Saturday 26 December 2015

What’s another year?

Around this time of year, many bloggers come up with lists of “Golden Pints” which they have enjoyed during the previous twelve months. Now, as I said last year, that’s not really what this blog is about, and “the news that a new bar had opened where I could perch on an uncomfortable stool and pay £3 a third for beer that tasted like Ronseal wouldn’t exactly fill me with an urge to visit.” But here are a few of my peaks and troughs of 2015:

  • Continued Achievement – no change from last year in Sam Smith’s for pub operator and the Armoury in Stockport for individual pub. Sams’ pubs have continued to provide ultra-keen prices and great atmosphere, and they’re currently engaged on a much-needed refurb of the Swan next to the station in Holmes Chapel. The Armoury is a classic street-corner boozer which is the go-to pub for the best kept Robinsons’ beer for miles around, and managed to become runner-up as local CAMRA Pub of the Year. The Magnet is an excellent pub in many ways, but the Armoury really should have won.

  • New pubs visited – I finally managed to get to the famous Dyffryn Arms at Pontfaen in Pembrokeshire, which is more in the nature of a pilgrimage. I was served Bass from the jug by the legendary Bessie, and saw a party of American tourists totally fazed by the whole thing.

    Amongst more “normal” pubs, I was struck by the King’s Arms at Seaton Sluice in Northumberland. While it’s in a spectacular setting, the pub, though very congenial, isn’t outstanding in terms of either character or beer range. But the attention to detail and the friendliness of the welcome reflected an operation that was doing everything it could to get things right, in sharp contrast to the grudging, slapdash approach you unfortunately encounter all too often.

    Another memorable pub was Sam Smiths’ Victoria Hotel in Cleveleys, Lancashire, a mammoth, although externally rather plain, 1930s roadhouse-cum-estate pub tucked away in Blackpool’s northern suburbs. It must be one of the biggest purpose-built pubs still trading in the country. Internally it has a spectacular L-shaped lounge accessed from the corner door, a disused off-sales department, and an entirely separate vault. I overheard a classic pub conversation about the local Wetherspoon’s and pubs that showed football. You have to wonder how near full it ever gets, though.

  • Pub anecdote – I walked into a Good Beer Guide listed pub that was advertising a 10% discount on cask beer for CAMRA members but, not having my membership card on me, I wasn’t in a position to take advantage. However, the barmaid asked whether I was a member and, when I replied that I was, she let me have the discount anyway. Possibly the sight of a middle-aged bloke, wearing glasses and jumper, scanning the row of handpumps might have been a giveaway. I put the difference in the charity box. Unfortunately, I ended up with a cloudy pint and had to take it back to the bar to get it changed, which I felt slightly bad about.

  • New beer – nothing exotic, but for me it has to be Robinsons’ Wizard. It’s rare to see a brewery launch a new “ordinary bitter” as a permanent beer, and this is a very good one. Inevitably it was dismissed as dull and bland by the hop fiends, but ordinary bitter isn’t meant to take the skin off the roof of your mouth. Actually it’s a rewarding beer with a good balance of malt and hops and a surprising degree of complexity, which provides a tasty lower-strength alternative in Robinsons’ pubs. I’m told it has been extremely successful.

  • Best pub refurbishment – Hydes’ scheme at my local pub, the Nursery in Heaton Norris. I wouldn’t say this has improved it as such, beyond giving it a general smartening-up, and some of the carpet and wallpaper patterns are a touch garish. But they have respected all of this National Inventory listed pub’s original layout and stained glass, with the only structural alteration being the entirely sensible replacement of the disused off-sales counter with a ladies’ WC to serve the vault. It’s a big demonstration of faith in the future of the pub by Hydes and, with the help of a new but highly experienced manager, it has been trading very well and also selling consistently good cask beer.

  • Worst pub refurbishment – as last year, Robinsons are the guilty party, with their work at the Bull’s Head in Hale Barns. This is a big, upmarket pub with an attached lodge. Maybe twenty-five years ago it was given a smart, clean-lined, comfortable interior in conjunction with multiple operator Kalton Inns. However, it has now been transformed into a fussy, over-styled mess which is one of those places where there are plenty of seats, but nowhere you really fancy sitting. In particular, the two south-facing rooms with bay windows have had all their fixed seating stripped out and replaced in one case by a steamer trunk in place of a table. Their website describes it as “a pub full of theatre and intrigue”, but I’d say it’s more a monument to impracticality and pretension. I have to say I am becoming seriously dismayed by Robinsons’ systematic vandalism of large chunks of their estate, against which the once-derided “Robinsonisation” pales into insignificance.

  • Off-trade retailer – upmarket North-West supermarket chain Booths have opened a branch this year in the suitably upmarket suburb of Hale Barns (just round the corner from the Bull’s Head), which isn’t too far from me and somewhere I regularly pass. Following my local Tesco culling its beer range, I decided to give them a try and wasn’t disappointed. They have a far wider beer range than any of the major supermarkets, including a lot of “craft” stuff, and at only slightly higher prices. If you spend over £10 at the weekend you even get a free national newspaper. Yes, there are specialist beer shops with more obscure bottles, but they come at a price and their range of everyday beers is often limited.

  • Pub cat – to be honest, I follow more pub cats on Twitter than I encounter in the wild. It’s impressive how they manage to negotiate social media without opposable thumbs. But my favourite was a cute little dark tortie in the Bunch of Grapes in Newcastle Emlyn, Carmarthenshire, who was happy to sit in one of those boxes normally used for charity sweets, placed on top of the bar. At first, I wondered if it was a stuffed cat, but in fact she was perfectly happy to be given the occasional stroke, and to raise her head and look around. The Draught Bass was good, too.

    And the Bag o’Nails in Bristol, run by occasional blog commenter Luke Daniels, got extensive news coverage for its large feline population. Unfortunately I’ve never been there personally. Typically, the RSPCA weren’t impressed.

  • Beer book – as with last year, I’ve only really bought one, in this case The Red Lioness by Cathy Price, recording her quest to visit all the 650-odd pubs in Great Britain called the Red Lion. A noble endeavour, and it benefits from her not being a professional beer or travel writer and so giving a fresh perspective. But, ultimately, it’s a bit of a curate’s egg, including plenty of amusing and insightful anecdotes, but at the same time often coming across as a list of “first we went here, and then we went there”. I like the fact that she ended up in a pub featuring Britain’s only democratically elected village idiot. I’m planning to do a full review in the near future.

  • Beer blogging – in the early part of the year, Stonch, mentioned last year, continued to go from strength to strength, and assembled a team of contributors. Later on, one or two dropped by the wayside, and Stonch himself became fully occupied with a troubleshooting role in Manchester, but it continues to stimulate much discussion. Beer blogging itself seems to continue to wither on the vine. I’m likely to record my lowest tally of posts since 2007, which was only a half-year, and it looks as though Tandleman will do the same. I blame Twitter!

    I was also pleased to see long-time commenter Martin Taylor set up his own blog to record his travels around the country in pursuit of visiting every Good Beer Guide listed pub. This is a thoughtful, well-written blog that conveys a strong sense of place. It was also good to meet Martin on our local CAMRA branch’s annual Hillgate Stagger.

  • Unintended consequence – there was a huge amount of hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth in the twitter- and blogospheres over the news that ABInBev had bought well-regarded London craft brewery Camden Town. And I must claim some responsibility for this. A couple of weeks before, I bought a can of their India Hells Lager from Booths, and thought it was rather good, if pricey. As is well known, any beer that Mudgie enjoys can’t really be regarded as proper hardcore craft, so that must have been the signal for the vultures to swoop.

  • Best public policy – as last year, George Osborne’s decision to make a third small cut in beer duty, and indeed freeze all other alcohol duties. Combined with the economic recovery, this has made a noticeable difference to the level of trade in pubs, which must be welcomed. If the duty escalator had continued for three more years, the typical pint would probably be at least 30p dearer.

