view that there wasn’t much point in opening at lunchtimes at all, especially during the week, and switched to an evenings-only model, possibly including Friday, Saturday and Sunday lunchtimes, although some don’t even bother with that. This has even happened to some pubs that once did a healthy lunchtime trade with customers from local workplaces.

I’d certainly not want to argue that pubs should be expected to open at times when they can’t trade profitably, and curbing your hours can make it possible for a couple to run a pub with little or no additional staff. However, if they’re doing this, it’s surely vital to display the opening hours outside so people know when they’re going to be able to get in. Even if you’re not going to the pub on that occasion, you can still make a mental note of the hours for a later visit. And, if you turn up and find a pub shut, if you know it will open in half an hour you may stick around and wait; if there’s no indication at all you’re more likely just to go elsewhere.

If you are in a location where there is potential passing and casual trade, limiting your hours can also indicate a certain paucity of ambition and reluctance to cultivate a wider appeal. The amount of trade on offer at lunchtimes is often underestimated – for example, many retired people much prefer going to the pub at lunchtime rather than in the evening, and I’ve come across some pubs that are like a pensioners’ social centre in the afternoon. Plus people nowadays are less likely to work regular, 9-5 hours, so more working people will be around in the daytime. Open a Wetherspoon’s pretty much anywhere and there will be people in for a drink from mid-morning onwards, and throughout the afternoon, even when nearby pubs are firmly shut.

Another point is that lengthy and predictable opening hours are in themselves a selling point even to potential customers who aren’t really going to take advantage of them. You know Wetherspoon’s are open all day, and so you can plan a visit with confidence without having to check what the actual hours are. And one word-of-mouth report that someone visited a pub at a time when they might reasonably have expected it to be open, and found the door firmly shut, could do a lot of damage. If a pub gets a reputation for scarcely ever being open it will make it much less appealing to casual customers.

At the end of the day, pubs are there to provide a service to their customers, and if they can’t be bothered opening when people want to visit, it will result in a black mark for that particular establishment and potentially also the entire sector.

Saturday 23 March 2013

Beard-free zone

The Blue Bell pub in York has been excluded from the 2014 Good Beer Guide by the York branch of CAMRA because at times it operates a restrictive admissions policy. Now, this is a pub I am very familiar with and would place it in my Top Ten of British pubs. It’s a tiny, unspoilt place with front public bar, central servery and rear snug, connected by a corridor along one side. Fifty people would fill it. So I can well understand why the licensee chooses to put up “Private Party” signs to keep out the stag and hen parties that infest York on weekend evenings. During the rest of the week I doubt whether there’s a problem. He says:
'We do get nice strangers coming in the pub but on Saturday nights and race days York city centre is a nightmare.

'I have been operating the same way for twelve and a half years and no one has complained but it seems we have a younger committee now with different more politically correct views.

He also complains of “'weirdy beardies' visiting the pub and 'asking to sample seven beers, then buying a half'.” I have to say if I ran a pub I would regard people as taking the piss if they asked for more than a couple of samples before buying.

This decision really says a lot more about York CAMRA than it does about the Blue Bell. Excluding one of York’s classic pubs for such a prissy reason devalues the Good Beer Guide. I doubt whether the pub will lose any trade, and next time I’m in York I’ll certainly make a point of visiting it.

Friday 22 March 2013

European whine lake

There have been suggestions that this week’s cut in beer duty may be judged illegal under European law, as it supposedly discriminates against wine in relation to beer, but I have to say I’m not entirely convinced. The 27 countries of the European Union have widely differing duty regimes on different types of alcoholic drinks, both in absolute terms and relative between categories. 15 of the 27 countries – all, obviously, wine producers – levy no duty whatsoever on table wine, while wine duty in France is negligible.

