Saturday 24 May 2014

Mine’s a pint

A few months ago, I wrote a post about the history of electric real ale dispense. In this I mentioned that some pubs in Sheffield used to have metered pumps that dispensed a full pint rather than the usual half. This is something I have often heard mentioned but never saw with my own eyes.

With a few amendments, the blogpost appeared as an article in the May issue of the local CAMRA magazine Opening Times. In response to this, Ray Balawajder sent the editor a scan of a page from a 1977 Sheffield Pub Guide showing a metered pump of that precise kind, albeit in a Tetley’s pub, the Rutland Arms, rather than a Stone’s or Ward’s as I might have thought. The picture of the pump is shown on the right and the scanned page can be seen here. Ray says:

I visited quite a few Ward's and Stones' pubs in Sheffield in the late 70s and can't recall ever coming across a one pint meter - which doesn't mean that those company's pubs never used them. I did, though, find one in a Tetley pub - the Rutland Arms on Brown Street, just down from the station – in 1978. This was at the end of a boozy day out and a whole pint was just what we didn't want at that point. I'm told that we shared a pint and glass of lemonade.
I’m not really familiar with Sheffield so can’t comment on how those pubs compare today. The lack of choice is very noticeable – only four different beers on the whole page, and no pub with more than one cask beer available. I’m sure today there would be dozens. On the other hand, back in 1977 there would be much more cask beer being consumed in total, and in most of the pubs probably a lot more customers and a more varied clientele. The pub with “an interesting display of teapots” is very much a sign of a vanished world.

Thursday 22 May 2014

Decision day

The poll on voting intentions that I put up a couple of weeks ago ended up being rather over-enthusiastically shared by others on Twitter and so the results are, er, somewhat unrepresentative. Make of that what you will. At least no option was left with zero votes!

Wednesday 21 May 2014

Valued customers

I reported recently on the launch of the Pound Pub chain – which in fact is selling a pint for £1.50. However, as I quoted in the comments, first impressions as quoted on the Wetherspoon’s Yahoo Group, were not good:

"Had to go through Atherton on Saturday, so I popped into the Pound Pub to see what it was like – and the place is AWFUL!

"The economies they have made to keep the prices down obviously include not spending any money at all on refurbishment – the place nicks a lick of paint, some polish and new furniture at the very least. Another economy appears to not bother signposting the toilets – the gents turned out to be through three doors, all of which were completely unmarked!

"As for the beers, well since funding doesn’t seem to stretch to pump clips, you have to guess what is available from the shape of the dispenser!! There were 4 handpumps, three of which were out of use, and which had a crudely hand-written note “Wells & Young 4.3%, £2.20 per pint”. Theakstons was advertised (outside the pub), but that turned out to be keg mild.

"To get away quickly I asked for a half of Fosters – but was served a pint!

"One thing the budget does stretch to is satellite TV which was showing the absolutely crucial match of Spurs v West Ham. The place was reasonably full, but hardly anyone was watching.

"I still think the name is great, and the concept is good, but they will have to do a lot better than this if they want to make a success of it!"

Cheapness isn’t a virtue in itself if other aspects of the offer are poor. There’s a big difference between no-frills and grotty. However, as I have said before, over the years the pub trade has collectively shot itself in the foot by continually raising prices by just a little more than the rate of inflation. Recently, though, Wetherspoon’s and, to a more limited extent, Sam Smith’s have shown that there is a demand for an obvious “value proposition” in the market.

In any town, Spoons will have at least a scattering of customers when other pubs are empty. The fact that standard draught beer and cider are generally at least 50p a pint less than the local competition must have a part to play in that. Likewise, in the right location, a Sam’s pub will be a magnet for older male customers. The Boar’s Head on Stockport Market Place remains busy and bustling despite there being four other closed pubs and bars within 100 yards.