  • Most cheering news – the decisive rejection by the European Court of Justice of the Scottish government plans to implement a minimum unit price for alcohol. It’s not completely dead, but I’d be surprised if it sprang back to life, and this will also set a precedent that will affect similar proposals in Ireland. Maybe Cameron should throw down the gauntlet to Sturgeon and devolve alcohol duties to Scotland. I’d lay money they wouldn’t dare vary them, even if they had the power.

  • Tourist attractionSeaton Delaval Hall, just up the road from the King’s Arms at Seaton Sluice mentioned above. A striking, monumental house designed by Sir John Vanbrugh in the early 18th century, where the central block was gutted by fire in 1822 and remains a shell, although fully roofed. Just down the road, Tynemouth Castle and Priory are also well worth a visit, with spectacular views over the mouth of the river.

Wednesday 23 December 2015

I’m going to report you!

There are plenty of things that occasionally go on in pubs which are either illegal or in contravention of some code of practice. People are sometimes heard to mutter about this and say “something really needs to be done about it”. So I thought it would be interesting to create a poll to see which of various “pub transgressions” they would personally report to the authorities, the results of which are shown below:

I suspect the results of this have been skewed by it being circulated around some anti-smoking group. I looked at it at one point where there were 52 responses, with a lowish score for “permitting smoking indoors” and either one or zero for “non-conforming smoking shelter”. Then later the same day, the total had shot up to 97, with strong votes for both of those options. So I’d say those results can be discounted and, frankly, if anyone actually reports a pub to the local council for having a non-conforming smoking shelter, let alone someone who claims to support pubs, they should be taken out and shot.

Of the other results, perhaps understandably “allowing drug dealing” was the highest scorer, but next was “consistently serving short measures”, although I wish you luck getting your hard-pressed local trading standards department to show any interest in that. Obviously serving drunk drivers and selling black market spirits also scored strongly, but people seemed much more willing to put up with turning a blind eye to prostitution.

However, as Phil says in the comments, “Interesting question, as it combines two separate things - "do you disapprove of X?" and "would you actually report somebody allowing X?” In practice, if a pub was allowing drug-dealing and prostitution, or full of underage drinkers, most people would probably just take their custom elsewhere. For most of the other things, if they liked the pub on other counts, they would be most likely to mutter into their beer but put up with it. One pub near me used to illegally show City matches when they were on at 3pm on Saturday afternoons. Now, I’d rather they didn’t, and I would avoid it on such occasions, but I wouldn’t dream of telling Sky.

In reality, the only circumstances under which I can see people reporting any of these things to the relevant authorities are if they had a grudge against the pub in question or wanted to settle a score. In general, British people have always been suspicious of vigilantism and informing on neighbours, especially now when the State seems to want to intrude ever further into our daily lives.

Saturday 19 December 2015

Entering into the spirit of things

Over recent years, the rise of craft beer has been paralleled by a similar growth in craft spirits, with new distilleries springing up for the first time in many years, and existing ones coming out with new variations on their established products. The craft beer scene has also seen a number of companies offering the chance to try something new by sending people a “curated” selection of beers each month. I was interested to hear about a company called Flaviar – based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, of all places – providing a similar service for spirits.

They were kind enough to send me one of their initial tasting packs for review – these can be bought individually here. It came in an attractive presentation pack:

Which, once opened, revealed five elegant 45ml miniature flasks.

They were all different varieties of whisk(e)y, as it combines familiarity with an unparalleled variety, and is thus a good introduction to tasting spirits that go beyond the everyday. The selection comprised:

  • Amrut Indian Single Malt (46% ABV)
  • Koval Single Barrel Millet Whiskey (Chicago) (40% ABV)
  • Glenmorangie Quinta Ruban (46% ABV)
  • Santis Cask Strength Peated (Switzerland) (52% ABV)
  • Writer’s Tears Irish Pot Still Whiskey (40% ABV)
The pack also includes suggestions on how to organise a tasting session, and detailed notes on each of the five whiskies.

For some reason, the Indian one did not appeal to my particular tastebuds, but all the others were excellent and underlines just how much diversity there is across different styles of whisky. My favourite was the Glenmorangie, a rich and complex expression of that distillery’s characteristic Northern Highland character, and I was also very struck by the heavily peated Swiss whisky which would not have disgraced an Islay distillery.

One minor quibble is that the smooth-sided caps on the flasks may look smart but can be a little hard to unscrew.

Their key offering is their Prime service, under which you will receive a tasting pack of three different spirits each month, costing £14.99 for the first month, and then £18.99 a month. If you find one that you like, then you can order a full bottle with free shipping. The prices start at around £30, which is much the same as you would pay for a good-quality malt in the shops, but rise to well over £100. The listing also includes some very tempting-sounding drams. As well as whisky, it also covers brandy, gin, vodka, tequila and absinthe. Gift packs are also available for various periods of time, starting at £37.99 for two months.

The whole thing sounds an excellent idea for anyone who is interested in trying a much wider variety of spirits without risking a lot of money on full-size bottles that may turn out to be disappointing. It certainly doesn’t come cheap but, as with many other things, quality is worth paying for.

And no, before you ask, I didn’t drink them all in one session!

Tuesday 8 December 2015

‘Tis the season to be unimaginative

The run-up to Christmas invariably sees brewers bringing out a rash of special seasonal beers. Most of these seem to follow a common blueprint:
  1. The name must be a bad pun on “Elf”, “Sleigh”, “Santa”, “Rudolph” etc.
  2. Names relating to “Santa’s Sack” or “Jingle Balls” are best avoided unless you want to fall foul of Pumpclip Parade
  3. The beer should be a touch darker than a normal bitter, but definitely not opaque
  4. The strength should be in a range from 4.0% to 4.3% as drinkers must not be encouraged to over-indulge
  5. Any hop character should be dialled down to a minimum, although a tiny hint of cinnamon or nutmeg may be allowed
The result is a selection of distinctly samey and underwhelming beers, and it’s even worse when you go into a pub and find that, to enter into the Christmas spirit, they have four of them on the bar and nothing else.

Praise must go to Shepherd Neame for their splendid – and pun-free – Christmas Ale, which, at 7.0% ABV, doesn’t pussyfoot around, especially given that it comes in a 500ml bottle. (The cask version, as so often, is a rather more humdrum 5.0%)

I’ve also got a bottle of BrewDog Santa Paws “Christmas Scotch Ale” to sample over the festive period, which sounds intriguing, although as usual only a 330ml.

Sunday 6 December 2015

Catastrophe north of the Border

And no, it’s not the closure of the Forth Bridge, it’s the effect on the licensed trade of last year’s reduction of the drink-drive limit, which has recently seen its first anniversary. I won’t say “celebrated” as it’s not something remotely worthy of celebration. The Morning Advertiser site doesn’t allow you to cut and paste, but this summary of the effects makes grim reading.

As I’ve said before, feel free to support this in England and Wales. But don’t pretend it won’t have a devastating effect on the pub trade. The supposed “pub campaigners” who favour this are in the same category as the useful idiots who didn’t think the smoking ban would have a negative impact on pubs. If you actually want to support pubs you need to accept them, warts and all.

Saturday 5 December 2015

The great divide

I recently reported how my local Tesco Extra had taken the axe to its beer offer, removing several lines that I regularly bought. So I thought “well, I’ll have to look elsewhere”, and an obvious choice was the Hale Barns branch of upmarket North-West supermarket chain Booths, which opened earlier this year. All praise to Booths for having the finest range of beers of any supermarket, and at prices that maybe are a bit higher than Tesco, but still well below specialist beer off-licences. My only slight complaint is that it would nice to add a Münchner Helles to their German selection.

There’s a particularly stark divide between the Premium Bottled Ales in 500ml bottles, and the Craft Beers in 330ml bottles. They’re even on different sides of the beer fixture, and possibly some shoppers only look at one and ignore the other. It’s always been the case that there was a cut-off point somewhere, beyond which it became more appropriate to put beers into the smaller bottles. You wouldn’t really want a 500ml bottle of Old Tom, although you can get one of Lees’ 6.5% ABV Moonraker. This is something I discussed here, although it was clear from the results that there was a distinct lack of consensus.

