Tuesday 31 December 2013

Revolution coming?

The January issue of the CAMRA newspaper What’s Brewing contains another puff piece about the supposed imminent “micropub revolution”, quoting extensively from Martin Hiller who claims to have invented the concept. He reckons that the clearing out of the dead wood by the major pub operators will open up great opportunities for micropubs to thrive, and that we could eventually see tens of thousands of them.

Now, that would be very nice to see, and it would certainly open up the prospects for pubhunting which seems to have been going round in ever decreasing circles in recent years. However, as I wrote here, given that the biggest decline in pubs over the past couple of decades has been in small, traditional, wet-led, drink-and-chat establishments, it is hard to see how pubs following that kind of model are going to spearhead a revolution in pubgoing. Indeed, their widely-proclaimed ethos of “no lager, no wine, no music, no soft drinks, no food” is likely to severely limit their appeal in terms of both generational profile and gender balance. They give the impression of being specifically designed to appeal to retired middle-class blokes with too much time on their hands.

What we have seen in recent years is a large number of new “box bars” opening up in former shop units, which could be regarded as fulfilling a similar role to micropubs. However, although there are some exceptions such as those in Chorlton, most of these appeal primarily to a youth or young professional clientele and offer nothing of interest to the beer enthusiast. I also get the feeling that, while a pub is by definition a “public house” and should be open to all so long as they behave themselves, you need to be part of a clique or set to feel at home in a box bar.

Monday 30 December 2013

A diet of worms

There was recently a story in the news about the diet secrets of the oldest woman in Europe, who apparently ate eggs, pasta, minced meat and milk and didn’t touch fruit and vegetables. On Twitter, I retweeted someone else’s message about this suggesting “five-a-day” wasn’t a magic prescription for long life, and received a surprisingly angry riposte along the lines of “well, that doesn’t prove anything!” Of course it doesn’t, but on the other hand it’s yet more anecdotal evidence that sticking to the dietary prescriptions of the health establishment is no guarantee of long life, and neither does ignoring them prevent it being achieved.

From time to time, stories appear in the media about people who seem to get along fine despite eating very limited diets. For example, a few years ago, there was this one about a boy who allegedly ate little but jam sandwiches, but nevertheless had grown to be 6’2” and an active sportsman. And recently there has been the case of an attractive young woman called Faye Campbell who claimed to survive on pizzas, cheeseburgers and chips, washed down with Lucozade and Coke. I mentioned this on Twitter too and received numerous responses along the lines of “she must have scurvy” and “she’ll get bowel cancer” – but the news report suggests that overall she is in pretty good health.

All this demonstrates that the human body is a pretty robust organism and can thrive on all kinds of diets. If you look across the world, there must be huge variations in diet between different cultures, and I doubt whether Eskimos get five-a-day or anything like it. In practice, these people’s diets are probably not quite so exclusive as they claim, and there are nutrients concealed in all kinds of supposedly “unhealthy” foods and drinks – even beer. Bread, flour and breakfast cereals are routinely fortified with a variety of vitamins, in some cases by law.

In reality, there are a surprising number of people whose diets are restricted to a greater or lesser extent by a psychological aversion to certain foods. It isn’t a case of just not liking things, but being simply unable to eat them. Sometimes, although by no means always, this is associated with autistic spectrum conditions such as Asperger’s Syndrome. Christopher Boone, the Asperger’s hero of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is unable to stomach anything brown, while others can’t eat anything that isn’t brown. This is something that is underappreciated by pubs, cafés and restaurants, who continue to insist that customers have specific combinations of foodstuffs rather than encouraging a more mix-and-match approach.

Clearly if you completely fail to obtain certain nutrients, you are going to suffer health problems relating to dietary deficiencies, as thousands of scurvy-ridden sailors found out in the age of sail. But this surely suggests that we are being seriously over-prescriptive in the official dietary guidance that is issued. The “five-a-day” concept was derived from taking the average per capita consumption of fruit and vegetables in California and doubling it, and has no scientific basis. There must be huge numbers of people who reach a ripe old age without ever having consumed five-a-day or anything like it. Likewise, the official alcohol consumption guidelines were plucked out of the air and roughly represented a halving of what scientists considered was a realistic level of what people could consume and still maintain reasonable health.

