Saturday 29 March 2014

Pound pubby

It was reported this week that, after having successfully trialled the concept, a company was planning to roll out its Pound Pub concept across the North of England. Basically these are no-frills, wet-led pubs where a half of standard bitter or lager goes for a quid, and a pint for a mere £1.50. The stated aim is to attract daytime drinkers who might in the past have frequented working men’s clubs. Sky TV is conspicuous by its absence.

Not surprisingly, the anti-drink lobby were up in arms, claiming that it was irresponsible marketing targeting the most vulnerable in society. Funny that, when a pint at £1.50 is about 70p a unit, well above their proposed minimum alcohol price. This gives further credence to the intention – set out in the Sheffield University research that is used to support minimum pricing – of having differential minimum prices for the on- and off-trades. And I don’t see them picketing Wetherspoon’s and Sam Smith’s pubs.

Obviously those two operators do good business from offering prices conspicuously lower than most of the competition, but their establishments also tend to have a reasonable level of creature comforts and, particularly with Sam’s, a kind of camaraderie that produces a distinctive pubby buzz. A pub where cheapness is the only attraction is unlikely to attract many punters and also risks being a magnet for the kind of people whose company you might prefer to avoid. So time will tell whether this proves to be a successful business concept.

If it does take off, as with the widely-reported rise of micropubs, it might indicate that there is a latent and unsatisfied demand for old-fashioned drink-and-chat pubs that don’t succumb to the multiple temptations of loud music, screaming kids, TV football and wall-to-wall dining.

Of course, there is one rather obvious way in which the trade of small, no-frills, wet-led pubs could be dramatically revived. What a pity the government continues to turn a deaf ear.

Incidentally, I love the description of micropubs in Zythophile’s blogpost that I linked to as “five grumpy old men in a 10ft square space”.

Sunday 23 March 2014

Planning to fail

I’ve often made the point on here that no amount of planning restrictions will save a single pub if the underlying demand isn’t there. This view is supported by Martyn Cornell in this provocative blogpost: How much is a pub worth? The Lib Dems don’t know:

Pubs don’t need their existence protecting by legislation because, as has been demonstrated hundreds of times over the past couple of decades alone, if the demand is there a pub will arise, and if the demand isn’t there, a pub will close. People get emotional when they read headlines that say “Village loses its last pub”, but almost every time the pub is closing because villagers aren’t using it in sufficient numbers – and if there really is genuine demand, there is little or nothing to stop a village entrepreneur opening a new pub, micro or otherwise, to replace the one that is closing.
He makes the important point that, if you force pub owners to sell pubs to sitting tenants at their market value as a pub, as the Lib Dems propose, then either the risk of running a failing pub is transferred to the tenant or, if redevelopment is ultimately allowed, then the tenant rather than the pubco ends up with all the benefit. And the local community still has no pub.

He also points out that it has never been easier to open new premises with full on-licences:

The debate about “protecting” pubs from closure is conducted as if there were only a finite number of sites capable of ever being pubs, and every pub that becomes a supermarket, or a private home, or even a coffee bar means a permanent reduction in the number of pubs there could ever be. But this is total nonsense, of course: even in the days when it was much harder to open a new pub than it is now, Tim Martin, to name just one entrepreneur, was putting up his signboards on premises that had all sorts of previous uses: banks, cinemas, shops, post offices, and the rest. The same process is still going on, all around the country: the micropub movement, for example, has seen pubs open in premises that were formerly, to pick just a few examples at random, a butcher’s shop, an antiques shop, a taxi firm’s offices, a hairdresser’s, a dry cleaner’s, a pharmacy, a tattoo parlour, a kitchen showroom, a bookshop, a launderette, a bakery, a health food shop … you are, I’m sure, getting the picture. There are even a couple of micropubs opened up in premises that had been pubs originally, but which had closed 80 or 100 years ago. If the will, and the demand, is there, pubs can spring into being almost as easily as nail bars and tattoo parlours, kebab outlets and coffee shops.
And he exposes the argument that pub closures may denude areas with high property values of any licensed premises as absurd. Even where rents are sky-high, there are still bars, and various other kinds of small retail outlets, but they may simply occupy the ground floors of larger blocks rather than being substantial free-standing buildings. It may happen in inner London, but I can’t think of a single pub around here that could have been regarded as thriving, but ended up being sold off for redevelopment or conversion to alternative use.

The widespread claim that lax planning controls are leading to the closure of large numbers of perfectly viable pubs has only a tenuous grounding in reality, and this particular narrative actually hinders the efforts of those who genuinely believe in pubs and wish to improve their prospects by challenging the social and legislative constraints under which they operate.

