Sunday 23 February 2014

Interesting times

The results of my poll on drinking “craft keg” beers are shown on the right. The general response was very positive, with almost a quarter saying they drank them regularly, and only 8% avoiding them on principle. Given that my usual haunts are family brewer tied houses, and Spoons, I answered “I’ll try them if I see them”. I actually had a half of Quantum American Amber the other night in the Magnet in Stockport – at a CAMRA branch meeting – and thought it was very nice. But it wasn’t something I’d want to drink numerous pints of.

The beer market is rapidly changing, and we are seeing developments such as Wetherspoon’s stocking American craft beer in cans that only a few years ago would have been unthinkable. Beer is now fashionable in a way that realistically it never has been during my drinking career – see, for example, this article in the Guardian. Even in the 1970s, when real ale enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, it wasn’t really cool. And there is a serious risk that CAMRA, effectively the only membership organisation representing beer drinkers, will end up looking as relevant as a closed and boarded estate pub.

Biting the hand that feeds you

There was an interesting discussion on Twitter recently about to what extent it is acceptable to criticise beers that you, as a blogger, have been given for free. My view was that you needed to tread carefully, but on reflection I think it’s important to draw a distinction between beers (and other products) provided purely for review, and those that represent an element of hospitality.

Over the years I have been given a large number of free pints when delivering the local CAMRA magazine, although sadly that practice has ceased in both of the pubs that used to do it. I would never ask for a top-up of a free pint and, if it happened to be in poor condition (which was very rarely the case) I would abstain from giving it a score on WhatPub. It’s rank bad manners to quibble and carp over gifts.

If you are given something purely for the purpose of providing a review, then it’s fair enough to be negative, as I was about this book. But, on the other hand, some gifts surely represent a feeling of goodwill, and it doesn’t do to react in an excessively negative way. For example, a while back, I was given five eight-packs of Wells & Young’s bottled beers, which would have had a retail price of at least £60. All were reviewed, and I was a bit lukewarm about the London Gold, but I did feel that it would be rude to spit it back in their face. As it happens, I like Wells & Young’s beers, and think that, overall, they are the best of the major producers of premium bottled ales, so I didn’t feel I had to compromise my integrity.

I was also given a free review copy of this expensive coffee-table book, which is one that I probably would have bought with my own money anyway. I saw that as a gesture of goodwill, and responded accordingly.

I’ve now been blogging for nearly seven years, and have only ever received four examples of free stuff, so don’t imagine that it’s the key to the life of Riley.

Ironically, between composing this post and putting it up, Tandleman has written about his trip to BrewDog. You can judge for yourself whether the free hospitality affected his conclusions.

Saturday 22 February 2014

Micro vs Macro economics

Phil Mellows has made a very sensible and balanced post (as usual) here about the conversion of pubs to supermarkets. It’s often alleged that the supermarket chains have been deliberately targeting entirely viable pubs. I don’t claim that this has never happened, but locally the three pubs that have undergone such a conversion – the Red Lion in Gatley, the Chapel House in Heaton Chapel and the White Lion in Withington (illustrated) – had all been closed for some time before. I would guess that the vast majority of pub to supermarket conversions have been of pubs that at best were struggling. Indeed, very near to me, the site of the former Four Heatons pub is to become a Morrisons Local more than three years after it closed.

I have made the point before that it’s possible to come up with a plausible narrative for how many supposedly “failed” pubs could have been brought back to life, but it’s much harder to come up with a similar narrative for the pub market as a whole, given all the pressures that have affected it. An appealing offer in one particular pub will make little difference to overall demand, and often it’s a case of one pub succeeding at the expense of another. I know of one large village in Cheshire than in recent years has lost two of its four pubs – and the two that have closed are those that in the past I would have identified as the more attractive and viable. But, if they hadn’t closed, the odds are that the other two would have.

It’s tempting to propose that the conversion of pubs to retail use should be subject to planning consent but, in reality, isn’t that just likely to postpone the evil day and lead to greater cost and bureaucracy? The current planning system, while it requires consent for the conversion of commercial premises to residential use, broadly permits “downgrading” to use classes that are likely to create less impact on the local community. Thus, no planning consent is required for conversion of pubs to retail or office use, but it is needed in the opposite direction. Would it really serve the public good for planning permission to be required for every conversion of a box bar into a wool shop? At the end of the day, the decline of the pub trade is essentially due to a fall-off in demand, not to a failure of the planning system to protect pubs.

Sunday 16 February 2014

Is it just me?