In the days when Holt’s were famous for their bargain prices and no-frills boozers (including the customers) it was said that you could open a Holt’s pub virtually anywhere and that characteristic Holt’s clientele would magically appear. They are now doing their best to take themselves upmarket, of course, and the traditional Holt’s ambiance is fast becoming a thing of the past. However, it underlines the fact that low prices may tempt customers out of the woodwork who otherwise might not go to the pub at all.

Sam Smith’s business plan (if they have one) does not seem to include acquiring others’ cast-off pubs, although there are plenty of locations where I would expect a classic Sam’s pub to do well – the centre of Hazel Grove being a good local example. But you do wonder whether there’s a gap in the market for something in between Sam’s and Spoons which would be on a more intimate scale than Spoons and would be suited to locations where the standard Spoons format would be too big and the demand for food perhaps rather limited.

If ALDI and Lidl can do it to the major supermarkets, some ambitious new entrant could surely do it to the major pub companies. But, as with the discount supermarkets, it would be important to maintain a classless image and avoid giving the impression of somewhere only the lower classes would visit, which is a failing of many current pubs that make a point of cheap prices. Spoons achieve that and, while some Sam’s pubs are dog-rough, the company as a whole doesn’t come across in that way.

Tuesday 20 May 2014

Buckfast goes craft

Well, not exactly, but it is to be made available in the currently fashionable canned format. A 250 ml can of the 15% ABV tonic wine will retail for approximately £2.90.

The distributors’ spokesman said this was promoting responsible drinking by making it available in a smaller package but, given that the bottles are resealable while the cans aren’t, you can’t help thinking he’s being a little disingenuous. Knocking back a single can, containing 3.75 alcohol units, will give the ideal boost to the start of a ned’s big night out.

It’s interesting to note, though, that at that price it works out at 77p per unit, well above any suggested minimum price. Buckie may be many things, but dirt cheap it isn’t. There’s more alcohol in a 440 ml can of Tennent’s Super which you would easily be able to get for at least a quid less.

Saturday 17 May 2014

Catch the buzz

It has been widely observed that the pub trade has held up much better on the traditional weekend evening busy sessions than during the rest of the week. If you only went to a few popular local pubs on Friday and Saturday nights you might wonder what all the fuss about pub decline was about.

But it is at those other times, lunchtimes and early doors in the evening, that pub life has often been at its most interesting and vibrant. There was a mix of customers, visiting the pub for a variety of reasons, coming and going throughout the session.

There were the determined topers, there from opening time to sit at the bar, the regular drinkers, just in for a couple of pints and a chat, guys from local factories and workshops playing pool and throwing a few arrows, regular diners from nearby offices, shoppers wanting a bite to eat, people from solicitors or estate agents doing a bit of business over a pint, even the occasional tourist.

One of the best expressions of this kind of atmosphere was always in market towns where all these various purposes came together. I particularly remember having some lunch in the Vaults overlooking the market place in Uppingham, Rutland (pictured) about ten years ago which really seemed to hit the spot.

Some may accuse me of looking at the past through rose-tinted spectacles, and I freely admit that there have always been dull, empty and unwelcoming pubs. But that distinctive lunchtime and early doors pub buzz was a real phenomenon across many thousands of pubs, and sadly is much diminished now. You still sometimes come across it, but it is so rare that it is worth remarking on. I go in some pubs that once at lunchtimes were at least nicely ticking over, but are now so deserted as to make the occasional customer feel embarrassed.

Where pubs are still busy, so often it is a monoculture of diners, football fans or beer enthusiasts rather than “all human life is here”. And, in towns, this kind of mixed-use pubgoing is now all too often diluted in the echoing, character-free vastness of the local Wetherspoon outlet.

