Friday 30 August 2013

Bad pubs for crappy people

Yesterday’s comments by the editor of the Good Pub Guide that Britain still had far too many “bad pubs” that were stuck in the 1980s and deserved to close certainly stirred up a hornets’ nest. Now, if she had said that, because of the various pressures on the industry, many pubs were under threat, there would have been widespread agreement. But the message was much more one of rank snobbery, that there were still far too many pubs doing what pubs always used to do and frequented by rough people who read the Sun and swear a lot, and couldn’t be considered safe places for Giles and Tabitha to enjoy a braised lamb shank with redcurrant jus.

There’s really very little I can add to Chris Snowdon’s blogpost:

The aim of the chattering classes is not unlike that of the early Anti-Saloon League—to rid of the country of what they see as the scourge of drink-led, politically incorrect, smoke-filled, privately run, child unfriendly, sports-watching boozers that are frequented mainly by working class men—pubs that have customers who are indifferent to food because they don't go there to eat. Proper pubs, in other words; havens from sterile, prod-nosed Britain. A place for grown ups.

When politicians and metropolitan pundits disingenuously pay homage to the 'great British pub', these are not the kind of establishments they have in mind at all. Their vision of a pub is essentially a mid-priced restaurant with horse brassings on the wall; somewhere to take their children on a Sunday afternoon. Somewhere to read The Observer for four hours while nursing a solitary pint.

So when a bien pensant like Mark Easton says that "pubs aren't dying - they are evolving", he means that pubs are dying, but that's okay because there are more bistros and restaurants opening up (albeit in much smaller numbers) and they serve a fine cup of coffee. The photo below shows the winner of Pub of the Year according to the Good Pub Guide. I'm sure it's a very agreeable place, with its Cold Pressed Ox-Tongue, Caramelised Onions, Watercress & Cashel Blue starter and Olive & Rosemary Gnocchi, Globe Artichokes, Tomato & Sweet Pepper Coulis main (£24.95 for a set menu), but it's not really a pub, is it?

I’ve reproduced the photo above.

And, as Pete Robinson says in the comments on the Morning Advertiser report, maybe it would be a good thing if we could go back to the 1980s when pubs were actually thriving. Who mentioned warts and all only the other day? It's a pity we so seldom see Pete’s all-to-true analysis following the closure of The Publican magazine.

And don’t forget that the Good Pub Guide charges for inclusion, so it can’t be regarded as an objective guide to anything apart from which pubs are prepared to stump up their money to attract a clientele of snobs and poseurs.

Wednesday 28 August 2013

Warts and all

A point I’ve made before is that pubs can’t – and aren’t – seen in the same way as other businesses, because they are places in which people choose to spend part of their lives, as opposed to just buying stuff, and they also, by and large, have an enduring character and place in their community that goes beyond whatever retail format they happen to be adopting at the present time.

On one level, pubs may be comparable to Tesco but, unlike shops, on another they are also comparable to your own family, and to Chatsworth House.

You are born into your family, you don’t choose them, and to a large extent you have to learn to live with them and get used to their idiosyncracies and foibles. If it gets really bad, you can wash your hands of them, but most people don’t. You may well go to a particular pub because it’s your local, because your mates go there, because it’s near your workplace or the football ground, because the beer’s good even if nothing else is. It may be far from perfect, but you get used to it and eventually may even grow to love its little quirks and the odd characters who frequent it. It’s come to a desperate pass if you say “well, that’s the last time I ever go there.”

And a pub is something that may have historic and architectural value in its own right, over and above the particular business being carried on at a point in time, and even if it doesn’t, it may well be regarded as a distinctive and valued part of the local landscape and community. You might be made to pay through the nose to visit Chatsworth and have a really poor customer experience, but that doesn’t make it any less of a part of our heritage. And it’s entirely credible that you would say of a pub “it’s a lovely old building with great atmosphere, but the beer was poor and the service was slow.” You would never say that of a branch of Tesco.

Over time I go in a huge variety of pubs, some good, some OK, a few downright poor. But none come anywhere near perfection, and in some of the better ones I can think of smelly toilets, supercilious bar staff, officious notices, unkempt gardens, poorly arranged seating and dull, perfunctory food. Even the very top-end pubs, the ones of which you say “you really must go to the Aardvark & Armpit, it’s an absolutely cracking pub”, will always have at least one thing about them where you say “but the X is crap”. And if they don’t, there’s probably something wrong with them.

When brewers and planners deliberately set out to build “ideal” pubs, in the inter-war period and in the fifties and sixties, for the most part they left out those vital but intangible features known as character and atmosphere. Many of those pubs are now gone, and the vast majority of those that remain have been altered beyond recognition.

Sunday 25 August 2013

What the Colonel ordered

Three years ago I wrote about the new wave of super-premium ales that were appearing on the supermarket shelves. Since then, they have settled in to their own niche and, despite their strength, failed to spark any outbreaks of drunken misbehaviour. Indeed, Marston’s Pedigree VSOP, which I thought was one of the better ones, now seems to have disappeared.

