Sunday 30 June 2013

Bladder wrack

One subject that seems to be largely ignored by beer writers and bloggers is the fact that drinking beer inevitably leads to a toilet visit.

I have been aware since I started going to pubs that my bladder capacity was maybe rather less than some other people’s, so this has always been a factor in considering pub visits. It’s not stopped me doing it, obviously, but I’ve always had to consider where the next piss is to be had. I have drawn an imaginary line around my house representing the maximum distance that can be walked home after consuming a few pints without needing a piss. I am a respectable, responsible, middle-aged, middle-class chap, so I really don't want to be relieving myself in alleyways.

The drastic closures of public toilets imposed by local authorities in recent years inevitably have an impact on this, although this doesn’t apply within my local zone.

One of the benefits of travelling by train is that, at least on long-distance journeys, toilet facilities are available, whereas on buses and Metrolink they aren’t.

One North-West based beer blogger seems to undertake lengthy journeys by bus to visit pubs that I wouldn’t remotely contemplate.

I also feel that public toilet closures have led to people in the over-40 age group being less willing to visit pubs and drink beer because they are uncertain of the after-effects, so this is a factor in the decline of pubs. In the past, councils provided large numbers of roadside urinals which have now been entirely shut down.

This also seems to be an area where concerns about providing equal-sex facilities, and accommodating the disabled, has led to a dog-in-the-manger attitude of not providing any facilities at all.

Let there be squabbling

Britain’s major brewers, with the backing of CAMRA, are planning to launch a generic advertising campaign entitled Let There Be Beer. Its aims are to raise the profile of drinking beer on all kinds of different occasions, and to urge people who are not regular beer drinkers to fall back in love with it. While the objective is laudable, first impressions are that it comes across more as a typical lager commercial, and that it fails to put much emphasis on pubs, points made by Pete Brown in this blogpost. It’s also hard to avoid the feeling that any such industry-wide campaign has a slight smack of desperation about it.

However, some in the brewing industry don’t feel able to give it any kind of welcome whatsoever. There have been some spectacularly negative comments on Pete’s post, such as “So, it's just another big bucks, ad-based, brand building exercise” and “So it's big brands coming together to promote supermarket sales of their mainstream products. Hmm, it might be a good idea from their point of view but it does nothing for my business.” This comes across as a very blinkered attitude.

The greatest success of beer industry campaigning in recent years has been the scrapping of the duty escalator, which was achieved through all sections of the trade putting aside their differences and speaking with one voice. Sadly, it seems this lesson has not been learned, and the squabbling and finger-pointing has started up again. Of course everyone has the right to express their own opinion and make constructive criticism. However, don’t imagine for a minute that it will cut any ice with the anti-drink lobby to say “we’re craft brewers. We’re different from the big bad boys.”

And it shouldn’t be forgotten that five-sixths of draught beer is lager and keg, so promoting Carling and John Smith’s is, in effect, championing pubs. Surely it’s better for people to be drinking Carling in the pub than prune juice at home.

Full credit to CAMRA for signing up to a broad-based campaign such as this.

I’ll be happy to put a link in the sidebar once it’s up and running.

Saturday 29 June 2013

Seen but not heard

Well, the poll on admitting children to pubs has now closed, with an impressive 89 replies, although not quite as many as the Spoons poll. 49% of respondents took the view that children should not be allowed in bars under any circumstances, and 82% reckoned they should at least always be restricted to defined areas. And, for the six people who thought there should be no restrictions at all, do you really think it is responsible parenting to have your toddler in a pub at 10.30 pm?

There’s been an extensive and, er, lively discussion on the previous post, so I will just make a couple of further observations. It is not in any sense anti-children to not want to be in their company every hour of the day. And I just don’t get the argument at all that bad behaviour from adults is far more common. Maybe I go in the wrong pubs, but I’m struggling to recall the last time I witnessed adult misbehaviour. The other night I attended a CAMRA Pub of the Month presentation in a pub in one of the more down-to-earth areas of Manchester. The pub was packed, a lot of beer and other drinks were consumed, yet I didn’t notice a single person step out of line.

And, if you think it’s OK to drag your child into a pub so that you can have a swift pint, why shouldn’t it also be OK to take them into the bookie’s for a quick flutter on the 3.30 at Market Rasen? There is nothing for kids in pubs (unless eating) and nothing in betting shops either. But, oddly, I don’t see those who are keen to allow children in pubs campaigning for the principle to be extended.

