Wednesday 31 July 2013

You dirty boozer

No doubt you will have come across one or more brewery websites that require you to enter your date of birth before accessing the site. It’s only a minor irritation, and there’s no check that you’re telling the truth anyway. It’s just a cover-your-backside measure from breweries, especially those seeking to address the US market. I wrote about this in the past here.

However, if the government’s declared aim of introducing a default-on anti-porn filter on the Internet becomes reality, these controls are likely to become a whole lot stronger. If it was actually possible to restrict access to legal pornography to over-18s, then it’s hard to argue against it. But even that is likely to result in a huge number of false positives, and fails to recognise how easy it is to circumvent ISP controls anyway.

And, as reported here, it is highly likely that the controls will be extended to a wide range of other material that is judged to be unsuitable for children to access. Suicide? Anorexia? Promotion of terrorism? Illegal drugs? Tobacco? Alcohol? Controversial or extreme political views? See that slippery slope yet?

This isn’t just an anti-porn measure, or anything like it. In reality the objective is to dramatically limit the range of material that can be accessed without a specific opt-in proof of age. If you just want to see what guest ales are on at the Volestranglers’ Arms, you will have to negotiate exactly the same controls as if you want to view porn. It’s another step in the denormalisation of alcohol. And who is to say that the government won’t start taking an interest in who has opted out of which controls?

If this concerns you, please sign this e-petition on the government website.

Sunday 28 July 2013


There’s been a lot of discussion recently about the financial problems of pub companies such as Enterprise Inns and Punch, but is it possible that one of the reasons why they are struggling is that, very often, their pubs are not actually run very well?

I’m not sure whether this involves managed pubs, or tenanted ones run with “guidance” from the pubco, but there does seem to be a consistent pattern. Typically it’s a pretty prominent pub, once one of the more prized possessions of the former Big Six or Greenall’s. Outside there will be a plethora of posters and chalkboards advertising a variety of features and attractions.

Inside, the interior will have been much knocked through over the years and, while it may still ramble a bit and have some distinct areas, it retains little vestige of its former character. There will be a big flat screen in every area, so when the footie is on it is impossible to escape from it.

Food will be advertised on pre-printed, glossy menus with pictures of some of the dishes on offer, and will often follow a particular theme which may not be appropriate to the pub’s clientele. “Ooh, let’s have a pie menu. Or maybe a burger menu!”

There will also probably be cask beer alongside the rows of gleaming keg dispensers, but it will typically be chosen from the well-known big sellers such as Deuchars IPA, Bombardier, Wainwright and Doom Bar, and there won’t be any evidence of the staff actually taking any interest in beer. If you’re lucky, you may get a reasonable pint rather than a glass of warm soup, but you’re unlikely to get an outstanding one.

There’s also a general sense of impermanence, with regular changes in managers or tenants, and the frequent introduction of new brands and formats. Overall, the pub seems to have little idea of who it is aiming to appeal to, or what its USP is. I can think of quite a few pubs around my local area that, to a greater or lesser extent, fit into this stereotype. I’d be surprised if you don’t have some near you too.

With very few exceptions, you are likely to find a better all-round offer, and a much clearer sense of purpose, in an independent brewery tied pub, a free house or even the local branch of Wetherspoons.

Saturday 27 July 2013

Barometer keeps falling

The latest issue of the BBPA Beer Barometer, covering the quarter to the end of June, reveals nothing new. Overall beer sales are down by 4.8% on a year-on-year basis, but the long-term shift from on- to off-trade seems to have stalled. It is now six years since the imposition of the blanket smoking ban, and over that period on-trade beer sales have fallen by 28%, as opposed to a 10% fall in the off-trade.

Remind me again why we need new curbs on drinking...

Keepers of the flame

I wrote here about how the recent heatwave has been showing some pubs’ cellar management practices to be distinctly wanting. And Adrian Tierney-Jones has been wondering whether the heat will make this Craft Keg’s summer. So I thought I would ask whether blog readers have felt tempted to forsake cask beer for the chilly but consistent delights of keg.

