Friday 27 February 2015

Killed by red tape

In this blogpost, Christopher Snowdon publishes the text of a speech he gave to the Future Pubs conference. In it, he mounts a trenchant attack on the view that increased market regulation and planning controls will benefit the pub trade and keep more pubs open – something I have often argued on here in the past. He concludes:

If you believe, against all evidence and experience, that more government is the solution, then you will continue to get more government and you will get it good and hard.
Go and read the whole thing and see what you think. I made the point on Twitter that it’s interesting how the anti-pub anti-pubco lobby never seem to be up to challenging his arguments. So if you have a comment to make, please make it there rather than here.

Thursday 26 February 2015

Take 5

Last year, I expressed concern that Holt’s were planning to convert the Cheadle Hulme pub in the suburb of the same name to a “family dining venue”, and expanded on this in my Opening Times column.

The work has now been completed and the pub reopened as Platform 5 this Monday. The name comes from it being situated next door to the station, which has four platforms because it is in the fork of two lines. I put my head round the door to take a look and have to say it has turned out a lot better than was feared. I’m not sure whether it was always going to be like this, or whether they tweaked the concept somewhat in response to local concerns.

It’s certainly not a family dining pub of the Hungry Horse type, being a notch or two more upmarket in both its menu and general style. The pub is split into two halves, with that on the left being in cafĂ©/restaurant style, and the right being more conventionally “pubby”. Between the two is a “waiting room” with high seating and a screen showing departures from the station. However, all the TV screens showing Sky Sports have been removed from its previous incarnation.

As the photo suggests, while it does have the usual contemporary style touches such as a lack of beermats, scatter cushions and meals served on chopping boards and roofing tiles, it does retain extensive bench seating and generally makes use of warm colours – reds and browns. While obviously mainly food-oriented, it’s certainly somewhere you could happily just sit and have a drink, and to my eye is a more congenial pub interior than Holts’ other two recent upgrades – the Five Ways in Hazel Grove and the Griffin in Heald Green.

The old pub sold a couple of guest ales and beers from Holts’ Bootleg micro-brewery, but the selection has now been pared down to their mainstream range – Bitter, IPA and Two Hoots – although it was good to see the IPA beng replaced by Mild when it went off. Possibly they will have the two on rotation. The beer names are hand-chalked on pumpclips like little blackboards.

There’s an extensive food menu of the kind of sub-gastro type often seem in such places. For pub food it’s not cheap, with most main meals some way over £10 – if you want a cheap lunch you would be better off in Wetherspoons’ King’s Hall just down the road. It also seemed to suffer from the common problem of “chips with everything”, served, of course, in a little basket of their own. And yes, there were at least a couple of pulled pork dishes.

It’s also worth mentioning that the male bar staff seemed to be decked out in hipster uniform, with beards and check shirts, the lead barperson sporting particularly impressive ginger facial hair.

Not my kind of pub by any means, but it could have been a lot worse and, unless you really hanker after Spoons’ beer range, probably the best on offer in Cheadle Hulme.

Sunday 22 February 2015

It won't lie down

You often hear antismokers claiming that the smoking ban enjoys overwhelming public support, it has now become generally accepted, it is water under the bridge and we now need to move on. But, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

A new poll carried out by the Institute of Economic affairs has shown that 51% of respondents supported pubs, clubs and bars being allowed to have separate smoking rooms, with only 35% opposing, the remaining 14% being “don’t knows”. Yet only one major political party is even prepared to consider the idea.

Far from being accepted as a milestone that will never be reversed, the smoking ban has created an abiding legacy of bitterness and remains very much a live issue. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that it has been a key factor in alienating the traditional working class from the Labour Party, when they see so many of their pubs, clubs and bingo halls going out of business.

No doubt in the middle of American Prohibition, many in the anti-drink lobby were stridently insisting that there was no going back, but eventually there was. There are some legislative changes that do mark a once and for all watershed, but this isn’t one of them.

Another interesting snippet from the same report is that considerably more people think the duty on spirits and wine is too high than think it is for beer.