Plus, as someone said in the comments, you don’t tend to find young children in gay pubs and bars. Only trouble is, they’re not exactly thick on the ground in the Stockport suburbs.

Monday 24 June 2013

Pint size

This article by Keith Wildeman was published in the fourth edition of Doghouse magazine and is reproduced here with the editor’s permission. I’m sure it will strike a chord with many.

Pint Size

“A loud child has the unique property of being louder than a loud adult. Not only louder, but more annoying. Grating. Like a slipping fan belt driving down the street at 3am when you’re in bed.”

I’VE NOT GOT ANY kids, nor do I have any real desire to imminently have any. I appreciate that for the human race to continue, there is a need to procreate and bring the next generation into the world. It’s a biological necessity. For this I am grateful, it means there will be future generations to empty our bins, mend our cars, and run off with our money in the banking sector. The world will keep turning just as it is now. What I don’t understand is the need, carried through by some parents, to introduce their young offspring to the haven for all that is adult. The public house.

We’re fortunate in this country that we have a variety of places families can visit. Parks, cinemas, theatres, shops, museums, cafes, swimming pools, public transport – probably about 99% of the public realm – is available for those with children. So why, with all these riches, are some parents not satisfied and decide they need to take their kids to the pub?

There is nothing for kids in pubs. They may find the lights on the fruit machines amusing for a while, be intrigued by the blokes swearing at the bar or investigate the aerodynamic capabilities of a beer mat... or worse half pint glass. But they will inevitably get bored very quickly. They will inevitably lose interest in the half pint of lemonade they’ve been bought to occupy them, and they will inevitably begin to get loud. A loud child has the unique property of being louder than a loud adult. Not only louder, but more annoying. Grating. Like a slipping fan belt driving down the street at 3am when you’re in bed, or James Corden appearing on your telly.

Pubs are meant to be noisy, but the kind of noise generated by hard working men letting off steam at the end of the day, pointlessly arguing about politics or football or which is the best local curry house. Not the screeching noise of a bored child. The noise of a pub also includes plenty of swearing, in the tap room at least. Swearing is not compatible with children. Why should I have to mind my language simply because you chose to inflict your child on me?

Children will also run around. The pub is not a place to run around. If you’re carrying four pints back to your table, and a bloke runs into you, then you’d be rightly aggrieved. He’d be quite correct to expect either a slap round the chops, or an invitation to purchase a new round, or more likely both. Post haste. Children, being less than waist height, are a lot harder to spot, and seeing as giving someone else’s kids a clip round the ear these days appears to be frowned on, parents should take heed not to put their kids in peril of this potential scenario in the first place. By not bringing them to the pub.

There’s also something slightly depressing about kids in pubs. I remember a trip to Rotherham a few years back with City. The pub at the junction of the main road and the road that lead down to Millmoor was called The Miner’s Arms. It was a place that felt trapped in the 70s and had the air of an old working man’s club about it. Formica tables, polystyrene tiles on the ceiling, one large rectangular room with a long bar down the side and a pool table at the end. Racing was on the telly. It was empty. Bar us and a fella with a kid. He had the paper open on the racing pages and was staring intently at the telly whilst also half-heartedly flicking his fingers on some kind of plastic assembled tabletop children’s game, involving a small ping-pong ball, that he’d picked up at the corner shop with his fags. The kid would run after the ball as it kept falling on the floor, place it back in the game, only for it to be disinterestedly flicked onto the floor again. A grim spectacle indeed.

There are also parents who take a haughty affront to their spawn not being allowed on a licensed premises. Not too long ago, in my local – which clearly has a sign by each door stating that children under 18 are not allowed in after 7pm – a woman came in with a toddler around half 7. When told there were no children allowed, she turned on her heels and bellowed with disgust: “What is this, the middle ages or summat?” No love if it was the middle ages your kid would either be doing something useful like ploughing a field or more than likely bedridden with consumption; not disturbing me whilst I’m enjoying a nice pint of Ossett Silver King. This event was trumped some time later when a young lass walked in at half midnight, clutching a baby to her chest and asked if they were still serving.

‘But Keith’, you may be saying. ‘What about dogs? There’s lots of pubs with dogs in, aren’t they an equal menace? Are you happy for dogs to be in pubs and not children?’ Yes, of course I am. Dogs are great, they add to the atmosphere, they don’t suck the life out of it.

