Monday 29 April 2013

5% down

Today the British Beer and Pub Association released their latest Quarterly Beer Barometer statistics. To be honest, the figures weren’t that different from the previous ones, with an overall year-on-year fall in beer volumes of 5.1% being recorded, as against 4.7% last quarter. So much for the anti-drink lobby constantly bleating about Britain’s ever-growing drink problem.

The fall for the on-trade was in fact slightly less than that for the off-trade, which tends to be more price-sensitive. The previous trend of a steady move from on- to off-trade consumption very much seems to have stalled recently, and it will be interesting to see whether this continues to be reflected in future figures. Another question mark is whether the beer duty cut in the Budget will filter through in to healthier sales figures (or at least a reduction in the rate of decline) in the remainder of the year.

Saturday 27 April 2013

The house that craft built

Oh no, you might think, not another post about craft beer. But what I’ve been thinking is that “craft beer” is basically an attitude of mind, not a product as such. Real ale is a specific, clearly-defined product. Either a pub sells it, or it doesn’t. Over the years, many pubs have appeared in the Good Beer Guide that only served a single real ale, and some still do. Many of those will have nothing else whatsoever to interest the “discerning” beer drinker.

But put a single keykeg tap in a pub (as if that actually happens) and it doesn’t immediately become a craft beer outlet. The craft ethos requires a single-minded approach to the whole beer offer – the bank of handpumps offering RedWillow, Thornbridge, Summer Wine, Magic Rock, the long line of keg taps, the fridge full of US imports, the blackboards, the bare floorboards, the uncomfortable seating. Plus the inevitable invasion of pretentious hipsters*. While they don’t do cask, BrewDog have the concept off to perfection. And, when I read about that type of outlet, I start dreaming of shabby keg-only Sam Smith’s boozers with frayed bench seating.

In the future we are likely to see an increasingly eclectic choice of beers available on keg in pubs – mostly lager, but so some extent ales too. But the full-on “craft beer bar” will remain essentially a specialist experience confined to city centres and affluent suburban enclaves where there is the clientele to support it. Real ale can take over (most of) the pub world; “craft beer” never will. And what will remain once the trendy beer fad has passed?

* #12 seems to be drinking beer. But does he really represent your desired type of bar clientele?

Monday 22 April 2013

Backbone discovered in Norwich

Over the past few years there have been several occasions when I have suggested that CAMRA at a national level had entered into a potentially dangerous embrace with the anti-drink lobby in the pursuit of narrow short-term objectives.

However, two developments at their latest Annual General Meeting in Norwich suggest the tide may be starting to turn.

First, motion 8, proposed by the Liverpool branches, was passed, apparently without any speakers against.

8. This Conference requires that the Campaign should actively challenge the health lobby’s anti-alcohol statements to give a more balanced view.
Then, after what reportedly was a very lively debate, Motion 19 was passed by 276 votes to 201.
19. This Conference agrees that CAMRA is on the wrong side of the argument over minimum pricing. It instructs the National Executive to withdraw its support for this measure with immediate effect.
Well done to Tandleman in successfully proposing this motion.

This has to be added to the beer duty cut which, however presented, was actually a substantial across-the-board reverse for the neo-Prohibitionists.

Let’s hope that this signals the beginning of a new fighting spirit in standing up for British beer drinkers, although obviously the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

Sunday 21 April 2013

The one that got away

When I was compiling the list of my best pub experiences of recent years, I inadvertently missed off what must rank amongst the top handful, the reason being that I’d noted it down in a different place...
The 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.
The pub hosts the annual meeting of a non beer-related society that I belong to (this one, if you really want to know), and yesterday it was as good as ever. Batham’s sells at a considerable premium over the Holden’s beers (£2.90 to £2.40 for Holden’s Bitter), but still appears to be the best seller. I did a fuller write-up here. I have now amended the original post accordingly, so it now lists eleven pubs, not ten.

Wednesday 17 April 2013

The world turned upside down

Nothing whatsoever to do with beer, but if you look at maps of the distribution of electoral votes in the US Presidential elections of 1896 and 2000, it’s very striking how the party representation has been pretty much exactly reversed. Red states have become blue, and blue red. And it seems to me that something similar, although maybe not quite so drastic, has happened to the availability of real ale in Britain, at least south of the Scottish border.

