Monday 27 May 2013

A whole world of beer out there

The last thirty or so years have seen a dramatic upheaval in the world of beer, with huge numbers of new breweries springing up and often pushing the boundaries in terms of strength, flavour and ingredients. This began with the micro-brewery movement in this country, but has found its spiritual home and greatest expression in the United States.

Now this “craft beer revolution” has been celebrated by Mark Dredge, author of the Pencil & Spoon blog, in his new book Craft Beer World – a Guide to Over 350 of the Finest Beers Known to Man, published by Dog’n’Bone Books at £16.99, although you can get it at a substantial discount on Amazon.

This differs from well-known beer bibles such as Michael Jackson’s New World Guide to Beer in unashamedly passing by the classic beers from established breweries in favour of an emphasis on “evolution, creativity and interpretation”.

It’s an attractive, chunky hardback lavishly illustrated throughout in colour. It begins with forty pages looking at the brewing process and other general topics such as beer and food matching, and then goes into a detailed look at examples of the various beer styles to be found around the world. For some of these, the author picks classic beers which in a sense epitomise the style, before going on to the various ways modern brewers have interpreted them, but there are some styles that are so new that classic examples simply do not exist. The descriptions are often enlivened by accounts of the occasions when Mark found himself drinking the beers.

At times the style may come across as a little gushing and over-enthusiastic, but it’s meant to be a celebration of beer, not a dispassionate survey, so that is part of its appeal. It is also, it must be said, very much oriented towards US craft brewing, and I’d say at least half the beers listed come from the States.

If there’s one criticism, it’s that the world of craft beer moves on so quickly that in a few years’ time it will seem out-of-date, while Orval, Pilsner Urquell and Adnams’ Southwold Bitter will still be going strong. But the constant spirit of innovation is in a sense key to the concept.

You may think “this isn’t really your bag, Mudgie, is it?” and you might well be right, as I’m a great respecter of tradition who tends to see beer in its wider social context and has never really “got” American craft beer at all. But it’s an attractive, intelligent, stimulating book that is well worth reading in its own right. If you’re someone who has got into the appreciation of beer via the world beer shelves and the BrewDog bars rather than quaffing murky pints of Old Snotgobbler in some bare-boards alehouse, it will be right up your street.

It’s interesting how the world of beer blogging is now translating across into the printed word, with Boak & Bailey also having their own book on the slipway ready for a launch next year. Don’t hold your breath for The Decline and Fall of the British Pub by yours truly, though.

Oh, and I bought this with my own money...

Saturday 25 May 2013

It just keeps on happening

There are some stories that seem to crop up in the media with depressing regularity. One is supermarket cashiers refusing to sell alcoholic drinks to adults because they have children with them. Each time it’s reported, there’s a muttered apology, and an insistence that it isn’t company policy and was only an isolated incident. And then, a few months later, it happens again.

Last year, I reported how a bar in Coventry had refused service to a group of soldiers in uniform who had been acting as pallbearers at a military funeral. The owner of the bar said, slightly grudgingly, “I can only apologise again to the family and anybody else who was upset during the funeral service. Just that I'm sorry and that it wouldn't have happened if we had been aware of the funeral at the rear of Brown's, in the cathedral."

Just a one-off, you might think. But only this week, the Ensign Ewart pub on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh refused service to a group of Royal Navy personnel in uniform who had been attending a ceremony to mark the decommissioning of the destroyer HMS Edinburgh. This was particularly ironic as the pub in question bears the name of a Scottish hero of Waterloo. Not to mention particularly shameful in the week that saw the barbaric murder of Drummer Rigby in Woolwich.

This also underlines another feature of these cases, how the guilty parties often fall back on the law even when there’s patently no legal justification for their actions.

A spokeswoman for the Ensign Ewart claimed staff had been following licensing regulations which she said made it illegal to serve people in full dress uniform. She said: “We work within the confines of licensing laws.”

