Wednesday 29 April 2015

CAMRA – what is it good for?

Yesterday, Boak and Bailey wrote an interesting blogpost entitled Things we Love About CAMRA. Their conclusion was that, “despite its oddities, frustrations and occasional missteps”, overall it did far more good than harm. I made a similar point in a piece called Only Here for the Beer which I wrote ten years ago, before blogs and Twitter had been invented.

Recently, there have been thoughtful posts covering much of the same ground from Paul Bailey and Tandleman. Yes, CAMRA can sometimes come across as irritating, dogmatic and misguided, although very often that is more the fault of individual members rather than the organisation as a whole. At its most recent AGM a number of motions were passed indicating a desire to take a more inclusive and less narrow-minded view of the beer (and cider) world. It’s interesting how in recent years some of the strongest criticism has come from the “craft beer” community, while most of the general public would at worst dismiss CAMRA as well-meaning fuddy-duddies.

In my view, two of its greatest achievements are creating the National Inventory of historic pub interiors, and campaigning successfully to scrap the beer duty escalator and indeed get three years of small duty cuts. This, probably the biggest victory scored against the neo-Prohibitionists in recent years, was achieved through a broad-based campaign that mobilised all beer drinkers and pubgoers, not just real ale lovers.

I still feel that CAMRA could and should do more at a national level to combat the anti-drink lobby, and that it has devoted far too much effort to pubco and planning reform, which are issues that fail to resonate with most members on the ground, and are greatly overstated as reasons for pub decline. There’s also a question mark about what, in the present day, its objectives should actually be. But visit any of the many beer festivals it organises around the country and you will see happiness being spread and interest in beer being stimulated, which can’t be bad.

B&B disabled comments on their blogpost for fear of provoking an almighty row, but feel free to comment here.

Sunday 26 April 2015

How are the mighty fallen

Last week, Tesco posted one of the largest corporate losses ever seen in the UK, at £6.4 billion. It has to be said that most of this is due to property write-offs, and they still made a trading profit, but even so it represents a spectacular example of corporate over-ambition and mismanagement.

No doubt many CAMRA activists will be experiencing a profound sense of Schadenfreude, given how they have argued over the years that Tesco has been highly destructive of the pub trade through selling beer at rock-bottom prices and buying up entirely viable pubs to convert to Tesco Express stores. Now, in my view these two issues are greatly exaggerated as reasons for pub decline. But it does underline a far more important point.

No institution, however dominant and established it may appear, is ever secure. The free market, ultimately, will wreak its revenge. History is littered with examples of apparently all-conquering businesses – General Motors, ICI, IBM, Microsoft – that have been brought down to size. The once all-powerful “Big Six” of British brewing have all either disappeared, been taken over, or turned in to companies with little interest in brewing and pubs.

Large organisations almost inevitably fall victim to a sense of arrogance and complacency, A variety of competitors have sprung up to challenge the dominance of the big supermarkets – obviously the discounters such as ALDI and Lidl, but also pound shops and value retailers such as Home Bargains and B&M. People may still go to the big stores, but they’re giving them a lower proportion of their overall spending. Clearly there’s a trade-off of time vs money, but personally I’m spending around a tenner a week at Home Bargains that otherwise would have been spent – at much higher prices – in Tesco or Morrisons.

I am the in fortunate position where all four of the major supermarkets are within a couple of miles, but I tend to favour Tesco and Morrisons – Sainsbury’s being noticeably more expensive on many everyday purchases, and ASDA giving the impression of going for the mums’ market and failing to provide smaller packs. Each has one or two things the other doesn’t, so it’s worth dividing my attention.

Perhaps the most irritating thing about supermarkets is the constantly changing offers, so that you never quite know where you are. This has got to the point where it is now being investigated by the Competition Commission. Personally, constant, steady low prices would be much more of a draw, and Tesco are far more guilty of this than Morrisons.

The price war at last seems to have got through to the realm of Premium Bottled Ales. For quite a while, they stood against the tide, but recently Morrisons have dropped their £1.89 a bottle; £5 for three offer in favour of £1.65 a bottle; £6 for four. This offer also includes various craft beers, such as Thwaites 13 Guns and three from Hardknott in 330ml bottles or cans.

Tesco have gone one step further, for a while selling quite a few PBAs for £1.25, and most of the rest for £1.50, including those such as Old Crafty Hen that normally sell for well above £2. They’ve now reverted to a general £6 for four offer, with individual bottles at £1.99 (although a few still at £1.25), but the general trend towards price-cutting remains. When you consider that they can sell 440ml cans of Carlsberg for about 55p each without making a loss, there’s obviously a lot of margin in PBAs

For many people, the PBA offer will be a major factor in choosing which supermarket to patronise, and I expect we’ll see a lot more price competition in the future.

The day will also come, although I won’t predict when, that Wetherspoon’s find out that they’ve attempted an expansion too far.

Wednesday 22 April 2015

Careful cultivation

Whenever you hear that a pub is going be closed for refurbishment, there’s always a slight feeling of unease. OK, if it’s just a case of repainting and reupholstering and improving the toilets, then there’s nothing to worry about, but anything more than that and you sort of know it’s going to end up worse. Smarter, brighter, cleaner maybe, but inevitably opened out a little more, lacking a few more original features and a bit less cosy and comfortable. It will be praised in the local CAMRA magazine for being “sensitive” and “widening the pub’s appeal”, but some of what gave it character before will have gone. You can see this in some local pubs – the Spread Eagle in Bredbury particularly springs to mind – where, over the years, multiple revamps have transformed what was once an unspoilt traditional interior into an open-plan space that could be any of a hundred pubs.