These guidelines are not in themselves bad advice – you won’t harm yourself by eating five-a-day, or restricting your alcohol intake to below 21 units a week. But the problem is that the implications of not adhering to them are grossly exaggerated, and they come to be presented as “essential” or “maximum limits” rather than simply some kind of desirable ideal. There is no cliff of risk, just a very gentle gradient. As Simon Jenkins argued in the article I linked to here (now behind the Murdoch paywall), the gulf between what is ideal and what is unacceptable is being narrowed all the time.

Friday 27 December 2013

A brief history of electricity

I was recently asked by a correspondent about electric real ale dispense and thought it would be worth turning my response into a blogpost.

My legal drinking memories go back to 1977. At that time, probably at least 40% of all real ale in the UK was dispensed by electric pump, and much more across large swathes of the Midlands and North.

Electric pumps were divided into two main types - the free-flow, which was visually indistinguishable from a keg dispenser, and the metered, which was either of the sliding cylinder "diaphragm" type or had a push-button to dispense a half-pint from a separate nozzle. I am told that some Stones' and Ward's pubs in the Sheffield area had diaphragm pumps dispensing a pint at a time, but I have never seen these. There were one or two other types occasionally seen, such as one with what looked like a revolving vane in a glass sphere which cropped up in some Wilson's pubs.

In my experience, the free-flow pumps were only widely used for real ale in pubs owned by the Bass group, although I have seen them in a few Lees, Holt's and Robinson's pubs. The obvious drawback was that they were outwardly indistinguishable from keg dispensers, which once CAMRA made a major point of promoting real ale could all too easily deter prospective drinkers. A few said "cask conditioned" on the mounting, but this wasn't usual.

Metered dispense was more common, and in particular was widely used by Banks's, Greenall's, Boddington's, Robinson's, Hyde's, Home and Shipstone's, although I have seen it in many other brewers' pubs, even including Gale's down in Hampshire. At first the diaphragm-type pump was much more numerous, but from maybe about the late 80s onwards it came to be increasingly replaced by illuminated bar mountings which were harder to distinguish from keg taps.

I have always associated metered dispense with real ale, but it was also widely used for bright and keg beers, and also for lager and Guinness. In the 1980s I recall my local Hyde's pub, the Nursery, having Harp Lager, Strongbow and even Guinness on meters alongside Mild and Bitter. Metered dispense for non-real beers was very common in clubs. I remember being taken aback once to be served obviously fizzy beer from diaphragm pumps in a Border pub south of Oswestry, so that must have been a rarity.

Two big advantages of metered dispense were that it ensured a full pint, and that it greatly reduced the ability of bar staff to ruin decent beer by an incompetent pulling technique.

From the late 80s onwards it began to slowly disappear - breweries seeing the advantage of at the same time pushing a more obvious image of "real ale" and also being able to use brim-measure glasses and serve less beer per pint. In my view CAMRA mistakenly encouraged this process by presenting handpumped beer as superior and apparently putting image before full measure.

By 2000, metered dispense had become pretty rare and as far as I know has pretty much entirely disappeared now. The last pub I saw it in was Robinson's Queens Arms on Portwood in Stockport which isn't one I regularly pass and tends only to be visited by the local CAMRA branch every two years on a Stagger. The Flying Dutchman retained it for a long time but has now been sold off and is the Fairway free house, of course with handpumps and brim-measure glasses.

I am also told that one or two of the more traditional former Banks's houses still serve their Mild using electric meters, although I haven't seen this myself in recent years.

Personally I miss it as something that added variety to the pub scene and have written about it here. Incidentally, I couldn’t find a single picture of a diaphragm dispenser on Google Images.

Tuesday 24 December 2013

Priced out

I wrote recently about how Robinson’s had been carrying out a cull of their pub estate, and suggested that there were one or two more that didn’t look long for this world. However, one that I didn’t see as being vulnerable was the Baker’s Vaults on Stockport Market Place. It’s a prominent pub in a distinctive early-Victorian Italianate style which over the years has gained a considerable reputation for live music. It also many years ago hosted a Christmas meal for the local CAMRA branch at which the late, great Michael Jackson was the guest speaker.