The result was a resounding “No”, with 53% of total respondents, and 56% of cask drinkers, saying they had stuck with it come what may, whereas only 19% had made a significant shift away from it. I answered “on one or two occasions”, by the way, and there have been one or two more where I wished in retrospect that I had.

There are plenty of pubs that do have the turnover, cooling systems and general nous to serve clear, fresh, cool cask beer even in blazing temperatures, but if you just go in pubs at random you will equally find plenty that don’t. Maybe the split in attitudes reflects whether people’s pubgoing tends to stick to tried-and-trusted favourites, or whether they cast their net rather wider.

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Wirral wonder

Recently on my travels I came across this particularly magnificent example of inter-wars Brewer’s Tudor, the Coach & Horses at Moreton on the Wirral. According to this site, it was built in 1928 as a replacement for an older pub.

Since then, comparing the current view with the old pictures, the section on the left has been converted to shops, and the square stone-built extension right on the corner added, but the basic fabric remains of a building not far short of the well-known Black Horse in Northfield, Birmingham in terms of its scale and architectural ambition. Just look at those chimneys on the right-hand side.

It’s good to see it still in business, unlike so many similar pubs, although the modern Wetherspoon’s just up the road, the Mockbeggar Hall, can’t have helped its trade. Maybe, given their more recent approach to new acquisitions, if they were looking to expand in the area now they would buy up the existing pub.

Saturday 20 July 2013

Fruity duty

In the past few years, there has been a dramatic increase in the popularity of “fruit ciders”, i.e. those made including some fruit other than apples and pears. As Pete Brown argues here, to some extent they have taken the place of alcopops in the market, offering people a long and refreshing drink that, unlike conventional beers and ciders, is sweet to the taste. However, they have a much classier image than alcopops ever did.

It is noticeable that the vast majority of fruit ciders come in with a modest alcoholic strength of 4.0% ABV, and this is because anything containing fruit that is not apples or pears is taxed as “made-wine”, which suffers duty rates that are considerably higher than conventional cider, and indeed somewhat higher than beer of the same strength. This is explained by Matt of Cheshire cidermakers Nook’s Yard in this blogpost.

While it is sometimes claimed (not least by SIBA) that cider enjoys an unfair duty advantage vis-a-vis beer, it is not the ciders taxed at the lower rate that are enjoying growth.

The respective duty rates (exclusive of VAT) applying to a 500ml bottle for the two categories at various strength points are as follows:

4.0%: Fruit cider 41.1p; Beer 38.2p

5.0%: Fruit cider 56.5p; Beer 47.8p

7.5% Fruit cider 133.4p; Beer 71.7p

At all of these strengths, the duty on a bottle of conventional cider or perry is 19.8p. The massive step up in duty rates above 5.5% ABV means that it isn’t remotely cost-effective to produce fruit ciders in that strength range.

While it probably deserves a blogpost of its own, this also raises the issue of why there is still no requirement to display ingredients on alcoholic drinks, so that consumers are clear about what they’re actually getting.

Incidentally, in the article linked above, Pete Brown also makes some scathing comments about CAMRA’s attitude to cider, referring to their “hopelessly mistaken, unfit-for-purpose definition of ‘real cider’.”

Tuesday 16 July 2013

Double bonus

Last Friday saw the welcome abandonment of two unpopular and illiberal government proposals in one day – minimum alcohol pricing and plain tobacco packaging.

Naturally this led to howls of outrage from the Righteous – Dick Puddlecote described them as whining like a 747 approaching Heathrow – and attempts to paint this as a triumph of corporate lobbying. However, in reality it was a victory for ordinary people over a powerful and well-funded health lobby that seeks to dictate ever more closely how we live our lives.