Thursday 15 May 2014

Pushing tin

Here’s a picture of the former Adswood Hotel in Stockport, which was recently closed by Robinson’s brewery and was “tinned up” only yesterday. The second picture is a screen grab from Google StreetView showing it as it was in 2012. It was the starting point of one of the regular CAMRA pub crawls and in the past has been used for CAMRA branch meetings. As you can see, it’s a sizeable pub with an attractive cobbled forecourt and it also has a surprisingly large beer garden at the rear.

Although it’s in the middle of a large area of mainly terraced housing with no other pubs nearby I’d be very surprised if it ever reopened as a pub. If you’re interested, I’m sure Robinson’s will be happy to talk to you – they won’t be applying a restrictive covenant. Don’t all rush at once, now.

This was one of the three at-risk pubs within a mile of the town centre I referred to in this post from last year.

Sunday 11 May 2014

Tough on pubs, tough on the causes of pubs

Following on from my piece about Labour’s disgusting proposals for lifestyle bullying, I have to mention this brilliant article by Brendan O’Neill: Labour has an Orwellian mission to control what the working classes put in their stomachs. Brendan stands alongside Rob Lyons and Chris Snowdon as one of our most high-profile defenders of lifestyle freedom.

This paragraph is especially telling:

Labourite parties emerged a hundred-odd years ago to represent the interests and ideas of working people. These parties were built on a conviction that "ordinary people" were also political players, were sussed, intelligent, autonomous beings whose worldview and needs deserved a political outlet. Now, in an eye-swivelling turnaround, Labour views the little people, not as political creatures worthy of representation, but as corruptible creatures in need of protection – from adverts, from alcohol, from chips, from chocolate.
Labour originated from the working class and regarded them as people of worth and integrity whose voice was marginalised by a class-based society. Now, though, it seems to view them with utter contempt as people who can’t be trusted to make sensible decisions as to how they run their lives. You can also see this attitude, for example, in their pensions policy. It’s not about empowering the working class, it’s about controlling them. If you respect the working class, you respect their choices.

It’s also worth mentioning this opinion piece by UKIP Deputy Leader Paul Nuttall which appeared in the Midweek Sport, of all places: Labour reckons you are too thick to make choices.

There’s currently a poll in the sidebar asking which party you will vote for in the forthcoming Euro elections. The interim results are very telling. If you have any concern for the future prospects of pubs, or for people’s right to consume alcohol, you will have to swallow a very large and bitter pill to cast your vote for the Labour Party. I don’t think many of you will be in any doubt about where my vote will be going.

Saturday 10 May 2014

Soup action

Earlier this year, Wetherspoon’s introduced a range of three canned American craft beers from the Sixpoint Brewery. The initial pricing was £2.89 per can (or £2.50 for two) which I thought was a bit offputting. But, on my most recent visit, the price had been cut to £1.99, so I thought I would give one a go.

Perhaps perversely, I went for the Sweet Action which, according to various reviews I’ve read, is the least impressive of the three. However, I wanted to try something different, whereas the Crisp and Bengali Tiger are both in recognisable styles. Spoons provide you with a nice stemmed tulip-shape glass to drink it out of.

I was taken aback, though, to find it was not just hazy, but totally opaque. You really don’t expect that from a canned beer. It tasted OK, to be honest, in a characteristic American “hoppy but with good malt underpinning” way, although perhaps a bit muddy. But maybe it would be a good idea to let customers know that the beer was, say, “naturally hazy”. There are in-depth reviews of all three here – I thought the Sweet Action was more hoppy and less creamy than the reviewer. Perhaps I should complain that I was never sent a three-pack for review.

Next time I’m in Spoons I may try the other two. From reading web reviews the Crisp should be crystal clear while the Bengali Tiger might have a slight protein haze. They all come across, though, as the kind of thing you would try once but probably wouldn’t make a regular tipple. You also have to wonder whether the price cut means they aren’t selling well. Might we see them appearing on the shelves of Home Bargains?