It can’t happen here

The reason cask beer dramatically turned the tables against keg in the 1970s was not some issue of principle – it was that, quite simply, when well-kept, cask was much better than keg. I remember the old-style keg beers and they were often pretty unpleasant – gassy, burp-provoking, overchilled, lacking subtlety of flavour and often surprisingly reluctant to maintain a head.

For more than three decades, pretty much everything of interest in the British draught beer market was cask. A lot of keg continued to be sold, and indeed it enjoyed a resurgence in the mid-90s in the guise of “smooth”, but in general it was a commodity product appealing to undiscerning customers.

Even now, if you go in a typical pub the alternatives to cask aren’t very inspiring. There will be a smooth bitter, such as John Smith’s, which in my experience are uniformly bland and have an unpleasant soapy feel. Then there’s cooking lager, such as Carling, which might be refreshing on a hot day and to my mind is more drinkable than smooth, but becomes boring once you’re nearing the bottom of the glass. Guinness is not to everyone’s taste and in any case is widely thought to be a shadow of its former self. In fact, your best chance of finding something with a bit of character is likely to be an imported premium lager, but that comes at a price and may be a stronger beer than you actually want to drink.

However, the growth of “craft keg” has started to change the perception that keg beers offer nothing of interest to the discerning beer drinker. At first, it was mainly confined to strong and/or exotic beers and could be regarded as a complement to cask rather than a direct rival but, more recently, there are signs that it is spreading into the field of lower-strength and more quaffable beers.

In the comments to a previous blogpost, Cookie describes how he had a keg Shipyard Pale Ale in a pub where the cask offering didn’t seem very appealing: “I'd drink the shipyard again figuring it wasn't a gamble in a pub that doesn't have a big cask turnover, and f*** all other punters appear to be drinking the cask.”

While a good cask beer is always going to be better than any keg, “craft keg” does address two of cask’s Achilles heels – that it is inconsistent, particularly in lower turnover outlets, and that it is simply served too warm for many people’s tastes. It cannot be denied that there is a large and genuine demand for draught beers served cooler than typical cask temperature.

I’ve described myself how, in hot weather, I’ve occasionally taken the view that a pint of cooking lager might be a better option than a cask beer of the Doom Bar type in a pub where nobody else appeared to be drinking it. Sometimes I’ve had the cask and wished I hadn’t because I ended up with a pint of tepid, hazy glop. If a craft keg ale at a drinkable strength of 4.5% or less was available then that would probably be preferable to the lager, and thus the perception that cask is always the beer to go for starts to be eroded.

Cask still has a huge amount of goodwill and inertia on its side – many of its non-enthusiast drinkers have scarcely come across any craft kegs and still see beer choice in a simplistic “cask good, keg bad” way. But, as craft kegs start to penetrate mainstream pubs, like the one Cookie described, and a new generation of drinkers start to take a more eclectic view of beer choice, things could start to change. Perhaps a sign of a shift in the marketplace would be if a substantial brewery decided to bring out a range of seasonal craft beers – like Hydes’ Beer Studio series – in keg rather than cask form. In a sense Marston’s are already doing that with their Revisionist beers.

And so, it’s entirely possible that, within a few years, much of the on-trade market for interesting, characterful beer will have switched from cask to new-wave keg. I’m not saying it will happen, or that it should happen. But it could happen. And a call from CAMRA to man the barricades against the keg menace would almost certainly fall on deaf ears.

Wednesday 19 March 2014

Exceeding expectations

Well, the relatively small number of people who responded to my poll weren’t very optimistic about the prospects for any further duty concessions in the Budget, but they were proved completely wrong.

George Osborne surprised everyone with what was probably the budget in living memory most favourable to producers, retailers and consumers of alcoholic drinks. The duty escalator was scrapped for all drinks categories (as I urged in this month’s Opening Times column), but he went further than this by cutting the main rate of beer duty by a further penny a pint, and by freezing duty on spirits and “standard” cider, both of which are substantial British industries.

So I’ll certainly be raising a glass to that tonight!

Just wait for the chorus of whining and predictions of doom from the anti-drink lobby.

Sunday 16 March 2014

Niche to mainstream

The past couple of months have seen a flurry of articles in the media that suggest the “craft beer” phenomenon has finally escaped from the bubble and gained wider attention. As Pete Brown writes here, the beer market will never be the same as it was.

But he also makes the point that it’s important to distinguish between a fad and a revolution. A fad is a cultural phenomenon that enjoys a brief moment in the sun, and may even for a short time seem unstoppable, but eventually disappears scarcely leaving a trace. You don’t see many people now drinking beer from the bottle with a slice of lime in the neck. A revolution, on the other hand, permanently changes the landscape. Lager was a revolution in the British beer market; so, like it or not, was nitrokeg “smooth”. For a while, though, it can be hard to tell which is which.