Most importantly, dogs know their place, they know we’re their masters. Children on the other hand demand to be in charge and in these days of rampant consumerism and increased competitiveness between parents to have the latest pram/toys/trampoline abomination in the garden, they call the shots. This, quite simply is not compatible with a pub environment. Pubs are a refuge away from such things. That’s why they’re there.

So, if you’ve got kids, do us pub-goers a favour, don’t be so selfish, think of others and don’t bring them. Enjoy the 99% of other places you’re free to visit, and leave the pubs for the adults.

Sunday 23 June 2013

In the Doghouse

Boak and Bailey recently did a post entitled Considering a good beer magazine which looked at why, apart from CAMRA’s members-only BEER, there were no decent British-based beer magazines. In the comments someone mentioned Doghouse, although he said it was primarily a pub rather than beer-related publication. I have to say I had never heard of this before, but a quick look at their website suggested it was something that was right up my street, so I took out an annual subscription as a birthday treat to myself. The first issue arrived through my letterbox very promptly a couple of days later.

It’s described as “a quarterly print magazine about British pubs: a love-letter to bar stools and fixed settles: discovering & celebrating history, architecture, stories from the bar, the mystery of the cellars below and the ghosts that rattle around upstairs.” It’s an attractive A4-sized publication, perfect-bound on high quality paper, smooth but not over-glossy. It has a clean, elegant design very different from the rather fussier would-be trendy approach of BEER, and features many magnificent full-page or double-spread photographs.

It’s basically divided into two halves. The first features general articles about pub life and culture including, in this, the fourth issue, anecdotes from a pub regular and licensee, a long piece about cask-making centred on Hereford Casks of Stoke Edith in the Herefordshire countryside, and an opinion piece about children in pubs with which I heartily concurred – “a loud child has the unique property of being louder than a loud adult. Not only louder, but more grating”.

The second half then features specific pubs, taking the approach of starting from a particular town and looking at around ten pubs within a twenty-mile radius. In this issue it is Cheltenham and there is a long article about the Adam & Eve, a classic backstreet Arkell’s pub in the town. It also features classics like the Red Lion at Ampney St Peter, the Daneway Inn at Sapperton and the Five Mile House at Duntisbourne Abbots, all illustrated with high-quality interior and exterior photos that really make you want to pay the pubs a visit. This is an area of the country that I have often visited or passed through over the years and so I am familiar with many of the pubs mentioned.

I’ve still to read it all in detail, but I particularly enjoyed the description of the Three Kings at Hanley Castle in Worcestershire – “one of the last of that old generation of English drinking houses, where the barbarous tide of ruthless sanitisation and garish incivility is held at bay, for now”, and where “a collection of old boys hold court, huddled around the fire of a winter’s eve, swapping the same old stories, but who will strike up a conversation with visitors at the drop of a hat”.

The editorial team appear to be based in Shropshire and so far the focus has been very much on the general area of “West Mercia”, with the three previous issues being centred on Ludlow, Stourbridge and Hay-on-Wye. The fifth apparently is to focus on Rhayader and Mid-Wales – home to some true unspoilt classics – and perhaps they could then turn their attention to Staffordshire and pubs like the Anchor at High Offley and the Red Lion at Dayhills.

The emphasis is firmly on the traditional end of the pub spectrum, and you won’t find any echoey, uncomfortable urban craft beer bars within its pages. But these are the kind of pubs that are intimately bound in with our history and culture, the pubs that Hilaire Belloc described as representing “the last of England”. Let us hope they are still there to be enjoyed when the hipsters have moved on to the latest fad.

I was so impressed that I’ve put a little advert into the sidebar, for which I must stress I have received no payment. It’s not cheap, at £22 for a four-issue subscription, but if you love British pubs and pub culture, it’s a must-read, and something you will keep and return to again and again. I would also suggest it would be a good idea for many pubs to stick a copy in their magazine rack for their customers to read and talk about.

Saturday 22 June 2013

Blowing hot and cold

The British weather is notoriously fickle, and the past few weeks have been a perfect example of this, with some days getting pretty warm, while others turned out surprisingly cool, often with little advance warning. It seems to be a characteristic of pubs nowadays to over-react to changes in the weather, flinging all the doors open at the first sign of sunshine, yet turning the heating on as soon as we get a dull day.

Recently I’ve been in a couple of pubs where all the doors have been wedged open because the sun was shining, but it actually wasn’t all that warm, and on the side of the pub away from the sun there was a chilly draught. I’m sure pubs never used to do that thirty years ago, or at least not until the sun was actually cracking the flags. On the other hand, on a day which was overcast in comparison to the previous one, but still quite close and muggy, one pub had turned its heating on, making the atmosphere pretty stifling.