The alcohol industry was in any case divided over minimum pricing, with some companies like Greene King actually supporting the plan. Indeed, in a sense it would just have the result of transferring money from consumers’ pockets to Diageo and AB InBev. But, although the health lobby continued to claim it would not affect ordinary, moderate drinkers, the statistic that a 45p/unit minimum price would hit over 70% of off-trade alcohol units and thus affect a vast number of mainstream voters started to register with the politicians. Not to mention the fact that it’s almost certainly illegal anyway under EU competition law.

It’s certainly true that the tobacco industry did lobby strongly against plain packaging, but their main reason was not that it would cut consumption but that it would involve the effective confiscation of trademarks and brands built up at great expense over many years. There’s no evidence that it would reduce smoking rates, and it’s entirely possible that it could even lead to an increase as customers switch to the cheapest brands and the effective price falls.

But, in total, there were 665,989 responses to the government consultation on the proposals, of whom 427,888, or 64%, were opposed. That’s not something that could be achieved just by organised campaigning by lobby groups – it’s a genuine surge of grass-roots opinion.

All the government have done is to say they need to wait and assess the evidence from Australia before proceeding with the plan. Surely the health lobby wouldn’t want policies implemented on gut feel without any sound evidence base. Would they?

While both decisions have been criticised by the Labour Party, is there any guarantee that Labour would have implemented them if in office? And is it a good idea for the supposed champions of the working man and woman to go into the general election looking like the party that stamps on ordinary people's pleasures?

It will also be amusing to watch Salmond go ahead with his declared intention of trying to implement these policies North of the Border. I foresee a lot of egg on that smug face.

There is an important lesson to be learned from this, that there is nothing inevitable about the advancing tide of Healthist social control, and if you stand up and be counted and put your case across, these measures can be stopped. You may not win every battle, or even most of the battles, but every defeat you inflict creates another chink in the armour. And, even if something is just shelved for the time being, there is every chance that priorities will move on to something else and it will never happen. History is littered with ideas that at one time were regarded as part of the inexorable march of “progress” but are now buried deep in the long grass.

Sunday 14 July 2013

Hot stuff

Yesterday at around 1.45 pm I walk into an attractive, well-situated pub, although admittedly one that doesn’t tend to be a contender for the Good Beer Guide. I order a pint of what is usually their best-selling beer. It’s not very busy, and I suspect it is probably the first one pulled that lunchtime. It comes out at room temperature and downright cloudy. So I take it back, and get it replaced with a different beer, which is a bit cooler and only slightly hazy, but still really not much good at all.

On the local CAMRA e-mail group, someone reports on a bar in a building belonging to a charitable body (so not a pub as such) which “had two cask ales on this afternoon... Both were very warm, out of condition and totally undrinkable. The staff told me that they haven't got a proper cooling system in their cellar and gave me my money back.”

Yesterday was probably the hottest day of the year so far, but it’s certainly true that hot weather sorts out the sheep from the goats when it comes to cask beer. It’s often claimed that the long, hot summer of 1976 was a major factor behind the rise of lager in this country, and today there must be many people who throughout the year regularly include cask in their drinking repertoire, but at these temperatures unhesitatingly plump for the Carling tap.

Although there’s no shortage of cellar and line cooling equipment available nowadays, if anything the problem has got worse since 1976, due to the reduced overall sales of cask beer, the proliferation of handpumps and the fact that cask has gone into many non-traditional outlets that don’t have naturally cool cellars. The odds of getting a pint that has been festering in an uncooled line for an hour or more are disappointingly high.

If you’re serious about cask beer as an all-year-round product, it’s vital to ensure that you store it in an environment with a temperature consistently no higher than about 12°C and, unless you have a particularly high turnover, also make sure that your lines are cooled so it remains at that temperature right up to the point of dispense. Some pubs manage to do this, but sadly far too many fall embarrassingly short.