Although the organisation rapidly spread throughout the country, the four founder members of CAMRA were London-based journalists, and certainly in the early 1970s the situation for real ale in and around London was pretty bleak. The 1977 Good Beer Guide says that “Greater London is no longer one of the worst counties in England for real ale”, which suggests that a few years previously it had been. Most of the pubs were owned by the “Big Six” national brewers, and the vast majority only sold pressurised beer. Apart from Young’s pubs, all of which sold real ale, there was only a scattering of outlets, and even Fuller’s, who have outlasted Young’s and are now one of the most respected family brewers, sold pressurised beers in most of their pubs. As late as 1977, only 16 out of 111 had real ale.

Outside the capital, the situation was often little better, if at all. The 1977 Guide still describes North Devon and much of Norfolk as “beer deserts”, and says that, apart from the handful of pubs it lists, there’s little to be found in any of Norfolk. In the whole of Cornwall, which must have had getting on for a thousand pubs, only 120 had real ale.

In contrast, across large swathes of the industrial Midlands and North, there were major independent breweries who sold real ale in all or virtually all their pubs – Banks’s & Hansons in the Black Country, Hardy’s & Hanson’s, Home and Shipstone’s in Nottingham, and Boddington’s, Holt’s, Hyde’s, Lees and Robinson’s in and around Manchester. Added to this, there were still massive tied estates belonging to members of the Big Six which were mostly real, such as Bass Mitchells & Butlers across the Midlands and Tetley’s in Yorkshire and on Merseyside. Much of this beer was served by electric pump, so it may not have been immediately obvious that it actually was real until you looked into it more closely. Indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me if in 1975 half the real ale sold in the country (by volume, if not by number of outlets) used electric dispense.

You still sometimes hear it said that when CAMRA was founded, real ale was on the point of disappearing in Britain. In and around London, that may not have been far from the truth, but across the country as a whole the situation was in fact rather healthier. This helped encourage the always rather mistaken view that real ale was something of a proletarian drink.

Fast-forward forty years, and things have been turned on their head. London is enjoying an unprecedented boom in specialist beer pubs and craft beer bars. Across all the rural counties of the South and East, from Cornwall to Norfolk, you would be hard-pressed to find any prominent pub that didn’t serve real ale. The only keg-only outlets would be youth-oriented bars and a few back-street and estate pubs in places like Camborne and Great Yarmouth. Counties like Surrey and Buckinghamshire report over 95% of all pubs selling real ale.

On the other hand, many of the independent brewers in operation in the 1970s have been taken over and their estates scattered to the four winds, Nottingham having suffered especially badly. The Big Six brewers have been broken up and their pubs largely transferred to pub companies which in the 1990s started the systematic removal of real ale except where they saw a clear commercial justification. Most of the surviving backstreet and estate pubs owned by pubcos now only have keg beer – indeed it’s now almost seen as a defining feature of the classic estate pub. I can remember when a pub crawl of Levenshulme in South Manchester included twelve or so pubs with real ale; now there are only two, and none on the main road. Yet a few miles down the road in Didsbury and Chorlton, new bars have opened up and it’s pretty much ubiquitous.

In my home town of Runcorn, as late as the mid-80s, most of the pubs sold real ale, predominantly Greenall’s, and most of those sold mild as well as bitter. Now, with the exception of Wetherspoon’s, there’s virtually none at all except in a few food-oriented pubs on the periphery. Much the same is true of many other industrial towns in the North and Midlands.

So it’s an interesting reversal of fortune how, in many cases, the areas where real ale was once sparse now have it in abundance, and where it was once plentiful it is now rare. And, of course, for at least twenty years the preferred drink of the typical “working man” has been cooking lager, not mild or bitter.

Tuesday 16 April 2013

This is the end, my friend

Here’s a photo taken today of the latest pub in my local area to be “tinned up”, the Green End in Burnage. As you can see, it’s a massive 1930s building with a hint of Brewer’s Tudor, but owing more to domestic building styles of the period. It was one of the increasingly rare pubs to have its own bowling green. There are a couple of other pubs about a third of a mile away in each direction, but the area isn’t exactly overpubbed and there’s no shortage of nearby housing. Perhaps its situation on the border between leafy Heaton Moor and more downmarket Burnage didn’t help its prospects, as I doubt whether many from Heaton Moor would have wanted to take the short trip down the hill to drink there.

Saturday 13 April 2013

Abuse of hospitality?