In one branch of Wetherspoon’s, again on an overcast but muggy day, the under-seat heating was on full blast in one corner. I went to the bar to complain and was told the system was controlled by Head Office and there was nothing the bar staff could do about it. It turned out that other areas of the pub were unaffected and I was able to move to somewhere more comfortable, but even so the entire situation seemed bonkers.

Surely it would result in a more equable climate inside, and save money on energy bills at the same time, if pubs were less eager both to open all the doors, and to turn up the thermostat.

Thursday 20 June 2013

Quality drop

Tandleman is a regular visitor to London, and often reports his disappointment at the proportion of cask beer he finds there that is a bit warm, tired and lacking in condition. Maybe that’s mainly a London phenomenon, but I have to say that in the past year or so I’ve gained the subjective impression that standards of cellarmanship have been slipping around here too.

More and more, I find myself going in pubs where the beer, while not bad as such, or remotely returnable, is nowhere near as good as it could be, and exhibits the flaws mentioned above. This tends to happen more in the tied or pub company outlets with five pumps than the specialist pubs with fifteen, probably because in the latter most of their customers are there for the ale and they also have a better idea of how to look after it.

Partly this must be down to a question of turnover – both stocking more beers than you can actually sell in a reasonable period of time, and also leaving beer festering in the lines for too long at times when trade is slack. If you have five pumps, but only sell ten pints during the lunchtime session, how can you realistically ensure that all of them will be in good nick? Recently, I went in one pub to have some lunch. During the forty-five minutes or so I was there, while there was a reasonable scattering of customers, I didn’t see a single pint of cask pulled apart from mine. So what chance the next one dispensed will be flabby?

In the past, swift throughput has often compensated for flaws in cellarmanship, but they are now becoming increasingly exposed. I get the feeling that the basic principles are becoming less well understood, in particular the need to use hard spiles to maintain condition in your beer. Maybe also the ending of afternoon closing denies beer a bit of recovery time. It’s also inexcusable in a pub where throughput may be slow at quieter times not to keep your beer lines cool as well as your cellar. Cask beer should not be flat, and it should not be lukewarm.

In contrast, I recently visited a rural free house with just a single cask beer. I doubt whether they have any modern cellar management equipment, or have even studied the subject beyond picking it up from the bloke who did it before. But each group of customers included at least one person drinking it, and it was fresh, delicious and cellar-cool, just as it should be.

Monday 17 June 2013

Brand identity

For once, my survey on how many branches of Wetherspoon’s people had visited produced something like a normal distribution rather than a U-shaped curve. The conclusion seems to be that most people had visited quite a few, but not many had sought them out to the extent that they had gone over the 50 mark. My personal score comes to around 40 – they’re often useful if you’re after reasonably-priced food in an unfamiliar town, but they’re not places that otherwise I’d actively seek out.

This was prompted by the question of pub branding and what benefits it brings. The financial difficulties of Punch Taverns have been widely reported recently, and it’s noticeable that Punch, while they may have some managed brands within their estate, do nothing to put their name over the door. This seems a rather odd way of doing business and reinforces the frequent charge that pub companies of this kind are basically about financial engineering, not retailing.

Branding works on the obvious level of allowing you to identify an establishment with a particular style of menu and drinks offer wherever you are in the country, but it also operates in a more subtle way to reinforce people’s perceptions through news and general conversation. You may in practice only ever visit one branch of Tesco, but you still get a good idea of what Tesco are all about. Pubs more than most other types of businesses are very much dependent on a particular combination of geography and opportunity to attract customers, but even with that if you have a recognised brand you have won half the battle of letting people know what it’s like before they venture over the threshold.

Most of the pub brands around are ones like Chef & Brewer and Brewer’s Fayre which are very much related to dining – Wetherspoon’s are about the only non-brewing company who have sought to develop a common brand identity across a whole estate that are much more than just dining pubs. While the buildings do differ, as do the clientele, all of them have a very similar style and effectively the same offer. So far they have done very well with it – you always know where you are with a Spoons – but there is the risk that if public sentiment turns against you it can rapidly snowball, which would not be the case with a more heterogenous estate. There is also supposed to be something of a reaction against corporate identities, but I’m not sure how much that percolates though to the average Spoons customer.