France recently imposed a swingeing hike in duty on beer (which is mostly imported) while leaving that on wine (which is mostly home-produced) untouched. In the past, there have been several occasions when the British Chancellor has frozen spirits duty while raising beer duty, and in 2010 Alastair Darling imposed a 10% increase in cider duty which was subsequently cancelled after the General Election.

Given the huge disparities in duty rates that currently exist between countries, and the many precedents for altering the relative duty rates between different categories, I can’t really see that this suggestion has a leg to stand on. Also, as I pointed out here, prior to the Budget the level of duty paid per unit of alcohol on wine and beer was pretty much identical, so it’s hard to see how there was any discrimination in the tax system.

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Doing your duty

Well, George Osborne today became the first Chancellor of the Exchequer to actually cut beer duty since Derick Heathcoat-Amory (pictured) in 1959. In a surprise move, he went well beyond what had been asked for by the campaign to scrap the escalator, and cut the main rate of beer duty by 2%, which supposedly will reduce the price of a pint at the bar by a penny.

This must be regarded as a major success for the campaign, which managed to put across a wider message about the role of pubs and the brewing industry in British society. However, given that the escalator remains for all other categories of alcoholic drinks, it is something of a triumph of special pleading. To some degree, it is a rebalancing exercise, as during the 1990s and 2000s there was more than one occasion when Ken Clarke and Gordon Brown froze spirits duty while continuing to increase that for beer. But it’s not going to do anything to stop the growing problems of alcohol smuggling and illegal distilling. Whisky and cider are substantial British industries as well as brewing, and they are going to be feeling somewhat badly done to today.

Osborne’s changes have also ended the strict proportionality of the different rates of beer duty that existed before, as the escalator has continued to be applied to the 25% addition for High Strength Beer Duty, and the duty on beers of 2.8% or under has been cut by 6%, not just 2%, so it is now less than half the standard duty. I can’t see that doing much to increase their appeal, as we’ve seen already that a tax break alone cannot create a demand for something for which there wasn’t one before.

It’s a relief, though, that the fears of many including myself that additional duties would be introduced on higher-strength beers and ciders have not been realised.

It’s also important not to see this as any kind of magic bullet for the pub trade. The anti-escalator campaign was at times guilty of overstating the negative impact of the escalator, when in reality there have been many other factors leading to a reduction of trade over the period it has been in force, not least of course the smoking ban. Five years of the escalator will have increased the price of a pint at the bar by maybe 10p. Of course that hasn’t helped, but it alone can’t really have been a make-or-break factor for many pubs.

So, while it might act to somewhat slow the rate of decline, it would be wrong to expect this to be the start of a turnaround as the 1959 cut proved to be.

And I’m awaiting the predictable howls of rage from the anti-drink lobby.

Sunday 17 March 2013

Bottling success

It’s the centrepiece of the supermarket beer display – an array of over 100 different bottles, reflecting distinctive local identities from across the UK, glistening in black, gold, red, blue and green. But it’s something about which Britain’s leading beer consumer group remains distinctly sniffy and equivocal. Yes, it’s the premium bottled ales section, arguably the greatest success of the British brewing industry in recent years.

I’m old enough to remember when, if you wanted beer to drink at home, the choice was very limited, and the vast majority was in cans – Stones Bitter, McEwan’s Export, LongLife (the beer “specially brewed for the can”). But, over time, things 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.

By the mid-90s this had become a distinct sector in its own right, but it was still often relegated to a small section of the display that was outshadowed by the mass-market canned bitters and lagers. It’s only really in the past fifteen or so years that PBAs have taken centre-stage in the supermarket beer offering. The choice has also greatly increased, with many more of the established family brewers beginning to take the category seriously (including the four Greater Manchester ones) and a growing number of new and micro-breweries climbing on board.

This report from Marston’s shows the category recording 11% volume growth in 2012, especially impressive when you consider that overall beer volumes fell by 5%. It’s the biggest success story in beer. Yet, as the vast majority of the offerings are not bottle-conditioned, it is not something that CAMRA can embrace unreservedly, if at all.