Wednesday 7 May 2014

Apportioning blame

The Grocer reports that the Portman Group are planning to introduce portion control for alcohol packages, preventing retailers from selling cans of beer or cider containing more than four units of alcohol, the recommended daily limit for a man, or resealable plastic bottles containing more than 15 units.

On its own, this is hardly the end of the world as, after all, there’s already plenty of legislation covering the measures in which drinks can be sold in both the on- and off-trade. If the maximum size is limited, you can always just buy two. Some years ago, confectionery companies were dissuaded from selling giant-size chocolate bars, so responded by just including two smaller bars of the same total size in a pack.

However, once again it’s a case of targeting beer and cider, when plenty of wine is sold in non-resealable bottles containing well over 4 units, and a standard bottle of spirits would prove a lethal dose for many people if all consumed at once. You can easily buy a litre bottle of own-brand sherry at 17% ABV for around £7, which is a similar price and alcohol quantity to a four-pack of Special Brew.

It also sets a disturbing precedent in that the recommendations of a private trade association are likely to be adopted by the government and built into licensing conditions. This could be regarded as restraint of trade favouring the established big companies over small producers and new entrants to the market. And it could easily have unintended consequences for strong Belgian beers which are often sold in 750ml bottles, and for farmhouse cidermakers, neither of which can be regarded as the main culprits in encouraging problem drinking.

Tuesday 6 May 2014

Who will stand up to the lifestyle bullies?

Last weekend’s Mail on Sunday had a major front-page splash warning of Labour’s “Nanny State” plans to crack down yet further on smoking, alcohol and “unhealthy” food. I heard Shadow Business Secretary Chukka Umunna, who is supposedly one of its opponents, interviewed about this on the radio. While he pointed out that it was only a consultation document and the proposals are not currently official Labour policy, he didn’t give any impression of questioning the general direction of travel.

There has always been a dichotomy in Labour between those representing the party’s working-class roots, and the middle-class element that takes the view that the man in Whitehall (or the Town Hall) knows best. At present, the latter seem to be on top, and the leaked manifesto looks very much like a sustained assault on working-class lifestyles. Considering what the last Labour government did to pubs, the statement that they want to use a mechanism such as minimum pricing to stop the shift of alcohol sales from pubs to supermarkets comes across as breathtaking hypocrisy.

But, as Simon Clark laments, if you want to stand up for lifestyle freedom the other parties don’t offer you much choice either, as they seem to have been infected by the same paternalist virus. The Tory ranks include Philip Davies, who is probably the strongest defender of individual freedom in the House of Commons, but also the minimum pricing cheerleader Sarah Wollaston. The Tories have always been stronger on economic than personal liberty and the Parliamentary party contains few MPs who seem to take much interest in lifestyle issues. Even if they do speak out, it’s usually on the grounds that it will cost businesses trade rather than as a matter of principle.

The Liberal Democrats, despite their name, contain some of the biggest smoking ban and minimum pricing enthusiasts, although there are some honourable exceptions such as John Hemming. And it must be remembered that in the 19th century the Liberal Party championed the anti-drink movement. While Nigel Farage is often seen with a pint and a fag, UKIP is something of an uneasy alliance between classical liberals and right-wing populists and the latter seem to be in the ascendancy at present. The party contains plenty of members whose instincts are much less libertarian than their leader’s.

Sadly, while the principle of economic liberty seems to have become more or less generally accepted, the idea of liberty in terms of how you live your life as an individual is becoming increasingly eroded as the authorities seek to dictate to you – for your own good, of course. The great Victorian philosopher John Stuart Mill famously said “All errors which a man is likely to commit against advice are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him for his good”, but you’ll find few present-day politicians willing to stand up and make a staunch defence of that principle. So all you can do really is plug away at each individual campaign in the hope a few victories can be won against the oncoming tide, accepting that no politician is going to be your salvation.