However, it is reported that it closed its doors last Saturday night, with the tenants blaming “the costs of Robinson’s beer, the high cost of renting the building, the extortionate cost of business rates from Stockport Council, and the ridiculous cost of utilities.” Now, I suspect Robinson’s may try to find new tenants for this one, given that to my mind it still does have a strong innate appeal, but it does highlight a problem that affects many Robinson’s pubs in less well-heeled areas.

Traditionally, Robinson’s, unlike some other family brewers, never set out to be cheap as such. Their prices were typically comparable with, or maybe just a little below, those of the national or quasi-national brewers such as Wilson’s, Tetley’s, Whitbread and Greenall’s, who in many of their trading areas were their main competitors. However, as the Big Six metamorphosed into pubcos, and they started winnowing out their estates in town centres and inner-urban areas, over the years Robinson’s found that the competition in places like Stockport town centre had turned into Wetherspoon’s, Sam Smith’s, Holt’s and various free trade operators running pub company cast offs. What all of those have in common is that they are significantly cheaper.

It seems that the cost structure Robinson’s offer to their tenants makes it very difficult for them to be competitive in such an environment. The Baker’s Vaults was probably charging about £2.60 for a pint of bitter, but you have to have a good reason to go there when you can be paying just £1.80 across the road in Sam Smith’s Boar’s Head, and £2.15 a couple of minutes away in Wetherspoon’s. I was told a story of how a group of friends had started getting a taxi to a free trade pub for their regular Friday night out because the beer was 80p a pint cheaper than in their Robinson’s local, so they didn’t have to drink that much for it to pay for itself.

Obviously with any pub closure there is usually more than meets the eye, and some Robinson’s pubs not too far away like the Arden Arms and the Red Bull still seem to thrive despite charging a price premium. However, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that their tenants are often struggling to be remotely competitive on price. It’s not so much of a problem for their dining pubs where typical prices are higher and price competition is not so intense. But unless Robinson’s can come up with some way of offering their urban tenants a better value-for-money proposition we are likely to see more closures in the coming year.

Saturday 21 December 2013

Action and reaction

A common error made by campaigners and politicians is to imagine that policy changes can be made in isolation without any wider implications. Sometimes this can be achieved, but in most cases, if you change one thing, it will end up changing something else. It’s like trying to squeeze jelly into a string bag. If you increase the tax on something, people may be persuaded to buy something else; if you regulate a business sector more, companies may be more reluctant to invest in it; if you ban something outright, it’s no guarantee that people will stop doing it or even do it less. It may well be the case that, on balance, it’s still worth doing, but it is foolish to imagine that unintended consequences never occur.

A good example of this is in the field of payday loans, which have been much in the news recently. Many would argue that the likes of Wonga are heartless, grasping scum who cynically exploit the poor who have encountered financial difficulties, and therefore the interest rates they charge should be capped. However, if that was done, they wouldn’t make the more risky and marginal loans, and some of the very neediest people would be driven into the arms of illegal loan sharks. It might benefit more people than it harmed, but to claim that capping legal interest rates would not give any encouragement whatsoever to illegal lenders is fanciful.

A similar situation applies with the pub companies such as Punch and Enterprise. These have been widely criticised for both strategic and operational incompetence, and in particular for having an exploitative relationship with their lessees. In response to this, various proposals have been put forward such as implementing a statutory code of practice, allowing lessees to take a guest beer and offering all lessees a free-of-tie option.

However, seeing a potential threat to their business, the pub companies have come back with dire warnings about how such changes would affect them and what their response would be. For example, Spirit Group have claimed that it might force them to reinstate upward-only rent reviews, Greene King have said they could restructure their business to reduce their leased estate below 500 pubs, and J. W. Lees have suggested that a mandatory guest beer option could be disastrous for themselves and other similar family brewers.

Now, all this may contain a substantial element of exaggeration and scaremongering, but it would be foolish in the extreme to imagine that, if new curbs were introduced, pub companies would just roll over, wave their legs in the air and say “OK, we’ll play nicely now”. It’s hard to believe that, at least to some extent, they wouldn’t cut back on new investment, accelerate the disposal of their more marginal outlets and seek to convert as many pubs as possible to managed or franchised operations that were outside the scope of the controls. However much you detest the pub companies, they are the incumbent owners of the pub estates and you need to assess how, in the real world, they would actually respond. There is no blank sheet of paper.