It’s even more worrying when you hear rumours of work being planned at a much-loved pub that features on CAMRA’s National Inventory of historic pub interiors. For quite a while there has been talk of changes at the Nursery in Heaton Norris, Stockport, and Hydes Brewery have now formally lodged their plans with the local council. However, having had a good look at them, it appears that there’s nothing to be concerned about. The pub, a rare original example of a 1930s design scheme, is now a listed building, which restricts the scope to make structural changes, and the fact that Stockport’s chief conservation officer lives just a few doors down the road will have ensured that the plans received careful scrutiny. The documents attached to the planning application include a large number of interior photographs and before-and-after floorplans.

The only structural alterations are to convert the disused off-sales department into a ladies’ toilet to serve the vault (which previously only had a gents’), close off a serving hatch that wasn’t an original feature anyway, and replace the modern back bar fitting. All the fixed seating and original period decorations including the stained glass windows depicting plants and garden implements are to be retained, while the decorative designs make extensive use of Thirties motifs. So all credit to Hydes for coming up with a very sympathetic scheme that if anything will improve the pub. As the planning assessment concludes:
The impact of the redecoration will therefore be to enhance the existing character and internal building features, reinforcing the separate room layout of the plan form with reference to the 1930’s in the finishes without attempting to create a museum or stage set.

The proposed refurbishment of the Nursery Inn in Heaton Norris represents a faith in the future of this public house by the brewery and will help to secure its long term future and use.

The character of the Listed Building will be enhanced internally and the fabric of the building given a new lease of life.

If only they’d take the TV screens out of the rear smoke room, though!

Hydes are also planning to refurbish the Horse & Farrier in Gatley in the coming months. This doesn’t have an original interior like the Nursery, but maybe fifteen or twenty years ago it was renovated to become a “Heritage Inn” with much dark wood and a rambling layout of several cosy areas around the central bar. To my eye it's one of the most congenial non-original pub interiors in Stockport. No plans have been published yet, so let’s hope they’re not too drastic.

Tuesday 14 April 2015

Of Irish gold and gamma rays

Back in the 1990s, following the success of Guinness Draught in a can, Guinness launched “Guinness Bitter”, using the same widget technology. I remember it being advertised showing a fisherman putting his four-pack in the river to keep the cans cool, but it never seems to have been a great success and has long since disappeared from the market. To this day I still have a Guinness Bitter fridge magnet, though.

Now, as part of the initiative that has led to the introduction of Dublin Porter and West Indies Porter, Guinness have re-entered the ale market with the launch of Guinness Golden Ale. As it was on sale at £1.50 a bottle in my local Tesco, I thought I would give it a try. The first thing that strikes you is that, as Beer Viking reports here, it isn’t actually a golden ale. In colour, it’s more mid-amber, a similar hue to, say, Marston’s Pedigree, and certainly nowhere near as pale as the likes of Thwaites Wainwright. I’d broadly agree with his review that it’s a perfectly decent beer, fairly rich and “beery”, with subdued caramel notes, whereas some so-called “golden ales” have a rather insipid, lemony flavour. But I can’t see it winning many converts from lager, and the name is frankly misleading.

Locally, we’ve recently seen the opening of a new combined bottle shop and bar called Bottle Heaton Moor. The owner Corin Bland is someone who is really enthusiastic about his beer, and I’m confident it will prove a successful venture for which there’s a strong demand in the area. There’s a detailed review here on Beers Manchester. My only caveat is that it’s not exactly a comfortable place to sit and have a drink, as the picture above shows. But it’s not really aimed at me anyway.

When I called in, I spotted cans of Beavertown Gamma Ray on sale and bought one out of curiosity. Don’t worry, this isn’t “Mudgie goes Craft!” When they first launched a few years ago, Beavertown were so achingly craaaaaffft that they almost came across as a parody, but they have gone from strength to strength, and Gamma Ray seems to be regarded as one of the defining beers of the current “craft beer revolution”.

It was a distinctly steep £2.60 for a 330ml can of a 5.4% beer. The can has a striking science-fiction design showing an alien with a ray gun. Incidentally, why do “craft cans” tend to have a slightly rougher surface texture than soft drink ones? It pours a bright, almost orangey colour, with vigorous carbonation and a thick white head. The taste is that classic piney, resiny American hop flavour in spades. If you like that sort of thing, it will be right up your street, but I have to say that I see beers of this kind in the same way as highly peated Islay malts – you respect them, but they’re not something you’d like to drink a lot of. Personally I also find it offputting that it’s hazy verging on cloudy. I’m sure they have the technical expertise to brew a clear beer, so it has to be assumed that they are deliberately brewing a “London murky” as a sign of just how craft they are. If I wanted to drink a beer of that type, I’d much prefer either BrewDog Punk IPA or Thwaites 13 Guns.

Apologies for lack of blogging in recent weeks – I’ve just not had my interest sparked by anything. Now that the general election is less than a month away, I’ve reinstated the voting intentions poll in the sidebar – mobile users can access it here. I’d be grateful if readers didn’t share this elsewhere on social media, as last time some did this rather over-enthusiastically, which distorted the results to the extent that they were pretty meaningless.