However, it now seems that putting your beer into 330ml bottles, regardless of strength, has become a defining symbol of being “craft”, and sets you apart from all the boring brown beers that old men drink. It seems to be something, like much else of “craft”, that has been borrowed from US practice, where 355ml bottles and cans are the norm. I spotted this a couple of years ago, and since then it has become even more marked. Harviestoun, who have been established as a micro brewery for many years, have recently switched their Bitter & Twisted and Schiehallion, respectively 4.2% and 4.8%, to the smaller size. Apparently Thornbridge, who are very “craft”, are going to do the same next year. A benefit to the brewers may be that they get to sell 330ml bottles for about the same price as the 500ml ones.

I’ve been drinking beer for nearly forty years and, while I may sometimes drink halves when driving or on a pub crawl, I always feel that a pint is the proper size glass for most beers in the pub. Likewise, if I’m settling down at home to watch the latest Inspector Lewis mystery or a documentary about Gallipoli, the best equivalent is a 500ml bottle poured into a brim-measure pint glass (which is about as much beer as you get in some pub pints anyway). This isn’t because I’m a pisshead, it’s because it’s what I’m used to and feels natural. It brings to mind this splendid rant by Mark Dexter about “silly child-size bottles”. Also, while I’ve accumulated a wide selection of beer glasses over the years, apart from a couple of cherished Belgian ones, I don’t really have any that are suitable for 330ml. Either you pour it into a half-pint and then top it up, which isn’t much use if it’s bottle-conditioned, or it’s lost in a pint glass.

This increasingly rigid demarcation comes across as unhelpful and divisive. Brewers should not feel obliged to declare themselves as being in one particular camp, and drinkers may be losing out by not even considering something from the “other side”. I’ve had a few of the “craft” offerings, but generally only to see what all the fuss about particular beers was about. I also know that I don’t really much like intensely hoppy US-style IPAs, so I tend to avoid those. I recently enjoyed a can of Camden India Hells, which claims to be a lager/IPA hybrid, but the Munich Oktoberfest beers of similar strength are always sold in 500ml bottles. And it would be nice to get some proper big cans of the normal Camden Hells and BrewDog’s This.Is.Lager.

As an aside, the same doesn’t really apply to pubs, as you have the option of draught pints, and bottled beers in pubs tend to be the stronger specials where the smaller bottle may be appropriate. But I think the last bottled or canned beer I drank in a pub was one of the Sixpoint cans in Wetherspoons when they were on special offer.

Saturday 28 November 2015

Down with boring old farts!

I recently spotted an interesting post from Jules Gray, a beer blogger I hadn’t come across before, entitled Craft Beer as a Subculture. This seemed to me very insightful, drawing a comparison with the punk and indie music subcultures.

The similarities are very clear – the enthusiasm for something perceived as special, the feeling of a tight-knit community, the narrow urban focus, the fanatical enthusiasm for certain artists/brewers, the constant quest for the obscure, the adoption of specific clothing and hairstyles, and the sense of betrayal when a favourite signs with a major label/sells out to a major brewer. There is also the negative side of dismissing those who don’t conform to your particular taste as ignorant and conventional.

Manchester is driving and engaging this subcultural group; something the city has always been good at. Subcultures have values and norms that are distinct from those held by the majority. Style can be an important part (for example clothing, hairstyles) but not essential as a united ideological approach can be the binding force. Not everyone can pull off a ‘Super Gueuze’ or ‘Brettanomyces’ t-shirt but you don’t need to in order to be part of this group; just as long as you’ve drunk you’re way through enough songbooks to hold an informed opinion of your own.

Within this culture are subgroups – Beer Geeks, Traders, Tickers, Beer Evangelists, Beer Bloggers, Hop Monsters, Beer Hunters, to name a few I’d recognise. Am I missing a few obvious ones?

An affinity seems to be the urge to record, develop content, engage in conversation and debate via blogs, social media platforms, online community forums and beer focused apps. If you’re a brewery doing this you are involved, engaging and part of the beer culture. Interesting to see Indy Man’s use of a webpage to host this year’s beer list, mirroring the technological information share the community has become attuned to. Though I would have preferred a printed program to write notes all over. The physical nature of writing etches beers and memories into my soul.

Social media’s accessibility via smartphones and its prevalence due to the handy/pocket nature of those devices fuels the discovery and questing of new breweries.Teeny nano breweries like – Beak Brewery, are hosted, as an example of the festival introducing drinkers to up and coming new talent.

The music parallel is very interesting. Back in 1977, the punk movement dismissed the previous generation of rock music – Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Yes – as “boring old farts”, despite the fact that many of its leading lights were still under 30, or only just above. Ian Anderson was born in 1947, Ozzy Osbourne and Robert Plant in 1948.

That’s very like the crafty dismissal of “boring brown bitter”, and the oft-heard claim that, going back twenty years, there was scarcely any decent beer available in Britain. All the family brewers, and the longer-established micros like Butcombe and Black Sheep, are just “boring old farts”.

I was 17 when the tidal wave of punk rock broke at the end of 1976. Now, the likes of Cookie may suggest I sprang from my mother’s womb already middle-aged, and I freely admit that I wasn’t the coolest kid in school. But I was a committed rock fan, with an extensive collection of vinyl albums including the likes of Barclay James Harvest and Van der Graaf Generator. I concluded at the time that punk was basically a waste of space, and little has happened sicne to change my mind, although many bands and artists have emerged from the “New Wave” scene and embraced the mainstream. I also always thought that punk, rather like craft beer, was very much an “art school” phenomenon. I see no craft equivalent to the NWOBHM or house music.

It’s worth remembering that, in August 1977, at the height of the punk explosion, Going for the One by Yes was the Number One album on the UK charts for two weeks. And I still gain great pleasure from listening to Tull and Zeppelin.

Friday 27 November 2015

Better never than late?

I recently looked up the Facebook page of a pub that I’ve liked in the past, but haven’t visited recently. I noticed that the page had been updated just five times over the past four months. That’s far better than some, but even so it indicates a very half-hearted approach to social media, something that is unfortunately common to many pubs. By coincidence, this is a subject that the Morning Advertiser has raised this week in a piece entitled Analogue licensees unfit for digital age.

If you’re a wet-led pub mainly used by regulars, with a static beer range, then having an internet presence is unlikely to make much difference. But if you want to attract new customers to try your beer and food, or enjoy live music and special events, then in today’s world it becomes increasingly important.

The biggest single failing is not keeping your sites and accounts up to date. Arguably having blatantly wrong information is worse than having none at all. I get the impression that many pubs pay outside developers to create smart-looking websites for them, but are then left with no means of updating them without going back to the developer. The ability for the pub staff to change basic information such as hours, beer lists and menus is vital.

It’s important to concentrate on getting the basics right before trying anything too ambitious. A decent pub website should include:

  • Opening hours
  • Clear directions on how to get there, including by public transport if available
  • Information about disabled access and whether children and dogs are welcome
  • Contact details – phone number, e-mail address and Facebook and Twitter accounts if applicable
  • Regular beer range
  • Information about guest beers (although in a pub with high turnover a few highlights should be sufficient: a comprehensive list isn’t needed unless you are a ticker magnet)
  • Standard menu – including prices
  • Daily specials, or the latest menu if it changes daily
  • Straightforward photos of the interior and exterior of the pub
Too often, a few moody shots of food dishes or backs of chairs are provided which give no impression of what the pub is like. Also, pictures of a crowd of gurning regulars holding up pint glasses at some presentation aren’t going to appeal to the casual customer. An attractive design is important, but it shouldn’t be too fussy for its own good and navigation should be clear. It helps not to give the impression that the site was designed in 1996, though.