My local Tesco, rather oddly, stocks bottled stouts in a separate area from the general run of premium bottled ales, but some conventional paler beers sometimes seem to sneak into that section. And it was there that I recently came across for the first time Wells Bombardier Reserve: The Colonel’s Choice. With a strength of 6.0% ABV, it comes, creditably, in a brown bottle and was on sale at £1.99 (66p per unit), although it wasn’t included in Tesco’s current 4 for £6 offer.

It pours dark amber, similar in colour to Directors and notably paler than the standard Bombardier, with a solid, lasting head. The label says “If you like hops, you’ll simply love this beer. Yes, there are more hops in this beer than you can shake a stick at.” While it undoubtedly is hoppy by Wells & Youngs’ standards, you shouldn’t expect a Punk IPA-style hop bomb. Instead, it’s a fairly complex, multi-layered beer, with a firm, dry malt underpinning, a distinct alcohol kick and a strong hop overlay. It’s quite assertive all round. If anything, as with the colour, it’s more like a turbocharged Directors than a boosted Bombardier.

I’ve long regarded Wells & Youngs as about the best of the bigger ale brewers* (and not because they once gave me some free samples) and this beer certainly didn’t disappoint. One that will definitely merit a repeat purchase or two.

* Most people would say Fuller’s but, while I respect their brewing skills and dedication, the distinctive bittersweet, biscuity house character of their beers just doesn’t do it for me, I’m afraid.

Saturday 24 August 2013

Diners keep out

This recently-spotted sign must really be one of the worst examples of officious pub nonsense I have ever encountered. In the past, you would sometimes see signs saying “People in working clothes in public bar” but this is a bizarre reversal of this attitude.

I won’t name the pub, but it’s one that was “knocked through” about thirty years ago, so is basically all one bar, but with distinct “lounge” and “vault” ends. At the time, it seemed a bit drastic, but has become more acceptable and familiar over time and now is certainly far more pubby than the typical “dining pub” makeover.

The sign is suggesting that dining customers entering from the car park – i.e. most of them – should avoid the back entrance but instead go round the front to avoid having to go through the public side and possibly encounter some slightly rough people. Not that it’s at all rough anyway.

While I can sort of understand the motivation behind it, the idea that it is likely to work on any kind of level except creating needless annoyance is incomprehensible.

Priced out

In the recent poll I ran on reasons deterring people from visiting pubs, “High Prices” came a strong second after the obvious front-runner. Pubs have certainly gained a reputation for being expensive, and over the years the gap between pub prices and off-trade prices has steadily widened. To some extent this is inevitable – as living standards rise over time, the price of services will tend to rise relative to that of goods because of the greater labour content, and a pint in a pub or a meal in a restaurant contains a substantial service element.

However, what has happened is not that off-trade drinks have become cheaper relative to general inflation, as is sometimes alleged, but that on-trade prices have risen substantially faster. I remember that, when I first moved in to this area in 1985, a pint of Robinson’s Unicorn (then Best Bitter) in many of the smarter pubs was around 60p. In the 28 years since then, the Retail Prices Index has increased by 168%, which would make that 60p pint £1.61. In practice, though, it’s more like £3.00, a rise of well over twice as much and surely well over any measure of wage inflation in that period too. Drinking in pubs is simply less affordable for most people than it was in the mid-80s.

The pub trade is not a monolithic body, and for each individual pub it may well seem to make sense to increase their prices by that little bit more than the RPI each year to protect their margins. They might lose the odd customer, but in the short-term it doesn’t matter. However, in the longer term the pub trade has collectively shot itself in the foot and lost a huge swathe of trade. And the oft-heard complaint that “pubs are being killed by cheap supermarket booze” doesn’t help as it simply reinforces the perception of pubs being expensive.

Then Wetherspoon’s have come along and turned the industry upside down with an unabashed “pile it high, sell it cheap” approach that has drawn more howls of anguish from the rest of the trade. Spoons are not always as cheap as people think but, unless there happens to be a Sam Smith’s pub nearby, the local branch will undoubtedly be the cheapest place for draught beer and cider. You need to have a very good reason to pay £2.90 for a pint of bitter in a brewery or pubco pub when you can get a wider choice for £2.15 in Spoons, albeit maybe in less characterful surroundings. Arguably, without Spoons, the recent decline in beer sales in pubs would have been even steeper.

It remains the case that, very often, the most successful pubs are those with the highest prices, but they are successful for reasons other than price, and so can afford to charge a premium. On the other hand, a pub with a poster outside saying “Smiths, Carling £2.20” gives an impression of desperation and may not exactly come across as somewhere you’d rush to visit. However, for many people, while they might stomach £3+ a pint for a Friday night out, it’s a price that’s hard to justify just for that casual swift one during the week.

Maybe the traditional tenanted or leased pub model is now obsolete, and in the future pubs will increasingly either be free houses or managed outlets that can take advantage of economies of scale in purchasing. But there can be no doubt that, unless the pub trade collectively takes the pricing issue more seriously, it will continue to price its customers out and wither on the vine.