Wednesday 18 February 2015

Victory salutations

Congratulations to the Salutation Inn at Ham in Gloucestershire for winning CAMRA’s National Pub of the Year Award for 2015. As the article says:
Judges, who included Camra volunteers, hailed the friendly atmosphere and simple characteristics of “the definitive country alehouse”. It offers customers five real ales, eight real ciders, traditional pub games such as skittles and an unfussy lunchtime menu that includes ham rolls, made from from the pub’s own pigs.
Sounds right up my street. The skittle alley at the rear is an increasingly rare feature. It’s situated in a village rather off the main tourist track just south of the small town of Berkeley, in whose castle King Edward II was reputedly murdered in 1327 by having a red-hot poker shoved up his backside.

I actually visited the pub in the Autumn of 2008 and have to say that my feeling then was that it was pleasant enough, but nothing special, and I was disappointed by the very limited food offering. However, I suspect it’s one of those places that grows on you with familiarity, and the article suggests that the current owners, who have been there for a couple of years, have significantly upped its game.

As with last year’s winner, the Swan with Two Necks at Pendleton in Lancashire, there have been grumbles that it represents an old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy view of the ideal pub and fails to reflect the burgeoning, cutting-edge urban craft beer scene. However, as I said then, I would regard it as a positive step that they have chosen a pub with a broad appeal to the general public rather than a narrowly-focused beer bar, whether alehouse or craft emporium. The other three finalists were all definitely pubs, and none in city centres. Possibly the expectation that entries should demonstrate community involvement and a varied cross-section of clientele told against some of the more specialist venues.

Saturday 14 February 2015

The Grudgebearers’ Arms

This time of year sees CAMRA branches across the country selecting the pubs they will include in the following year’s Good Beer Guide. They now have results from the National Beer Scoring System to inform their decisions* but, inevitably and rightly, other more subjective factors will come into play. A welcoming, well-run pub with good scores may well be preferred to one that has slightly better beer but is otherwise far less pleasant, and a large number of scores provide more confidence that they are representative than a small handful.

However, it’s interesting how, over the years, people have sought to bring various kinds of anecdotal evidence into the discussions in an attempt to sway the outcome. A prime example is how, many years ago, someone tried to get the local CAMRA branch to target individual pubs suspected to be returning slops to the cask. This is undoubtedly a reprehensible and insanitary practice, not to mention being illegal, but the problem is that it also is well-nigh impossible to prove through observation from the customer side of the bar. So the end result is that you just end up levelling accusations against pubs that can neither be proved nor disproved, but where some mud might stick. And the pubs singled out always seemed to be those that the complainers didn’t much like anyway.

Another pub was criticised for closing its front door on busy weekend evenings which, given that it is a very small pub in a city centre, doesn’t seem that unreasonable to me. It was pointed out that customers in the know could get in round the back, but one person claimed that when he had tried to do so, he had been attacked by a large and vicious dog. Whether or not that was the case, it was brought up for several years, by which time it had turned into a shaggy dog story.

Then there are the inevitable reports that “I had a bad pint” and “I was served short measure”. Now, I can’t think of a single pub I regularly visit where I’ve never had to return beer to the bar, and so an isolated instance tells you nothing. If people were regularly receiving bad pints it would be reflected in the scoring. Some pubs may be a bit more likely than others to serve short pints, but at the end of the day it’s up to the customer to ensure they get a full glass, and indeed on occasions I’ve seen CAMRA members take blatantly short pints off the bar which surely would have been topped up without asking if they had left them,

Another accusation levelled against certain pubs, although less so now, is that they were “cliquey”. This was essentially shorthand for saying they had a substantial contingent of regular middle-class drinking customers, amongst whom the duffle-coated ale enthusiast might not feel at home. This has now much reduced as the middle classes have become less keen on drinking (as opposed to eating) in pubs but, even so, unless a place is actively unwelcoming, you have to accept its social mix for what it is. On the other hand, more recently a pub’s suitability was questioned because some of the clientele were “a bit rough”. This didn’t mean it was in any way threatening, just that it was popular with older working-class drinkers who at times might burst into song or use some ripe language. Compared to some of the raw Holt’s boozers of thirty years ago it was like a vicarage tea party.

A perennial gripe is that some pubs charge extortionate prices for their beer. There is a wide variation in prices depending on location and the affluence of the customer base but, when it’s now commonplace to pay well over £3 for ordinary-strength beer, who is to say what is and isn’t too much? Several Brunning & Price pubs appear in the Guide despite being well-known for pricing at the top end of the scale. It often seems that people are prepared to tolerate high prices in pubs they approve of, but eager to moan about them in those they dislike.