There’s currently a ferment of innovation and experimentation in British beer. When mainstream supermarkets create “craft beer” sections and Spoons start selling American craft beer in cans, it’s obvious something’s up. Some of these new developments will fall by the wayside, some will endure while never enjoying more than a niche appeal, but some will be taken up by the mainstream so in a few years they will seem normal. It could even be, as I suggested in the comments, that a constant search for something new will become the new mainstream.

It’s interesting to reflect on what trends in the beer market over the past few decades have gone from niche to mainstream appeal. The original, now-derided, wave of keg ales certainly did, and so did standard lager. In the early years of CAMRA, actively seeking out unusual or well-regarded beers became commonplace in a way it never was before. Even bog-standard pubs saw it as worthwhile to proclaim that they sold “real ale”. More recently, a widespread expectation has developed that the general run of pubs, and not just specialist alehouses, will offer rotating guest beers.

It’s now commonplace to find “world lagers” like Budweiser Budvar, Peroni, Estrella Damm and Brahma on tap but, oddly, despite the country arguably being the home of lager brewing, German lagers have never gained mass-market popularity. And, while not everyone’s cup of tea, so-called fruit ciders have become pretty mainstream in the past few years.

The current craft beer scene encompasses a number of disparate trends, and it’s hard to discern what is really going to catch on, and what isn’t. Probably the most obvious is the rise of intensely hoppy beers using new world hops, which has been reflected in the introduction of more mainstream beers like Adnams’ Ghost Ship and even Old Golden Hen. But the sheer intensity of flavour of many beers in the American IPA style may prove to be a limiting factor. The heavily peated Islay malt whiskies are widely respected, but they don’t tend to be the regular choice of even well-heeled whisky drinkers.

And the widely-reported market trends of a move to weaker beers, and to a sweeter flavour profile, may end up inhibiting the break-out of craft beer and keeping many of its strands within a limited niche.

Ghost Drinker writes here about how one of his locals has now been rebranded as a “craft ale house” but you do have to wonder whether that will end up sharing the fate of Whitbread’s Tut’n’Shive alehouse concept of twenty-odd years ago.

Sunday 9 March 2014

Thief revived

Last year I posted some pictures of the Davenport Arms (aka the Thief’s Neck) at Woodford and made the comment that, while in most respects it was an excellent pub, it would benefit from removing the foliage at the front and restoring direct access to the road. Well, lo and behold, it has recently undergone a £100,000 refurbishment by Robinson’s Brewery and licensee Yvonne Hallworth, and my wish has been granted. It looks very appealing in today’s bright Spring sunshine.

Looking a gift horse in the mouth?

The J. D. Wetherspoon vouchers distributed by CAMRA to its members have proved to be a considerable source of controversy. To some they are a valuable membership benefit, while to others they involve a consumer organisation compromising its independence.

The point needs to be made that these vouchers are entirely funded by Spoons, and don’t cost CAMRA a penny. And to some extent they represent an offer that appears to be generous, but where in fact, by design, the take-up will be limited. They’re not perforated, so have to be cut up with scissors, they’re just that bit too big to comfortably fit in the average wallet, and they’re limited to three-month time slots. Given this, it’s my view that less than 10% of those issued are ever redeemed.

This was recently discussed on the CAMRA forum, so I decided to create a poll to test that proposition. Apologies to general blog readers who feel this subject is a bit parochial. The results show a clear U-curve, with the biggest vote for those who use none, closely followed by those who use all 10 each quarter. Overall, the responses suggest that about 45% of the vouchers end up being used but, given that the blog is far more likely to be read by enthusiasts I would say that figure is likely to greatly over-estimate the real-world take-up. The original poll results are here – there are also some interesting comments, including “I've never seen anyone under 50 using a Wetherspoon voucher in my local branch”.

In reality I would say that whether you use them or not mainly depends on whether Wetherspoon’s is part of your regular round. If you go there anyway, you’ll probably use them; if you don’t, you won’t. People aren’t really going to go out of their way just to save 50p on a pint. And, even if you do go to Spoons, if your usual habit is to drink halves, or if you’re taking advantage of the inclusive meal deals, for which they’re not valid, you might not use them either. I currently have six left for the January-March quarter, and am unlikely to use more than one more – and that’s not because I’ve been steering clear of pubs in general, or even deliberately avoiding Spoons.