At the very least, there is a huge amount of scope for borrowing some of the pricing techniques of the supermarkets by having limited-time special offers on various beers that drinkers will perceive as a bargain. And, if you are a free house, get in a cooking bitter from a local micro as a regular beer and sell it at a conspicuously low price. Your other beers may be dearer, but the fact you are selling Bloggs’ Bitter at two quid a pint, all day, every day, will stick in people’s minds and cement your reputation for good value.

Thursday 22 August 2013

Change your hearts or lose your inns

H/t to Frank Davis for this letter recently published in the Blackburn, Darwen, and Hyndburn Citizen:

Change your hearts or lose your inns

The English pub was the envy of the world, where it was copied but never equalled – until recently!

The pub is what defined much of our culture, a place of close social interaction that brought together diverse characters and where long friendships were formed, a place where the world could be ‘put to rights’ and where social norms were defined.

Real pubs are almost extinct now, thousands of jobs have gone and ex-customers spread far and wide, many friendships lost.

Many old and infirm have been sent into isolation to watch their 32” plasma with a bottle of Glenfiddich for company to await their end. No longer tolerated by the gullibly health obsessed, old Tom can no longer sit at the end of the bar and puff on his pipe. Old Aunt Elsie no longer goes on her weekly jaunts to the bingo with her friends because they have closed too, so she sits at home watching the ‘box’ with her cat as company.

On a wider scale, society has been fractured socially where division has replaced inclusivity, tolerance superseded by intolerance and for what?

To please a few anti-smoker nutters and even fewer gullible new age puritans?

To improve the health of the nation?

We hear daily how the smoking ban has ‘saved’ millions of lives so the normalisation of intolerance, the suppression our shared identity and loss of thousands of our pubs is a price worth paying right?

Unfortunately, the ‘saved lives’ idea is nothing but propaganda to maintain an anti-smoker agenda based on 1950s science!

This saved ‘death toll’ is a computer generated prediction, an illusion based on flawed information.

If so many lives have been saved, why have new cancers almost doubled in the 15 years to 2006, why does so called ‘smoke-related’ disease continue to increase despite the reduction in smoking?

It is the smoking ban that has caused this destruction of our heritage using junk science to justify it!

It is not natural evolution as some anti-smokers would have us believe, but forced change.

Prices only rose as a result of this coercion that has driven custom away from pubs and left us in this desperate situation.

Take note: Hilaire Belloc also astutely said: “Change your hearts or you will lose your inns, and you will deserve to have lost them.”

Kin Free

Wednesday 21 August 2013

Reasons to be fearful

Interesting results (and a massive turnout) for my poll on reasons deterring people from visiting pubs. I created this as a response to various discussions as to whether the decline of pubs was inevitable or could be reversed. The intention behind it was to ask what reasons led people to visit pubs less than they once did, not why they were put off from specific pubs.

Not surprisingly, “unable to smoke indoors” came top, with 47% of total votes, and 57% of those who were deterred to some extent. “High prices” was a strong second, and I’ll be devoting a post to that subject later in the week.

Third was “Poor beer quality” – surely it’s a sad day when so many people are put off going to pubs in general because they worry they’ll get a poor pint. Note that “Poor choice of drinks” was a separate option and scored much less.

Then, neck-and-neck, came two factors that I have extensively discussed over the past few years – “Dominated by diners” and “Dominated by TV sport”. While dining and sport have their place in pubs, if they are allowed to dominate to the exclusion of all else then the large number of customers who aren’t interested in one or both will be put off.

“Disapproval of employer” didn’t seem to be a major factor despite the widely-reported decline in lunchtime drinking, and “Disapproval of family/friends” only attracted a couple of votes.

31 people, or 17% of the total, said they visited pubs as much as they ever did.

Tuesday 20 August 2013

More hours, fewer drinks

There’s some possibly surprising news that the extended opening hours following the 2003 Licensing Act have actually led to a reduction in drink-drive casualties amongst younger people, particularly at weekends. At first sight this may seem counter-intuitive, and before the legislation was implemented there were widespread predictions from an unholy alliance of the anti-drink and anti-car lobbies (between whom there is a substantial overlap) that it would lead to an explosion in drink-driving, especially as it would mean pubs routinely staying open after public transport had stopped running.

The mechanism behind this isn’t immediately obvious, but it seems in general terms that the relaxation of closing times has led to a less frantic and pressured approach to drinking and encouraged people to pace themselves more. It could also mean that we’re not putting all the drink-drivers on the road at the same time so they’re less likely to crash into each other, but I don’t really think it quite works like that. One very noticeable effect is that staggered closing times have removed the previous spike in demand for taxis at around 11.30, which might make people more willing to trust to that form of transport.

While there may be recent research that I’m not aware of, I get the impression that the motivations leading people to become drink-drive offenders are not very well understood and this hinders the development of official policies to combat it. The traditional stereotype of middle-aged, middle-class blokes knocking it back in country pubs and golf clubs was never more than a small part of the problem and becomes less and less relevant as the years go by.

Monday 19 August 2013

Can you handle the truth?

This month marks the third anniversary of my Closed Pubs blog, during which time I have recorded nearly 450 closed pubs.