While it is less so now due to the drop in the number of pub-owning family brewers, it was always the case that most independent brewers had a distinctive house style, so that while their pubs did vary you usually knew if you were in a Brakspear’s or a Holt’s house without needing to look at the pumps on the bar. This remains very much the case with Sam Smith’s even though, ironically, they don’t put any sign of ownership on the outside of their pubs.

Friday 14 June 2013

Secret history

The lifetime of CAMRA has seen the history and development of real ale in general very thoroughly documented. But other aspects of the British beer market haven’t received anything like the same attention. A good example came up recently on Tandleman’s blog – which breweries used to produce tank beer, and when did it finally disappear from the market? Or is it still going in some obscure parts of the club trade?

Which of the early own-brand lagers were top-fermenting “bastard lagers” (Robinson’s Einhorn certainly was) and which were actually more genuine bottom-fermenters? And when did the once commonplace sight of half-pint/275ml bottles at room temperature on shelves behind the bar disappear, and when did the brands involved bite the dust? I vaguely recall Robinson’s dropping their own bottled beer range around 1990.

Maybe it’s areas like this that beer historians need to be turning their attention to in the future.

And, even looking at the current situation, five-sixths of the British draught beer market isn’t cask beer. Which brands does that cover, who brews them and where can they be found? Do they include some rare and threatened obscurities now confined to dingy working men’s clubs and forgotten council estate boozers? There’s a remarkable dearth of information on the subject in the public domain. Perhaps for a new challenge some geeks should venture into uncharted territory and become “keg tickers”.

Thursday 13 June 2013

Here we go down the slippery slope

The Grocer reports that the Home Office is “poised to hold talks with police chiefs about a nationwide rollout of ‘voluntary’ retailer bans on high-strength booze”.

I’ve written about this at length before, but going nationwide is a deeply worrying expansion of the scheme. It is an obvious restraint of trade in aiming to prevent the sale of lawful products, so the Office of Fair Trading is quite right to take an interest.

And if you try to separate out “responsible” from “irresponsible” products, where do you draw the line? Are Duvel and Old Tom high-quality craft products consumed by discerning connoisseurs? How about Henry Weston’s Vintage Cider? And much of the production of farmhouse cidermakers is well north of 6.5% ABV and is primarily consumed by rural pissheads, not aficionados.

Don’t forget that Special Brew started out as a premium product and was only later adopted as the tramp’s drink of choice. Cooking Lager has reported seeing a Belgian tramp necking Chimay Bleu from the bottle.

This is also a tacit admission that High Strength Beer duty has been a complete failure in achieving the effects that were claimed for it, and has only served to discourage the production and consumption of low-volume “craft” products.

I did it my way

Something that differentiates Marks & Spencer from most of their competitors is that pretty much everything in their stores is produced to their specification and sold under their own brand. Whether or not you like what is on offer, it sets them apart from the herd. In the pub world, the same is true of Sam Smith’s – all the beers, whether draught or bottled, are their own production, and pretty much everything else, cider, wine, spirits, soft drinks, even crisps and nuts, is specified by them rather than being well-known brands available elsewhere. Some casual customers may bemoan the lack of Stella or Bell’s, but it makes drinking in a Sam’s pub a distinctively different experience from anywhere else.

Nobody else went quite as far, but certainly in the past many independent brewers sold a much higher proportion of their own products than they do now. They had their own lager brands, their own premium keg, their own standard bottled beers and in some cases their own Scotch whisky from bonded stocks built up over a long period of time. Holts still do this to some extent, with their own Crystal and Diamond lagers, although they sell Foster’s and Kronenbourg alongside them at a higher price.

However, most of their competitors have steadily retreated from these sections of the market. The standard 275ml bottles of brown and light ale, and sometimes sweet stout, that used to sit at room temperature on shelves behind the bar have long since bitten the dust. And, if you considered your pubs as profit centres in their own right rather than just outlets for your beers, it made no sense to stock own-brand lagers such as Einhorn and Slalom which just put some customers off, rather than heavily-advertised, well-known national brands. Nobody ever went in a Robinson’s pub because they stocked Einhorn rather than Heineken.

Some, such as Boddington’s, decided that there was no longer any point in remaining in brewing at all, and turned themselves into pure retailers. We all know what happened to them. Very recently, Hyde’s have moved to a new, smaller “craft” brewery which involved them concentrating solely on their cask ales. They have stopped brewing Harp Irish Lager under licence, and the smooth ale you will get in a Hyde’s pub is now Tetley’s, not Hyde’s own.