And disappointingly few people seem to appreciate that liberty is indivisible, and that if you want to defend your right to do the things you enjoy, then you need to stand up for other people’s rights to do what they enjoy, even if you have no interest in those things or indeed find them distasteful. All too often, unpopular minority activities are picked off first, but then the campaign is extended once the principle is established. You might think it’s only tramp juice that will be affected by alcohol crackdowns, but before too long you’ll find yourself paying through the nose for 2.8% pisswater.

“First, they came for the smokers...”, as the paraphrase goes. But, in the British context, the pistol shooters came before them.

Monday 5 May 2014

Touch wood it might be OK

Manchester brewery Joseph Holt were once legendary for their low beer prices and lively, no-frills boozers. However, like most other pub-owners, they have felt the chill winds of change and have increasingly been converting their pubs to a food-led model that leaves little vestige of their former character, or their former value for money.

Now, they have gone one step further and entered into a joint venture with the people who created the Cloverleaf Pub Company – eventually taken over by Greene King – to redevelop some of their existing sites, and some new ones, into “family dining pubs”. This is to be called Touchwood Restaurants. One of the pubs involved is the Cheadle Hulme, next to the station in the suburban village of the same name, which going back a few decades was a notoriously rough pub called the Junction reputed to be favoured by the local BNP. How times change.

Clearly, as I have reported before, this seems to be the way the pub trade is going outside major town and city centres, so Holt’s can’t really be blamed for doing something that makes commercial sense. They have put the unspoilt Royal Oak in Eccles up for sale, and only the other day I was in one of their more traditional pubs, which was once pretty busy throughout most of its opening hours. No major football match on, and the place was virtually deserted.

Sunday 4 May 2014

One man's meat

The questions of harassment and pub customers being made to feel uncomfortable that I referred to in my previous post raise a wider issue. In recent years there seems to have been a growing tendency to believe that people have a right not to be offended, and that they can decide for themselves what is and isn’t offensive, something that if taken to its logical conclusion is likely to be extremely corrosive of free speech and to reduce all social discourse to the bland and anodyne. The potential consequences for pubs are all too obvious. Even now, you very often hear pubs in general criticised for supposedly being unwelcoming to particular classes of customer.

In my early drinking days, it was always accepted that different pubs had their own individual type of clientele, and there were some that it would be best to avoid because you wouldn’t fit in. Many were unrepentantly working class, some were distinctly snobby, some were favoured by young people, others by pensioners, some were gay pubs and didn’t like straights. It was just a fact of life. Sometimes you might even cautiously venture on to “enemy territory” to sample a rare beer. But if you didn’t like it, you went somewhere else that was more congenial.

It has also always been the case that pubs have been rumbustious, slightly anarchic places where an element of misrule applies and the normal strictures of respectable behaviour are loosened. They are never going to be tabernacles of political correctness, and if you take offence at the occasional off-colour remark that is your problem, not the pub’s. It makes you come across as a pathetic wilting violet. “I went in this rough pub, and it was full of rough men saying rough things!”

This crusade all too often comes across as a movement to make pubs safe for Guardian readers whereas, in the main, they are much more Sun reader kind of places. Many of the complainers simply seem to have a revulsion towards the English working class. Basically, they don’t really like pubs very much and want to see them stripped of their distinctive character and turned into something else.

It cuts both ways, too. All too often, the people who make a big play of how tolerant and inclusive they are usually turn out to have their own out-groups whom they regard with contempt and are all too willing to insult – smokers for a start. And, if he misses the obvious cues and dares to venture over the threshold, just imagine the reaction in the BrewDog bar to the old bloke who goes in and asks for a pint of bitter. He will be made to feel like something the cat has dragged in. He’s unlikely to find a comfy seat either.

Nobody is forced to go in a pub, and not all pubs will suit everyone. Get over yourselves and learn to live with it.

Saturday 3 May 2014

Save the wallaby!

Pubs differ from most other leisure venues in that they are places where people specifically gather to socialise with each other. In general, I reckon they’re pretty tolerant places, but inevitably, especially with the addition of alcohol, sometimes people end up rubbing each other up the wrong way.