Above all, the information given must be accurate and up to date. Martin Taylor has complained several times of being misled by inaccurate opening hours on his travels, and if you’ve decided you fancy a particular dish on a menu, you may be disappointed if it’s no longer there when you arrive. If you go to the website on the 27th of November, and you see a headline message about a steak night that was held on the 14th of October, then you will really be unimpressed.

It can be amazing how long some pub websites linger on in the afterlife. Back in 2010, I reported how the website for the Old Bull’s Head in Little Hucklow, Derbyshire, was still there, and sounding quite appealing, even though the pub had then been closed for five years. At least it has now disappeared.

Facebook and Twitter are easier for the non-expert to pick up than creating a website, although I would say initially Twitter can be a touch confusing and counter-intuitive. If possible, it’s best to entrust pub accounts to a member of staff who is already an active user of these platforms and so has an understanding of how they work and of interaction with other users. If someone says “oh no, it’s Thursday, got to update Facebook again”, they’re unlikely to make the most of it.

Try to keep the account regularly updated with information about guest beers, new products, menu specials and live music sessions. A few pictures of staff members are good, and pub animals such as cats and dogs will always grab people’s attention. On the other hand, pictures of drunk customers are a complete no-no.

Avoid overdoing it, though, as the same thing posted every day for a week is very offputting. Regurgitating corporate promotions will just give the impression you don’t have a mind of your own and, while adding the occasional quirky observation about current events adds a touch of originality, even if you genuinely believe Iain Duncan Smith is literally murdering the poor, it’s doubtful whether all your customers will agree.

If you use Facebook and Twitter, make sure you interact with customers and respond quickly and politely to genuine questions and comments. It’s no good just checking the account twice a week. If someone makes a complaint about poor food or service in the Dog & Duck, and there’s no reply, it will quickly spread across the internet.

And, as said at the start, do not allow your web presence to wither on the vine. It’s better not done at all than stuck in a timewarp. The Great Western in Wolverhampton is one of my all-time favourite pubs, but its Twitter account is rather forlorn.

Sunday 22 November 2015

The top and bottom of it

For many years, pubs have had items on their menus that are described as “pies”, but which in fact are stews or casseroles with a pastry lid. A growing number of people have been concerned that these dishes do not really qualify as pies. Indeed, a petition to Parliament was created on the subject, which only fell because of the general election. Obviously this was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it’s clearly something that people have strong feelings about.

Make wrongly describing a casserole with a pastry lid as a pie a criminal offence.

For too long customers in pubs and restaurants have ordered what is described on the menu as a pie only to be served with casserole in a pot covered by a puff pastry lid. This is not a pie and is also curiously difficult to consume. A pie is defined by the OED as "A baked dish of fruit, or meat and vegetables, typically with a top and base of pastry." This petition urges the implementation of criminal sanctions upon the owners of food outlets that serve items described as pies without a pastry base. Exemptions will apply for Shepherds, Cottage and Fish Pies.

A week or so ago, there was an article on the Morning Advertiser website celebrating the rise of pie sales in pubs, on which I commented that the illustration wasn’t actually a pie. This reignited the debate on Twitter, with Boak & Bailey pointing out that many of Mrs Beeton’s pie recipes did not specify a bottom layer of pastry. Those layers of fowl, ham, forcemeat and hard-boiled eggs sound really appetising.

So, in conjunction with Mark Wadsworth, I decided to create a poll on the subject. With an impressive 146 votes, the results show just over three-quarters in favour of the proposition that a pie needs a pastry base as well as a top, but on the other hand a significant minority taking the opposite view.

Personally, I’m not really bothered, as I don’t like “gravy pies” anyway, although I love a proper solid pork pie, preferably with jelly. But it obviously grinds many other people’s gears.

The original poll results can be seen here, which also shows some interesting comments.

Thursday 19 November 2015

History and myth

It’s become part of the folklore of CAMRA that, at the time it was formed, real ale had virtually disappeared in the UK, and was just kept going by a handful of small, fuddy-duddy breweries. Through its campaigning efforts, CAMRA succeeded in turning this situation around, resulting in a dramatic increase over a few years of both real ale production and availability.

However, this is basically a myth that has somehow ended up being the received wisdom. To be fair, I wouldn't say that Roger Protz or any other beer writers have ever claimed it to be true, but nevertheless it is now generally believed. The key thing that CAMRA has done is to stimulate an unprecedented boom in interest in beer, the number of breweries and the variety of styles produced. But, because of the decline of pubs and the switch to lager, there's a lot less real ale being brewed now than in 1973, even though it's in a higher proportion of pubs. There are probably very few years between 1973 and 2015 that have seen an absolute increase in the volume of real ale brewed, although 2014 was one of them.

While not belittling CAMRA's efforts in the 1970s, it was to some extent pushing at an open door. There was already a reaction against giant, faceless corporations and bland, homogenous products towards something more small-scale and individual, and some kind of return to popularity of "traditional" beer was always likely. Most successful campaigns of any kind are tapping in to a public sentiment that already exists.

Plus, once they looked into it more deeply, the Founding Four discovered that, across the country, there was a lot more real ale being sold than they thought from their experience in London, albeit much of it in the Midlands and North and dispensed from electric pumps. Real ale wasn't in any imminent danger of disappearing and many of the breweries producing it were well-run, forward-looking companies who had reached the conclusion that that way of brewing, distributing and serving their beer made business sense.

“What?” you may well ask. “There was really more real ale in 1973 than there is now?”

Yes, absolutely, and by a huge margin. The thing people forget is the rise of lager - 10% of the on-trade beer market in 1973, 70% now.

In 1973, the British brewing industry produced 34.7 million bulk barrels. Assume 10% of that is off-trade, and 10% lager, it leaves 27.8 million for on-trade ale. At a very rough guess, about 30% of that was real ale, with maybe another 10% being beer that started off as real ale but ended up being served under top pressure. So the amount of real ale served as such was 8.3 million barrels. If anything, I feel that may be an understatement.

Compare that with 2014, when total on-trade beer sales were 13.5 million barrels, of which real ale accounted for about 2.2 million barrels. So it's only around a quarter of the 1973 figure.

Looking at the brewery section of the 1977 Good Beer Guide, which for most brewers won't represent a huge change since 1973, we find:

  • Banks's - 800 tied houses, the vast majority of which sell unpressurised beer
  • Bass Worthington - thousands of pubs across the country sell Bass Worthington products, often in true draught form
  • Boddingtons - All 270 tied houses sell real ale
  • Home - 380 out of 400 tied houses sell real ale
  • Robinsons - 317 out of 318 tied houses serve the beer without pressure
  • Shepherd Neame - 210 of the 220 tied house sell real ale
  • Tetley - real ale is available in many of the 2,200 tied houses on both sides of the Pennines
plus plenty of others.

The big beer desert had been London and parts of the Home Counties dominated by the Big Six. Across the country, availability was far more patchy than today, but plenty of areas were teeming with it. Many of those Banks’s and Home pubs would have been big, busy, working-class boozers with the diaphragms in the pumps constantly shuttling to and fro dispensing vast quantities of mild and bitter. You just don’t see pubs like that any more.

I grew up in Greenall Whitley Land, but south of the Ship Canal the majority of their Cheshire pubs sold real ale, plus all the Wem ones. And at university in Birmingham in the late 70s, most of the M&B pubs had real ale, albeit usually dispensed from freeflow electric pumps that were hard to tell from keg dispensers. You wouldn't really go out of your way to drink Brew XI and M&B Mild, though.

(This is a slightly expanded version of comments I made on Paul Bailey’s blog on his post Revitalising the Campaign for the Revitalisation of Ale. The whole thing is well worth reading)

Sunday 15 November 2015

Chairs, chairs, everywhere...

...but not a place to sit. I think it was on Martin Taylor’s blog that he made a comment that he had gone into a pub and, despite a plethora of seating, couldn’t find anywhere he felt comfortable actually sitting. This very much resonated with me. In the old days, most pubs had extensive bench seating, so effectively you could sit anywhere and it was much the same. My ideal perch has always been with my back to the window and a clear view of the bar, although that hasn’t always been achieved.