The past decade or so surely represents an absolute disaster for British pubs, with so many once thriving establishments closing their doors for the last time. Over the past 15 years, according to the BBPA Beer Barometer, pub beer sales have fallen by 46.3%, or almost half, and it is reckoned that around 20,000 pubs have closed. And many of those still trading are worryingly quiet for most of the week.

It’s all kinds of pubs – estate pubs, suburban roadhouses, country pubs, village pubs, urban locals, edge-of-town pubs, market town pubs. Only the centres of large cities seem to be immune. I’ve recently been sent a couple of examples in busy London suburbs where a lack of nearby people, or passers-by not in cars, cannot be an issue.

However, many people who claim to be pub and beer enthusiasts still fail to acknowledge the sheer scale of this trend. While they may see a few pubs closing, they will put it down to poor management or the rapacity of supermarkets and pub companies. Within CAMRA, there remains a widespread delusion that reforming the PubCo tie, tighter planning controls and designating pubs as “community assets” will somehow save them from the incoming tide.

And, realistically, it’s not going to change. We just have to accept the reality, however sad it may be. Enjoy what you have, as long as it lasts. Pubs – as places to drink and socialise, not just pub-themed restaurants – are more and more becoming a small, irrelevant rump confined to city centres and middle-class urban enclaves.

In a generation, the idea of just “going to the pub” will meet with total bafflement amongst most of the population. For many people, it does even now. Pretty much every decent, proper pub I go in, even if seemingly busy, I can’t help thinking “so how long is this going to last then?” Boak & Bailey were cautiously optimistic about the future of pubs here. Apart from very limited areas, I’m not so sure.

Sunday 18 August 2013

Turning the tide

In the comments, Matthew Lawrenson recently asked, perfectly reasonably, whether there was anything that could be done to increase the amount of customers in pubs. Realistically, at least in terms of government policy, the answer is no. The decline in the pub trade has been caused by a variety of long-term social trends that are beyond the control of government. Indeed, I would argue that it isn’t really the business of government to seek to protect declining industries. Such policies invariably end in tears.

All that can reasonably be expected from government is that they abstain from kicking a man when he’s down and knowingly making matters worse. So they shouldn’t have implemented the smoking ban or the beer duty escalator, and nor should they have followed a line in official health messages calculated to make people feel guilty about moderate and responsible levels of drinking. Fortunately they have not so far reduced the drink-driving limit, which would have heaped further misery on pubs.

But, on the other hand, no trend lasts forever and things can often turn around in unexpected ways. In the late 50s, much the same was being said. Beer volumes had been slowly but steadily declining for a decade, with the lure of staying at home in front of the new-fangled gogglebox being widely blamed. Brewers were struggling to invest in their tied estates and many were seeking the shelter of defensive mergers. Yet the following twenty years saw an amazing boom in the pub trade, with beer sales almost doubling and huge amounts of investment in upgrading pubs, albeit often insensitively. Few in 1959 would have foreseen that.

Friday 16 August 2013

How quaint!

There’s a specific school of writing about pubs that concentrates not so much on either beer or internal fittings, but on their place in Britain’s history, culture and vernacular architectural traditions. At its worst, it can degenerate into a kind of “Ye Olde Innes of Merrie England” theme, but at its best it can illuminate how the development of pubs fits in with the wider world. Much of it can trade its roots to the Arts and Crafts Movement of the late Victorian period which began to recognise value in even humble buildings and was part of the same impetus that gave birth to the National Trust. It tends, it must be said, to have a distinctly middle-class character and places great weight on cathedral cities, market towns and the countryside, but relatively little on industrial areas.

Amongst my collection of pub and beer related books is one called The English Inn by John Burke, which was published in 1981, but in many ways comes across as redolent of an earlier era. The cover picture is of the Feathers in Ludlow, pictured right. There’s a chapter on what you’re letting yourself in for if you take on a pub, but the bulk of it is devoted to the usual run-through of Chaucer, the Pilgrims’ Way, the great coaching routes and maritime hostelries. It is copiously illustrated with photos of the usual suspects such as the Crown at Chiddingfold, the George & Pilgrims at Glastonbury and the Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham.

There’s a final chapter on the current situation and the future of the pub, in which the author complains that “now every hostelry is suffused with the smell of frying chips, of scampi and chicken and steak, and sizzling with music... if that is the word”. But he does say, possibly peering through a pair of rose-tinted spectacles, that “The good places are still there for the finding. There is still, somewhere, that unspoilt country inn off the beaten track, sustained by local hospitality and local conversation... the knowledgeable talk of a living community, accompanied by beer from a local independent brewery”.

CAMRA’s laudable National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors leads on from this, although in this case the emphasis is on untouched interiors, not external architecture, however important in heritage terms. It is quite striking just how few of the well-known classic inns from the pre-industrial era feature on the National Inventory. Their interiors will only have been fitted out as pubs, as now understood, many years after their original construction and in most cases will have been further altered many times down to the present day. Indeed I have been in some pubs over the years with exteriors of considerable architectural merit which internally have been completely gutted and deprived of any vestige of character.