But, while this approach may have made commercial sense looking at pub estates in isolation, in the longer term it was eroding the volume and viability of the associated breweries, and there are signs now that things are starting to change. In the past few years we have seen BrewDog reinventing the concept of the tied house – while they do offer a range of other brewers’ products, the core of their appeal is their own beers. Fullers, having long ago axed their own K2 lager, have re-entered that section of the market with a new “craft lager” called Frontier. Now that there is a growing interest in, and acceptance of, distinctive British-brewed lagers, maybe it’s time for the likes of Robinson’s to re-enter that market rather than just being happy to stock Carling, Stella and Peroni.

If you run a brewery and have a tied estate, surely it makes sense, within commercial reality, to have as much of the throughput as possible in those pubs being beers you’ve brewed yourself, and to make the fact that they are places to drink Bloggs’ beers a unique selling point. It is the one thing that you can do, but no-one else can. You won’t get anywhere in business nowadays just by running a me-too operation that offers customers no specific reason to use it, and the brewery and pub estate need to be considered as an integrated whole, not two separate outfits with conflicting interests.

Tuesday 11 June 2013

Not so super Trooper?

There has been a great deal of publicity about the new Trooper beer developed by Robinson’s brewery in conjunction with legendary heavy metal band Iron Maiden. While singer Bruce Dickinson is someone who always seems to have steered well clear of the excesses of the rock and roll lifestyle, he is described here by Pete Brown as “one of the most passionate beer advocates I’ve ever met”. How this collaboration actually came about remains something of a mystery, but it’s certainly proving good business for Robinson’s, who have been brewing three times a day, six days a week to keep up with demand.

Clearly this is a beer aimed at a wide international market, and was never going to be the headbanging hop monster that some seemed to expect. However, all the indications were that it would be towards the pale and hoppy end of the spectrum, and Bruce says in the report I linked to that “I wanted a beer that’s full-flavoured and punches above its alcoholic weight”.

This is a beer that I very much wanted to like, but having now sampled it in both cask and bottled form I have found it distinctly underwhelming. The cask was a pleasant beer with a bit of body to it, but which didn’t really drink its 4.7% ABV alcoholic strength, while the bottled version was just downright bland and I struggled to find much flavour at all. No doubt it will be on the bar when the local CAMRA branch holds a meeting in Robinson’s visitor centre this coming Thursday so I’ll get the opportunity to form a second opinion.

It must be said that I have also found the bottled version of Robinson’s staple beer Unicorn to be very disappointing in comparison with the cask, which to my mind can be excellent when well-kept. This distinction seems to be greater with Robinson’s than with many other breweries.

Sunday 9 June 2013

Time for a drink?

Not maybe the best-supported poll I’ve ever run on here, but still an interesting result. Predictably, “weekday lunchtimes” comes last, but I would have expected “later evenings” to come top, as that’s when most of the pubs I know are clearly busiest. However, it was comfortably beaten by “early evenings”, a drinking pattern I’ve never really got into at all. Unless possibly people were interpreting “later evenings” as meaning “after 11 pm” rather than, as I intended “after around 8.30 pm”. Even “weekend lunchtimes” only comes slightly behind “later evenings”. This doesn’t really accord with figures I’ve seen that 50% of all pub trade is on Friday and Saturday nights, two-thirds of the remainder on other evenings, and only one-sixth at lunchtimes.

Saturday 8 June 2013

Hang that thief!

Here are three photos of the Davenport Arms at Woodford, locally known as the “Thief’s Neck”, taken earlier today when I called in to deliver the local CAMRA magazine Opening Times.

This is one of the few “country pubs” within the boundaries of Stockport MBC, and retains a characterful multi-roomed interior. It’s a long-standing entry in the Good Beer Guide and today had on Robinson’s 1892, Unicorn, Dizzy Blonde and the Iron Maiden beer Trooper. It also has an extensive menu of mostly home-made food. It’s one of my favourite pubs. I have previously written about it here.

No pub is perfect, though, and it would be an improvement if the plants along the front were cut down somewhat, and the access directly from the road rather than via the car park restored. Currently it seems too cut off from the main road. It also could do more to provide a decent covered outdoor smoking area, although today the awnings at the front would have been fine.

Hope springs

I’ve been very critical in the past of the inconsistency of bottle-conditioned beers from micro-breweries, to the extent that buying them constitutes a lottery you’re more likely to lose than win. Amongst the beers I have found disappointing is Marble Lagonda.