But, more recently, this has been undermined, with priority being given to individual tables and loose chairs more typical of a restaurant. So, often there is a confusing mix of high-level posing tables, raised benches, large round tables, seating booths and bijou dining tables for two. I go in and feel that there’s nowhere I really fancy sitting.

A prime example of this is Robinsons’ recent refurbishment of the Bull’s Head in Hale Barns. The two south-facing, bay-windowed rooms used to be great places to sit and have a drink, but now all the fixed seating has been ripped out and replaced with vintage-style armchairs and steamer trunks in place of tables. “This is a pub full of theatre and intrigue.” Err, no. The phrase “Get in the Sea!” comes to mind.

Earlier this year I also visited a large local pub that had recently received a thorough refurbishment. A previous line of bench seating had been stripped out, and I found it difficult to choose anywhere amongst the mixture of different, edgy seating that I would feel at home.

As so often, trendy marketing bullshit from people who scarcely use pubs trumps experience and common sense. If you make drinkers feel uncomfortable, they won’t come.

Thursday 12 November 2015

Money for old ropey pubs

The High Grove is a Hydes pub in the middle of a housing estate in Gatley, one of Stockport’s satellite villages. Apparently Hydes want to sell it off for residential development, which has resulted in a successful campaign by the locals to have it registered as an Asset of Community Value.

However, I would say it is unlikely either that another pub operator will come in to bid for it, or that the locals will be able to raise enough money to buy it. Hydes have made an effort with it over the years, and I’ve been in a few times and found it pleasant enough. But there’s a general problem that pubs in the middle of residential areas, with no passing trade, just seem to be dead ducks. The widespread belief that such pubs have a guaranteed trade is what I call the “chimneypots fallacy”.

A further factor here is that the approach roads in both directions have been given a particularly savage set of road humps. That will deter all but the most determined out-of-area person from visiting, whereas Holts’ Griffin a mile away on a major road junction has no such constraints. It has to be recognised that, in suburban areas, a high proportion of pub customers arrive by car, and with few exceptions are not breaking the law by doing so.

I’ve long since learned that I have a very poor crystal ball when it comes to predicting the future of individual pubs. But, unless Hydes change their minds, I’d be amazed if the High Grove was still trading in a year’s time. ACVs give pubs a breathing space, but they are no guarantee of survival, and in some cases may simply lead to planning blight. A micropub or box bar might succeed in that location, but a big pub with all the associated overheads is going to struggle.

It would be ironic if, across the country, community groups ended up paying pubcos large sums of money to buy “threatened” pubs that in a few years’ time proved not to be viable after all. It can work for some pubs (and I speak as a shareholder in a community-owned pub), but it won’t work for all, especially the bigger ones.

Wednesday 11 November 2015

Getting down wiv da kidz

Over the years, brewers have perceived many threats to the viability of their business, often associated with younger customers shunning pubs for more attractive alternatives. There have been the talkies in the 1930s, the rock’n’roll coffee bars in the 1950s, the 1960s counter-culture and the 1990s rave movement..

At times, they’ve tried to fight back, as with the late 60s “trendy” renamings and refurbishments, and the mid-80s vogue for “fun pubs”. However, these things have never stood the test of time, illustrating the point that if you go along with one short-term fad, it won’t be long before the next one comes along. I always associate the fun pub with rolled-up jacket sleeves and the Escort XR3i.

More recently, it has been widely observed that there has been a general decline in alcohol consumption, most notably amongst the younger age group, and that the growth of social media has reduced their interest in socialising in pubs. Clearly this is a concern to pub operators, and Marston’s have been conducting a Pub of the Future project to work out how they can respond to it.

Some of the responses aren’t exactly surprising:

  • “the restrictive nature of pubs puts me off”
  • “the traditional food served doesn’t appeal to me”
  • “light and airy is definitely the way forward” (I can see where this is heading - Ed)
  • “the addition of relevant technology into the pub will entice and engage a younger customer”
However, a major note of caution must be sounded over this. There is always a risk that deliberately setting out to appeal to younger customers will alienate older age groups, while coming across as patronising to the target market. And asking people “what would you like to see in pubs?” is very different from “what would actually make you go to the pub more often?” and is often more virtue-signalling than genuine market research.

Appealing to the young is a real challenge for pub operators, but history suggests that a conscious attempt to attract them is doomed to failure. It is better to see what actually works on the ground and try to replicate that.

It doesn’t necessarily follow that pubs have to be modern to attract younger customers. In my student days in Birmingham, the Great Stone was the most olde-worlde pub in Northfield, but had the youngest clientele. And recently in Durham I was struck by the sight of groups of students participating a a pub quiz in Sam Smith’s resolutely traditional Colpitts Hotel. They even might find it a novelty to visit a pub that doesn’t have wi-fi.

Does any “modern” pub interior from the 1960s still survive? But plenty do that were already old-fashioned then.

Monday 9 November 2015

The end of civilisation is nigh

Burger King have recently announced that they are going to apply for an alcohol licence for four of their outlets on an experimental basis. Apparently all they are going to sell is plastic bottles of “American Beer”, which I assume will be British-brewed Bud or Coors Light, not Lagunitas IPA.

Normally my reaction to this would have been “so what?” but I was struck by the ludicrously hyperbolic reactions from people in Hull on hearing the news. Apparently it will threaten the city’s hard-pressed pubs even more, it will make Burger King an unsuitable place to take children, and the country doesn’t need yet another place where adults can get drunk in front of children.

This ignores the fact the adults seem happy to take their children into pubs, where they might actually encounter real drunk people, and that pretty much every table-service fast food restaurant such as Nando’s and Pizza Hut already serves alcoholic drinks. Plus Burger King and McDonalds have served alcohol in their outlets on the Continent for decades without the world falling about their ears.

And is anyone going to drink enough in a Burger King to get drunk in any meaningful sense anyway? I’d also expect that the that the basic Beer and Burger deal in Spoons will still be cheaper.

Sunday 8 November 2015

Loving the lout

In a recent blogpost, Tandleman described a trip round Lees Brewery, in which the tour guide said "Of course, you won't approve of lager." His response was “He seemed surprised when I advised him that I'm a huge fan of lager and of Lees Original and that I regularly drink lager home and abroad.” He goes on to state that “most of us certainly drink lager to some extent.” Now, I certainly do, but I think he may be underestimating the dislike of lager amongst CAMRA stalwarts. I can think of several who will never touch the stuff in the UK, and if they go on holiday to somewhere hot will report back that “the only beer available was crap”.

Apparently over 90% of all beer drunk in the world is pale lager, and it probably accounts for a considerably higher proportion of dull, bland, industrial beer. But that shouldn’t blind beer enthusiasts to the recognition that it is one of the world’s classic beer styles and, when done well, is up there amongst the greats. Possibly the existence of Fosters and Sol leads people to subsconsciously devalue Pilsner Urquell, Jever and Augustiner Helles. It’s a bit like downgrading Harveys Sussex Best because John Smith’s Extra Smooth is also a “bitter”.

So I created a poll on whether blog readers drank lager. There was actually quite a negative response, with 42% overall saying either “Very rarely” or “Never”. So the anti-lager view seems to be more prevalent than Tandleman believes. But, as he says, “Well made lager is an absolute delight and those that sniff at lager are missing out in a big way.” And I’ll drink a Helles or a Pilsner to that.

Saturday 7 November 2015

Psst, wanna buy a few spoons?

A rough Wetherspoon's pub in a
poor, run-down neighbourhood

Back in July, I reported that Wetherspoons were planning to sell twenty of their pubs. Most of them gave the impression of either being in unsuitable locations, or close to other, busier branches, so as a whole it looked like a sensible bit of rationalisation. However, they’ve now come back with a further thirty-four planned disposals. Some of these fit into the same category, but others are apparently successful operations with no other Spoons nearby.