Quite a few pubs, especially those with beer gardens, have signs saying “Only food and drink purchased on the premises may be consumed here”. While that may come across as a touch officious, the signs wouldn’t be there unless there was perceived to be a problem. Nobody would dream of walking into a restaurant, sitting down and unpacking their sandwiches and thermos flask, but there seems to be something about the term “public house” that leads some people to believe that the facilities are there to be used free of charge.

In this post I quoted a comment on a newspaper article complaining about ramblers who made the maximum use of the pub’s warmth and comfort for the minimum outlay. There is even a small sub-set of ramblers who seem to think it’s OK to eat their packed lunch in pub gardens. I also posted here about a customer who sat in a pub and read a paper for half an hour without buying a drink, and one commenter said that the old-school licensee would have spotted that within a couple of minutes and asked whether they did intend to make a purchase.

I know of one busy market-town pub where a group of middle-aged women were in the habit of meeting up one day a week and basically using the place as a social club. Yes, they did buy a few coffees, but certainly less than one each, and took up half the lounge throughout the lunchtime session, squeezing out other customers. Eventually the licensee barred them on the grounds that they weren’t spending enough money.

I’ve sometimes seen groups of young people meet up in a pub and sit around a table with several of them not having bought any drinks. And I’m a member of a non beer related society which has its annual meeting in a pub. For some of them I suspect it may be about the only occasion in the year they actually venture into a pub except when specifically going for a meal, and the basic etiquette that you buy at least a small glass of diet coke seems to elude them.

In this day and age, licensees can’t afford to be too picky about who they let use their pubs, and if a pub is quiet it isn’t really a problem if a group of customers are taking up space but spending very slowly. On the other hand, if the pub is busy you really don’t want large groups taking up your best seats and nursing halves for a couple of hours. Licensees have to be careful that they don’t come across as heavy-handed, which is much less acceptable now than it once was, but to my mind they have the right to expect people who are making use of their heating, lighting, seating and hospitality to put a reasonable amount of money across the bar.

And I haven’t even got on to the subject of non-customers using the pub toilets. To be honest, in these days of widespread public toilet closures, pubs would generate much goodwill if they said that non-customers were allowed to use their toilets on payment of 20p. In the past year I have spotted one pub in Tewkesbury doing precisely that. Although, if there’s a Spoons, there's normally little problem in just walking in and using the loos anyway.

Sunday 7 April 2013

Local heroes

As promised, here’s a list of my ten favourite pubs within the Stockport MBC area. Not the best beer, or the best in any other sense, but just those that I find most congenial and which encourage me to make a return visit.
  • Arden Arms, Millgate (Robinson’s) – a wonderful, unspoilt pub including a unique snug accessible only through the server, now probably the classiest pub in the town centre, although at times the admittedly excellent food is perhaps allowed to dominate too much
  • Armoury, Edgeley (Robinson’s) – a classic, bustling street-corner local recently given a smart renovation that respected its multi-roomed layout
  • Boar’s Head, Market Place (Sam Smith’s) – prominent market pub that a few years ago received a remodelling that actually involved adding more internal divisions. Vibrant, down-to-earth atmosphere that takes you back to how pubs used to be
  • Crown, Heaton Lane (Free House - pictured) – the best of Stockport’s specialist beer pubs, retaining a multi-roomed layout and a lively atmosphere
  • Davenport Arms, Woodford (Robinson’s) – classic redbrick farmhouse pub dating from around the 1830s, alternatively known as the “Thief’s Neck”. Still has a variety of separate rooms including a genuine tap-room, which is where the best banter is to be had
  • Griffin, Heaton Mersey (Holts) – a modern extension on to an original 1830s building. Has an original glass-fronted bar counter and at least five separate rooms. Sometimes quiet, but when buzzing the atmosphere is great
  • Horse & Farrier, Gatley (Hydes) – prominent, rambling, multi-roomed Hydes pub on the main Gatley crossroads, always has some guest beers and has occasional beer festivals
  • Nursery, Heaton Norris (Hydes) – my local pub, a largely untouched building dating from 1939 with a classic three-roomed interior including extensive wood panelling. In recent years has been much more enterprising on the beer front. CAMRA National Pub of the Year 2002
  • Queen’s Head (Turner’s Vaults), Little Underbank (Sam Smith’s) – a tiny, classic pub in the shadow of the bridge carrying St Petersgate over Little Underbank. The interior comprises front bar with original spirit taps, “horse-box” snug and rear lounge. Pity modern gents are too fat for the “Compacto” toilet.
  • Railway, Rose Hill (Robinson’s) – renovated around 1990, a conspicuously smart, spick-and-span suburban pub with extensive fixed seating and a healthy lunchtime food trade
Some may query the omission of the Magnet. While I recognise this is a very well-run specialist beer pub, and with keen prices as well, I have to say its odd layout (which the owners inherited) is such that there’s nowhere I really feel at home. This is one pub that would benefit from knocking through into one with a bar against the back wall and benches around the walls facing it. It would certainly feature in a second ten along with, off the top of my head, Railway (Portwood), Red Bull, Blossoms, Tiviot, Grapes (Hazel Grove) and probably even Spoons’ Calvert’s Court.