On the other hand, I have recently been reading The Book of Beer by Andrew Campbell from 1956, which includes a lengthy section on “Old Inns”, mostly around the London area, and says that “some 2,348 old inns had been listed by the end of 1954 by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government as being of some historical or architectural interest”. Rather surprisingly, it says that “Edinburgh is on the whole disappointing”, when it is now recognised that the city, per head of population, has probably the finest set of unspoilt original pub interiors in the whole of the British Isles.

It was a commonplace of guidebooks from the inter-war period and the 1950s to refer to the presence of numerous inns as defining features of High Streets, especially in towns on former coaching routes. However, many of the old coaching inns have now been turned into shopping malls, and where they remain they are often now upmarket boutique hotels that have largely severed their connection with pubs as such. While a modern guide book might point out a particular building of architectural importance, it would be unlikely to refer in general terms to a town’s “quaint old inns”.

As I have written here, in the early years of CAMRA great store was put on pubs being “traditional” and “unspoilt” and, other things being equal, the more olde-worlde ones were often given more prominence in pub guides. Times have changed though, and nowadays the “shock of the new” seems to be dominant in the beer world, and anything ten years old, let alone two hundred, is all too readily dismissed as old hat. But at least some of the classic pubs will still be there when the last industrial-themed craft beer bar has been transformed into a sushi diner or whatever the latest ephemeral urban hipster fad is, and by failing to give due regard to the continuing story of the pub through the centuries something valuable is being lost.

Ironically, as I was putting this piece together, Boak and Bailey posted a photo gallery of Old Inns of England from 1906 which is a perfect example of the theme.

Thursday 15 August 2013

Don’t drink, don’t smoke? What do you do?

From time to time, you come across articles by non-drinkers claiming that drinking has become the norm in society, and that non-drinkers are ridiculed, ostracised and portrayed as party-poopers. The latest example I have seen is this one: The incoherent ramblings of a tee-totaler (sic) - which I think is hosted by an astroturf anti-drink group, so might have something of an axe to grind.

However, in recent years my experience has been that, in the context of general adult socialising, drinking has become less and less commonplace, and no stigma whatsoever is attached to those who choose not to do it. Obviously there are some gatherings like Burns night suppers where alcohol is core to the experience, and non-drinkers may choose to avoid them, but even if they did attend for whatever reason I doubt whether they would become the butt of ridicule.

Indeed, it sometimes feels as though the person who does have a drink is the one who attracts funny looks and an element of disapproval. I will offer two examples from my recent experience. First, I attended a social gathering of a non beer related organisation which was actually held in a pub, and a very good pub too. I would say that fewer than half of the adults there had an alcoholic drink. And I attended a funeral where the reception afterwards was held in a hotel with a licensed bar. There were maybe twenty adults present, and I was the only one to have a drink.

And the steep decline of drinking with work colleagues, whether at lunchtimes or after work, has been widely noted.

The complaint may have some relevance in the context of student life, but even there I would say you have a wide choice as to which social contacts you make. When I was at university, I knew a number of people in the Methodist Society, which I very much doubt was a focus of alcohol-fuelled revelry, whereas the Chess Club was often just an excuse for a piss-up. Universities host a huge range of cultural, sporting and religious societies – some undoubtedly are boozy, most are not. If you don’t like drinking, don’t associate with boozers, it’s not difficult. It might also help your cause if you don’t ostentatiously make the point that you never drink every time you refuse one.

All the statistics show that in recent years there has been a steady decline in both the proportion of young people who drink alcohol, and the average per-capita consumption. This social world in which people are being constantly subjected to peer pressure to drink alcohol and ostracised if they don’t seems to bear very little relation to reality.

Wednesday 14 August 2013

Light dawns over Salford

It seems that wonders will never cease – the BBC has at last woken up to the disaster that has overtaken the British pub, and come up with a Newsnight piece about it last night together with this web article. Possibly some of the BBC staff have ventured outside their gated compound in Salford and spotted just how few pubs are left in the city.

The article even acknowledges the existence of the elephant in the room, although it also comes out with the usual guff about cheap supermarket alcohol killing pubs, an issue that I addressed here four years ago. As I said then, “the idea that simply raising the price of alcohol in the off-trade will do anything to encourage people to visit pubs is totally misplaced. It’s funny how you never heard all this bleating about supermarket prices killing pubs before the smoking ban and the recession.”

The picture shows the Grey Mare on the main road between Salford and Eccles, not too far from the BBC studios.

Can you see what it is yet?

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, some people still refuse to accept that there is any link between the campaigns against tobacco and alcohol, or that the tactics of one are being used as an example to be followed by the other. But, as Chris Snowdon reports here, the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies – an anti-tobacco pressure group masquerading as a scientific research institution – is to rebrand itself as the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies. Clear enough for you now, is it?

Tuesday 13 August 2013

Meat and drink

I recently posed the question as to whether or not pubs should offer table reservations for diners, an issue that provoked some lively discussion. The reason why this is a subject for debate at all is that pubs have come to occupy an uneasy middle ground where they’re not really sure what they are.

A generation ago, the idea of pubs having table reservations would have been unthinkable. If you wanted a formal, sit-down meal you would go to a restaurant, which functioned as you would expect and undoubtedly would offer and indeed encourage reservations. But there was then a long-term move towards a more informal style of “pub dining” which saw many of the Beefeater-style restaurants stripped out.