In particular, given that some degree of product tie is fundamental to the pubco business concept, it’s very difficult to see why any pub company should want to lease out pubs on a completely free-of-tie basis, as it would change their position to being essentially that of any commercial landlord. As Martyn Cornell has pointed out in his provocative blogpost In Praise of Ted Tuppen:

large numbers of the best currently tenanted/leased pubs will be turned into managed houses, and those pubs not suitable for a managed operation that look as if they will not bring in an adequate return to their pubco owner as free-of-tie operations will be sold to the highest bidder – likely to be Tesco, Sainsbury’s or Morrisons...
As I have said before, the critics of pub companies always seem strangely reluctant to put forward any kind of alternative business model for the industry. If you don’t like the way it’s organised at present, it is incumbent on you to outline what you think it should evolve into. I am not suggesting nothing should be done at all, but the implications of any change in regulation need to be considered very carefully. Otherwise the risk is that we end up with another Beer Orders-style disaster which could be extremely damaging to both the pub trade and the British brewing industry.

Friday 20 December 2013

Generation shift

This week, the alcohol consumption figures from the Office for National Statistics’ annual Lifestyle Survey were published. They showed a continued across-the-board fall, which is no doubt welcome news to the anti-drink lobby and was soberly reported as such by the Morning Advertiser under the headline Consumers drinking more responsibly.

However, given that the fall was steepest amongst the youngest age group, much of the press chose to whip up a predictable moral panic about older people drinking, with the Times saying “More pensioners are retiring to the bottle” (article behind paywall), the Telegraph referring to “unrepentant” middle-aged and elderly drinkers and the Mail coming up with a characteristic shock front-page headline Older women drink most frequently. As the Telegraph reports:

Middle aged and elderly people are ignoring warnings about excessive alcohol consumption as younger people turn their back on the daily after-work drink, official figures suggest.

People between the ages of 45 and 65 are now more than twice as likely to drink alcohol every day of the week than the those in their late 20s, 30s and early 40s, figures from the Office for National Statistics show.

And although middle aged Britons have reduced their intake in the last seven years, they have done so at only half the rate of those in the younger generation.

Strikingly, the figures show that pensioners have barely cut back at all and on some measures actually increased their drinking over the same period.

Over 65s drink as regularly as students – although in smaller quantities.

However, attempts to portray this as some kind of public health timebomb really do not stack up, despite the claims of anti-drink zealots like Eric Appleby of Alcohol Concern. In fact, less than one in ten pensioners are exceeding the official government guidelines (which many would consider err on the side of caution anyway), and only 2% can be classified as “heavy drinkers”. That hardly sounds like an epidemic to me.

It has long been recognised that, as they grow older, people tend to drink less per session, but on more occasions through the week. You can’t on the one hand criticise the young for binge-drinking and the elderly for drinking every day, as one is the mirror image of the other. And it’s always seemed to me intuitive that drinking three units seven times a week is not realistically going to do you any more harm than drinking eleven units twice a week, and may even expose you to less risk.

The point must also be made that you need to drink substantially more than the official guidelines for any significant increase in health risk – they do not represent the cliff-edge of risk that they are often portrayed as. And the older age groups are still on average drinking less than they did ten years ago.

The steep decline in drinking amongst the younger age group must be a concern for both the overall drinks industry and specifically the pub and bar trade, though. Over 50% of those in the 16-24 group had not had an alcoholic drink at all in the past week when surveyed. There has been a distinct shift in attitudes with abstention being seen as fashionable and drinking regarded as uncool. As this cohort grow older these attitudes will have an increasing effect on the wider market. Before too long, we may be back to the situation of the late 1950s when pubs were regarded as being for the staid and elderly and were shunned by the rock’n’roll generation. Urban craft hipsters, you are the exception, not the rule.

Thursday 19 December 2013

Amateur hour

The festive season is when large numbers of people who scarcely go into a pub between January and November suddenly find themselves crossing the threshold and end up annoying both staff and regular customers by their total ignorance of the normal standards of pub etiquette. There’s an entertaining (if somewhat sweary) summary here. Another one I would add is standing about in large groups in the middle of the floor completely blocking movement around the place despite the fact there are plenty of seats available.