Friday 5 April 2013

Kick off those muddy boots

One of the enduring themes of this blog has been how many rural and village pubs have in effect transformed themselves into restaurants and turned their back on the casual drinker. This is something that has been echoed by Kate Ashbrook of the Open Spaces Society, who complains that too many pubs no longer welcome walkers, horse-riders and cyclists. “You want them to have a nice stone floor and informality, a place where a bit of mud won’t matter because they will sweep it up later,” she says. To that you could add bikers, rural workers and indeed anyone who just wants to have a quiet pint and read the paper.

Clearly in today’s marketplace, serving food, and good food at that, is essential to the viability of most pubs outside urban centres, although the surviving classic wet-only rural pubs such as the Traveller’s Rest and the Red Lion remain some of the most quintessential elements of our pub culture. But it isn’t that difficult to be a food-led pub and still set aside an area near the bar with a few benches for customers who just want to come in and have a social drink. It’s equally easy to have a menu that offers light meals and sandwiches alongside expensive gastro creations, something that, to their credit, the Brunning & Price chain do seven days a week. Indeed, while their pubs are unashamedly upmarket in ambiance, I doubt whether any of them would turn away groups of walkers or cyclists.

It’s also the case that many dining customers will still value going in to somewhere that still feels like a pub and has a group of regulars nattering by the bar.

On the other hand, I had to laugh at this comment on the original article:

Ramblers in my area of the Chilterns turn up to our wonderful local pub en masse i.e. between 10-15 people at lunchtime therefore taking up all the room downstairs, buy a soft drink/tea or coffee, order a sandwich, sit down, pay their bill individually (and to the penny) then leave. They spend very little and are the first to complain about anything and everything - they would be far better off in a tea shop or cafe along the canal. Leave the pubs to the locals and those that want to be there!

A question of balance

If I ran a pub, I’d make sure that the range of cask beers included sufficient variety that as few customers as possible would be disappointed. If I had four pumps, I’d have a classic ordinary bitter, a golden ale, a stronger premium bitter and a dark beer, either a mild or a porter. I suggested here that Bateman's Dark Mild, Whim Hartington Best Bitter and Taylor's Landlord would make an ideal core range. As the number of pumps grew, I might add one or two stronger and/or more exotic beers, but I’d still retain roughly the same proportions. And I’d always remember that, although there’s much to be said for offering more unusual brews, the majority of customers, even in specialist pubs, will be looking for beers in the gold-amber-copper colour range with a strength roughly between 3.5% and 4.5% ABV.

So it’s disappointing when pubs which you think really should know better fail to adhere to the basic principle of offering a balanced beer range. One of my local Wetherspoon’s, which I maybe visit twice a month, often seems to fall short on this front. For example, on one occasion, apart from the usual Ruddles and Abbot, there was nothing on the bar below 5%, which isn’t ideal if you want to keep a clear head at lunchtime. Another time all the guests were dark beers of some description with the exception of one cloudy Belgian-style witbier which I imagine many casual punters would have sent straight back. It really isn’t good if you’re confronted with eight handpumps but can’t find anything you want to drink, or if in Spoons you find Ruddles the least worst option.

I also recently called in a well-regarded free house, not in this area, which to be honest I reckon has one of the most congenial pub atmospheres around. It had eight beers on, one of which was a chocolate porter, and the remaining seven all golden ales. Now, I’ve nothing against golden ales, and many of them are excellent beers, but it would have been nice to see a bit more variety and one or two milds and classic bitters. Wye Valley HPA is a fine brew, but on this occasion their Bitter or Butty Bach might have provided a broader choice.

It’s not difficult, licensees – as far as you can, within the number of beers you can turn over, make sure you offer as wide a variety of strengths and styles as practicable, and don’t neglect beers of sessionable strength in the amber and copper colour range.