It must be pointed, though, out that many fairly cheap-and-cheerful chains such as Frankie & Benny’s and Pizza Hut continue to operate on the full-service restaurant model, where you are welcomed by a waiter, shown to a table, have your order taken at the table, buy drinks through the waiter, and settle the bill at the end. A key reason for this is that it sets them a cut above McDonald’s and KFC where you order from a counter and take your food and drink to the table yourself.

Now the “pub restaurant” sector is slowly inching its way towards this – being shown to a table rather than selecting your own is becoming more common, drinks are increasingly being served at tables and the growth in the use of payment cards means that setting up a tab rather than paying as you go is becoming the norm. While at one time, eating a meal in an atmosphere that felt like a pub was seen as desirable, recently I’ve seen a number of refurbishments where one section has been laid out in a way that clearly says “restaurant” rather than “pub” – light and airy rather than cosy and intimate, the interior shown in the photo being a good example.

Before too long, the wheel will have come full circle and these establishments will have effectively regained all the features that once distinguished restaurants. And, sadly, they will have come to be regarded by most people as the definition of the term “pub”, which once meant something very different.

I continue to stick by my view that, in hindsight, it would have been better if pubs had never attempted to move into the territory of formal sit-down dining. At first, it must have looked like their salvation, but in the longer term it has proved to be their undoing.

Saturday 10 August 2013

A whiff of intolerance

The recent spell of hot weather has led some people to venture into beer gardens that they may not have visited for six years. And – shock! horror! – they have found them to be populated by smokers. This is obviously an inevitable consequence of the ban on smoking indoors and frankly I have zero sympathy for the complaints. Maybe if you object to smoking in beer gardens you should campaign for the restoration of indoor smoking rooms. It really represents a remarkable cheek to whine about smoking on the ten days each year that the weather is pleasant enough for you to venture outside, while the smokers have to endure whatever it throws at them 365 days a year. It reminds me of this case from five years ago.

Of course pubs are fully entitled to designate part or all of their beer gardens as non-smoking areas, and I can think of one or two that do have separate smoking and non-smoking areas. But, even then, the antismokers are likely to moan “Oh noes! There’s someone smoking in the open air forty feet away! I’m going to DIE!” And the rarity of outdoor non-smoking areas gives a clear indication of how licensees perceive their commercial viability. What on earth is the point if it’s only going to be used on the handful of warm, sunny days we enjoy each year?

Well done to Real Ale Up North for a very sensible blogpost on the subject. And the Daily Mash has, as so often, hit the nail firmly only the head when it reports Non-smokers told to shut up and stop being so utterly pathetic.

Thursday 8 August 2013

Nothing better to do?

The UK government have very sensibly announced that they do not intend to implement minimum alcohol pricing. No doubt behind the scenes their lawyers told them that it would fall foul of EU competition law and so they would end up with a lot of egg on their faces, and it may have started to dawn on them that a policy that meant most households paying more for their regular tipple would not go down too well at the ballot box.

However, some parts of the country remain keen on going ahead with local schemes. North of the border, Alex Salmond has indicated his intention to press ahead with the plan, although it is highly likely that he will run in to the same legal problems, and even if he doesn’t the problem of cross-border trade is likely to turn the scheme into a laughing stock.

His counterparts in Cardiff have now said they would like to do the same. Whether they actually have the legal powers to do so is a moot point and, given that, compared to Scotland, Wales has a much longer border with England, and the main centres of population are much closer to the border, the issues of cross-border trade would be greatly magnified.

Now it’s even spread to English local authorities. Given that they seem unable to empty the bins efficiently, fill in potholes or provide proper public toilets, you might have thought they had better things to do with their time, but obviously not. Locally, both Cheshire East and Bury have expressed enthusiasm. In Bury one councillor even claimed that pubs (not supermarkets, note) were selling drinks at a loss, which really does call into question the level of knowledge that is being brought to the issue.

For local councils, the policy is ultra vires and completely outside their powers, so strictly speaking they shouldn’t be discussing it in the first place. And, if it happened, you would end up with a ridiculous patchwork quilt of different regulations which would be hopelessly confusing for both consumers and retailers and impossible to police effectively. At a local level, it is completely unfeasible on every level.

At some point during my lifetime, councils seem to have metamorphosed from bodies concerned with providing useful services to their residents to a bunch of prodnoses, bullies and fussbuckets who main objective is telling people how to live their lives and who are apparently happy to let basic services go hang. How on earth did that happen?

Wednesday 7 August 2013

A day in the life

Well, it was a bright morning today, so I thought I would go out and take some pictures of the Shepherd & Ewe at Udderstroll. This impressive stone-built 1930s pub with mock-Tudor detailing in the typical house style of Drab’s Brewery, once packed out every session, closed within six months of the implementation of the smoking ban in July 2007, and since then has been derelict and boarded up. Unfortunately, when I got there, I found that it had been demolished in the three months since I last passed that way, so all I could photograph was a vacant site (pictured). Couldn’t even get a decent picture for Closed Pubs. I am told that Tesco have planning permission for a new-build Express store.