Of course a major reason for this growth is the continuing shift from pub to at-home drinking, but it is clear that PBAs appeal to a similar demographic to that which drinks cask beers in the pub, and indeed customers tend to see the two as equivalent. I’ve more than once heard PBAs referred to as “real ales”, even though by the strict definition they are not, and this is something borne out by this comment on the Refreshing Beer blog: “I'm frequently informed about the 'real ales' my work colleagues will be enjoying at the weekend, when what they actually mean is a range of bottled ales from Morrisons etc. none of which are real.”

It is clear what people mean, though – while these beers may not be bottle-conditioned, they still convey a strong sense of being authentic, traditional, distinctive, with a well-defined sense of place, maybe even a “craft” product. Something a cut above the mass-market lagers and smooth bitters. Over time, the meaning of words changes according to how people actually use them, and it may well be that eventually PBAs are generally regarded as “real ales” because that’s what people call them.

And, if you think brewers are accepting low margins for this kind of business, bear in mind that the undiscounted price of most PBAs in Tesco (£1.99 for 500ml, or £2.26 a pint) is now actually more than the £2.09 a pint charged in Spoons. Getting a long-run order from a supermarket will give much more reliable business than chasing after pubcos and free houses, so it’s a good market for ambitious new breweries to get into.

Saturday 16 March 2013

Mainstream to niche

One of the most noticeable developments on the pub scene over the last couple of decades has been the growth of the “specialist beer pub”, which has now become the favoured drinking haunt of the two overlapping (but not identical) groups of CAMRA members and beer enthusiasts.

But Cookie raises an interesting point on Tandleman’s blog as to what CAMRA members did before the multi-beer pub was invented, and indeed nails this type of pub pretty accurately:

Before CAMRA there were pubs. Some were posh and some were dumps. I gather you knew what to expect a short while after entering.

At what point did the "CAMRA pub" become a recognised type of pub? You know lots of hand pumps, Vedett beer signs, Paulaner coasters, Middle class berghaus fleece wearing public sector employee bearded punters. It could not of been early doors in the 70's. Was it an 80's or 90's thing? When CAMRA types decided to shun the pubs of regular folk and sit in their own inauthentic but safe beer enthusiast theme pubs?

In my recollection, the CAMRA members then just tended to drink in the “normal” pubs, although they favoured certain pubs over others on the grounds of:

(a) Owned by “favoured” breweries, i.e. Holts rather than Greenalls
(b) Reputation for keeping their beer well, and
(c) Generally “traditional” atmosphere
So let’s go back to 1983 and see what featured in the Good Beer Guide for Stockport – a time when I had never set foot in any pub in the town:
  • Arden Arms (Robinson’s) – still open, in 2013 GBG
  • Armoury (Robinson’s) – still open, in 2013 GBG
  • Blossoms (Robinson’s) – still open, now an “Ale Shrine”
  • Castlewood (Wilson’s) – long since closed
  • Crown (Boddington’s) – still open, in 2013 GBG as a multi-beer freehouse
  • George (Higson’s) – reopened 2012 after a period of closure
  • Old King (Bass) – recently demolished after being closed for a few years
  • Swan with Two Necks (Robinson’s) - still open, in 2013 GBG
The Royal Oak on High Street (in its original form) is offered as a “try also”.

Between them, those nine pubs are listed as offering twelve different beers – Bass XXXX Mild, Cask Bitter and Draught Bass, Boddington’s Best Mild and Bitter, Higson’s Mild and Bitter, Robinson’s Best Mild, Best Bitter and Old Tom, and Wilson’s Mild and Bitter. You could probably now find more different beers on the bar of the Crown, Magnet or Railway, although fewer milds. From the perspective of 2013, it’s an eye-opener that a pub such as the Old King, with Bass XXXX Mild and Cask Bitter (the successor to Brew Ten) on electric pumps, could even be considered for the GBG, but so it was.