Locally, they include two current Good Beer Guide entries, the Milson Rhodes in Didsbury and the Bollin Fee in Wilmslow, neither of which is close to another one, and both in prosperous, busy locations. Yes, the Milson Rhodes is within a mile of the Gateway, but I don’t think by and large they compete for the same trade. On the other hand, some of them such as the Red Lion in Heanor have a poor reputation and don’t seem to have worked out. They also include the premises at 43-51 King Street, Stirling, where they fought a long licensing battle against the objections of Greene King, but have not so far got round to actually opening as a pub.

Is this a sign that the company is now struggling financially and needing to sell off some more of the family silver? Or are they cashing in some of their more valuable freeholds at the top of the market?

Tuesday 3 November 2015

I remember when this were all craft

A small, artisanal craft brewery
Last month, Reuben Gray of The Tale of the Ale complained about lazy journalists making a connection between the Irish craft beer sector and “hipsters”. A very fair point, although perhaps they are just doing a read-across from the English craft beer scene, which in parts, especially in London, is distinctly hipsterish. This fails to recognise that Irish craft beer actually has much more in common with the USA.

Within the post, he also makes this important point:

Before the industrial revolution, all beer was craft beer. It was produced locally using local ingredients and sold to local people. After industrialisation and the amalgamation of most breweries in to large brewing conglomerates, craft beer persisted in a small regional way in some countries but was wiped out entirely in most. Ireland was one of those countries. By the 1980s, only the big three remained and it wasn't until the late 90s that we saw our first independent breweries start to open again.

Since big beer only started a few hundred years ago, but humans have been brewing beer for at least 5000 years and probably longer, which brewing process do you think is actually the fad? The 5000+ year old small scale, small batch, independent brewing or the 200 year old industrial scale brewing? Getting back to the infographic: Compressing the earth’s history in to 46 hours shows commercial beer is 1 minute old and craft beer is a few hours.

Actually, brewing was one of the earliest processes to be industrialised, as it doesn’t really need complex machinery or much mechanical power. You simply need to hoist malt and pump water up to the top, and then gravity will do the rest. The Great London Beer Flood of 1814 clearly shows that by then beer was being produced on a truly industrial scale.

Over the years, more and more beer was produced in big industrial plants, but small-scale brewing did linger on. The period from the end of the Second World War to 1970 saw a huge attrition of both home-brew pubs and small, independent commercial brewers, but there were still a fair number around at the birth of CAMRA. By any standards, the four surviving home-brew pubs and small operations like Paine’s, Donnington and Batham’s would surely qualify as “craft”.

The normal sense of the word “craft” in British English is reflected in the terms “handcrafted” and “craftsman”. It implies small-scale production, individual skill, an absence of automation and a high level of hands-on human involvement. It will probably use mostly locally-produced raw materials, with a minimum of intermediate processing. It doesn’t have to be rooted in tradition, although it may well be. It’s E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful in practice. It is artisanal in the proper sense of the word, although I hesitate to describe it as such, given that the term is generally used nowadays to describe “a job now done by a middle-class person that used to be done by a working-class person”.

But we now have a situation where “craft beer” is used to mean something entirely different – brewers who are knowing and self-aware, and who brew beer that is deliberately iconoclastic and innovative in terms of style, strength and ingredients. BrewDog has grown into a substantial industrial brewery, but it is still widely regarded as the acme of “craft”, whereas long-established micro-breweries like Cotleigh and Banks & Taylor, and the surviving small family breweries, are dismissed as old hat, boring and nothing to do with craft. And hops flown half-way around the world are seen as essential ingredients.

The term “craft beer” was only brought into general use because many new breweries in the US had become far too big to credibly call themselves “microbreweries”. Applied to the very different brewery scene here, it’s strange how its meaning has come to be pretty much entirely turned on its head. Maybe it would be more honest if it was called something else entirely, like “new-wave beer”.

Friday 30 October 2015

Britain, one pub at a time

One of the most prolific commenters on this blog has been Martin Taylor of Cambridge, who has seemed to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of British pubs and, wherever I’ve been, would always comment on his own experiences. He enjoys new-wave bars and craft beers, but he’s always shown a strong appreciation of traditional British beer styles and old-fashioned pubs. While not a dyed-in-the-wool opponent, he recognises the damage the smoking ban has done to wet-led pubs.

He’s now started his own blog called retiredmartin, which details his generally pub-focused travels around the country. He describes it as “Retired NHS, on permanent walk (15 miles a day) around UK and the world to record the great bits. Focus on pubs and live music.” He also says that, each year, he aims to get to as many of the new entries in the Good Beer Guide as he can. You have to admire his commitment!

The blog provides an honest assessment of the beer quality in each pub he visits, and also conveys a “sense of place” about both the pubs and their location, something that is missing in many other blogs which concentrate on the beer to the exclusion of all else. I haven’t met him so far, but hopefully that can be sorted out, although maybe we should steer clear of politics. Anyway, put him in your blog list and enjoy...

His criteria for a visit to the North-West are very interesting:

  • Travelodge for under £30
  • Short train/metro into Manchester
  • Access to new bit of UK to explore
  • At least 1 new Beer Guide pub in walking distance
  • Holts, Robinsons or Sam Smiths pub nearby
  • Live music – any quality
  • Hills of any size
  • Good Chinese takeaway
  • Likelihood southerners couldn’t place it on the map

Sunday 25 October 2015

Standing out from the crowd

I don’t usually go in for pub reviews on here, but I am going to make an exception to underline a point about the Good Beer Guide. It’s often claimed that the GBG has been rendered obsolete by the proliferation of online pub databases. However, a major problem with these is that they just offer an indiscriminate list, and it’s up to you to work out which pubs are actually worth a visit. The great value of the GBG – and publications such as the Good Pub Guide – is that someone else has done the work for you to come up with a selection of pubs that they recommend. It won’t necessarily accord with your own view, but you sort of learn to read between the lines, and the GBG will certainly take you to many excellent pubs that otherwise you might not have found. This is not an argument in favour of retaining a printed book, as the principle of selectiveness applies equally to apps and websites.

In the past, I’ve made the point is that the GBG isn’t aimed at hardcore beer obsessives, but at people who enjoy a drop of real ale and want to find decent pubs when away from home, in particular nice places to eat when on holiday. I’ve recently spent a few days in the North-East, where the GBG took me to the King’s Arms at Seaton Sluice. If I search WhatPub for Tynemouth, which is where I had been, it comes up as #95 out of 118 pubs, so it’s unlikely I would have found it. But a quick look at the map in the GBG indicated that there were pub(s) in Seaton Sluice, a few miles up the coast, and flicking the page led me to the King’s Arms. It’s described as follows:

Traditional pub dating from the 1700s, sitting majestically next to the man-made harbour, constructed by the famous Delaval family.The pub is set back from the road, with extensive views of the beautiful beach at Seaton Sluice. It has an excellent reputation for good food using local ingredients (booking is advised). There are five handpulls dispensing a range of nationally sourced ales. Live bands play on Sunday evening.
While often dismissed as an uncompromisingly industrial area, the North-East actually has a surprisingly scenic coast. The King’s Arms is a substantial, four-square pub situated on a headland overlooking the small harbour at Seaton Sluice, with a magnificent view to the north towards Blyth. It’s essentially a food-led pub, but certainly isn’t somewhere you’d feel uncomfortable just having a drink. The L-shaped interior comprises a congenial bar area along the front of the pub, with extensive bench seating, and a more contemporary dining area to the rear with views over the coast. There are no TVs or piped music.

There’s a wide-ranging food menu of fairly standard pub grub, stretching from sandwiches to steaks, at pretty reasonable prices. A welcome feature is offering smaller portions for many dishes, which must appeal to pensioners and others who are overfaced by big meals. It’s a Star Pubs & Bars leasehold, which may somewhat restrict the available beer range. On my visit it was Greene King Abbot Ale, Ruddles County, Bombardier Burning Gold and Caledonian Deuchars IPA and Autumn Red. Not the most enterprising range in the world, and it would be nice to see at least one local beer, but my pint of Burning Gold was fine.