However, council officials said there were no licensing laws banning people in military uniform from being served alcohol, and although in the past such a ban had applied to policemen, that law was no longer in force. 
You have to wonder if the barperson had any connection with the rentamob morons who, failing to see any irony, recently told Nigel Farage to go back to England because (alleged) racists such as him were not welcome in Scotland. But there does seem to a tendency amongst a minority of extreme nationalists to regard the British armed forces as an occupying power, even if the personnel themselves are Scottish or, as in this case, their ship bears a Scottish name. Indeed, although this ship was built at Birkenhead by Cammell Laird, her successors are being built on the Clyde.

Maybe pubs should start displaying signs saying “We are proud to serve British service personnel in uniform”.

Saturday 18 May 2013

Pub doctor

There’s no shortage of reality TV shows nowadays such as The Hotel Inspector taking failing businesses and bringing in some so-called “expert” to tell the owners how to do things better. There was a suggestion in the comments that a similar thing could be done for pubs, to which someone replied that it already had been in the form of Save our Boozer. I’ve never seen this, as the genteel poverty of Curmudgeon Towers does not stretch to pay-TV, but my understanding is that this is basically about getting communities to club together rather than looking in a broader sense at the marketing and general offer of pubs.

There are few pubs you go in where you don’t see something that could be improved and might attract more customers – failing to display a menu outside is one of the most common and obvious examples. You also come across pubs that clearly aren’t making the most of the potential of the site. So there must be considerable mileage in a show of this kind.

On the other hand, more than most other hospitality businesses, the success of pubs is linked to their local geography and demography. Unless you’re in the centre of a large town or city, in a busy tourist hot-spot, or a dining pub seeking to attract car-borne customers from a wide catchment area, you are very much dependent on trade from either local residents or people who are in the area anyway. Yes, it is possible to squander a good opportunity, but it is hard to see how many of the “beached whale” estate pubs could ever be made successful again.

While individual pubs such as the Magnet in Stockport may make a success of a multi-beer alehouse format that draws customers in from the surrounding suburbs, the overall market for this type of pub is finite and it is certainly not a panacea for every failing pub in the town.

The question must also be asked as to what degree improving the attractiveness of one pub simply draws trade from others rather than growing the market as a whole.

Thursday 16 May 2013

Can drinkers be profiled?

On my most recent visit to Tesco, I was interested to see 4x500ml cans of Old Golden Hen on sale at £5 (normal price £5.99). Canned versions of beers better known as premium bottled ales have been around for some time, although I’ve rarely bought them as I tend to prefer to choose a range of different beers and, in any case, they seldom show a worthwhile price advantage over bottles. Indeed, they can even be more expensive – when Morrisons were selling premium bottles at four for £5.50, they had several four-packs of the same beers in cans at a higher price.

Another factor, although it seems less common now, is that some canned ales claimed to have a non-widget “in can system” that was supposed to make them more like draught beer, but in practice just ended up making them a bit flat. Having said that, a while back I did try canned Directors and found it hard to distinguish from the bottled version.

I’d always perceived the buyers of cans of premium ale as, in general, older and more conservative than buyers of bottles, people who had grown up with cans of Stones and Webster’s Yorkshire Bitter and now moved on to something a bit more upmarket. This was reflected in the canned beers tending to be the more established and staid brands such as Pedigree, Abbot Ale and London Pride.

However, we are now seeing recently-introduced beers put into cans such as Old Golden Hen, Adnams’ Ghost Ship and Thwaites’ Wainwright, which don’t tap into the same heritage and reflect the modern trend towards lighter-coloured, hoppier ales. Does this indicate that canned ales are now reaching out to a younger demographic? I have certainly seen references on social media to younger drinkers taking premium cans on train journeys, and to events like barbeques, where bottles would prove heavy and impractical.