Obviously now there is hugely more choice overall, but the enthusiasts tend to confine themselves fairly strictly to the likes of the aforementioned Crown, Magnet and Railway. Whereas before an evening out would consist of sampling various beers in a selection of pubs, now it tends to be more a case of drinking your way along the bar. I can’t help feeling that something has been lost, with the middle-class beer enthusiasts retreating into the niche of the specialist pub and no longer engaging with the generality of the pub trade.

Pedigree yo-yo

Four years ago, I reported how Marston’s had increased the strength of bottled Pedigree (but not draught or canned) from 4.5% ABV to 5.0%, presumably so it could compete on level terms with “heavy-hitters” of the premium bottled ale market such as Tanglefoot and Abbot Ale. However, I recently noticed that they have stealthily brought it back down again to 4.5%. I don’t remember seeing any announcement about this, so I’m not sure how long it’s been the case. I think the photo, from the Marston’s website, still shows it as 5.0% on the neck label.

To be honest, the 5.0% version always seemed a touch unbalanced, with a noticeable alcohol character you don’t generally find in beers of that strength, and it’s a better all-round beer at 4.5%. There are still plenty of stronger beers in the Marston’s portfolio such as Old Empire, Hobgoblin and Ringwood Fortyniner. But is this another sign that 4.5% is becoming a kind of de facto maximum strength above which brewers are increasingly reluctant to venture for mainstream products?

Monday 11 March 2013

Motorway Spoons area

Tim Martin’s latest bright idea is wanting to open branches of Wetherspoon’s at motorway service areas. Now, there’s an obvious problem with that, as MSAs are not allowed to serve alcohol for consumption on the premises, and there’s no sign of that policy changing. However, setting that aside, you could well see it working. Wetherspoons already have successful branches in airports and railway stations, and anywhere there’s a lot of pre-existing customer footfall is likely to be attractive to them. And, if a non-alcoholic Spoons could be made to work, it would result in a substantial improvement in the quality and value of food available, which is often pretty dire.

It must be said, though, that for good reason Spoons have tended to fight shy of venturing into sites alongside major trunk roads, where the motorway alcohol restriction doesn’t apply. They want locations where there are already plenty of potential customers on site, not ones that most people have to specifically drive to.

Other pub operators have not taken the same view, and indeed Greene King and Marston’s have specifically targeted newbuild sites situated by major road junctions and on retail and leisure parks. And the recently developed Derby and Burton service area, situated where the A38 and A50 cross near the Toyota factory, includes a family dining pub, the Cherry Tree Farm, built by the Cloverleaf Pub Company, which was taken over by Greene King in 2011. The opportunities are there if Tim wants to take them – but those pubs are not really in line with the Wetherspoon business model. Maybe he could have tried to revive the now-demolished Bullington Cross pub at the busy crossroads of the A34 and A303 in Hampshire.

Friday 8 March 2013

Endlessly repeating revolution

In pretty much every decade of my drinking career, people have claimed that the previous decade has seen a “pub food revolution” resulting in a dramatic improvement in the availability and quality of food served in pubs. However, my memory is that, even in the late 70s, a large number of pubs did serve food and indeed very often were more inclined to experiment than they are now. If there had been a revolution when pubs really took the concept of food on board, it was probably in the period between 1965 and 1975. Even this may be wrong though, as this post by Boak and Bailey suggests that even in the early 50s pubs were regarded as a good bet for a hearty, filling meal.

Thirty years ago there was certainly much less food in pubs in the evenings, and in some parts of the country it could be hard to find food on Sundays. This was especially true of town centres, which before the introduction of Sunday trading were often pretty dead. Undoubtedly a higher proportion of pubs didn’t serve food at all, but most of those were the kind of local pubs that in many cases now have either closed or stopped opening at lunchtimes during the week. I have even eaten quite fancy full meals in pubs that have since gone evenings-only and stopped their food service.