I’ve written in the past about the highly inconsistent and generally disappointing character of British bottle-conditioned beers, especially those from small breweries that have been bottled at source using the original yeast. Indeed, in my experience the likelihood of getting one that is even half-decent is so low that I would actively warn people against buying them.

To my mind, the whole point of a bottle-conditioned beer is that it will actually undergo a secondary fermentation in the bottle, in a similar way to Champagne. Thus, when you pour it, there will be a dense, rocky read and vigorous spires of natural carbonation rising through the beer. However, despite extensive experimentation, that state is rarely achieved. I’ve had it in about one in five White Shields but, apart from that, hardly ever in British beers.

For example, I recently bought a bottle of Wye Valley Butty Bach from Tesco as part of a multibuy offer. I hadn’t realised that it was bottle-conditioned, but it turned out that it was. I succeeded in pouring it clear, but it produced a very lacklustre, flat glass of beer. I’m not singling Wye Valley out for criticism (and indeed they brew some excellent cask beers) but it just happens it’s their beer I had.

They don’t, to be honest, make many inroads into the major supermarkets, but the shelves of specialist off-licences are now groaning with bottle-conditioned beers from British micro-breweries, so plenty of people must be buying them.

If that’s you, what do you expect? Is it enough for you that you get a rather flat, yeasty-tasting, possibly slightly hazy, glass of beer, with some gunge in the bottom of the bottle, that you know hasn’t been filtered or pasteurised, and that has a little logo on the label saying “CAMRA says this is real ale”? Or do you actually experience that elusive vigorous secondary fermentation? And, if you do, why does it virtually never happen to me?

Saturday 15 February 2014

Long-tailed and legless

Here’s a pub character who literally is legless – but not in the way you would expect. He can still manage to walk along the top of the bar, though...

Inside the big beer tent

Last weekend, I quoted from a letter by Tim Webb in the CAMRA newspaper What’s Brewing in which he called for the organisation to take a more accommodating attitude towards the growing number of high-quality beers that did not qualify as “real ale”. I think he has a point, but I deliberately didn’t comment at the time to see what others’ thoughts were. Since then, Paul Bailey and Tandleman have both produced thoughtful posts on the subject which have attracted numerous comments.

In the context of the time, the original definition of real ale arrived at by CAMRA in the early 1970s was a pretty good way of sorting out the sheep from the goats in terms of British draught beer. But, even then, the wiser heads knew very well it wasn’t a universal yardstick for good beer. There was effectively no real ale anywhere in the world outside Great Britain, but that didn’t mean there was no good beer.

For a period of thirty years, the concept of real ale went largely unchallenged, and even in 2000 there was little “good beer” available on draught in the UK that didn’t qualify. The introduction of nitrokeg “smooth” beers in the 1990s gave a new impetus to the real vs keg battle.

However, in the 21st century, beer has suddenly become fashionable again, and there has been a huge upsurge of interest in new and different styles and flavours. But a growing proportion of this new beer falls outside the definition of real ale, and thus presents CAMRA with a dilemma. Many of these young beer enthusiasts are happily mixing cask and keg in places like the Port Street Beer House or the RedWillow bar in Macclesfield, or even sticking entirely to keg in the BrewDog bar. If you want to get them involved in CAMRA, telling them that all keg beer is chemical piss isn’t going to get you very far, and saying “that’s nothing to do with us, we campaign for real ale” isn’t much better. And if you try to explain to them why CAMRA beer festivals will happily sell German keg beers, but won’t allow similar beers brewed in the UK, then they might begin to question your sanity.

In reality, many of the most enthusiastic consumers of “craft keg” are actually CAMRA members, and the more broad-minded amongst them are well aware of the limitations of the concept of real ale. But the organisation prevents any kind of official expression of this wider beer enthusiasm. For example, one of the most noticeable trends in the current beer market is the growth of British-brewed craft lagers. But CAMRA’s magazine BEER can’t report on this or carry out a taste test because they are all keg beers.

Tim Webb is perhaps guilty of overstating the scale of the problem, as after all CAMRA is recording record membership figures and running many highly successful beer festivals like the recent one in Manchester. Many pubgoers will never encounter a craft keg tap from one month to the next, while you’ll struggle to find even a half-decent pub without real ale. But the issue isn’t going to go away, and is likely to grow in importance with the passage of time. In the long term, there is a risk that it will lead to a loss of credibility and marginalisation.