However, hope springs eternal in the human breast, as they say, so from time to time I give it another try. At the Stockport Beer Festival, you are allowed to use staff beer tokens for British bottle-conditioned beers to take out and so, at last week’s event, alongside one or two reliable stalwarts from Fuller’s and Young’s, I picked up a bottle of Marble Manchester Bitter, which is a very good beer on cask.

I stored it upright in a dark place for six days and made sure it had fully cleared, and then gave it a go. Just to be on the safe side, I’d put a reserve bottle of something else in the fridge in case it turned out to be a “sinker”. However, I was pleasantly surprised. It opened with a reassuring hiss and there was a little cloud of gas in the neck, but no sign of fobbing. So far, so good.

I poured it carefully, making sure I left the yeast in the bottom of the bottle, and it came out clear, with a dense, uneven head and visible spires of carbonation rising through the liquid, just as you would hope for from a good bottle-conditioned beer. Indeed it was so lively that I couldn’t quite get all the clear beer in the glass. It’s a very distinctive beer, intended to recreate some of the character of the Boddington’s and Holt’s bitters of old, with a uncompromising dry English flinty bitterness rather than a New World citrus character. If I could rely on it being this good, I might well buy rather more of it, but I’m still not at all sure I can.

The minimalism of Marble’s labels is commendable, but I do wish they wouldn’t use ones that wrap completely around the bottle, which make it more difficult both to check whether the beer has cleared and to monitor the progress of the yeast when pouring it.

(Picture courtesy of the Ormskirk Baron)

Thursday 6 June 2013

Thin end of the wedge?

Interesting news today that Marston’s have launched a new 4.0% ABV Revisionist Craft Lager, which is to become the first in a new range of “craft keg” beers. The range is to be expanded to include a wheat beer and a saison, will be packaged in smaller 30 litre kegs to ensure freshness, and will be cold conditioned and micro-filtered, but not pasteurised.

For a while, some traditionalists have been painting “craft keg” as some kind of threat to cask beer. While I know it has made inroads in London, and in urban bars outside the capital, I have to say I just haven’t seen this in the regular round of pubs I visit. It hasn’t even made much of an impact in Stockport’s specialist beer pubs.

This move by Marston’s could be seen as an example of it “going mainstream”, but on the other hand it may be more of a case of them trying to get a slice of that particular pie. It’s significant that these beers are not direct equivalents to existing cask beers – they’re styles that you wouldn’t find on cask in the first place.

But it’s certainly true that there is a slow but steady move to see a more interesting range of beers available on keg in a growing number of pubs, with lager leading the way. And I get the impression that craft keg is seen as trendy in a way that something with a sheepdog on the pumpclip is never going to be.

It’s also still the case that a lot of pubs attempt to stock too many cask beers, resulting in inadequate turnover and tired, warm pints. Maybe it would be a good idea for them to replace some of their slower-selling lines with unusual craft kegs which will keep for longer even if the volume isn’t there.

Wednesday 5 June 2013

The sun sets on the pub

Here are a couple of pictures taken in today’s elegiac evening sunlight of the Four Heatons pub just down the road from me, which has now been closed for over two years. Compare it with these shots taken when it had recently shut. All the signage has been removed, boarding replaced with metal sheets and the balustrade has started to crumble away.

Planning permission has now gone through for it to be demolished and replaced by a small Co-op supermarket with flats above, so it shouldn’t be with us for that much longer.

It may not look the most appealing of pubs, but I’ve had plenty of good times in there over the years.

One for the road?

Three months ago, I reported how Wetherspoon’s had applied for planning permission to build a pub at the Beaconsfield service area on the M40. These plans have now been approved and they expect to open before Christmas. Not surprisingly, this news has attracted a wave of ill-informed and often hysterical comment, so it’s worth getting a few facts straight.

For a start, this is not a service area that can only be accessed from the motorway, like Knutsford and Keele. It’s off a roundabout at the motorway junction and can be reached from the general road network. If you look at the location, it’s close to a number of substantial built-up areas from which, like any dining pub, it is likely to draw much of its custom. I’d say it’s likely that a majority of customers won’t be long-distance travellers. Wetherspoon’s would not be interested in a service area right out in the country.

There are already large numbers of pubs in out-of-town locations that are mainly dependent on car-borne customers. While this blog may express regret over the extent to which they have become dominated by the food trade, they are not, by and large, responsible for substantial levels of either drink-drive offending or antisocial behaviour. Take, for example, Robinson’s Windmill at Tabley which is right next to Junction 19 of the M6. And there’s already a pub, the Cherry Tree Farm, at Derby and Burton Services which, although it is at the crossing of two major A-roads, effectively fulfils the same function as a motorway service area.