The common thread throughout all these points is that they are only brought up by people who don’t like the pub in question in the first place. If I had had one bad pint in a pub during the year, but ten good ones, I wouldn’t bring it up. And if you have had one bad pint and never gone back, your experience can hardly be said to be representative. If, on the other hand, you went to a particular pub every month to attend meetings of a club, and never had a good pint, then your experience would be much more relevant to the discussion.

* some branches of CAMRA, including my own, created their own beer scoring systems well before the NBSS

Tuesday 3 February 2015

Not fit to be out

There have been a growing number of schemes where the police have started “requesting” nightclubs to breath-test customers before allowing them entry, for example in Loughborough and more recently in Croydon, where some pubs are also included. The maximum permissible alcohol level seems to be generally set at twice the English drink-drive limit. Some have said “that’s only four pints”, but in reality two pints will keep a man below the driving limit, and two and a half or three would be needed to reach it, so realistically it’s more like six or seven pints. Even so, that’s a level many people will reach on a weekend night out.

This sets a somewhat disturbing precedent of the authorities seeking to monitor pedestrians’ alcohol levels even if they’re not obviously “drunk”. Chris Snowdon has suggested that it represents something of an unholy alliance between the puritans and the nightclub bosses, to discourage punters from pre-loading at Tesco or Wetherspoon’s, In principle, this is a good point, but the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR) have come out strongly against it, and I would expect the overall result would be to deter customers from visiting nightclubs. I doubt whether on balance they will benefit from it.

As it stands, it probably won’t affect you, and it certainly won’t affect me, but it’s easy to see the principle being extended, especially as the Croydon scheme includes pubs too. In five years’ time, will we see the CAMRA posse being refused admission to the final call on the pub crawl due to having imbibed too much Old Snotgobbler earlier in the evening?

It may seem far-fetched, but there have been serious proposals to introduce drink-walk limits for pedestrians in both Australia and Spain. You can sort of see the argument behind this, as apparently 40% of all pedestrian fatalities are above the drink-drive limit, rising to 80% between 10 pm and 4 am. But it would represent a drastic curtailment of individual freedom to protect a few people from themselves, and would really put a dampener on any kind of celebration or festivities outside the house. The effect of alcohol on individuals varies widely, and some may be falling over at 160mg, while others will still be entirely compos mentis.

As with many such ideas, it may at present seem outlandish and laughable. But, by raising the subject, it has opened an Overton Window through which it becomes included within the scope of serious debate. And, twenty years ago, many would have dismissed the idea of a blanket ban on smoking in enclosed public places as equally unrealistic...

Mind you, every cloud has a silver lining, and at least it would mean that at long last cyclists were brought within the scope of breath testing.

Sunday 1 February 2015

Nowt to eat but crisps

Boak and Bailey recently did an interesting blogpost on the subject of pub snacks. This raised another question – it’s often claimed that, going back fifty years ago, the only thing you could get to eat in pubs was a packet of crisps.

My memories of legal drinking in pubs go back to 1977, but even then pub food was commonplace and varied, although there were more wet-only pubs, and food could be harder to find in the evenings and on Sunday lunchtimes. So I find it difficult to believe that, ten years earlier, little or no food was served.

This is borne out by a quotation on the Boak & Bailey post:

Here’s Maurice Gorham on central London pubs in The Local 1939:

“At midday practically every pub can supply something eatable at the bar, and many have separate dining rooms or restaurants as well… At the other end of the scale are the small houses where you can get bread and cheese and perhaps a ham sandwich and hard-boiled egg.”

So what I think is that pubs throughout that era did continue to serve plenty of food, but in general only where they had a captive market of people away from their homes – such as in city centres with numerous office workers, tourist spots and along main roads. They may have done straightforward grub for manual workers too. The big innovation in the 1960-75 period was that pubs started promoting themselves as destinations to actually go out for a meal.

I also advanced the speculative theory that, in those days, there was a kind of unacknowledged divide between “pubs” and “hotels and inns”, which has pretty much disappeared now. I certainly remember as a kid being taken into “hotels” by my parents which would now be just regarded as pubs.

People’s memories of pubs in the pre-CAMRA era are notoriously unreliable – for example it’s hard to get an idea of when top-pressure taps started to replace handpumps across the South of England. But I think it’s fair to say that plenty of food was served in pubs in the 50s and 60s, but only in those pubs that had an obvious dining clientele on their doorstep.