But, on the other hand, given the parlous state of the pub trade, perhaps it’s not a good idea to be quite so sniffy. After all, if the bar staff are polite and the other customers friendly, they might be tempted to come back at other times of the year rather than dismissing pubs as cliquey and unwelcoming. And it makes a refreshing change to see pubs actually busy – often with people drinking alcohol (!?) – and even finding it difficult to get a seat.

Wednesday 18 December 2013

Big is beautiful

Not entirely surprisingly, my recent poll showed a decisive majority in favour of 500ml over 330ml bottles for normal-strength beers. Surely the point about bottle sizes is that you want a bottle that equates to what you would normally regard as “one drink” which, if you look at what people prefer in the pub, is overwhelmingly pints or something like a pint. You have to wonder whether some brewers are actually losing out on sales by having their beer sold in fun-size bottles in the craft ghetto rather than alongside the 500ml big hitters in the PBA section.

If anything, the argument in favour of smaller bottles in terms of maximising variety within a given intake actually has more validity in the pub, where you might encounter a range of unfamiliar beers, than in the home setting.

Saturday 14 December 2013

A fresh idea

I’ve posted in the past about how many pubs seem to stock more cask beers than they can realistically turn over, resulting in a distinct risk of encountering stale, past-its-best beer. I’ve had a couple over the past month in pubs you would expect to do better that were almost on the turn. The thought has occurred to me that an obvious answer to this problem would be to display on every pumpclip the date when the beer was put on sale. So it was interesting to see this proposed recently in the comments on Tandleman’s blog.

Obviously it’s never going to happen, as it would expose just how long many beers were left on sale, but it would certainly give pubs a rocket up the backside to ensure they matched their range to the actual demand. And maybe pubs could offer a discount once beers had gone over three days old. If it led to fewer beers on the bar then so be it – quality should always trump choice.

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Craft thimbles

My local Morrisons and Tesco have recently created separate “craft beer” sections, stocked with a mixture of beers they already had, such as Punk IPA, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Innis & Gunn, and new introductions such as Shipyard, Point IPA and Professor Green’s Remedy. Not, maybe, something that will set the dedicated crafterati’s pulses racing, but a clear indication of how “craft” has established itself as a distinct category.

However, one distinguishing feature of these craft offerings is that they all come in 330ml or 355ml bottles as opposed to the 500ml bottles that dominate the Premium Bottled Ales section just down the beer aisle, even though the prices are often scarcely cheaper if at all. I have to say that I find one of these small bottles strangely unsatisfying, at least for normal-strength beers of maybe up to 6.0% ABV, and am much happier with the larger size which comfortably fits into a pint glass.

A couple of years ago I ran a poll on preferred bottle sizes which revealed a wide divergence of opinion. And I’m reminded of this splendid rant from Mark Dexter (aka The Hearty Goodfellow) against “test-tube sized bottles”:

The children's-sized bottle, however, quickly becomes a right old pain in the proverbial, especially when you realise that the happy event is pretty much over after around three average mouthfuls. If this were an act of love making, it would trigger a very awkward argument. No question about it.
It’s not a question of people preferring 500ml bottles simply because they want more beer – the smaller ones leave you unfulfilled and wanting more.

So is this an indication of yet another divide opening up in the beer market between the would-be hipster with his slim, trendy 330ml bottle, and the pot-bellied fogey with his pint-like 500ml?

Monday 9 December 2013

Slightly foxed

I’ve mentioned in the past how bottle-conditioned beers from micro-breweries are so inconsistent that drinking them is like a lottery – and one you’re more likely to lose than win. Brewery-conditioned bottles, while they might never quite scale the same peaks, are much more consistently reliable. However, even with these I have found a recurrent fault affecting a small proportion, although certainly no more than one in fifty.

While the beer does not lack carbonation and will generally form a healthy-looking head, it pours with a slight haze and has a kind of stale, musty taste, sometimes with a hint of sourness too. Not generally so bad as to go down the sink, but disappointing nonetheless.

It’s something I’ve encountered in beers from various breweries, so it seems to me that, rather than just bad luck, something specific is happening to cause it, but I’m not sure what. Could it be oxidation, maybe, or perhaps a slight but unwanted secondary fermentation taking place? I don’t think it’s just a case of beer being light-struck as more often than not it is found in brown bottles.