On the other hand, most of the pubs aiming to attract a wider clientele than just locals did serve lunchtime food, and often did very good business from it. I would even venture to say that, in 1978, there was in total more lunchtime food served in pubs than there is now, a big factor behind this being that office workers were much more likely to go out to the pub for “a pie and a pint”. I remember my father often discussing the various pubs in the locality that he and his colleagues had visited for lunch, and certainly during the early years of my working career up to maybe the late 80s this was commonplace too. People weren’t getting drunk or anything remotely like it, but it probably did lead to a dip in productivity in the early afternoon that might not be considered acceptable nowadays.

There were also a lot more restaurants of the Berni Inn type which catered for a lot of the trade, particularly in the evenings and on Sunday lunchtimes, that now goes to dining pubs. Pretty much every major pub-owning brewery seemed to have its own steakhouse chain – anyone remember Boddingtons’ Henry’s Table? Hotel restaurants also had a higher profile amongst non-residents than they do now.

Times change and the pattern of trade alters over the years. But within the drinking memory of anyone of working age today, there was never a time when, as often alleged, it was hard to find anything to eat in pubs beyond crisps and pickled eggs.

Sunday 3 March 2013

Boom and bust

The February issue of the CAMRA newspaper What’s Brewing included an opinion piece by barley merchant Robin Appel in which he argued that “if you want quality beer, you’ve got to be prepared to pay”, and said that drinkers should stop complaining about the high price of beer, something which drew a predictably angry reaction.

The article also included this highly inaccurate paragraph about trends in UK alcohol consumption:

Serious correction to the UK beer (and malt) consumption began in the second half of the 20th century with the demise of our heavy industry, before which workers regularly sank eight pints per night. This falling beer consumption was further helped along by the introduction of the breathalyser in 1967.
This was corrected in the letters column of the March edition by one Peter Edwardson of Stockport (cough), who wrote:
Robin Appel (WB Feb) is wrong to say there was a serious correction in UK beer consumption in the second half of the 20th century. In fact, the 1960s and 70s saw a boom. Large numbers of new pubs were opened in new housing developments, often much larger than the inner-city pubs they replaced, and existing pubs were extended and refurbished.

After a drop in the early 1980s resulting from the recession and the rundown of heavy industries, beer consumption held up well into the 1990s. It is only in the past 10 or 15 years that a perfect storm of factors has led to the decline we are currently experiencing. Having said that, the UK is still producing and drinking more beer overall than at any time during the 1950s.

However, I am given to understand that the sense of the letter would have been much improved if the original second sentence had been retained:
In fact, the Sixties and Seventies saw a remarkable boom in beer drinking, with UK beer production increasing by 73% between 1959 and 1979. The introduction of the breathalyser in 1967 scarcely caused a blip in the upward trend.
The great 1960s and 1970s beer and pub boom tends to be airbrushed out of history as it does not fit in with the “CAMRA narrative” of what was happening to the industry during that period.

The letters page also includes letters from John Ogdon of Scarborough and Peter Judge of Brighouse urging CAMRA not to give up on the fight against fizzy beer. Obviously “old CAMRA” is alive and well in Yorkshire!

Saturday 2 March 2013

Dead in the water (again)

The Daily Mail reports today that Cameron’s minimum pricing plans are now effectively dead in the water following a Cabinet revolt.

One minister said such a rise would be ‘inconceivable’ when cost of living is expected to be an issue at the next election. The minister added: ‘It would be political suicide and it will have to be abandoned.’
Funny that, exactly the same was reported back in December. The plan was never going to get off the ground anyway because it is almost certainly illegal under European competition law, so this is just more softening up prior to the inevitable climbdown.

But it doesn’t look too good for abandoning the duty escalator, as scrapping both policies in the same month would really have the anti-drink lobby foaming at the mouth. And there must be a strong chance that some further nasty on alcohol duties will be sneaked into the Budget, such as raising the rate of High Strength Beer Duty or extending its scope.