Many US craft brewers put their beer into cans, and indeed from an environmental point of view there is much to be said for cans over bottles as they are lighter, and thus cheaper to transport, and also more easily recycled. It’s likely that over time we will see an ever-growing number of British ales available in cans, but a leap of imagination is required before they start to encroach into the single bottle market. And, as I said in my earlier post, there remains a widespread view that anyone buying a single can is a problem drinker, which would have to be overcome.

Tuesday 14 May 2013

Can’t see the wood for the trees

To listen to some people, you would get the impression that the main reasons for pub closures were a combination of pubs being poorly run, and being sold off by greedy pub companies acting in association with rapacious supermarkets and property developers. However, this, whether through simple ignorance or a wilful refusal to confront the facts, fails to recognise the wider picture.

In the period since 1979, beer sales in pubs have declined by over 60%, and around a third of the pubs in the country have closed. There has been a marked long-term secular decline in the demand for pubs which goes far beyond the specifics of individual businesses. Obviously, in an overall declining market, it will tend to be the better-run pubs that survive, and the worse-run ones that go to the wall, but the underlying reason for pubs closing en masse is not that they haven’t moved with the times and have failed to give customers what they want. Indeed, the average pub now is much better run and more welcoming that it was in 1979. It’s also the case that many pubs have become unviable due to an unfavourable location despite the best efforts of the licensees.

I asked the question here what difference it would may to the overall pub market if the average pub was run as well as the best. The conclusion was that overall trade would be unlikely to increase by more than a few percentage points. To suggest that pubs could have held on to most of the lost trade by being run differently is frankly ludicrous.

Equally, while I’m sure there have been cases of profitable pubs being sold off for redevelopment as flats or convenience stores, there are few areas of the country where there aren’t plenty of recently-closed pubs in all kinds of locations that would be available to anyone wanting an entry into the trade. There must be at least half a dozen in central Stockport alone. The fact that would-be pub entrepreneurs haven’t snapped these sites up suggests that they don’t see a potential market there, and those who whine that “pubs only close because they’re shit” always seem strangely reluctant to put their money where their mouth is. While matters may be different in some parts of London subject to intense development pressures, I’m not aware of a single pub around here sold for conversion to alternative use that previously could have been said to be thriving.

And, if you fail to understand the true nature of the problem, whether through ignorance or choice, you are never going to come up with a solution.

Saturday 11 May 2013

Ghostly gold

Adnams’ Ghost Ship and Hawkshead Lakeland Gold are two prime examples of the modern trend of “hop-forward” beers, that can be found in ordinary supermarkets and not just specialist beer shops. Interestingly, neither is particularly golden in colour – both are more a light amber, maybe similar to Robinson’s Unicorn, and certainly darker than classic golden ales such as Thwaites’ Wainwright.

They are of similar strength, Ghost Ship being 4.5%, and Lakeland Gold 4.4%. Both are assertively hoppy, with the Ghost Ship having more of the characteristic “New World” grapefruit notes, whereas Lakeland Gold leans more towards old-fashioned British flinty bitterness. It reminds me of what Holts Bitter could be like twenty-five years ago. Both are excellent beers, some of the most distinctive bottles to be found in mainstream outlets, but for me the Lakeland Gold slightly shades it. An absolutely superb drink, and one I’m happy to pay full whack for in Tesco even if not included in multibuy offers.

Another similar beer, although one that sadly seems to have disappeared from the supermarket shelves, is Thwaites’ Indus IPA, which is also more amber than gold.

Having said that, I’m not averse to a good malt-accented beer too, and I’ve become surprisingly fond of this recently.

Oh, and by the way, no free samples of any of these beers have been provided by the brewers...

Friday 10 May 2013

Socially unacceptable supping

A recent arrival on the North-West beer blogging scene is Seeing the Lizards. One point that the author Matthew Lawrenson has addressed is how just going to the pub for a drink has become much less socially acceptable over the years, something that I have referred to on more than one occasion. His post is very true and perceptive.