It may not be the case in other towns, but in Stockport town centre there are plenty of other pubs that offer one or more of a wider choice, better-kept beer, better (if dearer) food, a more cosy and pub-like atmosphere and even keener prices (in the two Sam Smith’s pubs) than the local branch of Spoons.

If the vouchers weren’t time-limited, then they would effectively become like ten-bob drinking vouchers circulating amongst CAMRA members and their mates, but the fact is that they are limited, and so surplus ones end up getting binned at the end of each quarter. Probably many of the less engaged members just put the annual envelope to one side and forget about it.

While it’s not something I feel particularly strongly about, in my view the voucher scheme does to some extent compromise CAMRA’s integrity and may inhibit criticism of Spoons. Some non-Spoons pubs also accept the vouchers at face value and, to provide a bit of balance, it would be nice to see the Independent Family Brewers of Britain offer a similar scheme (although in practice that would be much more administratively complex). Now I’d certainly use all of those!

On a related note, Wetherspoon’s have recently introduced a policy that every branch will stock at least one of London Pride, Doom Bar and Adnams Broadside. Is that perhaps an acknowledgement that, for many of their customers, their cask ale range, apart from the staple Ruddles and Abbot, was often a bit obscure and offputting?

Sunday 2 March 2014

A lot of bottle

Premium Bottled Ales are in a sense the older, staider relation of craft keg beers. They’ve been around for a lot longer, and have less of a cutting-edge image and a more mature customer profile. But they share the crucial factor that, while they’re certainly not “real” in CAMRA terms, neither are they never worth drinking.

The results of my latest poll show strong support, with 45% saying they drink them regularly, and 60% saying they did so at least sometimes. In contrast, only 3% exclusively confined themselves to bottle-conditioned ales, as recommended by CAMRA, while a much greater 18% said they didn’t drink anything at home.

As I wrote here, Premium Bottled Ales are one of the fastest growing categories in the beer market, and are viewed by many of their consumers as the bottled equivalent of cask ale in the pub. Pubs serve Wainwright, Pedigree, Abbot and Directors, and so do Tesco in the beer aisle. Most of them are the counterparts of cask beers, and their drinkers often refer to them as “bottles of real ale”. More and more, it’s not a case of “I saw that in the pub, I’ll drink it in bottle” but “I’ve had that in bottle, so I’ll drink it on one of my rare visits to the pub”.

I’d say that, ultimately, this is an even bigger quandary for CAMRA than “craft keg”. Drinking is increasingly shifting to the off-trade, and the discerning ale drinker, especially in the older age groups, is increasingly drinking PBAs. To argue that, say, brewery-conditioned Thornbridge Jaipur or Hawkshead Lakeland Gold are beers unworthy of any serious consideration is no more a credible position than claiming all craft keg is worthless. CAMRA’s policy of making a shibboleth of inconsistent and often undrinkable bottle-conditioned beers comes across as ludicrous.

It’s an interesting speculation as to whether, if PBAs had been around in 1973, CAMRA would have been so dogmatic in its deification of bottle-conditioning.

Saturday 1 March 2014

Passing me by?

The original reason for creating this blog was the smoking ban in July 2007 which, as I predicted, has largely ripped the guts out of the British pub trade, especially traditional, working-class pubs. Since then, it has ventured on to various other topics relating to pubs and lifestyle freedom in general. But, while I obviously enjoy beer, I’ve never claimed to be a “beer enthusiast” as such. I’ve written here about how I am basically more interested in pubs than beer.

Clearly it’s not the case that I couldn’t care less about beer and, if you did a survey of the population of the UK, I would probably qualify in the 1000th most interested in it. But, essentially, I value the atmosphere and conviviality of pubs, and as long as I can get a decent pint of bitter – whether Robinson’s, Hyde’s, Holt’s, Sam Smith’s or whatever – I’m not really too bothered. I’m not someone who is constantly chasing after new, rare and weird beers.

I’ve been a member of CAMRA for over thirty years (most of those as a Life Member) and, despite my oft-expressed reservations, am currently a responsible official of the organisation at a local level. I am pretty much in favour of everything CAMRA campaigns for, but sometimes sceptical about what it campaigns against.

There has recently seen an astonishing upsurge of interest in beer, much of which doesn’t qualify as “real” in CAMRA terms. This is basically a Good Thing, and I welcome the way that some CAMRA shibboleths are being punctured. But it seems to be very much an urban and youth-oriented phenomenon. I don’t see much evidence of this beer revolution in the kind of pubs I frequent, and I doubt whether it’s going to permeate through to places like the Bennett’s End Inn.

So I hope you will pardon me if I take the view that this is all very interesting, but it doesn’t really affect me too much.