And there’s a good argument that marginal outlets such as wine bars, restaurants and college bars might well be better off putting on craft kegs rather than cask, as they would be easier to keep and less vulnerable to low and erratic turnover.

The customer is always rude

Last week, the story was widely reported how a Sainsbury’s checkout operator had refused to serve a customer talking on her mobile phone. The operator attracted a lot of public sympathy, and few would disagree that the customer’s behaviour was rude and ill-mannered, something that the widespread use of mobile phones seems to have encouraged. Shift the scenario to the bar of a pub, and 80% of respondents to my poll took the view that a barperson would be fully entitled to refuse service.

However, Ian Golding introduces a valuable note of caution in this blogpost. Is it really the role of staff to make value judgments about the behaviour of customers, provided that they are not actually being abusive? Attitudes as what is and isn’t acceptable have greatly changed over the years, and they should not be pulling people up for things simply because they don’t approve. It could all too easily turn into a slippery slope where customers were being told off for eating, chewing gum, showing their underpants or wearing T-shirts with dubious slogans. A checkout operator – or a bar person – is acting as the representative of their employer and it is not their job to make up policy on the hoof. It may be a cause for regret, but in the real world businesses may suffer for turning away customers for a lack of manners.

On the other hand, if you’re the licensee of a pub who is effectively running your own business, you are quite entitled to take the view of “my gaff, my rules” and ban anything you disapprove of so long as it’s not discriminatory. In the past there were some pubs that imposed a forfeit on any customers who allowed a mobile phone to ring, but they have now become so ubiquitous in society that such an attitude would probably be counter-productive.

Put the boot on the other foot, though, and there is no doubt that for a member of bar staff to be chatting on the phone while serving a customer is completely unprofessional and frankly indicates total contempt for those who ultimately pay their wages.

Incidentally, the Real Ale Twats Facebook group reports on the Reproachment micro-pub in Deal, Kent, where there are 10 mobile phones stuck to the wall with large nails, and one pound fines for any devices that ring. There’s also a room marked “Lager made in here” which turns out to be the toilet. All funny in its way, but it does perpetuate a certain unfortunate stereotype of real ale drinkers.

Tuesday 9 July 2013

The Fox and Hedgehog

“Customer experience” expert Ian Golding has taken an in-depth look at What makes a good British pub? In particular he reports on the contrasting impression given by four pubs in West London all owned by the same pub company. His conclusion is very clear: “it is vital that each and every pub that still exists in the UK does one vital thing…….CLARIFY its PROPOSITION!!”

He certainly makes very valid points that many pubs don’t seem to be sure what they’re really about, and that a grudging, off-hand welcome is still far too common. It is astonishing how many pubs that serve food still fail to make it clear exactly what is on offer, and when. However, there are a couple of important caveats that need to be made.

Unlike shops and restaurants, to some extent most pubs serve a variety of functions that sometimes come into conflict with each other. For example, my local pub, with varying degrees of success, combines the roles of alehouse, dining outlet, sports bar, live music venue and drink and chat haven. One of the keys to success is maintaining a balance between these different aspects and customer groups. Some pubs can be specialist alehouses or quasi-restaurants, but most can’t.

Pubs also have a sense of community that you don’t find in shops and restaurants. People meet up there to socialise, and often spend a lot of time in there. It’s a home from home, not just a retail outlet. Successful pubs are also often at the heart of their local social scene, as the hub of sports teams, hosting meetings and arranging trips. This leads to a sense of belonging that goes beyond just what food and drink is on offer on any particular day, and in a sense is comparable to the allegiance shown to football clubs. I’ve been in pubs where the customers have been grumbling “the beer’s not much cop today” – but they still sit there and drink it.

A further point is that the trade of pubs often results from a very specific combination of occasion and geography. Very often, the choice is not so much which pub to go to, but whether to go to the local or just not bother.