In reality, CAMRA has always campaigned on subjects well beyond real ale, such as opening hours, beer duty and licensing reform, and has also brought cider under its wing even though it has less to do with beer than whisky does. It presents itself as a champion of all beer drinkers and pubgoers, not just real ale drinkers. So I don’t see why it can’t adopt a more open-minded attitude to non-real beers while still retaining its core objective of protecting and promoting British cask beer. It simply needs to accept that CAMRA publications and spokespeople are allowed to discuss, review and praise non-real products rather than just pretending they don’t exist. As private individuals, many of its leading lights do just that (I can think of three chairmen of local branches, for a start) but officially it is beyond the pale.

In the long term, I tend to feel this will be achieved through a slow but steady grass-roots revolt rather than by passing conference motions, stemming from the turnover of the generations as the dinosaurs muttering about “chemical fizz” retire from active involvement and are replaced by younger and more open-minded activists. It could be compared with the way a majority of Catholics have come to embrace contraception despite the official hierarchy of the church remaining dead set against it. And the last thing CAMRA should be doing is attempting to come up with nitpicking technical definitions of which “craft kegs” can be deemed acceptable, and which can’t.

Wednesday 12 February 2014

Swan crowned

Congratulations to the Swan With Two Necks at Pendleton in Lancashire for having been chosen as CAMRA’s National Pub of the Year for 2014. I’ve never actually been there personally, but it sounds a cracking pub and I’ll try to remedy the omission some time this year.

Situated in the shadow of Pendle Hill, it’s a traditional, stone-built village pub, described by its regulars as being “in a time warp”, that has been run by licensee Steve Dilworth for twenty-seven years. It offers Copper Dragon Golden Pippin plus four varying guest beers, mostly from local micro-breweries, two locally-produced ciders and home-made food. A further plus point is that it doesn’t show TV football. The StreetView image shows a stream running down the middle of the pretty village street.

There have been a few mutterings that selecting a pub of this type shows CAMRA in fuddy-duddy, backward-looking mode, but surely it is a positive step that they have chosen a pub that appeals to all sections of the community rather than some trendy urban craft beer bar that is of interest only to enthusiasts and would make the organisation seem exclusive. And I’m told that hop-forward golden beers feature heavily on its guest beer list – it’s not just Landlord and Lancaster Bomber.

Sunday 9 February 2014

Keep the flag flying

I recently reported the unexpected closure of the Baker’s Vaults in Stockport. While Robinson’s brewery have stated their intention to find new tenants and reopen it, it still remains firmly closed.

I can think of a few other pubs that are currently closed, but which I would confidently expect to reopen eventually. But the question has to be asked whether this is actually a good business strategy. Wouldn’t it make sense to keep the place open with a temporary licensee, even at a reduced level of service?

Many pubs have regulars who are in several days a week, who might well be sent elsewhere by a prolonged period of closure, or find that staying in isn’t that bad after all. And, for those pubs that people need to make a special journey to visit, one experience of finding it closed may deter them permanently.

It has also, from experience, often been the case that alternating periods of closure and opening under new licensees have been a harbinger of permanent closure. If a pub closed, opened again, then closed once more, I wouldn’t hold out much hope. It suggests dubious long-term viability.

So it must be a declaration of confidence in the future of a pub if its owners keep it going even under difficult and unexpected circumstances, which may reap dividends in the future.

Saturday 8 February 2014

Driving blind

In the February issue of the CAMRA newspaper What’s Brewing, there’s a very interesting letter from Tim Webb that will certainly put the cat amongst the pigeons. I won’t repeat the whole thing, but he concludes:

Uniquely among beer consumer groups, CAMRA has championed a bureaucratic device to inform its members what sort of beer is good – as in the term Good Beer Guide. Thirty years ago this mattered little, as decent beer and cask ale, in Britain at least, were synonymous. But then things changed and will not return to where they once were.

The challenge for the Campaign is how to adapt to the much-improved world of beer it helped create. Luke warm acceptance of, or being not against the greatest improvements to beer tastes in a century, is not a good enough stance. To younger eyes it makes CAMRA look like a much-loved grandparent who wants to keep driving even though they can’t make out the road ahead.

Friday 7 February 2014

Another country

The Daily Mash may have made a joke of it, but the view is often heard that London is becoming increasingly detached in economic and social terms from the rest of the UK. Its economy seems to be more a part of an international world of finance than the realities of workaday provincial life, it experiences a house price boom while the rest of the country is stagnant, and its sheer size and density make its transport problems and solutions unique in Britain. Also, unlike pretty much any other major city apart perhaps from Edinburgh, it has a large population of prosperous middle-class people living in inner-urban areas which gives them a distinctly different feel. A significant issue resulting from this is that, since so many politicians and journalists are based in London, it is all too easy to form the opinion that the capital is typical of the rest of the country and what works there is likely to work anywhere else.