The aim of the latest poll was to find out how often blog readers had been directly targeted in pubs either by harassment or mockery. It’s more than just the unwelcome attentions of the pub bore, but rather when there is an obvious element of malice or ridicule. The results suggest that this does happen, but isn’t really all that widespread. As I said in the previous post, I recall maybe two or three occasions in my late teens and twenties when I was singled out, but it hasn’t happened for many years despite venturing into plenty of strange pubs.

There is a long continuum between a bit of gentle joshing and outright bullying, but it has to be said that, if nobody ever said anything to another customer in a pub that they might possibly take amiss, then nobody would ever say very much and pubs would be very dull places. It does raise the question, though, of whether bar staff should be expected to intervene in interactions between customers unless they’ve actually reached the stage of shouting or physical violence. To my mind, the answer is “not really”. If you’re in a situation that you feel uncomfortable with, the best option will generally be simply to leave. It also has to be said that the clientele of pubs and their behaviour toward each other only reflect wider society. You can’t point the finger of blame at pubs for failing to enforce standards of propriety that nowhere else does.

An obvious example of this phenomenon is women in pubs being the subject of unwanted attention, which has been discussed at length in the comments on the previous thread. Often this falls more into the category of straightforward bullying rather than anything that represents a meaningful sexual approach – I’m not saying one is any less bad than the other, but the two are different. But it spreads far wider, with anyone who doesn’t conform to a “norm” becoming a potential target – and that can include the itinerant beer geek.

Although in retrospect humorous, one example I recall was when the CAMRA posse approached a pub on a Friday night pub crawl, in full “best foot forward, casketeers!” mode, and some wag called out “save the f*****g wallaby!” In a group, that can be laughed off, but if directed at a solitary individual it could come across as intimidating.

Price of Lions

A couple of years ago I reported (perhaps slightly flippantly) on the quest of Cathy Price from Preston to visit all of the pubs in the country bearing the name of Red Lion. She has recently sent me an update on her progress:
Here is an update on my journey all over Britain. I am now on Red Lion number 433 and just past the 3 year anniversary. I have under 200 more to go and I am aiming to get them done as near to my 4th year anniversary as possible which is 09/04/2015. I will end in my very first one in Hawkshead where there will be big celebrations.

This is turning out to be an amazing quest taking me to hundreds of Towns and Villages I would never have been to for any other reason not to mention the characters I meet along the way. In July I will be visiting Guernsey, I have 22 to do in Kent, lots more around London. I have been to my most Northern and most Southern, all Devon and Cornwall were visited in 2012 in a Campervan. I have been educated on lots of historical facts about Britain and travelled tens of thousands of miles with only one speed ticket, no punctures and just one note about my bad parking!!

The 500th will be later this year then there is serious countdown.

All credit to her. The journey must give a fascinating insight into a cross-section of British pub life –and British society in general. I’ll certainly raise a glass to her when she’s completed her mission.

You can follow Cathy on Twitter at @RedLion_Quest, or like her Facebook page Cathys-Crazy-Red-Lion-Pub-Crawl

Thursday 1 May 2014

Steady as she goes

No real surprises in the latest British Beer Barometer figures from the BBPA. In the year to the end of March 2014, overall beer sales fell by 0.4% - the equal smallest figure since 2006 – split between a 2.9% increase in the off-trade and a 3.3% fall in the on-trade. On-trade beer sales have fallen by 37% over the past ten years and 19% over five years.

In the last two quarters of 2013, more beer was sold in the off-trade than the on, suggesting that the “tipping point” between the two was nigh, but the usual surplus of on- over off- in the first quarter of 2014 means that on an annualised basis the on-trade still accounts for 50.7% of the total. With the general fall in alcohol consumption, the off-trade has also declined over the past ten years, albeit by much less than the on-trade.