So I went down the hill in search of some lunch at the Apricot & Artifice in Dunnyshaw, formerly the Locomotive but now rebranded as a kind of quasi-gastropub. They had six different cask beers on, all from local micros and thus qualifying for the CAMRA Locale scheme. I went for Tearful from Pink Flamingo Brewery (3.9%) at a rather steep £3.40, which I have to say was probably the first pulled that session and borderline returnable, although in this case I decided discretion was the better part of valour. It’s one of a range of well-regarded beers including Bellyful, Fretful and Skinful.

I was pleased to see Traditional Ploughmans on the menu at £7.95, so immediately plumped for that. However, it was desperately disappointing, consisting of a small stale roll, about two ounces of bland cheddar, a mound of lettuce, an apple and a large slice of gala pie. Pork pie with egg in it, how disgusting. No pickle either. Half-way through eating it, a quartet of yummy mummies trooped in and their offspring rapidly started up the kind of co-ordinated wailing you would have heard as the Luftwaffe approached Coventry. So I have to say I left my meal unfinished and went on my way in search of a quieter and more traditional atmosphere.

I knew I could rely on the Feltcombers’ Arms at Arkwright’s Hillock, and I wasn’t disappointed. This is a long, low cottage-style building with “weavers’ windows”, probably dating from the mid-17th century and now surrounded by mostly Victorian development. The chintzy lounge with its upright piano is only open at weekends, so I went in the vault with its grandfather clock and stone-flagged floor. A sad sign of the times was that the only other customer was an old gent sitting in the corner chuntering into his pint.

I found a nice bench seat by the window which provided enough light to read the Daily Mail. The only cask beer available is Draught Barf, dispensed by gravity from a little room behind the bar. As usual, it came out with a very shallow head which may not endear it too much to the locals, and a slightly astringent, almost vinous taste. I am told John Smith’s Extra Smooth is actually the best seller. I was pleased to see old Wilf, the pub cat, who is a bit arthritic now but managed to climb up on the bench next to me, although unfortunately he decided to mark his presence by a touch of spraying. Still, cats will be cats. The landlord told me that he liked to spend much of his time asleep in the “cellar”, which he regarded as his territory.

Returning home, I put the faithful Harvest Gold 1.3 Morris Marina back in the garage. This model really is an underrated British classic. Driving duties done, I thought I would treat myself to a bottle-conditioned Old Toad Bitter from Slutchmere Brewery in the heart of Cheshire, which had been settling in a dark cupboard for at least three months. However, there was an ominous silence as I opened the bottle, and it turned out to be as flat as a witch’s tit and, despite the long storage period, still distinctly hazy. So straight down the sink it went.

However, salvation was at hand as, I had a bottle of Ayscue Ale stored in the fridge in case of such eventualities. This darkish, malty 6.2% brew, produced by long-established family brewery Hawkins of Lowestoft, is named after the most senior British admiral ever to be captured by the enemy, and represents the best “bangs per buck” amongst Morrison’s multibuy offer. It’s not bottle-conditioned, so you have a well over 50% chance of it actually being drinkable.

It must have hit the spot, as it seems I nodded off and when I woke up was disappointed to find that I’d missed Countdown, even on Channel 4+1.

(In view of this, I thought I’d better write my own piss-take before someone else got there first)

Tuesday 6 August 2013

The exception proves the rule

There’s an interesting report here from customer experience expert Ian Golding about how a pub refused to break its established policy of not accepting table reservations and thus lost a substantial amount of business. Now, I’m certainly a strong believer in the principle that “rules are for the guidance of wise men and the blind obedience of fools” and have seen many cases, both in the pub trade and in the wider world, where the narrow-minded application of petty regulations benefits nobody.

However, a distinction needs to be made between rules that genuinely are trivial, and those that lie at the core of the operational principles of a business. He doesn’t name the pub in question, so I can’t comment on the specifics here, although if it is in the Chester area it may well be one I have visited over the years.

With pubs, which tend to have regular customers, there is always the risk of setting an unwelcome precedent, so the customers will say “well, you made an exception for them, so why can’t I reserve a table for granny’s birthday?” And then the licensee either appears churlish, or opens up the thin end of the wedge. He says the pub in question will have lost their business in future, but that can work both ways. For example, on two occasions in the past few years I have visited two different pubs that had set aside a large part of their normal public area for a private party. They may well have gained business in the short term, but that experience has made me less inclined to visit those pubs in the future, or to recommend them to others.

Although it’s a different issue, some years ago I was in a pub at lunchtime on a hot day when a couple of lads came in not wearing shirts. The licensee refused to serve them, and they left saying “you’ve just lost about six pints worth there, mate”. In the short term, obviously he had, but in the long term he doesn’t want to be known as the kind of pub that serves shirtless yobs.

And surely the classic example of the desirability of applying rules strictly is the sign that used to be common above the bar in pubs, “Please do not ask for credit as a smack in the mouth often offends”. However deserving the case, if you do it for one person then others will inevitably demand it too, and then feel aggrieved when it is refused.