It’s also home to the social phenomenon of the hipster which only appears to have spread outwards in a rather half-hearted fashion. This seems to be bound up with the direction that the London beer scene has taken. I get the impression that craft keg ales and lagers have become much more widely available there than anywhere else. The craft beer bar, or the minimalist makeover of an old pub, has become an essential centrepiece for the up-and-coming trendy neighbourhood. Many of the London microbreweries seem to intent on developing a cutting-edge image rather than brewing a a range of conventional, accessible beers. This has given rise to the phenomenon of “London murky” which really is very specific to the capital. And the sky-high property prices make it attractive to convert even thriving pubs for residential use, which is something you just don’t see here. All the pubs local to me that have been turned into something else have either been obviously struggling or already closed.

It’s sometimes said that, where London leads, the rest of the country eventually follows but, in wider terms spreading well beyond the world of beer, I get the feeling that the two are increasingly heading in different directions.

Wednesday 5 February 2014

Do the hokey-cokey

It wasn’t exactly a good advertisement for joined-up government when the Home Office announced that they wouldn’t be giving pubs a blanket extension for England’s late-night opening World Cup match, only to be in effect overruled by the Prime Minister the following day.

The argument that it wasn’t an event of national significance was ridiculous given how many pubs were likely to be interested in it, and was yet more evidence of how out-of-touch Civil Service mandarins are with ordinary people. And the alternative wasn’t pubs not opening, but having to apply for Temporary Event Notices on an individual basis, which would have cost each pub £21 and also resulted in a burden on councils who are always moaning about the cost of licensing administration.

So, a victory for common sense, but you have to wonder at the thought process that led the Home Office to make such a joyless “computer says no” announcement in the first place. Having said that, given that the matches will be on free-to-air TV, they may not be quite the moneyspinner that some licensees imagine. I can see many people preferring to opt for a few pints in the pub and then returning to watch it in the comfort of their own home.

Me? I’ll probably be tucked up safely in bed by then.

Sunday 2 February 2014

Beer, wine and cheese party

The most recent poll was inspired by Boak and Bailey’s blogpost about the uncertainty over whether Camden Hells was brewed in London or in Germany. I widened the issue to look at how important knowing the country of origin was for beer in comparison with other consumer products. The results show that this is much more important for beer, wine and cheese than anything else, with frozen meals (maybe surprising in the wake of the horsemeat scandal) and clothing bringing up the rear.

I suspect in a poll directed at a general rather than a beery audience wine would have topped the poll, as in the vast majority of cases the country of origin is a key part of its identity. On the other hand, a substantial proportion of the beer sold in the UK is actually foreign brands brewed here under licence and, as I reported here, the average drinker of Carlsberg, Stella or San Miguel is well aware that his beer isn’t actually brewed in the country associated with the name, and isn’t really that bothered. The higher you go up the premium scale, though, the more consumers would be unhappy that an ostensibly Belgian or US brand wasn’t actually produced in that country.

This works on several different levels, for example

  • Expecting a basic standard of honesty about where products come from so consumers are not being deliberately misled
  • A badge of authenticity and integrity in the supply chain
  • Choosing products from a particular country because of specific national characteristics
  • Wanting to favour particular countries and avoid the produce of others for “political” reasons, whether preferring goods from your own country or boycotting those from countries that for whatever reason you don’t like
In the field of beer, while knowing the country of origin is clearly very important for enthusiasts, as I mentioned above the average consumer isn’t really too concerned. Many popular beers simply say “brewed in the EU” on the bottle or can. However, even this audience is much more relaxed about other products. In the wake of the “Peckham Spring” controversy, the low figure for bottled water is perhaps surprising. And how many people actually check the country of origin on clothing labels before making a purchase? It has also been said that, of major car-producing nations, Britain actually has the first genuinely post-nationalistic car market.

The regulations covering food labelling are extremely complex and, looking through my cupboards, while most packaged foodstuffs do seem to show the country of origin, some, such as chocolate bars and a jar of pickle, don’t. That a company has a UK address does not guarantee UK production. The bottle of HP sauce admits to being “made in the Netherlands”, but has that damaged sales? In fact, supermarket own brands seem to do better on this front than branded goods. While I’m not a regular buyer, I recall that supermarket own-brand beers, even bog-standard Tesco Lager, state in which country they are brewed.