When I was learning to drink in the late 70s and early 80s, it was entirely normal for responsible, respectable people to just go for a drink or two in a pub. Now, by and large, it isn’t. Many blog readers who regard drinking and pubgoing as a specific leisure pursuit may struggle to appreciate this, but the vast toll of closed pubs in all kinds of areas bears witness to a profound social change.

This has manifested itself in all kinds of subtle ways. Workers are far more reluctant to drink any alcohol at all at lunchtimes, and even to go out at all to the pub for a snack and have a soft drink. To some extent this stems from employers’ policies, but it still happens even when there is no such constraint. They are also far less keen to meet up for drinks after work.

There’s also a much greater unwillingness to drive after drinking any alcohol whatsoever, despite being well within the legal limit. This doesn’t mean that people find another way to go to the pub, they simply don’t go at all. This has implications for most of the other trends I mention. To some extent related to this, the comfortable middle classes are far less likely to be found drinking in pubs than they once were.

Thirty years ago, it was noticeable how a large proportion of pub customers, especially in the more “respectable” pubs, were courting or married couples. Now, unless having a meal, they’re hardly seen at all. In particular, the established middle-aged couple just “going out for a drink” have pretty much entirely vanished.

Lunchtimes throughout the week used to see a variety of customers, whether local workers, unemployed, retired or just on a day off. That has largely disappeared too, and many pubs no longer bother opening at all on weekday lunchtimes. My local pub used to be busy on weekend lunchtimes with groups of social drinkers, who often knew people from other groups and engaged in banter with them. Now, it’s virtually deserted apart from a smattering of diners. When you do go in a wet-led pub at lunchtime or early doors most of the remaining customers often seem to be deadlegs.

Before the ban, smokers used to be some of the keenest traditional drink and chat customers, but now they are banished they are no longer there, or at least much more rarely there.

Pubs can still be busy on weekend evenings, but the traditional baseload trade that used to sustain them during the rest of the week is greatly diminished. People will go out for a skinful on Friday and Saturday nights, but they’re no longer going out for a couple on Mondays and Tuesdays. I go in a few pubs where the old ways still prevail, but virtually all the customers are now over the age of fifty, and that pattern of pubgoing will be gone in twenty years’ time.

It often seems that the only form of alcohol consumption that is acceptable nowadays is slumping in front of the telly once all the chores and responsibilities are done, and cracking open a bottle of Old Speckled Hen to watch the latest Midsomer Murders. Responsible, employed people in relationships just don’t go to the pub for a casual drink any more.

Thursday 9 May 2013

The lure of lager

There’s nothing to beat a cool, clear, fresh pint of cask beer, bursting with flavour and condition. Unfortunately a substantial minority fail to come anywhere close to that description. More than once, I’ve sat there nursing a pint of warm, flat, vaguely murky liquid and thought to myself “with the benefit of hindsight, wouldn’t I have been better off with a pint of Carling?”

In general, in my regular drinking, I tend to stick to places where I expect to get a decent pint of cask, and so such occasions are pretty rare, although they do happen. The few occurrences I can think of in recent years where I’ve drunk lager on licensed premises have been in restaurants or hotel bars.

However, a couple of years ago I had a week’s holiday touring Scotland, as described here. The main objective was sightseeing, not drinking, and very often I would find myself at lunchtime in establishments with no cask beer just looking for something to wash down my food. So I usually ended up with a pint of standard lager. In my limited experience, I’d say Carling was the least bad of the “big three” – Fosters being very sweet and Carlsberg having a rather grainy flavour. The problem is, though, that while the first few gulps may be cool and refreshing, by the time you get to the bottom of the glass you’ve lost interest. They’re all just fundamentally dull and bland. On one occasion I had nitrokeg Younger’s Tartan Special or suchlike which to my palate was considerably worse than cooking lager.