It’s by no means an ideal pub – the prominent, officious notice banning vaping particularly jarred. But it’s obvious that the family running it have a huge amount of commitment and attention to detail. For example, the menu folder includes a list of local food suppliers they use, a potted history of their involvement with the pub, and an update on recent developments. I was also served by a notably friendly and polite barmaid. And I probably wouldn’t have found it at all without the Good Beer Guide.

Tuesday 13 October 2015

English as she is spoke

Traditionalists such as myself are often heard to complain about the changing meaning of English words, which usually seems to result in a loss of clarity and precision in the language. However, any student of linguistics has to recognise that language does evolve over time, and that dictionaries have to reflect how people actually use words, not how someone else thinks they should.

The concept of “real ale” was invented by CAMRA, and before too long they succeeded in having it defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as

Real Ale: a name for draught (or bottled) beer brewed from traditional ingredients, matured by secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed, and served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide.
However, in recent years I’ve increasingly begun to hear other people, especially work colleagues, say “I’ve got a few of those real ales in from ASDA.” Clearly, they’re referring to brewery-conditioned Premium Bottled Ales such as Pedigree and Abbot Ale, which aren’t real ales by the official definition. However, they see them as the bottle equivalent of real ales that you might get in the pub, and so there’s some sense in making the link.

My local branch of Morrisons has recently revamped its beer aisle, and there’s a prominent sign above the Premium Bottled Ales section saying “Real Ales”. Probably one or two pedants will write to them pointing out their error, but in reality that’s how customers define that beer category. In twenty years’ time, might we be seeing “real ale” redefined as any British top-fermented beer in a traditional style?

Next to “Real Ales” is “Craft Beers”, which seems to encompass a wide variety of British, American, Belgian and Swedish beers, but all in 330ml or 355ml bottles or cans, whereas the PBAs are in 500ml bottles. The definition of “craft beer” has been endlessly wrangled over in the beer blogosphere, but in the actual marketplace it seems to be resolving itself.

In the off-trade, it’s beers in smaller bottles that may be stronger and more diverse and experimental in style than the boring old brown PBAs in their big bottles. Probably more expensive too. And, in the on-trade draught beer market, “craft beer” increasingly means “craft keg”. You can argue until you’re blue in the face that, by any rational standard, virtually all microbrewed real ale is craft beer, but the market is saying otherwise.

Long gone are the days when a small, traditional, quirky, long-established, undeniably “artisanal” brewery such as Bathams or Hook Norton could be described as “craft”. Although eventually that moment of discovery is bound to happen when trendsetters say “Wow, these guys have been doing it for 150 years!”

Wednesday 7 October 2015

Turning the Page

Last year, Mike Benner left his post as Chief Executive of CAMRA to move across to SIBA. Mike was (and is) a very able and articulate chap and a compelling speaker. To replace him, CAMRA appointed Tim Page, a former Army officer who had extensive experience in other not-for-profit organisations, but wasn’t a beer industry veteran. He’s a rather avuncular-looking, middle-aged chap, and many people’s expectations were that he’d be someone who would keep things ticking over without unduly rocking the boat.

However, he seems to be made of sterner stuff, and has launched a “Revitalisation Project” which aims to take a root-and-branch review of CAMRA’s strategies, structures and organisation. A few years ago, there was a “Fit for Purpose Review” following a conference motion by two Greater Manchester members, but unfortunately this ended up just looking at internal processes and did not address the wider issues.

CAMRA now has a record number of members, but is assailed by doubts as to what its purpose is in the current beer world, and concerns about the ageing profile of active members, and lack of engagement of younger ones. I’ve been a member for 34 years, and a life member for most of that time, so obviously it’s something I’m concerned about, even if at times I have been critical of some of its stances.

So here are my thoughts as to what Tim’s review should address:

  • Produce a clear definition of what CAMRA actually stands for in 2015. “An organisation that campaigns for quality beer, consumer rights, pubgoing and the preservation of our pub heritage, with particular reference to the unique British tradition of cask-conditioning.” Doesn’t trip off the tongue, but that’s basically what it’s about.

  • Lance the boil of the cask vs keg dichotomy. There isn’t really a Manichean divide between good and bad beer, and most members recognise this. While accepting the primacy of cask-conditioned draught beer, CAMRA spokespeople and publications should be permitted to recognise merit in “non-real” beers. The motion against banning “anti-campaigns” was a start, but doesn’t go anywhere near far enough.

  • Scrap the dogmatic championing of bottle-conditioned beers. When this policy was originated, bottle-conditioned beers were a tiny, irrelevant market sector. But drawing a direct parallel with cask vs keg is completely inappropriate. Yes, for the best, high-quality, strong bottled beers, bottle-conditioning is preferable, but for ordinary quaffing beers it just introduces uncertainty. This policy is a significant deterrent to the development of a thriving British bottled beer sector.

  • Return to putting more emphasis on pubs and pub preservation. This was a key plank of the original CAMRA, but seems to have been left behind in the current craze for new breweries and bars. But the National Inventory is one of CAMRA’s greatest achievements, and will endure when all the railway arch brewers have gone to the great mash tun in the sky. Create a spin-off organisation of “Friends of Historic Pubs”, possibly in conjunction with the National Trust. Also set up a register of the “next 5000” which still retain a broadly traditional layout and character.

  • But, on the other hand, accept that greedy pubcos and lax planning controls are not major causes of pub decline – it’s basically a matter of demand. This is a false narrative that allows people to hide behind a smokescreen, and in reality is damaging to the cause of pubs. Market Rent Option won’t remotely save the pub trade, and things like ACVs, while they may be useful in a local context, will make scarcely any difference to the overall picture.

  • Mount a much stronger challenge to the anti-drink lobby. This has been agreed at Conference in the past, but little seems to have happened. Going forward, this is far more of a threat than the big brewers and pubcos. But a problem is that many CAMRA members, despite campaigning for a “fun” product, are instinctively puritanical. The people who advocate banning McDonalds and taxing sugar are really not on your side. Unfortunately this may involve making common cause with campaigners who have been vocal opponents of the s*****g b*n.

  • Place a much higher emphasis on beer quality in pubs. This may seem obvious, but in recent years CAMRA seems to have been far keener to cheer on the expansion of handpump numbers in pubs and the ever-burgeoning number of breweries. Quality and quantity aren’t mutually exclusive, but if you have to choose one, it must always be quality. Too many pubs are serving up tired beer because they are stocking too many. There also seem to be more novice licensees who don’t seem to understand the basics. Maybe there needs to be a big roll-out of basic beer tasting courses amongst regular NBSS scorers.

  • Sort out CAMRA’s relationship with cider. I’m not suggesting CAMRA should turn its back on cider, but APPLE often seem to be ploughing their own furrow with no reference to CAMRA’s wider aims. Cider is an entirely different drink from beer, and the definition of “real cider” is far more picky and obscurantist than that for “real beer”. And real cider never seems to have gained much traction in pubs. Every new family dining pub has three or four handpumps for cask beer, but none for real cider.

  • Take a serious review of membership activation, going back to basic principles. While CAMRA has a record membership, there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in active local members, and many branches report a dwindling number of ageing activists. The way many branches operate still seems to be rooted in the 1970s, so could things be improved by a reshaping? Or do younger members simply not like any kind of organised events? Given its current membership level, CAMRA isn’t going to disappear any day soon, but at the end of the day it may need to look at becoming primarily a national campaigning organisation supported by local branches where they exist, as opposed to something that is essentially based on its branch structure.
There’s a huge amount of enthusiasm out there for beer and pubs, and the challenge for CAMRA is to harness that without unnecessarily alienating people. It also has to be recognised that different people will have different priorities within the overall organisation.