Broadly speaking, I’d say it’s more likely to be found in bottles from smaller breweries, and from independent shops where turnover may be less, although that isn’t always the case. This is what was the matter with the poor examples of Pendle Witches’ Brew I had a couple of months ago, and I recently also found it in a bottle of Lees MPA that I was quite keen to try.

Sunday 8 December 2013

Season of ill-will

There have been various reports this festive season of police forces offering rewards to people who successfully inform on drink-drive offenders. Let me make it quite clear that I do not condone lawbreaking, but, whatever the offence, the principle of “the end justifies the means” to secure convictions is never acceptable. And, as Longrider points out here, getting children, relatives, friends and neighbours to inform on people has always been a staple tactic of totalitarian regimes. It is fundamentally un-British. Even the Campaign Against Drink Driving have their reservations.

It’s also not quite as easy as you might think. You might imagine you’ll see drink-drivers in any pub with a car park. But, if you are prepared to sit there for a prolonged period, assess the means of transport of every arrival, tick off how much they drink, make a judgment as to when they’re over the limit, establish the registration number of their car, work out in which direction they’re heading, and then inform the police, then I wish you luck. A few years ago, one police force announced they were allocating officers to act as decoy courting couples in rural pubs to spot offenders. But I’d wager the results were pretty meagre.

In reality, the only way such schemes will work is if people are aware of a persistent pattern of behaviour by individuals they know well. And, if you are a true friend or a caring relative, surely you will make your best efforts to deter the individual concerned from breaking the law before actually shopping them. The most likely outcome is simply that it will encourage people to pursue personal grudges and vendettas.

And, if the rewards are sufficiently high, it could even lead people to act as agent provocateur by egging drivers on to drink more.

Saturday 7 December 2013

Strike an E-lite!

Well, the poll on the use of e-cigs in pubs has closed and there’s a pretty overwhelming majority in favour of their unrestricted use. I’d guess that those against are the kind of hysterical anti-smokers who will have a panic attack if they see someone doing something that even looks slightly like smoking in a public place.

As I’ve said before, licensees are entirely within their rights to ban the use of e-cigs anywhere on their premises. But they need to think very clearly exactly what kind of message that sends out. The days when they could capriciously ban all kinds of “undesirable” behaviour are long gone, and now pubs are scratching around for every customer they can get.

Is it really going to be in their interest to impose a blanket ban on an entirely legal activity? Surely they need to either permit e-cigs throughout, or if there are concerns about them being mistaken for real fags (which obviously are illegal, if not undesirable, indoors) define separate zones where they can and cannot be used.

And, if pubs that have banned e-cigs come along bleating that they have had to close because of lack of trade, I won’t exactly have much sympathy. Pubs can’t afford to turn away trade – they need to manage it.

Friday 6 December 2013

Divided by a common language

The great craft beer debate rumbles inexorably on but never seems to get any closer to reaching any kind of definitive conclusion. One of the best things I’ve read on the subject recently is this blogpost from Pete Brown. He makes the important point that many of the problems we in the UK are experiencing with nailing down the concept is that it originated in the very different environment of the USA and doesn’t read directly across to our beer market. As he says,
There was no discernible craft beer in America before the current microbrewery boom began. Craft in America reacted against the total lack of interesting beer. Every craft brewer in America is a relatively recent arrival. So if we take our cues from America, craft beer is all about novelty. But this is circumstantial rather than intrinsic - the word 'novelty' does not appear in the US definition of craft beer.
Britain, of course, still had an established tradition of small-scale, artisanal brewing which was what was championed by CAMRA in the first wave of the real ale movement. The term “craft beer” only really became commonplace in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, and it was deliberately adopted to set it apart from “real ale”. Partly this was to encompass small-scale, quality products that fell outside the definition, but it was also to distance itself from some of the baggage that “real ale” had accumulated – the beer bellies, twigs in beards, Morris dancing, dodgy puns and Dungeons and Dragons. Craft beer was young, trendy and urban; real ale was middle-aged, fuddy-duddy and rustic. Craft beer was brewed under railway arches, real ale was brewed in farm outhouses. Of course much craft beer is real ale, but the two concepts carry very different connotations.