Some pubs even give the impression of trying a bit too hard, with a plethora of special offers, promotions, events, product launches and theme nights all advertised on brightly-coloured notices and chalkboards. Many of the best pubs, though, just are what they are and don’t have to shout too loudly.

The ancient Greek poet Archilochus is reputed to have said “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” There are many pubs called The Fox, few if any called The Hedgehog.

Saturday 6 July 2013

A pint of two halves

There was recently a somewhat ill-tempered spat on the local CAMRA e-mail group about a particular bar that was charging more for a half than exactly 50% of the price of a pint. Some thought this was a disgraceful practice, while others felt that the licensee was perfectly entitled to recover the greater costs of serving halves. So I thought I would ask what blog readers thought.

I was actually expecting a strong vote for “Never acceptable”, but it seems the majority are fairly relaxed about it so long as pubs don’t blatantly take the piss. For many years standard in Ireland, it certainly seems to be something that is spreading on this side of the Irish Sea. For example, recently I came across a Hydes pub asking £2.70 for a pint of Original Bitter, but £1.40 for a half.

The usual reason given is that the overheads in terms of staff time and glass-washing are the same for a half as for a pint, and thus some kind of premium is justified. However, this stems from a basic fallacy of accounting, that what seems a reasonable method for apportioning costs is also what creates costs in the first place. In general, pubs serve far more pints than halves, and the fact that they do sell a few halves doesn’t in reality lead to any measurable extra cost.

Cost should never be the sole factor in pricing – you also have to bear in mind consistency and what people feel happy to pay. Pubs apply all kinds of different mark-ups to different products, and, while I’m never going to man any barricades about it, charging more for halves seems to me to be something that needlessly antagonises customers for little or no benefit to the pub. Also it’s not hard to imagine the anti-drink lobby getting up in arms over effectively giving people a discount for drinking more.

Tuesday 2 July 2013

Be careful what you wish for

There has been a great deal of discussion in the media recently about the government’s plans for tighter regulation of pub companies. Now let me make it quite clear that I hold no brief for the likes of Punch and Enterprise – they are an essentially flawed and unsustainable business concept, driven by financial engineering rather than retailing in an attempt to keep alive the tied estates of the former Big Six breweries. They have geared themselves up to the hilt and found themselves in dire straits when it turned out they had taken a hopelessly over-optimistic view of the prospects of the pub trade. And it’s impossible not to feel a touch of Schadenfreude at the way they called the impact of the smoking ban completely wrong.

Punch Taverns remains confident over UK smoking ban

Punch Taverns writes off 491 value-less pubs hit by the smoking ban

However, this saga of corporate disaster has produced a great deal of pain and misery at the level of the individual licensee, and there are plenty of stories of pub companies treating their tenants in a high-handed and bullying manner. So the calls for tighter regulation and a statutory code of conduct are entirely understandable. But it’s important to sound a note of caution.

Firstly, many of the complaints that licensees can buy beer cheaper on the open market than from the pubco come across as distinctly naive. That, quite simply, is how the pubco business model works, as does the business model of the traditional pub-owning brewery. They charge tenants a higher price for their beer in return for a lower rent – what used to be referred to as “wet rent”. Thus the pubco has a stake in the profitability of the pub, and the tenant is to some extent insulated against market fluctuations. If you convert all tenancies to free-of-tie, then the pubco becomes a pure property operation and no longer has any interest in maintaining the premises as a pub.

It’s also the case that, if you impose additional cost and regulation on any business sector, you inevitably tend to get less of it, as it becomes less financially attractive. Thriving sectors can often take it in their stride, but the pub trade isn’t exactly thriving, and, however well-intentioned, any new controls have the potential to backfire. There must be a danger that new regulations could lead to a further damaging shake-out, with large tranches of bottom-end pubs simply sold off, often for alternative use, and more successful ones converted to management. I’m not saying nothing should be done, but the government needs to tread very carefully if it doesn’t want to end up with another Beer Orders disaster on its hands.