Tuesday 6 October 2015

I went in seeking clarity

The debate about clarity and murkiness in beer has recently burst into flames again in the response to a post by Quinno on Stonch’s blog entitled #Murkshaming. While I firmly come down on one side of the debate, I can’t thinking that to a large extent it’s arguing at cross purposes. One point that has been made more than once is that defence of clear beer is very much a CAMRA position, and that craft brewers producing murky beer is at least partly an exercise in cocking a snook at the CAMRA orthodoxy.

In the early days, CAMRA members were often characterised as humourless types who went into pubs, ordered halves and then held them up to the light. I’m sure there was a bit of truth in that, but in reality I think CAMRA tried to take a less absolutist approach to beer clarity. It has to be remembered that, in the Fifties and early Sixties, there were still plenty of small, rather moribund family breweries with poor quality control procedures who seemed to find it difficult to produce consistently (or indeed ever) clear beer. The rise of keg beer was to some extent a reaction to this.

My recollection is that CAMRA tried to promote a more nuanced view of beer clarity, pointing out that just because a beer was crystal clear, it didn’t mean it was any good, and that there were circumstances such as thunderstorms and “layering” which could turn clear beer cloudy. These last two always seemed to me rather like old wives’ tales, but they underline the point that CAMRA didn’t dismiss any kind of hazy beer out of hand, and I’ve heard members say that a bit of haze might add more character.

However, as the “real ale revolution” started taking it into pubs where it hadn’t been served for fifteen years, we increasingly saw incompetent licensees trying to hide behind real ale’s rustic image. The cry of “it’s real ale, it’s meant to be like that” was heard up and down the land, and its image was tarnished. Many drinkers reached the conclusion of once bitten, twice shy, and understandably started to view anything short of crystal with suspicion.

I would say, though, that, both officially and individually, CAMRA has never taken a dogmatic stance that all cloudy beer is inherently bad, and has been sympathetic to the idea that unfined beer might result in more depth of flavour, so long as drinkers are informed what to expect. Some other members seem to be more tolerant than I am of moderate cloudiness. But it is not unrealistic to point out that the vast majority of cask beer brewed and sold in the UK is intended to be served clear, that drinkers have a reasonable expectation that it will be clear, and if it isn’t, it’s almost always an indication of a flaw in brewing or cellaring.

(acknowledgements to Tandleman for the photo)

Friday 2 October 2015

Every little less never helps

Four years ago, I wrote about how the ever-increasing beer choice in supermarkets was cutting into the market of independent off-licences. At the time, it was a valid point but, as often happens, subsequent events have gone in the opposite direction. The craft beer sector has expanded into ever more obscure sectors, most of which the supermarkets will never touch with a bargepole, even if they stock Punk IPA and Hardknott Azimuth. And there has been a big growth in independent beer-focused off-licences, often in city-centre locations, which appeal to high-spending young hipsters professionals who probably never get in to Tesco Extra.

My local Stockport branch of that particular chain was notable for its impressively wide beer and cider selection, something that twenty years ago would not have disgraced a specialist off-licence. However times have changed and, in response to the challenge from discounters like Aldi and Lidl, the major supermarkets have been looking at streamlining their operations and rationalising their ranges. Apparently 20% of all products stocked sell either one item a week, or none.

So Tesco have decided to take the axe to their beer range. One of the most high-profile casualties has been Carlsberg, as Stonch reports here, but their more specialist ranges have been drastically reduced too. Imported German and Czech lagers, Belgian beers, premium ciders, British craft beers, all have suffered. The Premium Bottled Ale range doesn’t seem to have been too badly affected, and is always subject to churn anyway, but one of my favourites, the bottle-conditioned Shepherd Neame 1698, has disappeared. Some of the shelf space seems to have been reallocated to PBA multipacks.

Regular blog readers may have noticed that I have a fondness for authentic imported German lagers. Tesco used to sell three – Bitburger, Krombacher and Warsteiner – which were usually included in multibuy deals. Not maybe Augustiner Helles or Jever Pilsner, but all very decent, palatable beers. Now all gone, along with similar beers like Baltika 7 and Pilsner Urquell. Surely a range rationalisation should have reduced the three to one, rather than scrapping the category entirely.

Obviously supermarkets have an interest in selling whatever they can sell, whether beer or bread. But the beer category has wider implications, as it is one of the factors that people will use to choose one supermarket above another (rather like cask drinkers choosing which pub to go to) and also an area where supermarkets can reclaim market share from independents. They will never remotely match the range of the specialists, but there’s a substantial proportion of customers who might think if they can get Punk IPA in Tesco for £1.50, there’s no point in making an effort to trek to the independent to pay £2.80 for Beavertown Gamma Ray.

If customers think “oh well, I’ll manage with what’s left”, then Tesco have won. But if they think “I’ll now have to go somewhere else for that”, it may seriously undermine their business. The key USP of the conventional big supermarkets is that they offer a much wider ranger than the discounters. If they cease to do that, what’s the point? Tesco have also recently annoyed me with several delistings of non-beer products.

Tuesday 29 September 2015

The man who...

Earlier this year, I was in one of Sam Smith’s Cheshire pubs, which can fairly be said to attract a wide range of customers from regular boozers to National Trust visitors. A group of fairly ordinary-looking people came in, not in any way rough or chavvy, settled themselves down, and one was heard to say “Now this is more like it, isn’t it?” I didn’t catch every word of their conversation, but the gist was that they had poked their noses through the door of a pub up the road – a rather smart dining pub owned by one of the local family brewers – and felt they had been looked upon like something the cat dragged in.

It seems to be a growing phenomenon that pubs are deliberately pitching their appeal at a point so upmarket that many potential customers in the C1C2 social group will not remotely feel at home. Yes, there have always been snobby pubs, but in the past many of them still retained a public bar, and my recollection is that thirty years ago there wasn’t anything like the obvious stratification of pub menus that we have now. Also, much more smart dining was done in formal restaurants, not pubs.

Obviously this has its spiritual home in the archetypal “country dining pub”, but it has also spread into historic towns and the more prosperous suburbs of major cities. As we know, class remains a sensitive subject in this country, and has infinite subtle gradations. Now, I am unequivocally a middle-class person, but, along with Neil Kinnock and Joe Biden, I fall into the category of “the first Mudgie in a thousand generations to go to university”, so I have a foot in both camps. While I can manage it without difficulty, I have to admit feeling somewhat uneasy if I venture into one of these airy, pastel-shaded eateries with their separate tables arranged in an artfully irregular pattern. I can’t help thinking I’d be far happier somewhere with dark wood and wall benches.

Clearly this formula is making money for many pub operators, but it is opening up an unprecedented divide in the pub trade. Back in the 1950s, people would have laughed if someone had suggested that in 2015 many pubs would be too posh for a huge number of potential customers. In the past, if on holiday, or out on a day trip, or breaking a journey, you could rely on most food-serving pubs to offer some some reasonable, not too expensive pub grub. But now, unless there’s a Spoons in the vicinity, you can see many people looking at cafés or casual dining chains rather than some pub trying to charge you 8 for a fish finger sandwich on a brioche bun.

The worst thing is the greeter who asks you when you walk through the door “and will you be dining with us today, Sir?” There’s nothing so calculated to make the common folk feel ill at ease. And should you reply that you’re just after a drink, you will be made to feel like the subject of an H. M. Bateman cartoon entitled “The man who walked into a dining pub and asked for a pint of bitter”. Or maybe the character in the Fast Show played by Mark Williams who looks at the menu in a high-class restaurant and asks “So which are the turkey Kievs?” then, after a painful silence, says “I’ll get me coat”.

Edit: although the above was prompted by a particular overheard conversation, and essentially relates to food-serving pubs, possibly much the same divide is growing between craft beer bars and traditional boozers. I would doubt whether many of the customers of the George & Dragon and Heaton Hops, which are across the road from each other in Heaton Chapel, would seriously consider going to the other one.