All American craft beer was by definition innovative, because it was a reaction against bland industrial lagers, even if it was actually aiming to recreate established British, Belgian and German styles. And innovation was key to British craft beer too, most notably in the lavish use of New World hops. It was different from the old “boring brown beer”. So it wasn’t just a matter of scale, but also of approach. This raises the question of whether small, newly-established breweries, which are undoubtedly “artisanal”, but make beer in the traditional British style, such our local Ringway Brewery, are really felt to belong in the craft fold.

The term has of course now become so widely used and debased that it finds itself being applied to anything that isn’t a mass-market beer produced by the international brewers. For example, all of the recently repackaged Ringwood beers, some of which go back to the first wave of microbrewing, now describe themselves as “craft beers”. But I would say that amongst those with some interest in beer the original intention of the term is still broadly understood. Whether it conveys anything useful to the drinker apart from image is another matter, of course.

Thursday 5 December 2013

Money to burn

Ever-increasing energy bills have been one of the dominant stories in the news for weeks if not months. And anyone with a passing interest in pubs will be well aware that many are struggling against a tide of rising costs and competitive pressures. So it comes as something of a surprise to find so many pubs where the owners can afford to heat them, not just to be comfortably warm, but to be oppressively hot. It’s not all or most pubs, but certainly a significant minority, and in my experience the overheated pub in winter is considerably more common than the chilly one. Indeed I pointed this out fifteen years ago.

It’s sometimes claimed this is a trick to encourage people to drink faster, but in reality most pub customers have a ration that they stick to and some may even be prompted to move elsewhere if they feel uncomfortable. And, while there may be a need to replace heat lost by the frequent opening and closing of doors, that doesn’t mean you need to turn cosy areas well away from the main entrance into saunas.

It seems to stem from the same mentality that leads people to whinge about fuel poverty while still expecting to be able to sit around the house wearing a T-shirt in the middle of winter. Perhaps if pub operators were a little bit more careful in controlling their costs they wouldn’t find themselves in such financial straits. And if they say “we can’t make it pay”, maybe it needs to be questioned where they chose to set their thermostat.

Tuesday 3 December 2013

Beer on the menu

Sam Smith’s are probably unique in the entire history of British brewing in the extent to which everything sold in their pubs, even down to the crisps and peanuts, carries their own branding. In the past, when tied houses were the norm, there was much more branding than at present, but even then most pubs would have some bought-in products. Now, when the idea of selling an own-brand lager or keg stout is highly unusual, they really stand out from the herd.

They have recently produced an elaborate four-page laminated “Drinks Menu” to display in their pubs, and I have managed to obtain a copy. I don’t have a working scanner, but these two photos – Page 1 and Pages 2 and 3 – are readable enough. The fourth page deals with wines, liqueurs and spirits.

In total it lists twelve different draught products (only one of which is cask) and fifteen bottled. I have to say I wasn’t even aware they brewed a 3.7% ABV keg Best Bitter until I saw this document, and the 4% Double Four Lager is a relatively new addition, presumably to bridge the gap between the 2.8% Alpine and the 4.5% Taddy. They must be the only brewery producing three different keg beers at 2.8% to take advantage of the lower strength duty relief.

While steering well clear of the C-word, great emphasis is put on authenticity and tradition, stressing that all of the beers are “brewed solely from authentic natural ingredients without any chemical additives, raw material adjuncts, artificial sweeteners, colourings, flavourings or preservatives”. No “chemical fizz” here, then. Most are fermented in Yorkshire squares and most are suitable for vegans.

Sam’s are often criticised for only producing the one cask beer – Old Brewery Bitter. I remember them also offering two more – Tadcaster Bitter, which suffered from the perennial difficulty of selling a weaker bitter alongside a standard one, and Museum Ale, which some liked but most drinkers found hard work. In the past they have also sold cask 4X Best Ale (i.e. light mild) and Old Samson strong ale, but I don’t recall either of them.

They might improve their image if they produced a second cask beer, and many of their pubs certainly have the throughput to sustain it, but it’s difficult to see what would prove a strong seller with their predominantly traditionalist clientele. I’d like to see the return of Tadcaster Bitter, but I fear it would suffer the same fate as before. Maybe the best option would be a premium bitter of around 4.5% ABV that was a little paler and hoppier than OBB and would fill an obvious gap in their range.