It also must be remembered that, while some may wish it otherwise, it remains legal for drivers to consume some alcohol provided they remain within the legal limit. You would be perfectly entitled to eat your Gourmet Burger, down your pint of Ruddles, and be on your way, just the same as millions of people up and down the country do lawfully and safely every week. Mind you, I suspect the location, and the fact that it will probably be one of Spoons’ more trendy and less “pubby” designs, will act as something of a deterrent to consuming alcoholic drinks anyway.

The Wetherspoon spokesman was quite right to place the emphasis on individual responsibility by saying “We believe the majority of people that use the pub to drink will be people that aren't driving - coach parties or people travelling with others. We won't be asking them whether they are driving. It's up to them.”

The catering at motorway service areas has long been notorious for its high prices and low quality, and surely this introduces a welcome element of competition. The idea that it will result in the widespread drink-driving problems that some fear is quite far-fetched and simply not borne out by the experience of the many similar pubs that already exist.

It’s ironic that the news comes shortly after it was announced that the once-iconic Little Chef roadside dining chain is finally to be put out of its misery. Rather than trying to keep a failed brand going, it must be a good idea to give one of Britain’s most successful eating-out operators a crack at the market. If it proves a success, I can see it being rolled out to other service areas in similar locations such as Hopwood Park on the M42 near Reddish. If it fails, then Spoons have the muscle to stand the loss and will deserve credit for having tried.

Sunday 2 June 2013

The unquiet pint

Throughout my drinking career, piped music in pubs has been a perennial source of complaint. It is, by and large, wholly unnecessary and intrusive, and even if you like it the odds are that other people won’t. What is music to one person’s ears will be an unholy racket to someone else. While it is claimed to create instant “atmosphere”, almost invariably it detracts from a pub.

In the 1990s, a guide to pubs without piped music was produced entitled The Quiet Pint. I have a copy from 2000, produced by the Daily Telegraph and sponsored by J. D. Wetherspoon.

Like many such guides, it features a rather random selection of pubs and the overall coverage is too sparse to make it of much practical use, although it might occasionally lead you to a worthwhile pub that you weren’t aware of. The only pubs around here are the Devonshire Arms and Oddfellows in Mellor, the Grapes at Gee Cross near Hyde, Stalybridge Station Buffet and the Station in Didsbury (which I doubt is “quiet” nowadays and may have an uncertain future). Bizarrely, the Devonshire Arms is listed under “Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside” and the Oddfellows, in the same village, under “Cheshire”.

It would, however, lead you to such Cheshire gems as the Bird in Hand at Mobberley, and the two Blue Bells at Smallwood and Tushingham.

The sponsorship by Wetherspoon’s means that a few of their pubs gain main entries, but there is a complete listing at the back. Given their expansion since 2000, such a listing would now overwhelm the book. While the main Wetherspoon’s chain remains music free, I doubt whether many could really be regarded as “quiet”.

The last edition of the book seems to have been published in 2004, so it must have died a death. However, the problem hasn’t gone away, and if anything seems to be spreading. I can think of at least three pubs on my regular rounds which have a generally traditional character, but within the past few years have introduced piped music where there was none before. Indeed, sometimes the bar staff have been playing what sounded like Radio 1, which was totally inappropriate for the clientele. It has even spread to my local Co-op convenience store.

Having said this, at lunchtime today my local pub, which at times has been one of those suffering from the blight, was gratifyingly music-free, and all the better for it.

Strangely, a while back a regular commenter wondered what “piped music even means”. I would have said it’s a common English phrase, and provided him with the following definition: “music piped or relayed around a building or room which people have not chosen and which they may not be able to escape. In short, it is involuntary music, forced on listeners”.

It’s good to see that the Pipedown campaign against piped music still seems to be going strong.

A pub with potential?

On the face of it you would think this pub, the Estuary in Llansanffraid Glan Conwy, North Wales, has a lot going for it. Formerly known as the Conway Vale, it’s an attractive gabled building, in a good situation on the main road next to the scenic Conwy estuary, and not far from the major population centres of Llandudno and Colwyn Bay. But, when I recently passed the site, it’s been completely flattened.

And, a couple of miles down the road, the once-popular Tal-y-Cafn Inn, also well-situated by the river, is closed and boarded too.