Consistency of offer is something that is very desirable in pubs. It may well be that this particular pub sees an open to all comers, first come first served approach as a key part of its proposition and thus is entirely justified in refusing to bend the rule, even if they alienate some potential customers by doing so. On the other hand, if they just can’t be bothered, then they deserve what is coming to them.

The point must also be made that there are plenty of establishments around that do offer table reservations, so in this case the detriment to the customer was not very great. If it was the only place serving meals for twenty miles around then the refusal to take a booking would seem more churlish. And, turning the situation around, if there was a restaurant with a policy of only accepting prior bookings, and a party turned up without a booking, it would be self-defeating to turn them away even if there were plenty of empty tables and people standing idle in the kitchen.

Saturday 3 August 2013

Casting the net

There was an interesting comment on my recent post about the problems of cask beer in hot weather: “The places that don't keep the ale properly chilled are also the kind of places that don't offer any ale I like anyway. Hence for me there is no dilemma really.”

This raised a question about people’s general approach to pubgoing, which I addressed in the poll of which the results are shown on the right.

In the past, casual drinking was a common leisure activity, but I get the impression that in recent years there has been a tendency to concentrate on pubs that people know will suit. This has coincided with the rise of the multi-beer specialist pub. Drinking your way along six different pumps may have more appeal than crawling round six different pubs on the wrong side of town.

There’s nothing wrong with that, and if time and/or money is limited it’s perfectly understandable that people stick with what they know to be reliable. And, of course, in the old days most pubs had a loyal band of regulars who seldom took their custom anywhere else.

Having said that, it’s gratifying that there’s a strong vote for seeking out new and unfamiliar pubs. This doesn’t mean just going in pubs at random, but making some effort to go beyond the tried and trusted. I reckon that this year so far I have been to at least 30 pubs that either I have never visited before, or haven’t been to for at least five years. You may have some disappointing experiences, but on the other hand you may chance across pubs with qualities you weren’t aware of. The joy of discovery is all part of the fun.

And, if you go in unfamiliar pubs, even if they’re praised in pub guides or have a good reputation, you are much more likely to come across an indifferent pint than if you stick to a handful of trusted favourites. It’s a risk you take in expanding your horizons. Going to pubs is not, to my mind, like going to shops.

I’d also add that (contrary to some people’s stereotype) I’m not exclusively interested in pubs and beer, so I’m likely to end up going in pubs that happen to be in places I’ve visited, rather than going to places specifically because of the pubs that are there.

Thursday 1 August 2013

Dog’s lunch

The latest edition of Doghouse Magazine recently dropped through my letterbox. This one concentrates on pubs in Birmingham, but it starts in Rhayader in Mid-Wales and follows the course of the Elan Valley aqueduct to the city. There are also general articles including one from beer writer Mark Dredge bewailing the “craft beer wars” and another on beer and crisp flavour matching.

I have to say that, while still very good, I wasn’t quite as impressed as with the previous issue I reviewed here. Inevitably, with the second sampling of anything, you lose the sense of discovery you encountered with the first. Maybe another reason is that, while I spent three years at university in Birmingham in the late 1970s, very few of the pubs mentioned are actually familiar to me. In those days, the city was dominated by the Ansells/M&B duopoly, and if you wanted decent beer you tended to head across the boundary, particularly to the Black Country. At one point there were only seven different cask beers available in the entire city of a million inhabitants, and one of those (Draught Bass) only in about six pubs.

As an aside, a contemporary of mine at Birmingham University was Anna Soubry, now the junior health minister who has not exactly been covering herself with glory over the issue of plain tobacco packaging. She was the leading light of the University Conservative Association and even then came across as someone whose ambitions were much stronger than her principles.

As always, the crowning glory of Doghouse is the photography, which this time includes some great interior shots of unspoilt urban vaults. And the following passage about the White Swan in Digbeth certainly struck a chord:

Indeed, the only thing that spoilt this vision of solid 19th century perfection was the distinct lack of custom. Upon enquiry, I was told this was just about normal for weekday lunchtimes. People still work around here, I interjected, did they not come to the pub any more? ‘Occasionally we have a few in, but the evenings are when we do most of our trade.’

With a sigh, Agnes remembers a time not so very long ago when three people were required to work the bar during the lunchtime rush – but since those heady days virtually all the large employers had gone, the huge empty shell opposite once employing 600 people alone, while the redevelopment promised to take their place were killed off by the financial collapse. This, coupled with the senseless and relentless war against sociable regulated drinking, goes some way to explain why an amazing pub like the Swan can stand virtually empty when thirsty folk are close at hand.

Society will not implode, nor will the world spin off its axis, if people once again decide to do what their forefathers did for centuries, and have a couple of pints with a sandwich before returning to work. But we as a people have been cowed into thinking that sensible daytime drinking is an urban myth – any desire to imbibe before 6 o’clock being the preserve of the wastrel, scoundrel and Johnny Foreigner. Fight back, ladies and gentlemen, for the sake of our pubs and our society.

I have a facsimile of a (non-CAMRA) guide to Manchester city centre pubs from the mid-70s, and one point made there is that many of the pubs were busy at lunchtimes and much quieter in the evenings. How times have changed.