I also, oddly enough, recently ended up with a pint of Carlsberg in a local Spoons. It was in the middle of their beer festival, and on this occasion all the guest beers that could be ordered as part of the meal deal were some way over 5% which, as I was driving, would not have been a good idea. They had even replaced Ruddles with a festival beer, and Abbot isn’t included in the offer. So I had a Carlsberg in preference to a John Smith’s Extra Smooth. As before, initially refreshing, ultimately dull, with an odd kind of cereal note to it. If it was the only draught beer in the world I might drink more of it, but fortunately in general I don’t have to.

It’s not really surprising, though, that many beer drinkers steer clear of the quality lottery that cask beer can be and choose to stick to something that, while it may not excite, reliably does the job and is unlikely to disappoint. The question must also be asked whether, even though it is often derided, standard lager is actually in any sense a worse product than Coke or Pepsi.

Tuesday 7 May 2013

Counting the cost

The Morning Advertiser reports (slightly late) on CAMRA’s U-turn over minimum alcohol pricing, mentioning the proposer of the motion (otherwise known as Tandleman) by name. Jonathan Mail, head of public affairs at CAMRA, told the paper “We’re in the process of formulating a new position on below-cost alcohol sales”.

While it’s easy to declare yourself against below-cost selling, in practice it’s very hard to define, as I explained here. Any attempt to set a notional “cost of production” is in effect minimum pricing by the back door, and to subject supplier invoicing to audit would be unbelievably bureaucratic and time-consuming. The only robust and intellectually credible position is to define cost simply as duty and the VAT on duty.

It’s also a complete myth - although a convenient one for those who want to point the finger at the evil supermarkets - that below-cost selling occurs to any significant extent anyway, as it would simply be bad business. It makes no sense whatsoever for supermarkets to sell any substantial proportion of products at a loss, although of course they drive a hard bargain with their suppliers. Loss-leading only works on products such as milk and bread which represent a small proportion of overall spend and which can be easily compared between different retailers.

Thursday 2 May 2013

A deep draught of history

I have written before about how the creation of the National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors is one of the best things that CAMRA has ever done, and will prove to be one of the most enduring. While there are still around 50,000 pubs trading in the UK, fewer than 300 retain an interior that is largely unchanged since the pub was built, or even since before the Second World War. Most of these pubs are still very much in business and very often the original interior continues to function very well while providing an atmosphere sadly lacking with so many soulless modern refurbishments. I am fortunate to have one of them as my local – the Nursery in Heaton Norris, Stockport, a splendid multi-roomed, wood-panelled suburban pub little changed since it was built in 1939.

Not before time, CAMRA has now produced a book covering all the National Inventory in a single volume, complete with extensive colour photography, for a very reasonable £9.99. There’s a fuller description (and a lower price for non-members) on Amazon, where it says:

Full-colour guide to over 260 pubs throughout the UK which have interiors of real historic significance - some of them stretching back a century or more. It is the first time ever that these pubs have been collected into a single volume. Illustrated with high quality photography, the guides extensive listings are the product of years of surveying and research by CAMRA volunteers dedicated to preserving and protecting our rich pub heritage. With a foreword by Simon Thurley, Chief Executive of English Heritage.
I haven’t actually laid my hands on a copy yet, but I certainly will be doing, and if the various volumes produced for individual regions are anything to go by it should be very attractively designed and well-written.

These pubs are an important part of both our architectural heritage and social history, and represent something that is much more relevant to the life of ordinary people than stately homes and castles, however splendid they may be. In the 1970s, a liking for “old-fashioned pubs” was very much part of the mainstream of CAMRA, but more recently, with the growing emphasis on new beers and breweries, they have perhaps somewhat slid down the pecking order.

It occurs to me that it might be a good idea for CAMRA, possibly in conjunction with the National Trust, to establish a separate organisation, perhaps called “Friends of Heritage Pubs”, which would allow people with an interest in traditional pubs to contribute directly to championing their cause and resisting unsympathetic and destructive alterations. This could well attract support from many people who aren’t specifically interested in real ale or indeed beer at all. There remains a widespread warm fuzzy feeling about olde-worlde inns that goes far beyond the ranks of CAMRA.